40 Years Later, Remembering the Legacy of the Viet Nam War
By Dik Cool
The PBS documentary, Last Days in Viet Nam is an excellent piece of cold war propaganda. What could be better than to show two hours of Vietnamese fleeing the (gasp!) advancing communist hordes. The map drips red, the people flee and the talking heads intone that Saigon is falling to the communists. But wait, aren’t the communists also Vietnamese and isn’t this their country? So Viet Nam has fallen to the Vietnamese? Isn’t the US the invader, the occupier, the imperial force that has tried to subjugate a nationalist movement? In 1776, didn’t we fight to expel the occupying British? A more accurate description would be that the capitalist invaders had finally been driven out by Vietnamese forces committed to freedom and independence for their country. Their only sin was that they believed in a different economic system, communism, for their country.
Perhaps a brief history will bring perspective to all this.
During WWII, U.S. flyers shot down by the Japanese were frequently rescued by Ho Chi Minh’s guerilla force, the Viet Minh, the only reliable ally that the US had in the area. After the war ended, at a million-person rally, Ho declared Viet Nam’s independence from France, using language from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, a document he revered. The United States, led by anti-communist zealots, chose to betray Ho Chi Minh and support France’s re-colonization of Viet Nam.
In 1954, at Dien Bien Phu, the Vietnamese defeated the French, by then 80% financed by the United States. The Geneva Accords temporarily divided Viet Nam into north and south, with elections to be held in 1956. The United States refused to support the elections because, as President Eisenhower admitted in his memoirs, Ho Chi Minh would win. Washington proceeded to install a series of puppet dictators in the south, claiming it was defending democracy and freedom.
By 1967, the United States had 500,000 troops in the south, was regularly bombing the north and using the carcinogenic herbicide Agent Orange over vast areas. The anti-war movement military and nonmilitary grew rapidly. Immolations, the ultimate protest, occurred in the south and in the United States.
The Pentagon does not want you to know any of the following information: The G.I. movement against the Viet Nam war was perhaps more important to ending the war than the civilian peace movement. By 1971, with 500,000 troops in Viet Nam, the US military was on the verge of collapse and the brass were panicked. Officers were being fragged, whole units were refusing to fight, drug use was rampant, black GIs had coined the phrase no Vietnamese ever called me n-----, and antiwar GI coffeehouses and newspapers had sprung up at most US bases around the world. In April, 1971, several thousand Viet Nam vets, in a powerful, moving demonstration, threw their medals on the steps of the US Congress. Vets symbolically occupied the Statue of Liberty. US soldiers realized they had been lied to by a country they trusted. They came to understand that the people they were killing had done nothing to the US; they simply wanted to control their own destiny. The veterans then and now had to bear a double burden. They had fought a war and then had to fight to stop a war they realized was unjust. The toll this took on our soldiers is staggering. Over 150,000 have committed suicide, far more than died in the war, and the suicides continue to this day. Veterans also have had to fight to get the VA to acknowledge the effects of toxic Agent Orange and PTSD. They deserve better. Much better.
Mass demonstrations, draft resistance, civil disobedience, tax protests and lobbying involved millions in the United States and millions more internationally. In 1970, students were killed at Kent and Jackson State while protesting the US invasion of Cambodia. Most campuses went on strike. The United States signed the Paris Peace Agreement in January, 1973. US forces withdrew and prisoners of war were returned. The agreement guaranteed US aid to rebuild a devastated country. The United States violated the agreement, instead imposing a trade embargo. The war’s horrific toll: Viet Nam - 2 million dead, 3 million wounded, 13 million refugees, 200,000 missing in action; the United States 58,000 dead, 304,000 wounded, 1,900 MIAs.
Frequently the war is described as a tragic mistake, an aberration in US foreign policy. As the Pentagon Papers showed, it was not a mistake, but a calculated attempt to suppress a popular movement that was unfriendly to capitalism and western domination. Similar actions against Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, Iraq and Afghanistan, show US foreign policy is not guided by democratic ideals. But if they said it was guided by corporate profits, who would support it?
As with US veterans, the war’s legacy continues to exact a horrible toll on the Vietnamese. Since the war’s end 40,000 people have been killed by unexploded ordnances (bombs, grenades, mines, artillery shells) and another 65,000 maimed. There are millions of these killers still in the ground. In areas heavily sprayed by Agent Orange (produced by Monsanto), birth defects are an epidemic as are neurological diseases. From 1961-1971 about 20,000,000 gallons of toxic herbicides were sprayed on southern Viet Nam (The Nation, 3/16/15). Many US veterans have returned to Vet Nam to help repair this devastation. They have also helped push the US to do the right thing, and finally the Obama administration has begun to do so.
What are the lessons of Viet Nam? The Pentagon and its PR firms learned to never again televise a war it breeds opposition. Witness the almost total censorship of the Gulf War, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. We the people learned a painful lesson that our government lies to us, and that its agenda is almost always aligned with the rich and powerful, in spite of assertions to the contrary.
We also learned that all authority must be challenged and held accountable to the needs of the people and that this process never ends. Whether it is the US government, multinational corporations, the Pentagon or state governments, the need for vigilance, resistance and community-building is essential.
In late 2014 retired general Nguyen Van Rinh was asked how the US could make amends for the war. He said, Admit the truth and acknowledge that a great crime was committed here.
Dik Cool first opposed the US war on Viet Nam in 1964. He was imprisoned in 1967-68 for draft and war resistance. In 1970 he joined the staff of the Syracuse Peace Council and spoke against the war at colleges, schools and community groups. He is the founder and publisher of SyracuseCulturalWorkers.com, a national publisher which, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the war’s end, has just republished an iconic Ho Chi Minh poster. Ho, like George Washington, is considered the father of his country.
(Unarmed civilians in My Lai where more than 500 were massacred
Dik Cool, Publisher
Syracuse Cultural Workers
PO Box 6367
Syracuse, NY 13217
800.949.5139 x 106 fax 800.396.1449
315.474.1132 x 106