It is not enough to deplore that the war in Vietnam has cost the lives of at least a quarter-million Vietnamese of all ages and political persuasions during the last two-and-a-half years and that it is likely to take the lives of thousands of young Americans as well. What can and, in our view, must be done in Vietnam as a first step is to limit the damage our present military operations are inflicting on innocent people; second, to “de-escalate” the war itself so that effective contacts, discussions, and negotiations with the other side may go on; and third, to join with others in planning ahead for the restoration of a Vietnam that will not be a menace to itself, to its region, or to world peace. More generally, we must now attempt to end the war and build from the diplomatic settlement that follows an American foreign policy that is more rational and less isolated from the rest of the world.Now that American units are fighting in Vietnam it is specious and immoral to argue that this is not an American war and that we are not responsible for the indiscriminate killing and maiming of civilians by the use of such weapons as fragmentation bombs, napalm, and plant-killing and incapacitating gases on ill-defined targets. Furthermore, responsible Western observers have reported that torture, brutal interrogation, and killing of the enemy have taken place in the presence of American officials who showed no concern whether or not the victims were treated as prisoners of war. On August 10th, Dean Rusk announced to the President of the International Red Cross that the United States is now “applying the provisions of the Geneva Convention” and is “developing plans to assist the Government of the Republic of Vietnam to…process and care for an increased number of captives taken in combat…The two governments are also increasing programs of instruction for personnel in the details…of the Convention.” The public must insist that the United States scrupulously enforce this new commitment. As a participant in most of the treaties covering the international law of war—and as a prosecuting power at the Nuremberg Trials—the United States has no excuse for evading its responsibilities in this matter. It must not allow the Aesopian language of “measured response” and “escalation” to mask tactics which could eventually amount to genocide.
a. All American servicemen in Vietnam should be told that, at the least, the Hague and Geneva Conventions on Land Warfare and on the Treatment of Prisoners of War and War Victims, fully apply in combat operations in Vietnam. They should be told that the Geneva Convention of 1949 covers P.O.W. situations and extends to “conflicts not of an international nature” (i.e., civil wars). That Convention, by the way, was ratified by South Vietnam (1953), the United States (1955), and North Vietnam (1957).
b. Both South Vietnamese and American troops in Vietnam should be told that the failure of the enemy to observe those rules does not absolve…
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