In accordance with these new American priorities, France’s position on Vietnam was now described in terms of the Free World’s stand against communist expansionism, and Washington ceased to perceive the war in Vietnam as primarily a local colonial conflict. Now linked to the Cold War, Vietnam was regarded as an area of strategic importance to the United States.
On May 7, 1954, the French command surrendered. Giap later reflected that the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu validated a “great historic truth, that a colonized and weak people, once it has risen up and is united in the struggle and determined to fight for its independence and peace, has the full power to defeat the strong aggressive army of an imperialist country.” The lesson was not lost on other colonized peoples around the world. Nor would the Vietnamese forget this lesson in the next unexpected phase of the struggle.
The historian Henry Steele Commager expressed a similar view in an article in the New York Review of Books, October 1972. Comparing the U.S. war in Vietnam to the Confederacy’s war to preserve slavery and Germany’s war of aggression in World War II, he wrote, “Why do we find it so hard to accept this elementary lesson of history, that some wars are so deeply immoral that they must be lost, that the war in Vietnam is one of these wars, and that those who resist it are the truest patriots.” Cited in Neil Jumonville, Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), p. 177. Of course, the peace movement’s quest was to prevent the war and stop the war, irrespective of American victory or defeat.
Most of us grew up thinking that the United States was a strong but humble nation, that involved itself in world affairs only reluctantly, that respected the integrity of other nations and other systems, and that engaged in wars only as a last resort…. But in recent years … the development of a more aggressive, activist foreign policy have done much to force many of us to rethink attitudes that were deep and basic sentiments about our country. The incredible war in Vietnam has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy … The further we explore the reality of what this country is doing and planning in Vietnam the more we are driven toward the conclusion of Senator Morse that the United States may well be the greatest threat to peace in the world today. That is a terrible and bitter insight for people who grew up as we did – and our revulsion at that insight, our refusal to accept it as inevitable or necessary, is one of the reasons that so many people have come here today.
The liberal wing of the antiwar movement, represented by groups such as SANE, WSP, Student Peace Union, and Americans for Democratic Action, supported détente, diplomacy, and demilitarization of the Cold War, paying particular attention to the nuclear arms race. Liberal peace groups worked to build a broad-based movement, gain positive media attention, and influence members of Congress – all essential elements of movement-building. At the same time, they tended to narrow their vision and political goals to what was feasible within the American context, which fell short of what was needed to achieve peace in the international context. The unwillingness of liberal peace groups to support U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam not only divided the antiwar movement but also constituted a missed opportunity to combine domestic peace efforts with international diplomatic efforts led by UN Secretary-General U Thant, which were based on the Geneva formula. According to the historian Milton Katz:
The administration’s peace rhetoric was aimed at domestic and international audiences, not the Vietnamese. Indeed, UN Secretary-General U Thant worked tirelessly during the 1960s to broker a peace agreement based on the Geneva Agreements of 1954, but to no avail. The real difficulty for Johnson and company would be to explain to the American people why American blood had been shed in Vietnam at all. Having passed up ripe opportunities to resolve the burgeoning war in Vietnam in late 1963, following the Diem overthrow, and in late 1964, following his re-election as the “peace candidate,” President Johnson sabotaged another opportunity to negotiate an end to the war in late 1966. The Hanoi government was prepared to sit down with U.S. representatives in secret talks arranged by Poland, code-named “Marigold,” when Johnson authorized bombing raids on the center of Hanoi for the first time on December 13 and 14. The North Vietnamese pulled out, the talks collapsed, and the war expanded.
Nichols’ career embodies the immorality of the Korean War which gave men like him a “legal license to murder.” An Air Force historian concluded that “Nichols had a dark side. In wartime, he was the guy you want on your team. In peacetime, you lock him up.” These comments epitomize why war should almost always be avoided, as it rewards those with psychopathic proclivities and brings out the darkest side of human nature.
A third development was the signing of an international peace treaty ending the civil war in Laos in July 1962. The agreement was welcomed across the world as a step toward reducing Cold War tensions. Along with de Gaulle, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan helped to convince Kennedy that a negotiated solution in Laos was the most realistic option and would not hurt U.S. interests in the region. After conferring with Kennedy in March 1961, Macmillan wrote to de Gaulle: “I think that the President really accepts the necessity for a political solution if we can get one.” It took thirteen months of negotiations, but in the end, an agreement was signed by fourteen nations, including the belligerent parties in Laos and the governments of South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the United States, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China. Laos became a “neutral and independent” nation led by a coalition government under prime minister Souvanna Phouma, with power shared with the communist-led Pathet Lao. As the U.S. had been supporting anticommunist guerrillas in Laos since the late 1950s, approval of the treaty marked a significant change of policy.
Ho made his first appearance on the world stage at the Versailles peace conference in 1919, following World War I. Wearing a borrowed suit and using the pseudonym Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), Ho presented a letter to the leaders of the victorious nations respectfully asking for recognition of the rights of the Vietnamese people. These rights included equal justice in the courts; freedoms of the press, speech, assembly, education, and travel; and the “replacement of the [colonial] regime of arbitrary decrees by a regime of law.” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had previously indicated his support for the principle of self-determination, telling Congress on February 11, 1918:
The general consensus among American historians is that the American War in Vietnam was a “mistake,” although interpretations differ as to what exactly this means. This essay takes the view that the ‘mistake” was a product of U.S. global ambitions and misperceptions that developed in the aftermath of World War II and were compounded over time. It probes deeply into the origins and nature of the war, making it a long article for a website (about 70,000 words), with about one-third devoted to the antiwar movement at home (Part IV). A half-century of excellent scholarship on the Vietnam War is drawn together and frequently cited in this essay.
See Greiner, War Without Fronts; Deborah Nelson, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes (New York: Public Affairs, 2009); and Duffet, ed., Against the Crime of Silence, which includes testimony by international legal experts at the Stockholm (Sweden) War Crimes Trials sponsored by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in 1968. Russell, the 94-year-old philosopher who convened the hearings and whose antiwar activism extended back to World War I, wrote in the introduction: “war crimes are the actions of powers whose arrogance leads them to believe that they are above the law. Might they argue is right.” (Duffet, p. 4).