Countering the Sanitizing of the Vietnam War

Review: The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commitment, by John Maricano (Monthly Review Press)

By Jack Rothman


The recent book by John Marciano, The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commitment (Monthly Review Press) is an antidote. It is a refutation of the government’s massive campaign to render the Vietnam War an honorable undertaking that upheld the highest values of the nation.

On Memorial Day of 2012, President Barack Obama announced the beginning of the Vietnam War Commemoration, which will continue through 13 years until Veterans Day 2025, a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. There will be a panoply of patriotic events involving partnering with local governments, private organizations, and communities across the country. All of this will be conducted under the auspices of the Department of Defense, not the most neutral arbiter of issues concerning war and peace. The nation is about to receive an all-out multi-million-dollar “snow job” about what happened during the war and why.

The president set the tone with his call to “reflect with solemn reverence upon the valor of a generation that served with honor . . . fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans.” Marciano’s book dismantles the “noble cause” edifice on which the Commemoration hangs. Marciano, an emeritus professor at SUNY Cortland, shows that the U.S. started its Vietnam involvement by bolstering the efforts of the French to continue their colonial rule over Vietnam following WWII. When the French campaign collapsed at Dien Bien Phu, we made the defeat of the Vietnam independence movement the lynchpin of a global U.S. drive to dominate world affairs, tied in with our anti-communist Cold War operations. Marciano holds that America’s determination to control events is for its own self -interest, rather than to propagate democracy and freedom everywhere. That deceit is at the core of the Vietnam invasion and a host of other invasions that have followed.

The book covers the full trajectory of the war, providing a concise overview that is wide-ranging and factual. It is a primer on the war that is both passionate and deeply researched. For a short book of only 160 pages, it has a prodigious 26 pages of references and bibliography. But the writing is fluid and hard-hitting, not encumbered by a prominent historian’s grasp of the details of the subject matter. The narrative comes across as the work of an incensed Old Testament prophet who is not afraid to cite references.

The war is covered in four phases, starting with the American takeover of the French armed struggle to keep Vietnam a colony, referenced above. Next is the nine-year Diem regime, marked by President John F. Kennedy’s strategy of employing advisors to train police, Special Forces actions, and covert warfare.  The Diem regime was embraced by JFK, but its inability to gain popular support and make military advances led to a coup and assassination, with American contrivance. President Lyndon Johnson is critical to the third phase, when there is an escalation of the war through a huge scaling up of American troops and an upsurge in the level of violence. Marciano details atrocities and war crimes perpetrated at this time: Agent Orange and chemical warfare, the Hue slaughter, the My Lai Massacre, and the Phoenix Program.

The last phase brings Nixon to the fore, with a change at the tactical level and new rhetoric. But basically Nixon presided over the end of the war through the rout of the American military by Vietnamese fighting for their independence.  He fell from grace through defeats in Vietnam and Watergate.

My skimming through the course of the war doesn’t convey the substance and the important context provided in each section of Marciano’s work. This is a work of synthesis, consolidation, and interpretation—as well as fierce remembrance—giving a critical overview in cogent, readable form. Professor Marciano’s most original contribution is his in-depth examination of how the Vietnam conflict has been distorted and misrepresented systematically in public school history textbooks.

For me, a prime feature and a bonus of the book is the lessons Marciano draws from America’s Vietnam conflict. His observations touch a nerve, and I’ll set out just a few of them. He concludes that the undertaking was at core an imperialist war. The U.S. and other capitalist nations need to preserve an international environment that is conducive to safeguarding their trade and investment ventures. Use of military power enables them to commandeer natural resources, labor, land, capital, and markets. The Vietnam War was part and parcel of a program to suppress socialist nations and thwart national liberation movements that free countries from reliance on the imperialistic network. This guarantees stability for the riches enjoyed by the elites of the dominant class in the neoliberal nations.

Marciano determines that the U.S. surely committed torture and other war crimes. There was widespread bombing and employment of artillery barrages against unarmed village populations throughout the country. This sea of fire sought to terrorize Vietnam into submission. A set program of torture accompanied the terror campaign, with extensive use of waterboarding, electric shocks, and solitary confinement.

Marciano observes that Washington lied throughout the campaign, notably regarding the Tonkin Gulf crisis of Aug. 1964, which was a pretense to amplify military actions.  And contrary to assertions that the mainstream press opposed and undermined the war effort, the author maintains that the media never went against the conflict. They endorsed the war wholeheartedly until the Tet Offensive in early 1968, when they shifted to criticizing ineffective tactics. The basic premise of the “noble cause” and the underlying imperialist thrust of the war were never challenged.

I personally met Professor Marciano when I signed on to a community-based course he taught in Los Angeles, as a no-cost public service, analyzing the history of American imperialism. I can assert that his fervent anti-war views come over with the same power orally as they do on the written page. In his book, he states that a clear understanding of the Vietnam War requires that citizens reject the official government version and draw their own critical and moral conclusions. Only then will they be able to see through the propaganda onslaught of the Commemoration spectacle and “confront the war makers and war machine” on firm ground. We should be deeply grateful for this book, which is a major assist for that to happen.

Jack Rothman is professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Public Affairs and a member of Los Angeles DSA.  

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Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.