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Patriotism, Hypocrisy, and the Vietnam War
by Robert Jensen
Patriotism, Hypocrisy, and the Vietnam War
In a hyper-patriotic country, it can be difficult to tell the truth about
the barbarism of one's own leaders. But in 1971, John Kerry was among the
Vietnam War veterans who did that, telling the Senate Foreign Relations
"[T]here is nothing in South Vietnam which could happen that realistically
threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss
of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos by linking such loss to
the preservation of freedom ~E is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy,
and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country
If hypocrisy from those seeking high office is inevitable, then we should
not be surprised that candidate Kerry ignored his own critique of that war
when at the Democratic convention he proudly proclaimed, "I defended this
country as a young man and I will defend it as president."
Kerry's actions while he was in the Navy in Vietnam may have been
reprehensible and his critique when he returned may have been too cautious,
but in 1971 he stated clearly that the war had nothing to do with defending
the United States. Yet to position himself today as tough on "national
security," Kerry is conveniently forgetting what he once knew.
This is not merely an academic debate; how we understand the United States'
attempts to dominate the world in the last half of the 20th century affects
how we understand similar attempts going on today.
The standard story in the United States is that in our quest to guarantee
peace and freedom for Vietnam, we misunderstood its history, politics and
culture, leading to mistakes that doomed our effort. Some argue we should
have gotten out sooner than we did; others suggest we should have fought
harder. But the common ground in mainstream opinion is that our motives were
The truth, unfortunately, is less pleasant. After World War II, the United
States supported and financed France's attempt to retake its former colony.
After the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954, the Geneva Conference
called for free elections in 1956, which the United States and its South
Vietnamese client regime blocked. In his memoirs, President Eisenhower
explained why: In free elections, the communists would have won by an
overwhelming margin, which was unacceptable to the United States.
U.S. policy in Vietnam had nothing to do with freedom for the Vietnamese
people or defending the United States. The central goal was to make sure
that an independent socialist course of development did not succeed. U.S.
leaders invoked Cold War rhetoric about the threat of the communist monolith
but really feared that a "virus" of independent development might infect
the rest of Asia, perhaps even becoming a model for all the Third World.
To prevent the spread of the virus, we dropped 6.5 million tons of bombs and
400,000 tons of napalm on the people of Southeast Asia. Saturation bombing
of civilian areas, counterterrorism programs and political assassination,
routine killings of civilians and 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange to
destroy crops and ground cover -- all were part of the U.S. terror war in
Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia.
This interpretation is taken as obvious in much of the world, yet it is
virtually unspeakable in polite and respectable circles in this country,
which says much about the moral quality of polite and respectable people
here. In many ways, the Vietnam War was the defining act of the United
States as empire, an aggression that was condemned around the world and at
home, but pursued even as the body count went into the millions. Lying about
that is crucial to our mythology.
George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and conservatives are deeply invested
in that mythology. Sadly, so are many liberals. Perhaps some believe it.
Perhaps others feel they must pretend to believe it to position themselves
as centrists in elections. Whatever the case, telling the lie over and over
again keeps people not only from understanding history, but also from seeing
the present and our future choices honestly.
When Kerry began his acceptance speech with a crisp salute, he was
"reporting for duty," of a certain kind. Instead of the honorable duty of
leaders -- to tell the truth, no matter how painful, and help people come to
terms with the consequences of that truth -- he has chosen the more common
approach of those who lie, distort and obfuscate to gain power.
In 1971, Kerry said he hoped that in 30 years Americans would look back and
appreciate the courage of vets who opposed the war as a moment when "America
finally turned" away from the lies and toward justice.
More than 30 years later, candidate Kerry has chosen the hypocrisy he once
condemned over the courage he once called for.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin
and the author of "Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our
Humanity" from City Lights Books. He can be reached at
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