SOUTH VIETNAM, Diem, AMERICA, the PENTAGON PAPERS, NOAM CHOMSKY and even MALCOLM X: The Vietnam War from 1959 to 1963, and differing views

All political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.
—George Orwell

Granted, this applies to me, too, alas. And…

Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.
—George Orwell

Somebody out there might find this early aspect of the Vietnam War historically interesting—beginning something like fifty years ago. I was motivated to do a little research on the subject from seeing a film on the Pentagon Papers, another on cluster bombs dropped on the villagers of Laos, a clip of Malcolm X found in doing other research, and from the Noam Chomsky comment below. And below Chomsky’s comment is what came up from memory and a diligent few hours of research. Okay, a little more than that.

In a 1982 interview, Noam Chomsky said, as he had before and has since:

"The real invasion of South Vietnam which was directed largely against the rural society began directly in 1962 [the Strategic Hamlet Program] after many years of working through mercenaries and client groups. And that fact simply does not exist in official American history. There is no such event in American history as the attack on South Vietnam. That’s gone. Of course, it is a part of real history. But it’s not a part of official history.

And most of us who were opposed to the war, especially in the early ’60’s—the war we were opposed to was the war on South Vietnam which destroyed South Vietnam’s rural society. The South was devastated. But now anyone who opposed this atrocity is regarded as having defended North Vietnam. And that’s part of the effort to present the war as if it were a war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam with the United States helping the South. Of course it’s fabrication. But it’s “official truth” now."

I have often used Chomsky’s writings and insights (and even the attacks against him) as a reference to help me consider or even uncover ideas never or rarely heard in the mainstream—and from there, from my research, make up my own mind as best I can, with as much humility and discernment as I have in my little brain. And further, trying to keep in mind how little any of us can know, the public record and declassified record notwithstanding. I mean seriously.

That’s why when people criticize Chomsky for certain comments—and of course they have the right and even the obligation to do so—I find some of their conclusions intriguing, to say the least. Like calling him a holocaust denier.

I’ve read Chomsky for a long time, learned so flippin' much, and I will say this: I have never for even a moment felt, from anything Chomsky wrote, anything other than outrage, disgust, despair, heartbreak and fear for humanity at—to name three anti-Chomsky topics—the unimaginable holocaust perpetrated against the Jews in Europe (and others) in World War II by the Nazi regime (“the most fantastic outburst of insanity in human history”, to quote Chomsky), the inconceivably gruesome massacres and genocide committed by the communist Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia* and the brutal horrors and atrocities committed by the communist and Serbian Nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia.

The only difference, perhaps, between my loathing of those horrific systematic slaughters of human beings and some who loathe the aforementioned slaughters and loathe Chomsky (who is ultimately of little relevance in worldly affairs, by definition), is that my despair and disgust and fear does not largely end with those events.


And my writing, also by definition, has more or less zero effect on the ways of the species, period—as far as I can tell. Yet I feel compelled to write anyway. Go figure—this human instinct and desire to do something that hopefully is in support, in defense, of innocent sisters and brothers who, across the globe, have virtually no opportunity to have a voice heard by anybody.

And I write about South Vietnam here for a couple of reasons: one, to try and clarify what the record actually says, at least in part, and possibly help support less-spoken truths. And two, to urge everyone anywhere—while trying to maintain compassion—to be more discerning of what is passed off as news and history, and to increase solidarity with those who are truly in the same boat (which is nearly all of us).


But my insignificance aside, take the Vietnam War/Invasion. The deaths of 58,000 American soldiers is undeniably horrendous and soul-wrenching, not to mention the psychological and physical effects on countless other American soldiers, and the American psyche itself.

So given that, where in heaven’s name does any decent human being place in their hearts, and brains, the deaths of, according to Robert McNamara, 3.4 million Indochinese in that same period? 3.4 million human beings. That’s the population of Vancouver five times over. Even my block seems crowded. I don’t know the percentage of deaths caused by either ’side,’ but one can imagine the staggering percentage of those 3.4 million human beings who were civilians—women, children, babies, elderly, peasant farmers etc?


How can the deaths of 3.4 million people be repeatedly described as a tactical error, a misjudgment, and not a moral collapse—let alone a crime—of profound proportions?

David Chanoff, as just one example of nearly everyone, writes in 2006, regarding journalist Bernard Fall:

“[Fall] believed that while the war in Vietnam could not be won, America’s prodigious firepower also made it impossible to lose. [Fall] did not foresee that America’s political will, not its military might, would determine the outcome.

Unless I’m misunderstanding what is being said there (and I often misunderstand), I just can’t see how anyone can describe a war resulting in way over 3 million deaths, in a country—Vietnam—that never threatened the invading country—the US—in any way, as insufficient “political will”?

Surely the loathing of and outcry against that horrendous, endless, virtually inconceivable slaughter, even by Chomsky-haters, should still be inconceivably greater and take up more print than their loathing of Chomsky—by about ten million fold. Yet is it? I generally read, even in critiques, that US intention was righteous, the mistake a tactical error or military misjudgment—3.4 million deaths and countless breeches of international law later (see, for example, the Jack Silberman film Bombies, for the horrors perpetrated in Laos).


Since I first read Chomsky, he has unabashedly pointed out that the initial strikes of the Vietnam War were actually American/South Vietnamese government-military attacks against the people of South Vietnam, not attacks on North Vietnam. It seems difficult to get a clear reading or even hear this point of view most anywhere else. I did, however, stumble upon this comment by Malcolm X from that actual time, likely 1963—while researching for a film. What he said caught my ear:

Malcolm X says:

“[Kennedy] has the time to take a stand against US Steel, against Castro, against Khrushchev, against Laos and SOUTH VIETNAM, and all these other places all over the world, but when it comes time to correcting the injustices that are being inflicted against Negroes in this country, Kennedy sits up there like Nero. He’s fiddling while Birmingham is burning.”


Regardless of one’s angle or spin on what Chomsky says, he is factually correct: American military was only in South Vietnam in the early 60s, and engaged in combat. This is reported countless times in the New York Times in ‘61, ‘62, ‘63 etc. It wasn’t simply 15,000 ‘military advisers’—whatever that means. It was military action—whatever that means. I know, because last night I spent about $19.90 retrieving old articles from the New York Times archives, to see if it was true.

Seems like Malcolm X read the New York Times back then, even if no one else took any notice.

On February 25th, 1962, Homer Bigart, legendary journalist for the New York Times (and unabashedly pro-American government policy in South Vietnam), writes a piece entitled A ‘Very Real War’ in Vietnam, and the Deep U.S. Commitment:

"The United States is involved in a war in Vietnam. American troops will stay until victory. That is what Attorney General Robert Kennedy said here last week. He called it “war in a very real sense of the word.” He said that President Kennedy had pledged that the United States would stand by South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem “until we win.” [the following year, despite what is reported above, the US backed a coup d'etat resulting in the bloody assassination of staunchly anti-communist South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother by his own ARVN generals].

U.S. Army helicopter crews have come under fire taking Vietnamese combat troops into guerrilla zones [all in the South] or carrying pigs and other livestock to hungry outposts surrounded by hostile country. U.S. Air Force pilots have flown with Vietnamese pilots on bombing missions against reported enemy concentrations and against two frontier forts recently evacuated by the Vietnamese Army.

So far our contribution in blood has been small…

American combat troops are not likely to be thrown into Vietnam unless Communist North Vietnam moves across the seventeenth parallel or pushes large forces down through Laos into South Vietnam."

All of these battles, and the so-called ‘Strategic Hamlet Program’ took place in the South, against insurgent guerrillas. The intentionally deceptive Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 would change the direction, and the history.


For the record, Vietnam had been partitioned (temporarily, supposedly) by the UN in 1954 with the Geneva Conference, pending promised and soon-to-be elections. The separation was made along certain lines as a result of the Viet Minh (the Vietnamese who fought to rid the country of France, their colonial occupiers). Diem, who was said to be autocratic and nepotistic, became Prime Minister. His brother was his main adviser, and also an opium addict and an admire of Hitler. Talk about two bad habits.

It seems clear, there was a battle with at least civil war undertones going on in South Vietnam: the American-supported Diem regime against the Vietnamese communists and others—communism and nationalism were inextricably linked in Vietnam at this time—who wanted to rid Vietnam of any extenders of colonial-like rule.

And of course the southern communists and other nationalist insurgents (whether southerners or transplanted northerners) would involve Hanoi (ie home of the communists in the North).

They were all colonially-occupied citizens of Vietnam and the demarcation line was temporary and multi-laterally imposed. Further, the objectives of Vietnamese insurgents were largely aligned and had been for decades: rid Vietnam of the authoritarian French, then the authoritarian Japanese, the French again (supported by America—insufficiently, according to Bernard Fall), then America and the so-called puppet regime of Diem, then America, and finally, ironically, the authoritarian communists.

And if one wonders if the Vietnamese insurgents in the late 1950s and early 1960s had reason to hold any grudge against the Americans, or why their ideology was communist, this from the New York Times, February 25th, 1962, is revealing:

"Actually, the United States has been deeply involved in the fate of Vietnam since 1949 when the decision was made to subsidize the continuation of French rule against the Communist Vietminh rebellion [see New York Times 05/09/50]. The first United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (M.A.A.G.) arrived in 1951 to supervise the distribution of supplies. Thereafter the United States played an increasingly important role. To use a favorite Washington term, aid was “escalated” until today [early 1962!] $2 billion has been sunk into Vietnam with no end to the outlay in sight.”

Anybody who cares to admit it surely knows that insurgents fighting for autonomy in their own country have been around probably since the nation-state began—communism is but one ideology they hold onto, because it fits for a multitude of unfortunate reasons at a given historical moment.

Martin Luther King said, a year to the day before his death on April 4, 1968:

"For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam.

Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of the reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.

After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators—our chosen man, Premier Diem."


Diem, in the minds of insurgents, it seems, largely headed a ‘puppet-regime’ (this time supported by the Americans and the British, with colonial occupiers France pushed out in 1954 after 8 years of war—and the Japanese before that—have mercy—and the French colonialists before that).

[Author] Mclear, as cited in Wikipedia, describes the largely American supported Diem regime in South Vietnam (1954-63) this way:

"Diem was also passionately anti-Communist. Tortures and killings of “communist suspects” were committed on a daily basis. The death toll was put at around 50,000 with 75,000 imprisonments, and Diem’s effort extended beyond communists to anti-communist dissidents and anti-corruption whistleblowers."

And this report in the Pentagon Papers, of insurgent brutalities, came from the Diem regime (the South Vietnamese government, GVN) to the US Embassy, reporting murders by insurgents: 193 in 1958, 233 in ‘59 and 780 in the first five months of 1960.

Sounds like raging internal problems to me.

Added to this, in the same Pentagon Papers (the 2009 Daniel Ellsberg documentary The Most Dangerous Man In America, about his releasing the so-called Pentagon Papers, is really worth seeing):

"[Journalist Bernard] Fall reported that the GVN [South Vietnamese Government] lost almost 20% of its village chiefs through 1958, and that by the end of 1959, they were becoming casualties at the rate of more than 2% per month. Through 1963, Fall calculated, 13,000 petty officials were eliminated by the VC [Viet Cong—Vietnamese Communists]. The New York Times estimated that 3,000 local government officials were killed or captured during 1960, and Time magazine reported in the fall of 1960 that the GVN was losing 250 to 300 per month to a “new Communist offensive”: The U.S. “White Paper” of 1961 cited losses of 1400 local officials and civilians during 1960. But if there was disparity among numerical estimates, most reports, public or private, concluded that the violence was real, anti-government, rising in intensity, and increasingly organized."

Along the journey from 1954, however, Diem had become less and less compliant with American (and I think British) ideas/orders/strategies, and as a staunch Catholic, he had become increasingly oppressive to the Vietnamese Buddhists (at least one monk self-immolated in protest), and he and his brother were murdered in a coup d’etat in 1963—in other words, not by the communist insurgents.

According to the Rand Report (the Pentagon Papers):

"The Diem coup was one of those critical events in the history of U.S. policy that could have altered our commitment. The choices were there: (1) continue to plod along in a limited fashion with Diem—despite his and Nhu’s growing unpopularity; (2) encourage or tacitly support the overthrow of Diem, taking the risk that the GVN [South Vietnamese Government] might crumble and/or accommodate to the VC [Viet Cong/communists]; and (3) grasp the opportunity—with the obvious risks—of the political instability in South Vietnam to disengage.

The first option was rejected because of the belief that we could not win with Diem-Nhu. The third was very seriously considered a policy alternative because of the assumption that an independent, non-communist SVN was too important a strategic interest to abandon—and because the situation was not sufficiently drastic to call into question so basic an assumption.

The second course was chosen [supporting the overthrow of their former ally, Diem] mainly for the reasons the first was rejected—Vietnam was thought too important; we wanted to win; and the rebellious generals seemed to offer that prospect. [so in actual fact it would seem 2 and 3 were chosen, with 2 being the first step].

In making the choice to do nothing to prevent the coup and to tacitly support it, the U.S. inadvertently deepened its involvement."

Let’s call a spade a bludgeon: the word ‘inadvertently’ is a lame plea of innocence. It’s like someone saying they repeatedly, brutally beat somebody, and alas, lo and behold, in the process, the person ‘inadvertently’ died.

All before the end of 1963, the US government had been deeply involved (though didn’t sign) in the original Geneva Conference that set out the demarcation line dividing Vietnam; the US military had undertaken many military bombing missions in South Vietnam, and helped put into place and institute a program of gathering and displacing between 4 and 7 million rural people, families etc., into largely unprotected ’strategic hamlets’, causing great misery; the American government had supported the Diem puppet regime while it committed terror on the population—in what was at the very least a low grade civil war—and then admittedly supported the murder/coup d’etat of said puppet (to repeat: all before the end of 1963). And through these and other events (including by 1962 a $2 billion investment since 1947), the US became inadvertently more deeply involved.

It takes, it seems to me, some kind of Orwellian thought process to conclude that deeper involvement was ‘inadvertent.’


With Diem, the American military also implemented or helped implement (also, I think, with a British adviser) the aforementioned Strategic Hamlet Program (see also Operation Sunrise). I believe this began in earnest in 1961, extending a program that had been begun by the South Vietnam Diem regime and known as the Agroville Program.

The program’s objective was meant ostensibly to isolate rural inhabitants from communists and other pro-independent Vietnam insurgents—both from attack and from their influence—who were undoubtedly alive and well in the south. The debate remains, distractingly, as to how much these southern insurgents were controlled by Hanoi, in the north.

Either way, the strategic hamlet plan ended up being a catastrophe for the rural inhabitants of South Vietnam, whether communist, anti-communist, Buddhist, Catholic or anything else.

According to the Pentagon Papers (The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 2, Chapter 2, “The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963,” pp. 128-159 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)), by September 30, 1962, some 4,322,034 people had been displaced in these hamlets, that were by many accounts neither protected nor sustainable:

"The Strategic Hamlet Program was much broader than the construction of strategic hamlets … The strategic hamlet program was, in short, an attempt to translate the newly articulated theory of counter-insurgency into operational reality. The objective was political though the means to its realization were a mixture of military, social, psychological, economic and political measures."

This is from the New York Times, March 28th, 1962:

One thousand two hundred families have been obliged to leave their villages to go and live in strategic hamlets. Their homes have been entirely destroyed. Some of them were able to save a bed or a table before their house was destroyed. Others could take nothing else with them except the clothes which they were wearing. A woman next to me,’ says the correspondent, ‘with wild eyes was thinking perhaps of the two tons of paddy which was the reserve of her family and which had just been burnt by the American soldiers.”

And on April 1st of 1962, the New York Times’ Homer Bigart wrote:

“The United States has assumed moral responsibility for a harsh and drastic military measure that could mark a turning point in [South] Vietnam’s struggle against the [South Vietnamese] Communist guerrillas.

The measure involves the resettlement—by force if necessary—of thousands [soon to be millions] of [South] Vietnamese rural families that live in areas susceptible to Communist domination.”


So according to the record, in general, the Vietnam War began in 1965, due, alas, to the half-truths and lies of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. And the South was no longer attacked by American firepower, of course, right? Not so fast. Finishing with Chomsky:

"They also started bombing North Vietnam at the time, February 1965, but the bombing of South Vietnam was tripled in scale, and much more devastating. That was known…

In 1965, [historian, American adviser, pro-French colonizer, anti-Nazi fighter in WW II and FBI-surveilled journalist Bernard Fall—killed in 1967] wrote that the biggest decision of the war was not the bombing of North Vietnam, not the sending of American troops a couple of months later, but the decision to bomb South Vietnam at a far greater scale than anything else and to smash the place to bits.

He had also pointed out in the preceding couple of years that the U.S. had been destroying the so-called Viet Cong [in South Vietnam] with napalm and vomiting gases and massive bombardment and it was a massacre.

He said in 1965 they escalated it to a much higher attack, and that was a big change. He was an American adviser. He describes how he flew with the American planes when they napalmed villages, destroyed hospitals. He described it very graphically. He was infuriated about it, but he describes it."

If anybody has any links to further research on these facts, well-informed ideas of their own, or even corrections, they would be greatly appreciated—a compelling, tragic and in some ways deeply ignored aspect of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Speaking of Buddhists, may all beings experience more compassion, justice, and truth.


*For all the Chomsky battering—as if his comments are affecting political policy on the world stage—it should be noted that the horrific Cambodian genocide was ended to a large degree by the Vietnamese communists’ invasion into Cambodia in late December of 1978, and into 1979 (and an occupation and war beyond that). Pol Pot’s communist Khmer Rouge from that point on had two specific big allies, creating a triangle of curious bedfellows. The Chinese communists supplied the Khmer Rouge militarily, and the American government supported the Khmer Rouge’s legitimacy as the government of Cambodia, at the United Nations, under the Khmer Rouge name until 1982, and under a different name until 1993. I know, stunning—welcome to real politik.

The Americans—having just left Vietnam in 1975 and over 3 million deaths in the region, tacitly supported Suharto and Indonesia’s massacres in tiny East Timor, by arming them and blocking cries for help, and were preparing for all kinds of Central American operations—were outraged at Vietnam’s act of aggression and criminal negligence of national sovereignty.

It should also be mentioned that between, I think, 1965, but more so from 1969 to 1973, in an illegal war, the United States dropped, it has been estimated, 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia.

To quote Ben Kiernan:

"To put 2,756,941 tons into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during all of World War II. Cambodia may be the most heavily bombed country in history."

I quote historian Jonathan Glover’s more than balanced book Humanity:

“[The less than reliable (my words)] Prince Sihanouk said that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger created the Khmer Rouge by expanding the [Vietnam War] into Cambodia [and undoubtedly that is a massive yet important oversimplification. To be sure, the Khmer Rouge are responsible for what the Khmer Rouge did]. The Khmer Rouge themselves understood this [the effect of the American bombing]: one of them said that the villagers would

"... sometimes literally shit their pants when the big [American] bombs and shells came…Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told…That was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win the people over…sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge…”

I swear, with regard to the aforementioned facts about American policy around Cambodia—the criminal US bombing and terror, the (internationally legitimate yet ironic) outcry against the Vietnam invasion (and dreaded occupation) of Cambodia that halted the genocide, and American support for the Khmer Rouge politically at the UN until 1993—I hear way less about those facts (indeed, next to nothing) than I do about Noam Chomsky’s under-estimation of the Khmer Rouge horrors. Both are unfortunate—the latter because I greatly appreciate Noam Chomsky and his work, and relentless tirades against him generally prevent hearing so much of what he is ultimately saying—that unrestrained Power everywhere (state, corporate, even religious) works for its own interests, and generally against yours.

But Chomsky is just one man doing what he can. Where he's wrong on certain issues, how much does that actually matter?

What of the general historical silence on the former, and similar silences that continue elsewhere today? Do they not have grave and bitter consequences in the real world? Covert and overt state and corporate policies all over the world continue to hammer and destroy unprotected sisters and brothers everywhere, physically and otherwise.

Understanding, across ideological lies that divide, our deep similarities and the profound need for greater solidarity and community, is essential to creating a more just world—and perhaps at this point even saving the species.

Anyway, I felt a need to try and clarify for myself some facts of American involvement in South Vietnam in the late 1950s and early ’60s, so I did a little research. I truly hope the information is useful.

That’s it—too much for now. My own heart—under stress that most of the rest of the world could only dream of having—is temporarily shaken. I have to take a break and read something beautiful, or speak sweetly to someone I love.

If you have the chance, do the same.




copyright 2006 Pete McCormack