By Robert F. Turner – Special to the American-Statesman
The LBJ Library and the University of Texas are holding the Vietnam War Summit this week, bringing to Austin former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, current Secretary of State John Kerry and numerous other speakers, including former Sens. Bob Kerry and Chuck Robb, Admiral William McRaven and several Medal of Honor recipients.
When the LBJ Library was established in 1971, its announced purpose was to “increase public awareness” by letting people view all sides of the issues — “not just the joy and triumphs, but the sorrow and failures, too.” And while the Vietnam War Summit includes some very distinguished participants, arguably the most important panel is outrageously stacked against both LBJ’s legacy and the Vietnam veterans the program claims it seeks to recognize. Put simply, it does not come close to allowing people to “view all sides of the issue.”
Today’s “The War at Home” panel features antiwar activists Tom Hayden and Marilyn Young, without anyone to present the case of those who supported the war. The panel is important, because from the beginning Hanoi understood it could never defeat the American military on the battlefield. Its goal was to tie us down and use “political struggle” — propaganda — with the support of the world’s so-called “peace movement” to undermine American will and ultimately pressure Congress to throw in the towel, which it did in May 1973 by Section 108 of Public Law 93-52. That statute prohibited the use of any treasury funds to finance “combat activities by United States military forces in or over or from off the shores of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia.” Put simply, Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Yale University history professor John Lewis Gaddis, who is often called the “dean” of Cold War historians, noted in a 1995 Foreign Affairs article that historians now acknowledge that American forces were winning the military war in Vietnam by the early 1970s — but “support for the war had long since crumbled at home.” I was in Vietnam five times between 1968 and the final evacuation in 1975; I witnessed that reality up close.
Perhaps more importantly, between 1965 and 1968 I took part in more than 100 debates, “teach-ins,” panels and other programs on the war during which I contested the arguments advanced by the peace movement. At virtually every event I encountered the same basic narrative: the State Department was “lying” when it contended we were fighting against “Aggression from the North”; Ho Chi Minh was a “nationalist” who only wanted peace and freedom and an end to “foreign occupation” of his country; and America had conspired to block free elections to reunify Vietnam in 1956.
In 1975, I authored the first major English-language history of Vietnamese Communism while a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Using official North Vietnamese sources I documented Ho’s long association with communism—including his role in co-founding the French Communist Party in 1920, and his subsequent training in Moscow and work for Communist International. As the Pentagon Papers document, in 1945 Ho’s Viet Minh forces conducted joint operations with the French military to wipe out true nationalist groups who had refused to accept the return of the French and were thus denounced by Ho as “enemies of the peace.”
Neither the United States nor South Vietnam agreed to reunification elections at the 1954 Geneva Conference, because the Soviets had blocked their demand that any elections be supervised by the United Nations to ensure they were conducted fairly. Communist North Vietnam had a majority of the population, and in the sham “elections” that did take place in the north, Ho never received less than 99 percent of the vote. The New York Times noted it would be “monstrous” to compel the people of South Vietnam to participate in such a bogus process.
After the war, Hanoi rudely betrayed its American devotees by publishing a history of the war that openly admitted it made a decision on May 19, 1959, to open the Ho Chi Minh Trail and start sending troops, weapons, and supplies into South Vietnam to overthrow its government by force — in blatant violation of the U.N. Charter. That was more than five years before Congress, by a margin of 99.6 percent, enacted a law in August 1964 authorizing LBJ to use armed force to protect the people of South Vietnam. The book also admitted the so-called National Liberation Front was created and controlled by Hanoi in order to deceive the west and conceal Hanoi’s covert aggression.
Indeed, on virtually every major issue, the American antiwar movement got it wrong. Panelists Hayden and Young apparently realize that, because they were among dozens of anti-Vietnam leaders who were invited to take part in a public debate at the National Press Club on Aug. 5, 2014 organized by the Vietnam Veterans for Factual History. Neither they nor any of the other invitees was willing to defend the arguments made against the war in the 1960s.
Cutting off American aid to people whom America had pledged its national honor to protect did not “stop the killing.” On the contrary, more people died in Indochina during the first three years after “liberation” than had died in combat during the previous 14 years — including more than 20 percent of the population of Cambodia. Nor did abandoning our promises promote human rights. For decades after the war, the respected human rights group Freedom House listed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as among “the dirty dozen” or “worst of the worst” human rights abusers in the world.
Sadly, because the planners of the LBJ Library’s Vietnam War Summit did not provide any balance on this panel, those who attend will not learn these facts. They will, however, hear a presentation by Country Joe McDonald, whose most famous song portrayed American soldiers in Vietnam as mindless creatures who didn’t “give a damn” about why they were there and were eagerly looking forward to dying. And this for the avowed purpose of honoring “the men and women who courageously served in Vietnam.”
Turner has taught seminars on the Vietnam War at the University of Virginia for more than 25 years. He served two Army tours in Vietnam during the war as a lieutenant and captain.