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The Dangers of Oversimplifying The American War in Vietnam

This is an extended version of a letter to the editor published in the Chicago Tribune on May 7, 2016.

Article and Photo By Brian T. Murphy

It has been 50 years since the United States orchestrated a war in Vietnam, yet even today basic facts are ignored to accommodate simple historical narratives. For example, on May 2nd Dahleen Glanton of the Chicago Tribune published an article titled “An ugly war, seen through the lens of the Vietnamese.” Briefly, she traveled to a variety of Vietnamese cities, communicated with a handful of its citizens, and visited a war museum in Ho Chi Minh city that portrayed American military actions as inhumane. Though she admitted “America had no business in Vietnam,” the piece alluded to an inherent degree of poverty and lack of freedom that accompanied a post-war communist rule in the country.

Using select examples of poverty in Vietnam, the story disregards centuries of history in order to provide a simplistic communism is bad, capitalism and freedom are good storyboard, ironically the exact argument our government used to garner support for, and impose devastation on Vietnamese citizens in the first place. “The Vietnam War,” often correctly referred to in Vietnam as “The American War,” was largely a US response to growing Soviet influence in Indochina. This is contrary to the author’s suggestion that the US was fighting in the interest of freedom:

“But like many Americans, I held a steadfast opinion: America had no business in Vietnam. It has been easy to hold onto that belief over the decades. But after going to Vietnam, I am compelled to rethink it. For so many reasons, Vietnam was a war that was impossible for America to win. But isn’t freedom worth fighting for?”

In her half-hearted critique of communist rule, the US-supported preservation of corrupt governments in South Vietnam was not mentioned, nor was the widespread use of the Vietnamese as pawns in a global Cold War battle, nor was our complete abandonment of the South to save political face in Nixon’s delusional “Peace with honor” endpoint. These actions exposed the truth, that our government never truly cared about the freedom of the Vietnamese people. But this level of detail does not exist in the column, which is what makes its publication in the “News” section by the Tribune, with millions of viewers, so incredibly dangerous.

The story of modern day Vietnam cannot be captured in a single museum visit. Inhabitants of this country have fought off Chinese, Japanese, Soviet, French, and US occupations in a shockingly short time period, and have experienced vast changes in economic and civilian structure as a result. Any blame for poverty that exists today cannot be simply cast upon a current government – which by modern standards is moderate and increasingly capitalist – and attributed to the vague concept that a country simply requires “freedom” to succeed.

Knowledge of this history will remain the bedrock that prevents us from making these mistakes again. Underappreciation of these facts, coupled to tag-line narratives communicated through mass media, will allow history to repeat itself. And this never bodes well for the poor and working classes.

Of course, history proved that communism is not a sustainable life support system for human beings. In that point, many who adhere to this stripped-down communism is bad, capitalism and freedom are good debate are correct. However, there are egregious oversights and misunderstandings in the piece that must be reconciled. First, is the belief that the damage done by our military before, during, and after the war is being used as propaganda by the current Vietnamese government.


“It was a despicable tale to begin with. But here, in a country taken over by Communism, the story is even more gruesome — tainted with an unapologetic bias that is uncomfortable to watch.” 

“In the government-run War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, America is portrayed as the archenemy of the Vietnamese people. The exhibits depict U.S. soldiers as heartless villains — even criminals — whose sole mission was to slaughter families, torture innocent villagers and spread ruin across the region…I realized that much of the presentation was just propaganda.”

Although painting all US soldiers as criminals is not correct, the above passage highlights an under-appreciation of the scale of destruction that Vietnam endured under US occupation, which at its peak in 1969, was just over 543,000 US soldiers. Juxtaposing the nearly 60,000 deaths of US troops, is a roughly estimated range between 2 and 3 million dead Vietnamese between 1960 and 1975.

These numbers do not account for the total destruction of cities, agriculture, or economy. They do not account for the millions who were crippled. They do not account for the nearly two million Cambodians that were massacred under the Khmer Rouge regime in “Year Zero” in Cambodia, who took power as a direct result of Nixon and Kissinger’s illegal carpet bombing of the country. They do not account for the use of chemical weapons by US forces in Vietnam – Agent Orange and other herbicides – that caused an estimated one million birth defects in children in addition to other illnesses.

The museum displayed pictures of Agent Orange casualties precisely because it inflicted so much un-targeted damage. The message that the museum is spreading to its visitors is wholly accurate.

Presentation bias toward destruction caused by US forces was not the only offense detailed in Glanton’s Tribune piece. Also central to the oversimplified communism is bad, capitalism and freedom are good depiction of the war, were descriptions of poor living conditions in parts of Vietnam, which were portrayed as being the direct result of the post-war, communist led government. Although communism is a failed economic system, in the case of Vietnam, this blame is misplaced. As summarized in the Tribune article:

“These problems [poverty] can’t be blamed on the Americans. These are visible failures that the Communist regime can’t hide.”

An honest appraisal of Vietnam’s recent history is required to make this claim. Starting from the 1860s, France colonized Vietnam and replaced a peasant-driven agriculture system with one that was more entrepreneurial. As Mark Atwood Lawrence describes in his seminal work The Vietnam War, A Concise International History:

“The old system of subsistence farming, though hardly egalitarian, had provided most peasants with a secure existence by assuring access to small plots of lands. The new system imposed by France prized efficiency and profitability – objectives that could be best achieved by concentrating land in the hands of a small number of technologically advanced producers. French laws helped attain this goal by enabling wealthy entrepreneurs to claim land long cultivated by Vietnamese peasants and to purchase newly opened areas…The disparity between the wealthy few and the impoverished multitude grew even larger as a vicious cycle of indebtedness, desperation, and dependency took hold…”

Contrary to popular belief, lack of a reasonable distribution of wealth in Vietnam was hardly caused by communism. The communism that ruled post-war Vietnam simply maintained the status quo. In nearly a century of colonial rule, where seeds of capitalism were implemented, disparities between rich and poor widened and wealth disproportionately ended up in the hands of few. It was in the 1940s that Ho Chi Minh – who would eventually lead an army that would commit crimes against his own people – tirelessly lobbied the United States and other western countries to support his cause of Vietnamese self-determination, and it was the US that would never truly understand or acknowledge the distinction between a country’s right to self-determination, nationalism, and communism.

The storyline of communism bringing about sprawling poverty in Vietnam is simply not correct. In fact, there are haunting parallels between the poverty described in the Tribune article and one of the beacons of capitalism and “freedom,” Chicago:


“They see the thousands of families living in makeshift tin homes along the Saigon River, atop markets selling fish and fresh vegetables. The canals and rivers flowing to the Mekong Delta are polluted and strewn with rubbish. The river water is undrinkable and even the rats, which are considered a delicacy by some Vietnamese, are unfit to eat.”

Chicago coalition for the Homeless reported that 125,848 Chicagoans were homeless during the 2014-2015 school year, nearly 35% of whom were children and teens (43,958 humans). The Tribune recently featured a story of homeless encampments on the banks of the Chicago River (among other places). These encampments of the poor are directly adjacent to where people enjoy lavish meals and kayak tours, and where garbage is known to freely float southwest past the Riverwalk and into industrial and suburban Chicago, sections of which display rampant, engineered racial and economic segregation.

Regardless of a country’s political ideology, it seems that poverty and suffering can be tragically similar.

Communism is bad, capitalism and freedom are good. In reality, this assessment is grossly inadequate. And when believed by millions of voting residents in a world superpower, it is even dangerous. The truth is, these ideologies are more complicated than we often present them. They are not black and white. And a country’s evolutionary history is a multi-dimensional puzzle, and can not be understood through a snapshot in time, nor a museum visit.

Remaining inclusive about historical details and diligently refusing to water-down history with catch phrases like “freedom,” are paramount to avoiding destructive domestic and foreign policy. Journalists and their editors maintain a responsibility toward properly educating the public with detail and thoroughness. This is particularly the case when narratives such as these, which tap into our inherent patriotism and longing to be the good guys, are propagated with the support of popular media, such as the Tribune.

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