The Vietnam War that was started by President John F. Kennedy and later continued by President Lyndon Johnson was one of the most debated and discussed war in the period after the Second World War. At the time of its initiation, there was hardly any public protest. Even the leading intellectuals of the time were either in support of it or indifferent to it. The only question that was discussed in the mainstream media and scholarship of the time was whether the United States can win the war in Vietnam. Howard Zinn was an exception to this rule in that he considered this question to be irrelevant. He reckoned that American policy makers and citizens should first answer this more important question, namely, “Is it legitimate and morally correct for the United States to invade Vietnam in the first place?” This position was radically different from the mainstream consensus of the day. Even in the American Promise text written by James Roark, the moral and legal aspects of the Vietnam War are not carefully scrutinized. The American Promise text essentially reiterates the opinions of intellectuals such as William F. Buckley, who were in support of American intervention in Vietnam and were only concerned with the costs and benefits of the war.
The communist North Vietnam was deemed a threat to the sovereignty and political independence of South Vietnam. The establishment intellectuals of the day feared that once South Vietnam falls to communism, the neighboring countries too would be consumed by communism through the ‘domino effect’. Some even believed that the entire South East Asia would become part of the Soviet bloc if America did not constantly keep vigil. Although such fears of the situation in Vietnam were much exaggerated, with the support of the mainstream media the war was started by the Kennedy Administration. Later when Lyndon Johnson assumed the office of President, he escalated the war by sending more troops and ammunition to Vietnam. The decision to drop Napalm on Vietnamese countryside so as to clear the dense tropical foliage would prove disastrous for American diplomacy. Beyond the stated purpose of de-foliage, the infiltration of the chemical into people’s bodies would lead to catastrophic health conditions. Even today, more than forty years since the conclusion of the war, subsequent generations of Vietnamese continue to suffer from consumption of Napalm. American intervention in Vietnam had led to the deaths of millions of innocent and helpless people. The sad fact remains that this acute humanitarian crisis could have been avoided if only the government paid attention to dissenting voices such as Howard Zinn’s.
Howard Zinn, who was a Second World War bombardier himself, strongly believed that war is not a solution for any political problem. He experienced firsthand the futility and inhumanity of war during his time with the military. Zinn also believed that vested business interests were behind the instigation of the war. Zinn’s perspective on the Vietnam War was considered rebellious and dissentious initially. But as time went on, the American public got agitated by the steady loss of lives from both sides. In fact, by the time the war entered its sixth year, the general public was seen organizing itself in mass protestations. People slowly got to realize that a large chunk of tax payer money is being diverted to a distant war with vague motives. And the protracted war had weakened the economy as well. The usage of Napalm too proved a public relations disaster. A culmination of all these factors led to the pull out of American troops towards the end of Johnson’s term. As James Roark himself alludes in the text, the Vietnam War episode will be remembered for its futility and not the fulfillment of American promise.
Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States, 7th edition, published in 2003 by Harper Collins.
Roark, James, The American Promise: A History of the United States, 3rd edition, published by Bedford St. Martins.