Remember, the storm is a good opportunity for the pine and the cypress to show their strength and their stability. --Ho Chi Minh
On April 30th, Vietnam commemorated the anniversary of the victory of the war against the United States.
That day in 1975, combined troops of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF), or Viet Cong, entered Saigon, the capital of the South Vietnamese state, and put an end to the pro-US regime and the war. Shortly before, the last US soldiers and embassy officials had fled from the city aboard helicopters which took off from the roof of the American embassy.
The Geneva Accords, signed in 1954 after the French defeat in Dien Bien Phu, led to a “temporary division” of Vietnam between northern and southern parts at the 17th parallel. A nationwide election and the reunification of the country were planned for the end of 1956. However, Washington opposed this process because it believed that the revolutionaries, led by Ho Chi Minh, would win a democratic poll.
Instead, the US set up a corrupt and dictatorial puppet regime in the South, which was an artificial country in every field. Throughout its two decades of existence, it became totally dependent on American economic and military assistance. When the US withdrew its troops in 1973, the regime, led by General Nguyen van Thieu, collapsed after two years almost without a fight.
Washington started its full-scale war in Vietnam after fabricating the so-called “Tonkin Gulf incident”, just as the invasion of Iraq was similarly launched using the pretext of (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction. At the time, US media reported the incident uncritically by repeating the official version of events. This also happened later in the case of Iraq.
The war escalated in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson ordered to increase the number of US troops, which would exceed 500,000 soldiers by 1968. At the time, the chances of a US defeat appeared very remote. President Lyndon Johnson and his generals regarded as inconceivable the idea that the American Army could be defeated at the hands of a Third World country of 40 million people.
However, some top US officials warned early on that the war could not be won. On September 12, 1967, CIA Director Richard Helms sent President Johnson a thirty-three-page report entitled “Implications of an Unfavorable Outcome in Vietnam”. The document claimed that a US failure in Vietnam “would not open the way to a devastating chain of communist takeovers”, dismissing the main argument that the US Administration was using to justify the war.
The document warned, however, that such a failure would amount to “a rather dramatic demonstration that there are certain limits on US power, a discovery that would be unexpected for many, disconcerting for some, and encouraging to others.” Above all, the Vietnamese victory would make strikingly clear that the US, “cannot crush a revolutionary movement which is sufficiently large, dedicated, competent, and well-supported.”
Despite all the warnings, the US Administration had reasons to be optimistic about the result of the war. At the height of the war in the years 1968 and 1969, there were 600,000 PAVN and NLF troops fighting against 530,000 US troops and 800,000 soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) serving the South Vietnamese regime. Moreover, the US had complete control of the sea and the air and a wide technological advantage.
However, NLF guerrillas managed to adapt themselves to the American strategy. They avoided fighting large-scale battles, in which superior US firepower would become a decisive factor. Instead NLF forces conducted hit-and-run operations against American troops at the time and the place they chose to do so. This led a huge part of the US and ARVN forces to become tied down defending the American bases and the cities of South Vietnam, which annulled a significant part of the US numerical advantage.
The NLF was supported by the majority of the South population, which provided the guerrillas with food, intelligence and recruits. In many places, both of them were one and the same. The US answer was to use genocidal methods such as extensive bombing, selective assassinations, torture, destruction of villages and rice plantations, massacres and other forms of indiscriminate punishment. As much as a third of the South Vietnamese population was forcibly reallocated in order to deprive the NLF of support.
The CIA launched Operation Phoenix aimed at the killing of village leaders and suspected NLF followers. It cost the lives of 20,000 people. It also included massacres such as My Lai, in which US troops murdered more than 500 men, women and children.
During the war, the US widely used toxic chemicals, which destroyed a third of the country’s woodlands. Even today, many children are born with awful birth defects and illnesses because their parents or grandparents became exposed to those substances.
More than three million Vietnamese were killed in the war. Millions more were wounded and maimed. As a result of the wholesale carpet bombing of the country, the US military dropped 15 million more tons of bombs on the nation, more than the total of bombs used by all sides during the Second World War.
On the opposite side, more than 60,000 US soldiers were killed and many more returned to the United States psychologically devastated by the war. American troops understood that they were an occupation force and the NLF forces enjoyed strong support from the majority of the population. Those sentiments led to a massive movement of opposition amongst the soldiers and the veterans that undermined the US military capacity. The effect on the US army itself was huge, as the American officers saw their army disintegrated and demoralized. The Defense Department recorded more than 500,000 of “incidents of desertion” during the war.
The war also produced a powerful anti-war movement in the United States. The rejection to the war reached an unprecedented level inside the country. According to the polls, in 1971, more than 71% of Americans claimed that the Vietnam war was a “mistake” and 58% considered it as “immoral.” The movement organized the first truly massive anti-war protests in the country. The protests outside the Democratic convention in 1968 and the violent crackdown by the police showed the world that there was widespread opposition to the war in the US too.
Despite all the war crimes and suffering, no US president, members of their administrations or top officials of the Pentagon have ever been called to account. However, the defeat in Vietnam delivered a shock to the US ruling elite from which it has yet to recover. The American political class and all of its institutions became widely discredited, which also happened during the Iraq war. Both conflicts also proved to be economically ruinous for the United States.
The defeat of the US army in Vietnam represented a victory of the oppressed against the deadliest war machine in the world and the culmination of a 30-year struggle for the people of Vietnam. It showed for the first time the limits and constraints of the United States and inspired other countries to fight to achieve their freedom.