Imperialist wars in Vietnam
Western imperialism makes evident its decadence
In my last commentary, I reviewed the struggle of the Vietnamese people, led by the Indochinese Community Party, for independence from French colonialism and for the transformation of the class structures of remnant feudalism and modern Western capitalism; a struggle that culminated in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, declared by Ho Chi Minh on September 2, 1945, and in the establishment of an independent nation governed by a National Assembly elected by the people (see “The universal meaning of Vietnam: A heroic struggle for independence and socialism,” July 08, 2022). Today I look at the refusal of the French and American political establishments to accept Vietnamese independence. Their refusal reflected their decadence, in that they were incapable of discerning that the Western-centered capitalist world-economy was no longer politically, economically, morally, or ecologically sustainable; and they thus were incapable of leading their peoples to an alternative, more just, democratic, and sustainable world order.
France immediately took steps to retake control of its colonial possessions in Indochina. The French war of re-conquest began in the south, and it began before the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. The first French detachment had departed for Vietnam on August 16, 1945. On August 23, French parachutists arrived in the southern region, seeking to make contact with French colonists and to communicate that the French government would recognize neither the independence nor the unity of Vietnam. In early September, French troops, with the support of an Indian division of the British Army, disembarked in Saigon. They proceeded to immediately liberate and arm thousands of French who had been imprisoned by the Japanese. The French and the British, supported by Japanese troops, began an offensive on October 21 in the Mekong Delta. These troops later advanced to the central region of the country.
The French devised a plan for the secession of Cochin China and the establishment there of a puppet government. Located in the Mekong Delta, the French colony of Cochin China had extensive rice fields and French-owned rubber plantations. It was the richest and most economically developed region of the country, where three-fifths of French properties in Indochina were located.
Ho Chi Minh undertook negotiations with the French. Ho insisted upon the independence of Vietnam, but he was prepared to accept a transition period of several years. He rejected French claims for the separation of Cochin China, demanding the unification of Vietnam and the nullification of the French colonial division of Vietnam into Tonkin in the north and Annam and Cochin China in the central provinces and south. The French proposed the formation of an Indochinese Federation that would be headed by a French governor and that would have authority to represent Vietnam in all international relations, in which there would be a degree of autonomy for Vietnam.
On March 6, 1946, Ho Chi Minh and French negotiator Jean Sainteny signed an agreement, according to which France would recognize Vietnam as a free state with its own government, parliament, and army, which would form part of an Indochinese Federation that would pertain to the French Union. It was agreed that the destiny of Cochin China would be determined by popular referendum. It also was agreed that 15,000 French troops would enter Hanoi and that the 200,000 troops of Chaing Kai Chek would withdraw from Vietnam.
But the French were embarking on a deceptive maneuver. They believed that the withdrawal of Chinese troops from Vietnam would enable their military re-conquest of Indochina. They thus remained oriented to retaking full control of Indochina rather than implementing the March 6 accord and its promise of limited sovereignty for Vietnam. In June and July of 1946, Ho Chi Minh and a Vietnamese delegation traveled to Paris, seeking to avoid a new armed conflict through a negotiated implementation of the March 6 accord. But prior to the arrival of the delegation, the French Government recognized the secessionist Autonomous Republic of Cochin China, thereby reneging on the March 6 agreement to decide the status of the territory through referendum. In the Paris talks, the two sides were far apart concerning the degree of autonomy that Vietnam would have as a free state in the French Union. Meanwhile, the French government was moving toward the creation of an Indochinese federation of puppet governments, and French troops continued to engage in military actions in Vietnam. The Vietnamese delegation suspended the talks and returned to Vietnam.
In a final effort to attain a negotiated settlement, Ho Chi Minh remained in Paris. Ho signed an agreement with French Minister of Overseas Territories Marius Moutet on September 14, which reinforced the accord of March 6, thus avoiding a total breakdown of the talks. But Ho’s efforts toward peaceful negotiation of Vietnamese independence could not succeed, inasmuch as an independent Vietnamese government headed by Ho Chi Minh, the Vietminh Front, and the Indochinese Communist Party was incompatible with French imperialist interests.
On November 20, French troops opened fire on Vietnamese troops in Haiphong and Lang Son, leaving thousands of civilian casualties in Haiphong. On December 17, the commander of the French troops sent an ultimatum to the Vietnamese government, demanding that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam turn over security functions of Hanoi to the French. On December 19, Ho Chi Minh issued a call to the nation, noting that the French have decided to re-conquer the country and calling upon the people to struggle against French colonialism and to save the country. On the evening of December 19, Vietnamese militia units launched attacks against French installations in Hanoi. The French-Indochinese War had begun.
The Vietnamese forces were able to defend Hanoi for two months, before withdrawing before the superior firepower of the French. At first, the Vietnamese government was relocated to the outskirts of Hanoi, but by April 1947, the government was relocated to the mountainous zone of Viet Bac. In the first years of the war, President Ho Chi Minh often moved clandestinely, avoiding French efforts to assassinate him. The government adopted a strategy of guerrilla resistance, but also including larger operations when the conditions were favorable. In October 1947, the French launched an offensive against the government base of operations in Viet Bac, but the offensive was a failure, resulting in the death of many French soldiers.
In spite of the setback, the French continued with plans to retake its former possession. In 1949, the French established a Vietnamese government with limited sovereignty in the Associated States of Indochina, under the authority of former emperor Bao Dai. Thus, there were two governments claiming authority: a revolutionary government led by Ho Chi Minh, and the puppet government of Bao Dai. By 1953, the army of the puppet government, trained by the French with U.S. financial aid, had reached 200,000 troops; and French troops numbered 250,000. However, the revolutionary government increasingly took control of territory, such that by 1953 nearly all the north was under its control, except for Hanoi and the large cities. And in those areas under French control, popular organizations were maintained, and there were strikes by workers and protests by students, professors, political personalities, and merchants.
In a desperate attempt to reverse the deteriorating situation, the French and puppet armies destroyed entire villages, relocating people to concentration camps. Animals were killed, and rice fields were destroyed. But the French and their puppets could not change the dynamics of the situation.
In the battle of Dien Bien Phu, which lasted for fifty-five days from March 13 to May 7, 1954, the forces of the revolutionary government directed by General Vo Nguyen Giap obtained a decisive victory. More than 1500 French soldiers were killed, and 4000 were wounded; nearly 16,000 French soldiers were killed, captured, or listed as missing in action, and all the French officers surrendered. By May 1954, the revolutionary government had control of 75% of the national territory. In France, as a result of the failure of the French military occupation to effectively re-conquer its former colony, there emerged popular opposition to the Indochina War
The Geneva Conference was convened on April 26, 1954, and peace talks on Indochina began on May 7, the day following the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu. Participating in the peace talks were delegations from France, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the United States, Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union as well as the governments of Bao Dai and the French Indochinese associated states of Laos and Cambodia. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam demanded full sovereignty for Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; the withdrawal of French troops from Indochina; and the holding of free elections in the newly independent nations. But the Western powers were insistent on the division of Vietnam into two temporary zones, one under the authority of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the other under the control of the Bao Dai government. The division of Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union and China, who wanted to reach a settlement that would avoid direct U.S. military intervention. Zhou Enlai, the head of the Chinese delegation, persuaded Ho Chi Minh to accept the division. Ho understood it to be a temporary division in preparation for nationwide elections that would unify the country. On July 21, the “Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam” was signed by France and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. It defined the seventeenth parallel as the line of demarcation between the two zones, and it prohibited the establishment of new military bases in the country.
Significant political questions were formulated and incorporated in a separate document, the “Final Declaration of the Conference of Geneva.” The Declaration recognized the total independence of Cambodia and Laos in the French Union. It also recognized the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, located north of the seventeenth parallel, and of the government of the emperor Bao Dai, located south of the parallel. It recognized that the final solution of Vietnam remained undefined, pending general elections to be held in July 1956 that would reunify the country, and it mandated consultations between the two zones for implementing the elections. The Final Declaration was presented on July 21, and all expressed support, but U.S. Undersecretary of State Bedell Smith rose to say that his government could not sign the agreement in its present form. In the end, none of the participants signed the Final Declaration that had emerged through the negotiations, so that the 1956 elections in Vietnam were simply a proposed project without obligatory commitment by any government, even though it had been negotiated by the governments involved in the conference.
The last-minute opposition of the U.S. government to the Final Declaration was caused by awareness that Ho Chi Minh would win overwhelmingly the proposed 1956 elections that would reunify Vietnam, as U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower later confirmed in his memoirs. A few days following the conference, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced that the United States would promote the development of non-communist states in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. At the same time, Ngo Dinh Diem, who had been named Prime Minister by Bao Dai, maintained that South Vietnam would not negotiate with communists concerning the holding of elections.
Following the Geneva Accords of 1954, the United States became more actively involved, placing its hopes on the recently named Prime Minister of South Vietnam. Diem had travelled to the United States from 1950 to 1953, presenting himself as an independent nationalist alternative to the communists. After the Geneva Accords, Diem and the United States began to define South Vietnam as a separate and permanent government, and they ignored the Geneva proposal for national elections unifying the northern and southern zones of Vietnam.
During the Diem regime, popular demonstrations and protests emerged, representing a wide variety of political organizations and religious groups. They were harshly repressed; two thousand were executed from 1957 to 1959.
In addition to demonstrating itself to be a repressive regime, the Diem government reversed agrarian reforms that had been implemented in territory previously controlled by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. During said agrarian reform, land had been distributed to many peasants; and many landlords had fled to the cities, living under the protection of the French occupation forces. However, after the Geneva Accords and with the support of the Diem government, many landlords south of the seventeenth parallel returned to their villages and reestablished political and administrative control, re-taking possession of the land. U.S. historian William Duiker wrote that “perhaps Diem’s worst failing was his inability to comprehend the needs of the peasants.” But in spite of such political liabilities, U.S. aid to South Vietnam increased significantly from 1956 to 1959.
Because of the repression by the Diem regime, there emerged the widespread view among the masses and the Party leaders of the South that the continuation of the armed struggle would be necessary. Clandestine networks were formed. Consciousness-raising activities among the people were carried out. Armed self-defense units were organized.
During the campaign of repression against communists by the Diem regime, 120,000 civil leaders and combatants from the South had gone to the North in order to regroup under the protection of the North and to prepare for the continuation of the armed struggle. In 1959, the Vietnamese Workers’ Party (formerly known as the Indochinese Communist Party) endorsed a political-military struggle for the liberation of South Vietnam. It called for the creation of units of leaders and combatants, all natives of the South, to be sent to the South, supplied with arms and equipment. In accordance with this recommendation of the Party, the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam created in May 1959 the Office of Studies of Military Aid to the South, under the authority of the General Chief of Staff. As a result, 500 men, all natives of the South, supplied with 7000 arms, were transported to the South.
In 1960, the armed struggle was renewed. Armed guerrilla groups ambushed and annihilated South Vietnamese Army units, with women and children helping with information and supplies. The first uprising occurred in the Ben Tre province, a rich province of the Mekong Delta with 600,000 inhabitants. The week-long uprising resulted in the destruction or surrender of 20 posts of the South Vietnamese Army, and structures of people’s power were developed in many localities. A second uprising in Ben Tre involved an attack on the provincial capital in which 60,000 people participated. Similar uprisings occurred throughout 1960 in many other localities in the South.
By the end of 1960, half the villages and towns of the South were under the administration of people’s organizations. In order to establish centralized direction of these administrative structures, the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF) was created. The NLF was established on December 20, 1960, at a conference of representatives of various progressive social sectors of the South. The conference was organized by the Vietnamese Workers’ Party, and it was held in a collection of small buildings in a forested area in South Vietnam near the Cambodian border. The conference created committees at the level of the town, district, and province, and it named Nguyen Hu Tho, a lawyer of great prestige in the South, as president.
The National Liberation Front consisted of progressive groups representing various social classes, political parties, and religions. It proposed universal suffrage, improvement in the standard of living of the population, greater access to education and health care, an independent economy that responds to national interests, and agrarian reform. It proposed the elimination of all foreign influence and the establishment of a democratic, national coalition government. It advocated the overthrow of the Diem regime by means of armed struggle. It directed the formation of people’s armed forces, which enabled the peasants to defend themselves and their villages against the government army, using weapons captured from government soldiers.
In addition, to manage military operations, the Vietnamese Workers’ Party re-established the Central Office for South Vietnam, which had operated in the South during the war of national independence of 1946-54 and had been closed following the Geneva Conference of 1954. In February 1961, paramilitary units in the Mekong Delta and the Central Highlands were merged to form the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), which would function as the military arm of the NLF. The PLAF would be called the “Viet Cong” by the Saigon regime, and so it would be known to the world. Benefitting from hostility to the Diem regime as well as from the return of southern militants from the North, the PLAF grew to 15,000 troops by the end of 1961. It had carved out a liberated base area in the Central Highlands, and it had established roots in villages and towns throughout South Vietnam.
During the period of 1961 to 1964, in response to the rapid growth of the PLAF and the success of the guerrilla struggle, the United States began to utilize Special Forces known as the Green Berets, which were heterodox military forces that had been trained in counter-guerrilla activities. The Special Forces trained South Vietnamese troops, and they took direct part in combat in coordination with South Vietnamese troops. Operating principally in the Mekong Delta and in a zone of ethnic minorities near the Laotian frontier, the Special Forces carried out a pacification program, involving forced relocation of the people to “strategic hamlets,” which were enclosed by bamboo fences, and where the people were required to present identification cards and could leave and enter only at fixed hours. Some have described the strategic hamlets as concentration camps, whereas others have called them self-defense communities. They were hampered by inefficiency, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was persistently frustrated by the slow rate in which they were established.
U.S. strategy included clandestine activities in North Vietnam. Sabotage directed against the transportation, electrical, and water systems in the north had begun in July 1954, several weeks prior to the signing of the Geneva Accords. Clandestine activities directed against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam were expanded during the period of 1961-63. These activities were carried out principally by South Vietnamese operatives, following plans developed by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and authorized by the U.S. President. From the point of view of the Kennedy administration, clandestine activities had the advantage of communicating to North Vietnam the seriousness of U.S. commitment and intentions, without having to submit them to public debate in the United States.
In South Vietnam, as a result of widespread popular discontent, the failure of the pacification program, and equivocating U.S. support for Diem, there was a coup d’état, to some extent encouraged by the United States, that deposed and murdered Diem in 1963. The coup worsened the political situation. For the next two years, there was a succession of ten governments, until there was established in 1965 the National Directory Council, headed jointly by Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky.
Neither the Special Forces in the South, nor the clandestine activities in the North, nor changes in the government of South Vietnam could stem the tide of the political-military popular struggle directed by the NLF. By 1964, the NLF controlled 80% of the territory of South Vietnam, dismantling strategic hamlets in areas under its control. And the NLF had the support of the great majority of the population of the South. By 1965, it was clear that the U.S. war carried out by U.S. Special Forces in cooperation with the South Vietnamese army had been lost.
Writing retrospectively in 1995 on the Vietnam War from the vantage point of U.S. policymakers, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, maintains that from 1961 to 1964 U.S. policy was based on the premise that South Vietnam must establish itself as a viable and stable nation, albeit with U.S. support. U.S. policymakers did not understand that the South Vietnamese government could not establish itself as a viable government, even with U.S. support, inasmuch as it was a puppet government installed by France and the United States to preserve a colonial presence in the face of the nationalist aspirations of a people who had become politically conscience and united. The government of South Vietnam had effective practical control of only a small part of the nation. It enjoyed the support of only the landholding class, the Catholic Church, the allies of the French, and assorted scoundrels, who lacked unity of purpose and who were dependent on U.S. military and financial aid. McNamara, even thirty years later, did not fully grasp this political reality, so imbued was he with Western assumptions about the world.
But U.S. leaders could not accept what they saw as the fall of South Vietnam and possibly Southeast Asia to communism, as McNamara documents. As U.S. policymakers reflected on possible courses of action in early 1965, not seeing that the root of the problem was the puppet character of the South Vietnamese regime, U.S. policymakers arrived to an erroneous conclusion: that the South Vietnamese government could be strengthened by increasing U.S. support. They reasoned that the United States, in limiting its support to military advisors, was signaling a lack of commitment to the government of South Vietnam. They began to believe that U.S. armed intervention with ground troops would increase the credibility and political strength of the government of South Vietnam, thus enabling it to carry out the pacification program more effectively and to assume the role assigned by U.S. policy.
Thus, from January to July of 1965, U.S. policymakers moved toward a decision to escalate the war and to send a greater number of U.S. troops, which would engage in direct combat. In the beginning of 1965, there had been 23,000 U.S. military advisers stationed in Vietnam. But by the end of 1965, U.S. military presence increased to 180,000 troops; and by the end of 1966, to 280,000. The South Vietnamese army also was expanded, increasing from 265,000 at the end of 1964 to 750,000 in 1966. U.S. troops would number 550,000 by 1968.
But the belief of U.S. policymakers that more U.S. military support would politically strengthen the government of South Vietnam was not correct. In fact, increased U.S. military presence further undermined the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government, in that it completely discredited its claim to represent an independent nationalist force in Vietnam. As Julio García Oliveras writes: “The introduction of U.S. forces produced a great change in the south. Before the puppets could speak of nationalism, now it was made evident before the public that it was a question of an occupation by foreign troops.” He notes that “a rapid increase of the number of puppet troops could not compensate for the intrinsic weakness of a mercenary army that had to combat under foreign command against their own compatriots.”
Moreover, People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) successfully engaged U.S. troops repeatedly. From 1965 to 1967, the United States military command used a “search-and-destroy” strategy. But U.S. troops suffered many casualties, and the operations did not reduce the territory under NLF control. Although the United States had far superior firepower, the PLAF decided when, where, and how long to fight. Often U.S. troops would search for NLF forces but could not find them; later, U.S. troops would be attacked suddenly, in disadvantageous conditions. In 1965, the PLAF relied principally on guerrilla units, but by 1966, it had evolved into a well-equipped professional army, although it took advantage of the support of local guerrilla units. Even though the war was evolving toward a confrontation between two regular armies, it continued to be different from a classic war. It was a war without a front, and the PLAF continued to choose when, where, and how long to fight. Meanwhile, the South Vietnamese army had become unreliable for combat, as a result of military defeats and casualties as well as the growing number of desertions.
U.S. casualties reached 100,000 (including dead and wounded) by April 1967, and this became an important factor in public opposition to the war in the United States. Toward the end of 1967, the U.S. military began to assume a defensive posture, protecting military bases and cities and initiating only small-scale operations. NLF control of the territory of South Vietnam was sufficiently consolidated to make possible the implementation of an agrarian reform program, in which two and one-half million hectares of land were distributed.
On May 19, 1967, Secretary of Defense McNamara sent a memorandum to President Lyndon Johnson, describing a pessimistic political and military situation from the U.S. point of view. In an analysis of the war in September 1967, General Van Tieng Dung, Chief of General Staff of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, expressed the view that the war in the South had been won.
Nonetheless, General William C. Westmoreland, U.S. field commander in Vietnam, and Ellsworth Bunker, U.S. ambassador in Saigon, were optimistic. Westmoreland maintained that that the NLF was losing the war, for it had suffered losses on such a scale that it was not able to replace them with new combatants. Meanwhile, oriented to the 1968 elections, high officials in the Johnson administration were making public statements to the effect that the war was nearly won.
The Tet Offensive, launched on January 30, 1968, exposed Westmoreland’s false optimism. The NLF controlled 80% of the territory of the South, but the South Vietnamese regime controlled the cities. The Tet offensive was multi-dimensional, including attacks on the cities and urban areas, demonstrating the vulnerability of the South Vietnamese regime in areas under its control; attacks on logistical bases and the destruction of supplies; and the cutting of transportation routes from the cities and bases, seeking to put a definitive end to the program of pacification. During the Tet Offensive, the six most important cities of the south were attacked: Saigon, Hue, Danang, Dalat, Nha Trang, and Qui Nhon. The assault on Saigon included dramatic attacks on the strongly fortified U.S. embassy and the Presidential Palace. In Hue, the imperial capital, PLAF occupied and controlled the city for 25 days. In addition, 40 of 44 provincial capitals and 70 district centers were attacked.
In June 1968, Westmoreland made a request to supplement the 500,000 U.S. troops with an additional 200,000 troops. But the request was not approved. The Tet offensive had been the death blow for U.S. presence in Vietnam. Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election, and that the United States agreed to peace negotiations.
In addition to the “search and destroy” strategy of U.S. troops during the escalation of 1965-68, the United States also engaged in extensive bombing of North Vietnam. During the three-year bombing campaign, more bombs were dropped on both North and South Vietnam than on all of Europe during World War II. In response to the extensive bombing, North Vietnam mobilized the people into combat and self-defense units and increased the size of the armed forces. To reduce the impact of the repeated bombings, industry was dispersed, the economy was regionalized, and people were relocated from the zones most exposed to air attacks.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara explained in his retrospective memoir that the purpose of the bombing was to break the will of North Vietnam to support the insurgency in the South and to reduce the ability of North Vietnam to supply men and materiel to the South. However, during the course of the air campaign, McNamara arrived to the conclusion that no amount of bombing of the North, short of total annihilation, which no one proposed, could accomplish these objectives. McNamara reports that there were doubts within the U.S. intelligence community concerning the effectiveness of the bombing from the beginning. However, since no better alternative appeared, most high military and civilian officials in the U.S. government were inclined to support air attacks.
Including both the bombing campaign and the ground war in the South, U.S. military intervention in Vietnam left approximately 4 million Vietnamese dead, nearly half of whom were civilians. Nine thousand villages and towns and millions of productive acres were bombed, along with cities, bridges, dikes, reservoirs, railroads, roads, factories, bridges, hospitals, and schools. The United States dropped on Vietnam more than 6,300,000 tons of bombs, far in excess of the 2,000,000 tons of bombs dropped by the United States during World War II. In addition, fields, crops, animals, farms, and persons were sprayed with napalm and other poisonous chemicals.
After 1968, the United States government was on the defensive before growing opposition to the war in the USA and world public opinion. Richard Nixon, who had assumed the presidency in 1969, announced a policy of “Vietnamization,” in which the United States would gradually withdraw troops but would maintain economic and military support to the government of South Vietnam. Peace talks were initiated, but they made little progress. In 1970, the USA invaded Laos and Cambodia, seeking to eliminate supply routes to the PLAF, and it resumed bombing of North Vietnam. These military actions provoked a new wave of massive student anti-war demonstrations in the United States. In reaction to the continuous bombings, North Vietnam launched in 1972 an invasion of a part of South Vietnam. In response, the US suspended peace talks and increased air attacks. The city of Hanoi was severely damaged by the bombs, which were more massive than at any previous point. In 1973, peace talks resumed, with delegations from the United States, the government of South Vietnam, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (which had been established in 1969 and was under the control of the NLF), and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The four parties signed a peace accord that ended the war and mandated total U.S. withdrawal, which was carried out by March of 1973.
The final triumph of the Vietnamese revolution against two Western imperialist powers occurred as a result of the Great Spring Offensive of 1975. The North Vietnamese army, commanded by General Tran Van Tra, and the PLAF launched an offensive, rapidly taking control of the important cities of the South, including Hue and Saigon. Officials of the government of South Vietnam resigned, and political power was assumed jointly by a Military Revolutionary Committee of North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, directed by the NLF. A constitutional assembly was held, and a unified nation, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, was established, with Hanoi as the capital city.
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