The suffering of the United States from the Vietnam War was the subject of Swedish public radio’s news report on the 25th anniversary of Vietnam’s reunification. The vastly greater suffering of the Vietnamese, including that of the mine-crippled child to the right, was apparently not considered worthy of attention.
       
   

The Word from the White House
   
Suffering Americans
   
The true meaning of Vietnam’s reunification
   
   

There was great rejoicing in Norway during the early days of May, 1945, as the Nazi empire collapsed and its occupying army prepared to withdraw. That year, the traditional national day on May 17th became a joyous festival of liberation from the German superpower and its puppet regime in Oslo. To a great extent, it has remained so ever since.

Consider, then, the following report broadcast hourly by the predominant national radio station of Norway on the 25th anniversary of that glorious day in 1945.

Introduction to the hourly news
Today’s news: Lawyer criticizes informer-telephone line at Immigration Bureau. Municipality paid for Danish youth leader’s casino gambling. Silence in Germany on the 25th anniversary of the end of World War II. Dogs in the southern provinces can breathe out-- the fate of those in the rest of the country is decided tonight . . . .

Several news items. . . .

News reader: Today, it is 25 years since World War II came to an end and in Oslo, formerly known as Kristiania, the occasion was celebrated with a giant parade. Festivities and cultural events continue throughout the city this evening in celebration of Germany’s withdrawal. In honour of the event, Norway’s government is planning to release 1000 prisoners-- the largest amnesty in Norway thus far. In Germany, however, the day passed largely in silence.

Reiner Wallraffski: It isn’t very easy for me to even tell myself what the motivation was to come here. . .

Reporter: Near the water in the southern part of Bonn stands a large glass wall in which letters from World War II have been sealed. There are carnations and other flowers lying about this weekend, and in front of the war memorial stands Reiner Wallraffski reading a letter which is special to him. It is from the German solider who was the last to be officially counted as killed in the war, and who was on his way in an aircraft to collect Raymond when he was shot down.

Reiner Wallraffski: He was coming to pick me and my fellows up, to go to a mission in Poland, and I know myself that there were actually eighteen others that were killed in that mission with him.

Reporter: While victory was celebrated with pomp and circumstance in Norway, it was relatively quiet in Germany. Naturally, the anniversary was noted in the media. But much of that had to do with relations between the two countries today. Chancellor Brandt has no plans to mention the war on its anniversary, and in the German capital the only modest acknowledgement of its significance was to clean the war memorial in the morning.
        A majority of Germans say that the country never should have got involved in World War II, according to a recent opinion survey, while just under one-fourth support that chapter in German history. Among the latter is Reiner Wallraffski. He is 45 today, and at the time was a young man flown in from the Ruhr district to keep watch over bomber planes at a base in Denmark. He defends the war and, according to his theory, it was World War that led to the collapse of the international Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy. And he feels that the many dead, including those in the glass wall, were worth it.

Reiner Wallraffski: Absolutely! Absolutely, 100 percent. Yes, I do. I really do!

End of story.
      


       
Thinking the unthinkable


Two things may be noted about this news report on the 25th anniversary of Norway’s liberation. One is that not a single Norwegian or anyone else opposed to the Nazi war effort was heard during the entire report.

The other is that it never happened, and the reason for that is quite simple: It is unthinkable. Any journalist in Norway, or most likely in any other part of the world, who even suggested such a treatment of this particular subject would almost certainly be dismissed as insane, depraved, or possibly both.

Yet, something very like it was actually broadcast by Swedish public radio on the 25th anniversary of Vietnam’s reunification. With a few adjustments and substitutes-- Vietnam for Norway, the United States for Germany, Ho Chi Minh City for Oslo, New York for Bonn, and communism for the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy, etc.-- this fictive news report on the anniversary of Norway’s liberation corresponds exactly with the report broadcast by Sweden’s national public radio on April 30, 2000 (see Appendix A for transcript in Swedish).

For the journalists in charge of Swedish public radio, the most important thing to note about the 25th anniversary of Vietnam’s reunification was the suffering of the Americans who had tried for so long, and with such horrifying consequences, to prevent it. As the Swedish author Sara Lidman ironically observed on a subsequent occasion, ”Oh, what shall a sensitive superpower do with such a heartless little folk!”


Obvious difference

Of course, the analogy between Norway and Vietnam is merely illustrative.* Every such tragedy has its own history, and its own special circumstances. The most obvious difference in this case is that the effects of the German occupation on Norway were trivial in comparison with the massive destruction inflicted on Vietnam and its people by the United States (see comparison below).

Perhaps the main reason for this disparity is that the occupying Germans regarded the Norwegians as a kindred folk-- direct descendants of the ”Aryan race” which populated the bizarre world of Nazi mythology. In contrast, as Martin Luther King Jr. and others pointed out at the time, the United States’ war machine and its leaders treated the Vietnamese as an inferior race of little yellow people whose lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness were of little or no consequence.

Another difference is that Norway assisted the United States in the early stages of its assault on Vietnam, but there is no record of the Vietnamese ever helping Germany to occupy Norway. They were rather busy at the time, trying to survive Japan’s French-administered, and much less gentle, occupation of their own country.

There is no similar analogy to be made with Sweden, since it has not been occupied by any foreign power for the past several centuries. It was, however, the most notable and effective international voice in opposition to the Vietnam War— to the extent that the U.S. government broke off diplomatic relations for over a year, in pious indignation at the eloquent protests of Prime Minister Olof Palme. One of Sweden’s premier journalists, Björn Elmbrant, has observed that, ”In Sweden, there was probably a greater organized popular opposition to the United States’ war than in any other country on earth.”
    

    
*Note: It is necessary to exercise caution in the use of analogies and similar linguistic devices in Sweden, due to the extreme risk of misinterpretation. The risk arises from a culture of consensus which emphasizes the avoidance of open conflict. There are exceptions, of course; but a general principle of public discourse is that, to the greatest extent possible, disagreement should be expressed indirectly-- with analogies, metaphors, vague opinions, etc. In many cases, this has the intended effect of blunting the edge of discord. But there is also an unintended effect, which is to create uncertainty about the ”real” meaning of such formulations. There is always a risk that, however carefully expressed, they may be interpreted to mean something other than intended.

Naturally, the risk is especially great when dealing with sensitive issues such as the Nazi Holocaust. With good reason, that is regarded as a uniquely monstrous event in human history, and anyone who even remotely approaches the subject does so at great peril. This has been discovered, for example, by one of the two Swedish politicians who have had the courage to defy their own government and party leadership by openly challenging the propaganda employed by USA/NATO to justify its criminal behaviour in the Balkans.

In an informal speech at a local club, she noted-- as have many legal experts-- that the USA/NATO assault on Yugoslavia was no less a violation of international law than many previous crimes of a similar nature. She then cited several examples, of which one was Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. For this offence, she has been reviled in parts of the Swedish press as one who would deny or trivialize the Holocaust-- a subject that she never even mentioned.

Alas, this is the level at which much public discourse currently takes place in Sweden, especially in the mass media. Many journalists seem to have acquired the habit of wilful misinterpretation-- if it can produce a good story, based on a shocking statement or opinion that the designated offender never expressed.

All this by way of underlining the point that the analogy here is between the German occupation of Norway and the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. It is by no means intended to draw a direct parallel with, or diminish the enormity of, the Nazi Holocaust.

There are, however, highly-qualified observers who do make such connections. One is the mother of Norman Finkelstein, the iconoclastic author of The Holocaust Industry. She was herself a survivor of the Nazi death camps, and according to her son: ”My mother always made comparisons. . . . Confronted with the suffering of African-Americans, Vietnamese and Palestinians, my mother’s attitude was always the same: We are all victims of the Holocaust.”
   


Revised perspective

Something has clearly happened since then-- given that the meaning of Vietnam’s famous victory now, a mere 25 years later, seems to be that it caused a lot of suffering in the United States. That such a message can be routinely promulgated by Swedish public radio without the slightest controversy-- there was none-- is especially significant, since it is an institution which occupies a place in society similar to that of the BBC in England (to which it is in some ways superior, despite a relative lack of resources).

Swedish public radio was hardly alone with its interpretation. Much of the mainstream press was more concerned about the impact of the Vietnam War on its perpetrators than on its victims. To the extent that Vietnam was mentioned at all, it was usually to underline current problems, deficiencies, and a postulated preference for the American way of life. Among the more prominent headlines were the following: ”Struggle against communism was USA’s motive. . . .Saigon today-- a wild east. . . . Businesses flee impoverished Vietnam. . . Bitterness in USA is fading. . . . American life style popular in Vietnam.”

Sweden’s most influential daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, introduced its article with this capsule analysis: ”A quarter-century after Saigon’s fall, Vietnam struggles with serious problems: a sputtering economy, bureaucracy and corruption are holding back development. In the United States, memories of the war are still strong.”

The somewhat more conservative Svenska Dagbladet, representing those Swedish interests that most strongly support U.S. aggression anywhere on earth, ran a series of articles whose evident purpose was to denigrate the Vietnamese and dismiss the crimes of the Americans. Among the glimpses it provided of life in Ho Chi Minh was that of the ”seldom sober Australian who is together with an old prostitute, and who loudly proclaimed for all who wanted to listen that his woman had no problem with ’taking it up the ass’, while she sat quietly beside him”.

(In the Western press, the scene of such observations is nearly always Ho Chi Minh City, the least representative place in Vietnam, due largely to the influences of 115 years’ French and U.S. occupation. It is somewhat analogous to using Miami-- with its unique assortment of CIA mercenaries, international drug-runners, Spanish-speaking refugees, etc.-- to represent the entire United States.)


And they were healed

Oddly enough, Swedish public television paid more attention to the Vietnamese on this occasion than did its normally more discerning radio counterpart. This was probably due to the wealth of visual material that was readily available from the archives and international news agencies-- colourful parades, lovely Vietnamese girls, dramatic scenes of war, etc. But even here, there was a strong emphasis on the suffering of the Americans, and no effort to convey the perspective of the Vietnamese. Their past suffering was mentioned only briefly in passing, and their continuing experience of illness, death and casualties from the war was mentioned not at all.

The task of interpreting the current reality of Vietnam was assigned to a U.S. soldier who had returned to the land of his former enemies. ”It feels very strange,” he confided. ”One piece of me is very excited. A piece of me is sad, because I remember marines who were killed in this area, and I remember the war. Now, I see farms. I see rice paddies. I see prosperity. I see schools. I see happiness. I see the energy and how busy it is. It is a pleasure to see that-- that the land and the people have healed.”

In fact, it will be a very, very long time before the land and the people of Vietnam are healed. But the audience of Swedish public television was not offered any alternative to the cheerful pronouncements of the U.S. veteran. Instead, it was informed that, ”The celebrations included parades before Communist Party bosses and other leading citizens, but the general public did not have access to the parade area in Ho Chi Minh City.” A scene of dictatorial remoteness from the people, in other words. For a very different interpretation of the same scene, by two U.S. citizens with long experience of Vietnam, see Appendix B.


Uniquely poor and corrupt

The general approach to the 25-year anniversary of reunification reflected the basic themes that in recent years have come to dominate the perspective of the Swedish press on the Vietnam War and its two principal combatants.

One is that Vietnam today is a very poor country plagued by corruption and bureaucracy. The possibility that those conditions might somehow be related to nearly a century of colonial exploitation, followed by a 30-year war of independence against overwhelming odds, never seems to occur to anyone. But the labels of poverty and corruption are routinely attached to Vietnam as identifying characteristics.

The label-affixing journalists also seem unaware of the fact that such conditions are hardly unique to Vietnam. For well-known reasons, they are fairly universal throughout the Third World, and they are not entirely absent from the so-called developed countries, either. That certainly applies to both of Vietnam’s most recent foreign tormentors: French government is a never-ending story of major scandals, and the U.S. White House is currently occupied by the beneficiary of widespread electoral fraud in a state governed by his brother. In ”the richest country in the world”, at least one-fifth of all children grow up in dire poverty, nearly half of the entire population lacks adequate health care, and the infant mortality rate is at a Third World level.

Nevertheless, it is Vietnam’s unique blend of poverty and corruption that is especially worthy of note in the mainstream press.


American life style

Another popular theme is that the Vietnamese yearn to become just like the Americans, with all the material blessings that implies. The subtext is that it was meaningless to waste so many lives in defence of ”the communist ideology that motivated the struggle”, as Svenska Dagbladet put it, since the Vietnamese really wanted nothing more than to become happy little capitalists.

Of course, this sort of analysis merely perpetuates the misconceptions that led to the disaster in the first place. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense McNamara and other perpetrators of the war eventually came to realize, the driving force of the Vietnamese resistance was an intense yearning for independence, not communist ideology. That ideology has always been of far greater importance to Vietnam’s attackers than to the Vietnamese, themselves. The vast majority of the millions who sacrificed their lives or future happiness in the war probably could not tell the difference between a communist and a crocodile.

There was a period immediately following independence during which an attempt was made to impose a communist economic system on the nation of small farmers and shopkeepers. This was hardly surprising, given that Vietnam had just been subjected to thirty years of massive destruction in the name of democracy and ”the free market system”. In the process, it had been forced deeper and deeper into alliance with its traditional enemy, China, and the Soviet Union. After the war, in violation of international law, the U.S. chose to promote the free market system by imposing a trade embargo on Vietnam and encouraging its allies to do the same. The impact on Vietnam’s economy was devastating.

Otherwise, there has never been any doctrinaire rejection of the United States. On the contrary, Ho Chi Minh tried repeatedly to build an alliance with the U.S.; if its leaders had not ignored him, Vietnam would in all likelihood be even more influenced by U.S. material culture than it is today. It may also be noted that products from Japan, Sweden and other countries are at least as prevalent, and that this sort of ”Americanization” is hardly unique to Vietnam. Sweden is a prime example.

Another curious aspect of this recurrent theme is that it appears to be based on the assumption that the benefits of the market, however doubtful they may be, are entirely one-sided-- i.e. that the Vietnamese are submissively grateful for the opportunity to buy the products that the U.S. kindly offers to sell them. A more plausible assumption is that American and other producers are at least as eager to get their hands on the modest wealth of the Vietnamese.

In any event, there is nothing to indicate that a majority of the Vietnamese people, or even a sizeable minority, would have preferred to surrender their national sovereignty in exchange for greater volumes of Coca-Cola, hamburgers and mobile phones.

None of this is difficult to learn or understand. That many Swedish journalists have chosen not to do so probably reflects an urge to deprive the Vietnamese of their victory, and award it ex post facto to the United States on the basis of superior economic strength.


Principle of equivalence

The most common theme employed in Sweden to avoid confronting the enormity of U.S. crimes in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina is that both sides were equally to blame, and have suffered to more or less the same degree. This was the fall-back position of Swedish conservatives during the war, when public opinion became so thoroughly outraged that it was no longer politically possible to openly encourage the slaughter.

That was still the line of the Conservative Party in 1994 when its leader, by a cruel irony of fate, became the first Swedish prime minister to visit Vietnam. After reluctantly viewing an exhibition on the war, he observed: ”One has seen these pictures before-- although it does seem a bit odd, after so much time has passed, to be presented with only one side of the story.” (That remark is the inspiration for a comparison with the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington; see illustration in Vietnam Holocaust.)

The principle of equivalence has also been implied by the chief editor of public radio news who has defended the above-noted emphasis on suffering Americans by referring to a magazine programme in the morning of the same day (a Sunday) which, he suggested, provided the necessary balance.

It is a common practice of journalists to justify biased reporting by reference to other sources of the knowledge which they, themselves, neglect to convey. The convenient assumption is that everyone exposed to a misleading or incomplete report will somehow be supplied with the missing items of information in a timely manner. That is a dubious assumption in the best of circumstances, and certainly in this case, since the audience of the Sunday magazine is merely a fraction of that exposed to the hourly news repeated throughout the day.

One of those who appears to have missed the morning programme is the selfsame editor who cited it to justify the curious angle of his own perspective. For if he had listened, he would presumably have noted that it had very little to do with the experiences and outlook of the Vietnamese. The segment was introduced with the widely spread mis- or disinformation that ordinary Vietnamese were excluded from the national celebration (see Appendix B).

There followed a rather superficial discussion in which a Swedish journalist emphasized the current significance of Vietnam’s economic problems; as usual, there was no reference to the effects of the war or the post-war economic aggression in that context. The lack of bitterness and breast-beating among the Vietnamese was also touched upon. (For a discussion of that phenomenon and its deeper meaning, see Appendix C.)


Dead packet

The bulk of the magazine segment was devoted to the impact of the Vietnam War on Swedish attitudes toward the United States. The history of the anti-war movement was reviewed, the subsequent restoration of a generally positive attitude toward the U.S. was noted, and the segment concluded with the observation that, ”In other words, not much of the old Vietnam movement’s packet of opinions [sic] has survived.”

The role played by Swedish mass media in that process was not mentioned-- which was only to be expected, since this programme was itself a prime example. (For a related example in which the Vietnamese are casually presented as the bad guys of the drama, see Appendix D.)

Given that the principle of equal suffering and equal responsibility is now a key element of the conventional wisdom on the Vietnam War, it is appropriate to review the facts of the case. The following comparison is based on current estimates of the war’s consequences for both countries. The figures for the U.S. are fairly accurate; but the opposite is true for Vietnam, since comprehensive statistics are often lacking in that country. However, there is general agreement on the approximate size of the following estimates.

In order for the comparison to be meaningful, it is necessary to adjust for the disproportion between the United States and Vietnam. Since the U.S. population was roughly five times greater at the time of the war, all relevant figures (for deaths, troops, etc.) have been multiplied by a factor of five in the case of Vietnam. The land area of the U.S. is over 28 times greater than that of Vietnam, thus all relevant figures in that context (bomb craters, forest destruction, etc.) have been multiplied by the corresponding factor. The absolute figures for Vietnam are given in parentheses.

      
Dimensions of Equivalence
Factor
Vietnam*
(Absolute figures)
USA
       
Colonialism
Supported foreign power in attempt to reassert colonial rule over other country
      
No
Yes
  
Democracy &
human rights 

Forced artificial north-south division of other country

Prevented agreed-upon national elections for reunification

Installed puppet government in south, representing ca. 10% of population

Continued to shore up puppet despite widespread abuses of human rights
     
No

Yes

   
Military
aggression


Invading troops


Bombs (tons)


Land mines remaining after war

Bomb craters in landscape
     
   
    
12,500,000
(2,500,000)
    
430,000,000
   
(15,350,000)**
    
98,000,000
(3,500,000)
       
644,000,000
(23,000,000)
     
None
   
War dead
  
During war
  
  
Since 1975
    
    
17,500,000
(3,500,000)
    
200,000
(40,000)
     
    
    
58,000
  
  
- 0 -
    
Wounded
   
During war
   
   

Since 1975
    
    
   
71,750,000
(14,350,000)
    
620,000
(124,000)
       
    
    
   
304,000
    
    
- 0 -
   
Environmental
destruction

  
Extensive poisoning of
 food supply
   

Defoliated forest/farmland
    
   

Herbicides, arsenic and other toxic chemicals sprayed on landscape
     
    
    
    
Yes

    
    
 
56,000,000 ha
(2,000,000)
    
   
2,016,000,000
litres
(72,000,000)
    
None
    
Social &
psychological
disruption

Internal refugees


Destruction of
towns
 and villages

Mental disease, family disruption, etc.
     
    
    
    

35,000,000
(7,000,000)
    
   
10,000s

    
    
10,000,000s
    
    
    

None
    
    
    
None
    
    
1000s
           
Missing in action
           
2,000,000
(400,000)
     
          
2,000
   
Continued
aggression


Trade embargo, etc.
Diplomatic isolation

World-wide
propaganda
       
No
Yes
     
  *Comparison ratios (Vietnam:USA)
Population 1:5     Land area 1:28
     
**Equivalent to over twice the total amount of explosives used all over the world by all parties during World War II (metric tons)
       
            

Mental occupation

Of course, this brief comparison is far from comprehensive, and does not convey the depth and extent of misery and destruction that the American War inflicted on Vietnam and its people.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when a large proportion of Swedish journalists and the general public were intensely aware of this very unequal distribution of suffering and responsibility. Clearly, that is no longer the case. The conventional wisdom on the Vietnam War has increasingly come to reflect the self-serving perspective of the United States, and the same pattern is evident in news coverage of virtually all other ”initiatives” of U.S. foreign policy, including the Persian Gulf and Balkan wars. The effect on public opinion has been as one might expect, which helps to explain why Swedish public radio can inform its listeners that, ”not much of the old Vietnam movement’s package of opinions has survived.”

Essentially, the Swedish mainstream press now functions as a cog in the United States’ wordwide propaganda apparatus-- with the customary veil of occasional exceptions, of course. Although the reasons for this are not clear, it is almost certainly the result of a subconscious process that may be described as a sort of mental occupation.

The implications for international relations and the ”new world order” are fairly obvious: If people can be made to forget the enormity of the Vietnam War-- even in the country that was most solidly opposed to it-- they can be made to forget just about anything. That being the case, the U.S. has no need to be concerned about its reputation in the world, even if protests do occasionally arise in response to the latest episode of killing and destruction. The lesson of Vietnam is that the fuss will eventually die down-- especially if some new disaster erupts, or can be encouraged to erupt, in some other part of the world.

With proper management and the assistance of obliging journalists in Sweden and elsewhere, it may even be possible to reorient sympathies toward the land of the free and the home of the brave.

— Al Burke            
September 2001


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