Aug 31, 1985
Ten years ago last April, a 30-year war ended in Viet Nam. It was U.S. imperialism which was vanquished. When the U.S. forces left Viet Nam, they didn’t leave with brass bands, speeches and cheering crowds. The most powerful imperialist power in the world was forced to scramble out ignominiously. The attack helicopters and planes which had for years patrolled and terrorized the Vietnamese population were stuffed with fleeing embassy and CIA officials, the last of the U.S. troops, and 40,000 Vietnamese too compromised by their collaboration with the U.S. to remain. Some of the desperate U.S. allies dangled from the overloaded helicopters and fell to their deaths on the streets below. Once the helicopters delivered their charge, there was no place to leave them, and many were simply dumped into the sea.
So ended the U.S. side of the war. The powerful U.S. military machine smashed up against a country of very poor people, what Henry Kissinger bitterly dubbed a “fourth rate power.” Yet, the U.S. military machine, a product of the most powerful country in the world, was not able to defeat Viet Nam. What did it mean that such a small country could defeat such a much larger one? How could it have overcome such seemingly overwhelming odds? What were the forces the Vietnamese faced, and how did they overcome them?
The movement for Vietnamese liberation dates back to the mid 1920s. At that time, Viet Nam was a colony of France, and the revolts started as revolts against French colonial rule. Throughout the years of the late 1920s through 1954, France was desperately trying to hold onto its colonial empire in Southeast Asia. This hold was interrupted by World War II, and the Japanese occupation of Viet Nam. But Japanese defeat meant only that more vultures descended on Viet Nam. The South was occupied by British troops, while 150,000 soldiers of Chiang Kai-shek occupied the North of the country. The French quickly began to send troops in order to reclaim their old colony. By 1946, they launched a war against the nationalists that would climax with France sending in an armed force of 400,000 troops.
It took over seven years of war for the Vietnamese to defeat the French army. The war climaxed with the Vietnamese siege of the French fort at Dien Bien Phu, a siege which forced the French garrison finally to surrender.
The peace negotiated in Geneva served only as an intermission between two wars. France, exhausted by the war, with other wars starting up in its North African colonies of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, relinquished Viet Nam. But the U.S. government had other plans. The U.S. had already covered over four billion of the 7.5 billion dollar cost of the war. In Geneva, the Viet Minh, the organization which had fought the French, agreed for Viet Nam to be split “temporarily” into two countries. The nationalists took control of the North. The U.S., which didn’t want to see the whole country under the authority of the “Communists”, and therefore wanted to prevent the reunification, tried to build up a pro-American regime in the South. Under Diem, a huge police state was set up. By the late 1950s, almost half a million people in South Viet Nam were arrested, another 68,000 executed. The toll was especially hard on the Communist Party, which went from an estimated 60,000 members to under 5,000 in five years, the others killed, imprisoned or forced to take refuge in the North.
Diem left the nationalists no choice but to fight. In 1959, the C.P. began to mobilize to fight against the South Vietnamese government. They called on the population to support this fight. The Second Indochina War was gearing up.
The nationalists’ fight very quickly began to threaten the existence of the Diem regime, which, while supported by the U.S., had an extremely narrow base in the population. And so the U.S. also began to beef up its own forces. Under Kennedy, the number of U.S. “advisers” went from 875 to 16,000 by the end of 1963. By the end of 1965, U.S. troop strength had jumped to 180,000; three years later it peaked at 543,000. All together, three million U.S. soldiers served in Viet Nam.
The U.S. supplemented these troops with the heaviest use of fire power in the history of warfare. Air Force General, and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Curtis LeMay said, the U.S. “should bomb them into the Stone Age.” It was what the U.S. tried to do. Fourteen million tons of bombs and munitions were dropped on Indochina. This was equal to more than three times the number of bombs dropped during World War II and Korea. The U.S. dropped the equivalent of one 500 pound bomb for each person in Viet Nam. The U.S. also used 400,000 tons of napalm. And it sprayed 5.2 million acres of farmlands and forests with 1.7 million tons of defoliants, destroying 40 per cent of the farmlands and forests. In some provinces of the country, as one Vietnamese described, “Fires were raging day and night, month after month.... Bombs and chemicals destroyed all human life, all vegetables, even the grass.”
While on the one hand, it looked like the forces of imperialism had all the numbers on their side, the Vietnamese movement serves as proof that a movement of a population can possess certain advantages over even the most modern and powerful of armies. The Vietnamese nationalists were able to carry out the war against such a force because they succeeded in winning the support of and mobilizing a big section of the population. This support was built up through 30 years of struggle, from the fight against French colonialism before World War II, against the Japanese, against the French again, and finally against the biggest, most implacable enemy, U.S. imperialism.
By the time of the war in the 1960s, it was not unusual to see people of successive generations fight side by side. The grandparents, who had stood up against the French colonialists, cut stakes for booby traps. The parents, who fought in the First Resistance, now took part in the Second. Their children and grandchildren ran errands for the fighters. Every villager had a personal debt to settle with U.S. imperialism.
French and then U.S. imperialism sent what seemed like very large and powerful armies to put down the struggle. But these armies were very small compared to the total Vietnamese population. Although the guerrilla armies were smaller than the U.S. army, the U.S. army was in a country where it had no base of support. It had to be maintained from the outside. On the other hand, the guerrilla army was a product of a vast section of the Vietnamese population.
The population was determined to kick out the occupying forces. All imperialism could do was use its overwhelming power to try to kill, discourage and demoralize the population. During the quiet times, for example, during the early years when Diem’s repression seemed almost to wipe out all resistance, this strategy seemed to work. But the movement would start up again, in scattered revolts. And these revolts encouraged further uprisings, as well as the growth and recruitment of the guerrilla forces.
Once determined to fight, the population, no matter how poor, or how apparently outgunned, had resources which allowed them to turn imperialism’s strength against itself, or which at least allowed them to neutralize many of imperialism’s strengths. Of course, the Vietnamese had to pay an enormous price. Their casualties were much higher than those of the U.S. forces. But they were able to absorb those casualties and still win.
The U.S. forces could make enormous sweeps of a region, day after day. But they wouldn’t meet any guerrilla forces. The guerrillas would melt back into the countryside. They were sheltered and supported by the population. On the other hand, the occupying forces, although heavily guarded, were still open targets for all to see. And these open targets were relatively easy for forces which blended with the population to attack.
Imperialism had far superior weapons. But the more weapons the U.S. army used, the more that fell into the hands of the guerrillas. The Vietnamese began their war with the French following World War II by capturing large arsenals of French weapons. Most of the subsequent fighting was carried out using imperialism’s own arms against it. Many of these arms came from the Vietnamese forces that imperialism used. Among these troops there was always a very high desertion rate. And often their weapons fell into the hands of the guerrillas. These weapons were supplemented by a huge arsenal of homemade weapons.
U.S. imperialism relied on its control of the sky to carry out its bombardments, to carry out strafing in support of its troops, to use helicopters to ferry troops quickly back and forth to battle. Against this, the Vietnamese tunneled underground. Tunnels allowed the population and guerrillas to withstand the bombings, and it enabled unseen movements of the guerrillas. The tunnels depended on the determination of the population, who constructed them with their bare hands. Eight hours of labor usually resulted in an average of one meter of tunnel.
To give an idea of what these tunnels were – in some areas, the tunnels went from very simple to more and more elaborate constructions. People excavated multistoried tunnels. To combat smoke and gases, the tunnels were made to zig-zag with air-tight rooms. They became underground villages with combat positions and spike pits, as well as shelters for cattle, poultry and food reserves. In one area northwest of Saigon, known as the Iron Triangle, there was a network of about 200 kilometers of tunnels and trenches. They sometimes reached a depth of 36 feet. U.S. GI’s referred to these tunnels as the New York City subway system.
Despite the enemy raids, the smoking charred ruins, the carcasses of field animals littering the fields, the rice fields which became useless because they were strewn with bomb splinters and shells, the Vietnamese tenaciously held onto their fields. At night people would emerge, covering themselves with straw to work. During the day, they camouflaged themselves by smearing their bodies with mud. When a plane passed overhead, they would stay motionless or take shelter in trenches. Anti-aircraft groups were posted while others worked. The people had to take advantage of every lull in the fighting to farm their land.
The turning point of the war came in 1968. The Vietnamese carried out an offensive during the Tet New Year in 1968. It was a coordinated, full-force attack on 36 of 44 provincial capitals, and 65 district capitals, and many military bases. The old, imperial capital of Hue fell. A guerrilla force even managed to take over temporarily the U.S. embassy in Saigon and hang the NLF flag. In the fighting the NLF lost almost half its guerrilla forces.
But the Tet offensive forced the U.S. government to realize that it was waging a war in which it had an entire population arrayed against it. The war which the U.S. was waging had not done what the U.S. intended. There was “no light at the end of the tunnel.” On the contrary, Tet proved that the NLF had the support not only of the peasants, but also a large part of the urban population, since most of the fighting was carried out in the cities. When the U.S. policy-makers measured the U.S. forces against the NLF, supported by an entire population, they decided it was too costly to pursue the military escalation.
The period that followed the Tet offensive proved to be the beginning of the extremely slow de-escalation of the war. Five years after Tet, in 1973, the U.S. finally signed an agreement with North Viet Nam, that provided for the complete withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. Two years after that, the South Vietnamese government fell, and the endless war of 30 years was over. Imperialism had finally been pushed out. Viet Nam was free, and it soon was united into one country.
Today, ten years after the war, what is the situation in Viet Nam? In fact, although Viet Nam is free and independent, it is a country that is extremely poor, among the 20 poorest countries in the world. There is still rice rationing. The country still does not grow enough food to feed itself. The growth rate of industrial production remains extremely depressed.
The price paid for 30 years of war was enormous. U.S. imperialism continued to destroy the people and the country after it decided to pull out. Bombing never really let up until the U.S. withdrew in 1973. The U.S. was clearly trying to punish the people of Viet Nam for their revolt, and turn their fight and victory into a negative example.
U.S. imperialism left with the country almost totally destroyed. Almost two million people had been killed in the war with the U.S. In North Viet Nam all bridges, roads and industries had been destroyed by the bombing. Agricultural production was destroyed. Electrical power plants were destroyed, so all irrigation had to be done manually. North Viet Nam’s level of production sank to the level of 20 years before, that is, the period following the war of the French – with this difference: the population was much larger than 20 years before.
In the South, things were even more serious. Nine thousand of the 15,000 hamlets had been all or partially destroyed. 25 million acres of land and 12.5 million acres of forestland were destroyed. There were 26 million bomb craters and an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 tons of unexploded ordinance. There were 12 million refugees, and three million unemployed. All this in a population of about 20 million people.
After the war, although imperialism was pushed out of Viet Nam, it still made its presence felt from outside the country. And in fact, it has never left Viet Nam alone. It has tried to find the way to continue its war against Viet Nam, through other means, through other countries.
In 1972, before it left Viet Nam, the U.S. changed its stance toward China. The new policy, detente, meant that while the bombs were dropping on Viet Nam, Nixon was being entertained by Mao. The leadership of Viet Nam protested that this was a policy of war against it, and people in the underdeveloped countries. They were right. After the U.S. left Southeast Asia, it encouraged a fight between competing nationalist interests. The new Kampuchean regime of Pol Pot, with its own internal problems, moved against Viet Nam, in order to gather national support for itself. Instead, the superior Vietnamese army not only beat back the Kampuchean attacks, but invaded the country and put in a regime friendly to Viet Nam. China then invaded Viet Nam in order to check Vietnamese influence in the region. The Chinese army destroyed the only section of the North that had not been destroyed by U.S. bombing. The U.S. then took advantage of that war to proclaim an economic embargo of the country. Since then, Viet Nam has been bogged down in a fight against the Kampuchean guerrillas sponsored by China and the U.S. It is forced to keep 160,000 troops in Kampuchea and 200,000 troops on its Chinese border. Soon, perhaps, Viet Nam may also have to fight a war against Thailand. It is no wonder that Viet Nam is burdened with maintaining the fourth largest army in the world.
Ten years after the war, Viet Nam has not been able to offset the consequences of the war. In comparison, ten years after World War II, the imperialist countries of Western Europe had rebuilt themselves, and were developing at a higher economic level than they were before the war. These countries – Germany, France, England – had all the riches of the world at their disposal to rebuild themselves. But Viet Nam has been stripped of its wealth by imperialism, it is isolated, and it is under attack. All of this means that Viet Nam has no way out of its misery, no way out of its underdevelopment, no way out of continuing to pay for the war.
Viet Nam is the illustration of the impasse of nationalism. Today it is impossible for Viet Nam to be able to emerge from its poverty and underdevelopment. Its wealth has been stolen for centuries by imperialism. Today, this wealth is in Europe and North America, not available for the Vietnamese to use to rebuild their country.
The only solution for the Vietnamese people would have been the overthrow of imperialism and the establishment of a new world order. For the Vietnamese, this kind of fight would not have been any harder, it would not have meant any further sacrifices. It would only have had a different aim. At worst – Viet Nam would have been left the way it is today – isolated.
But this was not the program of the Vietnamese leadership. They claimed to be communist. They were characterized as communist by the imperialist governments, mainly because of their links with the USSR. But in fact, their program was simply that of nationalism, and no more. In the Eight Plenum of the Communist Party in 1941, its goal was made clear:
“The problem of the class struggle will continue to exist. But in the present stage, nation is above all; thus all demands of Party which would be beneficial to a particular class but would be harmful to the nation should be postponed.... [Therefore, even] landlords, rich peasants, native bourgeoisie... with the few exceptions of a few running dogs who flatter and fawn on the Japanese enemy... can become the reserve army of the revolution.”
It was a policy which corresponded to what the Vietnamese Communist Party called the national democratic revolution. The goal of this revolution was reiterated in the NLF program, written in 1960, as the war against Diem was heating up. That goal was to get rid of U.S. imperialism in Viet Nam and to throw out its Vietnamese lackey, and form a “broad and progressive democracy.”
In other words, the goals of the revolution were simply to build a national state, independent of imperialism. The Vietnamese revolution was on the same basis as the bourgeois revolutions in the imperialist countries two centuries before.
On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Viet Nam an independent country; the new Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, opened with a passage from the American Declaration of Independence. Ho added that “all the people on the earth are equal from birth, all the people have a right to live happy and free,” and then he quoted from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen drawn up in 1791 in the midst of the French Revolution. He then concluded, “Viet Nam has the right to enjoy freedom and independence and in fact has become a free and independent country.”
At every stage in the war, Viet Nam nationalists showed that they were ready to compromise with imperialism, they were ready to accept the presence of and live in peace with imperialism, certainly in the rest of the world, and sometimes even in Viet Nam.
In his negotiations with France in 1945, in return for the French granting of at least formal independence, Ho was ready to agree that Viet Nam should remain in a broad French economic union.
Again in 1954, after the decisive Vietnamese victory over France, the communists still negotiated away the South of the country to imperialism in the Geneva Accords. And Ho Chi Minh the victor still bent over backwards to accommodate imperialism. After the Geneva Accords, Ho wrote, “we are resolved to respect and implement the Armistice Agreement entered into with France. We shall protect French economic and cultural interests in Viet Nam. We are ready to resume negotiations with the French government to re-establish good relations with France on the basis of mutual benefit.”
The same assurances were made to the U.S. throughout the whole war. It was the U.S. which refused to accept them. It was the U.S. as France before it, which refused any compromise and thus launched its war against the Vietnamese.
Even when it would have been possible to spread the fight beyond the border of Viet Nam, unite the fights of the Vietnamese with the fights of those in the rest of the world, and even attempt to bring their fight against imperialism into the imperialist countries themselves, the nationalist leaders never considered it. They consciously turned their back on any fight of the oppressed beyond the borders of Viet Nam.
During the 30 years of the Viet Nam war, there were a whole series of struggles that took place in the underdeveloped and imperialist countries. Revolts shook such underdeveloped countries as China, India, Korea, Bolivia, Algeria, Kenya, Cuba, Lebanon, Angola, Mozambique, Djibuti. Viet Nam, whose struggle was among the longest and hardest, having fought against three imperialist powers, certainly had earned a tremendous moral authority in all these countries. It is why Che Guevara called for “One, two, three, many Viet Nams.” Yet, the Vietnamese nationalists did not try to use their authority to coordinate those struggles to direct them to destroy their imperialist oppressors.
A possibility also existed for the Vietnamese to join with the struggle of the working and oppressed classes in the imperialist countries themselves, and even to give them a revolutionary impulse. In 1945, the French bourgeoisie, weakened and at least partially discredited by its Vichy government, tried not only to re-establish its rule in Viet Nam, but in France as well. The French bourgeoisie was in the process of disarming those workers who had participated in the resistance. It had, above all, to impose sacrifices to reconstruct the economy so the French capitalists could continue to make their profits – and to fight new colonial wars. The Vietnamese could have appealed to the French workers above the heads of their leaders. Instead Ho Chi Minh addressed the heads of the C.P. and S.P. in 1945, calling for a free Viet Nam, that is for French imperialism to conduct a different policy:
“I can assure you that if France agrees to recognize independence of Viet Nam, the Vietnamese people will be very much in accord with France. If not, the Vietnamese people are determined to bleed until the last drop of blood....
“I ask that you leaders of democratic and progressive parties give your attention to the above matter, in order to direct policy into a path in accord with the ideal of liberty, equality, fraternity, and the mutual interests of Viet Nam and France.”
And so Ho Chi Minh called on the French workers to push for a different policy of their exploiters’ government, but not to make a fight along with the Vietnamese, against their common exploiters.
In the 1960s, the Vietnamese war became the rallying point in most of the imperialist countries. It was over the war that student movements in not only the U.S., but in France, Germany, Japan and Italy started up. It was looked on as the beacon for people fighting everywhere.
In the U.S. the war against Viet Nam occurred while black people were fighting in the streets of U.S. cities. And the two fights impacted on each other. In 1968, when the Johnson administration was faced with the choice of what policy to pursue, after the Tet offensive it chose not to continue the pace of the military escalation. The Pentagon Papers gave as the reason: “This growing dissatisfaction accompanied as it certainly will be, by increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities because of the belief that we are neglecting domestic problems, runs great risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” Imperialism, with big problems at home, was not completely free to carry out its policy overseas.
Both the black revolt, and the revulsion against the war infected the U.S. army. By the late 1960s, the U.S. army was becoming more and more unusable. Incidents of killing of officers by their own troops, as well as incidents of insubordination and desertion, skyrocketed to their highest levels in U.S. history. There were incidents of mutiny. Troops refused to go into battle. More frequent, even typical, were negotiated agreements to undertake “search and evade” operations.
The question was where would this revolt lead? Among many black GI’s there was a pervasive attitude. Wallace Terry, a reporter for Time Magazine, did a six-month study of these attitudes. Terry quoted black GI’s saying, “Give it (Viet Nam) to them. If the cracker wants to stay here and fight, let him. If they kick his ass, too damned bad. It’s about time somebody did.” Most black GI’s believed that their knowledge of weapons would be useful when they got home.
“Half the brothers over here can build their own weapons. They are going back ready for anything.” “There’s going to be more violence back in the world because we’re going back. Hell yes, I’d riot. If they’re kicking crackers’ asses, I’m going to get in and kick a few myself. I’m just doing what my grandfather wanted to do and couldn’t.” “I say start a revolution.” “Riots are good. It makes people wonder what’s going on, and they come in and check it out.”
The black movement started before the U.S. went to war in Viet Nam. But the war, as wars tend to do, heightened and sharpened the contradictions of the society. The Vietnamese could have tried to rely on these contradictions to find allies in the U.S. itself and maybe to help start a revolutionary fight in the heart of imperialism. But they chose not to.
The policy led by the Vietnamese was exactly characterized by a New Year’s greeting Ho Chi Minh sent to the people of the United States in 1968. He wrote:
“As you all know, no Vietnamese has ever come to make trouble in the U.S. Yet half a million U.S. troops have been sent to South Viet Nam, who together with over 700,000 puppet and satellite troops, are daily massacring the Vietnamese people....
“In a word the U.S. aggressors have not only committed crimes against Viet Nam, they have also invested U.S. lives and riches and stained the honor of the U.S.
“Friends in struggling hard to make the U.S. government stop its aggression in Viet Nam, you are defending justice at the same time, you are giving us support.”
However, the question wasn’t simply one of support in other countries, as important as that support was. The main problem was to find the way to destroy imperialism. And this problem was never posed by the Vietnamese leaders.
So the result of the gigantic fight that the Vietnamese people led, of the immense efforts and sacrifices of millions of peasants and workers was finally to have ended up in a dead end. Perhaps they are, so far, free of imperialism. But their country is the very image of poverty and underdevelopment, along with the bureaucracy and political dictatorship that always accompanies underdevelopment. Because of the nationalist political leadership, despite 50 years of struggle, Viet Nam is just another underdeveloped country among over a hundred others on this earth.