BOOK REVIEW: Why is the Obama administration working to whitewash the history of crimes of the USA during the Vietnam War and create another 'Noble Cause' myth...

One of the paradoxes of current history is that President Barack Obama is working overseas to bring the United States and Vietnam together, as the photograph above from Obama's recent Asian visit shows. At the same time, Obama's team has been working on the Vietnam commemoration in Washington, D.C. in a way that whitewashes the crimes of U.S. imperialism is ways similar to the historical whitewashes of the Confederacy during the years when the "Noble Cause" versions of history and the "Birth of a Nation" (1915 version) and "Gone With The Wind" realities were dominant in how Americans understood the wars we fought.Responding to the lies and distortions of President Obama concerning the US war in Vietnam, and his phony “commemoration” of those Americans who fought in the war, John Marciano has written a short, but incisive book to disembowel the official propaganda that has already started and is scheduled to continue until 2025. Marciano’s book belongs in every high school and college/university in the country.

“Book Review: The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration by John Marciano.”, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016. ISBN: 9781583675854

The commemoration is intended to reshape the memory of the war of people too young to remember what actually happened: the government and the right wing wants to claim it as a(nother) “noble cause” in the mythology of the goodness of the United States. This battle over ideology—joined so ably by Marciano—is important, because it is impossible to understand wars subsequent to Vietnam if we don’t understand Vietnam. The US government, and their high level officials, have been lying over the years, but the research particularly since the war’s end has torn the scab off many of the lies. Marciano ably reviews much of the research, and uses it to destroy of official story.

This is an excellent overview of accounts of the war, the lies told to propagate it, and current understandings. Marciano starts with talking about efforts by the French after World War II to re-establish their control over Vietnam, a control lost due to Japanese invasion. He reports that the first protests against war in Vietnam by Americans was not in the 1960s, but was by US merchant sailors, members of the National Maritime Union, in 1945! Crewmembers of the USS Stanford Victory saw “fully armed Japanese soldiers, several weeks after [Victory over Japan] Day, being employed by the British in Vietnam.” The union later reported that “US vessels brought French troops to Vietnam so they could join recently released Japanese troops to support France’s attempt to crush the Vietnamese independence movement.”

Marciano continues, president by bloody president: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Throughout, he references his work, suggesting some of the most important research. Yet it is his sixth and final chapter—“Some Lessons and Myths of the American War in Vietnam”—where he pulls things together. He strongly argues that the war was not an aberration or mistake: it was a conscious imperialist war. In this war, the US committed war crimes, including torture. US officials consistently and continually lied to the US public. He points out that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., condemned the war and the violence initiated and carried out by the United States, and was vilified for it by both whites and blacks, especially “leaders.” He said the anti-Vietnam war movement was lied about insistently. Marciano destroys the myth that the corporate mass media opposed the war—most of their “opposition,” which finally developed, was limited to tactics, and points out the mass media never condemned the war itself or the premises on which it was waged. He argues that the massacre at My Lai was, in fact, a coldblooded massacre and not an “incident,” as it is usually referred. He argues ecocide is an essential legacy of the war; challenges as nonsense statements by officials that “the US hates war,” and then he quotes Veterans for Peace noting “America has been at war 222 out of 239 years since 1776.”

As a US military veteran (USMC, 1969-73, although fortunately never sent to Vietnam and who “turned around” while on active duty), I really appreciated how much Marciano honored the anti-war movement that developed inside the US military, and its’ important role in stopping the war. He specifically salutes VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) and VFP (Veterans for Peace), and their important role in challenging the war hawks, while rebelling and undermining the military machine from within.

Altogether, a powerful work that is eminently readable and very clear. Nonetheless, I think he could have been even stronger than he is, and he would have been better served by taking more from the Pentagon Papers than he did, and I think he could have used Nick Turse’s 2013 book, Kill Everything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam to greater effect—both sources he uses somewhat. Still, these are minor complaints in an excellent book.

The one final thing. I think we on the left (however defined) need to get over our unwillingness to really describe the US as it really is, an Empire. Marciano details this clearly, but his impact would have been even stronger had he named it. The war—and I would extend it across the entire US foreign policy since at least World War II—is and has been imperialist, as the US has tried to dominate all of the other countries in the world. We’ve got to call it what it is: the US Empire.


Kim Scipes is a US military veteran and long-time labor activist, who has published widely on labor and US foreign policy. He is the editor of the recently released collection, Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization (Haymarket Books, 2016).


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