Even now, we lie to ourselves about Vietnam

By Robert Jensen

Published in Austin American-Statesman · November, 2000

[This article ran in the Austin American-Statesman, Saturday, November 25, 2000, p. A-15, and the St. Petersburg Times, December 3, 2000.

Bill 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.

One 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 offered.

There is one act of contrition, however, that Clinton — or any American leader– has not been able to make.

On 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.”

Some 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.

To 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.

To 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.

The 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.

But 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.

The 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.

To 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.

This 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.

Why 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 inviolable nature of human rights, we have trampled those rights and the legitimate aspirations of liberation movements.

In 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.

In 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.

If 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.