In a hyper-patriotic country, it can be difficult to tell the truth about the barbarism of one’s own leaders. But in 1971, John Kerry was among the Vietnam War veterans who did that, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
“[T]here is nothing in South Vietnam which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.”
If hypocrisy from those seeking high office is inevitable, then we should not be surprised that candidate Kerry ignored his own critique of that war when at the Democratic convention he proudly proclaimed, “I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president.”
Kerry’s actions while he was in the Navy in Vietnam may have been reprehensible and his critique when he returned may have been too cautious, but in 1971 he stated clearly that the war had nothing to do with defending the United States. Yet to position himself today as tough on “national security,” Kerry is conveniently forgetting what he once knew.
This is not merely an academic debate; how we understand the United States’ attempts to dominate the world in the last half of the 20th century affects how we understand similar attempts going on today.
The standard story in the United States is that in our quest to guarantee peace and freedom for Vietnam, we misunderstood its history, politics and culture, leading to mistakes that doomed our effort. Some argue we should have gotten out sooner than we did; others suggest we should have fought harder. But the common ground in mainstream opinion is that our motives were noble.
The truth, unfortunately, is less pleasant. After World War II, the United States supported and financed France’s attempt to retake its former colony. After the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954, the Geneva Conference called for free elections in 1956, which the United States and its South Vietnamese client regime blocked. In his memoirs, President Eisenhower explained why: In free elections, the communists would have won by an overwhelming margin, which was unacceptable to the United States.
U.S. policy in Vietnam had nothing to do with freedom for the Vietnamese people or defending the United States. The central goal was to make sure that an independent socialist course of development did not succeed. U.S. leaders invoked Cold War rhetoric about the threat of the communist monolith but really feared that a “virus” of independent development might infect the rest of Asia, perhaps even becoming a model for all the Third World.
To prevent the spread of the virus, we dropped 6.5 million tons of bombs and 400,000 tons of napalm on the people of Southeast Asia. Saturation bombing of civilian areas, counterterrorism programs and political assassination, routine killings of civilians and 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange to destroy crops and ground cover — all were part of the U.S. terror war in Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia.
This interpretation is taken as obvious in much of the world, yet it is virtually unspeakable in polite and respectable circles in this country, which says much about the moral quality of polite and respectable people here. In many ways, the Vietnam War was the defining act of the United States as empire, an aggression that was condemned around the world and at home, but pursued even as the body count went into the millions. Lying about that is crucial to our mythology.
George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and conservatives are deeply invested in that mythology. Sadly, so are many liberals. Perhaps some believe it. Perhaps others feel they must pretend to believe it to position themselves as centrists in elections. Whatever the case, telling the lie over and over again keeps people not only from understanding history, but also from seeing the present and our future choices honestly.
When Kerry began his acceptance speech with a crisp salute, he was “reporting for duty,” of a certain kind. Instead of the honorable duty of leaders — to tell the truth, no matter how painful, and help people come to terms with the consequences of that truth — he has chosen the more common approach of those who lie, distort and obfuscate to gain power.
In 1971, Kerry said he hoped that in 30 years Americans would look back and appreciate the courage of vets who opposed the war as a moment when “America finally turned” away from the lies and toward justice.
More than 30 years later, candidate Kerry has chosen the hypocrisy he once condemned over the courage he once called for.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity” from City Lights Books. He can be reached at email@example.com.