Review: Empire defeated by Peter Taaffe

THE STRUGGLE over the war was as much for the ’hearts and minds’ of the American people as it was for those of the Vietnamese.

EMPIRE DEFEATED, the new book by Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe, has been published at a time when many are drawing parallels between the Vietnam War and the war and occupation of Iraq. In this interview, Peter Taaffe explains the background to his writing of the book and draws out some of the main lessons we can learn for today. Also, extract from book. cwi online.

Empire defeated by Peter Taaffe

Why produce a book now on the Vietnam War?

I spoke at Socialism 2003, our education school, on the issue of the Vietnam War, and found a tremendous interest in the war and its effects on young people and the working class.

I was pressed to do a short account of the war but once I commenced researching and writing, I came to the conclusion that it was necessary to do something more than a pamphlet, and this book is the result.

What effect did Vietnam have on the political outlook of people at the time?

It is impossible to exaggerate the colossal effect that the Vietnam War had on my generation. Young people were already in revolt against what they considered was the inhuman capitalist system, even though that system was not experiencing the same scale of economic problems which confront it today.

The post-1945 boom had not exhausted itself. Students were to the fore in countries such as France, Germany and Britain in ideologically rejecting what capitalism meant: alienation and an exploitative attitude towards the working class and the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

This was combined with a great yearning for change, which many linked to change in society, eliminating capitalism and establishing a socialist society.

The 1960s were characterised by the revolt of a whole generation, including those from middle-class backgrounds and even some of the sons and daughters of the ruling class, particularly when they were freed from the constraints of their parents while they attended universities and colleges.

This was also a barometer of the growing discontent in society in general and particularly amongst working class people. This was manifested in the opposition of the trade unions to the bosses, their system and also the pro-capitalist measures undertaken by the Labour government of Harold Wilson in power between 1964 and 1970.

On top of this, came the barbarity of US imperialism in its attempt to defeat the struggles of the Vietnamese workers and peasants for national liberation from the shackles of landlordism and capitalism, dominated by the superpower might of the US.

The war gave a huge push to the development of consciousness, with thousands, tens of thousands and ultimately millions not just opposed to the US but drawing socialist and revolutionary conclusions about the nature of capitalism and imperialism.

This led to big struggles on the streets, as we describe in the book, both in Britain and the rest of Europe, and particularly in the US itself.

What are the differences between Vietnam and Iraq today?

The most obvious difference is that the Vietnamese fought in the jungles and swamps, and were, in the main, peasants living in rural areas, while the Iraqis are fighting the US in the cities and that Iraq is mostly urbanised.

Nevertheless there are many parallels in Iraq with what happened in Vietnam, where the US was gradually drawn into a ’quagmire’.

The US is being drawn into a similar situation in Iraq, which will compel it to withdraw, as it was forced to do after the 30-year war in Vietnam in 1975. Some capitalist commentators dispute this and argue that the Vietnamese had the support of two powerful states, Russia and China – which were planned economies but dominated politically by bureaucratic elites – and were unified around one liberation organisation, the National Liberation Front (NLF – later known as the Viet Cong). I believe that this view is, however, mistaken.

The US is widely hated, by the vast majority of Iraqis who see them as brutal foreign oppressors, in the same way as the Vietnamese did 30 years ago. It is true that the Iraqi people are not yet unified behind one liberation organisation and are divided on ethnic and religious lines, between the Shi’ite majority, Sunnis, the Kurds, Turkomen, etc. But there is a common view of the US as the ’enemy’ (apart from, perhaps, the Kurds who, in the main, welcomed the intervention of the US-led forces).

Even the Shi’ites will come into opposition to the US. The Sunnis are already in confrontation – the overwhelming majority – to US forces and even if this opposition is restricted to the so-called ’Sunni triangle’ – Tikrit, Fallujah, etc. – the US will not be able to suppress it. Already, in response to the bringing down of the Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters, the US has used 500lb bombs as they did in Vietnam, in revenge against the local population of Fallujah.

The growing US casualties are also very similar to the first stages of the Vietnam War. More US troops have been killed since Bush declared ’victory’ than in the actual ’war’ itself. This has provoked even greater consternation than at an equivalent stage in the Vietnam War in the US itself.

The US press is full of the laments of families who have lost husbands and sons in Iraq, and there has been a much more rapid plunge in Bush’s opinion poll standing than happened, for instance, to President Johnson in the first stages of the Vietnam War. History never repeats itself in exactly the same way but if the US persists in remaining for the ’long haul’, then they will suffer the same fate as US forces in Vietnam.

Isn’t it possible, however, that the US could find an ’exit strategy’ in Iraq which they did not do in Vietnam by handing over power to the Iraqis?

The policy of ’Iraqification’ at an unspecified time echoes the policy of the US in Vietnam of ’Vietnamisation’. Already those who are collaborating with the US are seen as quislings in the eyes of the Iraqi people and even if the US was not physically present that would remain the case.

Iraq is the cradle of Arab nationalism and the Arab people can provide the same kind of sustenance to the Iraqi opposition forces as was provided by China and Russia to the NLF during the Vietnam War.

What effect did the Vietnam War have on young people?

As I explained before, a colossal effect. In fact, many who were stirred into action in opposition to the horrors of the US-inflicted war on the Vietnamese people drew socialist and Marxist conclusions.

Many of them played a key role in the resurgence of these ideas in the labour movement. Some moved towards Trotskyism, particularly in Britain, leading to the building of a powerful movement around Militant (now the Socialist Party), which led the mighty struggles in Liverpool between 1983 and 1987, and was in the leadership of the poll tax struggle which defeated that invidious tax and, in the process, brought down the ’Iron Lady’ herself, Thatcher, the leader of world capitalist reaction at that stage.

What are the lessons of Vietnam for today?

They are many and varied, and we give fuller answers to this question in the book. The most important is that no amount of military hardware, fiendish weapons of mass destruction, napalm, etc, can hold a whole nation in chains, as the US attempted to do in Vietnam and is repeating in Iraq today.

The Vietnam War conjured up some of the greatest mass demonstrations in Britain, Europe and the US, where, as we report in the book, on one day in 1969, 36 million participated in mass antiwar actions.

It was not just the heroic struggles of the Vietnamese but an uprising of the American people which defeated the US ruling class in Vietnam. We should never forget that the main victims of the Vietnam War were the ordinary working people on both sides. Millions of workers and peasants in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia perished, and it was the sons and daughters of the working class of the US who were drafted and were killed and maimed in the swamps and jungles of Vietnam.

Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld and the present gang in control of the US government who wish to pursue a policy of ’endless war’, together with other sons and daughters of the rich, completely evaded combat and, in some cases, military service. They are not to be bracketed with the heroic US young people who consciously fought against the war, some of them avoiding the draft, participating in phenomenal antiwar movements, etc.

What are the repercussions of Vietnam historically and how does it compare to Iraq?

The Vietnam War was the longest war of the twentieth century, stretching over 30 years. It is doubtful whether one small country has had as big an effect as Vietnam. The Vietnamese people wrote an epic chapter in the struggles of the oppressed against the barbarous system of capitalism and imperialism. Vietnam was etched into the consciousness of all who lived through it and has had a lasting impression on establishing the so-called ’Vietnam syndrome’ in the minds of the American people, which not even Bush was able to break. Moreover, it conjured up mass movements, as did the Iraq war.

The main lesson, which we attempt to drive home in the book, is that, so long as capitalism and imperialism continues, there will be more Vietnams and Iraqs (witness Colombia, the guerrilla struggles in Aceh in Indonesia, and elsewhere at the moment). Only a rejuvenated and politically re-equipped organised labour movement, embracing socialist and Marxist ideas, and mobilising working people to change the world, can prevent a repetition of these horrific events.


An extract from Empire Defeated

"The whole world is watching"

Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was the first antiwar challenger to [President] Johnson, and thereby set in motion the process which saw the abandonment of any further presidential ambitions by Johnson, stated at the time: "I said the opposition to the war would begin when the bodies started coming back to the small towns. Something would happen in the country."

Johnson, ’while seeking peace’ nevertheless still prosecuted the war. In 1968, the bodies of young soldiers returned at an even greater rate than before, at least 1,000 a month…

This set alight the antiwar movement, which in both the US and in Vietnam was to shake the US ruling class to its foundations and ultimately inflict on it a humiliating defeat.

The antiwar movement had burgeoned from handfuls at the beginning of the war to sizeable demonstrations in 1965, particularly and perhaps primarily from amongst the radicalised students and middle class.

However, the impression was given at the time and since that opposition to the war was confined to these groups and that the mass of working people supported Johnson and the prosecution of the war.

Working class

It is true that opinion polls through 1966 and even in 1967 indicated the majority of Americans supported Johnson’s policies. There was, moreover, an attempt made to organise pro-war demonstrations, some by right-wing trade union leaders…

By 1969, however, this pretence of a solid pro-war working class and union movement, pitted against ’irresponsible’ students, could no longer hold water, as for the first time at national level the trade union movement, led by the 6.5 million strong Alliance for Labor, came out firmly against the war…

As the number of victims grew, so the effects were felt more keenly amongst working-class people. There was also growing opposition amongst students, eager not to be drawn into the bloody pit of Vietnam, and middle class parents concerned about the fate of their children in a remote Southeast Asian country.

It was the working class who supplied most of the 58,000 victims of the war from the US. The return of the bodies, as McCarthy predicted, affected communities the length and breadth of the US. It was, moreover, working class young men and women coming back from the war who told their friends and families of the horrors visited on them in Vietnam which spread the circle of discontent.

The most visible aspect of the war was, however, in the first instance, the opposition of the middle layers of US society…

In the US a mass student movement also began to develop at this stage around ’Students for a Democratic Society’ (SDS), with a claimed 100,000 members on college campuses, and responsible for the first sizeable anti-Vietnam War demonstration in April 1965, with 25,000 people attending.

The antiwar demonstrations grew in 1967 precisely because the wounded veterans, who came home in sizeable numbers, were highly visible and often led demonstrations. This, in turn, led to the formation of ’Vietnam Veterans Against the War’ who, within a short time, numbered 600. It is entirely false to suggest, as Hollywood has done in a number of movies – with the myth perpetuated by subsequent accounts of the plight of veterans – that hostility was directed at those who fought in the war.

The Vietnam veterans found massive support in the antiwar movement and in society at large, particularly in the working class areas from which most of them came.

By the time of the US presidential elections in 1968, terrible havoc had been wreaked in the South and an unprecedented bombing campaign in the North had returned parts of North Vietnam almost to the Stone Age…

Three hundred and fifty thousand US missions had been flown, 655,000 tons of bombs were dropped over the North, 918 US aircraft had been lost and 818 American airmen killed. This was just up to the time when Johnson had decided to ’end’ the war.

In this period, [Defense Secretary] McNamara had estimated that a thousand North Vietnamese civilians were being killed each week. This amounted to roughly 180,000 to 200,000 civilians dead up to 1968 in the air war alone against the North.

The terrible destruction even had an effect on the top echelons of the US government, with McNamara declaring in a secret memo: "There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny, backward nation into submission, on issues whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one."

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

Buy the book online from the Socialist Party website. New window.

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November 2003