As part of Washington Babylon’s release of Doug Valentine’s Life and Times of a South Vietnamese Special Police Officer we are going to feature content from worldwide archives that recall one of the most painful episodes of recent American and Asian history.
From series editor Andrew Stewart:
The Vietnam War ended a little over a decade before my birth and I was just learning to walk by the time the Berlin Wall came down. I am one of the first generations who has never known what Americans referred to for 45 years as the Cold War. My relationship with it is entirely based in historical scholarship as opposed to lived experience. That has entailed some very interesting experiences and feelings in my own personal and professional growth particularly with regards to race and racism. Putting it another way, my own upbringing, which included in its foundation a very simplistic understanding of Communism as the God that failed, included many bigotries that I did not even realize I had internalized because of that simplistic anti-Communism. This is something I still grapple with daily and feel tremendous shame over quite often.
The Vietnam War was a complete catastrophe for every country that was involved. Lê Xuân Nhuận felt he was doing the right thing for his people by serving the side that ultimately lost, as did many American GIs who went over to Southeast Asia with Cold War notions programmed so deeply into them. Throughout my life, I have encountered veterans of that war who have grappled with post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, drug addiction, assorted mental illnesses, and homelessness that can be tied directly back to this calamitous war. These former soldiers dot the corners of major metropolitan centers, holding out coffee cups for spare change and looking at me with eyes akin to those of Hamlet when his father’s ghost gives instruction.
Over the past several months, words like ‘narrative’, ‘discourse’, ‘fake news’, and the like have been tossed around in the mainstream media as if the evening news had become a vulgar Derrida seminar. The reason why is a fairly long discussion but nevertheless it serves an important purpose here. Simply put, we need to understand in a precise fashion what happened in the Vietnam War era to make sure it never happens again.
And what happened? The mainstream media in collaboration with the Pentagon and White House for thirty years created a false narrative and fake news about a strange phantasm called ‘Communism’ that was used to justify a series of wars on the Global South. Beginning in 1945 with Harry Truman’s ascent to the presidency and ending in 1975 with the fall of Saigon, the vast majority of American people were lied to about a creeping Red Menace that would destroy Western civilization as we know it unless America’s military was used as a bulwark against it. But with the publication of the Pentagon Papers beginning in 1971 was it made absolutely and finally clear to the American people that it all had been a lie. In crisp black-and-white typescript, the American government was saying in a classified internal document never intended for public consumption that Ho Chi Minh had never been a doctrinaire Communist as much as a dedicated patriot and nationalist who only used the banner of Communism because it was an international geopolitical movement that gave support, supplies, and training to women and men who wanted to free their countries from Western domination. Hell, the second sentence of the Papers says “…Ho has always been more concerned with Vietnam’s independence and sovereign viability than with following the interests and dictates of Moscow and Peking.” Here is Leslie Gelb, one of the authors of the Papers, insisting in 2009 that there was an air of credibility to the Domino Theory and that the war had some shred of justification. How someone can continue to think like this after nearly half a century is beyond my own comprehension.
To further emphasize that the very government officials who created the Vietnam War as it was known in America during the 1960s later admitted they had lied, here is a clip from a book panel at the JBJ Library in 1995 of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Further buttress to this should be added by the reader who chooses to consider David Halberstam’s review of the McNamara title, a mea culpa that Halberstam fried with a white-hot disgust bordering on naked rage when he wrote “He tells us that while writing this book, he asked himself, Why speak now? Why break my silence? Though there are many reasons, he says, “the main one is that I have grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders.” Indeed? What a charlatan. Has there ever been a more insulting sentence written by a high public official?”
Dennis Prager is a right wing commentator, columnist, and radio host who operates a website called Prager University. They run short videos, like the one showcased here, that can be used by educators and homeschooling parents. The website says “We believe in economic and religious freedom, a strong military that protects our allies and the religious values that inform Western civilization, also known as Judeo-Christian values.” One testimonial written by a viewer says “We are a home school family with seven kids, that love to watch and learn. I recently registered our [home]school [with your website], and asked my 12 year old and 15 year old sons to watch one a day, now they watch two or more a day because they love them.” If it is not already clear already, the Praeger video is a complete farce that recycles major tropes from the mainstream American narrative about the war. This is a deeply dangerous obscuring of reality because those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat it. Considering how over four decades after the fall of Saigon America is still grappling with the aftershocks of the war, I don’t think we can afford to make that mistake again, though it seems obvious that we have indeed continued to in the Middle East and that saber-rattling emanating now towards China, Russia, and North Korea seems to be intent on further repetition.
As a proper ending, I would juxtapose with a clip from Democracy Now that was filmed in July 2009 on the death of McNamara. Though it is foremost marking McNamara’s death, Howard Zinn, Marilyn Young and Jonathan Schell encapsulate in their discussion so many issues that are important to teach in any historical analysis of the Vietnam War.