How the Vietnam War extended freedom in the West

What we owe to General Giap

by Gwydion M. Williams

Defeat in Vietnam was an immense humiliation for the USA.  Britain was not involved, because Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had the sense to keep us out.  But since then, the British elite has got into the habit of joining every damn-fool war the USA wishes to wage.  Defining itself as Number Two in the world-dominating Anglosphere, rather than accepting a lesser role as just another large European nation.  Our political elite and most of the media have become mentally dependent on the USA.

In this spirit, both the BBC and The Guardian obituaries for General Giap (who died on 4 October 4th 2013, aged 102) were decidedly mean-spirited.  The BBC quotes General Westmorland speaking of his disregard for human life”[i] and the Guardian highlights similar remarks, “any American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap would have been sacked overnight.’[ii]

Other obituaries also quote Westmoreland’s rather lame excuse for losing the war.  The most fair-minded version I’ve found says:

“But his critics and his nemesis, the late US General William C Westmoreland, said he was effective partly because he was willing to sustain huge losses in pursuit of victory.

“‘Any American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap would have been sacked overnight,’ General Westmoreland was quoted as saying in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stanley Karnow’s 1983 book Vietnam. A History.”

“Karnow wrote that General Westmoreland seemed to misunderstand how determined the communists under Ho Chi Minh and his general really were.” [iii]

This is a shade muddled.  Giap was Westmorland’s nemesis.  I’ve not read Giap’s own writings, but I assume that he viewed Westmorland as a bungler who had no idea how to make intelligent use of the USA’s gigantic war machine.

The more important point is that most Vietnamese saw it as a war for national independence, first against the French and then the USA.  The difference between the populations of North Vietnam and South Vietnam were small, defined first by whether the Chinese or British took the surrender of Japanese troops, with a dividing line at the 16th parallel.[iv]  The Kuomintang were mostly interested in looting and gave the Communist-dominated Viet Minh a free hand.  In the South, the French restored colonial control, with British help.

The only Western news-source I’ve seen that recognised this is The Economist.  Despite its belief in unrestrained market forces, it is written for business people and needs a sense of realism.  So it says:

“The French might be professionals straight out of Saint-Cyr, but they did not know what they were fighting for. The Americans who came in later—when Vietnam had been divided and an anti-communist regime had been set up in the South—might bomb his forces from B-52s and poison them with defoliants, but the GIs did not want to be there. His men, by contrast, were fighting to free their own land. From the start, in 1944, he had drilled his tiny musket-and-flintlock resistance army in the ideology of the struggle, setting up propaganda units to indoctrinate peasants in their villages. The result was a guerrilla force that could live off the land, could disappear into it (as along the labyrinthine Ho Chi Minh trail that supplied, through jungle paths and tunnels, communist fighters in the South from the North) and was prepared, with infinite patience, to distract and harry the enemy until he gave in. This was fighting à la vietnamienne. It took the general 30 years, from Vietnam’s declaration of independence from France in 1945 to the fall of Saigon, the southern capital, in 1975, to make his vision reality.

“He was proud, hot-tempered, blustered into a number of unnecessary pitched battles—but won his two wars, just the same, demonstrating irresistibly to the rest of the colonised world that a backward peasant country could defeat a great colonial power.”[v]

Unlike Westmorland, The Economist recognises that the Vietnamese communists were much more strongly motivated.  Westmorland failed to see this, assuming that a foreign country would readily accept the US definition of things.  He was fairly typical of US citizens in this, and it seems that the BBC and The Guardian have swallowed this viewpoint wholesale.  Westmorland gets singled out because he was unlucky enough to be the general whose main role in history was to decisively lose the Vietnam War, as Commander of US forces in Vietnam in 1964-68 and Chief of Staff of the United States Army from 1968 to 1972.

“He was called a war criminal, was burned in effigy on campuses, and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called Westmoreland possibly ‘our most disastrous general since Custer’…

“Westmoreland’s military strategy was to conduct a war of attrition, trying to kill enemy forces faster than they could be replaced. American soldiers, in units no smaller than 750 men, were sent on “search and destroy” missions to inflict the heaviest possible losses on the biggest units of North Vietnamese troops. Because there were no front lines, Westmoreland and his officers measured success by counting the number of enemy troops killed. But the Army’s ‘body count’ reports became widely disbelieved.

“Worse, his optimistic assessments of how the war was going ran up against increasing numbers of American dead.

“He later said he was prevented from waging a full-out war by rear-echelon second-guessers and by war protesters on campuses who took to the streets. President Lyndon B. Johnson, worried that the Chinese would join the fray and turn the conflict into a full-scale world war, refused Westmoreland’s appeals to enlarge the battlefield.”[vi]

Westmorland also encouraged the massive use of Agent Orange, a defoliant that was also hugely damaging to humans, causing horrendous long-term damage:

“The most commonly used, and most effective, mixture of herbicides used was Agent Orange, named for the orange stripe painted on the 55-gallon drums in which the mixture was stored. It was one of several ‘Rainbow Herbicides’ used, along with Agents White, Purple, Pink, Green and Blue. U.S. planes sprayed some 11 million to 13 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam between January 1965 and April 1970. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Agent Orange contained ‘minute traces’ of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), more commonly known as dioxin. Through studies done on laboratory animals, dioxin has been shown to be highly toxic even in minute doses; human exposure to the chemical could be associated with serious health issues such as muscular dysfunction, inflammation, birth defects, nervous system disorders and even the development of various cancers.

“Questions regarding Agent Orange arose in the United States after an increasing number of returning Vietnam veterans and their families began to report a range of afflictions, including rashes and other skin irritations, miscarriages, psychological symptoms, Type-2 diabetes, birth defects in children and cancers such as Hodgkin’s disease, prostate cancer and leukemia.

“In 1979, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 2.4 million veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during their service in Vietnam. Five years later, in an out-of-court-settlement, seven large chemical companies that manufactured the herbicide agreed to pay $180 million in compensation…

“In addition to the massive environmental impact of the U.S. defoliation program in Vietnam, that nation has reported that some 400,000 people were killed or maimed as a result of exposure to herbicides like Agent Orange. In addition, Vietnam claims half a million children have been born with serious birth defects, while as many 2 million people are suffering from cancer or other illness caused by Agent Orange.”[vii]

Westmorland decided to make the a “war of attrition”, a deliberate bloodbath fought in the hope that the other side would be the first to run out of blood or willpower.  ‘Agent Orange’ was one of many dubious strategies used to minimise US casualties, with minimal concern about what it did to the Vietnamese.  But in the end this failed: since Vietnam was marginal to US interests, he could not afford to lose many US lives.  As it happened, 58,000 deaths was considered too much for a war that showed no signs of being won. Vietnam lost maybe two million, but it was a matter of asserting Vietnam’s status as an independent nation.

The Saigon government was called “nationalist” by the West, but was never much more than a front for US domination.  President Ngo Dinh Diem was quasi-independent during his time in office (1955-63).  But his power rested on Vietnam’s Roman Catholic minority and he increasingly alienated Buddhists in the anti-Communist forces.  And the USA had no trouble getting rid of him when they saw this as suiting their interests.  Which was probably a blunder, because none of his successors had much credibility as national leaders.

In the end, it was the Communists who had the best claim to be Vietnamese nationalists.  A similar situation had existed in China, where Chiang Kaishek had wanted to be another Ataturk, but lacked the guts to directly confront Imperialism and risk the consequences as Ataturk had.  When Chiang Kaishek arrived at Shanghai, he had the option to declare the International Settlements abolished and fight a war as a proper Chinese nationalist.  Instead he chose to massacre the Communists – not then serious rivals – and to present himself as a more useful servant of Imperialism than the old-style warlords.  He also repeatedly failed to confront the Japanese, when a clear willingness to fight an unlimited war might have caused a change in policy in Japan before right-wing and military elements had achieved a clear dominance.

Giap and other Vietnamese communists in confronting the USA functioned as normal nationalists fighting for the future of their nation.  Willingness to lose lives in such circumstances is quite normal, and very much applied to the USA’s own Civil War.

Vietnam at the time of the US occupation had a population of about 31 million, with both sides having fighters from both North and South.  The USA also had a population of about 31 million at the time of its 1860s Civil War.  Total casualties were estimated at 618,000, though a recent estimate would raise that to three quarters of a million.[viii]  And the proportion of deaths to men of military age was obviously much higher for the White Confederate population

The white population of the Confederacy was 5.5 million.[ix]  The Wiki shows total casualties of more than a quarter of a million (260,000).  4.7% of the total population, obviously a much higher proportion of men of military age.  For Vietnam, the Wiki suggests 400,000 to 1.1 million military casualties, 3.5%.

General Robert E. Lee lost proportionately more men for his cause than Giap did, and also lost the war.

Total Vietnamese casualties were higher than 1.1 million, of course.  This was because the USA had a policy of systematically attacking the non-military population in almost all of its wars, through bombing and through blockades designed to produce starvation.  It was a follow-on from what had been done in their wars against Native Americans, with repeated massacres of women and children.  And it was also in line with what the British Empire did in its final few decades, inventing the Concentration Camp in the Boer War and causing enormous death and suffering by stopping food supplies getting to German during the Great War.  (A policy that was continued after the Armistice to force Germany to accept humiliation with the Peace of Versailles in 1919.)

So what were the consequences of the Vietnam war?  Some, including General Westmorland, now claim that they stopped a global communist advance.  This seems very unlikely.  When the USA decided not to let South Vietnam collapse in the early 1960s, there was nowhere else where communism and nationalism were substantially fused and also had their own armed forces.  Communism in Malaya was substantially the creed of the Chinese minority.  In Indonesia it had wide and growing popular support, but the USA had subverted the Indonesian army, which massacred the largely unarmed Communists in 1965.

Any time between 1965 and the collapse of 1975, the USA could have made some sort of compromise peace.  Their main “achievement” was to organising a coup against the neutralist Prince Sianouk in Cambodia.  Deposing Sianouk was done without a referendum, contrary to what has happened elsewhere, as in the case of Italy after World War Two and Greece after the fall of the Colonel’s Junta.  It was done that way because there was no serious doubt that the mass of Cambodians would have supported Sianouk and voted out the parliamentary majority which had deposed them, given the opportunity to chose.  This breach of the rules of Representative Democracy helped turn the Khmer Rouge from marginal movement that was mostly in exile into a successful mass guerrilla force against the USA and Vietnamese.  And then an incompetent government, but the USA did everything it could to make life hard for the Pol Pot government, ignoring the fate of those Cambodians who had trusted them.  Allied forces who ceased to be useful to US power have almost always been callously dumped.

Looking at wider consequences, the Third World was able to establish its freedom because the USA was scared of losing the Cold War.  Defeat in Vietnam fed into the general feeling that the sovereignty of these new states must be respected.  The end of the Cold War saw a renewal on a global scale of the US habit of trying to knock over foreign governments that displeased them.  This time round, it has mostly been Islamists rather than Communists who have frustrated them, which is why I’m quite definite that the Islamists are the lesser of two evils.

Just as important is what happened in the West during and after the Vietnam War.  During the Cold War, the ‘hippy’ element in the USA and Western Europe was tolerated because it was seen as less dangerous than the Hard Left.  Defeat in Vietnam could be seen as a vindication of this Alternative Politics, which helped define the new norms that we now live by.  Including the emergence of the New Right, with many individuals making a smooth transition from Hippy to Yuppie.  And with most of the individuals who created Microsoft, Apple etc. being strongly influenced by hippy values.  Not, indeed, that this was the only way it could have worked out.  But the Hard Left in Western Europe scored a massive own-goal in the 1970s, believing that there would be a left-wing revolution if it could sabotage moderate left-wing reforms like Incomes Policy and Industrial Democracy.

The left in Britain has suffered from a refusal to recognise Corporatism as a step towards socialism.  Marxism has become a defence against unwelcome facts, and increasingly less useful as vast numbers of ideas of broadly Marxist origin have become incorporated into mainstream thinking.

What happened in the 1980s was that the New Right managed to privatise very large areas of the highly successful Corporatist system that had been created in the 1940s and 1950s.  Despite the rhetoric, there was no real end to tax-and-spend: the big difference was an insistence that tax money was handed over to gigantic profit-making corporations to provide public services.  Meantime there was a collapse of traditional “respectable” or bourgeois values, a great increase in personal liberty.  It was largely done in the selfish hippy spirit of “wonderful me” and “complete freedom for me”, with much too little concern for vulnerable people who got hurt in the process.  Still, it was done.  Mainstream politics belatedly met demands for sexual and social equality which the Hard Left had insisted that only they could provide.

The behaviour of the USA and Western Europe after the Soviet collapse of 1989-91 gives a taste of what might have happened if the USA had won in Vietnam.  Nixon managed to persuade white racists in the US South to switch from Democrat to Republican, while avoiding the taint of being overtly racist.  A really nasty populism was in the process of being put together, helped by a lot of Black Activists rejecting the successful strategy of Martin Luther King and playing around with half-arsed violence and impractical notions of revolution.  But being kicked out of Vietnam was blamed on Nixon, and when the Watergate Scandal emerged as a convenient pretext, he fell in disgrace.  When similar forces emerged again under Ronald Reagan, it was much more of a sham conservatism, the lifetime-best performance of a Hollywood actor.  The Reagan administration sounded as if it were going to restore 1950s values but actually doing nothing much about it.

Meantime the entire Leninist block under Moscow’s leadership made a series of blunders.  Failed to realise that it was necessary to compromise with local nationalism, and also failed to recognise the widespread desire for more personal autonomy once basic material needs were met.  The decisive error had been made in 1968, when Brezhnev crushed a reform movement in Czechoslovakia that had every prospect of regenerating the system on a broadly socialist basis.  (And which might have saved Czechoslovakia as a political entity, since the leading elements were Slovak and the two highly similar nationalities were in harmony at the time.)  It seems also – though there is no hard data and difference sources disagree on the details – that Giap was edged out of decision-making and was against Vietnam’s disastrous decision to invade Cambodia.  But the bottom line is, he won his war and changed the world for the better by humiliating the USA.

The USA lost more than 58,000 in the Vietnam War, more than 36,000 in the Korean War, more than 405,000 in World War Two.[x]  But they won World War Two, so World War Two was “the good war”.  They could claim a limited victory in Korea, which was not so good but tolerable, even though they suffered a limited but definite defeat in the portion of the war they fought against People’s China.

(The Korean war could be viewed as three “rounds”.  Round One was North Korea inflicting a massive defeat on South Korea and the US forces stationed there, very nearly driving them out of their last foothold.  Round Two was the USA and its allies sending in much larger forces and driving the North Koreans to close to the border with China.  Round Three was China stepping in and forcing battle-hardened US and British units to retreat hundreds of miles, something that has seldom happened and did not happen in Vietnam.  The battle-lines eventually stabilised close to the original dividing line.)

Korea could be viewed as a limited success for the USA, in as much as they saved their dependency of South Korea, which has since become an independent-minded and successful nation-state.  The Vietnam War was unacceptable because it was a clear defeat.  And part of the proves that has spread selfish individualism within US culture: a process that makes the much smaller US casualties in Iraq and Kuwait unacceptable.  The USA is increasingly unable to enforce its wishes and its global hegemony looks doomed.

That’s what we owe to General Giap.


[i] []

[ii] []

[iii] []

[iv] []

[v] [] – article available to non-subscribers.

[vi] []

[vii] []

[viii] []

[ix] []

[x] [] – official figures from the Congressional Research Service

This article first appeared in 2013 in issue 14 of the magazine Problems.

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