This is a slighter longer version of the article that appeared in
Socialist View, Spring 2003 (March)
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 where the risk of American casualties was more than minimal.
Since then it has put troops on the ground in Grenada were the opposition was negligible, and in the Lebanon and Somalia, from both of which it quickly withdrew as soon as soon as it drew fire. In Central America in the 1980s it relied on puppet forces such as the Contras in Nicaragua. During the first Gulf War and in the former Yugoslavia it employed massive air-power in order to avoid committing ground troops as far as possible. Since September 11th a new era has now opened up in which it is prepared to risk casualties, firstly in Afganistan and now in Iraq.
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 National Liberation Front (NLF) which fought a long guerrilla war backed by the Stalinist North Vietnamese regime.
In the early years of the war “advisers” were sent in but the situation rapidly escalated and by 1968 500,000 US troops were stationed in Vietnam. The US dropped 8 million tons of bombs, more than twice the total dropped during World War II and 20 million tons of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange were sprayed. 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 2 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. A University of Michigan poll in June 1966 showed that 27% of people with a college education favoured immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, compared to 41% of those with only a grade school education.
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. Black soldiers saw little reason to risk their lives fighting a racist war, in a racist army, for a racist government.
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 one general put it “we have seen the enemy, and he is us.”
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 ghettoes.
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.” A few days later two students were shot dead at the black college of Jackson State. Also in 1970 the Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, unleashed troops on protesters in the occupied Peoples Park declaring, “if there’s going to be a bloodbath, let it begin here”. One protester died and over one hundred were injured.
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 ghettoes. After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 46 more died in further rioting. 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. There is no comparison between the war in Vietnam and the war in Afghanistan, where the reactionary Taliban was hated by the majority of the population.
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. To prove their point they are prepared to kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and to risk the lives of their own soldiers, who are in many cases economic conscripts, joining up to avoid poverty.
However Bush and his acolytes were not prepared to risk their own lives when they had the chance. Bush avoided combat in Vietnam by wangling a commission in the Texas Air National Guard (and even then he didn’t show up for a year). Vice-President Cheney says that he “had other priorities in the 1960’s than military service”. Doubtless the 58,000 US troops who died also had “other priorities”.
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.”
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