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When Washington was defeated

October 24, 2003 | Page 6

ELIZABETH SCHULTE looks at the lessons of Vietnam.

THE U.S. government is the world's largest superpower, with unsurpassed wealth, power and military might. And as we saw in the war on Iraq, when Washington wants to decide the fate of a smaller, weaker nation, it will use every means at its disposal to get its way.

But it's important to remember that the U.S. doesn't always get its way. The U.S. government can be beaten--and has been. The U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War not only struck an immediate and devastating blow to American imperial arrogance, but it completely transformed the way that U.S. rulers looked at themselves and war for decades to come.

Although the U.S. had a hand in Vietnam for more than a decade--first, in aiding the French colonizers and then trying to install an anti-communist puppet government in the south--U.S. soldiers didn't officially intervene until 1965. The stakes for the U.S. were high.

First, Washington wanted to prove its international superiority, especially over its main rival, the former USSR. And second, the U.S. was determined to demonstrate to the leaders and supporters of national liberation movements everywhere that it would tolerate no challenges. It failed at both.

Invasions and occupations always produce resistance--as the history of imperialism, from the British colonial adventures in the 19th century to the U.S. grab for control over Iraq today, shows.

In Vietnam, the guerrilla forces of the National Liberation Front (NLF) were far outmatched militarily by U.S. forces. But the NLF had mass support in the countryside and the experience of resistance against French colonizers in its favor.

So while U.S. warplanes carpet-bombed North Vietnam and U.S. soldiers were sent out to use the utmost brutality in peasant villages, the U.S. still could not win. This became clear for the world to see in 1968 with the Vietnamese rebels' Tet offensive.

Until this time, the U.S. had claimed that it was winning the war in Vietnam. But with NLF forces on the offensive in some 100 cities throughout South Vietnam, including the capital of Saigon, the Pentagon lie was exposed. The U.S. defeated the Tet offensive militarily, but it suffered a political setback that it never recovered from.

Other factors soon came into play. As the war dragged on, for example, U.S. troops became radicalized by the experience. Despite their racist training to treat the Vietnamese people like animals, many soldiers grew to question what they were doing. The glaring class divisions within the military itself played a part--as working-class solders began ignoring the orders of their "superiors," and in some cases, physically retaliated against them.

Back home, antiwar protests that had been quite small in 1965, swelled to larger and larger numbers as the war progressed--especially as soldiers began returning home to tell what they had done. Questions about the war began to affect the public at large.

During the six weeks after Tet began at the end of January 1968, President Lyndon Johnson's approval rating dropped from 48 to 36 percent. Support for his handling of the war fell from 40 to 26 percent. Even the government's loyal media mouthpieces began to express the population's questioning of the war.

Life magazine--which had declared in 1965 that "the war is worth winning" and that victory was in sight--shifted to calling the conflict "harder, longer, more complicated" in 1967. Two years later, Life published in a single issue the portraits of some of the 250 soldiers who had died in a routine week in Vietnam--to draw attention to the fact that they weren't faceless soldiers, but someone's brother, husband and son.

The Johnson administration began to fall apart. "The pressure grew so intense that at times I felt that the government itself might come apart at the seams," wrote Clark Clifford, the defense secretary who replaced Robert McNamara in 1968. "Leadership was fraying at its very center...Everyone, both military and civilian, was profoundly affected by the Tet offensive, and there was, for a brief time, something approaching a sense of events spiraling out of control."

Johnson would decide not to run for re-election. The U.S. wasn't forced completely out of Vietnam until 1975. But in the meantime, Johnson's successor--Republican President Richard Nixon--resigned in disgrace amid the Watergate scandal.

The impact of the U.S. defeat was lasting. For decades to come, Washington avoided deploying large numbers of troops for any extended missions. U.S. invasions were later sold to the public as "humanitarian" campaigns--backed, wherever possible, by the "international community."

George Bush Jr.'s war on Iraq is an attempt to finish off the "Vietnam Syndrome" for good. Millions of people protested the invasion before it even began. But the fact that demonstrations in and of themselves didn't stop Bush's war doesn't diminish their importance.

Protest is one of several factors that lays the groundwork for beating U.S. imperialism--the resistance to the U.S. on the ground in Iraq being the central one. That's why the opposition we build here in the U.S. has to stand in solidarity with the people of Iraq who want to throw the U.S. out.

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