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 Vietnam.

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.

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