The Vietnam War (fl. 1964-1973) was fought by the US to prevent the communist overthrow of its banana republican government in Saigon, South Vietnam. Years of war led nowhere. The US pulled out in 1973. Saigon fell in 1975.
By the numbers:
- body count: 1.6 to 4.0 million, about half of them civilians.
- bombs: 7 million tons, more than in all of the Second World War.
- craters left: 20 million.
It began with a lie. In August 1964, Defence Secretary Robert McNamara said:
“While on routine patrol in international waters, the US destroyer Maddox underwent an unprovoked attack [by North Vietnamese torpedo boats].”
Completely made up. But the truth would not come out till seven years later when the New York Times got a copy of the “Pentagon Papers”, the Pentagon’s secret history of the war. In the meantime, all but two senators voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving the president a free hand to make war in Vietnam. The US already had 16,000 military “advisers” there.
The Vietcong were the communist guerrillas of South Vietnam. They were everywhere and nowhere. Short of genocide, you could not bomb them to pieces. Jonathan Schell in 1971 in the New Yorker:
“Some of the [US] officers began to read the works of Mao Tse-tung, in which it is said that guerrillas live among the people the way fish live in the sea, so a new strategy was developed in the hope of catching the fish by drying up the sea – which is to say, by tearing the entire Vietnamese society to pieces and then putting it together again according to some plan that was being worked out in the think tanks in Washington.”
Important words and phases:
- domino theory – the idea that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, so would all the other countries of South East Asia, one by one. In public the US government said it cared about the freedom of Asians. In private it cared about its military bases in the region and South East Asia’s oil, rubber, tin and rice that the US and Japan wanted.
- gook – racial slur used by US servicemen to dehumanize the Vietnamese.
- search and destroy mission – burning houses, shooting men of military age, and sending everyone else to a refugee camp. Not everyone was so fortunate:
- My Lai – where 450 to 500 men, women, and children were marched to a ditch and gunned down by the US Army. There were likely dozens of other such massacres.
- “No Vietcong ever called me nigger” – why Muhammad Ali refused to fight.
- “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” – said by protesters to President Johnson. There were huge anti-war protests.
- “winning hearts and minds” – how to win a guerrilla war. The opposite of what the US did (see above).
Who came out against the war when:
- 1962: Noam Chomsky
- 1963: Bertrand Russell
- 1964: Joan Baez
- 1965: SNCC, SDS, Stokely Carmichael, Coretta Scott King, Dr Spock
- 1966: Muhammad Ali
- 1967: Martin Luther King, Jr, Harry Belafonte, Robert Kennedy
- 1968: Eartha Kitt, Daniel Berrigan, Howard Zinn, Walter Cronkite (CBS News).
– Abagond, 2017.
Sources: mainly “A People’s History of the United States” (2003) by Howard Zinn; “Observing the Nixon Years” (1989) by Jonathan Schell.
- Pentagon Papers
- guerrilla warfare
- banana republic
- Philippine-American War
- New York Times
- How the war is dealt with by:
- The three pillars of US racism