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Lessons From Vietnam: Wars Kill Empires As Well As People


In 2005, the United States has become Communist Vietnam’s single-largest trading partner. Vietnam’s products permeate U.S. stores. But the “Vietnam War trauma” remains central to U.S. politics. Note how the Vietnam service record of presidential candidates became a contentious issue in the 2004 elections. People don’t overcome traumas unless they understand them.

Since public education provides citizens with minimal context, we rely on mass media to reach into its collective attic and drag out “Fall of Saigon” stories. However, when the commercial press pushes the anniversary method of history teaching, the public tends to divorce rather than engage with its past connections.

Personal anecdotes overwhelm analysis. Relatives of dead soldiers weep at Washington’s Vietnam Wall; others relive battles and deaths of comrades. Few media presentations offer the past as a way to learn for the future.

As the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan continue down their bloody paths, we should study the lessons of The Vietnam War. Vietnamese refer to that period between the early 1960s and April 1975 as “The American Phase.” They suffered periods of foreign domination by Chinese, Japanese and French occupiers who, unlike the Americans, learned the painful lesson of trying to subdue and occupy that land.

U.S. leaders adamantly refuse to learn that some people, like Koreans, Vietnamese and Iraqis, for examples, do not submit to force and brutality. How to teach that simple lesson? Teachers will have shared the experience of trying to educate students who have not ingested their own history. Instead of inculcating historical context from first grade on, U.S. students learn a kind of patriotic mythology disguised with words like “unbiased” – as if along with critiques of U.S. behavior in Vietnam – or Iraq – one had to present the good side of torture, mass murder and the napalming of villages.

A Voice of America reporter sympathized with U.S. historians who “have struggled for years to find a fair and balanced way to teach students about the Vietnam War – and the atrocities committed there by U.S. soldiers” (Maura Jane Farrelly, April 28, 2005 ).

“Fair and balanced” sound discordant in the era of Fox News and CNN. Teachers should show students news clips of the inglorious U.S. retreat from Saigon in April 1975. Military helicopters took off from the Embassy with desperate Vietnamese clients clinging to them and falling to the ground.

The high school texts don’t tell that story. Steve Jackson, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania Political Science professor, found that students in his Introduction to American Politics course “have little if any knowledge about the Vietnam War and its lessons. He finds that appalling, especially in light of the U.S.’s current involvement in Iraq.” (Michael A. Fuoco, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette April 28, 2005).

Gore Vidal calls this syndrome “The United States of Amnesia.” As memorials abound and the media teemed with veterans recalling fallen comrades and anecdotes of combat, many school boards want history taught as lessons of right and wrong in which our leaders might make mistakes, but don’t do evil.

As a result, my college students don’t know that the U.S. military dropped more bombs on Southeast Asia than they did in World War Two. General Curtis LeMay, wanted to bomb Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.” How Christian!

Despite overwhelming military superiority, the U.S. lost in Vietnam. When American forces departed in 1975, the U.S. puppet army in Saigon “had over three times as much artillery, twice as many tanks and armored cars, 1,400 aircraft and a virtual monopoly of the air and “a two-to-one superiority of combat troops” (Kolko, Anatomy of War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience.” See Counterpunch April 30, 2005).

Seven years earlier, the North Vietnamese lost a major battle and won the war. In late January 1968, the armies of the North and National Liberation Front of the South staged an armed uprising during Tet, the Vietnamese holiday. General Giap and the other Hanoi leaders had decided that the levels of casualties exacted by massive U.S. artillery shelling and bombing had become intolerable. Giap’s quick military victory plan called for coordinated attacks on targets near the South Vietnam border to lure U.S. troops away from the cities, where dramatic assaults took place by Viet Cong (the pro Communist forces in the South and by regular North Vietnamese troops who had infiltrated South Vietnam’s urban areas). Giap predicted that such bold and large scale initiatives would inspire citizens to revolt against the puppet South Vietnamese government. The fall of this U.S.-backed regime would remove the last pretext for occupation and the Americans would withdraw.

The puppet government, however, didn’t fall. U.S. forces took about 1,100 casualties and many more wounded, but then retaliated, inflicting heavy casualties on Giap’s troops – some 35,000 killed and 60,000 wounded. But Giap’s plan did lead to an unanticipated victory in the propaganda war. One TV news clips showed Viet Cong fighting their way inside the heavily-guarded U.S. Embassy in Saigon, thus dramatizing the gap between official statements of optimism about the enemy’s weakness and the real battlefield facts.

The Tet Offensive thus revealed the absurdity of President Lyndon Johnson’s boasts of how much “the enemy” had been permanently weakened. The fact that the offensive took place after repeated official assurances of impending victory – seeing light at the end of the tunnel, according to Defense Secretary McNamara – so undermined the war propagandists’ efforts that public opinion swayed convincingly against the war. Despite their immense losses, the North Vietnamese won the propaganda war.

Seven years after Tet, the TV public saw images of U.S. embassy officials burning documents and U.S. money to prevent the rapidly advancing Communists from getting them. These pictures and the commentaries that accompanied them induced disgust and doubt in the wisdom of U.S. leaders. Three years later, if doubts persisted about the duplicity of U.S. officials, Daniel Ellsberg, a former national security official, released a massive archive of documents that the New York Times printed. The thousands of documents in the Pentagon Papers confirmed that the government had lied and covered up important facts about the origins of the war. They also showed that the United States had made little “progress” in winning the “hearts and minds” of Vietnam’s people. The Pentagon Papers also revealed that Lyndon Johnson had lied repeatedly and that neither he nor any other official had devised a plan to end the war and leave. The credibility gap between government and people became unbridgeable.

Most Americans don’t remember or know why the United States intervened and then got deeper into Vietnam. Its leaders had not learned from Korea, where another tough Asia foe fought U.S. troops to a bloody standstill. Bush has repeated the murderous scenario in Iraq. In each war, the U.S. killing machine slaughtered many more natives than Americans. In Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson confessed to his National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy that he didn’t “think it’s worth fighting for.” But he continued to send hundreds of thousands of troops to kill and die – and ultimately lose.

On May 1, the paper of record featured a particularly foolish account. Stephen J. Morris of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies blamed anti-war lobbying for convincing Congress to cut funding, thus assuring the Communist victory in Vietnam. How many of the NY Times readers will recall the instant collapse of the militarily superior, U.S.-trained South Vietnamese army when they had to fight? How many will remember that the United States invented South Vietnam in 1955 as a way to avert a national electoral victory by President Ho Chi Minh? Or that rampant corruption characterized all the U.S.-picked regimes. How many will know that the U.S. chose Catholics to rule a predominantly Buddhist population? Morris’ sour grapes scenario belies the facts: South Vietnam in early 1975 showed all the signs of decomposition.

The Times does not print historian Gabriel Kolko’s vital lessons. “Successive administrations in Washington have no capacity whatsoever to learn from past errors. Total defeat in Vietnam 30 years ago should have been a warning to the U.S.: Wars are too complicated for any nation, even the most powerful, to undertake without grave risk. They are not simply military exercises in which equipment and firepower is decisive, but political, ideological, and economic challenges also. The events of South Vietnam 30 years ago should have proven that.” (Counterpunch, April 30, 2005)

In Iraq, Bush repeats Lyndon Johnson’s sinful stupidity of wasting a surplus on military and security madness. Congress’ new budget froze domestic spending, but not military and “security” funding. Bush’s advisers should read him Pat Buchanan’s lines from A Republic, Not an Empire: “…all the empires had disappeared. How did they perish? By war – all of them.”

Landau’s new book is THE BUSINESS OF AMERICA: HOW CONSUMERS HAVE REPLACED CITIZENS AND HOW WE CAN REVERSE THE TREND. He directs Digital Media at Cal Poly Pomona University’s College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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