BY ĐỒNG BẢO NGÂN HÀ at Mondoweiss
Israel’s assault on Gaza is a painful reminder of how the United States bombed my country to the Stone Age.
Growing up, I learnt about the true extent of American bombing in Vietnam at school, in museums, and on TV. I routinely watched news reports of unexploded bombs being discovered and defused in the Central and Southern regions, namely Quảng Trị and Quảng Bình, as well as in neighbouring countries of Laos and Cambodia. Stories about dormant explosives would flood TV and radio channels for a week, only to be concluded by the heroic deployment of anti-bomb units keeping the imminent danger at bay. Nevertheless, every now and then, we witnessed more devastating stories about children stumbling upon cluster bombs and dying from the blast.
Meanwhile, seemingly operating in a parallel reality, American imperial airpower continued to devastate Afghanistan and Iraq with horrific scenes of the annihilation broadcast during the daily 7:00 pm television news. This was, of course, in addition to American financial and military contributions to the ongoing massacre of Palestinians in Gaza. I remember my younger self glued to the screen, helplessly witnessing explosions on the other side of the globe. Bombs on the news anchor’s lips, bombs in camera lenses, bombs in houses, bombs falling from the sky, unexploded bombs in schoolyards, bombs and debris injuring children’s bodies. There were bombs everywhere, at home and abroad.
Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq have been on my mind for a long time, yet I lacked the intellectual complexity and the knowledge to understand them. At the same time, there is a lingering and ineffable sense of familiarity in these otherwise foreign contexts.
Family accounts of the American war in Vietnam run like water from my grandparents’ to my parents’ memories. I grew up listening to my mother’s war stories; instances of bomb sirens, evacuations, and hiding in bomb shelters were almost a routine for her family and their village neighbors, especially during the US’s intensive bombing of Northern Vietnam in December 1972 to force the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) to negotiate at the Paris Accords the following year. During the same period, my father’s hometown welcomed evacuees from Hải Phòng, a major port city in North-Eastern Vietnam undergoing heavy American bombardment.
In the capital city Hà Nội, residents had to create make-shift bomb shelters in a hurry. Eventually, the North Vietnamese forces emerged victorious despite imperial intimidation, as the anti-bombardment campaign was dubbed the “aerial Dien Bien Phu” campaign (in Vietnamese, Chiến dịch Điện Biên Phủ trên không). Hanoians still showcase their historic resistance with great pride, by permanently displaying the remnants of a downed B-52 at lake Hữu Tiệp in the capital’s Ba Đình district.
But, why all this bombing of Vietnam? What are the parallels with Palestinians’ suffering?
It all started with a series of lies.
America lies, the Vietnamese die
The Cold War theater in Vietnam was part of the American global strategy of Containment, aiming to fight against the growing influence of Communism. The American imperialist production of fabricated narratives about the “Communist Other” set a precedent for how the West would come to treat not only Muslims in the “War on Terror” discourse and Palestinians and Gaza in the US’s unwavering support for Israel, but also indoctrinate the American public with myths and deceit.
The US bombing campaign of Vietnam is the longest and largest mission in aerial bombing history. Vietnam was bombed from North to South, and the bombing also spilled into Laos and Cambodia, where the US attempted to uproot guerrilla warfare, leaving a trail of deaths behind with present-day consequences on landscapes and civilian lives.
Top US officials, including then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, knew that the American effort in Vietnam was doomed from the start. McNamara commissioned a study on the US involvement in Vietnam, which was leaked to the New York Times in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg. Labelled the “Pentagon Papers,” the leak shed light on the magnitude of the US government’s lies regarding its involvement in Vietnam. The Papers revealed that the Eisenhower presidency had already promoted American intervention in Vietnam based on the “domino theory.” This ideology suggested that the failure to prevent Communism’s spread in one country would lead to others being captured by Communist doctrine, like collapsing dominoes.
The Pentagon Papers also disclosed the real reason for invading Vietnam: to contain the influence of Maoist China. Because of Vietnam’s strategic proximity to other US allies, such as South Korea, Japan, India, and the Philippines, a capitalist subjugation of Vietnam would isolate China in East and South-East Asia. To achieve its goals, the US played a direct role in the intensification of violence between North and South Vietnam. It encouraged the creation of autocratic rule in South Vietnam and supplied arms and money to the Sài Gòn regime – two flagrant violations of the 1954 Geneva Accords which had put an end to France’s colonization of Vietnam and created a provision for Vietnamese unification through electoral means.
Although the US government kick started a full-scale war on Vietnam following the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, the Pentagon Papers unfolded pre-1964 plans for American escalation in Vietnam, which comprised of bombing operations using unmarked jets with non-US crew onboard – meaning South Vietnamese pilots – to plausibly deny any American responsibility for the massacre of Vietnamese civilians.
The US government saw aerial bombardment of Northern Vietnam as a quick winning strategy in 1965 with Operation Rolling Thunder. Its aims were (1) to destroy supplies going into and out of the DRV, especially along the Central coastline and the Hồ Chí Minh trail, as well as shrinking the DRV’s manpower; (2) to break Hà Nội’s “will,” which, in other words, meant enacting psychological warfare; and (3) to raise the Sài Gòn regime’s morale following a series of coups destabilizing the South Vietnamese political landscape. Using discriminate bombing as an assertion of the US military-industrial complex and superiority, American imperialists were hoping to deter Vietnamese civilians from joining the resistance.
Such a lack of concern for civilian lives was embodied in the personality of General William Westmoreland, who believed in the reduction of the DRV’s manpower by any means. For him, there would be fewer Communist sympathizers and soldiers within the ranks of the North Vietnamese army as a result of gratuitous violence. US forces regularly used incendiary weapons, such as napalm and white phosphorous, against Vietnamese civilians and North Vietnamese combatants, and Nick Út’s famous photograph of Phạm Thị Kim Phúc is a painful reminder of the level of impunity with which the US government endowed (and still endows) itself when it comes to war crimes.
In the face of imperial terrorism, the DRV remained resilient and coordinated the 1968 Tết Offensive, which consisted of surprise attacks against the South Vietnamese army and US forces. Even though the imperialists and their collaborators militarily defeated the North Vietnamese army, the offensive was considered a turning point in the American public’s perception of US actions in Vietnam. By means of a massive propaganda campaign, the US government had lured American citizens into believing the DRV’s military inferiority. Nevertheless, the more losses US forces recorded as a result of the offensive, the more draft calls the American government ramped up, forcing the American public to question its leaders’ treachery and deceit regarding US conduct in Vietnam. In the Spring of 1969, domestic protests against the war escalated in the US, pushing the new president, Richard Nixon, to begin withdrawing troops from Vietnam. Yet, Nixon broadened the scope of aerial bombardment in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, as heavy bombers, such as the B-52, callously murdered defenseless civilians. It was in 1973 that the US, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam agreed to the Paris Accords, which laid the groundwork for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of US forces, the release of prisoners of war, and the peaceful reunification of North and South Vietnam.
In 1975, the year of Vietnamese reunification, Gerald Ford extended Lyndon Johnson’s initial 1964 embargo on Northern Vietnam to all of Vietnam, and forced the newly reunified country to carry the debts of the Sài Gòn regime. Vietnam became ineligible for any international loan to reconstruct its economy and rebuild its destroyed villages and cities, and was isolated on the international scene by American allies. This isn’t to mention the trail of deaths and suffering that Agent Orange left behind, the subsequent border war with China, and the overthrow of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime by Vietnamese forces in 1979.
In addition to the US-led collective punishment of Vietnam, the newly liberated country was amongst the poorest in the world at that time. Vietnam had to further rely on Soviet aid to survive and was often at the mercy of the state of the Soviet economy. The two decades following Vietnamese reunification came to be known as Thời bao cấp, or the subsidy period. The Vietnamese government chose to mould the country’s economy in the image of the Soviet command economy, yet began experiencing difficulty almost immediately. My childhood stories included my family’s teaching about the privilege of my time to live in better conditions than theirs. Because of scarce resources and capital, they had to live on rations, food stamps, and goods coupons provided by the state. Poverty was widespread, and reliable sources of electricity and clean water were nowhere to be found.
Israel lies, Palestinians die
Similar to the US’s pattern of underhandedness to ravage Vietnam, the Israeli government and army’s mythomaniac delusions of Palestinians and Hamas have led to the killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Self-proclaimed as the “most moral army in the world,” the Israeli military has repeatedly affirmed its “right to self-defense” through heavy aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip with impunity and without any concern for civilians – impunity provided by the same government who used similar tactics against the Vietnamese.
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Featured photo: U.S. Navy bombers wreaking havoc on North Vietnamese during “Operation Rolling Thunder”, which lasted from 1965-1968.