The Vietnam War was a War of American Aggression

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Vietnamese propaganda, 1965: “Only by fighting the invading Americans will our country be truly independent and free”

Historian Christian G. Appy has a great article in the New York Times this week on the Vietnam War. (I also recommend his recent book on the war and American identity.) After all these years, Americans are still reluctant to take a clear-eyed look at that war. What was the nature of the conflict? What was the United States doing? Appy writes:

Was America’s war in Vietnam a noble struggle against Communist aggression, a tragic intervention in a civil conflict, or an imperialist counterrevolution to crush a movement of national liberation? Those competing interpretations ignited fiery debates in the 1960s and remain unresolved today. How we name and define this most controversial of American wars is not a narrow scholarly exercise, but profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy…

In the decades since 1975, all three major interpretations have persisted. Some writers and historians have embraced President Ronald Reagan’s view that the war was a “noble cause” that might have been won. That position has failed to persuade most specialists in the field, in large part because it greatly exaggerates the military and political virtues and success of the United States and the government of South Vietnam. It also falls short because it depends on counterfactual claims that victory would have been achieved if only the United States had extended its support for Diem (instead of greenlighting his overthrow), or tried a different military strategy, or done a better job winning hearts and minds. However, the war as it was actually conducted by the United States and its allies was a disaster by every measure.

In recent decades, a number of historians — particularly younger scholars trained in Vietnamese and other languages — have developed various versions of the civil war interpretation. Some of them view the period after the French defeat in 1954 as “post-colonial,” a time in which long-brewing internal conflicts between competing versions of Vietnamese nationalism came to a head. As the historian Jessica Chapman of Williams College puts it, “The Vietnam War was, at its core, a civil war greatly exacerbated by foreign intervention.” Others have described it as a civil war that became “internationalized.”

While these scholars have greatly enhanced our knowledge of the complexity and conflict in Vietnamese history, politics and culture, they don’t, in my view, assign enough responsibility to the United States for causing and expanding the war as a neocolonial power.

Let’s try a thought experiment. What if our own Civil War bore some resemblance to the Vietnamese “civil war”? For starters, we would have to imagine that in 1860 a global superpower — say Britain — had strongly promoted Southern secession, provided virtually all of the funding for the ensuing war and dedicated its vast military to the battle. We must also imagine that in every Southern state, local, pro-Union forces took up arms against the Confederacy. Despite enormous British support, Union forces prevailed. What would Americans call such a war? Most, I think, would remember it as the Second War of Independence. Perhaps African-Americans would call it the First War of Liberation. Only former Confederates and the British might recall it as a “civil war.”

I would reverse Chapman’s formula and say that the Vietnam War was, at its core, an American war that exacerbated Vietnamese divisions and internationalized the conflict. It is true, of course, that many Vietnamese opposed the Communist path to national liberation, but no other nationalist party or faction proved capable of gaining enough support to hold power. Without American intervention, it is hard to imagine that South Vietnam would have come into being or, if it did, that it would have endured for long.

Read the whole thing for Appy’s thoughts on why this matters today.

I recently taught the Vietnam War to my U.S. survey class. I emphasized a few points that I think are fundamental to understanding what actually happened in Vietnam:

1) The United States opposed democracy in Vietnam.

The 1954 Geneva accords established a temporary division between north and south. A 1956 nationwide election was to unify the country. The United States did not want that election to happen because American policymakers assumed, correctly, that Ho Chi Minh and the communists would have won. As elsewhere around the world during the Cold War, defending democracy or human rights was not an American priority.

2) Nationalism was a more potent force in the conflict than communism.

As the propaganda at the top of this post illustrates, the Americans had it exactly backward when they described Vietnamese communists as communists first and foremost. From the Vietnamese perspective, the more salient fact was that they were nationalists fighting against generations of foreign rule.

3) The United States was not defending the nation of South Vietnam; it was trying to create the nation of South Vietnam.

The military escalation of 1964 and beyond was the result of political failure. The United States tried and failed to create an artificial nation out of the temporary Geneva settlement. In the absence of popular legitimacy and shared national purpose for the South Vietnamese government, the United States propped it up through brutal military force.

4) In the United States, the human cost was overshadowed by the psychic toll on the American identity and social fabric.

U.S. actions led directly to millions of deaths in southeast Asia in a worse than useless conflict. But Americans tended to focus on their own wounds. After My Lai, the murderers became heroes. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter urged citizens to “honor the flag as [Lt. Calley] had done.” A popular song put these words in Calley’s mouth:

While we’re fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street; While we’re dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat; While we’re facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat.

The United States wasn’t defeated in Vietnam, many Americans believed. It was stabbed in the back by its own citizens. Appy’s book has a lot of insightful discussion of these attitudes. I was especially struck by this excerpt:

american reckoning

On the other hand, some parents made no excuses for what their children did in Vietnam:

One of the American soldiers at My Lai was Private Paul Meadlo. While guarding a group of about sixty Vietnamese who had been rounded up and made to squat down, Lieutenant Calley approached and ordered Meadlo to “take care of them.” At first, Meadlo did not understand. “Come on,” Calley barked, “We’ll kill them. Fire when I say ‘Fire.'” Meadlo obeyed. The villagers were about ten feet away when the two men began firing their M-16 rifles on automatic. After killing many of the Vietnamese, Meadlo stopped. With tears streaming down his face, he turned to a buddy, shoved the M-16 toward him, and said, “You shoot them.”

Two days after the massacre, Calley ordered his platoon to walk through a known minefield that had recently caused American casualties. Most of the men ignored the order, so Calley took only a small squad. Paul Meadlo was ordered to walk point carrying a mine detector. Calley grew impatient with Meadlo’s careful movements and ordered him to stop sweeping and pick up the pace. A few seconds later, Meadlo stepped on a mine. His left foot was blown off. When an evacuation helicopter arrived, he seemed to be thinking more about My Lai than his missing foot. He screamed at Calley: “Why did you do it? Why did you do it? This is God’s punishment to me, Calley, but you’ll get yours! God will punish you, Calley!”

Twenty months later, journalists tracked down Meadlo in his hometown of Goshen, Indiana. They found that most townspeople supported the young veteran and what he had done at My Lai. “He had to do what his officer told him,” said the owner of a pool hall. “Things like that happen in war. They always have and they always will,” said a veteran of World War II and Korea.

Meadlo’s parents, however, did not agree. His father, a retired coal miner, said: “If it had been me out there I would have swung my rifle around and shot Calley instead–right between the God-damned eyes. Meadlo’s mother said this: “I raised him up to be a good boy and did everything I could. They come along and took him to the service. He fought for his country and look what they done to him–made him a murderer.”

Putting Things in Context: How Much Does the U.S. Spend on Foreign Aid?

Part of what historians try to do is put things in context. So today, as the Trump Administration releases a budget proposal with large cuts to foreign aid, it’s worth pointing out that the gap between what Americans think the federal government spends on foreign aid and what it actually spends is enormous:

Figure 5: Public Overestimates Share of Budget Going to Foreign Aid

Around 1% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, and much of that is actually military spending. These numbers don’t tell us whether foreign aid is effective. But they do show that there is no vast pot of money just waiting to be unleashed for an “America first” policy. Xenophobia is not conducive to sound budgeting.

A Foreign Policy of Slavery

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Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

For decades, historians portrayed American slavery as a backward institution destined to wither in the onrushing tide of modernity. In the 1970s, Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll conjured images of a lost feudal world of master and slave. In the 1930s, even Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction argued that slavery “would have disintegrated of its own weight” had the Civil War not intervened. Whatever it was, American slavery was not modern, progressive, or efficient.

Based on anecdotal conversation with those who are not historians, my guess is that this is still the popular consensus. But in recent years historians have challenged this view. In the work of Walter Johnson, Edward Baptist, and Sven Beckert, we see a system of slavery that is adaptable, modern, capitalistic, and forward-looking. This Vast Southern Empire bears the imprint of the new scholarship on American slavery, but it’s really a book about foreign policy.

It has often been pointed out that the South dominated the federal government until 1860. Usually, a slaveowner sat in the White House, and the South enjoyed disproportionate power in congress and the judiciary. But what exactly did white southerners do with that power? In Karp’s narrative, it’s not just that southern elites sought to maintain a stranglehold on the federal government in a sectional battle for supremacy between North and South. They had bigger ambitions. From the broader perspective of foreign relations, the entire American state was a vehicle for the promotion of slavery. Southern slaveholders were not narrow sectionalists, but nationalists who skilfully used the federal government to promote a foreign policy of slavery.

The same southerners who feared federal power at home counted on its vigorous application abroad to advance a “hemispheric defense of slavery.” It was no coincidence that southerners led the effort to modernize and enlarge the army and navy in the 1840s and 1850s. Southerners annexed Texas, spurred the invasion of Mexico, and engaged in diplomatic intrigues in Europe and South America to thwart British abolitionist aims. Their vehicle for these endeavors was, simply, the American state.

Karp convincingly shows that the filibuster invasions of Nicaraugua and Cuba in the 1840s and 1850s are the wrong place to look for the global ambitions of southern slaveholders. Why turn to private armies and hapless adventurers when the vast powers of the federal government lay at their disposal?

Karp shows that southern elites were not reflexive supporters of expansionist schemes. Theirs was a foreign policy that regarded sovereignty as less important than social organization. Cuba would make a nice addition to the American union, but a slave-based Cuba under Spanish rule was better than an American-ruled emancipated Cuba. Southern slaveholders regarded monarchist Brazil and Spanish Cuba as allies and parliamentary Britain as a dangerous foe. Differences in governance aside, Brazil, Cuba, and the United States shared a common interest in protecting racial slavery from the influence of British abolitionism after 1833.

In this light, the crisis of 1860 looks different. Karp writes that Lincoln’s election was a revolution not just in the domestic balance of power between North and South, but in global power relations. For over two decades, the United States had acted as the pro-slavery counterweight in the western hemisphere to abolitionist Britain. With Lincoln’s election, the world’s leading promoter of slavery had effectively–and suddenly–switched sides.

Southern elites’ headlong rush into self-destruction in the crisis of 1860-1861 has long been a cause of fascination and debate. What was the source of their hubris? Karp demonstrates that slaveholders’ confidence was not only based on the narrow calculation that British mills could not forgo southern cotton. More broadly, many southern elites looked around the globe and persuaded themselves that the world was trending in their direction.

The most respected scientists on both sides of the Atlantic seemed to have established beyond reasonable doubt the fact of white racial supremacy, and the influence of scientific racism was growing by the day. Economically and geopolitically, too, southern slaveholders had reasons for optimism. Britain had passed its emancipation bill in 1833, and then watched as the economic value of its Caribbean colonies promptly collapsed. Britain’s subsequent resort to various forms of coerced labor was seen among southern elites as a kind of vindication. Europe’s imperial powers might have been opposed to slavery, but they were self-consciously white supremacist empires using the labor of people of color and violently extending their rule over new territories. They were, in other words, groping toward the economic and scientific “truths” the slaveholding South had already discovered.

Good historical scholarship allows us to see the past in new ways and imagine what might have been. After reading This Vast Southern Empire, it is easier to see why southern slaveholders believed they were on the right side of history, and it is almost surprising that their bold and despicable plans failed.