History 17B Lecture 21 The Era of Reform Page 4

IV.  A War Against the Peasants

A.  A Peasant Revolution

Let's recap for a moment.  What I'm arguing in this lecture is that the Vietnam War was really a peasant revolution against U.S. military and economic domination of South Vietnam.  It's difficult for us living in the luxury of capitalism to understand that some people would want a communist system of government - but you have to think of it this way:  if you are a poor peasant and you have nothing to lose and everything to gain from a revolution that promises land reform, education, a job, and health care - then communism doesn't sound so bad.  Of course, the promises may not pan out, but for these peasants at the time, these promises certainly sounded better than the alternative:  continued exploitation under the status quo.  And the population of South Vietnam consisted mostly of peasants.

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Kids accidentally napalmed.

After so much repression by the U.S. puppet government in Saigon, the peasants, one Viet Cong guerilla said, were "like a mound of straw ready to ignited."  In fact, the NLF's support was strongest in the countryside of South Vietnam where peasants could be farmers by day and guerrillas by night.  Thus in order to prevail in Vietnam, the U.S. needed to fight the people they were proclaiming to defend:  the peasants.

B.  Bombing Civilians 

Because the U.S. did not want a repeat of Korea when it crossed into the North and brought about the involvement of Chinese troops, Johnson officials were unwilling to send troops beyond the 17th parallel into North Vietnam.  Instead military action was limited to bombing raids over the North and search destroy missions in the South. 

napalm.jpg (55503 bytes) Peasants who were supportive of the Saigon regime were removed from their ancestral lands and relocated into "strategic hamlets" where they were surrounded by barbed wire and lived in slum-like conditions.  Those that remained in these villages were considered to be V.C. or V.C. sympathizers and thus subject to intense bombing in these so called Free Fire Zones, as were civilians in North Vietnam.

Between 1965 and 1971, the U.S. dropped more than triple the amount of bombs the all enemy countries in WWII.  During WWII, the Allies dropped two million tons of explosives in all theaters.  In Indochina, six million tons of explosives had been dropped by 1971.  Yet by 1967 a secret Defense Department study argued that all military and economic targets had been struck.  What was their left to destroy except villages and hospitals?

C.  Chemical Defoliation

Bombs were not the only weapons dropped on Vietnam.  Through the Chemical Defoliation program, jungles were burned to uncover the enemy, and crops were destroyed to deprive them of food.  Nineteen million gallons of poisonous chemicals such as Agent Orange were sprayed on South Vietnam alone, killing livestock, fish, and causing blindness, birth defects, and death throughout peasant villages. 

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The U.S. government began a program that seemed to set as its goal the eventual destruction of Vietnam.  Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton wrote:

"We seem to be proceeding on the assumption that the way to eradicate the Viet Cong is to destroy all the village structures, defoliate all the jungles, and then cover the entire surface of South Vietnam with asphalt."

In the end this suffering only intensified the will of the peasants to drive out the U.S.

D.  My Lai Massacre

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Innocents murdered at My Lai village.

In a conflict where the enemy was a farmer by day and a V.C. soldier by night, for American soldiers in the filed, the distinction between communist soldiers and innocent villagers was impossible to tell.  This fear of all Vietnamese resulted in incidents such as the My Lai Massacre of 1968.  A battalion of U.S. soldiers ambushed earlier in the day took their revenge out on the village of My Lai by killing livestock, committing sodomy and rape, maiming civilians, and executing between 400-455 innocent people.

The incident was revealed six years later in 1974 and called an isolated case by the military until veterans came forward with other horror stories of village massacres.  For many soldiers, the war had degenerated to a level where all Vietnamese were the enemy.

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