Wednesday, April 27, 2011

BUILDING A NEW SOCIETY AND LESSENING THE PAIN OF THE OLD

Harry Targ

Many progressives grew up following the activities of Cuban revolutionaries as they battled and won the war against imperialism and the global capitalist system. We were drawn to the transcendent meaning of Che Guevara, advocate for the new “man,” defender of the proposition that human beings can be for more than themselves, and believer in the power of creating transformative institutions. Socialism was to be about empowerment, betterment, and the maximization of an individual’s creative potential in the context of solidarity in communities. What Che stood for we stood for: the replacement of greed, avarice, competition, violence, self-aggrandizement, and “human nature” with sharing, love, cooperation, peace, selflessness, and a new nature. In our hearts and minds capitalism stood in the way of creating a humane world. Most of us still believe in Che’s vision but we understand now that its achievement is fraught with struggle and requires patience.

A delegation of socialists recently returned from a study tour of Vietnam. Hosted by the Vietnam Women’s Union and sponsored by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), participants visited women’s shelters and a meeting hall, museums, workplaces, a university, ethnic communities near the Chinese border, large cities and small villages including Hanoi, Da Nang, Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, and Sa Pa. We saw a society in transition; expanding education, growing economic infrastructure, facilities for poor women, booming tourism, and increasing exports of agricultural and manufactured products. We also saw a burgeoning system of commercial and manufacturing capitalism.

The second day of our visit to Hanoi, our hosts booked cycle rides for us around the downtown area. We recoiled at the thought of older men peddling bicycles with overweight tourists on front seats. But most of us did not want to make a fuss and on reflection we decided that these men at least had work.

I began to think of Marx’s concept of “contradiction” as my driver pushed me through the busy streets of Hanoi past stores with names such as Gucci on them. Next to streets with the expensive Western stores were those with densely packed shops and sidewalks with street vendors. We learned that most of the vendors were women. Many came from rural areas, desperate to earn enough money to support their families in the countryside. Some lived 10 to a room when they were in town selling flowers, cooked food, crafts, or vegetables and fruits. The totality of the experience was of a cacophony of bicycles carrying passengers, elegant shops, street vendors, and thousands upon thousands of speeding motor bikes. Nothing seemed further from Che Guevara’s image of pristine socialism.

The fourth day of our visit we traveled by train and bus to an ethnic minorities region near the Chinese border. When we arrived at the town of Sa Pa we encountered aggressive bands of Hmong sales persons, mostly women and girls, who were trying to sell their wares to tourists. The Hmong women would not accept no or negative waves of arms or hands. They continued to pursue prospective customers until the latter escaped to newly-constructed hotels overlooking beautiful valleys and terraced rice paddies. Again, the image of the reality of commerce erased long-held mental pictures of socialism.

While capitalism seemed in the air to the superficial foreign observer, and particularly to the foreign observer steeped in the passion for building Che’s communism, the reality of Vietnam is more complicated. As our site visits reminded us, only 35 years ago a brutal war on the Vietnamese people ended. Three times more bombs were dropped on the country than all the bombs dropped during World War II. Vast stretches of the land, one-seventh of the rice paddies, were laid waste. Three to four million Vietnamese people, mostly non-combatants were killed in the American war between 1964 and 1975. And we saw the lingering impacts of the war as second and third generation victims survive who were directly or indirectly exposed to the 10 million gallons of Agent Orange. An estimated 4.8 million people were touched by the poisons dropped from the skies by American airplanes.

What often slips the minds of observers are the centuries of foreign invasion and conquest. These include the thousand year Chinese occupation of the country, the 100 year colonial control by the French, and the World War II presence of Japanese militarists. And all this preceded the American war which began in 1950 when President Harry Truman decided to fund the French effort to beat back Vietnamese anti-colonial forces.

Because of invasion, occupation, colonialism, massive bombing campaigns, and genocide against the country, the vitality of the people had been channeled toward the struggle for independence. Since the end of the American war (and after the short war with China in 1979) the Vietnamese had to redirect their energies, creativity and human resources to economic development in a global political economy not of their making. In the context of underdevelopment and poverty, the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1986 adopted a set of development policies called “doi moi,” or renewal. These were to constitute what translations refer to as a socialist market economy. With government oversight foreign investments and limited domestic capitalism would be encouraged. Vietnamese party and government leaders decided that markets, investments, and profits were necessary to develop the country. So Vietnam created an economy open to foreign assembly plants, exports (especially rice), and tourism, In a global economy dominated by neo-liberal institutions and policies, the Vietnamese people felt they had no choice.

So foreign investments were encouraged, Vietnamese were allowed to participate in joint capitalist ventures, and peasants and workers could establish their own modest businesses. The significant negative byproducts of almost 25 years of doi moi are readily visible; foreign infusions of commercial images and products, inequalities among the Vietnamese people (particularly between urban and rural peoples who still represent 70 per cent of the population), and serious environmental problems.

However, and this to me is the bottom line, the basic living conditions of the Vietnamese people have markedly improved since the state adopted the socialist market economy. BBC and Financial Times journalist Bill Hayton, whose book,Vietnam Rising Dragon, 2010, was largely critical of Vietnam, reluctantly admitted that:

“Vietnam’s achievements in reducing poverty are impressive. In 1993, according to government figures, almost 60 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line. By 2004 that figure was down to 20 per cent. The country has met most of its Millennium Goals, the development targets set by the United Nations, early and escaped the ranks of the poorest countries to join the group of ‘middle income states.’ People’s living standards are soaring, their horizons are widening, and their ambitions are growing” (3-4).

Although many commentators emphasize the negative, it is important for sympathetic observers to remember the history that Vietnam has experienced, the contemporary context of the global political economy, and the fundamental obligation of the state, indeed every state, to participate fully in the economic and social uplift of the people. While socialists are very much aware of the danger of capitalist penetration, they also realize that prioritizing the needs of the people come first. Observing mass organizations, such as the Vietnam Women’s Union (see Harry Targ, “The Vietnamese Women’s Union: An Effective Mass Organization,” www.heartlandradical.blogspot.com) makes it clear that at this stage of Vietnam’s renewal, the doi moi policies do put the people first. And, it is the task of the Vietnamese people to maintain the socialist character of the development of Vietnamese society. International solidarity activists should follow the lead of our Vietnamese friends and give support as best we can.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

THE VIETNAM WOMEN'S UNION: AN EFFECTIVE MASS ORGANIZATION

Harry Targ

We arrived in time to be ushered into a meeting of a rural Vietnamese women’s club, just outside of Hue. Discussion among the 75 single women was animated, self-assured, and clearly engaged. Members listened to each other, respected what each had to say, and evidenced not one iota of shyness even though their discussion of women’s health, environmental, and other immediate issues was being observed by eight American guests and a Vietnam Women’s Union official from Hanoi.

We had already been to a briefing at the Center for Women and Development’s new building, and the Women’s Museum in Hanoi. We had visited Peace House, a shelter for Vietnamese women victimized by sexual trafficking, part of the CWD project to provide shelter, training, and advocacy for women victimized by domestic violence or sexual trafficking. All of these venues-- the CWD, the Women’s Museum, the rural single women’s club, the Peace House shelter project-- were part of the national activities of the Vietnam Women’s Union. The VWU was clearly well- organized at the center, clear of purpose and commitment, and connected to regional and local bodies of women throughout the country.

Our introduction to the VWU was part of a 14-day educational tour of Vietnam in March, 2011 organized by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) and hosted by the Vietnam Women’s Union. In addition to our request to receive information about the VWU, we expressed interest in briefings on the Vietnamese policy known as Doi Moi, or the social market economy, and the lingering long-term impacts on the Vietnamese people of the 10-year use of Agent Orange during the American war. These issues and more were covered on our travels, briefings, museum visits, and conversations with Vietnamese people. The focus of this essay is the VWU.

The Vietnam Women’s Union, one of six major mass organizations in the country, was founded in 1930 just before the Indochinese Communist Party. In socialist theory and practice, mass organizations are designed to mobilize major populations who require and are committed to social change in their societies. While their ideas and programs parallel those of local Communist parties, they are committed to meeting the needs of workers, women, youth, farmers, war veterans, and others whether they are members of political parties or not. Also effective mass organizations require both leadership and authentic and active participation from the grassroots.

As far as we could tell, the VWU is a model mass organization. It has levels of activity and participation at the national and provincial levels as well as in districts and small village communes. There are an estimated 13 million VWU members. As indicated in a VWU pamphlet: “Since its foundation, VWU has transformed itself fully into a women’s social-political and developmental organization, which is mandated to protect women’s legitimate rights and strive for gender equality.”

Levels of organization of the Vietnamese Women’s Union consist of a National Congress, a Central Executive Committee, a Presidium and provincial, district, and communal organizations. The VWU has 16 departments including communication and education, family and social affairs, international relations, ethnic and religious affairs, law and policy, and departments overseeing museums, a newspaper, and publishing. Our tour was organized by one of the departments, Peace Tours.

The VWU emphasizes organizational tasks ranging from supporting and building women’s skills and autonomy at the local level to greater political influence at the national level. The commitment to goals which were identified as critical for the recent period, 2007-2012, were reflected in what we saw. These included raising women’s consciousness, knowledge, and capacity, promoting gender equality at all levels of society, promoting economic development, building the VWU as a national organization, and building networks of relationships with progressive organizations around the world.

VWU short-term goals, identified in their literature seemed plausible based on our brief observation. These included targeting 70% of poor women for support “… to reduce poverty and eliminate hunger,” and “supporting more than 90% of female-headed poor households, with the goal of 40 to 50% escaping from poverty.”

One of the VWU departments, the Center for Women and Development, concentrates particularly on giving support to victims and overcoming violence and sexual trafficking of women. Peace House, with aid from overseas NGOs, was opened in March, 2007, to construct a model shelter for abused Vietnamese women. A CWD report indicated that “The Peace House has supported women and children who suffered from domestic violence from all over the country. The numbers of women and children receiving the services of the Peace House are increasing and after leaving the Peace House they are new persons, more independent and able to protect themselves and their children.”

Reflecting on guided tours such as the CCDS visit to Vietnam can have profound long-term impacts on participants, even though it is recognized that such tours are designed to show host successes while minimizing problems or organizational deficits. However, among the indisputable strengths of the VWU are the following:

1.VWU is truly a mass organization in the best sense of that term. It carries out policies representing the interests of a large percentage of women in Vietnamese society at all levels--from the rural commune to the nation.

2.A fundamental component of all VWU work is the belief that there is dignity in each member. Each Vietnamese woman has the right to fulfill her life to the full limit of societal resources and to be an active agent in that fulfillment.

3.Government, party, and mass organization, all have as their uppermost obligation serving the people. This means that these entities continue to struggle to overcome class exploitation, gender oppression, and racial and ethnic discrimination.

Several of the tour participants only partially in jest wondered if progressives in the United States could hire Vietnam Women’s Union organizers to help us reorder institutions and policies in the United States.

Vietnam Women's Union website: http://hoilhpn.org.vn

Saturday, April 9, 2011

UNITED STATES FOREIGN POLICY AND THE VIETNAM WAR:PART III

From: Harry R. Targ,
Strategy of an Empire in Decline: Cold War II MEP Publications, Minneapolis, 1986, 167-172.

(Eight political activists recently returned from a two-week educational tour of Vietnam, hosted by the Vietnam Women’s Union, and sponsored by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). Every tour participant was touched by the seeming resilience of the Vietnamese people and their capacity for mobilizing talents and resources to reconstruct their country after the brutal American war.

As the essay below suggests, the last phase of the war was characterized by brutal air attacks on rural and urban populations all across the country, particularly during the period of the “Christmas bombing” in 1972. That in the end was President Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

What we saw on our tour was evidence of the successful policies adopted by the Vietnamese people to withstand the brutality of the war and the collective commitments since the war to rebuild and modernize their country. While much remains to be done and progressive people can debate aspects of the social market economic project that is underway, the skill, motivation, and passion evidenced by the government, the party, and mass organizations as they work toward constructing a better future for the Vietnamese people cannot be denied).

U.S. Brutality and the End of the Vietnam War

During the 1968 presidential campaign, candidate Nixon declared that he had a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam. This secret plan had to be one in which the United States pursued victory in Southeast Asia and, at the same time, reduced the levels of U.S. blood and resources expended on the war. Nixon policy during the next four years involved just such a scheme: pursuit of victory and withdrawal at the same time. The ultimate failure of this duplicitous policy is attributable to the courageous struggle of the Vietnamese and the significant resistance from the antiwar movement at home.

In June, 1969, President Nixon met with his South Vietnamese counterpart, President Nguyen Van Thieu, on Midway Island. At this meeting the policy called "Vietnamization," an application of the "Nixon Doctrine," was unveiled. The United States would withdraw all its ground troops from South Vietnam over the next four years. This would undercut the primary reason for opposition to the war at home. The United States would substitute a massive, unrestrained bombing campaign for the withdrawn troops. Almost all the target restrictions in the South and North would be lifted. A secret bombing campaign against North Vietnamese supply routes would ensue, with bombings in neutral Cambodia as well as the continuation of secret bombing in Laos. At the meeting, Nixon and Thieu planned for the withdrawal of 85,000 of the 550,000 U.S. troops by September, 1969. This new Vietnam policy illustrated what Nixon meant by giving assistance to allies while they carried the major burden of regional conflicts. The South Vietnamese army would shed its blood while the United States provided the materiel and the air power to defeat the enemy.

The announcement of some of the Nixon plan, namely, the proposed troop withdrawals, did not stifle the opposition to the war in Congress or in the streets. A Vietnam Moratorium Day was held all across the country in October, with a full and immediate pullout emphasized as the central demand. Two hundred and fifty thousand antiwar activists had a "March Against Death" in Washington on November 15, 1969. During this time news of the brutal U.S. massacre of five hundred people at My Lai reached the public.

In March, 1970, the neutralist regime of Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia was overthrown by the right-wing general Lon Nol, no doubt supported by the United States. Although Sihanouk had tried desperately for several years to keep his country out of the war, the North Vietnamese did have bases in Cambodia, and the United States had been bombing and raiding areas in which the bases were thought to be located. Sihanouk's opposition to the U.S. incursions and his cordial relationship with the Chinese were an annoyance to the United States.

On April 30, 1970, one month after the coup in Cambodia, Nixon announced that a force of South Vietnamese and 16,000 U.S. troops had invaded Cambodia to destroy the Vietnamese bases. This escalation of the war into another country was defended as a vehicle to accelerate the U.S. withdrawal. The reaction on college campuses in the United States was unprecedented. Campuses all over the country were closed down, with huge demonstrations occurring at many more. At two such campuses, Jackson State University in Mississippi and Kent State University in Ohio, student activists were shot--by police authorities in the former case and by the Ohio National Guard in the latter. These shootings were seen as part of a national policy encouraged by the Nixon administration to kill or jail dissidents of all kinds under the call for "law and order." Nixon's attorney general had already instituted a policy of extermination of members of the Black Panther party in 1969, and the shootings on privileged campuses suggested an escalation of repression of dissent, even middle-class dissent.

Even members of the U.S. Senate were outraged by the invasion of Cambodia. They passed the so-called Church-Cooper amendment, which ended funds for making war in Cambodia after July 1, 1970. The Senate also repealed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Sixty percent of the U.S. public, according to opinion polls, favored withdrawal from Vietnam as well.

After the withdrawal of the invading army, the Nixon administration claimed that the assault had been a great success. What was not said was that the presumed North Vietnamese command headquarters, believed to be in Cambodia, had never been located. The impact of the Cambodian coup and the invasion following it was criminal, since the fabric of another Indochinese society had been destroyed. By 1975, 700,000 Cambodians had died as a result of the invasion and the civil war that resulted from the coup. Two hundred and fifty thousand tons of bombs had been dropped on Cambodia. One-half of the population was. homeless by 1975. By the time the forces of Pol Pot had gained control of the country, after his victory over Lon Nol in 1975, the land had been devastated. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge then engaged in policies that led to the deaths of more than a million people. They supported border attacks on Vietnam. Finally, in December, 1978, Vietnam sent troops into Cambodia, now called Kampuchea, to put an end to the murderous Pol Pot regime. The tragedies experienced by Cambodians since 1970 have to be seen as linked to the destruction of that society by U.S. military power from 1969 to 1975.

In February, 1971, South Vietnamese troops invaded Laos to capture the Ho Chi Minh trail, the major supply route from North to South. The United States provided air support for the operation. The invasion was a military disaster, as one-half the South Vietnamese troops were killed. Morale in the South Vietnamese army declined markedly.

Elsewhere, significant moves were being taken by the Nixon administration. Along with the "stick" of repression of dissent at home (surveillance, arrests, killings, infiltration of radical groups to provoke irresponsible actions, etc.), the "carrot" was applied as well-the draft laws were changed. First, a lottery system made some young men exempt from military service, through the luck of the draw. Second, there was movement toward an all-volunteer army. Changes in the draft laws reduced the intensity of commitment among many antiwar activists. These changes were also supposed to reduce the level of dissent, which had reached dramatic proportions, within the military itself. Blacks and poor whites, who primarily populate the military, were deserting, disobeying orders, refusing to fight, and escaping the brutality of the battlefield through the use of drugs.

The progressive withdrawal of U.S. troops continued as the United States supplied the South Vietnamese with new weapons, more training, and supported the return of South Vietnamese officials to the villages. All of this failed. The NLF and their sympathizers continued the struggle with even greater determination, while conscripted South Vietnamese soldiers were less than enthusiastic about their fate. Corruption, brutality, and repression continued to characterize the Thieu regime.

The negotiating process between the North Vietnamese and the United States, which began formally in January, 1969, continued with little result. The United States called for a cease-fire in place and a withdrawal of all "foreign" troops, while the North Vietnamese denied that they had troops in the South and refused to accept a cease-fire that would benefit the Thieu regime to the detriment of the mass of the Vietnamese people, who opposed this regime.

Kissinger and the North Vietnamese began secret negotiations in 1971. Nixon publicized these talks in January, 1972, to further forestall the critics of his policy. The North Vietnamese, for their part, resented this violation of secret diplomacy, and hostilities on the battlefield increased. On March 30, 1972, seven days after the United States indefinitely suspended the peace talks in Paris, the North Vietnamese and the NLF launched a new offensive. The United States responded on May 8, 1972, with massive bombing of the North and the mining of the international harbor at Haiphong. This dangerous escalation of the war-Soviet supply ships docked at Haiphong-was carried out just before Nixon was scheduled to go to Moscow.

Talks were held in Paris periodically in the summer and fall of 1972, while the bombing in North and South continued. On October 26, 1972, just before the presidential elections, Kissinger announced that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam. Apparently Kissinger and his counterparts had reached some agreements on a cease-fire. President Thieu, however, raised many objections to the accords, and when Kissinger brought these back to Paris, the North Vietnamese countered with their own objections. Peace was not at hand, but Nixon won a major electoral victory against antiwar candidate Senator George McGovern twelve days after the Kissinger claim.

During November and December the negotiations had been brought near completion but were stalled because of the intransigence of Thieu (supported by Kissinger); then the Nixon administration began the saturation bombing of Hanoi and the rest of North Vietnam on December 18. This so-called Christmas bombing lasted until December 30. Nathan and Oliver claim this bombing was designed to force the North to sign a cease-fire and to encourage the support of a recalcitrant President Thieu from South Vietnam, who had not been adequately consulted during the negotiation process. Therefore, the barbarity of Nixon and Kissinger's decisions until the very end was based on backing a dictatorial regime that never had any support among the Vietnamese working people. "Thieu, now satisfied that the North had been seriously weakened and mollified by the U.S. show of force, finally went along, and the negotiations were concluded on January 27, 1973" (Nathan and Oliver 389).

From the cease-fire of January, 1973, to the spring of 1975, the NLF and South Vietnamese armies jockeyed for military advantage. For example, within three months of the Paris accords the South Vietnamese army launched many operations against areas held by the Provisional Government of the opposition (PRG). Finally, in 1975, the PRG capture of two strategic district towns initiated a fifty-five day battle that led to the final defeat of the South Vietnamese army/clients of the United States (Burchett 1977).

The Pol Pot forces were victorious in Kampuchea, followed by Communist-led forces in Laos. President Ford, who had replaced Nixon after the Watergate scandal, called for military support for the South Vietnamese army in early 1975, but Congress would not go along. After a thirty-year struggle in Vietnam, years of civil war in Laos, and five years of war and civil war in Kampuchea, the workers and peasants of Indochina were victorious against imperialism. The respite from violence was brief, however, and the horrendous impact of war on society and environment was to persist. Unfortunately, conflicts indigenous to Southeast Asia and infused by imperialism's refusal to leave the people of the area alone would involve different struggles after 1975.

The failed U.S. effort to win the imperialist war in Southeast Asia, or, as some say, the effort to postpone losing the war, had such horrendous consequences for the local population that genocide is the best label to describe the twenty-five year policy of the United States. As a result of the war, 1.3 million Vietnamese civilians were killed, three million were wounded. Huge areas of fertile land were made waste and rubble. Three times the amount of bombs dropped in World War I1 were dropped on the Vietnamese. The U.S. suffered from the grotesque war as well: 56,000 U.S. soldiers died during the course of the war and 303,600 were wounded. The cost of the war, which in no small way was reflected in poverty and immiseration at home, was $155 billion from 1955 to 1974 (De Conde 380). The facts about this mass murder and waste of human resources would not be forgotten by progressive peoples around the world, who would work all the harder to destroy the structure of imperialism that necessitates such policies.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

UNITED STATES FOREIGN POLICY AND THE VIETNAM WAR: PART II

Harry R. Targ Strategy of an Empire in Decline: Cold War II MEP Publications, Minneapolis, 1986, 150-157.

(I was one of eight members of a socialist delegation to Vietnam in March, 2011. We visited the tunnel system used by the Vietnamese to escape U.S. military action and the “peace village” where victims of agent orange are cared for. Our travels took us to Sa Pa in the North, Hanoi, Da Nang, Hue,’ and Ho Chi Minh City. We saw budding new societies, energetic young people, development projects everywhere, carefully documented celebrations of the Vietnamese culture of resistance and painful remembrances of the American war in Vietnam. The history below is a reminder of that war in the 1960s.)

The Vietnam War Escalates


The U.S. concern for the Third World in the 1960s is most brutally exemplified in its growing involvement in the Vietnam War. During the Eisenhower years the United States replaced the French as the predominant colonial power in South Vietnam. What later became referred to as "America's commitment" resulted from the U.S. statement of respect for the Geneva Accords, the Eisenhower promise to aid Diem, the commitment to the security of Indochina in the SEATO treaty, and the full-scale military assistance received by Diem from 1955.

Kennedy acknowledged the escalating civil war in South Vietnam shortly upon taking office. Vice-President Johnson was sent to South Vietnam in May, 1961, to assess the progress of the counter guerrilla war there. He recommended that the United States continue its support to the Diem regime: “The basic question in South East Asia is here. We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a 'Fortress America' concept. More important, we would say to the world in this case that we don't live up to treaties and don't stand by our friends” (Sheehan 129).

The Kennedy administration added four hundred Special Forces troops to the contingent in South Vietnam and one hundred civilian advisors to aid in setting up the "strategic hamlet" program, designed to move peasant villagers away from areas influenced by NLF forces. In the fall of 1961 General Maxwell Taylor, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Walt Rostow were sent to South Vietnam to study the situation. They returned recommending the introduction of U.S. ground troops, advice that was endorsed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Rusk and McNamara argued that the fall of South Vietnam would be a prelude to the fall of the rest of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. A loss in Vietnam would also create a right-wing backlash within the United States, much like the backlash that followed the "fall of China."

With these recommendations, the Kennedy administration began a gradual escalation of direct U. S. involvement in the South Vietnamese civil war. U.S. troop strength went from several hundred to ten thousand by 1963. Meanwhile, the stability of the Diem government was declining. The strategic hamlet program was generating recruits for the NLF, since it was disrupting life in the countryside. Casualties among the South Vietnamese army and government officials grew. Opposition from Buddhists and students to Diem's harsh rule was becoming more intense.

On May 8, 1963, the army shot into a nonviolent Buddhist demonstration. Buddhists later committed suicide in public protest against the Diem regime. In August, 1963, the South Vietnamese police and military invaded Buddhist pagodas and schools and arrested many dissidents. After a visit to Vietnam in September, 1963, McNamara and Taylor predicted that the United States would be able to end its involvement in the country by 1965. The head of the Military Assistance Advisory Group, General Harkins, predicted in November, 1963, that victory was just months away. While these optimistic assessments were being made, as they were to be made throughout the war, opposition to Diem within the ruling clique itself was growing. South Vietnamese generals were ready to oust Diem. U.S. officials in South Vietnam agreed in their evaluations of Diem's chances to maintain control of the country. Some U. S. officials, like former Ambassador Frederick Nolting, were personal friends of Diem and remained committed to him, while others, such as the then-acting ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, and members of the CIA were opposed.

Finally, on November 1, 1963, with the support of Lodge and the CIA, Diem was overthrown by the South Vietnamese military, and one of the generals assumed office. This was to be the first of eleven governments during the remainder of South Vietnamese history. John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

At the time of his death, there were fifteen thousand U.S. troops in South Vietnam, a dramatic increase from the Eisenhower commitment but a small amount compared with what was to follow shortly. Troop commitments during the Kennedy administration were small, but Kennedy and his advisors established the military infrastructure, mobilized the academic expertise, and communicated an official rationale for escalating the U.S. struggle against the Third World. Military intervention was coupled with policies designed to encourage "economic development." The impression Kennedy wished to leave with the world was that the interests of the United States and the Third World were in fact identical. The Vietnamese people were to learn just the opposite.

President Johnson's Confrontation with the Vietnamese People


Shortly after Kennedy's death, Secretary of Defense McNamara reported to the new president, Lyndon Johnson, on South Vietnam. McNamara said the situation was bad, that if the United States did not act a new Communist or neutral government would be in power in South Vietnam within three months. The government that replaced Diem was indecisive, and the NLF was gaining support in the countryside. The secretary of defense counseled that the United States should keep a close watch on Southeast Asia and be prepared to act.

From December, 1963, until the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August, 1964, the Johnson administration had been supporting secret military operations in South Vietnam and against the North, and at the same time was planning broader U.S. involvement in the war. U.S.-supported raids and attacks on the North were carried out in the spring of 1964, air strikes were made against targets in Laos, and destroyer patrols were maintained in the Gulf of Tonkin in North Vietnamese waters. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had proposed escalation of the war and extensive bombing in January, 1964. William Bundy of the State Department was preparing a scenario for U.S. escalation in May, 1964, a scenario that would include requesting a resolution of support for administration action by Congress. Meanwhile, members of the administration were making public statements warning of the need for greater U. S. involvement and periodically claiming that U. S. participation in the Southeast Asian war could end within two years.

President Johnson, planning for his own campaign for election against right-wing Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, gave no public clues to the conclusions being reached by his advisors concerning the U.S. role in Vietnam. While Johnson was preparing for brutal war in Vietnam, U.S. liberals were supporting him as the "peace candidate." The Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the immediate pretext for implementing the scenario of escalation. Two U.S. ships were purportedly attacked by North Vietnamese boats on August 2 and 4, 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin. As a result of the "attack" the United States sent fighter-bombers to counterattack North Vietnam. The president then brought a resolution to Congress asking for authority to do what he deemed necessary in support of the "independence and territorial integrity" of South Vietnam and Laos.

What does seem clear is that the Johnson administration had been planning escalation in support of the South Vietnamese government in early 1964, and that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was the vehicle used to generate congressional and public support for the actions already planned. Tom Wicker reported an unnamed official as saying: "The Tonkin resolution was then brought out of Johnson's pocket to be used as the basis for legitimizing the planned expansion of the war-all that had been needed was an event to set things in motion" (224-25). The Gulf of Tonkin incident, then, could have been a third "staged" event in the critical junctures of U. S. foreign-policy history: the exploitation of the Greek civil war in February, 1947, being the first and of the North Korean "invasion" of South Korea being the second. Staged or not, all three events provided opportunities for marshaling public support for escalating U.S. imperial policies.

After the election of the "peace" candidate in November, the Johnson administration continued its planning for escalated war to defend the faltering South Vietnamese government and army. An NLF attack on a U.S. military installation at Pleiku in February, 1965, created the rationale for beginning the bombing of North Vietnam that would continue unabated for three years. The Pentagon Papers suggest that the bombing of North Vietnam had been decided on in September, 1964, when presidential candidate Johnson was opposing Goldwater's bombing proposals. The bombing campaign, code-named Operation Rolling Thunder, was designed to force the North Vietnamese to sue for peace and hence pressure its allies in the South to stop fighting. The effect of the bombing was just the opposite. North Vietnamese resolve to support the NLF increased, the Soviet Union continued material support of the North, and the efforts of the NLF in the South were increasingly successful in winning popular support. Then Johnson ordered U.S. troops into offensive action against the NLF and sent twenty thousand more combat troops to South Vietnam, while trying to restrict public access to information about this new commitment. In a significant speech at Johns Hopkins University, the president called for a major Marshall-Plan effort to rebuild all of Southeast Asia, and, at the same time, likened the North Vietnamese to the Nazis in the 1930s. If the United States acted like the Europeans after Munich, then all of Southeast Asia would fall to this new form of totalitarianism. Johnson also raised what may be called the "puppet" theory of aggression in Southeast Asia: the NLF, still largely indigenous South Vietnamese, was a puppet of the North, which, in turn, was a puppet of the Chinese Communists and ultimately of the Soviet Union.

In June, 1965, because of the deteriorating situation in the South, General Westmoreland, head of U.S. forces in Indochina, requested forty-four battalions of troops. By July, Johnson had agreed to the Westmoreland request, and by year's end there were 184,314 U.S. soldiers engaged in ground combat in South Vietnam. The pattern of requests for more men, coupled with promises of victory, was to continue for three years as death and destruction were unleashed on Vietnamese society. By this time opposition to the U.S. war effort had begun to grow. A largely student-based antiwar movement began demonstrations, first on campuses and later in the streets. Dissent began to appear from more "legitimate" sources as well. Senator J. William Fulbright and other members of his Senate Foreign Relations Committee held public and televised hearings on the war and in the process attacked the following official administration arguments: that the United States had a moral commitment to support the South Vietnamese government, that the war was really "aggression from the North" rather than a civil-war situation, that the United States had to crush this "war of national liberation" so that Communists would learn the lesson that such wars never work, and that U.S. prestige was at stake. Despite the growing movement against the war, U.S. escalation continued.

In 1966 more bombings were ordered and troops sent. The latest of several generals heading the South Vietnamese government, Nguyen Cao Ky, had taken power in 1965 after several coups. His statement of admiration for Hitler was broadly reported in the mass media, since it had become impossible any longer for the media to portray the United States as preserving democracy.

In 1967 the level of bombardment was again raised, from sixty to eight hundred raids per month. Johnson did not support proposals by the military to increase troop strength to 670,000, to end bombing target limits, invade Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam, and attack the harbor of Haiphong in the North. Even with the "constraints" placed on the military, however, large areas of South Vietnam had been declared "free fire zones," one-third to one-half of the people of Southeast Asia had become refugees, 100,000,000 pounds of herbicide were dropped on South Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, one-seventh of South Vietnam had been sprayed to destroy crops, and thirty-six percent of rice-growing swamps had been made unfit for cultivation by 1974. Between 1965 and 1971, 142 pounds of explosives per acre had been dropped on Vietnam (584 pounds per person), 118 pounds detonated per second-all of this equivalent to 450 Hiroshima bombs. The land was being mutilated by the murderous Johnson policies, malaria was spreading, and timber and rubber industries destroyed (Nathan and Oliver 369-70). During the Johnson years the population of Saigon had swelled, and with wartime profiteering came incredible corruption, prostitution, and drug trafficking. Finally, by the end of 1967 more bombs had been dropped on Vietnam than had been dropped during the entire European phase of World War II.

Despite the enormous firepower unleashed against the Vietnamese people, the NLF and North Vietnamese armies launched a massive assault on several South Vietnamese cities on January 31, 1968, during the Tet holiday. The Vietnamese suffered large casualties but gained military control of cities and rural areas throughout Vietnam. The U.S. military defined their counterattack as a victory, but key decision makers and the public knew that the war was leading to defeat. Three years of genocidal application of force had not reduced the spirit or resistance of the Vietnamese people.

In broad historical perspective, the Tet offensive may have provided the decisive impetus to the decline of U. S. global power. General Westmoreland requested another 206,000 troops after Tet. Clark Clifford, a corporate lawyer who had advised Democrats on foreign policy since the Truman administration and had recently replaced McNamara as secretary of defense, began a quick review of U.S. Vietnam policy. He communicated to Johnson his conclusion that the war was not winnable and therefore that Westmoreland's request should not be granted. Dean Acheson, the longtime cold warrior, told Johnson the same thing. While still wishing to pursue the war, Johnson gave in to the advice of Clifford and Acheson. The war had been so costly in men (139,801 casualties) and materiel, the value of the dollar had declined on the world market, the image of U.S. military power had been so tarnished, and the opposition in the streets had reached such a fever pitch that key sectors of monopoly capital, whom Clifford and Acheson represented, had become war critics.

On March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced that he was restricting the bombing to below the nineteenth parallel in the hope that the initiative would bring negotiations, and that he would not be a candidate for the presidency in 1968. The North Vietnamese responded with an offer to negotiate a full bombing halt. The Johnson administration insisted upon a reduction of North Vietnamese battle activities in the South. Despite a verbal stalemate, offensive action declined during the summer of 1968 and increased in the fall as the United States failed to respond to the decreased intensity of combat.

Finally, with the Democratic presidential candidate trailing in the opinion polls, Johnson fully halted the bombing on October 31, 1968. The primary source of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was the Vietnamese people. Domestic opposition to the brutal war played its part as well, however. The U.S. working class, not as demonstrative as students, had opposed the war more than any other group in society, according to polls; even so, worker opposition increased after Tet.

Activities of the antiwar movement also became more intense and incorporated more and more people. Radical groups, while not developing sophisticated theory, began to talk of the interconnections between war, racism, and poverty. Groups like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) talked of the Vietnam War as a by-product of the structure of imperialism. These views countered earlier explanations that emphasized a misguided and overly zealous anti-Communist outlook.

Corresponding to the antiwar sentiment among the corporate elites represented by Clifford and Acheson was a reformist electoral movement to end the war. Senators Eugene McCarthy and later Robert Kennedy entered presidential primaries and scored victories over President Johnson. Tensions within the society were heightened when Senator Kennedy and civil rights leader and later antiwar activist Martin Luther King were assassinated. Finally, in the summer of 1968 thousands of antiwar activists and other dissidents came to the Democratic national convention in Chicago, where they were brutally beaten by the Chicago police. The Democrats ignored McCarthy's victories in the primaries and the massive protest against the war outside the convention and selected Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, as the presidential candidate. To a large extent, as slogans of the time ran, the war had indeed been brought home.