BECK index

Lessons of the Vietnam War

French Colonial Vietnam
American Vietnam War
American Lessons from Vietnam

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All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth;
all the peoples have a right to live to be happy and free.
Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam

The United States must be compelled
to get out of Vietnam immediately and without conditions.
Bertrand Russell

Let peace-minded persons and organizations
in every state of the United States
and in every country of the world
devise ways to call for an end to military intervention
in Vietnam as a first imperative step
to ending the threat of nuclear war
and bringing justice, freedom and peace to mankind.
A. J. Muste

This war turns the clock of history back
and perpetuates white colonialism.
The greatest irony and tragedy of it all
is that our own nation which initiated so much
of the revolutionary spirit in this modern world
is now cast in the mold of being an arch anti-revolutionary.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

I went to Vietnam a hard charging Marine 2nd Lieutenant,
sure that I had answered the plea of a victimized people
in their struggle against communist aggression.
That belief lasted about two weeks.
Instead of fighting communist aggressors
I found that 90% of the time our military actions
were directed against the people of South Vietnam.
These people had little sympathy
or for that matter knowledge of the Saigon Government.
We are engaged in a war in South Vietnam
to pound a people into submission to a government
that has little or no popular support
among the real people of South Vietnam.
By real people I mean all those Vietnamese people
who aren't war profiteers or who have not sold out
to their government or the United States
because it was the easy and/or profitable thing to do.
letter to Senator Fulbright

Obviously a major lesson of Vietnam
is that we must know ourselves better.
Daniel Ellsberg

Most people agree that the American military involvement in Vietnam was a tragedy, and as in classical drama we can learn many lessons from the suffering inflicted and undergone by the "hero." Our concern in this book is with peacemaking and the ways of establishing peace in the world. From this perspective the official policies of the United States Government were a colossal failure, since US influence in Vietnam resulted in the opposite of peace until the United States finally withdrew all of its influence. Even from the military point of view Indochina was the only war the USA. has ever really "lost," and it happened while America was generally considered to be the greatest military power in the history of the world and at the hands of an "enemy" who was considered "primitive" and "weak." Perhaps never before has history so clearly shown the stupidity, folly, and utter ineptness of using bombing and killing to try to solve human problems. Psychologically we may come to see that those problems were more in American attitudes than in the situations of the Vietnamese except insofar as they suffered from American "influence." In this chapter we will explore how those attitudes created a terrible situation and how we can change in order to prevent such misery and failures in the future.

French Colonial Vietnam

When World War II began, the area in Southeast Asia now known as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos was a colony called French Indochina. The French colonial government there declared allegiance to the Vichy regime, which the Nazis established in southern France after their invasion in 1940. During that war the Japanese, as allies of the Nazis, occupied Indochina and ruled through the French colonial administration until the Vichy regime in France fell. The Japanese then set up Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai to rule over the Vietnamese. Since 1940 a guerrilla resistance movement known as the Viet Minh, led by Communist Ho Chi Minh, had struggled against the Vichy French colonialists and the Japanese invaders. They were even aided by the United States and trained by their advisors.

In August 1945 when the Japanese surrendered to the Allies, a popular revolution swept Vietnam and placed the Viet Minh in power. Under Ho Chi Minh's chairmanship the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was established on September 2, 1945, and the Declaration of Independence, which Ho had written, was announced. He quoted from the American Declaration of Independence and from the French Revolution's 1791 Declaration of Human and Civic Rights in order to appeal to the human rights principles of these two nations. As the Americans had done two centuries before, he listed the grievances the people had suffered under their colonial overlords, in this case the French. The document concludes:

Vietnam has the right to be free and independent
and, in fact, has become free and independent.
The people of Vietnam decide to mobilize
all their spiritual and material forces
and to sacrifice their lives and property
in order to safeguard their right of liberty and independence.1

Although President Roosevelt had wanted to see Vietnam under a United Nations trusteeship to prepare it for independence, at the Potsdam conference President Truman and British prime minister Attlee agreed to divide French Indochina at the sixteenth parallel, leaving China in control in the north and giving the British operational control over southern Vietnam. The DRV accepted this and welcomed British troops into Saigon in September. However, some dissenting Vietnamese Trotskyites were arrested and killed. The British then attacked the independence forces of the Vietnamese in order to restore to power the French colonial government in the south. The United States tacitly accepted French sovereignty over Indochina, and President Truman neglected to respond to several letters of appeal from Ho Chi Minh. Yet General MacArthur complained,

If there is anything that makes my blood boil,
it is to see our Allies in Indochina and Java
deploying Japanese troops to reconquer the little people
we promised to liberate.
It is the most ignoble kind of betrayal.

In February 1946 France and China agreed to let French troops replace the Chinese north of the sixteenth parallel. Ho Chi Minh negotiated with the French for a free Vietnamese state within the French Union. The agreement of March called for 15,000 French troops in the north along with 10,000 Vietnamese soldiers. Ho Chi Minh and some compatriots traveled to France for a conference; the rest of the delegation soon left in protest, but Ho stayed on to bargain for a modus vivendi which recognized some political freedoms of the Viet Minh in the south. Returning in October, Ho Chi Minh pleaded with the armies of the Vietnamese and French to stop fighting, ending his proclamation with the following words:

If we use the right words, they will certainly listen to us.
Violent actions are absolutely forbidden.
This is what you have to do at present
to create a peaceful atmosphere,
paving the way democratically
to reach the unification of our Vietnam.2

However, in November 1946 the French commander at Haiphong used a minor customs clash as a justification for launching an all-out French attack on the city. The Viet Minh were driven into the countryside, and the guerrilla war against the French had begun. Not only did the United States fail to support the rights of the Vietnamese people for self-determination, but the Truman administration gave military aid to France for its colonial war in Vietnam.

After the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949 the United States decided to increase its military aid to the French in Vietnam. In January 1950 China and the Soviet Union recognized the government of Ho Chi Minh. Dreadfully afraid of the Communists, the United States government wanted to help the French destroy the Viet Minh, but it could not publicly justify supporting a colonial war. Therefore Bao Dai, who had been in exile in Hong Kong for three years, was nominally recognized by France as the independent government of Vietnam. This enabled American military assistance to go to France while Bao Dai was the "publicized" recipient. On May 8, 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson made the following statement:

The United States Government, convinced that
neither national independence nor democratic evolution
exist in any area dominated by Soviet imperialism,
considers the situation to be such as to warrant
its according economic aid and military equipment
to the Associated States of Indochina and to France
in order to assist them in restoring stability
and permitting these states to pursue
their peaceful and democratic development.3

To compare objectively this attitude to the facts of the situation, one cannot help but see the American paranoia and hypocrisy. First, America was helping France to squelch Vietnamese national independence and democratic evolution with imperialistic war and colonial oppression. Second, the only Soviet involvement was a simple diplomatic statement toward a purely ideological ally. Even aid from the Chinese Communists was minimal during this period. Yet from 1950 to 1954 the United States gave the Bao Dai government $126 million in economic, military, and technical assistance while supplying the French with $2.6 billion of military material, which accounted for four-fifths of the French military effort. With Eisenhower's election in 1952 the new secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, expressed the paranoia as the "Domino Theory." The Korean War was fought for these same reasons during this period. By 1952 the French were spending a third of their national budget on the Indochina War.

In spite of the military power of France aided by the United States, the Viet Minh were able to win an impressive victory at Dienbienphu in 1954. In this battle alone the Vietnamese estimated that they had 20,000 killed. In this Indochina War the French colonial forces lost about 95,000 killed. The French were ready now to give up control of Vietnam, and they agreed to an armistice at Geneva. However, the document was never signed by any of the parties because the United States refused to give even its oral consent. American officials wanted France to continue the struggle. Although President Eisenhower considered using tactical nuclear weapons or sending US troops, he had the good sense not to involve America in another land war in Asia. Dulles tried to consolidate interests in the area with the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), but only Thailand, Pakistan, and the Philippines agreed to assist each other against outside aggression.

American Vietnam War

The Geneva accords removed the French from northern Vietnam and recognized the Bao Dai government in the south for the two years the French had been given to depart from there. Then an election was supposed to unify the country. This temporary concession of southern territory by the Vietnamese to the French was a response to strong pressure from the Soviet and Chinese representatives Molotov and Zhou Enlai. The French left on schedule but were replaced in May 1955 by the United States and its military support for South Vietnam. Bao Dai was replaced by the pro-American dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem, who refused to hold elections because the Communists would have won. Diem re-established the landlords who had been removed by guerrillas for supporting the Japanese and the French. The peasants of the Viet Minh rebelled, and guerrilla fighting spread. Diem violated every article of the constitution and had thousands of people imprisoned in camps. By 1959 United States military "advisors" were being killed in Vietnam, and in 1960 the guerrillas formed the National Liberation Front (NLF). The Second Indochina War had begun.

Most of the NLF were southern Vietnamese. Very few northern troops entered South Vietnam until the American troops had arrived in force. The Americans were attempting to hold back a revolution more than prevent an invasion; it was primarily a civil war. On December 20, 1960 the National Liberation Front formulated the following Ten Points:

1. Overthrow the camouflaged colonial regime of the American imperialists and the dictatorial power of Ngo Dinh Diem, servant of the Americans, and institute a government of national democratic union.
2. Institute a largely liberal and democratic regime.
3. Establish an independent and sovereign economy, and improve the living conditions of the people.
4. Reduce land rent; implement agrarian reform with the aim of providing land to the tillers.
5. Develop a national and democratic culture and education.
6. Create a national army devoted to the defense of the Fatherland and the people.
7. Guarantee equality between the various minorities and between the sexes; protect the legitimate interests of foreign citizens established in Vietnam and of Vietnamese citizens residing abroad.
8. Promote a foreign policy of peace and neutrality.
9. Re-establish normal relations between the two zones, and prepare for the peaceful reunification of the country.
10. Struggle against all aggressive war; actively defend universal peace.

In the full manifesto each of these points included several specific means of implementation. The text of Point 2 is a good example:

2. To bring into being a broad and progressive democracy,
promulgate freedom of expression, of the press,
of belief, of assembly, of association,
of movement and other democratic freedoms.
To grant general amnesty to all political detainees,
dissolve all concentration camps dubbed "prosperity zones"
and "resettlement centers,"
abolish the fascist 10-59 law and other anti-democratic laws.4

The Twelve Points of Discipline for the People's Liberation Army suggested that soldiers be fair and honest in business with civilians, never taking even a needle from the people. When staying in civilian houses, they should take care of them as if they were their own. They should be courteous with people and love them. With these ideals as standards, it is not surprising that the NLF made such successful inroads in South Vietnam.

By 1961 more than half of South Vietnamese territory was under Communist control. Over the next two years President Kennedy sent sixteen thousand American soldiers as advisors to the South Vietnamese army. In May 1963 the Buddhists rebelled against Diem's tyrannical government, and monks began setting themselves on fire in protest. The United States hinted that changes in the government were needed. On the first day of November a military coup deposed Diem, and he and his brother Nhu were assassinated. Over the next year and a half the government of South Vietnam changed hands among the generals several times. In February 1964 President Lyndon Johnson issued public warnings to North Vietnam and ordered the covert bombing of Laos near the border of North Vietnam.

In August 1964 the USS Maddox was attacked while patrolling in the Gulf of Tonkin, probably in retaliation for a South Vietnamese Navy attack on an island in the north two days before. The Maddox fired back; two days later another attack was reported, though there was never any evidence that this second attack actually occurred. The US ships were not damaged nor were any Americans hurt, while they had sunk three or four of the attacking torpedo boats. Nevertheless, Johnson ordered sixty-four bombing sorties over four North Vietnamese bases, and he requested approval from Congress to use armed force. This excessive response has been considered a violation of the rules of civilized warfare as interpreted in the Nuremberg trials. Senator Wayne Morse, who had been informed by a Pentagon officer that the Maddox had been involved in covert raids of North Vietnam, objected that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave the President war-making powers without a declaration of war, and he lamented it as a historic mistake.

President Johnson was overwhelmingly elected over Goldwater's militaristic and reactionary programs, and on February 7, 1965 he ordered the bombing of North Vietnam. The next day the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) issued a statement of outrage, saying that the US was supporting dictatorship, not freedom, and was intervening in a civil war, not a war of aggression. SDS called for a march on Washington in April and protested,

We are outraged that $2 million a day
is expended for a war on the poor in Vietnam,
while government financing is so desperately needed
to abolish poverty at home.
What kind of America is it whose response to poverty
and oppression in Vietnam is napalm and defoliation?
Whose response to poverty and oppression in Mississippi is-
It is a hideously immoral war.
America is committing pointless murder.5

A graduated bombing program was begun in March, and in April the United States began sending thousands of combat troops to South Vietnam. On April 17 the SDS march brought 20,000 people to the capitol. That month Hanoi offered its proposal for a settlement consisting of four points in accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreements:

1. Recognition of Vietnamese independence and territorial integrity by withdrawal of all US forces, bases, and weapons;
2. no foreign military bases or troops in Vietnam and no military alliances for the two zones;
3. settlement of South Vietnamese affairs according to the program of the NLF; and
4. peaceful reunification of Vietnam without any foreign interference.

This proposal was rejected in Washington out of hand, because they assumed the NLF program would exclude other groups. In 1965 the Catholic Worker, the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA), the Student Peace Union (SPU), and the War Resisters League (WRL) published the "Declaration of Conscience Against the War in Vietnam," which was signed by 6,000 people including David Dellinger, Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy, Bradford Lyttle, A. J. Muste, Robert Swann, James Bevel, John Lewis, Robert Moses, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Kenneth Boulding, W. H. Ferry, Erich Fromm, Paul Goodman, Linus Pauling, and Straughton Lynd and which read as follows:

Because the use of the military resources of the United States
in Vietnam and elsewhere suppresses the aspirations
of the people for political independence and economic freedom;
Because inhuman torture and senseless killing
are being carried out by forces
armed, uniformed, trained and financed by the United States;
Because we believe that all peoples of the earth,
including both Americans and non-Americans,
have an inalienable right to life, liberty,
and the peaceful pursuit of happiness in their own way; and
Because we think that positive steps must be taken
to put an end to the threat of nuclear catastrophe and death
by chemical or biological warfare,
whether these result from accident or escalation-

We hereby declare our conscientious refusal
to cooperate with the United States government
in the prosecution of the war in Vietnam.
We encourage those who can conscientiously do so
to refuse to serve in the armed forces
and to ask for discharge if they are already in.
Those of us who are subject to the draft ourselves
declare our own intention to refuse to serve.
We urge others to refuse and refuse ourselves to take part in
the manufacture or transportation of military equipment,
or to work in the fields of military research
and weapons development.
We shall encourage the development of other nonviolent acts,
including acts which involve civil disobedience,
in order to stop the flow of American soldiers
and munitions to Vietnam.6

During Thanksgiving weekend there was another peace march in Washington, and the anti-war leaders urged the Communists to respond to American peace initiatives. Ho Chi Minh replied that the four points still held, and that the US must ease its criminal war of aggression against Vietnam. At Christmas the US temporarily halted the bombing, hoping for some capitulation from North Vietnam. Hanoi replied that the United States was thousands of miles away and had no right to invade South Vietnam or to impose conditions on the DRV.

On December 21, 1965 the United Nations passed a resolution declaring that no state has the right to intervene in the affairs of another state and condemning armed intervention, because "every state has an inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural systems, without interference in any form by another state." A Citizens' White Paper by Schurmann, Scott, and Zelnik, studying nine critical periods from November 1963 to July 1966, concluded that efforts toward a political settlement were usually retarded or broken off by American military interventions, which often resulted in escalation. The Pentagon Papers later revealed that the expanded bombing of North Vietnam was against the judgment of the US Government's own intelligence advisors, who did not believe that it would stop Hanoi's support for the Vietcong insurgency in the South.

By 1967 nearly half a million American soldiers were fighting in South Vietnam, but at home the Spring Mobilization Committee called for a bombing halt, a US-initiated cease-fire, negotiations, and a phased withdrawal of American troops. About 200,000 people marched from the United Nations building to Central Park, and in San Francisco 50,000 gathered. Some 150 conscientious objectors burned their draft cards in a public protest. Young men were encouraged to turn in their draft cards on October 16. In Oakland, California after nonviolent demonstrators were arrested, thousands of people tried to close down an army induction center; the reaction of the police resulted in a riot. Violence also occurred in Madison, Wisconsin; so SANE, SDS, and other groups declined to sponsor the Washington rally that consequently on October 20 drew only about 100,000 people.

Six days later Jesuit priest Philip Berrigan, Rev. James Mengel, Tom Lewis, and David Eberhardt poured their blood on the selective service files in the Baltimore Customs House and then waited to be arrested. On May 17, 1968 Phil and his brother Daniel Berrigan with Tom Lewis and six others used home-made napalm to burn 378 draft files of the Catonsville, Maryland draft board. In their statement to the press they explained that napalm had killed and burned so many people in Vietnam, and they noted that US nuclear and conventional weaponry exceeds that of the rest of the world. They were sentenced to three years in prison. In September 1968 fourteen people burned about 10,000 draft files in Milwaukee, and various other actions against draft files occurred around the country.

In November 1967 General Westmoreland announced that troop withdrawal could begin in 1969 if the bombing and military progress continued. However, on the Vietnamese holiday of Tet at the end of January 1968 the Vietcong (NLF) launched a massive attack on the major cities of South Vietnam. Within three weeks about 165,000 civilians had been killed, and there were two million new refugees. American forces bombed hamlets that the Vietcong occupied. A US major, looking at the devastated village of Ben Tre, said, "We had to destroy it in order to save it." The offensive, which included an invasion of the US embassy in Saigon, came as a great shock to Americans. The huge size of the action and its surprise to the Americans and South Vietnamese Army indicated that most of the people in the country were more loyal to the NLF than to the Government.

When Westmoreland and chief of staff General Wheeler asked for 200,000 more troops, President Johnson was visibly shaken and began to doubt seriously for the first time the military policies he was following. In March 1968 Senator Eugene McCarthy won a victory in the New Hampshire Presidential primary running against Johnson's Vietnam war policy. A few days later Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy. On March 31 President Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, and to begin de-escalation of the war he limited the bombing to a small strategic area. The war and the anti-war movement that had been aroused to protest it had ruined the Johnson presidency, which on domestic issues had been rather successful. In May formal negotiations began in Paris.

If Robert Kennedy had not been assassinated on the night he won the California primary on June 5, he probably would have gained the Democratic nomination and if elected, could have ended the war. Instead, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who followed Johnson's war policy, gained the nomination even though he had not won a single primary. Frustrated people protested this miscarriage of the popular will at the Democratic national convention in Chicago in August but were suppressed by the brutality of Mayor Richard Daley's police. Richard Nixon won a narrow victory over Humphrey, and under his presidency American military intervention in Indochina would drag on for five more years.

In February 1969 Nixon's national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, began arranging the secret bombing of Communist bases in Cambodia in violation of the US Constitution, which requires Congress to declare war before attacking another country. To hide these crimes, bombing pilots were ordered to bomb South Vietnam and then had their targets changed; but they still filed false reports that they had bombed South Vietnam when in reality they had bombed Cambodia. By March 1969 there were 541,000 US troops fighting in South Vietnam. From March 1969 to May 1970, the United States conducted 3,630 bombing raids on Cambodia, killing about 600,000 people there. Another 350,000 civilians were killed in Laos by US bombing.

The peace movement continued to grow and affected Nixon's policies. President Nixon wanted to strike a "savage blow" against North Vietnam in the fall of 1969 by mining Haiphong harbor and perhaps even using nuclear weapons, but the demonstrations were so large in October and November that he changed his mind for political reasons. The paid staff of 31 for the Vietnam Moratorium Committee (VMC) had been infiltrated by CIA informers. Local rallies brought out about a quarter of a million people to protest the war on October 15. On November 9 a full-page ad appeared in the New York Times signed by 1365 active duty GIs, saying, "We are opposed to American involvement in the war in Vietnam. We resent the needless wasting of lives to save face for the politicians in Washington."7 The story of the massacre of over seven hundred civilians at My Lai was exposed to public outcry. On November 15 three quarters of a million people gathered in Washington while one quarter of a million marched in San Francisco.

After Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia on April 30, 1970, student strikes were called on American college campuses. On May 4 at Kent State University in Ohio four protesting students were shot to death by national guard troops, and many other students were wounded. Within a few days over four million students at about 350 college campuses were on strike. In June the Senate repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and barred future US military operations in Cambodia without Congressional approval. By 1970 the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) had become active with creative actions such as a mock search-and-destroy operation in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They also testified that atrocities such as the My Lai massacre were not isolated cases but part of a pattern of war crimes for which they held the commanders responsible. After testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations committee in April 1971, 700 veterans angrily stated their names and flung their medals and ribbons back at the Capital. On April 24 about 300,000 demonstrated peacefully at the same time as 125,000 rallied in San Francisco. In Washington 30,000 people remained in West Potomac Park on May Day in an attempt to shut down the government. On May 2 before dawn police warned people to leave because of the use of drugs and began making arrests using plastic handcuffs. About 12,000 stayed, and by the end of the day more than 7,000 had been arrested. The arrest total for three days was about 13,000, the largest mass arrest in US history.

In June 1967 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had secretly commissioned a detailed study of the war in Vietnam by 36 Pentagon bureaucrats. In eighteen months they wrote 1.5 million words of narrative history and collected a million words in documents that covered US involvement in Vietnam from World War II to May 1968 when peace talks began in Paris. An employee of the Pentagon named Daniel Ellsberg made a copy of all this and gave it to Neil Sheehan of the New York Times, which began publishing a summary on June 13, 1971. After three installments the US Justice department got a restraining order from a Federal court. The Times and the Washington Post took the case to the US Supreme Court, which on June 30 voted 6-3 to allow publication of the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was prosecuted under the Espionage Act; but after the judge discovered that Nixon had ordered the office of his psychiatrist raided, he was released.

Adapting to public pressure, President Nixon began withdrawing US troops, but he kept the war going by bombing Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. The "Vietnamization" of the war was doomed to fail without US support. Running against the peace candidate George McGovern in 1972, Nixon promised peace. Using various illegal political tricks against his opponents that were later exposed in the Watergate scandal, Nixon gained an overwhelming electoral victory. After his 1972 Christmas bombing, several peace groups and ten religious peace groups formed the Coalition to Stop Funding the War (CSFW). A cease-fire agreement was signed in January 1973. However, it was only when the Watergate scandal began to weaken the Nixon presidency that Congress, on July 1, 1973, finally cut off all funds for any military activity in Indochina. Without American troops fighting their civil war, the government of South Vietnam could not last long. On August 9, 1974 Nixon resigned the Presidency in order to avoid being impeached. On April 21, 1975 President Thieu resigned and fled, followed a week later by his successor. On April 30 Vietnam became a unified country as US helicopters completed the evacuation of 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese, abandoning their embassy in Saigon.

American Lessons from Vietnam

What were the results of American military involvement in Vietnam? Without American support the government of South Vietnam completely collapsed by 1975. More than three million Americans were sent to Vietnam. About 58,000 were killed, and about 300,000 were wounded. A conservative estimate of civilian casualties in South Vietnam was the Senate Subcommittee on Refugees estimates of 400,000 killed, 900,000 wounded, and 6.4 million turned into refugees. The total number of people who were killed during the American-Vietnam War has been estimated between one million and three million people. The United States dropped from the air 3.2 million tons of bombs on South Vietnam, 2.1 million tons on Laos (almost one ton per person), and 340,000 tons on North Vietnam. Both Johnson and Nixon each presided over more bombing than was used by all sides in World War II. An obvious result of American military involvement is that the people of Vietnam were terribly militarized for self-defense and forced to try to solve their problems with military means. This contagion spread with the war in Cambodia, where millions more were killed in the 1970s.

In South Vietnam alone the United States government directly spent $141 billion. In a country where the per capita income was $157 per year, the US poured in the equivalent of $7,000 per person for the twenty million inhabitants. If even one-tenth of this amount had been spent helping the people of Vietnam, surely they would have become our friends; but spending it destructively resulted not only in massive killing and maiming but also in a decadent type of economy involving large amounts of graft, favoritism, prostitution, and drugs. The world's most powerful and wealthy nation was unable to defeat an army of peasants using homemade and captured weapons. Ostensibly fighting to preserve freedom, the United States propped up a series of military dictators. The American forces traveled halfway around the world to attack Vietnamese people in North and South Vietnam supposedly to protect them from "external aggression." The only conceivable external aggression, other than that of the US, was the movement of people from North Vietnam to South Vietnam; yet the basis of the Geneva Accords was that Vietnam was to be one country. Then how can the movement of Vietnamese in their own country be considered external aggression? The United States claimed it must continue the fight for its honor and the respect of its allies; yet never before has America been so dishonored or lost the respect of its allies more than it did in Vietnam.

Using the weak justification of SEATO's collective defense arrangements, the United States violated the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Accords of 1954, the Nuremberg Code, the Hague Conventions, the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the 1928 Pact of Paris, the Geneva Conventions and Genocide Convention of 1949, and the Paris agreements of 1973. International law expert Richard A. Falk noted the following illegal war policies:

1. the Phoenix Program,
2. aerial and naval bombardment of undefended villages,
3. destruction of crops and forests.
4. "search-and-destroy" missions,
5. "harassment and interdiction" fire,
6. forcible removal of civilian population,
7. reliance on a variety of weapons prohibited by treaty.

After devastating the country of Vietnam, the rich United States has not even considered paying reparations. In fact the US was the only nation out of 141 that refused to endorse a United Nations resolution urging priority economic assistance to Vietnam.

Another result is the terrible injuries, both physical and psychological, which the Vietnam veterans have suffered. The moral problems have caused severe psychological disturbances. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were trained to kill and did kill hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. When they discovered it was for no good reason, the remorse, grief, guilt, anger, frustration, and resentment erupted. By 1980 the number of veterans, who had committed suicide, was already larger than the number of Americans killed in Vietnam. The veterans bear the heaviest psychological burden. Yet all Americans were responsible, especially the politicians and officers who gave the orders.

The only restraints on US military escalation were the fear of a conflict with China or the Soviet Union and the conscience of the American public as represented in the peace movement. During the Vietnam War about 170,000 young American men were granted Conscientious Objector (CO) status by their draft boards or from the military, and some 300,000 applied but were denied the deferment. The number of men who illegally avoided the draft has been estimated at 600,000, and about a third of these were formally charged. About 40,000 fled to Canada, while another 20,000 escaped to other countries or hid from authorities in the United States. The number of COs increased from 18,000 in 1964 to 61,000 in 1971, and the number of prosecutions went from 340 in 1965 to 5,000 for the year 1972. About 17,000 in the military applied to be Conscientious Objectors.

Noting that anti-war demonstrators did not kill a single person during the period the US Government killed hundreds of thousands in Indochina, Fred Halstead summarized the accomplishments of the anti-war movement as breaking the spell of anti-Communist hysteria, increasing healthy skepticism of political leaders, changing the stereotype of soldiers as obedient pawns, becoming reluctant to engage in military adventures abroad, and expanding social reform movements to issues of foreign policy. For the first time in American history the people successfully challenged the government's right to wage war.

Why, then, did America get bogged down in the quagmire of Vietnam for so long at such great cost? After World War II the United States became the greatest power in the history of the world. The abuse of greatness is the abuse of the power. America thought it could do no wrong. At the same time Americans had a tremendous fear of Communism. Historically, it took a decade and a half before the US even recognized the Soviet Union and more than two decades before it recognized nearly a billion people in China. With a world-wide military force the United States was arrogant enough to think that it could stop Communism by force of arms. Psychologically there was the irrational fear that if America did not intervene, somehow Communism would take over the world. The Soviet empire was likewise afraid of encroachment through Korea or eastern Europe and therefore took steps to place a protective ring around itself, while the United States has protective military bases all around the world.

Because of this combination of American power, fear of Communism, and self-righteous concepts about capitalist democracy, the US foolishly tried to set up a non-Communist government in a country that was trying to free itself from French colonialism by a combination of nationalistic independence and Marxist ideology. Politicians apparently believed that only by the influence of its military power could the United States try to hold back the tide of political revolution and national independence in Vietnam.

What are the lessons for the future that Americans and others can learn? Military methods ultimately do not solve political and social problems. Independence and self-determination are best attained without military interference. Military methods only militarize the opposition and escalate violence so that peaceful solutions are more unattainable. The security of the United States and its allies is not really threatened by what goes on in small underdeveloped countries. Nuclear weapons are of no use in these situations. Armed intervention will eventually backfire. The US has no legal right to be a policeman in another country. The veterans can teach others of the horrors and agonies of war. The American people must not allow the President to go astray while intoxicated with power. An effective peace movement can dramatically influence political policies. Finally, every person has the responsibility to refuse to support an illegal and immoral war.


1. Vietnam: A History in Documents ed. Gareth Porter, p. 30
2. Ho Chi Minh, On Revolution, p. 161.
3. Viet-Nam Crisis: A Documentary History, Volume 1: 1940-1956, p. 148.
4. Vietnam: A History in Documents ed. Gareth Porter, p. 206.
5. Out Now! A Participant's Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War by Fred Halstead, p. 35.
6. Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History ed. Straughton and Alice Lynd, p. 270-271.
7. Out Now! A Participant's Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War by Fred Halstead, p. 504.

Copyright © 2003-2005 by Sanderson Beck

This is a chapter in World Peace Efforts Since Gandhi, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Gandhi's Nonviolent Revolution
Wilson and the League of Nations
United Nations and Human Rights
United Nations Peacekeeping
Einstein and Schweitzer on Peace in the Atomic Age
Pacifism of Bertrand Russell and A. J. Muste
Clark-Sohn Plan for World Law and Disarmament
King and the Civil Rights Movement
Lessons of the Vietnam War
Women for Peace
Anti-Nuclear Protests
Resisting Wars in Central America
Gorbachev and Ending the Cold War
Mandela and Freeing South Africa
Chomsky and Zinn on US Imperialism
Protesting the Bush-Iraq Wars
Nonviolent Revolution for Global Justice
Appendix: My Efforts for World Peace


Chronology of Peacemaking

BECK index