By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
WASHINGTON — It has been nearly half a century since a young antiwar protester named Tom Hayden traveled to Hanoi to investigate President Lyndon B. Johnson’s claims that the United States was not bombing civilians in Vietnam. Mr. Hayden saw destroyed villages and came away, he says, “pretty wounded by the pattern of deception.”
Now the Pentagon — run by a Vietnam veteran, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — is planning a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War. The effort, which is expected to cost taxpayers nearly $15 million by the end of this fiscal year, is intended to honor veterans and, its website says, “provide the American public with historically accurate materials” suitable for use in schools.
But the extensive website, which has been up for months, largely describes a war of valor and honor that would be unrecognizable to many of the Americans who fought in and against it.
Debates, Protests, Hearings, Anguish
Leading Vietnam historians complain that it focuses on dozens of medal-winning soldiers while giving scant mention to mistakes by generals and the years of violent protests and anguished debate at home.
The website’s “interactive timeline” omits the Fulbright hearings in the Senate, where in 1971 a disaffected young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry — now President Obama’s secretary of state — asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” In one early iteration, the website referred to the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which American troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, as the My Lai Incident.
The glossy view of history has now prompted more than 500 scholars, veterans and activists — including the civil rights leader Julian Bond; Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers; Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan; and Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary — to join Mr. Hayden in demanding the ability to correct the Pentagon’s version of history and a place for the old antiwar activists in the anniversary events.
Challenging a Glossy Portrayal
This week, in a move that has drawn the battle lines all over again, the group sent a petition to Lt. Gen. Claude M. Kicklighter, the retired Vietnam veteran who is overseeing the commemoration, to ask that the effort not be a “one-sided” look at a war that tore a generation apart.
General Kicklighter declined to be interviewed, but a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, said in an email that the mission of the commemoration, as directed by Congress, is to “assist a grateful nation” in thanking veterans and their families. He said that the Pentagon was willing to make corrections “when factual errors or potential mischaracterizations are brought to our attention,” and that “there is no attempt to whitewash the history of the Vietnam War.”
The team has already changed some facts: After Nick Turse, the author of a book on Vietnam, noted the My Lai Incident reference in a February article on the website TomDispatch, the language was revised to read, “American Division Kills Hundreds of Vietnamese Citizens at My Lai.” It still does not use the word massacre.
Mr. Hayden, 74, and other 1960s-era activists who helped him gather signatures, say they do not quarrel with honoring the sacrifice of soldiers. But they object to having the military write the story.
“All of us remember that the Pentagon got us into this war in Vietnam with its version of the truth,” Mr. Hayden said in a recent telephone interview from Berkeley, Calif., where he attended a rally to mark another 50th anniversary, that of the free-speech movement. “If you conduct a war, you shouldn’t be in charge of narrating it.”
Historians Also Troubled
Vietnam historians are also troubled. Fredrik Logevall, a Cornell University professor whose book on Vietnam, “Embers of War,” won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, said that the website lacked context and that the timeline “omits too many important developments, while including a significant number of dubious importance.” Edwin Moise, a Vietnam historian at Clemson University, said he found numerous minor inaccuracies on the site.
The presidential historian Robert Dallek, meanwhile, said he would like to see the anniversary effort include discussion of “what a torturous experience” Vietnam was for presidents. “It’s hard to believe this is going to be an especially critical analysis of the military,” he said.
Congress authorized the commemoration in 2008, when it adopted a bill that directed the Defense Department to “coordinate, support and facilitate” federal, state and local programs associated with the 50th anniversary of the war. On Memorial Day 2012, President Obama issued a proclamation establishing a 13-year program, lasting until 2025, “in recognition of a chapter in our nation’s history that must never be forgotten.” That day, he spoke at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Few details of the plans have been made public. But in a 2012 interview with the website HistoryNet, General Kicklighter said that the commemoration would begin on Memorial Day 2015, when “we will begin to recruit the nation to get behind this effort in a very big way” and that the most active phase would conclude by Veterans Day 2017.
He promised “educational materials, a Pentagon exhibit, traveling exhibits, symposiums, oral history projects and much more.” The mission, he said, is to “help the nation take advantage of a rare opportunity to turn back to a page in history and to right a wrong, by expressing its honor and respect to Vietnam veterans and their families.”
Advocates for Peace and Truth
But in antiwar and peace advocacy circles, unease has been percolating for some time. Veterans for Peace, an antiwar group based in St. Louis that includes many Vietnam veterans, has been talking since Mr. Obama’s speech about an “alternative commemoration,” said its executive director, Michael McPhearson.
Mr. McPhearson was unaware of the Hayden petition. “One of the biggest concerns for us,” he said, “is that if a full narrative is not remembered, the government will use the narrative it creates to continue to conduct wars around the world — as a propaganda tool.”
Mr. Hayden said he was particularly incensed at timeline entries like one that describes the Pentagon Papers as “a leaked collection of government memos written by government officials that tell the story of U.S. policy, even while it’s being formed” — without noting the Nixon administration’s effort to prevent their publication, or that Mr. Ellsberg and another leaker, Anthony Russo, were tried as traitors. And while the website does mention some protests, the references are often brief and clinical.
On Nov. 15, 1969 — when 250,000 antiwar protesters jammed Washington in what was then the largest mass march in the nation’s capital — the timeline entry simply states, “Protesters stage a massive protest in Washington D.C.”
“God, I’m Glad They’re All Alive!”
Mr. Hayden’s petition grew out of conference calls with others in his antiwar network, including David Cortright, a veteran who protested the war in uniform and is now a scholar at Notre Dame, and John McAuliff, a former conscientious objector who runs a nonprofit organization devoted to reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam.
The effort is also something of a reunion for the group. After scanning the list of signatories, Mr. Ellsberg, 83, exclaimed, “God, I’m glad they’re all alive!”
Many of the longtime activists also see the petition as deeply relevant today.
“You can’t separate this effort to justify the terrible wars of 50 years ago from the terrible wars of today,” said Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East expert who has known Mr. Hayden since the early 1970s. “When I saw this, I thought immediately, ‘We’ve got to stop this.’”Φ
Sheryl Gay Stolberg is a New York Times reporter.