Between 1964 and 1972, the U.S. spent billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives to fight a nationalist group in a “tiny, peasant country”—and failed. Following World War Two, the French continued to control colonies in Indochina (a region of Southeast Asia). By the late 1940s, a full-scale nationalist revolution was building in Indochina. Peasants and farmers, organized by a Communist named Ho Chi Minh, demanded their rights to self-determination, citing the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. To quell the revolution, the French bombed Northern Vietnamese cities.
Zinn’s portrait of the Vietnam War focuses on the North Vietnamese forces far more than does the average account of Vietnam found in a history textbook. Zinn even goes so far as to say that the North Vietnamese were the more idealistic side in the war, since they stressed the rights of freedom and self-determination. While Zinn’s account of the Vietnamese may be a little idealized (Zinn doesn’t question Ho Chi Minh’s motives for leading his people to war, as he’s done with Roosevelt and other American presidents), his account is an important “counterweight” to the jingoistic interpretations of Vietnam that high school students often read.
From 1946 to 1954, America funded the vast majority of the French war effort, providing advice, guns, and money. Why? Publicly, the government claimed that it was trying to prevent the spread of Communism in Asia. However, secret government memos also cited the importance of Southeast Asia’s natural resources as reasons for ensuring that Vietnam remain under the control of a Western, capitalist power. The American government, cooperating with the existing French leadership, installed an official named Ngo Dinh Diem as the leader of South Vietnam; however, Diem’s regime was unpopular, since he did very little to address widespread poverty. By contrast, Ho Chi Minh aimed to remedy poverty among his people. It is likely that the U.S., disappointed with Diem’s performance, conspired with South Vietnamese generals to assassinate Diem.
As with other points in the Cold War, America claimed to be fighting on the side of democracy and equality when, as per Zinn’s argument, it was actually fighting to preserve its own business interests in the Southeast Asian region. Ngo Dinh Diem is a controversial figure because, after the U.S. government installed him in South Vietnam, it’s likely that it helped other Vietnamese figures kill Diem.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, citing a “murky set of events in the Gulf of Tonkin,” began a war in Vietnam. (It later turned out that there had been no “open aggression” against Americans in the Gulf of Tonkin, contrary to Johnson’s claims.) Johnson deployed troops to Vietnam without asking for Congressional approval, as the Constitution requires. Despite petitions to declare the war unconstitutional, the Supreme Court did not consider the issue.
Johnson’s declaration of war should remind readers of Polk’s behavior during the Mexican American War and McKinley’s behavior during the Spanish American War—once again, questionable circumstances were interpreted as an unambiguous show of hostility, and the result was war. Zinn doesn’t even discuss how Johnson knowingly misrepresented the Gulf of Tonkin affair (as was later revealed in the Pentagon Papers).
The Vietnam War was brutal for the Vietnamese people; American troops treated them cruelly. In one of the most notorious episodes of the war, the 1968 My Lai massacre, American troops methodically murdered women, children, and the elderly. Later, the army tried and failed to cover up the incident. In the end, some officers involved in My Lai were tried, but only one officer was convicted, and he only served a three-year sentence. Zinn writes, “My Lai was unique only in its details”—across Vietnam, there were hundreds of other comparable incidents. Moreover, American generals fully supported the bombing of Vietnam’s civilian population.
Few accounts of the Vietnam War do justice to the Vietnamese side, focusing instead on American casualties. Zinn argues that the My Lai massacre was not, contrary to popular opinion, an isolated incident for the military—it was indicative of a broader trend of brutality and cruelty among the American troops. In fact, it’s been suggested that Vietnam’s reputation as a chaotic, disorganized war was largely an alibi developed by the American elite to obscure the systematic, “top-down” brutality of the American military.
By 1968, it was widely accepted that the Vietnam War couldn’t be won. Richard Nixon campaigned for president on the promise that he’d end Vietnam. Over the course of the next four years, Nixon withdrew troops; however, he continued the military’s policies of bombing the civilian population of Vietnam. This meant that he didn’t “end” the war, but only the most unpopular aspect of it (the involvement of American soldiers).
It’s interesting that Zinn omits any discussion of Richard Nixon’s illegal involvement in Vietnamese peace negotiations during the 1968 presidential elections, which, many have argued, had the effect of prolonging the war by at least four years. For a chilling account of the affair, consult the first two chapters of Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger
Some of the earliest opposition to the Vietnam War in the U.S. came from the Civil Rights Movement. As early as 1966, SNCC’s official position on Vietnam was that the U.S. was violating international law there. Influential black leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., criticized the war effort for sending black people to die for a cause that had no relevance to their lives. Across the country, tens of thousands of young people refused to register for the draft and were jailed for their actions. Influential actors, musicians, and writers used their fame to speak out against Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, an employee of the RAND Corporation (a group that did secret research for the government) leaked thousands of pages of secret documents about the government’s role in the Vietnam War, documents collectively known as the Pentagon Papers.
The popular resistance to Vietnam was enormous, Zinn shows: rich, poor, liberal, and conservative Americans opposed the war for idealistic, moral reasons. One potential problem with Zinn’s characterization of the anti-Vietnam movement is that it makes the movement seem more radical than it truly was. Many have argued that the anti-Vietnam movement, by and large, did not protest America’s fundamental right to intervene illegally in other countries, but only argued that the particular conflict in Vietnam had become a “bad investment.” Or, to use Zinn’s own language, the anti-Vietnam movement favored reform, not radical change, in American foreign policy.
Students were particularly active in opposing Vietnam. Although the press’s coverage of student demonstrations against Vietnam gave the impression that opposition to the war was mostly limited to middle-class students, statistics show strong antiwar sentiment in the working classes as well. Indeed, some surveys suggested that people with less money and education were more likely to oppose the war than people with significant money and education. Instead of publicizing these statistics, the media suggested that blue-collar Americans were enthusiastic war supporters. Soldiers and veterans were among the most enthusiastic opponents of the Vietnam War. GIs, many of them low-income, formed groups like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). One influential veteran, Ron Kovic, was confined to a wheelchair after his service in Vietnam, and he experienced the squalid conditions of veterans’ hospitals. As a member of VVAW, he spoke out against the war.
Zinn writes eloquently about the role of students in opposing America’s involvement in Vietnam. Indeed, much of the anti-Vietnam movement took place when Zinn was a professor at Boston University, and he actively supported students who demonstrated, protecting them from punishment by the B.U. administration. Zinn also argues that the media have distorted the legacy of the anti-Vietnam movement, making it seem like an elite, academic movement, rather than a truly populist uprising against American foreign policy. Finally, Zinn stresses the opposition to Vietnam in the military community. In short, Zinn shows that there was a broad coalition—comprising young students, working-class people, and even soldiers—who put aside their differences and came together to oppose the Vietnam War.
The history of the Vietnam War suggests that Americans succeeded in pressuring the government to end the war. In the Pentagon Papers, it is clear that “public opinion” was a key factor in the government’s decision-making with Vietnam. Especially in the late days of the Lyndon Johnson administration, the government deescalated the bombing campaign in response to demonstrations. Although Richard Nixon claimed that he wouldn’t be influenced by protests, it’s clear in his own memoirs that he was—a rare “admission of the power of public protest.”
Zinn sees the Vietnam War as the rare example of populism influencing government policy for the better. It’s curious, however, that Zinn is willing to credit populism with “ending” Vietnam, since, even after the height of the Vietnam protest movement (in 1968), the war continued on for years. Nor is it clear why Zinn regards America’s withdrawal from Vietnam as a genuine triumph of American populism, whereas the Voting Rights Act (to name only one example) was a mere “reform” to appease the people.