Saturday, November 1, 2014

BEWARE OF OFFICIAL HISTORIES OF WAR:THE VIETNAM CASE



Harry Targ

Well, I'm not going to point any moral;
I'll leave that for yourself
Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking
You'd like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We're -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.


Journalist Sheryl Gay Stolberg recently reported on the Pentagon’s development of public educational materials concerning the history of the Vietnam War. In addition to preparations for a 50th year commemoration of President Johnson’s escalation of the war in 1965, DOD has been posting a war “timeline” on their website. The project was initiated by Congress in 2008 and will cost some $15 million (“Paying Respects, Pentagon Revives Vietnam, and War Over Truth,” New York Times, October 9, 2014).    

Perusing the timeline, a discerning reader would discover an oversimplified, distorted, and ahistorical narrative about the role of the United States in Vietnam. What is being presented as official history reduces the possibility that future generations of Americans will be able to learn from the mistakes of the past (www.vietnamwar50th.com/).

For starters, the narrative needs to develop eight elements of the United States/Vietnam story that are either missing from the timeline entirely or are grossly oversimplified.

First, it is critical to remember that the Indochinese peninsula, what became North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, was a colony of France from the 1850s until the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. After the war, the French sought to reestablish their Southeast Asian empire. They refused to negotiate with the Vietnamese, who demanded independence. What ensued was the bloody French/Indochinese War from 1946 until 1954. The French, defeated in 1954, were forced to withdraw. From 1950 until 1954, the United States funded 80 per cent of the French war effort while fighting in Korea, negotiating to construct a military alliance in Southeast Asia, and building an anti-communist network of states elsewhere in Asia.

Second, an agreement to end the French/Indochina War was achieved at the Geneva Conference of May, 1954. The Geneva Accords granted the three Indochinese states independence, required the withdrawal of all outside military forces from Vietnam, and temporarily divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. Within two years there were to be all-Vietnamese elections to establish one government. Despite the fact that the United States did not sign the Geneva Accords, a statement was issued promising support for them if all parties acted as agreed. The United States, in violation of Geneva, created a new government in the South and picked an autocrat, Ngo Dinh Diem, to lead a new government there. Diem announced that the South would not participate in the expected elections. Thus, what was to be a temporary administrative division of Vietnam became permanent by fiat.

Third, it must be concluded that every president from World War II through Gerald Ford, engaged in policies to oppose the wishes of the Vietnam people. The United States played a central and negative role in Indochina; from supporting the French effort to reestablish its colony, to imposing the Diem family on South Vietnam, to covertly attacking targets in the North, to fighting in the South, and to massively bombing all across the peninsula in Laos and Cambodia as well as North and South Vietnam.

Fourth, United States military operations, which began with President Eisenhower sending 1,000 “advisors” to South Vietnam, expanded to 540,000 troops in combat operations by 1968. In addition, United States covert agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, engaged in policies of assassinations, moving populations, and in other ways undermining South Vietnamese society. Intervention was economic and cultural as well as military as major United States corporations established projects in Saigon with wealthy South Vietnamese investors.

Fifth, the Johnson and Nixon Administrations launched horrific bombing campaigns, hitting targets in the South and later the North. After an attack on a U.S. military base at Pleiku in South Vietnam during February, 1965, the Johnson Administration initiated Operation Rolling Thunder. This was a three-year non-stop bombing campaign with large areas of South Vietnam and parts of North Vietnam declared “free fire zones.” Between 1965 and 1971, 142 pounds of explosives per acre had been dropped on Vietnam equal to 584 pounds per person. One hundred eighteen pounds of explosives were detonated per second. The total magnitude of bombing equaled  450 Hiroshima-sized bombs. The rural landscape was destroyed, devastating key rural industries such as rubber and timber production, and disease and death spread. The bombing increased migration to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).  Corruption, prostitution, and drug trafficking expanded in the over-populated city. By the end of 1967 more bombs had been unleashed on Vietnam than during the entire European phase of World War II.

Sixth, the Vietnamese and United States troops were victimized by massive amounts of Agent Orange released on people and the rural landscape; twenty-one million gallons of herbicides  between 1961 and 1971. One-quarter of South Vietnam had been sprayed to destroy crops. Thirty-six percent of rice-growing swamps were made unfit for cultivation by 1974 and 30,000 Vietnamese hamlets, five million villagers, were victims of direct spraying. Dioxin, a deadly element of Agent Orange produced by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, created a broad range of cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Genetic abnormalities still exist today as children are born with gruesome physical deformities and twenty-eight “hotspots” still exist in South and Central Vietnam that endanger local populations.

Seventh, the Vietnam policy was built on twenty-five years of lies. The Vietnamese who fought the Japanese occupation during World War II and sought a free Vietnam after the war were authentic nationalists, committed to establishing an independent country free of colonial control. Each president lied about their escalation of the United States role by claiming that the Vietnamese fighting the United States and the Saigon government were mere puppets of Chinese or Soviet communism. Eisenhower lied when he claimed that if Vietnam “fell,” the rest of the region would as well, the simplistic domino theory. Kennedy lied when he claimed that the Diem family running the South Vietnamese government, the police, the military and those who controlled the land constituted democratic tendencies in South East Asia. Johnson lied when he claimed that the North Vietnamese engaged in an unprovoked attack on U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin. And Richard Nixon lied when his advisor declared that “peace is at hand” just before the 1972 election. After that election Nixon launched the most massive lethal bombing campaign against targets all across North and South Vietnam, the so-called “Christmas bombing.”

Finally, contrary to media distortions, most anti-war activists regretted that young men and women were drafted to fight in an unjust and immoral war. The peace movement knew that most of those who fought in Vietnam, were drafted or enlisted because of their economic disadvantage and/or racism at home. American soldiers, like their Vietnamese comrades, were victims of a murderous war that cost millions killed and maimed.

There were no heroes and heroines during these troubled times but any accurate timeline must celebrate both the soldiers and the anti-war activists who sacrificed their privilege, their educational opportunities, even their citizenship to say “no” to war. The only way America can avoid becoming “waist deep in the big muddy” again and again is to clearly understand its history. That is what the official timeline is designed to resist. Without a clear understanding of the past “the big fool,” whoever he or she might be, will successfully convince the American people “to push on.”

(For more of the history of the United States war in Vietnam and how that country has developed since the end of the war see Duncan McFarland, Paul Krehbiel, and Harry Targ editors, Vietnam, From National Liberation to 21st Century Socialism, Committees of Correspondence Education Fund, Changemaker Publications,  lulu.com/spotlight/changemaker,  2013).