John McCain and Some Basic Facts About the U.S. Vietnam War


The New York Times recently reported on John McCain's 1974 Naval War College thesis dealing with his being a prisoner of war in Vietnam. It appears, according to the article, that McCain's thesis simply repeats what was conventional right-wing wisdom of the time – that the anti-war movement encouraged defections among prisoners, that the military must do a better job in educating its members to the anti-Communist goals of U.S. foreign policy, etc.

A former colleague of mine at Rutgers and a respected military historian, Richard Kohn, chalked up McCain's views on the subject to the anti-Communist Cold War ideological consensus of the 1950s, which was to be challenged in the late 1960s when McCain was a prisoner. While this is true, McCain, as I read the article, never really 'deviated' from that one dimensional worldview and has continued to apply it to the world today.

The article is also replete with 1950s Cold War images portraying McCain as 'tough-minded' in standing up to his captors, portraying the Vietnamese as sadistic brutalizers. The article pretty much reflects with few criticisms the John Wayne image which McCain will almost inevitably use in the campaign, the image which hopefully will help deepen his defeat since the majority of voters will be able to go beyond the simpleminded cliches of John Wayne movies.

More important than McCain's bluster, however, the article gives us an opportunity to rethink the U.S. Vietnam War. There are some important 'facts' that 21st century Americans should understand about that war if they are to completely understand where U.S. ruling class policy has led them today.

1. Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese revolutionary who called for his people's independence at the Versailles Conference in 1919, joined the Communist movement and become an organizer of the liberation struggle in Indochina. He spent years in colonial jails and lead the Viet Minh, the national resistance movement, against both the Japanese occupiers and their Vichy French colonial collaborators in World War II. Ho was both a Communist internationalist and a Vietnamese patriot. The 'debate' in the U.S. between 'liberals' and 'conservatives' about whether or not Ho was a 'Communist' or a 'nationalist' tells us nothing about Ho. It does, however, tell us great deal about anti-Communist ideology in the U.S. which denied the essential humanity of those who joined the Communist movement anywhere and portrayed them as either dupes or sinister agents of what B movie actor Ronald Reagan called an evil empire in his role as president of the United States.

2. Ho had traveled before World War I to the U.S. and liked it. Later, he saw his country and the U.S. as allies during World War II against Japan, but the Truman administration ignored his direct pleas to recognize his new government in Hanoi after its victory against Japan. The U.S. government did nothing for three years to stop the French from re-invading Vietnam to restore their colonial empire. Following the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949, the U.S. began to fund the French colonial war in Vietnam in 1950. This was the first time in its history that the U.S. had intervened to provide aid to a colonial power fighting against an anti-colonial insurgency. French propaganda, which the U.S., unlike everyone else in the world, accepted wholeheartedly, was that they were preparing the Vietnamese for self-government and fighting Communism. Truman also sought to use this aid to get the French to support re-armament of West Germany and its eventual membership in NATO.

3. By 1954, the U.S. under Eisenhower was providing three quarters of the funding for the French colonial war against Vietnam. Still, the French decisively lost the war that year when they were surrounded and forced to surrender at Dien Bien Phu. Although John Foster Dulles attempted nuclear blackmail and even suggested to the French that the U.S. would give them a few atom bombs to use, Eisenhower decided against any U.S. conventional or nuclear intervention. He accepted the formation of a peace conference which took place in Geneva where Vietnam was to be divided into two zones. As part of the peace Geneva agreement, the Viet Minh, which controlled over 70 percent of the territory, withdrew from large areas under its control. All sides pledged to hold unifying elections in 2 years. The U.S. did not sign the treaty but promised separately that it would not undermine the outcome.

4. The Eisenhower administration then ordered an occupation force into the Southern zone. Military advisers had already been working even before the Geneva conference to undermine the French. U.S. forces ousted the French colonial 'clients' and set up a government led by a Roman Catholic from the North, which was completely dependent on the U.S. for its existence. Subsequently, the U.S. government refused to allow any elections and brought in a large group of American professors to write 'South Vietnam's' constitution, criminal code, and set up the infrastructure for its government in 1956. All of this was planned and begun, as CIA intelligence reports confirmed, as early as the Geneva conference. Dwight Eisenhower later matter of factly admitted in his memoirs that because any free election under the Geneva agreement would have resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Ho and the Vietnamese Communist movement.

5. From 1956 to 1960, the Southern dictator, Diem, with full U.S. support carried out corrupt and tyrannical policies: 'land reform' that gave land to his cronies, repression against both Viet Minh activists and influential local non-Communist elements, including the powerful Buddhist clergy, which did not give him what he wanted. In 1960, a National Liberation Front, in which Vietnamese Communists played a leading role, but one which consisted of broad anti-Diem, anti-colonial forces (those Vietnamese who had concluded that the U.S had merely replaced the French colonialists) was organized to fight the Diem regime.

6. The new Kennedy administration, which combined liberal phrases with Cold War policies, re-defined the war in Vietnam as a 'war of aggression' by North Vietnam against 'its neighbor' South Vietnam. Even though South Vietnam had been created by the U.S. in violation of the 1954 Geneva agreement, the insurgency in the South while supported by the Hanoi government was indigenous. Kennedy ordered in 'advisors' to 'teach' the South Vietnamese new 'counter-insurgency' tactics to defeat their enemies.

7. The corruption and tyranny of the Diem regime and the resistance of the Vietnamese people led the Kennedy administration to conclude that Diem had to be removed and replaced with a military government to prosecute the war. The CIA played the leading role in a coup against Diem, which led to his assassination in 1963, weeks before John Kennedy was assassinated in the U.S. in a completely unrelated act.

8. With both Diem and Kennedy dead, UN secretary General U Thant sought to convince the parties to go back to the Geneva settlement of 10 years earlier, but Lyndon Johnson refused. With the military government failing badly, the U.S. military with Johnson's approval prepared to plan for a major U.S. troop and bombing intervention some time after the 1964 presidential election to make the war into a U.S.-Vietnamese war in which the U.S. because of its huge technological superiority, so it was thought, would win. In the summer of 1964, a phony 'crisis' seized upon by the Johnson administration (a very small clash between Vietnamese PT boats and a U.S. destroyer in Vietnamese territorial waters) aided passage of the 'Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.' This law empowered the president to use all necessary military to protect U.S. forces. The resolution was to become the 'legal' basis for massive U.S. intervention.

10. In the winter of 1965, the intervention began, an escalation spiral of bombing, more troops, more bombing, more troops... The war was also defined in corporate bureaucratic language: kill ratios and body counts. Massive firebombing (napalm) and chemical warfare with a bacteriological aspect ('defoliation' which destroyed vegetation and crops and people) became common. (McCain was captured when he crashed his plane in a bombing raid over Hanoi in 1967.)

11. The massive escalation failed disastrously, as the NLF's Tet offensive in the winter of 1968 showed. Peace negotiations began in Paris as the war continued. Johnson's Vietnam policy destroyed his Great Society administration, ended the 'war on poverty' that he had proclaimed, and brought Richard Nixon into the White House.

12. Nixon pursued a brutal and cynical strategy of reducing U.S. troop involvement, massively increasing U.S. bombing to cover the troop reductions, and extending the war in Cambodia with disastrous long-term consequences for the people of Cambodia. Eventually, after hundreds of thousand of more dead Indo-Chinese people and millions of more homeless, in 1973 Nixon accepted a truce on terms that were essentially available to him in 1969. John McCain was released. When it became clear to the Vietnamese in 1975 that the reparations Nixon had promised them would never be paid and also that his 'promises' to his Saigon clients to bring back massive bombing if the NLF moved into the cities to unify the country would not happen, Vietnam was unified in a matter of weeks.

What lessons would McCain like to draw from all of this for his administration. A government has the 'right' to violate a major international treaty to set up a puppet government and create a country which never existed before because of its ideological dictates. I guess, as I sometimes tell my classes, that a socialist government on Mars in the 1980s, deciding that American capitalism under Ronald Reagan threatened it, (that star wars was a plan to attack the evil empire on Mars) would have the right to divide the U.S. at the Mississippi River, declare the states East of the Mississippi the United Socialist States of America, and proceed to use massive military force to overcome resistance

Perhaps, as he has written in other venues, McCain thinks that a 'better' use of U.S. military power would have produce 'victory' in the U.S. Vietnam War. But how could this have ever been possible, given Vietnam's bordering China and the support it received from the Soviet Union? Also, what would 'victory' mean except an unstable long-term occupation in a devastated country whose people despised the occupiers (a little bit like Iraq today)?

How can you convince soldiers to fight such wars and the public to support them, to be blind to the millions of casualties and the effects of the bombing, napalming and defoliation? McCain doesn't say, and he can't say, because you can't do it except by denying reality or making war the solution to all serious problems in international affairs. Such policies throughout history have always had disastrous consequences, whether the consequences are in the short term or the long term.