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empire defeated - vietnam war, lessons for today by Peter Taaffe

1. The origins of war

The roots of the war go back to France’s nineteenth century colonial conquest of ‘Indochina’. Before the French conquest most of the land was owned co-operatively.

 Of course, the richest landlords concentrated some of the best land in their own hands and rented it out to the poor villagers. The French encouraged the power of the landlords, both politically and economically. The landlords gave a base to French rule and inevitably became more powerful, concentrating a greater proportion of the land in their own hands, evicting villagers and employing them as workers in a growing economy. They sold rice to the cities and on the French market.

This class differentiation inevitably resulted in bigger and widening divisions in Vietnamese society. The majority of the land became concentrated among a tiny handful of landlords and their families. Vietnam was gradually integrated by the French into the world capitalist system, which in turn drove some of the peasants off the land into industry and the cities. Smallholdings of land predominated in the North, with 98 per cent made up of twelve acres of land or less. In South Vietnam, 6,200 landlords (two per cent of the landowners) owned 45 per cent of the rice land.

These conditions were not, of course, unique to Vietnam but were similar to the ‘colonial world’ as a whole. In particular, the unequal division of the land was and still is a common feature. Even in 1961, Roger Hilsman, then Director, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, at the US Department of State could declare:

“There is mounting unrest in rural areas all over the world. What peasants increasingly crave is social justice and reform – at a minimum, the old way of life with the cruelties removed. This includes reform of land-tenure arrangements, reasonable rent, credit, and market facilities; and simple modern tools… Finally, they crave peace and physical security.” 1

With the growing hatred of the rich came similar feelings towards the regime and the French colonial masters. The French economic giants – the Bank of Indochina, the river plantations and big French firms, such as Denis Frères and Descours et Cabaud – dominated the country. The Vietnamese were ruthlessly exploited:

“Like most other underdeveloped countries, Vietnam had a corvée system of compulsory labour, in which villagers who did not pay monetary taxes were compelled to participate in public work… In Vietnam, the corvée system went out of existence in the 1920s, but a more abusive labour practice persisted: the recruitment of labour for plantation work. Carried out by native recruiters (cai) whose methods were brutal and who gouged the workers of much of their salary, the system was rightly attacked as degrading.” 2

However, the coming to power of the Popular Front government in France in 1936, led by Leon Blum, was to partially benefit the Vietnamese masses. Pro-labour legislation, which was also applied to Vietnam, meant:

“The eight-hour day was introduced as of January 1, 1937, supplemented by paid leaves, weekly rest periods, interdiction of night labour for women, pensions in case of work accidents, etc. And most important of all, the enterprise recruiting labour via a cai was now held fully liable for his acts. Enforced by teams of young labour inspectors who had no fear of vested interests, the legislation was obeyed and soon most firms began to recruit their own labour rather than be responsible for a cai.” 3

The result was that when the International Labour Organisation (then an organ of the League of Nations and now an agency of the UN) surveyed labour conditions in the ‘Far East’ in 1937, it found that conditions in French Indochina were “far better than those everywhere else in the region”. For example, independent Japan had no work-time limit for men, and women and youths were ‘limited’ (sic) to eleven hours of work a day with no compulsory weekly rest periods.”4 At the same time, the Popular Front ‘balanced’ these reforms by forbidding

“unionising activities in Vietnam, although since 1928 there had been an illegal Communist labour union whose increasing effectiveness began to be apparent in several well-conducted strikes for limited economic objectives. While still professing not to recognise the unions, French employers soon found it expedient to discuss matters with ‘workers’ representatives’, who were in fact presidents of union locals.” 5

Conditions hardly change

The conditions in Vietnam had hardly changed since the inception of French rule. Landlordism and capitalism, dominated as they are in the modern era by imperialism in the neo-colonial world, are incapable of carrying through the national-democratic revolution – land to the peasants, the solution of the national question and freedom from the economic vice of imperialist powers. Without this revolution it is not possible for these countries to come out of extreme economic and cultural backwardness. Similarly, the indigenous Vietnamese middle class in the urban areas was increasingly frustrated and alienated by French rule, which denied them possibilities for using their talents to the full:

“All this spelled a great deal of frustration for the increasing numbers of young Vietnamese intellectuals who returned from France having completed their university studies, or who completed them at the University of Hanoi, and then found their professional horizons blocked or encumbered by Frenchmen.” 6

One contemporary commentator illustrated the situation of the middle class:

“The Viceroy of India governed in 1925 a total of 325 million Indians with 4,898 European civil servants, while the [French] Governor General administered 30 million Indochinese with 5,000 French civil servants.” 7

And the situation worsened rather than improved between 1925 and 1954. Bernard Fall recalled seeing

“one last French white policeman directing traffic in the streets of Hanoi as late as September 1953 – a menial job no British colonial governor would have permitted a white man to do even a hundred years ago. This brought into Indochina a marginal group of petits blancs – the French equivalent of ‘poor white trash’ – whose living standards (and, above all, living habits) were barely a cut above those of the poorer urban Vietnamese and who bitterly competed with them for precisely those jobs that would have enabled the Vietnamese to create an urbanised middle class. If familiarity ever bred contempt, Indochina was probably the one area in the Far East in which the local population had become thoroughly familiar with its colonial overlords.” 8

In the twentieth century these conditions laid the basis for nationalist opposition movements to French rule, culminating in the formation of the Communist Party in 1921. Ho Chi Minh (real name Nguyen That Thanh9) who travelled the world from 1911 and worked in various jobs, joined the newly-formed Communist Party of France in 1920 under the influence of the Russian Revolution. He had been a member of the French Socialist Party previously. This led from 1924 onwards to steps towards the formation of an ‘Indochina Communist Party’. One such formation, the ‘Thanh nien’ (Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth Association), was organised by Ho and a group of other exiles in China. Unable to operate under the repressive French regime, Ho then worked in various jobs under the regime of the bureaucracy in Russia, headed by Stalin.

In 1941 he returned to Vietnam after 30 years abroad, together with others such as Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary military leader of the Vietnamese, to form the Viet Minh (Vietnamese League). The Japanese had driven out the French. Now, a spasmodic guerrilla war unfolded against the occupiers of Vietnam during the Second World War. The Viet Minh was formally organised on an ‘all-class’ basis of ‘national resistance’ against the foreign oppressor. In reality, however, the Viet Minh dug roots among the common people, organised the non-payment of taxes, and fought against the terrible famine of 1945. At this time, food was available but went to feed the armies while one million Vietnamese starved to death. This established the Viet Minh as the main champion of the Vietnamese people. It organised raids on the warehouses which stored food while the Vietnamese perished.

Inter-imperialist rivalry

The power vacuum in Vietnam, which resulted from the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, was filled by the Viet Minh. Largely unarmed they marched in and took the cities of the north, with huge crowds of 200,000 in Hanoi greeting the defeat of the Japanese, seizing centres of power and installing a new Viet Minh regime. On 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence in front of a crowd of half a million in Hanoi. Shortly afterwards there were mass demonstrations in Saigon in the south, again led by the Viet Minh. The Trotskyists played a key role in events in Saigon in this period. With a few hundred members they had also previously been influential in the city, having won local elections in Saigon in the 1930s, and had played an important role in the general strike of 1938. As with the ‘communists’ (Stalinists) they were crushed and jailed under the Japanese but survived and were released from prison in 1944.

The Trotskyists were afraid that the Viet Minh, which led the demonstrations in Saigon, had insufficiently prepared the masses for the possibility of the return of French colonial rule. The Yalta and Potsdam agreements (between the ‘Allies’ during the Second World War) had, with the benediction of Stalin, in effect handed Vietnam back to the French. British troops entered Vietnam in September 1945, this time under a Labour government. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the Second World War, objected behind the scenes to ‘Indochina’ returning to its previous French masters after the defeat of the Japanese. In January 1944, Roosevelt, in a secret reply to his Secretary of State Cordell Hull, stated that he had, “for over a year, expressed the opinion that Indochina should not go back to France but that it should be administered by an international trusteeship.”10 He also castigated the British:

“The only reason they seem to oppose [trusteeship] is that they fear the effect it would have on their own possessions and those of the Dutch. They have never liked the idea of trusteeship because it is, in some instances, aimed at future independence.” 11

However, Roosevelt was not motivated by lofty feelings for the plight of the Vietnamese. He wanted to enhance the position of US imperialism, which during the Second World War saw itself emerging as the dominant power on the globe in the post-war situation. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, on behalf of British imperialism, realising this, wrote in 1944 in relation to Malaya:

“If the Japanese should withdraw… or make peace as the result of the main American thrust, the United States Government would after the victory feel greatly strengthened in its view that all possessions in the East Indian Archipelago should be placed under some international body upon which the United States would exercise a decisive concern.” 12

For this reason, British forces in Southeast Asia, led by Admiral Lord Mountbatten, were ordered to “liberate Malaya without US assistance.” All this shows the intense inter-imperialist rivalry, the jostling for favourable positions in the post-war situation, while ostensibly the war was being fought by the ‘Allies’ for ‘democracy’ and against the Nazis and Japanese ‘aggression’.

The fate of the Vietnamese was so much small change in these plots and counter-plots for the redivision of the world in the post-1945 situation. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 it was decided that Japanese forces located in Southeast Asia would, in the main, surrender to the British. The Pentagon Papers reveal that in areas dominated by the Chinese – that is, the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuo Min-Tang (KMT) –they were prepared to accept the Vietnamese government in power in Hanoi. The British refused to do likewise in Saigon, and deferred to the French from the outset. The Papers also reveal:

“In mid-August, Vietnamese resistance forces of the Viet Minh, under Ho Chi Minh, had seized power in Hanoi and shortly thereafter demanded and received the abdication of the Japanese puppet, Emperor Bao Dai. On V-J Day, 2 September, Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed in Hanoi the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The DRV ruled as the only civil government in all of Vietnam for a period of about 20 days. On 23 September 1945, with the knowledge of the British Commander in Saigon, French forces overthrew the local DRV government and declared the French authority restored in Cochinchina [the southern part of Vietnam]. Guerrilla war began around Saigon. Although American OSS representatives [the forerunner of the CIA] were present in both Hanoi and Saigon and ostensibly supported the Viet Minh, the United States took no official position regarding either the DRV or the French and British actions in South Vietnam.” 13

The British did not have enough forces to attack the mobilised Vietnamese masses. They therefore released imprisoned French colonials and armed them, together with Japanese troops, who then proceeded with British commanders to attack the main Viet Minh-occupied buildings in Saigon. The Pentagon Papers reveal:

“The British arranged for the transport of additional French troops to Indochina, bilaterally agreed with the French for the latter to assume British occupation responsibilities, and signed a pact on 9 October 1945, giving ‘full recognition to French rights’ in Indochina. French troops began arriving in Saigon that month, and subsequently the British turned over to them some 800 US Lend-Lease jeeps and trucks… The fighting between the French and the Vietnamese which began in South Vietnam with the 23 September 1945 French coup d’état spread from Saigon throughout Cochinchina, and to southern Annam [the central part of Vietnam]. By the end of January 1946, it was wholly a French affair, for by that time the British withdrawal was complete.” 14


The Viet Minh had called for ‘restraint’ and negotiations. But the masses of Saigon had risen, with the Trotskyists, the Buddhists and some religious sects, together with many communists who could not accept the passive party line. Above all, it was the communist workers who joined in this uprising. One hundred and fifty French civilians were killed and the rebels held the working class suburbs for a number of days. However, the Viet Minh had officially withdrawn from Saigon, which allowed the rising to be crushed. As the French army replaced the British, it slowly reasserted its power in the south. The Viet Minh, as they retreated, hunted down and killed almost all the Trotskyists. Ho Chi Minh, in a report to the Comintern in July 1939, had stated that the Indochinese Communist Party had refused all offers of co-operation with the Trotskyists: “As regards the Trotskyites – no alliances and no concessions. They must be unmasked as the stooges of the fascists, which they are.”15 Yet in extremely difficult conditions the Trotskyists survived and “in the 1953 municipal elections… the Saigon Taxi Drivers’ Union… put up a Trotskyist candidate, who won handily.”16

Earlier in September 1945, the French Communist Party cell in Saigon had warned the Viet Minh, then trying to resist the French re-occupation of Saigon, that “any premature adventures” towards independence might “not be in line with Soviet perspectives”. In other words the French Stalinists did everything to prevent ‘disturbances’ such as revolts of the masses in the colonial world, in order not to disrupt the post-1945 attempt of Russian Stalinism to arrive at an agreement with imperialism to maintain the status quo. Fall explains:

“At home, the French Communist leaders in parliament (the Party chief, Maurice Thorez, was Vice-Premier at the time) did not block the first Indochina War budget and all the emergency measures connected with the prosecution of the first phase of the war. There can be no doubt that a Communist-provoked government crisis in the winter of 1946-47 would have brought a military crisis in Indochina and might have caused the war to end in a compromise because of lack of supplies and manpower on the French side.” 17

The gratitude of the French bourgeoisie was evident when “French conservative politicians rose in the National Assembly during a crucial appropriations debate from March 14-18, 1947, to thank their own Communist colleagues and the Soviet Union for leaving France to fight its war in Indochina without outside disturbance.” 18

The role of the Viet Minh leaders, and later the NLF, was not at all accidental. Despite the ‘kindly’ image cultivated by Ho Chi Minh, he was a product of Stalin’s machine. He did not have the worked-out political position of Lenin and Trotsky. These great socialist leaders understood that the working class must be the main force in a socialist revolution, even in an agrarian underdeveloped country such as Vietnam. The Russian Revolution had demonstrated that only the proletariat, even where it is a minority, is capable of mobilising the mass of the peasantry to carry through the bourgeois-democratic revolution. This can only be carried out in opposition to the landlords and capitalists. Leon Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution most accurately anticipated the main lines of the Russian Revolution (see appendix 1).

Peasant leaders

Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Mao Ze Dong in China were essentially peasant leaders with limited nationalist horizons. Their ‘Marxism’ was a thin ‘socialist’ veneer grafted on to a philosophy and programme which looked towards the peasantry as the main force for change and feared a mobilised working class. A member of the American OSS sent to liaise with Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh during the Second World War quoted Ho as saying: “Although he formerly favoured Communist ideals, he now realised that such ideals were impracticable for his country, and that his policy now was one of republican nationalism.” 19 Another OSS source recalls his last meeting with Ho Chi Minh, who complained: “Why doesn’t the United States give us moral support? We don’t want anything else, nothing but moral support. Look what you have done in the Philippines. You promised them a date for independence, you have given them independence. Why can’t you do the same for us?” 20

Like Mao Ze Dong, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh did not set out with a conscious plan to break with landlordism and capitalism. On the contrary, they would have settled for Vietnamese independence within the framework of capitalism, at least in the short term. It was clear also that Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Stalinists offered imperialism the opportunity to create a wedge against the far bigger threat in the north posed by China, if it wanted to seize this. Indeed, Maclear could write later: “The United States, with this early intelligence, failed to recognise in Ho Chi Minh a potential Asian Tito.” 21 (Tito was the nationalist, Stalinist leader of post-war Yugoslavia, who steered a political course independently of Russian Stalinism.)

Ho himself indicated that he was eager to play such a role in his comments to an American agent:

“Eventually he had gone to the Soviet Union, he said, and studied the teachings of Marx and Lenin. He did not dwell on this much except to say that he believed that revolution had benefited the Russian people and that he had become a believer in Communism. But he went on to say that he did not believe that the Soviet Union could or would make any kind of a real contribution to the building of what he called a new Vietnam.” 22

Yet because of the US’s morbid fear in the post-Second World War situation of the ‘spread of communism’ – what US President Eisenhower later called the “domino effect”, the defeat of landlordism and capitalism in China followed by similar developments throughout the whole of Asia – it did not go down this road. The US was faced with an accomplished fact in the form of the Stalinist regime of Tito but it nevertheless pursued a different policy to that in Vietnam. When Tito came into collision with Stalin and the Russian bureaucracy, the US was prepared to finance such a regime as a lever against Stalinist Russia during the Cold War, without ever fully reconciling itself to the elimination of capitalism in Yugoslavia. The US eschewed a similar role in Vietnam.

Initially, the French attempted to recreate their empire with the backing of US imperialism. Therefore, in the vacuum that existed in Vietnam in 1945 – which to begin with was filled by the Viet Minh – together with the hostility of French and world imperialism, Ho Chi Minh was pushed into opposition to these powers. As with China, the social forces on which the Viet Minh were based – to a great extent the agrarian peasant population – had an effect on the character and direction in which the Viet Minh developed. The reimposition of French rule led to an oppositional war by the Viet Minh, enormously strengthened by the victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Initially the Viet Minh were hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the situation, with primitive weapons: ‘scimitars and bronze clubs’.

In 1945, after the declaration of independence, 200,000 troops of the Kuo Min-Tang of Chiang Kai Shek, based on the landlords and capitalists, rampaged through North Vietnam. The euphoria of independence gave way to a nightmare. The Viet Minh leaders, as we have seen, made the mistake of agreeing to let French troops into the north ‘for a specified period of time’ in order to drive out the Chinese troops. It is interesting that even at this stage Ho Chi Minh did not approach the forces of Mao Ze Dong to help to drive out Chiang’s forces. It once more underlines the limited nationalist horizons of the leaders of the Viet Minh and Mao, as well as the age-old conflict between Vietnam and China, which resulted in a damaging war between them later.

To begin with, Ho Chi Minh tried to come to a deal with the French, with the latter even agreeing on paper to a ‘free state’. The quid pro quo for this was the ending of guerrilla activity in the south of the country. This in turn led to the withdrawal of the Chinese KMT troops who, in the process looted and pillaged Hanoi. Under instructions from the Viet Minh, the people of Hanoi and Haiphong did not fire on the retreating bandits.

War begins

However, within a year of the paper agreement between the French and Ho Chi Minh’s forces, war recommenced. The Viet Minh guerrillas, together with Ho Chi Minh were driven back into the countryside, resulting in eight unremitting years of war against the French, now heavily supported militarily by the US for ‘reasons of wider geo-politics’. This chapter of re-colonisation was to end in disaster for France nine years later at Dien Bien Phu. As Maclear correctly put it: “The French, from the outset, were fighting not just the Viet Minh but history." 23 Even Roosevelt had remarked that France had ruled Vietnam for a century and the people were “worse off than at the beginning”.24

Ha Van Lua, a Vietnamese leader, commented:

“The Vietnamese had been submitted to the double burden of colonialism and feudalism. The peasantry were vassals of the farmers and landlords. When they died their bodies served as manure in the plantations. Our history is one of many thousands of years, but in colonial days Vietnam didn’t even appear on the world map. The country was divided into three parts. That was the politics of divide and rule.” 25

The French poured resources into the country, backed initially, as mentioned previously, by the ‘Communist’ Party of France, while it was still part of Charles de Gaulle’s coalition government up to 1947. However, the French could not use conscript troops, considered to be ‘unreliable’. Eighty thousand French career soldiers, together with 20,000 French Foreign Legionnaires, of whom half had fought for the Nazis during the Second World War, and 48,000 troops from the French colonies were unleashed against the Viet Minh. These were buttressed by 300,000 Indochinese troops, whose officer caste was drawn from the Vietnamese landlords and capitalists. These were the people who traditionally had been leaned on by the French to maintain their hold on the country. The war that ensued meant that the Viet Minh held the countryside and the French exercised a tenuous hold on the cities. Ha Van Lua described the situation: “The Viet Minh were like fish in water. That was our slogan. Our fighters moved and worked among the people like fish in water.” 26

The war spread throughout the country and beyond to the whole of Indochina. At the same time the Viet Minh, particularly its leadership and middle cadre, had been drawn from the educated elite, from the landlord and mandarin class, and even some sections of the capitalists. The Viet Minh, indeed, officially based itself on the organisations of “peasants, workers, the youth, the women, even the Buddhists. It included urban groups –cultural associations, intellectuals, artists, elements of the national bourgeoisie.” 27

This was clearly the product of the training of the leaders of the Viet Minh in the Stalinist school with its emphasis on the ‘stages’ of the revolution in the colonial world. In order to carry through the tasks of the ‘bourgeois-democratic revolution’, it was necessary –according to the schemas laid down by Stalin – for the workers, peasants and middle layers to form an alliance with the so-called ‘progressive’ national bourgeoisie. The reality in Vietnam, as earlier in China, was that the national bourgeoisie was on the other side of the barricades, or of the hill in this case, in the guerrilla war. Any representatives of the national bourgeoisie who joined the Viet Minh were the exception to the rule, there as purely decorative figures to disguise the reality of the class forces sustaining the struggle of the Viet Minh.

As commented earlier, it was the agrarian revolt of the peasantry, the poor in particular, which fuelled and sustained the guerrilla struggle and eventually defeated US imperialism and its puppets in Vietnam. The Viet Minh leadership, which looked towards the educated elite and the ‘progressive’ landlords, often found itself at loggerheads with the peasantry, particularly the landless peasants, in the course of the war against the French. Under pressure, the Viet Minh was more and more compelled to emphasise the class differences and call for land reform.

US support

This in turn led to a hardening of the attitude of the ranks of the Viet Minh and the institution of a thorough land reform in the areas it controlled in the north in the early 1950s. Landlords were hauled before village meetings to be humiliated, be forced to apologise, sometimes to see their land taken away from them or even to lose their lives. Once this began, the movement of the landless and the peasantry in general was directed against even these very same ‘progressive’ landlords who allegedly supported the Viet Minh. This led to class tensions within the Viet Minh, with even Ho Chi Minh coming out against some actions which took the land away from rich families, the sons of whom were in leading positions in the Viet Minh. However, the old feudal order was ultimately broken in the north and this ignited the ferocious energy of the landless population.

The treasure and manpower of the French were used up in a futile attempt to defeat the guerrillas. Up to the Korean War in 1950 French requests for US military aid went largely unheeded. But when the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel immediate armed support was given to South Korea, under the flag of the United Nations, and this in turn decided the US administration to announce a programme of military aid to Indochina. It was modest at the beginning, no more than $10 million in 1950. Once the Korean War got under way, however, the price of French co-operation rose one hundred-fold. The initial $10 million leapt annually by hundreds of millions and exceeded $1,000 million by 1954 – 78 per cent of the French war bill – “even though all concerned conceded that the war could not be won.”28

From this time until the US pulled out in 1975 – a 25-year period – the US would spend a total of $140 billion in this war. One US representative in Paris in the 1950s conceded that the amount given to France alone

“was enormous. The French spent, in effect, in Indochina, about what we had given them through the Marshall Plan for aid and reconstruction. And in one way you could say that we paid for the French experience in Indochina. But if they had not had that [aid] what might have happened to the French economy could have paralleled the record in Germany.” 29

Despite this support the French were more and more on the back foot militarily. Even a US counter-insurgency expert in the 1950s stated that he had “very strong feelings that a colonial power – which the French were – couldn’t win the people’s war that was being waged. Only the Vietnamese themselves could win in such a war.”30 Here is the germ of what later became the policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ of the war. This was never fully carried through and, because it was based upon defence of the landlord-capitalist class, was doomed to failure. Some sections of the French army were extremely doubtful of the success of the country’s army in Vietnam. For instance, General Le Clerc, ‘celebrated World War II hero’, refused the

“combined posts of commander-in-chief and high commissioner. He based his refusal on the prophetic insight that no French government would give him the 500,000 men that he considered necessary for military success… Le Clerc, even in 1946, was doubtful that the war could be won by military means only. On 30 April 1946, he stated: ‘The major problem now on is political.’” 31

More brutally, Major Bigeard, the leader of the French paratroopers at Dien Bien Phu, commented years later: “If you had given me 10,000 SS troops, we’d have held out.” 32 This assertion is wrong because no more than the Russian people in the Second World War would the Vietnamese have been defeated by forces like this. However, Bigeard does underline the fascistic methods sections of the French officer corps were willing to use in the colonial war. This even under a nominally ‘democratic’ government in France.

But in 1953 the French, undaunted, after the ceasefire in the Korean War and with massive assistance from the US, went after the Viet Minh. French policy was one of ‘harrying and destroying’ the Viet Minh, a dress rehearsal for the later ‘search and destroy’ methods employed by the US. This failed and led to mounting doubts and a crisis of morale within the occupying French army. A battalion commander asked his general, “What is our goal? Mon commandant, give me a moral reason, even if it is only for my men.” 33

After seven years of war, France had lost 74,000 troops in Vietnam, with 190,000 tied down fighting against the guerrillas. Undoubtedly, the outmoded military methods of the French contributed to their defeat – based as they were on conventional confrontation during World War II. But the major problem was that, “France lacked the popular support to make American aid effective.”34 The stark reality of French imperialism’s incapacity to defeat the Viet Minh was revealed in the bloody encounter at Dien Bien Phu, which marked the end of over a century of French presence in Indochina.

Dien Bien Phu

The French army had dug in at the valley of Dien Bien Phu, close to the Laotian border. The aim was to manoeuvre the Viet Minh into a set-piece battle in which the superiority of French infantry and experience would prove decisive. They knew that the Viet Minh were in the hills surrounding the valley, but did not believe that Giap could have organised sufficient artillery to defeat them. However, the Viet Minh had assembled a huge army – ultimately with a superiority of three to one in firepower and manpower – as well as a colossal transport system which allowed them to transport the heavy artillery supplied by the Chinese and the Russians to the battlefield. After 45 days the French surrendered, but not before the US, which had been observing the collapse of the French army with alarm, had considered coming to the assistance of its ally with the use of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons.

The evidence for this is provided by a number of sources, including the then US Vice-President and later Republican President, Richard Nixon, who wrote in his memoirs: “In Washington, the joint chiefs of staff devised a plan, known as Operation Vulture, for using three small tactical atomic bombs to destroy Viet Minh positions and relieve the [French] garrison.” 35 This mad plot had been hatched after a visit of the chief of the besieged French forces in Vietnam to Washington requesting military assistance to prevent a collapse. The result was that the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Arthur Radford, formulated Operation Vulture. (There were, in fact three planned operations named after birds of ill omen: Vulture, Condor and Albatross.) “They were operations, borne of despair, to save the beleaguered garrison of Dien Bien Phu from Giap and the Viet Minh.” 36 Radford proposed initially that 75 to 100 American B-29 bombers based at Clark air force base in The Philippines strike at Giap’s troops at Dien Bien Phu on three or four successive nights. The bombers would be escorted by 170 United States Navy fighters aboard two aircraft carriers and “there appears to have been some discussion about using three atomic bombs”.37

Philip B. Davidson, himself a high-ranking US army officer, could later comment in alarm:

“Radford’s proposal – extraordinary even in 1954 – now seems simply unbelievable… The use of atomic bombs would propose monstrous problems. There would be not only worldwide psychological and political repercussions, but the heat, blast, and radiation effects of atomic bombs would likely strike the French defenders almost as hard as the Vietnamese besiegers. The bombs would have to be dropped with pickle-barrel accuracy if they were to destroy the Viet Minh attackers without devastating the French garrison as well.” 38

Incredibly, Radford found two American supporters for this proposal: Cold War warrior and head of the CIA, John Foster Dulles, and Nixon himself. Bush, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld are merely adopting today the military ‘hypotheses’ of their predecessors from the 1950s onwards in considering the use of nuclear weapons against a perceived ‘enemy’.

The hands of the military and, it seems, of President Dwight D Eisenhower and Nixon, were only stayed by the intervention of the Democrats, ironically led at the time by Lyndon Johnson, who was to preside over the much more brutal US war later. “After two hours it was obvious that the legislative leaders would not support Radford’s plan, at least not without the inclusion of ‘serious allies’. Vulture had taken a mortal wound.”39 Among those who opposed any US intervention was a young Senator John Kennedy, who stated: “No amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.”40 It is striking how bourgeois statesmen and politicians can at some stages make quite profound observations, especially when they don’t wield power, but once in office can be drawn into the quicksand as easily as the French were in Indochina.

The Viet Minh had effectively won the war but had not yet inherited the spoils: formal control of the whole country. It became clear that in a military contest with the French the Viet Minh would conquer the whole of Vietnam within a measurable period of time. This led to negotiations in Geneva. After much haggling, this led to the partition of Vietnam on the 17th parallel, giving the north to the forces of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. This was considered to be ‘temporary’, as is the case with all such deals brokered by capitalism and imperialism. Elections were to be held in two years and, of course, never took place. Even Eisenhower subsequently admitted that, if elections had been held at the time of the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, “possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for Ho Chi Minh”.41 He later remarked with some bewilderment: “Not only do the Viet Cong units have the recuperative powers of the Phoenix, but they have had an amazing ability to maintain morale.” 42

The US was determined to resist the victory of the Viet Minh at all costs. The US had a longstanding awareness of the strategic value of the East Asian states and had demonstrated on a number of occasions its determination to act against “local revolutions with optimum, even nuclear force to sustain the credibility of its numerous pacts and alliances, both privately and publicly.” 43 However, the lengths to which the US was prepared to go was only really made aware to the American people with the revelations of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg. As early as 1941, the Papers reveal the conclusions of the US government about the “supreme importance” of the control of “rubber, tin and other commodities.” 44 This, of course, was a major contributory element to the war with Japan. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff argued in April 1950: “The fall of Indochina would undoubtedly lead to the fall of other mainland states of Southeast Asia…” and with this the Soviet Union would control “Asia’s war potential… affecting the balance of power.” 45

Domino theory

During the French occupation of Vietnam, Washington was preoccupied with the possibility of their collapse. In June 1952, it was secretly recorded that if Indochina collapsed, and particularly Vietnam, the consequences would be grave:

“[It] would have critical psychological, political and economic con-sequences… The loss of any single country would probably lead to relatively swift submission to or an alignment with communism by the remaining countries of this group. Furthermore an alignment with communism of the rest of Southeast Asia and India and, in the longer term, of the Middle East (with the probable exceptions of at least Pakistan and Turkey) would in all probability progressively follow. Such widespread alignment would endanger the stability and security of Europe.” It would also “render the US position in the Pacific offshore island chain precarious and would seriously jeopardise fundamental US security interests in the Far East.” The “principal world source of natural rubber and tin, and a producer of petroleum and other strategically important commodities”, would be lost in Malaya and Indonesia. The rice exports of Burma and Thailand would be taken from Malaya, Ceylon, Japan, and India. Eventually there would be “such economic and political pressures in Japan as to make it extremely difficult to prevent Japan’s eventual accommodation to communism.”46

As one well informed analyst of Vietnam and its war, Gabriel Kolko, commented:

“This was the perfect integration of all the elements of the domino theory, involving raw materials, military bases, and the commitment of the United States to protect its many spheres of influence. In principle, even while helping the French to fight for the larger cause which America saw as its own, Washington leaders prepared for direct US intervention when it became necessary to prop up the leading domino – Indochina.” 47

In December 1953, US Vice-President Richard Nixon explained publicly:

“If Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya, with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia. If this whole part of Southeast Asia goes under Communist domination or Communist influence, Japan, who trades and must trade with this area in order to exist, must inevitably be orientated towards the Communist regime.” When his boss, Eisenhower, made public the “falling domino” scenario, he also discussed “the dangers of losing the region’s tin, tungsten and rubber and the risk of Japan being forced into dependence on communist nations for its industrial life – with all that implied.”48

Economic factors, the need to control the wealth or potential wealth of the region, were important reasons for US intervention. But even when these decreased in immediate importance, the US never lost sight of the strategic value and the repercussions of a defeat in the region for its prestige both there and elsewhere. For instance, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Johnson in January 1964 that although he preferred Saigon troops to fight the war then under way, “We cannot disengage US prestige to any significant degree… The consequences of a Communist-dominated South Vietnam are extremely serious both for the rest of Southeast Asia, for the US position in the rest of Asia and indeed in other key areas of the world.” 49 General Maxwell Taylor also declared: “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.”50 The Pentagon Papers revealed the central aim of the US presence in the region: “The South Vietnam conflict is regarded as a test case of US capacity to help a nation to meet a communist ‘war of liberation’.” 51

Therefore the US ruling class, notwithstanding the humiliating defeat of the French and their subsequent withdrawal, was determined to hold on to South Vietnam. Historians have pondered the question, why did the Americans ignore the French experience? This was partly because of the disdain for the experiences of other capitalist nations, underlined by those in the Bush regime today. The colossal economic and military power of US imperialism, could, they believe, sweep all before it. After all, they sneered, “The French haven’t won a war since Napoleon. What can we learn from them?”52 Yet only a few short years before, they had been fought to a standstill in Korea. They were to receive a severe blow to their arrogance and complacency from the risen people of Vietnam, one of the poorest nations on the globe.