Taking on the Vietnam syndrome lie

Opinion

The Vietnam War ended in 1975. But, judging by the e-mail I got recently denouncing John Kerry’s role in Vietnam Veterans Against the War and even dredging up Jane Fonda (the “Hanoi Jane” of right-wing hate propaganda), the Bush administration is preparing for an ideological blitzkrieg on that war.

The Republicans have an all-purpose history of the war that they can relate to present politics. That “history” teaches that two Democratic presidents, JFK and LBJ, kept the military from winning the war and left Richard Nixon without options when he assumed the presidency in 1969. The Democrats have been divided and defensive on the war since its end.

Now is the time for progressive activists to call upon the Democrats to renew the arguments made by the antiwar movement, which included their party’s liberal wing. Those arguments were that the Vietnam War was an unjust war against a people fighting for national liberation. American leaders were in effect trapped in their own cold-war ideology as they charted a path of intervention and escalation in the name of fighting “North Vietnamese aggression” and “international communism.”

Most of the world correctly saw the conflict as a civil war in a former French colony, where the side fighting for socialism and national unification had the support of the people. Globally, people knew that the central victims of the war were the 3 million casualties and the Vietnamese people who had to reconstruct their land after such devastation.

After the war ended three decades ago, Democrats stopped talking about Vietnam. Conservative Republicans and an assortment of cold warriors were largely unopposed as they blamed the antiwar movement for creating a “Vietnam syndrome” that made successive presidents afraid of political repercussions if they used U.S. military power in foreign affairs. Incredibly, right-wingers played on the confusion of millions to propagate the myth that there were still secret prisoners of war (POWs) and missing in action (MIAs) Americans held hostage in Vietnam.

Today, Republicans use such arguments to portray the GOP as the party of national security, the party that “won” the Cold War in the Reagan years and might have won the Vietnam War if they and not Kennedy-Johnson Democrats had been in power in the 1960s. In defeating the Bush administration, people’s movements should press the Democrats to “take the flag” away from the Bush administration.

First of all, it should be made clear that the cold warriors of both parties who invaded Indochina brought death and destruction to millions and dishonor to the United States. Those who opposed the war, and exposed the Big Lies on which the government defended it, had and have a much better claim to patriotism than those who supported the escalation.

The antiwar movement’s slogan, “Peace is Patriotic,” should be a rallying cry for the Kerry campaign, since living for and respecting your country is a much truer form of patriotism than, as in the case of George W. Bush, praising others who go to war for it while you use family influence to avoid the draft.

Sen. John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and later a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, can use his antiwar activism positively, making it clear that he is proud of his role in opposing one disastrous war, and that, as president he will make sure that the occupation of Iraq ends and the Iraq war itself will be the end of U.S. unilateral military interventions, not a “new beginning,” as Bush administration policy planners see it.

The Democrats’ silence on issues of foreign policy and related military spending has contributed to right-wing Republican control over much of the U.S. political agenda since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.

Today the Kerry campaign has a great opportunity to reach millions of Americans who see the Bush administration foreign policy as a global Monroe Doctrine that can only lead to more Iraq-style wars and more acts of terrorism.

If the Kerry campaign embraces the view of peace activists as an answer to Bush, it can put forward a positive foreign policy vision that addresses the social and economic inequalities that produce militarist regimes and terrorist networks. It can also take the “flag” and the “national security” issue away from the Republicans, energize activists and the electorate, and win the election for itself, the American people, and the people of the world.



Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.