The 'bloodbath' in Vietnam [is] just a myth - Howard Zinn

bloodbath theory

A short article by Zinn, appearing in the Boston Globe after the fall of Saigon, in which he criticizes the "bloodbath theory." The idea that a bloodbath would ensue in South Vietnam if the U.S. were to withdraw troops was employed by Nixon and others in order to prolong American involvement in Southeast Asia and to portray the U.S. as "saviors" of the Vietnamese.

Author
Submitted by adri on January 28, 2023

A year ago, in a packed lecture hall at Brandeis University, there took place the last teach-in of the Vietnam War. I assume it was the last, because amidst speeches about President Ford's request for more military aid to South Vietnam, a student came racing down the aisle with exciting news, just off the radio.

The Saigon government had surrendered. The revolutionaries had won, after 30 years of struggle, of unimaginable sacrifice.

Everyone stood up and applauded. The war was over. No more body counts. No more bombings.

We know little about what happened in Saigon in the days of the disintegration of the South Vietnamese army, the American evacuation, and the triumphant entrance into the capital of the revolutionary soldiers President Ford urged us to forget.

Now a book has appeared, written by an Italian journalist working for a German magazine, "Der Spiegel." He was in Saigon [during] those tumultuous days, and stayed on for three months, to check on whether there would be a "bloodbath" as Kissinger, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Ford had predicted, to see what a revolution meant to the every-day life of the [Vietnamese]. He spoke to hundreds of Vietnamese, filling 14 notebooks and 20 tape cassettes. This was Tiziano Terzani. His book is called "Giai Phong!" ("Liberation!") [i.e. Giai Phong! The Fall and Liberation of Saigon].

It seems there was an underground in Saigon, working for the revolution. Groups of students had secretly put aside rice, medical supplies, weapons and mimeograph machines. They worked out of a Buddhist university in a working class neighborhood where most of the people were sympathetic.

All [throughout] April, 1975, one city after another had fallen. There was no will to fight among the government troops.

Rumors of a "bloodbath" by the advancing armies spread panic in Saigon and brought thousands of Vietnamese crowding hysterically around the American Embassy, seeking evacuation. Secretary of Defense [James R.] Schlesinger spoke of 200,000 killed if the communists won. The American armed forces newspaper, “Stars and Stripes,” in one of the last issues to arrive in Saigon, carried a headline: “At Least a Million Vietnamese Will Be Slaughtered.”

None of that happened. The revolutionary troops turned out to be young, good-natured, and helpful. They were not vindictive. To the north, they had watched the Hue garrisons march 60 kilometers to an evacuation point on the coast, and did not fire a shot at them.

The harshness toward former Saigon officials was not in bloody reprisals, but in compulsory "reeducation" programs. A far cry from B52 bombings, the burning of villages, “tiger cages” for prisoners.

To the end, US officials behaved shamefully. They even tried to make propaganda out of the last-minute airlift of Vietnamese children. A Vietnamese government memo read: “The American ambassador is convinced that the evacuation . . . will help sway American public opinion . . . When the children arrive in the United States the press, television and radio will give ample publicity to the matter and the impact will be enormous.”

One of those Air Force planes exploded, killing 206 Vietnamese children.1

Terzani reports hundreds of families reunited by the liberation, reminding us how artificial was the separation into “North” and “South.” There was no bloodbath. The policy was reconciliation. A peasant leader explained: “The Americans were the ones who taught the Vietnamese to torture and kill other Vietnamese . . . we have all been oppressed . . . One must understand. One must forgive.”

Is this too romantic a picture of the liberation, which Terzani gives us in his book? Perhaps. Revolutions can become tyrannical, lose their early spirit. Perhaps they need continuous rejuvenation, as Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson both said in different ways.

But the liberation of Vietnam from foreign imperialists and domestic landlords is a good first step. The American Revolution, too, was only a beginning.

The Boston Globe, 3 May 1976. Article has been slightly edited for spelling.

  • 1Zinn may be referring to the Tân Sơn Nhứt C-5 Crash of 1975, in which there were 138 fatalities with 78 of those being children.

Comments

adri

1 year 4 months ago

Submitted by adri on January 31, 2023

I haven't read it, but I got the Terzani book, if it's maybe worth uploading? I'm guessing it's somewhat sympathetic to the Vietnamese "Communist" Party, but it's still a first-hand account of the "liberation" of Saigon that might contain some useful info to contest right-wing/imperialist narratives.

Steven.

1 year 4 months ago

Submitted by Steven. on February 1, 2023

Yes that sounds great

Reddebrek

1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 11, 2023

"But the liberation of Vietnam from foreign imperialists and domestic landlords is a good first step. The American Revolution, too, was only a beginning."

I think this article is a good example of being too quick to publish. While the immediate end of the fighting seems to have been relatively peaceful the Vietnamese Communist party did soon enact collective punishment against populations in the country they viewed as not loyal, ethnic Chinese, Cambodians, minorities living in the hills that were accused of supporting the Americans. Many of the Vietnamese diaspora who fled oppression came in the years after the war ended.

I've read accounts of the Khmer Rouge entry into Phnom Penh that were of the same content and tone as Zinns. And I've seen photographs of the mass parades which are similar to the footage circulated of the fall of Saigon. And I'm quite alarmed that Zinn is aware of the re-education camps but immediately dismisses them as not important. The VCP had drawn up lists of names of thousands of Vietnamese who had to report to re-education prisons for forced labour, including dangerous work like mine and bomb disposal. Some were kept in these prisons until the 1989 when Reagan intervened. I don't know the specifics but at least one Vietnamese American organisation raises funds to locate the grave sites of inmates who died while in them.

https://www.southeastasianarchaeology.com/2012/03/01/excavations-of-burial-sites-at-vietnamese-re-education-camps-by-the-returning-casualty/

adri

1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by adri on April 11, 2023

Reddebrek wrote: I think this article is a good example of being too quick to publish. While the immediate end of the fighting seems to have been relatively peaceful the Vietnamese Communist party did soon enact collective punishment against populations in the country they viewed as not loyal, ethnic Chinese, Cambodians, minorities living in the hills that were accused of supporting the Americans. Many of the Vietnamese diaspora who fled oppression came in the years after the war ended.

Hi, I think Zinn is fairly careful to avoid an uncritical endorsement of the VCP. He expresses skepticism, for example, over Terzani's positive portrayal of the "liberation" of Saigon and alludes to how revolutions can turn tyrannical:

Zinn wrote: Is this too romantic a picture of the liberation, which Terzani gives us in his book? Perhaps. Revolutions can become tyrannical, lose their early spirit. Perhaps they need continuous rejuvenation, as Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson both said in different ways.

Zinn's article was also undoubtedly influenced by his and other antiwar activists' opposition to the "bloodbath theory." The "bloodbath theory," as pushed by Nixon and other American conservatives, argued how "untold horrors" awaited the South Vietnamese, along with the rest of the so-called "free world," if the U.S. were to withdraw aid to the Saigon regime. Zinn's article should really be understood within this historical context; the U.S. and Saigon regime lied extensively about the violence committed by the North and "Viet Cong," a term which the National Liberation Front never even employed and whose widespread use attests to the effectiveness of U.S.-Saigon propaganda. For example, one could note how the U.S. concealed how most Vietnamese in fact supported the NLF and VCP, as well as the Viet Minh (in the First Indochina War) who had expropriated land from landlords to give to the peasants (i.e. the majority of Vietnamese).[1] American officials reference the fact that the "communists" had widespread support throughout the internal documentary record; the South's later land reform, "The Land to the Tiller Program," was also explicitly aimed at "winning over the peasantry." Similarly, the U.S. and Saigon regime portrayed the North's land reform as far more violent than was actually the case (e.g. Nixon at various points argued that over a million people were "senselessly slaughtered"). Such lies provided a justification for American involvement in Indochina. They also served the broader goal of preventing the spread of "communism" and keeping Southeast Asia open to economic exploitation.

I don't think Zinn was really indifferent to Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam in the postwar years (e.g. the "boat people"), which peaked a little bit after when he was writing. As mentioned, Zinn's article was mostly responding to the American anti-"communists" who wanted to prolong American involvement in Indochina. Zinn and other antiwar activists were also largely correct in their dismissal of the "bloodbath theory"; there was no "bloodbath," at least not in the sense of the people who pushed this idea, at the hands of the VCP following the "liberation" of the South (with the exception of the Khmer Rouge who carried out massacres against Vietnamese, leading to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime). In fact, one could also argue, as Chomsky and others have, that the Khmer Rouge itself was greatly assisted by Nixon's bombing campaign over Cambodia, killing thousands of innocent Cambodians and helping to undermine the more moderate "communist" leaders. However harsh reunified Vietnam may have been in the years after the war (especially to those who cooperated with the Saigon government), these actions pale in comparison to the anti-"communist" aggression of the U.S. and Saigon regime.

For what it's worth, this text is also listed under the Bibliography section of Zinn's website, which is where I originally came across it.

1. The Diem government immediately reversed this situation by allowing landlords to collect lands (along with back rent) that the Viet Minh had given to the peasants, which didn't win Diem much sympathy.

Reddebrek

1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 12, 2023

Hi there, most of your comment is an irrelevant tangent so I won't bother with it. You're free to be impressed with Zinn's few comments hedging if you like, that doesn't address the criticism of the piece.

Zinn has written about an event and actively downplayed and excused acts of repression by a government in power, and the justification for this is that the US government were wrong. Either he didn't know the reality of what was going on or he did and decided having a crack at the pentagon was worth misleading his audience. And we know it works because here you are in 2023 trying to stir the conversation away from the actions of the Vietnamese government.

If you just wanted to prove the bloodbath of Vietnamese in the cities was false a look at the list of massacres would've sufficed.

adri

1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by adri on April 12, 2023

Reddebrek wrote: Hi there, most of your comment is an irrelevant tangent. . . .

Reddebrek wrote: Zinn has written about an event and actively downplayed and excused acts of repression by a government in power, and the justification for this is that the US government were wrong.

Zinn really was only responding to the bloodbath fear-mongering in America... as I tried to explain to you... but which you dismiss as a tangent. I'm fairly certain Zinn was not indifferent to refugees trying to flee Vietnam or the repression of the Vietnamese government. The information you're harping on about likely wasn't even available to him at the time or had yet to even occur. The deaths in the reeducation camps were, as I mentioned, quite different from what Nixon and others were arguing would happen if the U.S. were to stop supporting the South (that's what the article is about!!). The reeducation camps were also a far cry from the American bombing of civilians in Cambodia (likely assisting the rise of the Khmer Rouge) or the use of Agent Orange throughout all of South Vietnam, the effects of which are still being felt today. That you would even cite the deaths in the reeducation camps (mostly of people who cooperated with the repressive Saigon regime—not that that justifies their deaths) in the first place suggests an ignorance of the sort of arguments American anti-"communists" were giving in defense of keeping troops in Vietnam. Part of the argument for why the U.S. should "defend the South" in the first place was the ridiculous equation of "communism" to Nazism; some Americans thought that the U.S. should act more decisively in Vietnam rather than accommodate the enemy, as the Western powers did with Nazi Germany with disastrous results. It is also worth reiterating that many Vietnamese actually supported the North and NLF, including their "liberation" of the South. And that doesn't mean that I agree with the VCP; that's just stating the facts of the matter, the same facts that you find throughout the American documentary record.