What was the Vietnam War about?

Christian G. Appy

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 profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy.

During the war years, America’s leaders insisted that military force was necessary to defend a sovereign nation — South Vietnam — from external Communist aggression. As President Lyndon B. Johnson put it in 1965, “The first reality is that North Vietnam has attacked the independent nation of South Vietnam. Its object is total conquest.”

Even more disturbing, Johnson quickly added (following a script written by his predecessors Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy), the Communists in Vietnam were supported and guided by the Soviet Union and China. Therefore, the war in South Vietnam was not an isolated, local conflict, irrelevant to American national security, but rather one that was inseparable from the nation’s Cold War struggle to contain Communism around the globe. Further raising the stakes, policymakers warned that if South Vietnam fell to Communism, neighboring countries would inevitably fall in turn, one after another, like a row of dominoes.

Three decades later, Robert McNamara, a key architect of the Vietnam War who served as defense secretary for both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, renounced those wartime claims — the very ones he and others had invoked to justify the war. In two books, In Retrospect (1995) and Argument Without End (2000), McNamara conceded that the United States had been “terribly wrong” to intervene in Vietnam. He attributed the failure to a lack of knowledge and judgment. If only he had understood the fervor of Vietnamese nationalism, he wrote, if only he had known that Hanoi was not the pawn of Beijing or Moscow, if only he had realized that the domino theory was wrong, he might have persuaded his presidential bosses to withdraw from Vietnam. Millions of lives would have been saved. If only.

In fact, however, in the 1960s, when McNamara advocated massive military escalation in Vietnam, he simply rejected or ignored any evidence that contradicted Cold War orthodoxy. It’s not as if contrary views were unavailable. In speeches at university teach-ins and antiwar rallies and countless other venues, critics pointed out that, after World War II, the United States made a clear choice to support the French effort to re-establish its colonial rule in Indochina and eventually assumed the bulk of France’s cost for the first Indochina War. Therefore, it should have been no surprise that Vietnamese revolutionaries perceived the United States as a neocolonial power when it committed its own military forces in the next war.

Moreover, critics argued, the primary roots of opposition to the American-backed government in Saigon were indigenous and deep rooted, not just in North Vietnam, but throughout the South.

Indeed, from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, the bulk of Communist-led fighting was carried out by southern guerrillas of the National Liberation Front, known to its enemies as the Vietcong. Only after the war was well underway did large units from North Vietnam arrive on the southern front.

Armed with these criticisms, many opponents of American policy in the 1960s described Vietnam as a civil war — not like the relatively clear-cut North-South division of the American Civil War, but a nationwide struggle of Communist-led forces of the South and North against the American-backed government in the South. By 1966, this analysis was even embraced by some main-stream politicians, including Senator William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Eugene McCarthy, who ran as an antiwar presidential candidate in 1968.

By 1972, the idea that Vietnam posed a threat to Cold War America was so discredited, it sometimes sounded as if America’s only remaining war aim was to get back its P.O.W.s (President Richard Nixon bizarrely claimed that Hanoi was using them as “negotiating pawns”).

But alongside the “civil war” interpretation, a more radical critique developed — the view that America’s enemy in Vietnam was engaged in a long-term war for national liberation and independence, first from the French and then the United States. According to this position, the war was best understood not as a Cold War struggle between East and West, or a Vietnamese civil war, but as an anticolonial struggle, similar to dozens of others that erupted throughout the Third World in the wake of World War II. When the French (despite enormous American support) were defeated by Vietnamese revolutionaries, the United States stepped in to wage a counterrevolutionary war against an enemy determined to achieve full independence from foreign control.

This interpretation was shared by many on the antiwar left, including Daniel Ellsberg, the once-hawkish defense analyst who turned so strongly against the war that he was willing to sabotage his career by making public 7,000 pages of classified documents about the history of the Vietnam War, the “Pentagon Papers”.

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.

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.

Moreover, no other foreign nation deployed millions of troops to South Vietnam (although the United States did pressure or pay a handful of other nations, Australia and South Korea most notably, to send smaller military forces). And no other foreign nation or opponent dropped bombs (eight million tons!) on North and South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The introduction of that staggering lethality was the primary driver of a war that cost three million lives, half of them civilians.

If we continue to excuse American conduct in Vietnam as a well-intentioned, if tragic, intervention rather than a purposeful assertion of imperial power, we are less likely to challenge current war managers who have again mired us in apparently endless wars based on false or deeply misleading pretexts. Just as in the Viet-nam era, American leaders have ordered troops to distant lands based on boundless abstractions (“the global war on terror” instead of the global threat of “international Communism”). And once again, their mission is to prop up governments that demonstrate no capacity to gain the necessary support of their people. Once again, the United States has waged brutal counterinsurgencies guaranteed to maim, kill or displace countless civilians. It has exacerbated international violence and provoked violent retaliation.

Our leaders, then and now, have insisted that the United States is “the greatest force for good in the world” that wants nothing for itself, only to defeat “terror” and bring peace, stability and self-determination to other lands. The evidence does not support such a claim. We need a new, clear-eyed vision of our global conduct. A more critical appraisal of the past is one place to start.

Christian G. Appy is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity.”His op-ed is edited from The New York Times, March 26, 2018, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Lawmakers reject modification of 9/11 law to restrict open-ended warfare

A Navy SEAL, killed alongside civilians in a January raid on a village in Yemen; another SEAL, killed while accompanying Somali forces on a May raid; and four Army soldiers, killed in a September ambush in Niger. These U.S. combat deaths — along with those of about 10 other service members killed this year in Afghanistan and Iraq — underscore how a law passed shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has been stretched to permit open-ended warfare against Islamic militant groups scattered across the Muslim world.

The law, commonly called the AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists), on its face provided congressional authorization to use military force only against nations, groups or individuals responsible for the attacks. But while the specific enemies lawmakers were targeting in September 2001 were the original al-Qaeda and its Taliban host in Afghanistan, three presidents of both parties have since invoked the 9/11 war authority to justify battle against Islamic militants in many other places.

As the 9/11 war in Afghanistan enters its 17th year, questions about the scope and limits of presidential war-making powers are taking on new urgency. On October 30, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee renewed debate over whether they should update and replace the AUMF, revitalizing Congress’s constitutionally assigned role of making fundamental decisions about going to war. But political obstacles to reaching a consensus on new parameters for a war authorization law look more daunting than ever, as President Donald Trump’s administration moves to ease some Obama-era constraints on counterterrorism operations.

Previous efforts collapsed under disagreements between lawmakers opposed to restricting the current executive branch’s interpretation of its wartime powers and those unwilling to approve a blank check for a forever war.

Trump is giving the Pentagon and the CIA broader latitude to pursue counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids away from traditional battlefields. Trump recently signed his new rules for such kill-or-capture counterterrorism operations with signifi-cant changes to an Obama-era interagency agreement. Under those rules, there was individualized high-level vetting of proposed strikes, and targeted individuals had to pose a specific threat to Americans. Under the new Trump rules, the administration will instead approve a “persistent campaign of direct action” for various countries where Islamic militants are operating, without higher-level review of particular strikes, and targets may include any suspected member of a group deemed covered by the 9/11 war authorization.

The Trump administration also reduced the required level of confidence that the intended target was present in a strike zone from “near certainty” to “reasonable certainty,” further lowering constraints on attacks and risking civilian lives.

Moreover, the Trump administration was considering arming the surveillance drones that now fly over Niger and Mali in search of suspected Islamic militants. Their new rules could also permit the Pentagon to carry out offensive ground combat operations in North and West Africa, escalating U.S. troop deployments.

The questions about Trump’s interpretation of his war powers range beyond conventional counterterrorism operations. For example, Trump has suggested that he may abandon diplomatic efforts to curb North Korea’s testing of nuclear bombs and longer-range missiles and order an attack. But he and his administration have said nothing suggesting that they would seek prior authorization from Congress and the U.N. Security Council.

On April 6, Trump ordered airstrikes against Syrian govern-ment forces as punishment for using chemical weapons, without going to Congress or the U.N. for permission. His administration refused to answer questions about why it thought he had lawful authority to carry out such an act of war unilaterally. The United Nations Charter, a treaty ratified by the United States, forbids attacking another sovereign country without Security Council permission or a self-defense claim.

In June, after the U.S. military shot down a Syrian government fighter jet — prompting Russia to threaten to shoot down any U.S. aircraft that flew west of the Euphrates River — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., asserted that the executive branch’s legal authority to attack the Syrian jet came from the 9/11 war authorization law.

Another field of battle outside the purview of the AUMF is Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of states against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who toppled Yemen’s internationally recognized government in 2015. Despite 2 years of brutal war, the average American remains oblivious to the fact that the United States has been helping Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates destroy a sovereign country. While rich Arab states bombard the Middle East’s poorest country, creating a huge humanitarian crisis and an unprecedented cholera outbreak, the U.S. government (starting with the Obama administration and continuing with Trump’s) has continued to support them not only through the sale of weapons, but also through mid-air refueling of military aircraft, targeting intelligence, and other support.

Amid mounting unauthorized U.S. wars around the world, Representatives Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) introduced House Concurrent Resolution 81 that aimed to end the United States support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The bipartisan resolution was the biggest attempt to enforce the War Powers Act and limit unrestricted conflicts. It declared that Congress has never given authorization for U.S. forces to be involved in the Yemen conflict, so United States assistance to the aerial bombings was based on “no provision of law.” It also called for removal of U.S. military forces aiding the coalition's campaign within 30 days, “unless and until a declaration of war or specific authorization for such use of United States Armed Forces has been enacted.”

The House of Representatives unanimously consented to give the resolution privileged status for a floor vote on Nov. 2, but on Nov. 1, the House Republican leadership forced through a Rules Committee vote which stripped H.Con.Res. 81 of its privileged status and a floor vote. Instead, the House leadership was going to allow a non-binding “compromise” resolution. One legislative aide was quick to bash the move, saying it was in “defiance of the plain text of the War Powers Resolution,” and warning that it set a “very dangerous precedent” for future challenges to illegal wars.

While the Rules Committee technically only stopped a single challenge this way, and the War Powers Act remains on the books, the success of this sort of chicanery means that the congressional leadership can do the exact same thing to any future challenges.

– edited from The New York Times, Common Dreams, Consortiumnews.com and Antiwar.com
PeaceMeal Nov/December 2017

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


16 yearsand $5.6 trillion later, are the post-9/11 wars worth it?

William D. Hartung

The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Center released a report in November that estimates the current and future costs of U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and other post-9/11 conflicts at an astonishing $5.6 trillion. That’s more than $23,000 per taxpayer.

Those funds dwarf the $1 trillion in cuts in domestic programs over a decade’s time that were called for by the Budget Control Act of 2011, and would have gone a long way to address unmet domestic needs for infrastructure investment, transportation, nutrition, housing and education.

The $5.6 trillion figure raises two fundamental questions: what did we pay for, and what were the results?

The assessment of war costs, researched and written by Neta Crawford, takes a comprehensive view of the subject, looking not only at Pentagon expenditures, but also at expenditures at the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Veteran’s Administration that were either explicitly devoted to or caused by the “war on terrorism.” It also includes U.S. spending in support of allies like Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Poland and Romania that devoted troops to the U.S.-led interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The estimate also includes $1 trillion in projected future costs for taking care of the veterans of the post-9/11 conflicts, one million of whom are receiving compensation for war-related disabilities, including over 327,000 with traumatic brain injuries.

As the case of U.S. veterans makes clear, the costs of the wars involved more than just money. They involved the lives and health of human beings. In its 2016 assessment, Brown University conservatively estimated that there were 370,000 deaths on all sides attributable to the post-9/11 wars, including 200,000 civilians.

Study author Crawford notes that combat operations since 2001 “have been largely paid for by borrowing, part of the reason the U.S. went from budget surplus to deficits after 2001.” That worries Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.). “[It’s the] first time, really, in history — in any type of major conflict — that we have borrowed rather than asked people to contribute to the national defense directly, and the result is we’ve got this huge fiscal drag,” Reed said. And in the midst of a major Republican push for tax reform, he said there’s been no talk of raising taxes to pay for the defense-related deficit.

Was this huge expenditure of blood and treasure worth it? Did it substantially reduce the risks of terrorism or reduce the likelihood of future conflicts? The short answer is “no”.

In Afghanistan, 16 years of U.S. military involvement have left a situation in which the Taliban still controls significant parts of the country and is able to carry out devastating attacks on a regular basis. There is no military solution to the Afghan conflict, no matter how many troops the United States throws into the fray. Only a negotiated settlement premised on accountable governance and an end to rampant corruption has a chance of succeeding.

In Iraq, despite recent successes in wresting territory from ISIS, the overall effort since the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion has been a net failure — in lives lost, infrastructure destroyed, and the rise of a sectarian government that made it easier for ISIS to operate and recruit within the country.

Even if the United States and its allies succeed in driving ISIS out of Iraq and Syria, it is unlikely to undermine that organi-zation’s ability to inflict damage in the United States. Recent terrorist attacks have been carried out by individuals who need no material support from ISIS for their predations. Many of them are ideological adherents of ISIS whose main connection is via propaganda downloaded from the Internet, not training in ISIS strongholds in Iraq, Syria or anywhere else.

We need a thorough rethinking of how best to address the terrorist threat that involves a better balance between military and non-military tools, and an aversion to engagement in wars like those the United States has waged in this century. Now is the time to do this re-assessment.

After 16 years of nonstop armed conflict, the American public is war weary, and the needs for domestic investment have never been greater. If the Trump administration fails to rethink our misguided strategy, Congress must do so.

Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. His article is edited from The Hill, November 8, 2017, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2017.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)