empire defeated - vietnam war, lessons for today by Peter Taaffe
3. The Johnson presidency
Justification for the massive ratcheting up of military expenditure and involvement was found in the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident, involving an alleged clash between the US Navy and North Vietnamese gunboats in 1964. Ironically, Daniel Ellsberg, then 33 years old, was employed in a high-flying job in the Pentagon on the very day, 4 August 1964, Chalmers Johnson comments:
“the destroyer USS Maddox sent flash despatches to Washington from the Gulf of Tonkin saying that it was ‘under continuous torpedo attack’. President Johnson went on television to tell the nation that the ship was on a ‘routine patrol in international waters’, that the attack was ‘unprovoked’, and that the US was the victim of a ‘deliberate pattern of naked aggression’. Johnson ordered the carrier USS Ticonderoga to launch air strikes against North Vietnam. On 7 August, by a vote of 416 to 0 in the House of Representatives and 88 to 2 in the Senate, Congress approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, setting the US on a path to full-scale war against North Vietnam. And yet Ellsberg writes: ‘I was learning from cables, reports and discussions in the Pentagon the background that gave the lie to virtually everything told both to the public and more elaborately to Congress in secret session.’ The Vietnamese attack, if it had actually occurred at all, was assuredly provoked. The Maddox had been on a secret mission well inside Vietnamese territorial waters. The highest ranking officials of the US Government had approved the mission in advance. The director of Central Intelligence, John McCone, told the President that the North Vietnamese were ‘reacting defensively’. Nonetheless, Johnson personally lied to Senator William Fulbright, the highly respected chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in order to get him to sponsor the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in Congress. Ellsberg took this calmly. He accepted Johnson’s campaign slogan for the 1964 Presidential election – ‘We seek no wider war’ – even though he knew the President was moving in precisely the opposite direction. He believed that these deceptions were necessary ploys to defeat the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, who wanted to use nuclear weapons against Vietnam and China.” 1
This incident was used to get US congressional support for stepping up the war and specifically the bombing of North Vietnam. No such similar event could be found by US imperialism to justify the attack on Iraq. However, this was not for want of trying as the US, together with Britain, in effect fabricated reasons and evidence (the ‘non’-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) in order to convince world public opinion that it was necessary to attack Saddam. His regime had actually been brought into being through the CIA, financed and supported particularly in the war against Iran in the 1980s.
The full panoply of US military power was deployed in order to break the resistance of the Vietnamese as a whole. The US, in time, was to mobilise what their commanding officer in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, whose name is forever associated with the war, called “the finest military force – though not the largest – ever assembled.”2 The defeat of the US is ascribed by Westmoreland to ‘civilian betrayal’ by the Washington political elite who tied the hands of the generals leading this ‘fine force’, thereby preventing victory over the Vietnamese. The generals were grounded, then as now, in the military doctrine of ‘overwhelming military force’. Historically, the US had won every war since, and including, their own civil war (with the exception of the Korean War which was fought to a ‘draw’ after the US intervened to prevent the collapse of South Korea at the hands of the Stalinist regime of North Korea, which was backed by China and Russia) by an overwhelming combination of superior manpower and weight of material. This minimised the importance of strategy. However, the advent of nuclear weapons resulted in a switch to the doctrine of ‘limited war’ initiated by ‘civilian theorists’.
This was partly conditioned by the existence of the strong Stalinist states of Russia, Eastern Europe and China, with the former possessing a nuclear capacity. The Korean War was an example of a ‘limited war’ by the US and their allies in seeking to ‘contain communist aggression’. In the course of this conflict, a clash took place between military strategists such as General Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to unleash an atomic bomb against North Korea and its Chinese backers but who was sacked by President Harry S Truman, who represented the proponents of ‘limited war’. This was the only possible means of conducting a struggle by the US, short of nuclear Armageddon and mutually assured destruction, in the period of the Cold War. This in turn forced the US to adopt the policy of a ‘graduated response’, in effect, a gradually escalating military campaign in the South and the bombing of North Vietnam. Even this ‘graduated’ military doctrine resulted in the terrible destruction of people and resources in both parts of Vietnam.
Yet, Westmoreland and his cronies wanted all the shackles to be taken off the US military so it could pound Vietnam into a pre-Stone Age. Both the military and political strategists of US imperialism failed to grasp that military force alone, even when deployed by the strongest power on the globe, is not capable of ultimately defeating a whole people, even a small nation like Vietnam, in the struggle for national and social liberation. Even Westmoreland had a premonition of this when, as he claimed, he was first mooted for the position of Commander of US forces in Vietnam. He described the situation to McNamara, the US Defense Secretary, as a “bottomless pit”. He comments in his memoirs:
“Nobody appeared to recall [the famous Chinese military warfare theorist of 2,400 years ago] Sun Tzu’s dictum, ‘There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited’. Nor the Duke of Wellington’s admonition to the House of Lords: ‘A great country cannot wage a little war’.”3
These comments, however, did not prevent Westmoreland from dragging the US further into the “bottomless pit” of Vietnam and, in the process, unleashing unspeakable horrors on the Vietnamese people. Westmoreland states, in a matter of fact fashion: “It was necessary on some occasions intentionally to raze evacuated villages or hamlets”4 In justifying this, he gives a glimpse of the popular base of the NLF: “So closely entwined were some populated localities, with the tentacles of the VC [Viet Cong] base areas, in some areas actually integrated into the defences, and so sympathetic were some of the people to the VC, that the only way to establish control short of constant combat operations among the people was to remove the people and destroy the village.” 5
Westmoreland restated the age-old conflict between the military and against “rear area critics”, and railed against the “whiz kids” and “field marshals” in the US State Department who, without experience, were trying to tell him how to run the war.6 This echoes the conflict today between the neo-conservative ‘whiz kids’ and the US military high command. This clash was over whether the war in Iraq should be conducted, on strategic questions during the war and now on the issue of the role of the military in the occupation. The only difference in Iraq was that the US generals, given the experience of Vietnam, were much more cautious than the bellicose Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle. Ironically, the US military today has more of an inkling of an understanding of the limits of military power, which has been underlined by the catastrophic outcome of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But in Vietnam, Westmoreland and the US military wished to unleash, without restrictions, the full might of US military resources against a relatively defenceless and poor people. Unbelievably, Westmoreland criticises the limited on-off bombing during the war.
Even so, 70 per cent of the North’s villages were destroyed, Hanoi was destroyed, and there was also the massive use of what we now call chemical warfare. The actual amount used by the US in Vietnam dwarfs the alleged threat of chemical and bacteriological weapons which were supposed to be in the hands of Saddam. Twenty million tons of the defoliant Agent Orange was used. The food chain remains poisoned right up to today and birth defects have become endemic (see appendix 2). And yet, despite the deployment of fiendish weapons and the cranking up of the US war effort to half a million troops, a colossal $150 billion expenditure and a total of 2.8 million troops used over time, the reality is that a force of predominantly ragged peasants in South Vietnam, supported, of course, by the Stalinist state in the North, defeated the strongest military power the world had ever seen. This would not have been possible on the basis of a military struggle alone.
A comparison between the war in Vietnam and that waged by the US against Iraq bears out the point. The tyrannical, unpopular Saddam regime was no match for the even greater firepower accumulated today by the US. If, however, the US had faced a movement of social and national liberation, as was the case in Vietnam, then it is doubtful that the US ruling class would have acquiesced to Bush’s war in Iraq. An aroused and armed Iraqi people would have meant that the war would at least have been dragged out, with all the consequences that would mean for US imperialism, both in its own backyard but particularly worldwide.
If the war had been confined to Vietnam alone then it is unlikely that the NLF would have won in the time scale that it did. After a long war, similar in the modern era to the Hundred Years War, no doubt the Vietnamese would have been victorious but at an even greater cost in terms of suffering and deaths for the Vietnamese people, quite apart from adding to the roll-call of American dead as well. The unquenchable revolt of the Vietnamese workers and peasants was to be found in the insoluble problems under capitalism of the land, democracy, an equitable distribution of water resources, lingering regional and national problems, and opposition to foreign, imperialist dominance. In other words, the tasks of what Marxism calls the capitalist-democratic revolution, carried out largely in the seventeenth century in Britain, the eighteenth century in France and in the rest of Europe in the nineteenth century, remained to be completed in Vietnam.
Weak Vietnamese capitalists, including the ‘overseas Chinese’ capitalists who had significant stakes in Vietnam, were unable to carry through the main tasks of their own revolution. They were bound with iron hoops to world imperialism. The Russian Revolution showed that only the working class could lead the peasants in completing these tasks. At the same time, after coming to power, they would be immediately faced with socialist tasks, the nationalisation of industry under the establishment of workers’ control and management, etc. In Vietnam, however, it was not the working class but the peasantry which was the main force for the social and national liberation movement that was under way. Moreover the models for Ho Chi Minh and the ‘communists’, North and South, were Stalinist Russia and Maoist China – ‘planned economies’ but run under the totalitarian rule of one party.
Differences on the Left
The Marxists (the Militant Tendency at the time, now the Socialist Party) supported this struggle but not in the uncritical fashion in which others on the left, particularly some left groups did. Two of the most prominent of these groups in Britain, the International Marxist Group (IMG), affiliated to the Fourth International led by Ernest Mandel, and the International Socialists (IS), now the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), intervened in the anti-Vietnam War movement. The former played a prominent role in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. They were both carried away by this movement. Their propaganda methods included an incorrect characterisation of the forces involved in the revolution as well as of the nature of the North Vietnam regime. In demonstrations, both would join in with students chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!” and the IMG supported ‘socialist’ North Vietnam. To give uncritical support, in this way, to the leaders of North Vietnam and the NLF, thereby identifying the antiwar movement with the political position of these leaders, was false. Militant supported the Vietnamese Revolution, the struggle of the peasants for land, the working class for democratic rights, etc, but this was coupled with ‘critical support’ for Ho Chi Minh and the NLF leaders. This involved supporting them when they struck blows against imperialism but also criticising their programme, their Stalinist aims and methods. We also explained that the kind of society they were trying to create was modelled on the Stalinist states.
The IS/SWP also supported the NLF and Ho Chi Minh, even though they believed Ho was struggling for a ‘state capitalist’ regime in Vietnam, already partially realised in the North. (A member of the SWP recently wrote: “His project was to build a state capitalist regime in Vietnam like Stalin’s Russia.” 7) This was in stark contrast to their previous positions, in the Korean War for instance. In an article for Socialist Review, the magazine of the IS, in relation to the Korean War they wrote: “We can, therefore, give no support to either camp since the war will not achieve the declared aims of either side… Our Third Force position – ‘Neither Western Capitalism nor Stalinist Totalitarianism’ – demands that we lend no support to either camp in Korea.”8 Their populist slogan at this time was: “Neither Moscow nor Washington”. In the Korean War it was not at all ‘popular’ to defend the planned economy of North Korea and, at the same time, to be very critical of the vicious Stalinist regime in the North. This was particularly the case amongst the ‘intelligentsia’, the students and intellectuals, upon whom the IS based itself. By the time of the Vietnam War, however, the situation had changed. Overwhelming opposition was manifested amongst the students and broad swathes of the middle class and intellectuals. Therefore, to have condemned both sides equally, as it had done in the case of Korea, would have cut off the IS/SWP from this movement. Hence the opportunist switch in its position, without proper explanation, to support for the struggle of the Vietnamese. The confusion, however, was summed up in an article in Issue 32 of International Socialism in 1968: “Not Washington nor Moscow – but Hanoi?”. The IS/SWP had an ambiguous position towards Ho and the NLF. On demonstrations its members joined in with the “Ho, Ho…” chants but also sought to position themselves to the ‘left’ of the IMG by, on occasions, criticising Ho and the NLF. At one famous London memorial meeting, a bust-up ensued between the IMG and the IS/SWP. This arose from the IS/SWP speaker attacking Ho for murdering Trotskyists.
Militant pointed out that it was not true to describe North Vietnam as a ‘socialist’ state or as ‘state capitalist’. It was undoubtedly a planned economy, a poverty-stricken one, but it was not a workers’ democracy as understood by the state which initially existed after the Russian Revolution. Immediately after the Revolution, most parties were accepted, including the pro-capitalist ones. The semi-fascist Black Hundreds were banned. Only when those parties opposed to the Bolsheviks, such as the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, resorted to force – took up arms to overthrow the revolutionary government – was action taken against them. It was the capitalist parties which resorted to the methods of civil war soon after the revolution, with all the terrible suffering that meant for the Russian people. Consequently, these parties were not allowed to participate in the political process of debate and decision making.
Different to Russian Revolution
The further degeneration of the revolution, explained fully by Trotsky, arose from the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the cultural backwardness of Russia at that stage. This led ultimately to the rise of a privileged officialdom, a bureaucracy, personified by the emergence of Stalin and the political system to which his name has been given, Stalinism. The finished system of Stalinism – totalitarian and anti-democratic, although resting on a planned economy, which was a qualitative break from capitalism – was the starting point for the regime of Mao Ze Dong in China and for Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. The development of such economies, arising out of the revolutions which led to their establishment, were undoubtedly enormously progressive compared to the rotten landlord and capitalist regimes which predominated in the rest of the colonial world.
The victory of the Vietnamese Revolution, for instance, which struck a blow against landlordism and capitalism, could actually realise in practice, as we argued at the time, the domino theory of Eisenhower – the systematic collapse of capitalist regimes in the region. But at the same time Marxists have a duty to point to the limitations of Stalinist regimes. They were not socialist in the Marxist sense of the term. We do not support one-party, totalitarian systems but fight for workers’ democracy. This in no way would diminish the need for campaigning against the Vietnam War as a major task of the world labour movement and young people at that stage. At the same time the consciousness of the mass of the working people, in particular towards this struggle, was somewhat different to that which existed at the time of the Russian Revolution. In 1917, internationally workers could see clearly that it was their own class which was in power – despite the avalanche of reactionary propaganda denigrating the revolution, accompanied by armed intervention as well. The working class of Western Europe not only supported the Bolshevik regime but sought to emulate it – the “ten days that shook the world” – leading to revolutions or revolutionary situations in Germany, Hungary and Italy, to name but three countries in Europe.
While there was great sympathy for the struggle of the Vietnamese during the war and a rising tide of opposition to the continued foreign intervention, primarily by the US, this was also qualified in the eyes of the industrial working class in the West by the lack of democracy in the Stalinist states, including North Vietnam, and the methods employed by the NLF. Its approach was not traditionally working class and internationalist. It adopted the age-old methods of a peasant guerrilla force. By definition this would not have the same attractive power to workers as a working class led revolution with democratic organs of control and management, soviets (workers’ councils), as in the first period of the Russian Revolution.
The differences in analysis and approach, on the left in particular, towards the Vietnam conflict inevitably led to differences in terms of the slogans required to build a mass anti-war movement. These were sometimes expressed in an acute form, particularly when the antiwar movement reached its peak. Militant opposed an ultra-left approach, both in Britain and worldwide, particularly in the US. While Marxists stood for a victory for the Vietnamese Revolution, to put this forward in the form of a slogan was counter-productive given the consciousness of the working class in the West. Equally harmful were slogans which caricatured Lenin’s position at the beginning of the First World War, calling for the ‘defeat of the US’. This was particularly inappropriate in the US itself. The best slogan, advanced by us and the more thinking, conscious sections of the antiwar movement, was the simple demand: “Withdraw US troops! Let the Vietnamese people themselves decide!”
This was done in the sure knowledge that if the US troops were withdrawn, the prop would be knocked completely from under the South Vietnamese regime and the Vietnamese workers and peasants would quickly finish off landlordism and capitalism. Indeed, this is what happened in 1975 after the US was forced to withdraw. These debates took place when the antiwar movement was quite small but prepared the ground for mass mobilisations to oppose the war. However, at the time when US imperialism under Johnson enormously cranked up its intervention in Vietnam, the protests were small and muted, being restricted at the beginning to student meetings, sit-ins and demonstrations.
But even at an early stage, we were unequivocal that the US would fail: “Despite the squandering of billions of dollars and the lives of American soldiers, US imperialism is doomed to defeat in Vietnam.”9 In the same article we pointed out: “The White House itself has been bombarded with letters opposing the war, and the National Opinion Poll showed that 70 per cent of the American population are opposed to a prolongation of the war.” Johnson had defeated the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in the presidential elections in 1964. Compared to the Republican candidate, who was a ‘warmonger’, who dangled the threat of nuclear weapons against the US’s perceived enemies, Johnson appeared almost as a ‘dove’. He promised not to widen the war but did precisely that as he and his advisers decided that a retreat from Vietnam would indeed be a realisation of Eisenhower’s domino collapse.
Johnson had a very simplistic view of history and the role of the US. According to his biographer Kearns, Johnson and his aides “held a genuine fear of communism… which they adjusted to their actions. Johnson… ‘got to the point where the North Vietnamese fitted the categories of the Germans in World War One and World War Two’.” The US had helped to end those wars, “and now here he was preventing World War Three”.10 The way to do this was to pour in resources, double the number of troops in Vietnam and massively increase expenditure, largely on arms. This rose to $1 million a day in military support for the rotten Saigon regime. (To give a comparison in 2003, the US alone is spending $40-50 million a day in Iraq.) In his State of the Union message in 1966, Johnson envisaged what was a huge expenditure at that time of $6,000 million in Vietnam. This was, as we reported in Militant at the time, “three times the total arms bill of British imperialism”.11
At the same time, Johnson had moved from an intransigent position of never negotiating with the ‘rebels’ to conceding in 1966 some kind of ‘Viet Cong’ participation in any negotiations. He accompanied this with proposals to neutralise Southeast Asia. The more serious bourgeois, however, such as the Washington correspondent of The Times, saw this proposal for what it was: “Even if the fighting could be stopped, the formation of a coalition government is seen here, frankly, as bringing only a communist coup on the pattern of the post-war Czechoslovakia and Poland.”12 Militant commented:
“Thus the imperialists understand that, with the departure of US forces, the puppet tops presently in command of Saigon would quickly give way to a Government based on the Viet Cong, which in turn would lead to the unification of the whole country. Unable to ‘save’ Vietnam for capitalism, ‘why not make the best of a bad job?’ reason the foremost thinkers of imperialism. The purely nationalist aims of the revolution will have no great appeal to the workers of the West. Hence the suggestion of de Gaulle to come to terms with the revolution. Why not concede victory to the Viet Cong, and attempt to assist the establishment of a regime on the pattern of Tito, independent of both the Russian and Chinese bureaucracies? This is the real meaning of the ‘carrots’ in the form of massive aid, dangled by Johnson… and not at all by any lofty concern for the welfare of the Vietnamese people.” 13
We had drawn the conclusion even then that,
“The future triumph of the Vietnamese revolution will mark another step forward in the colonial revolution. It will give a mighty impulse to the revolution in Cambodia, in Laos, Thailand and the whole of South-East Asia. As such, it must be hailed and supported by the militants and activists in the labour movement.” 14
But this perspective had to wait for ten years to be borne out, during which unspeakable atrocities were visited on the Vietnamese people.
The US itself was to pay a big economic price for the fruitless attempt to roll back the Vietnamese Revolution. The policies of ‘guns and butter’ proved to be impossible even for US capitalism, the strongest economy in the capitalist world. The cost of the war led to a rise in government deficits and at the same time the reining back of federal and state expenditure on things like welfare, housing and education. The Vietnam War also hit the middle class in the pocket book. In September 1967, President Johnson proposed a six per cent surtax which Congress passed. The war was coming home to Middle America, but also for the working class and the deprived minorities:
“The Vietnam War was aggravating the social revolution at home. Martin Luther King and other minority leaders criticised the war for absorbing resources which should have been devoted to the correction of social problems within the United States, and for excessive casualty rates amongst minority soldiers on the battlefield.” 15
By the middle of 1967 the American people had decisively turned against the war, with a Gallup Poll in June of that year showing that half of the Americans interviewed had no idea even why the US was in Vietnam. The US today is facing similar economic problems, enormously aggravated by a foreign war. Currently, the Bush junta has proposed a $400 billion annual budget for the Pentagon war machine while the country’s 50 states are in deficit, are sacking teachers and fire-fighters, and power cuts are taking place. The consequence during the Vietnam War was the further worsening of the conditions in the ghettoes and slums of the major cities: 14,000 children a year were either maimed or killed by rats in New York alone in the 1960s.
Protests in the US and in Vietnam
The Vietnam War, moreover, coincided with the rise of the black rights movement led first by Martin Luther King, but spawning the Black Panthers, with heroic figures like George Jackson and Muhammad Ali. An estimated one million black people considered themselves to be revolutionary. At the same time, the draft of the youth into the army mostly affected the working class and ethnic minorities. Those from a rich background, as well as the educated middle class, avoided serving in Vietnam by the adoption of a number of ruses. The last two US presidents, Bill Clinton and George W Bush, both avoided the draft. Bush avoided combat in Vietnam by wangling a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard, then failing to report for duty between May 1972 and May 1973. Vice-President Dick Cheney has said that
“he ‘had other priorities in the 1960s than military service’ (very probably the 58,202 people whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial also had ‘other priorities’). Neither the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, nor the Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, Richard Perle, have ever worn a military uniform. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had a university deferment at Princeton during the Korean War (he later joined the peacetime Navy). The Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith, and Cheney’s influential Chief of Staff, Lewis Libby, are both innocent of garrison life.” 16
Chalmers Johnson comments on this:
“These are today’s ‘chicken hawks’, men and women with an abstract knowledge of war who’ve never come under attack of any sort. They are enthusiasts for the notion that the United States has become a New Rome, a colossus unconstrained by any values, loyalties or ideals of international law. When the Supreme Court appointed George W Bush president, they came to power.”17
These neo-conservatives have, up to now, dominated the Bush junior administration, although all their plans lie in ruins, in the wastes of Iraq. Three thousand two hundred and fifty young people went to prison on the grounds of conscientious objection. An estimated quarter of a million avoided draft registration and one million committed draft offences. Yet only 25,000 were indicted, according to a special study, Chance and Circumstances by Lawrence M Baskir and William A Strauss. This study also found that “The number of eligible Americans who managed through student and occupational deferments and other factors to avoid military call-up totalled 15 million.” The historian Arthur Schlesinger junior wrote that this “meant that the war in Vietnam was being fought in the main by the sons of poor whites and blacks whose parents did not have much influence in the community. The sons of the influential people were all protected because they were in college.” 18
Nevertheless, the plight of the US troops in Vietnam and the character of this unjust war were to register in a powerful fashion in the minds of the American people. It was the revolt at ‘home’ that was to prove decisive in compelling US imperialism to withdraw. But this was not before the remorseless war was intensified, not least in the criminal bombing of North Vietnam. Even as early as March 1964, according to Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers and went to jail for this, the Pentagon chiefs were convinced that the bombing of North Vietnam “was essential but that it should have been done earlier”.20 Reports from US representatives indicated that without US support South Vietnam would collapse. William Bundy, a State Department analyst, commented in 1964 that the North Vietnamese were “already clearly winning the war”.21 Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, seen as a ‘dispassionate architect’ of an ultra-technological war advocated that the South Vietnamese army should be strengthened by a general mobilisation and equipped with the latest word in US military technique. In time he would become a most ferocious opponent of this idea. This was to be accompanied by a two phase bombing plan of North Vietnam. At the same time, ‘covert operations’ were organised against North Vietnam and neighbouring countries deemed to be not sufficiently loyal to the US cause, such as Laos.
War of attrition
All of this was done because the North Vietnamese had allegedly stepped up their involvement in the South. Undoubtedly, the guerrillas enormously increased the size and weight of their forces – rising roughly from a quarter of a million to 300,000 – but support from the North only came with the doubling of US troops in Vietnam to half a million at its height. The number of US troops in Vietnam rose from just over 20,000 in early 1965 to 82,000 just six weeks later, 122,000 within four months, 184,000 in the first year, and 300,000 by mid-1966, reaching more than 500,000 by 1967. With the rise in the number of US troops in the country, so did the casualties. The total killed, wounded and missing grew from 2,500 in 1965 to 33,000 in 1966 to 80,000 in 1967. The South Vietnamese ‘Chief of Staff’, in a masterly understatement, commented later: “I think that most of the time the Americans made the decisions and the South Vietnamese government was informed afterwards.” 21
A brutal war of attrition was conducted under Johnson, the aim of which was to completely pacify the population of South Vietnam and compel the North Vietnamese population, under the weight of bombs, to exert pressure on their leaders to desist and give up. This policy was carried out ruthlessly by Westmoreland. He commented later:
“I was told by Mr McNamara on innumerable occasions that I should ask for the troops I felt needed to bring about the end result. I should not worry about public opinion. I should not worry about the economy. I should not even concern myself as to the availability of the troops. His direction to me was to ask for the resources I needed to carry out a military mission.” 22
In order to justify their war to the Congress the military brass decided on a ‘kill count’. It was this obscene method of conducting the war which led to the massacres of South Vietnamese workers and peasants, typified by the massacre at My Lai in 1968. Yet the estimate of the number of unarmed Vietnamese civilians killed here was 200 by one report, 500 by another. The US army author, George Walton, estimated 700 were massacred. The punishment for the main instigator of this crime, Lieutenant William Calley, spent just three days in a military jail. On White House orders, he was transferred to house arrest where he spent three and a half years pending appeals to various military courts. All these appeals were denied; but after its final review, the White House concurred with its suggestions for parole. President Nixon, then in power, finally pardoned Calley. But it was not just Calley who was responsible for this crime but the US ruling class, the Johnson presidency and the officer caste as a whole. This included the Secretary of State in the administration of George W Bush, Colin Powell. He was a serving officer during the Vietnam War in the same regiment as Calley and attempted to cover up this crime.
My Lai was not the only massacre of innocent civilians that US troops were involved in. Today, about 30 years after the end of the war, the International Herald Tribune has published new revelations, first carried in the newspaper The Blade, alleging that
“An elite unit of American soldiers mutilated and killed hundreds of unarmed villagers over seven months in 1967 during the Vietnam War, and a US Army investigation was closed with no charges filed.”
Soldiers of the Tiger Force unit of the army’s 101st Airborne division,
“dropped grenades into bunkers where villagers – including women and children – hid, and shot farmers without warning…Soldiers told The Blade that they severed ears from the dead and strung them on shoelaces to wear round their necks.”
Because of the outrage at the killings a four-and-a-half year investigation was carried out but was closed in 1975 by the Pentagon and the White House. However, “the probe substantiated 20 war crimes by 18 soldiers before it was closed.” One Tiger Force soldier commented:
“We didn’t expect to live. Nobody out there with any brains expected to live… The way to live is to kill because you don’t have to worry about anybody who’s dead.”
At least 78 people were shot or stabbed but, in reality, “it is estimated that the unit killed hundreds of unnamed people.” The systematic barbarity of these US troops is detailed: “During the army’s investigation, 27 soldiers said severing ears from dead Vietnamese became routine. ‘There was a period when just about everyone had a necklace of ears,’ a former platoon medic, Larry Cottingham, told investigators.”23
US officers and the high command sanctioned such methods, as indicated by Colin Powell’s comments in his biography. After a brief mention of My Lai, he writes about the routine killing of unarmed male Vietnamese.
“I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male. If a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him. Brutal? Maybe so. But an able battalion commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen [West Germany], Lieutenant Colonel Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong.”24
This is the alleged ‘liberal’ face of the Bush regime in relation to the Iraq War and its aftermath!
“Countrywide inch deep”
The policy of pacification, summed up in the cliché, ‘winning hearts and minds’, was camouflage for the brutal murder, rape and despoliation of the countryside that was carried out by US forces and their South Vietnamese allies. The US Marines substituted their own aphorism for the official doctrine: “Get ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.” 25 Moreover, US imperialism was using Vietnam as a testing ground for the latest fiendish hi-tech weapons of ‘mass destruction’. One such was the ‘daisy cutter’ – which we became familiar with during the US bombing of Afghanistan – then, a 15,000 pound monster bomb that could blow a hole in a hilltop 300 feet in diameter, the size of a football stadium. This was done to create an instant ‘fire base’.
US forces were incapable of separating the NLF guerrillas from the Vietnamese population, from which they drew their support and sustenance. The US therefore resorted to classifying villages and sometimes whole districts deemed to be under guerrilla control as ‘free-fire zones’. Using completely inappropriate conventional military tactics of ‘search and destroy’, suspect areas were pounded, usually from the air and, consequently, were uprooted. Havoc was wreaked in the lives of villages and peoples which had existed in the area for millennia. In one such military strike, in the densely populated coastal region of Binh Dinh, 1,126 fighter bombers dropped one and half million pounds of bombs and 292,000 pounds of napalm. Offshore, US Navy gunships euphemistically ‘offered support’, in reality pounding this area into the ground. Previously, 10,000 people had been ‘evacuated’ from this area alleged to be under guerrilla control. The operation left an additional 1,804 refugees. By 1967 civilian refugees in South Vietnam had reached 1.2 million. In the eyes of the Vietnamese, ‘search and destroy’ had become known by the acronym ‘SAD’.
The failure of this policy became evident with each passing day of the war. The attempt to corral the Vietnamese rural population into ‘safe havens’ meant that at least a third of the population was uprooted from their ruined and abandoned ancestral villages. This was quite apart from the wandering army of refugees. Of course, these ‘sacrifices’ were acceptable to the US commanders as the price for defeating the ‘enemy’. The problem was, however, that no matter how great was their superiority in weapons and personnel, the traditional methods of guerrilla warfare – of hit and run supported, as it was, by the mass of the population – nullified this. GI patrols, known as ‘Grunts’, were constantly on edge at the prospect of surprise attacks. The guerrillas “knew American tactics well enough never to stay and fight unless trapped”. The guerrillas “had no territory to defend, no fixed base; Charlie [slang for the Viet Cong] could float – he was nicknamed ‘ghost’ – and at night would strike at the fire bases where the Grunts on guard would mutter, ‘The ghosts are out there – the ghosts are coming.’” 26
The prospects of dispelling this apparition for the US troops became more and more remote as time went on. The more resources and troops poured in, the more the US and its allies appeared to be losing. McNamara, inherited by Johnson from the Kennedy administration and an enthusiastic advocate of ‘hi-tech’ warfare, saw his doubts grow more and more and the faith in the invincibility of US technology dashed on the anvil of the Vietnam War. He was to end up disheartened and eventually demoralised, as did Johnson himself. Clark Clifford, not a ‘career politician’ but a tough corporate lawyer, was drafted in by Johnson in the aftermath of the disaster of the Tet Offensive (dealt with later) to stiffen US resolve.
However, in his first meeting with Pentagon chiefs, Clifford asked how long they expected it would take to win the war. Firm answers were unforthcoming. The questioning continued:
“’Now, if we send 200,000 more men will that be the end, or must we send more?’ ‘Well we really don’t know.’ ‘Well, are we are actually prevailing?’ ‘It all depends on how you look at it.’ He could not get solid answers. Clifford recalls questioning one US general who had moved ‘100,000 men’ in a sweep of one zone, [Clifford] said, ‘How did it go?’ and he said, ‘Badly.’ [Clifford] said, “What was the trouble?” and he said, ‘Damn it, they [the guerrillas] won’t come out and fight.’ ‘It reminded me,’ said Clifford, of the complaint by the British general in the [American War of Independence] that the American troops wouldn’t come out and fight. ‘We [the Americans] hung behind brick fences, rocks and trees and knocked off those Red Coats. And this was the same kind of problem.’ Clifford was now doubting that even if the US ‘doubled or trebled’ its forces it would not end the war ‘because the other side was not fighting that kind of war’.” 27
It was the CIA, virtually alone of US government agencies, which believed that Hanoi could withstand a US war of attrition regardless of large US troop increases. Later, the North Vietnamese leaders, during peace negotiations in the 1970s, indicated that they would be prepared to go on to the year 2000 to finish the war. In content, the authority of the Saigon ‘government’ was ‘countrywide but an inch deep’. This did not mean that the NLF’s struggle was seamless, its strategy and tactics without mistakes or setbacks. The temptation of a sizeable guerrilla force to go over to set-piece battles is implicit in a conflict of this character. When the enemy is perceived to be on its last legs a decisive blow can topple the regime. As with an insurrection in a classical revolutionary situation like October 1917 in Russia, however, the essence of the matter is timing and correct tactics.
Set-piece battles with a largely guerrilla force going over to an insurrection in the urban areas can also be decisive, as was the case in Nicaragua. This was not a classical guerrilla struggle anyway but was more akin to the Spanish Revolution of 1936 than to the largely rural-based struggles in the colonial world after 1945. It was mostly urban but with guerrillaist elements. Moreover, the Viet Minh, as we have already seen, had successfully conducted a set-piece battle at Dien Bien Phu, which smashed the French army and led to their evacuation from the country. Why not repeat this strategy in the South at a certain stage? Clearly, the Hanoi leadership together with its followers in the South attempted to repeat the success at Dien Bien Phu with a decisive blow against its enemy. However, this time it was confronting the strongest military power on the globe which, despite its weakness – the lack of a social base in the country – would not easily acquiesce militarily to a guerrilla force still largely armed with primitive weapons in comparison to those of the US.
Intense debate and corresponding divisions opened up amongst the leadership of North Vietnam and the NLF on the best military tactics to confront the growing US forces. A significant section of the leadership rejected the legendary leader Giap’s concept of continued guerrilla war in favour of the deployment of large-scale Vietnamese units against the US. It seems that Giap argued at length that the all-out offensive being planned by North Vietnam and the NLF, which came to fruition at Khe Sanh and in the Tet Offensive, would fail and that it would entail many casualties. He was proved to be correct in this although, as we explain later, the consequences were disastrous for the US administration of Johnson.
By mid-1967 the US force level in Vietnam had risen to 431,000 and the US general staff had received sanction for the troop ceiling to be raised to 543,000. But support for the war in the US moved in the opposite direction. “The American people had perceptibly turned against the war.”28 McNamara, now privately doubted the war’s ‘cost effectiveness’. Of course, the US generals put the best possible gloss on US and South Vietnamese military efforts. Obscenely, the ‘body count’ – guerrillas killed but, in reality, including a high proportion of non-combatants, civilians – became the measure for the effectiveness of the war.
But great consternation now existed in the ranks of the ruling class, with those like William Bundy commenting: “I can remember all too vividly that when the Korean War dragged on inconclusively a very great counter-tide grew up against this politically.”29 This statement was made in 1967, the year when the first large-scale anti-Vietnam War demonstrations were organised in the US. Also, US troops in the field became more and more dissatisfied with what they confronted. Here was a force whose average age was 19, compared to an average age of 26 in World War II. It was, moreover, as we have seen, drawn from the most oppressed strata of US society, who bore the main burden of the war at home as well. Today, conscription to the US armed forces has ended. But it is still the poor and the ethnic minorities who face ‘economic conscription’ into Uncle Sam’s ‘modern’ professional armed forces. Moreover, it was revealed just after the ‘completion’ of the Iraq War that 40,000 of the US frontline troops are not even US citizens! Many were ‘persuaded’ to join the forces with a promise of a ‘fast track’ to US citizenship.