Socialist View - Spring 2004

A review by Ashling Golden of Peter Taaffe's new book empire defeated

"Empire Defeated", the new book by Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales), has been published at a time when many are drawing parallels between the Vietnam War and the occupation of Iraq. The purpose of this book was not to produce a detailed exposition of the conflict in Vietnam, but to give an overview and draw out important political lessons and apply them in today's world.

Peter Taaffe demonstrates how the Vietnam War profoundly affected all those that lived through the period.

The book begins with a short outline of the history of Vietnam. From the early 19th century Vietnam had been a victim of colonial rule, first under the French, later the Japanese and finally US imperialism. The author explains that before colonial domination most of the land in Vietnam was co-operatively owned.

As imperialism introduced a system of capitalism and landlordism conditions for the Vietnamese worsened, many peasants were forced to leave their land and work in industries in the cities. These economic and social conditions laid the basis for social unrest and eventually all out war for independence.

The book explains the colossal effect the Vietnam War had on the Johnson presidency and the American ruling class. Opinion polls throughout 1966 indicated that the majority of Americans supported the policies of war, but by 1969 this had all changed. 58,000 US soldiers had returned home in body bags. These deaths combined with the horror stories of tens of thousands of working class soldiers turned public opinion against the war.

Nixon defeated Johnson as president because he had at least for a period convinced some that he intended to end the war. When the American people realised Nixon was still pursuing the war the anti-war movement grew even larger and shook the American ruling class to its foundations.

Peter Taaffe explains how in the US it was the working class who suffered as a result of the war. The majority of US deaths and casualties were young working class men, and American working class communities were hit the hardest when spending on health, education and social welfare were cut back in order to finance the war against the Vietnamese people. Yet the mass movement against the war touched every layer of US society and it was reported as of 15 October 1969, that over 36 million had protested.

It was not just at home that the US government faced adversity, but also within the ranks of the US troops in Vietnam. Disillusioned and demoralised soldiers revolted against fighting an un-winnable war and in some cases became involved in "fragging", the hurling of fragmentation grenades at unpopular officers who continuously put their lives at risk. The author explains that these revolts at home worldwide and in the military forced the US ruling class to withdraw from Vietnam and to accept a humiliating defeat.

"Empire Defeated" explains the similarities between the Vietnam War and the US and British occupation of Iraq. Taaffe explains that the most obvious difference between the two conflicts is that the Vietnamese fought in the jungles and swamps while the Iraqis are fighting the US military in cities and urbanised areas.

A second key difference is that during Vietnam the British Labour Prime Minister Wilson, only gave the US verbal support, unlike Blair who actively participated in the war and in the occupation of Iraq. The book explains how the relative strength of the workers' movement in Britain at the time prevented Harold Wilson from directly involving Britain in Vietnam.

There are similarities between the Vietnam War and the occupation of Iraq. The US is once again being drawn into a quagmire. They are hated by the majority of Iraqis. If a united movement of the Iraqi people occurs against the occupation, this resistance combined with a worldwide anti-war movement would result in another defeat for US Imperialism.

Finally, the author explains the lessons of Vietnam for today, the most important one of many being, that no amount of military hardware, fiendish weapons of mass destruction can hold a nation in chains as the US attempted to do in Vietnam. The US is now repeating this mistake in Iraq. There will be many more wars such as Vietnam and Iraq as long as capitalism exists. Only a rejuvenated and politically re-equipped organised labour movement, embracing socialist ideas can stop a repetition of these horrific events.

"Empire defeated" can be ordered via the Socialist Party, PO Box 3434, Dublin 8 or 13 Lombard Street, BT1 1RB for 7 euro/5 pounds

The Contents Page for this issue of Socialist View
Other articles on Vietnam