by Mark Hand
September 13, 2003
Facts are facts but how you choose to interpret them is a subjective exercise. I regard the U.S. invasion of Vietnam and adjacent countries as one of the cruelest periods in human history. The U.S. government was responsible for the deaths of about 2 million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians. That’s pretty barbaric, in my opinion.
Others view the 2 million dead with disappointment because the U.S. government failed to use the measures necessary to “win” the war. These people argue that the U.S. government’s inability to achieve a decisive victory in Indochina spawned a Vietnam Syndrome that tempered the U.S. government’s willingness to intervene in foreign lands in the post-1975 world.
In historical terms, the U.S. establishment's reluctance to intervene overseas for fear of entering a quagmire didn’t last long. The Carter administration generally refrained from overt troop deployments, preferring instead to counsel U.S. client states and surrogates around the world on the techniques and merits of counterinsurgency and insurgency, depending on the regime in power. But President Reagan quickly sought to confront the syndrome in his first term through a morale-boosting invasion of an outpost of the Evil Empire. Or, at least that’s how Reagan and the U.S. media sold the invasion of Grenada to the American people.
In the fall of 1983, a couple of days after 240 or so Marines were getting blown up in Lebanon, Reagan, surely suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, sent U.S. troops to the tiny Caribbean nation to liberate U.S. medical students and wipe out an alleged Communist staging ground in the Western Hemisphere. After experiencing the terrible embarrassment in Beirut, the overseers of the U.S. Empire knew a successful campaign in Grenada would prove helpful in alleviating the pain of the setback in Lebanon and in stamping out the Vietnam Syndrome.
Today, with its sites set on total world domination, the U.S. government has successfully transformed the Vietnam Syndrome into a quaint vestige of the Cold War. Some people have pointed to the Vietnam Syndrome as a potential scenario for the United States if it gets bogged down fighting an unconventional war against a faceless enemy in Iraq. This argument fails to take into account the fact that the political class and media in Washington are calling for an expanded U.S. military presence in Iraq, not a rollback, as one would expect from leaders afflicted with Vietnam Syndrome.
In reality, the Vietnam Syndrome never existed. It was a concoction of the hard-core believers in U.S. Empire who couldn't accept the fact that Vietnam fell out of the control of the Western powers, starting with the French in the 1950s and then the Americans 20 years later.
The fact is that every foreign adventure in U.S. history has enjoyed the overwhelming support of the ruling class and press. The Vietnam War was a big hit among the establishment, except for the rare periods when certain members of the ruling elite began having second thoughts about the price that was being paid to keep South Vietnam out of the hands of Ho Chi Minh. In his latest book, Secrets, Daniel Ellsberg emphasizes that there was a lack of public controversy in mainstream circles about the war during its height in the late 1960s.
"For two years after Lyndon Johnson's decision not to run again for president, from his announcement on March 31, 1968, to Nixon's invasion of Cambodia on April 30, 1970, the Vietnam War more or less disappeared from the mainstream of American political debate as a major issue," Ellsberg writes.
The politicians had grown tired of the unprecedented rebellion seen in the 1960s, from the civil rights movement to the antiwar activism. They were willing to be duped into thinking that Nixon was moving to disengage the United States from Vietnam.
If lawmakers, even those from the "opposition party," aren't going to stand up to the president, do you expect the U.S. populace to react any differently? The U.S. government gets away with its militaristic ways for a number of reasons, the most important being the brainwashing of its population, starting during school-age years and continuing into adulthood through its economic and media systems. The U.S. population is taught to salute the presidency and view the institution as an untouchable monarchy. The U.S. government makes the occasional blunder, but all foreign policy efforts are conducted with the utmost respect for innocent life, we are told. Americans are taught not to concern themselves with the affairs of the government, except at election time, because their leaders know best. Without a sense of empowerment, Americans retreat from government participation, which then produces a collective memory loss of America's crimes of the past.
Ellsberg’s Secrets offers a perfect illustration of how the American public allows its government to continue to repeat its horrors. Since releasing the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s, Ellsberg has remained a committed antiwar activist. He hasn’t forgotten the horrors that the U.S. government inflicted on the Vietnamese people.
While Ellsberg may have a good memory of America's imperial past, the American public has forgotten him. This was illustrated soon after the U.S. bombs starting falling in Baghdad in late March, when thousands of people, including Ellsberg, were engaging in acts of civil disobedience in cities across the country.
During the second day of the official invasion, Ellsberg arrived late for a planned demonstration on downtown Washington's H Street in front of the White House. He found a group of protesters already staging their die-in in the middle of the street. Intent on participating, the 71-year-old Ellsberg weaved between the police officers surrounding the participants in the die-in and quickly jumped into the circle, laying down in the middle of the group.
About 20 minutes later, Ellsberg was picked up from the ground and escorted to a waiting Metro D.C. police paddy wagon. While the police were processing him before placing him in the vehicle, Phyllis Armstrong, a
veteran reporter from the local CBS affiliate, WUSA-TV, began interviewing the handcuffed Ellsberg. The first question out of her mouth was, “Do you support the troops?” The only audible part of Ellsberg’s response was, “Yes, I support the troops but …”
Armstrong obviously had no idea who she was interviewing. She asked Ellsberg how to spell his name and Ellsberg politely answered while sporting a smirk.
How quickly we forget. But that’s the way the government and media want it. Ellsberg was no longer the most dangerous man in America and therefore his message was no longer of interest to the media. It had been more than 30 years since his 15 minutes of fame and he was just another face among the millions of people around the world who wanted to stop the U.S. military’s invasion of Iraq.
In Secrets, his memoir of the Vietnam and Pentagon Papers era, Ellsberg offers a portrait of an extremely violent period in our country’s history. Sadly, the radical nature of the U.S. state during the Vietnam War, as represented in Secrets, has taken hold again today, with the Bush Administration’s adoption of extremist policies around the world and here at home.
In the book, Ellsberg describes conversations that took place in the White House during the Vietnam War that ring eerily similar to the discussions that almost certainly are taking place in the Oval Office today regarding how to confront al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Here's one exchange, on U.S. military tactics in Vietnam, between Nixon and Henry Kissinger captured by Nixon's secret tapes:
Nixon: See, the attack in the North that we have in mind … power plants, whatever's left — POL [petroleum], the docks … And, I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?
Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.
Nixon: No, no, no … I'd rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
Nixon: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? … I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes.
Here's a later exchange:
Nixon: The only place where you and I disagree … is with regard to the bombing. You're so goddamned concerned about civilians and I don't give a damn. I don't care.
Kissinger: I'm concerned about the civilians because I don't want the world to be mobilized against you as a butcher.
One of the must memorable passages of Secrets is when Ellsberg explains how his release of the Pentagon Papers to the press was not illegal under the U.S. Constitution and still would not be today. Ellsberg writes:
"But Congress had never passed any law that provided criminal sanctions against what I had done: copying and giving official ‘classified’ information without authorization to newspapers, to Congress, and to what our constitutional principles regard as our "sovereign public.' … There is no explicit or intended statutory basis at all for the classification system that has existed through a succession of executive orders since World War II."
And in the 32 years since the Pentagon Papers controversy, the secrecy surrounding the U.S. national security apparatus has grown even tighter. In the past three years, the executive branch of the government has entered its least transparent stage in U.S. history. Too bad there aren’t more Washington insiders like Daniel Ellsberg fighting to make the U.S. government live up to its billing as a democracy in which those who the public has entrusted with positions of power understand they are obligated to answer to the public, and not vice versa.