May 25, 2015
U.S. troops, civilian officials and Vietnamese allies fleeing in panic, some even desperately dangling from the last U.S. helicopters leaving Viet Nam, only to fall to their deaths. These are the images that symbolize the end of the U.S. war on Viet Nam 40 years ago. Images that showed how the “superpower” U.S. was not invincible, how it was possible for a relatively small country to beat a big imperialist power.
This defeat of U.S. imperialism was, first and foremost, a result of the fight waged by Viet Nam. But social movements in the U.S., and especially the Black Movement, which spread not only among black workers back home but black soldiers on the front as well, played a decisive role in ending the war and in its outcome.
For the U.S. ruling class, the Viet Nam war, halfway around the world, was part of its effort to control and dominate more parts of the world. But for the Vietnamese, it was not only a war they couldn’t escape, but part of a long struggle for national independence.
Before the U.S. entered this war, the Vietnamese had already been fighting other invading and colonizing powers, namely France and Japan, for decades. With the withdrawal of Japanese troops at the end of World War II, the National Liberation Front (NLF), which had led the fight against the Japanese occupiers, was poised to lead the country into independence. But instead, the old colonial power, France, sent troops to take control of the country again – with the help of the U.S., Britain and even its World War II enemy, Japan. The NLF fought back and, by 1954, it had effectively expelled the French military from Viet Nam.
But imperialist powers had no intention of leaving Viet Nam alone. Elections, which were certain to bring the NLF to power, were pre-empted by a military dictatorship in the South that was supported by the U.S. Like Korea a few years earlier, Viet Nam was divided into two hostile states: North Viet Nam, led by the NLF, and South Viet Nam, led by a military regime tied to the U.S.
In 1954, President Eisenhower explained the U.S. policy in Viet Nam with the “domino principle”: if Viet Nam “fell,” other countries in the area and around the world would follow. The U.S. had gotten involved in Viet Nam, paying four billion dollars of the 7.5 billion dollars in total costs for the French war effort. The U.S. contribution reached 80% by 1954.
After the expulsion of France, the U.S. began to send troops to Viet Nam also, to help the dictatorship in the South to crush an insurgency led by the NLF. During Kennedy’s presidency (1961–63), the number of U.S. military “advisers” went from 875 to 16,000. By the end of 1965, there were 180,000 U.S. troops in Viet Nam; three years later the U.S. troop presence peaked at 543,000. All together, three million U.S. troops served in Viet Nam.
The guerrilla armies fighting the U.S. army in the South may have been relatively small, but they were able to rely on a relatively large support network, organized by the NLF. When the U.S. army swept large areas to wipe out the guerrillas, it couldn’t find any; they would have blended in the population. When the U.S. increased bombardment from the sky, the guerrillas went underground: the NLF had enough people to dig miles and miles of tunnels. Some tunnel networks were so elaborate that American soldiers called them “the New York City subway system.”
The year 1968 proved a turning point in the war. The NLF carried out a massive offensive known as the Tet Offensive, named after the Tet New Year in January. It was a bold, coordinated attack on 36 of 44 provincial capitals and 65 district capitals in South Viet Nam. The old imperial capital of Hue fell. NFL forces even briefly took over the U.S. embassy in Saigon, the capital of South Viet Nam.
Eventually U.S. forces took back the embassy and also stopped the offensive – and the NLF lost almost half of its guerrilla forces. But the NLF had scored a huge moral victory, by showing that it was strong enough in the South, not only in the countryside but also in the cities, to prevent the U.S. from winning the war militarily.
It was then that the U.S. decided to gradually pull out of Viet Nam – even though it took seven more years to complete the pullout.
In 1971, the New York Times published secret government documents leaked by Daniel Ellsberg. The Pentagon Papers, as the documents came to be known, revealed, among other things, the role of social movements in the U.S. in ending the Viet Nam war.
After the Tet Offensive, the military high command asked the government for 200,000 more troops in addition to the 525,000 already there. On the request of President Johnson, the Pentagon studied the situation and advised against it. The Pentagon report pointed to domestic opposition against the war: “This growing disaffection 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.”
The words “growing unrest in the cities” no doubt referred to the dozens of uprisings by black people in American cities between 1963 and 1967. These uprisings were the culmination of the massive mobilization of the black population against the deeply entrenched, institutionalized racism in American society. Faced with this big problem at home, U.S. imperialism was not free to carry out its wars overseas.
The black revolt also penetrated the military. Many U.S. troops had already been resisting the war effort through insubordination, desertion and sometimes mutiny. But the defiance of black soldiers had another dimension – they had no desire to fight a war for the U.S. ruling class abroad, when they saw the same ruling class being responsible for the poverty of the black population, and the racism against it, at home. Most incidents of “fragging,” throwing fragmentation bombs on officers who were ordering soldiers into combat, came from black soldiers. When the U.S. military ended the draft at the end of the Viet Nam war, one reason for it certainly was that the generals wanted an army they could control.
Forced to accept defeat, U.S. imperialism nonetheless was determined to punish the NLF and make an example of it. In fact, the U.S. had begun the systematic bombardment of North Viet Nam as early as in February 1964. It turned into the heaviest air bombardment the world had seen. Fourteen million tons of bombs – three times more than the amount dropped during the entire World War II, were dropped on Viet Nam and neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The U.S. also dropped 400,000 tons of napalm and 1.7 million tons of highly toxic chemicals, such as the notorious “Agent Orange,” on the countryside – for the genocidal purpose of destroying agricultural land, forests, animals and, ultimately, the people.
To U.S. officials, this butchery had no limits and some of them were quite frank about it. “We’ll go on bleeding them to the point of natural disaster for generations,” said General Westmoreland, head of the U.S. forces in Viet Nam. Air Force General Curtis Lemay was equally blunt: “We should bomb them into the Stone Age.” In fact, most of the bombing came in the early 1970s, when the U.S. had already decided to gradually pull out of Viet Nam.
Viet Nam showed to the whole world that it is possible for a relatively small, underdeveloped country to effectively fight, and win, a war against the most powerful imperialist country.
But this victory came at a very heavy cost. About two million, that is, one out of twenty Vietnamese lost their lives in Viet Nam’s “American War” – not to mention the thousands and thousands of people injured for life, both physically and mentally. In fact, to this day, people in Viet Nam continue to get killed by unexploded U.S. bombs and mines, or suffer ailments caused by U.S. chemical warfare.
And, unfortunately, Viet Nam’s remarkable military victory against the U.S. did not mean freedom from imperialism either. And that’s because Viet Nam’s fight expelled imperialism from its territory, but did not get rid of it. And imperialism has struck back to punish Viet Nam – with a vengeance.
First, the U.S. was able to use Viet Nam’s neighbors against it. In 1972, the U.S. established relations with China. Soon after the reunification of Viet Nam in 1975, China’s ally, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, invaded Viet Nam. When Viet Nam not only fended off the attack but in turn invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, China attacked Viet Nam, destroying the only part of the North that had not been already destroyed by U.S. bombs.
The U.S. was also able to impose a complete trade embargo on Viet Nam with the participation of all capitalist countries. Once one of the major rice producers in Asia, Viet Nam became one of the poorest countries in the world after the devastation of the U.S. bombing, chemical warfare and the embargo.
For the poor, exploited masses in underdeveloped countries, there is only one way out. Such struggles have to be led by an outlook that goes beyond nationalism and national independence. Capitalism divides society, and every nation, into social classes. While the capitalist class uses a country’s resources, and its military, for more control and more profit, the laboring classes suffer every consequence of capitalist policy, from unemployment to war and destruction. For the working class, there can be no “national” liberation but only class liberation – that is, the overthrow of the rule of the capitalist class in the whole world.
American people, and above all working class Americans who made up the combat troops in Viet Nam, saw more than 58,000 of their lives cut short in that war. But the real number of war casualties is at least twice as high: more than that number of Viet Nam veterans have committed suicide since the end of the war.
Add to that the tens of thousands of the wounded, physically and mentally, for life. A whole generation of Americans was decimated by a war halfway around the world.
For more than a decade after the end of the Viet Nam war, the U.S. ruling class did not engage in major military conflicts abroad. Government and military officials blamed it on what they called the “Viet Nam Syndrome” – a certain antipathy, and resistance, in the U.S. population against war – as if it were a bad thing. The damage the Viet Nam war did to U.S. troops, and the government’s lies about the war, certainly helped this anti-war sentiment, but no doubt the most important factor in curbing the aggression of U.S. imperialism for a while was the social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s – in particular, the mobilization of the black population against the forces of the imperialist state.
And that’s what is missing in the U.S. today, in this new era of imperialist wars abroad.