Return to History menu
The war for Vietnam part one
‘Hector falls unpitied, and his body is
insulted by every Greek.’
Almost every evocation one comes across about the American ordeal in Vietnam conjures with the thought of tragedy. Tragedy is one of those slippery terms that contains more than an everyday usage; the feeling of sadness that follows a bad experience, but it also holds potentially a categorical meaning suggestive of justice or right; ‘ Hence in what is truly tragic there must be moral powers on both sides which come into collision’ (Hegel). To socialists the conflict with Vietnam was not a tragic one, the conflicting political forces were not ‘both right’, the cause of political independence for South Vietnam that the Americans fought for was always a corruption of the national right of self-determination and the high tech war that they waged was an abomination of all the moral categories.
The Americans intervened in Vietnam to try and destroy an historical democratic- national revolution with an impetus arising out of the semi-feudal class relations of the country. Yet maybe it is not altogether wrong to speak of Vietnam as an American tragedy for is it not the norm with the plot of tragedy that the chief protagonist goes mad. There was a lot of descending into madness for Americans in Vietnam. In a vain attempt to construct an unviable pro-American political colony in the distant paddy fields of Vietnam, Washington squandered approximately 240 thousand million dollars- a sum equal to ninety years income per capita for each man, woman and child in that underdeveloped country. Obscenely almost all of the money was spent destroying lives and property.
The war of course was prompted by Washington’s paranoia about something entirely ideological, that the VCP (Vietnamese Communist Party) constituted a mere cog in the Soviet Union’s quest for global domination and therefore had to be faced down by Washington. In political-class terms rather than in Washington’s ideological terms, America’s war on Viet Nam was really a war of colonial counter-revolution.
After causing immeasurable destruction the war ended in military defeat and political humiliation for American imperialism. Yet when George Bush senior exuded in 1991 that ‘By God we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all’ he inadvertently signalled that elements within the U.S. ruling class were already inching their way back to the Vietnam days when Washington’s foreign policy elites strongly believed that their nation’s military supremacy would guarantee continued economic supremacy. What lessons can we take from the Vietnam experience?
One gain is to know in advance just how
the potentiality for barbarism can arise within advanced capitalist
society. There is something almost unique about the type of barbarism
that American imperialism inflicted on Vietnam, a few years back Ronald
Aronson touched on it : ‘Its most striking contrast with the Holocaust
and Stalinism is that this catastrophic war was waged by the world’s
richest and most powerful society, functioning at the peak of its wealth
and power. It was less an aberration than a natural product of the daily
functioning and unquestioned assumptions of American society….One looks
in vain in America of the 1960s for equivalents to the pathological
dictator, for a society in upheaval or a mass movement going mad.’
In glib statistical terms it is estimated around 1.4 million civilians and combatants died during the bloodiest phase of the war, another 300,000 were killed in the short period after the withdrawal of US troops. About 58,000 of the dead were American soldiers. Some 60 percent of the population, 10 million were transformed into refugees. Saigon went from a population of 500,000 to a city of over five million in a few short years. More than four million tons of bombs were dropped on South Vietnam, a 500 hundred pound bomb for every living person. Another 14 million tons were dropped over the North and the neighbouring countries. To this the most intense bombing in history must be added the even greater tonnage of explosive fired from ground based artillery pieces. In the Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong so much high explosive was dropped that it equalled the destructive power of the atomic bombs that were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In addition killer herbicides were sprayed over one in every seven acres of South Vietnam. The spraying was a secret programme that commenced in August 1961 and was ignored for years by most reporters of the war. The programme went from 6,000 acres treated in 1962 to a peak of 1.7 million acres treated in 1967.Over 40 percent was used to destroy essential crop production and so to force designated village inhabitants out of strategic areas. President Nixon ended it only because business users in the USA petitioned him when their industrial supplies were running down. Some 500,000 acres of the main food-producing bowl was destroyed. South Vietnam changed from being a significant exporter of rice to being a major importer of rice. In addition 35 percent of the country’s hardwood trees were deliberately cut down. During operation Ceder Falls, bulldozers were used to level an area of 60 square miles and then the ground was bombed from the air it make the region uninhabitable . It was not uncommon for the military to destroy a whole village to kill a single sniper.
But the awful destruction of the bombing was not the only mad reality. Just as crazy were the pacification programmes. As much as anything else the revolutionary struggle in Vietnam had been about land redistribution. Before the American phase of the war the Vietnamese communists’ policy of rural reform had been modest in its aims; to remove the worst absentee landlords and redistributes land to the landless and poorer peasants. Middle owners were to reduce their rents and interest payments. So by the time the Americans intervened on a large scale the NFL already had a permanent layer of cadre working in the villages, the majority elected at local level. In the words of G.Kolko the essence of the struggle came down to : ‘the NFL tried to keep the masses within their villages, the United States and the RVN to force them out.’
There were other sides to the pacification programme but basically it came down to a deadly effort to separate the supporters of the revolution from the mass of the rural population. To this end operation Phoenix was introduced in 1967. The spooks introduced Phoenix to eliminate the political cadre of the revolution still residing in the villages. Its most deadly unit, the Provincial Reconnaissance Unit was under the direct control of the CIA and specialised in assassination and the detaining of alleged NLF cadre. Locally recruited units attached to Phoenix were given quotas to fulfil and paid-out according to how many suspects were uncovered. Basically it was a ‘denounce a political enemy for money’ scheme and many of the corrupt RVN (South Vietnam) officials who supervised the scheme were landlords who used it to line their pockets, sending thousands of villagers to internment camps or even having them shot.
When this failed to break the back of the NFL in the villages another tactic was deployed, the depopulating of villages and provinces indicating signs of NLF activity. Millions of peasants were deliberately forced from their ancestral villages by targeted fire. In an article in ‘Foreign Affairs’ the in-house journal of the foreign policy elite Harvard academic Samuel Huntington explained the thinking behind the forced movement of village populations: ‘The depopulation of the countryside struck directly at the strength and political appeal of the Viet Cong…the Maoist inspired rural revolution is undercut by the American inspired urban revolution.’ Village crops were regularly destroyed to cut off the food supply to the NLF guerrillas. Around half of the rural population of South Vietnam was pushed into refugee camps or into shantytowns that grew up around the overburdened cities. Those forced to move suffered traumatic changes to their lifestyle. In 1960 less than 20 percent of the population lived in urban environments, by 1964 it had climbed to 26 percent, by 1968 to 38 percent and by 1970 it had reached 43 percent, the fastest growth in urbanisation ever recoded.
Destroying Democracy at Home and Abroad
In February 1954 the British and Russian foreign ministers, Eden and Molotov, cooked up a plan for an international conference to try settling the conflicts between the big powers over Korea and Indochina. The French delegation agreed to the peace congress under the assumption that a military victory over the revolution was being prepared back in Vietnam. (Vietnam was a French colony until 1955) The French believed they would be negotiating from a position of military dominance. A week into the talks they received the shattering news that the very reverse had transpired; a large French expeditionary force of over 10,000 had suffered an alarming defeat at Dienbienphu. The Vietnamese revolutionaries held the much stronger military bargaining position, however their delegation agreed, under political pressure from the Russian and Chinese Stalinists, to a settlement that amounted to a betrayal of the national revolution.
The Geneva Accords were signed on 20 July 1954. These Accords provided for a ceasefire and a temporary partition of Vietnam along the 17th parallel pending a promised national election to be held by the summer 1956, to be supervised by an international commission composed of observers from Canada, Poland and India. It was also agreed that all foreign troops should withdraw from Vietnam and all political factions would not enter into any international military alliances. The policy of the VCP in 1955 was unification by peaceful means; the party was confident that the mass of the Vietnamese people would, when the time came, vote for national unity and independence.
The time never came. Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Accords the Americans set about ensuring that they became a dead letter. In public the impression was given that the United States would abide by the provisions of the Accords. Later when the Pentagon Papers were published it was shown that in private Washington held a very different opinion, they were ‘a major defeat for Western diplomacy and a potential disaster for US security interests in the Far East.’ In the 1955 January issue of the ‘Look’ magazine Leo Cherne set out Washington’s pressing dilemma ‘if elections were held today, the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese would vote communist…No more than 18 months remain for us to complete the job of winning over the Vietnamese before they vote. What can we do?’
What they did was break most of the articles of the International Accord. They helped establish something that became known as the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) under the command of a bizarre dictator called Ngo Dinh Diem. In the first five years Washington spent a billion dollars recruiting, training and equipping Diem with an army of some 200,000 soldiers, right down to paying their monthly wages. Large numbers of top-drawer American military advisers were sent and a MAAG (Military Assistant Advisory Group) was set in place, headed by an American Lieutenant General. Virtually overnight Diem’s regime became the fifth largest recipient of US military aid.
With Diem the arch-reactionary given command of a substantial military apparatus, state terror spread like a forest fire across South Vietnam. A fearful apparatus of repression was set in motion. Diem launched a nationwide ‘Communist Denunciation Campaign.’ Tens of thousands of alleged communist sympathisers were killed. According to historian Ngo Ving Long, typical was ‘ The Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre. From the beginning of 1955 to the end of 1956 the Diem regime erected 500 jails in the province’s 1115 villages. At least 2,519 former Viet Minh had been executed and more than 17,000 of the inhabitants detained in camps and subjected to sadistic torture, which included having tongues cut out, their eyes plucked and their teeth extracted. From the end of 1956 the Saigon regime conducted almost daily military operations to seize the peasants’ land.’
In political-class terms the American backed Diem regime represented the revenge of the landlords. Quite brazenly Diem’s newspaper stated the government’s social programme: ‘ we must let the peasants know that to give shelter to a communist or to follow his advice makes them liable to the death penalty. We must behead them and shoot them as people kill mad dogs’. The idea that the United States was fighting valiantly to protect democracy in South Vietnam was a hopeless fraud. The Diem regime got so out of control that the Kennedy administration had to plot a military coup to get rid of it.
The criminal logic of organising a counter-revolution in Vietnam gradually subjected the much-heralded liberal political culture of the United States to the corruption of lies. In the summer of 1971 the ‘New Times’ began publishing the Pentagon Papers, a large collection of confidential government papers starting from 1945, detailing the real history of US government decision-making in relation Vietnam. Daniel Ellesberb an official who had become disillusioned with the war leaked the secret history of Washington’s intervention. The papers proved that a succession of Presidents had repeatedly deceived and lied to the American people about what they were doing in Vietnam. Nixon immediately took out a legal injunction but the Supreme Court overturned it. Nixon responded by setting up a clandestine group of ‘plumbers’ to plug information leaks and instructed the plumbers to use all means necessary to do so, Watergate was just around the next corner.
The Pentagon Papers proved how at every important turn in the war’s escalation the Presidents had misled the American public; the only consistent rule was keep the citizens in the dark. Eisenhower’s administration had covered up its deep subversions of the Geneva Accord. Kennedy had lied about the number of American advisers operating in South Vietnam, what they were doing and about its plotting of coups. Johnson had pretended that the bombing strikes on North Vietnam in August 1964 were merely reprisals for a North Vietnamese attack on an American ship in the Bay of Tonkin when they were pre-planned and the non-existent incident used to get the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed by Congress. Johnson’s 1966 ‘no wider war’ re-election manifesto had also been based on a truckload of lies as he had already ordered a massive military build-up. Johnson had consciously avoided issuing a formal declaration of war so as to avoid public debate. He also lied repeatedly about the number of troops being sent and the cost of the war.
In an atmosphere of gathering recrimination about the war it then came to light that Nixon, who had promised to end the war, had ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos on a massive scale and had even sent troops across the border, thus widening and deepening the war. Furious demonstrations broke out right across the country, at Kent State University and Jackson State College six students were killed in confrontations with police and National Guardsmen. Students in hundreds of colleges came out on strike and fury erupted on the campuses. Even Congress was now adding to the mood of dissension. It turned against the President; the Senate terminating the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964. American democracy itself was experiencing a testing Vietnam backlash. The ‘wise men’ of American capital decided Vietnam was threatening the peace and tranquillity of American society and it was time to call a halt to the ‘futile’ war of the President.
The American ordeal in Vietnam was an experience of military and political defeat. It was intended to be a limited war for a political end - the stabilisation of South Vietnam. Because the political end had minimal support all the military might in the world could not make up for it. The war escalated out of rational political control; having started the war, the American military and political command could not stomach the prospect of losing it: ‘If we leave Vietnam with our tail between our legs the consequences of this defeat in the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America would be disastrous’ (Joint Chiefs of Staff). The political leaders repeatedly deluded themselves that to win all they had to do was send more troops and do more bombing. The limited war escalated and escalated to the point where more realistic leaders of American big business had to step in and tell the President and the military to negotiate an honourable peace and exit. The lesson of Vietnam is that political success does not necessarily flow from military power, might does not always overcome right.