excerpted from the book
by John Pilger
South End Press, 2001 (and 1986), paper
History as Illusion
When I began to write this, in 1985, ten years after the end
of the war in Vietnam, I heard the results of an opinion poll
in which people in the United States were asked how much they
could remember about the war. More than a third could not say
which side America had supported and some believed that North
Vietnam had been 'our allies'.' This reminded me of something
a friend of mine, Bob Muller, a former US marine officer paralysed
from the waist down as a result of the war, told me. As president
of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Bob speaks on college campuses
where he is asked as a matter of routine, 'Which side did you
This 'historical amnesia' is not accidental; if anything it
demonstrates the insidious power of the dominant propaganda of
the Vietnam war. The constant American government line was that
the war was essentially a conflict of Vietnamese against Vietnamese,
in which Americans became 'involved', mistakenly and honourably.
This assumption was shared both by 'hawks' and 'doves'; it permeated
the media coverage during the war and has been the overriding
theme of numerous retrospectives since the war. It is a false
and frequently dishonest assumption. The longest war this century
was a war waged by America against Vietnam, North and South. It
was an attack on the people of Vietnam, communist and non-communist,
by American forces. It was an invasion of their homeland and their
lives. Just as the current presence in Afghanistan of Soviet forces
is an invasion. Neither began as a mistake.
So it is not surprising that many Americans are today confused
about who their 'allies' were during the war, because in reality
they had none. Clients yes, allies no. The difference is as critical
as the difference between 'attacked' and 'became involved', for
it is the clear division of truth from propaganda.
The war in Vietnam was the first television war, watched by
millions year after year. But the news became a mockery, telling
so much and explaining so lie. And such is the obsolescence today
of unpalatable, 'forgotten' events that a reminder of some of
them seems important if mendacity and illusion are not to be transmuted
into history: a process now well under way.
On my first trip to Hanoi I was intrigued by the following
familiar words on a plaque in the Museum of History:
All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator
with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness.
It was with these words that Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. Standing
on a hastily-erected wooden platform opposite the French Governor-General's
palace and with the flag of the new republic above him, Ho had
gone on to acknowledge the source of 'these immortal words', as
he described them. They were taken, he had told the crowd,
from the Declaration of Independence of the United States
of America in 1776. In a larger sense, this means that all the
people on earth are born equal; all the people have the right
to live, to be happy, to be free.
In the crowd had been a group of American officers, led by
Major Archimedes L. A. Patti of the Office of Strategic Services
(OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. Major
Patti's work as a US government 'liaison officer' in Hanoi during
the summer of 1945 represented the first direct American involvement
in Indo-China. He remains one of the crucial witnesses to and
participants in the war's gestation period and was for many years
the keeper of its early secrets. It was not until 1980 that Major
Patti's book Why Viet Nam? Prelude to America's Albatross was
published, even though the manuscript of his story was ready in
1954. McCarthyism had taken hold in America and he was threatened
with 'disciplinary action' if he disclosed what had happened during
his time in Vietnam.
When we met in Los Angeles in 1983 Major Patti described the
'extraordinary pro-American spirit that was everywhere at the
birth of Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam'. 'They didn't regard America as
an imperial power,' he said. 'They thought we were different from
the Europeans and they were desperate not to be associated with
international communism, not with the Chinese or the Russians,
but with us in America. What an opportunity it was. I remember
when Ho Chi Minh called for me and said he was drafting Vietnam's
declaration of independence. He asked if I could remember how
the American text went and said, "The same declaration is
appropriate because Americans and Vietnamese believe in the same
anti-colonialism." Well, that was fine, but my problem was
that I couldn't remember it word for word!'
The ironies then multiplied. Also in Hanoi that day was the
French Commissioner for Indo-China, Jean Saintenay, who was to
accuse Patti and the United States government of 'infantile anti-colonialism',
and of endorsing 'this communist takeover of Indochina'. The French
bitterness was understandable; not only had they been humbled
in their own colony as quislings of the Japanese, but now the
Americans, the liberators of Paris, had arrived to help not them
but the Vietnamese nationalists, the Vietminh, who were led by
a communist called Ho Chi Minh. Moreover, President Roosevelt
had already vilified France which, he said, had 'milked' Vietnam
for a hundred years. 'The people of IndoChina are entitled to
something better,' the President had said, and the United States
supported their 'independence and self-determination'.
Ho Chi Minh liked Americans. He told his friend Wilfred Burchett,
the Australian journalist, that he enjoyed 'the openness of Americans
. . . the way they get things done. They didn't seem [in 1945]
to be prisoners of the past, not like the French.' Ho perhaps
had a personal reason to like Americans. In June 1945 Life magazine
published a family album-style picture of members of an American
OSS team who had parachuted behind Japanese lines to supply the
Vietminh. In the centre was Ho Chi Minh; on his left was a young
American holding a pith helmet, Paul Hoagland, who had found the
Vietminh leader seriously ill and had nursed him with sulphur
drugs and quinine and, as Ho himself later acknowledged, had saved
Ho Chi Minh was the antithesis of other emerging communist
leaders in one respect: he wanted his people to open themselves
out to other societies, communist, capitalist and non-aligned.
Like Tito in Yugoslavia, he knew that this was the only way his
people could survive as a national entity. Indeed, so anxious
was Ho for American support for his fledgling republic that he
addressed twelve separate appeals to President Roosevelt, to his
Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, and to the Senate Foreign Affairs
Committee. Major Patti later wrote that Ho 'pleaded not for military
or economic aid',
. . . but for understanding, for moral support, for a voice
in the forum of western democracies. But the United States would
not read his mail because, as I was informed, the DRV Government
was not recognised by the United States and it would be 'improper'
for the President or anyone in authority to acknowledge such correspondence.
[DRV stood for Democratic Republic of Vietnam, later known colloquially
by the Americans as 'North Vietnam'.]
Ho Chi Minh saw America's post-Second World War strength as
a counterweight to China and went so far as to propose that Vietnam
should be part of an 'American Commonwealth' in Asia with a trusteeship
status similar to that of the Philippines. That the Philippines
then was effectively an American colony apparently did not concern
him; for this was an expedient. Unless Vietnam survived in the
shadow of the most populous nation, independence would never be
As for relations with the Soviet Union, Ho spent fifteen years
in Moscow and expressed himself well aware of the tenuous and
highly conditional nature of Soviet 'friendship'. He told Patti,
'I place more reliance on the United States to support Vietnam's
independence, before I could expect help from the USSR.'
During the summer of 1945 Ho Chi Minh would hold a press conference
every morning at ten o'clock in his office in Hanoi, although
he would ask most of the questions and direct them at a young
American, Ed Hoyt, the correspondent of United Press. 'When is
the United States going to do something about Mr Roosevelt's promises?'
he would ask. Ed Hoyt reported Ho's enthusiasm for siding with
America, only to discover later that an employee in the United
Press relay office at Chungking was an agent of Chiang Kai-shek's
secret police and had rewritten his dispatches to suit China's
foreign policy. 'So all Uncle Ho's pleas for help from Uncle Sam
never got past Asia,' Hoyt later lamented, with only slight exaggeration.
'So much for journalism as history.'
In September 1945 Vietnam was a country of artificial, overlapping,
foreign-imposed divisions. The French had divided Vietnam into
three, all sub-divisions of its colony in Indo-China. The Allies
divided it between two military commands headquartered in China
and Southeast Asia. On September 4, 1945 Major-General Douglas
Gracey, a British colonial officer, entered Saigon with the 20th
Indian Division and took the surrender of the Japanese. He immediately
rearmed them and ordered them to put down the Vietminh, who had
already formed an administration in the South. Like the Vietminh
in the North, they were a popular movement of Catholics, Buddhists,
small businessmen, communists and farmers who looked to Ho Chi
Minh as the 'father of the nation'.
By January 1947, thanks largely to Gracey, the French colons
were back in power in Saigon. Ho Chi Minh still hoped for an alliance
with Washington and appealed again to President Truman while insisting
to Patti that he was 'not a communist in the American sense'.
Although he had lived and worked in Moscow, Ho considered himself
a free agent; but he warned that he 'would have to find allies
if any were to be found; otherwise the Vietnamese would have to
go it alone'. And alone they went until 1950 when Ho Chi Minh
believed he could no longer delay accepting the formal ties and
material assistance under offer from the Soviet Union and especially
from China. It was the success of the Chinese revolution in 1949
that was to give the Vietminh the means to defeat the French:
military training, arms and sanctuary across an open frontier.
In 1950, with the Korean war under way, the American view
of monolithic world communism prevailed. The sentiments of Roosevelt
about opposing colonialism had long been blown away by the Zeus-like
figure of John Foster Dulles, whose fundamentalist crusade against
'Godless communism' guided American foreign policy during the
1950s. Dulles bracketed Vietnam north of the seventeenth parallel
with 'Red China', without regard to the complex and fragile relationship
which had existed between the two nations for several thousand
years and which always had a potential for enmity.
Of course at the root of Dulles's evangelism was a practical,
imperial concern which, wrote Noam Chomsky,
. . . was over strategic resources of Southeast Asia and their
significance for the global system that the US was then constructing,
incorporating western Europe and Japan. It was feared that successful
independent development under a radical nationalist leadership
in Vietnam might 'cause the rot to spread', gradually eroding
US dominance in the region and ultimately causing Japan, the largest
domino, to join in a closed system from which the US would be
excluded . . . The idea that US global planners had national imperialist
motives is intolerable to the doctrinal system, so this topic
must be avoided in any history directed to a popular audience.
Having declared a policy of 'containing communism' in Asia,
the American government in 1950 gave $10 million to assist the
French in winning back their colony in the North. Within four
years the Americans were paying for 78 per cent of a colonial
war directed by the same French whom President Roosevelt had castigated.
For Washington, the French surrender following the siege in the
valley of Dien Bien Phu ought to have forewarned them of the fighting
qualities of the Vietnamese, but it did not. The front page of
the New York Times of April 6, 1954 read:
DULLES WARNS RED CHINA NEARS OPEN AGGRESSION IN INDOCHINA.'
What the 'warning' did not say was that Dulles was preparing for
an 'all out war' against China, using nuclear weapons.'
The rout of the French in the North by the Vietminh took place
while an international conference on Indo-China was convened in
Geneva in July 1954. The final declaration divided Vietnam 'temporarily'
at the seventeenth parallel into two 'national regrouping areas'.
North and South would be reunited following free national elections
on July 26, 1956. There seemed little doubt that Ho Chi Minh would
win and form Vietnam's first democratically elected government.
Certainly President Eisenhower was in no doubt of this. He wrote:
'I have never talked . . . with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese
affairs who did not agree that . . . 80 percent of the population
would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader."
The Geneva conference held many secrets. One of them was the
part China played in the division of Vietnam. It was a role of
exquisite duplicity which owed nothing to the solidarity of 'world
communism', the current Western bogey, and was pursued with the
same fervent self-interest which has seen the 'Chinese communists'
embrace a galaxy of disparate allies, from Pol Pot in Cambodia
to General Pinochet in Chile. Chou En Lai, the Chinese premier,
had gone to Geneva with the hope of ending China's diplomatic
isolation and the aim of 'neutralising' Indo-China. The latter
meant keeping the Americans away from China's southern borders
and dividing the growing nationalist movement in Vietnam. According
to Anthony Barnett:
Chou secretly informed the French that he recognised the reality
of the South Vietnamese government they were attempting to construct.
His plans misfired - with the ironic result that his country's
diplomatic isolation was only ended when the war that followed
between Vietnam and the United States looked like being won by
a Vietnamese party no longer beholden to Peking.'
(In his book Caveat, Alexander Haig described a trip he made
to Peking in January 1972 to prepare for President Nixon's 'opening
to China' that year. Haig wrote that Chou En Lai 'touched on every
subject that was of interest to our two countries but he dwelled
on one in particular - Vietnam . . . I reported to President Nixon
that the import of what [Chou] said to me was: don't lose in Vietnam;
don't withdraw from Southeast Asia.')'
Dulles refused to sign the Geneva accords and less than a
month after the protagonists had returned home from Geneva, according
to the Pentagon Papers, the United States moved in secret to 'disassociate
France from the levers of command' in southern Vietnam and to
assume direct American control. This task was assigned to the
newly formed CIA which, during the summer of 1954, invented a
'republic of Vietnam' with Saigon as its capital. This was known
by those assigned to the task as 'creating the master illusion'.
Ralph W. McGehee was for twenty-five years a career officer
in the CIA and one of the creators of such illusions. He was an
expert in 'black propaganda', which is known today as 'disinformation'.
In an interview with me in 1983 he described the war in Vietnam
as 'the Agency's longest and most successful disinformation operation'.
In 1977 McGehee retired, not as a renegade, but with the CIA's
highest honour, its Medal of Commendation. He was disillusioned,
he said, because the CIA had become 'not an intelligence gathering
organisation but a covert operations arm of the Presidency'. In
1983 his book Deadly Deceits was published. In the following passage
he describes how the CIA not only installed a regime of its choice
in Saigon, its 'master illusion', but changed the demographic
map of South-East Asia:
To make the illusion a reality, the CIA undertook a series
of operations that helped turn South Vietnam into a vast police
state. The purpose of these operations was to force the native
South Vietnamese to accept the Catholic mandarin [Ngo Dinh] Diem,
who had been selected by US policymakers to provide an alternative
to communism in Vietnam. It was a strange choice. From 1950 to
1953, while Ho's forces were earning the loyalty of their people
by fighting the French, Diem, a short, fussy bachelor, was living
in the U.S. in Maryknoll seminaries in New Jersey and New York.
Diem arrived in Saigon in mid-1954 and was greeted by Colonel
Edward Lansdale, the CIA's man in South Vietnam and the head of
the Agency's Saigon Military Mission (SMM). Diem was opposed by
virtually all elements of South Vietnamese society - Bao Dai's
followers, the pro-French religious sects, the Buddhists, the
remnant nationalist organisations, and, of course, the followers
of Ho Chi Minh. He had no troops,-no police, no government, and
no means of enforcing his rule. What he did have was the complete
support of Colonel Lansdale and all the money, manpower, weapons,
training, propaganda, and political savvy in the CIA's covert-action
To create Diem's government, Lansdale's men, operating in
teams in North Vietnam, stimulated North Vietnamese Catholics
and the Catholic armies deserted by the French to flee south.
SMM teams promised Catholic Vietnamese assistance and new opportunities
if they would emigrate. To help them make up their minds, the
teams circulated leaflets falsely attributed to the Viet Minh
telling what was expected of citizens under the new government.
The day following distribution of the leaflets, refugee registration
tripled. The teams spread horror stories of Chinese Communist
regiments raping Vietnamese girls and taking reprisals against
villages. This confirmed fears of Chinese occupation under the
Viet Minh. The teams distributed other pamphlets showing the circumference
of destruction around Hanoi and other North Vietnamese cities
should the United States decide to use atomic weapons. To those
it induced to flee over the 300-day period the CIA provided free
transportation on its airline, Civil Air Transport, and on ships
of the U.S. Navy. Nearly a million North Vietnamese were scared
and lured into moving to the South.
Lieutenant Tom Dooley, who operated with the U.S. Navy out
of Haiphong, also helped to stimulate the flow of refugees to
the South. At one point he organised a gathering of 35,000 Catholics
to demand evacuation. A medical doctor, Dooley was a supreme propagandist
whose message seemed aimed largely at the U.S. audience. He wrote
three best-selling books, and numerous newspaper and magazine
articles were written about him. Dr. Dooley's concocted tales
of the Viet Minh disembowelling 1,000 pregnant women, beating
a naked priest on the testicles with a bamboo club, and jamming
chopsticks in the ears of children to keep them from hearing the
word of God, aroused American citizens to anger and action. Dr.
Dooley's reputation remained unsullied until 1979, when his ties
to the CIA were uncovered during a Roman Catholic sainthood investigation.
The Agency's operation worked. It not only convinced the North
Vietnamese Catholics to flee to the South, thereby providing Diem
with a source of reliable political and military cadres, but it
also duped the American people into believing that the flight
of the refugees was a condemnation of the Viet Minh by the majority
Now the scene had been set and the forces defined. The picture
drawn to justify U.S. involvement was that the Communist North
was invading the Free World South. The CIA was ordered to sustain
that illusion through propaganda and, through covert operations,
to make the illusion a reality. Its intelligence, with an occasional
minor exception, was only a convenient vehicle to sell the lie
to the U.S. bureaucracy and people. Unfortunately, nearly everyone,
including later policymakers, was deceived by this big lie. While
the plan was never detailed in a single available document, an
examination of the Pentagon Papers, plus other related information,
demands this conclusion.
The terror which the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem inflicted on
people living south of the seventeenth parallel is conclusively
documented. The main instrument of terror was a 50,000-strong
civil guard, or secret police, which had been set up and trained
by teams from the CIA and Michigan University. In 1959 the Diem
regime passed a law requiring the death sentence for those found
guilty of speaking out or 'spreading rumours' against the government.
This was the model of a 'free world democracy' which the United
States was committed to defend against the 'communist threat'
and on whose behalf President Kennedy, by clear implication in
his inaugural address, had called on his countrymen to lay down
their lives. Colonel Lansdale, on the other hand, was more candid;
in a secret memorandum to the Secretary of Defense in 1961 he
wrote: 'I cannot truly sympathise with Americans who help promote
a fascistic state and then get angry when it doesn't act like
In 1960 the Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (FSLN,
better known as the NLF) was established out of the old organisation
of the Vietminh. It came about partly as a result of a decision
by the Vietnam Workers' Party (Lao Dong) in the North, but also
in response to intense pressure from southern cadres. Like the
Vietminh, its membership included Catholics and Buddhists, city
and country people, communists and non-communists. Two years later,
in a clandestine congress, Nguyen Huu Tho, a non-communist Saigon
lawyer, was elected NLF president and remained in that position
after the capture of Saigon on April 30, 1975. The NLF wanted
primarily to free Vietnam from the control of foreigners and those
of their countrymen courted and bought by foreigners. Inevitably,
by its massive presence of up to half a million men under arms,
the United States ensured the alienation of those who were not
communists and reinforced those who were.
In 1961 Diem's troops and their American advisers drove large
numbers of the rural people of southern Vietnam into what became
known as 'strategic hamlets'. These were concentration camps,
surrounded by wire and watchtowers, whose purpose was to 'protect'
the people from the Vietcong. Those who objected to being 'protected',
and who resisted, were murdered and tortured. Such 'excesses'
and the nepotism of the Diem family received wide publicity in
the United States, and it was clear that 'Asia's George Washington',
as Diem called himself, was becoming an embarrassment to President
Kennedy. In November 1963 Diem was overthrown by a triumvirate
of his generals, organised by the CIA.
One of the generals was Duong Van Minh (the Americans called
him 'Big' Minh because he was six feet tall), a devout Buddhist
who had approached the NLF seeking a ceasefire and negotiations
toward a 'neutralist' non-communist coalition government in Saigon.
According to a study by George Kahin, based on extensive interviews,
the generals, who were 'seeking a negotiated agreement among the
Vietnamese parties themselves without American intervention',
regarded the NLF as 'overwhelmingly non-communist' and 'sufficiently
free of Hanoi's control to have made [a political settlement in
South Vietnam] quite possible'.
The Vietnamese were never allowed to choose. The historian
David G. Marr wrote that the generals' mere countenance of peace
. . . was one of the main reasons why the US government, or
at least the US military commander in Saigon, encouraged their
overthrow in turn only three months later. From then on, every
Saigon military officer knew that contacts with the NFLSV, or
even internal discussion of negotiation options, risked vigorous
American counteraction. Some were still prepared to take that
risk, but with the arrival of US combat troops in early 1965 the
historical opportunity vanished. Henceforth the US government
had the means . . . to ensure that no 'neutralist'-inclined RVN
officer came close to power. [RVN stood for Republic of Vietnam
- Saigon regime.]
The creation of more 'illusions' and a legal justification
for an expanded war now became an urgent necessity. American planes
were already 'secretly' bombing Vietnam on its border with Laos,
and American 'advised' sabotage teams were operating north of
the seventeenth parallel. But to the American public the war was
still a remote and perplexing affair, and domestic politics and
civil rights upheavals preoccupied the news. President Johnson
was then running for re-election against Barry Goldwater, an Arizona
conservative whom the Democrats had succeeded in casting as a
dangerous hawk in contrast with the 'statesmanlike' Johnson. However,
to counter Goldwater's charge that the President of the United
States was going soft on communism, Johnson needed ritually to
demonstrate how 'tough' he was. The remarkable events that followed
were to justify the coming American invasion of Vietnam.
During the spring and summer of 1964 the United States organised
commando raids from the South against the North, using South Vietnamese
and landing them from the sea. Hence, Washington was already engaged
in unprovoked hostilities against Vietnam. An American spy ship,
the USS Maddox, took part in this action. On August 2 the Maddox
fired on two torpedo boats off the coast of North Vietnam in the
Gulf of Tonkin. The boats had neither attacked the Maddox nor
returned its fire. Two days later Captain John J. Herrick, on
the bridge of the Maddox, noticed two 'mysterious dots' on his
radar screen and concluded they were torpedo boats. It was a blustering,
stormy night and visibility was nil. Again, no attack materialised.
However, Herrick had sent an emergency call to his headquarters
in Honolulu and this was passed quickly to President Johnson,
who was 'furious' and wanted to order the bombing of North Vietnam
immediately. A few hours later a cable arrived from Captain Herrick.
Freak weather effects on radar and over eager sonar men .
. . No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation
before any further action taken.
President Johnson asked his Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara,
for urgent 'clarification' while he prepared to address the nation.
Captain Herrick cabled back that there was 'a confusing picture',
although he was now certain that the report of an attack was 'bona
fide'. What he did not say, until 1985, was that this confirmation
of a 'bona fide' attack was based on 'intercepted North Vietnamese
communications' which he had not seen. Johnson's television speech
was now written; America was going to war. But a third cable now
arrived from the Maddox in which Captain Herrick reverted to his
original doubts. Half an hour after this was received, and ignored,
the President was on networked television telling his fellow Americans,
'Renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high
seas have today required me to order the military forces of the
United States to take action in reply.'
This became known as the 'Gulf of Tonkin Incident' and as
a direct result, a resolution was sent by the White House to Congress
seeking authority for the United States to invade Vietnam. Seven
years were to pass before the Pentagon Papers, the official 'secret
history' of the war, would reveal that administration officials
had drafted the 'Gulf of Tonkin Resolution' two months before
the alleged attack on the Maddox. On August 7,1964 Congress authorised
President Johnson to take 'all measures' to protect US forces
from 'any armed attack'. American-planned sabotage attacks increased
against the North. Six months later the State Department published
a White Paper whose centrepiece was the 'provocation' of the 'Gulf
of Tonkin Incident', together with seven pages of 'conclusive
proof' of Hanoi's preparations to invade the South. This 'proof'
stemmed from the discovery of a cache of weapons found floating
in a junk off the coast of central Vietnam. The White Paper, which
would provide the legal justification for the American invasion,
was, in the words of Ralph McGehee, a 'master illusion'. McGehee
Black propaganda was when the US Government spoke in the voice
of the enemy, and there is a very famous example. In 1965 the
CIA loaded up a junk, a North Vietnamese junk, with communist
weapons ... the Agency maintains communist arsenals in the United
States and around the world. They floated this junk off the coast
of Central Vietnam. Then they shot it up and made it look like
a fire fight had taken place. Then they brought in the American
press and the international press and said, 'Here's evidence that
the North Vietnamese are invading South Vietnam. 'Based on this
evidence two Marine battalion landing teams went into Danang and
a week after that the American air force began regular bombing
of North Vietnam.
The bombing was code-named 'Operation Rolling Thunder' and
was the longest campaign in the history of aerial bombardment.
Few outsiders saw its effects on the civilian population of the
North. I was one who did. Against straw and flesh was sent an
entirely new range of bombs, from white phosphorus (1966) to 'anti-personnel'
devices which discharged thousands of small needles (1971). North
Vietnam then had no air force with which to defend itself. The
scale of the American bombing in the mid-1960s, both in the North
and South, together with the American-directed terror of the South,
eventually persuaded Ho Chi Minh to send regular army units south
in support of those South Vietnamese opposing the American invasion.
This was not how propaganda in the United States explained
the origins of the war. Neither is it how many people remember
the war today. In the opinion poll quoted at the beginning of
this chapter, in which more than a third of those questioned expressed
confusion as to who were 'our allies', almost two-thirds said
they were aware that the United States had 'sided with South Vietnam'.
As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, this is the equivalent of being
aware that Nazi Germany sided with France in 1940 and the Soviet
Union now sides with Afghanistan.
The accredited version of events has not changed. It is that
noncommunist South Vietnam was invaded by communist North Vietnam
and that the United States came to the aid of the 'democratic'
regime in the South. This of course is untrue, as documentation
I have touched upon makes clear. That Ho Chi Minh waited so long
before sending a regular force to resist the American attacks
seems, in retrospect, extraordinary; or perhaps it was a testament
to the strength and morale of those South Vietnamese who had taken
up arms in defence of their villages and their homeland. In 1965
the American counter-insurgency adviser, John Paul Vann, wrote
in a memorandum addressed to his superiors in Washington that
'a popular political base for Government of South Vietnam does
not now exist' and the majority of the people in South Vietnam
'primarily identified' with the National Liberation Front.
When the US marines finally 'stormed ashore' at Danang in
central Vietnam on March 6, 1965 they were bemused to find that
there were no 'Vietcong' defending the beaches, dug in like the
Japanese in all those Second World War movies. Instead, there
were incredulous fishermen and curious children and beautiful
girls with flowing black hair, wearing silk dresses, split at
the waist, and offering posies of flowers. Men in white shirts
had supplied the flowers and they watched from a distance as the
press photographers and the film crews recorded this moving illusion
of welcome, while the jungles and highlands beyond cast a blood-red
shadow no one saw. Ten years, one month and eighteen days were
to pass before the last marine left, pursued by an embittered
mob up the stairwell in his country's fortress embassy.
During those years the United States dispatched its greatest
ever land army to Vietnam, and dropped the greatest tonnage of
bombs in the history of warfare, and pursued a military strategy
deliberately designed to force millions of people to abandon their
homes, and used chemicals in a manner which profoundly changed
the environmental and genetic order, leaving a once bountiful
land petrified. At least 1,300,000 people were killed and many
more were maimed and otherwise ruined; 58,022 of these were Americans
and the rest were Vietnamese. President Reagan has called this
a 'noble cause'.
Danang: August 1967. The invasion had been under way for more
than a year now and Danang, where the first marines had landed,
had been transformed into the biggest single military base on
earth. In the briefing room a Press and Information Officer was
announcing with enthusiasm the establishment of a 'free fire zone'
near An Hoa. 'Thanks to our fellows who hacked it right around
the clock,' he said, 'we got the people out of those insecure
villages. We got them right away from the enemy. We denied the
enemy . . . and we saved those people. Like Chairman Mao wouldn't
say [grin], we removed the water from the fish!'
I asked him if the people had expressed their 'insecurity'
and desire to be saved from 'the enemy'. He replied that he did
not understand the question and I should put it in writing to
JUSTPAO. I asked him what time had elapsed between the dropping
of leaflets informing people where to assemble for their helicopter
ride to 'security' and the firing of the first rounds of artillery,
which were known in military parlance as 'mad minutes'. He replied,
'Between six hours and one hour.'
So more than 3,000 people had as much as six hours and as
little as one hour to relocate from what had been, for many of
them, a modestly prosperous life dependent only on the seasons,
to another life in a town and in peonage to the needs and whims
of a foreign army whose ubiquitous presence underwrote an 'economy'
based upon the services of maids, pimps, whores, beggars and black-marketeers.
Unlike Saigon, also a refugee city but which had maintained a
certain brittle sense of itself predating the coming of the GIs,
Danang was wholly victim. Where there had been fishermen, there
were now the human consequences of 'removing the water from the
fish'. The upheaval caused was universal among poor farmers and
those already on the margins of city life. Between
1964 and 1966 2 million Vietnamese were made homeless by such
a strategy. By 1968 a third of the population of South Vietnam
The ruin of lives was at once brutal and subtle. Families
and networks of friends, once guardians of compassion, grace and
sensuality, seemed to dissipate in the streets without sewers
and tap water; fear, neurosis, casual brutality and avarice corroded
lives beyond repair. People rammed each other in the markets;
sons duped fathers; the elderly were neglected; rape entered the
language and venereal disease entered bodies and brains, along
with serious drug addiction. The Americans called the nightmare
they created 'Dogpatch'.
The French had allowed the disparity between city and country
to grow to the point where, by the mid-1960s, up to 80 per cent
of the rural people of South Vietnam owned only 12 per cent of
the land. Landless farmers had been treated harshly by the French
colonial administration and by the Catholic regime of Ngo Dinh
Diem. And such was American ignorance or misunderstanding of the
Vietnamese colonial experience that it did not seem to occur to
them until it was too late that genuine land reform won 'hearts
and minds' in Vietnam.
But, as Frances Fitzgerald has pointed out, the issue was
not that simple; land reform was only part of the people's grievance,
which had as much to do with the control of credit by the Saigon
banks and the misuse of the available national wealth by city
black-marketeers and a nepotic elite. It also had to do with the
shift of political power away from the villages and districts.
In the South the authority of local government had eroded during
the post-Second World War French period and accelerated under
the Americans. The NLF understood the implications of this; paradoxically
perhaps for revolutionaries, they also understood the attachment
of rural people to the traditional way of life, known as the Tao.
This centred upon the respect for ancestral lands and burial places
and for the Confucian structure of society. The Vietnamese revolution
was once described to me by an NLF cadre as 'change and disturbance
Tay Ninh province: September 1970. In June the US Senate had repealed
the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which had provided a rationale for
President Johnson's land invasion. Now Johnson had retired in
political ignominy and the illusion his administration had created
was of no further use. Moreover, President Nixon had replaced
it with his own, which he called 'peace with honour'.
When I returned to Saigon it was clear that the war was going
badly for everybody. The NLF had suffered grievous losses in the
Mekong Delta. The saturation 'firepower' of the Americans, combined
with the use of 'anti-personnel' technology, had so damaged NLF
infrastructure that former strongholds had fallen silent. For
the United States, the damage was from within; its army was beginning
to unravel. A minority of troops in Vietnam were combat soldiers,
and most of these were 'grunts': men conscripted not only from
working-class America but from among those who regarded their
presence in Vietnam as anything but their 'patriotic duty'. These
were sometimes known as the 'Chicago Generation', an allusion
to the bloody battle fought by anti-war protesters and police
outside the Democratic Party's convention in summer 1968.
This was the era of the 'drug culture' and by 1968 it was
unusual to meet an American drafted soldier in Vietnam who was
not using drugs. Getting stoned in your hooch made the war go
away. Getting stoned on patrol made the enemy go away; and if
this turned out not to be so, what difference did it make? Just
as much of American society was then divided between the 'straight
world' and those in or on the fringe of the anti-war movement
and its attendant drug culture, so the Army was now divided between
career men, known as 'lifers', and drafted men who openly displayed
peace signs, beads, long hair, insubordination and not infrequently
a smoldering joint of choice 'Laotian gold'. And some grunts'
way of dealing with lifers who made drafted men 'hump the big
pack to the boonies and get blown away' was occasionally to lob
a live grenade into the officers' hooch. This was known as 'fragging'.
At the school in Hongai, which was flattened, I found a letter
pinned to a classroom wall. It was written by a young girl called
Nguyen Thi An. 'The children wrote many letters to themselves
in those days,' said a teacher.
My name is Nguyen Thi An. I am fifteen years old. This letter
comes to you from Hongai, where I was born at the foot of the
Bai Tho mountain and in the murmur of the sea-waves lapping against
the shore. I had just done the seventh form in the Cao Thang school.
It was a sunny, glorious day and my mother had just told me to
lay the table. My father had come from his work. The next thing
I heard the air raid siren and I hurried to the shelter nearby.
I could hear the engines of the planes and then the explosions.
When the siren went again I came out. My mother and father were
Iying there, my brother, Nguyen Si Quan, and my sister, Nguyen
Thi Binh, were covered in blood. My sister had pieces of metal
in her and so did her doll. She kept shouting, 'Where is mother
and father? Where's my doll?' My street, Ha Long Street, has fallen
down now. The houses have no roofs; the school and the Pioneers'
Club are destroyed. This is the end of my letter.
The street where the Nguyen family lived was hit by pellet
bombs which sprayed darts. The darts entered Thi An's sister,
Binh, and continued to move around in her body for several days,
causing internal injuries from which she eventually died an agonising
death. The darts were of a type of plastic difficult to detect
under X-ray. They were first tested on Hongai.
A former NLF cadre took me to a place I had heard many rumours
l about during the war, including one that it did not exist: the
NLF's 'central staging point' at Cu Chi, fifty miles from Saigon.
This was the junction of a network of tunnels, 200 miles of them,
through which whole regiments slid like snakes during daytime,
emerging at night to resupply and ambush. The Americans were never
able to find or destroy the main tunnels, and 'Operation Hades'
was conceived in the 1960s to root out the subterranean enemy.
Tracts of forest were defoliated and crops were poisoned by the
wholesale spraying of Agent Orange. When I first came to Vietnam
in 1966 I flew over Cu Chi and was told that the leaves on the
trees would grow again in eighteen months. Four years later I
flew over the same area; most of the trees, the pines, birch,
hawthorn and hickory, stood like grey needles, twisted and broken
and held aloft by choking vines. By that year, 1970, an estimated
quarter of ( South Vietnam's forest had died as a result of 'defoliation'.
The US Army's Handbook for South Vietnam attributed the 'degradation'
of earth which had been sprayed three times over to 'the combination
of iron oxides [in the spray], plus the effect of rain and sun
results in the soil setting like cement'.
When I arrived at Cu Chi a bizarre and touching scene presented
itself. Within sight of a bomb, a wrecked American tank, a shallow
grave and a crippled child drawing water with a Napalm canister,
a lunch table was being laid. The tablecloth was white linen,
silver cutlery was wrapped in pink napkins, beer stood in ice
buckets and cold towels were dispensed by a waiter who saw off
the flies and mosquitoes. A nugget of a man with two red stars
on his collar greeted me. 'My name is Minh Number Four,' he said.
Minh Number Four - that was his military code-name - had the
eyes and ways of a hypogeal creature recently released into the
light. This was not surprising for he and his men had lived and
fought in darkness for a decade. Crouching in a narrow shaft Minh
said, 'During the daylight the Americans would be directly above.
We could smell their shaving perfume. To shoot them we often had
to trip them up first, to get the right aim. We killed them one
by one. They should not have dismissed us as children. They took
too many risks because they thought we were stupid and inferior.
That was a shame for them.'
The tunnels are today inhabited by insect mutants, created
by the constant spraying of herbicides. The mutants cling like
tiny primeval bats to walls of rock-hard earth, while outside
the same lifeless earth extends without greenery or topsoil to
a shimmering horizon broken only by silhouetted figures bent over
their ploughs. This was where the forest I had flown over twelve
years earlier had stood. In the villages nearby there are children
with spina bifida and cleft palates and the rate of miscarriages
is said to be higher than average: none of which is surprising
in an area saturated in Agent Orange. When General William Westmoreland,
the American commander in Vietnam, wrote in his book of 'some
of the most imaginative and successful expedients and innovations
to cope with the unusual nature of the enemy and the war that
any military force has ever brought to bear', he was referring
to the use of Agent Orange.
In August 1981 the magazine Encounter published an article entitled
'How to Lose a War: Reflections of a Foreign Correspondent'. The
author was Robert Elegant, a former Vietnam war reporter. Elegant
For the first time in modern history the outcome of a war
was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page
and, above all, on the television screen . . . never before Vietnam
had the collective policy of the media - no less stringent a term
will serve - sought by graphic and unremitting distortion the
correspondents' own side.
Setting aside Elegant's delusion of a media conspiracy with
'the enemy', his view is important because it encapsulates two
of the most durable and influential myths about the Vietnam war.
The first is that the Americans 'lost' the war because the media
coverage in the United States, notably on television, undermined
the military and political effort. The second is that most journalists
and broadcasters opposed the war. Neither is true. Indeed the
truth may well be the very opposite of Elegant's stricture: that
on the whole the American media, while questioning the way in
which the war was being fought, supported what Stanley Karnow,
formerly of the New York Times, has since called 'a failed crusade'.
In his classic study of war correspondents, Phillip Knightley
described the reporting from Vietnam during the early 1960s as
. . . not questioning the American intervention itself, but
only its effectiveness. Most correspondents, despite what Washington
thought about them, were just as interested in seeing the United
States win the war as was the Pentagon. What the correspondents
questioned was not American policy, but the tactics used to implement
the policy . . .
David Halberstam, formerly of the New York Times, who was
considered the béte noire of the Kennedy administration
for his critical reporting from Vietnam, later wrote, 'We would
have liked nothing better than to believe that the war was going
well, and that it would eventually be won.' Knightley related
a revealing story about Time magazine's chief correspondent in
South-East Asia in 1963, Charles Mohr. Mohr had co-authored an
article which began, 'The war in Vietnam is being lost . . .'
When the piece appeared in Time this line had been deleted and
the article said the opposite: that the war was going well and
'[Saigon] government troops are fighting better than ever'. Mohr
had also co-written an article defending the American Press corps
in Saigon, who were then being accused in Washington of painting
too bleak a picture of Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnamese tyrant
imported from exile in America by Colonel Edward Lonsdale of the
CIA. Time not only refused to publish this second article but
replaced it with a version rewritten by its managing editor; once
again, it said the opposite of the original. When Mohr was refused
equal space to reply, he resigned, only to find that his stand
against Time had made him something of an anti-war hero; and this
embarrassed him. 'Everyone thought I left because I was against
the war,' he said. 'I just thought it wasn't working. I didn't
come to think of it as immoral until the very end.' Moreover,
wrote Knightley, 'Mohr's commitment was such that, back in Vietnam
for the New York Times, he took part, armed with an M-16, in the
American re-taking of Hue Citadel after the Tet offensive.'
In news agency offices in Saigon there were photographs of
dismembered bodies, of soldiers holding up severed ears and testicles
and of actual moments of torture. These were the atrocities few
wrote about. In the Associated Press office, pinned on the wall,
was a photograph of an NLF soldier being tortured; above the torturer's
head was a stick-on comic strip balloon which said, 'That'll teach
you to talk to the press.' The question came up whenever visitors
caught sight of these pictures: why had they not been published?
A standard response was that the agency would not distribute them,
because newspapers would not publish them, because their readers
would not accept them. And to publish them, without an explanation
of the wider circumstances which produced them and of the nature
of the war itself, was to 'sensationalise'.
I myself accepted the apparent logic of this when I first
arrived in Vietnam; atrocities surely were aberrations by definition.
But this did not explain 'collateral damage' and 'circular error
probability': civilians killed, maimed, made homeless and sent
mad by bombs dropped and artillery trained on villages, paddies,
schools and hospitals. It did not explain children burned to a
bubbling pulp by Napalm or farmers killed during helicopter 'turkey
shoots' or 'suspects' thrown out of helicopters or dragged down
country roads, roped from neck to neck, by jeeps filled with doped
and laughing soldiers, or dead 'suspects' laid out like rabbits.
It did not explain the soldiers who kept human parts in their
wallets and the Special Forces officers who kept human skulls
in their huts, inscribed with the words, 'One down, one million
Philip Jones Griffiths, a Welshman with whom I worked in Vietnam
and one of the most compassionate and incisive photographers of
the war, told Knightley about women and children huddled together,
waiting to be killed by American artillery in a 'search and destroy'
mission. When he tried to stop it, he was told by an American
officer, 'What civilians?' He told Knightley, 'If I had gone back
to Saigon and into one of the agencies and had said, "I've
got a story about Americans killing Vietnamese civilians",
they would have said, "So what's new?" It was horrible,
but certainly not exceptional, and it just wasn't news.'
In 1983 I interviewed General Winant Sidle, the chief spokesman
for General Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam at
the height of the war. He told me, 'A lot of what we did just
wasn't newsworthy. Take collateral damage. Of course that's a
term that tends to deceive, although the reporters and the military
men using the term knew what it meant. I know a lot of military
terms were misunderstood, like "search and destroy",
which was an unfortunate choice of words because "reconnaissance
and force" would have done the job, and it's exactly the
same operation . . . but, gee, war is hell, and if a civilian
doesn't want to get killed in the battle zone, he should leave.'
Atrocities were neither isolated nor aberrations. It was the
nature of the war that was atrocious; this was the 'big story'
of the war, but it was seldom judged to be 'news' and therefore
seldom told, except in fragments. Atrocities were reported as
'mistakes' which were 'blundered into'. Behind this acceptable
version appalling events could proceed as part of a deliberate
and often efficiently executed strategy, contrary to the popular
misconception of 'blundering' generals and policy-makers. For
example, one of the earliest atrocities was the herding of people
into concentration camps which were known initially as 'strategic
hamlets'. The coercion and terror employed and the subsequent
deliberate dislocation of millions of lives was a carefully formulated
strategy. In April 1967 Robert ('Blow Torch Bob') Komer, the American
'pacification' expert, recommended that the United States 'must
step up refugee programs deliberately aimed at depriving the VC
of a recruiting base'. His recommendation was acted upon, at incalculable
human cost; but this was not reported as an atrocity.
'Pacification' was a term which became familiar to many newspaper
readers and television viewers but was seldom understood. 'Pacification',
like 'collateral damage', was part of the distortion of language
employed to preserve the war's facade. It meant killing as many
people as possible in a given area within a given period of time.
In 1971, for example, Kevin Buckley and Alex Shimkin of Newsweek
happened on an old military 'handout' which said the US Ninth
Infantry Division had killed 11,000 of the enemy in a 'pacification'
campaign called 'Operation Speedy Express'. The flaw in this story
was that only 700 weapons had been captured. Buckley and Shimkin
were told by an American official that 5,000 'non-combatants'
had been killed. If this was true, it was mass slaughter, officially
condoned and covered up. Newsweek balked at publishing the story,
telling its reporters that it would be 'a gratuitous attack on
the [Nixon] administration at this point'. Six months passed before
a 'savagely cut' version of the truth was finally published, almost
four years after the event itself.
Most experienced reporters knew that Operation Speedy Express
was not unusual, although some preferred to pass it off by describing
its perpetrators, the Ninth Division, as 'notorious'. What it
represented, however, was the war itself: an all-out assault on
the Vietnamese people, regardless of whether they were communist
or non-communist. But the war was not presented in this way, rather
as teams: 'good' teams and 'bad' teams. The Americans were on
the side of the good team, the South Vietnamese, who were defending
themselves against 'aggression' by several bad teams of 'communists'.
Not surprisingly, this version excluded the fact that the Americans
had killed tens of thousands of their South Vietnamese 'allies'
and had destroyed their homes and crops, levelled their forests,
poisoned their water and forced them into 'refugee programs'.
The propaganda version also excluded what American intelligence
had known from the beginning: that the regime America had installed
in Saigon, complete with the machinery of mass terror, had no
The standard version never satisfactorily came to terms with
exactly who 'the communists' were. If the NLF, or Vietcong, were
South Vietnamese how could they possibly 'invade' their own country?
Words had to be found to describe what were, in effect, the actions
of people defending their country against an invasion by the United
States. The words chosen were 'internal aggression'. The propaganda
also had difficulty with the 'North Vietnamese' who were said
to be attacking the South. There had been no North Vietnam and
no South Vietnam until the Geneva conference on Indo-China in
1954 'temporarily' divided the country to await national elections
in 1956, which the Americans refused to allow, knowing that Ho
Chi Minh would win hands down. Not only was Vietnam one country,
but there were southerners in the Hanoi leadership in the North
and northerners in the southern-based NLF. The first units sent
south by Ho Chi Minh to support those resisting the foreign invaders
were composed entirely of southerners. So, once again, the South
Vietnamese were 'invading' their own country!
This was confusing to reporters (myself included) and reducing
it to shorthand was a formidable task, if not an impossible one;
and not many of us tried. The easiest way was to adopt the jargon,
euphemisms, acronyms, the whole language of propaganda on which,
sadly, so much bad reporting was based. Criticism of events, individuals
and even policies was not uncommon but this dissidence rarely
exposed the false assumptions which underpinned the American war.
Moreover, criticism which did not go 'too far' and which remained
'objective' and 'unemotional' and incorporated the principles
of the official line served to strengthen the impression that
the war was being reported vigorously and entirely free of censorship.
General Sidle told me, 'Two delegations of bureau chiefs called
on me in 1968, asking me to please impose censorship. They were
getting confused about what they could do, what they could say
and what they couldn't say.'
Behind this fiction the essence of the war could be pursued
without serious examination. 'Anti-personnel' technology was deployed
with impunity; the bombs which sprayed needles into flesh and
organs and were difficult to detect in X-rays created little fuss.
Although millions of gallons of Agent Orange were dumped on Vietnam
during the 1960s, the outcry about its genetic and environmental
effects came only as the war was ending. In the daily flow of
'news' the victims of the war, such as refugees, became almost
non-existent, like phantoms. The news instead concentrated on
contrived American slaughter-fests such as the siege of Khe Sanh
and the battle for 'Hamburger Hill'. 'We deal in facts, not judgments'
was the motto of some tough, impartial scribes who witnessed all
the war's dimensions and reported only one. Their 'facts' invariably
omitted the racist nature of the war, as expressed by the common
usage of 'gooks', 'dinks', 'slopes' and 'slants' and by the military's
obsession with the 'body count' and 'kill ratio'. The good old
blundering 'green machine' was a murder machine.
Death squads, which were to prove so effective in Central
America, were expertly organised in Vietnam. An estimated 50,000
South Vietnamese were systematically murdered by assassins working
for the CIA's 'Phoenix Programme'. The most decorated American
soldier of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert, wrote
in his book, Soldier, 'They wanted me to take charge of execution
teams that wiped out entire families and tried to make it look
as though the VC themselves had done the killing.' Like Agent
Orange, the Phoenix Programme was not a 'story' until the war
was ending. Like Operation Speedy Express, the massacre of between
90 and 130 men, women and children at the village of My Lai on
March 16, 1968, was not a story until long after it had happened.
For more than a year a soldier who had heard about the My Lai
massacre tried to interest Newsweek and others, without success.
Finally, the story was 'broken', not by any of the 600 reporters
in Vietnam, but by a freelance in the United States, Seymour Hersh,
who regarded the murder of unarmed civilians by American soldiers
as both shocking and important. Only then did the correspondents
in Vietnam tell their own atrocity stories. There was a cataract
of them. Everybody, it seemed, knew about or had witnessed at
least one; and everybody had either not reported it or pleaded
that their office had 'spiked' the story they had sent.
The My Lai massacre eventually made the cover of Newsweek
under the banner headline 'AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY', which invited
sympathy for the invader and deflected from the truth that the
atrocities were, above all, a Vietnamese tragedy. Although other
atrocities seemed to be surfacing by the hour, the effect of the
reporting of the My Lai massacre was to present it as an isolated,
if 'significant' incident. After that, wrote Phillip Knightley,
the media began to lose interest in Vietnam. The war was now obsolete,
'peace with honour' was being pursued by Nixon and Kissinger;
so what else was there to say?
Yet as the reporters left Vietnam - by 1974 there were only
thirty-five permanent correspondents in Saigon - the war was intensified.
More bombs were dropped during this period than at any time before:
a fact relentlessly and courageously pointed out by a Boston-based
columnist, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times. One year after
the Paris peace accords in 1973 the US Senate Refugee Committee
noted that 818,700 new refugees had been created in Vietnam and
an average of 141 people were being killed every day. As Lewis
pointed out, the Vietnamese had suffered more in one year of peace
with honour than America had experienced in a decade of war. This
was the time of 'Vietnamisation', which meant that Vietnamese
troops were dying on America's behalf, 'supported' by American
bombers which continued to destroy their country. But this did
not qualify as a 'big story'.
Vietnam was said to be the first television war. That the
television coverage 'lost' the war for the Americans always seemed
to me a thoroughly ridiculous charge because 'good television'
- a term which has since become a parody of itself- was, with
honourable exceptions, one-dimensional and offered no threat to
the 'consensus' view of the war. In the early stages the arrival
of the hand-held camera allowed television to concentrate on dramatic
battle scenes reminiscent of Second World War Hollywood films,
regardless of the purpose and achievement of the action. Indeed,
this reinforced the 'consensus' view and may well have played
a part in prolonging a war which was said to be 'lost' some seven
years before it was finally abandoned. Television news, not documentary,
was dominant; the 'bang-bang', the endless shots of helicopters,
even occasionally of pain and bloodshed, were generally allowed
to dictate their own terms and, once edited, became, in the jargon,
'slugs' (action film) and 'sound-bites' (very brief interviews).
Images usurped the judgments of experienced reporters who
affected the roles of innocent bystander and caption writer. Public
attitudes flow from perspectives; by allowing the false 'neutrality'
of television images to dominate the coverage of the war, journalists
allowed misconceptions to become received truths. The first casualties
were truth and context; bang-bang and contemporary history were
deemed not to blend on the screen. That the Geneva peace conference
in 1954 had been undermined by Washington, that communist China
was no friend of communist Vietnam, that the NLF had sought the
establishment of a non-communist, neutral coalition in South Vietnam
- these truths went unremembered and unconnected.
In an American CBS 'special' during the Tet offensive in March
1968, Walter Cronkite said, 'The only rational way out . . . will
be to negotiate not as victors but as an honourable people who
lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best
they could.' That this distinguished journalist could speak to
a mass audience, presumably with a straight face, about defending
'democracy' in Vietnam said much about the entire news industry
of which he was the paragon. According to Amnesty International,
the 'democracy' which the Americans had created and were 'defending'
at that time incarcerated more than half the world's known political
prisoners and allowed 'systematic' torture. Few other regimes
can claim a comparable record of brutality and repression of the
In my view, the television coverage of the war, far from contributing
to 'the victory of the enemies of the correspondents' own side',
as Robert Elegant charged, confused and anaesthetised and dulled
memories. The results of two surveys (among many) struck me as
being particularly relevant. The first, for Newsweek in 1967,
found that television did not cause 64 per cent of viewers to
recoil from the 'reality' of the war, but encouraged them to support
the war and to 'back up the boys'. Only 26 per cent of those polled
were moved to call for an immediate end to the war. Five years
later, during a period of sustained American bombing, a follow-up
survey found that the American television audience had developed
an immunity to all the pictures of horror and fireworks from far-off
Asia. Without meaning, context, analysis and the 'judgment' often
scorned by reporters who saw themselves only as 'witnesses', the
images of the war were said to have merged with all the other
'fireworks' on television, such as in war movies, Kojak, Starsky
and Hutch, etcetera.
The Vietnam war was perhaps the only war in history in which
correspondents were free to go almost anywhere on the battlefield
and were provided with an efficient means of doing so. You could
fly from American cocoon to cocoon, officers' club to officers'
club, hot shower to hot shower, Budweiser to Budweiser, latest
movie to latest movie. After a long day being splattered with
mud or covered with dust, shot at, bitten or just bored, a 'Hi-how-ya-doin'?',
plus the shower and the Budweiser, could cast a certain spell.
On the most remote firebase there was always a joint of marijuana
on offer to calm the twilight. The unit Press and Information
Officer might not inform, but he would surely entertain with a
manic whirl round his briefing map of red bits and blue bits.
He and most of the others I met were usually pleasant men who
marked off the days until their return to 'the world' and for
whom it was easy to feel sympathy. Indeed, on American bases in
Vietnam I often felt as I had when I lived briefly in New Orleans.
The weather was similar, and the folks had a lovable side and
a lethal side.
The Vietnamese had every reason to fear the lethal side, which
would express itself in human target practice and the arbitrary
expenditure of ammunition, known as 'mad minutes'. The lovable
side, the can-do bonhomie, street wit and frequent acts of kindness,
had a profound effect on young reporters sent by Midwestern papers
to do hometown-boyscout-there-in-'Nam stories and on the numerous
foreign journalists whose travel to and from Vietnam, plus generous
expenses, were paid by the United States Information Service and
other US government agencies. I used to run into these junketeers,
who in the midst of a nasty confusing war would feel secure and
grateful in the American cocoon, and this would be reflected in
what they wrote or broadcast. With no formal censorship and with
such available largesse, and such nice guys dispensing it, it
was at times impossible for all of us not to become part of an
unseen and powerful propaganda machine.
In Saigon every day there was the 'Five O'clock Follies',
the military's press briefing. 'News' of the latest bodies counted,
paddies bombed, arms caches captured, enemy soldiers 'rallied'
and gleams glimpsed at the end of the metaphoric tunnel, was handed
out here. I once asked Morley Safer, the veteran CBS network correspondent,
to compare the Saigon 'Follies' with its equivalent at the Ministry
of Defence in London during the Falklands war. He said, 'Well,
during the Falklands Mr Ian McDonald would give a press conference
and be absolutely confident that no one in the room knew more
than he did. Now in Vietnam the poor old briefer knew that everyone
in the room knew more than he knew . . . at least those of us
who'd been out of Saigon at all.'
Unlike Safer, relatively few journalists did leave Saigon.
According to General Sidle, out of 649 correspondents accredited
in March 1968, fewer than eight went regularly into the field.
What this meant was that the 'Follies', which experienced reporters
like Safer regarded no more seriously than 'sport at the end of
a long day', was often the only source of information for the
representatives of certain agencies, newspaper chains and other
publications whose readership ran to millions. Near the end of
the war the correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, which
devoted many column inches to Vietnam, was one John Draw. At least,
his byline said that. In reality he was Captain Nguyen Ngoc Phach,
aide to the Chief of Staff of the Army of South Vietnam. As Saigon
began to 'fall' in 1975 the captain reported the retreat of his
own Army and Telegraph readers were none the wiser.
So rare were those like Safer, who would describe in his reports
what he as well as the camera saw, that he was accused of being
'anti-American': the catch-all tag for those who stepped even
briefly outside the consensus view. When in 1965 Safer's CBS crew
filmed marines burning down a village with Zippo cigarette lighters,
President Johnson himself intervened. David Halberstam related
what happened, in his book, The Powers That Be:
'Frank,' said the early-morning wake-up call, 'are you trying
to fuck me?' [Frank Stanton was the then president of CBS.]
'Who is this?' said the still sleepy Stanton.
'Frank, this is your President, and yesterday your boys shat
on the American flag,' Lyndon Johnson said, and then administered
a tongue lashing: how could CBS employ a Communist like Safer,
how could they be so unpatriotic as to put on enemy film like
this? Johnson was furious, he was sure that Safer was a Communist
and he sent out a search party to check his past, and the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police checked out everything about Safer, including
his sister, finding that he was indeed totally above suspicion
and law-abiding. Johnson was insisting that Safer was a Communist,
and when aides said no, he was simply a Canadian, the President
said, 'Well, I knew he wasn't an American.')
He was also, and this was more serious because it suggested
some of the paranoia that was to come, absolutely convinced that
Safer had bought the Marine officer, that he had bribed him to
do this. 'They got to one of our boys,' he told his staff. He
immediately called through to the Joint Chiefs to launch an investigation
of the officer in charge, to make sure that he had not been bribed
by a Communist reporter, that he had not taken money, and even
after a serious investigation brought back the report that there
was no bribing, it was just one of those things, those trick press
people had fooled a green young officer, the President of the
United States believed there had been a conspiracy.
Safer's 'crime' had been to give a mass American audience
a glimpse of the real war. When British journalist James Cameron
and cameraman Malcolm Aird raised their own finance to make a
filmed report from Hanoi in 1965, they were castigated as communist
dupes, a charge, Cameron later told me, he relished. 'Only when
they called you a dupe, not a communist outright, but a dupe,'
he said, 'did you know you'd broken the great mould that covered
the reporting of the Vietnam war and that maybe you'd got it right!'
In one respect it was easy for the likes of me in Vietnam;
I came and went. I always sympathised with journalists based in
Vietnam because I knew that the longer you stayed, the more you
contrived to remain aloof from the suffering and criminal stupidity
of it all and the more difficult it became to protect your compassion.
If you stayed too long you were in danger of being able to walk
into a hospital and hover over a human form sticky with burns
and say, 'Nothing in this.' If you stayed too long you were able
to take pictures of suffering people and not think to help them
and to cause people to be hurt by your presence and not realise
it. If you stayed too long you did not look many Vietnamese in
Murray Sayle, the former correspondent of the London Sunday
Times, has said that the war overwhelmed him. I often felt the
same, and when I did I would plan to leave, and I could not get
to the airport at Tan Son Nhut fast enough. These became moments
of inexplicable panic; and I would wonder later if the war was
beyond me and us all: beyond journalism. It is an interesting
thought, because one work of fiction, Graham Greene's The Quiet
American, written in the 1950s, still stands as perhaps the definitive
'reporting' of events and attitudes which fuelled the American
war. It is regarded as such by many journalists who knew Vietnam
and who, like myself, would ritually hand over a battered copy
to those who wanted to know how and why such an apparently pointless
endeavour could be sustained. Did we realise when we passed on
the book that it contained perhaps a mirror of ourselves? Robert
Scheer, the distinguished Los Angeles Times reporter, believes
The Quiet American is 'the best thing written about Vietnam'.
He told me, 'Greene got it right because he described that American
personality that says, "We're going to save you from yourselves",
who is totally insensitive to the history of another people, totally
disrespectful of the idea that they may have aspirations of their
own and who believes you can instantly learn about their society.
Greene's Quiet American was a CIA agent, but it could have been
some of our best reporters who went over there and went along
with the war until the war stank so much you couldn't do your
job and go along with it.'
That said, I admired many of my colleagues, and most of all
those who battled against monsters in their home offices, and
against their own dismay at the turn of events, as well as their
confusion and fear and the insidious pressure to join the 'pack'
and its deferential consensus view. They included Richard Hughes,
the young American who gave up being a journalist to care for
the 'dust of life' children of Saigon, the photographers Philip
Jones Griffiths (whose superb book, Vietnam Inc., encapsulated
more about the nature of the war than years of news reports),
Don McCullin and the late Michel Laurent, the journalists Gloria
Emerson, Victoria Brittain, Jack Laurence, Murray Sayle, James
Cameron, Wilfred Burchett, Harrison Salisbury, Martin Woollacott,
Morley Safer and others, alive and dead. For me, the greatest
American reporter in Vietnam was Martha Gellhorn, who had covered
the Spanish Civil War, China during the Japanese invasion, Finland,
Italy and Britain during the Second World War and Dachau at the
moment of liberation. She had gone to Vietnam as a freelance in
the mid-1960s and her first published dispatches were my own brief
when Hugh Cudlipp, then editor-in-chief of the Daily Mirror, sent
me to report the war. (I corresponded with Martha Gellhorn for
seven years before I met her. We are now close friends and she
is godmother to my Zoe, born in 1984.)
From Qui Nhon provincial hospital, where wounded civilians
were being treated 'under conditions suitable for the Crimean
war', Martha Gellhorn wrote:
We, unintentionally, are killing and wounding three or four
times more people than the Vietcong do, so we are told, on purpose.
We are not maniacs and monsters, but our planes range the sky
all day and all night, and our artillery is lavish and we have
much more deadly stuff to kill with. The people are there on the
ground, sometimes destroyed by accident, sometimes destroyed because
Vietcong are reported to be among them. This is indeed a new kind
Her reports were published by the Guardian in 1966. Of all
the American newspapers she approached, only the St Louis Post-Dispatch
bought the series, but refused to print the angriest piece which
had raised the forbidden question about American motives in Vietnam.
She was subsequently refused a visa by the regime in Saigon and
was unable to return there.
The following passage is from her article banned in the United
States. She had visited a refugee camp, 'a dump heap' she called
it, where she found some of the million people made homeless in
the previous two years. She wrote:
These peasants had survived the Vietcong since 1957, on whatever
terms hostile or friendly, and the war however it came to them.
But they cannot survive our bombs. Even the Catholic refugees
did not leave their hamlets until the bombs fell. We are uprooting
the people from the lovely land where they have lived for generations;
and the uprooted are given not bread but stone. Is this an honourable
way for a great nation to fight a war 8,000 miles from its safe
A Noble Cause
On my wall is a photograph of what appears to be a swamp, which
I took a few weeks after the end of the war in Vietnam in May
1975. I had been standing in a hillside cemetery among the graves
of a town's entire antiaircraft militia, all of them young women
. . . Vo Thi Than, aged twenty-two, Duong Thi Than, aged nineteen
. . . and I had asked where the town itself was. I was told I
was looking directly at it, or rather where it had been. It was
now a swamp, which on closer inspection was a series of overlapping
craters. On the far side of the largest crater I could see a small
pile of bricks, the foundation of something. There were no paddies,
no shrines, no rickety high fences of bamboo, no draft animals.
There were no people, of course. They were dead or gone.
Dong Loc, north of the seventeenth parallel, had been a farming
community of several thousand people, whose 'strategic importance'
was that it stood close to Highway One, the 'Street of No Joy',
running along the curved spine of Vietnam. Dong Loc was one of
hundreds of such places. There is no longer farming nearby where
chemical agents dropped on the earth have caused it to salinate
and set, in some places like stone, and it has yet to regenerate.
Much of Vietnam today endures this twilight of devastation, unique,
unseen, and perhaps infinite, in which the poisons run through
the soil, water and genes: legacies of a 'noble war'.
President Reagan has described it as such and that is to be
expected. But more than a decade after the 'fall' of Saigon, 'noble
war' is gaining a certain currency as the revisionists work quickly,
although 'revisionism' is not entirely apt because it implies
new facts are to hand, demanding a change of perspective, when
the old facts remain at bay, in shadow, unheeded. This is known
as the 'new Vietnam scholarship'. 'New' Vietnam scholars include
the familiar, discredited faces and the 'new' facts they present
are familiar, discredited lies. At the time of the tenth anniversary
of the end of the war, in 1985, the London Sunday Times gave Henry
Kissinger most of a page to justify his claim that 'the ultimate
political goal of America was noble: to enable a distant people
to resist tyranny . . 2s9 To Kissinger, 1985 model, the media
were to blame for 'failing to distinguish between what was inherent
in modern weaponry and what represented deliberate cruelty'. Pushing
people out of helicopter gunships was, of course, not deliberate
but 'inherent in the weaponry'. Or in Kissinger's case, the consequences
of the secret and unconstitutional dispatch of B-52 bombers against
peasant Cambodia were not deliberate but 'inherent in the weaponry'.
There is a chic implied in this 'new scholarship', which has
both the dress of academic sophistication and the attention of
media eager to be seen absolving themselves of any guilt in 'losing'
the war. In a major article in its Sunday magazine, the New York
Times chronicled the 'new' sombre reflection and diligent research.
The cover showed preeminent 'new scholar' Douglas Pike presiding
over his 'Indochina Studies Program' at the University of California
at Berkeley. On the blackboard behind Pike was the word 'ideology';
it was misspelt: a fitting symbol. For much of the war Pike was
a senior apparatchik of the United States Information Service
(USIS) in Saigon and the leading US government propagandist on
the Vietcong. His zeal in promoting the American cause was rare
even among like-minds. During the 1960s he directed propaganda
against the 'threat' of a political settlement among the Vietnamese
themselves, because, as he put it, the American-backed 'minnow'
would be swallowed by the enemy 'whale': in other words, the will
of the Vietnamese majority would prevail. According to the author
of the New York Times article, Fox Butterfield, himself a former
Vietnam war reporter, 'Mr. Pike's presence at Berkeley is testament
to Vietnam's having quietly made the transition from controversial
public issue to history. 'Translated, this 'quiet transition'
is from propaganda to history, from 'master illusion' to accredited
truth. It is classically Orwellian.
The epitome of the 'new scholarship' is a 700-page history
of Vietnam which Pike has described as 'more objective' than earlier
'angry' works. This is Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: a history, which
is described on its cover as 'a companion to the PBS Television
series' intended for students as well as the public. Although
Karnow was 'chief correspondent' of the series his book bears
little relation to the excellent documentary films shown in the
United States and Europe in 1983. A11 the conservative and liberal
myths are paraded arm in arm in Karnow's 'history'. His readers
are told that the war was a 'failed crusade' conducted for the
'loftiest of intentions', that the communists were 'terrorists'
who were 'merciless' and 'brutal' in contrast to the Americans
who were 'sincere' and 'earnest' and whose 'instincts were liberal'.
Good guy Lyndon Johnson, 'mistakenly imputed [American] values
to the communists', believing that 'they would respond like reasonable
people' (to American threats to demolish their towns) but of course
these communists were 'rarely troubled by heavy human tolls'.
Karnow gives the My Lai massacre one line, but tells the moving
story of how Robert McNamara, secretary of defence under Johnson,
expressed his 'anguish', not for the enforced uprooting of millions,
not for the mounds of victims of American bombing: no, McNamara's
'voice broke' as he described 'the futility, the crushing futility
of the air war'. Like many 'new' historians Karnow justifies the
war by pointing accusingly at the absorption of the southern resistance
movement by the leadership in Hanoi. In other words, as Noam Chomsky
pointed out, 'this consequence of US savagery [is] exploited as
a justification for it, a propaganda achievement that Goebbels
would have admired'.
At the level of popular culture, always the vanguard in matters
of national redemption, the post-war propaganda has worked assiduously
to celebrate the invader and to reduce the invaded to their wartime
status of comrnie stick figures on celluloid. The multi-Oscared
Hollywood creation The Deerhunter, which according to Time-speak
'articulates the new patriotism', was the first prime example.
It arrived at America's box offices in the late 1970s when little
was being spoken publicly about the war. This was said to be wound-licking
time, though complicated by Jimmy Carter's obsession with the
humiliation of the American hostages in Iran. A Hollywood catharsis
was required urgently. Certainly, few movies have been better
timed than The Deerhunter, and few have enjoyed such ecstatic
pre-publicity. In Britain, Derek Malcolm in the Guardian insisted
that it should be seen 'at all costs'; the Daily Mail described
it as 'the story they never dared to tell before . . . the film
that could purge a nation's guilt!'; Milton Schulman of the Evening
Standard was left 'quivering and shattered', and Alexander Walker
wrote in the same paper that here was a film that 'says things
that needed saying'. Lady Delfont, wife of the film's British
backer, Bernard Delfont of EMI, announced that she had wept openly
at a preview.
There was much to weep about. The producers had spent $14
million of EMI's money packaging the war for Hollywood as a movie
which would reincarnate the triumphant Batman-jawed Caucasian
warrior ('liberal by instinct') and present a suffering people
as sub-human Oriental barbarians and idiots. The American heroes
managed to wipe out a houseful of barbarians, M-16s rotating from
their lean hips. None of this, of course, was new; it was how
Hollywood created the myth of the Wild West, which was harmless
enough unless you happened to be an American Indian; and how the
Second World War and the Korean War were absorbed into box office
folklore, which was harmless enough unless you happened to be
a dumb Kraut or an unspeakable Nip or a commie chink; and of course,
The Deerhunter was harmless enough unless you happened to be a
The film's dramatic pitch was reached during recurring orgiastic
scenes in which the American heroes were forced to play Russian
roulette by their Vietnamese captors. In all my time in Vietnam
I never heard about this 'game'. I asked others who had been there
if they had heard about it and they had not. Interviews with returning
American prisoners-of-war never mentioned it, and these surely
would have been seized upon at the time as confirmation of the
enemy's inhumanity. The director of The Deerhunter, Michael Cimino,
insisted that the Russian roulette was authentic. But Cimino's
original script had been simply cameos of ex-GIs recalling their
time in Vietnam, which was rejected by the potential backers in
Britain as unexciting and potentially unprofitable. So Cimino
discarded his cameos and on his travels across the Atlantic came
up with a script which centred upon the gratuitous violence of
games of Russian roulette, which he had invented. Linda Christmas
of the Guardian wrote that Cimino had told her, 'During the making
of the film, I certainly had the sense that we were doing something
special. It was such an agonising experience both emotionally,
physically - the tropics, the heat, the humidity. I can't shake
off The Deerhunter even now. I have this insane feeling that I
was there, in Vietnam. Somehow the fine wires have got really
crossed and the line between reality and fiction has become blurred.'
Although Cimino said he had 'this insane feeling that I was
there, in Vietnam', he was never there. He told Linda Christmas,
and Leticia Kent of the New York Times, that he was called up
shortly after the Tet offensive in 1968, and was a medic attached
to the Green Berets. He 'missed' Vietnam because, he said, he
had a job 'involved in defence and classified. Something to do
with that'. The Defence Department records tell a different story.
Cimino was in the Army reserve before draftees were sent to Vietnam
and was pursuing a career in advertising at the time of the Tet
offensive. These discrepancies might not have mattered had the
director not insisted that his film's most dramatic moments were
based upon fact -'meaningful horror', he called them - and had
his film not been regarded virtually as documentary and had he
not been elevated to a champion of America's 'new patriotism'.
President Carter reportedly saw The Deerhunter three times and
was moved by its 'genuine American message'. Another 'master illusion'
Francis Ford Coppola, unlike Cimino, was already a director
of some distinction, and his film Apocalypse Now was, as they
say in Hollywood and Cannes, 'long awaited'. Also set in Vietnam,
Apocalypse Now had exceeded its budget by many millions of dollars,
partly because of an absurdly inflated fee demanded by Marlon
Brando. Like Cimino, Coppola was one of the first directors to
exploit the special effects technology developed during the 1970s
and his film was acclaimed as a spectacle true to its subject.
That he had reduced the Vietnamese and Montenard peoples to stereotypes
of Oriental viciousness was generally passed over by the critics.
Coppola claimed in his film that NLF soldiers hacked off the arms
of children to discourage a vaccination programme and implied
that this was the reason why the United States invaded Vietnam.
When an American journalist wrote to the screenwriter, John Milius,
asking where the children's severed arms story had originated,
her letter was returned by Milius with the US Special Forces death's
head drawn on it, together with these words:
We must burn them,
We must incinerate them,
Press after press,
Pen after pen,
Pencil after pencil,
- No dialogue with communist criminals
In another acclaimed film, The Killing Fields, scenes which
showed the Vietnamese as the liberators of Cambodia in 1979 were
cut. These cuts included, according to the shooting script I saw,
Vietnamese soldiers handing out food and 'doing their best to
minister to the needs of the Cambodian people' following the holocaust
of Pol Pot - all of which is documented and is anathema to the
'revisionists' who have worked hard to confuse the Vietnamese
role with the genocide of Pol Pot.
In 1985, with the remembrance of the tenth anniversary of
the end of the war, a rash of films about heroic 'rescues' in
Indo-China were released. They were mostly about Americans missing
in action and surviving in jungle hells against all odds. Missing
in Action I, Missing in Action II, Uncommon Valour and Battle
Rage all performed well at the box office; but none approached
the popularity and profitability of Rambo: First Blood Part II.
'Rambo' is Johnny Rambo, a wedge-shaped Vietnam veteran and
psychopath (played by Sylvester Stallone) who is sent into post-war
Indo-China to rescue GIs held in bamboo cages by loathsome Oriental
communists supported by loathsome Russians. And although he is
betrayed by Washington, he wins through in the end, pectorals
gleaming, the blood of others flowing. It is one of the most violent
films ever made. People magazine calculated that Rambo slaughters
somebody every 2.1 minutes during the film. This time there is
no 'meaningful horror', no masquerading as art. Among the film's
promoters was President Reagan. 'After seeing Rambo last night',
he said, 'I know what to do the next time this happens.' He was
referring to the hijacking of an American airliner to Beirut in
July 1985. Three months later he sent American warplanes to force
down an Egyptian airliner carrying the Palestinian hijackers of
an Italian cruise liner. Headlines in Britain read, 'RAMBO REAGAN'
and 'RAMBO STRIKES BACK!"
The film turns the truth of Vietnam inside out. In spite of
a 1976 Congressional Select Committee report that 'no Americans
are still being held alive as prisoners in Indo-China' and a commission
of enquiry sent by President Carter to Hanoi which agreed with
the Select Committee's findings, the 'MIA issue' has exerted considerable
influence on many Americans' emotions and politics. There are
2,477 officially listed 'MIAs', most of them pilots who went down
with their aircraft. Compared with 78,751 American soldiers still
'missing' from the Second World War and 8,177 MIAs from the Korean
War, the Vietnam figure is very low and may be the lowest this
century. Since 1975 the Vietnamese have returned the remains of
more than 100 Americans.
Nevertheless, the MIA families have had their hopes raised
by various 'sightings' of prisoners, none of them confirmed, and
by President Reagan himself. Since Reagan was President there
has been a 'National POW/MIA Recognition Day' and the families
have been flown to Washington in military aircraft to hear their
President pledge 'the highest national priority' to bring the
POWs home. Reagan made these gestures in the face of evidence
from his own Defence Intelligence Agency that it was highly unlikely
there were any POWs left in Vietnam. Clearly Rambo was enough
evidence for him.
The most recent Vietnam movies have been more subtle. Those
like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, in providing glimpses of the
Vietnamese as human beings, as well as sequences of American mania
and atrocities, have created a false credibility that has served
to reinforce their essential Rambo-and-angst message: a potent
Most of these films have transferred to the mass audience
videoleasing market and have also been sold to television. The
Deerhunter and Apocalypse Now were shown on peak-time television
in Britain during the run-up to the tenth anniversary; the latter
was described in the Radio Times as a film which 'proved to be
one of the definitive studies of men in war'. My own view is that
these films have become by default a kind of popular history of
Indo-China because the ubiquitous television coverage failed to
provide context and meaning, unlike the 'meaningful horror' of
The Deerhunter and the 'patriotism' of Rambo. That the truth is
not permitted to intervene in such 'new' and packaged history
is of course by the way; what matters is the strength of the purgative.
In literature, Michael Herr's 1978 best-seller Dispatches
made respectable the narcissism of a breed of war-lovers. On the
cover of the book's first edition are comparisons with Dante,
Erich Remarque, Crane, Orwell, Hemingway and Francis Bacon. Robert
Stone is quoted: 'I believe it may be the best journal about war,
about any war, that any writer has ever accomplished.' John le
Carre is quoted: 'The best book I have ever read about men and
war in our time.'
Herr glamorised a group of English and American 'war freaks'.
These freaks included Herr himself, a reporter for Esquire magazine,
and Sean Flynn, son of Errol and a photographer who, wrote Herr,
. . . could look more incredibly beautiful than even his father,
Errol, had 30 years before as Captain Blood, but sometimes he
looked more like Artaud coming out of some heavy heart-of-darkness
trip, overloaded on the information, the input! He'd give off
a bad sweat and sit for hours, combing his moustache through with
the saw-blade of his Swiss Army knife.
The former war correspondent James Fenton was one of the few
reviewers who did not eulogise such insights. In the New Statesman
Fenton described Herr, Flynn and the other war freaks as 'boring,
spaced-out sadists hitching a lift with Murder . . . [To them]
the American side of the thing was glamorous, manly, absorbing.
The gooks' side was of no interest whatsoever. The enemy gooks
were of no interest; the "friendly" gooks were of no
Like many 'liberal by instinct' Caucasians who went to Vietnam,
Herr was itching to use a gun on a human target. He got his chance:
One night . . . I slid over to the wrong end of the story,
propped up behind some sandbags at an airstrip in Can Tho with
a .30-calibre automatic in my hands, giving cover for a four-man
reaction team trying to get back in. One last war story.
The first night of the Tet Offensive we were in the Special
Forces C Camp for the Delta, surrounded as far as we knew, and
with nothing but bad news filtering in: from Hue, from Danang
. . . from Saigon itself, 'lost' as we understood it at that moment,
they had the embassy, they had Cholon, Tan Son Nhut was burning,
we were in the Alamo, no place else, and I wasn't a reporter,
I was a shooter.
The next morning there were a dozen Vietnamese dead in the
area where Herr had been firing. He wrote that he could not know
whether or not he had killed any gooks, but 'I couldn't remember
ever feeling so tired, so changed, so happy'.
Having possibly killed people, Herr had 'lost' his innocence.
'Lost innocence' is a constant theme of the 'revisionists'. During
the tenth anniversary gush, Newsweek described the American political
establishment which prosecuted the war as 'by and large idealistic,
if sometimes naive, defenders of democracy . . . to many minds,
that innocence can never be fully recovered'.' I am not so sure;
as the American Indians learned, and the Nicaraguans are learning,
such lethal innocence has a life force of its own.
When President Reagan was asked about the analogy of America's
war in Vietnam with its current war in Central America, he said
the comparison was 'totally unjustified' because 'North and South
Vietnam had been, previous to colonisation, two separate countries.'
He said that at the 1954 Geneva conference provisions had been
made that 'these two countries could by a vote of all their people
decide together whether they wanted to be one country or not'.
He said that Ho Chi Minh 'refused to participate in such an election'.
He added that American military advisers were sent to South Vietnam
to- work in civilian clothing and without weapons until they were
attacked with 'pipe bombs'. Ultimately, said the president, John
Kennedy had authorised the 'sending of a division of marines'.
What was striking about this piece of 'new' history was that it
was apparently believed by reputedly the most powerful person
in the world and that none of it was true. He was wrong on every
score. To give one example, it was President Johnson, not Kennedy,
who sent in the marines.
It was fortunate that President Reagan did not order an invasion
of Nicaragua, for it was his obsession, just as Vietnam was Lyndon
Johnson's obsession. The similarities are many. There is still
a debate in the United States between the conservative and liberal
wings of the establishment, the so-called 'hawks' and 'doves',
about whether Nicaragua poses a military threat to the United
States. Like their predecessors during the American invasion of
Vietnam, the 'doves' say the threat is exaggerated, but they do
not deny that a threat exists.
However, these 'opinion leaders' are not the American people.
Two polls conducted in the United States in 1978 and 1982 produced,
in my view, highly significant results. In both years the polls
found that 72 per cent of the American public felt that 'the Vietnam
war was more than a mistake; it was fundamentally wrong and immoral'.
If this is true, it means that a majority of Americans have failed
to succumb to years of indoctrination. It means that a chasm exists
between the policy-makers and the public on the issue of other
Vietnams, such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, and it helps to explain
why so many normally pliant congressmen opposed Reagan's attempts
to intervene directly in Central America. Nicaragua may yet be
spared. Whether or not President Bush has inherited his predecessor's
obsession has yet to be demonstrated.
The results of these polls are, of course, complementary to
the 1985 study cited earlier, which found that a third of Americans
could not remember which side the United States had supported
in Vietnam. The New York Times described this as 'ignorance',
which is rather like Pravda dismissing as ignorance the failure
of Soviet citizens to grasp which side the Kremlin supported in
Afghanistan. My own experience of being in America during the
Vietnam war was that many people did not believe what they were
told by their government or by their 'opinion leaders' in the
media and the intelligentsia. The information industry saturated
them with the official line, relieved by an occasional show of
dissidence within the establishment; and yet the public remained
unconvinced. This was known as the 'Vietnam syndrome'. In 1985,
when this disturbing condition seemed on the verge of becoming
an epidemic, Noam Chomsky identified its symptoms as 'an understanding
of the facts of the real world, opposition to massacre and aggression
and sympathy for the victims . . . Great efforts have been made
to overcome this malady, but it persists, imposing constraints
on the resort to violence in Central America and elsewhere'. For
example, when the British/American/French television production
Vietnam was shown in 1983 the American public's response appeared
to be overwhelmingly in favour of the series' generally honest
and critical appraisal of the war and its origins. The producers
won nineteen American awards and their films are still being shown
in schools and colleges: a potent antidote to the 'new scholarship'.
Post-war propaganda in both the United States and Vietnam
is reconciled on one point: that America was 'defeated' in its
war in Asia. But this is not true. The United States gained a
significant, if partial, victory. As Chomsky has pointed out,
American policy was never concerned with Vietnam alone, just as
it is not concerned with Nicaragua alone. In Vietnam the short-term
'threat' came from a nationalist leadership concerned with domestic
needs rather than with the transcendent demands of the United
States. The long-term 'threat' to America was that of a development
model which other states might have followed; and precisely the
same is true of the Nicaraguan 'threat'. Far from being vanquished
in South-East Asia, the United States has devastated, blockaded
and isolated Vietnam and its 'virus' and has subordinated to American
interests almost every regime in the region. Not even Hollywood
has understood the scope of this achievement.
... hoarding and blackmarketeering were the unremarkable symptoms
of a society racked by war, natural disaster, poverty in the extreme
and a scarcity of almost everything taken for granted in the West.
But it was a rare foreigner who could concede that it was the
aid delivered by governments, international banks and agencies
that helped to perpetuate corruption and poverty in countries
Far from helping people to achieve self-sufficiency, foreign
aid tied the new nation's economy to a global system of 'aid dependency'.
And far from helping the poor majority, foreign aid enriched a
growing urban elite with imported luxuries and the opportunity
to control outright markets such as food. In 1976 it was estimated
that 5 per cent of a total 600,000 tons of foreign food shipped
to Bangladesh reached hungry people; the rest secured a black
market run by a corrupt few at the top. Thus, aid reinforced the
political position of a privileged minority and became the most
powerful buttress against change.
In the first few years of independence millions of pounds,
dollars, Deutschmarks, francs and yen in 'aid' vanished without
trace. Everything was piecemeal. Not even the country's most pressing
need - a system of flood control - was proposed as a programme
to be begun and completed within a reasonable period of time.
The World Bank's project for irrigation and flood control consisted
of a few embankments here, a few bridges and canals there, and
a bureaucracy to administer it. A World Bank official I interviewed
in Dacca for a television documentary extolled the efforts his
people were making in Bangladesh. When the camera was switched
off, he said, 'The real problem is that these people are hopeless.
Kissinger was right; what we've got here is another basket case.'
I asked him to repeat this for the camera. Not surprisingly he
refused, saying, 'I want to keep my job. It's a bloody fine job.'
For the 'hopeless' people of Bangladesh, who are one-hundredth
of humanity, 'aid' meant not even a token version of the United
Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency which had moved into
Germany at the end of the war and dealt imaginatively with hunger,
refugees and pestilence. In 1946 there were huge quantities of
drugs to fight tuberculosis, insecticides to fight water-borne
diseases like malaria, nutrition clinics for the children, a construction
programme to rebuild homes, bridges, roads, railways.
Of course it is true that in so-called emerging countries,
beset by the complexities of 'emerging' and prickly with the pride
of independence, there are practical problems of how to distribute
aid and through whom to channel it. Immediately after the war
these problems existed in Bangladesh but, compared with the experiences
of other countries suffering the aftermath of extreme social upheaval,
they were few. There was too much relief and sheer joy at having
been liberated so quickly and too much eagerness to open up the
country to a sympathetic world. What they got instead was ill-conceived,
often uncoordinated 'charity' which did them more harm than good
and from which, as the model 'basket case', they continue to suffer.
Take, for example, the story of the Pill in Bangladesh. In
1972 the US Aid and International Development Agency (USAID) shipped
to Bangladesh 22 million packets of oral contraceptives. These
were dumped on an illiterate, rural people with no concept of
chemical birth control. Directions were in English which few could
comprehend, there was no village education programme and the pills
were sold at market stalls. Three years later less than a million
had been used by women; the rest were taken by men, children and
chickens or collected in jars. During the three years of pill-pushing,
according to some government officials, the population actually
increased by % per cent. 'For some village women', wrote Ian Guest,
'the experience appears to have caused immense personal suffering
and even suicides because of side-effects like bleeding which
had been caused by irregular supply.'
The culpability of the pill-pushers in failing to link effective
distribution and education to their 'gifts' is equalled by an
almost total neglect of the other half of the problem of population
control: health. As in many countries, children are vital to the
economic survival of every village. Eight-year-olds work in the
fields and paddies; for families forever on the cusp of life and
death, there is no other way. But in Bangladesh three out of every
ten children die before the age of five from malnutrition, tetanus,
dysentery and other preventable killers. An assault on these common
diseases would save more young lives and convince people they
need not breed merely to counter the loss of previous babies,
and an interest in contraception, which is already shared by millions
of women in Bangladesh, would spread.
The story of food aid to Bangladesh is also instructive. Most
of the first foreign food to Bangladesh came from the United States
in the form of surpluses. Under a policy laid down in 1973 by
President Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz - Butz called
it 'Agripower' - American surpluses were dumped in Bangladesh
in order to meet the demand of the 'food lobby' in Washington.
This lobby is made up of a handful of conglomerates which between
them control more than 60 per cent of all secondary cereals in
the world, 50 per cent of the world's wheat and 95 per cent of
soybeans: in other words, most of the world's trade in foodgrains.'
Two of these companies alone account for more than 50 per cent
of the world's whole-grain shipments. Not surprisingly such a
concentration of commercial interest works hard to ensure that
world food prices remain high and 'stable' and regards the elimination
of shortages as 'unstable' and falling prices as simply bad for
business.' In other words, dumping surpluses in Bangladesh helps
to keep the price of grain artificially inflated in the United
States while guaranteeing a future market for manufactured agricultural
In 1975 this policy was given the backing of Congress, which
called on the president to 'give special consideration to the
potential for expanding markets for America's agricultural abundance
abroad in the allocation of commodities or concessional financing'.
Poor countries like Bangladesh were given 'concessional financing'
- i.e. surpluses - until their economies became addicted to American
wheat and their governments were forced to pay artificially high
prices for imported food. This has happened to Bangladesh, forestalling
plans for genuine development and helping to keep its governments
politically weak, ineffectual, and malleable: a familiar pattern
throughout the 'developing world'.
That 'Agripower' has nothing to do with the true needs of
the recipient country was demonstrated in a report by the General
Accounting Office in Washington, the 'watchdog' of Congress. The
GAO found that in the last three months of 1974, when there was
generally acknowledged to be a 'global food crisis', less than
half of American food shipments went to the countries in greatest
need. Instead, those regimes which American foreign policy sought
to prop up received substantial food aid, notably the military
dictatorships in South Vietnam, South Korea and Chile. In 1974
almost half of all American food shipped abroad to the beleaguered
regime in South Vietnam was diverted and sold on the world market
for dollars, which bought arms and ammunition. (In 1985 the country
receiving more cash aid than any other in the world has never
known starvation, is not 'underdeveloped' and is, per capita,
one of the most prosperous in the world. It is Israel, which receives
$212 per head of population per year from the United States.'
Some would argue that the most effective use of 'aid' is as
a weapon. In 1973 the Office of Multilateral Diplomacy was established
in the US State Department and became known as the 'zap office'.
It was the child of Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State,
who believed that small countries had to accept a latter-day vassal's
role if they came within the superpower's 'sphere of influence'.
Those countries which tried to assert their independence - for
example, by voting against American motions in the United Nations
- were 'zapped'. Salvador Allende's Chile was one of the first
to be zapped. All American food aid was withdrawn without notice
and this contributed to the instability and finally to the overthrow
of the Allende government by the army of General Pinochet. Within
two years, a period which saw a democracy transformed to a state
of siege and torture, American food aid to Chile reached a record
During 1984 the television cameras turned on Ethiopia, the
world's newest 'basket case'. And perhaps it was Ethiopia's televised
suffering that educated many people about the uses of aid other
than for humanitarian purposes. Over the next twenty years food
can be the greatest weapon we have,' declared President Reagan's
Secretary of Agriculture, John Block, in 1982. He did not have
to wait long for an opportunity to use it. In January 1983 the
Food and Agricultural Organisation's Global Information and Early
Warning System gave clear warning of the tragedy about to envelop
Ethiopia and the Sahel. Reporters doing the rounds of embassies
in Addis Ababa in early 1984 confirmed that Western governments
knew of the scale of the disaster but remained sitting on their
hands. As a result no effective food aid reached Ethiopia for
twenty-two months and countless lives were lost. Ethiopia, whose
regime proclaimed itself to be Marxist-Leninist, had been 'zapped'.
Dr Charles Elliott, the recently retired director of Christian
Aid and a former Professor of Development Policy and Planning
at the University of Wales, told the Observer in October 1984
that for the previous two years the long hostility of America
and Britain to the Ethiopian regime caused them to refuse to release
adequate funds or food'. The reason for withholding aid, he said,
was that the last great famine in Ethiopia in 1972-4, when 200,000
had died, had brought down Emperor Haile Selassie. 'They thought
that if there was a major catastrophe it would probably change
the regime again,' he said.'
The British government's response to the Ethiopian famine
is worth recounting, for it tells us much about the politics of
'aid'. Certainly, British officials in 1984 made no attempt to
disguise the fact that 'political factors' influenced British
policy of withholding aid from Ethiopia; and Mrs Thatcher and
her Minister for Overseas Development, Timothy Raison, went on
record as being 'steadfastly against committing any long-term
aid at all to Ethiopia'. But then the television images became
more and more alarming, and 'feeding Africa' became a great apolitical
crusade which climaxed in Band Aid and the Live Aid benefit concerts.
'Famine', said Raison's parliamentary secretary, Tim Eggar, 'had
become a domestic political issue to which we felt we had to respond.'
As if sharing the public's concern and generosity the government
announced in March 1985 that it was giving £60 million in
emergency aid to Africa. What few realised was that this meant
a cut of almost £40 million on the aid figure for Africa
for the financial year just ending. Moreover, all of this money
had been and continued to be 'old money' or funds deducted from
aid already allocated to poor countries. This gave Britain the
distinction of being the only industrialised country to reduce
its help to the victims of probably the greatest famine in history.
Timothy Raison, said to be the 'human face' among Thatcher
s ministers, went to considerable lengths to defend the government
s record. He had already admitted in the House of Commons that
there 'may be a cut' in British aid; but then, mysteriously, the
word 'cut' was deleted from Hansard and 'calculation' was substituted.
As if to demonstrate the government's readiness to give, he waved
his own cheque book at a United Nations meeting in Geneva, a gesture
which seemed to have little effect shortly afterwards when the
World Bank launched a special fund for Africa.
The British government at first offered £75 million,
but tied this 'gift' to the purchase of British goods. This was
nothing new, of course. Contrary to popular mythology most British
aid is commerce by other means or 'aid for trade' which, according
to the Financial Times, helps UK exporters compete with subsidised
competition'. In the end, the World Bank refused to accept the
strings to Britain's 'aid', although Timothy Raison claimed that
Britain, with Germany and Japan, was giving 'a further $425 million'
to the World Bank 'for Africa'. In fact, this money came from
Germany, Japan and Switzerland. Britain had nothing to do with
When American food surpluses began to arrive in Ethiopia at
the end of 1984, they carried the slogan, 'A hungry child knows
no politics'. They also carried the proviso that there would be
no American support for development projects which might lead
to self-sufficiency m Ethiopia. Britain and most of Europe - whose
grain mountain in 1985 was increasing at a rate of more than 7,000
tonnes a day - followed suit. This meant that Ethiopia suffered
twice over. Not only had it been 'zapped' by the initial, deliberate
denial of emergency food, but it had also been drawn into the
global system of 'aid dependency'.
The Soviet Union, although itself reliant on American grain
surpluses, showed no more compassion towards its Ethiopian 'ally'
than had Western governments. Apart from an estimated 10,000 tonnes
of food, the Soviet contribution to the well-being of the Ethiopian
people was the continued supply of arms and military technology
to the Dergue regime in Addis Ababa, thereby allowing it to kill
more starving Eritreans and Tigreans fighting for their independence.
Soviet advisers had already helped to establish a system of collective
farms emulating its own disastrous model and these are almost
certain to aggravate food shortages in Ethiopia. 'lt's not surprising',
wrote the journalist Dr Enver Carim, 'that some analysts wonder
whether the United States and the Soviet Union are actually in
cahoots to keep Ethiopia in a state of dependency and underdevelopment.
When food becomes a policy instrument, the Cold War appears to
be an elaborate ploy whereby poorer nations are held in thrall
to the twin empires of East and West.' Every year there are 6,000
United Nations conferences and reports involving a million pages
of documentation, many of them concerned with 'aid and development'.
The most ballyhooed and forgettable was the World Food Conference
in Rome in November 1974, at which the delegates consumed three
tons of pasta, two tons of meat, 12,000 eggs and 3,500 litres
of wine and Henry Kissinger made a speech about every child in
the world having the right not to go to bed hungry.
Then in 1980 there was the Brandt Commission which exchanged
old jargon ('Third World') for new ('North versus South') and
was, as author Teresa Hayter wrote, 'the product of an alliance
between members of the ruling elite in the third world and enlightened
sections of the ruling class in the north: enlightened mainly
in the simple sense that they favour non-military solutions to
the problem of containing unrest'.
And of course containing unrest is all important if raw materials
and markets are to remain accessible. Teresa Hayter pointed out
that between a quarter and a third of the exports of developed
countries, and nearly forty per cent of US exports, go to the
third world. Some of the major multinationals make most of their
profits, and even most of their sales, in the third world. The
major banks lent multiples of their capital base to some third
world countries and made fat profits in the process. Now the banks
want their money back, or at least carry on making profits.
Many of these lending banks have depended on the United States
Treasury, which no longer wishes to underwrite them in the face
of the greatest American deficit in the history of economics theory,
most of it comprised of the greatest ever military budget. Willy
Brandt was right, at least, when he warned that 'we are arming
ourselves to death'.
How the banks are persuading the poor to pay up is interesting.
In 1985 the World Bank introduced a new 'aid' programme which,
in effect, bribes countries to change their food production from
local needs to export crops, regardless of the fact that one of
the principal causes of the famine in Africa today is the rising
proportion of money and land devoted to production for export
only. Under the World Bank scheme, Which is a copy of an American
'Economic Policy Initiative' for Africa a £1,000 million
'special facility' loan is offered on condition that farms are
privatised, wages are 'controlled', food prices are allowed to
rise and produce is exported. More tea, coffee and cocoa, fruit
and vegetables will go to European markets to earn the 'hard currency'
which poor countries need in order to pay the interest charges
on their debts to the banks.
It is ironic that India, the country which used to be caricatured
as a 'basket case', with a begging bowl forever extended to the
rich world, actually receives little aid relative to its size
and has restricted foreign trade and investment. The benefits
have been self-sufficiency in food, a technological capacity greater
than that of many richer countries and probably more genuine 'non-aligned'
independence than that achieved by any third world country.
The contrast in neighbouring Bangladesh, still riding the
tiger of foreign aid, still trapped in indebtedness, is striking.
And yet in Bangladesh there are some spectacular examples of what
genuine foreign aid can do. I can think of village co-operatives
whose needs have been assessed diligently and which have achieved
self-sufficiency with fertilisers, water pumps and high-yield
seeds, thus breaking the small farmers' cycle of debt and exploiting
some of the most productive soil on earth. It is significant that
several of these schemes have been assisted by small countries,
such as Sweden, whose aid programmes are almost totally devoid
of commercial and strategic strings.
Since the calamitous cyclone in November 1970 there has been
a cyclone almost every year in Bangladesh and each accompanying
tidal wave has met no resistance from the hypothetical barriers
for which there is a perennial World Bank plan. After the last
tidal wave struck, in May 1985, one of the experts calculated
that a flood control system would pay for itself in increased
food production. More than 11,000 people had just been swept to
their deaths and their harvest and homes destroyed. The logic
of real aid is immutable.
At the time of writing the storms are due again in the Bay
of Bengal and the earth embankments, erected by farmers with their
hands, are as soft as cake. In the foyer of the Dacca Intercontinental
Hotel, another generation of foreign experts gathers around the
murmuring fountain, while in the markets, streets and villages
poverty is still fought with ingenuity and enterprise: a beer
can as a ladle, a battery case as a sink, a sewing machine still
whirring after half a century of use. In spite of bloody coups,
people still speak out and strike and go to gaol for their beliefs.
In his last letter, A. U. M. Fakhruddin wrote, 'We still await
simple democracy. We are undeterred.' And at the mosque in Elephant
Road the muezzin still climbs defiantly into the cockpit of his
aeroplane five times a day and proclaims the greatness of Allah,
although he has not flown the flag and he has not cried Joi Bangla!
since the bad old days.