This is a lecture on April 30, 2005, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the (official) end of the Vietnam War. The speakers are Ngo Ving Long and Noam Chomsky. Ngo Ving Long is professor of History, University of Maine and the author of The Vietnamese Peasants under the French. Long talked first and Chomsky, then both took questions after Noam’s talk.
Noam Chomsky: For the people of Indochina*, the issue of crucial significance is what happened to them and to these ravaged countries during one of the worst, if not the worst, war crime of the post Second World War era: horrendous assault upon the civilian population, primarily South Vietnam, as Long pointed out.
*Indochina is the term used for the former French colonial regions that include current Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The Intellectual Elites in the United States
So, there’s no one more extreme than Anthony Lewis in the New York Times. At the end of war in 1975, he wrote a retrospective in which he said that the war began with benign intentions. That was "blundering efforts to do good"―that’s how it began, the kind of thing that Long was just describing―"but by 1969, it had become clear that it was a mistake" that it was too costly for us. That’s the extreme end.
Why 1969? Well, because that was about a year and a half after the business community in the United States had turned against the war, partly because they regarded it too costly to the United States and partly because they recognized what I think is true, that the US had basically won the war in terms of its major war aims so there wasn’t any point going on.
We do also know something about the public opinion. So, for example, in 1969, when the extreme dissident end was able to conceive that the blundering efforts to do good may have become too costly to us, in (the same) 1969, about 70% of the population in the United States regarded the war as－in the words of the polls－“not a mistake” but “fundamentally wrong and immoral.” If you want to do (look at?) numbers, which incidentally have sustained up until the most recent polls just a few years ago: roughly 70%.
You might do a research project to see if any words like that “fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake” appear anywhere within anything like mainstream literature, press, scholarship, virtually anything, but it does happen to be the opinion of the vast majority of the population. And the numbers are pretty striking, because these are people who never heard it. Those results are never reported, presumably everyone thinks I’m the only crazy person who thinks this.
It’s important that results are not reported so that people will feel isolated and helpless and so on.
Why did the business press believe that the war had basically been won by 1969? That’s an unusual view. The usual story is the US lost. In fact that’s supposed to be a terrible loss.
Well, whether the US won or lost depends on which war aims you are looking at. I mean there were maximal aims and there were basic aims.
The maximal aims were to turn Indochina into actually what was described as the model, described openly as the model, namely, Indonesia after 1965.
Indonesia in 1965, the US backed, partly instigated a military coup led by General Suharto, it killed about maybe a million people, mostly landless peasants, wiped out the only mass-based political party in the country, instituted a regime of torture and oppression and violence. It was called by the CIA one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century. They compared it to Hitler and Stalin. It wasn’t concealed here. The New York Times described it as a “staggering bloodbath” which was a “gleam of light in Asia” because the independent, the main party of the poor was totally wiped out and the country opened up to Western exploitation. So, that was the model. It’s true that the United States did not succeed in imposing that model on Indochina, so in that respect, it was a failure and the US lost the war, couldn’t create an Indonesia.
On the other hand, if you look at the major war aims, that wasn’t what it was at all. And this is incidentally a case where Vietnam is quite different from Iraq. In Vietnam, the US had no particular interest in maintaining control over Vietnam, quite unlike Iraq.
The goal in Vietnam, the basic war aim in Vietnam was to destroy the country and for good rational reasons which they explained in places like Harvard and MIT.
The problem was that they were concerned that an independent Vietnam might undertake a course of development that would become a kind of a model that others in the region would want to follow. It’s what’s called in internal documents a “virus” that might infect others. And if we have virus that might infect others, we have to destroy the virus and inoculate the others. And that was what was done, the virus was destroyed, never going to be a model to anybody and the potential victims were inoculated like in Indonesia with staggering mass slaughter that was a “gleam of light in Asia” and the same in surrounding countries: Marcos in Philippines and so on.
And the concern about spreading infection was very deep. So, George Kennan, for example, was afraid that, he was one of the top planners, that infection in Indonesia [Communist Party of Indonesia] might spread throughout all of south Asia even threatening the US position in the Middle East, a crucial area where the world’s energy is.
And it was feared that Vietnamese virus might extend as far as Indonesia. And if that happened, Japan—John Dower here described Japan as the super domino—Japan might have to accommodate to the Asian mainland, becoming its industrial and technological center in an independent area; that would, in effect, recreate what Japan was trying to achieve during the World War Two. They called it “co-prosperity sphere,” which would mean that the US would have lost the Second World War. And the United States, the government was not prepared in the late 1940s to lose the Second World War.
And Vietnam, as John F. Kennedy put it, was “the keystone to the arch.” I mean if that one fell, as it was called, that is move towards independence, the rot would spread and the virus would infect others and you’d get—it could turn out to be terrible.
Kennan incidentally had no objection to restoring to Japan what he called it “Empire towards the South.” It’s co-prosperity sphere and the United States in fact did that. But this time, it was under US control, so it was OK. That’s why Kennan supported reconstructing the Japanese world order but, of course, under US control.
And Vietnam was regarded as “the keystone to the arch” for that. You know, by 1968, it was pretty clear to anyone with eyes open that Vietnam would be lucky to survive; it wasn’t going to be a model for anyone. The virus was destroyed, the region had been inoculated so the world became, as McGeorge Bundy later said―former Harvard dean, he was national security advisor for Kennedy—he said after 1965, with staggering mass slaughter in Indonesia, he said the US war in Indochina became “excessive.” In other words, it was costing us too much. So it was kind of like a bad tactical decision to keep going after basic war aims had been won.
That’s the core of the issue. I think that’s why business had turned against the war by 1968 and a year or two later at the extreme dissident left of intellectual opinion, you are allowed to call the war “a mistake” that began with “blundering efforts to do good. “
Well, the idea that is in the heads of the population that it was “fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake” that has to be driven from their minds clearly. And there have been huge efforts to do that ever since with a kind of mixed effects: the polls remain more or less the same. On the other hand, there has been an effect.
So, for example, knowledge of the war is extraordinary in the United States.
There has only been one major academic study on this as far as I know of what people believe about the war. And it’s mind-boggling. A couple years ago, people were asked to give an estimate of the number of Vietnamese who died during the war. And the mean estimate was 100,000, which is about 5% of the official US figure and probably 2 or 3% of the actual figure.
The authors of the study point out that it’s as if you took a poll in Germany and ask people how many Jews died in holocaust and the mean judgment was 300,000, in which case we’d think that there’s a slight problem in Germany. But here, it’s kept from us; we’re not supposed to think about it. The results were even worse because it turns out that this poll was taken in a leading northeastern university which is pretty politically active, for the general population it might be even crazier.
Right before the November election last year (2004) I happened to be away, and I was trying to find what was going on in the world in a hotel. So I turned on TV―that’s something I usually try to avoid, but I got an interesting program. I think it was a program on CNN or something. An hour-long serious discussion led by the chief media critic of the Washington Post, Howard Kurts, with lots of deep thinkers. And the program was called “America’s Vietnam obsession.” And it was about the strange obsession of the United States with Vietnam after all these years. What they were talking about is, you know, did Kerry deserve the bronze medal and all that kind of stuff. What the program demonstrated is that America’s Vietnam obsession, at least among liberal elite opinion, is zero.
There’s only one question that arises about Kerry and Vietnam. And that is “what was he doing in 1969 deep in the Mekong Delta?”― which had been practically devastated, killing South Vietnamese, seven years after John F. Kennedy had launched an outright war against South Vietnam. This focused on places like the Mekong Delta―and 15 years after the United States had instituted a Latin American style terrorist state in South Vietnam, which, as Long just mentioned, had killed 17,000 people in the Mekong Delta alone? Well, whatever happened in the whole country, so what was Kerry doing there 15 years after this?
Right in the midst in 1969, which incidentally happened to the peak period of US atrocities in South Vietnam―that was the post Tet (offensive) accelerated pacification campaign, which was carrying out extraordinary atrocities of which one became famous: My Lai. Which became famous because you could blame it on poor, uneducated half-crazed GIs in the field who didn’t know who was shooting at them next and did commit in the atrocity.
But as it happened, that was a minor footnote to a major mass murder campaign: Operation Wheeler Wallawa, which was organized by nice guys like us sitting in air-conditioned offices who were plotting B-52 raids on villages and killing who knows tens of thousands of people. So, therefore, they are immune because they are our kind. But My Lai was those guys so you’re allowed to be angry about it. In fact, there was a Quaker Clinic in Quang Ngai province, working right where My Lai was. They knew about the atrocity immediately but they didn’t even bother reporting it because that happened everyday. You know. OK, what’s big deal, here’s just another one. Those are the real stories but not the ones we know of. Anyway, that’s the question. Those are the kind of questions that would arise if there was even concern, let alone obsession, about what actually happened in Vietnam among liberal intellectual elites. But there isn’t.
In 1962, Kennedy escalated from a Latin American style terrorist state which killed who knows how many tens of thousands of people, he escalated it to an outright war. 1962 was the year when Kennedy sent the US Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam, authorized the use of Napalm, initiated the use of chemical warfare to destroy food crops so as to drive the population into the concentration camps which had been given various names, alternately many millions of them.
The South Vietnamese who were the victims of the war were labeled “aggressors.” Or else some put it, Adlai Stevenson, liberal hero, Kennedy’s ambassador to the UN, called it “internal aggression.” An interesting new concept. It was an assault from within, according to John F. Kennedy. And the terminology made some sense. The technical definition of aggression in US army manuals included as one type of aggression: political warfare. That’s one type of aggression. So, yes, they were indeed aggressors in their own country. And we were defending ourselves by slaughtering them.