What lessons have we learned from the war in Vietnam?

Man-lost-hands-2011-in-explosion-of-unexploded-U.S.-ordnance-from-Vietnam-War-by-Jorge-Silva-Reuters, What lessons have we learned from the war in Vietnam?, World News & Views
This man was injured in 2011 while digging for metal to sell by a bomb that had been dropped by American planes during the Vietnam War. – Photo: Jorge Silva, Reuters

Understanding the Vietnamese perspective, Part 2

by Anh Lê

The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. During the Vietnam War, approximately 4 million Vietnamese were killed. Over 58,000 Americans died.

What lessons have we learned from the Vietnam War? A 10-part documentary on the Vietnam War, produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, was broadcast on PBS in September 2017.

Did this documentary present the history of the Vietnam War in an accurate and objective way that strives for objectivity and a perspective which is unbiased? Did the documentary reveal to the American people the real truth about the Vietnam War? Or was it a repeat of a narrative about the Vietnam War that the American people have become too familiar with?

In my earlier critiques, “Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ‘The Vietnam War’ mandates we examine ourselves, our nation” and “What to Viet Nam is our 4th of July? Rethinking Burns and Novick’s documentary, Part 1,” I addressed these questions. 

In Part 1, I mentioned Burns and Novick’s omission of critical facts about the Vietnam War. In Part 2, the following facts are so important that omitting them distorts the historical record.

Professor Staughton C. Lynd, Alice Niles Lynd

Professor Staughon C. Lynd, a distinguished professor of history at Yale University, chaired the first march on Washington to protest the war. There were 20,000 protesters in that march. Professor Lynd, a Quaker and pacifist, also traveled to Hanoi on a peace delegation. 

Staughton-C.-Lynd-Alice-Niles-Lynd-young, What lessons have we learned from the war in Vietnam?, World News & Views

Because of Professor Lynd’s anti-war activism, Yale’s president Kingman Brewster accused him of giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.” The Yale History Department denied Lynd tenure. He was blacklisted from academia and could not find a job as a professor.

Staughton-C.-Lynd-Alice-Niles-Lynd-old, What lessons have we learned from the war in Vietnam?, World News & Views
Staughton C. Lynd and Alice Niles Lynd – their union has stood the test of time by standing on principle, selflessly seeking liberty and justice for all. – Photos courtesy of the Lynds, published in Harvard Magazine, May-June 2010

Professor Lynd’s courage, leadership and activism and that of his wife, Alice Niles Lynd, in the forefront of opposing the war in Vietnam, surely helped to save the lives of millions of Vietnamese children, women and men.

Burns and Novick did not dare broach the topic of the enormous profits made by the American manufacturers of armaments and weapons unleashed on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, and its connection to the “military-industrial complex” that President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about.

Burns and Novick did not talk about how Ngo Dinh Diem and his family and Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Van Thieu and the series of puppet South Vietnamese governments propped up by the U.S. government, South Vietnamese generals and government officials greatly profited from the war and wanted to keep it going to deepen their profits and amass more gold, all funded by hard working American taxpayers.

Burns and Novick did not inform their viewers that U.S. archives show that President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger discussed dropping nuclear bombs over North Vietnam.

Leslie Gelb, who worked in the Defense and State Departments during the Vietnam War and who is interviewed in the documentary, reveals in his book, “The Irony of Vietnam,” that Gen. William Westmoreland commissioned a study in 1967 of the potential for use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Westmoreland reportedly referred to Vietnamese people as “termites,” not human.

Lil-girl-in-Vietnam, What lessons have we learned from the war in Vietnam?, World News & Views
At least “3.8 million Vietnamese were killed in one of the poorest countries in the world by the most powerful military force the world has ever seen.” – Mike Hastie, Army Medic Vietnam, Veterans for Peace

Nixon said, “We should have flushed it (Vietnam) down the drain three years ago. These little brown people, so far away – we don’t know them very well.” 

Gen. Curtis LeMay threatened the North Vietnamese, “We’re going to bomb them into the Stone Age.”

An American major justified the bombings and near total destruction of the provincial city of Ben Tre by stating, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” regardless of civilian casualties, according to AP correspondent Peter Arnett, who attended his press conference.

President Gerald Ford’s “Baby Airlift” near the end of the Vietnam War, to transport Vietnamese babies to the U.S. for adoption on the rationale that the babies were orphans, was questionable. Many of the babies were not orphans. 

Did Ford, who became president after Nixon resigned as he faced impeachment for his role in the Watergate break-in, order “Baby Airlift” for truly humanitarian reasons or for political reasons? “Baby Airlift” was questionable because many thought that it was not in the best interest of the Vietnamese babies. Many of the babies were yanked away from their birth parents and did not come from orphanages. Tragically, a “Baby Airlift” plane exploded and crashed after take-off in April 1975.

Why did Burns and Novick not mention these facts?

Black soldiers, Muhammad Ali, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the documentary, a brief portion mentions the role of Black soldiers in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the military. Because of Ali’s courageous stand and his refusal to go to Vietnam to kill Vietnamese people, the government stripped him of his boxing title, passport and boxing licenses.

Muhammad Ali talks about his refusal to be inducted.

Ali stated in April 1967: “I ain’t got no quarrel with those (Vietnamese). My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father ,,, How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.” 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, condemned the U.S. war in Vietnam and its slaughter of Vietnamese children, women and men and called for the immediate halt to the U.S. bombings, a negotiated peace settlement and the end of the war.

Dr. King eloquently stated that, that as a child of God and as a brother of the Vietnamese people, he could no longer remain silent while bearing witness to the slaughter of Vietnamese people. Dr. King stated, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

Dr. King laid out his concrete proposal to negotiate an immediate end to the Vietnam War, and to stop the killing and bloodshed.

Dr. King speaks at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967.

Dr. King declared, “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just. This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally human, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.’”

Dr. King called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

Antiwar-demonstrators-carry-MLK-Riverside-Church-quote-San-Francisco-2002, What lessons have we learned from the war in Vietnam?, World News & Views
Antiwar demonstrators in San Francisco in 2002, as the Iraq War loomed, carry a banner quoting the words of Martin Luther King in his Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War, which cost him the loss of much if not most of his support at the time but has helped make him immortal.  

Dr. King called on us, as a nation and as a people, saying, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Why did Burns and Novick not even include an excerpt of Dr. King’s speech at Riverside Church in their documentary?

Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Sen. George McGovern

Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who ran for president in 1968, and Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic Party presidential nominee in 1972, strongly opposed the war in Vietnam and called for the U.S. to get out of Vietnam.

Paradoxically, both senators had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which claimed that North Vietnamese boats had attacked an American Navy destroyer, was passed almost unanimously in Congress and gave President Lyndon Baines Johnson unlimited power to expand the United States’ military involvement in the Vietnam War. The resolution’s claim was false, since there had been no attack by Vietnamese boats.

Sen. McCarthy, a distinguished looking and statesman-like senator from Minnesota, a former professor and a poet, gave hope to Americans who were demanding an end to the United States’ deepening involvement and escalation in the Vietnam War. Americans of all ages, including young adults, strongly supported Sen. McCarthy’s candidacy. 

Sen. McCarthy stated, “We do not need presidents who are bigger than the country, but rather speak for it and support it.”

In the New Hampshire presidential primary, Sen. McCarthy garnered more than 42 percent of the votes, while President Johnson got 45 percent of the votes.

President Johnson, who was regarded as very powerful and seemingly unbeatable if he were to run for re-election because of the power he wielded, stunned the nation when he announced in his televised speech 2 1/2 weeks after the New Hampshire primary that he would not seek re-election. Sen. McCarthy had brought President Johnson, with all his Goliath political power, to his knees.

Sen. McCarthy stated, “There comes a time when an honorable man simply has to raise the flag.” “Whatever is morally necessary must be made politically possible,” he said – a courageous statement at the time. 

Sen. McCarthy has also stated, “You know when I first thought I might have a chance? When I realized that you could go into any bar in the country and insult Lyndon Johnson and nobody would punch you in the nose.”

Sen. George McGovern, a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, an ordained Presbyterian minister with a doctorate in history from Northwestern University, spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam War.

” . . . it won’t be us senators who die. It will be American soldiers who are too young to qualify for the Senate.” 

In one of his speeches on the Senate floor, Sen. McGovern stated, “Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood.”

Sen. McGovern stated, “It doesn’t require any particular bravery to stand on the floor of the Senate and urge our boys to fight harder and if this war mushrooms into a major conflict and a hundred thousand young Americans are killed, it won’t be us senators who die. It will be American soldiers who are too young to qualify for the Senate.” 

Sen. McGovern also stated, “The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one’s country deep enough to call her to a higher plane.”

In his presidential nomination acceptance speech at the 1972 Democratic Party convention, given at the inconvenient time of 3 o’clock past midnight, due to the lengthy events of the convention, Sen. McGovern stated: “As one whose heart has ached for the past 10 years over agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day. There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombings of the dikes or the cities of the North. Within 90 days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home to America where they belong.”

“And then let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.” “I make one pledge above all others,” he said, “to seek and speak the truth with all the resources of mind and spirit I command.”

When President Richard Nixon continued his escalations of the bombing during the Vietnam War, Sen. McGovern boldly stated that the heavy bombing of North Vietnam by the U.S. was the “most barbaric action that any country has committed since Hitler’s effort to exterminate Jews.”

Although Sen. McGovern was defeated by Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, Sen. McGovern continued to work for peace and to end hunger in the U.S. and around the world. 

Years later, Sen. McGovern stated, “One of the sharp parallels is that neither Vietnam nor Iraq was the slightest threat to America’s security.” Whereas during the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. military falsely claimed that North Vietnamese boats had attacked an American destroyer to justify the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, President George W. Bush and his administration in 2003 declared that the U.S. would invade Iraq, a sovereign nation, by falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein of Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” 

Sen. McGovern stated, “I don’t know anybody alive today that thinks the war in Vietnam was a good investment for the U.S. It weakened us militarily, economically and morally.” “When we were carpet bombing a little country like Vietnam, we went against our moral principles,” he said.

Whether referring to the U.S. War in Vietnam or the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Sen. McGovern stated, “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

The American media

I.F. Stone, regarded as one of the best journalists of this country, produced “I.F. Stone’s Weekly.” Stone reported facts and analyses about the Vietnam War which Americans could not get from their mainstream print and broadcast media. Yet, I.F. Stone is left out of the documentary.

I.F. Stone

In the documentary, film footage of evening news anchors Walter Cronkite (CBS) and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley (NBC) are included. We are reminded that these network news anchors on their evening news programs, when reporting on the Vietnam War, mainly reported the body count figures that they read from the press releases issued by the Defense Department. 

The casualty figures in the press releases tried to paint the U.S. side as winning the war, and the other side as losing the war. And that required that the American military kill indiscriminately as many Vietnamese people as possible and call them “Viet Cong” and “North Vietnamese” enemy casualties to inflate the numbers. 

There was, however, excellent reporting from Vietnam from such correspondents as CBS News’ Morley Safer and John Laurence.

Walter Cronkite (“Uncle Walt”) does deserve credit for making a fact-finding trip to Vietnam and reporting from there that the Vietnam War could not be won by the U.S. militarily, and that the U.S. getting out of Vietnam would be the honorable thing to do. 

Have we learned from the Vietnam War?

Why did Burns and Novick not have their narrator read the text of the Geneva Accords of 1954 in the documentary? Is it because such a reading would show that U.S. government policy in Vietnam and the South Vietnamese puppet governments in Saigon violated all the terms of the Geneva Accords?

A number of reviews critical of the Burns and Novick documentary have been published.

Frank Joyce, a journalist, wrote in “A Ball O’ Confusion is Coming to Your TV: Ken Burns’ Series on Vietnam Gives Its Corporate Sponsors Little to Worry About” (AlterNet, Sept. 15, 2017), “Don’t expect an honest account of the atrocities committed by the U.S.”

Joyce wrote that when he attended a preview of the documentary in April 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ken Burns, in answering a question from the audience, labeled “the Vietnamese who fought to repel the U.S. invasion” as “’impressionable peasants.’” Is Burns’ characterization of Vietnamese people glaringly racist and arrogant?

Joyce observed that the documentary was co-sponsored and funded by corporate Bank of America, as well as by the Koch brothers, who hold right-wing political views.

John Pilger, an award winning Australian journalist, wrote “The Killing of History” (johnpilger.com, Sept. 21, 2017) , stating that the documentary is Burns and Novick’s effort to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War.

Pilger wrote that when he visited the Quang Ngai province as a reporter in the 1970s, “50,000 (Vietnamese) people had been slaughtered during the era of American free-fire zones. Mass homicide.”

Mike Hastie, a veteran, stated, “I was an Army medic in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971. I was in the Central Highlands. When I came back from Vietnam, I realized that the most evil piece of real estate the world has ever seen is the Pentagon. The entire American War in Vietnam was a gas chamber. I was born in America, but my heart is Vietnamese.”

Historians, as well as many others, have raised the issue of the U.S. government’s and military’s actions in Vietnam as the perpetration of war crimes against the Vietnamese people, genocide and crimes against humanity, in violation of international law, including the United Nations Charter, the Nuremberg Principles on War Crimes, the Principles of the Tokyo War Tribunal, the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Biological Methods of Warfare. 

Why did Burns and Novick not address this issue in their documentary?

For me personally, the Vietnam War is a monumental tragedy that we must learn from.

It was also racism. The Vietnamese people were regarded as “less than human,” as “gooks,” as “dinks,” as “the enemy.” 

The U.S.’ waging of the war became a deeper and deeper “quagmire,” as the advisors to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon huddled together to plan their war on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.

These men, including Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk – white men – came from privileged and elitist backgrounds, attended boarding schools and private schools and Ivy League schools Harvard and Yale, and represented this country’s “aristocracy.” Their own sense of might and power, potency, virility, masculinity and manhood were defined by themselves through their acts of war that they perpetrated on the small country of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. 

It was also racism. The Vietnamese people were regarded as “less than human,” as “gooks,” as “dinks,” as “the enemy.” 

In a real sense, these men’s own personal sense of impotence, their failure to defeat the Vietnamese people, even though they themselves unleashed the world’s most powerful armaments and weapons on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, drove them even deeper into perpetrating the continued slaughter of Vietnamese human beings and committing more acts of war crimes against Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. 

Waging peace, not war

For my own family, my father, a diplomat and professor, yearned and prayed for peace in his homeland. My mother did not see her family for decades because of the war. Our family prayed for peace daily.

Since the war ended on April 30, 1975, Vietnamese Americans have referred to that date in different words. Some refer to it as “mat nuoc” (“loss of country”). 

Most commemorate that day as “giai phong (“liberation”). Vietnamese Americans also refer to this date as “ngay thong nhat” (“reunification”).

When I watched the Burns and Novick documentary, I felt deeply moved and saddened to listen to Jean-Marie Crocker share about her son Denton Jr., and to listen to Carol Crocker talk about her older brother, who, despite their urging him not to sign up for the military, joined the Army, went to Vietnam, and was killed there. I was deeply moved by the Crockers’ unfathomable and unspeakable grief, bearing witness to their sorrow and loss for us to hear and see and feel, and also bearing witness to their own human strength and resilience to carry on.

I honor the memory of all the Vietnamese babies, children, women and men who were killed in Vietnam. I honor the memory of all the Americans who died there.

I honor the memory of Dr. Pham Van Can, my uncle, a top graduate of his class at the University of Saigon School of Dentistry, who never got to practice dentistry because he was killed by a bomb detonation at a Saigon restaurant. 

The evening news broadcast in the U.S. that day reported that the bomb detonation was set by the Viet Cong. I was skeptical of that report. Was the report simply Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley reading press releases issued by U.S. government officialdom in Saigon and Washington, D.C., and the government of South Vietnam? Could the bomb detonation, in fact, have been planted by the government of South Vietnam – that is, the puppet government in power at that time – so that it could be blamed on the “Viet Cong” for propaganda purposes?

“Cau Can,” my Uncle Can, had been drafted into the South Vietnam Army. When “Cau Can” was killed, his young bride “Co My” was severely injured, her face disfigured. She was widowed. Their young son, “Dung,” sobbed over his father’s coffin, and became orphaned.

I honor the precious memory of my father and my mother, who taught me the values of life and to value the sanctity of human life.

I honor all the victims of Agent Orange, those who have died from it, as well as those who now live with the tragic consequences of its use in Vietnam. The chemical warfare unleashed on the Vietnamese people and their land will be borne by the Vietnamese people for untold generations to come.

The United States government, along with Dow Chemical Co., Monsanto Corp. and the other chemical companies which manufactured Agent Orange sprayed over Vietnam, must bear the moral and legal responsibility to provide Vietnam the necessary technical assistance to help remove Agent Orange from Vietnam’s contaminated soil and waterways and to offer medical treatment and aid for lifelong care to the Agent Orange victims and their families and full monetary compensation to the victims and their families. 

In August 2018, the government of Vietnam demanded that Monsanto pay compensatory damages to the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Nguyen Phuong Tra, cited an American court’s judgment to award $289 million to a school groundskeeper in California who was exposed to a weed killer manufactured by Monsanto and who suffered from terminal cancer.

Monsanto’s response to the Vietnam government’s demand is that it manufactured the Agent Orange herbicides and defoliant for the U.S. government and the government’s use of it in Vietnam, and that the United States government was and is solely responsible for its use in Vietnam.

It is morally and legally imperative for the United States government and each of the manufacturers of Agent Orange – including Monsanto Corp. and Dow Chemical Co. – to address the Agent Orange tragedy in Vietnam.

We must demand that they begin paying compensation to the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and the victims’ families, the medical treatment and lifelong care of the victims, and to seriously be committed to the planning and implementation of clean-up efforts and projects throughout Vietnam to get rid of the Agent Orange dioxins, herbicides and defoliant from Vietnam’s lands and waterways.

Such a systematic and nationwide Agent Orange clean-up plan in Vietnam must hold the United States government and the manufacturers of Agent Orange fully accountable, and the plan itself must meet the highest and most rigorous scientific standards. Both the Agent Orange clean-up plan in Vietnam and the plan to compensate Agent Orange victims and their families and to provide medical treatment and lifelong care must be under the auspices of the Vietnamese government, the International Court at the Hague, and the United Nations.

The war crime of spraying Agent Orange on Vietnam and its people is ours, individually and collectively as Americans, to bear witness to. And we must address it now.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, in collaboration with the government of Vietnam, is commended for leading efforts to clean up the contamination of Agent Orange around the area of the Bien Hoa Airport. But much more needs to be done and much more must be done.

According to the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the use of chemical weapons is a war crime. The use of napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam were chemical warfare against Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.

The time to do the morally and legally imperative thing cannot and must not be delayed further. The war crime of spraying Agent Orange on Vietnam and its people is ours, individually and collectively as Americans, to bear witness to. And we must address it now.

Unexploded bombs and other ordnance

Another tragic consequence of the war in Vietnam which the United States government still needs to address and must address is the remaining unexploded bombs and other ordnance dropped by the American military over Vietnam, and which continue to kill Vietnamese people even now, four and a half decades after the end of the war.

In the article, “The Vietnam War is over. The bombs remain” by Ariel Garfinkel (in the series “Vietnam ‘67,” The New York Times), Garfinkel, also the author of “Scofflaw: International Law and America’s Deadly Weapons in Vietnam,” states: 

Unexploded-ordnance-Quang-Binh-Province-central-Vietnam-2007-by-Nguyen-Huy-Kham-Reuters-1, What lessons have we learned from the war in Vietnam?, World News & Views
Unexploded ordnance in Quang Binh Province, in central Vietnam, in 2007. – Photo: Nguyen Huy Kham, Reuters

“America dropped three times more ordnance over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia than all sides did during World War II. Estimates are that at least 350,000 tons of live bombs and mines remain in Vietnam, and that it will take 300 years to clear them from the Vietnamese landscape at the current rate. 

“Bombs and other ordnance were dropped on thousands of villages and hamlets. The most common were cluster bombs, each of which contained hundreds of baseball-size bomblets; the bombs are designed to explode near ground level, releasing metal fragments to maim and kill. But many of the cluster bombs failed to release their contents or, in other cases, their bomblets failed to detonate.

“For the Vietnamese, the war continues. Loss of arms, legs and eyesight are for the more fortunate ones. Others have lost their family breadwinners, or their children. Children find baseball-size metal objects and unwittingly toss the ‘toys’ to one another in games of catch until they explode. Nearly 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed since the end of the war in 1975, and 67,000 maimed, by land mines, cluster bombs and other ordnance.”

Garfinkel also addressed the issue of Agent Orange, which still remains in Viet Nam’s soil and waterways: “American combat deployments ended in 1973 and all American personnel were removed from Vietnam by 1975, but the explosive ordnance and dangerous chemicals remained. Polluted soil and waterways were left untouched. Innocent children and families would serve as human guinea pigs to test the long-term results of exposure. 

“The indiscriminate use of ordnance and chemical weapons against civilian populations is prohibited under international law, dating back to the Hague and Geneva Conventions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But for more than a decade, the United States acted in direct contravention of those agreements, which it had pledged to uphold. Since that time, numerous additional international treaties and conventions have come into force that not only prohibit the types of weapons used by the United States in Vietnam, but also require their cleanup after hostilities cease.

“The United States, however, has done very little to fulfill such obligations, leaving it largely to the Vietnamese to suffer the results and to clean up what they can nearly 50 years later. Some have suggested that because much of the relevant international law requiring cleanup came into effect after the United States left Vietnam, the country is absolved of such obligations. But this assertion hangs on a thin thread, as the unexploded ordnance and defoliants still injure and kill people today. American responsibility for cleanup is therefore applicable under international law, not something to be dismissed with a historical wink.

“My father’s generation served in Vietnam, but the war’s continuing impact is no longer theirs alone to bear. The United States used weapons against civilians contrary to widely accepted international standards, and has skirted its responsibilities to clean up what was left behind. Working to enforce international law, and to assist the Vietnamese in addressing the deadly mess that remains, is a burden now resting on the shoulders of a new generation of Americans.”

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama visited Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to honor those who perished at both places.

On Dec. 27, 2016, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan publicly stated at Pearl Harbor, the site where Japanese bombers attacked American ships, “(Japan) must never repeat the horrors of war again … As the prime minister of Japan, I offer my sincere and everlasting condolences to the souls of those who lost their lives here, as well as to the souls of all the brave men and women whose lives were taken away by a war that commenced here.”

In May 2016, President Obama visited Ho Chi Minh City to celebrate the strong relations and good will between Vietnam and the U.S. and the Vietnamese people and the American people.

President Donald Trump visited Vietnam in November 2017.

. . . visit the “Friendship Villages” where the victims of Agent Orange reside, as well as view the jars which contain the Vietnamese fetuses showing the monstrous and tragic consequences of the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam.

I hope that someday, an American president will demonstrate the courage, bravery and leadership to publicly state her or his and the United States’ deep regret at waging war against Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.

I hope that someday, in the not too distant future, an American president will visit the hamlets of My Lai and My Khe to honor the memory of all the Vietnamese babies, children, women and men who were slaughtered there and at the hamlets of Co Luy and Tu Cung.

I hope that she or he will also visit the “Friendship Villages” where the victims of Agent Orange reside, as well as view the jars which contain the Vietnamese fetuses showing the monstrous and tragic consequences of the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam.

American presidents, and other world leaders, have gone to Auschwitz to pay their respects and honor the Jewish victims who were killed by Hitler and the Nazis and who were gassed to death in Auschwitz’ gas chambers.

When will we see an American president who has the courage to visit My Lai and My Khe and the “Friendship Villages?”

Just as we honor the memory of all who perished at Auschwitz, just as we should never forget the Jews who were killed and gassed by the Nazis at Auschwitz, and just as we should never forget Hitler’s and the Nazis’ efforts to exterminate the Jews and the Nazis’ war crimes and their individual and collective acts of genocide against the Jewish people and must remember the history of the Holocaust, we, too, should honor the memory of all who perished and were killed in Vietnam, Vietnamese babies, children, women and men.

We must remember the War in Vietnam. We must remember the Holocaust of Vietnam.

As we address the history of the Vietnam War, we must also look at the Nuremberg Principles on War Crimes, which were established during the trial of the Nazis after the end of World War II (http://legal.un.org/ilc/texts/instruments/english/draft_articles/7_1_1950.pdf).

Just as we say about the Holocaust against the Jews perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis, “Never Again!,” we, too, must state and declare about the Holocaust of Vietnam, “Never Again!”

I believe that when future documentaries on the Vietnam War are made, when they are made by Vietnamese in Vietnam, those documentaries will be much different from the one produced by Burns and Novick. For if they are made by Vietnamese, there will no whitewashing of the Holocaust and genocide that was perpetrated in Vietnam. There will be no revisionist history of the war in Vietnam.

Future documentaries, more enlightened and truthful than Burns and Novick’s program, will not be a Hollywood movie with a simplistic script of the “cowboys,” the “good guys,” shooting the “Indians,” the “bad guys.” These future documentaries on the Vietnam War will not, unlike the Burns and Novick’s series, perpetuate the false narrative, ignorance and propaganda that the Vietnam War was about one side, principled and “with good intentions,” fighting against the enemy, the Vietnamese, the “gooks,” the “dinks,” and that the Vietnamese people, wearing the black clothing that Vietnamese people do, the “Viet Cong,” the “Viet Cong sympathizers,” can be shot, killed, raped and their homes burned with zippo lighters, their rice supplies burned, and their hamlets, villages, towns and cities, schools, hospitals and infrastructure bombed “back to the Stone Age.”

Future documentaries will not continue to perpetuate lies about the Vietnam War. Future documentaries will not continue to perpetuate lies about Vietnam, the Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese culture.

And finally, future documentaries on the Vietnam War will ask their viewers these glaring and critical questions:

What gave the United States the right to wage war in Vietnam and kill the Vietnamese people?

Medevac-helicopter-in-An-Khe-Vietnam-1970, What lessons have we learned from the war in Vietnam?, World News & Views
Medevac helicopter in An Khe, Vietnam, 1970

How would we Americans, in the United States of America, feel if another country were to come to our country and bomb our country and kill our people?

How would we Americans, in the United States of America, feel if another country were to come to our country and its soldiers raped American girls and women; tortured, shot and killed American children, women and men; burned our homes; destroyed our farmlands and forests; and burned our food supplies?

How would we Americans, in the United States of America, feel if another country were to come to our country and spray our country’s landscape with Agent Orange, dioxins, herbicides and defoliants to destroy our forests and our farmlands and whose tragic consequences from such spraying are severe birth defects, disabilities, diseases and cancers for untold generations to come, and contamination of our soil and waterways?

Not only will future documentaries have to ask these questions, but we as a people, we as a nation, must begin to raise these questions and confront them.

The process will have to begin in our families, homes and houses of worship throughout our nation and society and in our education system, including the schoolbooks beginning in elementary school.

We have to begin this process, for we are a part of the international community, the global community, the human family. Our future and that of our children and grandchildren and their children depend on it.

The world will not achieve peace as long as one nation or another, whether it be the United States of America, China, Russia or any other nation, sees itself as the “ruling empire,” the “exceptional nation,” justifying it to conquer another nation or countries, or to invade another sovereign country as occurred in Iraq, or to start and wage wars to profit the weapons and armaments manufacturers.

Let us not, in the name of misguided foreign policy, allow the government to send our young men and women abroad to kill and to be killed. 

We the American people must confront this truth:

The presidents and their advisors who send our young men and women to war abroad – such as the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq, the War in Afghanistan – and the Congress members and senators who sanction those orders and vote to fund them do not have sons and daughters and family members that are sent to those wars.

When President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, claiming falsely that there were “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, a friend who is an American Army veteran captured by the Nazis in France said: “Damn it, do you ever see the president’s son or daughter sent over there? Or a Congressman’s or Senator’s son or daughter? No! It’s always somebody else’s kid!”

Let us respect the humanity and dignity of our fellow human beings around the world.

Let us respect the sovereignty of each nation in the world community.

Let us shed the false myth and belief of “exceptionalism.” It justified our government and our nation to wage war in Vietnam, to regard the Vietnamese as “the enemy,” “gooks,” “dinks,” and to kill and slaughter Vietnamese people. It justified our government and our nation perpetrating war crimes against Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.

Christian G. Appy, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and one of the foremost historians on the Vietnam War, in his book, “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War And Our National Identity,” states: “The Vietnam War and the history that followed exposed the myth of America’s persistent claim to unique power and virtue. Despite our awesome military, we are not invincible. Despite our vast wealth, we have gaping inequalities. Despite our professed desire for global peace and human rights, since World War II we have aggressively intervened with armed force far more than any nation on earth. Despite our claim to have the highest regard for human life, we have killed, wounded and uprooted many millions of people and unnecessarily sacrificed many of our own.

Christian Appy

“Since the height of the Vietnam War, many Americans have challenged the idea that their nation has the right or capacity to assert global dominance. Yet there remains a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain. That machine has been under construction for seventy-five years and has taken on a virtual life of its own, committed to its own survival and growth, unaccountable to the public, and protected by many layers of secrecy. It defends itself against anyone who seeks to curb its power. The tiny elite that makes U.S. foreign policy enhances and deploys the nation’s imperial power, but has never fundamentally questioned or reduced it. Congress has consistently been bypassed or has itself abdicated its constitutional responsibility to play a decisive role in matters of war and peace. When it does act, it is mostly to rubber-stamp military spending and defer to executive branch authority. The persistence of warmongering in the corridors of power has systematically eroded the foundations of democratic will and governance. The institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.

“But the public is not blameless. As long as we continue to be seduced by the myth of American exceptionalism, we will too easily acquiesce to the misuse of power, all too readily trust that our force is used only with the best of intentions for the greatest good. If so, a future of further militarism and war is virtually guaranteed. Perhaps the only basis to begin real change is to seek the fuller reckoning of our role in the world that the Vietnam War so powerfully awakened – to confront the evidence of what we have done. It is our record. It is who we are.”

Quynh-Thu-66-sprayed-w-Agent-Orange-in-Vietnam-War-comforts-son-Pha-Quoc-21-2009-by-Kuni-Takahashi, What lessons have we learned from the war in Vietnam?, World News & Views
Quynh Thu, 66, who was sprayed with Agent Orange during the war, comforts his son, Pha Quoc, 21, in A Luoi in central Vietnam in 2009. – Photo: Kuni Takahashi 

Let us strive to learn the lessons from the history of the Vietnam War. Unless we do, the Holocaust of the Vietnam War will be repeated again and again.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, went to Warsaw, Poland, on Sept. 1, 2019, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. President Steinmeier, standing in Pilsudki Square in Warsaw, on behalf of Germany and the German people, apologized to Poland and the Polish people for the war and the atrocities that Nazi Germany inflicted on the Polish people during World War II. President Steinmeier stated:

“I bow in mourning to the suffering of the victims in Poland. I ask for forgiveness for Germany’s historical guilt and debt. I affirm our enduring and lasting responsibility for the war. It is a painful legacy. For the Nazis’ plan for Poland, ‘its culture, its cities, its people – everything living was supposed to be destroyed.’” Steinmeier asked the Polish people for forgiveness for the suffering and atrocities Germany perpetrated against the Polish people.

Will a president of the United States stand in the center of the hamlet of My Lai or in the main square of the capital of Hanoi, Vietnam, someday in the future to express the same kind of profound apology to Vietnam and the Vietnamese people?

Vietnam today

Vietnam today faces the challenges of China’s aggressive actions in the Pacific region for military domination and expansionism, including China’s claims of the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and its building of military bases on the islands.

Vietnam is also pursued by the U.S. government and military to serve as the buffer to counterbalance China’s expansionism and aggressive actions in the Pacific region. The U.S. government and military are also trying to use Vietnam to advance their vested interests, as the U.S. itself seeks to have strategic and military control and domination in the Pacific region.

We must also remember that both China and the U.S. not only vie for control and domination of the Pacific region for military and strategic purposes, but also that the waters off the coast of Vietnam have abundant rich oil and gas reserves.

Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who resigned from President Donald Trump’s cabinet, visited Vietnam in 2018. Secretary Mattis also visited the My Lai Massacre Museum in My Lai during his visit.

The nuclear powered U.S. Navy ship, the U.S.S. Vinson, visited the port of Da Nang, Vietnam, in March 2018.

U.S. naval ships such as the U.S.S. John S. McCain visited the port of Haiphong in 2016.

The base and port of Cam Ranh Bay, once used heavily by the U.S. Navy and Air Force during the Vietnam War, is now eyed by the U.S. military for its use. 

The nation of Vietnam, the people of Vietnam and the government of Vietnam, must remember this truth: Vietnam must tread carefully. Vietnam must tread very cautiously and carefully. 

China and the U.S. must also remember this historical fact: Vietnam, throughout its history, has been invaded by its neighbor to the north, China, and borne wars started and waged by the French, the Japanese and the U.S.

Vietnam, outpowered by the military hardware, armaments and weapons of the outside invaders and aggressors and geographically small in size and economically poor, in each instance prevailed in the end.

The French army was defeated decisively at the French fortress Dien Bien Phu in 1954 by Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people, and the French colonialism in Indochina was decimated by the Vietnamese. 

In the U.S. war with Vietnam, Vietnam and the Vietnamese people prevailed, when the war was brought to its end finally on April 30, 1975. 

Vietnam and the Vietnamese people achieved this monumental feat, despite the fact that the U.S. government and the U.S. military had unleashed all of the armaments, weapons and military hardware they possessed on the country of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. 

And when China started military skirmishes into Vietnam beginning in 1979, Vietnam and the Vietnamese people pushed back against the Chinese invaders and defeated them.

It is in the heart, mind and soul of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people to live as a free nation and as a free people.

Let us wage peace

Let us strive to work for a peaceful world for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren, and for all future generations.

Let us reclaim our belief in the sanctity of human life, and turn swords into plowshares.

Homeless-Vietnam-Veteran-in-San-Francisco-2002, What lessons have we learned from the war in Vietnam?, World News & Views
Homeless Vietnam veteran in San Francisco 2002

As brothers and sisters, we deserve to live in peace.


I dedicate this article to

  • the people of the Bayview Hunters Point community and to all the readers of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper; it is written exclusively for the Bay View.
  • the memory of all the Vietnamese children, women and men who were killed in the Vietnam War, to American soldiers who perished in the war, and to the Vietnamese people who still bear the tragic consequences of the use of the defoliant Agent Orange sprayed over Vietnam by the U.S. military during the war.
  • the loving memory of my parents; uncle, Dr. Pham Van Can, D.D.S.; and paternal and maternal grandparents.
  • the memory and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose teachings and leadership in the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement and whose speeches, “I Have A Dream” and “Beyond Vietnam: Time to Break the Silence,” paved the way.

I call on all of us to reclaim our belief in the sanctity and preciousness of human life, to work for peace and to wage peace, and to turn swords into plowshares.



Copyright Anh Lê, Jan. 1, 2020. Anh Lê has worked for many years with the Vietnamese American community and the African American community and is a writer and independent journalist.