Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has discovered that the Vietnam War was not really about stopping communism. That was an emotional delusion. The Vietnam War, he writes, was about anti-colonial nationalism, what the Vietnamese called liberation from a French/American military yoke. When the Vietnamese beat the French, its patron, the United States of America, took up that militarist yoke. Then it took the Vietnamese 21 more years of terrible slaughter before the Americans gave it up.
That’s the narrative Friedman has recognized. The pathetic irony is that the Vietnamese admired America and loved the Americans they fought with during World War Two against the Japanese. The 1945 decision to turn against our WWII ally has to be one of the saddest betrayals in world history.
I’m a Vietnam veteran. I was a young radio direction finder in the military operations in the mountains west of Pleiku along the Cambodian border. My job was to locate radio operators so our forces could use all available means of mechanized death to destroy entire Vietnamese units and anyone else who got in the way. I didn’t discover what Friedman has discovered until the late seventies, after maturing and reading a host of highly respected books of history. Before that, I had been a good American and had dutifully accepted the national narrative lie that the evil North Vietnamese had without provocation invaded the innocent nation of South Vietnam.
As a good, pliant soldier I learned to hate the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong guerrillas. We called them gooks, dinks, zips and slopes. We treated all Vietnamese like dogs. We killed them up close and in great numbers. We killed between two and three million of them. They managed to kill 58,000 of us. More on both sides were maimed; families were destroyed; and in Vietnam many thousands simply went missing, doomed to wander as improperly buried ghosts. We destroyed without a thought; we ecologically poisoned much of the land. The legacy is horrible.
While it took me a while to come to this realization, the American and International Peace Movement had figured out the anti-colonial meta-narrative long before all the killing began. Some say President Franklin Roosevelt was inclined to support the anti-colonial, nationalist impulse Friedman has recognized. Thanks to a cerebral hemorrhage, we’ll never know what FDR might have done. Harry Truman, the senator from Missouri put on the ticket to replace the controversial left-leaning VP Henry Wallace, had little sympathy for these anti-colonial, nationalist impulses. He was influenced by the rising Cold War fears. The decision in 1945 to support French re-colonization turned out to be a choice for 30 years of the cruelest sort of war on the Vietnamese. As Friedman’s revelation suggests, it didn’t have to happen.
What caused the capitalist cheerleader Friedman to see the history differently was a recent visit to Vietnam where he was “love bombed by Vietnamese, who told me how much they admire America.” He was in Vietnam, no doubt, to see how globalization and capitalism is doing there. What he saw there made him think of the history: “I couldn’t help but ask myself: ‘How did we get this country so wrong?’ ”
Where the United States went wrong, he realizes, was in “failing to understand that the core political drama of Vietnam was an indigenous nationalist struggle against colonial rule.”
As I read Friedman over morning coffee, I found myself laughing out loud and exclaiming to the empty room, “No shit, Sherlock!” Not only was Thomas Friedman conceding the anti-Vietnam War Peace Movement had been correct (of course he would never actually say this) he adds that the government of South Vietnam was “often seen as corrupt and illegitimate.” It was “seen” that way because it was “corrupt and illegitimate.” South Vietnam was a creature of US policy created to foment a civil war after US leaders effectively undermined unifying elections agreed to in Geneva for 1956. Why did they do this? It was clear from polls that Ho Chi Minh was going to sweep the elections in a landslide of at least 80 percent.
Friedman will understandably only go so far; he’s too careful to point out that the reason the South Vietnamese government was so “corrupt and illegitimate” was because the entire US policy was that way: dishonest, underhanded and thoroughly disdainful of democracy. Friedman’s point is the recognition that getting “this country so wrong” meant we had no chance of prevailing. Ward Just, a reporter in Vietnam during the war, put it best in a forward written in 2000 to a book called To What End he’d first published in 1968. “Of course the war was unwinnable. It was useless to fight the Vietnamese. They would have fought for a thousand years. The vast, humid, unquiet land of Vietnam was a leviathan that swallowed everyone up.” Just compares the US in Vietnam to Melville’s doomed whaling ship “adrift on ‘a masculine sea.’”
If American education was not such a regimented system intent on socializing kids into a corporate, national-security state, and, instead, our schools put a greater emphasis on instilling in our kids real critical thinking, then Americans would all know this history of the Vietnam War. There would be no reason to discourage it and overburden it with propaganda; the real history is not a secret. Instead the difficult truth is relegated to the margins, except in the rare case of someone like Friedman stumbling onto this truth in 2014 because it coincides with his interests for better relations with Vietnam as a balance against China in the coming capitalist wars.
What Friedman calls a US failure of perception, I would call a crime of deed. This crime is at the root of a movement of Vietnam vets and others that I’m part of called Full Disclosure. The point is to set the public record straight. Full Disclosure is up against a well-funded government program called the Vietnam War Commemoration Project that avoids the unpleasant history and focuses on recognizing the sacrifices and bravery of US soldiers in Vietnam. It has a website, encourages local events and gives out plaques to supporters of their version of the war. The budget realities between these two elements is what the military likes to call asymmetrical. They have gobs of tax money, while we have a few nickels to rub together.
The meaning of the Vietnam War is a big deal among Vietnam veterans. It’s not surprising there are two distinct views among these veterans. Those like myself have given up defending anything about the war. It’s simply indefensible. Still, it’s important to recognize bravery and sacrifice. Even in a bad war. I know a Vietnam veteran who thinks like me who earned a silver star for an incredibly brave act. I know Vietnam veterans who suffered physical wounds and terrible trauma for what was done to them and, equally as important, what they did to the Vietnamese.
The issue is institutionalized national blinders meant to shut out the unpleasant history of the war. Friedman has helped open this up by recognizing that the Vietnamese were fighting a war of liberation against us. The image of throwing off a yoke is key. My dictionary includes the following metaphoric definition for yoke: “something that is regarded as oppressive or burdensome: the yoke of imperialism.” (Italics in the original.)
The most amazing aspect of Friedman’s column on Vietnam is its linkage to the current war against ISIS, or The Islamic State rooted in Iraq’s Anbar Province. Referring to the fundamental misperception of our leaders concerning Vietnam, he says, “something loosely akin to this is afoot in Iraq.”
In the spirit of Cold War fears, he characterizes ISIS as “a fearsome ideological movement that triggers emotional reactions” like communists did in the 40s, 50s and 60s. But does this emotional trigger “mask a deeper underlying nationalist movement that is to some degree legitimate and popular in its context?”
Given very real echoes of Joseph McCarthy fear-mongering in 2014, this is an amazing question for a mainstream journalist to ask. If there is a “legitimate” nationalistic basis for the ISIS movement — in this case one that goes all the way back to World War One and the 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty that carved up the Middle East for European colonial powers — is our military obsession with Islamic fundamentalism off-base just like Friedman says our military obsession with Vietnam was off base because we weren’t seeing the deeper real issues at play?
This is getting at the real core historic issues that drive our wars. Or as was Friedman’s point, I think, it’s such deeper, misperceived issues that make our wars ultimately unwinnable and virtually endless — because they aren’t really about what they seem to be about emotionally.
We will lose Friedman at this point as we delve too deeply into the meta-narratives driving the emotional Middle East quandary.
For example, if we can recognize the anti-colonial, nationalistic truth about the Vietnam War in order to finally move on and if we can even apply that to ISIS and see it as an anti-imperial, nationalistic response to history and, specifically, our invasion and occupation of Iraq, might we apply that anti-colonial reality to other crises?
Might it be applied to something like the Israel/Palestine impasse? Sure, that’s a hot button — maybe the hottest one there is right now. Still, if, as Friedman says, we got Vietnam so dead wrong over a failure to see the historic impact of colonialism and the concomitant nationalistic impulses of the Vietnamese, why can’t we ask the same questions concerning Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinian people?
Palestine was part of a region colonized by Europeans. With the endorsement of the United States and others, Britain passed its mandate of control over Palestine to Zionist Jews. In this process of making whole the Jewish people who had been so horribly decimated by European Christians in Europe were legitimate nationalistic impulses of native Arab peoples ignored and trampled on? Is this why the Israel/Palestine struggle is so intractable? The argument given against the validity of such a narrative reality is to completely ignore it and to present a Darwinian narrative of ethnic struggle and eternal violence. It comes down to winners and losers.
It is said history moves in a dialectic manner: thesis engages with an antithesis and we get a synthesis, which becomes a new thesis, etc, etc. Parting-of-the-fog recognitions like Friedman’s are important in this process. If an American consensus could finally get the Vietnam War right and see it less as a moment of glory to desperately hold onto and more as a cautionary tale as to what to avoid, the United States might liberate itself a bit and be freer to move forward. All it took for Friedman, the champion of globalization, was “a week of being love-bombed by [the] Vietnamese,” who some of us once wanted to bomb back to the stone age.
Getting free of past quagmires only requires a different state of mind. Without conceding anything in the area of authentic self-defense, in the final analysis, Friedman’s recognition about Vietnam shows the long-range wisdom of the peace movement’s familiar chant, Make Love Not War.
The two images, here, were taken from the front pages of two websites focused on the meaning of the Vietnam War. They are meant to characterize the differing emphases of the two informational websites. The one at left is from the government’s well-funded site for its Vietnam War Commemoration Project. It shows a local event in which the Pennsylvania National Guard was awarded an official Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Flag (behind the men) and other items like the framed photograph, which reveals a rather serene image of a commercial airliner of the time in a simpatico relationship with a Vietnamese farmer. The photograph on the right is from the Full Disclosure website and shows a quite different image of Vietnamese peasants. It’s what’s off camera and what has caused such horror to be registered on the faces of these peasants that Full Disclosure members feel needs to be put into the public record.