Parallel Universes: Vietnam and Palestine

26 Nov



Not surprisingly, my sixth visit to Vietnam stirred many memories, among them, a recognition of the parallels between the Vietnamese and Palestinian experiences, two peoples who have meant so much to me over the course of my adult lifetime. I visited Hanoi in 1968 in the midst of the American war that was devastating the country and its population, causing more than three million deaths and deliberately injuring the environment and its human surrounding by using vast quantities of Agent Orange, containing the highly toxic chemical Dioxin. Agent Orange was being used to defoliate large areas of the countryside in the South as a tactic against revolutionary Vietnamese forces who were taking advantage of the wooded countryside to mount their attacks. The legacy of Agent Orange continues grimly to remind people of the war, giving rise to anguished societal suspicions of current contamination that seems confirmed by the continuing occurrence of birth deformities in certain provinces that far exceed normal statistical expectations. The Vietnamese mention this ongoing tragedy in muted tones as the government worries that it might hurt Vietnamese plans to increase their exports of agricultural products. It is part of the present atmosphere in which the war/peace preoccupations that I encountered when I visited Vietnam during the war have now been replaced by according the highest policy priority to economic growth and poverty reduction.


The Vietnam/Palestine parallel should not be understood as a claim of similarity. The two experiences are each highly distinctive, reflecting many particular features of the cultural, historical economic, and political experience of each country, as well as the specificities of relations to their regional neighborhood and global setting. At the same time these two peoples do share defining experiences of prolonged victimization intertwined with bitter resistance struggles because their desired national narrative collided with the geopolitical ambitions and commitments of the United States. In Vietnam the United States assumed responsibility for a colonial war already lost once by France in 1954, and pursued it with almost unrestrained fury for more than a decade before renouncing the quest in 1975, and slinking home in thinly disguised defeat. The supposed stakes of the conflict for the United States in Vietnam were mainly measured and justified in the ideological currency of the Cold War, holding the line in Asia against Communism after ‘the loss of China.’ According to the principal justification for the war, Vietnam was an Asian domino, which if it fell to national liberation forces, would lead to a rapid spread of Communism to Vietnam’s neighbors, which was then interpreted in Washington to mean the expansion of the Chinese sphere of influence.


Of course, the ideological and geopolitical motivations were packaged, as usual, with sleazy propaganda about the defense of freedom and the protection of South Vietnam against aggression from the North. This imposed division of Vietnam was itself a figment of the last stage of the Western colonial imaginary that tried to make the world believe that borders of geopolitical convenience took precedence over the the fundamental right of self-determination, which reflected the organic unities of history, tradition, and national identity. Eventually, as in most other anti-colonial struggles the national movement eventually prevailed during the period after 1945, enjoying in Vietnam the benefits of inspired political, military, and ideological leadership in the persons of Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap, and Le Duan, and a historical tradition of many centuries of success in defending national territory against foreign invaders, especially the Chinese. What is more, not only were the Vietnamese strengthened by this historical tale of victory. They were equally proud and sustained by an extraordinary record of post-conflict reconciliation with prior enemies that many other governments and societies could do well to heed. Political leaders in Hanoi enjoyed telling foreign visitors during the war how the Vietnamese prepared a farewell banquet for their Chinese intruders once they opted for peace, and decided to return home with the obvious implication that if the Americans stopped the war, friendship could follow, not recrimination and bitterness.


Never did I understand better the Communist slogan that our enemy is the government not the people than when I came to Vietnam in 1968 as an American peace activist. What I felt with a depth that could not be staged was the genuineness of these sentiments, then strongly associated with the teachings and beliefs of Ho Chi Minh. This attitude, so different than what I had experience as a child growing up during World War II, was epitomized by Ho’s appreciation of the American Declaration of Independence that Vietnamese school children were made to read and think about about throughout a war in which American planes were daily dumping tons of explosives on the villages and towns of an almost defenseless people. I remember driving in the beautiful Vietnamese countryside during the visit and being told by a government official that the driver’s entire family had been recently killed by a bombing strike, but that if an American plane were to attack us now he would risk his life, if necessary, to save yours. I felt moved at the time because it seemed so sincere, and consistent with all that I felt during my two weeks in the country at a time of its great national hardship, including shortages of food and medicine. The Vietnamese even in these dire circumstances were ready to give so much more than I was capable of giving!


My experience with the people of Palestine, whether living under occupation, as a minority in Israel, or in refugee camps, or in a global diaspora has many equivalent moving moments, maybe even more that were accompanied by tears either of grief or laughter. Both peoples exhibit resilience of will, virtue, love, and a lively comedic sense of reality that exceeds what seems imaginable. Beyond this, in the case of the Palestinian people their struggle continues to be maintained against seemingly overwhelming odds if the calculus of ‘political realism’ is to be trusted, which never seems to lose credibility no matter how often it errs. There are crucial differences between the principal adversary facing the Vietnamese and the Palestinians. It is this subjectivity of the oppressive forces that is not widely enough appreciated. Both the French and Americans, although investing heavily in their respective wars, always had a Plan B, a metropole to which they could retreat from Vietnam if the cost of the overseas campaign became too high.


For the Israelis, although many Jews as individuals do hold a second passport, there is no Plan B, no homeland other than that established by the Zionist settler colonial undertaking from its inception toward the end of the 19th century. These Zionist high stakes help explain the sense of justification with regard to the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinian people. What the Israelis may, however, be forced to consider in the future, if adverse pressures from the combination of Palestinian national resistance and global solidarity initiatives becomes threatening enough to make attractive to Israelis the choice of Plan C, that is, ‘a just peace’ based on the equality of the two peoples.


Such a drastic shift of Israeli objectives would necessitate both rolling back the idea and mechanisms of an exclusionary Jewish state, that is, abandoning the biblical vision of Israeli Jews occupying the whole of ‘the promised land’ of Palestine and then dismantling the apartheid structures to sustain control over the Palestinian people as a whole. At this point a just peace seems such an unlikely scenario as to invite responses of ‘utopian’ or ‘impossible’ to any suggested course along these lines. Yet history has its ways of undermining oppressors, making the impossible happen. Israelis would do well to ponder their future before supposing that they can subjugate the Palestinian people indefinitely. These reflections should include the awareness that the Palestinians, like Israeli Jews as a collectivity also have no Plan B (and few second passports!). The Israeli self-serving contention that since Palestinians are ‘Arabs’ they could and should give up their quest for a sovereign Palestine, and be content with lives in the Arab world. Palestinians, as might be expected, connect their aspirations with their connections to Palestine, and would be no more content or secure if moving to Arab countries than Israeli Jews would be to live in a Western country, in fact, less so.


Most Palestinian leaders have long seemed ready to negotiate their versions of a Plan C, which contains the proviso that it must give concrete meaning to the affirmation of an ‘equality of rights.’ True, Hamas might seem reluctant to endorse a full fledged Plan C, at least at the outset, but their leaders too during the past decade have been seeking an escape from the treadmill of perpetual violence, and if Israeli leaders showed comparable good faith, a long term accommodation would seem attainable, beneficial to both peoples, and allowing both sides to feel comfortable with distinct interpretations of what was agreed upon, a zone of ambiguity that lawyers are very good about delineating so that differences are neutralized rather than resolved. More specifically, Hamas would not be made to legitimize Israel in the process of normalizing relations, and accepting the fact of its existence as a country.


During the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson once referred to Vietnam as a tenth-rate Asian power, making it seem as if a miracle would be required for the Vietnamese to achieve victory. Many military historians are still at a loss in their attempt to offer an understanding of the outcome of the conflict, given the economic and military disparities between the adversaries. The Vietnam War, especially after the illusions of an American victory were destroyed by the Tet Offensive in 1968, became too politically costly in blood and treasure to sustain, although think tank hawks never let go of their insistence that ‘defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory’ or alternatively, the insidious suggestion that ‘the war was lost in American living rooms’ (that is, by TV coverage, especially of dead Americans returning home in body bags and coffins). Such explanations amount to Orientalist denials of Vietnamese agency, implying the impossibility that such backward military technology could prevail when matched against the unlimited quantities of hyper-modern equipment available to United States armed forces.


For several years, extreme supporters of Israel have been urging the world to move on by accepting the reality that Israel has won, the Palestinians have lost, and regardless of feeling about the merits of the Palestinian struggle it has become one more lost cause. Daniel Pipes, long a Zionist zealot, has formalized this ‘game over’ diplomacy by using an NGO under his influence, the Middle East Forum to promote ‘a victory caucus’ in both the United States and Israel with the participation of members of the U.S. Congress and Israeli Knesset. There is something discordant about such triumphalist posturing. It doesn’t fit comfortably with the furious efforts of Israeli lobbies around the world to discredit the BDS campaign as ‘the new anti-Semitism’ or with the increasing momentum of the Palestinian global solidarity movement that has increasingly troubled Israeli think tanks, and given rise to heavily financed campaigns to punish anti-Israeli activists throughout the world. Given these realities, it seems to me that the relevant comparison seems South Africa’s about face, and not Vietnam’s victory. Apartheid South Africa also appeared to the world securely entrenched until its shocking moment of self-engineered collapse in the early 1990s at a time when even dreamers did not envision a peaceful transition to a post-apartheid reality.


Without counting on dreams and dreaming, we who care about a just future for both peoples need to realize it will depend on work, sacrifice, and above all, struggle. Dreams don’t become the new reality without the dedication of a people brave and creative, and helped by the inspirational effects on friends and supporters. This blessing of empowering and charismatic resilience is the core identity of the Vietnamese and the Palestinian people, their point of most profound convergence.


16 Responses to “Parallel Universes: Vietnam and Palestine”

  1. WeatherEye November 26, 2017 at 9:16 am #

    “Such explanations amount to Orientalist denials of Vietnamese agency, implying the impossibility that such backward military technology could prevail when matched against the unlimited quantities of hyper-modern equipment available to United States armed forces”.

    This orientalist denialism seems implicit in the theory that someone as dumb as Bush could have pulled off 9/11 but not backward Arabs.

    I’d like to know what Falk thinks about the Kashmir-Palestine comparison, albeit one made only by a few voices e.g. Tariq Ali and Arundhati Roy

    • Richard Falk November 26, 2017 at 9:38 am #

      Thanks for interesting comment. Yes, I had the Kashmir experience in my thoughts as
      I was writing, but do not feel well enough informed, especially recent developments,
      to include its relevance.

    • Schlüter November 26, 2017 at 10:23 am #

      I´d like to remind you that the official narrative of Nine Eleven doesn´t only crumble because of the fact that the alleged Hijackers were lousy Pilots who couldn´t handle a single engine Cesna! More than a dozen Points to tear the official Story to pieces!

      • Gene Schulman November 27, 2017 at 1:01 am #

        Just to be fair, here is another video featuring famous ‘skeptic’ Michael Shermer poo-pooing the conspiracy theorists. I must say, after having read several of his books, including his most recent, ‘The Moral Arc’, I’m rather even more skeptical about his analysis.

  2. algilber2013 November 26, 2017 at 9:23 am #

    Bravo, Dick. Very glad to learn of your experiences in Vietnam and hope, rightly, for the Palestinians (and all those Israelis who would like a decent life…).

  3. Dr Dayan Jayatilleka November 27, 2017 at 5:25 am #

    Dear Richard, what a life of commitment to justice and solidarity! And as an aside, it was heartening to read an American scholar who still remembered the brilliant Le Duan! I hope your Vietnam experience figures in a memoir. Was this the same time that Jane Fonda visited Hanoi? Your point about the vital distinction that the Vietnamese drew between the Government and the people of the USA, partly explains their victory. They could have asked their militant young American supporters to engage in acts of terrorism or violence, on the grounds that their people were being massacred by American soldiers and pilots, but they never did. Is it that the Americans could go back to where they came from but the Israelis cannot, together with the fact of armed settler-colonialism, that makes the Palestinian resistance treat the friend/enemy, state/civilian distinction rather differently, to put it mildly? And is that inevitable? I find it hard to believe so, when I recall the consciously scrupulous conduct of the African liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies, which had a strong settler component. But then again, the Portuguese could go back where they came from, so perhaps…

    • Richard Falk November 28, 2017 at 7:40 am #

      Dear Dayan:

      As always, you raise crucial questions. A less crucial one: Jane Fonda visited Hanoi somewhat after I did,
      and was viciously attacked by the right wing for seeming to side with the Vietnamese resistance. I knew her at
      the time, and she was dedicated and lovely, but somewhat naive politically, yet always innocent.

      On the Palestinian challenge, I think their early political leadership did not have a strong moral awareness of
      this dimension of their struggle, and this was hurtful to their efforts to win over public support from around
      the world. The Vietnamese were from the outset very aware of this dimension, and were probably benefitted by the
      closeness of their leaders to the cultural sides of their subjugation by the French.

      At some point, your focus on the comparative moralities of liberation movements, and its political consequences,
      would extend your early important, yet under-appreciated, assessment of the Cuban revolutionary movement from this
      angle. In this regard, very little is know about the Portuguese perspective.

      • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka November 30, 2017 at 12:39 am #

        Dear Richard, thank you for your encouragement, which I treasure. Yes, I guess the cultural-intellectual interface with the West was crucial in the Vietnamese case. So too in the case of the leaders of the liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies, who had studied in Portuguese universities and made contact with the Left. But then again, it didn’t keep the Algerian liberation struggle free of terrorism, so perhaps it is a necessary but insufficient condition. As for the Palestinian struggle, we don’t see a leader who was familiar with Jewish society and culture, and had contacts with the Israeli left, such as it was. Fidel and Che were always able to communicate successfully with western audiences through the media, but not so the Palestinians with the Israelis.

      • Jewish state is in New York not Palestine December 5, 2017 at 4:33 pm #

        [As for the Palestinian struggle, we don’t see a leader who was familiar with Jewish society and culture, and had contacts with the Israeli left, such as it was. Fidel and Che were always able to communicate successfully with western audiences through the media, but not so the Palestinians with the Israelis.]

        What this stupid lines means? Where did he get his ‘doctorate’?

        The jews were citizens or residents of many countries, mainly in Eastern Europe because they are mainly Khazari and have NO CONNECTION WITH PALESTINE. They are COLONISTS and their culture was the culture of the country they used to live in ‘doctor’ !!!!!

        Fidel was able to communicate because the western audiences, each, had their own culture and a recognizable border. Contrary to these colonists, who were group of people from 120 countries with different culture and tendencies, many were against zionism. these countries did not have the plan to STEAL PALESTINE land KILLING THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, FORCING THEM OUT AND BURN THEIR TODDLERS AND SHOOT AT THEIR CHILDREN.

  4. Kata Fisher November 28, 2017 at 11:15 am #

    One of the best articles I got to read recently — and so paralysed, too. The genuine issues really do not get to be part of the civil conversation.

    It also mentions parallel things with Vietnam.

    Statics by a poetic person is somewhat shocking. Even to me. He did a great job on the issue — which may be helpful to folks of goodwill as well as wicked — eye opener on their malicious violence.

    The ages and especially ages A.D. teach us what goes around humanity comes back around to hunt it!

    It can be that for no longer than ten years from now it will be impossible for the wicked to continue, and just Because they will see history come upon them, according to their wickedness! It’s already happening and when their pillars crush — they will be friends with the rats — and forced to exiles! Is not what has happened to all of them by now.

    Woes to their civil population and foolishness because they have not learn better ways upon themeless. They must be accursed!

    You all have steep humanity crises — and be seriously speeding up fixing things up, internationally. Is not like there is lack of wisdom and competencies to the humanity but because there are grave disconnects.

    Very important Article:

    I won’t bother you all further.

  5. Laurie Knightly December 1, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    Some numbers concerning government willingness to donate US lives – and for what?
    Vietnam War, aka American War, number of casualties
    58,318 deaths
    303,635 wounded in action
    1,602 Missing in action 2,648 originally
    776 – 778 prisoners of war
    652+freed or escaped
    114+died in captivity
    30% of wounded died later of their wounds
    Untold numbers PTSD

    Well over 3 million lives of Vietnamese and others – for what?

    The Vietnamese, however, have their Vietnam today.albeit damaged
    Where is Palestine? A Palestine? How dare we suggest this!

    An update:
    The US has more recent endless wars around the world – and for what?

    • Gene Schulman December 5, 2017 at 8:37 am #

      Interesting. Laurie asked these questions (for what?) four days ago, and nobody seems to have an answer for them. Let us hope hers are not the last words, and that one of these days we will have an answer.

      In the words of Terry Eagleton; Hope, without optimism.

  6. Jewish state is in New York NOT Palestine December 6, 2017 at 8:44 am #

    Trump Gives Away Jerusalem to Settle $100m Campaign Debt
    Muslim and Christian Worlds in Uproar as the 3000 year old Holy City of Patriarchs sold to Casino Boss

    In a politically motivated move the repercussions of which will incite anger throughout the world, Donald Trump the elected President of the United States has made a dangerous decision, so stupidly inept as to be unbelievable, that could ignite the entire Middle East, including Turkey, Africa and Europe.

    In a quid pro quo for favours rendered, this amateur president has made a decision that marks him out as the weakest incumbent of the White House in American history. Some would describe him as moronic. Whatever the correct description, he has laid the fire for a conflagration that could impact millions.

    The only ones to benefit, apart from the campaign donor, being the hard-Right Likud Party of Binyamin Netanyahu who is presently under investigation for corruption regarding, inter alia, alleged kickbacks on multimillion dollar purchases of submarines from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

    To have the world’s most powerful state under the control of an apparent misogynistic, moronic madman is the most frightening prospect for everyone in the international community from Europe through the Middle East to Africa, Asia and the Americas.

    Any American president who is willing to betray both Christianity and Islam by selling Jerusalem, the Holy City, for ‘thirty pieces of silver’ in order to swing an election, should not be trusted further in high office. He is too dangerous and should be removed by democratic process, in the interests not just of America but the world.

  7. Laurie Knightly December 9, 2017 at 12:20 pm #

    A reminder of the injustice inflicted on Palestinians:

    750,000 displaced
    30.000 homes demolished
    800.000 arrested
    1,000,000 olive trees uprooted
    And always increasing……….

    As we grieve for California consumed by wildfire, let us be reminded that the
    above was done by human intentional criminality with US approved sponsorship.
    It might not be important where Israel locates its capital offense strategic planning.

  8. Raymonde Cloutier December 13, 2017 at 7:45 am #

    Dear Sieur Falk,
    Votre article «Univers parallèles : Vietnam et Palestine mercredi 13 décembre 2017 / 5h:04» est un baume à savoir de l’avenir de la Palestine. Meri grandemet pour cet article. Raymonde Cloutier, Laval Qc, Canada


  1. Univers parallèles : Vietnam et Palestine | Chronique de Palestine - December 12, 2017

    […] novembre 2017 – – Traduction: Chronique de Palestine – MJB jQuery(document).ready(function($) { […]

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