The twentieth century has been so full of tragedy and barbarism that it is natural for a historian to be reluctant to attach some unique significance to American war crimes in Vietnam. Yet both for the world, and most certainly for the U.S., the war the American Government has been waging in Vietnam is distinctive and without parallel. The openly justified, systematic, and continuous effort at the destruction of a population of an entire nation by an external enemy is quite rare in modern history. The Nazis carried on such a policy against the Jews, and it was far more "successful" on its own terms because European Jewry, unlike the Vietnamese, was unable or unwilling to resist. But the essential difference is that the Nazis concealed from the German masses their genocidal efforts, which they attempted to hide for fear civilization's taboos regarding mass murder might damn them in the eyes of their own people. In Vietnam, the U.S. Government has no shame about the effects of its warfare. The daily press and TV have for years revealed everything one needs to know about the magnitude of the horror and the consequences of the war.
The real question of war crimes in the Vietnam War is no longer the facts themselves but rather the justification Washington has employed for its systematic terror. And, above all, it is the failure and seeming unwillingness of the American people to translate their knowledge of specific inhumanities and events, of the countless Son Mys, into a larger political perception of the objective of American foreign policy or a comprehension of the essential human and moral significance of the war in Vietnam. For the absence of a far greater sense of abhorrence, one based essentially on empathy with the sufferings of the Vietnamese rather than only with that of unwilling American boys sent to die in a distant land, potentially marks a moral and political immunization of a nation that has far greater significance for the future of American society and politics than I for one care to imagine.
It is not possible to refer to a "public" response to the Viet