The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Thirty years ago, the Viet Nam war ended

May 2, 2005

On April 30th, 1975, Saigon fell. The 20-year war between Viet Nam and the United States had come to an end. What was left of South Viet Nam's army surrendered and U.S. helicopters airlifted the last U.S. officials and their Vietnamese puppets off the roof of the U.S. embassy.

The Vietnamese had already been fighting for their independence long before the U.S. entered the war. France had originally sent its navy to Viet Nam in the 1860s to ensure a supply of rubber for France's industries. Viet Nam also had rice and coal, mostly sold to China at a fat profit to the French, who ruled the colony. Not only were the Vietnamese prevented from governing their own country, under the French, the vast majority of the population was kept illiterate and impoverished.

In the 1920s, the Vietnamese organized major resistance movements to French colonization. These movements continued during World War II against Japan. The Japanese wanted the Vietnamese rubber, rice and coal for their war effort.

With the end of the war, the Vietnamese independence forces expected an end to foreign occupation. The French instead came back, trying to hold onto Viet Nam as a colony. So the Vietnamese began a new war to drive the French out. This lasted another nine years until the underfed, poorly armed Vietnamese peasant army defeated the French on May 8, 1954, after the battle at Dien Bien Phu.

Much of the French effort to hold onto Viet Nam was bankrolled by the U.S. With the defeat of the French, the U.S. tried to step in to stop the Vietnamese. First, in the Geneva negotiations, the U.S. got the Vietnamese to accept dividing the country into two parts, North and South, with the provision that the country would be united in elections in 1956.

It was widely conceded that Ho Chi Minh, one of the leaders of the Vietnamese struggle, would have been elected, if the elections had been held.

The U.S. then abrogated the election in the southern part of Viet Nam and propped up one puppet government after another in Saigon. But this repressive corrupt dictatorship soon provoked a new movement of resistance in the South. To stem the movement, U.S. troops began to flow into Viet Nam, slowly at first. From 1962, when there were 12,000 U.S. troops in the country, the force grew to 23,000 by the end of 1964; then took a big jump to 185,000 by the end of 1965. By 1968, the U.S. had half a million troops in Viet Nam and hundreds of body bags with dead young men coming back to the U.S. every month.

During this same time, the U.S. saw an explosion of protest inside its own borders with the radicalization among the black population, which had been fighting for its own rights for several decades. Their fight had an impact on the troops in Viet Nam.

As in every war, working class and poor youth did more of the fighting and dying than richer youth, who were able to avoid the war by staying in college and then entering the National Guard, which during the Viet Nam War was not used in combat. This created anger among the U.S. troops. The war had become unpopular enough that some officers were dying in "fragging" incidents, that is, death from hand grenades deliberately thrown by their own dissatisfied troops. U.S. army commanders had to worry about the reliability of their own troops in combat.

On the college campuses of this country, the anti-war debates increased the atmosphere of protest. Demonstrators filled the streets. Then came the riots sweeping through almost every big city and many small ones. The black population shook the government's resolve.

All this weighed on the decision at the highest reaches of government to deny General Westmoreland's request for more troops at the end of 1968.

In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon won the election with the promise that he had a secret plan to end the war. But he and his henchman Kissinger at the so-called peace talks would maneuver for another seven years before conceding defeat.

To a French general, Ho Chi Minh had once said, "You can kill ten of my men for every one of yours I kill. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win."

Ho Chi Minh turned out to be right, not just against the French, but against the U.S., too. But the U.S. made the Vietnamese pay a staggering price to serve as an example of U.S. power, that is, of what the U.S. would do to any people who dared to defy them. Not counting casualties from the earlier decades of warfare against Japan and France, a million Vietnamese fighters were estimated to have died in the war with the United States, and another million Vietnamese were civilian casualties of U.S. bombings or of the brutalities of the South Vietnamese army. The U.S. not only dropped more tonnage of bombs on this one country (half the size of Texas) than all the tonnage dropped by all the Allied forces in World War II; in addition, the country was devastated by chemical warfare.

A chemical defoliant known as Agent Orange stripped away trees and vegetation to let U.S. bombers obtain a better view of their targets, and to destroy agricultural production. A primarily agricultural country, Viet Nam required a generation to overcome the gross effects of war on growing crops. Even worse, the generation of babies born after the war had a high rate of deformities due to their parents' contact with Agent Orange.

Any number of factors determine the outcome of war. For Viet Nam, the most important was the determination of an entire population to overcome an enormously powerful foe, the U.S.

The most powerful and wealthiest imperialism ever seen was unable to defeat a relatively small agricultural country that had already been decimated by years of war. This fact made the U.S. withdrawal a defeat for imperialism.