Week 10 class readings – War, Imperialism and Asia

Doug Dowd: Talking Peace, Making War (Excerpts)

The U.S. was involved in dozens of wars in North, Central, and South America and in North Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands in the 150 years of our nationhood. World War II had barely ended when the U.S. resumed the military interventions: Here are some of the best-known since 1945:

  • the financing and arming of the French in Vietnam, 1945-1954, followed soon after by our secret military interventions in Vietnam [3]
  • the financing and arming of Israel from 1948 onwards. [4]
  • the Korean War, 1950-53. [5]
  • the CIA overthrow of democratically elected leaders such as Mossadegh in Iran, 1953; [6] of Arbenz in Guatemala, 1954; [7] of Lumumba in the Congo, 1961; [8] of Sukarno in Indonesia, 1965; [9] of Allende in Chile, 1973; [10] the attempts to overthrow Castro before and after the Bay of Pigs, 1961; [11]
  • the payment for and delivery of weapons to right-wing armies to undo or prevent democratic governments in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador; [12]
  • the arming and financing of the Taliban in Afghanistan to provoke the Soviet Union, late 1970s; [13]

The American dead and wounded from our 20th century wars were of course substantial. But unlike other countries’ experiences, as a percentage of our population, there have been virtually no civilian casualties. Whereas the combined populations of Korea, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were well under half of ours, but at least three million Koreans and one million Chinese died in the Korean War, and at least another three million died in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — plus many millions of civilians wounded or seriously injured (or killed) by napalm and Agent Orange.

Those numbers help explain why, as has been said, “The people of the United States have not learned to hate war enough”.

The Cold War Gets Hot: Korea

Our pretense for landing in Korea was that the North Koreans, said to be inspired by the Soviet Union, had invaded South Korea. Similarly, in Vietnam, the Viet Minh of the North were described as pawns of Communist China. The United States had to stop the Communists then and there, or Korea would be followed by Japan; Vietnam would be but the first of many “dominoes” extending to the Mediterranean which, one after another, would be toppled by the Soviet Union, or China. It is worth pointing out that the Vietnamese defeated us and yet, not a single “domino” fell to the West.

When the Pacific War ended in 1945 the Koreans were once more seen as exploitable objects, if for different reasons; the looming tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union engineered the division of Korea into North and South.

Lengthy conferences failed to unify the nation, for neither the Soviets nor the Americans wanted a unified Korea to move into the opposing camp. According to the Soviet-American agreement, Japanese armies were disarmed north of the 38th parallel by Russia and south of the line by the United States. The dividing line cut across and separated natural areas of geography, culture, and climate. The result was confusion and conflict and, by the late 1940s, military incursions by Koreans from both sides, building up to civil war. Each side repeatedly crossed the border to the other.

The respected Asian scholar Chalmers Johnson tells what happened: “right-wing forces in the southern half of divided Korea, then under control of the United States, were slaughtering at least 30,000 dissident peasants…, part of a process by which [Syngman Rhee’s] puppet regime in South Korea… consolidated its power.”

A de facto civil war had begun already by 1948-49. Had that civil war been fought out by the Koreans without foreign intervention, doubtless there would have been bloodshed and damage, but nothing approaching the great human, physical, and social damage of the Korean War.

But wouldn’t China and/or the Soviet Union have intervened militarily had the U.S. stayed out of the civil war? No. It is extremely unlikely that the Soviet Union could have intervened militarily, given its postwar weakness and the distances involved. And the Chinese did intervene, but well after the war had begun, and after General MacArthur had issued statements about “nuking” China.

The American troops in Korea were, to a significant degree, veterans of World War II. That might well have led many of them to be bitter, but their feelings remained private: the media in the early 1950s were effectively non-existent, as was any noticeable opposition at home. World War II had led the people of the United States to believe that its citizens had won that ‘good war’; now they had to stand firm against two ‘sinister’ nations, Russia and China. That was a requirement for global democracy.

The political momentum of World War II’s patriotism, taken together with the Cold War and McCarthyism, assured that what little resistance there was would be easily criticized. Yet a substantial opposition to Vietnam did arise even as the Cold War’s strength grew.


America wanted to lead global politics. After World War Two, in order to get European and French acceptance of their leadership, the U.S. made a bargain. The French would cooperate with the U.S. in Europe. In return, the U.S. would help with them in Vietnam, which the French occupied and faced a local independence movement, the Viet Minh.

The U.S. financed the French war in Vietnam and supplied France with much of its weaponry. From 1946 into 1954, the French conducted all-out war against the Viet Minh, shelling from the sea, bombing from the air, fighting on the land, killing thousands of civilians. Nonetheless, the French were defeated by the Viet Minh and surrendered in 1954, and left Vietnam.

But this did not mean that Vietnam had won its independence. At an international conference at Geneva that same year, the U.S. divided the country in two with promised national elections, as in Korea. However, the pro-American politicians in Vietnam knew the independence movement would win the election, and stopped them.

By 1960 it had become impossible to deny American involvement, so it became essential to find a reason for it. The Americans said Ho Chi Minh’s victory would place Vietnam under a Communist, government. The American-friendly leader, Diem, was assassinated in a military coup permitted by the American government. From then on, the Vietnamese government more totalitarian with each new regime-leader.

Fighting a Filthy War: the Troops and the Tactics

When U.S. President Kennedy was elected in 1960, there were already more than a thousand U.S. soldiers in Vietnam; by the time of his murder in 1963, we had admitted to 16,000 (with some in Laos and Cambodia); from 1965 on, the yearly average was more than 500,000 U.S. troops.

We often use “little wars” to test our stream of new weaponry. Vietnam served that purpose all too well, especially with chemical weapons, including napalm and the herbicides Agents Green and Orange. Both of the latter contain dioxin, a cancer-causing chemical. Almost eighty disorders have been associated with exposure to dioxin, including cancers of the lung and prostate.

From 1961 on, all were used from the air. Planes sprayed the herbicides directly over at least 3,181 villages. At least 2.1 million inhabitants — and perhaps as many as 4.8 million — would have been in the villages during the spraying operations in South Vietnam, whose total population was less than 17 million. Its stated intent was to “intimidate” peasants from cooperating with the Viet Cong in the South. That operation last eight years, five of which before our official entry to the war.

In the same years, our “strategic hamlet” program began: the bulldozing of villages suspected of being pro-independence National Liberation Front (NLF) strongholds, and placing the refugees into “houses” surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.

By the time America left Vietnam, about 3.5 million GIs had served one-year terms there. Almost from the moment of their arrival, most were caught up in endless and “nameless fear.” In Vietnam we possessed what seemed to be unquestionable supremacy in every category of weaponry. But what our troops did not possess was the secret weapon of the Vietnamese. Something under 60,000 U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam; millions of Vietnamese died. Most of them were civilians. We were simply unable to see what we would have done in similar circumstances, if we were occupied by a foreign power.

That was the source of our defeat in Vietnam. We never saw the Vietnamese as human beings, never understood or even tried to understand that almost all Vietnamese would hate, and many would fight against, our occupation. As the war went on and on, we came to fear, despise, and speak of all Vietnamese as “gooks.”

Our troops in Vietnam were demoralized by the ability of the Vietnamese to transport supplies from North to South, through deep tunnels. Could Americans ever do such things? Our troops were not trained to combat an enemy that might strike at any hour of the day or night, with old — or with no — weapons, nor to be on guard for deep pits with poisonous stakes as they marched.

Our mounting thousands of casualties after 1965 took on a nightmare quality, even though Vietnamese casualties were always a great multiple of ours. And they just kept coming. Vietnam became the first U.S. war in which alcohol and heroin were quietly accepted as part of the soldier’s “survival kit.” The heroin found its way to them through the Central Intelligence Agency (American Secret Service); which, in the process also created a new geographic drug system: “The Golden Triangle”.

Until the early 1960s, the domestic opposition to the Vietnam War was small, as with Korea. Once our involvement became both larger and well-known, that began to change. Already by 1963 there were increasingly widespread activities focusing attention on Vietnam, coinciding with the rising number of men drafted into the army. That gave birth in 1964 to the “teach-in movement” on college campuses: a debate with a representative from the government vs. an antiwar professor, plus a moderator. At first attendance was low and pro-government; within a year the meetings were packed, and by 1965 the government had ceased to send a representative, for they always lost. Those who had organized the teach-ins then began the organization of what became mass demonstrations against the war.

– See more at: http://www.stateofnature.org/?p=5548#sthash.hO9gINBq.dpuf


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s