by Grover Furr [This article was originally published in The Montclarion, student newspaper at Montclair State University (then College), Thursday, October 4, 1984, p. 11]
What should we learn from the Vietnam War? Plenty!
Since I teach a course on the Vietnam War, students often ask me about it. Here are my answers to the questions they ask most often.
1. Was the US trying to bring freedom and democracy to South Vietnam?
No. The US prevented the nationwide election scheduled for 1956 at the 1954 Geneva Conference. According to then-President Eisenhower:
I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indo-Chinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader.
By 1965 nothing had changed, according to US "pacification" chief John Paul Vann:
A popular political base for the government of South Vietnam does not now exist... The existing government is oriented towards the exploitation of the rural and lower class urban populations ... the dissatisfaction of the agrarian population ... is expressed largely through alliance with the NLF [the NLF, or National Liberation Front, what American politicians and the press called the 'Viet Cong').
The South Vietnamese Government was a US puppet régime forced upon the population. Of Premier Ngo Dinh Diem Look magazine (January 28, 1965) said:
Secretary of State Dulles picked him, Senator Mansfield endorsed him, Francis Cardinal Spellman praised him, Vice-President Nixon liked him, and President Eisenhower supported him.
So much for democracy. As for freedom,
In June 1956 Diem organized two massive expeditions to the regions that were controlled by the communists without the slightest use of force. His soldiers arrested tens of thousands of people ... Hundreds, perhaps thousands of peasants were killed. Whole villages whose populations were not friendly to the government were destroyed by artillery. These facts were kept secret from the American people.
Jeffrey Race, former American Army advisor in South Vietnam:
The [South Vietnamese] government terrorized far more than did the revolutionary movement ... for example, by liquidations of former Vietminh, by artillery and ground attacks on 'communist villages' and by roundups of 'communist sympathizers'.
Race notes that "it was just these tactics that led to the constantly increasing strength of the revolutionary movement."
Having outlived his usefulness, Diem was murdered in 1963 in a CIA-backed coup. On March 1 1965 American Ambassador Taylor informed South Vietnamese Premier Quat that the Marines were coming. According to Quat's Chief of Staff Bui Diem, "I think that most of the time the Americans made the decisions and the South Vietnamese government was informed afterward."
2. What was the US trying to accomplish in Vietnam?
Profit. U.S. News and World Report wrote:
One of the world's richest areas is open to the winner in Indochina. That's behind the growing U.S. concern ... tin, rubber, rice, key strategic materials are what the war is really all about. The U.S. sees it as a place to hold at any cost.
Wrote Nation's Business magazine:
The best thinkers on the subject in business and government agree that magnificent business opportunities await in Vietnam Thailand, Laos ... As the military situation in Vietnam improves, they expect the flow of business to double, triple, and quadruple.
Therefore, it was a good thing that the U.S. "lost" in Vietnam Since World War II millions of jobs have been lost in the US as American companies closed factories here and moved them abroad. If the US and their South Vietnamese stooges had won, South Vietnam would have been yet another place for American companies to move to. Hundreds of thousands more American workers would have lost their jobs.
3. Wasn't the U.S. trying to stop communism from taking over?
American workers and students don't want to die for the profits of large banks and corporations. So they tell us we must fight to "free" others from communist tyranny. US leaders know better:
Realistically, all wars have been fought for economic reasons. To make the politically and socially palatable, ideological issues have always been invoked. Any possible future war will, undoubtedly, conform to historical precedent.
"Anti-communism" is used by US leaders to justify any invasion, support any fascist dictator, commit any atrocity, anywhere. Likewise, Soviet leaders tell their people they are "fighting for the workers against capitalist exploitation." Communism, freedom, democracy, workers' rights -- these are good ideals. Neither the US nor the Soviet Union is genuinely interested in them.
4. But weren't America and the South Vietnamese government the "lesser evil," at least?
American bosses always claim that, no matter how brutal they themselves are, the communists must always be "more" brutal. This is just a cynical attempt to justify their own crimes.
Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese betrayed their people's hopes like our own rulers have betrayed us. But they were so much less brutal than "our side" that the CIA has had to invent stories of North Vietnamese atrocities. Two examples are: the supposed massacre of 50,000 landlords during land reform in the North in 1954-55; and the supposed slaughter of 5,000 civilians during the 1968 Tet Offensive in Hue city. Both of these Northern "atrocities" have been shown, by American scholars, to have been faked by the CIA and South Vietnamese intelligence.
The US and its allies unleashed more brutality against the population of Vietnam than had ever been used by any power in history.
The 1968 My Lai massacre by US troops of unarmed civilians was the rule, not the "exception." A US government official wrote, "essentially we are fighting Vietnam's birth rate." The US war was murder on a mass scale, usually against unarmed civilians. In Operation SPEEDY EXPRESS in the Mekong delta in 1972, wrote Newsweek,
A staggering number of non-combatant civilians -- perhaps as many as 5,000 according to one official -- were killed by US firepower too 'pacify' Kien Hoa. The death toll there made the My Lai massacre look trifling by comparison.
As a staff major of the US Americal Division told The New York Times in 1969, "We are at war with the 10-year-old children. It may not be humanitarian, but that's what it's like."
The 'Phoenix' assassination program set up by the CIA murdered 41,000 civilians between 1968 and 1971. Before Congress K. Barton Osborn, a US intelligence officer in the Phoenix program, stated:
... by late 1968 the Phoenix program was not serving any legitimate function that I know of, but rather had gone so wrong that it was a vehicle by which we were getting into a bad genocide program [emphasis added]. ... It [Phoenix] became a sterile depersonalized murder program ... There was no cross-check; there was no investigation; there were no second options.
Torture was used on almost every "CD" (civilian detainee). Says Michael Uhl, former military intelligence officer in the Phoenix program, "most of our CDs were women and children." According to Osborn again,
I never knew an individual to be detained as a VC suspect who ever lived through an interrogation in a year and a half, and that included quite a number of individuals.
Such atrocities were typical of the US war effort. Many, many other similar massive killing operations were undertaken. Torture and war crimes were routine. To say, with knowledge of the facts, that the US was a "lesser of evils" is simply to apologize for fascism.
In addition, the CIA killed thousands of American civilians! For, to gain the support of anti-communist Laotian and Cambodian landlords who grew opium poppies, the CIA became the major supplier of heroin to the US market. This has been carefully documented in a number of books; Congress held hearings on it. The US government has never even denied it.
5.Why did the US lose in Vietnam?
Neo-conservatives blame the mass media for "undermining the war effort." This is nonsense. Throughout the war the media were slavishly loyal to US government aims. Cold-war liberals blame the CIA and army for lying about "Viet Cong" strength, the corruption of the Saigon government, etc. Both agree the American people lacked "the will" to "do whatever was necessary" (to kill on an even grander scale, for example).
This last statement is true. The American people's "will to win" was weakened by at least three factors:
a. The "Viet Cong" and North Vietnamese fought magnificently, while South Vietnamese government soldiers fought poorly and deserted in droves.
b. The US army became unreliable. "Fraggings" -- killings of US officers by their own men -- became common. Desertions multiplied. Whole units refused to obey orders. Most US soldiers, of working-class background themselves, recognized they were not on the side of the Vietnamese people.
c. The anti-war movement in the US helped to undermine whatever support of the war existed. It had a great effect on men of military age.
For the first time in US history, a sizeable minority of the population welcomed the defeat of their own army. Despite massive propaganda, despite the powerful effects of patriotism, millions of Americans came to view their own government with the kind of suspicion and distrust usually reserved for the Soviets.
6. Why have we never learned of these horrors?
These facts are well documented -- but mainly in scholarly journals and books. A campaign to mis-educate school- and college-age Americans has begun in earnest. The recent Public Broadcasting System [1983 -- ed. comment] series on the war, now packaged as a college course, barely touches on the facts outlined here. It presents US involvement as "nobly intended but poorly executed." So do most movies and novels. Some popular works, like the new Tim-Life Books series, show American involvement as "heroic."
The purpose of this propaganda campaign is to "restore our faith in America." That is, to ensure that future generations of americans are willing once again to go to war anywhere their masters send them, to commit whatever atrocities are necessary, in order to maintain an American empire.
There is no brutality the American government will not stoop to. The blood of the 58,000 American soldiers killed, of the hundreds of thousands wounded, of those dead and dying of "Agent Orange", or thousands more dead of heroin addiction, and of millions of Vietnamese [five million, according to the Vietnamese government in April 1995 -- ed.], are on their hands.
Under no circumstances, therefore, should we ever support the US government or believe what it says.
We recognize that it is in the interests of the Soviet, Polish, Iranian, etc. peoples to undermine their own brutal régimes. So it is with us. The more internal opposition the US government must face from its own population, the less ready it will be for military or nuclear adventurism abroad. The fewer illusions we have about our "leaders," the stronger will be our struggles against them for a better life here at home.
Study the Vietnam War. Its lessons were bought at a great price. Learning them, acting on them, is the best -- in the final analysis, the only -- tribute we can pay to those who died in that conflict.
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