Rice vs Potatoes: Re-living Vietnam Brings Us Back to the Present

Hans Morgenthau

Like a lot of Boomers, I’ve been riveted by the the 18-hour PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War”. I’m surprised, because I was so immersed in opposing the war back in the 1960s that I figured I knew pretty much everything worth knowing. No Ken Burns recap would tell me anything new, I assumed.

Was I wrong. I think the biggest revelation has been just how much relevance the Vietnam War years have to today’s polarized political landscape. The documentary brought me back to the obsessive focus of those days on politics—the endless discussions, debates and disagreements among friends, co-workers, and within families.  For the war or against it? The war seemed to permeate all aspects of our lives, to an exhausting, and exasperating, degree. Just like today, where it’s gotten so bad many people no longer want to talk politics.

I was an undergraduate majoring in political science at the University of Chicago during the middle and late 1960s, and I remember sitting in a lecture by one of the giants of international politics, Hans Morgenthau. He was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and the ultimate political realist. One day in the winter of 1966, in a lecture based on his classic text, Politics Among Nations, he was explaining how countries get into wars based on protecting what they determine to be their vital national security interests.

After making that general point, I recall him pausing, and looking out at about 100 of us in the lecture hall.  ”I keep trying to understand America’s vital national interests that are causing us to go to war against Vietnam. I can’t identify them. Maybe we are after Vietnam’s rice?” Another pause.  “I don’t even like rice. I like potatoes.”

The class broke into laughter, one of the few lighter moments I can remember from any discussions about the Vietnam war, and one of the few connections to food that came out of the war. But his point was well taken. No one that I heard then, or now in the Ken Burns documentary, has been able to offer a cogent argument for what vital national security interests of the U.S. were at stake in Vietnam.

During those Vietnam war years, I could never fathom why intelligent leaders like John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could be so single minded in their support of the war effort, as misguided as the entire adventure appeared nearly from the beginning of American involvement, in the early 1960s. In fact, I convinced myself after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 that he never would have let the situation get as much out of hand as it eventually got under Johnson by 1966 and 1967. But watching the documentary, I’ve come to realize that Kennedy was never close to giving up on Vietnam when he died (although five years later, his brother, Bobby, had given up on it).

The Burns documentary argues that the main rationale for staying in Vietnam, and building up involvement there to the point where by 1967 the U.S. had more than 500,000 soldiers there, was as simple as it was amazing: Neither of these presidents wanted to be known as the one who “lost Asia to the communists.” But that’s how serious the anti-communist tenor of the times was–to those Democrats, the Republicans were simply lying in wait, wanting to blame them for “losing” Vietnam to the communists.

The guiding theory of those days was the “domino theory”—that if we lost Vietnam, the communists led by the Soviet Union and China would take over there, and then in many other countries of Southeast Asia like Cambodia, Laos, and even Thailand. So each time it looked as if North Vietnam was close to winning and taking over South Vietnam in the early and mid-1960s, we threw more soldiers and weapons into the conflict, simply to prevent an imminent loss.

If the smart guys from Harvard and the top generals from World War II  advising Kennedy and Johnson were so wrong, who could we trust to get things right? I think that question has haunted us since Vietnam, through our adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya in the years since Vietnam, and helped bring us to Donald Trump and the rank amateurs he is relying on to run foreign affairs. Much of today’s public thinking goes this way: How much more could these new guys screw things up?

The documentary also reminds us of the media’s key role in digging out the truth of what was happening in Vietnam—beyond the positive spin of exaggerated “body counts” of the enemy being put out by the politicians and the generals. The documentary reveals how President Johnson became as enraged as Trump has become at times about the media. When CBS’ Morley Safer reported on how American soldiers were indiscriminately burning down Vietnamese villages, Johnson called the president of CBS to try to get Safer fired. CBS refused, and the probing reporting continued, not only from CBS but from other media as well.

The documentary also helped me remember the terrible divide between those men fighting in Vietnam, and those who, like me, accepted refuge on college campuses or, when that time ran out, seeking medical deferments from afflictions exaggerated by anti-war physicians. I personally felt awful that other young men were putting their lives on the line, while I and many others were able to escape serving. In the documentary, a number of veterans recount their horrible experiences of war, and how abandoned they felt because of both the antiwar movement and the bungling politicians and generals at home.

The documentary does a great job of pulling the veil back on one aspect of the war no one in the U.S. could fully appreciate at the time: the mindset of the North Vietnamese, who were seeking to take over South Vietnam and unite their country. What’s amazing to me about the former North Vietnamese soldiers and commanders interviewed is both their absence of hatred, and their determination to win. They had plenty to be angry about, most notably that the U.S. was dropping more bombs on their country than had been used in all of World War II, and along with the bombs attacking with huge firebombs of napalm and defoliating huge segments of jungle countryside with Agent Orange.

Here was this tiny Asian country of less than 50 million people, with no air force to speak of, up against the full force of the world’s greatest superpower, which had complete control of the skies, and it was winning. As always in war, there was torture and brutality on both sides. Here, Americans seemed to have the upper hand, periodically burning down hamlets and executing unarmed peasants suspected of supporting the Viet Cong, as the South Vietnamese guerrilla group came to be known.

Watching “Vietnam”, I found myself again asking, in exasperation, How could we have so badly misjudged what was going on in Vietnam? How could we have sent more than 50,000 of our young people to die there, and spent so many billions of treasure?” The only explanation I can think of is one that several observers put forth in the documentary—that we tried to apply the lessons of World War II about standing up against aggression, and misapplied them in Asia.  In Vietnam, we weren’t dealing with a conquering dictator, but rather a real war of liberation, similar in certain respects to America’s own revolution.

You can’t help but wonder as you watch the documentary whether the Vietnam War was the beginning of the end of American world dominance and oversized influence. It’s well worth watching, and it can be live-streamed if you’ve missed it or haven’t been able to record episodes for your TV.

16 comments to Rice vs Potatoes: Re-living Vietnam Brings Us Back to the Present

  • blesse'd are the cheese makers

    Interesting that you bring this up.

    I just started watching this series this week. Brings back a lot of memories on the one hand and gives one new insight as to the bigger picture as it was happening on the other hand.

    Vietnam was one of those places that very few of us wanted any part of at the time. Many of my contemporaries signed up after a Judge said, “You can go to jail or you can go join the Army.”

    I look forward to viewing the rest of the series as I have only seen Episodes One and Two.

    Thanks for “heads up.”

  • William March

    The Vietnam War was a terrible loss of lives and no winners on either side .Ho Chi Minh thought he would get our help after WW2 to get independence from France but our politicians backed the French and we fought a loosing war
    .The part that I don’t understand is why the hatred of Trump has to be brought into this .Trump has been in office for about 9 months it’s too early to see his results on the wars or the other problems he inherited from the past .
    .Did we get good results from Obama ,Hillary ,and the other educated fools ,I remember the LINE IN THE SAND ,Obama drew .If you really think the previous administration did such a good job ,the bridge in Brooklyn is still for sale .Thank you

    • David Gumpert David Gumpert

      Not sure what “hatred of Trump” you are referring to. I just said he and his team were inexperienced in foreign affairs, but that given the problems we had gotten into with more experienced politicians, people were ready to try something entirely different.

  • Gordon Watson

    yup, you really ARE a troll, aren’t you Mister March? Before he died, Robert Strange McNamara said “we were wrong” … about what America had done in Viet Nam. Life must go on.

    Donald Trump was excepted from military service, as unfit for the sake of “bone spurs”, but that didn’t stop him playing all the sports enjoyed by a playboy of his era. That is his burden to bear. No-one brought hatred of him, now, for that, “into this”, ’til you did. People on this forum had their fill ( and then some) of all that political hyper-chauvinism … so, see if you can “just let it go”

  • William March

    Gordon Watson I did not refer to the hatred of Trump for not being in the VIETNAM WAR ,I was referring to the hatred people have for him as President .Plenty of young men protested the war and found many ways not to serve ,they ran to Canada ,college etc.These young men did not have to fight ,because they came from’ privilege ‘ families ,as a result most of the fighting was done by poor white and black young men .Instead of protesting the so called ‘students ‘ could have volunteered to work in hospitals ,helping the wounded or their families ,Instead they smoked pot and caused destruction ,blowing up buildings and killing people with their antiwar tactics .My brother was a young FBI agent at the time ,he was assigned to the Boston office ,and was successful infiltrating the radical group the Weathermen ,slowing down their violence.Ihad two brothers that served in the war ,and lost several friends .
    As far as you go ,you have called me various names ,I want you to know I am from Brooklyn and as ever body knows we wrote the book on insults .My suggestion to you would be to have a nice glass of cold milk ,a Twinkee ,some bone broth and an enema ,go to bed and maybe tomorrow you will be able crack a smile.Thank you

    • Gordon Watson

      Mister March … see if you can focus your mind so as to contribute something intelligent to this forum to do with REAL MILK. So far, you haven’t. your scatalogical referrence cinches my opinion = you’re a troll. No more time and goodwill to be wasted on thou

  • Ken Conrad Ken Conrad

    Your article prompted me to go back and read a geography study I did back in 1972 on Vietnam.

    Indochina has a longstanding history of conflict. Over the course of two millennia, it seems everyone from the Chinese to the French, to the Japanese to the Russians to the United States etc. wanted a piece or was meddling in the affairs of Indochina.

    The 2nd World War is ultimately what appears to have determined the latter course of events in Vietnam. The German occupation of France, the Axis alliance with Japan and the Viet Minh communist revolt, led by Hồ Chí Minh paved the way for the Geneva agreement that separated Vietnam into North and south. This eventually led to the Vietnam conflict in the50’s and 60’s also known as the “Second Indochina War”. It was considered a “Cold War-era proxy war”.

    The United States involvement in the Vietnam War apart from providing more aid and US involvement as per the “Declaration of Honolulu” was likely influenced by its more or less failed attempt to achieve a conclusive win against the Communists during the Korean War. The last thing they wanted was another Korean stalemate. As usual with the continuation of war, human ego was (and still is) a key motivating factor; to hell with a country’s infrastructure and its ability to feed, clothe and house its own people! It’s a bitter pill that humans seem to be addicted to.

    The documentary sounds interesting and if I can access it I will certainly watch it.

  • D. Smith D. Smith

    I don’t watch PBS and haven’t since their biased presentation several years ago on vaccinations. That “documentary” showed you what they wanted you to know and they cut out all the stuff they didn’t want you to know or hear or repeat, like the 2 hours they wasted on interviewing Dr. Jay Gordon and then never included a word of his interview because he is a pediatrician who thinks vaccinations should be staggered and not given so frequently – or so many at one time. I agree. And PBS et al were afraid others might agree, as well.

    But the article at the link below contained a paragraph I couldn’t resist sharing because this sums it up better than anything I could ever say.

    “You don’t get privileged broadcast space there [at PBS], or big filmmaking grants from Bank of America and the Koch brothers – two leading funders of Burns and Novick’s Vietnam series – by exposing the immoral, imperial, and unlawful essence of U.S. foreign policy.”

    This is a superb article, albeit quite long. But it’s a big subject. I hope many of you will take the time to read the entire thing. He has some priceless info in there.


  • Jay

    Perhaps I’m just cynical. I was drafted in the late ’60s because of the Tonkin Gulf lie. My opinion is based on observation.

    I think the reason Vietnam was in our national security interest was then, and still is, to keep government contractors fat and happy so the graft flows through to DC. Without strong military contractors and willing politicians, we couldn’t maintain our current perpetual state of war.

    During the Vietnam adventure, and I assume today as well, the volume of drugs coming in on C141s through Guam back then was breathtaking. That may not have been in the national security interest but it certainly was in the interest of somebody. Perhaps some of that money went back into black budgets a la Iran/Contra. I don’t know.

  • William March

    David Sorry for the misunderstanding ,you showed no hatred of Trump in your article .I was referring to the hatred I see in general about a Trump .I am one of the voters that wanted change .I say give him a chance ,he will turn out to be a prince or a clown .Thank you

  • Ken Conrad Ken Conrad

    This is a powerful statement…

    “UN Human Rights Council STUNNED when Hamas leader’s son exposes Palestinian Authority lies”

  • William March

    Gordon my original blog was advising readers about cancer ,that was my only thoughts at the time .I was then called an ignoramus ,a dolt ,and a troll .I am an educated man so I am neither an ignoramus or a dolt ,I don’t live under a bridge and don’t have any goats ,so I am not a troll.Do you live under a bridge with goats?.It seems to me a lot of subjects are discussed on this blog, so why the comments . What do you want to know about raw milk ?,I think I know as much as any person on this blog and probably as much as the so called experts that make a living giving lectures for $$$$$$. That’s all Thank you

  • Gordon S Watson

    William March = what you’ve done now, is : identified your blind spot about REAL MILK. And not a small one, at that.
    as I’ve related more than onc’t on this forum, I had the privilege of being personally tutored by Buckminster Fuller, one of the great minds of the 20th century. In the mid-1960s, Paul Erhlich had published The Population Bomb. A classic example of fear-mongering for driving the herd towards a political end. Proponents would hold out the notion that unless reproduction was checked by govt. policy, then “people would be standing on each others’ shoulders”. When he visited Simon Fraser U and University of BC, Fuller challenged us = “if you put all the people in the world, standing in average nightclub proximity, how big an area of the surface of the planet would they take up?” After Guesses ranged in size, He then told us the correct answer : the island of Bermuda. [ World population then, was 3 billion. ] His point being … to educate us how ignorant we all were, as to the FACTS about geography. and that we were making judgments from IN-correct premises. He then went on to say ; “of course human beings sweep out the entire planet, but so-called over population is a myth.” His theme on that tour, was : ‘one must UN-learn what is not so, in order to learn what IS so’.

    the polite-est way I can put it to you, Mister March, is = you have a lot of UN-learning to do, on the topic of REAL MILK vis-a-vis your faith in what I call ‘the sickness racket’. Obviously … you’re stuck at the stage of decrying someone who is about 30 years ahead of you, (me ) on the UN-learning / learning continuum. since you’ve dug yourself in there’s no helping someone who prefers to stay ignorant. End of story – 30 –

    • David

      Gordon–As environmental engineer when pop was 6 billion, given one sq foot, I calculated the world population would fit into the city of Jacksonville FL. When it was told me 1 sq ft is not enough, I gave the 6 billion a nice 2 bedroom condo in three story condos with a nice yard and it computed to 1/3 the size of Texas. On the other hand, a 2% pop growth in the US each year, amounts to a new city of 6,000,000 each year–which is quite shocking. Worldwide, this would amount to 20 cities of 6 million each. I also calculated the amount of oil and gasoline used in all of history since 1900 could fit in the volume the size of Lake Tahoe–this was in 1995. Bill Gates has a program with the UN to reduce pop

  • William March

    Gordon When did I ever say anything about the world being over populated ,I do not believe it is .I also do not believe in abortion for birth control .I though you wanted to discuss raw milk .I don’t know why this subject of population came up.Iam happy for you that you were tutored by Buckminister Fuller he seems like an interesting individual .We have had many great learned men and women then and now .I believe that progress keeps going on ,and we learn that opinions change over the years ,as man betters himself .I don’t understand educated people on this blog ,believing that stories about a DDS that lived almost 100 years ago is the gospel truth .There are many cracks in his so called ‘scientific ‘ findings . As the world’s population increases new ways must be found to increase the food supply, this will require more genetically modified crops and better pesticides in spite of all the fear mongers .You seem to have a deep hatred for the medical establishment and I don’t understand why you feel that way .If I can help you understand the wonderful progress made helping sick and injured people in the last 100 yrs please let me koow. It’s not all about money. By the way I do drink raw milk when I see where it came from .Thank You

  • Joseph Heckman

    “The Agent Orange herbicide sprayed in Vietnam during the war is one, widely studied example of such linkages. Agent Orange was a 50%-50% mixture of two phenoxy herbicides – 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. Its heavy use to defoliate the jungle in Vietnam led to exposures among U.S. military personnel, as well as Vietnamese living in rural areas.”

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