Vietnam Blues

There have been several histories of the US war in Vietnam by US writers. Very few of them have stood the test of time. Marilyn Young’s Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 and Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy stand out in my mind as two that have, even though their approach and focus differ greatly. Other texts on the subject have their highs and lows and certainly deserve to be read by those who have the time. In addition, there are books that cover specific elements of that historical period. Some cover the antiwar movement and others cover the military aspects of the war from both sides. Others look at what the war was like for soldiers in the US military and others look at life as a member of the NLF or northern Vietnamese forces.

Into this heady and well-populated milieu steps Joe Allen’s recently published Vietnam: The (Last) War the US Lost. This book is a comprehensive history of the US movement against the war in Vietnam, the revolutionary upsurge that sprang up in the wake of that movement’s growth and Washington’s refusal to end the war, and the eventual end of the war and the movement against it. Utilizing a multitude of sources, Allen’s history is unique in its methodology in that it takes the war, its conduct by the US military, and the antiwar movement as an interconnected whole. While definitely written from a perspective that not only considered the war to be wrong, but also as part of a foreign policy that can be described only as imperialism, Allen’s book is not a diatribe. Instead, it is a reasoned and researched description of the US involvement in the French attempts to maintain its empire, the eventual assumption of the French role by Washington for its own reasons, and the development of the largest and most effective movement against war in US history.

With an ear attuned to the shifting nature of western empires in the wake of World War Two and the important struggles of the period by peoples seeking their independence from those empires, the reader of Vietnam: The (Last) War the US Lost is taken from the battlefield of Dien Bienphu to the streets of Washington, DC and provided a narrative that saliently connects the resistance to US imperialism in both venues. Many liberal histories of the period do their best to obfuscate any connections between the antiwar and civil rights movements in the United States. Allen does the opposite, not only proving the clear links that existed between the two phenomenon, but clearly explaining why the connection was historically impossible to avoid.

Besides addressing the interconnectedness of the US struggles against the war and for civil rights and black liberation in the US, Allen places the US antiwar movement within the international movement against US imperialism and for revolutionary nationalism. In addition, Allen takes a look at the prevailing myths about the US working class and the war and argues persuasively that the popular perception of the white working class’s reactionary and prowar stance is at best a half-truth. Citing various polling data and actions undertaken by union locals and individuals, Allen makes a case that by 1969 members of the white working class were more solidly against the war than almost any other demographic in the US outside of blacks and college students.

Although Allen does not mention the current US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until the book’s last chapter, it is difficult to read Vietnam: The (Last) War the US Lost without thinking about those quagmires. Both countries have an occupation government propped up by the US that have at times talked with opposition groups and individuals in the hopes that their government will survive; both are badgered by a US government intent on staying in the country despite even the puppet government’s opposition to the idea. To top it off, both occupations have also featured US GIs refusing to go on missions because in their understanding they have no real reason to be doing what they are doing. Yet, Washington continues to prevail, bankrupting the US national treasury and leaving death in its wake. Furthermore, the once thriving US antiwar movement has become a collection of groups waging occasionally noisy protests while too much of its leadership kisses the Democratic Party’s ass, futilely hoping that its elected representatives will vote against Washington’s interests without being pushed against the wall. (A note of hope does exist in the upcoming National Assembly to End the War in Iraq —Ron).

Writing history is a challenge. Given the aversion of so many people to reading it, the historian begins their task with the question as to how they can make their final work inviting enough to reach those with an aversion to history texts. Joe Allen succeeds with Vietnam: The (Last) War the US Lost. It is accessible where so many other books on the subject have not been. Furthermore, its comprehensiveness helps make sense of an often confusing historical period. Friends of mine who teach history to high school and college undergraduates often bemoan the lack of texts on this period that are written so that their students will read them. With Allen’s new release, I think they have found their book. Of course, this recommendation does not preclude those not in school from reading this perceptive and unique history.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas said on June 30th, 2008 at 6:24am #

    i guess we all were losers. some plutocrats were winners.
    the ratio of death harvest may have been 60td- 3mns in favor of US.
    and US invasion of s.e. asia wasn’t wrong/mistake but a crime.
    wars against iraq/afgh’n are not wrong/mistakes but crimes.
    but in US where nearly everyone is just left of hitler/mussolini, US wars r labeled “mistakes” or “wrong”
    i guess when a tot tells her mommie, No, i won’t, one can say the tot is wrong or mistaken.
    but if one robs/ beats s’mone that’s called a “crime”.
    thank u

  2. Binh said on June 30th, 2008 at 7:07am #

    I was always surprised at the inclusion of the word “Last” in the title – shouldn’t it be “First”?

  3. messianicdruid said on June 30th, 2008 at 7:45am #

    I think his meaning is that Vietnam was the last WAR, since everything since have been called “police actions” or some other weasel-word. The VFW would not allow veitnam vets admission for years {until they started dieing off and their membership dropped precipitously} on the basis that these were not “declared wars”. Now many Vietnam Vets won’t have anything to do with them because of their past hypocrisy.

  4. evie said on June 30th, 2008 at 8:36am #

    Vietnam vets have been eligible for admission since 1962 in the VFW. Many VN vets themselves stayed away from VFW b/c of the anti-war and social climate of the time. Korea war vets were more likely to join VFW b/c they were of a different breed and era.

    Almost all the leaders today of VFW are Vietnam vets, and VFW lobbies for veterans.

    I heard a VN vet say he wouldn’t join b/c a member told him he didn’t fight in a real war. But that’s what my WWII vet uncles told my Korea vet uncles too. And when our family vets get together, Army, AF, and Marines – each branch gives the other a lot of crap about who is best and who is real.

    VFW as an organization did not mistreat VN vets.

    It was the American sheople and their reps who treated Vietnam vets like shit for years b/c there was no gratitude, parades, etc.and they were “baby killers” and terrorists – the same brush some on the left today try to paint Iraq/Afghan vets with.

  5. Erroll said on June 30th, 2008 at 11:16am #

    Evie’s comments are confusing if not bizarre. Is she saying that soldiers who had returned from Vietnam should have been showered with praise for what they witnessed and/or participated in while in Vietnam? She complains that there was no “gratitude” given to returning veterans from Vietnam. This is the same knee-jerk response that I get from people who thank me for serving in Vietnam. After keeping buried what I went through over there for many years, I finally realized and acknowledged that I had contributed to the deaths of many innocent Vietnamese people. The last thing that I wish to hear is that I should be thanked for doing what I did to those wretched people.

    Her comments are similar to what many on the left, as well as the right do, and that is to apparently confuse or conflate being victims with being heroes. I submit that there is nothing heroic about invading and occupying another country, whether that country is Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Why in the world would one want to hold a parade for those who helped and aided in the subjugation of another country? Miss Evie may want to read the transcripts of those soldiers who participated in the Winter Soldier hearings of 1971 and the more recent one that took place a few months ago. If she were to do so, she would discover that there is nothing for Americans to be proud of regarding the military service of those who served in places like Vietnam and the Middle East.

    Those who should be thanked and who should have parades given in their honor are those soldiers, such as the ones shown in the powerful documentary Sir! No Sir!, who had the courage to say no to taking part in the oppression of the Vietnamese people. Their equivalent today are the members of the IVAW, who have likewise said NO the illegal orders that they were given regarding the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

    To reiterate, soldiers who have had the misfortune of being in a combat zone should not thanked or have people express gratitude [for what, killing people?] but rather lamented, because they had ended up being placed in an abattoir by their leaders. All the more reason for soldiers today to say NO to the illegal orders that they are given by their uncaring government.

  6. evie said on June 30th, 2008 at 11:51am #

    All wars are contrived for profit, all wars kill innocents. That’s not reason enough for me to piss on the troops that serve.

    WW I and WWII were no different than Korea, VN, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Iraq. Anglos fund, support, create the designated monster and then wage war. How the sheople view a particular war is all in the packaging, marketing.

    US troops in WWII committed horrendous acts on innocents – but you didn’t dishonor your fathers and grandfathers – you made them the “greatest generation.”

    I did not say anyone should be showered with praise. I said the public and the era treated the returning VN vets differently than in previous wars, which didn’t help the VN vets any at all on returning to civilian life. They shamed them rather than helping them, until Ronnie Raygun and Hollywood movies made VN vets “popular”.

    Do you ever wonder why US wars in the last 45 years are setups for failure? Do you really believe the US could not have succeeded in VN, or succeed in Afghan/Iraq if it honestly wanted to?

  7. Erroll said on June 30th, 2008 at 1:02pm #


    Your comments seem to be again mired in obfuscation. If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that soldiers who had returned from Vietnam should have been honored just as U.S. troops in WWII were honored. I will again pose the same question that I raised in my earlier comments: honored for what reason? You claim that veterans should not be “showered with praise” when they return to this country but in the next sentence you believe that they should have not have been treated differently “than in previous wars.” Which is it?

    You say that the “public and the era”… “shamed them rather than helping them.” This seems very similar to your earlier comments when you said that returning veterans were called “baby killers.” Should I and others have been told that I was “helping” the Vietnamese people? I suggest that you may wish to ask a Vietnamese peasant if he felt American soldiers were “helping” his or her fellow countrymen those thirty five and forty years ago, as American bombs rained down upon their villages and homes.

    Finally, you bizarrely ask me if the United States could ever have “succeeded” in Vietnam, or now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Short of dropping a few atomic bombs on those countries, the obvious answer should be no. I think one has to be incredibly naive to believe that the Vietnamese would have ever stopped fighting against the Americans, just as the Iraqis and the Afghans will never stop fighting until the U.S.military has finally been driven from their respective countries. That is the reason that “U.S. wars in the last 45 years” have been “setups for failure”, since the indigenous peoples in those countries, as I had just mentioned, would never rest then and will never rest now until the United Stated had been ultimately repelled from their soil. But the United States continues to believe, despite the evidence, that it is invulnerable.

  8. evie said on June 30th, 2008 at 2:17pm #

    I’m saying VN troops were as deserving as WWII. I don’t believe half of what “history” says about the necessity of fighting WWII. The little nobody Hitler could have been stopped long before a war.

    The only people who are ever immensely “helped” by wars are the ruling class/bankers, etc.

    Why should WWII vets have been honored? For Nagasaki and Hiroshima? For killing and rampaging around the world? For liberating France? For saving Jews and giving them a state? Ask the peasants in North Africa if US soldiers were helping them as allied bombs rained down on them.

    Why did the North Koreans sign an armistice in 1953? Were the indigenous NK less willing and able to fight off the US than the North Vietnamese?

    And don’t get me started on the Civil War which white folk$ like to pretend was fought to end slavery.

    I’m saying all war is evil – and how it is perceived and judged by the sheople is mainly through knee-jerk propaganda. Making some wars “unpopular” and others romanticized and justified is up to the “leaders”.

    I say the US can win a war when it wants to. When it does not want to – you better ask why – cui bono?

  9. bozhidar balkas said on June 30th, 2008 at 4:18pm #

    evie, errol,
    may i point to u an important observation?
    had US not entered the WW1 in apr ’17 most likely that the- up-to- that time- stalemated WW1 wd have ended stalemated.
    thus a diff treaty wd have been likely made
    probably a draw wd have been declared. as u know, on western front, neither side gained much more than a few kms.
    yet mns lost their lives.
    but US did invade and exhausted germany cried uncle. a very harsh treaty was imposed on the losers.
    the harshness of the diktat imposed on axis powers led to WW2.
    if US had not once again invaded a region (US has ab 160 invasion to its credit) hitler and nazis wd have, i conclude, never came to power.
    thus most likely no WW2 or holocaust.
    the WW1 and WW2 suited ashkenazim fine. invasions of afgh’n, iraq, and iran may also be good for US/IOF.
    and this time US has unified europe onside for anything US/IOF may do.
    ashkenazim r thankful, or so i induce, for the holocaust cuz it enabled the warmongers to destroy palestine probably for all time.
    or so ashkenazim hope. thanx