The Vietnamese call it the American War . In America it’s called the Vietnam War. This is a short history of that war, from the point of view of the peasants and GIs who fought it.
In 1945, when World War Two ended, Vietnam was a French colony. Vietnamese Communists then led a nine-year peasant guerrilla war against the French. In 1954 a peace settlement divided Vietnam in two. North Vietnam became a “Communist” dictatorship allied to Russia and China, and South Vietnam became a private capitalist dictatorship allied to the United States. Some Communists stayed behind in South Vietnam. The southern government persecuted them, and in 1959 they began a peasant guerrilla insurgency, the Viet Cong or National Liberation Front. By 1965 it looked as if the Communists would soon take power in South Vietnam, and the United States began sending in large numbers of troops to prevent this.
But why another book on the war?
There are a lot of books on different aspects of the war, many of them very good. This is an attempt to synthesize them into a short history that both tells the story and makes sense of what happened. It is particularly written for a new generation of activists who were small children, or were not even born, during the war years.
But there are two other audiences that particularly matter to me. One is the Vietnam generation in America-the people who fought in the war, the people who opposed it, and the hundreds of thousands who did both. I have tried to write a book that is true to their experience. The other audience is in Vietnam. Large numbers of young Vietnamese feel a deep sympathy for the guerrilla struggle, but they also feel oppressed by the corrupt government that came to power by winning that war. I hope that this book makes sense to them too.
This is a history from below. It tells what Vietnamese peasants, American soldiers, and American protesters did, and how they felt. It is a history from above as well. I write about what the generals and politicians on both sides did although I am less concerned with what they felt. But the most fascinating, and important, thing in history is the intersection between below and above— the struggles where the ordinary people and the powerful meet. So the book looks at the conflicts between Vietnamese peasants and landlords, between guerrilla fighters and Communist bureaucrats, and between GIs and generals. It also deals with the conflicts back in the United States between the interests of ordinary working people and the policies of government and corporations. In short, to use an old-fashioned phrase, it looks at “class struggle.”
Most historians separate class struggle and international relations. One is domestic policy and the other is foreign policy. They exist, in most accounts, in different worlds. This book looks, all the time, at how internal conflicts affect both international and domestic relations.
So Chapter 1, about why the Vietnamese fought, begins with an account of the class struggle in South Vietnam between a government backed by landlords and businessmen on one side, and a guerrilla army of poor and landless peasants on the other. For both sides it was more of a war over land than over national independence.
But it was not that simple, for the Communist leaders themselves were the children of landlords, businesspeople, and government officials. They wanted a strong, independent, socially just Vietnam. But they also wanted to be the new ruling class in that Vietnam, on the model of the people who ruled Russia and China. So at times they led the peasants against the landlords, at times they held the peasants back, at times they exploited the peasants, and at times the peasants forced them to fight. Chapter 1 chronicles the twists and turns of this contradictory struggle.
Chapter 2 is about why the American government intervened. The stated reason was to fight Communism, but after 1945 official American anti-Communism did three jobs at once. First, “fighting Communism” was the rationale for the Cold War competition with Russia about who would be the dominant power in the world. Second, it was the rationale for supporting the rich in poor countries against movements from below. Third, inside America, anti-Communism was in practice a pretext for persecuting radical shop stewards and union representatives.
So when it looked like the Communist-led guerrillas would win in Vietnam, the American government was afraid that it would make Russia more powerful, encourage revolts from below in other countries, and encourage radical tendencies in the American civil rights movements and the unions. It sent troops to Vietnam to stop that from happening.
Chapter 3 is about how the war was fought. The American government used bombs and artillery on a scale never seen before in the world. I argue this was because the Viet Cong had won the political war. The majority of Vietnamese supported them, and that meant the American combat troops were outnumbered. To put it in simple terms, there were more guerrillas than GIs, so the Pentagon’s strategy was attrition to kill very large numbers of Vietnamese until they were broken.
This strategy was carried out by American soldiers. But for them it was a working class war. It was not the children of the rich and powerful who were sent to Vietnam. For those who went, being there was part and parcel of their oppression at home, perhaps the worst part of it. And the killing and cruelty they found themselves doing were part of their oppression.
Chapter 4 is about the Vietnamese guerrillas. They fought with courage, and the main form of that courage was simply enduring the bombing. But the firepower ranged against them was such that by 1969 the local guerrillas had been beaten militarily. However, they still had the support of the majority of peasants. If the U.S. troops left, the guerrillas would win.
Chapter 5 is about the protestors in America. The main argument here is that from 1968 on, the rich and powerful in America wanted to withdraw from Vietnam because the protest movement was beginning to threaten their control at home. When push came to shove, power in America was far more important to the American leaders than power in Vietnam. But simply leaving Vietnam would weaken their position with many regimes in the world and weaken their control at home. So they chose a middle road, trying to wind down their involvement without leaving. Protest continued, and many more people on both sides died.
Chapter 6 is about the revolt against the war in the American armed forces. From 1968 on, the American troops killed many of their officers, and by 1971 most of the GIs were refusing or avoiding combat. In early 1973 the United States was forced to withdraw completely and without the support of U.S. troops the southern government fell in 1975. I write about the soldiers’ revolt at length because it is a part of the story that rarely gets told, and it is a part of the story that the Vietnam generation needs to have acknowledged. It is also something that people outside the United States, particularly in Vietnam, may know little about.
Chapter 7 is about Cambodia and Vietnam after the American War. Again, it concentrates on the class struggle in those countries. The horror of the killing fields in Cambodia was in part a consequence of the horror of the U.S. bombing that the Cambodians had already been through. But that horror also needs to be understood in terms of the struggle between a new, small, Communist ruling class in Cambodia and the peasants who turned against them.
Vietnam after 1975 was affected by an American led boycott, Russian exploitation, and Chinese enmity. But Chapter 7 concentrates particularly on the attempt of the new Communist ruling class to build a modern economy by taxing the peasants heavily and sweating the workers, and on the attempts of peasants and workers to resist that exploitation.
Chapter 8 is about the consequences of the war for the United States and the world. The emphasis here is on the “Vietnam syndrome”— the insistence by the majority of working Americans, passed down from parents to children over the last thirty years, that the government may or may not be right about foreign policy, but the people will not send their children to die for Washington again.
This Vietnam syndrome makes it very difficult for the U.S. government to use ground troops. So the United States has become a strange kind of imperial power, effectively a superpower without an army. Chapter 8 traces how the limits imposed on American power by American workers have changed the nature of international relations in the last twenty-five years. It also traces the backlash in America against the movements of the 1960s. I argue that this backlash has been simultaneously an attack on the memory of Vietnam, on African Americans, on feminism, on gays and lesbians, on labor unions, and on the incomes and lives of working America. The backlash is part of the class struggle at home, and it is simultaneously an effort to win American workers back to dying abroad.
The book ends with the resurgence of American power in the world after September 11, and the rise of a new anti-war movement across the world.
I have tried to write in a straightforward, accessible style. This has forced me to think carefully. If you make all the steps in an argument explicit, you can notice the gaps, and so can the reader. Tony Cliff, the British socialist, once said that the more complex the argument you want to make, the simpler the language you should use.
Three things make this book complex. First, it was a complicated war, fought in four countries by soldiers from ten countries, with many twists and turns, and with complex roots and consequences. Second, there is a complex argument about class and war running through the book. Third, the standpoint adopted here is outside the mainstream. Noam Chomsky, the American anarchist, often says how much he hates giving one-minute answers to questions about American foreign policy on radio and television. The reason, he says, is that ideas outside the mainstream are often hard to grasp because people have not heard them before. Many mainstream ideas are complicated too, but because people have heard the arguments many times before they can be explained quickly.
I need to make two small points. The first is about “America.” This is not an anti-American book. It is anti—American government, but then I think that the American government is anti-most American people. And so I have said “the American government” or “the United States” or “Washington” did this or that, because I don’t want to assume that the policies of the government and the wishes of the people are the same. I am also aware that everybody in North and South America is American, and most of them say “North American” where I have used “American.” I apologize for any offense.
Second, I’m American, and when I was 18 in 1966 I was a supporter of my country’s role in Vietnam. If I had been drafted then, I would have gone. 1 wasn’t drafted because my parents were middle-class teachers and I could go to college. By 1969 I was marching against the war. In 1970 I was refused conscientious objector status and decided to go to prison rather than the army. I was afraid of prison, but in the long run the people who went to prison had an easier time than the people who went to Vietnam and survived. Then my draft board gave me conscientious objector status on appeal and I did not have to go to jail.
If I had to do it over again, I hope I would go into the army and agitate against the war. I have written this book because I have mixed feelings about the anti-war movement. I am intensely proud of what we did and achieved, but we were ignorant about many things, and particularly about the class system in the United States. Our passion helped to end the war, but our mistakes meant that the radical movements of the 1960s were eventuaUy marginalized. I have written this book not out of nostalgia, but in the hope that another generation can learn from our experiences and act more wisely.
Text from A People’s History of the Vietnam War by Jonathan Neale- Introduction