Jimmy Carter was the latest to use the M Word. The former president said he believes the “occupancy of Iraq and all the consequences of it are a big mistake.” This echoes John Kerry’s infamous 1971 question: “How do you ask a man to die for a mistake?” Hmm…perhaps recalling a few details about the Vietnam “mistake” might shine some light on the Iraq “blunder.”
In 1954, Vice President Richard Nixon explained the need for U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia: “The Vietnamese lack the ability to conduct a war or govern themselves.” Over the next two decades, the U.S. (by
mistake?) dropped the equivalent of one 500-pound bomb for every person living in Vietnam. (Those bomber doors really needed better latches.) In 1966, David Lawrence, editor of U.S. News & World Report, wrote: “What the United States is doing in Vietnam is the most significant example of philanthropy extended by one people to another that we have witnessed in our times.” When challenged with stories of American atrocities in Vietnam, Lawrence corrected his little gaffe, “Primitive peoples with savagery in their hearts have to be helped to understand the true basis of a civilized existence.” When at war with savages, you can rationalize dumping 400,000 tons of napalm on them.
What Americans (mistakenly) called the “Viet Cong” was really the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the NLF enjoyed the broad support of the Vietnamese people. In response, the U.S. Army began, as author Mark Zepezauer explains, “destroying villages, herding people into internment camps, weeding out the leaders and turning the countryside into a ‘free-fire zone’ (in other words, shoot anything that moves).”
Part of this terror campaign was Operation Phoenix, an assassination program put into action by the CIA (oops). “Between 1968 and 1972 hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians were rounded up and turned over to the Vietnamese police for questioning,” says former CIA agent, Ralph McGehee.
“Such interrogation has usually been marked by brutal torture.” (Our bad.) Zepezauer adds: “Some were tossed from helicopters during interrogation.” (Surely they slipped.)
K. Barton Osborn was a U.S. military-intelligence officer in Vietnam who testified that Phoenix suspects were subject to electric shock torture and “the insertion into the ear of a six-inch dowel which was tapped through the brain until the victim died.” (Hey, anyone can mistake a six-inch dowel for a Q-Tip.)
William Colby, who later became CIA director, was the Agency official in charge of Operation Phoenix. Calling the program a “military necessity,” he put the death toll at 20,587. (Pardon us.)
Congress asked: “Are you certain that we know a member of the VCI (Vietcong infrastructure) from a loyal member of the South Vietnam citizenry?” Colby replied: “No, Mr. Congressman, I am not.” (See: a mistake!) Operation Phoenix was a joint operation between the U.S. and the South Vietnamese who estimated the operation’s death toll at 40,994. (Mea culpa.)
In his book, ³Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy,² Telford Taylor, chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, suggested that members of the Johnson administration could be found guilty of war crimes under criteria established at Nuremberg (unless, of course, they employed the “oopsy daisy defense”).
Other countries have war criminals. In America, we have the mistaken.
Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.