It’s worth thinking about how imperialist wars start; how they can end up; how opposition develops externally and domestically. Sometimes waging wars make the aggressor less stable. Sometimes they lose legitimacy. A lot depends on what the opposition does. In this week of anniversaries, let’s look back.
50 years ago last month was the first organized protest of the Vietnam War in Washington. By the end of 1965, there were almost 200,000 US troops in Vietnam (a country smaller than the state of California). The movement for civil rights was turning to demand Black Power; Malcolm X had just been killed. The US was about to invade the Dominican Republic to keep power in the hands of the US-supported dictatorship. People around the world — think South Africa — were rising up to challenge US power.
On April 17, 1965, Students for a Democratic Society called for a protest in DC, but no one knew how many would come. 15 to 25,000 showed up. It was the start of a truly mass movement that reached into, and bisected nearly every societal institution for a decade. Educational, religious, civic, sports, entertainment — every place people got together, the question became, “which side are YOU on?”
By fall 1969, Nixon and Henry Kissinger were huddled in the White House contemplating the use of nukes on the people of Vietnam, while hundreds of thousands of us protested outside.
By 1970, when “Dick” Nixon finally announced that the US had begun carpet bombing of Cambodia, something broke open. Hundreds of campuses began protesting; Governor Rhodes of Ohio sent the National Guard to Kent State. They fired into groups of students crossing the campus at class change. 16 were shot; four students died. Where previously striking workers, or civil rights leaders had been shot at protests, now students from middle America were dead, and 850 campuses shut down or struck.
Ten days later, in an episode too often forgotten, a dozen students at the historically Black Jackson State University were shot when the Mississippi State Police shot up a dormitory, aiming at students protesting the war. 2 of them died.
All of this struggle had something to do with the ignominious defeat of the US forces in Vietnam. Surely, the resistance from the people of Vietnam, who received backing from many other countries, including then-socialist China, was the main factor. The resistance of US military deployed to Vietnam, rebellious and unreliable, contributed to a situation where the US withdrew on April 30, 1975 in disgrace, and rightly so.
It makes a difference how people think about the American war on Vietnam, especially now. The verdict is not settled. The federal government has official efforts to rewrite history. We need to keep fighting for the truth to carry the day in public opinion.
The official story: Vietnam was a tragic military loss because political leaders didn’t back the troops; an embarrassment to recover from.
The 2014 film Last Days in Vietnam, by filmmaker Rory Kennedy (who made a fairly accurate critique of the US government in Ghosts of Abu-Ghraib) is a perfect example of this sort of imperialist revisionism. It aired on PBS last week, and has, at best, confused many people. Seminal parts of the US war — the My Lai massacre; the bombing of Cambodia; the mining of harbors — are not even mentioned. Check out Ed Rampell’s piece in the Hollywood Progressive: With Liberals Like Rory Kennedy, Who Needs Reactionaries?:
[T]he real lesson to draw from the Vietnam War is not that at the very end, perhaps a handful of Yanks put themselves in harm’s way. (Which is a bit like arsonists patting themselves for rescuing a few folks from the house they’ve set afire.)
Rather, the true moral of the story is that being the world’s policeman is a disastrous policy that costs Americans and the nations they willy-nilly invade dearly, in blood and treasure. U.S. military and intelligence are arguably the most destabilizing forces on Earth, with bases straddling the globe and eternally intervening in others’ internal affairs.
Anyone seeking to know what really happened when the French, and then the U.S. invaded Southeast Asia, can find reality. Veterans for Peace and other organizations have a project, Vietnam Full Disclosure, a new effort to combat the “official” government history with the truth. They are looking for your analysis, stories, photos, documentation of the war, and the repressive war at home.
Nick Turse got an opinion into The New York Times last Friday, In Vietnam, Callous Use of Power Led to Years of Civilian Misery:
While to Henry Kissinger and many others, the war’s lessons lay primarily in the painful realization of the limits to American power, the pain endured by millions of survivors in Vietnam who lost family, the pain of millions who were wounded, of millions who were killed, of millions driven from their homes into slums and camps reeking of squalor, seem to me to be so much greater.
How many more immoral, unjust, illegitimate wars in our name before we stop the crimes of our government?
Debra Sweet is the Director of World Can’t Wait. You can subscribe to her weekly email newsletter here.