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A Special Supplement: Vietnam: How Government Became Wolves

The outside power was never able to compete. The US could maim and kill, drive peasants from their homes, destroy the countryside and organized social life, but not “build a nation” in the approved image. We had taken on a society that was simply not fit for domination. Therefore, it had to be destroyed. This, as the realistic experts now soberly explain, was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.

American ambassadors proposed that the US should exert influence on the GVN to adopt a program “to give the new government an idealistic appeal or philosophy which will compete with that declared by the VC” (Bunker, August, 1967, II, p. 403), or to “saturate the minds of the people with some socially conscious and attractive ideology, which is susceptible of being carried out” (Lodge, mid-1964, II, p. 530). Somehow, these concepts never succeeded in overcoming the “idealistic appeal” of the NLF in rural Vietnam.

Failing to saturate the minds of the people with a sufficiently “attractive ideology,” the Administration turned to the easier task of saturating the country with troops and bombs and defoliants. A State Department paper observed that “saturation bombing by artillery and airstrikes…is an accepted tactic, and there is probably no province where this tactic has not been widely employed” (end of 1966, IV, p. 398). The only objection raised was that it might be more profitable to place greater emphasis on winning support for the Saigon regime. That US force should be devoted to winning support for its own creation, the Saigon regime, apparently seemed no more strange to the author of this statement than that the US should be conducting saturation bombing of all provinces in South Vietnam.

The main force of the American war has been directed against the population of South Vietnam since the early 1960s, with a vast increase in 1965 when a virtual occupying army was deployed and the “basic strategy of punitive bombing” was initiated in the South (Westmoreland, March, 1965, III, p. 464). It is revealing to investigate the decision to undertake the massive air attack on South Vietnam. “It takes time to make hard decisions,” McNaughton wrote. “It took us almost a year to take the decision to bomb North Vietnam” (IV, p. 48). This decision is studied in painstaking detail.

Little is said, however, about the decision to bomb South Vietnam at more than triple the intensity of the bombing in North Vietnam by 1966. This was the fundamental policy decision of early 1965. As Bernard Fall pointed out not long afterward, “What changed the character of the Vietnam war was not the decision to bomb North Vietnam; not the decision to use American ground troops in South Vietnam; but the decision to wage unlimited aerial warfare inside the country at the price of literally pounding the place to bits.” But of this decision we learn very little in the Pentagon history, and only a few scattered remarks mention the effects of the bombing.

The contrast between the attention given to the bombing of the North and the far more destructive bombing in South Vietnam is still more remarkable in the light of the fact that South Vietnam, from early 1965, was subjected not only to unprecedented aerial attack but also to artillery bombardment which may well have been even more destructive. In January, 1966, Secretary McNamara introduced into congressional testimony parts of a “Motivation and Morale study,” still otherwise secret, which indicated that artillery bombardment may be even more effective than air attack in causing villagers “to move where they will be safe from such attacks,” “regardless of their attitude to the GVN” (Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Committee Hearings, January, 1966).

The study was optimistic, concluding that such methods would help to dry up the popular sea in which the guerrillas swim. In later years, Westmoreland and others were to point to the “fact that the enemy has…been denied recruits” from populated areas in the South, citing this as the cause of infiltration by regular North Vietnamese units, which was first confirmed as taking place in late April, 1965.

The reason why the bombing of the North was given such meticulous attention while the far greater attack on the South was undertaken as a matter of course seems clear enough. The bombing of North Vietnam was highly visible, very costly to the US, and extremely dangerous, posing a steady and perceived threat of general war. By contrast, the far more savage attack on the South was merely destroying the rural society, and therefore—so the documentary record indicates—did not merit the attention of the planners in Washington.

The moral character of planning is strikingly revealed by this contrast, particularly on the rare occasions when some qualms about the bombing are expressed. When B-52 bombing began in mid-1965, William Bundy noted only one problem: “We look silly and arouse criticism if these [B-52 raids] do not show significant results” (IV, p. 612). It appears to be no problem at all that if the B-52 raids do show significant results we may turn out to be mass murderers. In the nature of the case, there can be partial information at best about the targets of these weapons of mass terror and destruction.

Within a few months, B-52 raids were reported by Bernard Fall and others in the populous Mekong Delta, with devastating effects on the civilian society, a pattern repeated elsewhere in South Vietnam and, recently, in the North as well. There is, to my knowledge, no record of any hesitation about the use of any military tactic except on grounds of the potential cost to the decision-makers and the interests they represent.

Concern for law is also absent. The UN Charter, which, according to the Constitution, became the supreme law of the land when ratified by the Senate, clearly prohibits the threat or use of force in international affairs, except in the case of collective self-defense against armed attack or under Security Council authorization. The record shows plainly that American use of force against the population of South Vietnam always preceded any exercise of force attributable to the DRV and was always vastly greater in scale. I put aside the question whether the DRV was entitled to come to the aid of the Southern NLF after the dismantling of the Geneva Accords by the US and the regime it instituted in the South, and after the widespread use of terror by this regime, terror which far exceeded the subsequent counterviolence of the indigenous resistance.

US administrations never regarded themselves as bound by the law. To cite one illustration, immediately after the Geneva Agreements, the National Security Council adopted NSC 5429/2 (August 20, 1954), which recommended covert operations and other pressures and preparation for direct use of US military force in the event of “local Communist subversion or rebellion not constituting armed attack” (my emphasis), with use of US military force “against the external source of such subversion or rebellion (including Communist China if determined to be the source).” The use of force in the absence of armed attack, as recommended in this very important document, is in clear and explicit violation of law.

Further recommendations were: to “conduct covert operations on a large and effective scale” throughout Indochina, in particular, to “exploit available means to make more difficult the control by the Viet Minh of North Vietnam,” to defeat Communist subversion and influence, to maintain noncommunist governments elsewhere in Indochina, and “to prevent a Communist victory through all-Vietnam elections.” These proposals not only express an open contempt for solemn treaty obligations (the UN Charter in particular), but also indicate a clear intention to subvert the Geneva Accords. I might add that the contents of this National Security Council document are not presented accurately in the Pentagon history (cf. I, pp. 204, 216); and the crucial events of the next six years are, in my opinion, presented quite inadequately, in fact, seriously misrepresented, a matter discussed in some detail in my essay in Critical Essays on the Pentagon Papers (Chomsky and Zinn, eds., Beacon, 1972).

In a parody of the law, planners repeatedly insisted that “after, but only after, we have established a clear pattern of pressure” could peaceful means be considered (William Bundy, August 11, 1964, III, p. 526). The Pentagon historian notes that President Johnson’s peace “initiative” of April 7, 1965, “was in accord with the ‘pressures policy’ rationale that had been worked out in November, 1964, which held that US readiness to negotiate was not to be surfaced until after a series of air strikes had been carried out against important targets in North Vietnam” (III, p. 356). “Significantly,” the historian adds, the peace initiative was preceded by intensive bombing. Repeatedly in subsequent years, apparent opportunities for negotiations were undercut by sudden escalation of bombing (IV, pp. 135, 205).

The Pentagon historian regards this as “inadvertent” or an “unfortunate coincidence.” It is possible, however, that each incident is an example of the “pressures policy,” the general policy of application of force prior to efforts toward peaceful settlement of disputes, in explicit contradiction of the law. (Cf. UN Charter, Articles 2, 33, 39. See also Peter Dale Scott, The War Conspiracy, Bobbs-Merrill, 1972, chapter 4.)

The “pressures policy” was inevitable, given the US commitment to a “noncommunist regime” and the realization that a settlement based on indigenous political forces would probably not achieve this objective. The political weakness of the US-imposed regimes led to the strategy of annihilation, out of “military necessity”; it also led to reliance on force in advance of and in place of the peaceful means prescribed by law.

The essence of the US government position is revealed by public statements explaining the concept of “aggression.” Consider, for example, the fairly typical remarks of Adlai Stevenson before the UN Security Council, May 21, 1964 (III, pp. 715-6). He observed that “the point is the same in Vietnam today as it was in Greece in 1947.” In both cases the US was, he said, defending a free people from “internal aggression.” What is “internal aggression”? It is “aggression” by a mass-based indigenous movement against a government protected by foreign power, where the “internal aggression” has the kind of outside support that few wars of liberation have lacked (the American Revolution, to cite one case).

In the case of Greece, as of Vietnam, the Administration insisted that the “internal aggressors” were merely agents of a global conspiracy directed by Moscow or “Peiping,” in both cases in defiance of available evidence;8 though, even if it were true, US intervention would not have been permissible without Security Council authorization. As I have noted, the US in effect conceded that the intervention was illegitimate by insisting upon its authority to intevene in the case of local subversion and aggression without armed attack, that is, “internal aggression.”

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    For discussion of the facts about Greece, and their relevant historical background, see Gabriel Kolko, The Politics of War (Random House, 1968); Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power (Harper & Row, 1972). For some parallels between Greece and Vietnam, see Todd Gitlin, “Counter-insurgency: Myth and Reality in Greece,” in David Horowitz, ed., Containment and Revolution (Blond, 1967); and L. S. Stavrianos, “Greece’s Other History,” New York Review of Books, June 17, 1971. See also Richard Barnet, Intervention and Revolution (World, 1968).

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