This interview was originally published May 17, 2015. On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Appy, author of “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity”, discusses how before direct American military involvement in Vietnam, the US financed almost 80 percent of the cost, so, in effect, France was serving almost as an American mercenary.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and Reality Asserts Itself. We’re continuing our discussion with Christian Appy about American exceptionalism and the myth of America always does good for the greater good. Thanks for joining us again.
CHRISTIAN G. APPY, AUTHOR, AMERICAN RECKONING: My pleasure.
JAY: So, in the first segment we talked a bit about post-World War II as, actually, in the first years ’46, ’47, very radical time for America–enormous number of strikes and development of a big democratic movement. People came back from the war fighting against fascism and said, let’s have democracy at home. This did not bode well for this burgeoning new empire. Talk a little bit about how they dealt with this, ’cause I think one of the themes of your book is a very conscious and deliberate effort to prepare America for the next war.
APPY: Mhm. Well, part of it was ginning up a level of fear, but there were, of course, historical events that allowed it to flourish. The Soviet Union developed an atomic bomb in 1949, for example. This was the same year that the Chinese Communist Revolution came to power, so that conservatives–and liberals, for that matter–could argue that we were in effect kind of losing the Cold War, that more territory is going under the thumb of communist rule. And then the Korean War begins in 1950, and there are all these hearings conducted by not just the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but other committees that are looking for domestic subversion and finding some evidence of spy networks. So the climate of fear and the ability of the government to try to challenge all forms of dissent was quite effective. Even though the Korean War was not an extraordinarily popular war–even within a few months the polls indicated that there were growing levels of frustration–it was such a conservative time politically and it was such a repressive climate, no one was about to go out in the streets to protest. You know, by the mid ’50s, I think Americans were widely persuaded, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, that when we began to make commitments in Vietnam, we were moving in after the French defeat, after this bloody eight-year French-Indochina war, which we had supported on the side of the French. And we had this, you know, in my mind, delusional idea that the Vietnamese would see us as distinctly better than the French, not as traditional colonialist, but as people who wanted simply the best for them. It goes back to your opening statement about our intentions always giving us the confidence that somehow people will understand us as a force for good. But in fact a great majority of Vietnamese saw us as just another kind of colonial power, maybe a neocolonial power that didn’t want to rule directly, but certainly wanted to put in place a puppet government, as they would call it, or a sort of proxy government that would do our bidding.
JAY: Before we dig into Vietnam, there’s sort of kind of assumptions in the American narrative. Soviet Union was tyrannical power trying to take over the world. So there’s some justification. But there were voices in American politics that didn’t think so. I mean, certainly Roosevelt felt he could work with the Soviet Union. His vice president, Wallace, even after he loses the vice presidential nomination, runs as a third party, and one of his main platforms is that the Soviet Union isn’t the evil empire; we may not want the kind of system they have, but we don’t need to be in war, cold or hot, with them. There was even sympathy for the Chinese revolution. China had fought against Japanese imperialism. I mean, but it didn’t have to be evil empire narrative. But there were forces in the United States that wanted it to be evil empire narrative. APPY: Absolutely. I mean, those were days in which the Soviet Union was widely presented in the media as the mastermind of an international conspiracy to take over the world. And it was pretty effective. I mean, when Americans in the ’50s were told that there was such a thing as a domino theory, for example, in which if one country were allowed to become communist, inevitably the neighbor would fall, and so on, and we would become this lonely island. And I don’t think in those days, actually, Washington policymakers were just spinning that as an effective narrative. I do think many of them actually believed what they were saying. By the 1960s, I don’t think so, and we’ll get to that.
JAY: But there certainly was a real threat, I mean, the threat being more than half the population of the world was no longer in the capitalist economy,–
APPY: Right. Right.
JAY: –I mean, if you’re worried about and if you believe capitalism leads to freedom or whatever way you want to think about it.
APPY: And the economic underpinnings are always there, even though they’re not talked about. We always talk about freedom and democracy. But in the minds of policymakers, capitalism and, quote-unquote, free enterprise is just inextricably connected to their notion of resisting communist aggression. But just to get to this point about how pervasive this communist menace was in our culture, I did a little search on The New York Times, which now, because of databases, are perfectly searchable, going all the way back to its beginnings in 1851. I typed in the phrase communist aggression, because it was just clear to me that this was a crucial phrase of the Cold War. And between the paper’s origins in 1851 and 1945, it only pops up eight times, interestingly. But at the beginning of the Cold War, when we go from ’46 to 1960, it appears more than 2,600 times.
JAY: So all the times since the Russian Revolution, all through the ’20s and ’30s, when the whole Soviet Union’s being assembled–.
APPY: Yes. Right. Communist goes back–you know, the Communist Manifesto was written three years before The New York Times even started. So it doesn’t. And then if you type in American aggression during the same period of the ’40s and ’50s, it appears only about eight times, and it’s always in the mouth of some communist official; so, easily disparaged by the media as communist propaganda, that it seemed impossible that we could ever be the aggressor.
JAY: Now, just we’re kind of jumping all over the place, but this idea that we could never be the aggressor, it was seriously challenged as far back as the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. I know there was this thing called the Anti-Imperialist League, I think it was called, that Mark Twain, I think, was vice chair of the New York chapter.
APPY: Yeah. Even going back before that, the war against Mexico in the 1840s was, I would argue, an American war of aggression. You know, we provoked that war and clearly wanted it to happen so that we could take, if not all of Mexico, as some people wanted, at least half of it, which is what we did, including California and all its great riches. So, yeah, this is–there’s a long history of American aggression, and there has been resistance to it.
JAY: But that was my point is that there’s actually always been–.
APPY: Yeah, even in Mexico there was an antiwar movement, and there was certainly at the time of the–
JAY: War in the Philippines.
APPY: –the war in the Philippines particularly, the counterinsurgency, which has, again, many parallels to the Vietnam War.
JAY: I guess what I was heading at is that there’s–always has been very powerful voices against American aggression, against American exceptionalism that just don’t get into the media. I mean, Mark Twain had enough profile to kind of be heard, but nobody else hardly gets a chance.
APPY: Right. No, that’s perfectly true.
JAY: So let’s go back to where we were. So you have the Cold War, you have the House Un-American Activities, McCarthyism. They’re able to purge antiwar voices,–
APPY: Right, including people in the Far East desk of the State Department who might have offered some real informed guidance on what’s actually happening among these indigenous anti-colonial groups in places like Vietnam and could have said, look, you’re not going to be perceived as different from the French, you’re not going to go in there with clean hands, there will be resistance.
JAY: So the voices that might have been critical were purged.
APPY: Might have been critical were no longer there. They were sent off to some other country or forced to resign or fired flat out.
JAY: Now, Eisenhower, these days, is thought of almost as a president against American militarism because of this famous quote of his, beware of the military-industrial complex.
JAY: But you’ve got to read the next few sentences to say, but we need the industrial-military complex; just beware that it might have undue influence. In 1955, Eisenhower says: “Without God, there could be no American form of Government, nor an American way of life. Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first–the most basic–expression of Americanism.” Just a year before that, “one nation under God” becomes part of the Pledge of Allegiance. This idea of this merging of God and Americanism and then militarism, Eisenhower has a big role to play in this.
APPY: Yeah, he certainly does. And it’s in this period, really, Cold War politics are fused with religious politics and that the phrase godless communism is as common as communist aggression, or atheistic communism. And there really was a religious underpinning to American policy. And this is actually maybe the time to introduce this long-forgotten figure named Tom Dooley, who wrote a best-selling book that came out in 1956 called Deliver Us From Evil, which is, of course, a direct quotation from the Lord’s Prayer. And what he was writing about was his own experience as a Navy doctor who had been assigned to something called Operation Passage to Freedom, which was a Navy-sponsored plan to help move northern, mostly Catholic refugees, northern Vietnamese Catholic refugees, into the South. The goal was really to help to build a constituency for the Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, who the United States helped put into–was instrumental in putting into place as the new leader of this new country called South Vietnam. And he tells the story as a unequivocally good versus evil story, in which the United States are like missionaries going to rescue these poor and desperate refugees in flight from murderous communists. He tells all these atrocity stories of communists literally jamming, he claims, chopsticks into the eardrums of young Catholic children as they’re learning the Lord’s Prayer or their catechisms.
JAY: And he knew this was all bull.
APPY: Well, you know, he must have, because the government went in his wake and tried to find, if they could, any evidence that any of this was true and couldn’t–of course they didn’t tell the American public that they didn’t find evidence for it. But he was a fervent believer in the American cause, and some of those stories may have been encouraged by editors at the Reader’s Digest, which was a very conservative but also widely read publication in the 1950s which did have connections to the CIA. And Dooley was befriended by a man who worked with the CIA who helped ghostwrite much of Deliver Us From Evil. In any case–.
JAY: So this is about–this is 1956.
APPY: This was ’56. And it had a lot of readers, and it was quite influential in spreading this idea that we were embarked on nothing less than a kind of holy mission and a nonmilitary mission. It was not–you know, in the ’50s Americans had no sense that this was leading to some huge, bloody war, that this was really an exercise in a kind of benign nation-building or economic development, in which we were helping to offer the blessings of freedom and to help South Vietnam achieve its own self-determination. What we slowly learned–and Eisenhower admits it in his 1963 memoir–is that we actually sabotaged democracy, a democratic solution in Vietnam in the mid ’50s.
JAY: This was the election in ’56.
APPY: There was supposed to be an election in 1956 that had been called for by the Geneva Accords, which was the international conference that brought an end to the French Indochina war. And one of stipulations is that we’ll temporary temporarily divide Vietnam North and South, but that isn’t to be permanent, it was never intended to be permanent, but that in two years’ time, after things stabilize, there will be an election to reunite Vietnam under one government. And the reason it didn’t go forward is that every intelligence report Eisenhower saw indicated that the communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, was likely to win an overwhelming victory, maybe 80 percent, in the South as well as the North. So Eisenhower and Ngo Dinh Diem, the American-backed ruler in the South, decided not to have elections and therefore to embark on this 21 year objective to create and build and bolster a permanent non-Communist country called South Vietnam. And, of course, in the end it failed, and it failed primarily because that government, his, and all the ones that followed after his assassination in 1963, never had the sufficient support of its own people, broad enough support to defend itself in the absence of a massive American military presence.
JAY: Something I learned from your book I hadn’t known before: the United States didn’t kind of just stumble-bumble into all of this; they were financing the French.
APPY: Right. By the end of the French Indochina war, we were paying almost 80 percent of the cost. And so, in effect, France is serving almost as an American mercenary. I mean, we perceived it not as France’s effort to preserve a colony, which in fact was what France was up to. I mean, they got basically kicked out of Vietnam at the end of World War II ’cause the Japanese had taken over from them. And then the French went back in after World War II to reconquer their colony of Indochina. And Ho Chi Minh was really very much hoping that the United States might recognize him as the rightful leader. He declared independence in 1945, using the words of the American Declaration of Independence. There was even a brief–this is an odd bit of history, but there was even a brief month-long alliance between the United States and Ho Chi Minh. We dropped in a team of seven members of the Office of Strategic Services into northern Vietnam by parachute to make contact with Ho and help train his guerrilla force, ’cause they were anti—
JAY: To fight against Japan.
APPY: –to fight against Japan. And so, at the end of it, Ho had some real hope that we would make good on the promises of the Atlantic Charter, which had promised self-determination. We didn’t pay any attention to him, but instead supported France, because the real concern in the late ’40s was to shore up support in Europe for what they already saw as this necessary alliance against the Soviet Union. So if France wanted to go back and take its colony, we would simply accept that. So that was the reasoning behind it. And then, as you say, we really did support France. So Vietnamese understood that, and that’s why when we arrive–in small numbers, of course, in the ’50s, with police trainers and military advisers and number of people, but in the hundreds, not the thousands–immediately there’s a growing sense that, oh-oh, the U.S. is starting to move in and kind of take the place of France.
JAY: Now, you talk about the sort of parallels of Eisenhower having to deal with a country not very interested in going to war again after Korea, and then Reagan dealing with the post-Vietnam we don’t want to go to war again. And in the first segment we talked about how George Bush dealt with that and how 9/11 solved it for him. Of course, if you watch The Real News, we suggest it wasn’t entirely out of the blue. But at any rate, that’s another story. But talk a little bit about the conditions that Eisenhower was dealing with that he had to deal with some of these things surreptitiously so the American public wouldn’t know. APPY: Right. There was deep war weariness after Korea. So there was not great enthusiasm, certainly no enthusiasm for going in to bail out the French and prevent their defeat in 1954 at that climactic battle at Dien Bien Phu. So Eisenhower understood that he didn’t have to–.
JAY: Was the financing known publicly, that America’s financing France?
APPY: Probably not, probably not widely known. I mean, it was known that we were; yes, it was known; I don’t think the level or the degree of it, but I think it was known that we were supporting France. But Eisenhower’s approach to foreign policy was very much to rely on secret operations. I mean, the CIA was relatively new, but it was clearly, particularly under Eisenhower, being used in all kinds of places.
JAY: The overthrow of Mosaddegh in Iran.
APPY: Most famously in Iran in ’53, when we overthrew the prime minister, democratically elected prime minister, because he had decided to nationalize Iranian oil. At that point, by the way, we didn’t even have access to Iranian oil; it was mostly the Brits. But in the aftermath of that successful coup, which put the Shah of Iran back in place, the United States got 40 percent of the oil in Iran. And then, a year later, the CIA was set to overthrow the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz. He had committed a similar crime: he had started–he had expropriated some of the land owned by the United Fruit Company, and he was immediately declared a communist by the Eisenhower–.
JAY: This is Guatemala.
APPY: This is Guatemala. Yeah. Sorry. And so he was overthrown and replaced by a right-wing, thuggish authoritarian who immediately overthrew the really important and sort of New Deal style reforms that Árbenz, who was no communist, had put into place.
JAY: Any more was Mosaddegh [crosstalk]
APPY: No, not at all. In fact, Mosaddegh was even more deeply anti-Communist. But Árbenz had widened the suffrage. He had made efforts to put land in the hands of peasants. You know, it was considered by the Guatemalans, the ten years of reform–what did they call it? The ten years of spring. And, of course, that was followed by a 50 year civil war in which some 200,000 people were killed by one right-wing government after another, backed by the United States. So, yeah, it was a secret, this idea of its better to do things in secret than to sort of initiate these big, bloody wars that the public isn’t really primed for.
JAY: Well, part of–I think part of the narrative that comes out of your book–and we can see this–is that it’s having the courage, or the balls, as you talk about in the book, to defy American public opinion, and one, have the balls to kill a lot of people, don’t be a wussy, use the American military, and two, when American public opinion’s against the war, well, you do it anyway; otherwise, you’re weak. And we’re going to talk about in the next segment how much this kind of individual psychological factors play in the making of U.S. exceptionalism, American exceptionalism. Thanks for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself. Please join us as we continue our conversation with Christian Appy on The Real News Network.
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“Christian Gerard Appy is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is widely known as a leading expert on the Vietnam War experience. The most recent of his three books on the subject is American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity.”