This is a guest post from Roger Peace, an historian of American Foreign Relations, former community college teacher, and author of A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign (UMass Press, 2012). He currently coordinates the website, United States Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide, and serves on the steering committee of the Historians for Peace and Democracy. – Ben Alpers
The fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War has rekindled the contest over interpretations and lessons of the war. The battle is reverberating in the public square.
Let’s start with the Pentagon. In 2008, Congress passed a law instructing the Pentagon to initiate a 13-year commemoration of the Vietnam War, beginning on Memorial Day, May 28, 2012, and concluding on Veterans Day, November 11, 2025. Congress allocated $65 million for the Pentagon to reach out to schools and colleges with the patriotic message that America should “thank and honor veterans of the war.”
Okay, but why was the war fought? The Pentagon’s “Vietnam War Commemoration” website contains an educational section that offers fact sheets, primary documents, maps, posters, an interactive timeline, and “This Week in History,” but never answers this question. The interactive timeline highlights U.S. soldiers who received medals of honor, while the “Week in History” offers a chronologically-challenged and sanitized account of military battles. What happened to those excellent Pentagon historians who wrote the Pentagon Papers?
The Pentagon’s national teach-in has excited the interest of peace activists, veterans, and scholars. Upon learning of the Pentagon’s mandate in September 2014, former anti-Vietnam War activists created the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee (VPCC). Its stated purpose is to “monitor the activities of the Pentagon, challenge them when necessary, and publicly elevate the role of the anti-war movement in ending the war.” VPCC members met with Pentagon officials and requested that they drop their high school and college education campaigns. That seems unlikely.
More successfully, VPCC sponsored a conference in Washington in May 2015, entitled “Vietnam: The Power of Protest. Telling the Truth. Learning the Lessons.” Over 600 people attended. Another conference is planned for October 21, 2017, a day-long event in Washington, DC, that will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous March on the Pentagon. Contact Terry Provance if you would like to attend or contribute. Historians for Peace and Democracy (formerly Historians Against War) is a co-sponsor of this event.
Veterans for Peace (VFP), an organization dedicated to increasing public awareness of the causes and costs of war toward the goal of abolishing war, has created the Full Disclosure project to challenge the Pentagon’s version of the war. In “An Open Letter to the American People,” the veterans declared their intention to “truly examine what happened during those tragic and tumultuous Viet Nam years.” The group has published a 28-page newspaper full or rage and insights. “The paper,” notes editor Tarak Kauff, “is especially important in relation to the upcoming Burns/Novick documentary about the Vietnam War, which will not present the war as the massive U.S. crime based on lies and betrayals that it was.” Copies can be ordered here.
The forthcoming 18-hour PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War,” directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is sure to increase the heat. It already has. In a recent New York Times op-ed, the directors declared, “There is no simple or single truth to be extracted from the Vietnam War. Many questions remain unanswerable.” But do Burns and Novick ask the right questions, the questions that might enable them to discover essential truths about the war? The scholar Camillo Mac Bica offers an excellent critique of Burns and Novick’s arguments in anticipation of the film’s release in mid-September.
More to the point, was the Vietnam War a crime? John Marciano, Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Cortland, asks this question in The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration? (Monthly Review Press, 2016). He sides with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this one. It was a crime.
But don’t take my word for it. Read the history of the war framed by these questions: Was the war necessary and just in terms of its purpose and conduct? “The Vietnam War, 1945-1975,” is the most recent essay completed for the website United States Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide the authors being John Marciano and diplomatic historians Jeremy Kuzmarov and myself. The 70,000 word essay is accompanied by over 200 photos and images, a resource guide, and links to antiwar songs of the era. One-third of the essay is devoted to discussing and analyzing the antiwar movement.
The fall promises to be a teachable moment.