Here’s a paradox of the last few decades: as American military power has been less and less effective in achieving Washington’s goals, the rhetoric surrounding that power has grown more and more boastful.
The cliché that our armed forces are the best and mightiest in the world – even if the U.S. military hasn’t won any of its significant wars in the last 50 years – resonates in President Trump’s promise to make America great again. Many Americans, clearly including him, associate that slogan with military power. And we don’t just want to be greater again in the future; we also want to have been greater in the past than we really were. To that end, we regularly forget some facts and invent others that will make our history more comfortable to remember.
The Vietnam War was obviously one of the most disastrous of this country’s past mistakes – and the Pentagon’s “50th Vietnam War commemoration” is a near-perfect example of how both national and military leaders and a willing public have avoided facing important truths about Vietnam and American wars ever since. That’s not just a matter of inaccurate storytelling. It’s dangerous because refusing to recognize past mistakes makes it easier to commit future ones. For that reason, the selective history the Pentagon has been putting out on Vietnam for more than six years, and what that story tells us about the military leadership’s institutional memory, is worth a critical look.
The commemoration website’s historical material – principally a set of fact sheets and an extensive “interactive timeline” – is laced with factual mistakes, errors of both omission and commission. Its history drastically minimizes or more often completely ignores facts that reveal America’s policy and moral failures, its missteps on the ground, and its complicity (along with the enemy’s) in massive civilian suffering not just in Vietnam but in Laos and Cambodia, too. Opposition to the war at home is largely scrubbed out of the record as well.
Perhaps more telling than the misstatements has been the prolonged failure to correct faulty entries that have remained unchanged for years even though the site’s administrators were well aware of them.
Back in 2014, following a critical TomDispatch article by Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, and pressure from other critics, officials did revise a few items. Those included the My Lai massacre (though the site still does not use the word “massacre” for the murder by U.S. troops of more than 500 civilians, including women and children) and the naval clashes in the Tonkin Gulf that led to the first U.S. air strikes on North Vietnam. But no more corrections followed, leaving a startling range of wrong or misleading statements untouched.
In its most noticeable distortion, the site virtually ignores the domestic debate on the war and the divisions it caused in American society. As of this writing, the 30-year (1945-1975) timeline still includes only terse one-line entries for each of the massive national antiwar protests of October and November 1969. The wave of demonstrations in May 1970 following the U.S. “incursion” in Cambodia gets a somewhat more detailed entry, mentioning the deaths of protesters killed by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio and by police gunfire at Jackson State College in Mississippi.
Aside from those, though, most other important moments in the peace movement are missing from the timeline altogether. The massive 1965 and 1967 protest marches outside the Pentagon are nowhere mentioned. Nor are the chaotic protests the following year outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Although the Vietnam veterans’ experience is billed as the central theme of the commemoration, veterans who came to oppose the war were also blanked out of its story until just days ago, when officials at the commemoration’s History and Legacy branch learned that I was working on the present article. Only then did the site managers insert a new entry on the dramatic week-long protest in April 1971, when hundreds of disillusioned vets threw away their decorations in front of the U.S. Capitol – an event previously not mentioned in the timeline at all.
The new entry, along with briefly describing the veterans’ protests, refers to future secretary of state and presidential candidate John Kerry’s televised testimony that week before a Senate committee. However, it does not mention the moment that most historians would describe as the most memorable in that hearing, when Kerry, wearing Navy fatigues with his Vietnam ribbons pinned above his shirt pocket, asked the committee members, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Even if the veterans’ demonstration and some other notable gaps have been belatedly corrected, they are still worth noting because they illustrate the nature of the message the site has been putting out for the last five or six years, and the underlying attitude that has let acknowledged mistakes go uncorrected for half or more of that time.
Errors of commission…
Along with misleading omissions, the commemoration site also contains direct misstatements of historical fact that have not been corrected even though site officials have been aware of them for at least a year, or possibly longer.
Examples include a pair of falsehoods that, with symbolic symmetry, distort historical reality at opposite ends of America’s Vietnam involvement. One falsifies a key issue at an early turn on the U.S. path toward involvement in that war, while the other misrepresents an important turning point in its very last stage.
The first false statement is in the U.S. Army fact sheet – there is one for each military service – which says in its opening paragraph, “The Geneva Accords of July 1954 divided Vietnam into a Communist state in the North and an anti-Communist state in the South.”
That is wrong. On the contrary, rather than creating two states, the Geneva agreements, which ended hostilities in France’s failed effort to maintain colonial rule in Indochina, definitively recognized Vietnam as a single nation. The line it established between South and North was defined as a “provisional military demarcation line” temporarily separating the opposing French and Viet Minh armed forces, pending national elections for a unified government. The Geneva Conference’s final declaration explicitly stated that the ceasefire line “should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.”
That is not a minor technicality. It misleads on a fundamental question: What was the war about? Was it illegal foreign aggression by North Vietnam against the South, as the United States and the South Vietnamese government in Saigon – neither of which signed the Geneva treaty – insisted? Or was it a war to reunify an illegally divided country, as the Communist side proclaimed? There are arguments to be made on both sides of that question, but the Geneva accords did not support Washington’s legal and political justification for intervening – and wrongly indicating that it did gives the U.S. claim an uncontested legitimacy it simply did not have.
Using its codename, Linebacker, the fact sheet describes events this way: “As [peace] talks dragged on, President Nixon ordered a second Linebacker operation and in late December 1972, B-52s struck Hanoi and Haiphong at night and A-7s and F-4s struck during the day… The North Vietnamese, now defenseless, returned to negotiations and quickly concluded a settlement. American airpower therefore played a decisive role in ending the long conflict.”
Like the Army’s statement on Geneva, that is false. The December bombing brought no significant new concessions from North Vietnam. The peace agreement signed by Hanoi’s representatives in January 1973 was, in every meaningful respect, identical to the draft treaty they had already accepted in October 1972, months before the bombing.
That earlier text, which differed from the January agreement only on a few minor procedural points, was not a negotiating proposal or a loose agreement in principle. It was a definitive final draft approved down to the last detail by both sides and was not carried out only because the United States withdrew its commitment after South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu, whose government had not participated in the negotiations, rejected its terms. Under strong U.S. pressure, Thieu accepted essentially the same agreement in January. So it was Saigon, not Hanoi, that changed its position after the bombing.
That’s a meaningful mistake, too. It mischaracterizes a critical event in the negotiations that ended the U.S. war, and then cites that erroneous history to falsely claim that air power played a decisive role.
…and of omission
Until the most recent changes spurred by my inquiry, some crucial historical events were missing from the timeline. Although a few of those blank spots have now been nominally filled, several of the revised entries still lack meaningful details.
One notable omission was the March 1970 coup in Cambodia that overthrew Prince Norodom Sihanouk, toppled Cambodia into full-scale war, and set the stage for U.S. troops to enter the country just six weeks later. Another was South Vietnam’s only authentic national election in September 1967, when General Nguyen Van Thieu became president with slightly more than one-third of the votes. An entry on that election was inserted in one of those late amendments to the timeline, but it still says nothing about the surprise second-place candidate, Truong Dinh Dzu, who ran on a peace platform, was arrested soon after the election and imprisoned for the next five years – tarnishing claims that the United States was supporting a legitimate democracy in South Vietnam.
Another gap only partially filled after all these years by the newly amended timeline has to do with the intensive and highly controversial U.S. bombing campaign in Cambodia in 1973, conducted for nearly six months after the Paris peace agreement ended U.S. combat in Vietnam.
Replacing a single oblique reference in the earlier entry, which had merely noted that the U.S. Congress ended funding in August 1973 for “air action in Cambodia and Laos” but said nothing else about that campaign, the timeline now specifies where and when the bombing took place. However, it still gives no details about the scale and severity of those air strikes. (Two hundred and fifty thousand tons of U.S. bombs fell on Cambodia in 1973, more than were dropped on Japan in all of World War II.) Nor does it offer any hint that the bombing did not end Cambodia’s agony. The timeline mentions Cambodia just once more, in a one-sentence entry on its final page saying only, “On April 16 and 17 , Phnom Penh falls to the communist forces, the Khmer Rouge.”
Omissions extend even to the dates that were chosen for the 50th “anniversary” (if that word can be used to designate a span of more than 13 years). Rather than marking any events in the actual Vietnam War, the commemoration officially runs between two U.S. holidays – from Memorial Day in 2012 until Veterans Day in 2025.
A beginning date for the Vietnam War is indeed hard to pin down, but there were perfectly clear choices for its end: January 27, 1973, when U.S. combat ended under the Paris peace agreement; March 29, 1973, when the last American war prisoners were released and the last U.S. combat troops departed; or April 30, 1975, when Saigon surrendered to the Communists. By not choosing any of those, the Pentagon spared veterans and the rest of us from the possible discomfort of noticing the real dates and remembering the great national failure they represent.
Changes promised, but unmade
Pentagon commemoration officials have long acknowledged serious shortcomings in the timeline. As far back as March 2015, administrators informed a group of the site’s critics that sooner or later they planned to replace it with a brand-new timeline giving a more accurate and balanced version of events in Vietnam.
The following January, retired Army Colonel Mark Franklin, chief of the commemoration’s History and Legacy Branch, told historians at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting that the updated timeline would be posted “soon.” He even showed slides from what was to be the new version. But nothing on the site had changed in the fall of 2017, many months later, when I contacted his office before writing an earlier article on the commemoration. I was told then that a completely revised website, including a brand-new timeline, was expected to be posted by the end of that year. If that didn’t happen, the plan was to go ahead with corrections in the existing timeline.
Almost exactly a year later, the site has still not been replaced and the revised timeline, prepared several years ago, remains in limbo. The official explanation for the delay is that unresolved contracting issues have kept work on the new site from starting. Franklin has emphatically denied that there has been a deliberate attempt to cling to faulty history or any intent to “portray one particular narrative about the war.” But keeping drastically whitewashed history on the site for so many years after promising to change it does not exactly suggest a strong commitment to provide “historically accurate materials,” as promised on the History and Legacy section’s home page, to help Americans understand their country’s experience in Vietnam.
Mythologizing our wars and ourselves
The commemoration not only tells us something about the Pentagon’s custodians of our Vietnam War memories, it also reveals something much broader and deeper in American political and popular culture: a powerful need to think of ourselves as a righteous, just, and successful country that fights only righteous, just, and successful wars.
This is, of course, hardly a new phenomenon. As far back as 1899, in a speech defending the military campaign that would make the Philippines a U.S. colony, President William McKinley assured his audience that it was not a war for treasure or conquest because such wars were foreign to the American character. “No imperial designs lurk in the American mind,” McKinley declared. “They are alien to American sentiment, thought, and purpose.” The “sole purpose” of sending U.S. troops to the Philippines, he went on, was “the welfare and happiness and the rights of the inhabitants of the Philippine Islands.” As chronicled in Stephen Kinzer’s fascinating 2017 book, The True Flag, that same note was struck in many orations at the time – speeches that perfectly expressed what more than a century later would be called “American exceptionalism.”
Along with nurturing a broad national assumption of moral superiority, for a generation American political leaders have shored up U.S. military ventures with rhetoric that conflates “support the troops” with “support the policy.” A variant of that formula that has been retroactively applied to Vietnam equates “honor the veterans” with “honor the war,” the clear implication being that criticizing the war is indeed disrespecting those veterans. It’s false logic, but looking at the Pentagon commemoration site, it’s impossible not to see its influence there.
The commemoration’s most recent corrections are a welcome but small step toward greater accuracy. But the site is still far from showing the true nature of what this country really did to itself and to many millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians in the tragic mistake we call the Vietnam War. For that, far greater changes will be needed than have been made so far.