The media depicted the war as a “quagmire” begun by “right-wing hawks” who wanted to stop the spread of communism. They said the war was “unwinnable,” dragged out because the “hawks” were too proud to pull our troops out, our military having underestimated the determination of Ho Chi Minh’s forces. Here’s what the media omitted: The roots of the Vietnam disaster trace to World War II. At the “Big Three” conferences at Teheran and Yalta, President Roosevelt asked Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin if he would break his nonaggression pact with Japan and enter the Pacific war. Stalin agreed – on condition that the US supply him with all the weapons and materiel his Far Eastern army would need for the expedition. Roosevelt agreed, and some 600 shiploads of Lend-Lease supplies were sent to Russia to equip the Soviet army to fight Japan. The Vietnam conflict was also allowed to continue to weaken the resistance of Americans against any type of war or fight against communism.
After more than fifty years, new and explosive information has emerged from Presidential library files and CIA confidential records. Americans never knew what was happening in Vietnam and neither did the men who were on the ground doing the fighting and dying. Discipline became almost non-existent and fragging became a major issue as back home the United States approached a state of near revolution. The young were not willing to risk their lives for a cause they did not understand nor believe in.
In his book “Vietnam Exposed,” author Frank Newby traces the story from its beginning with the Catholic French planters and peasant slavery to the fight for their independence which led to the incursion of the communist agitators. The people of French Indochina were not communists. They were slaves of the Catholic Church trying to secure their freedom. They followed the leader who offered the best opportunity. America sided with the French exploiters and the peasants sided with the communists who offered them an opportunity to break free. America did not stop the spread of communism, it aided and abetted it by flawed policies and inept leadership. This book exposes all the flaws and mistakes which were perpetrated by our politicians with flawed logic and advice who did not know or understand history or try to find peaceful paths to a solution.
How the U.S. Navy Sold the Vietnam War
Dr. Tom Dooley, whose best-selling book “Deliver Us From Evil” helped create a favorable climate of opinion for U.S. intervention in South Vietnam, has long been linked to legendary CIA officer Edward G. Lansdale and his black operations in Vietnam between 1954 and 1955. But the real story about Dooley’s influential book, which has finally emerged from more recent scholarly research, is that it was engineered by an official of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Command, Capt. William Lederer.
Lederer is best known as the co-author, with Eugene Burdick, of the 1958 novel “The Ugly American,” which was turned into a 1963 movie starring Marlon Brando. Far more important, however, is the fact that from 1951 through 1957 Capt. Lederer was on the staff of the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), Adm. Felix Stump.
The Pacific Command was intensely interested in Dooley, because the U.S. Navy had the greatest stake of all the military services in the outcome of the conflict between the communists and U.S.-backed anti-communist regimes in Vietnam and China during the mid-1950s. And the Pacific Command was directly involved in the military planning for war in both cases.
Adm. Arthur Radford, the former CINCPAC and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led the senior officials pressing President Dwight D. Eisenhower to approve a massive U.S. airstrike against the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in April 1954. And between 1954 and 1955, Adm. Stump called for increasing the size of the Nationalist Chinese raids on the Chinese mainland from offshore islands. He also pushed for a U.S. attack on the mainland, including the use of nuclear weapons, if necessary, to defend those same offshore islands.
The key tactic of the Lansdale team was to print a series of “black propaganda” leaflets—designed to appear as though they came from the Viet Minh—to frighten residents of the North into leaving for South Vietnam. The most dramatic such deception involved spreading the rumor that the U.S. military was going to bomb Hanoi, a story that was further promoted by leaflets showing concentric circles of destruction of the city by an atomic bomb.
Lt. Tom Dooley, a young Irish Catholic Navy doctor, was “loaned” by the U.S. Navy to Lansdale for the operation, although Dooley apparently thought the team’s function was to gather intelligence. Dooley’s job was ostensibly to manage medical supplies needed for the movement of North Vietnamese to the South, but in fact Dooley functioned as the team’s propagandist, briefing visiting news media and sending out out reports through Catholic media in the United States that supported the CIA’s anti-Viet Minh mission.
Lederer quickly recognized Dooley as a potentially valuable propaganda asset because of his connection with Vietnamese Catholics and his penchant for telling tales of Viet Minh atrocities. It was Lederer who suggested that Dooley write a book about his experiences with North Vietnamese refugees who wanted to move to the South. The Navy gave him a leave of absence to write it, and Lederer became Dooley’s handler for the project. Dooley was a charismatic public speaker but needed Lederer’s help with writing. Lederer also introduced Dooley to Reader’s Digest—by far the most popular magazine in America, with 20 million readers. Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke officially embraced the book and even wrote the introduction to it.
Reader’s Digest published a highly condensed 27-page version of the book in its April 1956 edition, and Farrar, Straus and Cudahy immediately published the full-length version. It became a runaway bestseller, going through twelve printings.
The constantly reiterated theme of Dooley’s book “Deliver Us From Evil” was that the Ho Chi Minh government was determined to suppress the Catholic faith in Vietnam and used torture and other atrocities to terrorize Catholics into submission. That was a grotesque distortion of actual Viet Minh policy. The Ho Chi Minh government had worked hard from the beginning of the war to ensure that there was no interference with Catholics’ exercise of their faith, even establishing severe legal penalties on any infringement of that freedom.
But Dooley’s book was full of lurid descriptions of North Vietnamese Communist atrocities against Catholics that Dooley claimed to have known about from treating the victims. It told of the Viet Minh having partially torn off the ears of several teenagers with pliers and left them dangling—supposedly as punishment for their having listened to the Lord’s Prayer.
And he described the Viet Minh taking seven youths out of their classroom and forcing wooden chopsticks through their eardrums. The children, he wrote, had been accused of “treason” for having attended a religious class at night. As for the teacher, Dooley claimed the Viet Minh had used pliers to pull out his tongue, as punishment for having taught the religious class.
But it was widely recognized within the U.S. government that these stories were false. Six U.S. Information Agency officials who had been in North Vietnam during that period, as well as former Navy corpsmen who had worked in the Haiphong camp with Dooley, all said they had never heard of any such events. And in 1992 Lederer himself, who had made 25 fact-finding trips to Vietnam since 1951, told an interviewer, “[T]hose things never happened. … I traveled all over the country and never saw anything like them.”
Many years later, in an interview with scholar Edward Palm, Lederer disclaimed any significant influence on the content or tone of Dooley’s book, even though Dooley had credited Lederer with helping put the book in final form. Lederer also told Palm he didn’t remember any such stories appearing in the first draft of the book he read.
But Palm, who obtained the first draft of the manuscript from Dooley’s papers, confirmed to this writer that the first draft did contain those stories of atrocities. And Palm’s monograph documented the fact that the last draft chapter was dated the end of July 1955 and that communications from both men at the time indicated that Lederer had met repeatedly with Dooley during June and July to help him finish the draft.
Palm also quoted from Dooley’s first draft to show that it concluded with a call for Americans to be ready for a U.S. war against communism. If negotiations with the Soviet Union failed to bring “lasting peace,” Dooley’s draft warned, “Communism will have to be fought with arms … it must be annihilated….” Dooley concluded, “[T]here can be no concessions, no compromise and no coexistence.”
Palm pointed out that the published version of the book dropped that rabidly warlike rhetoric and instead introduced a new character named “Ensign Potts” to represent the view that America must be ready to fight a war to destroy communism. The role of the “Potts” character was to be converted to Dooley’s argument that service to the ordinary Vietnamese would be the most effective way to prevail in the Cold War—after Dooley’s tearful recounting of the story of the Viet Minh puncturing the Catholic youths’ ears with chopsticks, reduced “Potts” to tears as well.
Lederer and Burdick popularized the idea that personal kindness to the people of Southeast Asia from American could help defeat Communism in “The Ugly American” and that same idea infused Lederer’s own March 1955 Reader’s Digest article on the interactions between U.S. sailors and Vietnamese aboard a U.S. Navy ship. Lederer told Palm in a 1996 interview that he had suggested that Dooley model his book on that article.
Palm wrote that he didn’t believes Lederer’s personal preference was to promote a U.S. war in Vietnam. But Lederer had obviously approved Dooley’s portrayal of the Vietnamese Communists as an alien horde terrorizing the Catholics. Catholics were the fastest-growing religious denomination in America from 1940 to 1960, during which time their numbers doubled, and Dooley’s message was an obvious way of mobilizing American Catholics to support Adm. Stump and the Navy’s agenda for Vietnam.
Marine Lt. Col. William Corson, who was detailed to the CIA during much of his career and knew Dooley during the writing of his book, told fellow former Marine Edward Palm in a 1997 telephone interview, “Dooley was programmed toward a particular end.” He did not say specifically what that end was, but he appeared to mean building popular support for U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
While on a nationwide book tour, Dooley was one of the featured speakers at the first conference of The American Friends of Vietnam—later known as the “Vietnam Lobby”—in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 1956. The meeting was held at a crucial moment in U.S. Vietnam policy. Eisenhower was still supporting the election for a government throughout Vietnam as called for by the 1954 Geneva Agreement, with strict conditions for a free vote. Meanwhile, hardliners in the administration were pushing for opposing that election outright on the ground that Ho Chi Minh would certainly win it, regardless of conditions.
Dooley’s contribution was to describe “Communism” as an “evil, driving, malicious ogre” and recount the “hideous atrocities that we witnessed in our camps every single day.” And he retold the story of the Viet Minh punishing the schoolchildren by puncturing their eardrums.
A few weeks after the meeting, Eisenhower reversed his previous position of supporting the all-Vietnamese Vietnamese, opening the path to deeper U.S. political and military intervention in Vietnam.
Dooley had just learned that his secret life as a gay man in the Navy had been discovered by Naval intelligence, and he was forced to quietly resign. At Lansdale’s suggestion, Leo Cherne of the International Rescue Committee helped Dooley establish a primitive medical clinic near the Chinese border in northern Laos. But Dooley had to agree to cooperate with CIA in Laos by allowing it to smuggle arms into the site of the clinic to eventually be distributed to local anti-Communist militiamen.
The Dooley Clinic in Laos helped make him a hugely popular celebrity, with two more best-selling books, feature stories in popular magazines and network television appearances. By the time Dooley died of cancer in 1961, a Gallup Poll found that Americans viewed him as the third most admired person in the world, after Eisenhower and the pope. But his role in the larger tragedy of U.S. war in Indochina was to serve as the instrument of a highly successful campaign by the U.S. Navy to create the first false propaganda narrative of the conflict—one that has endured for most of Dooley’s fans for decades.
But Dooley’s popularity and saintly image increased the power of his tales of Viet Minh atrocities against Catholics that represented the first major false U.S. propaganda narrative of the Vietnam conflict—one that helped build public support for the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam that began under President John F Kennedy in 1962.
On Aug. 10, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution though he knew its justification was based entirely on deception. Indeed, it was a continuation of a pattern of deception begun with a series of clandestine acts of war against North Vietnam by U.S. forces known as “Oplan 34-A.”
Oplan 34-A consisted of sabotage and psychological warfare attacks directed against and into North Vietnamese territory. This reality was only brought to light seven bloody years later with the release of the “Pentagon Papers” by courageous whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.
These deceptions, culminating with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, triggered an unwinnable war fought entirely on false pretenses and further deceptions of the American people until defeat could no longer be postponed.
Yet, in addition to the massive loss of life and irreparable wounds to so many participants , along with the enormous economic costs, the other U.S. victim of the Vietnam War was the U.S. Constitution itself. Specifically, it was the Bill of Rights, which, taken together, provide the American people the “right to know.”
The Bill of Rights was enacted so the U.S. citizenry could act as “centinels,” as James Madison put it, over government officials, including intelligence and military officials, not the opposite. This was to protect the Republic against both perfidious and incompetent officials.
But officials during the Vietnam War worked to turn that principle upside-down. These officials would succeed in institutionalizing within the military their belief that the “people” themselves couldn’t be trusted with information of what was being done in their name.
Military and intelligence leaders saw the need for themselves and their institutions to act as “sentinels” over the citizens so civilians could never again appreciably interfere with the military’s contemplation, planning or conduct of a “war.” The constitutional right to know became the “center of gravity,” the main target, for the military’s effort to suppress any future civilian “interference” with the military, a strategy that violated the very purpose of the Constitution.
Beyond infringing on the constitutional right of the American people to know what their government is doing, this reversal of who is supposed to control whom also came at the cost of national security. The “right to know” is not a mere privilege or luxury Americans have as a birthright; it is in the Constitution as part of the system of checks and balances the Framers created to provide for the “common defence,” and has been the greatest strength the U.S. has had through its history, as other militaristic regimes that have come and gone show.
Opening the Gates of Hell on Vietnam
In Kill Anything that Moves, Nick Turse put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth. Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.
It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality — an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground — had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers — for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.
Yet it would not have been enough to simply accumulate anecdotal evidence of abuses. Therefore, while providing an abundance of firsthand accounts, he has supplemented this approach. Like a fabric, a social reality — a town, a university, a revolution, a war — has a pattern and a texture. No fact is an island. Each one is rich in implications, which, so to speak, reach out toward the wider area of the surrounding facts. When some of these other facts are confirmed, they begin to reveal the pattern and texture in question.
Turse repeatedly invites us to ask what sort of larger picture each story implies. For example, he writes:
“If one man and his tiny team could claim more KIAs [killed in action] than an entire battalion without raising red flags among superiors; if a brigade commander could up the body count by picking off civilians from his helicopter with impunity; if a top general could institutionalize atrocities through the profligate use of heavy firepower in areas packed with civilians — then what could be expected down the line, especially among heavily armed young infantrymen operating in the field for weeks, angry, tired, and scared, often unable to locate the enemy and yet relentlessly pressed for kills?”
Like a tightening net, the web of stories and reports drawn from myriad sources coalesces into a convincing, inescapable portrait of this war — a portrait that, as an American, you do not wish to see; that, having seen, you wish you could forget, but that you should not forget; and that the facts force you to see and remember and take into account when you ask yourself what the United States has done and been in the last half century, and what it still is doing and still is.
Scorched Earth in I Corps
My angle of vision on these matters is a highly particular one. In early August 1967, I arrived in I Corps, the northernmost district of American military operations in what was then South Vietnam. I was there to report for the New Yorker on the “air war.” The phrase was a misnomer. The Vietnamese foe, of course, had no assets in the air in the South, and so there was no “war” of that description.
There was only the unilateral bombardment of the land and people by the fantastic array of aircraft assembled by the United States in Vietnam. These ranged from the B-52, which laid down a pattern of destruction a mile long and several football fields wide; to fighter bombers capable of dropping, along with much else, 500-pound bombs and canisters of napalm; to the reconfigured DC-3 equipped with a cannon capable of firing 100 rounds per second; to the ubiquitous fleets of helicopters, large and small, that crowded the skies. All this was abetted by continuous artillery fire into “free-fire” zones and naval bombardment from ships just off the coast.
By the time I arrived, the destruction of the villages in the region and the removal of their people to squalid refugee camps was approaching completion. (However, they often returned to their blasted villages, now subject to indiscriminate artillery fire.) Only a few pockets of villages survived. I witnessed the destruction of many of these in Quang Ngai and Quang Tinh provinces from the back seat of small Cessnas called Forward Air Control planes.
As we floated overhead day after day, I would watch long lines of houses burst into flames one after another as troops moved through the area of operation. In the meantime, the Forward Air Controllers were calling in air strikes as requested by radio from troops on the ground. In past operations, the villagers had been herded out of the area into the camps. But this time, no evacuation had been ordered, and the population was being subjected to the full fury of a ground and air assault. A rural society was being torn to pieces before my eyes.
The broad results of American actions in I Corps were thus visible and measurable from the air. No scorched earth policy had been announced but scorched earth had been the result. Still, a huge piece was missing from the puzzle. I was not able to witness most of the significant operations on the ground firsthand. I sought to interview some soldiers but they would not talk, though one did hint at dark deeds. “You wouldn’t believe it so I’m not going to tell you,” he said to me. “No one’s ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over, and we’ve all gone home, no one is ever going to know.”
In other words, like so many reporters in Vietnam, I saw mainly one aspect of one corner of the war. What I had seen was ghastly, but it was not enough to serve as a basis for generalizations about the conduct of the war as a whole. Just a few years later, in 1969, thanks to the determined efforts of a courageous soldier, Ron Ridenhour, and the persistence of a reporter, Seymour Hersh, one piece of the hidden truth about ground operations in I Corp came to light.
It was the My Lai massacre, in which more than 500 civilians were murdered in cold blood by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, of the Americal Division. In subsequent years, news of other atrocities in the area filtered into the press, often many years after the fact. For example, in 2003 the Toledo Blade disclosed a campaign of torture and murder over a period of months, including the summary execution of two blind men by a “reconnaissance” squad called Tiger Force. Still, no comprehensive picture of the generality of ground operations in the area emerged.
It has not been until the publication of Turse’s book that the everyday reality of which these atrocities were a part has been brought so fully to light. Almost immediately after the American troops arrived in I Corps, a pattern of savagery was established. My Lai, it turns out, was exceptional only in the numbers killed.
Turse offers a massacre at a village called Trieu Ai in October 1967 as a paradigm. A marine company suffered the loss of a man to a booby trap near the village, which had in fact had been mostly burned down by other American forces a few days earlier. Some villagers had, however, returned for their belongings. Now, the Marine company, enraged by its loss but unable to find the enemy, entered the village firing their M-16s, setting fire to any intact houses, and tossing grenades into bomb shelters.
A Marine marched a woman into a field and shot her. Another reported that there were children in the shelters that were being blown up. His superior replied, “Tough shit, they grow up to be VC [Vietcong].” Five or ten people rushed out of a shelter when a grenade was thrown into it. They were cut down in a hail of fire. Turse comments:
“In the story of Trieu Ai one can see virtually the entire war writ small. Here was the repeated aerial bombing and artillery fire… Here was the deliberate burning of peasant homes and the relocation of villagers to refugee camps… Angry troops primed to lash out, often following losses within the unit; civilians trapped in their paths; and officers in the field issuing ambiguous or illegal orders to young men conditioned to obey — that was the basic recipe for many of the mass killings carried out by army soldiers and marines over the years.”
The savagery often extended to the utmost depravity: gratuitous torture, killing for target practice, slaughter of children and babies, gang rape. Consider the following all-too-typical actions of Company B, 1st Battalion, 35th infantry beginning in October 1967:
“The company stumbled upon an unarmed young boy. ‘Someone caught him up on a hill, and they brought him down and the lieutenant asked who wanted to kill him…’ medic Jamie Henry later told army investigators. A radioman and another medic volunteered for the job. The radioman… ’kicked the boy in the stomach and the medic took him around behind a rock and I heard one magazine go off complete on automatic…’
“A few days after this incident, members of that same unit brutalized an elderly man to the point of collapse and then threw him off a cliff without even knowing whether he was dead or alive…
“A couple of days after that, they used an unarmed man for target practice…
“And less than two weeks later, members of Company B reportedly killed five unarmed women…
“Unit members rattled off a litany of other brutal acts committed by the company… [including] a living woman who had an ear cut off while her baby was thrown to the ground and stomped on…”
Pumping Up the Body Count
Turse’s findings completed the picture of the war in I Corps for me. Whatever the policy might have been in theory, the reality, on the ground as in the air, was the scorched earth I had witnessed from the Forward Air Control planes. Whatever the United States thought it was doing in I Corps, it was actually waging systematic war against the people of the region.
And so it was, as Turse voluminously documents, throughout the country. Details differed from area to area but the broad picture was the same as the one in I Corps. A case in point is the war in the Mekong Delta, home to some five to six million people in an area of less than 15,000 square miles laced with rivers and canals. In February 1968, General Julian Ewell, soon to be known by Vietnamese and Americans alike as “the Butcher of the Delta,” was placed in charge of the 9th Infantry Division.
In December 1968, he launched Operation Speedy Express. His specialty, amounting to obsession, was increasing “the body count,” ordained by the high command as the key measure of progress in defeating the enemy. Theoretically, only slain soldiers were to be included in that count but — as anyone, soldier or reporter, who spent a half-hour in the field quickly learned — virtually all slain Vietnamese, most of them clearly civilians, were included in the total. The higher an officer’s body count, the more likely his promotion. Privates who turned in high counts were rewarded with mini-vacations. Ewell set out to increase the ratio of supposed enemy soldiers killed to American soldiers killed. Pressure to do so was ratcheted up at all levels in the 9th Division. One of his chiefs of staff “went berserk,” in the words of a later chief of staff.
The means were simple: immensely increase the already staggering firepower being used and loosen the already highly permissive “rules of engagement” by, for example, ordering more night raids. In a typical night episode, Cobra gunships strafed a herd of water buffalo and seven children tending them. All died, and the children were reported as enemy soldiers killed in action.
The kill ratios duly rose from an already suspiciously high 24 “Vietcong” for every dead American to a completely surreal 134 Vietcong per American. The unreality, however, did not simply lie in the inflated kill numbers but in the identities of the corpses. Overwhelmingly, they were not enemy soldiers but civilians. A “Concerned Sergeant” who protested the operation in an anonymous letter to the high command at the time described the results as he witnessed them:
“A battalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day. With 4 battalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 a month 1500, easy. (One battalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!) If I am only 10% right, and believe me its lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay [My Lai] each month for over a year.”
This range of estimates was confirmed in later analyses. Operations in I Corp perhaps depended more on infantry attacks supported by air strikes, while Speedy Express depended more on helicopter raids and demands for high body counts, but the results were the same: indiscriminate warfare, unrestrained by calculation or humanity, on the population of South Vietnam.
Turse reminds us that off the battlefield, too, casual violence — such as the use of military trucks to run over Vietnamese on the roads, seemingly for entertainment — was widespread. The commonest terms for Vietnamese were the racist epithets “gooks,” “dinks,” and “slopes.” And the U.S. military machine was supplemented by an equally brutal American-South Vietnamese prison system in which torture was standard procedure and extrajudicial executions common.
How did it happen? How did a country that believes itself to be guided by principles of decency permit such savagery to break out and then allow it to continue for more than a decade?
Why, when the first Marines arrived in I Corps in early 1965, did so many of them almost immediately cast aside the rules of war as well as all ordinary scruples and sink to the lowest levels of barbarism? What chains of cause and effect linked “the best and the brightest” of America’s top universities and corporations who were running the war with the murder of those buffalo boys in the Mekong Delta?
How did the gates of hell open? This is a different question from the often-asked one of how the United States got into the war. I cannot pretend to begin to do it justice here. The moral and cognitive seasickness that has attended the Vietnam War from the beginning afflicts us still. Yet Kill Anything that Moves permits us, finally, to at least formulate the question in light of the actual facts of the case.
Reflections would certainly seem in order for a country that, since Vietnam, has done its best to unlearn even such lessons as were learned from that debacle in preparation for other misbegotten wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, however, are a few thoughts, offered in a spirit of thinking aloud.
The Fictitious War and the Real One
Roughly since the massacre at My Lai was revealed, people have debated whether the atrocities of the war were the product of decisions by troops on the ground or of high policy, of orders issued from above — whether they were “aberrations” or “operations.” The first school obviously lends itself to bad-apple-in-a-healthy-barrel thinking, blaming individual units for unacceptable behavior while exonerating the higher ups; the second tends to exonerate the troops while pinning the blame on their superiors.
Turse’s book shows that the barrel was rotten through and through. It discredits the “aberration” school once and for all. Yet it does not exactly offer support for the orders-from-the-top school either. Perhaps the problem always was that these alternatives framed the situation inaccurately. The relationship between policy and practice in Vietnam was, it turns out, far more peculiar than the two choices suggest.
It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war. In Vietnam, however, it was not just that the United States was doing one thing while saying another (for example, destroying villages while claiming to protect them), true as that was. Rather, from its inception the war’s structure was shaped by an attempt to superimpose a false official narrative on a reality of a wholly different character.
In the official war, the people of South Vietnam were resisting the attempts of the North Vietnamese to conquer them in the name of world communism. The United States was simply assisting them in their patriotic resistance. In reality, most people in South Vietnam, insofar as they were politically minded, were nationalists who sought to push out foreign conquerors: first, the French, then the Japanese, and next the Americans, along with their client state, the South Vietnamese government which was never able to develop any independent strength in a land supposedly its own. This fictitious official narrative was not added on later to disguise unpalatable facts; it was baked into the enterprise from the outset.
Accordingly, the collision of policy and reality first took place on the ground in Trieu Ai village and its like. The American forces, including their local commanders, were confronted with a reality that the policymakers had not faced and would not face for many long years. Expecting to be welcomed as saviors, the troops found themselves in a sea of nearly universal hostility.
No manual was handed out in Washington to deal with the unexpected situation. It was left to the soldiers to decide what to do. Throughout the country, they started to improvise. To this extent, policy was indeed being made in the field. Yet it was not within the troops’ power to reverse basic policy; they could not, for instance, have withdrawn themselves from the whole misconceived exercise. They could only respond to the unexpected circumstances in which they found themselves.
The result would combine an incomprehensible and impossible mission dictated from above (to win the “hearts and minds” of a population already overwhelmingly hostile, while pulverizing their society) and locally conceived illegal but sometimes vague orders that left plenty of room for spontaneous, rage-driven improvisation on the ground. In this gap between the fiction of high policy and the actuality of the real war was born the futile, abhorrent assault on the people of Vietnam.
The improvisatory character of all this, as Turse emphasizes, can be seen in the fact that while the abuses of civilians were pervasive they were not consistent. As he summarizes what a villager in one brutalized area told him decades later, “Sometimes U.S. troops handed out candies. Sometimes they shot at people. Sometimes they passed through a village hardly touching a thing. Sometimes they burned all the homes. ‘We didn’t understand the reasons why the acted in the way they did.’”
Alongside the imaginary official war, then, there grew up the real war on the ground, the one that Turse has, for the first time, adequately described. It is no defense of what happened to point out that, for the troops, it was not so much their orders from on high as their circumstances — what Robert J. Lifton has called “atrocity-producing situations” — that generated their degraded behavior. Neither does such an account provide escape from accountability for the war’s architects without whose blind and misguided policies these infernal situations never would have arisen.
In one further bitter irony, this real war came at a certain point to be partially codified at ever higher levels of command into policies that did translate into orders from the top. In effect, the generals gradually — if absurdly, in light of the supposed goals of the war — sanctioned and promoted the de facto war on the population. Enter General Ewell and his body counts.
In other words, the improvising moved up the chain of command until the soldiers were following orders when they killed civilians, though, as in the case of Ewell, those orders rarely took exactly that form. Nonetheless, the generals sometimes went quite far in formulating these new rules, even when they flagrantly contradicted official policies.
To give one example supplied by Turse, in 1965, General William Westmoreland, who was made commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1964, implicitly declared war on the peasantry of South Vietnam. He said:
“Until now the war has been characterized by a substantial majority of the population remaining neutral. In the past year we have seen an escalation to a higher intensity in the war. This will bring about a moment of decision for the peasant farmer. He will have to choose if he stays alive.”
Like his underlings, Westmoreland, was improvising. This new policy of, in effect, terrorizing the peasantry into submission was utterly inconsistent with the Washington narrative of winning hearts and minds, but it was fully consistent with everything his forces were actually doing and about to do in I Corps and throughout the country.
A Skyscraper of Lies
One more level of the conflict needs to be mentioned in this context. Documents show that, as early as the mid-1960s, the key mistaken assumptions of the war — that the Vietnamese foe was a tentacle of world communism, that the war was a front in the Cold War rather than an episode in the long decolonization movement of the twentieth century, that the South Vietnamese were eager for rescue by the United States — were widely suspected to be mistaken in official Washington. But one other assumption was not found to be mistaken: that whichever administration “lost” Vietnam would likely lose the next election.
Rightly or wrongly, presidents lived in terror of losing the war and so being politically destroyed by a movement of the kind Senator Joe McCarthy launched after the American “loss” of China in 1949. Later, McGeorge Bundy, Lyndon Johnson’s national security advisor, would describe his understanding of the president’s frame of mind at the time this way:
“LBJ isn’t deeply concerned about who governs Laos, or who governs South Vietnam — he’s deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ball game of the Cold War. The great Cold War championship gets played in the largest stadium in the United States and he, Lyndon Johnson, is the quarterback, and if he loses, how does he do in the next election? So don’t lose. Now that’s too simple, but it’s where he is. He’s living with his own political survival every time he looks at these questions.”
In this context, domestic political considerations trumped the substantive reasoning that, once the futility and horror of the enterprise had been revealed, might have led to an end to the war. More and more it was understood to be a murderous farce, but politics dictated that it must continue. As long as this remained the case, no news from Vietnam could lead to a reversal of the war policies.
This was the top floor of the skyscraper of lies that was the Vietnam War. Domestic politics was the largest and most fact-proof of the atrocity-producing situations. Do we imagine that this has changed? (source)
A Deep Cynicism
While the “Pentagon Papers” revealed nothing of military significance at the time of their release in 1971, they did reveal the “deep cynicism by the military towards the public and a disregard for the loss of life and injury suffered by soldiers and civilians,” as one historical assessment noted.
More threatening to President Richard Nixon, however, was H.R. “Bob” Haldeman’s observation that the disclosures led the ordinary guy to believe that “You can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.”
Military leaders such as General William Westmoreland had a similar view of any information that could prove embarrassing to the military when published by the press corps.
So Nixon, in his role as Commander in Chief presiding over a war that practically everyone conceded as lost, and the military leaders who had run the war with their self-defeating “strategies,” counter-attacked against the press whom they blamed for turning Americans against the war. They charged the media with a “stab in the back” of the military. This became a common belief in the military and among pro-war civilians to the ultimate detriment of the United States. In fact, Nixon had called the press “our worst enemy” in the war.
Getting It Right
There were wiser officials who saw the war as unwinnable from the beginning. Undersecretary of State George Ball advised against entering what he recognized as a Vietnamese civil war.
The military had officers who knew the war was unwinnable as well, at least by 1967 when “only” 12,269 Americans had been listed as killed. General Fred Weyand, though only identified much later, told reporters “Westie just doesn’t get it. The war is unwinnable. We’ve reached a stalemate and we should find a dignified way out.”
This recognition led to a very accurate New York Times article of Aug. 7, 1967, unlike the intelligence reports that Westmoreland’s G-2 (Intelligence) staff produced. Two unidentified generals were quoted, one later revealed as Weyand, who stated that he had destroyed a single North Vietnamese division three times:
“I’ve chased main-force units all over the country and the impact was zilch. It meant nothing to the people. Unless a more positive and more stirring theme than simple anti-communism can be found, the war appears likely to go on until someone gets tired and quits, which could take generations.”
The other general’s quote was “Every time Westie makes a speech about how good the South Vietnam Army is, I want to ask him why he keeps calling for more Americans. His need for reinforcements is a measure of our failure with the Vietnamese.”
The article’s author wrote, referring to the South Vietnamese, that “The best talent in the current generation has long since been lost: Thousands of men who might be leading South Vietnamese troops in combat are serving with the North Vietnamese or the Vietcong, heirs to the country’s nationalist revolution against the French.” Or they were languishing in exile following South Vietnamese purges.
But it being truthful, the article enraged President Johnson and Generals Westmoreland and Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Had Johnson shaped his decision-making to the astute analysis of the “press” in this case, the losses of the Vietnam War would have been much lower. Instead, he granted Westmoreland’s wish for a “surge,” and sent an additional 205,000 soldiers to Vietnam.
Westmoreland expressed what he understood of the Vietnamese people when he said, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. … We value life and human dignity. They don’t care about life and human dignity.” This viewpoint was passed on to too many subordinates we now know, as seen in the far more common occurrence of American war crimes than previously known, which further alienated Vietnamese from the U.S.
Taking such bigotry as a license to treat Vietnamese villagers in the harshest manner, Westmoreland’s policy included destroying their rice paddies and herding the people into “relocation camps.”
“Herding” villagers and their livestock was literally true as the Army described “Operation Rawhide” in a press release after Westmoreland decreed there would be no more farming, or farmers, in the Central Highlands. In this case, the old adage — “it was worse than a crime, it was a blunder” – understated the case.
Nixon’s attacks on the press were easily dismissed as routine for him and he eventually shuffled off in disgrace anyway. But most insidiously, American military leaders who couldn’t agree amongst themselves on how to fight the war could agree on who was responsible for losing it: the press.
Their accusation against the press was that it reported negative news, even though true, causing Americans to lose their “will” to fight, and an antiwar movement grew out of that. These military leaders believed or convinced themselves that they would have won the war if not for the media’s “negativity.”
This “stab in the back” myth became conventional wisdom within much of the military down to the present day, as shown in numerous military journal articles, due to these officers’ efforts to revise history at the expense of their country.
This hostility toward the press is best shown in some of the writings of retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, who has even suggested that journalists may have to be targeted; killed. Short of that though has come the military’s strict grip on the message through the information control policies of today.
These policies are to classify and over-classify practically all information related to the military, total surveillance over the population, both foreign and domestic, and the harshest of consequences for whistle blowers, even though or maybe because they reveal illegality by military and intelligence officials.
Stab in the Back Origin
German General Erich Ludendorf created the template for how guilt was to be assigned by a military after they’ve lost a war. In his case, it was World War I. He created the “stab in the back” myth that laid blame for Germany losing the war on civilians who were alleged to be defeatist and who undercut morale or were insufficiently loyal.
Germany had become ever more militarized as World War I went on, just as the other belligerents had, so there was no longer a press free of military censorship to cast the blame on. But Ludendorf’s accusations of disloyalty against German civilians paved the way for the eventual Nazi takeover and the draconian system of censorship, surveillance and military commissions over civilians that the Nazis put into place.
Political dissent was criminalized as a violation of German’s absolute duty of loyalty to the nation under the law of war during wartime, which the Nazis worked to make permanent. (Today, some American legal commentators glibly echo this by suggesting that censorship may be necessary to suppress “antigovernment speech” which “may demoralize soldiers and civilians,” while arguing that we’re now in a “long war” of indefinite duration against a tactic known as “terrorism.”)
In World War II Germany, trying cases of “disloyalty” primarily fell to the infamous “People’s Court;” in actuality a military commission or a “war court.” Anyone “disloyal” in any manner or degree was said to degrade the war-fighting “will” of the German people. Representative examples of these offenses include suggesting the war was the cause of food shortages or making an innocuous joke about a German leader.
Vietnam War Lost
In the style of Ludendorf, senior American military officers in charge of the conduct of the Vietnam War similarly accused civilians of stabbing the military in the back after South Vietnam fell to the North. Their accusation against elected officials was that they didn’t give the military everything the military asked for to fight the war, as if the resources of the U.S. were inexhaustible or as if that was a strategy in itself.
General H.R. McMaster added a slight twist by including the Joint Chiefs of Staff for not demanding even more troops and inflicting even greater harm by increasing costs to the civilian economy. But the most insidious charge was against the press of the day, the media. Leading officers accused the media of having caused the American people to lose their “will” to fight the war.
It wasn’t that these officers didn’t give credit to Americans for drawing conclusions from seeing the dead and wounded returned, it was that civilians had no right to their own conclusions if they were in conflict with military leadership. The solution seen by these military leaders was to deny information to the citizenry regarding military operations except for “feel good” news.
The officers accusing the press were all responsible for the conduct of the war,
including General Westmoreland. In his 1976 book, A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland revealed that President Johnson expressed regrets he had not imposed censorship – and the General obviously shared that regret.
But Westmoreland was coy enough to damn the press with faint praise. While disclaiming any vendetta against the press, in spite of their “errors, misinterpretations, judgments, and falsehoods,” Westmoreland quoted an Australian journalist who had said “there are those who say it was the first war in history lost in the columns of the New York Times.”
Westmoreland lamented elsewhere: “Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.”
But Westmoreland is who was confused. He wrote: “Reflecting the view of the war held by many in the United States and often contributing to it, the general tone of press and television comment was critical, particularly following the Tet offensive of 1968.”
Not be critical was to be confused. Westmoreland could not fathom that the American people and the press, along with soldiers in his own Army, could see his war strategy was completely irrational and failing, even while he was deliberately covering that fact up with a disinformation campaign.
Accept What You’re Told
Westmoreland, like Nixon, believed the citizens’ duty was to accept anything they were told by the government, especially by the military. This would explain why neither could understand that the role of the press under the U.S. Constitution is to act as the people’s watchdog; to protect the people’s interests. This is especially so in wartime as a check on incompetent officers, as Westmoreland proved to be.
Though Westmoreland had sworn an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, he wrote: “It may well be that between press and official there is an inherent, built-in inherent conflict of interest. There is something to be said for both sides, but when the nation is at war and men’s lives are at stake, there should be no ambiguity. . . . If the nation is to wage war — declared or undeclared — a policy should be set to protect the interests of both press and government and avoid the ambiguity that characterized relationships in South Vietnam.”
Here, Westmoreland laid the ideological cornerstone of strict military information and media control which the U.S. has now. This allows the appearance of a free press, but one thoroughly conditioned to defer to the government, the military or the intelligence services.
An example of this is the suppression for a year by the New York Times of an article written by James Risen about President George W. Bush’s use of warrantless wiretaps against Americans in his “war on terror.” Unlike so many “journalists” who merely celebrate the military and the intelligence agencies, Risen acted as a journalist should.
That the military and the intelligence agencies need the oversight meant to be provided by a free, critical press, the so-called Fourth Estate, is made convincingly, though perhaps unintentionally, by retired Army Lt. Col. Lewis Sorley in his book: Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. Paradoxically, or ironically, Sorley was one of the officers who blamed the press for determining the course of the war but his book on Westmoreland refutes that argument.
Westmoreland was a vainglorious officer of shallow intellect in the George Armstrong Custer mold. He had advanced through lower-level commands, not without some controversy regarding his judgment. His major accomplishment in the decade before going to Vietnam seemed to be as Superintendent of West Point. His “accomplishments” there were to get a new football stadium funded, expand the size of the Corps of Cadets so the football team would have more cadets to draw upon, and having a pamphlet sent to influential people, “West Point Points the Way in Post Efficiency.”
But upon being appointed Commander of U. S. Forces in Vietnam, Westmoreland immediately assumed he was now an expert on Vietnam.
Brimming with his customary conceit, fresh off his successful campaign for the new football stadium, Westmoreland, according to Sorley, wrote to his father shortly after arrival in Vietnam in April 1964, “this war has been very badly reported to the American people through the press, and I might say the New York Times is perhaps the best example of what I mean.”
He claimed that the New York Times had not sent their best reporters to the war zone and that many were “young, immature, impetuous men who have been unprepared to report the situation objectively.” He viewed other leading journalists in Vietnam with similar disdain.
But Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett pointed out: “When Westy took command in 1964, I was thirty years of age. I had been in Southeast Asia for eight years, and had been all over Vietnam. I was married to a Vietnamese woman. My father-in-law was a colonel in the Vietnamese army. I knew John Paul Vann and most of the American advisors. What did he [Westmoreland] mean that we were too young and didn’t know anything? Westy was wrong.”
According to Sorley, when Westmoreland was decrying the “errors, misinterpretations, judgments, and falsehoods” of the press, all of which pertained to himself, he was actively creating falsehoods of success for the press to report. Sorley describes Westmoreland’s active role in LBJ’s “Progress Offensive,” an active disinformation campaign, or Information Operation as it would be called today, designed to mislead the American people and their elected representatives.
Its objective was consistent with Joint Chief of Staff Chairman General Earle Wheeler’s guidance to portray the war in the most favorable light, in disregard of the facts.
The “Progress Offensive” was “a systematic effort to convince the American people that the war in Vietnam was being won,” according to Sorley, especially in 1967. Westmoreland was a willing partner in that. But Westmoreland’s deceit began even before he was brought on board the “Progress Offensive.”
Westmoreland had submitted statistics to Wheeler in early 1967 showing that the enemy was increasing the “tactical initiative.” Sorley wrote that Wheeler was distraught and wailed: “If these figures should reach the public domain they would, literally, blow the lid off Washington.”
So Wheeler first instructed Westmoreland not to release the figures to the news media. As more information became available showing the situation worsening, with Westmoreland’s maltreatment of Vietnamese villagers probably being a cause, Wheeler sent a general officer out to help Westmoreland “fix” the problem.
Later, Westmoreland sent a memorandum to Wheeler stating: “Lieutenant General Brown’s team and members of my staff have developed terms of reference in the form of new definitions, criteria, formats and procedures relating to the reporting of enemy activity which can be used to assess effectively significant trends in the organized enemy combat initiative.”
In fact, this amounted to manipulation of intelligence by Westmoreland which later became the “order of battle” controversy and set the stage for Americans to be shocked by the Tet Offensive in January-February 1968. How many additional American lives would be lost and ruined due to this chicanery did not seem to be relevant to the numbers fixers.
A Conspiracy to Deceive
That this numbers manipulation was a conspiracy to deceive the public and the policymakers is shown by a message sent by General Bruce Palmer on Aug. 19, 1967, stating that Westmoreland was concerned that “the U.S. press is painting a pessimistic, stalemated situation in RVN.” Palmer continued: “To counteract this distorted impression of the true situation, he [Westmoreland] is launching a local campaign to portray and articulate the very real progress underway in the Vietnamese War.”
As Sorley put it, far from being the reluctant participant Westmoreland claimed to be, he “was opening his own branch office of the Progress Offensive.”
Westmoreland reported his plans to Wheeler and others in August 1967, at the time of the New York Times article cited above, that “of course we must make haste carefully in order to avoid charges that the military establishment is conducting an organized propaganda campaign, either overt or covert.”
As he saw it in Vietnam, “while we work on the nerve endings here we hope that careful attention will be paid to the roots there — the confused or unknowledgeable pundits who serve as sources for each other.” And as shown, a couple of his own generals including General Weyand also served as sources for those “confused or unknowledgeable pundits.”
Sorley notes that General Wheeler could have told President Johnson the truth and “provided him with the information he needed to make informed decisions about the future course of the war. But he did not.”
This subversion of the constitutional principle that the military is subordinate to civilian officials by a deliberate deception could be said to be tantamount to treason, and should have been cause for Court Martial of Wheeler, Westmoreland and their co-conspirators, without excusing Johnson for his misconduct.
Hammering Home the Point
Following Westmoreland’s lead after the war, other senior military leaders came out with their own books disclaiming any responsibility for the Vietnam disaster. Among them were Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Jr., Commander in Chief, Pacific; Lt.Gen. Phillip Davidson, MACV J-2, (Westmoreland’s chief intelligence officer); General Bruce Palmer, Jr.; and Westmoreland’s one-time aide, Lt. Gen., Dave R. Palmer. All in essence accused the press of stabbing the nation and the military in the back, in the Ludendorf model.
In Summons of the Trumpet, written in 1978, Lt. Gen. Dave R. Palmer wrote: “Dissent and dissenters inside America itself did much to discredit the war by spreading doubt and sowing despair.”
Palmer allowed that the dissenters covered a wide spectrum of society, from housewives to retired generals, adding that they had two things in common, they were highly visible and their ranks grew as the war years stretched on.
This caused “confusion” in Dave Palmer’s view. He wrote that “debate and dissent, based on emotion as well as logic, grew apace as the war progressed, serving mightily as major contributors to confusion.” But to Palmer, the news media bore responsibility “for having muddied issues in the war,” concluding that “the American press failed to clarify the war in Vietnam and, not unfairly, can be accused of adding to the public bewilderment.”
But who was truly confused? Later in his book, Palmer quotes part of Westmoreland’s summary of 1967, which reached Washington four days before the Tet Offensive began. As Palmer says, “Like nearly every official, the general was optimistic. He confidently reported:
“‘In many areas the enemy has been driven away from the population centers; in others he has been compelled to disperse and evade contact, thus nullifying much of his potential. The year ended with the enemy resorting to desperation tactics in attempting to achieve military/psychological victory; and he has experienced only failures in these attempts.’”
But Palmer stated, “the government had not deliberately misled the American people.” He explains that was why they were so stunned, because the “President and his entourage truly believed their own assurances.” But that wasn’t true.
Selling the Public
As a close associate of Westmoreland’s, Palmer would have known of Westmoreland’s “Progress Offensive” which was designed to mislead the American people into believing that “progress” in the war was being made. Palmer’s disingenuous accusation that the press was responsible for the confusion of the American people when it was his own commander working to sow confusion and mislead the people he was supposed to be working for, the American public, can only be seen as shameless blame shifting from his military cronies onto the press.
Continuing this theme was the other commander over the Vietnam War, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, CINCPAC. As CINCPAC, Sharp was in charge of the air war by the Navy and the Air Force over North Vietnam during Westmoreland’s tenure.
Sharp wrote Strategy for Defeat, wherein he explained how he and General Westmoreland would have won the war but for those “civilian politico decision makers” who had “no business ignoring or overriding the counsel of experienced military professionals” in the conduct of the war.
But in the end, Admiral Sharp accused the American press of losing the war by eroding our “will” because “we were subjected to a skillfully waged subversive propaganda campaign, aided and abetted by the media’s bombardment of sensationalism, rumors and half-truths about the Vietnam affair — a campaign that destroyed our national unity?”
Another Westmoreland crony, General Bruce Palmer, Jr., deputy commander in Vietnam, bewailed in his 1984 book that “the United States seems to share a common weakness of Western democracies, an inability to inculcate in people the kind of determination and almost religious zeal which communist countries have achieved.”
But it wasn’t for lack of trying to artificially “inculcate’ this zeal. Palmer claims that many of the officers in Vietnam resented “having our field commander being put on the spot” by being called back to the U.S. and being used for political purposes by LBJ, such as to testify to Congress on how well the war was going. But Palmer acknowledged that Westmoreland enjoyed those occasions and would return to Saigon still “up on cloud nine.”
But General Palmer’s arguments were logically conflicted. With his book, The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam, one wonders if the author isn’t schizophrenic. He gives all the evidence for why it was self-evident that Vietnam was an unwinnable war being run by amateurs, even listing the multitudinous errors committed in Vietnam by U.S. military leaders, including their own disputes on strategy.
Palmer also calls congressional members hypocrites for making antiwar speeches while voting money for the war, as if there were not harsh political consequences for anyone not “supporting the troops.” He also faulted teachers and professors for opposing the war. Yet, at the time he was writing his book, General Palmer claimed that, in hindsight, the war might not have been winnable all along. Still, he criticized those who questioned it.
Back in Time
None of the above officers could match Lt. Gen. Phillip B. Davidson, however, in hostility toward the press and the Constitution, which he was sworn to protect. Davidson’s books on Vietnam transports one back to the Second German Reich of Kaiser Wilhelm, when Prussian militarism was at its peak and war was celebrated for its own sake.
Davidson argued that Congress should have declared war on the Vietnamese so the U.S. government could exercise censorship and prosecute dissenters for treason. This, in fact, is a suggestion made today by some authoritarian law school commentators, with the so-called “Long War” that we’re in.
But it was Col. Harry Summers, Jr., relying on works by arch-neoconservative and militarist Norman Podhoretz, who took deception to an even higher level than Westmoreland while making the “stab in the back” accusation against the media.
In doing so, Summers also deceived his intellectually lazy fellow military officers by substituting a parody of On War by Carl von Clausewitz, with his own On Strategy, which then became very influential in the U.S. military according to David Petraeus and remains on many military reading lists today.
In fact, Summers’s On Strategy was a revisionist falsification of Clausewitz’s principles. A slight knowledge of Clausewitz and On War is necessary to understand this.
Clausewitz fought a war of resistance against Bonaparte imperialism. With an anti-imperial viewpoint and respect for the sovereignty of other nations, Clausewitz saw the defensive as the stronger form of war at the strategic level, not the offensive.
He wrote: “we must say that the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive. This is the point we have been trying to make, for although it is implicit in the nature of the matter and experience has confirmed it again and again. It is at odds with prevalent opinion, which proves how ideas can be confused by superficial writers.”
Those superficial writers today would include Dick Cheney who has always favored the offensive form of war – called “forward leaning” – that he wants other Americans to fight.
Clausewitz understood that when nations did go to war, “the reason always lies in some political situation, and the occasion is always due to some political object. War therefore, is an act of policy.”
Since war is driven by its political object, “the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration,” but once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow. Westmoreland and other pro-Vietnam War advocates failed to understand this.
Clausewitz also wrote, “Be that as it may, we must always consider that with the conclusion of peace the purpose of the war has been achieved and its business is at an end.” For Clausewitz, even between adversarial states, the objective of war policy is to restore peace, not to maintain a permanent state of war against a concept such as “terrorism” or with a permanent occupation of territory seized in war, such as the West Bank and Gaza.
An Informed Electorate
Policy for any nation will be what its sovereign decides. In a democratic republic, the sovereign is supposed to be its citizens and, therefore, it is for them to consider how best to pursue national policy. That requires the electorate to be informed, necessitating the free flow of information; a fundamental requirement of democratic governance and its greatest strength.
Without the “right to know” and an involved citizenry, including an active and critical press, there is no gauge for when “the “expenditure of effort, exceeds the value of the political object” to determine when “the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”
Or if the “object” should never have been pursued in the first place. Military leaders, with only a few exceptions, only demand more “surges.” For the political calculation on war or peace to be made with any accuracy, there also must be tolerance for dissenting opinions.
Clausewitz’s theory of war was fully consistent with the attitudes of many American Founders on the need to avoid “entangling alliances” that could drag the young nation into ill-considered wars. In the early years of the Republic, American leaders were particularly on guard against pressures that sought to involve them in conflicts between France and England.
Contrast this with On Strategy, the “Bible” for the “stab in the back” crowd. What its author, Col. Harry Summers, Jr., did was to flip Clausewitz’s strategic theory upside down, ignoring Clausewitz’s recognition that the defensive was the stronger form of war than the offensive.
Unfortunately, Summers’s book, by its association with Clausewitz, acquired a veneer of strategic legitimacy for which the United States is still paying today. Primarily, that cost is paid by the loss of the constitutional “right to know” as most post-Vietnam War administrations have accepted the fallacious claim that the press was responsible for “losing” Vietnam and thus have further curtailed the public’s access to “national security” information.
Why Does This Matter?
This process of over-classification and excessive secrecy has reached an apex with the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama despite the latter’s promises of greater “transparency.” Instead, the antagonism toward a free press – and an informed public – that came out of the Vietnam War have continued to guide information policy, including aggressive prosecutions aimed at whistleblowers, such as Pvt. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, and legal intimidation of journalists, such as James Risen and Glenn Greenwald.
Fanatics such as Fox News commentator retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters have even called for “targeting” members of the media.
And, despite the Obama administration’s zeal in protecting “national security” secrets, there is now an echo of the “stab in the back” complaint against President Obama for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, even though it was President Bush who accepted the timetable demanded by the Iraqi government.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney and daughter Liz virtually accused Obama of treason against the United States when they claimed “he abandoned Iraq and we are watching American defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.”
The inestimable Lt. Col. Ralph Peters went even further when he charged Obama with “the creation of the first jihadi state in modern history stretching from central Syria to central Iraq and now approaching Baghdad all because President Obama saw everything through a political lens.”
But a more accurate “stab in the back” accusation against President Obama would be that he has continued the post-Vietnam approach of hiding as much “national security” information as possible from the American people and trying to use the press more as a conduit for propaganda than for dissemination of truth.
For decades now, the deadliest “stab in the back” to the American Republic has been the one inflicted on the Bill of Rights, with President Obama seeming to give it a final twist.
Who Won the Vietnam War?
March 8 1965 marks the commencement of the Vietnam war. 30 April 1975 marks the official end of the Vietnam War. Yet today Vietnam is an impoverished country. The Hanoi government is a US proxy regime. Vietnam has become a new cheap labor frontier of the global economy. Neoliberalism prevails. In a bitter irony, Vietnam which was a victim of US war crimes has become a staunch military ally of the US under Washington’s “Pivot to Asia” which threatens China.
And now The Trump administration has been pressuring North Korea to adopt the “Vietnam Model” as a prerequisite to “normalization” and the lifting of economic sanctions. The Vietnam Model is not a Solution for Vietnam, or any other country for that matter. In 2019, the minimum hourly wage in Vietnam’s export manufacturing sector is of the order 20 cents an hour. Health services have in large part been privatized. Education is grossly underfunded. Poverty is rampant.
On April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War ended with the capture of Saigon by Communist forces and the surrender of General Duong Vanh Minh and his cabinet in the Presidential palace. As troops of the People’s Army of Vietnam marched into Saigon, U.S. personnel and the last American marines were hastily evacuated from the roof of the U.S. embassy. Twenty years later a fundamental question still remains unanswered: Who won the Vietnam War?
Vietnam never received war reparations payments from the U.S. for the massive loss of life and destruction, yet an agreement reached in Paris in 1993 required Hanoi to recognize the debts of the defunct Saigon regime of General Thieu. This agreement is in many regards tantamount to obliging Vietnam to compensate Washington for the costs of war.
Moreover, the adoption of sweeping macro-economic reforms under the supervision of the Bretton Woods institutions was also a condition for the lifting of the U.S. embargo. These free market reforms now constitute the Communist Party’s official doctrine. With the normalization of diplomatic relations with Washington in 1994, reference to America’s brutal role in the war is increasingly considered untimely and improper. Not surprisingly, Hanoi had decided to tone down the commemoration of the Saigon surrender so as not to offend its former wartime enemy. The Communist Party leadership has recently underscored the “historic role” of the United States in “liberating” Vietnam from Vichy regime and Japanese occupation during World War II.
On September 2, 1945 at the Declaration of Independence of Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi proclaiming the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, American agents of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the predecessor of today’s CIA) were present at the side of Ho Chi Minh. While Washington had provided the Viet Minh resistance with weapons and token financial support, this strategy had largely been designed to weaken Japan in the final stages of World War II without committing large numbers of U.S. ground troops.
In contrast to the subdued and restrained atmosphere of the commemoration marking the end of the Vietnam War, the 50th anniversary of independence is to be amply celebrated in a series of official ceremonies and activities commencing in September and extending to the Chinese NewYear.
Vietnam Pays War Reparations
Prior to the “normalization” of relations with Washington, Hanoi was compelled to foot the bill of the bad debts incurred by the U.S.-backed Saigon regime. At the donor conference held in Paris in November 1993, a total of nearly $2 billion of loans and aid money was generously pledged in support of Vietnam’s free market reforms.
Yet immediately after the conference, a secret meeting was held under the auspices of the Paris Club. Present at this meeting were representatives of Western governments. On the Vietnamese side, Dr. Nguyen Xian Oanh, economic advisor to the prime minister, played a key role in the negotiations. Dr. Oanh, a former IMF official, had been Minister of Finance and later Acting Prime Minister in the military government of General Duong Van Minh, which the U.S. installed 1963 after the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother(f.2). Dr. Oanh, while formally mediating on behalf of the Communist government, was nonetheless responsive to the demands of Western creditors.
The deal signed with the IMF (which was made public) was largely symbolic. The amount was not substantial: Hanoi was obliged to pay the IMF $140 million (owned by the defunct Saigon regime) as a condition for the resumption of new loans. Japan and France, Vietnam’s former colonial masters of the Vichy period, formed a so-called “Friends of Vietnam” committee to lend to Hanoi” the money needed to reimburse the IMF.
The substantive arrangement on the rescheduling of bilateral debts (with the Saigon regime), however, was never revealed. Yet it was ultimately this secret agreement (reached under the auspices of the Paris Club) which was instrumental in Washington’s decision to lift the embargo and normalize diplomatic relations. This arrangement was also decisive in the release of the loans pledged at the 1993 donor conference, thereby bringing Vietnam under the trusteeship of Japanese and Western creditors. Thus twenty years after the war, Vietnam had surrendered its economic sovereignty.
By fully recognizing the legitimacy of these debts, Hanoi had agreed to repay loans that had supported the U.S. war effort. Moreover, the government of Mr. Vo Van Kiet had also accepted to comply fully with the usual conditions (devaluation, trade liberalization, privatization, etc.) of an IMF-sponsored structural adjustment program.
These economic reforms, launched in the mid-1980s with the Bretton Woods institutions, had initiated, in the war’s brutal aftermath, a new phase of economic and social devastation: Inflation had resulted from the repeated devaluations that began in 1973 under the Saigon regime the year after the withdrawal of American combat troops(f.3). Today Vietnam is once again inundated with U.S. dollar notes, which have largely replaced the Vietnamese dong. With soaring prices, real earnings have dropped to abysmally low levels.
In turn, the reforms have massively reduced productive capacity. More than 5,000 out of 12,300 state-owned enterprises were closed or steered into bankruptcy. The credit cooperatives were eliminated, all medium and long term credit to industry and agriculture was frozen. Only short-term credit was available at an interest rate of 35 percent per annum (1994). Moreover, the IMF agreement prohibited the state from providing budget support either to the state-owned economy or to an incipient private sector.
The reforms’ hidden agenda consisted in destabilizing Vietnam’s industrial base. Heavy industry, oil and gas, natural resources and mining, cement and steel production are to be reorganized and taken over by foreign capital. The most valuable state assets will be transferred to reinforce and preserve its industrial base, or to develop a capitalist economy owned and controlled by Nationals.
In the process of economic restructuring, more than a million workers and over 20,000 public employees (of whom the majority were health workers and teachers) have been laid off(f.5). In turn, local famines have erupted, affecting at least a quarter of the country’s population(f.6). These famines are not limited to the food deficit areas. In the Mekong delta, Vietnam’s rice basket, 25% of the adult population consumes less than 1800 calories per day(f.7). In the cities, the devaluation of the dong together with the elimination of subsidies and price controls has led to soaring prices of rice and other food staples.
The reforms have led to drastic cuts in social programs. With the imposition of school fees, three quarters of a million children dropped out from the school system in a matter of a few years (1987-90)(f.8). Health clinics and hospitals collapsed, the resurgence of a number of infectious diseases including malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhea is acknowledged by the Ministry of Health and the donors. A World Health Organization study confirmed that the number of malaria deaths increased three-fold in the first four years of the reforms alongside the collapse of health care and soaring prices of antimalarial drugs(f.9). The government (under the guidance of the international donor community) has also discontinued budget support to the provision of medical equipment and maintenance leading to the virtual paralysis of the entire public health system. Real salaries of medical personnel and working conditions have declined dramatically: the monthly wage of medical doctors in a district hospital is as low as $15 a month(f.10).
Although the U.S. was defeated on the battlefield, two decades later Vietnam appears to have surrendered its economic sovereignty to its former Wartime enemy.
No orange or steel pellet bombs, no napalm, no toxic chemicals: a new phase of economic and social destruction has unfolded. The achievements of past struggles and the aspirations of an entire nation are undone and erased almost with a stroke of the pen.
Debt conditionality and structural adjustment under the trusteeship of international creditors constitute in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, an equally effective and formally nonviolent instrument of recolonization and impoverishment affecting the livelihood of millions of people.