Our Worst War

Legendary journalist Seymour Hersh helped us count the ways. Hersh returned to Vietnam this year for The New Yorker to visit the scene of the My Lai crime he broke in 1969. He spoke with an iconic Communist figure the Americans called Madame Binh about how America went wrong, and is still thinking wrong, about Vietnam:

“Oh, Seymour,” she said, “the only reason My Lai was important was because it was written by an American.” And her message was there were many My Lais. I thought, “Oh my god, she’s as tough as ever.” She’s saying to me, “Yes, I’m glad you wrote this story. Yes, I’m glad there was an anti-war movement in America, and I’m glad that your story did so much, which it did, to fuel the anti war movement.” But her message was, “Listen, we beat you. We didn’t do it because of the antiwar movement. We’re the ones who stood and dug holes, we got pounded by B-52 bombs and when the bombing was over, we climbed out and killed your boys. That’s what won the war. We stuck it out.” And that was really interesting to hear. You’ve got to know who you’re fighting against. We picked the wrong fight.


Historian Christian Appy has recounted a “fall from grace” in individual revelations one after another: from Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, the line that “We didn’t know who we were till we got here. We thought we were something else,” to the booming “exceptionalist” American historian Henry Steele Commager who roared in 1972: “This is not only a war we cannot win, it is a war we must lose if we are to survive morally.” The “Paper Tigers” in his Appy’s American Reckoning are David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, but they seem more vicious at this distance. McGeorge Bundy, for example, a former Harvard Dean, entered the war as a game of dominoes with Moscow, fueled it with theories of social engineering and “modernization”, and refused to end it — citing concern for American “credibility”:

This whole idea of credibility was at stake, that we had to demonstrate, even if it doesn’t work. [Bundy’s] memos that to LBJ were just astonishing. He would say things like, “I am recommending daily systematic bombing of North Vietnam, but I can’t assure that it will work. It may fail. The odds may be 25% to 75%. Even if it fails, it’s worth it because it will demonstrate to the world that — like a good doctor — we did everything possible to save the patient of South Vietnam. But he’s not talking about medicine, he’s advocating mass killing to prove a point and preserve a reputation.

Christian Appy, at our office.

Christian Appy.

Noam Chomsky wrote back in the LBJ phase of the war that it was “simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men,” “including all of us,” as he added in a memorable exchange with William F. Buckley. What strikes Chomsky to this day is our ugly American flight to fantasy and euphemism on the matter of our intentions: we are encouraged by our commentariat to look back at our catastrophes, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and pat ourselves on the back.

Anything we do is at worst “blundering efforts to do good.” No matter how horrendous it is. After the second world war, there is no crime that begins to compare with the war in Indochina. It’s not just Vietnam. It’s destruction of Laos. Cambodia was bombed more heavily than any country in history. It’s a monstrous war, but it passes in history as “blundering efforts to do good.”

01 Oct 1972, Boston, Massachusetts, USA --- American writer, educator, and linguist Noam Chomsky, at home in Boston. Also know for his political activism he was an early and outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War having written . --- Image by © JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis

01 Oct 1972, Boston, Massachusetts, USA — American writer, educator, and linguist Noam Chomsky, at home in Boston. Also know for his political activism he was an early and outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War having written . — Image by © JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis

Finally, Harvard’s Steven Biel talked us through some of the pop that helped us to understand Vietnam as a tragedy. In films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and even (especially?) Rambo, Hollywood says that America lost some ineffable, macro-psychological thing in the jungles of Vietnam. We were humiliated in Vietnam, but not humbled.

Guest List
Seymour Hersh
Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, writing again about My Lai in last month's New Yorker.
Christian Appy
Professor of history at UMass Amherst, author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity.
Noam Chomsky
MIT professor, linguist and critic of empire.
Reading List
The Scene of the Crime
Seymour Hersh, The New Yorker
Hersh went back to Vietnam for his first visit to My Lai, where U.S. Army personnel killed as many as 500 civilians over four hours in March 1968. The piece is a human spectrum from denial to forgiveness to stubborn unknowing and official evil. What can you say? Hersh's most recent interviewees, those in Vietnam, mercifully tell us what to think:
The most straightforward assessment came from Nguyen Thi Binh, known to everyone in Vietnam as Madame Binh. In the early seventies, she was the head of the National Liberation Front delegation at the Paris peace talks and became widely known for her willingness to speak bluntly and for her striking good looks...“I’ll be honest with you,” she said. “My Lai became important in America only after it was reported by an American.” Within weeks of the massacre, a spokesman for the North Vietnamese in Paris had publicly described the events, but the story was assumed to be propaganda. “I remember it well, because the antiwar movement in America grew because of it,” Madame Binh added, speaking in French. “But in Vietnam there was not only one My Lai—there were many.”
Burying Vietnam, Launching Perpetual War: How Thanking the Veteran Meant Ignoring What Happened
Christian Appy, Tom Dispatch
Leaving Vietnam weary and disillusioned, America was ready to be told a better story. So, after a few years, we shifted focus away from the doomed policy and latched on to the sacrifice and courage of the servicemen. In the process, Appy says we abandoned the other patriots — the antiwar activists — and tied our hands to criticize the next wars:
Perhaps some veterans do find meaning and sustenance in our endless thank-yous, but others find them hollow and demeaning.  The noble vet is as reductive a stereotype as the crazy vet, and repeated empty gestures of gratitude foreclose the possibility of real dialogue and debate.  “Thank you for your service” requires nothing of us, while “Please tell me about your service” might, though we could then be in for a disturbing few hours.  As two-tour Afghan War veteran Rory Fanning has pointed out, “We use the term hero in part because it makes us feel good and in part because it shuts soldiers up... Thank yous to heroes discourage dissent, which is one reason military bureaucrats feed off the term.”
The Vietnam War, as Seen by the Victors
Elisabeth Rosen
A report from Hanoi, the capital of the North during the war, now the center of a unified and booming Vietnam. Rosen talks to the side that won a grinding victory and senses a rift between the young, who have never known war, and the old, who are still trying to figure out why the conflict came to them:
Vu and his family heard snippets of news—how many airplanes were shot down that day, who was winning, what the “cruel American wolves” were doing in various areas of the country…“People didn’t talk about the meaning of the war,” he said. “We were really confused why the Americans tried to invade our homeland. We hadn’t done anything to them.” I asked Vu if the Vietnamese had understood that the United States perceived communism as a threat. “People didn’t even know what communism was,” Vu told me. “They just knew what was going on with their lives.”
40 Years Later: A Return To Vietnam
Bob Oakes & Shannon Dooling, WBUR
Travel to Saigon with four Massachusetts Marines who helped evacuate the U.S. Embassy in April 1975. WBUR is tailing the four all week as they honor their comrade Charlie McMahon (one of the last two Marines killed in the war) and look for some closure:
“My primary reason is, uh, it’s an emotional thing, too, so,” Ghilain said in an interview back at home, his voice cracking. “To go back, honor the two guys that we lost. I’m hoping that this trip puts this to bed for good.”

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  • Potter

    Excellent article by Seymour Hersh you link above. Painful to read. We, as a country, did not learn; we were not interested in learning or facing what we did, for what and to whom. And we still are not interested in knowing or facing what we do now… any more than we are as well about going to war in Iraq. GW Bush gave us a clue when he said we should have finished the job in Viet Nam.The wounds will never heal because these horrors that were repressed, hidden, keep coming to light to haunt on anniversaries like this and with enough time past that those responsible are long enough gone to hold accountable.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The ROS Vietnam discussion was masterful.

    It would have been instructive to hear a clear analysis about the “third force in Vietnam” American policy mantra (as mentioned in the following quote regarding the Graham Greene classic “The Quiet American”)and why the Americans kept mesmerizing themselves with such phrases without having the faintest clue as to what that night entail. The rise of these talismanic and amuletic self-hypnotic phrases is at the heart of the blind labyrinth Americans keep rampaging in.

    “The Quiet American is an anti-war novel by English author Graham
    Greene, first published in the United Kingdom in 1955 and in the United States in 1956. It was adapted into films in 1958 and 2002. The book draws on Greene’s experiences as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951–1954. He was apparently inspired to write The Quiet American in October 1951 while driving back to Saigon from Ben Tre province.
    He was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a
    “third force in Vietnam”.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Quiet_American

    Another phenomenon of American misreading of the non-West is encapsulated thus in discussions of the novel “The Ugly American” from 1958, by Burdick and Lederer:

    “The novel takes place in a fictional nation called Sarkhan (an imaginary country in Southeast Asia that somewhat resembles Burma orThailand, but which is meant to allude to Vietnam)
    and includes several real people, most of whose names have been changed. The
    book describes the United States’s losing struggle against Communism—what was later to be called the battle for hearts and minds in Southeast Asia—because of innate arrogance and the failure to understand the local culture.”

    “In the novel, a Burmese journalist says,
    “For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the
    same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come
    over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves
    socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.”

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ugly_American

    America’s rise to globalism was a kind of self-hypnotic rampage and it still is,

    Richard Melson

  • And we DID abandon our friends, so Nixon was wrong in his murderous intent. We were lied to by presidents AND military leaders. We lost the war, pure and simple.

  • Pete Crangle

    Our Worst War… Was it the fall of Saigon? Or, the liberation of a people? Or, an opportunity for America to do some well deserved navel gazing and ponder its role as a global player? This discussion of Vietnam and our war with these people, our war with its landscape, on the ruby anniversary of the fall/liberation of Saigon, the approximate golden anniversary of a titanic escalation, definitely struck a chord with me. Well done Chris. Well done.

    This is an era were America’s transition from one legacy to a future legacy began to become apparent. We began to move from home grown industrialization to knowledge and information based endeavors. The seedlings of biotechnology were sprouting. This is an era of youth culture. The financialization of markets and politics. Venture capitalism. Technology start-ups. This is an era of protest. The generation gap. At least that is how it looked to me growing up at this time in the San Francisco bay area.

    Why were we in Vietnam? And when I say we, I believe we should be talking about the U.S. geopolitical war machine. A machine that has become an endowment for and burden upon its citizens on whose behalf it works for and works upon. As I listened and contemplated this question, I began to pick through my history, a micro history. I started by picking through a mental dumpster dive from a massive clutter of found industrial objects, companies, ideas, politicians, sports figures, food products, legal vices, and public relations gadgetry that came tumbling out of Post World War Two and still hangs out in the corridors of memory: duck-and-cover drills, the suburbs, tract housing, stucco homes, shopping centers, hot tubs, timeshares, the generation gap, Fenton’s Ice Creamery (ice cream mecca), Ma Bell rotary-dial telephones, RCA hi-fi phonograph players, GE portable transistor radios, Zenith black & white televisions, a wood paneled Plymouth station-wagon (that seemed to have a chronic radiator problem), VW Beetles, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Sly & The Family Stone, The Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, The Temptations, Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, The Jackson 5, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Three Dog Night, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, The Supremes, Al Green, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Smothers Brothers, Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo, Dark Shadows, The Twilight Zone, Looney Toons, Gilligan’s Island (a quagmire?), The Graduate, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, The Searchers, Paths of Glory, The Green Berets, M*A*S*H (film), 2001 A Space Odyssey, Apollo Eleven, Playboy, Andy Warhol, Peter Max, The Gap, Levi Jeans, bell-bottoms, tie-dye t-shirts, corduroys, desert boots, earth shoes, earth day, Golden Gate Park, Haight-Ashbury, Winterland Ballroom, Altamont Free Concert, Woodstock, The Fillmore (West & East), Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Say-Hey Willie Mays, Curt Flood, O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Vince Lombardi, Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Bill Walton, Pelé, Rocket Rod Laver, Billie Jean King, The Zodiac Killer, Charles Manson, Governor Pat Brown, Governor Ronald Reagan, U.C. President Clark Kerr, President Kennedy, President Johnson, President Nixon, Secretary McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Daniel Ellsberg, General Westmoreland, Lieutenant Calley, Hồ Chí Minh, Ngo Dinh Diem, Madame Nhu, Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Nguyễn Văn Lém, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, Agent Orange, Napalm, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, Uniroyal, Thompson Chemicals, RAND Corp., and various advertising & jingles: Alka Seltzer, Miller Time, Hamms Beer, Camel cigarettes, Virginia Slims, Heinz ketchup, Colt 45 malt liquor, Mr. Clean, Palmolive, Johnson + Johnson Band Aid, Crest toothpaste, Roto-Rooter plumbing, Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), Midas, Granny Goose potato chips, Seven Up (the uncola), Captain Crunch, Quaker Oats, Coca Cola, Skippy peanut butter, Oscar Mayer, McDonald’s, Jack In The Box, Kentucky Fried Chicken, …. an embarrassment of mental riches, appliances, and services spews forth. A pre-outsourced Eden, the dawning of a cornucopia of processed food and cleaning products. The Age of Aquarius writ in citizen blood and consumer treasure?

    Why were we there? Life, liberty, and unfettered capital markets. The invisible hand. Freedom of choice. Public relations. The culmination of “Better Living Through Chemistry.” The key to the good life of plenitude for a nominal fee. Which was the first and last line of defense against global communist domination. A godless enterprise bent on the enslavement of our hearts and minds. Isn’t this why we were there? These were the stakes, no? — The Parrot

  • Potter

    Ho Parrot, how about a walnut? Did you forget or did I miss the Watergate hearings? Sam Ervin. I’m dizzy from reading your list..the Doors yes, the loud mind numbing music… blast it all out. It was clear then because we were told plain that it was for our honor. Now it was up to us to swallow that or not. Some of us did not. But many did.

    We did march in those days too.

  • Pete Crangle

    I love walnuts! Thank you Potter. I didn’t forget Sam Ervin nor Watergate, and I am very glad you brought them up. For some inexplicable reason Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, didn’t get on my list. An important athlete and C.O. at the time. I missed a bunch of cultural iconography. Originally, I had written a 10 page reply upon first hearing this show. So, I needed to reduce it to a couple of pages. I wanted to focus on the issue of Chris’ question: why were we there? To do so meant excavating my micro perspective and history. In the particular we find aspects of the universal.

    There is often a link between our personal experiences and policy positions realized in the macro-context. We can understand something about our tribal motives through personal excavation. It is not possible for me to see the Vietnam war without peering through a tangled wasteland of pop culture detritus and the state corporate entities coupled to them. The Vietnam war era was and is always deeply enmeshed in this way for me. Within the post nine eleven era, we should observe that the link between rhetoric and behavior is tightly coupled to our policies as well. In responding to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush urged Americans to “go shopping” and to “get down to Disney World in Florida.” For me, this demonstrates not only our values, but our motivations.

    These are reflections of a status quo in a time of violence and brutality. It is a type of collective denial. It is probable that empires can only thrive by means of denial. The psychological demands of the violence and brutality we are perpetrating through our policies cannot be adsorbed without the buffer of denial. There are limits of course. More brutality and escalation are one of the manifestations of trying to bury the policy outcome. Life must be kept anodyne, lest it unravel or provoke structural changes to the power structures.

    During the Vietnam war, “peace with honor” was certainly an important rhetorical element; along with a lot of other patriotic fervor. And yes, people certainly did march. We should venerate protestors and C.O.s. They saved lives, IMO. They political machine had to calibrate its tactics based upon resistance. On the east bay side of the bay area where I grew up, not far from U.C. Berkley, I was adequately indoctrinated into mass protest, and police and Hell’s Angel’s riots. As a child I found them confusing, exciting, and terrifying. — The Parrot

  • essence

    I urge anyone who has never seen it to watch the film “The Winter Soldier.” It’s the most moving testimony of the atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnam that I’ve ever seen, told by the soldiers themselves. A young John Kerry makes a brief appearance. You can watch the entire thing on YouTube:


  • Pete Crangle

    President Bush(41) Radio Address to United States Armed Forces Stationed in the Persian Gulf Region, March 2, 1991

    “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.” The more we perform the exorcism, the more possessed we will become.