“Our objective is the independence of South Vietnam and its freedom from attack. We want nothing for ourselves—only that the people of South Vietnam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way.” President Lyndon Johnson, 1965
During the Vietnam era, over three million Americans fought to defend the government and people of South Vietnam from a Communist invasion. Fifty-eight thousand of them lost their lives. About three quarters of the men who fought and died were volunteers.
Instead of honoring the memory of the American heroes who fought and died in Vietnam, left-leaning historians tend to portray the GI’s as villains, and their mission as a waste and a fraud. A future Other Half of History column will describe the way college faculties slander Vietnam era soldiers. Today’s column is about the textbook misrepresentations of their mission.
The View from the Ivory Tower
The leftist bias on college campuses colors textbook portrayals of every subject in our nation’s history, but no other subject draws out the radicalism of history professors and textbook writers like the Vietnam War. Many of the older male faculty members on college campuses today were the draft dodgers of the 1960’s, and, for such men, disparaging America’s war effort is a habit honed by decades of practice.
America sent troops to Vietnam, the textbooks tell us, because of imperialistic vanity, or because successive American Presidents foolishly and mistakenly believed that Vietnam had something to do with the Cold War.
In his widely used freshman history textbook Give Me Liberty, for example, historian Eric Foner portrays America’s war effort as a case of poor judgement:
What one historian has called “the greatest miscalculation in the history of American foreign relations” was the logical extension of Cold War policies and assumptions. The war tragically revealed the danger that Walter Lippmann had warned of at the outset of the Cold War – viewing the entire world and every local situation within it through the either-or lens of an anticommunist crusade.
The textbook Nation of Nations more or less calls three successive American Presidents liars, because these Presidents had all tried to rally support for the war effort by describing it as a Cold War contest with the Soviet Union:
Scholars familiar with Southeast Asia questioned every major assumption the president used to justify the escalation. The United States and South Vietnam had brought on the war, they charged, by violating the Geneva Accords of 1954. Moreover, the Vietcong were an indigenous rebel force with legitimate grievances against the Saigon government. The war was a civil war among the Vietnamese, not an effort by Soviet or Chinese Communists to conquer Southeast Asia, as (Presidents) Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had claimed.
The Other Side of the Story
The truth is very different from the propaganda in mainstream history books. America’s involvement in the war was the very opposite of imperialism. The US ground troops operated only in a defensive role, on South Vietnamese soil. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson were quite right in describing the Vietnam War as a war against Soviet Communist imperialism. (The same could be said of President Nixon, who succeeded President Johnson in January of 1969.) And the stakes in Vietnam were high, not just for the Americans in their Cold War struggle against worldwide Soviet expansionism, but for the South Vietnamese people themselves.
A Defensive War
Rightly or wrongly, American policy in Vietnam was to fight a purely defensive war. American forces fought almost exclusively within South Vietnam’s borders, to defend that nation from a foreign invasion. Despite the unquestionable battlefield superiority of the American military, which would quite probably have made an invasion of the North successful, American troops never entered North Vietnam.
Even when American planes conducted bombing raids over North Vietnam, they were forbidden to bomb many of the facilities that would have been high priority targets in an all-out war. Legendary pilot Chuck Yeager commanded an Air Force fighter wing in Vietnam during the war, and he writes about the limitations the Johnson administration imposed on American pilots:
The list of what they couldn’t hit was three times longer than what they could, and it was damned frustrating not to be able to fire on shipping off-loading arms and ammo in Haiphong harbor, or to nail SAM missile sites or MiG (fighter jet) bases, power plants, and fuel tank farms. All were on the forbidden list. The rules of engagement even forbid attacking a MiG while it was taking off or landing.1
Yeager goes on to describe how two American pilots under the command of another officer were actually court-marshaled for firing on a Soviet ship while it was off-loading weapons in a North Vietnamese harbor.2
College professors and other left wingers may describe America’s role in Vietnam as imperialism, but the truth of the matter is exactly what President Johnson said in 1965: American forces were there to defend South Vietnam from a foreign invasion.
The Soviet Union’s Role
It is the height of dishonesty to say, as many college textbooks do, that the Soviet Union was not trying to expand its influence and power through the conquest of South Vietnam. The Communist government of North Vietnam could not have maintained its siege of the South for any length of time without enormous support from the Soviets.
The Soviet Union and satellite states in the Warsaw Pact amply supplied the Vietnamese Communists with weapons, and Soviet officers trained and advised both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Agents of the Soviet government even interrogated American prisoners in North Vietnamese prison camps, and took captured American weapons back to Moscow. A constant stream of Soviet freighters kept the Vietnamese Communists amply supplied with tanks, artillery pieces, and MiG fighter jets; as well as small arms and every other kind of military equipment.
Describing the war as merely “a civil war among the Vietnamese” is tendentious to the point of being dishonest.
Defending the South Vietnamese People
America’s success in defending South Korea from a Communist invasion in the 1950’s illustrates perfectly what our troops were fighting for in South Vietnam a dozen years later.
South Korea’s people enjoy democracy and prosperity thanks to the heroism of the American GI’s who helped them fight off a Communist invasion in the early 1950’s. The high standards of living in the South offer a stark contrast to the suffering in Communist North Korea.
Since the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953, millions of innocent North Koreans have died of starvation as a result of the government’s forced collectivization of the economy. Countless others have been killed by their own government in the nation’s many prison camps. An estimated 200,000 North Koreans are being held as political prisoners at the present time, suffering “starvation, torture, forced labor, rape and executions” according to a recent report by South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission.
The hunger problems in North Korea would be even worse if it were not for the tons of humanitarian aid the people of South Korea send across the border every year. This aid, in turn, would not be available if American soldiers had not fought and died defending South Korea from Communism in the 1950’s.
The suffering in North Korea is, sadly, far from unique. That kind of deprivation, de-humanization, and death is normal in Communist countries. By the time the US started sending large numbers of troops into South Vietnam in 1965, the Communist Government of China had already slaughtered as many as forty-five million of its own people in the so-called Great Leap Forward. The Soviet government, so active in arming and training the North Vietnamese for their fight against the US, had murdered millions of Soviet citizens by this time as well.
The Chinese-backed Communists who would take over Cambodia almost immediately after the last American troops left South Vietnam would murder something like twenty percent of the nation’s population in less than four years.
And in Vietnam itself life has been pretty hellish ever since the last American troops pulled out in 1975. The Ho Chi Minh government had already given some indication of its ruthlessness during the 1950’s, when it murdered thousands of innocent citizens as part of a “land reform” movement similar, in a small way, to what the Chinese government had been doing on a much larger scale. Human rights abuses in Vietnam continue to the present day, illustrating how tragic it is that the America did not show the resolve in Vietnam that she had shown in Korea a dozen years earlier.
The leftwing activists who populate college history faculties tend to portray America’s Vietnam Era war effort as either a mistake or a crime. They disparage both the motives and the methods, while praising the radicals and thugs who opposed the war effort here at home.
A more honest portrayal would show that the soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam were heroes, and that their mission was a noble one.
1Chuck Yeager, Yeager, Bantam Books paperback 1986, p. 370
2ibid., p. 376