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Lessons from the Vietnam War

The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration?

John Marciano is professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York, Cortland, and a longtime activist, teacher, and trade unionist.

This article is adapted from The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration? (Monthly Review Press, 2016).

The Vietnam War was an example of imperial aggression. According to historian Michael Parenti: “Imperialism is what empires are all about. Imperialism is what empires do,” as “one country brings to bear…economic and military power upon another country in order to expropriate [its] land, labor, natural resources, capital and markets.” Imperialism ultimately enriches the home country’s dominant class. The process involves “unspeakable repression and state terror,” and must rely repeatedly “upon armed coercion and repression.” The ultimate aim of modern U.S. imperialism is “to make the world safe” for multinational corporations. When discussing imperialism, “the prime unit of analysis should be the economic class rather than the nation-state.”1

U.S. imperial actions in Vietnam and elsewhere are often described as reflecting “national interests,” “national security,” or “national defense.” Endless U.S. wars and regime changes, however, actually represent the class interests of the powerful who own and govern the country. Noam Chomsky argues that if one wishes to understand imperial wars, therefore, “it is a good idea to begin by investigating the domestic social structure. Who sets foreign policy? What interest do these people represent? What is the domestic source of their power?”2

The United States Committed War Crimes, Including Torture

The war was waged “against the entire Vietnamese population,” designed to terrorize them into submission. The United States “made South Vietnam a sea of fire as a matter of policy, turning an entire nation into a target. This is not accidental but intentional and intrinsic to the U.S.’s strategic and political premises.” In such an attack “against an entire people…barbarism can be the only consequence of [U.S.] tactics,” conceived and organized by “the true architects of terror,” the “respected men of manners and conventional views who calculate and act behind desks and computers rather than in villages in the field.”3 The U.S. abuse of Vietnamese civilians and prisoners of war was strictly prohibited by the Geneva Convention, which the United States signed. U.S. officials and media pundits continue to assert that torture is a violation of “our values.” This is not true. Torture is as American as apple pie, widely practiced in wars and prisons.

Washington Lied

The war depended on government lies. Daniel Ellsberg exposed one such lie that had a profound impact on the eventual course of the conflict: the official story of the Tonkin Gulf crisis of August 1964. President Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told the public that the North Vietnamese, for the second time in two days, had attacked U.S. warships on “routine patrol in international waters”; that this was clearly a “deliberate” pattern of “naked aggression”; that the evidence for the second attack, like the first, was “unequivocal”; that the attack had been “unprovoked”; and that the United States, by responding in order to deter any repetition, intended no wider war. All of these assurances were untrue.4

The War Was a Crime, Not Just a Mistake

Since the end of the war in 1975, there has been a concerted effort by U.S. officials, the corporate media, and influential intellectuals to portray U.S. actions as a “noble cause” that went astray. American military scholar and historian Christian Appy profoundly disagrees, arguing that the findings of the Pentagon Papers and other documents provide “ample evidence to contradict this interpretation…. The United States did not inadvertently slip into the morass of war; it produced the war quite deliberately.”5

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Condemned the War—and Was Vilified For It

In a historic speech at Riverside Church in Manhattan in April 1967, Dr. King courageously confronted bitter and uncomfortable truths about the war and U.S. society: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”6

King’s magnificent speech, relatively unknown in the United States today, provoked an immediate backlash from the political and corporate media establishment and from civil rights leaders. Life magazine denounced it as “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” A Harris poll taken in May 1967 revealed that 73 percent of Americans opposed his antiwar position, including 50 percent of African Americans.7 The New York Times strongly condemned King, calling his effort to link civil rights and opposition to the war a “disservice to both. The moral issues in Vietnam are less clear-cut than he suggests.” The Washington Post claimed that some of his assertions were “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy,” and that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.”8

The Media Did Not Oppose the War, Only How It Was Fought

The assertion that the mainstream media opposed and undermined the war effort is one of the great myths of the Vietnam conflict. They endorsed U.S. support of French colonialism and only emerged as tactical critics of the war after the Tet Offensive in early 1968. The corporate media never challenged the fundamental premises of this imperial war.

The First Antiwar Protests Came from the Merchant Marine Services

Opposition to U.S. intervention in Vietnam did not begin with student protests in the mid-1960s, but with American merchant mariners in the fall of 1945. They had been diverted from bringing U.S. troops home from Europe to transport French troops to Vietnam to reclaim that colony. Some of these merchant mariners vigorously condemned the transport “to further the imperialist policies of foreign governments,” and a group from among the crews of four ships condemned the U.S. government for helping to “subjugate the native population of Vietnam.”9

Some two decades later, the most important opposition to the American War would come within the military itself—including criticism by Generals Matthew Ridgeway, David Shoup, James Gavin, and Hugh Hester. The latter called the war “immoral and unjust,” an act of U.S. aggression. In 1966, Shoup stated that if the United States “had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own.” The generals all signed a New York Times antiwar advertisement in 1967, and Shoup and Hester supported and spoke at rallies sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW). Because of their efforts, the FBI investigated them under Presidents Johnson and Nixon.10

Marine combat veteran, poet, and activist W. D. Ehrhart spoke for thousands of vets who fought in the war and came home to challenge it:

I’d learned that the eighty-eight years of French colonial rule had been harsh and cruel; that the Americans had supported Ho Chi Minh and his Vietminh guerillas with arms and equipment and training during World War Two, and in return, Ho’s forces had provided the Americans with intelligence and had helped to rescue downed American pilots; that Ho had spent years trying to gain American support for Vietnamese independence; that at the end of World War Two, the United States had supported the French claim to Indochina; that North and South Vietnam were nothing more than an artificial construction of the Western powers, created at Geneva in 1954. I’d had to learn it all on my own, most of it years after I’d left Vietnam.11

The War Provoked Strong Working-Class Opposition

Labor studies scholar Penny Lewis counters a number of misconceptions about the anti-war movement in her Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks, particularly the false view that working-class Americans were “largely supportive of the war and largely hostile to the numerous movements for social change taking place at the time.” In fact, “Working-class opposition to the war was significantly more widespread than is remembered and parts of the movement found roots in working-class communities and politics. By and large, the greatest support for the war came from the privileged elite, despite the visible dissention of a minority of its leaders and youth.”12

As the war deepened, so did an antiwar movement within the working class. It included the rank-and-file union members, working-class veterans who joined and helped “to lead the movement when they returned stateside; [and] working-class GIs who refused to fight; and the deserters who walked away.” Especially after the Tet Offensive in early 1968, the antiwar movement “formed deeper roots among people of color, religious communities,” and students who attended non-elite campuses.13

The domestic antiwar movement was the largest in U.S. history, and the October 1969 Moratorium Against the War alone was the greatest single antiwar protest ever recorded in this country. The movement was deepened and strengthened by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), that in January 1966 issued a public statement against the war—a courageous dissent that nearly bankrupted it financially. SNCC called U.S. involvement “racist and imperialist.” The murder of SNCC activist and Navy veteran Sammy Younge showed that the organization’s role was not to fight in Vietnam, but to struggle within the United States for freedoms denied to African Americans. SNCC accordingly affirmed its support for draft resisters. Reflecting the national view at the time, most African Americans strongly disagreed with SNCC’s stand on the war and draft resistance.14

Though miniscule when compared to the astronomical level of violence in Vietnam, antiwar violence by college youth received more attention from the media and the public. In fact, however, it was an extremely small part of an activist antiwar movement that “numbered more than 9,400 protest incidents recorded during the Vietnam era, as well as thousands of demonstrations, vigils, letter writing [campaigns], teach-ins, mass media presentations, articles and books [and petitioning] congressional representatives.”15 Added to these activities was an explosion of antiwar news sources across the country, beyond college campuses. There were countless antiwar papers published by active-duty soldiers and veterans who opposed the war, such as Vietnam GI, the VVAW paper.

Appeals to Support the Troops Should Be Critically Examined

President Obama and the 2015 official commemoration have urged citizens to support and honor those who served in Vietnam—an appeal that certainly does not extend to the antiwar activists of the VVAW. This charge to support the military in Vietnam—and all wars since—implicitly asks citizens to support uncritically any U.S. conflict. As the war continued, the VVAW rejected such a view, in the face of condemnation from prominent public officials, the American Legion, and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

For example, although President Ronald Reagan called on Americans to honor the troops, he showed his true colors when it came to programs to aid those scarred by the Vietnam conflict. His “first act in office was to freeze hiring in the [Veterans] Readjustment Counseling Program. He soon moved to eliminate all Vietnam veteran outreach programs, including an employment-training program for disabled veterans.”16

The My Lai massacre offers a concrete case to test the official charge that citizens should support the military in times of war. Kenneth Hodge, one of the U.S. soldiers who participated in the massacre, insisted years later that “there was no crime committed”:

As a professional soldier I had been taught and instructed to carry out the orders that were issued by the superiors. At no time did it ever cross my mind to disobey or to refuse to carry out an order that was issued by my superiors. I felt that they (Charlie Company) were able to carry out the assigned task, the orders, that meant killing small kids, killing women…. I feel we carried out the orders in a moral fashion, the orders of destroying the village, …killing people in the village, and I feel we did not violate any moral standards.17

There is no bridge that can span the chasm between Hodge and those soldiers who refused orders to kill people at My Lai; and between Hodge and pilot Hugh Thompson Jr., who landed his helicopter in the midst of the massacre and saved Vietnamese who certainly would have been killed. Hodge’s defense should also be compared with journalist Jonathan Schell’s comment about My Lai: “With the report of the…massacre, we face a new situation. It is no longer possible for us to say that we did not know…. For if we learn to accept this, there is nothing we will not accept.”18

Real support for the troops should not consist of cheap flyovers at sporting events; corporate campaigns to raise funds for veterans that are pennies on the dollar alongside vast profits from military contracts; performing empty flag-waving gestures while supporting political efforts in Washington to cut funds for wounded and disabled veterans and other needed programs; or assuring veterans that the war was a noble cause when it was not.

My Lai Was a Massacre, Not an “Incident”

The most publicized U.S. atrocity of the war, the slaughter of unarmed residents of the hamlet of My Lai in the village of Son My on March 16, 1968, was a massacre—not an “incident,” as it is called in the official Vietnam War Commemoration sponsored by the Department of Defense. It lists the death toll “at ‘more than 200,'” and singles out only Lieutenant Calley, “as if the deaths of all those Vietnamese civilians, carried out by dozens of men at the behest of higher command, could be the fault of just one junior officer.”19

For historian Gabriel Kolko, My Lai “is simply the foot soldier’s direct expression of the…fire and terror that his superiors in Washington devise and command from behind desks…. The real war criminals in history never fire guns [and] never suffer discomfort. What is illegitimate and immoral, is the entire war and its intrinsic character.” Regarding the home front reception to the My Lai massacre, he reminds us that the “rather triumphant welcome various political and veterans organizations gave Lieutenant Calley reveals that terror and barbarism have their followers and admirers at home as well as in Vietnam.”20

Regarding My Lai, the war, and the United States, historian Kendrick Oliver concludes: “This is not a society which really wanted to know about the violence of the war that its armed forces were waging in Vietnam.” Many Americans “perceived they had more in common with…Calley than with any of his victims…. It was the lieutenant…who became the object of public sympathy, not the inhabitants of My Lai whom he had hastened to death, and the orphans and widows he made of many of the rest.”21

Ecocide Is an Essential Legacy of the War

The horrific and illegal chemical warfare against the Vietnamese was defined powerfully and precisely by biologist Arthur Galston: “It seems to me that the willful and permanent destruction of environment…ought…to be considered as a crime against humanity, to be designated by the term ecocide.”22 The devastating environmental health effects of the war continue for Vietnamese and U.S. veterans. Arthur Westing, the leading U.S. authority on ecological damage during the war, addressed these effects at an Agent Orange symposium in 2002. The “Second Indochina War of 1961–1975 (the ‘Vietnam Conflict’; the ‘American War’) stands out today as the [model] of war-related environmental abuse.”23

The U.S. Government Does Not “Hate War”—It Loves It

President Obama’s claim in his Vietnam commemoration speech—that Americans “hate war” and “only fight to protect ourselves because it’s necessary”—is the latest in a long line of fantastical pronouncements by U.S. officials. Even an elementary knowledge of U.S. wars since the founding of the nation would dispel this delusion. These include the genocidal Indian Wars that lasted more than a century until 1890; wars of aggression against Cuban, Philippine, and Puerto Rican independence struggles in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and the overthrow of forty-one governments in Latin America between 1898 and 1994.24 There is also Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq (twice, in 1991 and 2003, in addition to genocidal economic sanctions in between), and Afghanistan, with the latter two both still underway, and many more documented in the Congressional Research Service’s important study, released in September 2014, that tallied hundreds of U.S. military interventions. As Veterans for Peace note on their website: “America has been at war 222 out of 239 years since 1776. Let that sink in for a moment.” Since the end of the shooting war in Vietnam in April 1975, virtually every calendar year has seen the presence of U.S. military forces abroad, in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. A number of these nations have seen multiple U.S. military interventions under various presidents over the past forty years since the end of the Vietnam War.25 The historical record, therefore, reveals a nation that is wedded to war.

Vietnamese Resistance to U.S. Aggression was Justified

Nguyen Thi Binh, head of the Vietnamese delegation to the 1968 Paris Peace Conference, declared that the war of resistance against America was “the fiercest struggle in the history of Vietnam,” forced upon a people who did not provoke or threaten the United States. During the Second World War, Vietnam “was on the side of the Allies and embedded the spirit of democracy and freedom of the Declaration of Independence of America in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence and constitution.” Despite this fact, the United States “attempted to replace France and impose its rule over Vietnam.” The Vietnamese understood their country “was one,” and their “sacred aspiration was independence, freedom, and unification.” They always believed that they “have the right to choose the political regime for their country without foreign intervention.”26

The History of the War Is a Struggle for Memory

A practical lesson of the war is offered by Vietnam veteran and sociologist Jerry Lembcke, author of the important book Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, who writes that the “vast majority of Vietnam War veterans would know more about the war today if they had spent their months of deployment stateside in a classroom with Howard Zinn.” And what should be the lesson for young people who wish to understand the American war? “That the veteran…might today be a better source…had he stayed home from Vietnam and read some history books; [and] the student, whose education might be better served by reading a good history book about the war than interviewing the veteran.”27

After every war that the United States has fought, a new chapter is added to history textbooks, one that interprets the conflict for succeeding generations. The new narratives stress the necessity of its involvement and America’s role and conduct during the war. Some describe the excesses and even the criminal behavior of the U.S. military, but never define these as such or acknowledge their central place in the conduct of the war. U.S. history textbooks essentially portray U.S. aggression against Vietnam as a failed defense of democracy and freedom; it was a “mistake” and a “tragedy,” with noble goals. The thesis that the conflict was an illegal act of state aggression is considered unworthy of critical examination. The parameters established by these texts do not allow students to consider the possibility that the Vietnamese resistance was a justifiable liberation struggle against foreign aggression and a brutally authoritarian regime.

Noam Chomsky’s conclusion on the nature of the war and its relationship to the educational system captures the essence of the past and present textbook studies. Simply replace Southeast Asia with Afghanistan or Iraq, and his thoughts in 1966 on schools and society remain accurate and relevant:

At this moment of national disgrace, as American technology is running amuck in Southeast Asia, a discussion of American schools can hardly avoid noting the fact that these schools are the first training ground for the troops that will enforce the muted, unending terror of the status quo of a projected American century; for the technicians who will be developing the means for extension of American power; for the intellectuals who can be counted on, in significant measure, to provide the intellectual justification for this particular form of barbarism and to decry the irresponsibility and lack of sophistication of those who will find all of this intolerable and revolting.1

Forty years after the American war in Vietnam ended in 1975, the central and most critical issue is the “struggle for memory,” an ideological war over the most accurate and truthful story of the conflict. Whose ideas about the war will prevail? This struggle will help determine how we, the people, will respond to present and future U.S. international conflicts. If citizens are to understand the role of U.S. governmental and corporate elites in initiating the current endless wars, they must develop an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the history of the war in Vietnam. Such an analysis will provide the critical tools with which to counter the hyper-patriotism of the official Vietnam commemoration, whose lessons are based on the dominant and false story of U.S. beneficence: a nation forever faithful in its quest for justice that always follows a righteous path in its wartime conduct. Another story must be told: that of a decades-long reign of terror against the people of Vietnam, a shameful war that no government-sanctioned lesson or eloquent rhetoric can hide.

Notes

  1. Michael Parenti’s argument here is a synthesis of “What Do Empires Do?” 2010, http://michaelparenti.org, and Against Empire (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995), 23. Parenti documents this history in great detail in a number of other books, includingThe Face of Imperialism,Profit Pathology and Other Indecencies, andThe Sword and the Dollar. In a note to the author, Noam Chomsky cautioned about reading the general argument about imperialism too narrowly; it was sufficient as “a general statement on imperialism, but…misleading about Vietnam. It will be read as though the US wanted to exploit Vietnam’s resources…. The concern was the usual one (Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, others) that successful independent development in Vietnam might inspire others to follow the same course.”
  2. Noam Chomsky,Towards a New Cold War (New York: New Press, 2003), 6, 93, 98. It is a testament to the strength of the dominant view of American foreign policy that Chomsky, an internationally renowned scholar and intellectual, was virtually unknown to nearly all of the more than six thousand students I taught over the course of thirty-one years at the State University of New York, Cortland. Some had heard of him, but it was rare to find a student who had read any of his writings. In addition to Chomsky’s many books, readers should examine William Blum,Rogue State (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 2000) and G. William Domhoff,Who Rules America? (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013).
  3. Gabriel Kolko, “War Crimes and The Nature of the Vietnam War,” in Richard Falk, Gabriel Kolko, and Robert Jay Lifton, eds.,Crimes of War (New York: Vintage, 1971), 412–13; Kolko, “On the Avoidance of Reality,”Crimes of War, 15.
  4. Daniel Ellsberg,Secrets (New York: Penguin, 2002), 12.
  5. Christian Appy,Working Class War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 253.
  6. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York City, available at http://commondreams.org.
  7. Edward Morgan,What Really Happened to the 1960s (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2010), 76; Daniel S. Lucks,Selma to Saigon (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky Press, 2014), 203.
  8. New York Times, April 7, 1967;Washington Post, April 6, 1967.
  9. Michael Gillen, “Roots of Opposition: The Critical Response to U.S. Indochina Policy, 1945–1954,” Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1991, 122.
  10. Robert Buzzanco, “The American Military’s Rationale against the Vietnam War,”Political Science Quarterly 101, no. 4 (1986): 571.
  11. W. D. Ehrhart,Passing Time (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989), 161–62.
  12. Penny Lewis,Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks (Ithaca, NY: ILR, 2013), 4, 7.
  13. Lewis,Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks, 45.
  14. Lewis,Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks, 92; Lucks,Selma to Saigon, 3.
  15. Kirkpatrick Sale,SDS (New York: Random House, 1973), 514, 48.
  16. D. Michael Shafer, “The Vietnam Combat Experience: The Human Legacy,” inThe Legacy: The Vietnam War in the American Imagination (Boston: Beacon, 1992), 97.
  17. Quoted in Michael Bolton and Kevin Sim,Four Hours in My Lai(New York: Viking, 1992), 371.
  18. Jonathan Schell, “Comment,”New Yorker, December 20, 1969, 27.
  19. Nick Turse, “Misremembering America’s Wars, 2003–2054,” TomDispatch, February 18, 2014, http://tomdispatch.com.
  20. Kolko, “War Crimes,” 414; “Avoidance,” 12.
  21. Kendrick Oliver,The My Lai Massacre in American History and Memory (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006), 8–9.
  22. Quoted in Erwin Knoll and Judith Nies McFadden,War Crimes and the American Conscience (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), 71.
  23. Arthur Westing, “Return to Vietnam: The Legacy of Agent Orange,” lecture at Yale University, April 26, 2002; Westing,Ecological Consequences of the Second Indochina War (Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 1974), 22.
  24. Greg Grandin, “The War to Start All Wars: The 25th Anniversary of the Forgotten Invasion of Panama,” TomDispatch, December 23, 2014. See also Grandin’s excellentEmpire’s Workshop (New York: Metropolitan), 2006.
  25. Barbara Salazar Torreon,Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798–2014 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Office, 2014).
  26. Nguyen Thi Binh, “The Vietnam War and Its Lessons,” in Christopher Goscha and Maurice Vaisse, eds.,The Vietnam War and Europe 1963–1973 (Brussels: Bruylant, 2003), 455–56.
  27. Jerry Lembcke, “Why Students Should Stop Interviewing Vietnam Veterans,” History News Network, May 27, 2013, http://historynewsnetwork.org.
  28. Noam Chomsky, “Thoughts on Intellectuals and the Schools,”Harvard Educational Review 36, no. 4 (1966): 485.
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