The official or commonly accepted version of how and why the U.S. was involved in Vietnam sort of goes along the following lines:
Non-communist South Vietnam was invaded by communist North Vietnam
The United States came to the aid of the regime in the South.
The regime in the South was democratic
Yet, it turns out that this is untrue, and it required massive propaganda to create this standard and accepted image.
A lot of the following is a summary of part of journalist John Pilger’s book, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), mainly chapters 15 and 20, mostly written in the 1980s (and reprinted in 2001, from which the citations are taken. Where page numbers are cited in parenthesis, it is from this book unless indicated otherwise). He was in Vietnam many times, during the war, and returned on various occassions as well. He received a number of awards for his Vietnam reporting. He has generally been quite critical in his writings about power and authority.
Pilger described some studies in the 1980s where some people by then had already forgotten some of the reasons for the Vietnam war, and that More than a third could not say which side American had supported and some believed that North Vietnam had been our allies (p. 178.) He describes why this historical amnesia might occur:
Many have claimed that the media contributed to the U.S. losing the war, because the media was generally against the war. Further below, we will look at this as well, but first a look at the war itself.
The context in which Vietnam appeared to fall under Soviet influence is critical. Vietnam had actually approached the U.S. for assistance in building a nation in the wake of the Second world war and particularly from French imperialism both of which had taken their toll on this region. (President Roosevelt for example, had already vilified France which, he said, had milked Vietnam for a hundred years. The people of Indo-China are entitled to something better, the President had said, and the United States supported their independence and self-determination. (p.181).) The communist leader, Ho Chi Minh liked Americans, and enjoyed the openness of Americans (p.181).
Yet, having been turned down a number of times by the U.S., they turned to the other superpower at that time, the Soviet Union, even though they had shown a preference to the U.S. model of democracy:
(Side NoteJ.W. Smith (cited below) suggests it was 6 times, that Ho Chi Minh sent letters to the U.S. government. I don’t know if what Pilger calls appeals is the same as the letters J.W. Smith refers to, but the point is, there were many appeals to the U.S.)
As the U.S. clumped Northern Vietnam into the same bracket as Communist China and Soviet Union, Minh felt no choice but to turn to them.
The immediate post World War II era for Vietnam was crucial:
As with other parts of the world, previous imperial rulers had carved up Vietnam as well.
The French had divided Vietnam into three, all sub-divisions of its colony in Indo-China.
The Allies divided it between two military commands headquartered in China and South-East Asia.
British colonial officer, Major-General Douglas Gracey, took surrender of the Japanese in September 1945, in Saigon, but immediately rearmed them and ordered them to put down the Vietminh, who had already formed an administration in the South. Like the Vietminh of the North, they were a popular movement of Catholics, Buddhists, small businessmen, communists and farmers who looked to Ho Chi Minh as the father of the nation. (p.181)
By 1947, thanks to the British and Gracey, the French were back in power in Saigon.
Needing to get the French out of their country, Ho Chi Minh was still hoping for a U.S. alliance and he
As J.W. Smith summarizes:
As Pilger adds, the root of American concern was imperial in nature, which, citing Noam Chomsky,
Side note about Chomsky’s mention of 'domino'
Chomsky’s reference to domino is regarding the domino theory put forth by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954, highlighting concerns about nations one by one falling out of the sphere of influence of the west.
The concerns raised by political leaders of the west was that nations breaking free of decades, or even centuries of imperial and colonial rule, would instead fall into the Soviet sphere of influence and be lost to communism.
Others, such as the authors cited above, suggest given the larger historical context, this was a continuation of a struggle for powers to try and maintain dominance and continued access to the historic sources of imperial power and wealth: the third world’s resources. Successful independent development (often not tied to Soviet influence or sphere) would mean a possible loss of wealth and power. Hence, the reference to the imperialist motives.
See also the following for more details on this aspect:
This site’s section on control of resources. This page discusses this more in a Middle East context, but includes such post World War II geopolitical concerns
Summarizing mostly from Pilger again, the political background to the buildup of the Vietnam war is worth
Having declared a policy of containing communism in Asia, the American government in 1950 gave $10 million to assist the French in winning back their colony in the North. Within four years the Americans were paying 78 percent of a colonial war directed by the same French whom President Roosevelt had castigated (p.182)
While this was going on, an international conference in Geneva (July 1954) was held on Indo-China.
The final declaration divided Vietnam temporarily into two national regrouping areas.
The North and South were to be reunited after free national elections in July 1956.
There seemed no doubt that Ho Chi Minh was most likely to win and form Vietnam’s first democratically elected government.
But China also had geopolitical interests here. It was a role of exquisite duplicity which owed nothing to the solidarity of world communism, the current Western bogey. (p.183)
China wanted to end its diplomatic isolation, so took part in Geneva.
But it also wanted control in its backyard.
Hence, the later support for Pol Pot in Cambodia, for example. (p.183) (See below for more on this as well.)
Knowing that Minh was most likely to win those elections, the U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, refused to sign the Geneva accords and the U.S. moved to not only support France, but take command:
The level to which the U.S. were willing to go to support France before this was quite extreme. Journalist Robert Weiner, who was CNN’s executive producer in Baghdad, Iraq, during the 1991 Gulf War, describes in the Los Angeles Times an aspect of this when watching Peter Davis’ 1974 Academy Award-winning documentary, Hearts and Minds.:
A democratically electable leader was opposed.
Instead, through the CIA, a fascistic one was put into power in the South, Ngo Dinh Diem.
At the same time the CIA provided mass propaganda of the horrors that Ho Chi Minh would supposedly impose on the people of the North, urging them to flee to the South.
This would provide enough justification to raise the good conscious of the American people to demand something be done.
John Pilger provides important details of this 'master illusion'
It is worth highlighting in full the following, at considerable length, to give an idea of the lengths taken to achieve the end-goals. Continuing from the above:
So, in the apparent fight against democracy, the U.S. had engineered public support for a fascistic leader, rather than a democratically elected one, who therefore reluctantly turned to the Soviets and Chinese for assistance in fending off the French.
Diem’s excesses proved too much, and in November 1963, Diem was overthrown by a triumvirate of his generals, organised by the CIA. (p. 186)
Some of these generals approached the NLF (the national liberation front, also known as Vietcong, Vietnamese Communists) seeking a ceasefire and negotiation towards a neutralist non-communist coalition government in Saigon. According to a study by George Kahin, based on extensive interviews, the generals, who were seeking a negotiated agreement among the Vietnamese parties themselves without American intervention, regarded the NLF as overwhelmingly non-communist and sufficiently free of Hanoi’s control to have made [a political settlement in South Vietnam] quite possible. (pp. 186 - 187)
"The creation of more illusions and a legal justification for an expanded war now became an urgent necessity", as Pilger continues. While there was secret bombing by American planes of Vietnam on its border with Laos, domestic politics and civil rights upheavals preoccupied the news.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the justification for use of military force.
An alleged attack on US spyship USS Maddox was engineered that became the pretext for war in Vietnam.
This was later known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and as a direct result, a resolution was sent by the White House to Congress seeking authority for the United States to invade Vietnam. Seven years were to pass before the Pentagon Papers, the official secret history of the war would reveal that administration officials had drafted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution two months before the alleged attack on the Maddox (p. 188, Emphasis is original.)
For more information about the Pentagon Papers you could look at the following on-line material:
The Pentagon Papers Case from the National Security Archive, which reposts declassified U.S. documents, based on the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
That the end result was costly is an understatement:
And as Noam Chomsky adds, with slightly updated numbers:
As J.W. Smith and Noam Chomsky, cited above, described, one of the core aspects of this war and the cold war ideology in general was to try and contain the breaks for freedom of various nations and to ensure successful independent development was minimized, for fear of what Eisenhower had called the domino effect. William Blum, who worked at the State Department in the 1960s, and is now an investigative journalist summarizes the effect of the Vietnam war:
To further demonstrate that Vietnam did not wish to pursue a communist ideology for its country, consider what happened after the war: it tried to look to the west, and to open up for foreign investment:
Side Note about Pol Pot and his Support from China and the U.S.
Mentioned above was China’s later support for Pol Pot. After the Vietnam war was over, Vietnam was still faced with various conflicts.
For years, the Khmer Rouge had been attacking ethnic Vietnamese in neighboring Cambodia and in cross-border raids into Vietnam itself.
In 1979 Vietnam invaded what is now known as Kampuchea, overthrew Pol Pot’s government and installed a government friendly to Vietnam.
Khmer Rouge forces retreated to the western end of Cambodia, near Thailand, and some set up camp in Thailand eventually, as well.
As well as China’s support for the murderous and genocidal Pol Pot, the U.S. also provided support. William Blum, mentioned earlier, describes:
Support for the Khmer Rouge lasted well into the 80s and 90s, as Blum details (see chapter 10 from the above book by Blum for more). Support waned in the later part of the 90s as some of this came to light in the mainstream.
Expanding on the U.S. and China relationship, given that one was for democracy and capitalism while the other for communism: China and the Soviet Union were never ideal partners, and the U.S. saw an opportunity to have China as a powerful Cold War ally against the Soviet Union. As John Pilger details:
As part of the agreement to end war and rebuild, the Nixon administration offered $3.25 billion of grant aid over 5 years for U.S. contribution to postwar reconstruction, though Vietnam wanted reparation money not reconstruction money. It was never paid, because Vietnam apparently did not reveal all the prisoners of war that was part of the deal for the aid. This itself is a tragic and thorny issue for those Americans who for long periods have been unaware of the fate of their loved ones. Yet, for Vietnam, it was though they had to pay in turn for a war largely created by the U.S. as William Blum describes, almost cynically:
Media reporting and the general attitudes about the media on the whole, as well as how segments of society interpreted the events of Vietnam is interesting and important.
The media lost the war for America
Common themes about why the U.S. lost the war include criticisms of the media. John Pilger describes two influential 'myths' about the media:
An article from the French paper, Le Monde Diplomatique, titled Show us the Truth about Vietnam, (April 2000), highlighted that the Vietnam war was the most covered topic in the US than any other issue. Yet that coverage was extremely one-sided. For example, just 3% of coverage was on enemy viewpoint.
Though eventually many stories about atrocities came out, initially they were rarely reported. Atrocities were neither isolated nor aberrations, Pilger continues (p.256). It was the nature of war that was atrocious; this was the big story of the war, but it was seldom judged to be news and therefore seldom told, except in fragments. Perhaps because it would have been so difficult for a nation to come to terms with what their leaders may have been doing, contrary to what they were saying, Atrocities were reported as mistakes which were blundered into. Behind this acceptable version appalling events could proceed as part of a deliberate and often efficiently executed strategy, contrary to the popular misconception of blundering generals and policy-makers.
Reflecting on the Events
But there was also difficulty in conceptualizing some of the main facets of the geopolitical makeup, because of the propaganda behind it, as Pilger details:
Famous atrocity stories such as the My Lai massacre only emerged after, or towards the end of the war. Pilger is worth quoting once again:
But some documentaries were very powerful and did highlight some of the earlier atrocities:
But the way the American establishment tried to come to terms with these, which could no longer escape the mainstream and the public, was to try and reflect on a tragedy. As Pilger continued from the above, The My Lai massacre eventually made the cover of Newsweek under the banner headline AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, which invited sympathy for the invader and deflected from the truth that the atrocities were, above all, a Vietnamese tragedy. (p.259, Emphasis is original.)
Noam Chomky also highlights this, that regardless of mainstream political persuasion, left or right, American elite typically regarded the Vietnam as a mistake or tragedy. He commented heavily on the former U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara’s influential memoirs, In Retrospect:
Note also Chomsky’s point about winning or losing the war. It is commonly believed, and depending how you look at it, that America lost the war in Vietnam. Yet, while they may have lost militarily, the damage they caused and from looking at the end goal, of containment and preventing independent development, commentators such as Chomsky and others point out that the result was a success. (See also the J.W. Smith citation above.)
Mainstream history has often been quite in favor of the official lines, as Pilger describes, even as far back as the mid-1980s:
Television news in particular was said to have helped America lose the war. Yet, television news coverage was arguably poor, and full of news-bites, rather than detailed documentaries, thus not providing sufficient context:
Various Hollywood movies involving Vietnam have since been released. Yet, hardly any connect the global politics at the time, and instead concentrate Indo-China in isolation. Nor do they really explore the suffering of the Vietnamese at the hands of Americans, or Chinese, for example, but are more contemplating about their own soldier’s actions. (see pp. 268 - 274 for more discussion on this aspect.)
In 1998 there was lot of hype in the mainstream about CNN having to retract a story about the US military’s use of Nerve Gas in the Vietnam War. The impression CNN and other media tried to portray in this incident was that the media institutions take such issues seriously. Those who saw this may recall how often this issue was bought up on CNN. However, as media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting suggests, it seems that a lot of the news reports during that war (and others) was fabricated, especially claims about the actions of the enemy. But none of those were ever retracted.
At the time of the war, there was pressure to conform, else a reporter could risk losing their career. In other cases, criticism or unacctepable portryal would be met with accusations of being anti-American, communist, unpatriotic, or some other derogatory term. This pressure even came from high government officials:
Philip Knightley, who was cited above by John Pilger, wrote what has been regarded a classic on war reporting. His book The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo (Prion Books, 2000) is an updated version of the one that Pilger cited from. In it, he provides immense details of war journalism from the various wars in recent decades. His chapters on Vietnam (pp. 409 - 469) give a detailed account and insight of the field of journalism and how it was affected by the Vietnam war, and how it reported the war. It would be futile to try and cite all the examples he has shown, including some very, very gruesome details of atrocities, but some of the summaries he made are worth highlighting:
In reporting on the bombing campaigns, even though the intensified carpet bombing of Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam wasn’t always known in detail, correspondents did their best given the circumstances they were in (p. 464).
However, the surge in the air war in Indo-China remained poorly reported, and what was revealed passed with amazingly little outcry. (p. 464). It was at this time of increased bombing, and in neighboring countries, plus the creation of a huge number of refugees (some 3 million), that news reporting was actually declining:
But Knightley also highlighted that American reaction might well have been different if the same attention that had been paid to the ground conflict in Vietnam had been given to the air war, if the reader had been told graphically and at the time about the bombing of Indo-China. In the face of official obstruction — at one state the surge in the war, the military authorities imposed an embargo on the news and then an embargo on the embargo — how could this have been achieved? (p. 469)
Knightley conceded that the war reporting was better than in previous wars, but also noted that this is not saying a lot. (p. 465) Even though war correspondents were generally free to move around and there was no official censorship, as journalist Murray Kempton has reminded us, with a million-dollar corps of correspondents in Vietnam the war in Cambodia was kept hidden for a year. (p. 465)
Knightley also detailed the racism that accompanied the war (as with all wars):
Many of the gruesome attrocities that Knightley described, including the killing of civilians was partly due to this racial sentiment. Knightley continued:
Yet, in other cases, Knightley highlighted how journalists faced pressured to dumb down or struggled to find outlets to publish their harrowing accounts:
And as Knightley concluded:
The Vietnam experience highlights a multitude of factors that contributed to what can only be termed as propaganda for Cold War ideological battles.
A mixture of ideological goals, geopolitical and military goals, and issues to do with the nature of reporting and the structure of the media and how it worked, combined with cultural norms, all impacted the way that things were reported, not reported, portrayed, or misrepresented.
This ultimately provided legitimacy for a war that saw millions killed.
That the war need not have happened in the first place is almost never discussed now, and it is more of a tragedy or bad mistake for the sole superpower to come to terms with; good intentions carried out poorly.
The above may be considered long for a web page, but it really isn’t much detail at all. In addition, many other important aspects have not been touched upon here such as:
The huge anti-war protest movements in the 1960s;
The issue of those missing in action; the details of the devastation of Indo-China;
Vietnam’s attempts at development after the wars, amidst trade and aid embargoes;
The various sociopolitical, environmental and economic consequences up to today;
The Vietnam syndrome;
The impact the Vietnam war has had on American culture, on the attitude to sending military troops abroad, etc;
And many more issues.
For more details on various aspects, discussed here, and not discussed, consider the following, which is by no means anywhere near a comprehensive list, but will be added to over time:
Covering Vietnam from the Media Channel provides various articles about the media on Vietnam.
Asia articles from media watch-dog, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
The books cited above are listed here (they themselves list many more sources):
John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), especially part IV, chapters 14 to 23. (John Pilger’s web site also includes a lot of articles on Vietnam.)
Phillip Knightly, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo, (Prion Books, 2000), especially chapters 16 and 17
Works by J.W. Smith from the Institute for Economic Democracy. At his web site you can find on line books, in full, for free. These detail in far more breadth and depth, the context in which Vietnam occurred.
Works from Noam Chomsky. His web site contains numerous articles, interviews, speeches, and books on all sorts of aspects of U.S. foreign policy, and like Smith, details the wider context as well.
William Blum, Rogue State, (Common Courage Press, 2000)
Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths, an investigation by The Blade, Toledo, Ohio, released October 22, 2003, reveals a number of articles detailing how members of a platoon of American soldiers from the 101st known as Tiger Force slaughtered an untold number of Vietnamese civilians over a seven-month period in 1967. In addition, a decision was made not to prosecute those who committed the war crimes.