From the Political Wilderness to the Asian Jungle: Moshe Dayan in Vietnam

Not long before his appointment as Minister of Defense during the Six Day War, Moshe Dayan visited the Vietnamese war zone. Israel would end up applying much of what he learned there...

Chen Malul
11.01.2018

Lightheaded from the fatigue and the experiences of the long day he had had, Moshe Dayan described the obstacles preventing sleep in the base in the heart of the Vietnamese jungle: “At night I spread a double layer of mosquito repellent on myself. The sleep predicament is two-faceted: mosquitoes and artillery. The artillery guns inside the camp’s perimeter shake the ground and walls with their every shot (especially the 175mm. artillery). Apart from that, you need to pay attention to the distinction between ‘exiting’ shells – artillery guns shooting outward – and ‘incoming’ Vietnamese shells, which explode inside the camp” (August 22, 1966, “Vietnam Diary” by Moshe Dayan).  

Moshe Dayan takes a nap on the ground, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection
  The Minister of Agriculture Seeks an Eastern Adventure

After five years as the Minister of Agriculture, the political career of the most renowned Chief of Staff in Israeli history was decidedly shaky. In 1965, he joined the Rafi party founded by his long-time patron, David Ben Gurion. The experiment failed; the party, which presented itself as a replacement for the ruling Labor Alignment movement, received only ten mandates in the general elections. Dayan went from being Minister of Agriculture to a junior member of the opposition. He was in desperate need of a new experience, one which would help him actualize the zenith of his ambitions: the Ministry of Defense.

A year later, he received an offer he couldn’t refuse: an offer from the newspaper ‘Ma’ariv’ to fly to South Vietnam and join the American troops in the field as a reporter. Dayan’s decision to travel to the war-torn country was criticized from every possible side: his fellow party members saw it as a misguided move, and MK Shmuel Mikonis of Maki challenged his forthcoming journey and claimed that the presence of such a well-known Israeli figure in the middle of a contentious war will damage Israeli neutrality. The Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, dismissed this claim, but he did express puzzlement at what appeared to be a hasty step; he questioned why Dayan did not consult with the government at all before leaving. A heated debate about his trip to Vietnam was held in the Knesset, but Dayan was not deterred by the reactions.

Before boarding the airplane, he explained to a journalist from the newspaper Davar that “This trip to Vietnam does not express solidarity or opposition with America’s actions there. I am travelling to Vietnam to see the political and military aspects of what is being done there, and I believe that there is much that can be learned from my visit.” The series of articles and the diary published over ten years after his trip proved just how right he was.    

“M. Dayan Left for Vietnam through Paris, London and Washington…” An article published on July 4, 1966 in the “Davar” newspaper

Dayan travelled from Israel to Paris, to hear from the previous superpower who had ruled in Vietnam why it failed to retain control of the country. He met, among others, with Generals Luasion and Niko, who served in the region before the French defeat. They expressed opposing opinions on almost every topic. General Luasion chastised Dayan and cautioned that the rebel forces in the north are tired: “And that I am likely to arrive too late: by the time I reach Saigon there will already be a ceasefire between the Vietcong and the Americans.” Luasion attributed the Americans’ difficulty in finishing the war to public opinion, both worldwide and internally in America, which refuses to support the tough steps which must be taken. If it were not for this subversive public opinion “everything could have been concluded satisfactorily – or more precisely: militarily”. General Niko, on the other hand, saw the situation differently. He told Dayan that the air raids must be stopped, and that the efforts should be directed to obtaining intelligence. The Americans are looking for “a radical action to end the battle ‘once and for all'”, but they will discover that only a prolonged battle will defeat the Vietcong (July 4, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).

From Paris, Dayan flew to London to talk with the hero of the Second World War, Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. Montgomery had clear views on the topic of Vietnam. He saw China as the rising power and Communism as a governmental method well suited to Asia. “The Americans are mistaken by wanting to impose their ‘lifestyle’ on others.” Dayan summarized the meeting in his dairy, “We left after two hours, and he parted from me saying: ‘When you return from Vietnam come and tell me what you think and tell the Americans they’re crazy.'” (July 10, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).

Dayan flew from London to Washington. Here Dayan could ask the representatives of the U.S. military some piercing questions. He found it hard to believe the claim of the colonel who reported that the Vietcong’s winter attack was defeated by General Westmoreland’s troops. If the ratio of the U.S. army and the North Vietnam forces was really three to one (a claim he heard repeatedly), and the North Vietnam underground were not in possession of “tanks, artillery and above all, have no air force, in contrast to the Americans who have all the above – I find it hard to understand why the Americans did not want to achieve a definitive victory?” (July 14, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).

This was the first but definitely not the last time during his two month trip that he was given a pre-prepared answer devoid of logic.  

Americanization of the War

Dayan landed in Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam on July 25th. After dozens of conversations and briefings in the various capital cities, a festive dinner and off-the-record meetings, Dayan tired of words and demanded to go out to the field. He spent the following day in what he referred to as “a paper zone”. He was issued three different journalist certificates: American, South Vietnamese and Israeli; equipped himself with appropriate army clothing and underwent a singularly unimpressive military briefing from a sergeant who did not hesitate to stress, whenever he was asked a question he did not know how to answer, “that he is only a public relations officer”. At the end of this long day, Dayan received his desire: he set out to see the war itself.  

Crossing a river with the troops, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection

From the very first (daytime) patrol Dayan participated in, he was unable to keep his professional opinion to himself: he told the soldiers and commanders he met that the heightened American patrols in the Delta rivers would not prevent the enemy forces from smuggling weapons and ammunition without stopping every boat, boarding it and conducting a thorough search, thereby paralyzing the trade in the region. The impression the locals were receiving was that the Vietcong was so strong that only reinforcements armed with state of the art weapons would have any chance of subduing it. He suggested a significant reduction of American forces as an alternative “and to position air and sea reinforcements in specific places which can be mobilized by two-way radio” (July 27, 1966 “Vietnam Diary”).

After the maritime tour which included sleeping on an aircraft carrier, Dayan was initially assigned to the 7th squadron of the second brigade of the First Marine Division and later to the “Green Berets”- the U.S. Army’s Special Forces.  

The former Israeli Minister of Agriculture in the Vietnamese jungle, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection

Despite his advanced age (he was 51 at the time), his American escorts understood that this one-eyed journalist had seen a battle or two in his lifetime, and cold his own. He did not hesitate when it came to approaching the frequently-shifting front lines, laying in ambushes, crossing rivers or immersing himself in pools of mud or sweat. “He moves like a worm through hot soil”, one American commander described it. This does not mean that the Vietnamese mud did not leave a deep imprint upon him: “I have seen mud before in my life, we sunk up to our knees in the early years of Nahalal, but I have never seen mud like this before. Mainly ‘thanks’ to the tanks which grind up the ground which is wet from the incessant monsoons” (August 13, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).

American might and arrogance were all around him: the aircraft carriers fighting wooden boats, tanks attacking wooden huts and helicopters relentlessly pursuing two barely armed guerilla warriors. Dayan’s conversations with the soldiers and officers he met left him with a positive impression of their characters: “Liberal, experienced, pleasant and laidback. As individuals – they are ‘gold’. All up to one point: as long as U.S. power is not ‘disparaged’. On this topic, even in a conversation, they are completely inflexible” (July 29, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).    

Flying to the battlefield, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection
 

What he saw convinced him that the war in Vietnam was a war of appearances, in which the North Vietnamese were paying a heavy price for their attempt to defy the superpower: “My impression is that they are not currently fighting against illegal immigration to the South, nor guerilla war and not even a war against Ho Chi Minh [the commander of the North Vietnamese troops], but an American war against the entire world. To demonstrate their power and the steadfastness of their decisions to everyone (including England, France, the USSR), to make it known: when the Americans enter the fray – they are undefeatable (July 29, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).  

Shaving in the jungle, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection
 

Dayan did not just observe and document the military experience and the battles: in contrast to many of the soldiers and commanders he met, he insisted on trying to understand what the divided country would look like after the military battle ended – assuming it is concluded to the satisfaction of the Americans. He interviewed soldiers who worked in regional development: assisted in agriculture, helped build infrastructure for schools and the health system. It was from them that he heard the prevalent prognosis of the American military: it would take decades until the locals would manage to establish a “regional administration which would take the reins into its hands” (August 3, 1966, “Vietnam Diary”).  

Dayan eating corn with a local family, a photograph from the Dan Hadani Collection
 

Dayan did not spare the senior commanders from his criticism: he refused to accept General Westmoreland’s claim that the army’s goal was helping the Vietnamese people. At this stage of the war, America’s objective was the extermination of the Vietcong. “Nothing to do with helping the Vietnamese: simply, an American war against the Vietcong. It does not matter how they reached this point – out of a desire to help the Vietnamese, to uphold the Geneva Agreement, or for any other reason. They will not stop the war at this point, even if the good of the Vietnamese (who decides?) should require it”.

This was not a pessimistic slip of the tongue, Dayan supported the right of a mighty military superpower such as the United States of America to shoot “an artillery barrage at any enemy sniper”. Nonetheless, he deeply opposed what he referred to as “the Americanization of peace. The doctors, teachers, administration, the desire (which stems from good intentions) to teach the children here ‘baseball’, to be ‘scouts’ – is all pointless. Vietnam – like any country – can receive external aid, but not patronage; its progress needs to be organic and independent – through advice and assistance but not dictation and taming” (August 4, 1966, “Vietnam Dairy”).  

Dayan’s conclusions were not only published in Israel: his articles were published in the British ‘Sunday Telegraph’, the French ‘Le Figaro’, and the American ‘Washington Post’. The news about Dayan’s arrival in Vietnam was extensively reported in the various Arab countries that feared Israeli intervention in the war. An article published on October 16, 1966

Conclusions to Take Home

Toward the end of Dayan’s stay in Vietnam, he became convinced that the war – which would definitely last much longer – was a lost cause. He estimated that the US Army had the strength to destroy the Vietcong, but would never be able to uproot the support and affection most of the country’s residents had for the North’s battle for independence.

Dayan’s Vietnamese adventure gave new life to one of the most worn out clichés quoted ad nauseum by Israel’s founding fathers – how imperative it is that the State of Israel face its challenges itself. “By the way – in Israel, when we talk about “American involvement” we must know what ‘American military aid’ means: it is not placing the Seventh Fleet under the IDF’s command, but quite the opposite, transfer of Israeli sovereignty to the American troops. In order to maintain an ally’s independence – they first take it from them for safekeeping” (July 29, 1966 “Vietnam Diary”).    

“Ho Chi Minh’s path cannot be blocked with bombs” Moshe Dayan’s penultimate article on behalf of Ma’ariv. The article was published on October 28, 1966

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Chen Malul

Have you come to the library looking for Chen Malul? See that teetering mountain of books that's about to collapse? Chen is right behind it. Hobbies: Reading about history, writing about history, talking about history.

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