The Way It Looked in 1986

by Mark Chmiel

The United States was deeply committed to the French effort to reconquer their former colony, recognizing throughout that the enemy was the nationalist movement of Vietnam. The death toll was about half a million. When France withdrew, the United States dedicated itself at once to subverting the 1954 Geneva settlement, installing in the south a terrorist regime that had killed perhaps 70,000 “Viet Cong” by 1961, evoking resistance which, from 1959, was supported by the northern half of the country temporarily by the 1954 settlement that the United States had undermined. In 1961-1962, President Kennedy launched a direct attack against rural South Vietnam with large-scale bombing and defoliation as part of a program designed to drive millions of people to camps where they would be “protected” by armed guards and barbed wire from the guerrillas that, the United States conceded, they were willingly supporting.  The United States maintained that it was invited in, but as the London Economist accurately observed, “an invader is an invader unless invited in by a government with a claim to legitimacy.” The United States never regarded the clients it installed as having any such claim, and in fact regularly replaced them when they failed to exhibit sufficient enthusiasm for the American attack or sought to implement the neutralist settlement that was advocated on all sides and was considered the prime danger by the aggressors, since it would undermine the basis for their war against South Vietnam. In short, the United States invaded South Vietnam, where it proceeded to compound the crime of aggression with numerous and quite appalling crimes against humanity throughout Indochina….

The devastation that the United States left as its legacy [in Vietnam] has been quickly removed from consciousness here, and indeed, was little appreciated at the time. Its extent is worth recalling. In the south, 9,000 out of 15,000 hamlets were damaged or destroyed along with some 25 million across of farmland and 12 million acres of forest: 1.5 million cattle were killed; and there are 1 million widows and some 800,000 orphans. In the north, all six industrial cities were damaged (three razed to the ground) along with 28 or 30 provincial towns (12 completely destroyed), 96 of 116 district towns, and 4,000 of some 5,800 communes; 400,000 cattle were killed and over a million acres of farmland were damaged. Much of the land is a moonscape, where people live on the edge of famine with rice rations lower than Bangladesh. In a recent study unreported in the mainstream, the respected Swiss-based environmental group IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) concluded that the ecology is not only refusing to heal but is worsening, so that a “catastrophe” may result unless billions of dollars are spent to “reconstruct”: the land that has been destroyed, a “monumental” task that could be addressed only if the United States were to offer the reparations it owes, a possibility that cannot be considered in a cultural climate as depraved and cowardly as ours. Forests have not recovered, fisheries remain reduced in variety and productivity, cropland productivity has not yet regained normal levels, and there is a great increase in toxin-related disease and cancer, with 4 million acres affected by the 18 million gallons of poisons dumped on cropland and forest in U.S. chemical warfare operations. Destructions of forests has increased the frequency of floods and droughts and aggravated the impact of typhoons, and war damage to dikes (some of which, in the south, were completely destroyed by  U.S. bombardment) and other agricultural systems has yet to be repaired. The report notes that “humanitarian aid and conservationist groups, particularly in the United States, have encountered official resistance and red tape when requesting their governments’ authorization to send assistance to Vietnam”—naturally enough, since the United States remains committed to ensure that its victory is not threatened by recovery of the countries it has destroyed.

— Noam Chomsky, Coming to Terms: Indochina, the United States and the War, edited by Douglas Allen and Ngo Vinh Long

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