How US imperialism was defeated in Vietnam

As US imperialism prepares to go to war against Iraq, Jonathan Clyne (of the editorial Board of the Swedish Marxist journal, Socialisten) looks back at the Vietnam War. He shows quite clearly the level of radicalisation that had developed among both the US soldiers fighting in Vietnam and the mass opposition that had developed back home among US workers and youth. As he says, "It was the American working class, those in uniform and those without, that more than anything else put an end to the war."

Praise boss when morning work bells chime.
Praise him for chunks of overtime.
Praise him whose bloody wars we fight.
Praise him, fat leech and parasite.

(A Wobbly Doxology*)

(*Members of IWW, Industrial Workers of the World, were also known as the Wobblies. A doxology is a song of praise to God. The IWW and Joe Hill, who was an IWW organizer, often used religious songs filled with revolutionary content.)

American students burning their draft cards; Jane Fonda protesting; American construction workers clad in hardhats, beating up protesting students. These images from the anti-Vietnam War protests come to mind as the U.S. once again prepares to go to war.

The photograph of the hard hats was the only one at the recent "Resistance" exhibition at the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art to feature any workers at all. The purpose of this exhibition was to give an account of protest movements from the 1960s up until today. It gives the impression that only a few brave individuals stood up to U.S. imperialism. However, reality was - and will be - different.

Neither protesting students (students were not drafted) nor intellectuals were instrumental in bringing about peace in Vietnam. Nor were the military conquests of the Vietnamese army. It was the American working class, those in uniform and those without, that more than anything else put an end to the war.

The background to the Vietnam War is as follows. In 1954, after a century of colonial rule, France was forced to leave Vietnam after the devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. As France made its exit, the Vietnamese Communist Party, led by Ho Chi Minh was ready to seize power.

However, China and the Soviet Union feared that the French defeat might be too big a blow against imperialism and disturb the terror balance of the Cold War. So instead of letting the French Army flee in tatters, they forced through a settlement shifting Ho Chi Minh's troops to the northern part of the country and the French to the southern. The French were supposed to continue running the south until the general election planned for 1956. After the election the winner would gain control of the entire country.

A general election was never announced. Instead, Ngo Ding Diem, a Vietnamese living in the U.S., was flown in and installed as the leader of the country. Through a massive political, economical and military intervention the U.S. created a new state in South Vietnam. This state then went on to attack North Vietnam. President Eisenhower later said that he thought Ho Chi Minh would have gotten 80% of the vote if free elections had been held. (President Eisenhower, "Mandate for Change" p. 372).

This happened as the Cold War between the Soviet Union and China on the one hand and the U.S. on the other was at its peak. The U.S. was not prepared to see yet another country break free of their sphere of influence.

Traditional imperialist interests also lay behind the US intervention. As early as 1954 the article "Why is the US risking a war in Indochina" was published in the "U.S. News and World Report". The article stated: "One of the richest areas in the world will be open to the victor in Indochina. This is what lies behind the growing U.S. interest… pewter, rubber, rice, strategic key primary produce are the true reasons for this war. The U.S. considers this an area in which to maintain control - by any means necessary." (April 4, 1954). Of course, there was also the issue of cheap labour. In the words of Business Week (April 20, 1963): "By the end of the 40s and increasingly during the 50s up until today - American corporations in one industry after another were discovering that their foreign incomes kept increasing. Their revenues were usually substantially higher abroad than in the U.S." No wonder, when wages were a fraction of what they were in the USA.

The Communist Party in South Vietnam organized a guerrilla army, the NFL, to fight Diem and the U.S. Up until the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968 the NFL was the main anti-US armed force in South Vietnam. Due to their massive support among the people, especially in rural areas, the NFL could strike fast and then quickly disappear. This caused the CIA to resort to terror against the Vietnamese population in order to stop them from protecting, feeding and supplying recruits to the NFL. By 1967 the killing of entire families had become an integral part of the CIA's anti-terror agenda. ("Fragging Bob", Douglas Valentine.)

Since it was becoming clear that the South Vietnamese army could not defeat the guerrillas, the U.S. found itself drawn deeper and deeper into the war. The armed American intervention in Vietnam commenced in 1963. By August that year the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, ordered the first bombing of North Vietnam. Six months later, operation "Rolling Thunder" - the bombing of North Vietnam - started. There were more bombs dropped over Vietnam in this campaign alone than the total dropped during the entire Second World War. This was the equivalent of roughly 150 kgs of bombs for every man, woman and child in Vietnam. Two million Vietnamese and more than 50,000 American soldiers would die in this war. Chemical weapons would defoliate 10% of the country's surface.

During most of the past decade the U.S. has been bombing Iraq. The reason, according to the US Government, has been to destroy, among other things, Iraq's chemical weapons. Yet the U.S. government did not hesitate to use chemical warfare when fighting the Vietnamese guerrillas hidden beneath the leaves of the jungle. Obviously, for them chemical weapons are only unpleasant when they are not using them themselves.

The number of American soldiers in Vietnam rose from 23,300 in 1963 to 184,000 in 1966. In January 1969 the total number of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam reached its peak - 542,000. Despite this the U.S. Army was unable to subdue Vietnam.

On the night of January 31, 1968 the North Vietnamese army and the NFL launched the Tet Offensive. The NFL broke the truce they had made for the New Year festivities and fought its way into more than one hundred cities, including the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, after having distracted the American army with an attack in the Khesan province.

The Americans were taken by surprise. During the Tet Offensive the guerrilla army even succeeded in capturing the U.S. embassy. Through contacts and spies the NFL had managed to store guns, ammunition and explosives at a secret location in preparation for the attack. At 3.15 am a group of guerrilla soldiers drove up to the embassy in a taxicab. Within five minutes they had killed the five guards on duty and seized the building. The guerrillas also took over the South Vietnamese and the U.S. Army headquarters and the massive American army base at Bienhoa, north of the Saigon airport. Fourteen guerrilla soldiers who attacked the main radio station in Saigon were under siege for 18 hours, after which they blew themselves up along with the building.

The size and range of the offensive astonished the American generals. One of them described the pattern of attack as resembling that of a ball in a pinball game, with the lights flashing up during each raid. There is no doubt that this was one of the most daring military campaigns in history. The North Vietnamese general Giap had been preparing for it since September 1967, when he had realized that the war had come to a military stalemate and that something had to be done to break it.

However, the offensive was not a military success. The NFL lost over 50,000 men and the Americans and South Vietnamese 6000. In addition, the NFL lost most of its command structure in South Vietnam. Within a matter of days they were driven away from most of the positions they had conquered. The Tet Offensive was both the highest point of guerrilla activity during the Vietnam War, but also the beginning of its marginalisation for the remainder of the war.

The NFL had hoped that the Tet offensive would spark an uprising among the population in the cities. The Stalinist leaders of the NFL were mistaken in thinking that they could create a mass movement as if turning a tap on or off. The uprising was very limited. After the Tet offensive, most of the fighting against the U.S. was done by the regular North Vietnamese army.

As it turned out, the Tet Offensive brought about a different kind of turning point. It strongly influenced the opinion of the American working class. For the first time in a major war, the power of television became apparent. Fifty million people watched the destruction brought on by the war. The U.S. government was no longer able to portray the war as clean, simple and easily won. When facts about the Song My massacre (in the small village of My Lai) later began to seep out into the media, many people's view of the war changed fundamentally and there was an explosive growth in domestic opposition.

The true story of what had happened early in the morning of March 16 in 1968, when a group of American soldiers invaded a small village in South Vietnam, did not surface until November 13, 1969.

This is how Adam Silverman and Kristin Hill describe the events in "The My Lai massacre: An American Tragedy": "The American soldiers shot at anything that moved, including cattle, chickens, birds and worse yet: civilians. The villagers did not offer any resistance; still the Soldiers threw handgranades into huts, shouted orders and killed without distinction. The atrocities continued throughout the morning. Infants were killed, young children shot and women raped at gunpoint. Before long 500 civilians lay dead on the ground. But their work wasn't finished… after this the village was set on fire. Bodies, homes, supplies, food - everything was burned."

It turned out that high-ranking officers were guilty, both of the massacre and the subsequent cover-up. However, in the end only four soldiers were taken to court and only one, Calley, was convicted. After three years under house arrest, he was pardoned by President Nixon.

Song My was one of the most brutal examples of the violation of every basic human right, but it was not an isolated case as abuse and killing of civilians was common. Christopher Hitchens gives an inkling of the proportion of this in his new book "The Trial of Henry Kissinger". In it he writes that the U.S. Army admits to killing 10,899 enemies during operation "Speedy Express" in early 1969, but says that they only seized 784 weapons!

After the Tet Offensive, Henry Kissinger - the U.S. national security counsellor, understood the consequences of the shift in public opinion: "Regardless of how effective our actions are, the present strategy can no longer reach its goals within the period or with the level of force that is acceptable to the American Public."

Let us bear in mind that the U.S. has the smallest petit bourgeoisie (as percent of the population) in the industrial world, the working class constitutes the vast majority of the American population. So when Kissinger speaks of the public he is talking about the working class, not a handful of irate college students.

Immediately after the inauguration of Lyndon B Johnson in 1963, more than 80% of Americans questioned in a poll expressed confidence in him. (Bush is experiencing the same high levels of support in the U.S. right now.) By 1967 the support for Johnson had sunk to 40%. After Tet only 30% supported him and a mere 26% approved of his way of handling the war.

Apart from the fact that there was a high level of discontent, it is interesting to examine what groups were the most critical. A 1971 poll showed that 60% of Americans with college degrees were in favour of an American retreat from Vietnam. However, 75% of those with only high-school diplomas and 80% of those without any secondary education supported a retreat.

The Media has completely distorted these facts and continues to do so. In his book "Lies My Teacher Told Me", James Loewen writes of a telling experiment he performed several times during the 90s. During his lectures his audience was asked to estimate the level of education among those who were against the Vietnam War in 1971. They guessed that 90% of college graduates were against the war, but only 60% of those with only a high-school education. Almost a complete reversal of the facts.

The opposition of the American working class was based primarily on personal experience. Their children were the ones doing the dirty work in Vietnam. Their children were the ones coming home in body bags, maimed or mentally broken. All because of a war that wasn't theirs, a war that didn't give them anything.

The children of affluent families were often able to avoid getting drafted since many were college students. Or else they would be given cushy commanding positions, safely removed from the horrors of the battlefield. It was the working class that came to foot most of the bill for the war through the taxes they paid.

A total of 2,59 million Americans were sent to fight in Vietnam. The experiences of the American soldiers in Vietnam were harrowing indeed and had an extremely demoralizing effect on them. Upon returning the soldier's experiences made their way into many American households and the soldiers in turn were influenced by the anti-war movement in the USA.

Extensive evidence of the demoralization can be found in a book entitled "The Collapse of the Armed Forces" written by the prominent military historian, Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr. It was written just over six months before the American ground forces were sent home. The excerpts from this book that we quote at length below were first published in the "Armed Forces Journal" (an official army magazine) in June 1971. (Heinl was far from being alone in writing about the decline of the army. Testimonies to this have almost become a genre of their own. See "GI resistance: Soldiers and Veterans Against the Viet Nam War - A Bibliography").

"The morale, discipline and fighting condition of the armed forces are, with a few exceptions, lower than ever this century and perhaps lower than ever in the history of the United States. In every possible way, the armed forces still in Vietnam are on the brink of collapse. Separate units avoid or refuse battle, kill their officers, are full of drugs and are without enthusiasm when not on the verge of mutiny.

"Although no high ranking officer (especially not while on duty) could openly make a similar assessment, the conclusions… above are almost unanimously backed up by a number of anonymous interviews with high and midlevel commanding officers. As they are by lower ranking officers in all positions.

"In Vietnam the after troops of an army of 500,000 men, formerly the best army ever sent to battle by the U.S., are trying to retreat from a nightmare-like war that they feel has been dumped upon them by smart civilians. Civilians now at universities in America, are writing books about the stupidity of the whole venture.

"One American soldier, stationed at Cu Chi, is cited in the "New York Times". He speaks of separate companies for soldiers refusing to fight. It is no longer a big deal to simply refuse to participate in battle. If a soldier is sent somewhere he no longer bothers to go to the trouble of refusing. He'll simply pack his shirt and goes off to visit a friend at another base. Many guys don't even wear their uniforms any more The American garrisons at the larger bases are in effect disarmed. Professional soldiers confiscate their weapons and lock them up.'

"Could this be common or even true? The answer is unfortunately yes. By now "fragging" is the preferred expression among soldiers for murder or attempted murder of authoritarian, unpopular, or aggressive officers. When officers are reported dead there is cheering in the trenches or at the movie-theaters of some regiments.

"In the underground GI publication "GI Says" a reward of $10,000 is offered for killing lieutenant colonel Weldon Honeycutt, shortly after the costly attack at Hamburgar Hill in mid 1969, which was led and initiated by Honeycutt.

"The issue of combat refusal, an official euphemism for refusing battle and the worst crime a soldier can commit, recently surfaced again when Troop B of the First cavalry at the Laotian border refused to retrieve their captain's commanding vehicle containing communication devices, codes and secret orders. Yet, as early as 1969 a whole company at 196 Light Infantry Brigade officially sat down in the middle of a battlefield. Later that year another unit from the famous First Air Cavalry Division refused - on air on CBS television - to advance on a dangerous footpath.

"Search and evade (when a unit silently avoids battle) is practically a principle by now. The GI expression for this is "CYA (cover your ass) and get home". That the practice of search-and-evade hasn't gone unnoticed by the enemy is emphasized by the fact that the Viet Cong delegation at the peace negotiations in Paris stated that: Communist units in Indochina have been told not to attack American units unless provoked'."

It is difficult to say exactly the number of officers killed by their own men in so called "fragging" incidents, but on an unofficial American military police webpage (<http://home.mweb.co.za/re/redcap/vietcrim.htm>) the following estimate is given:

"Between 1969 and 1973, there was an increased incidence of fragging, says the historian Terry Anderson from Texas A&M University. The U.S. Army does not have any exact statistics on how many officers were killed in this manner. But they do know of at least 600 cases of confirmed fragging and another 1400 where officers died under suspicious circumstances. As a result of this, the U.S. Army was not at war with the enemy in the beginning of 1970. They were at war with themselves."

It wasn't the brutality of the war that in and by itself led to the disintegration of the U.S. Army. All wars are brutal. The very essence of war is to solve conflicts using a maximum of force. American soldiers where subjects to and perpetrators of brutality also during the Second World War. The crucial difference is that they believed in their cause. Their supposed aim then was to defeat fascism and defend democracy.

No matter how hard American propaganda tried to portray the Vietnam War as a righteous battle for a better world, it didn't take long for soldiers stationed in Vietnam to realize that this was not the case. Rebellious tendencies did in fact arise even at the end of the Second World War, but that was when attempts were made to use the troops to fight communists in Italy and in other places.

Back in the U.S. ordinary workers were strongly affected by what their sons were going through in Vietnam and they didn't watch idly. As early as 1965, 25,000 people gathered in Washington, 20,000 in New York and 15,000 in Berkeley, California, to demonstrate against the war. In April 1967, 300,000 people demonstrated in New York.

A series of so-called moratorium days were organized by the two largest antiwar organizations. (Moratorium is defined in the dictionary as an agreed, temporary break). The most extensive of these days was October 15, 1969. More than 5 million people are estimated to have been involved one way or the other. There were demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins and other organized activities. Some actions were small - lighting a candle, leaving headlights on. In New York, the mayor declared a day of mourning and ordered flags to be flown at half-mast. The soldiers in Vietnam participated by wearing black armbands.

The largest demonstrations were held on April 24, 1971. In San Francisco about 300,000 people gathered, in Washington between 500,000 and 750,000. These were probably the biggest political demonstrations in the history of the United States.

Of course, protests were also being held at the universities. During the economic boom of the postwar years the universities opened up and by the end of the 60s millions of working class students were attending various colleges across America. Many of the largest and most militant protests were staged at universities that were not dominated by affluent students, such as Kent State, San Francisco State and the State colleges in Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin. However, there was a decline in student protests at the beginning of the seventies. Various leftwing sects came to dominate the movement, fragmenting it through unproductive squabbling. This brought added importance to the strong impact of the antiwar movement on the labour organizations.

American labour unions had experienced an explosive development during the 30s, when they grew and became radicalised. However, during the 50s active participation by ordinary workers in the unions had declined as working conditions improved and the anticommunist hysteria of the cold war came to dominate the unions. The unions became heavily bureaucratised.

The 60s saw a new rise in union activity. Despite significant economic improvement, people still held the same bad jobs and experienced the same authoritarian rule in the workplaces. Many strikes erupted, especially within heavy industry, and extensive union campaigns were launched in order to organize agricultural workers, health care workers and civil servants. However, the union bureaucracy effectively slowed the movement down.

George Meany, president of AFL-CIO, personified this bureaucracy. His stand on the war was clear. With Meany's whole-hearted blessing the AFL-CIO's international department consisted mainly of CIA agents. In June 1966 the AFL-CIO's executive issued a statement saying: "Those who don't offer our armed forces their unconditional support are to all intents and purposes helping the communist enemy, during a time when the U.S. Army is carrying the heaviest load in defending peace and freedom in the world."

Naturally it wasn't easy for an opposition constantly harassed and persecuted to voice its opinion. In 1967 an anti-war resolution was proposed at the AFL-CIO congress. It lost by 2000 votes to 6.

Despite this, some union locals started positioning themselves as anti-war as early as 1965. The UAW (autoworkers union) left the AFL-CIO and in June 1969 they started the Alliance for Labor Action together with the Teamsters (transport workers' union). The Alliance supported the demand for an immediate termination of the war.

More and more unions were adopting an anti-war stance. Individual unions started to show open support for anti-war demonstrations and their members started to flock to them. In 1972 unions organizing four out of 21 million American workers were officially against the war. In the 1972 elections half of all union households voted for the democratic candidate George McGovern, who demanded an immediate retreat from Vietnam. Despite the fact that Meany for the first time refused to endorse a democratic candidate.

Meanwhile an increasing number of strikes were breaking out, including wildcat strikes. Meany was now on shaky ground. Even the construction workers were showing another side than the one we are accustomed to see. In June 1970 a reporter from the "Daily News" followed a group of activists visiting construction sites in Chicago with anti-war leaflets and saw that 90% of the men they spoke to were against the war and everyone found it idiotic to beat up students. (Phillip Foner, "US Labor and the Vietnam War").

No parliaments were stormed, no barricades were built and no presidents were overthrown in the U.S. (at least not until two years after the American troops had been withdrawn). Yet the American working class possessed enough strength to bring the troops home, at least once it had decided that it didn't want to see it's sons die for a cause they didn't believe in, a cause that they had to pay for and only favoured the establishment.

This didn't happen for high minded ideological reasons or out of support for the NFL, yet it happened. Eventually the logic of the movement itself also brought some sympathy for the Vietnamese people. New York Times/CBS News published the results of a poll in June 1977. The question asked was: "If the president would recommend helping Vietnam, would you want your representative in congress to approve aid for Vietnam in the form of food and medicine?" 66% said yes, 29% no.

The U.S. military resources were far superior, they controlled the airspace and had unlimited possibilities of bombing the country. Even if the costs were high and were starting to affect the American economy, speaking in purely military terms the Americans could have stayed in Vietnam for many more years. However, it wasn't possible to finance it if the working class refused to pay. It wasn't possible to continue the war if the American working class refused to fight. If the government had ignored this and had prolonged the war the U.S. would have been on the brink of revolution.

In 1975, after 28 years of war, imperialism was finally ousted from Vietnam. Now U.S. imperialism is again threatening to go to war. This time in Iraq. If it turns out to be a long war the American working class will be instrumental in stopping it once again.

(Note: Quotations have not been checked against the original, but are translations from Swedish.)