The Wars on Vietnam
A Better Recollection than the Pentagon’s and the Liberals
published in Counterpunch, May 12, 2015
by Rich Gibson
Following the victory of the Vietnamese people over the U.S. empire and its allies on April 29/30, 1975, elites in the U.S. those who operate within the armed weapon and executive committee of the ruling class that is government, moved quickly to (1) recapture the economy, wrecked by years of warfare; (2) exercise authority over the schools, often up in flames of fire and critique; (3) dominate the military, riddled with desertions, refusals, and shot-up, fragged, officers; (4) retake the culture–to eradicate the Vietnam Syndrome, the memory of the loss as well as the why, who, when, where, and what of the war: especially the Why? The “How’s” are gone too.
In the past month, the Pentagon, PBS, and the for-profit press took a three pronged approach to the Vietnam Wars: (1) praise the returned troops and promote the notion of a home-country stab in the back, (2) highlight the evacuees and the US heroes of the April ‘75 evacuations, and (3) focus on the post-war babylift and the Vietnamese babies now grown up.
In my searches, the journalists’ “W’s” are missing or frothed over. More on that later. Let’s turn to the high-water mark of liberal critique.
Tom Hayden, in his, “The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Protests,” (Counterpunch, May 3, 2015) does a fine job recreating many of the details of the wars on Vietnam–from the point of view of a liberal Democrat who spent years in the California legislature and who must have grown rich as well from his marriage to Jane Fonda, once anti-war prima donna, later Ted Turner’s wife and religious-“feminist” later still.
Hayden’s standpoint does not serve his broader analysis well. Perhaps that explains why the words “capitalism,” and “imperialism,” never appear in his piece. Nor does Marx, so powerfully influential to the Vietnamese movement as well as the world’s anti-war movements.
Class and empire’s wars define our times, as they did then.
Vietnam was an imperialist war. Rubber, tin, rice, were all key to any empire’s designs (rubber, like oil, moves the military), while the other indicators of imperialist action (regional control, markets, cheap labor) easily come into view if we walk back the cat from Vietnam’s current state as a low-wage center.
Capitalism, early on the birthplace of what we know as racism today, created the conditions that Hayden rightly notes. It was, indeed, a working class war with troops of color on the US side using racist terms, “Gook, Slope, Dink, etc.” to describe, dehumanize and murder, Vietnamese.
As Nick Turse recently titled his book, the US side was taught to “kill anything that moves.” Frequently, they did, as the 1971Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s Winter Soldier investigation in Detroit graphically demonstrated. Much of this is nicely covered in David Zieger’s film, “Sir, No Sir!,” less than an hour long–perfect for classroom use.
Hayden’s suggestion, to kick a dead horse one more time, that Robert Kennedy might have ended the war is preposterous, but it is a nice set up for the next card likely to fall–vote your way out of capital and empire, a certain failure as a tactic and strategy.
As David MaCaray noted in Counterpunch in 2011, Kennedy was a “shrieking anti-communist,” who originated the plot to kill Fidel Castro.
Kennedy, once Joe McCarthy’s pal, aide, and appointee, repeatedly saying he was “fond” of Tail-gunner Joe, was no dove, but an opportunist off-set to Eugene McCarthy’s somewhat more honest, if bumbling, campaign in 1968. Hayden’s “What if...?” is hollow.
The Vietnam war was no mistake, not the result of bad political decisions alone, but the logical and necessary working out of the ongoing policies of the American empire.
Like any watershed piece of history, it lay the ground for our current conditions.
Brown and Root Construction, profiteering from connections to Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, and all that followed, became Haliburton: home to the war criminal Dick Cheney, still drawing down billions–untold as it’s secret–in Iraq, Afghanistan and black sites world-wide. .
Vietnam’s geological location was important then–and now. The region near the South China Sea could easily become the flashpoint for much broader wars.
As Chalmers Johnson wrote in 1962, well before Vietnam entered most American’s minds, what appeared to be a communist, or at least socialist, movement was “Peasant Nationalism.”
As the Vietnam war wound down, Donald Rumsfield argued for an end to the draft, creating today’s reality of a “professional” military, economically drafted but self-defining as volunteering, patriotic, dedicated to the unit, and un-cracked after 14 years of wars lost to guerrillas who belong in the seventh century. The military today is almost completely separated from civilian life: about 1.2% actually serve–a praetorian guard.
The third goal, recapturing the military is so far achieved. The military sucks up more than one-half of the economy, dominates colleges and universities, yet few notice—perhaps because war means work.
The first goal, revitalizing and economy that was nearly demolished by 1975 was won, in a perverse sense, by a full scale government/capitalist attack on the working class.
That began with Nixon’s declaration that the 1970 postal strike was an illegal, “criminal,” act, although a wildcat led by many Vietnam veterans continued in several cities.
The 1970 United Auto Workers strike against General Motors was a sham, as William Serrin described in “The Company and the Union.” Serrin went further: “The Inside Story of the Civilized Relationship that has transformed a natural antagonism into a socially destructive partnership and the GM strike of 1970, the most expensive work stoppage in US history."
At the end of the book, Serrin quotes a UAW member, sold out by the labor tops: "The union and the company, they're more or less business partners."
The unity of labor bosses, top government leaders, and corporate heads was finalized long before this strike, indeed, early in the formative days of the American Federation of Labor, but it grew more and more apparent in an era when every labor head backed the racist, anti-working class, war in Vietnam: Labor Imperialism–the bribe Lenin warned about 100 years ago in “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, a payoff to the “home country” to back the empire. It’s a move that backfired for exploited workers in the rank and file over time, but few noticed.
In 1972, Richard Nixon’s puppeteer, Henry Kissinger, cut a deal with Mao and China, not only counteracting Chinese support for the Vietnamese, but upending plenty of American Maoists who, in 1969, witnessed the destruction of the largest and most radical student movement in U.S. history, weeks before the biggest outpouring of student activism ever: 1970's mass demonstrations against the bombings of Cambodia and Laos; the murders at Kent State and Jackson state.
By 1969, Tom Hayden had no influence on SDS whatsoever, the organization abandoned his liberalism and turned to a variety of forms of Marxism.
SDS was wrecked by the rich, red-diaper Weathermen, once terrorists who sought to replace a mass class conscious movement with bombs, now repeating their effort as grant-sucking professors.
The 1969 SDS split meeting, which I attended, was riven with idiot chants of “Mao, Mao, Mao Tse Tung!,” shall we say, contradicted by “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!” a nearly unfathomable mess.
The Weathermen, according to one of the few living honest people among them, Mark Rudd, destroyed the SDS mailing list.
The student movement never really revived.
In 1975, Americans learned about COINTELPRO, thanks to the heroic break-in at an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, an operation kept secret until 2014, and described in the book, “The Burglary,” by Betty Medsger. The COINTELPRO revelations, a broad and systematic spy-agency scheme to attack, disrupt, and assassinate when necessary, radical groups led most of us to grasp the extent of NSA spying long before Edward Snowden stole the next batch of Family Jewels and turned them loose.
As war’s end, American schools often were hot-beds of critique and action as students, who learned from the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement too, that what they thought and did mattered.
In the early 1980's came, “Nation at Risk,” and unvarnished plan projecting years of effort to regain control of the not-so-public but fully-segregated-by-class-and-race school system by regulating curricula, promoting high stakes exams, and in the future, linking that to merit pay.
Taylorism had existed in schools since the advent of textbooks, and most teachers were always missionaries for capital and empire, but this was a more regulated, national effort.
“Nation at Risk” was followed by the Bush II era No Child Left Behind Act which extended a militaristic component, and then thrown into hyper-speed by the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top,” which drives home merit pay, the next step the abolition of tenure, and drives home the militaristic aims, turning most schools into what a top General demanded in WWI, “human munition factories,” and illusion mills where children are sorted by fake science, along the predictable lines of parental income—always promoting obedience to the nation, loyalty (the ethics of slaves), while tamping down expectations for a better future.
Most school workers, who are not professionals as they so often dream, refuse to recognize that the education agenda is a war agenda: class and empire’s wars.
The largest school-based union, the National Education Association, repeatedly votes in convention assembled to “Not Discuss,” the wars as the body may find it unsettling.
And the struggle for rule in the economy?
That was settled by Ronald Reagan’s 1980 destruction of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Union who, having helped elected him, foolishly struck, believing a union composed of lots of Vietnam vets, like VP Dennis Riordan, would garner a lot of sympathy. Reagan declared the strike illegal, scabs replaced them (the word “Scab” is out of US lexicon), they never got their jobs back, and the AFL-CIO let them swing in the wind. Solidarity Forever had long ago become every person for him or herself.
From another angle, while finance capital dominated industrial capital since the early 1900's, the relentless needs of imperialism and the falling rate of industrial profits underpinned a massive move to de-industrialize the US, auto for example moving first to Mexico, then to China, and now to Vietnam.
The industrial working class evaporated, bit by bit, then a torrent. Surely, they exist, but they have been minimized.
The epitome of the rule of capital came in the Fall of 2008, what John Bellamy Foster’s book calls, “The Great Financial Crisis.”
The upshot: over a weekend the biggest banker in the western world gathered to face a complete collapse of the world’s economies, the likelihood of riots, bank rushes, even revolutions as capitalism in decay became capitalism in ruins.
They quickly did what no free-marketeer would ever do. They demanded government intervention.
They got it. Inside their executive committee (and remember, armed weapon) industrialists and financiers fought it out.
Big Fish ate Little Fish. So long Bear Stearns. Lehman is lunch.
Jamie Dimon demonstrated his patriotism when a begging treasury secretary, Hank Paulson arrived asking for J.P. Morgan help. Dimon replied, “Hank, I would do anything for the United States, but not at the expense of J.P Morgan.”
Finance capital won to the tune of $12.9 Trillion from the surely-no-longer free market treasury.
Industrial capital, like auto, picked up hundreds of billions and officially became the small fries.
But, industrialists did make gains. The Obama administration demanded that the United Auto Workers union make another concession: New hires would make half what senior workers would make and the union would not strike for five years.
The UAW bosses agreed, again, to exchange labor peace for dues income, the last definition of “collective bargaining,” while their own pensions remain solid.
In sum, on the economy, elites gathered together, struggled with one another within the confines of the all-on-all war that is capitalism, which runs them--not vice versa--and they then turned on the poor and working people, cut off their legs, got them to spit on the gains their grandparents won in bloody struggle, while the labor leadership collaborated.
To Chalmers Johnson, in his “Nemesis Trilogy,” which predicts the end of the US empire through over-reach and economic collapse, fascism came to the US before 2008.
To me, it was finalized with the bailouts; the imperfect but real unity of labor bosses, government, and the corporate world to preserve nationalism and empire. That move cannot be reversed, while wars could be ended.
Add it up:
- parliamentary institutions debased and made nearly meaningless by the direct rule of the rich who tyrannize the economy and wars.
- Racism built into every aspect of daily life from school segregation to geographical segregation to cruel immigration policies and police violence.
- Incessant calls for the unity of all classes in the “national interest, within a nation whose own government is at war with most of the citizens and the world as well.
- The Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act nullify whatever the Bill of Rights represented.
- The President’s private army (armies), the CIA, conducting war at his whim, killing Americans without trial or warrant.
- Massive constant surveillance: Snowden.
- One dangled spectacle after the next: Bruce Jenner to a boxing match to the Princess’ baby.
- More and more reliance on violence and threats of violence: Ferguson, Michael Brown, Baltimore, etc.
- The unity of corporations, government and labor bosses, “in the national interest,” as witnessed with the bailouts but also with the union leaders support for the wars and their physical presence on CIA front groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, The Meany Center, Education International, and many others.
- Celebrations of misogyny: the Porn industry.
- A culture of mysticism, religion, the ideology of death, trapping US presidents who cannot say, “People make gods, gods do not make people,” as part of a grand strategy to counter religious fanatics. Add, according to Gallup, 42 percent of Americans are creationists.
- Farcical billion dollar elections corrupt whatever hints of democracy may have existed.
- Dynastic tyranny, the bane of the American Revolution: Bush III vs Hillary.
Fascism, in brief, emerges in the US, and the world, as a rising and popular movement. The victory of the Vietnamese was one of several turning points.
The eradication of the Vietnam Syndrome began right after the end of the wars, first with stab-in-the back lies about the anti-war movement abusing returned vets. Jesse Lembcke hit back with his book, “The Spitting Image,” showing that the main lie, girls spit on them, was groundless.
The next step was Ronald Reagan’s double edged stroke to both wipe out the memory of the death of nearly 300 marines in Lebanon and, simultaneously, destroy a “Communist threat,” the tiny island of Grenada with a population about the same size as Kalamazoo.
A massive force invaded Grenada in October, 1983–bungled a bit, yet won! Medals all around.
A victory for US troops!
On to Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Iraq, IS, and the world!
Then, the Vietnam Wars were eradicated from the US history curriculum. In 25 years of teaching college at all levels, from grad students to freshman, as an emeritus professor and community college adjunct, I have had less than two dozen students arrive with sophisticated knowledge about Vietnam. Granted, the processes of history itself are now erased too, but the Vietnam war is a gaping hole.
The failures of socialism, little more than capitalism with a benevolent party at the top, restored gross inequalities in various ways in the aftermath of revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, and Vietnam. This, then, led to a considerable degree to today’s IS, AQ and the other religious often-educated savages who rejected distorted forms of Marxism, on the one hand, and Western imperialism on the other.
Seventh century Sharia law will not prevail in societies which can escape neither class war nor empire, but they have already done terrible damage.
In what is not popularly called the “Homeland,” de-industrialization–that is–imperialism–coupled with financilization--created a consumerist society: the root of two-thirds of the US economy.
I assert this has a psychological impact.
The methods of industrial work, as nearly anyone who worked in a factory, like Fords, knows, creates a sense of solidarity. Everyone recognizes that it takes everyone else to create a product, and one-for-all unity to gain control of the processes of making that product, and the gains that are made from its sale.
A consumerist society pits all vs all: “I wish to sell as dear as possible while you wish to purchase as cheap as can be.”
That, I believe, explains in some part why it is there has been so little reasoned resistance in the US since Vietnam.
Inequality, a prime concern of elites, has not created a large, unified, sustained social movement.
Inequality, which had grown since the Vietnam war, boomed from 2000-2013, but especially so after the financial collapse of 2008. It’s so bad, the French worry about it for us.
An authoritative recent report says: "From 2009 to 2012, average real income per family grew modestly by 6.0% (Table 1). Most of the gains happened in the last year when average
incomes grew by 4.6% from 2011 to 2012. However, the gains were very uneven. Top 1% incomes grew by 31.4% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 0.4% from 2009 to 2012. Hence, the top 1% captured 95% of the income gains in the first three years of the recovery. From 2009 to 2010, top 1% grew fast and then stagnated from 2010 to 2011. Bottom 99% stagnated both from 2009 to 2010 and from 2010 to 2011. In 2012, top 1% incomes increased sharply by 19.6% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 1.0%. In sum, top 1% incomes are close to full recovery while bottom 99% incomes have hardly started to recover.
The Pentagon/PBS take on the anniversary of the war was an extension of the efforts to erase the Vietnam Syndrome.
The Rory Kennedy PBS “Last Days in Vietnam,” film focused on “heroic” low level US officers and spies who sought to get Vietnamese out of the country as the Vietnamese forces approached. Those heroes worked for the empire, killing two to three million Vietnamese in their dishonorable wars.
Let us concentrate on the South Vietnamese helicopter pilots who risked their own lives and their families’ flying to US ships on the sea, tossing all overboard and waiting for rescue. For years, they willingly took orders, surcease, and privilege from men like General Ky, a US puppet and Hitler admirer.
Kennedy’s centerpiece “Baby-lift” was problematic as it’s likely nothing harmful would have come to those babies–and the baby-lift killed at least 150 of them when the first flight out crashed.
Last, to the US veterans: Who abused them? Like before, the Veterans’ Administration was the prime abuser. Vets were denied benefits, medical care, and worst of all, coverage for Agent Orange poisoning until it was far too late for many of them.
What defeats men with guns? Ideas!
Those of us who taught, agitated, organized, and fought against the unjust wars on Vietnam saw things change–those of us lived, largely undamaged. The civil rights movement overcame the most obvious forms of political discrimination. Economic and social discrimination remained powerful.
As Tom Hayden rightly details, without the civil rights movements, its practical, moral, and intellectual contributions, the antiwar movement would have been without a compass–hence the lessons that can be learned from those who are most oppressed, who may have the best understanding of things.
The war ended because of:
- The Vietnamese who fought for decades, making enormous sacrifices.
- The GI’s who returned, knowing they had been sent to be cannon fodder, children of the poor ordered, drafted, to fight other children of the poor, on behalf of the rich in their homelands.
- The students who over time learned what imperialism and capitalism are, and who they are in its midst–and importantly, what to do.
- The workers who over time learned what “working class war,” meant, a war at home, and who struck against the war.
- The movements led by people of color, Chicanos, Latinos, Black people, who saw they were hit, as usual, first and worst, and often resisted first and hardest.
- The women’s movement which revealed the problems of male supremacy inside the resistance movements.
- Marxists, from anarchists to all kinds of communists, who taught others exactly what imperialism is, why the war was not a mistake but a logical working out of US foreign policy, and the it was/is the system, capital, itself which must be unmasked, attacked, and transcended.
We witnessed quantity (leaflet after leaflet, teach-in after teach-in, small meetings and mass meetings, march after march, one bigger than the last) turn into quality—a huge change of mind, a massive anti-war movement.
We saw what appeared to be become what it really was: the vast, technologically mighty, nationalist, American empire was defeated by ideas, weapons, and courageous commitment.
We took responsibility for our own education, recognizing that the public education system was designed to serve capital and its empire. Our study groups were typically much better than the vast majority of university or k12 classrooms in part because we knew that our ideas set up our actions: both mattered.
We made serious mistakes. Too many of us failed to keep the close personal ties, built across race, sex, and class lines, that could sustain a movement beyond the end of the war. Too many of us got scared off when we saw others attacked, or for that matter, ourselves beaten. And far too many of us simply got bought by the empire’s bribe, settled into comfortable jobs and lost track of what we once were.
Our mistakes negated a good deal of what we had done and, thus: a world offering youth perpetual war, bad jobs, no jobs, and escalating racism. But that world is met by the potential, again, of a mass, class conscious, integrated activist movement that grasps what capital, the corporate (fascist) state, and empire means, and how direct action in solidarity with workers, students, educators, and troops can win.
Perhaps our worst mistake was to fail to recognize the central roles of capitalism and imperialism as the US empire organized its own decay following the defeat in Vietnam: in consumerism, spectacles, new masks for intensified racism, the rebirth of support for militarism in schools and in the armies, the divide and rule tactical attacks on differing parts of the working class, and the restructuring of sexism in newer, even more exploitative forms.
Nothing in our social context happens outside the bounds of capitalism and imperialism. But many of us sought to make our peace–by not noticing or even attacking those who pointed the finger.
Again, the core issue of our time is the reality of the promise of perpetual war and booming color-coded inequality met by the potential of a mass, activist, integrated class conscious movement. In the absence of that; barbarism. If you seek a barbarized region, look around you–wherever you may be.
Rich Gibson is emeritus professor, San Diego State University. He is a co-founder of the Rouge Forum, an organization of students, professors, teachers, and community people that recognizes social class and imperialism are important. He was repeatedly jailed for refusing the draft during the Vietnam wars. RG@Richgibson.com