First Published: 2014-05-06

Four Decades after Vietnam
How would the international community have reacted if the Germans had reflected on their past military aggression in the same terms as the United States has reflected on Vietnam? Asks Bruno Jäntti.
Middle East Online

It is exactly 39 years since the Vietnam War ended, with the seizure of Saigon by the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and the People’s Army of Vietnam—time to consider the legacy of this long US war.

The American public’s ignorance of the core facts of the war (or indifference to it) may seem surprising. Take a Gallup poll in November 2000: Of respondents between 18 and 29, 27% said the US was backing North Vietnam, 45% said South Vietnam and 28% expressed no opinion at all. What about support for the war among the US public at the end of the 1960s? According to a Gallup poll in July 1969, more than a year after the My Lai massacre, 53% of respondents approved of Nixon’s handling of the war.

If many Americans do not know the basic outlines of the history of the war, their knowledge of US crimes against Vietnam and the Vietnamese is not likely to be high either. Yet the United States dropped more bombs in South Vietnam than the total number of bombs dropped by all sides in World War II put together—in fact more than twice the amount. Twelve million acres of Vietnam’s forest and 25 million acres of farmland, at least, were destroyed by American saturation bombing; and over 70 million litres of herbicidal agents were sprayed over the country.

The shortcomings of the conventional narrative mean that Vietnamese deaths caused by the United States are debated through widely varying figures—anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions. According to Robert McNamara, 3.6 million Vietnamese were killed in the war.)

Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, who published one of the most meticulous studies in 2008, put the Vietnamese death toll at 3.8 million. According to Nick Turse, an American historian and investigative journalist who has conducted ground-breaking research on the Vietnam war, even this “staggering figure may be an underestimate.”

The US offensive also wounded 5.3 million Vietnamese civilians, and up to 4 million Vietnamese fell victim to toxic defoliants used by the United States in large swathes of the country. When the US finally withdrew, the war had created 200,000 prostitutes, 879,000 orphans, 1 million widows and 11 million refugees.

As a part of a two-day conference in 2006, “Vietnam and the Presidency,” former US president Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) gave his well-known account of the war and its effects on his presidency. Carter, one of the post-war presidents who least advocated an aggressive US foreign policy, stressed the importance of moving “beyond the Vietnam War to better things.” Carter laid special emphasis on what he called a “healing process”—for Americans, needless to say—and claimed that under his administration “that healing process made major strides forward.”

He even said that process was “complete [when] the Vietnam heroic monument, one of the most popular places in Washington” was erected, soon after the Carter presidency ended. The inscription on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial says that “[o]ur nation honors the courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans.” Not a word about the Vietnamese.

Carter’s commentary served as an unpleasant but illustrative reminder of thinking in the US political culture. It was time to move “beyond the Vietnam war to better things”.

Even more revealingly, Carter said: “I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or to castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability,” stressing that “the destruction was mutual.”

In 2000, then Secretary of Defence William Cohen expressed similar sentiments towards US actions in Vietnam. “I don’t intend to go into any apologies, certainly, for the war itself,” Cohen declared on a visit to Vietnam. “Both nations were scarred by this. They have their own scars from the war. We certainly have ours.”

Thirty nine years later, the official US position towards crimes by the US military in Vietnam has not changed: There have been no apologies for US conduct during the war, no reparations, no intentions of prosecuting US government officials or military personnel for war crimes in Vietnam. Instead, there is a romanticizing and glorification of the overall performance of the US military.

The Vietnam war narrative, encapsulated by the statements of Carter and Cohen, represents possibly the most disturbing case since the second world war of indifference towards (if not approval of) an apocalyptic destruction of a country and its people. How would the international community have reacted if the Germans had reflected on their past military aggression in the same terms as the United States has reflected on Vietnam?

Bruno Jäntti is an investigative journalist writing on armed conflicts, human rights and international politics.

Copyright © 2014 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global

 

US, Iranian top diplomats confront each other for first time

Moscow accuses US of hitting Syrian regime forces

Turkey, Iran and Iraq make joint threat against Kurd vote

Thousands of Huthi supporters mark 3 years since Sanaa takeover

Gemstone purchase essential for Najaf pilgrims

UN sets up probe of IS war crimes in Iraq

Air strikes kill 22 civilians in northwest Syria in 48 hours

Iranian supreme leader lashes out at Trump UN speech

Iraq attacks all remaining IS territory at once

Turkey jails lawyers representing hunger striking teachers

Syrian Kurds to hold first local elections in federal push

Qatari expats lauded as statesmen by Arab critics

Shipwreck off Libyan coast leaves over 100 migrants missing

Will Turkey’s opposition to Kurdish state translate into action?

US ups the ante on Iraq Kurds

Macron: Iran nuclear deal no longer enough

Trump’s mind made up on Iran but refuses to divulge

Scores of Iraqis missing during war against ISIS

Netanyahu rejects calls for mixed gender worship at Western Wall

Russia accuses US of missile treaty breach

Iran TV translator mocked for watering down Trump speech

Saudi Arabia hopes Kurdish referendum will not take place

Saudi invites women to sports stadium for first time

Saudi set to create $2.7 billion investment company

Humanitarian disaster grips Yemen three years since Houthi takeover

What will become of Iraq’s Hawija after ISIS?

Multi-ethnic Kirkuk tense ahead of referendum

UN awaits Iran’s defence against Trump nuclear deal threats

US-backed SDF seizes 90% of Syria's Raqa

Man hanged in Iran for rape, murder of child

Saudi to lift ban on internet phone calls

Sisi calls for peace, co-existence in Mideast

Erdogan demands Iraqi Kurds call off referendum

US looking to revisit Iran nuclear deal

Trump expects Gulf dispute to be resolved quickly

Bashir calls on Darfur displaced to return

Saudi Aramco could release accounts in early 2018

Saudi-led coalition says rebels hindering Yemen food imports

Jihadist activity prompts regime, Russian air strikes in Syria safe zone

Two prominent rights activists arrested in Saudi Arabia

Israel shoots down Hezbollah drone over Golan Heights

Iraqi forces launch assault on IS in western Anbar province

Families of the missing, the forgotten victims of war in Lebanon

25 killed in South Sudan clashes

Suicide attack on Iraq restaurant kills three