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Quote of the Day: U.S. Presidents Continue to Obfuscate the Truth About the Vietnam War

vietnam war

By Norman Solomon, Salon, Joe Biden and Vietnam: American presidents can’t tell the truth about a tragic mistake

When Joe Biden flew out of Hanoi on Sept. 11, he was leaving a country where U.S. warfare caused roughly 3.8 million Vietnamese deaths. But like every other president since the Vietnam War, he gave no sign of remorse. In fact, Biden led up to his visit by presiding over a White House ceremony that glorified the war as a noble effort.

Presenting the Medal of Honor on Sept. 5 to former Army pilot Larry L. Taylor for bravery during combat, Biden praised the veteran with effusive accolades for risking his life in Vietnam to rescue fellow soldiers from “the enemy.” But that heroism was 55 years ago. Why present the medal on national television just days before traveling to Vietnam?

The timing reaffirmed the shameless pride in the U.S. war on Vietnam that one president after another has tried to render as history. You might think that — after killing such a vast number of people in a war of aggression based on continuous deceptions — some humility and even penance would be in order.

But no. As George Orwell put it, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And a government that intends to continue its might-makes-right use of military power needs leaders who do their best to distort history with foggy rhetoric and purposeful omissions. Lies and evasions about past wars are prefigurative for future wars.

And so, at a press conference in Hanoi, the closest Biden came to acknowledging the slaughter and devastation inflicted on Vietnam by the U.S. military was this sentence: “I’m incredibly proud of how our nations and our people have built trust and understanding over the decades and worked to repair the painful legacy the war left on both our nations.”

In the process, Biden was pretending there was an equivalency of suffering and culpability for both countries, a popular pretense for commanders in chief ever since the first new one after the Vietnam War ended.

Two months into his presidency in early 1977, Jimmy Carter was asked at a news conference if he felt “any moral obligation to help rebuild that country.” Carter replied firmly: “Well, the destruction was mutual. You know, we went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory or to impose American will on other people. We went there to defend the freedom of the South Vietnamese. And I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or to castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability.”

Carter added, “I don’t feel that we owe a debt, nor that we should be forced to pay reparations at all.”

In other words, no matter how many lies it tells or how many people it kills, being the United States government means never having to say you’re sorry.

When George H.W. Bush celebrated the U.S. victory in the 1991 Gulf War, he proclaimed: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” Bush meant that the triumphant killing of Iraqi people — estimated at 100,000 in six weeks — had ushered in American euphoria about military action that promised to wipe away hesitation to launch future wars.

From Carter to Biden, presidents have never come anywhere near providing an honest account of the Vietnam War. None could imagine engaging in the kind of candor that Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg provided when he said: “It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side. We were the wrong side.”


Does such history really matter now? Absolutely. Efforts to portray the U.S. government’s military actions as well-meaning and virtuous are incessant. The pretenses that falsify the past are foreshadowing excuses for future warfare.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    Viet Nam insanity syndrome is still an infuriating memory. It affected anyone too old to be drafted and not related to anyone in service. It was futile to ask what any Viet Namese had ever done to justify sending Americans halfway round the globe to destroy, kill, and be killed. It just got us called un-American. We demonstrated, burned draft cards, went to jail, went to Canada, all in futility. It just went on, not unlike the Afghanistan and Iraq fiascoes which went on and on. It divided young people from old. A friend worked in a position to see coffins sent home daily in numbers far exceeding official government casualty reports and he was only one person on one shift. Yet, Lying Lyndon Johnson, Bob McNamara, et al, never did a day in jail for war crimes. William Calley commanded a massacre of civilians did time and got out early.
    Now, American veterans freely visit Viet Nam. Not only that but Americans are retiring to Viet Nam due to the low cost of living, warm climate and welcoming people. Its beyond my understanding how these people could be so gracious.

  2. Avatar

    back in college I took a history course on the Vietnam War. What a entirely screwed up failure. I recall thinking that if we just hadn’t been idiots and worked with Ho Chi Minh, everything would have been so much better.

  3. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    DutchGuy–When I visited Southeast Asia, the graciousness of the people brought me to tears. I saw people who had lost limbs or loved ones as a result of the attempted invasion–let’s call it what it was–or its aftermath, which includes landmines unearthed by farmers tilling their fields.

    Kitty and Club–Every war and military action in which the US has been involved, with the possible exceptions of the War of Independence and the War of 1812, was premised on lies, misinformation or misperceptions. Yes, I include both World Wars and the US Civil War:

    I agree that slavery, Hitler and the Holocaust had to be stopped: They are among the purest examples of evil this world has ever seen. I am not going to argue that the Civil War wasn’t “about” slavery: The Confederate States wanted to keep it, while Northern States (well, most of them:'s%20final%20legal%20death%20in,to%20slavery%20in%20the%20state. ) abolished it because they could, as their economies didn’t depend on it as much as those in the South. But Northerners weren’t as much against slavery as we’ve been led to believe: Save for abolitionists and members of a few religious groups like the Quakers, most didn’t care about or–as in the case of bankers and traders in New York and other Northern cities–did business with slaveowners. Moreover, the 1863 Draft Riots in New York City involved working-class and poor young people, and recent immigrants, who resented being shipped off to fight while others, who mouthed their support of the Union cause or their objection to slavery, could buy their way out of military duty. Even Lincoln himself said that his first priority was holding the Union together, not ending slavery.

    Woodrow Wilson was the Richard Nixon of his time. Just as “Tricky Dick” got re-elected with his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, Wilson got re-elected in 1916 largely on a promise that he would protect American neutrality, which itself was a fiction, in the European war. (It wasn’t a “World” war until we entered it.) And if we hadn’t entered the war–and conspired with the French and British to humiliate Germany with the “Treaty” of Versailles–the economic collapse the country experienced during the 1920s probably wouldn’t have happened. While someone would have found something to blame on Jews, gypsies, gays, etc. (someone always does), there wouldn’t have been anything as calamitous to pin on them. And, as a result, Hitler may well have remained an obscure painter.

    • Avatar
      Kevin Morgan

      Wilson’s slogan in 1916 was “He kept us out of war.” A month after he took the oath for his 2nd term he asked Congress for a declaration of war.

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    MJ, well said. Most of the wars are just bullshit where innocent people are maimed or killed so that some rich, powerful people can retain power and make more money.

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Bruce Gerencser