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May 08, 2009

Teach Your Children Well

By: Bernard Chazelle

About 60,000 Americans died in Vietnam. No one knows exactly how many Vietnamese civilians died, but there is good reason to believe the number exceeds 3 million. And that would not count the destruction in Cambodia and Laos or the half-million children born with deformities caused by defoliants. Robert McNamara believes 3.4 million Vietnamese were slaughtered. Even an ardent supporter of the war like Michael Lind concedes that the number is in excess of 2 million -- or, to go by a familiar metric, one third of the Holocaust.

So let's check the chapter on the Vietnam War in one of the leading textbooks used in US colleges, "American Foreign Policy," authored by Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University professor of political science and former Al Gore advisor:

American casualties in Vietnam numbered more than two hundred thousand, including almost sixty thousand deaths. Vietnamese casualties numbered in the hundreds of thousands as well.

That's it for the whole book. It's not that Jentleson is math-averse. The book gives you the precise body count for the Holocaust, Darfur, etc. The author only wants every American college student to know that the Vietnamese suffered almost as much as the Americans. Maybe some even died. There's no way to know. But this is only the 3rd edition of the textbook, so perhaps new research will inform future editions about this matter.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at May 8, 2009 06:37 PM

Much like Lady Macbeth, Viet Nam don't wash off.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 8, 2009 07:34 PM

And I'll bet the book does not call the US attack what it was-an invasion of South Vietnam...I am sure it is called a defense...maybe I am wrong but I doubt it.-Tony

Posted by: tony at May 8, 2009 07:47 PM

The US bombing campaign in the Korean War is given similar treatment. I've spent a bit of time in libraries looking in the indices of books on the Korean War just to see who talks about the American bombing campaign and who doesn't. Curtis LeMay said at one time that we killed over one million people in that campaign and other estimates range from "hundreds of thousands" to two million. Depending on which estimtes are correct, we may have killed more civilians via aerial bombing than the the US and Britain killed in Germany and Japan in WWII.

Anyway, some books and newspaper retrospectives totally omit the bombing campaign and when it is mentioned it usually gets a very brief treatment. Bruce Cumings is an exception to this rule, as was this military history I saw once in Barnes and Noble (and wish I had bought) which was devoted exclusively to the subject.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 8, 2009 08:43 PM

Well, I'm certainly looking forward to the 4th edition, where the truth shall be revealed.

I'll even hold my breath.

Posted by: catherine at May 8, 2009 09:41 PM

I had absolutely no idea that that was the case - and I know nothing of the bombing of Korea. Thanks for the post.

Posted by: Guest at May 8, 2009 09:47 PM

When you consider that Vietnamese casualties must have been in the 10 million range - (assuming a similar ratio of deaths to casualties for Americans & Vietnamese, which is probably a mistake) - this is a particularly despicable comment.

Although, to be fair, Jentleson obviously maintains a strict adherence to accuracy in his statistics. Vietnamese casualties did indeed number in the hundreds of thousands; by my very rough estimate, 100 hundred thousands.

Posted by: erik at May 8, 2009 10:08 PM

"Striking a balance between classic and current issues in foreign policy, these selections include writings by major political figures (Henry Kissinger, Mikhail Gorbachev, Kofi Annan) as well as scholars (John Ikenberry, Walter LaFeber, and Samuel Huntington)."

Students are certainly better off learning about "American Foreign Policy" from textbooks which DO NOT INCLUDE writings by the likes of Kissinger and Huntington or someone who has consulted for the 'Washington Institute for Near East Policy!'

ps may be Kissinger wrote the chapter about number of Vietnamese civilians killed!! and Prof Bruce Cummings has been on our local NPR station several times and he is great. he has written several articles for London Review of Books on Korea.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at May 8, 2009 10:27 PM

"Lies My Teacher Told Me" is a good resource for this topic (and also a damn good read).
Homepage of James W. Loewen: Author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, Lies Across America, and now Sundown Towns:

Posted by: Murfyn at May 8, 2009 10:51 PM

Mind boggling!

The lying or misrepresentation is so brazen it's mind boggling. Did I say that already?

It's worth repeating: It's mind boggling.

Posted by: cemmcs at May 8, 2009 11:21 PM

Pardon me. It should be Prof Cumings and not Cummings.

Here is an excellent article by him from Le Monde Diplomatique:
"Consequences of the 'forgotten’ war"
Korea: forgotten nuclear threats
The media claim that North Korea is trying to obtain and use weapons of mass destruction. Yet the United States, which opposes this strategy, has used or threatened to use such weapons in northeast Asia since the 1940s, when it did drop atomic bombs on Japan.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at May 8, 2009 11:26 PM

Vietnamese casualties did indeed number in the hundreds of thousands; by my very rough estimate, 100 hundred thousands. But eric, they don't value life the way we do so please divid by 1,000.

Posted by: drip at May 9, 2009 07:13 AM

I recall seeing a high school US history textbook published in the mid-1980s that reduced the entire war against the Vietnamese to a brief paragraph, summarizing the entire period as a passing disruption to the unity of the American citizenry. Much of the 20th century simply never happened in that text's treatment. One would not want to confuse anyone by suddenly presenting information in contradiction to previous teaching, so I suppose the continuity of historical elision is a kindness as far as protecting young minds is concerned.

With regard to the depths of the memory hole the Korean war has gone down, few Americans are aware that by the 'end' of the war there was only one building in all the territory of the north undamaged by the US bombing campaign. It was the demonstration case of a people being 'bombed back to the stone age.'

Posted by: Phillip Allen at May 9, 2009 09:42 AM

drip. Being orientals (or is it Asiatics?) they don't value life as we do. Mere speculation on my part, but he may have thought to himself what a good humanitarian liberal he was by actually bringing up the subject of vietnamese casualties. When Hillary writes the 4th edition, she'll add the words "And they never showed us much gratitude."

tony Of course, we protected the South from the North Vietnamese. That's why most American bombs fell in the South. Logical, no? If you write 2+2=5 in enough textbooks, people will end up believing it. The whole book is a script for a comedy show. Try these lines:

Ford beseeched Congress not to cut off aid, arguing that to do so "would encourage the belief that aggression pays."

Tom Friedman's dad, aka JFK:

"If we are not the parents of little Vietnam, then surely we are the godparents."

To be fair, Jentleson acknowledges the existence of an antiwar movement. Because he is a liberal. Here is the only thing he has to say about it.

It needs to be acknowledged that among much of the antiwar movement there was a great deal of naivete, wishful thinking, and rationalization.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 9, 2009 10:02 AM

I hear a "but..." hanging in the air after that last sentence you quoted, Bernard.

There probably was a lot of naivete, wishful thinking, and rationalization in the antiwar movement. For example, there were people in the movement who naively, wishfully thought that if they just told their fellow Americans the truth about Vietnam, it would end the war. I feel sure that's not what Jentleson was thinking, but there's often unintended irony in such statements.

Posted by: Duncan at May 9, 2009 12:29 PM

Indeed. These liberals are the true cynics of our age. They don't have beliefs, they have meta-beliefs, ie, beliefs about beliefs. They have beliefs about the beliefs of anti-war activists (they were naive; they rationalized) and about the belief of warmongers (they had false assumptions about the war).

If Duncan brings up the issue of human suffering in war, the focus won't be human suffering but Duncan. Why is he being oblivious to the geopolitical reality of the day? That's why, as Rupa pointed out, the book is full of quotes by other Jentleson lookalikes (no quote from a Vietnamese peasant of course).

Same thing here with Obama. He is president but it's the meta-event that counts, which is that we elected him. Our election of him is much more important than the fact that he is president. What he does is quite irrelevant by current political science standards. Perhaps what he says he does may have some relevance. But even better is what Jentleson says about what Newsweek says about what people say about what Obama says about what he'll do.

That's how we need to teach our liberal children to think.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 9, 2009 01:33 PM

Bernard, is it possible that Jentlesen is referring to the number of ARVN soldiers killed fighting alongside U.S. troops (which is roughly 225,000)? Or does the context make it impossible to interpret as anything but a reference to all Vietnamese killed in the war?

If the latter, that's just obscene.

In 1995, the government of Viet Nam gave these figures for deaths over the 21 years of the war (revised from their wartime official reports, which had undercounted to avoid demoralizing the population):

North Vietnamese Army and guerrillas in south: 1.1 million (600,000 wounded)

Civilians, north: 2 million

Civilians, south: 2 million

(The government gave no estimates of numbers of wounded civilians, north or south.)

Anyone who quotes figures that differ significantly from those of the government of Viet Nam should be prepared to defend their numbers. Arbitrarily and baselessly halving the government's figures still produces numbers in the millions. Jentleson should be publicly and privately badgered about this until he stops spreading lies.

Posted by: Nell at May 9, 2009 02:21 PM

"History will treat me well, because I intend to write it."
Winston Churchill

Down down the Memory Hole
Lenny Bruce, Vietnam, rock n roll
Down down the Memory Hole

Posted by: Oarwell at May 9, 2009 02:33 PM

Rock 'n roll seems to be doing all right, and Lenny Bruce's memory is if anything burnished.

The U.S. war in Viet Nam is apparently what's gone down the memory hole.

Posted by: Nell at May 9, 2009 03:15 PM

Anyone else old enough to remember "body counts" during the Vietnam War? During the war the military would overestimate how many Viet Cong they'd killed, throw in the civilians who caught bullets, too. And then after the war was over and the damage was done they "rounded down."

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at May 9, 2009 03:52 PM

Nell: Before I posted this, I emailed Jentleson about it several days earlier. I thought he should be offered an opportunity to spin his propaganda. No answer.

No other mention of Vietnam casualties in the book.

The quote I gave are the first 2 lines of the graf. Here's the last one:

And the war failed to keep the dominoes from falling: communism came to Vietnam, got stronger in Laos, and spread to Cambodia.

This book is a gold mine. Everywhere you look: a gem!

Now don't get the wrong idea. The author is very much against the Vietnam war. He thinks the price paid by the US was much too high (in power, prestige, money, and maybe other things, too)

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 9, 2009 05:26 PM

Jentleson "thinks the price paid by the US was much too high (in power, prestige, money, and maybe other things, too)". And don't forget, the destruction was mutual!

That's what right-thinking liberals feel about Iraq too, innit? It made us look bad, if we hadn't already felt bad because we had a president who couldn't pronounce "nuclear." But now, thanks to the election of Obama, we don't have to be embarrassed to be Americans anymore!

Posted by: Duncan at May 9, 2009 06:32 PM

I wonder if the guy has even read Marilyn Young or Kolko? I wont even mention Chomsky...I am sure he thinks NC is a total crackpot.....Its is simply amazing what passes for scholarship.-Tony

Posted by: tony at May 9, 2009 08:27 PM

Body counts??? I remember.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 9, 2009 09:08 PM

Maybe Jentleson and the author of that high school textbook were angling to be included in the "approved" texts in Texas (assuming that they have AP history in that state). Big market, you know; wouldn't want to say anything not palatable to the extreme right wing, and throw away all of that sales potential. Historically significant facts and what gets into history textbooks are two different things in this free market economy, after all.

Posted by: JerseyJeffersonian at May 9, 2009 10:48 PM

my son wrote a very good book. the 4th edition will be even better, and cost more.

Posted by: Bruce Jentle at May 9, 2009 11:38 PM

Thanks for that background, Bernard.

I'm sincerely shocked. Jentleson could never get away with a statement like that in a history journal, where other historians would jump all over it; he'd be forced to admit that he was wrong, wrong, wrong.

But here, where who knows how many college students are taking this for the historians' consensus view, it's not at all clear how objections on behalf of the facts can be raised.

Posted by: Nell at May 10, 2009 11:12 AM


Sorry for poetic imprecision. I was going to rhyme "hole" with "grassy knoll," but didn't want to come across as a controversialist.

Historical revisionism cuts both ways. Just ask Charles Beard, or Harry Elmer Barnes, when you meet up with them. Who was the PR flack at Hill & Knowlton who got the Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter to falsely testify about the babies flung from incubators in the propaganda lead-up to Gulf War 1? Who fed Judith Miller her lies about anthrax? Who planted the poppys in Flander's Field? On and on it goes. We are the fleas, struggling against the wolf.

As mom always said, you can't have your yellow cake and expect to eat it unharmed. Or something.

Posted by: Oarwell at May 10, 2009 12:08 PM

@Oarwell: {LOL!}

@Bernard and all: I asked a historian about this, and he's been kind enough to initiate a conversation among other specialists in the region. He's invited them to weigh in on the question of what the historical consensus is wrt Vietnamese casualties (it's safe to say that the answer is 'in the millions', requiring only a one-word change in Jentleson's fourth edition), the sources that are considered authoritative, and the process that would be most effective to get the correction made.

Public badgering (my impulse) is unlikely to be the recommended course of action, at least not the first one. ;> But there's a real chance that the facts of the matter won't be so wildly misrepresented in a future edition. Jentleson's perspective isn't going to change, but at least the students reading the book would have a fair shot at drawing their own conclusions.

Posted by: Nell at May 10, 2009 01:32 PM

Nell: You'll keep us posted, right? Also, anything we can do, etc. thx

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 10, 2009 04:13 PM

I'd be a little surprised if any historian actually knows the death toll in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government might know and that figure they gave might be accurate, or it might not. I'm not sure what the motivation would be for lying, except to make the Americans look bad. Maybe somebody has done a survey and estimated it that way.

If you look at various books on Vietnam, those who do not use the figures put out by the Vietnamese government after the war generally use a total of 1-2 million for the total number of deaths, military and civilian. There's a set of semi-official figures sometimes cited that add up to just under 1.5 million, but the majority of those are military deaths (predominantly either North Vietnamese or NLF). Neil Sheehan in "A Bright Shining Lie" talks about civilian deaths in South Vietnam says there were by conservative estimate 25,000 civilian deaths per year and 50,000 seriously wounded each year and that's in the part of the book where Sheehan is describing the brutality of the American way of war and its effects on the civilian population. But he's using official statistics of the time. That's roughly ten times lower than the Vietnamese government's claim. I think Sheehan used the Vietnamese government's much higher numbers in a later book he wrote, but I don't have that book and am going from memory.

I have the 1985 edition of Gabriel Kolko's book on the war--on page 200 he says

"The Pentagon's finale estimate of killed and wounded civilians in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 ran from 700,000 to 1.225,000, while Senate numbers for the same period were 1,350,000. Deaths in these two assessments ranged from 195,000 to 415,000; "enemy" killed were 850,000 minimum and a substantial part of these were civilians. The Revolution's figures are much higher."

(Kolko refers to the North Vietnamese government and its Southern allies as "the Revolution".)

When you read Chomsky's "Political Economy of Human Rights", they used the 400,000 figure for civilian deaths, I think. I first saw the 3 million figure in a Chomsky book from the mid to late 80's and it came from a Vietnamese government claim reported in the Far Eastern Economic Review. I don't think anybody was using numbers that high during the war, or anyway, I haven't come across any examples of it.

Even if one believes these much smaller numbers, Jentleson is still wrong. South Vietnamese civilian casualties are a million or so, and when you throw in the Vietnamese military dead and wounded one is in the low millions.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 10, 2009 06:33 PM

"believes these much smaller numbers, "--

I mean the much smaller official US government statistics, which are widely cited, though since McNamara accepted the 3 million plus figure from the Vietnamese government I think I've seen that figure more and more. Now that I am typing this I wonder if they actually released enough details to convince historians that their figure is accurate. Nell's historians will presumably know.

Anyway, the main point I'm making is we have the same thing with the Vietnam War that we have with Iraq--a wide range of claims about the death toll. Which isn't unusual--there's a similarly wide range for many wars and slaughters. Korea, for one. The Pakistan massacre in Bangladesh (in 1971 or 1972, I forget which) for another.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 10, 2009 06:44 PM

The following video clip from CBC report indicates, four million vietnamese were killed.

ps a friend who had served in Vietnam for two years, recommended a book, "Fire in the Lake": The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam- by Frances FitzGerald...apparently a must read for anyone interested in the real story of Vietnam. unfortunately, never got around to reading it. may be, will try to get it and read it now.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at May 10, 2009 10:34 PM

Hi Bernard n' Nell,

you could start a facebook group called, say,

"Why doesn't Bruce Jentleson get his numbers straight?"


"Do not go, Jentleson, into that Vietnam night(without getting your facts straight)."

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at May 10, 2009 10:57 PM

Will definitely keep everyone posted.

From very preliminary discussion, it seems that Donald's comments above capture the situation well: much dispute, serious lack of detailed data and documents on which to base estimates. (Though none so wildly low as Jentleson.)

Posted by: Nell at May 10, 2009 11:18 PM