Vietnam: There & Then, Here & Now
I just finished watching Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary.
Quite an experience.
Vietnam was my generation’s war, the baby boomers’ war (i.e., those born between 1946 and 1964). I lived through the era of most of the events of the war, being old enough and cognizant enough to follow what was going on in the world around me.
From a historical POV, the Vietnam War documentary offers little new information, mostly puts everything we already knew in perspective and fairly linearly.
A few things did surprise me, such as the revelation that Nixon in order to keep the war from becoming even more unpopular, wouldn’t let draftees be sent to Vietnam unless they volunteered.
People were still being drafted (I was) but instead of being sent unwillingly to a combat zone, we were sent to foreign bases to replace enlistees who went to fight in our place.
I feel bad about that.
Nixon’s political logic was sound -- enlistees and draftees who volunteered couldn’t say they were going against their will and thus the potential for desertion and the general populace turning against the war were lessened -- but it doesn’t make it any easier to bear.
It’s one thing if everybody’s name is put in a hat and assignments are handed out at random.
It’s another if the names are put into two different hats (but then again, nobody’s name went into the Vietnam hat without their consent…).
Watching the series, it struck me that people analyzing the current American political scene are wrong when they liken it to the Civil War or the rise of Nazi Germany.
No, it isn’t.
It’s like the 1960s all over again.
Let’s back track a bit and start afresh.
From time immemorial, there has been conflict between those who think for whatever reason they should be on top and those whom they think should be under them.
The average human being just wants to be left alone to live their own life. We really don’t care what kind of socio-economic political culture we live under so long as it’s reasonably stable, consistent, and fair.
We have no problem with some people being very, very wealthy.
We just don’t want their wealth to come at the expense of everyone else.
By the 18thcentury, the first trade guilds were beginning to appear in Europe.
They were crushed by the aristocracy of their day, both the nobility / landed gentry and the financiers.
In the early 19thcentury the working class tried again with various trade unions. Again the aristocracy (more industrialists this time) crushed them.
The working class tried a third time in the late 19thcentury with socialism , again it was crushed.
Finally in the early part of the 20thcentury, communism came forth, and it was successful…at least for the better part of the century.
(Yes, I am grossly over simplifying a lot of history here, but I’m doing so to make this point: Every time labor got slapped down, it came back with something stronger until finally it won and -- in an effort to forestall communism -- the rest of then world more or less adopted some for of socialism.)
We ignored the plight of the Vietnamese prior to WWII because we (i.e., the Western democracies) only cared about the political and civil rights of white skinned people. We begged their help during WWII to fight the Japanese again, but afterwards we reneged on our deal with them because the French threatened to go communist if they lost their lucrative colony (spoiler: They eventually did lose their colony and, no, they didn’t go communist).
When the Vietnamese defeated the French, the United States viewed this as another domino falling in communism’s plan for worldwide dominance.
Since our internal domestic politics were consumed with a paranoia against communism -- because communism would keep us from going to church or owning guns and cars and houses or reading books, etc., etc., and of course, etc. — we could not let them succeed anywhere.
We fought communist forces to a bloody standstill in Korea.
We faced them down in tense situations in Europe and the Middle East.
And we were damned if we’d let them topple the first domino in South East Asia.
So, even though we knew we had no popular support among the South Vietnamese people, and even though we knew their leadership was too corrupt and inept to defeat the North Vietnamese, we backed them with money, materiel, and men in the form of “advisors”.
It didn’t work.
The situation rapidly turned into a huge hot steaming turd pile and nobody -- NOBODY!!! -- in either party could see a reason for being there except if we weren’t there, the other side would blame them for “losing” Vietnam.
The same way the GOP blamed the Democrats for “losing” China…when it was never theirs to begin with.
We refused to deal with communist governments because we’d be damned if we were going to deal with the likes of “them”…not when we could prop up a puppet of our own to run the show.
And we made this mistake again and again and again everywhere, refusing to cut deals or honor agreements because we weren’t going to bolster communism because we wanted to keep our God, our guns, and our gold.
Oh, yes, let’s talk about money.
When you analyze anti-communism, for all the high-falutin’ language about human dignity and freedom and whatnot, it really boils down to people being able to make money and not have to pay any of it to the government.
And if some people make more money, well, that just means they’re better people than those who make less.
So the U.S. fight against communism was to protect the rich, the corporations, the moneyed interests.
The Vietnamese were ancillary to this goal.
…if they were considered at all.
So we wound up digging ourselves deeper and deeper into a morass that we couldn’t win because our enemy, while quite easily defeated, simply couldn’t be beaten.
(The North Vietnamese were communists by default; there was no ideological purity to their struggle, at least not the beginning. They were nationalists first and foremost, and when the capitalist Western democracies ignored their desire for independence, they turned to the Russian communists. If Chicago baseball fans had offered them more support than the Bolsheviks, the North Vietnamese would have been Cubbies.)
This is all a long winded way of saying that even though every White House administration from Kennedy forward (and perhaps as early as Eisenhower and Truman) realized South Vietnam was a doomed proposition, they nonetheless kept funding the war because they feared they lose power if they didn’t.
Domestically, Americans were so terrified of communism and what they were told was its first cousin, socialism, that they would respond negatively to anyone accused of appeasing those God damned commie simp pinko bastards.
It was a recipe for disaster, as Ken Burns points out repeatedly.
But this post isn’t about the Vietnam era, it’s about what’s happening in the here and now, and to look at that we need to hit the major highlights of the Vietnam Was as perceived by the average American citizen (read average white Christian American citizen).
In the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination -- and his killer being an on-again / off-again USMC deserter / defector to Russia who joined a bunch of iffy political movements when he returned to the U.S. sure didn’t help things -- Americans were shocked again when it was reported the North Vietnamese had attacked two U.S. destroyers.
To this day it’s still impossible to discern what really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin with any sense of accuracy.
Suffice it to say something happened and the North Vietnamese navy came out all the worse for it but nonetheless Johnson treated the incident as if the gawd damned commies were about to start invading New Orleans and the next thing we knew, the war had escalated from a few hundred American “advisors” to a couple of thousand active combatants.
This was in 1964.
The next big event to lodge itself into the American psyche was the Tet offensive of 1968.
The North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies (not one and the same!) launched a massive series of attacks across Vietnam in the hopes of spurring a popular uprising.
The tactical portion of the Tet offensive failed, but the strategic one worked perfectly (although it took seven years to see the payoff).
The reason the strategic part worked was that for the intervening 4 years between Tonkin and Tet, the U.S. had promised its citizens again and again and again that victory was just around the corner, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we were winning by breaking the resolve of the enemy.
Well, Tet put the lie to that PDQ!
The most shocking thing about Tet was the photo and TV news footage of South Vietnam National Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan blowing the brains out of Nguyen Van Lem, a member of a Viet Cong assassination team who had just killed some police officers and their families.
Look, let’s be honest, Van Lem richly deserved his fate under the rules of the Geneva Convention since he had killed innocent civilians while disguised as a civilian, and as such had lost all protections under international treaty.
But it’s pretty damn shocking to see him being executed again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again thanks to the miracle of television, and while most Americans still supported the war, God love ‘em still supported the troops, and agree Van Lem deserved death for his war crimes, it’s still a pretty damn shocking scene to see.
Most Americans supported the war.
But most Americans also wanted it over.
About a year later, Americans were shocked even more. Information on the infamous My Lai Massacre, which occurred in the aftermath of the Tet offensive in 1968, became public, including photos of women begging for their lives and the lives of their children, and the revelation that Americans had gang raped Vietnamese women and children before killing them.
Again, predictably, most Americans sided with the troops who committed these crimes, and continued to support the war, but despite that, one can’t shake the images of weeping women futilely trying to protect their children, or the piles of bodies just a few seconds later.
The anti-war movement, which had aligned itself with the civil rights movement and the nascent feminist movement (and, boy howdy!, is that a tale to tell but not in this post; stay focused) began opposing the war in more and more successful, and in larger and larger protests.
American presidents Johnson and (soon-to-be) Nixon did not want to lose any elections, and since the majority of Americans still supported the war -- whatever doubts they might possess about it -- they weren’t about to give any serious attention to the protestors demands.
(And, truth be told, there were a lot of show boaters among the anti-war protestors, bozos who just wanted to watch things burn.)
As protests mounted, Nixon (who became president by sabotaging Johnson’s attempt to negotiate a peace agreement in time for the 1968 election which, if bigoted George Wallace hadn’t acted as a spoiler, would have gone to Hubert Humphrey) fought back in an increasing number of ways, some quite petty, others quite deadly.
Among the deadliest was the Kent State protests in 1970 which resulted in the deaths of four college students, two of them innocent bystanders walking away from the direction of the protest on their way to class.
While shocking, again the majority of Americans defended the National Guard troops who slaughtered four students and wounded a dozen more, crippling one permanently.
But you can’t unsee an image, and though Americans hardened their hearts, they couldn’t forget the image of Mary Ann Vecchio over the body of Jeffrey Miller anymore than they could forget the image of Nguyen Ngoc Loan killing Nguyen Van Lem.
Like the Tet offensive, the battle may have been lost, but the war was being won.
More shocking turns awaited the average American. Vietnam Veterans Against The War was a surprisingly effective antiwar movement. They, along with the Winter Soldier congressional hearings in 1971, put the lie to the claim that it was only hippies and communist agitators who opposed the war.
Nixon and his vice president Spiro Agnew went on the offensive, denouncing anti-war protestors and appealing to the so-called “silent majority” of law abiding, church going, conservative, and -- dare we say it? -- white Americans who continued to support the war.
Nixon and Agnew (who had to resign due to scandals entirely unrelated to his role as Nixon’s vice president) stirred up class animosity in America, pitting working class Americans against the so-called “liberal elite” including college students and professors, preparing the soil for the coming campaign of ignorance that would devour the country in the post-Vietnam era.
But even though the average “silent majority” American continued to support the war, the vocal protestors were gaining ground, winning hearts and minds, and the images were searing themselves into the American psyche.
Also in 1971, the Pentagon Papers were released, documenting mistake after mistake after mistake the U.S. had made, all the while acknowledging that was simple no way we could possibly win in Vietnam.
But still the fighting continued.
Nixon’s paranoia and pettiness proved his undoing,
As he and his underlings committed more and more brazen crimes to solidify their base, the Vietnam war continued unleashing horror after horror.
In June of 1972, 9 year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc was photographed running naked down a road, screaming in pain after 30% of her body had been burned by a South Vietnamese napalm strike.
Try as they like, the pro-war apologists (same rat bastards as today’s trolls) could not find a way of blaming her for her own misery.
By January, 1973 the U.S. started withdrawing in earnest and for America the war of over for all intents and purposes.
On March 8, 1973 the last official U.S. ground troops left Vietnam.
On August 8, 1974 Nixon resigned.
On August 15, 1974, the U.S. congress said “Hold! Enough!” and effectively cut off military support to South Vietnam.
On April 30, 1975, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) fell, and the end that everybody knew would arrive sooner or later finally came.
All that…for nothing…
As noted above, the Vietnam war did not occur in a historical cultural vacuum, and there was not only the dread of an existentialist threat of a grossly misrepresented communist bogeyman to what the average white conservative Christian American held near and dear, but also the much more palatable fear of losing white supremacy to racial equality with…with…negroes (to use the term of the day), not to mention the first stirrings of the feminist movement, the first hint of a gay rights movement, and the hippies themselves, perceived as a great unwashed mob of dope swilling anarchists.
Ken Burns’ Vietnam War presents Vietnam to us in that context, a major component of a much broader picture, a picture that threatened the very soul of America.
Small wonder the reaction was the disco era and yuppies replacing hippies and cocaine going through the roof and Reagan replacing Carter as the latter tried to struggle with the economic bill come due after decades of reckless military spending.
Reagan, of course, devastated American in his own way, the opposite of the Tet offensive, in which he seemed to win easy victory after easy victory only now that he’s dead and gone we see those so called “victories” were actually a betrayal of everything America used to stand for.
America, at least in part, has always been a progressive nation.
The founding fathers may have been slave holders, but they left a mechanism in place that could deal with the issue of slavery.
The reactionaries came back against the founding fathers, even while claiming to honor their spirit, with Andrew Jackson, as vile a racist as one could hope to imagine, but they were countered by the abolitionists of the Civil War.
The same progressive spirit that made abolition possible also made labor unions possible, and pure food and drug laws, and trust busting under Theodore Roosevelt.
And when bad reactionary / financier / industrial policies brought the U.S. and the rest of the world to financial ruin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt fought to use progressive policies to save the country.
The reactionaries have been waging a war against America since the end of WWII.
They lost ground in the 1950s and 60s despite their successful promotion of anti-communism, but regained that ground in the 1980s to 2008.
There were a few brief respites with Clinton, as flawed a human being as one could imagine, and Obama, who became the target of the mindless white racism simmering beneath the surface of what passes for conservative thought in this country.
Now, as we near the end of their era and they know it, the reactionaries and the 1% want to stack the deck as much as possible against the march of progress.
The march of humanity.
The march of the future.
We are not in a second Civil War or a second Nazi movement (though there are elements of same present).
We are in a second 1960s, only there aren’t the obvious clear crusades of Vietnam or civil rights to rally around.
We have just had our Gulf of Tonkin incident with the election of Trump.
We may have had our Tet offensive public execution photo with the appointment of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, a short term tactical victory that will spell doom for generations to come.
But I’m afraid we’re still quite a ways away from our My Lai, our Kent State, our Winter Soldier, our badly burned girl.
I want to tell you, as someone who lived through the 1960s, as someone who was drafted at the end of the Vietnam war, we will survive this.
And we, the decent people of the United States, the people who truly believe in liberty and justice for all, will prevail.
It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be easy, but we will win.
© Buzz Dixon