The right side won the Vietnam War

February 8, 2007

Prime Minister John Howard created a stir in late November when, in Vietnam for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, he publicly defended the Australian role in the Vietnam War. Howard said, "I supported our involvement at the time and I don't intend to recant that … I supported the reasons for Australia's involvement and nothing has altered my view that, at the time, on the assessments that were made then, I took that view and I took that view properly."

The Australian newspaper's Greg Sheridan took Howard's cue and wrote a rant defending Australia's participation in the US-led war on Vietnam, affirming that "the wrong side won the Vietnam War".

According to Sheridan, the US and Australian rulers' motive for waging the war was an "ambition to help our South Vietnamese friends establish a prosperous democracy" and to stop hordes of dominoes falling all the way down the map from Indochina to Canberra.

And in any case, the winning side was certainly "hateful". According to Sheridan, after the war ended in 1975, "more than a million [people] fled the communists". Has there ever been another such massive repudiation of a victorious revolution? Well, yes, in fact, there has.

To put things in perspective, the population of Vietnam in 1975 was around 48 million, so the million who fled represented just over 2% of the population. After the US war of independence from British rule ended in 1783, an estimated 3% of the US population "fled the republicans" (as Sheridan would no doubt have expressed it had he been around at the time).

And those refugees from the American Revolution were not fleeing from an impoverished country to a wealthy one, were not leaving behind a land destroyed by 35 years of war, one in which unexploded ordnance was still claiming lives three decades later.

Sheridan also neglects to mention that the number of people who left Vietnam after 1975 was approximately the same as the number of combatants who gave their lives to achieve the victory over the US, Australia and their "South Vietnamese friends". (In addition to the 1 million Vietnamese combatants killed, at least 3 million civilians were killed by the US and its allies.) Isn't it strange that so many people would fight so fiercely to prevent "prosperous democracy"?

In fact, the noble ideals Sheridan alludes to had nothing to do with the war, except in the sense that they were part of the US-Australian propaganda at the time, designed to mislead people who had more patriotism than sense.

US interest

The US interest in Indochina — Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — began and ended with greed, not noble ideals, although of course noble ideals were used whenever possible to conceal the real motives.

The 1940 Japanese occupation of Indochina alerted Washington "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.

Not surprisingly, the US public began to wonder why the US was involved there. The US elite tried to explain, sometimes with a candour that is seldom encountered today. 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."

Control over resources

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."

Sheridan to the contrary, there was nothing about creating a "prosperous democracy" anywhere in Indochina in the US elite's motivation for waging war on Vietnam. At a press conference in April 1954, Eisenhower returned to the same concern with securing US control over resources, 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."

After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 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 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 replaced the ineffectual Emperor Bao Dai with 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 soon generated a growing opposition, until the point was reached in 1963 that Washington decided to change horses. With the encouragement of the US ambassador in Saigon, military officers staged a coup and Diem and his equally hated brother were murdered.

In subsequent months there was a whole series of coups as various generals fought each other for the top spot. Generals remained at the head of the government until it was defeated by the Communist-led national liberation movement in 1975 — although these generals did later conduct an "election". (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?")

Communist Party

To the chagrin of the US rulers, Vietnam won the Vietnam War. After April 30, 1975, Vietnam was united and unoccupied by foreign troops for the first time since the French invasion of 1857. The Vietnamese people's victory was achieved against the most powerful military force on the planet, and despite the most intense bombing campaign in the history of warfare.

The Vietnamese were able to defeat, first the French and then the US and its allies, because the overwhelming majority of the people were determined to end their colonial exploitation, and because they had a very determined and astute leadership in the Communist Party. This is a fact that infuriates professional reactionaries like Greg Sheridan and John Howard.

The Communist Party emerged as the central leadership of the struggle against French colonialism and then US-Australian 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 imperialism, and only a party based on those classes could lead the movement to victory.

Relevance today

It has become important for reactionaries like Howard and Sheridan to falsify the history of the Vietnam War because of a number of similarities with the current US-Australian war in Iraq. While the Iraqi nation's struggle against imperialist occupation is not being led by a revolutionary workers' party like the Vietnamese Communist Party, the US military is bogged down in an unwinnable war, and there is rapidly deepening opposition to the war in both the US and Australia.

The big protests that took place before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq were not maintained, which was not surprising when it appeared that the war was largely over. But as the Iraqi resistance to the occupation continues to grow, the sentiment against the war in the US in particular could again turn into protest action in the streets.

During the Vietnam War, mass protests around the world made it politically more difficult for the US and Australian governments to conduct the war. They could do the same in the case of Iraq. That is why Howard and Sheridan want us to think that the protests were misguided and the imperialist invasion of Vietnam was a "good cause".

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