How Vietnam defeated U.S. imperialism

Mar 8, 2015

The Vietnamese liberation struggle was rooted in the masses.

On April 30, 2015, Vietnam will celebrate the 40th anniversary of liberation and reunification after a war that itself lasted more than 30 years. In Ho Chi Minh City—formerly known as Saigon—and all over the country, mass events saluted the millions who fought and died to free their country from foreign domination.

How did the Vietnamese Revolution emerge victorious? How did the national liberation movement in a relatively small country manage to defeat not one but two of the major imperialist powers—France and the United States?

In many respects, Vietnam’s triumph stands among the most remarkable feats in human history. It required a fierce determination and willingness to sacrifice on the part of millions of people. It involved economic and military support from the Soviet Union, China and other socialist countries, as well as solidarity from a worldwide movement.

The most fundamental and irreplaceable element, though, was the existence of a highly organized revolutionary party, deeply rooted in the oppressed classes of Vietnamese society both in the north and south. That party was the Vietnam Workers Party, today known as the Communist Party of Vietnam.

The party was led by a dedicated group of revolutionaries, many of whom had organized together, fought together and been imprisoned together in the struggle against French colonialism between 1930 and 1954. The primary leader of the party from its formation in 1930 until his death in 1969 was the renowned Ho Chi Minh. Other outstanding leaders included Truong Chinh, Le Duan, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, Pham Van Dong, Nguyen Thi Binh and Le Duc Tho. The fact that the party possessed a truly collective leadership was proved by the fact that the victory over U.S. imperialism came six years after its principal leader’s death.

The Party was the central organizer of the Vietnamese struggle in every sphere of activity. It led the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in the north since the liberation of that part of the country from French domination in 1954. It also led the National Liberation Front (NLF) and its People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) in the south.

After 1954, the Workers Party became the ruling party in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, north of the 17th parallel, in what was supposed to be a temporary division of the country. In the south, the party continued to lead the revolutionary movement against the United States and its newly installed puppet regime under Ngo Dinh Diem.

U.S. leaders were certain of victory

When the U.S. escalated its role in the war in 1965, sending an invading force that would exceed half a million soldiers by 1968, the chances of a Vietnamese victory appeared remote. President Lyndon Johnson and his advisors regarded as inconceivable the notion that the U.S. military—the most powerful ever assembled—could suffer defeat at the hands of a poor country of less than 40 million people.

The Vietnamese paid an enormous price for their victory. Between 1945 and 1975, more than 7 million Vietnamese died at the hands of Japanese, French and U.S. occupiers. Of south Vietnam’s 15,000 villages, two-thirds were destroyed by U.S. military action between 1965 and 1972. In the north, all six of the industrial cities and 4,000 of 5,800 agricultural communes were badly damaged. Twenty-one million gallons of Agent Orange herbicide was sprayed on the country, mostly in the south. This destroyed vast areas and caused a huge rise in birth defects and cancers.

The fabric of southern Vietnam’s society was shredded. This was not just a byproduct of war; it was as an integral part of the U.S. strategy to destroy the revolution. Millions of Vietnamese peasant farmers were forced off their land into the cities or refugee camps. At the end of the war, there were hundreds of thousands of orphans, a million widows, more than 200,000 prostitutes and an untold number of drug addicts in the south.

Relationship of forces

At every point in the war, the revolutionary PAVN and PLAF possessed vastly inferior weaponry to that of their enemy, the U.S. military and its puppet “Army of the Republic of Vietnam” (ARVN). The liberation forces had virtually no air force or navy, and only a fraction of the artillery, armor and other heavy weaponry of the other side.

At the peak of the fighting from 1968 to 1969, the combined PAVN and PLAF force was about 600,000 troops. On the opposing side were 535,000 U.S. troops, 75,000 troops from South Korea, Australia and other countries, and 820,000 “local” ARVN forces serving the puppet government. That was a ratio of seven to three favoring the U.S. side.

In a gathering many years after the war, a U.S. officer told a north Vietnamese colonel: “Remember, you never defeated us on the battlefield,” referring to direct engagements. The Vietnamese officer paused and then replied: “That may be so. It is also irrelevant.” For the Vietnamese to have attempted to go “toe-to-toe” with the superior U.S. military technology would have been suicidal.

The victory of the revolution was the triumph of the organized political and social power of the oppressed over the superior military firepower of U.S. imperialism.

The Party’s strategy was based fundamentally on political and social factors in Vietnam, the United States and the world. A great deal of time and energy was devoted to analyzing its own forces, both strengths and weaknesses, those of its enemies and the ever-shifting relationship of forces.

Revolutionaries kept the initiative

Key to the Workers’ Party military doctrine was that its forces had to be able to choose, to the greatest extent possible, the time and place of engagement with the enemy.

Throughout the war, there was never a time when the U.S./ARVN forces were able to seize and hold the strategic initiative on the battlefield. Virtually every serious attempt to do so ended in disaster or unacceptable losses, if not total rout, for the U.S./ARVN side.

During the entire period of the U.S. war, the liberation forces were able to operate throughout the U.S.-occupied south. Their ability to do so was based on a critical political factor: the integration of the revolutionary forces with the masses of people, particularly among the peasant farmers, who comprised the vast majority of Vietnam’s population.

The NLF was rooted in the majority of the population, which provided the liberation forces with food, intelligence, protection and recruits. In many areas, the population and the NLF were one and the same.

Because of the pervasiveness of the NLF presence in the south, the Vietnamese revolutionary forces could strike almost anywhere at any time. This meant that an enormous part of the U.S. and ARVN forces, often as much as 50 percent of their troops, were continually tied down defending the huge U.S. bases and the major cities of south Vietnam. The need to continually deploy large numbers of troops in defensive positions, guarding against the ever-present danger of attack, negated a significant part of the U.S./ARVN numerical advantage.

Early on in the massive U.S. escalation of the war, Pentagon planners recognized the reality that a majority of the south Vietnamese population not only supported the NLF but in many areas was inextricably linked to it. Their answer was an extraordinarily brutal strategy designed to make life impossible in large areas of the country. The military intellectuals knew that “the people are the sea in which the guerrilla fighters swim.” Their answer was to dry up the sea and they were willing to use genocidal means—round-the-clock bombing, chemical warfare, assassination, systematic torture, burning of villages and rice fields, massacres and other forms of indiscriminate violence. The aim was to forcibly relocate as much as one-third of south Vietnam’s population in order to deprive the liberation movement of its mass base.

The U.S. war in Vietnam went through several major phases. Each new phase was, in effect, a response to the failure of the previous phase to crush the revolution.

U.S. props up unpopular regime

By the time of the French defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States was paying for 80 percent of France’s military costs in Indochina. The war ended with the signing of the Geneva Accords the same year. Vietnam was “temporarily” divided between northern and southern zones at the 17th parallel. A nationwide election was to be held and the country reunited by the end of 1956.

The Eisenhower administration never had the slightest thought of allowing that process to be completed for one simple reason that Eisenhower himself pointed out in his memoirs: He could find no observer who did not believe that Ho Chi Minh would win 80 percent of the vote in a democratic election.

Instead, the United States installed a new regime, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem was a former collaborator with the French colonizers who had lived for several years in the United States. Washington began pouring ever-greater resources into sustaining the “Republic of Vietnam” and building its new army.

The “Republic” was an artificial country in every respect. Throughout its relatively short 21 years of existence, it was completely dependent on U.S. economic and military aid. It never had anything approaching a sustainable economy. As the war progressed, it continued to deteriorate from its already extremely weak beginnings. In its final years it was importing 55 times as much as it was exporting.

The Diem regime stayed in power for nine years thanks only to massive U.S. military support and a police state apparatus managed by the president’s brother. In 1960, the National Liberation Front was formed and, by 1963, it controlled most of the south. On Nov. 1, 1963, the Diems were executed in a military coup. The Kennedy administration gave the green light for the execution due to the Diems’ failure to stem the revolutionary tide. Washington hoped a new government could succeed where the Diems had failed. None could. Three weeks later, Kennedy himself was assassinated.

Even while running as the “peace candidate” in the 1964 election, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, was qualitatively escalating the U.S. role. By then only a massive U.S. intervention could prevent the collapse of the “Republic” and the victory of the NLF.

U.S. military buildup

In February 1965, three weeks after his inauguration as president, Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive bombing campaign against the north Vietnamese, which lasted more than three years.

By the end of 1965, there were 184,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, an increase of 150,000 in just one year.

In the winter of 1965 to 1966, the U.S. and ARVN forces, employing massive air, sea and land power, launched the first of three annual dry season offensives.

The 1966-67 offensive, Operation Cedar Falls, was twice as big. Neither campaign managed to win any significant new territory from the NLF, despite inflicting heavy civilian and military casualties. As soon as U.S forces withdrew from any area, it would typically fall back under the control of the NLF.

Contrary to the predictions of all the Washington leaders, the war showed no signs of coming to a quick and victorious conclusion. By the end of 1966, there were 385,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam.

Unable to defeat the liberation armed forces, the focus of General William Westmoreland and other U.S. commanders was increasingly on driving the rural population out of its villages and into either “strategic hamlets”—in reality concentration camps—or the urban areas.

The methods used to evict the peasant farmers in areas seen as sympathetic to the NLF amounted to nothing less than mass terror against the population. “Insecure” villages, those in which there was any sign of resistance, were commonly burned during notorious “search and destroy” missions. “Evasion” by civilians—for example, running out of the rice fields when a fleet of helicopter gunships appeared overhead—was grounds for being mowed down by machine-gun fire. All suspected NLF sympathizers were subjected to torture, usually followed by execution. Rice and others crops were burned with napalm. Water buffalo and other farm animals were slaughtered. Agent  range, containing the deadly mutagen and carcinogen dioxin, was sprayed on millions of acres of agricultural land and jungle.

The urbanization of south Vietnam was carried out by military means and for military purposes. The city population grew from 15 percent of the total population in the south in the early 1960s to 40 percent in 1968 and 65 percent in 1974. But it was not, as in many developing countries, the prospect of jobs that brought people to Saigon, Danang and other cities of south Vietnam. Once they arrived, there were no jobs in the artificial economy, except those dehumanizing jobs related to serving the U.S. occupation forces.

Other elements of the U.S. strategy included the relentless bombing of the north and the infamous CIA-organized Phoenix program. The bombings caused immense damage to the recently established socialist economy, and killed as many as two million people in the course of the war. The Phoenix program assassinated more than 40,000 south Vietnamese. It was especially aimed at the Party cadre, as well as anyone suspected of being an NLF sympathizer.

As the U.S. commanders launched their 1968 offensive, U.S. troop strength had risen to 485,000. Despite growing losses on the battlefield and the rise of an anti-war movement that recorded its first massive U.S. demonstrations in 1967, Johnson, his generals and advisors were proclaiming that their “war of attrition” was depriving the liberation forces of their mass base and bringing the U.S. forces closer to victory.

At a Saigon press briefing, General Bruce Palmer stated: “The war—the military war—in Vietnam is nearly won. The Viet Cong (NLF) has been defeated from Danang all the way down in the populated areas. He can’t get food and he can’t recruit.”

The Tet Offensive

Then came Jan. 31, 1968—the Tet Offensive. Tet, the Lunar New Year holiday, was greeted by a coordinated revolutionary offensive that struck simultaneously at more than 100 cities and towns, including 41 out of 50 of the largest cities and province capitals. The fortress-like U.S. embassy came under heavy attack, only narrowly escaping being overrun. Battles raged inside Saigon for more than three weeks. The ancient capital city of Hue was taken by the NLF. It took a month of the wholesale destruction of the city by bombing and artillery to force the liberation forces out.

The Tet Offensive was a stunning show of power, coordination and will. The fact that such a far-ranging and multi-faceted assault caught the occupation army completely by surprise only added to its devastating impact.

The leaders of the liberation forces hoped that a general uprising would complement the liberation force’s general offensive. But while civilians did rise up in many areas, the conditions for a generalized upheaval were not ripe. In the fighting that followed the initial offensive, the liberation armed forces and civilian cadres took heavy losses, which required time for them to recover.

While the Tet Offensive did not end the war, it was beyond a doubt the decisive turning point. Two months to the day after the offensive was launched, Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election to the presidency, and that there would be a halt to the bombing of north Vietnam to allow the beginning of negotiations. By early 1969, Johnson’s successor, Nixon, would begin drawing down the number of U.S. troops.

The Tet Offensive made clear that the U.S. forces could not win the war. That reality had a profound impact on the U.S. military, which was already experiencing internal breakdown and rebellion. “If it is impossible to win,” more and more drafted soldiers would ask themselves, “Why should we keep on fighting, killing and dying?”

The tenacity of the liberation fighters, and the obvious support they had from so much of the population, caused growing numbers of troops to ask the most dangerous of all questions for any military command: “Am I fighting for a just cause? Or am I fighting on the wrong side?” Those sentiments and questions coalesced into a massive movement of opposition inside the army and among Vietnam veterans that undermined the U.S. military’s capacity in Vietnam and elsewhere.

The offensive also fueled the anti-war movement. The questioning of the war reached an unprecedented level inside the United States. The movement against the Vietnam War had held the first truly massive protests the previous year. The demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic convention and the vicious response from the Chicago police showed the world that there was wide resistance to the imperialist war in Vietnam, just as there was wide support for the growing Civil Rights and national liberation movements in the United States.

On April 4, 1968, just four days after Johnson’s retirement announcement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s murder touched off rebellions in the African American communities of more than 100 U.S. cities.

It took nearly five more years after the Tet Offensive to end the direct U.S. role in the war, and seven years to liberate the entire country. The road was far from an easy one for the revolutionary forces.

In certain ways, the phase of the war from 1969 to 1972 was the most difficult for the Vietnamese revolutionaries. Having already fought for a quarter-century, some of the revolutionary forces were exhausted. That the Vietnamese Workers Party and the fighters in the armed movements were able to overcome very serious obstacles—domestic and international—to emerge triumphant, was further testimony to their politics, organization and determination.