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An Anniversary for Rethinking “History”

The Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C. (Photo: Shubert Ciencia)

August is the anniversary of three of the most important events of the past century:  the start of World War I; the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in Vietnam.  Each of them should give us pause to consider how deeply steeped our history is in the mythologies of military justification. 

The conventional history about World War I is that it was all the Germans’ fault.  This is what the War Guilt Clause (paragraph 231) of the Versailles Treaty states.  Of course, that Clause was extorted under duress, and the rest of the history was written by the victors, mainly the British.  But one hundred years of distance reveals a different story, one far less flattering of the British. 

The Germans had their sights on the collapsing Ottoman Empire.  It was the last colonial geography on earth available to Germany, which was late to the imperial game.  But if the Germans got the Ottoman territory, it would mean they could seize control of the Persian Gulf, the location of the world’s largest supply of oil. This would pose an existential threat to England which had just converted its entire navy from running on coal to running on oil. 

So, in the decade before the start of the War, England reversed its historic rivalry with its two greatest enemies, Russia and France.  This had the effect of encircling Germany and accelerating the path to war.  Even 100 years ago, oil was the basis for global War, though you would never know that from reading the history written by the victors. 

Hiroshima is equally shrouded in mythology masquerading as history.  The conventional story is that Truman ordered the use of the atomic bomb in order to save hundreds of thousands of American soldiers’ lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. 

In fact, the Japanese were already defeated and were negotiating for surrender through the Russians.  The U.S. knew this because it had broken the Japanese codes even before the Battle of Midway in 1942.  But the U.S. wanted to end the War not in months or weeks, but in days.  The reason was that Russia was about to enter the War against Japan, per its agreement with Roosevelt at Yalta. 

But Russia had gained hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory in Eastern Europe as it pushed Hitler’s army back from Stalingrad to Berlin.  It now stood to make similar gains in East Asia.  What would be the point of the U.S. fighting the entire World War to defeat fascism, only to lose it at the very end to its other arch-enemy, the communists? 


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So Truman ordered the bombs rushed into use, even though the earliest planned U.S. invasion of Japan was more than three months out.  Many senior military brass went on record decrying the use of the bomb as “barbaric” and “useless.”  That’s why they aren’t “historians.”

Finally, Gulf of Tonkin was the incident manufactured by the military establishment to railroad a reluctant President Johnson into sending U.S. forces to fight the war in Vietnam.  If ever there was a time when the U.S. was on the wrong side of history, this was it. 

In 1946, Ho Chi Minh from North Vietnam appealed to Harry Truman to help the Vietnamese evict the French colonial occupiers from his country.  He even wrote the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence on the model of the U.S.’s Declaration:  “All men are created equal.  They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Sadly, however, Truman supported the French and funded their war against the Vietnamese resistance fighting for self-determination.  When the French were defeated in 1954, the U.S. picked up their sword.  This was the “original sin” of the U.S. role in Vietnam, the one that made it impossible to ever “win the hearts and minds of the people.”

The entirety of the U.S.’s vast military and economic might could not defeat the Vietnamese.  The U.S. was driven out in 1973 and Vietnam collapsed to the communists in 1975.  But the fiction of the U.S. having been attacked at Tonkin remains as the justification for its escalation of the War, a war that killed more than 58,000 Americans and three million Southeast Asians. 

These incidents reveal how deeply embedded in our culture are the fictitious sacramental narratives of military justification.  We saw the same in Iraq with Weapons of Mass Destruction.  We saw it in Syria with our government’s lies about Assad’s gassing his own people.  We’re seeing it now in Ukraine where the U.S.-sponsored coup is being spun as Russian aggression. 

It’s hard to know how we can disentangle our understandings of critical events from the vast imperial machinery of intellectual fabrication that exists precisely to keep us confused, misdirected, and pacified.  But without a continuous effort to do so we will be little more than cattle and cannon fodder in the violent game for global power. 

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman is the author of The Best One Hour History series, which includes World War I, The French Revolution, The Vietnam War, and other titles.  He is the founder of One Dollar For Life, a nonprofit that builds infrastructure projects in the developing world from donations as small as one dollar.

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