From a young age, Americans — like citizens of other nations — are indoctrinated with nationalism, the belief that the United States is the “good guy” in world affairs, even if sometimes making mistakes in the pursuit of its noble aims. We are taught the U.S. uses its military might to protect the freedom of Americans and foreigners, expand democracy and peace, or in simple self-defense.
While sometimes this is true, the actual history of American foreign policy is far darker and more complex. The view of our moral superiority, however, serves an important function for the State. With the glorification of one’s country inherent in nationalism and patriotism comes the belief that the lives of foreigners are less valuable than your own countrymen. So because the U.S. is in the right, it really doesn’t matter how many innocent people perish in the pursuit of its goals.
The History of Violence series takes a less nationalistic and more honest look at the reasons the U.S. uses violence and the kinds of violence it deems acceptable. The series raises a key question: Would Americans deem it permissible for other powers to do to us what we did to them, for identical purposes and using identical violence? That is, if Vietnam bombed millions of Americans to prevent us from electing a Communist government, if Mexico conquered half the U.S. for more land and resources, if Guatemala helped overthrow our democracy in the interest of its corporations, and so on.
Despite the more rosy picture of U.S. benevolence, throughout its history the American government used military force to protect its economic interests and global power at the expense of weaker (often defenseless) nations. Presidents of both political parties authorized hundreds of military interventions into foreign nations, particularly in Latin America.
The boldest tactics included invasion and occupation, aerial bombings, terror attacks and assassinations, forcing open markets, and enacting trade blockades using naval and air power. Other methods included secretly arming and training rebel and terrorist groups, organizing and supporting coups, rigging ballots, and arming and funding brutal dictators. Usual targets included popular socialistic and communistic groups or governments pushing for land reform to help peasants or seizing national resources from foreign corporations, usually American.
These actions killed millions, and led to civil war, totalitarianism, genocide, and dire poverty in many countries.
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The conventional story of the American invasion of Vietnam usually goes something like this: Communist North Vietnam launched an invasion of democratic South Vietnam. The United States, always the defender of freedom and justice, came to South Vietnam’s defense. Through a series of unpredictable events, such as the liberal media “turning the American people against the war,” the ability of the enemy to blend in with the civilian population, and the enemy’s superior knowledge and use of their land, a peasant society defeated the most powerful military machine in human history.
Elements of this narrative are true, others have no basis in reality.
The real story begins in late 1945. Vietnam celebrated the surrender of Japan, which occupied Vietnam during World War II, having seized it from the French, who occupied it since 1887. There was immense hope that the decades of brutal foreign rule were over. To quote the U.S. Defense Department, “for a few weeks in September, 1945, Vietnam was — for the first and only time in its modern history — free of foreign domination, and united from north to south…” (A People’s History of the United States, by U.S. veteran Howard Zinn).
Much like the French and other peoples occupied by Axis forces, the Vietnamese formed a resistance movement against the Japanese and fought a guerrilla war to drive out their occupiers. This Vietnamese movement was led by a Communist named Ho Chi Minh. His nationalist organization, the Viet Minh, was a U.S. ally — because it was battling Japan.
Ho Chi Minh was thus enormously popular among the Vietnamese, as popular as George Washington among the American patriots who overthrew the British. With the Japanese gone, 1 million people celebrated in the streets of Hanoi, and the resistance fighters issued a Declaration of Independence, based on similar documents created by freedom fighters elsewhere. The first words read:
“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.
The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.” Those are undeniable truths.
Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow citizens.
Just as the American colonial leaders listed grievances against the British, so did the Vietnamese against the French: “They have mercilessly slain our patriots, they have drowned uprisings in rivers of blood… They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials… They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty… The whole Vietnamese people…are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.”
In their moment of self-rule, Ho Chi Minh founded the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Of course, to the West this was unacceptable. Powers like France and Britain still held large worldwide colonial empires that benefited them materially. The raw materials of Vietnam would not be willingly given to the Vietnamese. Vietnam could not be allowed to give other Third World colonies ideas concerning freedom.
Britain’s armies quickly occupied the southern region of Vietnam and returned it to France. China took over the northern part of Vietnam, and the United States pressured the Chinese to give it back to France, which it did. Ho Chi Minh wrote letters to President Truman and the United Nations to ask for self-rule, which the U.S. and other Western powers had fought for and promised to the peoples of the world in their Atlantic Charter; he further pleaded for humanitarian aid for his country, which saw some 2 million people die of starvation due to a combination of French policies, natural disasters, and the world war. Truman ignored the letters.
As promised, the Viet Minh went to war with the French. But the French were quite weak from battling Germany during World War II, and when Communist movements suddenly came into power in China (1949) and Korea (1950), the U.S. decided it was time to aid the French. It began pouring weapons and money into Vietnam, by 1954 covering 80% of French war costs.
Did the U.S. want to stop Communism, as the narrative goes?
Certainly, there was fear that more nations would convert to Communism if Vietnam did, but actual democracy and freedom in Vietnam were not a priority of the United States, self-evident from the support of French rule and later the establishment of a brutal dictatorship in South Vietnam. As documented in Part I of the History of Violence Series: Facing U.S. Wars of Aggression, the U.S. was also very interested in keeping open access to Vietnam’s “immense wealth” of rubber, tin, oil, coal, and other raw materials. As Communist states had a pesky habit of nationalizing economic industries, kicking foreign corporations out, and in general maintaining tight control over the resources on their own land (see Part I), Communism was a severe threat to U.S. economic interests. This is not to say the U.S. did not also want to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining another ally — indeed, a closer relationship between Vietnam and the U.S.S.R. would expand the latter’s sphere of influence and access to Vietnam’s natural resources. Limiting the Soviet sphere of influence during this Cold War was highly important to American officials.
Yet the reasons may not even end there. For example, protecting the American image (we’re already involved, we can’t back out now and “lose”) and Washington politics (Republicans vilified Truman for “losing” China, thus Democrats that came after him aimed not to experience the same).
The question to ask ourselves is: Should we use violence to prevent another nation from creating a government we don’t approve of or won’t serve our interests? Even if it’s the will of that nation’s people? Would we think it acceptable for a foreign power, perhaps more democratic than our own, to wage war against us because we devised our own form of government or tried to the elect the “wrong” leader?
Ho Chi Minh was immensely popular and the U.S. government knew it. As an ally to the West during World War II and having based his Declaration of Independence on Western ones, he was also quite open to a relationship with the West. The U.S. Defense Department wrote that
…Ho had built the Viet Minh into the only Vietnam-wide political organization capable of effective resistance to either the Japanese or the French. He was the only Vietnamese wartime leader with a national following, and he assured himself wider fealty among the Vietnamese people when…he overthrew the Japanese…established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and staged receptions for in-coming allied occupation forces… (see Zinn)
In 1947, the State Department noted Ho Chi Minh was “the symbol of nationalism and the struggle for freedom to the overwhelming majority of the population.” It called it an “unpleasant fact” that “Communist Ho Chi Minh is the strongest and perhaps the ablest figure in Indochina” (Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman).
Despite U.S. support, the French lost their war to hold Vietnam in 1954. A peace conference at Geneva determined the French would withdraw to the southern half of the nation immediately, then after two years there would be reunification: North Vietnam would join with South Vietnam and an election would be held to form a new government.
The United States was determined to prevent that. After all, a Joint Chiefs of Staff memo from 1954 declared that “free elections would be attended by almost certain loss…to Communist control” (Zinn). And what was an international peace conference to Washington power?
That was the path the U.S. chose. To prevent an undesirable outcome of free elections, it would go to any means necessary. The U.S. would battle Vietnam’s George Washington and its patriots. The peasants may have defeated the French, but they would surely fall to the whims of the United States of America. And by waging war in a place with mass Communist support among the people, mass killing of civilians was almost the logical path to victory. As a U.S. army officer said of a town in the Ben Tre province, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” (James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me), a way of thinking easily applied to the entire country of Vietnam.
The U.S. government’s first method was to strengthen South Vietnam, make it its own state (the Pentagon Papers explained, “South Viet Nam was essentially a creation of the United States”). But it couldn’t be a democracy. The people supported Ho Chi Minh and unification. What the U.S. needed was a dictator. To quote General Maxwell Taylor, a “satisfactory government” would need to be “established,” perhaps with “a military dictatorship” (Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman).
It selected Ngo Dinh Diem, a former Vietnam government official. It flew him from his home in New Jersey and installed him as South Vietnam’s leader. Diem set about replacing local governors with military officials and imprisoning critics of his regime, one of obscene violence. He was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands, Communist and anti-Communist alike. The largest anti-Communist political group protesting Diem were the Buddhists; they were crushed. The U.S. issued his government weapons and cash, and he rejected the promised elections, requested by Ho Chi Minh, repeatedly. In protest of the dictatorship, a Buddhist monk named Quang Duc burned himself alive in Saigon — he would not be the last.
Nor would Diem be the last dictator the U.S. installed in South Vietnam; he was followed by the likes of Khanh, Thieu, and Ky, all equally dispicable. Replacing leaders the U.S. grew unhappy with usually required U.S.-organized coups.
The Vietnamese understood they had been betrayed, understood the worthlessness of Western promises. In 1958, resistance fighters began a guerrilla war against Diem, with the support of Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam. In 1960, rebels formed the National Liberation Front (called the Viet Cong by the West), which had widespread support among the peasant population. South Vietnam was already falling apart.
In the early 1960s, the U.S. started sending military agents into North Vietnam to commit acts of sabotage. The U.S. had already sent thousands of military advisors into South Vietnam in the 1950s. Between U.S.-installed regimes and U.S. military actions, about 150,000 people had already died before the U.S. land invasion.
President Johnson and his administration, in 1964, invented a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. naval forces to justify a full-scale invasion. After all, as revealed in the Pentagon Papers, when U.S. leaders met in Honolulu two months before the alleged attack to discuss the possibility of war, they recognized that “public opinion on our Southeast Asia policy was badly divided in the United States at the moment and that, therefore, the President needed an affirmation of support.” So, as happened in the past, the government lied to rally the people to its cause.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident was, according to the State, an unprovoked attack on the U.S. destroyer Maddox, “while on routine patrol in international waters.” This was nonsense, of course. The Maddox was actually on a spying mission, in North Vietnamese waters, and no torpedoes were fired at it. Even before this, the CIA had secretly attacked North Vietnamese coastal installations. Johnson told an aide of the Gulf of Tonkin incident: “Those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish” (Loewen).
The lie served Johnson’s purposes. Congress granted him a war resolution, and American bombers attacked North Vietnam while U.S. troops flooded the South (the U.S. also hired hundreds of thousands of mercenaries from Korea and Thailand, also responsible for many atrocities).
1964 to 1975 were years of unimaginable horror. The North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front in the South committed some atrocities, of course, but nothing compared to the better-armed United States.
The U.S. used two to three times as many bombs as used in World War II by all parties — some 7 million tons of bombs (some of these were dropped on Laos and Cambodia, wars the U.S. government tried to keep secret, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people). There were an estimated 20 million bomb craters in Vietnam by the end of the war. The U.S. established “free fire zones,” in which any person, young or old, male or female, was considered an enemy combatant and could be bombed with abandon. Villages suspected of harboring Viet Cong were obliterated.
U.S. troops launched surprise attacks on villages, shooting all males of military age. American and South Vietnamese military officials beat, tortured, and executed prisoners of war and critics of the conflict, Washington, or the South Vietnamese regime; the U.S. financed and set up hundreds of prisons. In places like Con Son prison island, people were kept in chains in “tiger cages” for years, growing paralyzed due to lack of limb use. In the cities, American soldiers enjoyed prostitutes, and in the countryside countless women and girls were raped, including “extremely violent gang rapes, or raping women with inanimate objects like bottles or even rifles.”
Most Americans have heard of the My Lai Massacre of March 16, 1968, when U.S. soldiers entered a small village in the Quang Ngai province, pushed nearly 500 infants, children, women, men, and elderly people into a ditch and mowed them all down. Yet most Americans do not realize that this was standard practice in Vietnam. Colonel Oran Henderson, charged with covering up the My Lai slaughter, said, “Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden someplace” (Zinn). A soldier named John Kerry said killings like My Lai were “not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command” (Loewen).
Kerry described how U.S. soldiers had
raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Kahn, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam…in addition to the normal ravage of war.
GIs even collected and displayed Vietnamese ears as trophies. As Nick Turse put it:
…the way to prove the body count was to bring in an ear. This was a practice in some units. There were incentives tied to body count, winning R&R at a beach resort in country or extra beer, medals, badges…
There was also an active trade in body parts in Vietnam. Ears were worn on necklaces, one ear or maybe even a whole chain of ears. Some guys wore these to show their combat prowess. Others would collect these ears and sell them to people who wanted to project this image. In one unit they were cutting off the heads of enemies, and anyone who presented it to the commander got an extra beer ration. In one case, a sergeant had cut off a head and he boiled the flesh of it, and then traded the skull for a radio.
A soldier wrote back home of an incident (Zinn):
Dear Mom and Dad:
Today we went on a mission and I am not very proud of myself, my friends, or my country. We burned every hut in sight! It was a small rural network of villages and the people were incredibly poor. My unit burned and plundered their meager possessions… We fired into all the huts we could… Everyone is crying, begging, and praying that we don’t separate them and take their husbands and fathers, sons and grandfathers. The women wail and moan.
Then they watch in terror as we burn their homes, personal possessions and food. Yes, we burn all the rice and shoot all the livestock.
I would talk to Vietnamese who would tell me about what it was like just to try and eke out an existence in the war zone. About having their home burned down five, six seven times. And then finally giving up rebuilding and starting to live a semi-subterranean life in their bomb shelter. About how they figured out ways to get out of that shelter, to get water or food or relieve themselves. And how their entire lives were just predicated on figuring out a way not to get killed.
Kerry and many other veterans joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which “exposed the ugly truth about US involvement in Southeast Asia and our first-hand experiences helped many other Americans to see the unjust nature of that war.” The VVAW still exists today, as “our government is still financing and arming undemocratic and repressive regimes around the world. Recently, American troops have been sent into combat in the Middle East and Central America, for many of the same misguided reasons that were used to send us to Southeast Asia.” Several other groups, like the Concerned Officers Movement, also formed and protested the war.
After My Lai, the Army formed the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, whose archives Turse used for his book Kill Everything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. The group, while doing nothing to prevent or punish war crimes, kept records of “massacres, murders, rape, torture, assault, mutilation.”
There was a shorthand in Vietnam: the MGR, or Mere Gook Rule. The idea is that the Vietnamese weren’t real people. They were subhumans. Mere gooks who could be abused or even killed at will. And this is something that was inculcated in troops from the earliest days of training. I talked to a lot of veterans who told me that as soon as they arrived at boot camp, they were told you never call them Vietnamese. You call them gooks, dinks, slants, slopes. Anything to take away their humanity. Anything to make it easier to kill them.
They were told by their superiors that all Vietnamese were likely the enemy. That children might carry grenades, women were probably the wives or girlfriends of guerillas, and they were probably making booby traps.
And even if there were rules of engagement on paper, or little cards handed out saying to treat the Vietnamese properly, the message that they were really given was that it was a lot safer to shoot first because no one was going to ask questions later.
He explained the American strategy:
You would kill your way to victory by piling up Vietnamese bodies, and the Americans were always chasing this crossover point when they would be killing more Vietnamese guerrillas than the enemy could put into the field. And the idea was that at that moment, the enemy would give up the fight…
The troops in the field, they were pressed for bodies. Their commanders were leaning on them heavily. You were told to produce Vietnamese bodies, and if you didn’t you were going to stay out in the field longer. They learned pretty quickly that the command wasn’t discerning about what bodies were turned in, that just about any Vietnamese bodies would do. This pushed American troops toward at least calling in all Vietnamese who were filled as enemies, and also to the killing of detainees and prisoners and civilians, and calling them in as enemy dead.
This coupled with the much higher level of strategic thinking like the use of “free fire zones,” which was basically a legal fiction that the US came up with to open wide swaths of the countryside to unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling. This caused tremendous amounts of death and destruction in the country side. And it opened it up to all this heavy firepower and made it inevitable that large numbers of civilians would be killed or wounded.
In 1966, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton suggested the U.S. turn its attention from bombing villages in North Vietnam to causing mass starvation through attacks on infrastructure:
Destruction of locks and dams, however — if handled right — might…offer promise. It should be studied. Such destruction doesn’t kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after a time to widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided — which we could offer to do “at the conference table”… (Zinn)
Rice fields had long been a target. In 1961 and 1962, Kennedy authorized the use of chemical weapons on South Vietnamese rice fields. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman write in Manufacturing Consent:
Between 1961 and 1971…the U.S. Air Force sprayed 20 million gallons of concentrated arsenic-based and dioxin-laden herbicides (mainly Agent Orange) on 6 million acres of crops and trees, besides using large quantities of the “super tear gas” CS and vast amounts of napalm and phosphorus bombs. An estimated 13 percent of South Vietnam’s land was subjected to chemical attacks. This included 30 percent of its rubber plantations and 36 percent of its mangrove forests, along with other large forest areas, destroyed by toxic chemicals in programs that included multiple “large-scale intentional effort[s] combining defoliation with incendiaries to produce a forest fire in South Vietnam.”
A 1967 study prepared by the head of the Agronomy Section of the Japanese Science Council concluded that U.S. anticrop warfare had already ruined more than 3.8 million acres of arable land in South Vietnam, killing almost 1,000 peasants and over 13,000 livestock. This policy of attempting to force enemy capitulation by destroying its food supply was not only contrary to the rules of war, it was notable in that it “first and overwhelmingly affected small children.”
Among the millions wounded, about 2 million Vietnamese were wounded from exposure to chemical weapons. But most were in the South. Why?
One reason for this was that North Vietnam had a government with links to other countries, so that the use of these barbarous and illegal weapons against it would have been widely publicized. South Vietnam was occupied by the United States and its client regime, so that the victimized people of the South were voiceless and could be treated with unlimited savagery.
With Agent Orange and CS soaked into Vietnam’s soil, trees, and plants, hundreds of thousands of children would be born with often lethal birth defects — this is still occurring today, with photos available for all to see.
Likewise, 16 million acres of Vietnam today contain unexploded bombs and landmines left behind by the United States. Over 40,000 people died from them from 1975 to 2009, including many children.
What was left behind in the United States?
Of course, among some ultraconservatives, a belief that American intentions were pure and noble and — even more disturbing — that the means the U.S. used to meet its goals were “necessary,” even if a “necessary evil.” Clearly, a superpower working to keep poor people who longed for independence under foreign rule and killing millions to ensure they didn’t elect the “wrong” leader or political party (or restrict said superpower’s access to natural resources) would be seen as simply “evil” had the culprit been Vietnam and the victim the United States. Most Americans would suggest that America, even if on the verge of electing leaders that could one day oppress them, should be allowed to take that (possibly benign) risk, as “democracy” would suggest, without other nations deciding to “bomb them into the stone age” (U.S. General Curtis LeMay). But that courtesy was not extended to foreigners. So the United States was the “good guy” that somehow tripped over its own feet on its way to help others.
Some feel our military assault was “not sufficiently severe” (CIA director John McCone, 1965; see Zinn) to subdue the Vietnamese. In other words, if only the U.S. had dropped more bombs, sent more young American men into the bloodbath, killed more of the “enemy.”
Others hold to the idea that the U.S. would have won the war, had the “liberal media” not been so “pessimistic” and “critical,” turning the American people against the government, leading to the mass protests (nevermind the veterans participating in or leading the marches). Manufacturing Consent examines the reporting on the war at the time by the major media and shows that, with extraordinarily rare exceptions, the media supported U.S. government policy, preserving important narratives like that the South Vietnam people supported their U.S.-appointed dictators, even at times ignoring or covering up America’s most horrific crimes (for example, big publications like Life refused to report on My Lai when the story first broke).
And, as one might expect from a nation with so many patriots, detailed reporting on the war often caused popular support for the war to increase, not decrease. For example, conservatives often point to the Tet offensive (a massive Vietnamese counterattack that showed the U.S. had not in any way succeeded in crushing the enemy’s morale) as the best example of media reporting turning the people against the war. However, in early February 1968, the first few weeks of the Tet offensive, public opinion polls showed a shift toward increased American violence, toward the “hawks.” By the summer, when the Tet offensive was over, support for the war weakened.
Finally, comparing internal military documents, opinion polls, and media broadcasts and articles, Manufacturing Consent shows that the military and the common people were convinced long before the media that Vietnam could not be won (as documented above, public opinion was “badly divided” from the beginning). Not that this matters when considering the morality of the U.S. attack on Vietnam — whether the media turned the public against the war is irrelevant.
Despite last-ditch efforts (massive bombings called a “pacification campaign” by the State and the media), the U.S., with no victory in sight and its population near rebellion against the war, was forced to withdraw its military in 1975. North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front forces overwhelmed the last South Vietnam regime and captured Saigon.
They renamed it Ho Chi Minh City.
The United States lost about 60,000 soldiers in the war; hundreds of thousands more were maimed or cursed with PTSD. It is estimated that 3 million people perished in Vietnam, mostly civilians. We do not know for sure, because we do not count the bodies of our victims.