Neil Faulkner explains how an army of peasant guerrillas managed to defeat US imperialism in a full-scale war
Napalm is jellied gasoline designed to stick to the flesh and burn through to the bone. American reporter Martha Gellhorn saw its effects on children when she visited a hospital in South Vietnam in 1966.
"Flesh melts right down their faces onto their chests and it sits there and grows there… These children can’t turn their heads, they were so thick with flesh… And when gangrene sets in, they cut off their hands or fingers or their feet; the only thing they cannot cut off is their head."
During its wars in Indochina – against the people of South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – the US dropped more than eight million tons of explosives. This was three times as much as the total tonnage dropped by all belligerents during the whole of the Second World War.
Up to five million people were killed in the Vietnam War. Some 58,000 of these were American soldiers. The rest were Vietnamese, a million or so who were soldiers of one sort or another, but the majority civilians.
Most of those who died were killed by aerial bombing. The reason was simple. The US was waging war against an entire population. So the easiest (and safest) way to kill ‘the enemy’ was to bomb them from the air. This, in the circumstances, seemed the most efficient way to stop ‘the spread of communism’.
The military problem for the invaders was that the Vietcong – the South Vietnamese Communist guerrillas – were rooted in the villages. The VC were the sons and daughters of villagers. They were the armed wing of the Vietnamese peasantry. The US estimated that, had an election been held, the Communists would have won 80% of the vote.
So there was no election. Instead, half a million US troops were deployed to prop up a corrupt dictatorship supported by landlords and profiteers. The enemy was everyone else.
That is why, after his men had destroyed the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre, a US Army major could explain that ‘it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it’. Such is the logic of ‘counterinsurgency’ warfare.
Incredibly, the Vietnamese refused to give up. On the contrary, the worse the bombing and burning, the greater the bitterness, and the stronger the flow of young Vietnamese into the resistance. The growing violence of US imperialism was like throwing petrol on a fire.
Vietnam was a poor country. The guerrillas fought their war with outdated weapons, home-made bombs, and jungle booby-traps. They spent much of their time hiding from the enemy in underground tunnel complexes.
But they were formidable opponents. For one thing, they were highly organised in the Communist-led National Liberation Front. For another, they were an ethnically and culturally homogeneous people with a long history of resistance to foreign invaders. They had, in recent times, fought successfully against both the Japanese and the French.
At the end of the Second World War, after the defeat of the Japanese, the Vietminh leader Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed the independence of Vietnam. But the French were determined to re-establish colonial rule.
The Vietminh fought the French for eight years. They eventually won a decisive victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
The Vietnamese leaders were persuaded by their Soviet and Chinese backers to accept partition of the country pending subsequent elections. This was a serious mistake. There was no historic basis for a division of Vietnam, any more than there had been for the division of either Germany or Korea. Partition was Cold War politics.
A US-backed dictatorship was established in South Vietnam. No-one ever got to vote on this. The partition of the country between a nationalist regime in the North and a client regime in the South looked set to become permanent.
The problem for the US was the former Vietminh fighters in the South. They formed an extensive underground network able to organise resistance to landlords, tax-collectors, and police. Soon, there was a low-level guerrilla insurgency in parts of the countryside.
President Kennedy escalated the conflict by increasing US military support for the Saigon dictatorship from 400 ‘advisors’ in 1960 to 18,000 two years later. This seemed routine. US Attorney-General Robert Kennedy told a journalist at the time, ‘We have 30 Vietnams.’
But Vietnam turned out different. It escalated rapidly into full-scale war. By the end of 1965, there were 200,000 US troops on the ground, by 1968, 500,000. North Vietnam was subjected to massive aerial bombing from 1965 onwards. Cambodia was bombed from 1970 onwards.
In just six months in 1973, the Americans dropped one and a half times the bomb tonnage on Cambodia that they had dropped on Japan in the Second World War. Several hundred thousand people were killed in the aerial terror.
The Khmer Rouge – the Cambodian Communists – were stopped. But they were filled with hatred for the collaborationist regime in Phnom Penh which had permitted the bombing of its own people.
When the war ended in 1975, the rage of the peasant army was channelled by its Stalinist leaders into political genocide, de-urbanisation, and the imposition of agricultural slave-labour. Millions perished in Pol Pot’s ‘killing fields’. But the seeds of this had been sown by B-52 bombers.
By late 1967, US public opinion had begun to turn against the war. The administration of President Johnson responded by claiming it was on the brink of victory.
General Westmoreland, the US commander-in-chief in Vietnam, claimed that the Communists were ‘unable to mount a major offensive’. He continued: ‘I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing… We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.’
In the early hours of 31 January 1968, the National Liberation Front launched the Tet Offensive. Across South Vietnam, Vietcong guerrilla units, supported by North Vietnamese soldiers, mounted coordinated attacks on about 100 targets, including most provincial capitals, major US military bases, and even the heavily defended US Embassy in the centre of Saigon.
A commando group of 19 men blasted its way into the embassy compound and held the main building for several hours. US television-viewers back home were stunned by the images broadcast that night. Suddenly, when the war was supposed to be almost over, fighting had erupted in every major town and city in South Vietnam.
General Westmoreland demanded 200,000 more troops. But three weeks later, President Johnson, the pro-war incumbent, announced that he would not be seeking a second term.
The five-year-long rundown of the US military commitment to Vietnam had begun. It would culminate in the ending of the US occupation of South Vietnam (1973), the overthrow of the Saigon dictatorship (1975), and the reunification of the divided country under Communist rule (1976).
An army of peasant guerrillas had defeated US imperialism in a full-scale war.
They had not fought alone. During the struggle, the American people had become their allies. So, too, had millions of others across the globe.
In 1968, the war had come home. The heartlands of world capitalism were ablaze with revolt.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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