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Sartre: American Genocide in Vietnam

An introduction to the essay in which Jean-Paul Sartre justifies his argument that US forces were committing genocide in Vietnam.

In his essay “Vietnam: Imperialism and Genocide,” the French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre considers the case for judging whether the US military forces (and by extension the US state as a whole) was guilty of committing genocide during its role in the Second Indochinese War (also known as the Amercian War in Vietnam or, in America itself, the Vietnam War). Sartre had been nominated as president of the International War Crimes Tribunal and this essay represented his justification that the American military had, in fact, committed genocide.

It is worth noting that the essay was written in December, 1967 when the war was in full swing and prior to the 1968 Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese forces which has come to be seen as a major turning point in the war. Sartre, like most other people, was unaware of the horrifying effects of napalm bombs, of Agent Orange and of the war crimes committed at My Lai (acknowledged) and so many other places.

Sartre bases his argument on several counts. The first depends on the definition of genocide which was put in place after the Second World War (1939-45) and which depends on intention. If the aggressor intends to commit such acts that will lead to the elimination of large numbers of the enemy forces, or is aimed at preventing births in the normal course of nature, or of destroying the way of life of the people attacked, then this amounts to genocide. He combines this idea with the concept of ‘total war,’ which is both a production of the bourgeois capitalist state (i.e. everyone must participate in the war and every one of the opposing country is an enemy to be eliminated in whatever form possible) and a result of previous colonial wars – some Americans sometimes claim that they have not been involved in colonial activities or wars but, whether they have or not, the military has certainly studied the lessons of the suppression of local people through advanced military technology. In a colonial war, colonists seek to impose their will on every member of the subjugated (or would-be subjugated) race – because of ideology, therefore, everyone is an enemy. Translated to the context of Vietnam, the American command viewed all Vietnamese enemy combatants as Communists – i.e. adherents of an inimical ideology with which they are at war. This makes, according to Sartre, the US guilty of genocide because it branded all Vietnamese, peasants, women, children, anyone, enemy combatants whom it is justified to kill or at least attack. The same thing may be said about the so-called ‘Global War on Terror.’

For further details, see Sartre, Jean-Paul, “Vietnam: Imperialism and Genocide,” in Jean-Paul Sartre, Between Existentialism and Marxism (London and New York: Verso Books, 2008), pp.67-83. Translated by John Matthews.

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