Camouflaging the Vietnam War: How Textbooks Continue to Keep the Pentagon Papers a Secret June 18, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Education, History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: bill bigelow, daniel ellsberg, education, hearts and minds, history, ho chi minh, howard zinn, pentagon papers, roger hollander, vietnam, Vietnam War
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In the Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, Daniel Ellsberg, who secretly copied and then released the Pentagon Papers, offers a catalog of presidential lying about the U.S. role in Vietnam: Truman lied. Eisenhower lied. Kennedy lied. Johnson “lied and lied and lied.” Nixon lied.
Ellsberg concludes: “The American public was lied to month by month by each of these five administrations. As I say, it’s a tribute to the American public that their leaders perceived that they had to be lied to; it’s no tribute to us that it was so easy to fool the public.”
The Pentagon Papers that Ellsberg exposed were not military secrets. They were historical secrets—a history of U.S. intervention and deceit that Ellsberg believed, if widely known, would undermine the U.S. pretexts in defense of the war’s prosecution. Like this one that President Kennedy offered in 1961: “For the last decade we have been helping the South Vietnamese to maintain their independence.” No. This was a lie. The U.S. government’s Pentagon Papers history of the war revealed how the United States had sided with the French in retaking its colony after World War II, ultimately paying for some 80 percent of the French reconquest. By the U.S. government’s own account, from Truman on, Vietnamese self-determination was never an aim of U.S. foreign policy.
Like today’s whistle-blowers Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg knew the consequences for his act of defiance. Ultimately, he was indicted on 11 counts of theft and violation of the Espionage Act. If convicted on all counts, the penalty added up to 130 years in prison. This story is chronicled dramatically in the film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and in Ellsberg’s own gripping autobiography, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.
In June of 1971, Ellsberg surrendered to federal authorities at Post Office Square in Boston. Forty-two years later, few of the historical secrets that Ellsberg revealed— especially those that focus on the immediate post-World War II origins of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—appear in the school curriculum.
Corporate textbook writers seem to work from the same list of must-include events and individuals. Thus, all the new U.S. history textbooks on my shelf mention the Pentagon Papers. But none grapples with the actual import of the Pentagon Papers. None quotes Ellsberg or the historical documents themselves, and none captures Ellsberg’s central conclusion about the United States in Vietnam: “It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.”
Textbooks resist telling students that the U.S. government consistently lied about the war, preferring more genteel language. Prentice Hall’s America: History of Our Nation includes only one line describing the content of the Pentagon Papers: “They traced the steps by which the United States had committed itself to the Vietnam War and showed that government officials had concealed actions and often misled Americans about their motives.” The textbook offers no examples.
Teaching students a deeper, more complete history of the American War—as it is known in Vietnam—is not just a matter of accuracy, it’s about life and death. On the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, spoke bluntly about what it means when we fail to confront the facts of our past wars: “If we don’t know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives.”
The “we” in Zinn’s quote refers especially to the young people who will be convinced or tricked or manipulated—or lied—into fighting those wars, even if it is only “fighting” by guiding remote assassination drones from bases in a Nevada desert.
For almost 30 years, I taught high school U.S. history. I began my Vietnam unit with a little-remembered event that happened on Sept. 2, 1945. I showed students a video clip from the first episode of PBS’s Vietnam: A Television History, in which Dr. Tran Duy Hung, a medical doctor and a leader of the resistance to French colonialism, recounts the massive end-of-war celebration with more than 400,000 people jammed into Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. Japan had surrendered. The seemingly endless foreign occupation of Vietnam—Chinese, then French, then Japanese—was over.
Dr. Hung remembers: “I can say that the most moving moment was when President Ho Chi Minh climbed the steps, and the national anthem was sung. It was the first time that the national anthem of Vietnam was sung in an official ceremony. Uncle Ho then read the Declaration of Independence, which was a short document. As he was reading, Uncle Ho stopped and asked, ‘Compatriots, can you hear me?’ This simple question went into the hearts of everyone there. After a moment of silence, they all shouted, ‘Yes, we hear you!’ And I can say that we did not just shout with our mouths, but with all our hearts.” Dr. Hung recalls that, moments later, a small plane began circling and then swooped down over the crowd. When people recognized the U.S. stars and stripes on the plane, they cheered, imagining that its presence signaled an endorsement for Vietnamese independence. “It added to the atmosphere of jubilation at the meeting,” said Dr. Hung.
I want my students to recognize the hugeness of this historical could-have-been. One of the “secrets” Ellsberg risked his freedom to expose was that the United States had a stark choice in the fall of 1945: support the independence of a unified Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, which had spearheaded the anti-fascist resistance during World War II; or support the French as they sought to reimpose colonial rule.
Think about all the suffering that might have been avoided had the U.S. government taken advantage of this opportunity. Howard Zinn quotes from the Pentagon Papers in A People’s History of the United States:
Ho [Chi Minh] had built the Viet Minh into the only Vietnam-wide political organization capable of effective resistance to either the Japanese or the French. He was the only Vietnamese wartime leader with a national following, and he assured himself wider fealty among the Vietnamese people when in AugustSeptember 1945, he overthrew the Japanese . . . established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and staged receptions for incoming allied occupation forces. . . . For a few weeks in September 1945, Vietnam was—for the first and only time in its modern history—free of foreign domination, and united from north to south under Ho Chi Minh. . . .
In class, I brought this historical choice point to life with my students through a role play, in which some students portrayed members of the Viet Minh and others represented French business/government leaders arguing before “President Truman” about the future of Vietnam. (A fuller description and materials for the activity can be found at the Zinn Education Project website.) The role play depicted a make-believe gathering, of course, because the United States never included any Vietnamese in its deliberations on the future of Vietnam. Nonetheless, the lesson offers students a vivid picture of what was at stake at this key juncture.
In this and other activities, I want my students to see that history is not just a jumble of dead facts lying on a page. History is the product of human choice—albeit in conditions that we may not choose. Tragically, the United States consistently chose to side with elites in Vietnam, first French, then Vietnamese, as our government sought to suppress self-determination—perhaps most egregiously in 1954, when the United States conspired to stonewall promised elections and to prop up the dictator Ngo Dinh Diem.
Forty-two years ago this month, Daniel Ellsberg allowed himself to be taken into custody, with no clear outcome in sight. A reporter asked Ellsberg whether he was concerned about the possibility of going to prison. Ellsberg replied: “Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?”
No one expects that kind of integrity from textbook corporations. But educators needn’t confine ourselves to the version of history peddled by giant outfits like Pearson and Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt. Right now, every high school student is learning either to accept or to question the premises that lead our country to wage war around the world. As Howard Zinn suggested, if students don’t know their history, then they are “ready meat” for those who will supply the carving knives of war. Fortunately, more and more teachers around the country recognize the importance of teaching outside the textbook, of joining heroes like Dan Ellsberg to ask questions, to challenge official stories.
This article first appeared at the Zinn Education Project.
The Vietnam War and the Struggle For Truth June 22, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: american exceptionalism, fort apache, history, ho chi minh, john ford, john grant, john wayne, kissinger, lbj, nixon, robert mcnamara, roger hollander, the man who shot liberty valance, truth, U.S. imperialism, vietnam, vietnam veterans, Vietnam War
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Roger’s note: nearly 60,000 American soldiers and over a million (!!!) Vietnamese, including civilians, were killed in the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands were wounded, much of Vietnam was destroyed — the notorious scorched earth policy — and untold thousands of American Vietnam veterans returned home to lives traumatized by what they saw and did, many choosing suicide as a way out. That our war mongering president, himself with blood on his hands, is launching a project to whitewash the shameful Vietnam Holocaust is disgusting and criminal in itself.
opednews.com, June 22, 2012
Vietnam, a story of virtually unmitigated disasters that we have inflicted on ourselves and even more on others.
-Bernard Brodie, 1973
The Vietnamese won the Vietnam War by forcing the United States to abandon its intention to militarily sustain an artificially divided Vietnam. The history is clear: It was the United States, not the Vietnamese, who scotched the unifying elections agreed on for 1956 in the Geneva negotiations following the French rout at Dien Bien Phu. Why did the US undermine these elections? As Dwight Eisenhower said in his memoir, because everyone knew Ho Chi Minh was going to win in a landslide of the order of 80% of the population of Vietnam.
So much for Democracy.
“We can lose longer than you can win,” was how Ho described the Vietnamese strategy against the Americans. Later in the 1980s, a Vietnamese diplomat put it this way to Robert McNamara: “We knew you would leave because you could leave. We lived here; we couldn’t leave.”
The Vietnam War was finally over in 1975 when the North prevailed over the US proxy formulation known as South Vietnam, which then disappeared as a “nation,” as many thousands of our betrayed Vietnamese allies fled in small boats or were subjected to unpleasant internment camps and frontier development projects deep in the hostile jungles.
In a word, the Vietnam War was a debacle for everyone involved.
Now, we learn the United States government is planning a 13-year propaganda project to clean up the image of the Vietnam War in the minds of Americans. It’s called The Vietnam War Commemoration Project. President Obama officially launched the project on Memorial Day with a speech at the Vietnam Wall in Washington. The Project was established by Section 598 of the 604-page National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2008. It budgets $5 million a year.
President Obama at The Wall by Unknown
“Some have called this war era a scar on our country,” Obama told the specially invited Vietnam veteran crowd at The Wall. “But here’s what I say. As any wound heals, the tissue around it becomes tougher, becomes stronger than before. And in this sense, finally, we might begin to see the true legacy of Vietnam. Because of Vietnam and our veterans, we now use American power smarter, we honor our military more, we take care of our veterans better. Because of the hard lessons of Vietnam, because of you, America is even stronger than before.”
Vietnam toughened us up, made us better human beings. I would submit the President is wrong on that score, that there are profound lessons we have failed to learn.
Phase One of the Commemoration Project goes through 2014 and “will focus on recruiting support and participation nationwide. There will inevitably be international, national, regional, state, and local events planned, but a focus will be on the hometown level, where the personal recognitions and thanks are most impactful. The target is to obtain 10,000 Commemorative Partners.” Phase Two, through 2017, will encourage these Partners to commit to two events a year. “The DoD Commemoration Office will develop and host a “Master Calendar’ to list all the events, reflecting tens of thousands of events across the nation, as we thank and honor our Vietnam veterans.” Phase Three, from 2017 to 2025, will focus on “sustainment” of the positive legacy established in Phases One and Two and will involve “targeted activities” as deemed necessary.
The planners of the Project decided the Vietnam War began in 1962, which makes 2012 the 50th Anniversary of the start of the war. Just that decision alone exhibits disingenuous calculation. Anyone who has read anything beyond a pop novelization of Rambo knows it’s impossible to understand US involvement in the Vietnam War unless one goes back at least to 1945 and the decision to succumb to Cold War hysteria and support the re-colonization of Vietnam by the French. When you understand how Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh soldiers fought side-by-side with US soldiers against the Japanese occupiers of Vietnam, when the Vichy French colonial garrisons were cowed by the Japanese, you begin to understand the profound betrayal at the root of the entire war.
The problem is that understanding is the last thing the Pentagon and the US Government want the American people to wrestle with. If President Obama’s launching language is any indication, the purpose of the Vietnam War Commemoration is to create a malleable and supportive populace for future military operations — especially under the new doctrine of focused killing with drones and special-ops units now being established around the world.
Everyone in Washington knows the post-World War Two behemoth United States faces an inevitable decline vis—vis former third world, colonial nations like China, India and Brazil. It’s also clear globalized actors like al Qaeda founded as a reaction against our international interventions are not static and will evolve with our changing tactics. The world is, thus, getting more and more frightening for Americans, especially those who insist on holding on to the good-old-days of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.
It has to do with an insistence on living in a glorious western colonial past, a bubble that’s part historical fact and part illusion and that entails ignoring what the Buddhists call the fundamental impermanence of life or what the Greek Heraclitus meant when he said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Today we might say: sh*t happens and things change. But for an imperialist, these are subversive thoughts. Just the mention the word “imperialism” and people turn into Sergeant Schultz: “I see nah-thing.”
In our schools and institutions it’s unfortunate American citizens are rarely taught to understand historical events like the Vietnam War. History is subversive, and our leaders have all become corporate panderers who want what every other pandering leader in history has ever wanted: a compliant populace waving the flag and not asking questions. Thus we have the Vietnam War Commemoration Project.
John Ford’s America
I’m a cineaste, a subversive-sounding French word for film buff. Nothing dramatizes all this quite as perfectly as two iconic John Ford movies, in which the director, a Navy reserve admiral, employs John Wayne as a key player in the patriotic task of burying Truth in American popular history. John Wayne, of course, was key to the imagery that got us into Vietnam. Wayne even co-directed and starred in the 1968 patriotic clunker The Green Berets. For those who question the relevance of classic film to American political meta-narrative, one need only mention Ronald Reagan who rose to power by confusing the two realms.
The two Ford movies are Fort Apache in 1947 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962. The former is a cavalry and Indians story and the latter is a gunfighter and bad man story. Ford was an amazing director and both are excellent fiction films that reinforce Manifest Destiny and American cultural values — to the point of necessarily burying unpleasant truths and encouraging popular legends.
At the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor learns that dude lawyer Jimmy Stewart really didn’t shoot the bad gunman Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin. The shooting of Valance in a western town at night made Stewart famous and got him elected a US senator. The editor learns that gunfighter John Wayne knew Valance would kill his tenderfoot pal Stewart, so Wayne had dry-gulched Valance with a rifle from a nearby alley.uestion is, will the editor spill the beans and destroy good-guy Stewart’s senatorial career. In what is now an iconic line, the editor says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Both the official and popular histories of the Vietnam War are rife with this kind of slippage. The emotional emphasis on anti-war activists “spitting” on soldiers and the emphasis on the heroics of individual soldiers in Vietnam are just two examples. In both cases, the larger, historical realities are buried in favor of popularly endorsed and highly publicized narratives on an individual and personal level. The fact anti-war activists were actually opposing LBJ, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and the cruel and insidious war they and the institutions they controlled were determined to escalate is lost in the cynical, patriotic focus on individual heroism.
The colonel’s debacle and a newly promoted Wayne promotes the legend by Unknown
Fort Apache is a perfect analogy for the Vietnam War. John Wayne is a cavalry captain in Apache country; he’s a good soldier who respects Cochise and his braves. At this point, along comes Henry Fonda as a tight-ass lieutenant colonel taking command of the garrison; he resents being sent with his teenage daughter Shirley Temple to this smelly armpit of the world — in this case, Ford’s favorite location, the incredibly austere Monument Valley in Utah.
Besides the grand-scale scenes of precise cavalry units advancing on horseback amongst the mesas and desert tabletops, there’s the usual John Ford cotillion dances with officers in formal uniforms and ladies in gowns that are simply preposterous for the frontier. And there’s the usual male camaraderie and buffoonery amongst the enlisted men centered on drinking to lighten things up. Plus a Romeo and Juliet romance between upper class Temple and the fresh West Point 2nd lieutenant son of grizzled Sergeant Major Ward Bond, a Civil War Medal Of Honor winner.
Fonda wants to reestablish military discipline at the fort and to regain the glory he once had as a general in the Civil War. (It seems rank was shuffled considerably once that conflagration was over.) He also wants to rip into the goddamned savages who caused him this ignoble assignment.
Fonda reluctantly allows Wayne to go with only a Spanish translator to talk with Cochise unarmed in his stronghold. (Cochise speaks Spanish but not English.) Wayne and Cochise get on smartly and agree that Cochise can resettle in his former lands. But Fonda has different plans. He dismisses Wayne’s agreement and orders the garrison to mount up to meet Cochise. To Wayne, it’s a loathsome betrayal.
The Apaches have the US cavalry outnumbered ten to one. But this doesn’t phase the madman Fonda. He orders the recalcitrant Wayne to guard the wagons and orders a frontal attack that takes his troops right into an Apache ambush that Wayne warned him was there.
Fonda is shot off his horse, and Wayne rides like the wind to save the wounded officer. But Fonda shoves him away and mounts Wayne’s horse to join his encircled men, now in a formation that resembles images of Custer’s Last Stand. Fonda apologizes to Bond, who makes a jovial crack about their future grandchildren. Then they’re all killed by the infuriated Apaches.
Cut to Wayne back behind the wagons, awaiting the advancing savages. A lone rider comes up and, as Wayne goes out unarmed to meet him, the rider angrily slams the garrison colors into the dirt at Wayne’s feet. Cochise has let his paleface amigo live for another day.
Then there’s a break and its some years later. Wayne is now a colonel, and he’s engaged with some reporters in his office. There’s a dignified, formal portrait of the Fonda character on the wall. The reporters all want to hear about the glory of Fonda’s now famous fatal charge. Wayne plays along and passes on the legend of the great man. Then he goes outside and leads his troops on a stirring march out of the compound. The end.
The fact the arrogance and incompetence of the Fonda character and his blatant betrayal of a negotiated agreement he had sent an officer out to obtain at significant risk had caused the loss of much of his garrison is simply swept under the rug. Truth is secondary to institutional integrity. Wayne has now realized on which side his bread is buttered and that his career is not about negotiating with savages. Geronimo was pointedly introduced earlier in the meeting with Cochise. To protect the women folk and advancing civilization on the frontier, Wayne now has the guerrilla Geronimo to clean up.
As well-wrought film art, one can see Fort Apache in two ways — as glorifying Manifest Destiny and the extermination of Native Americans or as explaining the process of how truth is the first casualty of war and, if we let it happen, a permanent casualty of permanent war.
The Truth Will Set Us Free
A friend of mine just gave me three boxes of books on the Vietnam War to add to my collection; and I’m always looking for more in thrift shops and used book stores. Chris Hedges says we’re becoming an illiterate culture attuned to spectacle. That may be true, but I’m not going to be one of Orwell’s proles in such an equation. The point is, we in the antiwar movement — especially those of us who are Vietnam veterans and still read — have a responsibility to make sure the national record is complete. Bernard Brodie was right in 1973 in his mature, analytic book War and Politics when he said Vietnam was “a story of virtually unmitigated disasters that we have inflicted on ourselves and even more on others.” Nothing has changed in the past 39 years, and a well-funded Pentagon propaganda campaign won’t affect that truth.
I’ll be the first to concede honor and bravery exist even in a lousy, unnecessary and cruel war like the one in Vietnam. But we cannot allow the rah-rah garbage that appears to be lined up for the well-funded Vietnam War Commemoration Project to prevail without a fight — even if that fight is asymmetrical and has to be fought in guerrilla mode with rhetorical jujitsu and even strains of Dada absurdity if necessary. The fact is, there are two sides to the Vietnam War, and the one that says the war was not necessary needs to be heard loud and clear and needs to be respected. Plus, it needs to be made clear to Americans that the Vietnamese endured vastly more pain and suffering than any of us did.
The poet W.D. Ehrhart was a young Marine infantryman in the war. He was wounded there. He returned to Vietnam in 1985 and wrote about his trip, about the good things and about meeting Mrs. Na who lost five sons to The American War. As he is led into her modest peasant home, she looks at him. “I have suffered so much misery,” she tells him, “and you did this to me.”
Ehrhart wants to flee the little house and vomit in the road. The incident reminds him of a poem he had written earlier called “Making the Children Behave.”
in those strange Asian villages
where nothing ever seemed
and my few grim friends
moving through them
When they tell stories to their children
of the evil
that awaits misbehavior
is it me they conjure?
It takes great humanity and courage to get to a place like Ehrhart has reached. John Ford would not have understood the need to recognize the truths Ehrhart and other vets have tried to tell Americans, though many Americans like Platoon director Oliver Stone certainly do. The Pentagon and the US government do not want to encourage such difficult truths when they need young soldiers for future wars that may, like Vietnam and Iraq, turn out to be tragic debacles.
In another poem, Ehrhart poignantly addresses the human problem of sending young men to fight delusional and unnecessary wars. It’s called “Guerrilla War.”
It’s practically impossible
to tell civilians
from the Vietcong.
Nobody wears uniforms.
They all talk
the same language,
(and you couldn’t understand them
even if they didn’t).
They tape grenades
inside their clothes,
and carry satchel charges
in their market baskets.
Even their women fight,
and young boys,
It’s practically impossible
to tell civilians
from the Viet Cong.
you quit trying.