Fifty years ago in August, the US contrived an incident that led to the escalation of the US war on Vietnam. That incident, known historically as the Gulf of Tonkin incident, was said to involve an unprovoked attack by northern Vietnamese forces on two US Navy boats. As it turned out, the Vietnamese were repeatedly provoked before the incident and the US had fired first. Nonetheless, Lyndon Johnson and the US Congress used the events as a reason to intensify the war on the Vietnamese. Like so many times since, the rush to war swept all dissent aside. Only two legislators spoke out against the resolution that would lead to over fifty thousand US deaths, a couple million Vietnamese deaths and untold environmental destruction. Within days, US bombers were dropping bombs on the Vietnamese across the countryside, more US troops were on their way, and the future was looking great for the merchants of death and the generals that serve them.
Forty years ago in August, the US war on the Vietnamese was still going on. The number of US troops on the ground was considerably smaller than those numbers in 1964, while the number of total deaths on all sides continued to accumulate. The war had taken down one US president—LBJ, while his successor, Richard Nixon, had ridden his unfulfilled promise to end it to two electoral victories. However, Nixon’s obsession with destroying those who opposed his plans for the war and the rest of the world would lead to a criminal undertaking called Watergate and his abdication and downfall. In fact, this abdication (or resignation, as US historians prefer to call it), took place on the ninth day of that August forty years ago. In what remains a singular event in US history, Richard Nixon became the only president to resign in order to avoid impeachment. The remaining US agents, military and diplomatic staff would flee Vietnam less than a year later. The US body politic would never recover from that conflict or the presidencies of the men who ran it.
As the US remembers (or forgets to remember) these two moments, it seems appropriate to examine what lessons it may have learned. Tragically, the lessons learned are the wrong ones. Instead of making the process of entering military and waging military conflict more open and accountable, the US way of making war has become more secretive and even less accountable than before. Armed drones, black ops, illegal funding and mercenary forces beholden to no law; these are Washington’s answers to the experience of the Vietnam War and the protests against it. From the drug smuggling and sales that funded the contras in Washington’s illegal war in Nicaragua to the use of advisors and mercenaries in Ukraine, Afghanistan and a number of African nations, not to mention murder by drone in Pakistan and Yemen, the US presence around the globe has only grown in magnitude and deceit. This is the lesson learned then—to deceive and deny until nobody asks anymore; until the press is so compliant it serves as a public relations wing of the Pentagon, putting the propaganda of more authoritarian governments to shame.
This is the lesson learned. When combined with a citizenry so cynical and mistrusting of its government that it either avoids its manifestations at any cost or votes in politicians expressing a similar distrust while taking advantage of every advantage that government offers, the powerful only become more so. While the populace recovered from Vietnam and Watergate, many of the abuses revealed by those stains of history quietly became legal. No longer would domestic spying by the NSA or covert ops by the CIA be forbidden. Thus, when such acts were uncovered in the future, there would be no legal recourse left for those who still cared to take such recourse. Today, some yell in anger while drones kill and humans sit in prisons with no hope of ever seeing freedom again. Civil liberties that the contrived fear of communism could not destroy have fallen to the even more contrived fear of an undefined “terrorism.” The citizenry devour news that isn’t news, spend money they don’t have, vote for politicians that claim to hate politics, and take the ideology of the super- rich as their won.
Battles the left thought they had won against racism and war are being waged again, only now the realities are hidden behind a screen of post-racialism and the defense of home. A non-white president presides over a resurgence of systemic white racism and a never ending war against other non-white peoples around the world. Working people watch the gains made by their predecessors disintegrate in the name of austerity while the rich and powerful grow even more rich and powerful. There is no genuine opposition, not in the streets and certainly not in the electoral process. Indeed, it seems like every movement that rises up in opposition either becomes its opposite by accepting the power elites’ rules of opposition or is ruthlessly quashed, leaving only defeated individuals and disempowered organizations.
It is too easy to blame Richard Nixon and the war Washington lost on his watch for everything that has followed in the United States. However, to deny the role these historical signifiers played would be dishonest and naïve. Even worse would be to draw incorrect conclusions from their meaning. Unfortunately, it appears that the US has chosen to do exactly that.