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John Marciano’s new book, The American War in Vietnam, Crime or Commemoration? (Monthly Review 160 pp), is an excellent primer on that war, its historical context, the terrible crimes perpetrated by the U.S. on that tiny country and why the truth about the war still matters. As the subtitle of the book indicates, Marciano has written this book to challenge the official version of the war which will be portrayed in the “Commemoration of the Vietnam War” announced by President Barack Obama and the Pentagon – a commemoration which is to take place through 2025, the 50th anniversary of the war’s end.
As Marciano explains, “the most fundamental lesson [from the official version of events] is that the war in Vietnam was fought on behalf of ‘the ideals we hold dear as Americans.’ Obama and the Vietnam Commemoration embrace the view put forth by President Ronald Reagan in 1980: ‘It is time we recognized that ours, in truth, was a Noble Cause.’” Marciano sets out to debunk this Noble Cause myth which serves not only as the justification for the American War in Vietnam, and the crimes committed in the course of that conflict, but also for every other of the numerous wars the U.S. has and continues to fight throughout the globe.
In my view, this Noble Cause myth may be the most powerful and enduring propaganda trick ever perpetrated. And, it works so well because the audience for the trick — the U.S. people — are such willing and eager participants in the charade.
To explain the power of the Noble Cause myth, Marciano quotes from Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize lecture.  I set forth a larger quote from the lecture than appears in the book because it is so profound:
The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.
It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.
It is because of the awesome and destructive power of the Noble Cause myth, and the life-and-death importance of debunking it, that Marciano’s contribution to the struggle to tell the truth about the American War in Vietnam, and the historical context in which it took place, is so crucial.
The first thing to understand about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam is that it was not some type of aberration, and that it has never been true to say that U.S. policy towards other peoples has been motivated by a Noble Cause. Rather, what the U.S. did in Vietnam fits a pattern which dates back to the early days of our Republic. As Marciano explains, we can draw a direct line from Our Founding Fathers’ campaign against the indigenous of North America and the later onslaught against the Vietnamese.
As he relates, General George Washington in 1779 ordered Major General John Sullivan to “lay waste to all [indigenous] settlements around . . . that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed . . . You will not by any means listen to any overtures of peace before the total ruin of their settlements. . . . Our future security will be in their inability to injury us . . . and in the terror which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.” Marciano then quotes Vietnam veteran and peace activist S. Brian Willson who “writes that Washington’s direct orders to General Sullivan ‘established imperial U.S. military principles for centuries to come,’” including “’total war/genocide targeting all inhabitants for elimination; (2) preventing peace; (3) pre-emptive war; (4) terror; (5) crime of self-defense; (6) revenge.” And, all of these elements were surely an integral part of the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Before getting to the conduct of the war in Vietnam, Marciano focuses on the actual reasons the U.S. was there as contrasted with the stated goals. Thus, the U.S. did not send tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to kill and die in Vietnam in order to defend democracy and freedom, as we are meant to believe. Rather, after World War II (in which the U.S. had received significant help from Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh guerilla fighters to fight off Japan) the U.S. initially entered the fray in Vietnam in order to defend French colonialism there.
And, as has been quite typical of the U.S.’s willing collaboration with fascists and even Nazis after WWII, the U.S. allied with recently-defeated Japan in helping to defeat the Vietnamese independence effort against the French. As Marciano explains, “[i]n a stunning shift in history, U.S. vessels brought French troops [many of themselves who had just fought on the side of Vichy France] so they could join recently released Japanese troops to support France’s attempt to crush the Vietnamese independence movement.” Marciano notes that this aroused the very first anti-war protests against the American intervention in Vietnam – this time by U.S. sailors who could not stomach the hypocrisy of what the U.S. was doing and who they were doing it with.
Ultimately, of course, the Viet Minh triumphed against the French in the heroic battle of Diem Bien Phu on May 7, 1954. As Marciano relates, the Viet Minh “’had organized and inspired a poor, untrained, ill-equipped population to fight and ultimately win against a far better equipped and trained army” to win their independence. One might believe (and Ho Chi Minh in fact did at one point) that the U.S., in the Spirit of ’76, would welcome and support such an independence victory. Of course, such a belief ignores the painful reality that the U.S., despite its lofty rhetoric, has been quite consistent in its conviction that colonial independence is only for itself, and that other peoples must be punished for seeking an independent path to development.
And so, in 1956, as elections scheduled pursuant to the Geneva Accords to unify Vietnam approached – elections which the U.S. government knew would be won handily by the popular Ho Chi Minh – the U.S. acted quickly and decisively to scuttle these elections and to support the Diem dictatorship it had installed in South Vietnam to brutally repress, through murder and imprisonment, thousands of Vietnamese who sympathized with the Viet Minh. In other words, far from supporting democracy in Vietnam, the U.S. effort at this point, and for the next 20 years, would be to prevent it by any and all means necessary. The American War in Vietnam had now begun in earnest, and it was not pretty.
As Noam Chomsky has argued often over the years, the goals of the U.S. in Vietnam to destroy a popular independence movement dictated its methods. That is, in order to crush a movement supported by the vast majority of the Vietnamese population, that population had to be terrorized and destroyed in large measure. And, that is exactly what the U.S. proceeded to do, intentionally violating the laws of war in the process.
Thus, as we are reminded by Marciano, the U.S., with its superior air and fire power, killed approximated 3.8 million Vietnamese (8% of its total population), and created over 14 million refugees. Meanwhile, the U.S. destroyed Vietnam’s environment for decades to come, dropping 20 million gallons of poisonous herbicides over South Vietnam. Citing historian Marilyn Young, Marciano relates that “some 9,000 hamlets out of a total of 15,000 were destroyed, as well as 25 million acres of farmland and 12 million acres of forest.” Moreover, children are still being born in Vietnam with horrible birth defects due to the Agent Orange we dumped on that country. And, yet, as Marciano explains, even the “human rights President” Jimmy Carter took the position that no apology is necessary and no obligation to rebuild Vietnam warranted given that, in his remarkable words, “the destruction was mutual.”
Still, the U.S. government, including the Obama Administration, continues to portray the American War on Vietnam as a Noble Cause, and attempts to sanitize and white-wash the war by referring to such horrible crimes as the My Lai massacre – a massacre repeated over and over by the U.S. in Vietnam – as a mere “incident.” The U.S. government understands very well, and we should too, that the battle over the meaning and memory of our involvement in Vietnam is critical in determining whether the U.S. people will continue to acquiesce to the endless wars the U.S. is waging throughout the globe in the name of peace, freedom and democracy. That is why books such as John Marciano’s are so important, for they remind us that U.S. wars and intervention are not about such goals and never have been.