Historical understanding doesn’t always move ahead. Sometimes it slips backwards. Case in point: In 2012, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of official US involvement in Vietnam, the Pentagon quietly launched VietnamWar50th.com. Bob talks to historian Nick Turse, the author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, who noticed that the website’s version of the war seems stuck in the past, reasserting misinformation long since debunked by journalists, historians, and the government’s own Pentagon papers.
BOB GARFIELD: History doesn't always move ahead. Sometimes it slips backwards. Case in point, in 2012, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of official US involvement in Vietnam, the Pentagon quietly launched VietnamWar50th.com. The sprawling website includes a detailed interactive timeline of the Vietnam War. But historian Nick Turse, the author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, noticed that the website’s version of the war seems stuck in the sixties and seventies, reasserting misinformation long since debunked by journalists, historians and the government’s own Pentagon Papers. But Turse does admit that at first glance the website is impressive, full of primary source materials.
NICK TURSE: The Pentagon Papers are posted on the site. There is a big sprawling timeline with 800 historical entries, spanning from the 1800s all the way to the 1970s. It looks like an impressive historical offering, but when you look closer you find that there are some real problems there.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, you don’t actually have to look all that closely [LAUGHS], because the problems begin with the moment of the US’s major escalation of the war, after the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin incident,” when North Vietnamese torpedo boats –
NICK TURSE: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - supposedly, on consecutive days, attacked US warships in the Gulf. Here’s President Johnson on August 4th, 1964.
PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Repeated acts of a violence against the Armed Forces of the United States must be met, not only with alert defense, but with positive reply.
BOB GARFIELD: A story that has been turned upside down by historians looking at documentation, and yet?
NICK TURSE: And yet, when you look at the timeline entries on the Department of Defense’s website, you find that they’ve stuck to the original narrative, what people were told back in 1964, that a second attack took place and that US ships were sailing innocently through the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam.
We know now, of course, that American ships were there because there were covert raids being carried out on the North Vietnamese coast, and that’s why there was a first attack on a US ship. The second attack on a US ship actually never took place. But none of this appears in the timeline.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the great horrors of the war, the My Lai massacre, significantly turned the public against US involvement in Vietnam. Here’s veteran Ronald Lee Ridenhour, who in 1969 first disclosed the killing spree at My Lai.
RONALD LEE RIDENHOUR: They have seen individual soldiers and some of the officers going through the village and, as they swept through the village, if there are people standing by the side of the trail, they just gunned them down, that they shot them. They saw them, these people shot, with no provocation.
NICK TURSE: When the My Lai scandal broke in 1969, the US military took great pains to refer to it as an incident and not a massacre. And the entry in the timeline sticks to this playbook. The entry also lists the number of civilians killed as more 200, instead of more than 500. And it singles out only Lt. William Calley as being responsible for the massacre. Now, Calley certain had plenty of blood on his hands, but it’s farcical to make it seem as if the deaths of 500 civilians could be the fault of a lone junior officer.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it that the events, to this day, are controversial, or is the Pentagon simply ignoring all of our contemporary knowledge of what took place?
NICK TURSE: I think there really is a whitewashing that’s taking place. There’s another entry in the timeline that really stuck out to me, Operation Speedy Express, and that occurred in late 1968, early 1969. And the timeline entry says that the operation was a success, and that 11,000 enemy troops were killed. But Speedy Express was really a bloodbath. It was 10 to 12 times the size of the My Lai massacre, and this is according to the US military's own estimates that I found in logged classified investigations files at the US National Archives. In those files, the military admits that likely 5,000 to 7,000 of the dead were Vietnamese civilians, so about 60 percent of those 11,000 killed. But the Pentagon offers up a completely sanitized history of this operation, information that’s false, by their own records.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, one of the great scandals of the war was the revelation that there had been a parallel war going on, a secret war, launched with President Nixon's approval in Cambodia. He bypassed Congress. He even bypassed some of his own military brass. Does the timeline do justice to those events?
NICK TURSE: That’s another [LAUGHS] glaring mistake in the timeline. There’s an entry in March 1969 for Operation Menu. This is what we know as the secret bombing of Cambodia. The timeline entry, I noticed, had a picture of President Nixon from a press conference, apparently announcing the strikes and pointing out on the map where they were taking place. I knew that this was a, a gross deception. The strikes were covered up through a vast conspiracy that involved coded messages, burned documents. It actually took him four years to even admit that these covert attacks took place. But the Pentagon’s timeline has that this was all out in the open, and Nixon was upfront with the American people.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you noticed these errors and you got in touch with the Pentagon. Were they responsive?
NICK TURSE: When I originally contacted the Vietnam Commemoration Office, I was led through twists and turns and didn’t get any concrete answers. I was told that all my requests for information would be forwarded to a Lieutenant Colonel Tom Crosson in the office of the Secretary of Defense. Immediately, the name rang a bell because I’d contacted Lt. Col. Crosson, dealing with my book, Kill Anything That Moves, and the information that I have in there from US military records. You know, what he told me was, you know, though 40 years had passed since the end of the war, he doubted it was possible for the military to provide an official statement in what he called “a timely manner.”
BOB GARFIELD: And I gather he was exactly as forthcoming this time around?
NICK TURSE: I’m still waiting for him to get back to me.
BOB GARFIELD: So let’s just assume that the US government put its spin on history, how much does it matter? Scholars certainly are not going to turn first to the Pentagon to get the secret history of the Pentagon.
NICK TURSE: It's troubling because the site not only seeks to inform the American public, but it makes a special play for children in grammar school and high school, with a special section for educators. The Department of Defense is peddling its inaccurate and misleading claims to youngsters, creating a false narrative about the war. And the Pentagon has, in some sense, unleashed a salvo with this website. They’re literally rewriting history.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you, Nick.
NICK TURSE: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com. His most recent book, Kiss Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, has just been released in paperback.