The Pentagon’s Pathetic Vietnam Whitewash

A Pentagon website intended to mark the 50th anniversary of America’s war in Vietnam does a disservice to history.

01.28.15 10:45 AM ET

It’s the biggest snow job of 2015—and you probably haven’t heard about it.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War. It was on March 8, 1965 that the United States dispatched 3,500 Marines to Vietnam, officially starting our ground war there. And now the Pentagon is running a campaign apparently to commemorate the Vietnam War by whitewashing it.

According to reporting last fall by the New York Times:

The effort, which is expected to cost taxpayers nearly $15 million by the end of this fiscal year, is intended to honor veterans and, its website says, “provide the American public with historically accurate materials” suitable for use in schools.

But the extensive website, which has been up for years, largely describes a war of valor and honor that would be unrecognizable to many of the Americans who fought in and against it.

The website, for instance, barely mentions the mistakes and atrocities on the battlefield for which America’s military was responsible. Nor does it say much about the extraordinary protest marches and heated political debates that embroiled our nation during the fighting. It’s so bad, in fact, that 500 veterans, scholars and activists have signed a petition challenging the Pentagon’s whitewashed version of history.

Those signing include Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the top-secret “Pentagon Papers” — a pivotal event in public awareness and reaction to the war, but barely a footnote in the history the Pentagon is telling. The Pentagon also leaves out the illegal measures the Nixon administration took to prevent their publication, or how Ellsberg and another leaker were tried on espionage charges.

Regarding the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” that helped propel the United States into the Vietnam War, the Pentagon website says that on August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy were attacked by North Vietnamese ships and returned fire. The Pentagon papers later revealed that the North Vietnamese had not struck first but this error isn't corrected in this supposedly correct commemoration. 

Two days later, on August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced to the United States that because North Vietnamese warships had engaged in retaliatory fire on that night against the Maddox and Turner Joy, he would be seeking authorization for military engagement.

According to the Pentagon Papers, not only did the second attack never take place, the military and the White House knew it didn’t happen. Nonetheless, they spun the tale as the primary justification for war. Yet this is how that massive and deliberate lie is mildly footnoted on the Pentagon memorial website: “However, later analyses of those reports make it clear that North Vietnamese naval forces did not attack the Maddox of the Turner Joy that night.” The profound gravity of this error, let alone its concoction, is omitted.

An earlier version of the website referred to the My Lai massacre, in which American troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, and the “My Lai incident.” And the current version of the website seems to distance the massacre from broader US culpability, noting it was “elements” of a “division” that did the killing (as opposed to broader language, like “American troops”). And most of the scant text is devoted to noting that while “men” (as opposed to “soldiers”) were charged in the crime, only one was convicted.

Also, the Vietnam commemoration website seems like Matthew Broderick might have coded it in the 1980s, which just adds insult to injury.

We’re spending taxpayer money on a snow job for a war that cost $111 billion dollars 50 years ago—or $738 billion (PDF) in 2011 dollars. Not to mention the “cost” of the 58,220 American soldiers and over 3 million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers who died, the untold devastation to land and infrastructure in Vietnam, and the long-term trauma of Vietnamese and Americans involved in the war.

And that’s not all. For instance, the United States spent $17 million a day in inflation-adjusted dollars dropping bombs on Laos in a secret bombing campaign. Many of those bombs, around 80 million or so, didn’t explode and remain scattered around the Lao countryside. Last January, Congress approved a fraction of what’s needed—just $12 million for unexploded ordinance removal. All the while approving at least $15 million to whitewash commemorate the war in which we dropped said bombs.

It’s more than ironic that, were it not for the flat out lies about the Gulf of Tonkin, the United States would have never launched full out war against the North Vietnamese, or committed over 2.5 million American troops within the borders of the conflict—and many more beyond. And yet despite protests and deaths and suffering and lies that defined the Vietnam War, our country chooses to commemorate the war not with a factual historical reckoning, but with more lies.

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Silly Pentagon. We already had plenty of evasions and deceptions about the Vietnam War. We didn’t need a commemorative occasion to spread more.

The soldiers who served in the Vietnam War, who gave their lives in service of our country and those still alive today, deserve to be honored and commemorated. And those among us who witnessed that tumultuous period in foreign policy and domestic protest can use the occasion of this anniversary to reckon with, or even try and reconcile, the past.

But the history of the Vietnam War cannot be rewritten. It was a stupid war, and the more we learn since, the clearer that has become.

America has, sadly, fought other stupid wars since. Certainly the second war in Iraq comes to mind. Arguably Afghanistan. We need to learn from our history in order to stop repeating it, facing the ugly truth with open eyes — not spending taxpayer money to blow snow in our faces.