empire defeated - vietnam war, lessons for today by Peter Taaffe
8. The final phase of the war
At the end of March 1972, Hanoi led a big Spring offensive into South Vietnam.
Soviet-made tanks and North Vietnamese divisions poured over the demilitarized zone and across the Cambodian border, demonstrating how short lived the ‘brilliant’ successes of the 1970 invasion of the sanctuaries had been. The war spread across the border and it seemed that the South Vietnamese forces might be routed and Nixon confronted with a defeat a few months before the 1972 presidential elections. Air power was once more called upon to prevent this. Bombing was then concentrated in Vietnam to defeat the NLF and North Vietnam, and the North’s ports were mined. But in 1973 the Paris peace agreement prevented the US from bombing Vietnam and Laos, so the entire 7th Air Force was switched back to Cambodia to back up the Lon Nol government that had replaced Sihanouk in a coup.
Economically as well, the Cambodian people paid a terrible price for the devastation wreaked by US imperialism. According to Shawcross,
“The economy was in ruin. Inflation ran at about 250 per cent a year, industrial and agricultural production was permanently declining… The government and the population it controlled were now on American welfare – about 95 per cent of all income came from the United States.”1
However, the top group of gangsters around Lon Nol lived extravagantly, with Lon Nol’s younger brother reported to have raised $90 million by arms trafficking and extortion. For ordinary people, however, it was a nightmare:
“Eighty per cent of the country’s prewar paddy fields had been abandoned and the government’s own figures showed that in 1974 rice production was only 650,000 tonnes, as opposed to 3.8 million tonnes in the last year before the war.”
Real wages had dropped and the US acknowledged that, “The vast majority of the population of Phnom Penh could afford to buy little more than one day’s subsistence of rice in any one week. Through the last 18 months of the war most people in the cities were slowly starving… Thousands and thousands of orphan children roamed the streets in rags.” 2
The net result was a Khmer Rouge war against all those sections of Cambodian society who had been seen to be either in league with or acquiescent to the US outrages. This resulted in the massacre of city dwellers, particularly of intellectuals, scientists, writers, etc, or their transfer to the countryside and incarceration in concentration camps. The consequence of this was the turning back of the wheel of history for decades, if not more, in Cambodia. Much was written about the monstrous character of the Khmer Rouge regime – itself a caricature of the worst kind of Stalinist regime – most of which is justified. But the main authors of the horrors of Cambodia were to be found in the US White House, in particular, Kissinger and Nixon. The real reason why US imperialism invaded Cambodia – dropping one and half times the number of bombs dropped on Japan in the whole of World War II on a country of four to five million people – was not to strike a blow against the North Vietnamese but to prop up the Lon Nol government and prevent a victory of the Khmer Rouge. The net result was the destruction of Cambodia and the coming to power of the much more ferocious, viciously primitive Stalinist regime of the Khmer Rouge.
The failure of Nixon and Kissinger’s methods in Cambodia speeded up the pressure for an end to the war in the US. US troops were refusing, in effect, to fight in Vietnam itself and the clamour for ending the war escalated. Negotiations, drawn out over a period, took place in the early 1970s, punctuated at one stage with the intensified bombing of North Vietnam. This bombing further outraged the world, as giant B-52 bombers spent Christmas 1972 raining horrific destruction from the sky for eleven days and nights. One hundred and twenty-one giant bombers struck at the twin cities of Hanoi and Haiphong, and three of them were brought down by Soviet SAM-2 missiles. North Vietnamese diplomat Ha Van Lau commented: “The Americans’ strategic air attack was of a breadth never known in the history of war.”3 On the third day of the bombing another six bombers were shot down, each of these aircraft costing almost $8 million. By the fourth day, 43 American pilots had been killed or captured, with mounting criticism of the planning amongst the air crews themselves and with worldwide condemnation of the bombing. Newspaper headlines in Japan read, “Nothing is more grotesque”; in Buenos Aires “Genocide”; and West German newspapers declared it, “A crime against humanity”. In London, The Times, the pillar of the British establishment, declared: “Nixon ordered saturation bombing; this is not the conduct of a man who wants peace very badly.” The US press joined in; the New York Times declared, “Civilised man will be horrified” and the Los Angeles Times, wrote simply, “Beyond all reason”. In those eleven days of bombing ending on 29 December 100,000 bombs were dropped on two not very large cities. This was the “equivalent of five atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima”.4
Rather than being cowed by this bombing, the North Vietnamese considered that this was the equivalent of an “aerial Dien Bien Phu” and that Nixon had failed in his intentions to force them to the peace table. Nixon justified the bombing in order to show his ‘toughness’; paradoxically not to the North Vietnamese but to his alleged ally in South Vietnam, in effect stooge, Thieu. Various peace plans had envisaged a ceasefire, the return of prisoners, and international supervision of a post-war settlement. But the fly in the ointment was that this would leave 150,000 North Vietnamese troops in place in South Vietnam or on its borders. Thieu correctly feared that once the US withdrew, these forces, with the support of the mass of the Vietnamese people, would overthrow his government and the system of landlordism-capitalism on which it rested. After the bombing, Thieu accepted that he would face a total cut-off of US aid if he did not comply with Nixon’s wishes. The result was a ‘final settlement’, initialled in Paris by Kissinger and North Vietnam’s negotiator Le Duc Tho in January 1973. Prisoners of war held by Hanoi were soon released and the last GIs began to leave Vietnam.
Collapse like ninepins
By mid-1974 the Thieu regime, now bereft of US military forces but with billions of dollars of US military equipment, was like a rotten fruit ready to fall. By this time, the North Vietnamese and the NLF in the South were also ready to act. They moved onto the offensive later in that year and Thieu had no mobility and no real firepower to stop them. The resistance of the regime was tested by the NLF when it captured the Phuoc Long region, the first time since 1972 that the South Vietnamese had lost an entire province. Thieu himself said that by 1975, 60 per cent of the military potential of the South Vietnamese armoured forces had gone. North Vietnam, on the other hand, had been re-supplied by the Russians.
Soon afterwards, the former imperial city of Hue, which the NLF had held briefly during the Tet Offensive, fell permanently into their control. At Da Nang, the commander of the South Vietnamese forces abandoned his men to their fate after he heard of the fall of Hué. Others removed their uniforms and hid, and after 32 hours the former massive military base of US imperialism had fallen to the North Vietnamese. Nguyen Cao Ky, the thuggish general and Vice-President of the South Vietnamese regime, recalled later:
“The final debacle, I have to admit, was our own responsibility – or to be exact, it was Mr Thieu’s responsibility… commanding officers ran; everywhere commanding officers ran first, and all those commanding officers were appointed by Mr Thieu.”
Meantime, Thieu wailed: “America had abandoned us.”5
Like ninepins, provincial capitals fell, one after another. In the first week of April, the coastal enclaves actually realised the ‘domino theory’, first Qui Nhon, then Tuy Hoa, Nha Trang and then, a long-term strategic loss for the US, the giant air and naval base at Kam Ranh Bay. As the NLF and the North Vietnamese advanced they were conspicuously helped by the local people, the workers and peasants. Like the proverbial rats leaving the sinking ship, it was the creatures of US imperialism, the despotic thugs and murderers who had propped up the landlord and capitalist regime, who got out on US helicopters. However, thousands of those who had supported the US were not so lucky. The demoralisation of the handful of US forces which remained was summed up by one of their number, CIA operative Frank Snepp, who wrote later:
“Inside the [US] Embassy I saw CIA officers who had been solid to the last putting away bottles of cognac. Americans were breaking into the commissary behind the Embassy – drinking wine, guzzling wine – it was as if my friends were fiddling while Rome burned.” 6
The very last American soldiers, eleven Marines, bearing the US embassy flag, departed at 7.53am on 30 April 1975. Soon afterwards, the Vietnamese liberation forces occupied the capital without resistance and at 11am a single tank crashed through the half-open gates of Saigon’s presidential palace. A soldier raced towards the palace balcony and raised the provisional revolutionary government’s flag. Because this was a television war, and foreign cameras had missed the moment, the North Vietnamese obligingly agreed to re-enact the scene. Ironically, it was ‘Big Minh’, leader of the 1963 anti-Diem coup, installed by the US as a bridge to the North Vietnamese, who called on South Vietnamese forces to lay down their arms. A parade of the victorious forces was held on 7 May, signifying the end of the 10,000 day war.
Defeat and the Vietnam syndrome
The Vietnam War was the first that the US had ever lost. The effects of this war have been etched into the consciousness of all classes in US society, above all, the strategists of the US ruling class. The historian John Kenneth Galbraith commented: “The casualties, the sorrow, the reputation that we established in the world for misadventure – those were the really damaging things.”7 On a broader level, the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ took firm hold in the minds of the American people in the post-1975 situation, lasting right up to the present day.
The Pentagon, politically supported by the right-wing Republicans, has since the time of the Vietnam War sought to break this policy. It has been linked, moreover, with consistent attempts, particularly under Republican presidents, to introduce the cherished goal of the US Republican right wing of the ‘National Security State’. Endless wars or threats of wars – as during the Cold War – are used to accumulate greater and greater powers, repressive measures and the denial of civil liberties, against the US citizen because of a perceived ‘foreign threat’. The democratic consciousness of the US people, underlined by the trade union organisations, civil liberties and minorities groups, etc, have stayed the hand of the American right through most of the period since the Vietnam War. However, the coming to power of George Bush junior, shortly followed by the terrorist attack of 9/11 on the Twin Towers, have given the green light to the federal government to seriously encroach on civil liberties – under the guise of ‘homeland defence’. This has resulted in arbitrary arrests, the absence of ‘due process’ (proper legal procedures), etc, epitomised by the imprisonment without trial and torture of prisoners in the US base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
This has been combined with the most serious steps, through foreign wars, to break the ‘Vietnam syndrome’. The replacement of conscription by a professional army was also conceived by the US military right wing as part of the attempt to persuade the American people to go down this road. The wars in Afghanistan and particularly the recent Iraq War appears to have furnished the Republican right with the materials to break the syndrome. However, the overthrow of the rotten Saddam regime with little or no social base, was a guarantee of American ‘success’, militarily at least, in the war.
As Marxists and many others warned, the real test would come after the overthrow of Saddam when the so-called war of ‘liberation’ gave way to US forces being pitted against the Iraqi people who are in the first stages of a ‘war of liberation’. The Iraq War was not so much a war in the traditional sense but a series of small engagements, some of them no more than skirmishes, with the real war against Iraq unfolding over the previous twelve years of bombings and brutal sanctions. The US was not called upon in the invasion to sacrifice many of its soldiers, as it had done in Vietnam. If there had been stubborn resistance, however, even from a significant section of the Iraqi army, then the war would have been more drawn-out. There would have been greater US casualties and we may have seen a different reaction from the American people than that witnessed – which amounted to, in the short term, increased approval ratings for Bush. This has not held up, given the underlying economic catastrophe which looms in the US and the growing Iraqi resistance to the US occupation. In other words, the Bush triumph over the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ has yet to be fully tested.
Iraq and Vietnam
In the immediate days after the victory in Iraq, Rumsfeld, Bush and even Powell, the alleged ‘liberal’ face in this right-wing administration, openly threatened Syria with similar measures.The right-wing hawks in the Bush administration undoubtedly dream of a repetition of Iraq. Cheney spelt out brutally what the US ‘victory’ in Iraq meant for the rest of the world and particularly for the masses in the neo-colonial world when he declared that the US was supreme militarily and those who stood against it had better look out.
However, Bush was lucky in his choice of opponent in this war. Saddam Hussein was more unpopular, had less of a social base in his own country, than Bush has in his or in the world at the present time. The US, with its colossal military might, confronted an opponent without an air force or a navy, and an army which refused to fight. Other conflicts are inevitable in the neo-colonial world, in which the opposition will not be so much of a pushover for the US. Cuba has also been threatened by the Cheney-Bush junta, with the US Ambassador in Havana openly canvassing for ‘regime change’ and the overthrow of Fidel Castro. Cuba and Castro’s riposte was the arrest of oppositional figures and the execution of terrorists who hijacked a ferry. This was a warning to the opposition internally and internationally. However, the executions played very badly in the rest of the world and particularly in Latin America. There was no sympathy for the hijackers, motivated as they were by the spirit of the right-wing Cuban émigrés in Miami. Yet a trial and imprisonment is usually the maximum punishment in bourgeois-democratic states for such actions, not execution. Nevertheless, the mass of the Cuban people still support the gains of the Cuban Revolution and the government that rests on these, and will fight any proposals for an invasion of Cuba.
In reality, Bush’s bellicose threats are more calculated to garner even greater support from the right-wing Cuban refugees in Miami in the next US presidential election rather than an immediate, serious step towards the military overthrow of the Castro regime. However, in the event of the right-wing Republicans going down the road of an attack on Cuba, this would not be a repetition of Iraq. There would be massive opposition from the majority of the Cuban people. Nor would a military incursion against the Colombian guerrillas who already control one-third of that country at the present time succeed. The same applies to the most developed states in Latin America. As far as Asia is concerned, after Vietnam even the Pentagon high command declared ‘never again’ will US forces fight in the ‘Asian theatre’.
Iraq has partially cut across this doctrine, and introduced new military theories propounded by Rumsfeld and his supporters for ‘leaner, more mobile, hi-tech smaller units’. This was proposed as a new, more effective means of winning wars rather than the doctrine of ‘overwhelming military force’ of Powell and most of the Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, this new doctrine has been largely discredited by the outcome of the war in Iraq. Such a force may be capable of ‘surgical strikes’ and short-term ‘police’-type operations, but not for holding a whole nation in check, as events in Iraq and elsewhere will demonstrate in the next period. At the same time, the US ruling class can combine this with ‘proxy’ wars and coups (similar to Chile and Venezuela) to overthrow or attempt to overthrow regimes which are perceived to threaten imperialist interests, like the Chavez regime in Venezuela.
Therefore the lessons of the Vietnam War, which have been mulled over and pondered both by representatives of the ruling class and by socialists and Marxists since the end of the war in 1975, can come into their own in the next period. The reawakening of the working class on a world scale, and with them the peasants and the poor in the neo-colonial world will result in big social movements. Guerrilla wars, the traditional method of the peasants, can once more develop. They will inevitably come up against the capitalists and their military forces. The idea that US imperialism is ‘invincible’ because it has fought four successful so-called ‘hi-tech’ wars in the last decade or so is false to the core. In effect, US imperialism, despite its colossal military prowess, is facing imperialist ‘overstretch’ in attempting to play the role of the world’s policeman. It has a thousand bases and 600,000 personnel worldwide. These ‘guardians’ are to ensure the continued super-exploitation of the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America by imperialism. But this ‘empire’ and its ‘Caesars’, in the form of increasingly authoritarian presidents like Bush, really do have feet of clay.
Lessons of Vietnam War
Seventeen million peasants in South Vietnam, together with their 23 million compatriots in the North, defeated the strongest military power on the globe in this epic 30-year war. It was, as we have tried to demonstrate, a war conducted both in Vietnam and on the ‘home front’ of the US. The American people, particularly the working class, together with young students and intellectuals, played their part in humbling the US giant. As in the recent Iraq War, they showed in action, through the unprecedented mass demonstrations, that US society is not ‘one reactionary mass’. This was crucial in demonstrating to the masses in the neo-colonial world in particular that they have a powerful ally in the American working class in confronting rapacious US imperialism.
The Vietnam War also compelled the powerful US ruling class to re-evaluate its position both domestically and worldwide. Faced with an overweening, almost ‘Prussianised’ federal executive in the form of Nixon, the decisive elements of the US ruling class manoeuvred and forced his resignation, through the Watergate exposure of his and his cohorts’ conspiracy or else face impeachment by Congress. The Vietnam War also demonstrated that even the strongest economic power on the globe could not pursue a policy of ‘guns and butter’, a lesson that Bush himself has yet to learn.
Above all, the Vietnamese workers and peasants wrote a glorious chapter in the history of struggle of the poor and oppressed and set a benchmark for other struggles in Asia, Latin America and Africa. As Militant, now the Socialist Party, warned, the Vietnamese would be successful in the struggle against US imperialism but the kind of society that would issue from this conflict would not be ‘socialist’ even if it declared itself as such on the morrow of victory. Two years after the war, the North and South were officially re-united, becoming the ‘Socialist Republic of Vietnam’. However, Vietnam united was not ‘socialist’ but had established a form of planned economy with power vested in an “elite of fifteen to twenty men, seeking to retain absolute control over the party,”8 and thereby of the Vietnamese economy and society.
The promised aid to Vietnam from the US in the aftermath of the war never materialised, as the ruling circles in the US decided to punish the Vietnamese for humbling them. The Soviet Union provided Vietnam with $3 billion in reconstruction aid in the immediate post-war years but this was totally insufficient against a background of the massive war damage inflicted on all levels of Vietnamese society. Without control by, management by, and the involvement of, the masses, the inevitable zigzags in policy, with their consequent economic dislocation, took place in Vietnam as they had done in other Stalinist states.
The leaders of this state were not trained, skilled Marxists, basing themselves on the working class, as were the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky in the Russian Revolution. Gabriel Kolko, extremely sympathetic to the struggles of the Vietnamese ‘communists’ and chronicler of all the main stages of the revolution and events since, commented in 1986:
“Most Communist leaders were essentially able administrative problem-solvers drawn principally, as in China, from the intelligentsia and wealthier classes, but they were overwhelmingly men who mastered a simple litany of phrases and had an astonishingly superficial theoretical and analytic capacity. As one senior official once confided to me, when he joined the Revolution in 1945 neither he nor his peers knew anything of formal Marxist theory, implying he had scarcely improved since then… Of the virtually hundreds of Vietnamese communists I met after 1967, at every level from the grassroots to Politburo members, none incorporated Marxist or Leninist doctrines into their thinking in any meaningful way and, more important, very few even attempted to do so… Vietnamese communists were no different from people in successful parties everywhere: their overriding concern was power.”9
Their model was the so-called ‘socialist’, in reality Stalinist, countries of China, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Inevitably, without the check of the masses, they zigzagged from one expedient to another in what was essentially a ‘besieged fortress’. Many mistakes were made in setting up a ‘planned economy’, including the alienation of big sections of the peasantry in the south but the economy nevertheless went ahead. Industrial production, according to official data, grew by 54 per cent from 1981 to 1985. This was in spite of control exercised by a bureaucratic elite, with costly overheads as well as clashes with Cambodia and China.
The costly war with Cambodia was prompted by the Khmer Rouge’s goading and attacks on Vietnamese territory, and resulted in the defeat of the Khmer Rouge and the occupation of the country by the forces of Vietnam. This provoked a worldwide economic boycott, prompted by US imperialism, which led to the withdrawal of the Vietnamese. Eventually terrible chaos was left behind in Cambodia. The war with China in 1979 was also economically debilitating and indicated the political character of both Vietnam and China. Real socialist regimes, democratic workers’ states, in Vietnam and China would have collaborated for the mutual benefit of the peoples of the region. Instead, a clash between the nationalist privileged elites on either side was the main reason for this conflict. It was particularly costly to Vietnam, compelling its forces to be on almost constant mobilisation on its northern border. Real peace never returned to Vietnam until it evacuated Cambodia and the world boycott was lifted in 1989.
From centralism to de-centralisation – which was always a feature of North Vietnam, even during the war against the US – meant enormous overheads and a costly waste of resources. Large elements of the market have now penetrated into decisive sections of the Vietnamese economy. This capitalist penetration has been partly funnelled through Chinese entrepreneurs, who were, historically anyway, an important component of the pre-1975 Vietnamese capitalists, particularly in the south. Most of the Mekong rice mills nationalised after 1975 have been returned to their original owners or their families. Moreover, the corruption, woven into the very fabric of Stalinist regimes, has manifested itself in Vietnam. According to Kolko, “The wives of at least two present or former leading Politburo members have been publicly identified as extremely corrupt.”10 In fact there is corruption at all levels of the Vietnamese ‘Communist’ Party. What American guns, bombs and bullets could not achieve it now seems that the IMF and the World Bank can! Through a series of ‘structural adjustment programmes’ these agencies of world capitalism have been the channel for introducing big elements of capitalism in Vietnam. Whether Vietnam is as yet a fully developed capitalist economy is not clear, given the fuzzy character of the figures produced by the state.
Not in vain
Does all this mean that the Vietnamese Revolution was therefore in vain? On the contrary, the war was inevitable given the situation that faced Vietnam in its struggles against France and the US, and after the long war for liberation. As we have seen, the country had not carried through the capitalist democratic revolution which Britain had achieved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and most of Europe between the eighteenth and the end of the nineteenth centuries.
Because of the peculiar balance of world forces which we have explained above, the classical form of the revolution, as evinced in Russia in 1917, did not take place in China, for instance, or in Vietnam. A leadership based essentially on peasant forces and with nationalist limitations was compelled to conduct a war both against national capitalists and landlords and their foreign backers, to carry through the social revolution. This was enormously progressive in China, as it was in Vietnam. But in 1989, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have returned back to capitalism with calamitous results for the economies and the peoples of these regions. China is well on the way to restoring capitalism and Vietnam, as we have seen, even in the immediate period after 1975, tolerated big elements of capitalism and has gone a lot further in the 1980s and 1990s in this direction.
Nevertheless, the struggles of the Vietnamese people remain as a beacon to all of those faced with the same kind of conditions which they rebelled against. Moreover, in large parts of Latin America, Africa and, indeed, Asia itself, those conditions still obtain in many countries. In the inevitable battles that will take place against landlordism and capitalism in these regions, they will come up against the new bully, the world’s policeman, US imperialism – as did the Vietnamese masses in their 10,000 day war. Today, however, the struggle unfolds against a different historical background. One obvious difference is the absence of strong Stalinist regimes which both supported economically and acted as a model for guerrillaist-type movements. The working class today is potentially immeasurably stronger. Nevertheless, guerrillaist type activity is inevitable where the majority of the population is in the rural areas. The growth of urban guerrillaism is also possible if the working class lacks a clear, socialist consciousness and leadership. In Iraq, for instance, a form of urban guerrillaism is unfolding against the US occupier. Such a struggle inevitably will be protracted. Tariq Aziz, the former Deputy Prime Minister of the Saddam regime, warned that such an urban guerrillaist type struggle would unfold in the war against the US. This proved not to be the case because of the complete collapse of the forces of Saddam. Paradoxically, the re-occupation of Iraq – which has some parallels with the two re-occupations that took place in Vietnam by the French and then the Americans – could lay the basis for such a movement taking place. Inevitably, the Iraqi workers involved in such a struggle will hark back to the experience of the Vietnamese. The same lessons could be drawn by the Colombian workers and peasants in their struggle against the oligarchy in their country.
Therefore, the struggle of the Vietnamese has not been in vain. They have indeed written a glorious chapter in the history of the movements of the working peoples worldwide to throw off the chains of capitalism and lay the basis for the establishment of a new socialist society.