America’s war in Vietnam, and the international movements that sprung up in opposition to it, are central events in the history of 20th century radical politics. The events of that conflict continue to cast a long shadow over the contemporary left’s understanding of imperialist war. Looking back over a distance of 35 years, Vietnam still has a huge amount to teach us in terms of the nature of capitalist imperialism, the nature of Stalinism, and what kind of anti-war politics and movement socialists should aspire to fight for and build.
Vietnam’s history is inextricably bound up with the history of French and then American colonialism in the far-east.
Following a successful war against French rule (which had been in place from 1887), Vietnam was formally partitioned in 1954, with Ho Chi Minh in control of the “communist” north and the authoritarian Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem ruling the Western-backed south.
Officially partition was a temporary measure, to be followed by internationally-supervised free elections across the country. But that never happened.
The story of Ho Chi Minh’s coming to power is a long and complex one, which involves his murderous repression of the once-powerful Vietnamese Trotskyist movement. Those Trotskyists had weakened their defences by seeing Stalinism as somehow historically-progressive rather than a hostile class force. It was a mistake that Trotskyists all over the world would make again and again in the following years (and continue to make to this day); but the stakes were rarely as high as they were for Tha Thu Tau, Ngo Van and the other courageous Vietnamese Trotskyists killed by the Stalinists in 1946.
By the early 1960s, Diem’s regime was deeply unpopular and a CP-backed insurgency in the south was growing in support. Wired on Cold War paranoia and ruling-class thinking about “domino effects” (if one country falls to “communist” rule, others will inevitably follow), America increased its presence in south Vietnam so that by 1963 there were 16,000 American military personnel in the region.
The role of US troops was simple — to defend Diem’s southern regime (and by extension the interests of American imperialism in the region) against the newly-created National Liberation Front (NLF), backed by the north and, beyond it, the Stalinist bloc — the great imperial counterweight to America’s power.
It was becoming increasingly clear that Diem and his own forces were not capable of defeating the NLF. The American bourgeoisie began to favour greater intervention and a more direct bid for control, rather than maintaining an “arms-length” stake in the region through Diem’s client regime. A group of generals and other military leaders, backed by the CIA, overthrew Diem in 1963.
With the American military now in more or less direct control of the war against the NLF, the American military leader Paul Harkin complacently predicted victory “by Christmas” 1963. But the puppet regime installed in late 1963 lasted only until January of the following year, when General Nguyen Khanh staged another coup and took power for himself.
In March 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson began a bombing campaign, and a few days later began a ground war, dispatching 3,500 marines to south Vietnam. By December, this number had been increased to 200,000.
America’s military campaign became increasing brutal, using the deadly and highly flammable chemical napalm to burn the Stalinist fighters out of their jungle terrain. The now-famous photograph of Kim Thuc, the horribly-burned young girl fleeing a napalm raid, shows the ferocity with which America battered Vietnam and its people.
Despite their superior military prowess, the US were unable to crush the NLF. They had radically misunderstood the NLF’s resistance, and how the Vietnamese Stalinists had managed to win hegemony over the aspirations of the people of the whole of Vietnam (north and south) to have genuine national independence and self-determination, free from interference from America (or any other colonial power) and its puppet-regimes.
By the 1970s, after a decade of horrifically bloody conflict, and having failed to beat the NLF, America (now under President Nixon) began to look for ways of scaling back its involvement. By April 1975, the NLF flag was flying above the southern capital of Saigon.
The new Stalinist regime’s consolidation of power was swift and ruthless. It set up “re-education camps” for its opponents in which nearly 200,000 people died.
It is estimated that up to 1,000,000 people were imprisoned without charge or trial by the regime against the backdrop of the social and economic devastation wrought by America’s war.
More and more people attempted to flee the country. By 1979, Vietnam was at war again. China invaded. Thousands of ethnically-Chinese Vietnamese citizens now fled, fearing reprisals.
Fleeing Stalinist-run Vietnam was almost as risky as choosing to stay. It involved the bribing of officials and travelling long distances (sometimes thousands of miles) in open waters using dangerously unreliable vessels. Several neighbouring countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia interned refugees in camps. Conditions in these camps were horrific, with beatings, rape and torture commonplace. Boats arriving at Thailand also faced attacks from the Thai guards. Although the USA made a show of donating aid to the refugee support operations, very little of it ever trickled down to the refugees themselves.
Another key element of the war, and one that had particularly tragic consequences for the region, was the assistance north Vietnam was able to give Pol Pot’s “Khmer Rouge” (the Communist Party) in coming to power in Cambodia. Pol Pot’s rule (1975-79) resulted in a state-led genocide.
A combination of forcing people out of the cities into agricultural labour camps, the execution of dissidents, suspected dissidents and, eventually, people who simply looked like a dissident might look (glasses-wearing “intellectuals”, for example) and food rationing policies that caused food shortages led to the deaths of millions of people, in one of the most anti-human “experiments” in the history of Stalinist rule. For the Khmer Rouge, the urban population (estimated around 3,000,000) were designated as expendable. They were either to be forced (at gunpoint) into the countryside or simply to be disposed of. The regime’s motto on the urban population? “To keep you is of no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”
The Khmer Rouge was overthrown by its former Vietnamese patrons in 1979.
For most of the international left the Vietnam war was a two-sided conflict between a brutalised, colonised people on the one hand and the military might of American imperialism on the other.
The only way to relate to the conflict was to side explicitly with the Vietnamese people and solidarise directly with its military leadership, the NLF.
It is certainly true that the conflict was a great deal more straightforwardly “two-sided” than American invasions in the 2000s of either Iraq or Afghanistan (both of which are compared to Vietnam by many on the left). In those cases the people of both nations were caught in the crossfire between American imperialism and a less-powerful (but no less reactionary) oppressive force — Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime and the Taliban respectively. America’s intervention in Vietnam had much more of the character of historical colonialism, with a direct bid for rule and control, rather than a police operation aimed at keeping the country secure and its markets hospitable and resources open to capitalist exploitation.
The victory of the NLF and the consequent withdrawal of US forces did represent the democratic will of the Vietnamese people — it brought national independence for the entire people. The potential victory of the Taliban of the sectarian Islamist militias in Iraq would not be equivalent, given that those forces are based not on the popular majority but on particular elements within Afghan and Iraqi society, as mortally hostile to other forces within those societies as they are to American imperialism.
It is also true that the enormous and radical anti-war movements which grew up all over the world in opposition to America’s brutality were hugely positive, bringing millions of young people into direct engagement with the ideas of the revolutionary left. And it is also positive that, on the whole, those anti-war movements did not adopt liberal or pacifist perspectives that simply mumbled about “peace” between America and Vietnam but openly proclaimed their support for and solidarity with the Vietnamese people.
But beyond these basic lines, we must also — with the benefit of hindsight — conclude that the left, at best, did not say enough about the true character of Vietnamese Stalinism. In many cases, it got the picture wrong entirely.
The Vietnamese NLF did not conform to the mainstream Trotskyist left’s picture of what Stalinism was. NLF fighters were not overcoat-wearing, cigar-puffing bureaucrats riding around in limos with tinted windows to make visits to state-owned factories churning out millions of tonnes of pig iron.
They were a guerilla army, conducting a heroic struggle against the military might of the USA in defence of their freedom. They had genuine mass support and a real base in the largely still rural population. They appeared to be Vietnamese Robin Hoods. While many Trotskyists openly called the Vietnamese CP “Stalinist”, this often mostly a shorthand way of saying that the CP could not to be trusted to prosecute a sufficiently determined and revolutionary struggle against American imperialism. The NLF were in the right field; they were just not playing the game well enough.
The reality was different. The Stalinist leaders of the NLF represented a historically-reactionary force that would, when elevated to the level of state power, preside over a regime that would be characterised by a terrorist hostility towards basic democracy and human rights. The full extent of the Stalinist barbarism in Cambodia or even Vietnam could not necessarily have been entirely foreseen, but a deeper understanding of the reactionary nature of Stalinism was entirely possible.
A clear warning was there in the 1940s when Ho Chi Minh massacred the Vietnamese Trotskyist movement; no-one on the international left, including Workers’ Fight (the organisation that would eventually become the AWL), paid sufficient heed to that warning.
Workers’ Fight said that the post-war regime would be “an enemy rather than an ally” of working-class democracy. But we were still shackled to a “two-camps” view of the world, in which Stalinist struggles against American imperialism were necessarily on the side of progress and in which the regimes generated by such struggles could also be expected to be somehow progressive (“deformed workers’ states”, as the dogmatic formula had it).
The International Marxist Group, the biggest and most visible “Trotskyist” element in the anti-war movement, described the Vietnamese CP as “empirical revolutionaries” and denied they were Stalinists at all. The International Socialists (today the SWP), had a formally better position on Stalinism (understanding it as a form of class rule which it called “state capitalist”). In a rare moment of political distinction the IS’s Chris Harman dared, at a solidarity rally, to challenge the northern Vietnamese ambassador about the Vietnamese Trotskyists. But even IS essentially saw the Vietnamese CP as being on the side of “progress”, using their “state capitalist” label as a way of saying that nothing better could be expected in Vietnam because it was a small and poor country.
The great blood-drenched lesson of the Vietnam war and its aftermath is that the world was not, and is not, divided up into “imperialist” and “anti-imperialist” camps, wherein the struggles of the latter against the former must always be progressive. There are two great forces in the world, but they are not “imperialism” and “anti-imperialism”; they are labour and capital, workers and bosses. A perspective that took as its starting point the struggles of working-class and other oppressed people for basic freedoms, rather than an abstracted notion of historical progress as carried forward by Stalinist “anti-imperialism”, would have been much more useful. The Vietnamese CP, while very capable of being effectively revolutionary against the US and its sometime regional allies, was also murderously counter-revolutionary against the peasantry and urban workers of Vietnam.
Scarcely more than 10 years after the end of the war, the Vietnamese regime abandoned its “socialist” rhetoric and autarkic economic policies. It oriented to the capitalist world market while maintaining the police-state totalitarian features of Stalinism. It has followed a similar road to that of China, facilitating globalised-capitalist development on the basis of merciless exploitation.
Multinational corporations such as Nike, McDonald’s and Disney have all been exposed running sweatshop operations in Vietnam. One factory, making products for McDonald’s and Disney sub-contractors, was found paying its workers as little as six cents an hour. Their 70-hour weeks would see them take home just $4.20.
How can such hyper-exploitation take place in “socialist” Vietnam? The few remaining ultra-Stalinists delude themselves with fantasy. Writing in the Morning Star, Doug Nicholls finds in Vietnam “a strong economy [...] a proud democracy, an assertive trade union movement. Yes there are vast economic zones where transnationals operate, but capital is controlled. It cannot pour away like it does from our country, and the needs of the nation are primary.” He overlooks the sweatshop wages, the lack of free press or independent parties and the fact that the “assertive trade union movement” he mentions is entirely state-controlled.
Alternatively, one might conclude that more recent generations of Vietnamese leaders have simply abandoned the legacy of Ho Chi Minh (who died in 1969) and taken a treacherous new (capitalist) road.
But both conclusions are wrong. The truth is that, from the point of view of the Vietnamese and world working-class, the Vietnamese Stalinists were always a hostile class force and, since the thawing of the Cold War and the collapse of Stalinism in the eastern bloc, have simply chosen more pragmatic means through which to exercise their rule.
Importantly, there is a small but growing independent workers’ movement in Vietnam. 2009 saw wildcat strikes involving tens of thousands of workers, demanding increases in the minimum wage. Two independent trade union centres, the United Worker-Farmers Organization of Vietnam, (UWFO) and the Independent Workers’ Union of Vietnam, (IWUV), were established to challenge the Vietnamese General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), the state-run labour front.
Making active solidarity with that new and developing independent workers’ movement must be the foundation of any attempt to develop a socialist perspective towards Vietnam today.
Speaking at the regime’s own 35th anniversary celebrations, Lieutenant General Le Thanh Tam warned that Vietnam had to be wary of “hostile forces who use democracy and human rights as a pretext to sabotage Vietnam.” While few on the left today would positively defend or support the modern Vietnamese regime as a model of progress or an example to follow, Le Thanh Tam’s logic is one with which many socialists will be all-too familiar.
How easy is it to imagine the same words coming out of the mouth of a Ba’athist, or a representative of Ahmedinejad’s theocracy, or Robert Mugabe? And how easy is it to imagine some leftists, including would-be Trotskyists, making excuses for such a person on the basis that their de facto anti-imperialism (a status gained, more often than not, by mere fact of being incidentally opposed to the current policy of the US ruling-class rather than by any positive programme) makes them in some way progressive or worthy of support?
Against a left that apologises or makes excuses for barbarism, a re-examination of the lessons of Vietnam reaffirms the need to build a revolutionary left that does not see the world as a politico-military game of football in which we can intervene only by cheering on one side or another.
The old “third-camp” slogan — “neither Washington nor Moscow” — might have once been extended to include “nor Hanoi”. The lessons of Vietnam teach us that today it might be adapted: “neither Washington nor Tehran, nor Havana, nor Caracas — but international socialism.”