WHY THE WAR WAS WRONG
Principal grounds for opposition to the Vietnam War
It never was a civil war as many claimed: Vietnam as a whole, south and north together as one country, fought for its independence for over a thousand years, mostly against the Chinese and, after the French invaded in 1858, against France.
After the French defeat in 1954, the international agreement that settled that war – known as the Geneva Accords – called for a temporary division of Vietnam. The Geneva Accords agreed on an election to be held in 1956, to reunify the country under one leader. The U.S. helped the South Vietnamese government undermine that election, knowing that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the independence forces, would have been elected to govern a unified north and south. The forces he led then began again to fight for independence…from us.
The country we supported was not a free country like our political leaders said: Diem’s regime was a dictatorship that ruthlessly pursued, disappeared, and killed political opponents. In 1963, he undertook a brutal suppression of the Buddhist minority, shooting protesters, ransacking pagodas, and arresting thousands of monks, nuns, and students. The iconic photo of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in flames on a street in Saigon, the first of eight monks to immolate themselves in protest that year, shocked Americans and made them wonder what kind of regime we were supporting.
When our man Ngo Dinh Diem refused to allow the nationwide election in 1956, he held a rigged referendum instead. He won 98.2% of the overall vote, and 605,025 votes in Saigon, where only 450,000 voters were registered. Our claims to be supporting democracy against communism simply were untrue.
After Diem’s ouster in a military coup supported by the US in 1963, the remaining South Vietnamese governments were either military dictatorships, or governments controlled from behind the scenes by the military.
The real reasons for the war -- geopolitics and the pride of Presidents: Our entry into Vietnam began during the Cold War, the post-World War II struggle between East – the USSR and China – and West – principally the United States. The war for independence in Vietnam fell neatly into this division, and so became a proxy war, a war in which global world powers support different sides in a local conflict to gain advantage over the other.
All five US presidents involved in the Vietnam conflict, from Truman to Nixon, received analyses that told them the war was unwinnable, or even being lost. But personal pride – “I’m not going down in history as the first American President who lost a war” (Lyndon Johnson) – led each to continue to escalate a war with little hope of success, while telling the American people the opposite.
A lie was used an excuse to bring America into the war -- the Gulf of Tonkin incident: In August, 1964, President Johnson solemnly informed Americans of a two-day attack by North Vietnamese boats on a US vessel on a peaceful mission in international waters, an attack that we later learned largely did not occur. Congress immediately granted vast war powers to Johnson, with only two Senators voting against the measure.
Fighting for the white man’s freedom. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, some darker people, some poor, hungry people…and shoot them for what? They never called me n------.” (Muhammad Ali)
Many African-Americans saw themselves as allies to the Vietnamese in their fight as people of color against the racist American government. They objected to being asked to fight for the freedom of others eight thousand miles away, when they did not have freedom at home.
Racial bias in the draft and military assignments was yet another affront. Men of color often didn’t have the money to go to college, which offered student deferments, or to mount a legal challenge to being drafted. They were much less likely to be granted conscientious objector status or snare a National Guard assignment.
Men of color were drafted, sent to front-line combat units, and died in numbers higher than their proportion of the population. Between 1961 and 1965, black men were a little less than 10% of American men in arms, but made up almost 20% of combat deaths. And Latinos, who made up 11% of the U.S. population, represented 19.4% of combat deaths.
The draft and the war touched every home: All young men were eligible, and all families felt the effect of the draft personally. Nightly television coverage kept the war on everyone’s minds, unlike today, when combat is much less often shown. Fifty percent of Americans in an August 2017 poll said they did not personally know anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many American families can think of today’s wars as being fought by someone else.
The ghastly cost in human suffering: The war was a human tragedy. More than 58,000 Americans were counted as combat deaths. Between three and six million Southeast Asian lives were lost. These numbers exclude those injured and maimed and represent only the tip of the iceberg of human suffering. In South Vietnam alone, 8.5 million people, half the population, were made homeless through forced relocation.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam vets were injured, maimed, or psychologically traumatized. The VA was slow to recognize PTSD and slower to recognize Agent Orange. Vietnam veterans have an inordinate rate of homelessness and substance abuse, and the numbers for suicide equal or exceed the number of soldiers killed in Vietnam.
Brutality: All too often, civilians were our targets.The iconic photo of the “napalm girl,” nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, naked and running for safety down a road, her clothes burnt off by napalm, seared the meaning of napalm into Americans’ minds. The US military dropped almost 400,000 tons of this jellied gasoline, designed to burn at astonishingly high temperatures of 1500 to 2000 degrees and to stick to human skin.
The military flew more bombing runs during Operation Rolling Thunder, between 1965 and 1968, than all the Allies flew in the European theater of World War II. The military dropped 20,000,000 gallons of herbicides and defoliants, best known as Agent Orange. The goal was to deprive the Viet Cong of cover, destroy their crops, and drive rural people into the cities, decimating the enemy’s support base.
Americans and our South Vietnamese allies tortured and summarily killed tens of thousands of prisoners. The best known single American atrocity was the murder of between 347 and 504 civilians in the village of My Lai on March 13, 1968. But harm to civilians was commonplace. The army purposely forced the peasants from their ancestral homes. Torching huts was often seen on the nightly news, and crying women and children made Americans wonder about the morality of the war.
As opponents of the war, we asked the most fundamental questions. What kind of country are we? Are we war-mongers or peace-makers? Do we honor such violence as a means of settling disputes, or do we honor peace? Resistance was our answer. We said NO.