True lies

H. Bruce Franklin
University of Massachusetts Press

Bruce Franklin has a problem with the truth. He tells it.

Franklin, the former Stanford University professor who was fired in 1972 for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, is now a professor of English and American studies at Rutgers. In this book, he takes on many of the themes that have preoccupied his work for the past thirty years: the POW/MIA myth, the myth of the spat-upon returning Vietnam veteran, and the demonization by conservatives of the anti-war movement. But, more important, Franklin provides an incisive critique of the two principal myths about the war in Vietnam: the “noble cause” and the “quagmire.”

Franklin defines myth as, “A belief that runs counter to reason, common sense, and all evidence but that is widely and deeply held by a society.” Why? Because it is “crucial to worldview and the self-image of a people.” In short, a myth is a lie that tells the truth—about ourselves.

The “noble cause” myth, summed up by successive Republican presidents from Ford to both Bushes, states that we “lost” the war because the governments of the time did not permit us to win it. The “quagmire” myth, best articulated as fact by David Halberstam, is that the U.S. became bogged down in an unwinnable conflict. Quoting Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire, the moral of this myth is “that we must get in earlier, be shrewder and force the other side to practice the self-deception.”

Franklin argues that, in opposition to these myths, the “Imperialism story” is closer to the truth. The Pentagon Papers, says Franklin, are the best source for the “Imperialism story,” which begins in 1945 with the United States as the only global power capable of defending colonial interests.

Vietnam emerged from the war with its own army and a strong case for national independence. One of the most interesting parts of the book recounts how the United States, after having allied itself during the war with Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh (the national front group), diverted American troopships to send French troops to recolonize Vietnam. Horrified by this, the enlisted U.S. Merchant Marine personnel on one of the troopships, the Winchester Victory, cabled to President Truman stating that, “We vigorously protest the use of this and other American vessels for carrying combat troops to foreign soil … to further the imperialist policies of foreign governments.” Thus was lodged the first American act of protest against war in Vietnam.

As Franklin shows, mainstream critiques of U.S. foreign policy in the late 1940s and early 1950s employed words like “colonialist” and “imperialist.” It was not until the late 1950s that such fundamental critiques of American policy marginalized as “un-American” or “pro-Communist.”

Second in importance to the “Imperialism story” is his rehabilitation of the anti-war movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. His best point in this section of the book is the account of the anti-war movement within the military. Equally illuminating is the POW/MIA myth. One of the most clever propaganda moves of the Nixon administration, he says, was the linking of POWs and MIAs. By far the majority of MIAs in Vietnam, as in other American wars, were presumed dead and thus could not possibly have become POWs. But the whole subject has been so Rambo-ized that it is now nearly impossible to dispel the fantasy that large numbers of MIAs are somehow still secretly being held captive in Vietnamese or Laotian prison camps.

To read Franklin’s latest book is to begin to emerge from nearly forty years of induced amnesia about the Vietnam War.