May 29, 2015
The war continues in those still suffering from its legacy of unexploded ordnance and Agent Orange.
Forty years ago, on April 30, 1975, the U.S. war against Vietnam finally ended with a victory for the national liberation forces. After decades of struggle against French and U.S. intervention, Vietnam was finally independent and at peace.
Millions of Americans took part in anti-war activities during the 1960s and early ‘70s. Together with the civil rights movements, this activism changed the body politic in this country. It made it harder for U.S. administrations to wage full-on land wars until the Persian Gulf wars. Today as the U.S. wages simultaneous land and drone wars in several countries, the lessons of the Vietnam War are under attack as never before.
The U.S. Department of Defense has a website commemorating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War. Dedicated to whitewashing history, the website's goals are, “to highlight the advances in technology, science, and medicine related to military research conducted during the Vietnam War.” One wonders whether these advances include the development and use of napalm, Agent Orange and other weapons that killed millions of Vietnamese people along with U.S. veterans. Veterans For Peace, and its many members who fought in Vietnam, is fighting against this revisionist history though a campaign called Vietnam Full Disclosure.
The U.S. government clearly has an interest in obliterating the lessons of the war as it slogs on with brutal interventions in the Middle East and attempts at intervention in Latin America. American drones, white phosphorus, depleted uranium, and other weapons of destruction are built upon the “advances” in technology lauded by the DoD’s 50th anniversary website.
The DoD and others are working hard to obscure the history of the Vietnam War because they seek to blunt criticism of unpopular U.S. interventions and to give the Pentagon a freer hand in conducting future wars. They seek to spend more of our tax dollars on military hardware and weaponry for use in their wars. What are some of the myths that the right is trying to spread about the Vietnam War?
A major general in the U.S. Air Force who served in Vietnam told an anti-war veteran recently that the U.S. could have won if it had committed enough resources to achieving victory. During the war, General Curtis LeMay suggested that the U.S. could bomb Vietnam “back into the stone ages.” While the U.S. did not use the atomic bomb due to international pressure, it did everything short of this, deploying more air and ground munitions than were used in all of World War II.
Despite overwhelming U.S. military superiority, the Vietnamese liberation forces won because they had the support of the people. Use of more U.S. firepower and troops might have prolonged the war and the killing, but it would not have changed the outcome. A people who are organized and dedicated to winning their independence cannot be truly defeated—a lesson the U.S. government has yet to learn in conducting its international affairs.
Another shibboleth of the right is that the U.S. conducted an “honorable” war in Vietnam with only sporadic human rights violations such as the massacre at My Lai. The Winter Soldier Investigation, conducted by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971, painfully documented the massive scale of the massacres, torture of civilians and other war crimes perpetrated against the Vietnamese people.
Testifying before Congress on April 22, 1971, a young John Kerry, then representing VVAW, spoke of, “war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” He went on to describe the testimony of his fellow veterans, who, “personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”
Nick Turse’s well-documented book describing U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is a more recent recounting of the war crimes Kerry testified about. The book has unsurprisingly been attacked by conservative pundits.
Connected to the whitewashing of U.S. war crimes is a denial of how U.S. racism fueled the war in Vietnam. General William Westmoreland, the four-star general who was in command of all U.S. military operations from 1964 to 1968, famously said, “The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient."
Vietnamese people were referred to by the racist expletive “gooks” and outright murder of civilians was justified by the “mere gook rule” which held that the death of any Vietnamese person, including women and children, was justified. Today, bigotry directed at Arabs and Muslims in countries the U.S. has attacked and occupied and at home eerily echoes such racism as does the police murders of black men in cities across the U.S.
Perhaps the most tired of all the myths the right is trying to perpetuate is that anti-war activists’ actions dishonor U.S. soldiers. This goes hand in hand with the myth that U.S. soldiers returning from Vietnam were routinely spat upon by anti-war activists. Soldiers involved in illegal and immoral wars benefit greatly from anti-war movements (which they often lead upon their return). Ending U.S. wars of intervention saves human lives abroad as well as the lives of our soldiers.
The soldiers who come back from U.S. wars are not dishonored by anti-war movements, but by the callous disregard for their welfare shown by the U.S. government which refuses to provide adequate treatment, rehabilitation and jobs. The impact of the violence of unjust wars echoes long after the wars are over and beyond the ranks of the soldiers and their families. Seymour Hersh, the reporter who documented the My Lai massacre, told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now that when he spoke to a mother whose son had been involved in the massacre, she told him, “I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer."
The final lesson that is being undermined by the revisionists is their contention that the war is long over and is ancient history. In fact, wars are not over until those harmed by them receive justice and compensation. The Vietnam War killed four million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans. But the war continues in those still suffering from its legacy of unexploded ordnance and Agent Orange, a dioxin-laden chemical weapon.
Agent Orange causes cancers and other diseases as well as horrific birth defects in the children and grandchildren of those exposed. The U.S. government has done precious little to provide redress to the Vietnamese victims or to Vietnamese-Americans who were exposed. While U.S. veterans fought for and won some compensation from the Veterans Administration, the children of U.S. veterans who suffer with disabilities due to birth defects related to exposure to Agent Orange receive no aid at all. To address this, Representative Barbara Lee is introducing the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015 to provide medical, rehabilitative and human services to several generations of Vietnamese and Americans suffering with diseases and disabilities. The Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign is working to build public support for U.S. aid to the victims to heal the wounds of war.
Progressives also espouse myths about the war. One that some among us perpetuate is the portrayal of the anti-war movement as a mainly white student movement and ignorance of the leading role of black and other movements of color. While students did play an important role, the role of returning anti-war veterans, the Vietnamese-American anti-war movemen, and movements of color was crucial.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in 1967, Beyond Vietnam, helped turned the tide of public opinion in the U.S. against the war. Even before Dr. King, the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came out against the war in 1965 as did Malcolm X. Muhammed Ali lost his heavyweight title and was convicted for refusing to fight in Vietnam. While there was media coverage of the National Guard shooting of unarmed white anti-war protesters at Kent State, scant attention was paid to the killings of black anti-war students at Jackson State. Vietnamese-Americans, particularly the Union of Vietnamese in the U.S., played a crucial role in analyzing the events in Vietnam even as they were often sidelined in some rallies for fear they would be identified with the “enemy.” The national veteran’s anti-war movement, led by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, brought formidable credibility and a working-class base to the anti-war movement. Seeing and giving voice to those who truly made up the anti-war movement is crucial if we are to build a strong and successful diverse anti-war movement today.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once called the United States, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world." He noted that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of peace and independence in Vietnam, it is important that we bring the unadulterated and true lessons of the war forward as we build the movement to end wars of aggression and to invest our resources in projects of social uplift.
Merle Ratner is the co-coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign, a project of Veterans For Peace.
Azadeh Shahshahani is a human rights attorney based in Atlanta and President of the National Lawyers Guild.