Viewpoints Regarding the Vietnam War Essay
In the fall of 1990, a conference was held in the Columbia University to bring about a long procrastinated discussion of both American and Vietnamese viewpoints regarding the Vietnam War. In their work titled The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American perspectives, Jayne Werner and Luu Doan Huynh observe that this collaborative effort brought to light the fact that many things that are popularly known about the war have little fact in basis. It is often also difficult to gauge the precise timeline of the war, but it can broadly be said to have extended from 1945-1975. The period thus delineated does not include merely the years of open military confrontation, but marks the time from the first seeds of conflict to the final fall of Saigon. The chief objective of this paper, however, is to analyse this historic war in relation to Martin Luther King’s seminal anti-war sermon “A Time To Break Silence”.
While many tend to view the war as one that was ‘revolutionary’, King sought to critique the very underlying principle of war. At every level, he expressed his solidarity for those members of the clergy and the laity who critiqued the war and were sympathetic to the Vietnamese civilians. Though King’s speech is a clear articulation affirming the value of human life and liberty, my analysis would attempt to both analyse and question his perspective regarding the Vietnam War. King’s views regarding the land reforms that Ho Chi Minh had
carried out during his tenure have been contested and attested by various thinkers. This paper shall try to incorporate these views into the body of the work and provide a balanced argument. The paper shall also look at the position of the poor peasants in Vietnam who bore the brunt of the war.
The land reforms in Vietnam, initiated as a means of the communist revolution in the nation was directed at the distribution of land among the peasants of the society and the displacement of the elite of the village that existed before the revolution. Through these, a new class would arise that would enable the birth of a free and noble nation, one that would be egalitarian in its principles. King’s concern for the rise of such a nation is partially a result of the Christian perspective of egalitarianism that he adopts in his speech as David Bromwich argues. He goes on to locate the root of king’s concern as the need for viewing the people of Vietnam as brothers, in an explicitly Christian manner, without the arrogance of the western man that king argues was responsible for the attitude of the people who wanted to recolonize Vietnam, namely the French and the Americans (Bromwich). This causes him to however, take up a stance that is heavily in favor of the Ho Chi Minh administration. In an effort to assert the importance of the Christian point of view, King belittles the importance of the forces of nationalism that were instrumental even in the resistance that the Vietnamese peasants offered to the occupying forces.
King, in his speech gives a dominant position to religion. Even this position is not free of its own political implications. King imposes his beliefs while talking of a population that is hardly Christian in its beliefs. Even though King refers to a quotation by the Buddhist leaders of Vietnam, the passage that he chooses to include is one that has no religious overtones.
Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.
This is characteristic even of the earlier proponents of colonization, whose methods and ideologies are criticized by King in his speech.
This being the case, one needs to evaluate whether the arguments that King offers for the land reforms are something that hold when analysed from an economic point of view. His arguments concern the poor of the country of Vietnam who had been left homeless and at the
danger of starvation while the war was going on. Regarding this, Qiang Zhai makes an interesting and insightful point,
While the Vietnamese land reform achieved its major goals of rearranging landownership, increasing rice production, and dismantling the control held by rich peasants and landlords over the rural population, it also created a great deal of chaos and unrest. The disruption and unrest generated by the land reform indicated the folly of introducing the drastic formula of class struggle in a small and fragile rural society, where many landlords and rich peasants had identified with the Communist Party in opposing France.
Zhai here argues that even though the land reforms were initially intended as a positive measure that would enable the erasure of the lines of class that divided the society, they ended up being converted into structures that supported the existing power structures of the society. This is similar to what Michel Foucault says about the nature of power that exists in modern society. According to Foucault, the institutions of rebellion that arise out of a certain structure of power shall always stand the risk of being co-opted into the same structures of power (Foucault). According to Zhai, this is what happened. The co-option of the communist agenda into the class structures that were a part of Vietnamese society is a proof of the manner in which Foucault’s
theory works in practice. King, in his speech is concerned mostly with the dignity of the people in Vietnam whom he considers his brothers; however, he overlooks the need for intervention on the part of the international community to rectify the above-mentioned situation in Vietnam. King ignores the trends in international diplomacy, where the intervention of global powers in the matters of other nations was on the rise. Similar to the interventions that occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq, the policy of the United States of America of intervening to help an indigenous population acquire its rights as citizens of a nation and to uphold human dignity goes a long way. As said earlier, King’s blind spot is a result of the application of an overly religious approach that makes it difficult for him to assess the situation from an unbiased standpoint. The context of the speech however, needs to be taken into account, since at an event that was organized at a church, a speech delivered by a preacher is bound to be evangelical in its content.
There is however, one important statement that King makes that is not only significant in an ethical sense, but is also so if one puts it into practice. This is the statement that he makes regarding the measures that are to be taken regarding the check of insurgency. The building up of military power against a government or administrative setup that has the popular support of the people of a nation is unlikely to yield results, according to King. This is a piece of wisdom that has been proved right even in America’s war against terror that was put into operation after the attacks on the twin towers of New York, on 11th September, 2001. The reforms that were in a
sense a populist measure had the Vietnamese population behind the Ho Chi Minh administration; therefore, the United States of America and their allies came to be seen as the enemy and had popular support whipped up against them even in Sothern Vietnam, where they had their ‘fortified hamlets’, the military camps that King holds responsible for most of the troubles in Vietnam. King doesn’t oppose intervention totally. However, the
It is a complete myth that Ho Chi Minh’s land reforms were entirely egalitarian. In fact, the five-phase land reform introduced by him caused much violence and was in every way a socio-economic catastrophe. Due to the ‘closed door’ policy followed by most Communist countries, most countries remained oblivious to the detrimental effects of these reforms.
During the last phase of the reform movement (which was also known as the Dien Bien Phu General Offensive) in 1956, thousands of landowners and prosperous farmers were imprisoned in ruthless conditions. Lam Thanh Liem’s work Ho Chi Minh’s Land Reform: Mistake or Crime?, records that Hoang Van Hoan, Minh’s closest aide, later turned a bitter critic of the aforementioned reforms. He remarks-
…unjust and false verdicts imposed on the victims were concealed and were never brought to light for verification. Those who had been erroneously classified and accused were never exonerated. Grievances against the Party accumulated during the reform
campaign have taken root in everyone’s heart and have remained intense to this moment.
The dark underbelly of the Vietnamese revolutionary project thus leads one to question the veracity of King’s statement as he says,
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945, after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its re-conquest of her former colony. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.
This is perhaps an oversimplified interpretation of the movement led by Ho Chi Minh, because though based on the Communist principles of socio-economic equality, the programs thus introduced were fraught with internal disputes and power intrigues.
The village, which is the smallest unit of human settlement, has always been the lifeblood of the Vietnamese economy. The villages were utterly ravaged by the US attacks on Vietnam, and this can be said to be one of the most disastrous uses of violence during any war. Thus, King rightfully remarks,
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men…
Martin Luther King’s views regarding the Vietnam War and its effects was something that was motivated by the concerns that he held close to his heart, Christian and race-related. He was concerned about the treatment that was meted out to the common man of Vietnam where the situation of the civilians was the worst. The fighting that happened and the political changes that ensued were of great importance, most of all, for the citizens of the war beleaguered nation. The importance of King’s speech lies in his ability to bring attention to the issue of land reforms that had virtually been put on the backburner amidst the hype and media attention that surrounded the war. King’s ability to assess the situation from a humanitarian perspective, even though it was
tinted with his Christian sensibilities, is admirable, since it involved dissent against the stance that his own country had taken on the entire issue. Disregarding sentiments of nationality and practical commitments of diplomacy are not the best things to do as a celebrity activist; however, the courage that King shows, to stand up, against the administration of his own country, in an attempt to defend the basic rights of people living on the other side of the earth is worthy of great admiration. This speech is hailed as one of the greatest, not only by King who was a great orator, but also in the whole of history for this very courage that it exhibits.
King, Martin Luther. Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence.
Accessed on 18th June, 2011
Bromwich, David. “Martin Luther King’s Speech Against the Vietnam War”. http://antiwar.com/orig/bromwich.php?articleid=12844. Web.
Accessed on 18th June, 2011
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.
Zhai, Qiang. China and the Vietnam wars, 1950-1975. USA : The University of North Carolina Press, 200. Print.
Werner, Jayne; Huynh, Luu Doan. The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American perspectives.
Accessed on 18th June, 2011
Liem, Thanh Lam. “Ho Chi Minh’s Land Reform: Mistake or Crime?”.
Accessed on 18th June, 2011