Interpreting the war

The war in Vietnam became increasingly unpopular and not surprisingly, the authors discussed here feel the same way. Even if it was not because of specific incidents in Vietnam like My Lai or the Tet Offensive, they were opposed to the war, even before 1968. What is interesting, however, is that they all attached larger significance to the war in their own ways, mostly determined by their specific backgrounds.

Race war
For ethnic minorities in the United States, especially African Americans and Indigenous people, the war was no surprise given the long history of violence by the American government. The complaint that is most often heard in this context is that minorities did not feel like they should have to fight for a country that had never done anything for them. In a text from 1970, “To My Black Brothers In Vietnam,” Cleaver urged black people fighting in Vietnam to return home and fight the authorities there instead. This was partly in light of the Second World War, in which many soldiers had given their lives for the United States, but received nothing in return in terms of civil rights or equal treatment. As Baldwin wrote in 1967, “I challenge anyone alive to tell me why any black American should go into those jungles to kill people who are not white and who have never done him any harm” (“The International War Crimes Tribunal” 200), capturing the way many black people viewed the war.

“African Americans and Natives were the first Viet Cong victim” (Baldwin, 1967)

The racial dimension is also why some critics took this logic a step further and drew larger comparisons between the war the United States was fighting and the domestic situation, with race and ethnicity as the connecting factors. In this analogy, the ghetto becomes the Vietnamese village and the Black Panthers the Vietcong (Baldwin No Name in the Street 167; Cleaver Soul on Ice 131) This works in two directions, because on the one hand they presented a similar resistance to oppression by the American government, and on the other they also became the victim of extreme retaliation. Ultimately, “what America is doing within her borders, she is doing around the world” (Baldwin No Name 86), which is why Cleaver thought that the Vietnam War could lead to “a massive, bloodletting upheaval would take place, and the black as well as enraged whites would seize ultimate power” (Soul on Fire 102), suggesting that minorities could also use these similarities and bring the fight home. Interestingly enough, Vidal expressed a similar attitude to the issue. In “The State of the Union: 1975,” he stated that “the spirit of My Lai is old with us” (927), citing American activities on the Philippines around the turn of the century as an example. Although limited in scope and still focusing on foreign policy rather than domestic race relations, this shows that Vidal felt a similar way, at least to some extent.

‘America has yet to keep one Indian treaty or agreement.’

Apart from the fact that it was really a racial war, minorities were also particularly upset about the argument that the United States had to continue fighting in Vietnam because they had made a commitment to the people of South Vietnam to protect them, which they could only keep if they continued fighting. Because the war in Vietnam was framed as a promise, defeat would mean losing credibility internationally. This type of rhetoric was highly ironic to Native people, as the idea of the federal government keeping its commitments seemed absurd to them. After all, “America has yet to keep one Indian treaty or agreement despite the fact that the United States government signed over four hundred such treaties and agreements with Indian tribes” (Custer 28), a fact that Indigenous people are reminded of on a daily basis. That is one reason why Deloria felt that the war “is merely a symptom of the basic lack of integrity of the government, a side issue in comparison with the great domestic issues which must be faced” (Custer 52), suggesting that Vietnam reflected basic flaws in American society and politics and the rhetoric of keeping promises is just one aspect to this. Although it is not as explicitly discussed by any of the other authors, it is to be expected that other minorities felt the same way, especially African Americans disappointed in the federal government’s fulfilling of its promises on the issue of civil rights.

Military conflict
For white people, the war was mostly a geopolitical conflict, not unlike the Second World War or the Korean War, and they also opposed it as such. Thompson discussed the issue in his piece “Those Daring Young Men in their Flying Machines … Ain’t What They Used to Be!” (1969), talking about the military-industrial complex and suggesting that the war can be solved by taking the fun out of bombing (413), emphasizing the military essence of the conflict. Mailer had a slightly different perspective, condemning both supporters and opponents of the war. Although he is opposed to the war he is not a pacifist and mainly objects to it because innocent people get hurt and it is totally unnecessary. Mailer’s interpretation of the war is therefore mostly in line with the idea of the war as a military conflict, without questioning the deeper motivations too much. Nevertheless, he also felt that it represented something more, suggesting that “the burning of villages by napalm might be the index of our collective instability” (Armies 187), and that the war was linked to the insanity of the United States. This tied back to the liberal consensus in the sense that people did not know how to handle all the changes that were happening, under the influence of the civil rights movement for example, and Vietnam it functioned as something of a coping mechanism. It was thus both a result and a reflection of American insanity, serving as a symptom of how crazy society had gotten.

Clearly, from whatever perspective these authors were thinking about the war in Vietnam, they all felt it was much more than an ordinary foreign policy conflict. In many respects, it was revealing of the true character of the United States.

Discussion Questions:

  • Can the idea of a race war help to understand other wars in recent American history like the Korean War or the War in Iraq?
  • What does all of this mean for the notion of “peace with honor” that Nixon spoke of at the end of the war?
  • Is one of these interpretations perhaps better than the other, or should we take these accounts together to get a more complete picture of what the war really meant? 

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