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Thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War
The fall of Saigon

April 29, 2005 | Pages 8 and 9

ON APRIL 30, 1975, the U.S.-backed government in Saigon collapsed, ending three decades of war in Vietnam and serving the U.S. its greatest military defeat ever.

In the 30 years since, a whole generation of Americans have come of age with little or no understanding of the issues surrounding the Vietnam War. But these very same questions have sprung back to life today, with the U.S. bogged down in another seemingly endless war in Iraq.

The mass media's coverage of the 30th anniversary of Saigon's fall will almost certainly be confined to a few trivial details about the final, squalid days of the U.S. war on Vietnam. The much bigger historical questions will be left hanging: Why did the U.S. fight a war in Vietnam? Why did the war produce such large-scale opposition in the U.S. and around the globe? How could a tiny impoverished nation defeat the greatest military power in the world?

Here, JOE ALLEN, who has written extensively on the Vietnam War in the International Socialist Review, answers the questions that the corporate media will ignore.

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WHEN DID the U.S. first become involved in Vietnam?

THE U.S. became involved in Vietnam much earlier than most people think. During the Second World War, the U.S. was allied with a powerful nationalist movement called the Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh. The Vietminh defeated the Japanese, who occupied and oppressed Vietnam during the war, with the help of French colonial collaborators.

After defeating the occupation, in September 1945, the Vietminh declared Vietnam independent from its colonial master France. U.S. military officers were present, the "Star-Spangled Banner" was played, and Ho Chi Minh paid homage to the U.S. Declaration of Independence. In fact, Vietnam was one of the first colonies to declare independence from European rule following the war.

The U.S. could have recognized Ho Chi Minh's government at that point, but instead, it chose to support the French government's effort to re-conquer its old colony.

Washington's decision was shaped by its need for French support in the Cold War struggle against the former USSR--and its fear that the emergence of independent regimes in the colonial world could challenge U.S. interests. The decision to support the French was made by Democratic President Harry Truman.

WHEN DID the Vietnam War stop being a French war and become a U.S. one?

DESPITE HUGE amounts of U.S. military aid, the French were defeated in Vietnam, after a nine-year war that culminated in the historic battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954.

In the wake of the French defeat, the U.S. had to shift its strategy. At an international conference in Switzerland, Vietnam was divided into two troop re-groupment zones, with elections set for two years' time to reunify the country.

The U.S. did not sign what became known as the Geneva Accords, but it said it would abide by them. However, Washington immediately began to subvert the accords by recognizing the southern half of Vietnam as a separate country, calling it the "Republic of Vietnam" and installing the dictator Ngo Dinh Diem as its leader. Acting through Diem as its puppet, the U.S. cancelled the 1956 election because, according to U.S. intelligence souces, Ho Chi Minh would have won 80 percent of the vote.

The U.S. poured in tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid. U.S. military and intelligence "advisers" set about persecuting anyone sympathetic to the Vietminh. Under Diem, tens of thousands of people were killed and imprisoned, and the southern half of Vietnam was turned into a police state.

This only fueled support for the Vietnamese nationalist struggle unleashed during the Second World War. The Vietnamese population was overwhelmingly peasants, who wanted land reform, a more equitable society and a country free from foreign domination--exactly what the USSR-aligned Vietminh offered. Diem and his corrupt cronies represented everything that most Vietnamese hated--the landlord system, government corruption and domination by Western powers.

Diem's policies sparked an armed opposition to his rule in the late 1950s, resulting in the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), a Communist-led coalition. The NLF, called the "Viet Cong" by the Americans, was committed to Diem's overthrow and reunification of the country.

Democratic President John F. Kennedy's response to the growing crisis in South Vietnam was to increase military aid. The total number of military advisers swelled under Kennedy to more than 15,000--and they were "advisers" in name only, many leading combat missions.

Unknown to most Americans at the time, the U.S. was already fighting a proxy war in Vietnam under Kennedy.

By the summer of 1963, Diem's usefulness to the Americans had come to an end. When he refused to broaden the base of his corrupt government, Washington decided to organize his overthrow and assassination. But Diem's murder in November 1963--three weeks before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas--only increased the crisis.

WHY DID Lyndon Johnson choose to escalate the war?

JOHNSON RAN for president in 1964 as the "peace" candidate, pledging to keep the U.S. out of a land war in Asia. But behind the scenes, his administration--made up almost entirely of liberal holdovers from the Kennedy administration--was planning a major escalation.

There were two related reasons. First, by 1964, the NLF was on the verge of coming to power in Saigon--or, at the very least, causing a crisis would lead to the formation of a government committed to negotiations with the nationalists and U.S. withdrawal. Second, a defeat for a U.S. ally such as the Saigon government would lead to the U.S. being challenged by other liberation struggles around the globe. As Johnson put it, "Surrender anywhere threatens defeat everywhere."

The administration needed an excuse, so it deliberately provoked the North Vietnamese into a confrontation with U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The subsequent "Tonkin Gulf resolution," approved with few dissenting votes in a Congress dominated by the Democrats, gave Johnson the legal authority to fight a war in Vietnam.

In March 1965, the U.S. began its invasion of South Vietnam. Eventually, Washington would have 500,000 soldiers on the ground and the power of the world's mightiest military unleashed throughout Vietnam and neighboring countries.

WHY DID the Vietnam War produce such widespread opposition?

BY THE time the U.S. landed combat troops in Vietnam in 1965, millions of American, particularly African Americans, had become radicalized by the civil rights movement. This meant that millions of people were ready to be suspicious of--or outright opposed to--the policies of the U.S. government abroad, as well.

The first national demonstration against the war was organized by Students for a Democratic Society--many of whose members were involved in civil rights activism. It drew more than 30,000 people to Washington, shocking traditional antiwar groups that expected a much smaller turnout.

The civil rights movement had broken the suffocating effects of the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when anti-communism suppressed dissent at home and produced largely unquestioned support for U.S. foreign policy. After the struggles of the early 1960s, a radical critique of U.S. foreign policy could gain a hearing again. The struggle of the NLF was seen by millions of people as one and the same with the struggle of people in Third World countries against European and U.S. domination.

As the war escalated during the course of 1965 and 1966, billions of dollars were diverted from fighting poverty at home to paying for the war. In order to keep such a large army on the ground on the other side of the world, draft calls reached 40,000 men a month.

The seeds of a mass antiwar movement were planted in the early days of the war and would grow as the conflict dragged on.

WHAT WAS the turning point in Vietnam?

OVER THE course of 1966 and 1967, Lyndon Johnson, his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, all promised victory in the near future.

It was a lie, and it came crashing down with the Tet Offensive. Taking advantage of the Tet lunar holiday, the NLF and North Vietnamese military forces launched an attack on every provincial capital and major city in South Vietnam, beginning at the end of January 1968. Rebel fighters occupied the ancient Vietnamese capital of Hue, and the NLF captured the U.S. embassy complex in Saigon.

Even though the insurgents were pushed back over the coming weeks, it was a humiliating defeat for the U.S.--and shifted public opinion decisively against the war and the Johnson administration. Johnson announced a month later that he wouldn't run for reelection, and all major candidates in the 1968 presidential election--Democrat and Republican--pledged they would end U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

WHY DID the war continue to drag on?

THE INCOMING Nixon administration promised to bring "peace with honor" in Vietnam. But this really meant peace on U.S. terms--continuation of a pro-U.S. government in Saigon, no coalition government with the NLF, and a continued U.S. military presence. That was unacceptable to the NLF and North Vietnamese, so the war continued.

Nixon attempted to both escalate the war through a massive bombing campaign and de-escalate the impact of the war at home by withdrawing U.S. troops. The strategy was called "Vietnamization"--having South Vietnamese forces take over the ground war, while the Americans provide the air cover and logistics. In reality, this was a way for the U.S. to get out of Vietnam without being seen as "defeated" by the NLF and the North Vietnamese.

But "Vietnamization" was already a failed policy before it started. The war remained "Americanized" precisely because the Saigon government couldn't win against the NLF.

The years after Tet--and the private acknowledgement of the Washington political establishment that the war was lost--were some of the bloodiest of all for the people of Southeast Asia. Nixon invaded Cambodia, carried out a "secret war" in Laos and stepped up the carpet bombing of North Vietnam.

Despite every effort to land, in the words of Nixon's National Security adviser Henry Kissinger, "a savage, decisive blow," the Vietnamese didn't crack.

Meanwhile, Nixon's policies produced the largest antiwar demonstrations in U.S. history, while rank-and-file soldiers and Vietnam veterans went into open rebellion against the war. In many ways, Nixon was forced to bring the war to end because of the disintegration of the U.S. Army on the ground in Vietnam. Nixon's attempt to repress dissent at home through harassment and persecution of the antiwar movement led to the Watergate scandal--which brought down Nixon himself.

In January 1973, representatives of the governments of the United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government (the NLF's government running major parts of the South Vietnamese countryside) signed a peace treaty ending the Vietnam War. But peace didn't come.

The peace treaty was another pause in the struggle for national liberation. Once the U.S. withdrew in defeat in 1973, the nationalist forces led by the North Vietnamese and NLF could carry out the final fight against the corrupt, unpopular Saigon government, without the threat of foreign intervention.

After a short and violent "peace," the North Vietnamese and NLF launched their Great Spring Offensive in 1975, which toppled the Saigon government in a few short weeks. The fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975--with its famous image of helicopters taking off from the roof of the U.S. embassy--marked the final defeat of the U.S. in the Vietnam War.

WHAT WAS the long-term impact of the Vietnam War?

THE VIETNAMESE national liberation movement handed the U.S. the biggest military defeat in its 200-year history. A mass movement in one of the poorest countries on earth succeeded in beating the greatest military power in history.

The impact has been felt ever since. The U.S. government's ability to intervene with its military around the world was hamstrung--what came to be known as the "Vietnam Syndrome."

Numerous moments of international crisis--such as the 1978-79 Iranian revolution--that might have been the pretexts for a U.S. invasion passed without an armed intervention. Liberation movements and political struggles from Asia to Africa to Latin America didn't face the immediate threat of American military force--though Washington was quick to adjust to new methods of fighting "secret wars" through proxy armies.

Only after the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 was George W. Bush prepared to boast that the Vietnam Syndrome was dead, though in many ways, the hesitation to use U.S. ground forces continued long after.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, it has been a constant complaint of the right wing that the U.S. could have won the war if didn't have to fight "with one arm tied behind its back."

This ignores that horrible devastation that the U.S. inflicted on Vietnam. The U.S. dropped three times as much tonnage of bombs on Vietnam as was dropped in all of the Second World War. Added to this was the effect of chemical warfare--the use of defoliants like Agent Orange that destroyed huge areas of land, leaving behind a legacy of cancer and birth defects.

The U.S. inflicted more than 1.5 million casualties on North Vietnam, a country of 27 million people at the time. If the same proportion of casualties were inflicted on the U.S., 20 million Americans would have died. Those who argue that the U.S. only needed to fight harder to win are arguing for genocide.

And yet, the Vietnamese withstood everything the U.S. could dish out. This is a testament to the determination of a people fighting for liberation.

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