Rev. Martin Luther King, “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967
On May 7, 1954, the French command surrendered. Giap later reflected that the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu validated a “great historic truth, that a colonized and weak people, once it has risen up and is united in the struggle and determined to fight for its independence and peace, has the full power to defeat the strong aggressive army of an imperialist country.” The lesson was not lost on other colonized peoples around the world. Nor would the Vietnamese forget this lesson in the next unexpected phase of the struggle.
French Legionnaires returning to Vietnam
American bombing missions were enabled by the U.S. global military base structure, which allowed airplanes to carry out missions from as far away as Guam, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Thailand, and by the construction of air-bases, landing fields, military compounds, roads, ports and energy depots in South Vietnam by two politically connected companies, Bechtel and Kellogg, Brown and Root. For the Pentagon, Vietnam served as a “remarkable technological opportunity,” in the words of General Maxwell Taylor, for showcasing new super-weapons developed by military scientists and engineers. Following the Soviets launching of Sputnik in 1958, the Eisenhower administration founded the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), whose mission was to recruit top scientific talent for developing cutting edge military technologies that would enable the U.S. to win the Cold War. In 1971, it was estimated that more than 240,000 technological and scientific workers were involved in war related production or research. Their output was considerable.
George Kahin, unpublished paper, November 1988, p. 6, cited in Young, The Vietnam Wars, p. 264. George and Audrey Kain were in Hanoi at the behest of Senator J. William Fulbright who wanted to clarify the Vietnamese position on negotiations. Ellsworth quoted in David F. Schmitz, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War: The End of the American Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), p. 118.
In the book Vietnam Perkasie, W.D....
Dropped into war zones, without knowledge of the Vietnamese language and with little, if any, understanding of local culture, U.S. soldiers had problems distinguishing enemy from neutral from friend. They often became frustrated when making no contact with enemy soldiers for long periods, then seemingly out of the blue were interrupted by violent surprise attacks. Daily treks through insect-filled jungles in the heat and humidity also took a toll on GI nerves. In numerous documented cases, their frustrations were taken out on civilians. The approved routine of burning of huts, destruction of villages, and terrorizing of residents could and did lead to unauthorized sexual assaults, random shootings, and even massacres such as that in My Lai. Heonik Kwon lists thirteen large-scale massacres, including some by South Korean troops; Nick Turse, in Kill Anything That Moves, documents more. Even in villages with decent relations with local U.S. forces, other mobile U.S. forces were known to violently intervene.
This is the main reason America was involved in the Vietnam war.
Among the factors contributing to the killing of civilians were the bureaucratic labeling of whole districts as NLF territory and thus free-fire zones; a “body count” reward system that identified civilians killed as communist guerrillas; lack of official accountability such that the generals did not want to know about, report, or investigate civilian casualties; psychological factors including revenge, sadism, racism, and boredom, any of which might impel a soldier to slay or rape civilians; a military culture that encouraged racist views of Asians and Vietnamese, commonly referred to as “gooks”; and the massive firepower readily available to U.S. soldiers that killed indiscriminately.
The Vietnam War was indeed a time of confusion.
Far beyond merely dismissing the Vietnamese as “slopes” or “gooks,” in both deed and thought, too many American soldiers seem to discount their very humanity; and with this attitude inflict upon the Vietnamese citizenry humiliations, both psychological and physical, that can have only a debilitating effect upon efforts to unify the people in loyalty to the Saigon government, particularly when such acts are carried out at unit levels and thereby acquire the aspect of sanctioned policy.
Vietnamese farmers transplanting rice (1961 photo by John Dominis)
The day’s operation burned down 150 houses, wounded three women, killed one baby, wounded one marine and netted these four prisoners. Four old men who could not answer questions put to them in English. Four old men who had no idea what an I.D. card was. Today’s operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.