History: Lessons of the US defeat in Vietnam

If a shooting war starts in the Gulf it will be the first real test of the US army rebuilt after its withdrawal from Vietnam. The US interventions during the 1980s in El Salvador, Grenada and the Lebanon were really police actions not full-scale wars. The Gulf mobilisation is the largest movement of US troops since the Vietnam war where, at its peak in 1969, the US stationed 550,000 soldiers.

This article concerning the lessons of the US defeat in Vietnam was written in 1990 in the run up to the first Gulf war in 1991 and published in Voran, now Solidarität, the paper published by CWI members in Germany. The author represented the Militant (now the Socialist Party) in the Mobilising Committees for the 1967 and 1968 anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in London.

Lessons of the US defeat in Vietnam

Ever since the Gulf crisis began there has been much discussion as to whether the US government and armed forces have really learnt the ’lessons of Vietnam’. This is because Vietnam was the first ever, and so far only, military defeat of the USA. Both internationally and inside the US it had a tremendous effect. For a decade the Vietnam war was one of the key international issues provoking during the 1960s and early 1970s regular massive protests throughout the world and ultimately forcing Nixon to resign as US president.

In the Vietnam war the US, despite its huge wealth and power, was unable to defeat a colonial people. Ever since then the military tops in the US have been anxious to "remove the legacy" of Vietnam and show that the US cannot again be beaten. Although the intervention in the Gulf is primarily to secure imperialism’s control over oil supplies, it is also designed to show the world the power of the US.

Already in its campaign to win public support for its Gulf policy the US government’s propaganda has tried to be more sophisticated and subtle than was the case during the Vietnam war. In this way they are trying to avoid the loss of US public support that undermined the US intervention in Vietnam.

The first Vietnamese struggle for independence

The struggle of the Vietnamese workers and peasants for independence and against landlordism and capitalism lasted over decades. The whole of Indo-China had been ruled by French imperialism until 1942 when the Japanese imperialists took the area over during the Second World War. During the period of Japanese occupation the Communist party developed a struggle for independence, which gained substantial support, particularly in the north of Vietnam. At the same time however the stalinist CP leaders removed opponents on their left by organising the killing of the supporters of Trotsky who had support in the south of Vietnam, especially among workers in Saigon.

The subsequent defeat of the Japanese by the British and US imperialists gave the opportunity to the Communist party to seize the initiative before the French could rebuild their rule.

Despite proclaiming the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) on September 2 1945 the Communist party leaders did not oppose British, nationalist Chinese and later, in 1946, French troops landing in Vietnam. The leaders of the DRV held talks with the French colonialists that resulted in the March 1946 joint declaration in which the French government recognised a free (but not independent) Vietnam and in return the Communist party led DRV declared " itself ready to receive the French army in friendly fashion".

Stalinist compromises lead to war

The Vietnamese Communist party leaders willingness to compromise and work with the imperialist rulers was not unique. At that time Stalin was still trying to reach a long-term agreement with the main capitalist powers and was willing to force Communist parties into making agreements with the local capitalists or colonialists. After the Second World War in many western European countries and all the west German regions the CPs, instead of fighting for socialism, joined coalition governments with capitalist parties. This included joining a CSU-led government in Bavaria. In many colonial countries the CPs held back from demanding full independence. With this policy both the Greek and Vietnamese CP leaders accepted the entry of imperialist troops into their countries that led to long civil wars in both cases.

The French government, which was attempting to rebuild the French Empire in Indo-China, was a coalition of De Gaulle’s capitalist MRP, the Socialist party and the Communist party. But neither the Socialist nor Communist leaders did anything to stop the French state using the March 1946 agreement as a cover under which it could prepare action to crush the DRV and secure Vietnam as part of its Empire.

Inevitably this compromise of the DRV and the French colonial regime living side by side could not work. Throughout 1946 tensions built up between the DRV and the French imperialists. Finally on November 23 1946 the French navy shelled the northern Vietnamese port of Haiphong killing about 6000 people and on December 19 full scale fighting started between the French and the DRV’s forces, the Vietminh.

The French Communist party (PCF) was a member of the government that ordered the shelling of Haiphong and, because of this, the Vietnamese Communist party for a period changed its name to the Vietnamese Worker’s party. The PCF stayed in this government waging war on Vietnam until it was thrown out in May 1947. Although in March 1947 the ordinary Communist Deputies abstained on a parliamentary vote for war credits, the Communist Ministers were instructed by the Party leadership to vote for these war credits in order to keep their places in the coalition government!

Capitalist governments always try to avoid internal opposition to the outbreak of war and present a picture of internal unity against the external enemy. Through their policy of non-opposition the French Communist leaders played a vital part in helping the French imperialists start the Vietnam war. Even after they were thrown out of the government and began to oppose the war it was pointed out that the PCF had originally supported it.

French imperialism defeated

Combining a struggle for national independence with demands for land and social reform the Vietminh were able to maintain and extend their support in the war against the French, particularly as they distributed land to the peasants in the areas they controlled.

Fundamentally the French army remained isolated in controlling the cities. In 1953 the French made an attempt to regain control of the countryside by establishing a huge military base in the middle of north Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. But after a long siege this so-called stronghold completely surrendered to the Vietminh on May 8 1954.

Shortly afterwards an international conference, co-chaired by China and Britain, on Vietnam opened in Geneva. At the end of the conference, the Vietminh, in return for the French granting independence, accented the temporary division of Vietnam, the withdrawal of their military forces to the north (despite their high levels of support in the south) and the formation of north and south Vietnamese governments until elections were held in 1956 to reunify the country.

Already before the French had been forced to admit defeat, the US had been intervening to help maintain colonial rule. With the final withdrawal of the French the US decisively stepped in to build a pro-capitalist regime in the south and stopped the holding of the elections that were meant to reunify Vietnam. Meanwhile in the North the overthrow of landlordism and capitalism was consolidated but this was not done on the basis of socialist democracy but on stalinist lines. However, despite the construction of a stalinist state in North Vietnam, the mass of the population in the South favourably compared the North with the rotten foreign backed landlord and capitalist based dictatorship they lived under in the South. This was to be the fundamental basis of their struggle against both the Southern regime and the US intervention.

The second war starts

By 1957 the second stage of the Vietnam war had begun as the Vietcong (as the Vietminh left in the south were now called) clashed with the troops of the new South Vietnamese government. Steadily as the South Vietnamese government weakened the US, especially under President Kennedy, increased its intervention. By 1961 US military "advisors" were fighting alongside South Vietnamese troops.

In 1963 South Vietnamese president Diem was assassinated in a US backed coup aimed at winning wider popular support for the South Vietnamese regime. But this did not help prop up the South Vietnamese state. Increasingly the US was forced towards direct military involvement to prevent the Vietcong from winning.

But in order to do this the US government needed to first mobilise popular support at home. This it did in August 1964 by pretending that US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin had been attacked by the North Vietnamese. On the basis of this lie the US Congress passed a resolution allowing military action to be taken against North Vietnam.

US takes over the fighting

By 1965 North Vietnam was being systematically bombed by the US and in May 1965 the first US combat division was in action in South Vietnam. Very soon over 400.000 US troops were in South Vietnam, as Democratic US President Johnson said in July 1965 "this is real war". During this period the new South Vietnamese president Ky consolidated military rule.

Although the Vietnam war not on the same scale as a world war it was a very large colonial war which rapidly began to involve tens of thousands of US youth in the fighting. At first the majority of US people supported the intervention as part of the "necessary struggle to safeguard democracy from communism". But the actual experience of war soon began to undermine that support. Already the early 1960s had seen the stepping up of the struggles of the US Black population for an end to discrimination and segregation and for equal voting and civil rights. The first groups opposing the war like the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee pointed to the hypocrisy of the US government saying it was defending "democracy in Vietnam with an army which was 10% Black but refusing to defend Black rights inside the USA itself".

The middle and late 1960s saw the US army make determined effort, to smash the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units that were now becoming involved in the fighting. However the January 1968 "Tet" offensive by the Vietcong and NVA showed that the US had failed to crush their resistance. This was not surprising. The US army was fighting for the continued foreign domination of the country, support for a military regime (by then led by Generals Thieu and Ky) and protection of the landowners and capitalists. Against this the Vietcong and NVA were struggling for independence, the distribution of land to the peasants, the removal of the capitalists, social reforms and an increase in living standards.

Opposition in the USA and US army

Although, after many bitter battles the US defeated the "Tet" offensive, it began to become clear to many Americans, especially the soldiers, that the US could not hope to win this war. Later 1968 saw the first round of talks between the USA and North Vietnam, which however led to nothing.

As the numbers of US dead and wounded increased opposition to the war grew inside the USA. The US anti-war movement started mainly among students but soon began to spread out. In many senses it reached its highpoint in the so-called "Moratorium" on Wednesday October 5th 1969 when 36 million people participated in at least one anti-war action each throughout the USA. To a certain extent this was a mass strike against the war. Over one million took part in demonstrations and in Vietnam itself large numbers of US soldiers wore black armbands for that day.

Significantly the Moratorium day of protest was supported by the short lived "Alliance for Labour", a 6,500,000 strong front of the car, transport, chemical and other unions which had been formed earlier that year. At first a majority of US workers supported the war. In some cities during the mid 1960s building workers actually attacked anti-war demonstrators. But the mood of workers began to change as the war dragged on and casualties mounted. Therefore the "Alliance for Labour" support for the Moratorium was a great step forward. Internationally however one of the major weaknesses of the largely student and middle class leaders of the anti-war protests was their refusal to seriously work within the labour movement. They did not really try to win support for the policy of workers taking class action against the war like the boycotting of the transportation of war supplies and weapon exports.

A year before the Moratorium a great drop in support had already forced Johnson to announce his decision not to be a candidate in the 1968 US Presidential election. The Republican Nixon with the promise to "end the war" won this election. Although Nixon supported the aims of the war, indeed he was US Vice-President in the 1950s when US intervention began, he saw how growing domestic opposition to the war had fatally undermined Johnson’s presidency. This led Nixon in September 1969 just before the Moratorium protest, to announce the new policy of "Vietnamisation", i.e. for the USA to pay for South Vietnamese soldiers to do the actual fighting on the ground.

The US army disintegrates

This policy was also the result of the growing demoralisation of the US army itself. More and more soldiers could not see the point in fighting in a war which meant nothing to them and which they could not win. On the one hand there was a large increase in the numbers of US youth leaving the USA to avoid being drafted into the army or actually deserting. Although this never meant that the US generals were ever actually short of soldiers, it was symptomatic of the war’s loss of support among US youth.

But even worse from the generals’ point of view were the increasing signs of demoralisation and rebellion within the army itself. These became stronger after the Tet offensive and the loss of many lives in useless battles like that of Hamburger Hill in May 1969. Drug taking and drunkenness became widespread through the US army in Vietnam. Attempts by rank and file US soldiers to kill unpopular officers ("fragging", throwing a fragmentation hand grenade into an officer’s tent!) became widespread, in 1970 alone there were officially 271 of these attacks. Units would refuse to go into battle. One US general called the US army the "most demoralised army in history". If it were not for the fact that the conscript soldiers only spent a relatively short period of time in Vietnam then the mutinies would have been more widespread. But equally the fact that so many hundreds of thousands of US youth went to Vietnam helped to deepen the radicalisation then taking place inside the USA itself.

By the end of the 1960s the USA showed all the signs of a society moving towards revolution. The ruling class was openly split. The middle class, shown especially among the students, was being radicalised. The working class, especially the Black workers and youth, were beginning to become active. Finally the army was demoralised and the rank and file soldiers opposed to both their officers and the government. It was no accident that at this time many US rock songs stressed the word "revolution", they were reflecting the mood of youth. But while the anti-war movement pulled these different forces together in opposition to the war it did not even pretend to give a real alternative to capitalism. Tragically the absence of a Marxist tendency within this campaign meant that the possibility, at that time, of building a socialist movement out of the anti-war struggle and moving towards the overthrow of capitalism in the strongest imperialist power was lost.

In reality it was ultimately the crisis situation within both the USA and the US army that defeated US imperialism. Of course without the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people over three decades this crisis would not have developed. But neither the North Vietnamese government nor the Vietcong were able to make an appeal to either the US army rank and file or the US workers and youth. The combination of Vietnamese nationalist propaganda and the stalinist regime within North Vietnam had no attraction to the mass of the US population. Unlike the early pre-stalinist days of the Russian revolution the Vietnamese leadership made no serious attempt to mobilise international working class support both against imperialist intervention and for the worldwide struggle for socialism.

The demoralising effect of Vietnam on the US army was so severe that after the end of the war the generals were forced to in effect disband the conscript army and build a new professional US army out of its ruins. But today the US army is a force of economic conscripts, soldiers from working class families who join in search of a job or free training. This is reflected in the fact that 28% of the US forces now in the Gulf today are black compared with 14% of the total US population. This means that the enthusiasm of today’s US army for any long war is as limited as that of the soldiers who were in Vietnam.

Nixon’s attempt to avoid defeat

Despite his new Policy of Vietnamisation Nixon still wanted win the war. He hoped that a combination of US air power plus US financed South Vietnamese soldiers could preserve capitalism and a puppet state. However this ignored the political and social basis of the war. On paper the South Vietnamese army should easily have been winning the fighting. It then had 481,000 full time and 705,000 part-time soldiers, all armed with modern US weapons and covered by air power, against 140,000 Vietcong and 200,000 NVA soldiers fighting in South Vietnam without any aeroplanes or helicopters. Despite this strength the South Vietnamese army was doomed to defeat because it was fighting to defend foreign domination of the country, a corrupt military dictatorship and landlordi5m, on this basis it could not mobilize popular support.

In a desperate attempt both to attack the NVA’s supply lines and the local guerrillas Nixon ordered in 1970 the secret bombing, and then invasion, of Cambodia, which was followed by the invasion of Laos in 1971. When news of these attacks leaked out it served both to give a new boost to the anti-war movement and laid the basis for the move by the US ruling class an a whole to establish tighter control over both the Presidency and the military leadership. It was this demand for control over the state machine which was the main reason why big business were prepared to use the Watergate scandal to force Nixon to resign as President in 1974.

But despite the military moves the US ruling class was more and more forced to realise in the early 1970s the impossibility of winning and the deepening damage that the war was doing to US society and the US army. Of course this understanding did not develop overnight and there were, and still are today, divisions between those sections of the ruling class who wanted to cut their losses and get out of Vietnam and those arguing that more effort should be out into winning the war. The argument was not simply about Vietnam but also over the repercussions of the so-called "domino effect", that a guerrilla victory in Vietnam would have on other Asian countries and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the neo-colonial war. At the same time the huge cost of the war (totalling each year 12% of the US’s GDP) was leading to a development of inflation in the USA as the US government borrowed more and more money to pay for its mounting cost.

Although Nixon was Prepared periodically to increase the US bombing of North and South Vietnam, US ground troops were steadily being withdrawn from Vietnam. Thus when the NVA launched an offensive in March 1972 the 69,000 US troops still in Vietnam hardly took part in the fighting and by January 1973 the last US combat troops, but not advisors, had left the country.

US forced to accept defeat

The negotiations that took place in the 1970s were different from those of the 1940s and 1950s. The NVA and Vietcong had solid support, the South Vietnamese and US governments were not in a position to win the war and the US wanted to get out of Vietnam so that it could end the war’s destabilising effect. One US Senator expressed the mood among the US ruling class when he asked Nixon to "declare victory and bring the troops home’.

The 1973 Paris Peace Conference prepared the way for the final defeat of the South Vietnamese government. The US halted all direct military involvement in Vietnam. Cambodia and Laos and in return the North Vietnamese unofficially agreed to wait what was privately called a "decent interval" before launching a final attack on the South Vietnamese regime.

Finally in early 1975 an offensive was started which rapidly defeated the South Vietnamese regime. In the first week of this attack the South Vietnamese government lost control of more land than it had in the previous 20 years, The regime itself surrendered on April 30 1975 leading to the overthrow of landlordism and capitalism and the unification of Vietnam, albeit on a stalinist basis.

Significance of the US defeat

The subsequent inability of stalinism to solve all the problems facing the Vietnamese People must not be used to obscure the historic nature of the defeat of US imperialism. For the vast majority of the people in Asia (in countries like India, Pakistan. Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia) landlordism and capitalism have not been able provide ever a decent basic standard of living or a secure future. The so-called successes of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore are the exception not the rule and they are extremely dependent on the health of the world market. The overthrow of landlordism and capitalism in Vietnam was a step forward but the creation of a stalinist regime meant that the advantages of a planned economy could not be fully enjoyed.

Unfortunately the fact that, at the time of the war, many of the leaders of the anti-war movement in Europe were almost completely uncritical of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong leadership, meant that they totally failed to warn the movement of what the negative results of stalinism would be. Marxists in Europe at that time participated building the anti-war movement on the basis of a clear orientation towards labour movement action against the US intervention and in support of the Vietnamese revolution, not its stalinist leaders. The necessity of workers democracy and an internationalist policy was always explained and those activists they were able to reach were politically prepared for what has occurred in Vietnam since 1975.

It must always be remembered that the struggle of the Vietnamese people first shows that imperialism and capitalism can be defeated. But secondly the history of Vietnam since 1975 shows the limits of stalinism and the need for a Marxist policy as the only way to move towards socialism.

Vietnam and the Gulf crisis

Today (1990) some of the imperialist strategists are arguing that the main lesson of Vietnam is that in future military interventions the US must commit enough forces to win from the beginning. Therefore in the Gulf they say that Iran must be hit hard from the start of any fighting so the war can be short and not give time for the development of either a new mass anti-war movement in the US and/or the demoralisation within the US army.

Of course each war has its own characteristics. The Iraqi regime has a different social character to that of North Vietnam as it is a capitalist state. Nevertheless but the US led intervention into the Gulf is provoking a new rise of anti-imperialist feelings throughout the Arab countries and in Turkey. This anti-imperialist mood will ultimately undermine all those regimes that support the attack on Iraq. In this sense even if the US wins a war against Iraq its general policy will fail because it will not be able to prop up its puppet regimes forever.

For those struggling against imperialism today the lessons of the Vietnam war are that it is possible to build a movement against the war both inside the army and in society as a whole.

Unlike the situation at the beginning of the Vietnam war, imperialist expedition into the Gulf has already provoked protests inside most imperialist countries At this stage the opposition to this war is in a minority which in the usual situation at the beginning of a war. However already there have been large anti-war demonstrations in many countries, including the USA. The Japanese government has been forced to drop its plan to change Japan’s constitution to enable it to send troops to the Gulf. If fighting starts the war’s imperialist character will become clearer the longer it continues and the protest movement will be able to develop as the cost of the war mounts. But if the war results in a new outbreak of terrorism in the West (which could be carried out by pro-imperialist provocateurs as well as Arab nationalists) then the Gulf intervention could retain public support in the imperialist countries for some time.

A key factor in the length of the Vietnam war was that many of the social democratic and labour party leaders throughout the world either openly supported the US government or adopted a neutral position in order to avoid actually opposing the imperialist intervention. In Germany as part of their grand coalition with the CDU/CSU between 1966 and 1969 the SPD leaders in effect supported the US policy in Vietnam. Today (1990) the CDU government can only support the US led action in the Gulf as long as the SPD and DGB (German trade union federation) allow it to. Action by the workers’ movement could stop the Western action in the Gulf in the same way as the imperialist intervention in the 1918-21 Russian civil war was halted by the threat of strikes in western Europe.

The mobilisation of the labour movement is the key question. The anti-war struggle must aim to combine the strength of street protests and trade union action to both challenge the imperialist policies and give support to the soldiers opposing the war. A mass movement on these lines would rapidly undermine the CDU government and begin to radicalise the labour movement, preparing the way to a sharp growth in support for socialist ideas. Such a development would also show the workers and peasants in the colonial world that the imperialist countries are divided on class lines and, if linked with a clear socialist appeal, prepare the way for a genuine international struggle against war, poverty and dictatorship and for socialism.

Cost of war

Over 10% of the population of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were either killed or wounded in the war. Over 2,200,000 were killed. Over 56,000 US soldiers were killed. The US dropped over 6,700,000 tons of bombs on Indo-China. In the Second World War 2,700,000 tons were drooped on Germany by Britain and US. The US also dropped 19,000,000 gallons of defoliants on South Vietnam.

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February 2003