Ciaran Mulholland, Socialist View
, No 10. Spring 2003
The defeat of the most powerful army in the world in the jungles of Indochina was a turning point in world history. The US ruling class has been haunted by the memory of this defeat ever since.
Since the last of its troops were airlifted out of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975, the US has been reluctant to intervene there the risk of American casualties was more than minimal. The defeat of American imperialism in Vietnam holds important lessons for today’s anti-war activists and should be considered carefully. The US intervened in Vietnam to prevent the victory of the National Liberation Front (NLF) which fought a long guerrilla war backed by the Stalinist North Vietnamese regime.
By 1968, 500,000 US troops were stationed in Vietnam. The US dropped eight million tons of bombs, more than twice the total dropped during World War II, and sprayed 20 million tons of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. In total, 2.8 million US troops fought in Vietnam and 58,202 died there. Despite this commitment, the US was defeated, above all else by the Vietnamese people's determination and fighting spirit. Perhaps three million Vietnamese died in wars against Japanese, French and US imperialism between 1945 and 1975. The NLF's program of national liberation from imperialist domination, land to the peasants, and a decent life for workers inspired the most astonishing support, self-sacrifice, and willingness to fight to the death.
"Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?"
The war was also lost on the home front. The anti-war movement started as a small minority, with student sit-ins and demonstrations. When the bombings began, a Boston Commons protest attracted 100 people. This grew to a massive 100,000 by October 15, 1969 when two million in total protested across the country. By 1969, there were 500 underground newspapers in high schools, and protests had been held on 232 college campuses. The media has attempted to portray the anti-war movement as being mainly made up of well-off students. However, with working class youth on the front lines in Vietnam, opposition to the war was actually strongest in working class communities.
Eventually, mass opposition developed within the armed forces themselves. With African Americans disproportionately represented in the army, the effects of the civil rights movement was a key factor. There was a clear class divide in the army. Low income soldiers were three times more likely to die than high income soldiers. Of the 43,000 soldiers with the rank of Major or above only 201 died. In 1970, there were over 50 underground newspapers on military bases. By 1971, 17.7% of US soldiers were listed as AWOL.
The situation facing the generals was summed up by Col. Robert D. Heinl Jr. in 1971: " By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous." The most powerful army in the world disintegrated. As the economy ran into difficulties, there was an increase in the number of strikes. The state began to fear a coming together of workers in struggle, young people protesting against the war and revolt in the ghettos.
In 1970, national guardsmen shot dead four students at the largely working class Kent State University and mass occupations of colleges erupted. FBI director Hoover declared that one of the murdered students was "nothing more than a whore anyway." Young people, minorities and important sections of the working class were in open revolt. Between 1965 and 1967, 130 people were killed in uprisings in the ghettos. By 1972, one million blacks considered themselves revolutionary.
Important sections of big business concluded that it was better to end the war rather than suffer further social explosions at home. In 1973, Nixon was forced to withdraw all US troops. Since then, the spokesmen and politicians of big business have been trying to re-write history. They argue that the US never really lost the war, but just failed to conduct it energetically enough. These same elements believe that their quick victory in Afghanistan has shown that determined military action can overcome all obstacles.
Bush and those around him believe that the Vietnam War should have been won and that the troops were let down both by weak politicians and the anti-war movement. The enormous worsening of social conditions in the semi-colonial countries will force workers and peasants into struggle in the coming years. The US will attempt to throttle these movements. But any military intervention in a revolutionary situation, like in Vietnam, would force the US once again to put hundreds of thousands of ground troops into the field of battle, risking significant US casualties. In a situation such as this, air power means very little. As US army Chief of Staff from the 1960’s, General Harold K. Johnson, argues "if anything came out of Vietnam, it was that airpower couldn’t do the job."
For other articles on Vietnam by the SP/CWI, visit the sitemap
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or for the articles on Vietnam go to the sitemap.
To see more about what the Socialist Party stands for visit our main site