This article originally appeared at richardfalk.wordpress.com.
Why the Legal and Political Debate on the Vietnam War Still Matters
[Prefatory Note: There has been recently a revival of interest in the Vietnam War, perhaps most notably as a result of the quite extraordinary Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s ten-part, eighteen hour documentary film as aired on PBS, which although somewhat ideologically slanted toward an American audience has much illuminating footage, especially bearing on various Vietnamese perceptions of the war experience. I would also call attention to a series of articles by Matthew Stevenson describing his recent visit to Vietnam, which combines acute journalistic observation with impressive commentary on the war experience and the problematics of contemporary Vietnam. Stevenson’s valuable contributions are being serially published in Counterpunch, so far two of a promised eight.
I visited Vietnam in November of 2017 for ten days, and met with some Vietnamese officials I had known during the war, as well as with journalists and friends, seeking, especially, to understand whether the present generally harsh criticisms of suppression of dissent and authoritarian governance were justified, and came to mixed conclusions.
On human rights my suspicions of Western bias seemed entirely vindicated, that is, by reducing the effective scope of international human rights criteria to civil and political rights, and completely ignoring successes or failures in social and economic rights. Vietnam is illustrative of this pattern of claiming the high moral ground for the West in the post-colonial era by pointing to their human rights failings, completely overlooking Vietnam’s remarkable achievements of poverty reduction resulting from the pursuit of a needs based development strategy up to this point. With tens of millions of Americans and Europeans enduring varying degrees of material deprivation relating to food, health care, shelter, and jobs, their boastfulness about human rights has an increasingly hollow, even macabre, sound. Indeed, given the wealth of these societies and the scandalous disparities between rich and poor, it would be more reasonable to single out these countries for censure as notable laggards when it comes to human rights provided that economic and social rights are included in the mix. I am not minimizing the importance of civil and political rights, but for the majority of the population these rights pale in day to day significance if compared to failings in the domain of economic and social rights.
These comments introduce an online launch my own book, Revisiting the Vietnam War: The Views and Interpretations of Richard Falk, published by Cambridge University Press at the end of 2017. In fact, it is not really my book, but as much or more the work of my friend and colleague, Stefan Andersson who edited the text, supervised the production process, arranged for the blurbs, and above all, overcame my own lethargy. I add the newly written preface that I contributed to this collection of my past writings. After the post the back cover containing blurbs is shamelessly included to induce readers to rush to order the book from Amazon or your bookseller of choice.
The preface essentially expresses my view that the wrong lessons have been learned by the United States from its failure in Vietnam, and thus the cycle of regressive violence continues to torment vulnerable peoples in the non-Western world. This geopolitical and normative learning disability is at its core an effort to particularize the Vietnam experience, and allowing policy planners and think tank analysts to propose a series of tactical adjustments that will ensure that future Vietnams result in successful outcomes. Such a (mis) reading of Vietnam has contributed to the more recent counterinsurgency failures as in Afghanistan and Iraq, confirming the my central assessment that the real lessons of post-colonial world order are resisted because their proper interpretation would substantially discredit American reliance on global militarism as the foundation of its grand strategy around the world. Perhaps, most troubling to me, especially in light of this commentary on the evasion of international law throughout the Vietnam War, is the new more drastic set of evasions of international law that have followed ‘the war on terror’ initiated in response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In any event, my book, as well as the current flurry of interest in Vietnam, seeks to encourage citizens pilgrims throughout the world to remember Vietnam as a culmination of the anti-colonial wars and as the basis for a revisionist view of the agency of hard power in the 21st century. I ask indulgence for my miserable attempt to add a photo of the cover below, which is an injustice to the talented Canadian artist, Julianne Allmand. who created it under the title, ‘Sticky Fire.’ I am painfully aware that I could have done far better as a photographer had I entered the digital age twenty years earlier.]
The Harmful Legacy of Lawlessness in Vietnam
More than 40 years after the defeat of the United States in Vietnam the central lessons of that war remain unlearned. Even worse, the mistakes made and crimes committed in Vietnam have been repeated at great human, material, and strategic cost in several subsequent national settings. The central unlearned lesson in Vietnam is that the collapse of the European colonial order fundamentally changed the effective balance of power in a variety of North/South conflict situations that reduce the agency of military superiority in a variety of ways.
What makes this change elusive is that it reflected developments that fall outside the policy parameters influential in the leadership circles of most governments for a cluster of reasons. Most fundamentally, governmental geopolitical calculations relating to world order continue to be based on attributing a decisive causal influence to relative military capabilities, an understanding at the core of ‘realist’ thinking and behavior. Within this paradigm military superiority is regarded as the main driver of conflict resolution, and the winners in wars are thought to reflect the advantages of hard power differentials. The efficiency and rewards of military conquest in the colonial era vindicated this kind of realist thinking. Europe with its dominant military technology was able to control the political life and exploit the resources of populous countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America with a minimum of expenditure and casualties, encountering manageable resistance, while reaping the rewards of empire. The outcomes of World War I and II further vindicated the wider orbit of the realist way of thinking and acting, with military superiority based on technological innovation, quantitative measures, and doctrinal adaptation to new circumstances of conflict receiving most of the credit for achieving political victories.
The Vietnam War was a dramatic and radical challenge to the realist consensus on how the world works, continuing a pattern already evident in nationalist victories in several earlier colonial wars, which were won against earlier expectations by anti-colonial forces. Despite these illuminating results of colonial wars after World War II the American defeat in Vietnam came as a shock. The candid acknowledgement of this defeat has been twisted out of recognition to this day by the interpretive spins placed upon the Vietnam experience by the American political establishment. The main motive of such partisan thinking was to avoid discrediting reliance on military power in the conduct of American foreign policy and to overcome political reluctance in the American public to fund high levels of military spending. Until the deceptive military victory in the First Gulf War of 1991, the policy community in the United States bemoaned what it described as ‘the Vietnam Syndrome,’ which was a shorthand designation for the supposedly unfortunate antipathy among the American citizenry to uses of hard power by the United States to uphold American geopolitical primacy throughout the world.
The quick and decisive desert victory against the imprudently exposed Iraqi armed forces massed on the desert frontier compelled Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, which it had recently conquered and annexed. This result of war making was construed to vindicate and thus restore realist confidence in American war making as a crucial instrument of world order. On closer examination, this enthusiasm for war generated by the almost costless victory in the desert terrain of the First Gulf War involved a category mistake on the part of American leaders, or so it seems. It confused the continuing relevance of military capabilities in conventional war encounters between sovereign states with the declining utility of military supremacy in wars of intervention or counterinsurgency wars, that is, violent conflicts between a foreign adversary and a national resistance movement. It should have been clear to expert commentators that the Vietnam War was an example of a massive foreign intervention being defeated by a skillfully mobilized and efficiently led national movement, and in this respect totally different from First Gulf War with respect to terrain of battle and what was at stake politically for the two sides.
Comprehending why the United States mishandled not only the war in Vietnam but misconstrued its result, is associated with earlier unlearned lessons that involved a misinterpretation of the lost colonial wars, most relevantly, the French defeat in the Indochina War despite the long and deep French presence. In retrospect it was evident to all that the French had failed to grasp the extraordinary resolve that informed the nationalist motivations of the Vietnamese and more than compensated for their military weaknesses, empowering Vietnamese society to endure severe and prolonged suffering to achieve eventual political independence and national sovereignty, and the accompanying collective sense of national pride. Under the inspirational leadership of Gandhi, India achieved independence and recovered sovereignty through a militant nonviolent struggle that by heroic perseverance overcame the grim and unscrupulous determination of 10 Downing Street to retain ‘the jewel’ in the crown of the British Empire whatever the costs of doing so might turn out to be. Whether articulated as the rise of ‘soft power’ or explained by reference to the imbalance between imperial commitments and nationalist perseverance and local knowledge, the story line is the same. The intervening foreign or alien power has lower stakes in such struggles than does an indigenous population effectively mobilized as a movement of national resistance. Colonial powers were slow to recognize that moral and political resistance to their presence was growing more formidable as the ideology of nationalism spread around the world. Resistance become more credible, and withstood a series of prodigious colonial efforts to retain control over colonized peoples, but as these struggles proceeded the former colonial overlords were at varying stages forced to recalculate their interests, and mostly decided that it was better to give up their colonial claims and withdraw militarily than further commit to what had become a lost cause.
We can also interpret this historical turn as reflecting the disparities between the political will of a people fighting for self-determination and a foreign government linked to private sector interests that are trying to retain the benefits of control over a distant country for the sake of resources, prestige, settler pressures, geopolitical rivalry, or a combination of these factors. From the end of World War II onwards, this imbalance of political wills seems to offer the best predictor of the outcome of colonial wars or military interventions in counterinsurgency struggles. In this regard, the French defeat in Indochina should have delivered a cautionary message to the Americans. In fairness, it should be pointed out that the French themselves didn’t learn much from their Indochina defeat, going on to wage and lose an even more damaging colonial war in Algeria eight years later. The noted French journalist, Bernard Fall tried hard to warn the Americans of the great difficulty of achieving a reversal of the French experience in its Indochina War. The French had higher than normal stakes in Indochina. It was to a significant extent ‘a settler colonial’ state, meaning that the French human and cultural presence had sunk deep roots that raised the stakes of withdrawal for France, an experience repeated on a larger scale in Algeria, but producing the same outcome but only after inflicting massive suffering on the native population. The American intervention in Vietnam was primarily motivated by the ideological rivalry of the Cold War, and did not have the high level of material and human interests that led the French to fight so hard to crush the Vietnamese and Algerian challenges to their colonial rule.
The ‘settler colonial’ situation of Algeria, and even more so, South Africa and Israel, complicate the overall analysis. In the event of settler control of the colonial state, the issue of foreign or alien rule becomes blurred, and the question of the identity of ‘the nation’ is itself contested in ways that are very different from the situation of a colonial administration governing on behalf of a European home country or metropole without any pretension of belonging to the occupied nation as if it was one’s own. Each situation has its own originality. For Jews in Israel who claim a biblical and ancestral mandate, and lacking a default homeland option in a distinct territory possess an intense political will to preserve their control of Palestine. The indigenous Arab population of Palestine also has a near absolute will to resist dispossession from their native lands, and are unwelcome elsewhere in the region, having experienced vulnerability to changes in local circumstances and discrimination in neighboring Arab countries. For this reason, as reinforced by the special relationship of Israel with the United States, the Palestinians are waging an uphill battle in which their supposedly inalienable rights of self-determination have been for decades squeezed almost beyond recognition.
Against this background, American reasoning about the Vietnam War displayed what later would be called ‘the arrogance of power,’ that is, the blind faith in the efficacy of its hard power superiority in conflict situations, whether nuclear, conventional, or counterinsurgent. The United States emerged from World War II as the dominant geopolitical actor in the world, having turned the tide of battle against Germany and Japan, as well as developing and using its monopoly over the ultimate weapon against Japan at the end the Pacific war by dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities. If Germany and Japan could not resist the American juggernaut, who could expect a country that Lyndon Johnson and Henry Kissinger called ‘a fourth rate Asian power’ to resist and repel the American military machine? In the end, it was the greater Vietnamese will to persevere and their cultural resilience that overcame American firepower, as well as the unsurpassed anti-colonial legitimacy of the Vietnamese struggle, which contributed to the rise of a robust worldwide anti-war movement of solidarity, including within the United States. By the mid-1960s it had become increasingly evident that the side that won the legitimacy war would prevail politically even if compelled to endure devastating losses on the battlefield and throughout the country.
The most serious blind spot of the realist paradigm is its inability to take account of its weaknesses with respect to legitimacy as a dimension of political life. This became manifest in the Vietnam setting. The American claims with respect to its presence in Vietnam were essentially ideological and geopolitical, the importance of avoiding the spread of Communism and thus containing the expansionist challenge being allegedly mounted by the Soviet Union and China. In opposition to such reasoning were the historically more influential claims in support of nationalism and the right of self-determination, especially in contexts involving struggles of a colonized people against their colonial masters. Vietnamese legitimacy claims with respect to the United States were further validated by the flagrant disregard of international law constraints and the impact of this disregard on world public opinion, which contributed to mounting American domestic opposition to continuing the war.
This collection of essays written in support of the relevance of international law to the shaping of American foreign policy during the Vietnam Era remains instructive as the 21st century unfolds. The United States has continued to pursue a dubious diplomacy punctuated by military interventions in distant countries, fighting a series of losing counterinsurgency wars after Vietnam, remaining unresponsive to the constraints on recourse to war and war fighting embodied in international law and the UN Charter. The realist consensus, regarding law and morality as dispensable and marginal impediments to sustaining geopolitical effectiveness in world politics, continues to govern the policymaking entourage that shapes war/peace decisions, and has produced a string of costly defeats (especially, Afghanistan and Iraq) as well as badly damaged America’s reputation as a global leader, which in the end depends far more on its legitimacy credentials than on its battlefield prowess, but suffers most when it both loses on the battlefield and should lose if law and morality are taken into account. It is the contention of these essays that adherence to international law is vital for world peace and in the national interest of all countries on all occasions, and this includes the United States.
So-called ‘American exceptionalism’ operates as a free pass in Washington to disregard the rules applicable to other sovereign states, but as the recent history of international conflicts reveal, it does no favors to the United States or its people, although it may further the careers of diplomats and enhance the profits of special interests. Further, it seems evident that the continuing exercise of discretion to ignore legal constraints on the use of international force will be accompanied by repeated disappointments in the conduct of foreign policy for this most mighty country in all of world history and will also continue to erode its legitimacy credentials.
The 9/11 attacks gave the United States a chance to start over, undertaking a response to mega-terrorism within the framework of the rule of law that would have been a great contribution to building up the global rule of law and charting a new path toward sustainable global governance. Instead, a ‘war on terror’ was immediately launched that amounted to a declaration of permanent warfare, undermining the authority of international law and the UN, and perversely leading to the spread and intensification of terrorist activities. The defaming scandals of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and ‘enhanced interrogation’ together with the failure to prosecute those responsible for authorizing and perpetrating ‘torture’ during the presidency of George W. Bush confirm the deeply entrenched refusal of the U.S. Government to self-enforce minimum standards of international criminal accountability, and its obvious endorsement of a flawed international criminal law regime that currently rests on the major premise of geopolitical impunity as interpreted by way of American exceptionalism. The emergence of ISIS, as had been prefigured in Afghanistan by the rise of Al Qaeda and occasioned by American occupation policies in Iraq, is the ultimate blowback experience betokening an erroneous hard power opportunism in Washington misleadingly chosen as the best approach to national and global security.
The essays in the volume also explore the failure to abide by the experience after World War II, which included imposing criminal accountability on those surviving German and Japanese military and political leaders responsible for the commission of state crime centering on the recourse to and prosecution of aggressive warfare, as well as the mass atrocities epitomized by the death camps. By now it is confirmed that the Nuremberg and Tokyo Judgments although respectful of defendants’ rights and substantively justified were in a larger sense ‘victors’ justice’ by exempting the crimes of the winners from legal scrutiny. The principles of law applied to the losers at Nuremberg and Tokyo were never intended to be applied to the winners, or to those who would after 1945 control the geopolitical dimensions of world politics and dominate its various episodes of warfare. Criminal accountability in relation to warfare was cynically applied to the losers and those in subordinate positions of state power throughout the world, and still is.
Into this normative vacuum stepped the rising activism of civil society, and this became initially disclosed as part of the rising opposition to the Vietnam War. The great British philosopher and political activist, Bertrand Russell, convened a tribunal of conscience composed of moral and cultural authority figures with international stature to gather the best evidence available of American criminality in the ongoing Vietnam War. This bold initative filled the institutional vacuum created by the lack of political will among governments or at the UN to carry forward the Nuremberg impulse with respect to accountability of individuals. In effect, the project of imposing criminal accountability on the strong has become an exclusive undertaking of global civil society, although with some collaboration from moderate governments that do not enjoy the status of being geopolitical actors. It was this transnational collaboration between governments and civil society actors that generated the momentum leading to the unexpected establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002, but as yet this new institution has given little indication that it possesses the capacity and even the mandate to extend the logic of accountability to geopolitical actors, above all the United States and its closest friends.
Reviewing the international law debates that took place during the Vietnam War remains critically relevant to any reform of American foreign policy relating to these war/peace issues. As in Vietnam, adherence to international law would have been consistently beneficial normatively (upholding law, protecting the vulnerable, avoiding casualties), geopolitically (respecting support for the ethos of self-determination and human rights as evidenced by the flow of history since 1945), and ideologically (recognizing that ‘terrorism’ is a law enforcement issue, not an occasion for war making; realizing that nationalist ideology does not translate into neighbors becoming ‘falling dominos’).
The lesson that most needed to be learned in the Vietnam Era, and remains unlearned 40 years after the ending of war, is the practical and principled desirability of adherence to international law in war/peace situations. Systemic violations of international law lead to geopolitical disappointment, human suffering, societal devastation, and a nihilistic atmosphere of international lawlessness. In contrast, habits and policies of adherence to international law, especially with respect to war/peace issues and matters of national and global security, privileges an emphasis on diplomacy, international cooperation, law enforcement, UN authority, as well as generates the self-confidence of political communities to be respectful of prudent restraint and develop greater reliance in pursuit of national goals on international procedures, norms, and institutions. Such a shift away from lawlessness is, of course, by no means a guaranty of peace and justice, but it provides the crucial foundation for creating better prospects for human wellbeing in the 21st Century.
In my preoccupation during the years between 1963 and 1975 I became obsessed with the Vietnam War, and how I might act as a scholar and citizen to bring this imprudent, unlawful, and immoral war to an end. My writing in this period reflects a process of deepening engagement, and an evolving shift of focus and orientation. In my initial articles on the war I was seeking to demonstrate the unlawfulness of the underlying intervention in Vietnam, with a special emphasis on the American expansion of the war from a struggle for control of the state in what was then treated as ‘South Vietnam’ to a conflict that included then ‘North Vietnam,’ which altered the nature of the war from an internal war in the South to a war between the two political communities that comprised Vietnam after the French defeat in 1954, and persisted until the American defeat in 1975. In the early selections represented here, the international law arguments were underpinned by a realist assessment that rested on the informed belief that this was an ill-considered commitment of U.S. military forces for the sake of a very dubious conception of national interests, which centered on an imprudent opposition to the anti-colonial and pro-nationalist flow of history.
My attitudes toward the war, while never losing the central conviction that the United States was engaged in Vietnam in a manner that violated the most fundamental norms of international law, shifted in the direction of viewing the tactical conduct of the war as increasingly raising questions of international criminal accountability. This shift is reflected in the later selections from my writing that emphasize the relevance of the Nuremberg Principles to the American involvement in Vietnam. I became convinced that a one-sided war in which high technology weaponry was deployed against a totally vulnerable peasant society was an intrinsically criminal enterprise, and additionally almost inevitably gave rise to battlefield atrocities as mythified through treating the My Lai massacre as a singular event. I was also struck by the degree to which the geopolitical status of the United States marginalized the United Nations and limited the relevance of international law to a domestic debate within the United States between the government and its critics in Congress and throughout American society.
One enduring effect of this debate was to give the American anti-war movement the confidence to challenge government policy despite the inhibitions of the Cold War that made any seeming sympathy for the Communist side in the Vietnamese struggle grounds for suspicion and media hostility, particularly in the early years of the war. It is only toward the end of the Vietnam War when the government lost the trust of a large portion of the citizenry and split the foreign policy establishment, as well as becoming clear that the sacrifice of young American lives was not going to end in a military victory, that the prudential arguments against continuing the war began to outweigh the ideological case for its prosecution. This development also had the effect of pushing public opinion in an anti-war direction.
 In the midst of the Vietnam War I edited a four volume series on the relevance of international law to the policies guiding decision makers and policy advocates on both sides of the debate that raged throughout the war.
 See Bernard Fall, Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1961).
 For a range of views see Jeremy R. Hammond, Obstacle to Peace: The U.S. Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Worldview Publications, forthcoming 2015); Rashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013); Peter Bauck & Mohammed Omer, eds., The Oslo Accords, 1993-2013 (Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 2013); For the U.S. /Israeli spin on the peace process see Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace(New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2004).
 J. William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power (New York: Random House, 1966).
 As argued in Richard Falk, Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope (Washington, D.C.: Just World Books, 2014).
 In the Name of America (New York: Clergy & Laity Concerned About Vietnam, 1968).
 An important early account along these lines in the Japanese context is Richard H. Minear, Victors’ Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971).
 Justice Robert Jackson, the American prosecutor, did argue to the tribunal in Nuremberg that the legitimacy of the judgment against the German defendants depended upon the victors in the future accepting the same framework of accountability, but such words fell on deaf ears in the capitals of the world powers.
The proceedings of the Russell Tribunal can be found in John Duffett, ed., Against the Crime of Silence: Proceedings of the Russell International War Crimes Tribunal, Stockholm-Copenhagen (New York: Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, 1968).
 These issues were fully explored in Richard Falk, Gabriel Kolko, and Robert Jay Lifton, eds., Crimes of War: A legal, political-documentary, and psychological inquiry into the responsibility of leaders, citizens, and soldiers(New York: Random House, 1971).
 For the initial expose see Seymour M. Hersh, My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and its Aftermath (New York: Random House, 1970). See also Kendrick Oliver, The My Lai Massacre in American history and memory, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006).
 The release of the Pentagon Papers was a milestone along the path that led from a pro-war consensus to a rising tide of opposition. See interpretation by Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).