[This talk was part of presentations given at ‘A victory for all Humanity Vietnam 1965-1975’ seminar August 21, 2010]
The direct war by the United States and its allies, including Australia, against the people of Vietnam lasted for 10 years, beginning with US air strikes against North Vietnam in February 1965 and the landing in South Vietnam in March 1965 of 3500 US combat troops. Over the next seven years US warplanes dropped a total of 7mn tonnes of bombs on Vietnam, 3½ times the amount dropped by US warplanes during all of World War II. Despite this, by the end of the war on April 30, 1975, the Vietnamese people had defeated the mightiest military power in human history. But this victory came at the cost of at least 3 million Vietnamese dead.
The Vietnamese were able to defeat, first the French colonialists and then the US and its allies, including Australia, because the overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese people were determined to win their national independence, and because they had a very determined and astute leadership in the Vietnamese Communist Party. The party emerged as the central leadership of the struggle against French colonialism and then US neo-colonialism and military occupation because there was no other political or social organisation or movement that was capable of playing that role.
This situation was not accidental, but the product of colonialism. French colonial rule and exploitation prevented the development of an independent and strong local capitalist class in Vietnam. Vietnamese capitalists as a group were both oppressed by and tied to the colonial masters. They were not capable of a consistent struggle for national independence like those waged in Europe and the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was the workers and peasants who had everything to gain and nothing to lose in the fight against colonialism and neo-colonialism, and only a political leadership based on those classes could lead the movement to victory.
The 1940 Japanese occupation of Indochina had alerted the US imperialist rulers “to the region’s importance as a producer of foodstuffs and raw materials and as a key strategic point near the major shipping routes of Asia”, Christopher O’Sullivan, professor of history at the University of San Francisco, noted in his 2003 book Sumner Welles, Postwar Planning, and the Quest for a New World Order, 1937-1943. After 1945, Washington backed French imperialism’s attempt to restore its colonial rule in Indochina, providing an increasing amount of funding and other support during the 1946-54 French war against Vietnam.
In September 1950, the Pentagon set up a Military Assistance and Advisory Group to screen French requests for aid, advise on strategy, and train Vietnamese puppet soldiers. By time of the Vietnamese victory over the French in 1954, Washington spent US$1 billion in support of the French military effort and was shouldering 80% of the cost of the French colonial war. There were also talks between Paris and Washington in which the use by the US Air Force of three “tactical” nuclear weapons was considered to break the Vietnamese liberation fighters’ 1954 siege of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.
During the Franco-Vietnamese war, the US rulers explained with a candour that is seldom encountered today why they were willing to undertake such measures to defeat the Vietnamese revolutionary national liberation movement. For example, in February 1950 the New York Times stated: “Indo-China is a prize worth a large gamble. In the north are exportable tin, tungsten, manganese, coal, lumber and rice, rubber, tea, pepper, and hides. Even before World War II, Indo-China yielded dividends estimated at $300 million a year.”
A year later, a State Department adviser observed, “We have only partially exploited South-East Asia’s resources. Nevertheless, South-East Asia supplied 90% of the world’s crude rubber, 60% of its tin and 80% of its copra and coconut oil. It has sizeable quantities of sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, sisal, fruits, spices, natural resins and gums, petroleum, iron ore and bauxite.” US president Dwight Eisenhower told a conference of US state governors on August 4, 1953 that “when the United States votes $400 million to help that war, we are not voting for a giveaway program. We are voting for the cheapest way that we can to prevent the occurrence of something that would be of the most terrible significance for the United States of America – our security, our power and ability to get certain things we need from the riches of the Indo-Chinese territory, and from southeast Asia.”
At a press conference in April 1954, Eisenhower returned to the same concern with retaining Western corporate control over the resources of South-East Asia, saying that “two of the items from this particular area that the world uses are tin and tungsten. They are very important. There are others, of course, the rubber plantations and so on … But when we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the [Malay] Peninsula, and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about areas that not only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking really about millions and millions and millions of people.” Eisenhower thus laid out the imperatives underlying imperialist capitalism’s drive to wage war against insurgent movements in the Third World – corporate control over raw materials and human labour power.
After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, a peace treaty signed at Geneva provided for a temporary division of Vietnam into an independent Vietnamese republic in the north and a regroupment area for the French forces in the south. A general election to unite the country was to be held in 1956. But Washington, which had refused to sign the Geneva agreement, immediately set about overturning it. The US rulers tried to make permanent the temporary division of Vietnam between the north and the south. Washington installed the US-trained Ngo Dinh Diem as “president” of a nominally independent Republic of Vietnam in the south. It then supported Diem in cancelling the 1956 nationwide elections because, as Eisenhower later explained, “Possibly 80% of the population would have voted for the Communist, Ho Chi Minh, as their leader”.
The brutal and corrupt misrule of the Diem family in South Vietnam soon generated a growing opposition. By 1963, there were 16,000 US military advisers were embedded at every level of the Saigon regime’s armed forces which, while numbering a million troops, had proved incapable of crushing the Vietnamese resistance forces, organised in the National Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces. At the time, the CIA estimated the PLAF’s regular and guerilla forces had grown from 5000 fighters in 1959 to about 100,000 fighters and that they “by and large retain de facto control of much of the countryside” of South Vietnam.
With the encouragement of the US ambassador in Saigon, South Vietnamese military officers staged a coup in November 1963 and Diem and his equally hated brother were murdered. In subsequent months there was a series of coups as various generals fought each other for the top spot. Generals remained at the head of the Saigon regime until it was defeated by the Communist-led national liberation movement in 1975 – although these generals did stage n rigged election in 1967. (There was a fitting cartoon published in the US at the time, which showed a pollster in Saigon knocking on doors and asking, “If a general election were held next week, which general would you vote for?”)
By early 1965, General William Westmoreland, commander of the US military forces in South Vietnam, had concluded that the Saigon regime’s army could not survive the NLF’s mounting political and military offensive for more than six months unless Washington committed large numbers of US combat troops to the war. In a blunt report to Washington, he declared that, if present trends continued, “We are headed for a VC takeover of the country”, probably within a year. Thus, if Washington had not decided to directly involve its military forces in the conflict, the civil war between the US-created landlord-capitalist regime in Saigon and the Vietnamese worker-peasant based revolutionary movement would have ended some nine years earlier than it actually did.
Washington’s pretext for escalating the war, the claim that US forces had been attacked by North Vietnamese military forces had already been instigated. In August 1964 Washington charged that two US naval vessels were fired upon off the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. The US House of Representatives voted 416-0 for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the government the authority to take any actions it deemed necessary to “defend South East Asia from communist aggression”. Five years later, the Pentagon Papers, the secret Pentagon history of the war leaked by Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg, revealed that US President Lyndon Johnson had written this resolution months before, and had waited to introduce it until he could claim that US forces had been attacked. An undated US National Security Agency publication declassified in 2005 revealed that there had been no attack on the US naval vessels in the Tonkin Gulf in August 1964.
By the end of 1965, the US occupation force in South Vietnam numbered nearly 200,000 troops and half-a-million troops by mid-1967. By that time US troops in Vietnam were dying at a rate of 200 per week, almost twice as many as in 1966. In November 1967, Westmoreland spearheaded a public relations drive in the US to bolster flagging public support for the war. In a speech before the National Press Club in Washington he said that a point in the war had been reached “where the end comes into view”. This claim was shattered when the Vietnamese resistance forces launched their surprise Tet Offensive in January 1968. Over 100 cities were attacked, with assaults on General Westmoreland’s headquarters and the US Embassy in Saigon.
The Tet Offensive made it clear that the US rulers’ war in Vietnam was unwinnable. This was dramatically symbolized by popular CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite‘s public statement broadcast on February 27, 1958, “we are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory”.
The rifts within the US ruling-class policy elite that were provoked by the Tet Offensive helped legitimise public expressions of outright opposition to the war. Increasing numbers of young people in the US advanced from criticism of the hypocrisy of the ruling class’s denial of civil rights for black Americans and the non-white peoples of the Third World to a consciously anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist outlook.
The attitude toward the war in Vietnam of the mass of US working people turned from apathy to deepening opposition as it became clear to them that the rulers were willing to sacrifice the lives the tens of thousands of young conscripts in an unwinnable war. This shift in the attitude of the masses provided the social base for the building of the largest anti-war movement in US history, a movement that increasingly found sympathy and expression among the ranks of the US soldiers in Vietnam, which in turn rendered the US army utterly unreliable as an effective counterinsurgency force.
The burgeoning antiwar movement in the United States, with its regular series of mass marches in Washington from late 1969 through to end of 1971, played a major role in helping to defeat the US rulers’ war against Vietnam. It made the domestic political cost of continuing the war too high for the imperialist rulers. This was confirmed when the Pentagon Papers were fully published in 1972. They exposed the fact that, as a secret US State Department memorandum in March 1968 put it, “the growing disaffection [with the war] … runs [the] great risk of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions”.
By 1971 this growing disaffection with the war among US working people, particularly working-class youth, had made the US army in Vietnam an utterly unreliable fighting force. US Army Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr. authored a report printed the June 1971 Armed Forces Journal entitled the “Collapse of the Armed Forces”, in which he concluded that, “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 … All the foregoing facts … point to widespread conditions among American Forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by … the collapse of the tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.” Of course, this would not have been the case if the Vietnamese workers and peasants had not waged such a determined and prolonged resistance to the US war machine.
From 1970 through to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, Washington’s strategy was to try to force ? though an escalating air war and replacement of US troops with a strengthened puppet army in the south – the Vietnamese leadership into accepting a permanent compromise settlement that would leave in place the Saigon regime. In practice, this amounted to a reversion to the situation that prevailed at the end of 1964. As a directive issued by the Vietnamese People’s Army political and military headquarters in South Vietnam in November 1972 observed: “Today, in South Vietnam we have large liberated areas, a people’s administration, and strong people’s liberation armed forces, especially the main forces; we have a political force, a complete system of leadership from high to low levels and a time-tested infrastructure… Since the enemy’s main support, which is the US massive military strength and the war, which is his key measure, will be limited, we will be in an advantageous position over the enemy. Especially our political superiority, which is our basic strength, will have the condition to develop to the highest extent, opening new prospects.”
Despite the fact that Washington’s South Vietnamese puppet regime had three times as much artillery and twice the number of tanks and armoured cars and a two-to-one numerical superiority in combat troops over its Communist-led enemies, once the Vietnamese national liberation forces began a sustained counteroffensive against the encroachments made by the Saigon regime’s army in early March 1975, the regime’s lack of popular political support quickly revealed itself. Its 1 million-strong army rapidly began to disintegrate, and by early April totaled less than 100,000 troops. As the May 1, 1975, Australian observed in an editorial: “In just eight weeks, from its first major attack in the central highlands to its appearance in Saigon, the North Vietnamese army has waged one of the swiftest and most successful campaigns in military history.”
In the early morning hours of April 30, 1975, the last US Marines evacuated the US embassy in Saigon by helicopter, and Vietnam was unoccupied by foreign troops for the first time since the French colonial invasion of 1857.