Lessons from the Vietnam War

By John Marciano

Forty years after the American war in Vietnam ended in 1975, the central and most critical issue is the “struggle for memory”, an ideological war over the most accurate and truthful story of the conflict. Whose ideas about the war will prevail?


The Vietnam War was an example of imperial aggression. According to historian Michael Parenti: “Imperialism is what empires are all about. Imperialism is what empires do,” as “one country brings to bear…economic and military power upon another country in order to expropriate [its] land, labour, natural resources, capital and markets.” Imperialism ultimately enriches the home country’s dominant class. The process involves “unspeakable repression and state terror”, and must rely repeatedly “upon armed coercion and repression”. The ultimate aim of modern US imperialism is “to make the world safe” for multinational corporations. When discussing imperialism, “the prime unit of analysis should be the economic class rather than the nation-state”.1

US imperial actions in Vietnam and elsewhere are often described as reflecting “national interests”, “national security”, or “national defense”. Endless US wars and regime changes, however, actually represent the class interests of the powerful who own and govern the country. Noam Chomsky argues that if one wishes to understand imperial wars, therefore, “it is a good idea to begin by investigating the domestic social structure. Who sets foreign policy? What interest do these people represent? What is the domestic source of their power?”2


The United States Committed War Crimes, Including Torture

The war was waged “against the entire Vietnamese population”, designed to terrorise them into submission. The United States “made South Vietnam a sea of fire as a matter of policy, turning an entire nation into a target. This is not accidental but intentional and intrinsic to the US’s strategic and political premises.” In such an attack “against an entire people…barbarism can be the only consequence of [U.S.] tactics”, conceived and organised by “the true architects of terror”, the “respected men of manners and conventional views who calculate and act behind desks and computers rather than in villages in the field”.3 The US abuse of Vietnamese civilians and prisoners of war was strictly prohibited by the Geneva Convention, which the United States signed. US officials and media pundits continue to assert that torture is a violation of “our values”. This is not true. Torture is as American as apple pie, widely practiced in wars and prisons.


Washington Lied

The war depended on government lies. Daniel Ellsberg exposed one such lie that had a profound impact on the eventual course of the conflict: the official story of the Tonkin Gulf crisis of August 1964. President Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told the public that the North Vietnamese, for the second time in two days, had attacked US warships on “routine patrol in international waters”; that this was clearly a “deliberate” pattern of “naked aggression”; that the evidence for the second attack, like the first, was “unequivocal”; that the attack had been “unprovoked”; and that the United States, by responding in order to deter any repetition, intended no wider war. All of these assurances were untrue.4

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John Marciano 
attended the first Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) March against the American War in Vietnam on April 17, 1965 – and was a founding member of the SDS chapter at SUNY Buffalo. Professor Emeritus at SUNY Cortland, he has written a number of books and chapters dealing with the American War in Vietnam: Teaching the Vietnam War with Willliam L. Griffen, Foreword by Howard Zinn, 1979; Civic Illiteracy and Education, 1997 (with an endorsement by Noam Chomsky); “Civic Literacy at Its Best: The ‘Democratic Distemper’ of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS),” in Defending Public Schools, 2004; “Civic Illiteracy and American History Textbooks: The U.S.-Vietnam War,” in Critical Civic Literacy: A Reader; and The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration?, Monthly Review Press, 2016. He was chair of the Tompkins County (Ithaca, NY) Human Rights Commission (1991-96).

1. Michael Parenti’s argument here is a synthesis of “What Do Empires Do?” 2010, http://michaelparenti.org, and Against Empire (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995), 23. Parenti documents this history in great detail in a number of other books, includingThe Face of Imperialism,Profit Pathology and Other Indecencies, andThe Sword and the Dollar. In a note to the author, Noam Chomsky cautioned about reading the general argument about imperialism too narrowly; it was sufficient as “a general statement on imperialism, but…misleading about Vietnam. It will be read as though the US wanted to exploit Vietnam’s resources…. The concern was the usual one (Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, others) that successful independent development in Vietnam might inspire others to follow the same course.”
2. Noam Chomsky,Towards a New Cold War (New York: New Press, 2003), 6, 93, 98. It is a testament to the strength of the dominant view of American foreign policy that Chomsky, an internationally renowned scholar and intellectual, was virtually unknown to nearly all of the more than six thousand students I taught over the course of thirty-one years at the State University of New York, Cortland. Some had heard of him, but it was rare to find a student who had read any of his writings. In addition to Chomsky’s many books, readers should examine William Blum,Rogue State (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 2000) and G. William Domhoff,Who Rules America? (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013).
3. Gabriel Kolko, “War Crimes and The Nature of the Vietnam War,” in Richard Falk, Gabriel Kolko, and Robert Jay Lifton, eds.,Crimes of War (New York: Vintage, 1971), 412–13; Kolko, “On the Avoidance of Reality,”Crimes of War, 15.
4. Daniel Ellsberg,Secrets (New York: Penguin, 2002), 12.
5. Christian Appy,Working Class War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 253.
6. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York City, available at http://commondreams.org.
7. Edward Morgan,What Really Happened to the 1960s (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2010), 76; Daniel S. Lucks,Selma to Saigon (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky Press, 2014), 203.
8. New York Times, April 7, 1967;Washington Post, April 6, 1967.
9. Michael Gillen, “Roots of Opposition: The Critical Response to U.S. Indochina Policy, 1945–1954,” Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1991, 122.
10. Robert Buzzanco, “The American Military’s Rationale against the Vietnam War,”Political Science Quarterly 101, no. 4 (1986): 571.
11. W. D. Ehrhart,Passing Time (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989), 161–62.
12. Penny Lewis,Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks (Ithaca, NY: ILR, 2013), 4, 7.
13. Lewis,Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks, 45.
14. Lewis,Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks, 92; Lucks,Selma to Saigon, 3.
15. Kirkpatrick Sale,SDS (New York: Random House, 1973), 514, 48.
16. D. Michael Shafer, “The Vietnam Combat Experience: The Human Legacy,” inThe Legacy: The Vietnam War in the American Imagination (Boston: Beacon, 1992), 97.
17. Quoted in Michael Bolton and Kevin Sim,Four Hours in My Lai(New York: Viking, 1992), 371.
18. Jonathan Schell, “Comment,”New Yorker, December 20, 1969, 27.
19. Nick Turse, “Misremembering America’s Wars, 2003–2054,” TomDispatch, February 18, 2014, http://tomdispatch.com.
20. Kolko, “War Crimes,” 414; “Avoidance,” 12.
21. Kendrick Oliver,The My Lai Massacre in American History and Memory (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006), 8–9.
22. Quoted in Erwin Knoll and Judith Nies McFadden,War Crimes and the American Conscience (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), 71.
23. Arthur Westing, “Return to Vietnam: The Legacy of Agent Orange,” lecture at Yale University, April 26, 2002; Westing,Ecological Consequences of the Second Indochina War (Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 1974), 22.
24. Greg Grandin, “The War to Start All Wars: The 25th Anniversary of the Forgotten Invasion of Panama,” TomDispatch, December 23, 2014. See also Grandin’s excellentEmpire’s Workshop (New York: Metropolitan), 2006.
25. Barbara Salazar Torreon,Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798–2014 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Office, 2014).
26. Nguyen Thi Binh, “The Vietnam War and Its Lessons,” in Christopher Goscha and Maurice Vaisse, eds.,The Vietnam War and Europe 1963–1973 (Brussels: Bruylant, 2003), 455–56.
27. Jerry Lembcke, “Why Students Should Stop Interviewing Vietnam Veterans,” History News Network, May 27, 2013, http://historynewsnetwork.org.
28. Noam Chomsky, “Thoughts on Intellectuals and the Schools,”Harvard Educational Review 36, no. 4 (1966): 485.

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