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Looking back on the Vietnam War: History and forgetting

category north america / mexico | imperialism / war | opinion / analysis author Thursday October 23, 2008 12:05author by George Bradford Report this post to the editors

Part 1 of 2 parts

This article first appeared in the Summer 1985 Fifth Estate under the pen-name George Bradford. It is reprinted on the 20th anniversary of the defeat of the U.S. empire in Vietnam.

Part 1 contains introductory material.
Part 2 contains the original 1985 article.

Looking back on the Vietnam War: History and forgetting

by George Bradford

The Fifth Estate, Vol. 30 Number 1 (Whole number 346), Summer, 1995, page 1

This article first appeared in the Summer 1985 Fifth Estate under the pen-name George Bradford. It is reprinted on the 20th anniversary of the defeat of the U.S. empire in Vietnam.

Introduction: "Hell No, That Won't Go"

by Richard Drinnon

Another decade has passed and it is Spring 1995, twenty years since the "fall of Saigon to the Vietnamese," in David Watson's mordant words, and the man who gave his name to that war has just published In Retrospect, a memoir from which he broadcasts what everyone by now has heard: "we were wrong, terribly wrong." Now the ur-Whiz Kid tells us that he had become a covert convert to the antiwar movement even by 1967, the year twenty thousand resisters tried to shut down his Department of Defense. If only the erstwhile carpet bomber had then come outside to join the fair number of us who had slipped by the soldiers and the marshals to piss on the Pentagon, what a triumphant relief that would have been, what an epiphany! Yet after twenty-eight years we can still say that Robert S. McNamara's tardy outing is better late than never, no?

NO! rumbles The New York Times in a remarkable editorial on "stale tears, three decades late": "Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen." (April 12, 1995). This hanging verdict condemns him for not joining in the national debate over the war and daringly sides not only with the young people who served in the ranks "because they, in their innocence, could not fathom the mendacity of their elders," but also--hold on to your seats--with "another set of heroes--the thousands of students who returned this nation to sanity by chanting, 'Hell, no, we won't go.'" The big trouble here, of course, is that the Times is climbing to this high moral ground over the backs of all those students it maligned in the sixties. It plays fast and loose with your and my memory by dragging what it too calls "Mr. McNamara's War" down over the trail of its own responsibility, not as a youthful dissident but as a mendacious elder, for the slaughter it at first promoted and never resisted. Hell, no, that won't go.

So, what did go so terribly wrong? Acting "according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation," McNamara and his team made mistakes--"mostly honest," he claims--the foremost of which was their total failure to identify what used to be staple fare at our "teach-ins," namely, the nationalist core of the Vietnamese drive to unify their country. "I had never visited Indochina," he admits, "nor did I understand or appreciate its history, language, culture, or values." Worse, thanks to the purges of top State Department Asia hands in the McCarthy fifties, he and other officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations "lacked experts for us to consult to compensate for our ignorance about Southeast Asia." But this supposed dearth of "experts" was itself suggestive. McNamara still does not grasp that his imperial ignorance of other cultures and peoples, especially colored, is as American as the Pledge of Allegiance. It was precisely because he was acting according to "the principles and traditions of this nation" that the Vietnamese were as unknown to him as the Seminoles had been to Andrew Jackson, the Filipinos to William McKinley. the Haitians to Woodrow Wilson, the Guatemalans to John Foster Dulles, or the Panamanians to Theodore Roosevelt and George Bush.

"Did you rely too heavily on the body count and other numbers?" asked an interviewer (Newsweek, April 17, 1995). "No," declared McNamara, "but that is the wrong question. The right question is, did you rely on the wrong strategy--conventional military tactics instead of winning the hearts and minds of the people--and the answer to that is yes. It was totally wrong." But here he was simply recycling the counterinsurgency thesis of Edward Lansdale, his special assistant in the early sixties and the legendary CIA operative some credited with the creation of South Vietnam. This plunges us back into those glory days when the best and the brightest undertook "to pay any price, bear any burden," and so on, "in order to insure the survival and success of liberty." Here the bottom wrong is not the destination of an empire called "liberty" but the fatefully flawed strategy that kept it from getting to all those hearts and minds. The old New Frontiersman has written a revised and improved manual for the next generation of empire-builders.

On visits to the Vietnam Memorial with its fifty-eight thousand names, McNamara reveals that he has strong feelings and breaks down in tears. In my mind's eye I see him sobbing before a wall fifty times that size as he is tormented by the three million names that will never be memorialized anywhere. But I should know better, for he sheds no tears for the Vietnamese dead in his memoir and in that too he is acting strictly according to "the principles and traditions of this nation," a nation in which native lives have always come cheap.

The Vietnam War was "America's finest hour," said Hubert H. Humphrey, another enthusiast prone to crying jags. David Watson reminds us of Humphrey's pronouncement and other enormities in an unsentimental essay that is perhaps even more timely today than when it was published a decade ago. The flap over McNamara's In Retrospect underscores the truth of Watson' s argument that America has yet to come to terms with Vietnam and "with its history on this continent stolen from her original inhabitants." Maybe I have been beguiled by his generous comments about my work but I think not. I believe Watson has a very rare ability to meld passion and insight in essays that sharpen and deepen our understanding of history and of the desperate struggle against forgetting. In his sentences readers truly look back upon the future.


Author's note: Reality continues to be manufactured

by David Watson

(page 11)

When this essay first appeared in Fifth Estate in the spring of 1985, the Vietnam War already seemed to be receding into ancient history. Central America was at that time being battered by the latest incarnation of "the best and the brightest," and it was being done more conveniently with money and proxies, rather than with "American boys," who tend to get themselves unceremoniously killed while smashing up other people's neighborhoods. A few hundred thousand deaths and mutilations later, we still await the tearful retrospectives with their admixture of regret and denial.

American society was left little wiser by its experience in southeast Asia; the United States has a handful of interventions and wars under its belt since 1975, and even some failures to act where it might, as in Bosnia, have prevented a massacre. (Yes, I know, on some other planet with an entirely different history. The Vietnam War taught my generation that any empire intervening anywhere was bound to cause disasters. Nevertheless, that Haiti and the former Yugoslavia further fragmented what remained of dissident movements in the U.S. reflects new conditions and shifting ground.)

Ten years later, reality continues to be manufactured, perhaps more efficiently than ever, by the ideology industry. The Vietnamese remain largely invisible to Americans. The war criminals continue to expire peacefully in their beds (Nixon), pontificate in televised policy debates (Kissinger), and cash in on their memoirs (McNamara). The "Vietnam syndrome," declared defunct by a triumphant George Bush after his "turkey shoot" in the Persian Gulf, guarantees continued slaughter so long as it is not too costly to North Americans. Complacent amid its bloodbaths, the thoroughly nazified society described by Noam Chomsky in the mid-1960s remains intact.

Some differences are also worth noting. The response to the war twenty years later, if a Time retrospective is any indication, had a more muted, almost postmodern uncertainty to it. The editors assure the reader psalmodically, "Vietnam may be the war that passeth all understanding," and one Time Magazine essayist, declaring all conflicts unique, concludes that the war offers no lessons, "no guide to the future."

Essentially a new spin on an old canard, this uncritical line repeats the persistent myth, common both inside and outside the antiwar movement of the day, that the war was a terrible mistake, a tragedy. Certainly the war was a tragedy of unforeseen consequences; U.S. objectives were murky even to the generals. But this now dominant interpretation serves in its vagueness to dissipate responsibility and the possibility of a coherent historical critique. McNamara's argument that the war did not originate in evil intentions, but in a failure "of judgment and capability," is only the latest reiteration of the official story. It conceals the fact that the U.S. created a war where one had just been concluded, and concocted a regime out of a quisling apparatus, property of the Japanese and then French, that had justly collapsed. The "Murder, Inc." the CIA and Pentagon ran in that unhappy region for more than two decades was, in reality, only one arm of a vast operation constructed to overthrow and reconstitute states and decimate human beings at will all over the globe, not only in Indochina but in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, and Chile, to name some of the more infamous examples.

Thus Chomsky's argument--that the Vietnam War was not an unambiguous defeat for American imperialism--is compelling. As he has argued in a number of places, central U.S. aims and a partial victory were achieved. Incapable of defeating the Vietnamese on the battlefield, the U.S. could at least destroy the society enough to horribly impoverish and make a bitter example of it. The "demonstration effect" sent a grim message to other nationalist rebels attempting to stray from the neocolonial orbit, a strategy used effectively in the 1980s to discipline Central America and beat Nicaragua into submission.

In fact, the Time Magazine twenty-year retrospective affirm Chomsky's analysis in one significant way. Following a typical televisionesque reduction of history covering the last ten days of the war (next time the last ten minutes will be the theme) comes an article, "Vietnam: Back in Business," attesting to the new climate in which former enemies can work together to plunder the country. Now that the Saigon landlords and military mandarins have been swept away, not into the dustbin of history, mind you, but to comfortable neighborhoods in San Diego and Virginia Beach. Vietnamese commissars will deliver up resources and cheap labor to international corporate capital, sometimes to the very same exploiters they spent thirty years fighting. It should be no surprise that Vietnamese army veterans are beginning to ask what exactly it was they fought for.

Understandable doubts among the Vietnamese in no way excuse the continuing arrogance of Americans. Novelist Tobias Wolff, for example, who has written admirably about his experiences in Vietnam, repeats the myth--obviously true in some individual cases but a mystification generally--that the U.S. soldiers went there "to be of help." Noting in his Time essay the harshness of the victors, who impelled some 800,000 people to flee the country, Wolff doesn't bother to consider that the horrific war waged by the Americans and the ruinous conditions left in their wake might explain, at least in part, the vengeful nature of the new regime.

Wolff illustrates the deep gulf still dividing Americans on Vietnam by describing a discussion group of vets, former antiwar activists and other Vietnam generation men which eventually disbanded because of an inability to find common ground. I, too, was keenly reminded of how deep the divisions are, upon reading, "Only the most self-satisfied ideologues on either side of the problem could avoid questioning their own motives" for fighting the war or resisting it. Those who protested, he explains, might reasonably worry that, "however unintentionally, ... [they] were encouraging a hard, often murderous enemy who was doing his best to kill boys you'd grown up with."

Perhaps Wolff doesn't realize his attempted middle ground is itself an ideologue's argument. He doesn't seem to appreciate the impact our witness of the war had on many young people here--the images of torture and massive bombing raids, of a mother holding her burned infant and a swaggering soldier nonchalantly torching her household with his cigarette lighter.

What were those American boys I'd grown up with doing there, after all, collaborating with the death machine? I knew they were in most cases victims themselves--of propaganda, of poverty, of the draft. In fact, I actively participated in campaigns to support the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and to defend GI rights and resisters in the military, sending antiwar information to soldiers and sailors, including to my own brother. That didn't stop me from desiring the defeat of U.S. forces as fervently as I would have had I been an anti-nazi German during the Second World War.

I don't consider such a comparison at all exaggerated. Both conflicts have stark, parallel examples of conscience and cowardice, of unspeakable brutality, both personal and bloodthirsty on the one hand, and remote and numbly bureaucratic on the other. At the first antiwar teach-in I attended in the fall of 1967, I saw M.S. Arnoni, the editor of a left liberal magazine, The Minority Of One, make the nazi analogy in a powerful gesture. A Polish Jew who had survived the death camps, Arnoni delivered his speech wearing a striped concentration camp smock. "I have donned this uniform," he began, "to remind you and myself of an era that is not over, of human suffering that continues, of gas used in Auschwitz and in the villages of Vietnam, of consciences that still stop at the national boundary, of Lidice and Cam Ne."

The Vietnam War was possibly as much a watershed and formative event in my life as it was for those Americans who fought there. (Forgive me if I cannot bring myself to write, "who served there.") I can trace much of my response to the impression Arnoni's speech made on me. Despite Time magazine's uncertainty, Vietnam provided the same stark lesson Arnoni derived from his camp experience in his decision never to become an oppressor. "I have no preference for an oppressor who is American or any other nationality," he declared. "I do not prefer him over the Nazi oppressor."

American aggression in Vietnam was "as reprehensible as ... the Nazi crimes," he continued, and he called on Americans to engage in massive resistance, and especially on American youth--soldiers and civilians--"to join the resistance of those who only yesterday were their prospective victims." Arnoni was encouraging the boys I'd grown up with to turn the guns around, and young people in general to "go to Vietnam and volunteer their services to help ameliorate the suffering inflicted by their fellow countrymen on the Vietnamese."

It became my intention to find a way to Vietnam to fight against the U.S. forces. At fifteen, I might have been fighting already had I been Vietnamese. I later realized that it wasn't a realistic plan, but I did what I could to stop the war, and not always as consistently as I later thought I should have. I don't know if Arnoni kept his promise; I don't know what happened to him after he folded the magazine and emigrated to Israel in late 1968. But I took his lesson seriously, not to be an oppressor or to tolerate oppressors.

Enough people came to this conclusion in that period for there to be widespread, organized resistance during the late 1970s and 1980s to the U.S.-administered holocaust throughout Central America. True, the resistance wasn't enough to halt the war machine there or in Iraq, but it at least obstructed the murderers in their work and preserved fragile memory in the face of official lies.

That was what the essay below was about: remembering what is in the interest of the empire to suppress. The country as a whole continues to sleepwalk through one imperial fiasco to the next, smashing people and places at every turn. But some people are capable of hearing what the essay tries to say: that conscience, even if reduced to a single voice, to a "minority of one," perhaps, can at least bear witness to lies and speak the truth. As Frances Fitzgerald observed a decade after the war, "The past is not just a matter for historians. It is what we are."

And so, who are we going to be? Those who follow orders, and those who give them, have decided who they are. McNamara decided. When the war failed to go according to plan, he jumped ship to a comfortable position at the head of the World Bank. (And if and when the real toll is added up, it may turn out that he caused as much mayhem and destruction managing the daily affairs of that institution as when he and his cohorts were in the daily business of mechanized genocide.)

McNamara's memoirs reminded me of another protagonist of the war, an obscure hero of mine whose image on a poster remained taped to my wall for a number of years. Nguyen Van Troi won't have the opportunity to write his memoirs; the young Vietnamese worker was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1964 for attempting to assassinate U.S. Secretary of Defense McNamara. Of course, if he had succeeded, another Secretary, and another would have followed, just as others would have replaced Eichman had partisans managed to assassinate the nazi technocrat. That is not the point, but rather, who and what we remember, and who and what we are and are going to be.

Thus, in the spirit of "giving aid and comfort" to the enemies of all imperial states, I dedicate this essay to the memory of a defiant young patriot who refused a blindfold at the execution post so he could look one last time on his "beloved land," who risked his life "to be of help," who was a naive nationalist, surely, perhaps a poet, and who did not live to look back with regrets, contrived or otherwise, on "an era that is not over." I dedicate it to the idealists and against the conspirators and functionaries of genocide, to conscience and against collaboration, to memory and against forgetting. For history isn't just a matter for the rationalizations of mass murderers, history is what we are and must be. It is our history, too. We are Nguyen Van Troi.

-- Detroit, May-June, 1995

Note: For reasons this introduction may make clear, I have decided to publish this essay under my own name, and not a pen-name, which I used in 1985.

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