Vietnam War is a study in U.S. crimes

By Robert Jensen

Published in Detroit Free Press · April, 2000

[This article appeared in the Detroit Free Press, April 28, 2000, p. 11-A.]

Twenty-five years ago Sunday, the last helicopters took off from the roof of an apartment building near the U.S. embassy in Saigon — a powerful image of Americans defeated, getting out just before the Vietnamese we fought against took over the city from the Vietnamese we supported.

But there’s one big problem with that symbol and that memory: We won the Vietnam War.

U.S. policymakers have secured a huge propaganda victory in shaping perceptions about that war and, paradoxically, one of the propaganda achievements has been convincing people that we lost. The reason for the seemingly strange strategy is simple: Putting forward the idea that we lost obscures both the real reason we fought the war and diverts attention from U.S. crimes during the war.

Despite the claims of U.S. leaders, we did not fight in Vietnam to establish democracy. Instead, we fought in Vietnam to derail democracy. After the Vietnamese defeat of French colonialism in 1954, the Geneva Conference called for free elections in 1956. But the United States and its client regime in South Vietnam blocked those elections. Why? In his memoirs, President Eisenhower explained honestly: In free elections, the socialist government of Ho Chi Minh would have won by an overwhelming margin. As is typical, the United States is all for elections in other countries, if they turn out the way we want.

The central goal of U.S. policymakers in Vietnam was to make sure that an independent socialist course of development did not succeed. U.S. leaders relied on Cold War rhetoric about the communist monolith but really feared that a “virus” of such independent development could infect the rest of Asia, perhaps even becoming a model for all the Third World. What might happen if all nations emerging from colonialism believed they had a right to decide their own futures, outside the U.S. orbit?

It is much easier to obscure these U.S. war aims if we talk about how we lost the war, leading to the fall of a South Vietnamese democracy that never existed. It also is easier to obscure the brutality of the U.S. war.

So long as we believe we lost the war, the question can be asked, “If we had fought harder, could we have won?” Some Americans still talk about how we fought the Vietnam War “with one hand tied behind our back,” yet with only one hand we managed to drop 6.5 million tons of bombs and 400,000 tons of napalm on the people of Southeast Asia. Short of nuclear weapons, it’s not clear what additional forms of violence we could have unleashed on the people of Vietnam.

If people can convince themselves that we were restrained gentlemen during the war, it is easier to ignore the saturation bombing of civilian areas, counter-terrorism programs that included political assassination, routine killings of civilians, and 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange to destroy crops and ground cover — all part of the U.S. terror war in not only Vietnam but Laos and Cambodia as well. All those are clear violations of international law — that is, war crimes.

Twenty-five years later, the virus U.S. policymakers feared has been largely stamped out, with only a few stubborn holdouts such as the Zapitistas in Chiapas. Southeast Asia — indeed, most of the Third World — is “safe” not only for U.S. style democracy (that is, democracy with results favorable to the United States) but for multinational corporations to take advantage of the resources and exploit the labor.

By telling the story that we lost the war, the United States can continue to evade the truth about its foreign policy. While it is true that we did not achieve total conquest of South Vietnam, 25 years later the nature of the U.S. victory is clear. Vietnam, still recovering from the massive destruction caused by the United States attack, is forced to accept — by economic pressure not bombs — its place in the international economic order run out of Washington and New York.

The Vietnamese people survived U.S. aggression an independent people. The question is, will they survive their victory.