Saturday, 19 December 2015

In The Frame Of Mind

I have to admit to not feeling remotely Christmassy, not yet in the frame of mind to enjoy the impending festivities. It's partly a consequence of the overblown commercialisation of Christmas which has been ramping up since September and partly a result of so many aspects of life being a bit of a struggle at the moment: friends being seriously ill, a football club having its heart ripped out, austerity taking a heavy toll on the jewel of the north.

Let's rewind over forty years to Christmas 1972. I had just finished my first term at university, little Jimmy Osmond scored the Christmas #1 single with "Long Haired Lover From Liverpool" (heaven help us) and the US government was in the frame of mind to absolutely bomb the stuffing out of North Vietnam. Between December 18th and 29th they unleashed Operation Linebacker II, the biggest heavy bomber offensive since World War II.

Nicknamed the Christmas Bombings, this "maximum effort campaign to destroy major target complexes in Hanoi and Haiphong" saw wave after wave of B-52 Stratofortress sorties relentlessly carpet-bombing their targets for eleven days, with only a brief cessation on Christmas Day itself. In all, 741 bombing missions were flown and over 15,000 tons of bombs were dropped. Civilian casualties - "collateral damage" in the euphemism of Warspeak - were high. There was condemnation of the offensive from around the world. Otto Palme, Sweden's prime minister (since assassinated) likened the event to a number of "historical crimes" including the bombing of Guernica and the extermination of Jews at Treblinka, concluding that "now another name can be added to this list: Hanoi, Christmas 1972."


Why on earth did the Americans do it? Peace talks had been ongoing in Paris in October and agreement was reached between Kissinger's US delegation and Le Duc Tho's North Vietnamese team. President Nixon sanctioned the deal and a date was all set to sign the treaty at the end of October, which would have seen the complete withdrawal of US ground troops from the war zone. However, disagreements then surfaced between the US and its South Vietnamese allies. Kissinger, in order both to pre-empt such objections from Saigon and to appease the American people who were becoming increasingly uneasy about the toll of the Vietnam war, stated publicly on 26th October: "We believe peace is at hand."

As the objections from South Vietnam mounted and they tried to introduce new demands into the peace accord, the North Vietnamese grew wary and frustrated and threatened in turn to withdraw those concessions they had made. The talks limped on through November but finally broke down in mid-December with Hanoi increasingly mistrustful and unwilling to set a date for resuming negotiations. The pressure was on the Nixon administration to find an 'honourable' way to disengage the US military from the war and to deliver on Kissinger's somewhat premature promise that peace was at hand. Cue the Christmas Bombings.

The American people were sold the fiction that North Vietnam had been "bombed into submission" in order to force them back to the negotiations. It is true that Kissinger and Le Duc Tho resumed peace talks in Paris on 9th January 1973, reverting to the substantive agreement that had been on the table in October. It would have been less than politic to tell Joe Public that the US had bombed Hanoi in order to force North Vietnam into acceptance of terms they had already agreed to months previously!

The Vietnam War didn't end with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973. However, the complete withdrawal of US troops as a condition of the agreement was achieved within a couple of months and then it was only a question of time before the North finally defeated the South, symbolically liberating Saigon two years later, in May 1975 and uniting the country as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Bob Woodward, that sterling investigative reporter from the Washington Post who helped bring the Watergate scandal to public view - which in turn led to the impeachment of President Nixon - has gone on record as saying that Nixon told him at the time he believed the Christmas Bombings "achieved zilch" despite his claiming on radio and TV that they were a success. Nixon is also thought to have written a note to Kissinger, his national security advisor and chief negotiator, to the effect that there was "something wrong" with the strategy (heaven help us again)...

The accompanying poem, from my angry young man phase, was inspired by that atrocity of the Christmas Bombings. It was the first piece I ever performed live. I think it still has a point to make.

Christmas In Hanoi    
Kind Uncle Sam with heart of gold
dealt out atrocities untold;
his Christmas present to Hanoi -
a rain of fire meant to destroy
the lambs who shunned the Yankee fold.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

The 'peasants' on that winter night
gazed up in wonder at the sight
of multitudes of deadly wings,
iron angel-hosts with napalm stings
which filled their wayward world with light.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

As bombs cascaded on the throng
the 'peasants' drowned the noise with song.
In smoking ruins they bled and cried,
but sang defiant till they died.
Time would prove the angels wrong.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
And on earth,
'peace with honour'
and goodwill to all men!

Thanks for reading. I wish all of us a peaceful Christmas in a violent world ;-)
Reactions:

1 comments:

Annie Walton said...

As always Steve you pierce heart and soul!

I remember Joan Baez referring to Kissinger as a killer in her rendition of the freedom song Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.....maybe we should duet it sometime at Gillespie's......

Steve,
May you be saturated with the Christmas spirit / and all the Blessings of Yuletide whilst our Earth refuels......
Love from Annie xxxx