A federally-funded surge of Vietnam "memories" is beginning as the fiftieth anniversary of the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf "incident" nears. The question is how inclusive those memories will be? Will honoring the hundreds of thousands of Americans who served necessarily require an erasure of any discussion of the many My Lai massacres which occurred according to Nick Turse's new book, "Kill Anything That Moves?"
Will the cover-up of what occurred in the Tonkin Gulf be portrayed accurately, or will the memories only compound the long chain of coverups leading to Nixon's downfall at Watergate? Will the American anti-war movement be given recognition for being correct at the outset, or will the anti-war movement be marginalized and trivialized, treated uniquely differently than the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the CIO, and the modern civil rights and environmental movements? What are the lessons of Vietnam for the present Long War and revelations of NSA spying and CIA covert operations? Our understanding of Vietnam may be the premise of our future policies.
We who opposed the Vietnam War should fight for our place in history as seriously as we fought against the war in 1965. We are not interested in taxidermy, though some of us believe there must be memorials to those who fought for peace. We must call for inclusion in the memorial dialogue to prevent a false narrative of Vietnam will lead to Vietnams without end.
Here then is a recent response to an invitation from Vietnam Veterans for Factual History, in Missouri City, Texas, http://vvfh.org:
Dear R. J. Del Vecchio, Thanks so much for your July 9 letter on Vietnam posted from "Vietnam Veterans for Factual History" in Missouri City, Texas, with its offer to join the debate in Washington. I'm sorry to say that I can't make it there, but I hope your discussions will be fruitful ones as we all face the 50th memorial of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
You may know that the federal government is supporting a significant look-back at the war with a focus on the millions of Americans who served. I will be very interested in how they incorporate the peace movement in this "conversation" about our past.
As to your question, I think one thing that is shared by both veterans of the war and the peace movement is that we were lied to by our government when we were young and vulnerable. And our elders for the most part believed the government's story. My dad, for example, was a World War II Marine and he stopped speaking to me for fifteen years when I opposed the war. He later had another child, my sister, and never let her know I was her brother for many years. That's something I kept to myself, and it's only a small example of how millions of families were disrupted by the war. Thankfully, my dad changed his entire attitude when he decided, on his own, that our government was lying to him, around the time of Watergate.
One reason I believe it's hard to arrive at a true reckoning is that it would require an admission by too many authorities in the government and media that they lied - or distorted the truth, or were ill-informed themselves - when they sent millions of young Americans into dubious battle.
But I believe it's possible at grass-roots level, all across the country, for people like ourselves to engage in honest truth-digging and exchange of perspectives about those most intense years of our lives.
Despite what later revisionists have argued, I myself don't believe the war could have been "salvaged" if it had continued for a longer duration, or if the media and Congress had been loyal to the Pentagon press-information office, or if there had been no peace movement. What happened happened and cannot be wished away by second-guessing or "what if's" many years later. The "best and the brightest" to a man (there were no women) accepted a mechanical Cold War logic that said Vietnam was a "domino" in a conspiratorial strategy of World Communism (the Soviet Union and China) to expand its reach. It was blindly assumed that Ho Chi Minh's citation of the American Declaration of Independence when he called for Vietnam's recognition in 1945 was a mere ruse covering his intentions to impose Communist totalitarianism. In other words, the original mistake was made long before the first US advisers and ground troops arrived in the 1960s. The American mistake made in 1945 was repeated at the Geneva Conference in 1954. We underestimated the independent nationalism of the communist-led side and over-estimated our ability to revive a more narrow and Catholic pseudo-nationalism on the Saigon side - to the very end.
The Cold War assumptions were to blame for the debacle. Today Vietnam is at the brink of yet another war with China over the Paracels. Far from being a "domino", Vietnam has been described as more like a "brother enemy" of China after fourteen wars going back one thousand years. Ho Chi Minh's 1945 reference to the American Declaration of Independence - and his 1920 appearance at the talks ending World War I - was based on his hope for the US to replace colonial France as a strategic ally of Vietnam in order to counter-balance China and other great powers. What goes round comes round, for today Vietnam has the same need for a strong ally in its struggle with expansionist China over territorial waters, borders and resources. If you travel to Vietnam in recent years, as I have, it's amazing how many people from that "communist state" genuinely like the Americans they meet, and how eager they are to learn about American technology and enterprise. If our country became more of an ally to Vietnam, that strategy might encourage greater freedoms in Vietnam than any secret CIA funding of "democracy promotion" programs ever will.
So on the 50th anniversary of Tonkin, my hope is that the US and Vietnam will continue engaging at all levels in a process of rapprochement.
Best wishes, TOM HAYDEN