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Ch 10 The Vietnam War: The American Nightmare

posted 14 Feb 2012, 10:03 by Admin uk   [ updated 8 Mar 2012, 10:29 ]

We should declare war on North Vietnam. . . .

We could pave the whole country and put parking strips on it, and still be home by Christmas.1

Ronald Reagan, US President 1981-89, in

a statement in October 1965.

I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever

called me ‘nigger’.2

Muhammed Ali, on why he refused the draft.

In Vietnam the mighty US army suffered its one and only major defeat, so far.

How was this possible? Was it the guerrilla war in Vietnam combined with student struggle in the US that was responsible? This is commonly how it is presented, but in reality it was the struggle of the American working class that decided the issue.

The US comes to Vietnam

Vietnam became a French colony in middle of the nineteenth century. Dur­ing the Second World War Vietnam was occupied by Japan. After a crushing defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, France was forced to pull out of Vietnam, ending a century of colonial rule. The Vietnamese Communist Party led by Ho Chi Minh was poised to take control of the country.

China and the Soviet Union probably feared that such a setback would be too hard to swallow for imperialism and might upset the Cold War balance of terror between the great powers. Instead of letting the French army pull out, they insisted on a settlement that would compel Ho Chi Minh to withdraw his troops to North Vietnam, and leaving the French occupying the south. France would continue to administer the southern part of the country until a general election in 1956, and the victor at that poll would then rule the entire country.

The US president at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, said later that he be­lieved Ho Chi Minh would have won 80 per cent of the vote.3 So, a general election was never called. Ngo Ding Diem, a Vietnamese living in the US, was flown to Vietnam and installed in office instead. By injecting massive political, economic and military support, the US created a new state in South Vietnam. This state then began to attack both the opposition in the south and North Vietnam.4

The American government did not want another country to leave its sphere of influence. Moreover, traditional imperialist interests played a part. The conservative newspaper U.S. News and World Report carried an article headed Why the US is risking war in Indochina. It explained: “One of the world’s rich­est areas is open to the winner in Indochina. That’s behind the growing U.S. concern … tin, rubber, rice, key strategic raw materials are what the war is really all about. The U.S. sees it as a place to hold – at any cost.”5

The war was also about the export of capital, i.e. the exploitation of cheap labour. This is how the influential magazine Business Week expressed it in 1963: “Late in the 1940’s – and with increasing speed all through the 1950’s and up to the present – (in) industry after industry, U.S. companies found that their overseas earnings were soaring, and that their return on invest­ment was frequently much higher than in the U.S.”6

In South Vietnam, the Communist Party organised a guerrilla army, the NLF (National Liberation Front), to fight Diem and the US. Due to the extensive support from the population, particularly in rural areas, the guer­rillas were able to carry out rapid attacks and then vanish back into the jun­gle. Increasingly, the Americans response was to terrorise the population in order to get at the guerrillas. By 1967, killing entire families had become an integral part of the CIA’s campaign in South Vietnam.7

Operation Rolling Thunder and the Tet Offensive

As the South Vietnamese government proved incapable of defeating the guerrillas, the US was drawn deeper into the war. American military inter­vention in Vietnam began in 1963. In August of that year, US President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam. Six months later, Operation Rolling Thunder got under way. In that campaign alone – which lasted for five years – more bombs were dropped on North Viet­nam than were used throughout the Second World War. This corresponds to about 150 kilos of bombs for every man, woman and child in Vietnam.8 Two million Vietnamese and 50 000 American soldiers were to die in this war. The trees across 10% of the country’s surface were defoliated with the help of toxins, primarily Agent Orange, in a bid to get at the guerrillas, who used the jungle as cover.9

The number of American soldiers in Vietnam rose from 23,300 in 1963 to 184 000 in 1966. In January 1969, their number peaked – at 542 000. Despite this, the US was unable to subdue the country. And on the night of 31 January 1968, the North Vietnamese army and the NLF launched the Tet Offensive. The guerrillas broke the truce they had promised to observe during the Vietnamese New Year celebrations, and stormed into more than 100 cities and towns, having first launched a diversionary attack in Khesan province. One of their targets was the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.

The Americans were caught by surprise by the Tet Offensive, and the NLF even managed to take over the US embassy in the capital. They had accu­mulated weapons, ammunition and explosives at a secret location in prepa­ration for the attack. In the middle of the night, a group of guerrilla soldiers drove up to the embassy in a taxi. Within minutes they had shot the Marines on guard and taken control of the building. The guerrillas also stormed the headquarters of the US and the South Vietnamese armies, as well as the giant US army base at Bienhoa, north of Saigon airport. Fourteen guerrilla soldiers attacked the leading radio station in Saigon. After having controlled it for 18 hours, they blew themselves and the entire building into the air. The NLF also made a half-hearted attempt to stage an uprising in urban areas. The response was very limited.

The size and range of the Offensive astounded the American generals. One of them said later the pattern of attack on the map resembled a pinball game, with lights flashing for each raid. Without doubt, this was one of the most daring and remarkable campaigns in military history. The North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap had begun preparations for it in 1967 when he realised that the war had reached a military deadlock.

In military terms, the Tet Offensive was not a success. The NLF lost over 50 000 fighters, as compared to 6 000 Americans and South Vietnamese. The NLF also lost almost its entire command structure in South Vietnam. Within days, the guerrillas had been driven out of most of the positions they had captured.

The Tet Offensive was both the high point of guerrilla activity and the beginning of the NLF’s marginalisation in the continuing war. It was the regular North Vietnamese army that took over most of the fighting in the south after the Tet Offensive.

The Offensive nonetheless represented a vital turning point in other re­spects. It had a strong impact on working-class opinion back in the US and internationally. For the first time, Americans were effected by the crucial role television can play in a major war. Fifty million viewers saw the devas­tation caused by war. The US administration could no longer present it as a nice, clean operation that would soon be over. Then, when news of the Song My massacre (in the small village of My Lai) began to leak out in the media, opposition to the war grew dramatically.

The Song My massacre

At dawn on 16 March 1968, a group of American soldiers moved into My Lai. Between 450 and 500 people, mainly old men, women and children, were slain:

“Those Vietnamese who were not killed on the spot were being shepherded by the first platoon to a large drainage ditch at the eastern end of the hamlet. After Grzesik left, Meadlo and a few others gathered seven or eight villagers in one hut and were pre­paring to toss in a hand grenade when an order came to take them to the ditch. There he found Calley, along with a dozen other first platoon members, and perhaps seventy-five Vietnamese, mostly women, old men and children. Calley then turned his attention back to the crowd of Vietnamese and issued an order: “Push all those people in the ditch.” Three or four GIs complied. Calley struck a woman with a rifle as he pushed her down. Stanley re­membered that some of the civilians “kept trying to get out. Some made it to the top. . . .” Calley began the shooting and ordered Meadlo to join in. Meadlo told about it later: “So we pushed our seven to eight people in with the big bunch of them. And so I began shooting them all. So did Mitchell, Calley… I guess I shot maybe twenty-five or twenty people in the ditch . . . men, women and children. And babies.” Some of the GIs switched from auto­matic fire to single-shot to conserve ammunition. Herbert Carter watched the mothers “grabbing their kids and the kids grabbing their mothers. I didn’t know what to do.”


Some GIs. . . didn’t hesitate to use their bayonets. Nineteen-year-old Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tuyet watched a baby trying to open her slain mother’s blouse to nurse. A soldier shot the infant while it was struggling with the blouse, and the slashed at it with his bayo­net. Tuyet also said she saw another baby hacked to death by GIs wielding their bayonets. Le Tong, a twenty-eight-year-old rice farmer, reported seeing one woman raped after GIs killed her children . Nguyen Khoa, a thirty-seven- year-old peasant, told of a thirteen-year-old girl who was raped before being killed. GIs then attacked Khoa’s wife, tearing off her clothes. Before they could rape her, however, Khoa said, their six-year-old son, riddled with bullets, fell and saturated her with blood. The GIs left her alone . . . .

In the early afternoon the men of Charlie Company mopped up to make sure all the houses and goods in My Lai 4 were destroyed. Medina ordered the underground tunnels in the hamlet blown up; most of them already had been blocked. Within another hour My Lai 4 was no more: its red-brick buildings demolished by explo­sives, its huts burned to the ground, its people dead or dying.”10

It later transpired that officers higher up were responsible both for the massacre, and for the attempts to cover it up. However, only four soldiers were brought to trial and only one of them, William Calley, was convicted. After three years of house arrest, he was pardoned by President Nixon and released. The Song My outrage was one of the more brutal events of the war, but the abuse and killing of civilians was commonplace. In for example Operation Speedy Express focused on the Mekong Delta in early 1969, the US army claimed that 10,899 enemies were killed. Yet only 784 weapons were seized.11

It was not until 13 November 1969, more than one and half years after the event, that the true story of what happened at Song My emerged in the American media. As the war continued, American journalists increasingly dared to tell the truth about the Vietnam War. This was because public opinion more and more swung against the war. A few years earlier, journal­ists would have been fired if they had ventured to report the facts. But by the end of 1969, such persecution would have led to an uproar.

US national security adviser Henry Kissinger realised after the Tet Offen­sive that: “Regardless of how effective our actions are, the present strategy can no longer reach its goals within the period or with the level of force that is acceptable to the American Public.”12 The US is a highly developed country where the working class makes up the overwhelming bulk of the population. It is the working class that is the American public.

Initially, just as at the invasion of Iraq, many workers supported the Viet­nam War. However, that declined as the war continued. A look at which groups expressed the greatest dissatisfaction is particularly interesting. A Gallup poll conducted in January 1971 showed that 60% of those with a college education advocated withdrawing the troops from Vietnam and 75% with a high school education supported such a move, while as many as 80% of those with only an elementary education were in favour. These facts have become completely obscured.13

At a popular exhibition entitled Resistance at Stockholm’s modern art mu­seum, Moderna Museet, the only picture showing workers was one of American construction workers in hard hats beating up protesting students. The exhibition was supposed to be about struggle from the 1960s onwards. The impression it gave was that the only Americans principled enough to stand up against US imperialism were students and a handful of courageous individuals.

On a number of occasions in the 1990s people were asked to estimate what percentages of people at different educational levels were against the war in 1971. They estimated that 90% of all those with a college education were against the war, and that just 60% of those with only an elementary educa­tion were opposed to it.14 An almost complete reversal of the facts.

The working class pays, the rich benefit

The American workers’ opposition to the war was based primarily on their own experiences. It was their children who were called on to do the dirty work in Vietnam. And it was their children who came home in a body bag, or maimed or mentally disturbed, because of a war that was not their own – a war that in no way benefited them. The children of the rich were often able to avoid being drafted as they were studying at university (students were exempted from the draft), or alternatively they were given comfortable jobs as officers far from the horrors of war. Also, it was the workers who paid for most of the war, via their taxes.

A total of 2 590 000 Americans took part in the war at one time or another. Inevitably, there was interaction between them and the working class back home. The soldiers influenced their thinking, and vice versa. Many return­ing soldiers could doubtless agree with the following description, published in June 1971, of how far resistance had developed within the US military.

“The morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States. 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… While no senior officer (especially one on active duty) can openly voice any such assess­ment, the foregoing conclusions find virtually unanimous sup­port in numerous non-attributable interviews with responsible senior and mid-level officer, as well as career non-commissioned officers and petty officers in all services.


- They have set up separate companies, writes an American sol­dier from Cu Chi, quoted in the New York Times, for men who refuse to go into the field. It is no big thing to refuse to go. If a man is ordered to go to such and such a place he no longer goes through the hassle of refusing; he just packs his shirt and goes to visit some buddies at another base camp. Operations have become incredibly ragtag. Many guys don’t even put on their uniforms any more… The American garrison on the larger bases are virtually disarmed. The lifers have taken our weapons from us and put them under lock and key…There have also been quite a few frag incidents in the battalion. …

‘Frag incidents’ or just ‘fragging’ is current soldier slang in Viet­nam for the murder or attempted murder of strict, unpopular, or just aggressive officers and NCOs….Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of cer­tain units…Bounties, raised by common subscription in amounts running anywhere from $50 to $1 000, have been widely re­ported put on the heads of leaders whom the privates and Sp4s want to rub out.

Shortly after the costly assault on Hamburger Hill in mid-1969, the GI underground newspaper in Vietnam, G.I. Says, publicly offered a $10 000 bounty on Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt, the of­ficer who ordered (and led) the attack.


The issue of ‘combat refusal’, an official euphemism for diso­bedience of orders to fight – the soldier’s gravest crime, has only recently been again precipitated on the frontier of Laos by Troop B, 1st Cavalry’s mass refusal to recapture their captain’s command vehicle containing communication gear, codes and other secret operation orders.

As early as mid-1969, however, an entire company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade publicly sat down on the battlefield. Later that year, another rifle company, from the famed 1st Air Cav­alry Division, flatly refused – on CBS-TV – to advance down a dangerous trail…’Search and evade’ (meaning tacit avoidance of combat by units in the field) is now virtually a principle of war, vividly expressed by the GI phrase, ‘CYA (cover your ass) and get home!’

That ’search-and-evade’ has not gone unnoticed by the enemy is underscored by the Viet Cong delegation’s recent statement at the Paris Peace Talks that communist units in Indochina have been or­dered not to engage American units which do not molest them.”

This account was published just six months before the US began withdraw­ing its ground troops and Nixon initiated his Vietnamisation policy (meaning that American soldiers were no longer to be directly involved in the fighting). The quote is from the Armed Forces Journal, an official army publication, and is included in a book by the eminent military historian Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr.15 Heinl is not alone in writing about the disintegration of the American military. Such accounts have almost become a genre in their own right.16

Another example: “During the years of 1969 down to 1973, we have the rise of fragging – that is, shooting or hand-grenading your NCO or your officer who orders you out into the field. (…) The US Army itself does not know exactly how many … officers were murdered. But they know at least 600 were murdered, and then they have another 1 400 that died mys­teriously. Consequently, by early 1970, the army [was] at war not with the enemy but with itself’.”17

It was not the brutality of war as such that led to the disintegration of the US Army. The important thing in war is for soldiers to believe in what they are doing. During the Second World War, many soldiers were willing to fight fascism and defend democracy. However much US propaganda sought to present the Vietnam War as a fight for a better world, it soon became clear to the soldiers involved that this was not what the war was about. At the end of the Second World War, too, American soldiers had reacted rebelliously to government efforts to re-deploy them to fight the Communists in Italy and elsewhere.

Back home in the US, ordinary workers were strongly influenced by what their sons and brothers had experienced in Vietnam. And they did not just sit back and await developments. As early as 1965, some 25 000 people gathered in Washington, 20 000 in New York and 15 000 in Berkeley, Cali­fornia, to protest against the war. In April 1967, as many as 300 000 people demonstrated in New York.

A series of ‘moratoriums’18 were organised throughout the US by the two largest anti-war organisations. The largest of these protests took place on 15 October 1969. An estimated five million people took part in it in one way or another. They joined demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins and other organised activities. Some people did only small things, like lighting a candle or leaving their headlights on. In New York, the mayor proclaimed a day of mourning and ordered public flags to be flown at half mast. Soldiers in Vietnam also demonstrated their support, by wearing black armbands.

The largest demonstrations took place on 24 April 1971. 300 000 people assembled in San Francisco, and in Washington between 500 000 and 700 000. This was probably the largest political demonstration in the history of the country – at least up until 15 February 2003 when a million people gathered in New York to protest against the war in Iraq.

Protests were also organised at universities. During the post-war economic upswing, US universities and colleges had increasingly opened up, and by the late 1960s the students included millions of young people from work­ing-class backgrounds. Many of the largest and most militant protests took place at universities that were not Ivy League and could hardly be described as the preserve of the rich: Kent State, San Francisco State, and the state-run universities in Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin. In the early 1970s, however, these protests began to wane. Different left-wing sects came to dominate the student movement and tear it apart with fruitless arguments. The anti-war movement, by contrast, now began to attract a great deal of support from organised workers.

The position of the Labour Movement

In the 1930s, the US Labour Movement grew in strength and became radi­calised at an astonishing speed. In the 1950s, however, union bureaucrats dominated. Ordinary workers were showing less inclination to take part in union activities, partly because their situation had improved but also be­cause of the hysterical anti-Communist mood in the early years of the Cold War. In the 1960s, union activities picked up again. Although the workers were better off financially, they were still doing the same dirty jobs and were still being ordered around by dictatorial managers. Many strikes ensued, not least in heavy industry, and the labour unions launched recruiting drives among farm workers, hospital staff and white-collar workers. But the union bureaucracy was a millstone around the movement’s neck.

The bureaucracy was personified by George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest union confederation in the world. He made no bones about his opinion regarding the Vietnam War. In May 1965, he declared that the AFL-CIO would support the war “no matter what the academic do-gooders may say, no matter what the apostles of appeasement may say”.19 In August 1966, the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO issued the statement that: “Those who would deny our military forces unstinting support are, in effect, aiding the Communist enemy of our country – at the very moment when it is bearing the heaviest burdens in the defence of world peace and freedom”.20

It is not easy for an opposition to make its voice heard when it is openly harassed and persecuted. In 1967, a resolution opposing the war was brought before the AFL-CIO Congress. 2 000 delegates voted against the resolution, six in favour. But in June 1969 the United Auto Workers, UAW, quit the AFL-CIO and set up the Alliance for Labor Action together with the Teamsters (transport workers). The Alliance called for an immediate end to the war.

As time passed, a growing number of labour unions came out against the Vi­etnam War. Individual unions began openly supporting anti-war demonstra­tions, and new members flocked to join them. By 1972, unions representing 4 million of the country’s 21 million workers had officially declared their opposition to the war. At the 1972 presidential election, half of all ‘union households’ voted for the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, who was demanding an immediate troop withdrawal from Vietnam. They did so despite the fact that for the first time in the organisation’s history, Meany had refused to give AFL-CIO support to the Democratic candidate.

However, the ground had begun to shake beneath Meany’s feet. The number of strikes, including wildcat strikes, increased. Even the traditional­ly conservative construction workers did not behave the way in which they were usually presented in the media. In June 1970, a reporter accompanied a group of activists visiting building sites in Chicago to distribute anti-war leaflets. He saw that 90% of the workers the activists talked to were against the war, and almost all felt it was really stupid to assault students for their opposition to it.21

The logic of the anti-war movement was such that people began to feel sympathy for the Vietnamese. In July 1977, an opinion poll asked the ques­tion: “Assuming that the President recommended helping Vietnam, would you like your representative in Congress to approve a plan to send food and medicine there?” 60% said yes and only 29% no.22

In the United States, no parliaments were stormed, no barricades were built and no presidents were deposed (at least not until two years after the US military had been pulled out). Nor was the working class well organ­ised and consciously fighting for a new society, such as the Swedish work­ing class when they ended the attempt to go to war in 1905, or the Russian working class in 1917, or the German in 1918. But special circumstances that have existed neither before nor since meant that the Vietnam War was ended nonetheless.

The movement of the Vietnamese people was part of the anti-colonial struggle that had successfully swept through the world in previous decades. This gave the Vietnamese people self-confidence and moral support from all who had been through a similar experience. They were strengthened further because they were not only fighting to get rid of something, but were also struggling for a better society. A society that they could see had improved the lot of many poor countries throughout the world. They were prepared to fight to the bitter end. The Cold War meant that they got large supplies of weapons from the Soviet Union.

Although Vietnam was a good place for capitalist exploitation, it was not of vital economic importance to US imperialism. A section of the American capitalists therefore began to feel that it might be better to cut their losses, when the war dragged on. The resolve of the American establishment to continue the war was further sapped by international protests. Giant rallies against the US war effort in Vietnam attracted workers and young people throughout the world, not least in Sweden, where the anti-war movement united the left. Olof Palme, then a government minister, caused an interna­tional sensation by joining a demonstration alongside the North Vietnam­ese ambassador.

In military terms, American military power was far superior to the Viet­namese. The US controlled the air space and could go on bombing for as long as they wished. Although the war was expensive, and was beginning to affect the economy, they still could have gone on for years. But the war could not be financed if the working class refused to pay for it. Nor could it be maintained if the working class refused to fight.

The American Labour Movement is, in some respects, different to the Eu­ropean. It is less organised and not as strong, but that also means that the bureaucracy is relatively weak. There is no Labour Party. The Communist Party has hardly any influence. There is no tradition of reformism and Sta­linism. In Europe the reformist leadership within the movement has been the main hindrance to the anti-war movement ever since the outbreak of the First World War, and the Stalinist bureaucracies since the degeneration of the Soviet Union. The small bureaucracy in the US Labour Movement is openly pro-capitalist. When American workers began to question official truths, there was almost nobody with authority to get them ‘on track’ again, i.e. almost nobody who could play the role of an ‘honest broker’ between the demands of the workers and the wishes of the capitalists. Almost noth­ing can dampen class conflicts once they break out. Had the American Government sought to press ahead with the war, the US would have been on the brink of revolution.

In 1975, after 28 years of war, imperialism was finally forced to leave Viet­nam. Once again the independent movement of the working class was deci­sive for defeating imperialism. Given the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese (backed up by many national liberation struggles throughout the Third World), the protests of the Labour Movement internationally, the weakness of the Labour bureaucracy in the US, the fact that US imperialism could afford to let Vietnam go, meant that the American workers opposition to the war brought the troops home.


1 www.vietnamwar.net/quotations/quotations.htm

2 www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Common_Courage_Press/WhoControlsHeroes.html

3 The memoirs of President Eisenhower: Mandate for Change, 1963

4 Robert K. Brigham: Battlefield Vietnam: A brief history. http://www.pbs.org/


5 US News and World Report, 4 April 1954. www.plp.org/vietnam/vn6.html

6 20 April, 1963. Ibid.

7 Douglas Valentine: Fragging Bob, 2001

8 Steve Forrest: The Tet Offensive.


9 Jim Hensman: Vietnam 1945, 1986

10 Seymour Hirsch: My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath, 1970

11 Christopher Hitchens: The Trial of Henry Kissinger, 2001

12 Steve Forrest: The Tet Offensive,


13 BBC: War and protest – the US in Vietnam (1971),


14 James Loewen: Lies My Teacher Told Me, 1995

15 Robert D. Heinl J: The Collapse of the Armed Forces, 1971

16 See for instance GI Resistance: Soldiers and Veterans Against the Viet Nam War.

A Bibliography, 1991

17 http://home.mweb.co.za/re/redcap/vietcrim.htm, unofficial website of the US Army’s

military police

18 A moratorium is defined in the dictionary as an agreed suspension of activity.

19 http://lists.village.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Texts/Reviews/Smetak_US_


20 http://lists.village.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Texts/Reviews/Smetak_US_


21 Phillip Foner: US Labor and the Vietnam War, 1989

22 New York Times/CBS News