The United States, Southeast Asia and Historical Memory edited by Mark Pavlick with Caroline Luft

Who controls history? How is collective memory formed? In the case of historical accounts of the Vietnam War, the famous maxim most widely attributed to Winston Churchill, “History is written by the victors,” is problematic. While the North Vietnamese won the war, the Americans have had both the resources and the freedom to win the proverbial battle for the memory of that conflict.

It is within this context that The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory (Haymarket, 450 pp. $22, paper) is written. The book, edited by Mark Pavlick, a longtime activist in the U.S. antiwar movement, and Caroline Luft, is the second edition of a work originally published in 2007. It consists of thirteen chapters: eight essays, two Noam Chomsky articles from the 1970s, one book excerpt, and two interviews.

Curiously, the editors never define historical memory. For the record, historical memory is the way groups of people or nations create and then identify with specific narratives about historical periods or events.

The book’s epigraph provocatively quotes Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opening address before the Nuremberg Tribunal of November 21, 1945, with a clear implication that the United States was guilty of war crimes in Southeast Asia on par with those committed by Nazi Germany. The works of Noam Chomsky and Fred Branfman fall within the vein of this polemical perspective.

The balance of the book, however, belies this overtly hostile style, with six essays that are scholarly in nature, promoting cogent theses without provoking raw emotion.

The essays on cluster bombing in Laos by Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell  and the use of Agent Orange by Tuan V. Nguyen are scholarly and thoughtful. The former even acknowledges the legitimacy of the bombing—if not its proportionately.

“Iraq, Another Vietnam? Consider Cambodia” is well considered even if its conclusion that there is a causal relationship between the American bombing in Cambodia and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge is tenuous. “The Indonesian Domino” by Clinton Fernandes proffers a thought-provoking thesis: that due to the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party by 1967, that domino could no longer fall, invalidating the justification for the war predominant during the Kennedy Administration.

Gareth Porter’s treatment of the My Lai massacre, written from a definitive perspective, is authoritative in its research. Nick Turse’s essay is a powerful, if completely personal, indictment of the war. Ngo Vinh Long’s essay on U.S. policy toward Indochina since 1975 treads the familiar ground that this country is responsible for the stagnancy of Vietnam in the postwar years.

An interview and republished essays by Noam Chomsky, as well as the introductory essay by Fred Branfman, are the raison d’etre for the book. Polemics aside, these essays are problematic in their exploitation of history, which weakens their arguments.

Providing a different perspective to the perception of American mass propaganda is incredibly important, but it cannot be justified at the expense of its context. The thesis can fall into Manichean simplicity: America and its allies were unjust; therefore, North Vietnam and its allies must be just.

Chomsky makes no comment on the morality of North Vietnam’s execution of up to 25,000 “class enemies” in the mid-1950s, other than to point to the American exaggeration of the figure. He quotes Bernard Fall, but omits his estimate that the Viet Cong assassinated eleven South Vietnamese officials every day during the early 1960s.

The premise of moral equivalency is decidedly unhelpful in analyzing the Vietnam War. But Chomsky indulges irresponsibly in this matter, even taking a decidedly paternalistic and ahistorical view that communism in Vietnam was a monolithic movement among all Vietnamese people. But one million people fled North Vietnam in 1955 rather than live under communist rule, and two million left the country after the communists took in 1975.

Vietnam remains a closed society in which historians are denied access, and in which journalists are routinely imprisoned. They seemed to be rewarded for their totalitarian lack of transparency.

No matter one’s politics, this book will provoke and outrage.

–Daniel R. Hart