empire defeated - vietnam war, lessons for today by Peter Taaffe
I wish to thank the following individuals for their efforts in helping to ensure this book was published.
Kevin Parslow deserves a special mention for his unflagging efforts in assembling important documents, undertaking vital research and typing the manuscript. Others such as Keith Dickenson, Tony Saunois, Bob Labi, Clare Doyle, Lynn Walsh, Bill Mullins and Hannah Sell read the manuscript and provided invaluable criticisms and suggestions. Manny Thain also diligently read the manuscript and made helpful suggestions, as did Ken Smith. I would also like to thank Denis Rudd for his layout skills and Alan Hardman, a long-time collaborator and brilliant socialist cartoonist, for the inclusion of some of his cartoons in this work.
The publication of this book arose from a speech I gave at the Socialist Party’s annual school.
It was clear in the subsequent discussion that many attending, including newer, younger members of the Socialist Party, while aware of the Vietnam War, were nevertheless unfamiliar with its main features and its earthshaking effects in the US and worldwide. I was therefore urged to produce an account of the war and this is the result.
The purpose was not to produce a detailed exposition of the conflict – there are many excellent accounts of the Vietnam War listed in the bibliography – but to give an overall view, drawing out the main political lessons and how they apply to today’s world.
All of those who lived through the Vietnam War were profoundly affected. It helped to shape the political outlook of a whole generation who subsequently, as we show later, played a role in the resurgence of socialist and Marxist ideas in the 1960s and 1970s.
The late 1980s and 1990s, however, revealed a different, more difficult political terrain. The capitalist globalisation evident even in the 1970s but clearer in the 1980s and 1990s, together with the collapse of Stalinism – and the worldwide capitalist ideological offensive which flowed from this – meant that support for socialists and Marxists has been pushed back. During this period, the Vietnam War appeared to be a distant memory, with little application to the current situation. However, the events in Iraq and, following this, the impending upheavals in the neo-colonial world as a whole have reawakened interest in the heroic struggles of the Vietnamese people, which ended almost three decades ago.
I hope that this book will give the reader an overview of the war, as well as drawing out some of the most vital lessons for the fight for socialism today. It is by no means exhaustive, compelled as we are to limit ourselves to the most important events of the war and its repercussions. Many questions have only been touched on and deserve a much fuller treatment than possible here. We, or others, will have to return to these and many other issues thrown up by the war.
The Vietnam War was the longest conflict of the twentieth century – unfolding over 30 years, 10,000 days in length.
This war left an indelible impression worldwide in the minds of the generation who lived through these tumultuous events. It helped to form the ‘1960s generation’ of young people who participated in and sometimes led mass movements and demonstrations against the established order of world capitalism. It was a powerful factor in the revolt of the student youth, who sympathised with the Vietnamese masses and their tenacious resistance to US imperialism.
This youth revolt, in turn, was the spark which ignited a colossal working class uprising, the greatest general strike in history of ten million workers and the occupation of the factories in France in May-June 1968. The revolt in Czechoslovakia against Stalinism was part of this process. In Italy, also, a new radical layer of young people connected with the revolutionary upsurge of the working class in the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969. Moreover, these events, of which the Vietnam War was a vital ingredient, also prepared the ground for the entry of the working class onto the arena of struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was, therefore, a significant factor in shaping the outlook of the European and worldwide working class, decisive sections of whom, in the revolt against capitalism and searching for an alternative, found a road to socialism. Many embraced Marxism and Trotskyism, which began to establish itself in a number of key countries, particularly in Britain, as a growing and significant section of the organised labour movement.
It also established the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ in the consciousness of the American people. This meant that the US must ‘never again’ be pulled into the quagmire of unwinnable wars in Asia or elsewhere. Successive right-wing presidents tried to break this, from Ronald Reagan to George Bush senior, and now his son ‘Dubya’. Through the invasion of Iraq, the present Bush junta probably thought that it had succeeded, at least partially, where its predecessors failed.
Events will show just how mistaken they are. Iraq, largely urban in character, is not Vietnam, whose population of predominantly peasants provided the ‘water’ in which the ‘fish’, the guerrillas, could swim. During the short period of the Iraq ‘war’, the people did not provide such a receptive environment for the pro-Saddam forces. Hostility to US imperialism was subordinated to an unwillingness to die for a doomed dictatorship. Some therefore concluded that the national resistance of the Iraqi people was weak or non-existent. Paradoxically, Tony Blair was not one of these. According to The Guardian in London, during the war he agonised over whether Bush and himself were facing a ‘Vietnam or Ceausescu’ situation. In other words, would US and British troops face resistance from a guerrilla-type movement like Vietnam or would they be greeted by a popular uprising to overthrow Saddam? In the event they faced neither. There was no mass ‘national resistance’ to the US invasion nor was there an uprising to overthrow Saddam.
It is true that the toppling of Saddam’s statue was compared at the time to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But it was a Pentagon-orchestrated, stage-managed affair for the benefit of Western TV cameras with a handful of Iraqis allocated walk-on parts. At the same time as this stunt, Saddam was walking amongst Iraqi crowds a few miles away in northern Baghdad! But, literally the day after the ‘victory’ of the US-led forces in Iraq, real resistance against the US occupation began. As with the US in Vietnam after it replaced French imperialism, the US could be drawn into a swamp if it occupies the country for a lengthy period. It could face a protracted guerrilla war, although in the cities rather than in jungles and swamps, with the same outcome as in Vietnam.
Lessons relevant today
However, even if Iraq does not experience a prolonged guerrilla-type conflict this does not invalidate the need to acquaint the new generation in particular with the main events of the Vietnam War. Such an account can be invaluable for the social struggles that are unfolding today in the neo-colonial world. The working class in the industrialised world, particularly the more politically aware sections, can also greatly benefit from the study of these events. The present leadership of the trade unions and even some of the left parties in Europe are weighed down by a belief that US imperialism and the ‘right wing’ in Europe, who bask in the glory of this ‘empire’, cannot be defeated. Coming events in Europe and elsewhere will demonstrate the shallowness of such a conclusion.
The Vietnam War demonstrates conclusively that the amassing of unprecedented military power, which is in turn founded on a crushing economic dominance, is no guarantee that a superpower – more of a ‘hyperpower’ today – is invincible. The deep scepticism of the official leaders of the movement contrasts, moreover, with the energy, optimism and determination of the new generation to struggle against outmoded capitalism. Many fresh layers of young people have moved into struggle through the mass anti-capitalist and antiwar movements, by the events of 9/11, 2001, Afghanistan and now Iraq. In the Bush junta’s nightmare scenario of ‘endless war for endless peace’, more conflict and suffering are promised but also a rising curve of opposition. The calculation of the Bush neo-conservatives was that a short sharp victory in Iraq would cower the working class and poor, thereby reinforcing the alleged ‘invincibility’ of US imperialism, armed to the teeth. Even at an early stage it is clear that this aim has been undermined as the resistance of the Iraqi people has begun.
However, in order to help to puncture the impression of the ‘invincibility’ of the US, it is worthwhile recounting here the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese who humbled the US giant. It is relevant to today’s battles. Resistance, including armed struggle, some of it of a guerrillaist type, is inevitable against this plundering juggernaut. The Vietnamese, together with the US people, showed that three or more decades ago. It is necessary to understand just how they achieved this in order to politically equip the new generation who will do battle in the next period. The lessons of the Vietnam War are relevant, for instance, to the current struggles in Iraq, in Aceh in Indonesia where a guerrilla struggle is under way, and in Colombia. Even for the heavy battalions of the working class in the metropolitan centres of Europe, the USA and Japan, the Vietnam War is also important. Even though this was predominantly a peasant war, the Vietnamese evoked enormous sympathy and support from the working class in the industrialised countries and inspired young people in particular. They demonstrated that there are stronger forces than napalm bombs, planes, tanks and bullets: the movement of an enslaved people on a programme of social and national liberation to throw off the chains of landlordism, capitalism and imperialism.
The Vietnam War revealed the ruthless barbarity of capitalism and imperialism and the lengths to which it is prepared to go to defend its class interests. US imperialism dropped eight million tons of explosives on South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This was three times the weight of bombs dropped by all sides in the Second World War. It is equal to an explosive force of 640 atom bombs like those dropped on Hiroshima. The number of dead in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia probably came to more than three million, most of them killed from the air. The National Liberation Front (NLF) – colloquially called the Viet Cong – had up to 300,000 guerrillas in the field and, at its height, faced 500,000 US soldiers. However, only one in six of the US forces were combat troops at any one time, with short six month tours of duty in order to prevent demoralisation arising from too much time spent fighting an unwinnable war.
As we will see, the US was not able to achieve victory. Indeed, at the end of this conflict we saw the world’s strongest military superpower defeated for the first time in its history by 17 million ragged peasants in South Vietnam, together with the people of North Vietnam. On the ground, the forces of the Viet Cong outnumbered US combat troops by three or four to one. But it was not the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese alone which defeated US imperialism. As crucial, in some senses even more so, was the revolt of the troops and the people of the US against the war and the governments which prosecuted it. Only hundreds protested in the first anti-Vietnam War demonstration in the US in 1964. But a short four years later, in 1969, up to two million were mobilised in huge demonstrations throughout the USA.
This was paralleled by huge antiwar protests throughout the world. In Britain on 17 March 1968, tens of thousands marched to the US embassy in Grosvenor Square to protest against US crimes against the Vietnamese. Police, including mounted police galloping at full speed into the demonstration in Grosvenor Square (where US Marines had been secretly installed to prevent the embassy from being overrun), clashed violently with demonstrators at the end of the march. In October of the same year, 100,000 marched in London against the war. So alarmed was the British ruling class, so virulent was it in denouncing the movement – led by The Times newspaper – that in the week leading up to the demonstration, it warned of a semi-insurrectionary outcome. They effectively believed their own propaganda!
The implacability of the Vietnamese, their refusal to bow to the military might of the US, lit a fire under the US ruling class in the form of a mass antiwar movement which compelled it to withdraw from Vietnam.