The American War in Vietnam by John Marciano

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During a soliloquy in Julius Caesar, Brutus says, “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.” His words clearly apply to John Marciano’s book, The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration? (Monthly Review Press, 196 pp., $56.62, hardcover; $14.61, paper; $9.99, Kindle). Whereas Brutus speaks of Caesar’s use of power, Marciano addresses the misuse of the Noble Cause principle espoused by the United States in the Vietnam War.

Marciano, a Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Cortland, relates this principle to America’s employing military power in general—and in particular to what he calls the “staggering human and ecological losses” resulting from ignoring remorse relative to the Vietnam War.

Marciano starts by discussing how the United States has applied military power going back to the European settlement in America. He finds a close connection between Colonial “Indian hating” based on “white hostility” to exterminate “savages” and massacres committed “in Vietnam’s ‘Indian country.'” He cites what, in essence, is ethnic cleansing based on Noble Cause as the justification for U.S. foreign policy due to our “powerful and fundamental belief” that we are “the ‘exceptional’ nation chosen to lead the world.”

According to Marciano, the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was based on trickery and lies. He cites political and military machinations that stretch from a French naval squadron’s attack on DaNang in 1850 through the end of the American War. He vilifies Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

Marciano does an excellent job clarifying the past by citing sources that contradict “powerful government officials, the corporate mass media, influential intellectuals, and the educational system,” which, he says, are “long on passionate belief and empty of evidence.”

The most interesting part of Marciano’s argument is the final chapter in which he seeks to “examine and expand upon issues raised in the book.” He first offers conclusions based on his re-examining of imperialism, war crimes, protests, and thirteen other controversial issues that people have debated for more than half a century.

He next establishes criteria for analyzing facts presented in textbooks written between 2001 and 2011. He then offers “qualitative thoughts” on textbooks’ topics such as My Lai, Vietnamese death tolls, chemical warfare, and the POW/MIA issue that prolonged America’s war against Vietnam long after the fighting stopped.

The American War in Vietnam should serve as the syllabus for classroom teaching of the war, Marciano says. In reality, the book is a revision of Teaching the Vietnam War, which he co-wrote in 1979 with William Griffin (who died in 2007).

Marciano’s subtitle, “Crime or Commemoration?” might offend American Vietnam War veterans. “Can a war be honorable if it was a violation of international law, a criminal act of aggression?” He asks, “If so, can the warrior be separated from the war, and act with honor in a criminal cause?”

His point is: “Did we even care?” Marciano contends that our engagement in Vietnam caused massive devastation for which we have displayed no remorse. Plus, ignoring remorse toward our victims and the environment in Vietnam continues today. We must question ourselves, he says, as to whether our Noble Cause principle and our abuse of greatness are justifiable in ongoing military operations.

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John Marciano

Recently I have read several books that deliver messages similar to Marciano’s. In Aid Under Fire, Jessica Elkind describes America as “a rich man with a head full of racial prejudice” fighting a war “doomed from the start.” In Losing Binh Dinh, Kevin M. Boylan strives to determine if the Vietnam War ended in victory or defeat. And in the memoir, Vietnam Doc, William Clayton Petty, M.D., spells out the daily task of saving lives of troops who did not see a need to be in Vietnam.

I can only conclude that the big problem appears to be how to get powerful people to read, comprehend, and apply lessons taught by The American War in Vietnam and similar books.

—Henry Zeybel

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Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War by Pierre Asselin

If you have any doubt that the war waged by North Vietnam against the Republic of (South) Vietnam and the United States was, above all, a political one, Pierre Asselin’s Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (University of California Press, 319 pp., $55), should change your mind.

Asselin, a Hawaii Pacific University history professor who specializes in the Vietnam War, has come up with a well-researched, in-depth look at the decision-making process in Hanoi from the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954 to the start of the American war in 1965. He makes a strong case that North Vietnam’s communist leaders—led by the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Le Duan, who wrested real power away from the slightly less doctrinaire nationalist/communist Ho Chi Minh—were dogmatic revolutionaries who shaped their war against the Americans in three “separate but related modes of struggle”: the political, diplomatic and military.

Several Vietnam War historians, including Lien-Hang T. Nguyen of the University of Kentucky in her book Hanoi’s War, have recently uncovered new evidence showing the prominent role of Le Duan (1907-2013) in the North Vietnamese hierarchy. Asselin, who also delved deeply into communist Vietnamese archives, comes to the came conclusion.

              Le Duan (left) and Ho Chi Minh in 1960

Asselin describes Le Duan (born Le Van Nhuan) as “a stern, dogmatic, and stoic revolutionary,” and writes that “other observers are more blunt, characterizing him variously as ‘violent,’ ‘authoritarian,’ ‘tough,’ and ‘ruthless.’” Le Duan was “fully determined,” Asselin notes, “to achieve reunification of Vietnam whatever the cost.”

That cost included sacrificing what turned out to be an almost unfathomable number of North Vietnamese lives in the American war. As the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations learned, fighting “relentlessly, sacrificing selflessly, and winning totally became the hallmarks of [Le Duan and the other communist bosses’] worldview, which shaped both the course and the outcome of the Vietnam War.”

—Marc Leepson