A Fly’s Eye View of America’s War Against Vietnam, Part One
A War of Unlimited Opportunity
Photo from National Archives
The US invaded Vietnam publicly in the “wake” of the so-called Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964. Since then this action by the US regime is customarily dignified by the term “intervention”. Although the pretext for the congressional resolution was at least suspicious then and long since discredited as fraudulent, the perception of the war as an “intervention” is still widely shared. “Intervention” is itself a term of deception. It implies that the US was an intervener, that it joined a pre-existing dispute lending an air of impartiality or indifference to the substance, even worse—that it had no prior role in the dispute or relationship to the parties. The failure (refusal) to seek an explicit constitutionally defined framework; e.g., a declaration of war or other legal status, reinforces the belief that the US invasion was spontaneous, a reaction rather than a planned measure. The absence of any unequivocal legal instrument directing the US president to act also guaranteed what became a virtually unrestricted field of discretion for the executive in the conduct of operations (overt and covert) in Indochina. This omission imposed a burden upon all opponents of the war to seek specific remedies; e.g., singular prohibitions, denial of funds or rejection of appointments. In other words it pre-shaped the constitutional resistance to the war from the beginning.
It also shaped the language and scope of action for the political opposition in the country as a whole.
Already the war against Korea and the great purge, commonly associated with Senator McCarthy, had established the new terms of reference for US Asia-Pacific policy. By conflating the theatre conflict the US was conducting against the Soviet Union in Europe with all other foreign expeditionary aims, the well-cultivated antagonism toward the Soviet Union was transferred to US foreign policy as a whole. Prior to 1945, the US regime had relied upon the navy and marines to execute foreign policy. Thus most violence was wreaked by volunteer and elite forces with which the general public had very little contact. Very little attention was paid to Latin America and the Philippines. Only Mexico served as a venue for publicity and promotion of military careers. When the US invaded Korea in 1945 little attention was devoted to the activities of either the US Military Government in Korea (USMGK) or the driving force in Asia—Douglas MacArthur’s vice-royalty in Tokyo with its plans for expansion into China. It took the surprise battle between the army of the PDRK and the surrogate army of US vassal Syngman Rhee to force the regime into its first major propaganda campaign since Pearl Harbor in 1941. Truman’s officials claimed that communists had invaded the South—implying that they were anything but Koreans—and that the US was obliged to aid its man in Seoul by mobilising US forces to defend South Korea from the communists. The communists had already seized China and forced the Chinese into exile on the island of Formosa. There was immanent danger of all Asia being conquered by foreigners (communists) and the fact that the South had to combat a fully-armed force of regular soldiers meant that this was a threat to world peace triggering United Nations action. The Koreans living in the North, separated by US fiat from the rest of their country including families, were decreed en masse to be communist non-persons and white Americans had been urged to fanatical hatred of communists, esp. as non-Americans, the extermination of which became a self-evident and holy cause.
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution pre-empted any need to appeal to international bodies, gave the executive carte blanche to wage war (albeit without calling it that) and served as proof that Americans must support their leaders in the elimination of the communist threat. That threat was a fantasy, a propaganda contrivance, and it remained an effective device for controlling the scope of dissent in the US and its vassal states. It was so effective that most of the debate in the US at least focused not on the US invasion, slaughter and destruction of Vietnam (or Korea before that) but whether the enemy or the opposition was really communist or whether there was an alternative to annihilating communists or whether communists could be converted from the errors of their ways. Part of this continuing idiocy, even found among bona fide opponents of the war, is that not even actual regime policy is consistently anti-communist. The propaganda is so effective in stipulating the terms of reference for US foreign policy that “communism” is reified as true movement challenging Americans when it is nothing of the sort.
A basic Cold War tenet—again very widely accepted in the US—was that the emergence of independent countries from the remains of European empires had to be protected from an expanding Soviet Union. To render this model plausibility, the emerging states were compared with Eastern Europe, where supposedly the Soviet Union had unilaterally conquered Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and the Baltic States. This historical distortion could be sold in part because the US regime had a substantial contingent of refugees from these countries, including Nazi collaborators, who could promote this image from posts in academia and the media. No amount of appeals, argument or facts, even from people like Kwame Nkrumah or Ho Chi Minh who had lived in the US and admired it, could overcome the disinformation used by the US government and US corporations to depict any nationalist leader not utterly subservient to Washington or New York as a stooge of Moscow and the international communist conspiracy. The usual responses of domestic opposition to this form of international red-baiting were either to insist that the country’s leader was not a communist or to advocate more support to insulate the country from Marxist influence. Another option deemed acceptable by liberal opponents of a leader or party on the US regime’s black list is to encourage also official support of alternatives that could dilute the supposed concentration of power and engender a competitive system like in the US (despite the fact that the US system itself is anything but competitive).
Despite the declassification of numerous foreign policy documents (e.g. NSC 68) produced before the US war against Korea, the public debate, whether among academics or laypeople, still focuses on such issues as a) was there a communist threat in fact? b) was there a risk to other countries and to the region as a whole that had to be prevented or minimised? c) did US action actually serve to check (contain), if not rollback (imputed) Soviet and/or Chinese expansionism? Subsidiary justification for “intervention” was found in the need to deter future threats and to demonstrate the will and ability to fulfil obligations (to whom?) as “champion or guarantor of the free world”. Walt Rostow’s “stages of development” theory provided an additional argument for US intervention in order to protect new nations in their initial stages so that they would mature into the right kind of political-economic entities. To do this the US regime would guarantee the country at whose invitation it came, freedom from foreign interference (the US itself was never foreign) while it developed the capacities to reach its national goals. The fiction of “invitation” could provide the trigger for either unilateral intervention or application of one of the US post-war vassal systems; e.g. NATO, SEATO etc.
Any explanation as to how the US regime could wage this war for some thirty years with virtually no domestic opposition must give due weight to the language used to control both private and public responses to the regime’s actions—both in Vietnam and at home. It is not accidental or trivial that the events in Indochina were almost never called a war. It was always an “intervention”, a “conflict”, or a “quagmire” from which finally the US had to “extricate itself”, to “withdraw”, to “reduce its exposure”, to “get out”. Even as the last US Americans and their Vietnamese retainers were being ferried out of Saigon forty years ago, there was no talk of surrender. Richard Nixon always spoke of “peace with honour”: this is the perfume of a bully applied to the skin of a coward.
As far as the White House, the Congress, the military and other government agencies were concerned the US was never a party to the war, merely an intervener. Hence it had no obligations or responsibilities to either of the principals. The US essentially used a shell company to conduct the war and through fraudulent bankruptcy to escape the duties incumbent upon a vanquished aggressor.
Thirty years later this was still the dominant perspective and hence the implicit policy of the US regime (e.g. promised reparations never paid) toward the people and government of Vietnam. For US Americans, the war against Vietnam is still seen primarily as a misguided intrusion in a war the Vietnamese should have been able to fight among themselves. When critics of US policy get serious they say the same things about Vietnam and all subsequent US wars—when the US military does not prevail. Namely, US “hubris”—meanwhile also a cliché—led the US government to believe it knew best and was capable of imposing a solution to other people’s problems.
All these arguments, however, are beside the point. They only serve to obfuscate, conceal or simply deny the essential facts of the war against Vietnam. First, it was an invasion and war against the Vietnamese people as a whole, extending to all of Indochina. Second, it was a unilateral action by the US regime, neither provoked nor unplanned. Thirdly, it was neither a unique nor necessary action.
In fact, the US war against Vietnam was consistent with the basic pattern of colonial warfare that shaped the white-settler republic when it was founded. As in all US wars against non-whites, the strategy and tactics derive from the fundamental principles of white America: Negro slavery and annihilation of indigenous peoples. The arrival of advisors in Vietnam was not an isolated security action. The US regime was simultaneously active throughout Southeast Asia, in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, together with its only real ally in the region—the Chinese gangster fascists of the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek that had been driven to Formosa in 1949.
The domino theory, popularised by President Eisenhower, was—as is so often the case with US policy pronouncements—a deceptive reversal of perspective. US Asia – Pacific policy after the defeat of Japan (from which the Soviet Union was deliberately excluded) was to start from Japan and capture all the countries needed to feed it, while preparing to open the door to China as wide as possible for US corporations. The reversal in Korea was seen as the harbinger of future failures once China had been lost to Mao. At the same time as the US was murdering some three million Koreans and levelling every town and city north of the 38th parallel, MacArthur’s friends on Formosa were hoping they could sufficiently ingratiate Washington to have a sign off on—if need be even nuclear—restoration to the mainland. This “unknown war” was the template for US policy in Vietnam but since hardly any American has a clue about the US war in Korea they believe Vietnam was a unique and isolated case—an anomaly and misadventure for US Americans.
U.S. Navy Grumman A-6A Intruder aircraft from attack squadron VA-196 Main Battery dropping Mk 82 227 kg (500 lbs) bombs over Vietnam • Photo by U.S. Navy
Korea was divided by the US. The popular government already in place when US forces invaded was deposed and a fascist, educated by US Christian missionaries, named Sygman Rhee was installed. Rhee proceeded with US help to wage a major counter-insurgency to destroy peasant resistance to further expropriation of their rice crops to feed the Japanese. When the Korean army in the North under Kim Il Sung marched into Seoul they were greeted as liberators who chased the hated Rhee into the protection of the US military. Truman used subterfuge (as Johnson would later) to get a UN blanket and also avoid a declaration of war before unleashing the most vicious bombing campaign ever waged on a country with no air defence and no air force. The bombing was so comprehensive that when someone in the National Security Council suggested using an atomic bomb against the North, Dean Rusk said that made no sense since the US Air Force had already destroyed everything in the North that an atomic bomb could hit.
Despite MacArthur throwing every conceivable conventional weapon into the battle, massive troop deployments, endless saturation bombing and murderous covert action against the civilian population (all to reappear in Vietnam), the North Koreans forced the US Forces out of the North before a ceasefire was declared. The war has yet to end and the US has drawn one lesson from it: South Korea can only be controlled by full-scale military occupation. That occupation continues to this day—with the largest contingent of US military forces outside of the continental US based in South Korea.
After this humiliating defeat only hedged by the presence of a huge standing army on the peninsula, the US regime feared their hopes of absorbing French Indochina would also be dashed. No one among the US ruling elite wanted to see Indochina go the way of Korea. On the other hand everyone responsible for policy in Korea (and Dean Rusk was one of the most important people with Korea experience) knew that they could not hold Vietnam if China intervened. Hence the pretence that at best a limited war would be waged in Indochina to avoid “great power confrontation” was a deceptive statement of policy at best.
The US had brokered Japanese colonisation of Korea at the end of the Russo-Japanese War. Koreans became slaves of the Japanese and Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Proof that even making a presidential warmonger into a Nobel laureate has its precedent.) Japan used the South as a breadbasket to provide cheap food for its own population and taking advantage of mineral wealth and water, industrialised the North. When MacArthur arrived in the capital of his expanded Pacific vice-royalty, it became clear that cheap food would have to flow to Japan if the economy was to be rebuilt as planned. The USMGK arrived in Seoul and helped assure that the rice crop in the South was faithfully delivered to Japan. Korean peasants could starve, and did.
Essentially the same process occurred in Indochina, except the French had control over the rice export from Vietnam along with exploitation of other sources of wealth. When Japan invaded, Vichy joined with the Japanese Empire and continued to make money. However, when the war ended France was poorly equipped to maintain control of its Asian colony. Finally France appealed to the US for support. Although the US financed the restored colonial regime, its Asia-Pacific policy anticipated US displacement of Europeans. The French surrendered, leaving the “shell company”, the Republic of Vietnam in Saigon, which the US continued to fund. There were no plans to alter the economic relationships that had made rice exports profitable business. Things had changed in Asia since the ceasefire in Korea. No doubt the regime in Washington, now resigned to the Chinese Revolution—even if the government in Peking was not recognised—hoped to develop an economical means of stabilising a US vassal in the South, like in Korea, but without going to war against China again.
Why were so many official and semi-official discussions about the need for US presence in Vietnam focused on “credibility”? The answer I believe is simple. The cost of the war in Korea was enormous (and with the occupation remained so). A major political purge was necessary to prevent opposition to more war from destabilising the US regime itself. As exaggerated as this may sound, the classified decisions of the National Security Council acknowledged the need for massive military expenditure to prevent the economy from reverting to its 1930s depression. They also reflected an awareness that without military force (both overt and covert) the US could not continue to control and consume the current disproportionate amount of the world’s resources. The people in Washington—in other words the bureaucratic apparatus of the US corporate state—had to reassure the ruling class for which it works that the State has the ways and means to impose the political, social, and economic priorities of US corporations and the class that dominate them. This obviously meant the capacity to intimidate peoples and countries whose resources are targeted. The great danger for Washington was that having set the target of absorbing Europe’s empires after World War II, it would lack the force needed to maintain that control. Since it is impossible to say this openly in the US—hence also the classification of such NSC documents—it has been necessary to create and maintain another discourse that carefully separates economic, political and social issues. In the US, race plays a very crucial role in upholding these cognitive barriers—in preventing open discussion of class or capitalism or the nature of the plutocracy that rules the US. Race—specifically the constant terror waged against African-Americans—is used to consolidate the fictive “white race” which in turn can identify with the “white” ruling class as opposed to the black descendants of slaves. The complement of race is ethnicity. At the same time as African-Americans are terrorised in order to constitute “whiteness”, ethnicity helps constitute patriotism. Prior to the Russian Revolution, Americans were to be separated from anarchists. After 1917 Americans were to be separated from communists. Anarchism and communism were defined as foreign and usually associated with specific ethnic groups imported as labourers to the US from Europe. (Asians were subjected to the race code.) American patriots could license or even abandon their ethnicity by dogmatic compliance with US political orthodoxy, especially abandoning their mother tongue along with any European ideas they had brought with them (unless, of course, they were monarchist or fascist).
Hence at the outbreak of peace in 1945, the US corporate elite was acutely aware not only of an impending collapse in the rate and amount of profit the administered wage and price regime had assured during the war. They were also faced with global resurgence of revolutionary and nationalist movements—especially among the inferior coloured races. This could (and did) catalyse radicals and African-Americans and Native Americans in the US. So it was war abroad and the great purge with Senator Joseph McCarthy as its poster child and the Klan as its Southern delivery boys. While the suppression of political radicalism among whites was successful, the defeat of the Black liberation movement in the US required more time and a very nasty covert campaign, including imprisonment, detention, torture and assassination. While CIA advisors were developing what would be called the Phoenix Program in Vietnam—an improvement and systematic organisation of the methods used in Korea—the FBI, together with Army Intelligence and local police forces, were waging a counter-insurgency equivalent against Blacks and indigenous people in the US. Even liberal youth were targeted; e.g., the students assassinated during the notorious demonstration at Kent State university.
Until World War II, wars among whites were essentially waged in order to divide or re-divide colonies and protectorates. After WWI Germany had been excluded from the international community (of colonial empires). Britain and France eliminated all the other European colonial competitors with the help of the US and by promoting ethnic nationalism among the multi-ethnic Central powers. This created a new group of national states and institutionalised them within what became the League of Nations. When the German industrial and financial elite decided to recapture its imperial prerogatives—of which it had been unjustly deprived by the Anglo-French armistice terms, the now inconvenient nationalism was brushed aside so that Nazi Germany could exploit Eastern Europe rather than threaten Anglo-French overseas interests. In the Asia-Pacific region (and Africa) it should be noted concessions to nationalism were scarcely considered—this was a white man’s prerogative. World War II was another matter entirely. The US emerged richer and unscathed with its long sought-after control of Japan and the old empires hopelessly indebted to US bankers. The nationalism in Eastern Europe that had been abandoned to pacify Hitler and encourage his campaign against the Soviet Union was now useful again to attack the temporary ally and revive the US “open door policy” in the dependencies of its biggest debtors. Hence the United Nations Charter entrenched national self-determination for the first time in terms potentially applicable to non-whites. It was almost impossible to avoid since the war had generated an enormous British trade deficit in favour of India, its greatest imperial (and non-white) possession. With Indian independence the white privilege of dominion status or even complete independence could no longer be defended—financially or ideologically. The same process unfolded in the French empire. Territorial colonialism was with very few exceptions doomed.
The US accomplished a major ideological innovation during WWI, the fruits of which only became apparent after 1945. Until the end of the 19th century US imperialism was expressed mainly in killing Native Americans, taking their land and working it with slaves or European immigrant labour. In the West, Mexicans and Chinese were used instead of African slaves or European immigrants. Overseas colonial enterprise was undertaken by US corporations or pirates who, when in need of help, called in the US Marine Corps or a few naval ships. This was corporate conquest and was state-subsidised but not state-sponsored or administered. Essentially US colonial enterprise followed the model of the British East India Company, even employing company armies or buying the local government for the same purpose. Hence the US regime had almost no colonial bureaucracy to maintain with taxes. This was the model that the US pursued after 1945: after forcing open the doors of its European rivals, it protected its corporations while they invaded and extracted everything they could get out of the target country without any traces of an imperial government. People could learn to hate United Fruit and still love “the American way of life”. The “American way of life” was not obviously racist since it was not the same as the British or French lifestyle visible in all their colonies. It had been marketed successfully despite the vicious racism prevailing in the US itself. When linked with the promises of the United Nations Charter it inspired people to imagine independence and prosperity that had previously been reserved only to the white races and nations. They were repeated endlessly and more than a few nationalists from Africa and Asia went home to believe that the US would champion true independence and progress.
Given this impressive marketing accomplishment and the expectations it awakened throughout the world, US Asia – Pacific policy could not be articulated in the terms used by its European predecessors. Another US advantage was that it was formally free of monarchs and emperors. The term “empire” just did not seem to fit.
US domination after the Creel Committee expressed itself foremost in psychological terms.) The aim of US imperialism became the control of people not territory. Rather than importing an extension of feudal forms, the regime fosters private property (mainly for its corporations) and the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the “American way of life”. The “American way of life” is an integrated discipline including economic and psychological coercion/bribery and backed by a covert, largely corporate force. Its principal instruments are private ownership and “autistic” individualism. Thus it is a totalising and totalitarian worldview—to see life as American without actually being an American requires a vast array of consumption habits, social rituals, and obsession with personal liberty as opposed to healthy social organisation. Hence when the “enemy” was conceived in order to give content to the all-encompassing fear of “communism”, a caricature emerged: the extreme opposite of this “American way of life”. Neither Americans nor anyone else can actually find a communist or communism that fits the image propagated by the regime. The simple reason is there is no counter-ideology constituted solely by the negation of this marketing product. Communism for the US regime and its praetorian guard around the globe is nothing more than a label for the enemy which in order to appear convincing must threaten the subject population with the loss of something they value. Since not everyone values the same elements of the “American way of life” the regime is forced to defend them all at once and punish any and every heresy—like its ideological ancestor the Roman Catholic Church, selling salvation (for money) or torturing and executing those who failed to show adequate enthusiasm for the faith.
The first war in Vietnam the one fought for credibility, to oppose communism, to defend the American way of life or “freedom”—this was a crusade in the most medieval sense of the word. It was a summons to white folks (although disproportionately more coloured folks died) to punish heretics, to bring salvation to Vietnam by subjecting the entire country to an auto de fé. As Michael McClintock called the policy: convert or annihilate. Of course, in an auto de fé one does both.
This article originally appeared on DissidentVoice.org.