Even Now We Lie To Ourselves About Vietnam

Robert Jensen


Clinton has always been keen on apologizing, for himself and on behalf of the

nation. He has apologized not only for a sex scandal, but for U.S. support of

repression in Guatemala and for slavery.


might contest the motivation for, or the phrasing of, the apologies — Were they

offered for the right reason? Did they go far enough? — but at least they were



is one act of contrition, however, that Clinton — or any American leader– has

not been able to make.


his way to Hanoi last week, when asked if he thought the United States owed the

people of Vietnam an apology, 25 years after the end of the war, Clinton said,

simply, "No, I don’t."


have offered a personalized explanation: As a man who avoided the draft during

that war, Clinton has to stand tough today. But another possibility deserves

consideration: To apologize for crimes against the people of Vietnam would be to

admit that the stories we tell ourselves about our conduct in the world — then

and now — are a lie.


apologize would be to acknowledge that while we claimed to be defending

democracy, we were derailing democracy. While we claimed to be defending South

Vietnam, we were attacking the people of South Vietnam.


apologize now would be to admit that the rationalizations for post-World War II

U.S. foreign policy have been, and are still today, rhetorical cover for the

power politics of an empire.


standard story in the United States about that war is that in our quest to

guarantee peace and freedom for Vietnam, we misunderstood its history, politics

and culture, leading to mistakes that doomed our effort. Some argue we should

have gotten out sooner than we did; others suggest we should have fought harder.

But the common ground in mainstream opinion is that our motives were noble.


we never fought in Vietnam for democracy. After World War II, the United States

supported and financed France’s attempt to retake its former colony. After the

Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954, the Geneva Conference called for free

elections in 1956, which the United States and its South Vietnamese client

regime blocked. In his memoirs, President Eisenhower explained why: In free

elections, the communists would have won by an overwhelming margin. The United

States is all for elections, so long as they turn out the way we want.


central goal of U.S. policy-makers in Vietnam had nothing to do with freedom for

the Vietnamese people, but instead was to make sure that an independent

socialist course of development did not succeed. U.S. leaders invoked Cold War

rhetoric about the threat of the communist monolith but really feared that a

"virus" of independent development might infect the rest of Asia,

perhaps even becoming a model for all the Third World.


prevent the spread of the virus, we dropped 6.5 million tons of bombs and

400,000 tons of napalm on the people of Southeast Asia. Saturation bombing of

civilian areas, counterterrorism programs and political assassination, routine

killings of civilians and 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange to destroy crops

and ground cover — all were part of the U.S. terror war in Vietnam, as well as

Laos and Cambodia.


interpretation is taken as obvious in much of the world, yet it is virtually

unspeakable in polite and respectable circles in this country, which says much

about the moral quality of polite and respectable people here.


is the truth about our attack on Vietnam so difficult to acknowledge? I think it

is not just about Vietnam, but about a larger truth concerning our role in the

world. We are the empire. Especially in the past half-century, we have supported

repressive regimes around the world so long as they served elite interests. We

have violated international law in countless invasions and interventions. While

talking about the inviolate nature of human rights, we have trampled those

rights and the legitimate aspirations of liberation movements.


many ways, the Vietnam War was the defining act of the United States as empire,

an aggression that was condemned around the world and at home, but pursued

nonetheless, as the body count went into the millions. It is the linchpin of our

mythology about ourselves.


his last years on Earth, Martin Luther King Jr. understood this, as he began to

speak out forcefully against the war: "If America’s soul becomes totally

poisoned, part of the autopsy must read `Vietnam,’ " King said in 1967.


he were alive today, I don’t know whether King would give up on the soul of

America and write a final autopsy report. But I am confident he would argue

forcefully that the future is lost so long as we let stand the poisonous

distortions of history.


teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at


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