A Fly’s View of America’s War against Vietnam

Introduction: Landing on the Table,1976

Who won which war?

After 40 years there remains no easy answer to this question or better said, there are at least as many answers as there were wars.

In 2005 at a US State Department conference held in combination with the publication of the FRUS volumes covering the US war, Barry Zorthian said in an exchange with Marvin Kalb, “I say to you there is no single Vietnam War.”1 He did not count them or name the others. Nonetheless it may be useful to reformulate the question: who won which war in Vietnam?

When I was about 16 years old I wrote a term paper for my English class and asked the question “why did the US lose the war in Vietnam?” That was in 1976. I had a very simple conclusion after reading the books and whatever elements of the Congressional Record I could find in the county library: The US had no war aims that it was capable of attaining with the means at its disposal.

However, growing up as a virtual “Navy brat” I still thought until 1975 that I would graduate and land in a jungle full of booby traps and snipers like those depicted in John Wayne’s fake film, The Green Berets.2 In other words, as a pubescent young man I unknowingly shared the view of many hard-core policymakers and combatants—this war would not end anywhere in the near future.

Yet the scenes of retreat I too saw on television in April 1975 did not mean much more to me than that I would not end up dead on some jungle patrol. I confess I never believed that communism was on our doorstep. I had begun to read some military history and nothing could convince me that Russians could march across the Bering Strait or land on the beach of the coastal island where I lived and send us all to gulags. I had read Solzhenitsyn and that all struck me as terribly Russian and very, very far away.3 What we arrogantly call civilisation in the West never seemed to me in immanent danger—except perhaps from people like my school principal and the corrupt teachers that worked for him. Maybe something had gone wrong with my indoctrination, I mean education, since despite years in one of the most reactionary parts of the US I did not acquire the endemic paranoid-schizophrenia that passes for political culture in North America between the St. Lawrence and the Rio Bravo.

I had an uncle who was unwittingly abused both physically and mentally after at least three tours in Thailand, before he retired from the air force. The rest of the family seemed to have been left largely unscathed, either too old or too young (like me) to have been sucked into the venal vortex of viciousness (pardon my retort to Spiro Agnew’s infamous alliteration).4 That—at least in 1976—was “my Vietnam war”.

However, I do not think that does justice to Mr Zorthian’s remark. If there was more than one Vietnam War, what did he mean? Historical scholarship distinguishes formally between the first and second war in Indochina. The first war was waged against the French and the second against the United States. Despite the chronological convenience that implies I think it is far more accurate to speak about at least four wars in Vietnam. I will try to describe them briefly and then elaborate possible answers to the questions this framework implies.

The most obvious one is the invasion and occupation of Vietnam by the US regime in violation of its sovereignty and the dignity of its people. This invasion began well before US Marines landed near Da Nang.5 It began with the decision of the country’s white settler elite to use covert and clandestine means to prevent the implementation of the Geneva Accords by which the French had to concede control of Vietnam to the people who had lived there for thousands of years and who had been exploited for the previous century by French and Japanese conquerors.6

Then there was a second Vietnam War. That was the war most people in the US remember, whether from numerous tours as soldiers or as television viewers. This was the daily violence on an unimaginable scale guided by numbing bureaucratic processes that seemed to reduce the mass murder to soporific tedium. It was the war that sent mainly African-Americans and poor whites to kill “gooks” ostensibly to protect rights they scarcely enjoyed at home.7 It was the war that turned a brief period of post-war (WWII) prosperity into an unending autorotation from which most of the working population of the US never recovered.

The third Vietnam War is the covert war waged against the peoples of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia—with “collateral damage” in the US itself. Much more needs to be said about this war since it remains largely hidden in the swamp of deniability.

Finally there was the fourth Vietnam War: the unrelenting hostility combined with all the available systemic weapons deployed since 1975 in order to both punish and further exploit the Vietnamese people while expanding the covert terror system developed in the third Vietnam War. This was the continuation of the “Big Picture”, the crusade that began as early as 1776 when the “white man’s empire” declared its unilateral independence from Great Britain.8

Having named the wars concerned it might be possible to ask why they were waged, who won—if anyone, and what lessons were learned or not. Without counting how often all sorts of clever folks have repeated the adage about “learning from history”, Tolstoy wrote more than a century ago that nobody has ever been persuaded by mere words.9 As long as the “lessons” people talk about do not go beyond talk, nothing at all will be learned. But even this assertion must be qualified because lessons have been learned from the war against Vietnam. Unfortunately these lessons are not for everybody and they are rarely discussed in open. This suggests in itself that despite all the talk, the very people who were supposed to have opposed the war against Vietnam have learned the least from history.

  1. The Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), is the official documentary record of US foreign policy published by the US Department of State (Office of the Historian). Barry Zorthian (1920-2010) was head of USIA in Saigon and press spokesman for the US mission in Vietnam from 1964 until 1968. The American Experience in Southeast Asia 1946-1975, Washington, DC 29-30 September 2010 []
  2. The Green Berets (1968) was a film directed by and starring John Wayne, seen by him as advocacy for the US war effort in Vietnam. Nominally based on a book of the same title by Robin Moore about his experience with the US Special Forces at Fort Bragg and in Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group, the film was utterly panned even in the New York Times (Renata Adler, 20 June 1968). []
  3. The Gulag Archipelago was published in 1974. []
  4. Probably the most well-known of the alliterative remarks made by US Vice President Agnew, attributed to William Safire, was his calling liberals “nattering nabobs of negativism” in an address delivered to California state Republican convention held in San Diego in 1970. []
  5. US Marines were landed at Da Nang on 8 March 1965. []
  6. The Geneva Agreements of 1954 ended the First Indochina War. Central provisions were a ceasefire, withdrawal of French troops. French Indochina was split into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Vietnam was temporarily divided along the 17th parallel until elections could be held. The French “shell company”, the Republic of Vietnam, was managed by first by Bao Dai and then Ngo Dinh Diem from Saigon when the US took over. Ho Chi Minh led the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from Hanoi. The US did not sign the agreement and did not consider itself bound by its terms. []
  7. 28 April 1967, heavyweight-boxing champion Mohammed Ali (aka Cassius Clay) refused to accept his draft into the US Army to be sent to Vietnam. He explained: Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and de8.  nied simple human rights?… “ []
  8. The Big Picture was a series of US Army propaganda films broadcast by ABC-TV from 1951-1964. The unilateral declaration of independence in 1776 arguably aimed to preserve chattel slavery and free the British colonies in North America to expand beyond the boundaries set by the 1763 Treaty of Paris. See Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776 (2014). The term “white settler-colonial regime” was popularised in Left criticism of white supremacist states in Southern Africa (esp. Rhodesia, Mozambique, South Africa). However the term can be and has been applied to describe the US regime, e.g. in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014). []
  9. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869). []

Dr T.P. Wilkinson writes, teaches History and English, directs theatre and coaches cricket between the cradles of Heine and Saramago. He is also the author of Church Clothes, Land, Mission and the End of Apartheid in South Africa (Maisonneuve Press, 2003). Read other articles by T.P..