Vietnam: A Matter of Perspective
by Howard Zinn
excerpted from the book
Howard Zinn on War
Seven Stories Press, 2000, paper
Those of us who had been involved in the Southern movement
were not likely to accept, without deep suspicion, that the United
States government-so loath to protect equal rights in its own
country-was dropping bombs in Vietnam on behalf of democracy or
liberty or self-determination or any other noble principle. In
August 1964, the bodies of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman
and Schwerner were discovered in Neshoba County, Mississippi,
shot to death. Earlier in the summer, a delegation of black Mississippians
had traveled to Washington to plead with the national government
for federal protection, and was received with silence. At a memorial
service for the three young men, Bob Moses, SNCC organizer in
Mississippi, held up a copy of that morning's newspaper which
headlined LBJ SAYS SHOOT TO KILL IN THE GULF OF TONKIN. The United
States had been conducting secret naval operations off the coast
of North Vietnam and now claimed U.S. destroyers, on "routine
patrol" had been fired on-a claim full of deceptions and
outright lies, it turned out. Moses commented bitterly on the
fact that the federal government refused protection for civil
rights workers but was ready to send its armed forces halfway
around the world for a cause no one could reasonably explain.
I became involved in the anti-war movement very soon after that
summer, spoke at the first anti-war rally on the Boston Common
in the spring of 1965, and began writing about the war. In 1967
Beacon Press published my book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal,
which immediately went through eight printings. Reprinted here
is the introductory chapter to that book.
Vietnam it seems to me, has become a theater of the absurd.
1. By late 1966, the United States was spending for the Vietnam
war at an annual rate of twenty billion dollars, enough to give
every family in South Vietnam (whose normal annual income is not
more than several hundred dollars) about $5,000 for the year.
Our monthly expenditure for the war exceeds our annual expenditure
for the Great Society's poverty program.
2. Early in 1966, a new pacification technique was developed
by American soldiers. It involved surrounding a village, killing
as many young men as could be found, and then taking away the
women and children by helicopter. The Americans called this procedure
"Operation County Fair." 3. The Pentagon disclosed in
1966 that it had paid to relatives an average of $34 in condolence
money for each Vietnamese killed accidentally in American air
strikes during that summer. At the same time, according to reports
from Saigon, the Air Force was paying $87 for each rubber tree
destroyed accidentally by bombs.
4. A New York Times dispatch from Saigon, June 21, 1966:
The United States Air Force turned its attention yesterday
to a column of 10 water buffaloes sighted along a road just north
of the Mugia Pass on the Laotian-North Vietnamese border.
The spokesman said the buffaloes were heavily laden with what
was suspected to be enemy ammunition. The animals died under fire
from Fl05 Thunderchief jets. The spokesman said, "There were
no secondary explosions."
United States Marine pilots also strafed a column of 11 pack
elephants in the mountains 35 miles southwest of Danang in South
Vietnam yesterday Five of the animals were killed and five others
seen to fall. Again there were no secondary explosions.
5. A Chicago newspaper, asked by a reader if it were true
that for every enemy soldier it killed in Vietnam the United States
was killing six civilians, replied that this was not true; we
were killing only four civilians for every soldier.
G. Covering the Buddhist revolt against the Ky government
in early 1966, Life magazine showed a photo of a South Vietnamese
soldier coming up behind an unarmed, gowned Buddhist monk and
clubbing him unconscious. No comment was made by Life.
7. At his press conference on March 22, 1966, at a time of
expanding warfare and growing casualties in Vietnam, President
Johnson said, among other things: "If I get real depressed
when I read how everything has gone bad here, I just ask for the
letters from Vietnam so I can cheer up."
8. The January 16, 1965 Milwaukee Journal reported that a
young man who had studied agricultural economics at the University
of Minnesota, learning to aid underdeveloped countries improve
their yields, was now an Air Force captain and was using his knowledge
to point out productive rice fields in Vietnam, so that United
States planes could destroy them with bombs and chemicals.
9. In the spring of 1966, a journalist interviewed an Air
Force general in Saigon:
Journalist: Let me ask you a philosophical question. What
is your reply to those who say we ought to stop our bombing-both
North and South-and that would bring us closer to negotiating
an end to this
General: Well, we were sent out here to do a job, and we're
doing it, and we'll stay here until it's done.
Journalist Thank you.
10. in March 1966, President Johnson, talking about Vietnam
with Columbia University historian Henry Graff, said "proudly"
(as Graff reported it): "I wanted to leave the footprints
of America there."
Isolated oddities can, on investigation, prove to be deviations
from an otherwise healthy set of circumstances. Or they may turn
out to be small symptoms of a more generalized malady. In such
a case, investigation may disclose larger absurdities:
1. The most powerful nation in the world, producing 60 percent
of the world's wealth, using the most advanced weapons known to
military science short of atomic bombs, has been unable to defeat
an army of peasants, at first armed with homemade and captured
weapons, then with modern firearms supplied from outside, but
still without an air force, navy, or heavy artillery.
2. Declaring its intent to preserve freedom, the United States
has supported a succession of military dictatorships in South
3. Again and again President Johnson has insisted that American
forces are in Vietnam to repel "aggression" and that
"if they'll go home tomorrow, we'll go home." Our actions
in South Vietnam have been conducted against a force of which
80 percent to 90 percent are already home (that is, in South Vietnam,
where they are from) with the rest from North Vietnam, which is
not very far from home. Indeed, if the Geneva Accords are to be
taken as a basis (as the United States itself agrees), it is all
one country, and all our opponents are home. The main fighting
against these Vietnamese is conducted now by 350,000 Americans,
all of whom are quite far from home, plus 40,000 Koreans, who
also are definitely not home. In bombing North Vietnam, our fliers
who are not home, are killing people who are.
4. Government officials have declared that we are at war in
Vietnam to stop Chinese "expansion." Available evidence
is that there are no Chinese troops in Vietnam, nor anywhere else
outside of China. China is, indeed, half encircled by American
military bases in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Formosa, Okinawa,
and Thailand-with about 250,000 United States soldiers, sailors,
and airmen at those bases.
5. The United States maintains it must continue fighting in
Vietnam so as not to lose prestige among its allies. As the war
has continued, the prestige of the United States in Japan (its
most important ally in Asia) and in England, France, and West
Germany (its most important allies in Europe) has seriously declined.
"Absurdity" is in the mind of the viewer; it involves
a simple mental operation. We come across what in itself seems
an ordinary fact, but when we place it alongside another fact,
we find an incongruity. That other fact may come out of the common
pile which most people share or it may come out of the viewer's
own life experience. Thus to see a situation as absurd does not
depend on the number of facts we know about a situation, but on
the way we relate the facts we know-on what we pull out of our
memories when a fact presents itself.
Likewise, making moral judgments-as on the war in Vietnam-
does not depend mainly on the volume of our knowledge. We find,
indeed, that the experts in each field disagree sharply on the
most fundamental questions. This is because ethical decisions
depend on the relationships in which we place the facts we know.
Therefore what we bring to the common body of evidence in
Vietnam-the perspective we have-is crucial. It determines what
we choose to see or not to see. It determines how we relate the
things we see. This perspective varies from one person to another.
I think we get closer to wisdom, and also to democracy, when we
add the perspectives of other people to our own.
What I want to do in this book is to focus my vision, coming
from my own set of experiences, on the data of public record:
government documents, newspaper reports, the published work of
scholars. To begin, then, I should say a little about the biases
that affect my view of the war in Vietnam. ~ ~ ~
In the midst of World War II, I enlisted in the United States
Air Force and flew as a bombardier in the European theater of
operations. From beginning to end, I believed fervently that Hitler's
force had to be met with force. But when I was packing and labeling
my folder of war days and mementos to go home, I impulsively marked
it "Never Again."
I had participated in at least one atrocity, and I came away
from the war with several conclusions:
(1) that innocent and well-meaning people-of myself one-are
capable of the most brutal acts and the most self-righteous excuses,
whether they be Germans, Japanese, Russians, or Americans;
(2) that one of the guiding rules for an Air Force in possession
of large quantities of bombs is: "Get rid of them-anywhere";
(3) that the claims of statesmen and military men to be bombing
only "military targets" should not be taken seriously;
(4) that war is a monstrously wasteful way of achieving a
social objective, always involving indiscriminate mass slaughter
unconnected with that objective; that even World War II, with
its stark moral issues-the 'best' of all wars-presented agonizing
moral questions; and that any situation where right and wrong
were not so dear, and where human life was being sacrificed, should
be regarded with deep suspicion.
Later I was trained as a historian and learned that our country
is capable of moral absurdities. There was the Spanish-American
War, described by an American diplomat as a "splendid little
war," though it reeked of corpses on Cuban hillsides and
rotten meat fed to soldiers- thousands of whom died of food poisoning.
There were our warships cannonading Vera Cruz in 1914, with
hundreds of Mexican civilians killed, because the Mexicans refused
to give a twenty-one-gun salute to the American flag.
There was Haiti in 1915, where United States Marines brought
order' by shooting 2,000 Haitians, with an Admiral wiring the
Secretary of the Navy: "Next Thursday...I will permit Congress
to elect a President "
There was President McKinley's decision to "civilize"
the Filipinos and Andrew Carnegie's subsequent message to a friend
who defended our crushing of the Filipino rebellion: "It
is a matter of congratulation that you seem to have about finished
your work of civilizing the Filipinos It's thought that about
8,000 of them have been completely civilized and sent to Heaven."
My conclusion was not that the United States was more evil
than other nations, only that she was just as evil (although she
sometimes had more finesse). It does not take too much study of
modern history to conclude that nations as a lot tend to be vicious.
My work in American history led to another idea: that there
is no necessary relationship between liberalism in domestic policy
and humaneness in foreign policy. Some of our most grotesquely
immoral deeds have been committed by "liberals." Take
Andrew Jackson's murderous attitude toward the Indians (whom we
treated, ironically, as a foreign nation) in the bloody Trail
of Tears, or Progressive Theodore Roosevelt's bullying activities
in the Caribbean. Take Woodrow Wilson's behavior towards Haiti
and Mexico and his carrying the nation, for reasons still inexplicable,
into the pointless savagery of the First World War.
During a year off from teaching, I did research on modern
Chinese history as a Fellow at the Hanard Center for East Asian
Studies. I soon became aware of a great gap between the findings
of scholars and the policy of the United States. Official policy
seemed to be derived more from lurid headlines in the press than
from the balanced findings of the academicians. It was not that
the reports of "thought control" in China were wrong;
it was that so much else that China had accomplished was ignored.
It was not that the Chinese were not aggressive in their statements
about the United States; it was that their foreign policy was
quite restrained for a proud nation with a new regime. It was
not that there was not much that was wrong in Communist China;
it was that American policy-makers acted as if there was not much
that was wrong with the United States.
This last point was important; the moral failures of other
nations had to be seen not in isolation, but against our own failures.
It was in this connection that another part of my life influenced
my perspective on the problem of Vietnam: my years of living and
teaching in a Negro community in the deep South and my involvement
in some of the civil rights struggles of the early l900s. That
experience has given me a glimpse of American foreign policy from
a special standpoint ...
There is one final influence on my thinking which I should
mention: the perspective of geographical distance, beginning to
see American policy as people in a far-off country saw it. There
are many Americans in recent years-Peace Corpsmen, travelers,
students-who have been startled by a sudden awareness of how other
people see us.
On the basis of these angles of vision, brought to bear on
the historical record of the Vietnam war, I am going to argue
in the following pages that the United States should withdraw
its military forces from Vietnam.
Thus far almost all of the nationally known critics of our
Vietnam policy-perceptive as they are-have been reluctant to call
for the withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam. Sometimes
this is for substantive reasons,(which I will discuss later on.)But
often, I believe, it is because these critics consider total military
withdrawal, while logical and right, "too extreme" as
a tactical position, and therefore unpalatable to the public and
unlikely to be adopted as national policy.
Scholars, who pride themselves on speaking their minds, often
engage in a form of self-censorship which is called "realism."
To be "realistic" in dealing with a problem is to work
only among the alternatives which the most powerful in society
put forth. It is as if we are all confined to a, b, c, or d in
the multiple choice test, when we know there is another possible
answer. American society, although it has more freedom of expression
than most societies in the world, thus sets limits beyond which
respectable people are not supposed to think or speak. So far,
too much of the debate on Vietnam has observed these limits.
To me this is a surrender of the role of the citizen in a
democracy. The citizen's job, I believe, is to declare firmly
what he thinks is right. To compromise with politicians from the
very start is to end with a compromise of a compromise. This weakens
the moral force of a citizenry which has little enough strength
in the shaping of governmental policy. Machiavelli cautioned the
prince not to adopt the ethics of the citizen. It is appropriate
now to suggest to the Citizen that he cannot, without sacrificing
both integrity and power, adopt the ethics of the Prince.
Zinn On War