(Originally published at ctpost.com. Reprinted with permission of the author.)
John Mihalec’s recent column in the Connecticut Post (50 Years Ago: The Start to Vietnam War, February 7) is good for laughs but is seriously lacking as history. Here’s some history that was conveniently left out of his fanciful account.
Pinpointing where US aggression in Vietnam began depends on how one determines how a war starts. It’s silly in the extreme, however, to claim it began in 1965, as tens of thousands of Vietnamese were already dead at US hands by that point. Better to trace the origins to 1945 when the United States refused to recognize the new government established by Vietnamese independence forces. Japan had invaded Vietnam some years earlier and the French colonialists ran away and ceded the country to the Japanese.
That left it to the Vietnamese to do all the heavy lifting and they performed as heroically during the Second World War as any people anywhere. When in 1945 the French colonialists finished sipping cognac in Paris and decided to re-invade Vietnam, the US backed them to the hilt with weapons, financing and diplomatic cover. The Vietnamese, not surprisingly, were not so enthusiastic and resisted just as they had resisted other occupiers for centuries.
As the French inflicted horrific violence in their failed attempt at re-conquest, the US bore more and more of the war’s burden until, in 1954, the Vietnamese had again seemingly achieved independence. It was not to be, though, as the US destroyed that possibility by undermining elections that Washington knew Ho Chi Minh would win in a landslide. As in dozens of other cases over the past 100+ years, the US opposed democracy in favor of aggression. Elections are all well and good but only if the right people win; if the wrong people win, then out come the machine guns.
So the US flew Ngo Dinh Diem in from New Jersey and installed him as dictator. Eventually the Kennedy administration found Diem too unreliable and had him whacked, a mere three weeks before Kennedy himself was similarly assassinated. This was not, however, before Kennedy began ongoing saturation bombing of South Vietnam, ordered the use of napalm and other chemical weapons of mass destruction, introduced ground troops and organized strategic hamlets. Such a great phrase, strategic hamlets; kinda like calling Auschwitz a country getaway.
Lyndon Johnson’s fabrication of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 was another turning point. Within six months, the Peace Candidate who had startled the world with a campaign ad attacking Barry Goldwater as a warmonger (5…4…3…2…1) extended the invasion and the bombing to the whole of Vietnam. So it remained until the Super Rich grew antsy about the financial costs of the war, the US’s growing international embarrassment, unprecedented domestic upheaval, and the stark realization that there was no way the Vietnamese could lose militarily. I recall reading years ago something a Vietnamese elder who had probably seen as much death and destruction as anyone who ever lived said (I’m paraphrasing): We can settle this now or we can settle it a thousand years from now. It’s up to the Americans.
It’s impossible to calculate with precision the Vietnamese death toll. Whatever Vietnam has said has been dismissed by the powerful here as anti-American propaganda and US elites have never bothered with a reckoning. Their attitude was captured perfectly by a general speaking of a more recent conflagration: “We don’t do body counts.” Not, anyway, when the dead bodies are victims of US violence.
Three million Vietnamese deaths is a popular figure but undoubtedly far too low. Also completely ignored here is the Vietnamese experience of Agent Orange and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example. Take the terrible suffering of US soldiers and multiply their numbers ten thousand fold or more and we get a sense of the damage to the Vietnamese. Additionally, Vietnam and the rest of Indochina (it’s often conveniently forgotten that the US also waged war against Laos and Cambodia) are full of unexploded ordinances that regularly cause death and injuries, to this day. There’s also the starvation deaths of hundreds of thousands throughout Indochina immediately after the war. A countryside ravaged by bombing, combined with the curtailment of airlifts, doomed those hundreds of thousands once the US imposed an ironclad embargo. That’s an unpleasant truth, though; so much easier to blame everything on the Vietnamese Communists and the despotic Khmer Rouge.
Discussions of Vietnam are hardly academic exercises; the US is on a global rampage and falsifying history has paved the way to the US-caused deaths of three million Iraqis since the first invasion in 1991, to cite just one of many recent examples. We remain in the grips of people who worship wealth and are in love with death so any truth and reckoning about Vietnam and the role we play in the world will have to come from us.
Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author who writes for Z, Counterpunch and many other publications and websites. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.