May 10 2000

Maxximum Rock and Roll

Real Vietnam Syndrome: Mass Red-Inspired Heroism Can Defeat Worst Form of Imperialist Terror

by Rich Gibson

U.S. rulers' war of aggression in Vietnam ended 25 years ago with the biggest defeat in U.S. military history. The media are spilling a lot of ink to mark this anniversary. The bosses hope to turn a war they lost on the battlefield into a series of lessons their class can use as it prepares for future imperialist wars. The working class can also use the occasion to draw our own lessons as we gear our Party for the long struggle that will lead to communist revolution.

• Lesson 1--In class struggle, political ideas and the commitment to fight for them are more important than weaponry and technology. In the 1960s and '70s, U.S. imperialism had the most awesome military machine in the world. Vietnam was a poor agricultural country with little heavy industry. Yet, despite a death toll of nearly four million (more than ten percent of the entire Vietnamese population), Vietnamese farmers and workers, often armed with little more than rifles, bloodied and battered the cream of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The "secret" weapon: a concept known as "People's War." Vietnamese communists in both the north and south mobilized the vast majority of the population to struggle against the U.S. invaders. Mass heroism, inspired at least in part by a communist outlook, defeated the best-equipped fascist terror.

• Lesson 2--Fighting for anything short of egalitarian democracy inevitably turns the most valiant struggle into its opposite. The Vietnamese leaders fought for a blend of socialism and nationalism, not for workers' dictatorship, and unfortunately the workers and peasants followed them. Socialism preserves the wage system and, therefore, capitalist social relations. Nationalism is a deadly form of all-class unity, with bosses on top. The result, after all the blood and sacrifice, is the brutal capitalist dictatorship ruling Vietnam today, with every one of the profit system's typical horrors, including mass poverty, drug addiction and prostitution. The Vietnamese working class battled valiantly for a decent society, free of imperialist exploitation. Instead it has seen its country once again invaded, this time "peacefully," by Asian, European and U.S. corporations scrambling to squeeze maximum profit from cheap Vietnamese labor power. The result proves overwhelmingly that nothing can substitute for communist politics, leadership and social relations at every stage of a struggle.

• Lesson 3--The specter of "Vietnam Syndrome" still haunts U.S. rulers. The main internal weakness that crippled the U.S. military machine was the unwillingness of working class GIs and sailors to fight for imperialism. This "syndrome" took many forms. Tens of thousands deserted. Many others engaged in "fragging," acts of violence against their racist officers. In 1971, for example, the Americal Division reported one "fragging" incident a week. A significant number of enlisted men defected to the other side and began fighting against the U.S. Gustav Hasford's novel, "The Phantom Blooper," describes this phenomenon. As a leading military apologist for U.S. imperialism admitted in 1971: "The morale, discipline, and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are…lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States" (Col. Robert D. Heinle, Jr.; North American Newspaper Alliance; Armed Forces Journal, June 7, 1971).

But this morale problem isn't ancient history. Despite George Bush's claim that Exxon's 1991 "Desert Storm" for oil had ended the "Vietnam Syndrome," the U.S. military is far from cured. The rulers are still worried sick that they can't motivate their armed forces to make the massive sacrifices necessary for a sustained ground campaign. Most U.S. military adventures since 1991 have been conducted from the air. Last year's "humanitarian" slaughter for oil pipelines in Yugoslavia is a case in point. Clinton made clear from the outset that he wasn't about to send in ground troops. He had several reasons, among them a split within the U.S. ruling class about the importance of Caspian oil. But the main reason was the bosses' continuing fear that their Army may not fight when the going gets tough.This fear is based on reality, and that for the foreseeable future U.S. imperialism will be unable to field a politically reliable military machine. This doesn't mean that the bosses won't go to war, or even that they won't send in a large ground army to defend their Persian Gulf oil interests. However, the gap between the rulers' needs and their ability to meet them will offer our Party and the working class a tremendous strategic opportunity as conditions continue to sharpen over the coming 10-20 years.

Lesson 4--Even a small number of determined communists can provide crucial leadership in the fight against imperialist war. Radical democracy was a fledgling organization when U.S. rulers began their Vietnam escalation. Yet, despite our many weaknesses and limitations, we were able to play a key role on a number of fronts. When various liberals initially supported the war, Radical Democracy organized the first demonstration to demand the U.S. get out of Vietnam. Then, when the U.S. appeared to be losing, the liberals and fake revolutionaries began calling for a negotiated settlement and to "stop the bombing." But Radical Democracy continued to fight for U.S. imperialism to get out of Vietnam and for GI's to "turn their guns around." When ruling class-backed opportunists pushed the illusion of a "new working class" and openly expressed contempt for industrial workers, our Party fought to build a militant worker-student alliance.

When these same opportunists tried to turn racist, war-making universities into "counter-institutions," the Radical Democracy organized strikes to shut down these same universities and drew the correct political lessons about the nature of state power in capitalist society. For many reasons, we were unable to retain leadership of the mass movement that erupted against the Vietnam War, but our accomplishments at the time and the lessons we learned from them should enable us to do much better the next time around.

Lesson 5--Never take aid from the class enemy and never negotiate when you're winning. The Vietnamese leadership committed both of these crucial errors. They relied on the Soviet Union for military hardware and advice. The Soviets had long since abandoned the fight for communism to become imperialists in their own right. They viewed the Vietnamese workers' struggle as a trump in the rivalry between the U.S.S.R. and U.S.A. The Vietnamese leadership's continued reliance on Soviet "aid" made the Vietnamese anti-imperialist struggle a hostage to Soviet rulers' designs. The Soviet rulers wanted a negotiated settlement that would give them favorable terms for the redivision of world markets. And so they forced the Vietnamese leaders to the bargaining table, at the very moment when People's War was routing U.S. imperialism. This seeming paradox was the inevitable result of a bad political line. Workers today are paying the price all over the world.

But we will not have to pay it forever. The ultimate defeat of the Vietnamese people's heroic struggle and the collapse of the old international communist movement cannot obscure the titanic, inspiring achievements of both. More imperialist wars lie on the horizon. Communists today are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. We must learn from them, rebuild our forces, and do everything we can today, tomorrow and forever to wipe the profit system and its horrors from the face of the earth. Fighting to build the international Radical Democracy today is the best way to honor the millions of heroic Vietnamese workers and farmers who fought and died for aspects of this goal and whose leaders betrayed them.


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