Introductory Remarks for the Film Apocalypse Now Redux
March 26, 2003
Apocalypse Now stands as a powerful indictment of the war in Vietnam. The war was for U.S. interests and against Vietnam and its people. The war was given several justifications: 1) to defend and enhance democracy for the Vietnamese (and, later, for the Laotian and Combodian) peoples; 2) to protect them from Soviet and then, instead, Chinese domination; 3) Vietnam was said to be one of a line of “dominoes”; unless the USA protected Vietnam from the Communists, it would fall, and knock down all the other dominoes reaching to the Mediterranean.
Those arguments for the war were a combination of lies, deception, and stupidity. What happened was that millions of the people of Indochina were killed and many more millions seriously injured and harmed in one way or another; and, the Vietnam “domino” fell with no consequence for the countries west to the Mediterranean.
The Vietnam war was among the cruelest and most ferocious in history; with the USA, technologically the most powerful nation in the world using the most modern, indiscriminate, and ruthless weaponry upon an essentially peasant army, using World War I arms.
The consequent horror was well symbolized by the famous photograph of a young Vietnamese girl running down a road, naked, napalmed, shrieking. This film shows with great and tragic artistry the larger horror of that war; but, as a film, it did not and could not show what lay behind that war — how and when it began, and, importantly, why. I seek to do that now, in a few minutes. Obviously, my words can serve only as an introduction. Those who wish to understand more fully are directed to the definitive study of Marilyn Power (note the dates), The Vietnam Wars: 1945–1995.
I shall speak to only two vital matters deserving of consideration:
1) that the cruelties and slaughter we see in the film were almost entirely and deliberately imposed upon the civilians of South Vietnam; and
2) when and how and why the USA entered that war, and then began its military operations. We shall see it was twenty years earlier than officially admitted.
First a word pointing to the unfolding Iraq war. There are of course many and great differences of detail between the war in Vietnam and that in Iraq, but they are minor in comparison with the larger similarities: As always, and necessarilyl, lying, deception, and indifference to human life; once more, the reckless recourse to massive and once unthinkable butchery — which began, however, with the fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima,l and Nagasaki that burned all to the ground. I may add that it began even earlier than that; as a pilot in the Pacific War, already in 1944, my bomb group was ordered by General
MacArthur to take as our target the second largest city in Formosa (now Taiwan) and “burn it to the ground.” Which we did.
I begin with my on-the-spot observations of the USA’s first step toward its war against Vietnam.
The year is 1945; the date December 10; the place the harbor at Manila, P.I. I remind you that the official entry of the U.S. in the Vietnam war was March1965. The war in the Pacific ended in August1945; along with many thousands of other soldiers, I was still awaiting shipment home. Without knowing it, that day I found out why we had been waiting so many months.
Two U.S. Merchant Marine ships were being loaded with British and Dutch soldiers. They had recently been released from Japanese prison camps. But, even so, they were not on their way home. Instead, uniformed and armed by the USA, they were on their way to Haiphong harbor, in North Vietnam. The reason? “To hold the fort” for the French. Subsequently I learned that at that same time, twelve other U.S. ships in European waters had been diverted to carry 13,000 French soldiers to Vietnam. Again, paid for by the USA.
Those facts standing alone should be unsettling; what lay behind them is even more so. First, it is a matter of public record that in 1944 President Roosevelt had representatives in North Vietnam sign an agreement with the Viet Minh. They were the North Vietnamese counterparts of Italy’s World War II partigiani, fighting against the Japanese. The agreement promising a U.S. guaranteed independence from the French, for the peoples of Indochina. The U.S. representatives were from the OSS (predecessor of the CIA). They were working with the Viet Minh on air-sea rescue operations to save downed U.S. aircrews in the Vietnam area. (I knew of these operations, because from the Philippines my responsibility for my bomb group then was air-sea rescue in the same region.) Tragically, President Roosevelt died in April, several months before the war ended.
That is the first point, now the second: Why would Truman, the new president, violate that peace and independence agreement and, instead, help the French back into Vietnam? The answer is sordid.
Already in 1943, the USA was making plans for the postwar world with the IMF and World Bank, and for U.S.-led unification in Europe, such as the Marshall Plan and NATO; and France was seen as an essential participant. But, with de Gaulle as its leader, France then — like France now — was nervous about the U.S. plans: If France were to cooperate with the U.S. in Europe, it had to be persuaded — bribed is more accurate — by financial grants for its national needs at home and for holding on to its colonies in Southeast Asia.
The Viet Minh were of course unaware of the U.S. violation of their agreement. There, as elsewhere, the USA was immensely popular after the war, not least in North Vietnam: When those British and Dutch troops landed at Haiphong — U .S. flags flying on the ships — the graffiti on the walls in Haiphong proclaimed “Welcome Abe Lincoln!” To that poignant note add this: The constitution for what was expected to be an independent Vietnam, already written by Ho Chi Minh, was modeled on that of the USA; it began with a Declaration of Independence stating that “All men are created equal....”
But, instead, the French returned in force. They were met with great resistance by the Viet Minh, and a brutal war ensued, edntirely financed by the USA, fought by the French.
They could not win. When the French surrendered at Dienbienphu nine years later, in 1954, the USA managed to have the Europeans at the Geneva conference of that year to agree on an artificial “line drawn” to separate North from South, with reunification elections to take place some years later.
The elections were not held, however. South Vietnamese President Diem, our man in Saigon, cancelled the elections, knowing Ho Chi Minh would win hands down, especially if they were free elections.
Then it was — in the 1950s — that a covert U.S. military presence in Vietnam began, first with a few thousand Green Berets (called “advisors”), ultimately rising to an average annual rate of 550,000 until the 1970s.
The USA did not admit officially that it was part of the Vietnam war until March of 1965. It did so after President Johnson asked Congress to pass the “Tonkin Gulf Resolution.”
The resolution was based upon the presumption that the North Vietnamese had attacked the USA, that U.S. ships sailing in the Gulf, off the shores of North Vietnam were fired upon.
Setting aside for a moment the question of what U.S. warships were doing there, in fact, it turned out later, they were not fired upon; indeed, the opposite: our ships fired upon the Vietnamese.
The actual sequence of events, as related by the commander of the U.S. destroyer Maddox and an over-flying naval pilot was this:
Some South Vietnamese commandoes were firing upon some small North Vietnmese islands, convoyed by (the presumably neutral U.S. destroyer), when some small North Vietnamese boats came toward the destroyer. The destroyer fired at them. They did not fire back, but continued coming and then turned away. President Johnson informed the Congress that the boats had fired torpedoes at the destroyer. Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and we were officially at war.
Years after the war had ended, the commander of the Maddox said that his ship was trying to provoke the Vietnamese; and the naval pilot said there had been no torpedoes. Immediately after the resolution passed, the USA began its heavy daily bombing of North Vietnam, adding to its many years of bombing of the villages and fields of South Vietnam.
That bombing — instances of which you will see in the film — was aimed at intimidating the peasants and rooting out the southern opposition, the Viet Cong. It had the opposite effect; the resistance in the South steadily increased, increasing the ranks of the Viet Cong. Ask yourself: If you had been a Vietnamese, had seen your family and friends wounded and killed by burning, would you have joined the killers?
The USA behaved ferociously and insanely in Vietnam. It dropped more bombs in that war than throughout the entire second world war, most of them were dropped on civilians, mostly in the South. The North too was bombed heavily, its once lush rice fields by 1970 coming to resemble the cratered surface of the moon.
But — and as happened in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, and will happen in Iraq — those most harmed were the civilians. Not just “normal” bombs, but untold quantities of napalm and phosphorous bombs burning their villages and their bodies, plus Agent Orange destroying their fields and being machine-gunned from the air forced out of their homes and into barbed-wire surrounded ”strategic hamlets.”
The USA lost that war in Vietnam, and deserved to do so. More importantly, at least three million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians lost their lives, with many more wounded and otherwise harmed, and had themselves and their societies forced on to paths they never would have chosen, had they been left to themselves.
Now, in Iraq, that history is being repeated, if in somewhat different form. And Saddam Hussein and his presumed weapons of mass destruction are no more the target of the Bush Administration than freedom and democracy was the U.S. aim in Indochina. That war was symbolized by a U.S. Army Colonel after his troops had burned the village of Ben Suc to the ground. The Colonel declared it was necessary “to destroy the village in order to save it.”
As you watch this film, pay attention to Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the spokesman for U.S. policies in Vietnam. You will be seeing a horrifying disaster — and a preview of what is to come.