History of American Orientalism and the Vietnam War

The exercise of military, political and economic influence always relies upon the “mechanisms of ‘culture’”[1]: a given distribution of power, in fact, can always be legitimized through cultural texts.

Edward Said’s classic model of Orientalism which is based upon the ideology of difference – that is, the construction of the binary logic of ‘us vs. them’ where the East is always represented “as an inferior racial Other to the West”[2]– has undergone a significant transformation in the U.S. after the end of the Second World War to also include the ideology of global integration.


A cartoon depicts an old white explorer looking at the map of Asia through a magnifying lens and writing down everything he learns about it, while an Asian woman who stands behind him holds another magnifying glass looking at and learning the explorer's texts. This cartoon seemingly represents the flawed/incoherent descriptions of the Orient made by Western scholars, which subsequently encouraged racist stereotypes and even dehumanization of the Orient as well as helped to legitimize violence against Orientals.
Credits: Nihao’s It Going?, https://nihaositgoing.com

Since after the end of WWII the U.S. acquired a new political role as a global superpower nation. It meant an immediate repudiation of its intellectual tradition of isolationism, as well as a complete modification of its national self-definition.[3]

This process, however, was complicated by decolonization movements from Western domination throughout Asian countries and their subsequent leanings toward communist regimes which “promised to alleviate the burden of freedom and to restore the bonds of community.”[4]

In order to prevent their existential threat in the face of the victory of communism, Americans were thus forced to match its appeal by restoring a sense of community with Asian countries.[5]

Therefore, during the Cold War, the U.S. had to balance between two Orientalist discourses: one aimed at the

A black-and-white photo of Edward Wadie Said looking at the camera.
Edward Wadie Said(1935-2003). He was a professor of literature at Columbia University, a public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies. He is known for his book Orientalism (1978), a critique of the cultural representations by the West of the Orient which comprise the main basis of Orientalism—an ideology on how the Western world perceives the Orient. Said’s model of textual analysis transformed how academics now examine, describe, and define the Oriental cultures being studied. Credits: Edward Said, http://www.edwardsaid.org/

containment of communism, while the other directed at the U.S.-Asia integration.

This blog’s focus on the Vietnam War, as one of the most infamous Cold War events, will allow to better illustrate and depict the heterogeneity of the Orientalist discourse which, since 1945, went beyond the confines emulated by Edward Said and even contradicted them.

In fact, I will argue that unlike the pre-Cold War Said-defined Orientalism, the post-1945 Orientalist discourse not only enabled the United States to legitimize its commencement of the war in Vietnam and to encourage the perpetuation by its citizens of the inhumane atrocities against North Vietnamese citizens as part of its policy of communism containment, but it also encouraged the creation of political, economic and military ties between the U.S. and South Vietnam as part of its policy to create a “solidarity with other human beings” through the US-Asian integration.

Paradoxically, this desire by the U.S. to eradicate all racial prejudices and to create a multiracial community in order to promote this Orientalist “global imaginary of integration”[6] was sharply contrasted with the Orientalist “global imaginary of containment”[7] which encouraged the violent treatment of North Vietnamese by American GIs.

This contradiction has also fueled the appearance of an anti-Vietnam war movement in the U.S.

Orientalism Explained

A political cartoon titled "the white man's burden" depicts 2 white men (one of whom is Uncle Sam) walking across big rocks titled "superstition", "oppression", "brutality", etc. while carrying baskets filled with Orientals drawn as caricatures towards a statue titled "civilization"..
“The White Man’s Burden.” Credits: The Asia-Pacific Journal, https://apjjf.org

Orientalism is commonly defined as a particular form of Eurocentrism (which proclaims the superiority of the West and argues that all progress achieved on non-European lands is solely due to the diffusion of European technologies and ideas) used by the West in their relations with the rest of the world. This ideological tradition “assumes a distinct social and cultural reality about the Orient, discovered by the efforts of Orientalists and assumed to be ‘true’; it is a reality that is different from its counterpart, the West.”[8]

To put it simply, Orientalism, as famously defined by Edward Said, is an ideological element which essentially helped to legitimize American imperialism and European colonialism through the division of the world into the ‘superior’ West and the ‘inferior’ and ‘in need of civilizing’ East. The Orient is presented as the West’s alter ego, its polar opposite. Thus, “through the objectification, dehumanization, inferiorization, and the othering of the Orient, Orientalism facilitates a relationship of power, domination, and hegemony between the West and its constructed Orients.”[9]

In short, Orientalism does 3 things: it dichotimizes (ex. civilized Europeans vs. barbarian Asians), essentializes and creates hierarchies. This fixing of the meaning of the Orient as barbarian, cruel, irrational and despotic (etc.) thus allows the West to intervene and to sanction it on ‘moral’ grounds any time it deems necessary, as part of its ‘white man’s burden’ civilizing mission.

The Roots Behind American Orientalism

American Self-Perception

The understanding of the pre-Cold War American Orientalism in the Asia-Pacific region is contingent upon the

A painting of John Winthrop looking upfront.
John Winthrop (1588-1649). He was a leading political Colonial American and the first governor of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. In 1629 he joined the Massachusetts company and was elected governor of the colony that had to be established in New England, which he envisioned to be based on his religious Puritan beliefs. He was appointed governor 12 times between the years 1631 and 1648. Credits: Wikipedia, https://es.wikipedia.org

comprehension of American self-perception.

The “oldest and most important myth about America”[10] describes how in 1630 John Winthrop- an English Puritan- and his band of Puritan followers travelled to the American wilderness to proclaim that “wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us.”[11]

Winthrop believed that him and his followers were God’s Chosen People sent to establish a new society- a society which would be created for the Lord, and which, thus, would become “a moral example to the rest of the world, a world that will presumably keep its attention riveted on [them].”[12]

These words have been internalized by many Americans and have been echoing throughout their history: Americans know and they believe that they have been Chosen to lead the world in moral crusade- that is, “to impose the One Right Way on others who [are] either too wicked, too stupid, or even too oppressed.”[13]

American Foreign Policy Before the Twenty-First Century

A political cartoon depicting Uncle Sam walking in the sea of "European Politics". He holds an umbrella titled "Monroe Doctrine" and a bag titled "prestige", while being shot by bricks labelled "Japan"and "Italy". He looks upset (seemingly about being dragged into complicated and 'stormy' European politics).
Credits: resourcesforhistoryteachers, http://resourcesforhistoryteachers.pbworks.com

Until the end of the nineteenth century, American history was defined by “a favorable peculiar situation”[14] marked by physical and thus cultural isolation from potential European predators, which, while allowed them to perfect their society without costly ‘disruptions’ caused by wars, has also kept them from knowing others.

This contributed to the emergence of American cultural arrogance, since “the less one knows of the world, the more awful the local customs of the others may seem.”[15]

The early American interactions with Asia prove that they used to think that Asian traditions or beliefs differed from theirs simply due the latter’s poverty or ignorance and thus their inability to emulate American values.[16] Americans thus radiated solipsistic views, believing that “the world is populated by frustrated or potential Americans”[17] and that everyone wants to become them.

For instance, before the twentieth century, American relations with other countries were characterized by informal activities, such as tourism and missionary activity. In fact, while the U.S. sent thousands of missionaries “to bring American civilization to Asia”[18], the American trade with this continent only amounted a few percent of total US trade.[19]

The majority of missionaries were sent to China: besides spreading the gospel, missionaries have also carried out relief, medical and education works which, by benefitting the Chinese, enabled the creation of a special bond between the two countries, thus helping to strengthen American commercial opportunities in that country in the following nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[20]

A political cartoon of American "Open Door" policy depicting Uncle Sam who guards the gates labelled "China". He is holding a huge key (from the gate) titled "American Diplomacy" while the leaders of European countries are gathered around but not allowed to enter. .
Credits: LiveJournal, https://potus-geeks.livejournal.com

When China, which became the U.S.’s main trading partner, was defeated in the Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895, Americans became alarmed that Europeans’ desire to establish exclusive spheres of commercial influence in China would jeopardize American economic hegemony in the country- thus, the U.S. government has formulated the Open Door Notes of 1899 and 1900 which sought to preserve an equal commercial access to China for the U.S.[21]

Interestingly enough, while the U.S. officials tended to refer to the Open Door Policy in exclusively positive terms- “a U.S. attempt to prevent China from being carved up into commercially impenetrable foreign colonies”[22]– the Chinese believed that the U.S. was much more concerned about the maintenance of its commercial interests and was thus completely indifferent about Chinese sovereignty.[23]

Generally speaking, publicly, Americans tended to only highlight the positive features of the U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, by regularly voicing their helpful missionary education activities, which presented it as a benign state, while hiding or ignoring its negative features, such as the exclusionary movement, discrimination and persecution of Asians in the U.S.

A cartoon depicts Uncle Sam kicking out 'the Chinaman' while showing him the National Origins Act of 1924 which banned all immigration from Asia to the United States.
A cartoon depicts Uncle Sam kicking out ‘the Chinaman’ while showing him the National Origins Act of 1924 which banned all immigration from Asia to the United States. Credits: Study.com, https://study.com

For instance, in 1920 the governor of California openly decried the economic competition posed by the Japanese by employing a classic Orientalist discourse of ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy: he proclaimed that the Japanese have now monopolized many important American agricultural industries as well as increased their land ownership by 412.9 percent due to their employment of “methods that are widely separated from [American] occidental standards and methods, both in connection with hours of labor and standards of living.”[24] He has also decried Japanese high fertility and expressed resentment radiated by many mothers who did not want their children to study with Japanese kids.[25]At the end of his speech he proclaimed his determination to do everything in his power “in keeping to maintain this state for its own people”[26], since he believed that it would be impossible to assimilate Oriental Japanese, who are, by definition, are incompatible with Occidental Americans, in the U.S.[27]

These exclusionary tendencies were widespread in the U.S., so in 1924 the National Origins Act, which banned all immigration from Asia, was implemented.

American Orientalism in the Asia-Pacific

A painting of Theodore Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, 1898. He is depicted at the front of the painting riding a horse while raising a sword, while other soldiers on horseback are following him.
Theodore Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, 1898. Credits: Britannica, https://www.britannica.com

The Spanish-American War of 1898 became a turning point in US history: Americans had acquired Pacific island possessions and became to be regarded as a major power in the Pacific- they now turned away from isolationism and were “concerned with maintaining some sort of balance of power in the region.”[28]

The development of the American cultural dimension in the Asia-Pacific region at that time was impressive: the end of the

An illustration of Wilson's portrait and his famous 14 points: 1) open diplomacy; 2) freedom of the seas; 3) removal of economic barriers; 4) reduction of armaments ; 5) adjustment of colonial claims; 6) conquered territories in Russia; 7) preservation of Belgian sovereignty; 8) restoration of French territory; 9) redrawing of Italian frontiers; 10)division of Austria-Hungary; 11) redrawing of Balkan boundaries; 12)limitations on Turkey; 13) establishment of an independent Poland; 14)creation of an Association of Nations. ;
Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.
Credits: ResearchGate, https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Woodrow-Wilsons-Fourteen-Points_fig3_270794061

The Great War was defined in 1918 by the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s vision presented in his Fourteen Points, which redefined the Western-espoused idealistic vision of the world.

Wilson, as himself “a resident of the city on a hill”[29], radiated the idea that the US was “the only society capable of creating social justice and genuine democracy at home and abroad.”[30]

The maintenance of international peace was believed to be grounded in the integration of collective security, cultural change and economic interdependence that would promote Westernized notions of democracy and human rights[31]. This notion would then emphasize that only “American universalistic values and reformist ideals would be used to transform world conditions.”[32]

However, the aforementioned absence of racial equality in American domestic and foreign relations has only made Wilsonian idealist Fourteen Points look hypocritical, thus prompting Japanese militarism in the region: Japanese “determination to get Westerners out of their region was Asia’s answer to American and (Western) racial injustice.”[33]

A photo of the engraving of the Four Freedoms (1) freedom of speech; 2) freedom of worship; 3) freedom from want; 4)freedom from fear) at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Engraving of the Four Freedoms at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. President F. D. Roosevelt delivered his speech 11 months before the surprise Japanese attack on U.S. forces in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and the Philippines that caused the United States to declare war on Japan, December 8, 1941. This speech was largely about the national security of the United States and the threat to other democracies from WWII that was being waged across the continents in the eastern hemisphere. In the speech, he made a break with the long-held tradition of American non-interventionism as he outlined the U.S. mission in helping allies already engaged in warfare. Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 thus prompted the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to alter the Wilsonian vision in his 1941 ‘four freedoms’ speech, which, besides human rights and self-determination, now included social justice and racial equality.[34]

When fears of global communist ‘infection’ and nuclear damnation grew much stronger after WWII, the importance of maintaining the global balance of power in American policy strategies has significantly outweighed American “readiness to come to grips with the profound social and cultural changes taking place in China, Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere.”[35]

A political cartoon depicting Uncle Sam and Russian Bear pinning different geographical territories on the map while staring each other in the eyes. This cartoon implies each superpower's expansion of their regional zones of influence during the Cold War to promote their respective ideologies and thus political and economic control.
Credits: Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.ca

In fact, during the Cold War, Asia was presented “as a contested terrain caught in the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union”[36] since it challenged American hegemony and the continued peace in this part of the world.

The Soviet Union’s and China’s backing in 1950 of the North Korean offensive on South Korea as well as the failure of American policy in China, which led to the rise in 1949 of a hostile Chinese Communist government and its alignment with the Soviet Union in the 1950 anti-U.S. pact, reinforced Americans to take the lead in ‘containing’ the Chinese and Soviet spread of the communist ‘infection’ in the Asia-Pacific.[37]

The U.S. thus started to regard the ‘uninfected’ Asian territories as “part of a global anti-Soviet coalition”[38], by investing billions of dollars and sacrificing “tens of thousands of [American] lives to uphold the ‘containment’ arrangement”[39]the region.

The war in Vietnam (1955-1975) was specifically fought for that purpose, “reflecting the primacy of strategic considerations in America’s approach to Asia.”[40].

American Orientalism in Vietnam

A political cartoon depicting a standing set of 7 dominos titled "Vietnam", "Laos", "Cambodia", "Thailand", "Burma", "India" and "Bangladesh", as "Vietnam" is being pushed by a VietCong soldier. On the other side of the domino another soldier (most likely an American one) is holding a "Bangladesh" domino in a standing position. This cartoon depicts a fear of a 'domino effect' of the spread of communism within the American regional spheres of influence, which could subsequently threaten its existence. ,
Credits: alphahistory, https://alphahistory.com

A photograph of a Vietnamese revolutionary and politician Hồ Chí Minh looking at the camera.
Hồ Chí Minh (1890-1969). He was a Vietnamese revolutionary and politician who served as Prime Minister of North Vietnam from 1945 to 1955 and President from 1945 until his death in 1969. Ideologically a Marxist–Leninist, he also served as Chairman and First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Vietnam. From 1941 onward, he was the one to lead the Việt Minh independence movement, subsequently establishing the Communist-ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ho_Chi_Minh

As American leadership was significantly challenged in Vietnam, when in 1954 the U.S.-backed French forces were defeated by the Chinese-backed Vietnamese Communists, the U.S. was forced to become the main backer of the noncommunist South Vietnam in order to prevent the occurrence of domino theory and the loss of its regional economic and political interests in the region.[41]

In fact, besides the possible Chinese regional dominance, Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh could possibly “become a successful model for Asian development”[42] and thus also a threat to the status quo of American regional hegemony.

The U.S. government thus backed the South Vietnamese government in its decision to cancel the 1955 elections, which were set to reunify North and South Vietnam, because they knew that “should fair elections take place Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh would win a landslide victory.”[43]

The possible defeat of the Vietnamese Communists could become an existential threat to the U.S., which explains why at that time the American Orientalist discourse had acquired its most radical and discriminatory turn.

Ngo Dinh Diem’s Administration

A photograph of a Vietnamese politician Ngô Đình Diệm looking away.
Ngô Đình Diệm (1901-1963). He was a Vietnamese politician and the final prime minister of the State of Vietnam (1954–55), as well as President of South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam) from 1955 until he was deposed and assassinated during the 1963 military coup following the 1963 “Buddhist crisis”. When his regime lost favour with the leadership of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the country’s leading generals launched a coup d’état. He initially escaped, but was recaptured the following day and assassinated on the orders of Dương Văn Minh, who succeeded him as president. Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ngo_Dinh_Diem

One of the reasons behind this popularity of the North Vietnamese government is the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem’s repressive and authoritarian governing style.[44]

However, since he was an Orientalist who has only validated and supported Western values, he was widely supported by the American government, which through rigged elections has placed him in power.[45]

Diem was educated in Catholic institutions and this made him extremely biased towards the Catholic elite and intolerant to other religions, including the most popular religion in Vietnam Buddhism.[46]

For instance, while the Roman Catholic Church was exempt from land reforms which targeted rural communities in Vietnam, the state funds were diverted to build elite Catholic universities and the whole country was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in 1959, Vietnamese Buddhists had to request official permission from the state to publicly conduct their religious activities or to even fly their religious flags.[47]

The initial protests against the religious discrimination which were led by Vietnamese Buddhist leaders were met with harsh resistance by the state’s special forces: holy sites were demolished, including the widely-admired statue of Gautama Buddha, dozens of civilians were murdered, 1,400 monks arrested and various poisonous chemicals were poured by the government forces over the heads of praying protestors.[48]

This even led to the establishment in South Vietnam of the Viet Cong- a popular insurgency, which has also received extensive support from the Viet Minh for their fight against religious intolerance.[49]

Despite the extensive financial and military aid provided by the U.S. in support of the South Vietnamese government, the strength of the Viet Cong was only growing, thus reflecting the unpopularity of the U.S.-initiated Oriental policies.

Indeed, “no amount of aid could [have] saved a corrupt and unpopular regime from collapse.”[50]

Reasons Behind the American Intervention in Vietnam

To prevent the seemingly inevitable outcome- that is, the ‘infection’ of South Vietnam with communism- the U.S. government chose to disregard Vietnamese rights to sovereignty and national dignity- the same values which Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt have aimed to promote in the world- and to undertake a full-scale military intervention in Vietnam in order to ‘save’ South Vietnamese from ‘evil’ communism.[51]

Therefore, it was the Orientalist perception of moral superiority which was widely espoused by Americans that has prompted them to intervene: their entry into Vietnam “had been the product not of a militarist psychosis but of a naïve idealism that wanted to set right all the world’s ills and believed American good will supplied its own efficacy.”[52]

A photo of a US Navy Destroyer at sea.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident is the name given to two separate confrontations involving North Vietnam and the United States in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. One US aircraft was damaged, one 14.5 mm round hit the destroyer USS Maddox, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats were damaged, and four North Vietnamese sailors were killed and six were wounded; there were no U.S. casualties. “The outcome of these two incidents was the passage in 1964 by Congress of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered to be jeopardized by “communist aggression.” The resolution served as Johnson’s legal justification for deploying U.S. conventional forces and the commencement of open warfare against North Vietnam.” Credits: Vietnam War, https://15tdaovietnamwar.weebly.com

As a pretext to militarily intervene in Vietnam, the U.S. has staged a naval incident in the Gulf of Tonkin which was blamed on the North Vietnamese who were accused of provoking aggression.[53]

This incident initiated the decade-long war in Vietnam in the course of which 3.8 million Vietnamese lost their lives.[54]

Since Americans believed that they were participating in “the universal struggle between freedom and slavery, lightness and dark”[55], they sought to employ more radical methods of fighting to crush the will of the ‘evil and dark’ Viet Minh. They turned to a strategy of attrition which meant “doing as much damage to Vietnamese resistance forces and their supporters [and Vietnamese civilians] as possible”[56] in order to artificially create conditions which would force them to surrender.

My Lai Massacre

A photo of the aftermath of the Mỹ Lai Massacre showing mostly women and children dead on a road. ."
“Photo taken by United States Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on 16 March 1968, in the aftermath of the Mỹ Lai Massacre showing mostly women and children dead on a road.” Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%E1%BB%B9_Lai_massacre

One of the most notorious events in the history of the Vietnam War was the 1968 My Lai Massacre.

When American soldiers approached the village, they killed without warning all villagers who were working in the rice fields and subsequently over 500 Vietnamese civilians who lived in My Lai: “men, women, young and infants were all massacred, while many women and young girls were gang raped.”[57] All dead bodies were then subsequently mutilated by American GIs.

This attack was “entirely unprovoked and no shots were fired at the U.S. soldiers.”[58]

A black-and-white photo of a Vietnamese woman being threatened with a pistol pushed against her temple.
On the morning of March 16, 1968, soldiers of Charlie Company, a unit of the Americal Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade arrived in My Lai village in the northern part of South Vietnam. “They were on a “search and destroy” mission to root out 48th Viet Cong Battalion thought to be in the area. The unit met no resistance in My Lai, which had about 700 inhabitants. Indeed, they saw no males of fighting age. They only found villagers eating breakfast. Nevertheless, over the next three hours they killed as many as 504 Vietnamese civilians. Some were lined up in a drainage ditch before being shot. The dead civilians included fifty age 3 or younger, 69 between 4 and 7, and 27 in their 70s or 80s. In addition, Vietnamese women were raped; other civilians were clubbed and stabbed. Some victims were mutilated with the signature “C Company” carved into the chest.” Credits: Digital History, https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu

The knowledge of this particular incident is so widespread because it was widely publicized in the media, while, it is clear that “massacres such as that at My Lai were in fact extremely frequent and the conduct of the soldiers was far from irregular”[59] and it was even encouraged by the U.S. military.[60]

Therefore, the My Lai Massacre was just “a microcosm of a wider phenomenon present throughout Western military interventions in the country and the wider region.”[61]

Orientalism’s Role in the Legitimization of Violence

These events, however, were also indicative of the way American GIs conducted themselves.

So, what has encouraged American soldiers to act the way they did?

Self-evidently, the Orientalist discourse of dehumanization played a major role in this legitimization and encouragement of the perpetuation of cruel crimes by American GIs against Vietnamese.

A theatre/movie poster of "Madame Butterfly". At the front of the poster a smiling white man is depicted hugging from behind an Asian woman dressed in a traditional Japanese outfit who submissively stares into his eyes.
“The Lotus Blossom is a term used to describe Asian women who are submissive, exotic, and faithful. In both films and television shows constructed Asian women as subservient, obsequious, and willing to sacrifice themselves for the pleasure of men catalysing the hypersexualization that is seen now on mainstream media. The most notable play to feature a Lotus Blossom character is in Madame Butterfly (1903), a story about a Japanese woman who falls in love with a white American soldier who promises to bring her to America. She kills herself when she realizes that he is married to another white woman. The Lotus Blossom has contributed to the perception that an Asian woman’s purpose to be there for the pleasure of white men.” Credits: Koi in the Fish Bowl, http://koiinthefishbowl.weebly.com

Tropical Asia was always presented by the West as a place for European pornographic fantasies, “with lurid descriptions of sexual license, promiscuity, gynecological aberrations, and general perversion marking the Otherness of the colonized for metropolitan consumption.”[62] In fact, Indochina was always seen by the ‘morally superior’ West as a “site of decadence and degradation that cultivated an amoral or immoral society.”[63] For this exact reason the U.S. military initiated the Operation MOOSE (Move Out Of Saigon Expeditiously), which declared the city off limits to the American GIs on leave for rest in order “to avoid the East’s corruption of the West’s soldiers.”[64]

Saigon was also often depicted as a feminine place “in need for guidance”[65] from the ‘morally advanced’ and civilized West. However, by the end of the war, due to the fact that the U.S. was defeated by the Viet Minh, which forced it to withdraw from the country, Saigon was compared to a prostitute- “a dying place, but she is dying like a whore who is desperately trying to turn her last trick.”[66]

To be sure, the cruelty of American actions can be explained by the fact that the U.S. military prescribed drugs “to help soldiers handle such pressures amid flagging morale”[67], as 28 percent of American GIs in Vietnam took hard drugs, such as heroin or amphetamine[68], however, the Orientalist discourse of dehumanization has played the most important role in facilitating violence.

A photograph of an American soldier's helmet that reads "Kill a Gook for God".
Credits: mere-gook rule, https://periodicallychanging.tumblr.com

In fact, the infamous ‘Mere Gook Rule’, which was widely employed by American soldiers, proclaimed that “it was no crime to kill or torture or rob or maim a Vietnamese because he was a mere gook.”[69]American soldiers were disallowed to call them Vietnamese and instead encouraged to label them “gooks, dinks, slants, slopes- anything to take away their humanity, anything to make it easier to kill them.”[70] Therefore, no one regarded Vietnamese people as people and this thus encouraged Americans to act in inhumane way themselves.[71]

It is thus not surprising why drugged Americans who regarded Vietnamese as subhumans did not see a problem at participating in ‘competitions’ to “rack up the highest body counts”[72] for prizes such as extra beer or a day-off.

These conditions have thus encouraged not only to kill Vietnamese but to also torture them. For instance, Vietnamese women were frequently “raped using bottles and rifles”[73]; there were many accounts by American GIs who “could rape the women, spread them open and drive pointed sticks or bayonets into their vaginas.”[74]

A photo depicting four ‘Ranch Hand’ C-123 aircraft spraying liquid Agent Orange defoliant in south Vietnam, September 1965.
A photo depicts four ‘Ranch Hand’ C-123 aircraft spraying liquid Agent Orange defoliant in south Vietnam, September 1965. Credits: The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com

The notorious use of chemical weapons, however, would scar Vietnam for generations.

During the Vietnam War, under the Operation Ranch Hand program, “around 75 million liters of chemical herbicides and defoliants”[75] were used, destroying over 30 million acres of farmland.[76] Chemicals were used for the purposes of the destruction of livelihoods of rural populations in order to deprive North Vietnamese soldiers of their support base.[77]

One of the defoliants, Agent Orange, contained TCDD, which is “the most poisonous form of dioxin which has been proven to cause cancer among other serious illnesses.”[78]Despite the official proclamations by the U.S. military that TCDD has no effects on humans, many American scientists attested that the U.S. knew how dangerous TCDD was, but since “the material was to be used on the enemy, none of [Americans] was overly concerned.”[79]

Therefore, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, which is responsible for substantial environmental contamination, genetic diseases and mutations which are passed down several generations by those who were exposed to it, was another tragic outcome stemming from the Orientalist discourse of dehumanization.

The Heterogeneity of Orientalism: The Policy of International Integration

However, it is important to understand that “Orientalism is a heterogeneous rather than a monolithic discourse, and that it takes multiple and often contradictory forms”[80] depending on the situation.

In fact, besides the Orientalist discourse of dehumanization, there is evidence that the U.S. has actually insisted on bridging the differences with noncommunist Asian countries by employing the international integration approach which should be considered as an equally integral part of the Orientalist discourse.

The U.S. government officials believed that the main American problem is grounded in its excess of individualism and the deficiency of bonding.[81] It was believed that the U.S. might lose the Cold War in Asia due to the fact that the U.S.S.R. with its “banner of racial equality”[82] looked ‘more attractive’ in the eyes of Asian decolonizing countries which might have thus eventually chosen to follow communism.[83] Therefore, as a Soviet statesman Khrushchev was funneling support to independence movements in Asia, it was required from Americans to also demonstrate “a deep and effective concern with the racial inequalities”[84] both at home and abroad in order to prevent the decolonizing world from turning toward the Soviet Union.[85]

The People-to-People Program

An image of the People to People Student Ambassador Program's logo. It is portrayed as a round circle with an image of the globe in the middle. Between the image of the globe and the circle there is an inscription that reads "People to People. Ambassador Programs".
The People to People Student Ambassador Program was a travel service founded in 1956, which offered domestic and international travel opportunities to middle and high school students (and later university students). “In 1956, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sought diplomatic alternatives to the wars he witnessed as a soldier, general and Allied Commander. On September 11, 1956, he called a White House conference of 100 top American leaders, who joined him in creating the People to People initiative, focused on creating cultural exchange programs.The idea for this conference came after a Geneva summit, where Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev expressed enthusiasm for exchange programs as a means to ease Cold War tensions.” Credits: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org

The establishment of the People-to-People program marked one of the U.S. President Eisenhower administration’s efforts “to cultivate public support for the foreign aid program and for Cold War internationalism in general.”[86]

It promoted both foreign and domestic education programs.

Abroad, it encouraged intellectual linkages across the borders through the dissemination of American values, culture and ideas to other countries in order to promote a closer positive contact between Americans and foreigners, which encouraged positive perceptions about the U.S. and thus helped to counter Soviet propaganda.[87]

At home, it aimed to instruct Americans on how to behave abroad in order to prevent the appearance of negative perceptions about the U.S. in foreign countries, as well as to encourage Americans “to feel personally involved in the task of international integration.”[88]

Thus, the People-to-People program helped to establish the global imaginary of integration “by insisting that vast differences among peoples could be bridged with relative ease.”[89] Sympathy- that is, “the ability to feel what other person feels, to share in his or her conditions and experiences”[90]– became crucial to forging American globalism.

Therefore, unlike the domestic policy of containment, the People-to-People program encouraged Americans to replace negative social practices, including “naming names”[91] and discriminating the Other, and to learn about other cultures and traditions.

The Paradox

A black-and-white photo of the anti-Vietnam War movement. At the front of the photo a young man holding a poster that reads "Vietnam for the Vietnamese. Let's Get Out!" is seen. .
Credits: American Experience, https://www.pbs.org/

This program, however, failed to secure an overwhelming public support, since its sentimental integration and the notion of racial tolerance it promoted has sharply contrasted with reality.[92]

The war in Vietnam was one of the first televised armed conflicts, bringing the battles directly into American living rooms. Thus, besides the great increase of American casualties and military conscription which have increased public dissent, the broadcasting of the 1965 Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam as well as the inhumane treatment of Vietnamese have sharply contrasted with American Orientalist discourse of international integration and the sympathetic understanding of the Other’s differences, thus leading to the establishment of the anti-Vietnam war movement.[93]

Most anti-war demonstrations followed the non-exclusionary policy and received widespread support from civil rights activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali.[94]

It is also interesting how this understanding of Other’s differences and sympathy with individual struggles, which stemmed from Orientalist discourse of international integration, has contributed to a drastic shift of American perception about wars: since 1970s the wars were portrayed “in terms of the personal experiences of U.S. participants rather than in impersonal and nationalistic terms.”[95]


The heterogeneity of the Orientalist discourse which arose during the Cold War has played a very significant role in both legitimizing and encouraging inhumane treatment of the Other as well as in bridging the differences between them and Americans.

However, instead of helping the U.S. to wage the war against communism, it has only undermined its efforts, as two Orientalist discourses were contradicting each other. This contradiction has thus fueled an antiwar movement throughout the country as well as a deep mistrust of the government.

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  • Abrams, A. B. “Vietnam’s Thirty Years of War.” In Power and Primacy: The History of Western Intervention in the Asia-Pacific, 171–205. Peter Lang, 2019.
  • Baritz, Loren. “God’s Country and American Know-How.” In The American Experience in Vietnam, edited by Grace Sevy, 5–16. University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  • Hall, Mitchell K. “The Vietnam Era Antiwar Movement.” OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 5 (October 2004): 13–17. https://www-jstor-org.
  • Keith, Jeffrey A. “Producing ‘Miss Saigon’: Imaginings, Realities, and the Sensual Geography of Saigon.” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 22 (2015): 243–72. https://www-jstor-org.
  • Klein, Christina. “Introduction.” In Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination,1945-1961, 1–17. University of California Press, 2003.
  • Klein, Christina. “Sentimental Education: Creating a Global Imaginary of Integration.” In Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961, 19–60. University of California Press, 2003.
  • Lachmann, Richard, and Lacy Mitchell. “The Changing Face of War in Textbooks: Depictions of World War II and Vietnam, 1970-2009.” Sociology of Education 87, no. 3 (July 2014): 188–203. https://search-proquest-com.
  • Saghaye-Biria , Hakimeh. “Decolonizing the ‘Universal’ Human Rights Regime: Questioning American Exceptionalism and Orientalism .” ReOrient 4, no. 1 (2018): 59–77.
  • Sutter, Robert G. “Historical Lessons and the Evolution of U.S. Relations with the Asia-Pacific.” In The United States in Asia, 1–37. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009.
  • “The Governor of California Tells of the ‘Japanese Problem’, 1920.” In Major Problems in American History Since 1865 2, 4th, 189-190. Cengage Learning, 2015.
  • Wilson, Woodrow. January 8, 1918. “President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points”. https://avalon.law.yale.edu.
  • Winthrop, John. 1630. “City upon a Hill”. https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/winthrop.htm.


[1] Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 (University of California Press, 2003), 6.

[2] Klein, Ibid, 11.

[3] Klein, Ibid, 9.

[4] Klein, Ibid, 42.

[5] Klein, Ibid, 43.

[6] Klein, Ibid, 23.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hakimeh Saghaye-Biria , “Decolonizing the ‘Universal’ Human Rights Regime: Questioning American Exceptionalism and Orientalism ,” ReOrient 4, no. 1 (2018): pp. 59-77, 64.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Loren Baritz, “God’s Country and American Know-How,” in The American Experience in Vietnam, ed. Grace Sevy (University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), pp. 5-16, 5.

[11] John Winthrop, 1630. “City upon a Hill”, https://www.mtholyoke.edu.

[12] Baritz, Ibid, 6.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Baritz, Ibid, 7.

[15] Baritz, Ibid, 10.

[16] Baritz, Ibid, 11.

[17] Baritz, Ibid, 10.

[18] Robert G. Sutter, “Historical Lessons and the Evolution of U.S. Relations with the Asia-Pacific,” in The United States in Asia (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009), pp. 1-37, 5.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Sutter, Ibid, 6.

[21] Sutter, Ibid, 7.

[22] Sutter, Ibid, 8.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “The Governor of California Tells of the ‘Japanese Problem’, 1920,” in Major Problems in American History Since 1865 2, 4th ed., 189-190. Cengage Learning, 2015, 189.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “The Governor of California Tells of the ‘Japanese Problem’, 1920”, Ibid, 190.

[28] Sutter, Ibid, 9.

[29] Baritz, Ibid, 12.

[30] Baritz, Ibid, 15.

[31] Woodrow Wilson, January 8, 1918. “President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points”,  https://avalon.law.yale.edu.

[32] Sutter, Ibid, 10.

[33] Sutter, Ibid, 11.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Sutter, Ibid, 13.

[36] Klein, Ibid, 10.

[37] Sutter, Ibid, 3.

[38] Sutter, Ibid, 13.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Sutter, Ibid, 3.

[42] A. B. Abrams, “Vietnam’s Thirty Years of War,” in Power and Primacy: The History of Western Intervention in the Asia-Pacific (Peter Lang, 2019), pp. 171-200, 176.

[43] Abrams, Ibid, 178.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Abrams, Ibid, 179.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Abrams, Ibid, 180.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Baritz, Ibid, 14.

[53] Abrams, Ibid, 180.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Baritz, Ibid, 15.

[56] Abrams, Ibid, 180.

[57] Abrams, Ibid, 181.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Abrams, Ibid, 183.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Abrams, Ibid, 186.

[62] Jeffrey A. Keith, “Producing ‘Miss Saigon’: Imaginings, Realities, and the Sensual Geography of Saigon,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 22 (2015): pp. 243-272, https://www-jstor-org, 249.

[63] Keith, Ibid, 250.

[64] Keith, Ibid, 263.

[65] Keith, Ibid, 249.

[66] Keith, Ibid, 267.

[67] Abrams, Ibid, 187.

[68] Abrams, Ibid, 186.

[69] Abrams, Ibid, 188.

[70] Abrams, Ibid, 190.

[71] Abrams, Ibid, 188.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Abrams, Ibid, 190.

[74] Abrams, Ibid, 191.

[75] Abrams, Ibid, 192.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Abrams, Ibid, 195.

[79] Abrams, Ibid, 196.

[80] Klein, Ibid, 15.

[81] Klein, Ibid, 42.

[82] Klein, Ibid, 43.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Klein, Ibid, 44.

[86] Klein, Ibid, 49.

[87] Klein, Ibid, 50.

[88] Klein, Ibid, 51.

[89] Klein, Ibid, 52.

[90] Klein, Ibid, 53.

[91] Klein, Ibid, 55.

[92] Klein, Ibid, 57.

[93] Mitchell K. Hall, “The Vietnam Era Antiwar Movement ,” OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 5 (October 2004): pp. 13-17, https://www-jstor-org, 14.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Richard Lachmann and Lacy Mitchell, “The Changing Face of War in Textbooks: Depictions of World War II and Vietnam, 1970-2009,” Sociology of Education 87, no. 3 (July 2014): p. 188-203, https://search-proquest-com, 200.

2 thoughts on “History of American Orientalism and the Vietnam War

  1. So well researched, organized and presented! Learnt a lot Nataliya, thank you! 🙂

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