Twenty-five years ago on Sunday, the last helicopters took off from the
an apartment building near the U.S. embassy in Saigon -- a powerful image of
Americans defeated, getting out just before the Vietnamese we fought against
took over the city from the Vietnamese we supported.
But there’s one big problem with that symbol and that memory: We won the
U.S. policymakers have secured a huge propaganda victory in shaping
about that war and, paradoxically, one of the propaganda achievements has been
convincing people that we lost. The reason for the seemingly strange strategy
is simple: Putting forward the idea that we lost obscures both the real reason
we fought the war and diverts attention from U.S. crimes during the war.
Despite the claims of U.S. leaders, we did not fight in Vietnam to establish
democracy. Instead, we fought in Vietnam to derail democracy. After the
Vietnamese defeat of French colonialism in 1954, the Geneva Conference called
for free elections in 1956. But the United States and its client regime in
South Vietnam blocked those elections. Why? In his memoirs, President
Eisenhower explained honestly: In free elections, the socialist government of
Ho Chi Minh would have won by an overwhelming margin. As is typical, the
States is all for elections in other countries, if they turn out the way we
The central goal of U.S. policymakers in Vietnam was to make sure that an
independent socialist course of development did not succeed. U.S. leaders
relied on Cold War rhetoric about the communist monolith but really feared
a “virus” of such independent development could infect the rest of Asia,
perhaps even becoming a model for all the Third World. What might happen if
nations emerging from colonialism believed they had a right to decide their
futures, outside the U.S. orbit?
It is much easier to obscure these U.S. war aims if we talk about how we lost
the war, leading to the fall of a South Vietnamese democracy that never
existed. It also is easier to obscure the brutality of the U.S. war.
So long as we believe we lost the war, the question can be asked, “If we had
fought harder, could we have won?” Some Americans still talk about how we
fought the Vietnam War “with one hand tied behind our back,” yet with only one
hand we managed to drop 6.5 million tons of bombs and 400,000 tons of
the people of Southeast Asia. Short of nuclear weapons, it’s not clear what
additional forms of violence we could have unleashed on the people of Vietnam.
If people can convince themselves that we were restrained gentlemen during the
war, it is easier to ignore the saturation bombing of civilian areas,
counter-terrorism programs that included political assassination, routine
killings of civilians, and 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange to destroy
crops and ground cover -- all part of the U.S. terror war in not only Vietnam
but Laos and Cambodia as well. All those are clear violations of international
law -- that is, war crimes.
Twenty-five years later, the virus U.S. policymakers feared has been largely
stamped out, with only a few stubborn holdouts such as the Zapitistas in
Chiapas. Southeast Asia -- indeed, most of the Third World -- is “safe” not
only for U.S. style democracy (that is, democracy with results favorable to
United States) but for multinational corporations to take advantage of the
resources and exploit the labor.
By telling the story that we lost the war, the United States can continue to
evade the truth about its foreign policy. While it is true that we did not
achieve total conquest of South Vietnam, 25 years later the nature of the U.S.
victory is clear. Vietnam, still recovering from the massive destruction
by the United States attack, is forced to accept -- by economic pressure not
bombs -- its place in the international economic order run out of Washington
and New York.
The Vietnamese people survived U.S. aggression an independent people. The
question is, will they survive their victory.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University
of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org