PREVIOUSLY ON THE SKC BLOG:
Vietnam existed for aeons before Americans suddenly started thinking about it in the 1960s as this far-away and nightmarish place. Jungles, rice paddies, war, etc. The Vietnamese are an ancient people, with their own culture and their own identity. Even in ancient times, they had to struggle against foreign domination. Within the context of the Vietnam War we now know of the timeline, the events and the players — but what of the motives?
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IMAGE CREDITs ABOVE: Mike Stimpson
If you prefer not to wait for the balance of the posts to be rolled out over the next few days you can watch the entire 40-minute episode of the Pinky Show in Part One of this series of posts here
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THE CLIFF NOTES, edited from transcripts. Presented here are the real reasons as well as the U.S. government presentation of facts to the American public.
CHAPTER III: SEARCHING FOR REASONS
So far we've described how the United States became involved in Vietnam, but we still haven't explained why. Why did the U.S. think that Vietnam was worth so much killing and dying for? The most frequently-offered explanation, among American historians - is that the United States was in Vietnam in an attempt to stop communist expansion into South East Asia.
• Because Ho Chi Minh was a communist, the United States readily assumed that the Viet Minh were puppets of China, or maybe the Soviets, or maybe a little bit of both. The feeling at the time was that if the U.S. were to let the Viet Minh take control of Vietnam, then this would initiate a kind of chain reaction, in which nearby areas like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, etc., they would all fall, like a row of dominos and succumb to communist influence. We called this the 'domino theory', and basically the U.S. government believed that the obvious solution to such a situation was to make sure that the first domino (Vietnam) didn't fall. This is the main reason why the Eisenhower administration was willing to commit so much money and resources to create a "South Vietnam".
• What was the perceived threat from communism? The U.S. saw communism as the enemy and other forms of socialism as well. Whenever people would talk about how bad communism is, often the reasons they'd give would be framed in terms of how communism is authoritarian and oppressive, while the U.S. is all about freedom and democracy. Which points to an obvious question: If U.S. foreign policy since World War II had been only about making moral choices between 'democracy' or 'authoritarianism', wouldn't the United States have a long history of supporting democratic movements on principle? The answer: It does not.
• A cursory review of the U.S.'s foreign policy decisions in the 20th century shows that the U.S. actually has a rather poor record when it comes to supporting democratic movements around the globe. The U.S. has been as willing to overthrow a democratically elected government or prop up a dictatorship - Indonesia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Grenada, Congo, Philippines, Greece these are just a few examples.
The single most important measure of a country's receiving support from the United States has been whether or not that country's markets, labor, or resources could be made available to American business.
• Sometimes this has required supporting powerful landlords against peasants, in other cases installing a ruthless dictator produces the most desirable results. In the case of Vietnam, the situation required support of the business owners in the cities as well as the powerful landlords — waging a kind of class war against a landless peasantry. The important thing to remember is that the specifics have always been secondary to the primary objective of securing a stable environment in which American-style capitalism can thrive. This is the way in which U.S. foreign policy has actually been very consistent.
Historian Jonathan Neale puts it as follows, "These state capitalist countries were a threat not so much because they called themselves 'socialist', but because they were competing capitalist powers and their markets were largely closed to American business."
• Even to this day, most Americans tend to think of the Vietnam War as a kind of civil war. The fact remains, the Vietnam War was fundamentally between the people of Vietnam and the United States. That's why in Vietnam, the Vietnam War is not called the Civil War, it's called the American War. The Vietnamese saw the United States as a foreign occupier, and they were fighting in order to expel them from their country. In other words, from a Vietnamese perspective, it was a war for independence.
• Confused? If the Vietnam War wasn't a civil war, then how come there were Vietnamese in the South Vietnamese government, or Vietnamese serving in the South Vietnamese army - who were these people? Vietnam had been a French colony for a really long time. One of the ways a colonizer will often rule over a colony is to create a minority ruling class within the native population - give them privileges and power and have them do much of the dirty work. The French used these Vietnamese - the moneyed business class in the cities, land owners, Vietnamese Catholics, and so on, to rule over the rest of the population - mostly Buddhist, mostly rural, landless, and most of all, very poor. When the French were finally forced out of Vietnam, many of the Vietnamese who had benefitted from French rule turned their allegiance to the Americans. To the majority of the Vietnamese though, these people were supporting the subjugation of their own people - they were collaborators, traitors.
• We Americans exploited this complicated situation - basically a class war and a land war wrapped up in a larger struggle for independence - by spinning the situation as a Civil War to the American people back home. The government knew that it could never get public support for military intervention in Vietnam if it said the war was being fought in order to secure business opportunities for the American elite. Instead it talked about it as if it were a civil war between two sides - a good side and an evil side. Of course the United States was supporting the good guys. The American public, totally ignorant of Vietnamese history, or even the logic of imperialism, bought it - at least for a while.
• The Pentagon Papers, the U.S. State Department's own 'official history' of the Vietnam War, has approximately 4,000 pages of declassified information that any U.S. citizen can access. If you study the papers, it's quite clear that at the highest levels, American leaders had no illusions that they were fighting a war for the benefit of the Vietnamese people. To be blunt, most Americans couldn't have cared less about the Vietnamese peasants. It also seems very clear that of all the U.S. presidents, secretaries of state, generals - the U.S. leaders who were in control, none of them really took the Vietnamese perspective seriously. They were quite certain that their Cold War model, their domino theory explained everything quite nicely.
Domino Theory Image from Chase Naminatsu, all others CLICK for IMAGE CREDITS
• They were locked into their own way of looking at the situation. They did not understand what motivated the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. More than any other single thing, this made America's defeat inevitable. The Vietnamese who fought the United States absolutely did not see their struggle as a mere 'subset' of some greater communist cause. They were not puppets of the Soviets, Chinese, or anybody else. Many people who fought for the VC and NVA were not even communists. They were fighting for the idea of an independent Vietnam and they understood their struggle to expel the Americans as being directly connected to a 2,000 year history of resistance to foreign domination. This knowledge, this feeling, was a core element of Vietnamese identity. Had the American leadership been willing to empathize with their enemy, perhaps they would have known that the Vietnamese were ready to fight to the last man; they would have never surrendered.
• In hindsight, this American confusion between 'Cold War' versus 'War for Independence' seems obvious and embarrassing. Did the Americans not try to learn anything about Vietnamese history before taking on this war? Why did the American leadership disregard all reliable information on this matter, choosing instead to impose their own paradigm on the situation regardless of whether or not it fit? Was it just arrogance? Maybe it was all of the above. There exists the idea that maybe it had something to do with America's denial of its own colonial past. Maybe when a nation's own history of genocide or taking land by force is erased from memory, maybe that helped to render the Vietnamese people's struggle for land and sovereignty invisible. There is no other way to explain why they couldn't see what was happening right there in front of them.
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CHAPTER IV: CONSEQUENCES (posting in 2 days)
• Reading all of the the text takes a wee bit of time, something many in our attention-span challenged culture have so little of — so Chapter IV of IV Chapters will be posted tomorrow. Or if you just want to know everything right now go back to the first post in this series and watch the video. It requires a 40 min and 23 second commitment. (after the jump scroll down the page to reach the video)
Laotian Chronicles: A Life Story [ an excerpt from the novel I may never write ]
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BIBLIOGRAPHY for the PINKYSHOW EPISODE 060809-1
- Cultures in Conflict: The Viet Nam War. Robert E. Vadas. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut/London, 2002.
- The Eyewitness History of the Vietnam War, 1961-1975. George Esper and the Associated Press. Villard Books, New York, 1983.
- Herbicidal Warfare: The Ranch Hand Project in Vietnam. Paul Frederick Cecil. Praeger Publishers, New York/Westport, Connecticut/London, 1986.
- The Illustrated History of the Vietnam War. Brian Beckett. Multimedia Publications (UK), 1985.
- The Pentagon Papers: as published by the New York times. Bantam Books, New York, 1971.
- A People's History of the United States, 1492 - Present. Howard Zinn. HarperPerennial, New York, 1980, 1995.
- A People's History of the Vietnam War. Jonathan Neale. The New Press, New York/London, 2001, 2003.
- Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg. Penguin Putnam, 2002.
- The Truth About the Most Dangerous and Destructive Nation. Raymond Hirashima. Vantage Press, 1978.
- The Umbrella of U.S. Power: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Contradictions of U.S. Policy. Noam Chomsky. Seven Stories Press, New York, 1999.
- Vietnam. Larry Burrows. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002.
- Vietnam: A Long History. Nguyen Khac Vien. The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 1993.
- Vietnam and Other American Fantasies. H. Bruce Franklin. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 2000.
- Vietnam: A Visual Encyclopedia. Philip Gutzman. PRC Publishing Ltd., 2002.
- The Vietnam Experience: The Aftermath, 1975-1985. Edward Doyle, Terrance Maitland, and the editors of the Boston Publishing Company. Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1982.
- The Vietnam Experience: The Fall of the South. Clark Dougan, David Fulghum, and the editors of the Boston Publishing Company. Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1982.
- The Vietnam Experience: Raising the Stakes. Terrance Maitland, Stephen Weiss, and the editors of the Boston Publishing Company. Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1982.
- Vietnam Front Pages. Hal Drake (editor). Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, New York, 1986.
- Vietnam: The Secret War. Kevin M. Generous. Bison Books, New York, 1985.
- Vietnam: The War in the Air: A Pictorial History of the U.S. Air Forces in the Vietnam War: Air Force Army, Navy, and Marines. Col. Gene Gurney, USAF (ret.). Crown Publishers, New York, 1985.
- The Vietnam War: An Almanac. John S. Bowman (general editor) & Fox Butterfield (introduction). Bison Books, New York, 1985.