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30 years since the fall of Saigon
The Vietnam war still casts a long shadow over US today
THIRTY YEARS ago, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the US embassy in Saigon marking a humiliating defeat for US imperialism. US military defeat for the first time and the pressure of a mass anti-war movement at home gave birth to the 'Vietnam Syndrome', which today casts a long shadow over the US-led occupation of Iraq.
For the US, the war in Vietnam had not gone to plan. Increasingly the US was sucked into a military conflict - which at its height in 1968 had 540,000 troops drafted and deployed from some of the poorest communities in the US. Despite a huge military build-up they were failing to defeat the North Vietnamese Army (NVA, and their south Vietnamese irregulars referred to by US forces as the 'Vietcong').
The attempt to shore up the interests of US imperialism and prevent the expansion of so-called 'communism' was to fail.
Like French imperialism, that had been driven out in the 1950s, the US was to learn harsh lessons about invading a country undergoing a revolution for social and national liberation.
However, this social revolution was not led by the working class under the leadership of a genuine, democratic socialist party but by an undemocratic Communist Party resting largely upon the rural peasantry, backed by the Stalinist totalitarian regimes of China and the USSR.
Morale amongst US troops began to decline as the US administration's strategy failed. Rampant drug use by troops exploded. Drug-abuse related cases at their height outnumbered military casualties. Discipline began to collapse, with troops refusing to obey orders and the 'fragging' (killing with fragmentation grenades) of over 200 officers in 1970 by GIs.
Meanwhile in the USA opposition to the war grew, bringing together students, workers and war veterans in mass protests. Not only did the war fuel these protests but also the growing black Civil Rights movement, which in 1968 exploded in anger in the poor black inner cities following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
By the end of 1969 the 'Mobilisation' peace demo drew 250,000 in Washington. President Nixon described students as, "bums blowing up campuses". At Kent State University, Ohio, Governor James Rhodes called students "worse than the brownshirts" and sent in National Guardsman to restore order, shooting dead four students. In response 400 universities and colleges closed with 100,000 students demonstrating on the streets of Washington.
In late 1970 a special commission reported to President Nixon, the country is "so polarised" as to "jeopardise the very survival of the nation". William Scranton, former Governor of Pennsylvania, called the divisions "as deep as any since the Civil War... nothing is more important than an end to the war."
The ruling class became increasingly divided over their exit strategy, concluding the need to withdraw US troops and rely on the South Vietnamese forces to hold the position. This strategy was termed 'Vietnamisation' by Robert Macnamara, the US defence secretary.
However, propping up unpopular puppet regimes was to be a futile strategy. Against the guerilla strategy of the NVA and the Vietcong, supported by the local population, the remaining US and South Vietnamese troops were unable to inflict lasting defeats on their opponents.
The withdrawal of troops was accompanied with peace talks aimed at bringing an end to the war, the division of Vietnam and the maintenance of the pro-US South Vietnam Army (SVA) and its government. By the end of 1972 US withdrawal was completed, though 16,000 army 'advisers' remained. In January 1973 a peace agreement was signed which in Nixon's words would "end the war and bring peace with honour."
This peace deal resolved none of the problems on the ground, the South Vietnamese regime's support weakened and the NVA and Vietcong prepared to unify the country. In January 1975 they launched their offensive against the US-tooled SVA. In a war expected to last two years, the South Vietnamese forces collapsed in 55 days.
Scenes of chaos were filmed and screened across the world as the final evacuation of US personnel took place from helicopters leaving the roof of the heavily fortified US embassy in Saigon. On 30 April 1975 the Vietcong flag flew over the Presidential Palace and puppet President Minh broadcast an unconditional surrender.
Vietnam was the USA's longest war. 15 years' military involvement saw over two million Americans serve in Vietnam with over 47,000 killed in action. Its defeat saw political constraints forced on the ruling class such as the passing in Congress of the Case-Church Amendment which prevented further US military involvement in South-East Asia.
The power of the executive arm of government was temporarily reined-in with President Nixon being impeached over the Watergate scandal, forcing his resignation. As a result the 'Vietnam Syndrome' became deeply ingrained in the minds of the anti-war movement and the mass of the US population and was a restraining factor in future attempts at US military engagement abroad until the first Gulf War in 1991.
Today in Iraq, despite claims by President Bush senior in 1992 that 'victory' in Gulf War One had buried the 'Vietnam Syndrome', it is clearly present in the minds of both the current global anti-war movement and the US and British pro-war politicians today.
Bush senior's claim was based on a limited military victory but also on what took place at an historic window which, following the collapse of Stalinist USSR and the Eastern Bloc countries, left the US as an unrivalled superpower.
Gulf War Two ended in military 'victory' primarily from the US use of unopposed aerial firepower. The situation on the ground since has shown the limitations of this victory as US and Iraqi forces have come under the attack of a guerrilla insurgency. These events are reminiscent of Nixon's comments in his diary that, "all the air power in the world... (would not save South Vietnam) ...if the South Vietnamese aren't able to hold on the ground."
Some US military strategists have claimed recently that they are winning the war, following elections and the formation of an elected Iraqi government, attacks on US forces are down.
This is wishful thinking, news for domestic consumption. US deaths have fallen because troops have withdrawn into their fortresses. General Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, has recently admitted that attacks by Iraqi 'insurgents' have risen to the same levels as a year ago.
The US occupation is overwhelmingly opposed by the mass of Iraqis, opposition will continue especially as the government fails to bring economic progress or a resolution to the sectarian divisions that could break Iraq apart.
However, the 'resistance movement' in Iraq which encompasses Baathist secularists and a variety of militias, including Shia and Sunni right-wing Islamists, cannot be directly equated with the revolutionary national liberation movement in Vietnam.
Nevertheless, the US faces 'military over-stretch', with insufficient troops to call on. Opposition at home from war veteran families and a continuing of anti-war protests will feed into the discontent amongst troops stationed in Iraq. The 'Vietnamisation' of the Iraq forces will not withstand the insurgency and will make withdrawal a very uncertain option for the US.
Growing Iraqi opposition to the occupation, highlighted by the recent 300,000-strong anti-US demo in Baghdad, will intensify the problems of US imperialism, and further divide the strategists in Washington. These difficulties will be exacerbated by the domestic economic problems in the US and opposition to Bush's planned attack on public services.
Faced with the failure to militarily pacify Iraq, the US ruling class have already pursued a strategy which rests on and increases the divisions in Iraq between the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds in order to weaken the opposition.
This could lead to the possible break-up and redivision of Iraq into oil-rich areas that the US could more easily control - a strategy which some sections of the US administration have openly called for.
All US options are fraught with difficulties. US intervention in the Middle East has massively destabilised the whole region. It has generated huge anti-US sentiment and will lead to mass mobilisations against US stooge governments in the region.
The opposition at present is mixed and dominated by right-wing religious leaders. But out of these events the workers in the region will begin to bring their voice to the fore. Their task now is to rebuild mass organisations and parties linked to their struggle for survival, for work, housing, healthcare and education and the fight for an end to US occupation in Iraq and its imperialist influence in the region.
In The Socialist 6 May 2005: