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Vietnam and the Things We Must Never Forget

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It’s all around us and is destined to remain all around us: the perpetual star-spangled, noisy tribute to lives lost defending the Empire aka The Homeland aka Our Freedoms, in the myriad US invasions abroad, following the defeat of Fascism in 1945.  Yes, there are tributes to the events and personalities of that last item as well, but by this time, and apart from occasional movies, mainly in the (paid) Obituaries columns of the fast-disappearing daily newspapers.  Overwhelmingly, it’s Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. If dissenting ideas sneak in now and then—perhaps some wars were really unnecessary and lives apparently lost or broken in vain—the familiar message nevertheless comes through, NFL extravaganzas to election appeals, no more so than in the recent Commander-in-Chief Showdown between Clinton and Trump.

We are never going to get a better truth-telling antidote than the one John Marciano provides in The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration? Longtime activist and scholar, author of Civil Illiteracy and Education, the battle for the Hearts and Minds of American Youth and co-author of Teaching the Vietnam War, Marciano knows his stuff. This text has been battle-tested, so to speak, in the classroom, among the kinds of ordinary kids who enlist in the military for educational funding (before retirement, he taught at SUNY Cortland).

He quickly brings us to one of the most painful truth in all of American life: the Vietnam War must be seen by authorities now, scarcely less than in the 1960-70s when GIs were actually still in Southeast Asia, as “honorable.” Otherwise, some almost unthinkable reality about our collective selves would be disclosed.  Even if, as occasionally admitted in high places, the Vietnam War in particular was a terrible mistake with consequences almost unimaginably worse for the Vietnamese, not to mention Laotians, Cambodians and so on, than the Americans who “served” (what a word!) there.  Not to mention the lasting consequences for every living thing in the heretofore rich jungle ecology of the region.

Noam Chomsky has argued for fifty years, to the contrary, that the invasion, occupation and massive bombing of Vietnam cannot be seen as a “mistake.” It
51uy2hccxzl-_sx331_bo1204203200_must be seen, rather, as a crime against peace. American leaders’ perpetual efforts to legitimate the war are, in reality, intended to re-establish the legitimacy of any and all invasions since, and also the future invasions inevitable for a wounded but highly aggressive empire. Marciano takes apart the “Noble Cause Principle” with great vigor and fresh insight. I seem to hear behind the depiction of this concept’s enduring history the echoing voice of William Appleman Williams, the famed scholar of empire speaking to a crowded classroom in Madison, Wisconsin, of 1967, the crowded classroom that found me in the back, taking notes by hand, furiously.

Establishing that Andrew Jackson’s purge of Native Americans, ahead of the cotton (and slavery) frontier set a low standard for human rights, Williams showed that US foreign invasions followed a logical path outward.  The ongoing effort against Russia, as Williams liked to say, was not much different in the nineteenth century than after 1917, and (as he did not live to say) not greatly different after the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Putin. Nor would Monroe Doctrine-based policies of economic bullying and intermittent invasion of the Caribbean, Central and South America ease with the passage of generations.  Ideology burnishes policy but does not change it much.

Marciano explains clearly the French colonial role in Indo-China, and how Ho Chi Minh became the national voice for independence as early as the 1919, seeking in vain a meeting with President Woodrow Wilson. Ho actually became one of the founders of the French Communist Party, in the following years, but correctly remained uncertain, at the very least, of the European Left commitment’s to the largely agricultural, colonized part of the world. Here was a bitter truth that his fellow anti-colonialist, Trotskyist C.L.R. James, learned for himself during the 1930s. Lenin had endorsed anti-colonial revolt and during the 1910s, revolutionaries from many places raised the banner of support for anti-colonial uprisings. But for the big players, Lenin, Trotsky and the rest—whatever their  other differences—the Third World continued to take the back seat. The “real” revolution, the decisive revolution, would be decided in the purportedly advanced nations, the ones with the massed industrial proletariat.

The Second World War made all the difference. Like India, where millions were starved to feed British troops, a starveling Vietnam supplied the French armed forces with rice desperately needed by Vietnamese peasants. Perhaps two million perished. As the Japanese were pushed back, Ho’s Viet Minh cadre hardened themselves, without much help or even interest from the French Communists, through guerilla warfare. First against the Japanese and then against the French, they pressed their cause.  Ho offered peace, a veritable alliance of common interests, to yet another president: Harry Truman. Might FDR, if he had lived or died and yielded the presidency to Henry Wallace, have found a willing partner? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations of the 1960s did not fall accidentally into a misbegotten, unintended war.  Years of secret espionage preceded the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident,” which followed the provocation of the USS destroyer Maddox shelling villages on a Vietnamese island. Far from an “accident,” the event was carefully staged to raise Lyndon Johnson’s approval rating against rival presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Contrary to a rapidly-constructed, long-lasting myth, popular support for another war in Asia was tepid at best.  Kennedy, before his assassination, and then Johnson aggressively worked with considerable success to quiet potential critics in the press and in Congress.

Thus the apologies for the horrors to come. “Rolling Thunder” wiped out the urban living conditions for thirty percent of the Vietnamese. Half the peasants in the South found themselves driven from their villages and forced into refugee camps. As Nick Turse has best illuminated in recent years, the US used an arsenal vastly beyond (leaving aside atomic weapons) that used in any previous war, including many weapons specifically created to “maim and incapacitate,” thus demoralize civilians and use up resources. The most lopsided air war in history was conducted not only with bombs, of course, but with poisonous chemicals, a violation of war crimes statutes gleefully approved by Congress, with little dissent. The point of chemical warfare, described as a means of identifying infiltrating troops, was otherwise: devastation of the population by twenty million gallons of poisons, attacks followed by “psy war” squads in the South reassuring the survivors that the chemicals were perfectly safe.

And so the story goes, or was meant to go, until the Tet Offensive suddenly revealed that the US might be halted in its tracks, and domestic unrest overwhelm all the carefully laid plans. As Chomsky quipped after Tet, nearly every leader became an “early opponent of the war,” no matter that they had never said so. More furious propaganda efforts followed, like the “Hue Massacre” of 3,000 purported victims, a creation intended to counter-balance the notoriety of the My Lai massacre. And the more elaborate cover-up of the Phoenix Program, assassination of 25,000 or so South Vietnamese suspected of sympathy for the other side, in the early years of the war.

The last years of the US effort should bring us to grips with what famed German historian George Mosse described as the narrative of the “War Dead.” Germans were told in the 1920s-30s that only a “stab in the back” could have defeated their nation in the First World War, an argument overwhelmingly difficult to refute by reason alone, and one buttressed by the living presence of the wounded. “The Jews” were singled out in Germany, but if no single ethnic group could be so identified in the wake of the Vietnam defeat, undaunted hawks identified “the media” along “the hippies, “the blacks” (for want of another word) and so on.  The massacres were to be forgotten, the consequences of the ecocide ignored, history continually amended to demonstrate that American leaders had meant to do the right thing but lost themselves and their troops in a confused world of war, so full of fog.

Marciano ends with a return to his own teaching experiences, also the textbook treatments of the war and the recent wave of “commemorations” which, as we might expect, cover up more than they reveal in a staged “public history” that is not history at all. What Gabriel Koko called Americans’ “cherished assumptions and vision of society,” that is, of themselves, have been shaken but in some ways remain unchanged, a collective and carefully constructed self-delusion strengthened, Trump to Clinton. We seem to be still waiting to grow up.

Paul Buhle’s cousin died from the effects of Agent Orange. His own saga with the draft board is recorded in Students for a Democratic Society, the comic.

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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