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Vietnam haunts the Pentagon

Issue No. 1695

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Vietnam haunts the Pentagon

By Alex Callinicos

TWENTY FIVE years ago the North Vietnamese army marched into Saigon, ending the Vietnam War in which nearly three million people died. But the war still isn't over for many Americans. This isn't just true of the veterans whose lives were destroyed by their experience of the war. John McCain built his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination on his reputation as a Vietnam "war hero".

Last week he was back in Vietnam saying that "the wrong guys" won the war, apparently because the Vietnamese had the temerity to shoot him down when all he was trying to do was bomb their country to bits. McCain ranted, "Truth is truth. History is history." Well, the truth is that the Vietnamese fought for their independence from 1930 to 1975 against a succession of imperial powers. They took on first the French, then the Japanese, then the French again (this time with US backing), and finally the United States itself.

Vietnam would have achieved its independence in the early 1950s had the US not intervened. President Dwight Eisenhower admitted in his memoirs that Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of the nationalist movement, would have won free elections.

Instead the Western powers, with the help of the Soviet Union and China, imposed an agreement partitioning the country. But the US-backed South Vietnamese regime was so corrupt and brutal that it provoked popular revolt. Despite the reservations of the Communist rulers of North Vietnam, the National Liberation Front-Viet Cong-launched a guerrilla war in the south. Once again Washington intervened to save its Vietnamese clients. The great liberal hero John F Kennedy first sent US ground troops to Vietnam in the early 1960s. But it was his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who, after lying to get authorisation from Congress, deployed a massive army in 1965.

The result was the worst military defeat in US history. Overwhelming superiority in air power and firepower allowed US forces to devastate Vietnam, north and south. But high-tech weaponry couldn't substitute for the southern regime's total lack of support. Washington found itself at war with an entire people. Indiscriminate attacks on civilians only helped fuel an anti-war movement of an unprecedented scale in the US itself.

The Viet Cong's Tet Offensive in early 1968 marked the turning point. Though militarily defeated, it broke the US will to fight. Morale and discipline in the US conscript army collapsed. The war drove Johnson from office. His successor Richard Nixon sought to put pressure on North Vietnam by spreading the war to neighbouring Laos and Cambodia and by launching a series of barbaric bombing campaigns. These tactics only helped to increase the size and militancy of the anti-war movement. Nixon's obsession with spying on his domestic opponents led to the Watergate scandal. In the aftermath, Congress blocked the White House from continuing to wage war in Asia.

And so the final North Vietnamese offensive in the spring of 1975 swept away the remnants of the southern puppet regime. US personnel scrambled onto the roof of the Saigon embassy to escape in helicopters. Washington had not waged the war because of Vietnam's wealth-it was one of the poorest countries in the world. Rather the US wanted to demonstrate to regimes around the world that their best bet was to ally themselves to US power.

The humiliating fall of Saigon had the opposite effect. The so called "Vietnam syndrome" developed. Fear of domestic political opposition blocked successive US administrations from intervening militarily abroad. Thus even Ronald Reagan preferred to use proxies-Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan and right wing Contras in Nicaragua-to fight his wars in the Third World.

Reagan's successor, George Bush, took advantage of the end of the Cold War to use ground troops, first in Panama and then on a much larger scale during the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. Bush boasted of having overcome the Vietnam syndrome. But in fact the US has been extraordinarily cautious in its military interventions abroad. The Pentagon devised a post-Vietnam military doctrine which says that ground troops should only be used when "overwhelming force" is available-when the US can be absolutely sure of winning without serious losses.

Washington is terrified of suffering casualties. The death of 18 US soldiers in Somalia in 1993 was regarded as a catastrophe. Bill Clinton was desperate to avoid a ground war over Kosovo last year. The spectre of Vietnam-of getting bogged down in a bloody and unpopular war-continues to haunt US policy makers. We owe a lot to the real heroes of that war-the Vietnamese people.


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Sat 6 May 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1695
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