[Chapter Four of Karl Held & Theo Ebel, The U.S.A. – World Power Number One, Munich 1987. Copies available from firstname.lastname@example.org]
I. The Vietnam War
1. The Outcome and the Purpose of the War
The outcome of the Vietnam War is taken to be a defeat for the U. S. by people with the most diverse points of view. The anti-imperialist Left considered it — and partly still does today — to be the victory of a people over an imperialist oppressor. The Right, especially in the countries allied with the U.S., regarded it — and this is also still heard today — as a dangerous precedent for the lack of loyalty of the dominant Western power towards one of its forward outposts, and as a grave warning of how unreliable American guarantees of support really are. Liberals all over the world regard the end of the war as a just punishment for the Americans' having engaged in a "jungle war that was not to be won" — something the U.S. apparently got into without looking the thing over and considering Vietnam's "special problems" and the particular "Vietnamese mentality" that naturally goes along with them.
All these evaluations, however, "overlook" one essential peculiarity of the end of the war in Vietnam, even though they all refer to it. The U.S. armed forces were not beaten, they withdrew; military defeat was left to the South Vietnamese army, that was fighting with American weapons but fighting on its own. The Communist "victory" is therefore due entirely to the sovereign American decision to drop South Vietnam as an ally, which was not dictated by any military necessity whatsoever. A nation that calculates so freely the benefit of continuing a war, of escalating it — at any time and to any degree it chooses — and of ending it, such a nation cannot simply have failed in a case like Vietnam; even less can the adversary's "victory" really be a success. On the contrary, the whole "secret" of the end of the Vietnam War is the peculiar kind of success the U.S. achieved for itself through its military intervention.
The American arguments for finally terminating their engagement in Vietnam reveal plenty about this kind of success. Take, for example, what the Secretary of State responsible at the time had to say:
"The picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously wounding 1000 noncombatants a week while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are wholly disputed is not a pretty one." (McNamara in May of 1968, Pentagon Papers, p. 580)
Does this mean that America's Vietnam War was one big exaggeration, or even a huge mistake, as far as the size and importance of this "tiny nation" and the "issue" it was supposed to submit to were concerned? Not at all, that was only the general opinion in 1968.
Fourteen years earlier the glorious French Republic really had failed militarily, in spite of its Foreign Legion and U.S. war funds, to reintegrate Indochina into the French Empire that had been revived after a fashion. After the People's Republic in North Vietnam had been emancipated from France it was to be reunited with the southern half of the country (which was subject only temporarily to French authority) — how this was to be done had already been agreed upon: "free elections"! In 1955 the U.S. made South Vietnam a member of the family of free states and the Catholic Diem its dictator. In the Kennedy era the U.S. increasingly took charge of the guerilla war that was gradually being lost, and had the obstructive president removed in a military putsch and replaced by more perceptive generals. In 1964 President Johnson began to extend the war to North Vietnam. In every phase of American escalation of the war France had given up — a war over Indochina belonging to the Free World — Vietnam was in fact far more than a "tiny nation," due to the fact that the "issue" it was supposed to submit to against its will was very different to the one McNamara had in mind in 1968.
In their inimitable way, the Americans had formulated what it was all about in a theory. In their "domino theory," which declared the "fall" of just one Southeast Asian nation to be reason enough for the consecutive "fall" of all the others, the Americans informed the world of their international concerns and plans. These concerns were directed towards the spheres of influence of the old Western colonial empires. After World War Two there was no more question of restoring old-style colonial rule over the world for the simple reason that, for the mother countries in Europe, the end of the world war meant the end of their economic resources, as well as the loss of their unquestioned military domination in the areas of the world they had once colonized. They had themselves contributed to mobilizing the nationalism of their hinterlands against the Fascist aggressors — Japanese imperialism in the case of Southeast Asia — and even to organizing it into military power. By losing its Indochinese War, France gave practical proof of the bitter truth that it could no longer maintain its empire even with U.S. financial aid, that colonialism was thus a thing of the past. It was evidently time to reorganize capitalist world rule so as to take advantage of the existing efforts to gain national independence and incorporate them constructively into the imperialist world order.
This was especially important as the Communist "camp" had to be taken seriously in those days as an anti-imperialist power ready to support national movements revolting against colonialist domination and military repression. For this was the essence of all American worries about the world-wide aspirations to national independence and the inevitable liquidation of the old colonial empires: even though there was hardly any economic alternative to be had to friendly cooperation with the capitalist world power, each of the sovereign states obviously about to be founded did have a political option, and this option would be all the more attractive to the new sovereigns the more they owed their sovereignty to Communist military aid. It was thus the archenemy that made it necessary for the U.S. to keep an eye on the decolonization of the world and even to speed up the process at the same time — by installing cooperative sovereigns in all the areas previously subject to foreign rule. It was interested in the creation of independent nations whose independence was a bulwark, not against the world-wide interests of the U.S., but against any further expansion of World Communism, which at the time — as hardly anyone remembers — stretched pretty "monolithically" from East Germany to North Korea and had just achieved its second historical triumph after the October Revolution with the Red Army's victory in China. This was the task the Americans saw themselves faced with as the power in charge of the world market and human rights, and by propagating their "domino theory" they promised the world to master it.
It was Vietnam's bad luck historically that the U.S. considered the struggle for national emancipation going on there to be the epitome of what it was concerned about in its new role as the absolute world power after winding up World War Two. In Vietnam, the concept of restoring moderate occidental-capitalist colonial rule under the direction, and for the benefit, of the United States was proving to be thoroughly impracticable. Communist states were not just supplying arms to the country, they were actually recognized as guarantors of an agreement that made a regular legal title out of their protégé's success — a step which presupposes military success and aims at its recognition. In the world of sovereigns, success is only complete — although by no means certain — when it has a legal form to make it clear that the nations of this world are willing to accept it, to respect it, i.e. to include it in their plans. And being guarantor for another state always means claiming to be responsible for the world's destiny, which is something that really only behooves a world power.
The most important thing, however, was that these two problems were not solved when South Vietnam was set up as a sovereign state having the best possible relations with Washington (which was done in violation of the treaty; but the U.S. had not even bothered signing the Geneva Accords of 1954). Further to the North, the Korean War had done the trick by very quickly and very durably restoring the brotherly division of the country between the Soviet Union and the United States. But in Vietnam the comfortable solution was jeopardized by the increasingly successful operations of the South Vietnamese guerillas. Consequently, what the U.S. was bent on fighting out against this rebellion was nothing less than the essence of its conception for the imperialistic reorganization of world rule as colonialism was being liquidated: to establish local sovereigns whose aspirations to national independence were not directed against the U.S. but rather ensured their opposition to Washington's archenemy.
This was the objective the U.S. actually did achieve — to the point that in the end there was no more "domino" at stake in Vietnam, there was nothing left but a "tiny backward nation" and "an issue whose merits are wholly disputed." In Vietnam, the Americans beat off what they considered a crucial attack on their project of setting up an imperialism of cooperative sovereigns throughout the world, and they beat it off so successfully that, as of the late sixties, they no longer bothered to regard North Vietnam's and the Viet Cong's continuing acts of desperation as being any kind of special danger spot for their imperialism. The old colonial empires had been liquidated without the extension of the Eastern bloc becoming a critical issue anywhere else. On the contrary, through the U.S.S.R.'s attempts to become a world power capable of competing with the U.S. in the latter's fields of success, the Eastern bloc itself had broken apart at its most important link (China).
This means that the Vietnam War was in fact a "war by proxy" — but not in the sense that the U.S. was concerned with something other than Vietnam, such as a "demonstration," a warning example or some such thing. The Vietnam War really was the war in which the U.S. fought for its world power — in the form appropriate to the attack being made on its world power, and in the proper place. And the end of the war was equally appropriate: North Vietnam was definitively punished by almost total annihilation for its resistance, i.e. for having been a problem for American world power for a while; and the South Vietnamese were punished for having failed to relieve the U.S. of this problem more efficiently. They were allowed to have themselves worn down by the enemy for two years after the U.S. troop withdrawal and can now try getting along without the help the Americans had kept them alive with while destroying their country.
The outcome of the Vietnam War is thus proof, not of the failure of U. S. imperialism, but of its assertion. People (on the Right) who condemn the end of the war as being the abandonment of an ally are only voicing their wish that the enemies of the U.S. and its friends be annihilated even more thoroughly than in Vietnam; they do not like to see the Western world power calculating at all when liquidating resistance. People (criticizing in solidarity) who deplore the American war as being an unwise intervention and attribute its end to the U.S. relinquishing far too much dominion, far too late, over a region whose peculiarities it should have appreciated, are only giving voice in a know-it-all way to their fantasies of more harmonious forms of asserting capitalist world rule. Finally, people (on the Left) who announce that the U.S. miscalculated the Vietnamese people's will to resistance and ended up having to go back home without having achieved anything — exposed as a "paper tiger," as they used to say — are only showing their total lack of interest in knowing the actual calculations of a world power and the results these calculations lead to when put into practice.
An imperialist world power does not wage any war to conquer land, so that it would be terribly bothered by having to give some up. It protects its rule in the form of cooperative sovereigns — or else by making life difficult for uncooperative sovereigns, which always means making survival difficult for their subjects.
An imperialist world power does not wage a predatory war for natural resources either, intending to enrich itself in this way. It protects the world economy, which means doing all it can to prevent the national sovereignty of a country from setting unsurmountable limits on the free movement of goods and capital. For this purpose it will, if necessary, "invest" funds that will never be amortized, let alone bring a return. The idea that the U.S. fought the Vietnam War for the oil in the Indochinese continental shelf is one of those inventions anti-capitalist leftists like to use to show — even with reference to war — that a democratic state never really does anything bad for its own sake, but only under the pressure of its monopolies.
An imperialist world power is even less about to wage a war of attrition in order to employ its arms industry. This is another leftist invention, which confuses the reason for armament with its result, thereby denying the purpose of armament which is set by the state. Leftists thus excuse the democratic state for its violent practices by pointing to its alleged economic dependency, which allows them to retain their high opinion of it.
In reality, not even the military annihilation of the enemy is such an unconditional purpose in itself for an imperialist world power that the survival of a few million enemy citizens could be chalked up to it as a "paper tiger" type of weakness — this is an exquisite brand of leftist cynicism! The utmost sovereignty attained by a world power is precisely the freedom of not having to obey any military necessities even when making use of its heaviest weapons, of being able to make its decisions as it chooses — and this freedom of calculation brings about far more destruction than a fascist "fight for lebensraum," which, by the way, never managed to implement its "scorched earth" policy anywhere as perfectly as the Americans did in Vietnam!
In short, the purpose of the Vietnam War was not the fascist one of colonialistically enslaving certain regions in order to gain as much power as possible in the form of land, subjects and wealth and thereby be able to assert oneself against the rest of the world as a sovereign. The Vietnam War certainly would not have been too effective for such a purpose. The goal was instead a progressive imperialist one: the already existing world power of the United States, that had long since outgrown every fascist dream, was out to assert its claim to unlimited responsibility for world affairs against the "anti-imperialist" enemy power, the Eastern bloc, during the precarious phase when the colonial empires were being liquidated. This meant making sure the Free World did not become an "island" on the globe but the Socialist camp remained one. And this was the success the war achieved. And for this purpose it was quite obviously not too expensive: the Soviet Union, not the United States, is at the point where it can hardly afford to maintain its military power economically.
2. The Course of the War
The idea, based on fascist war objectives, that the U.S. suffered a failure in Vietnam also shows itself in accordingly critical or scornful appraisements of the way the U.S. waged its war. Rightists accused the U.S. at the time of escalating too hesitantly; it should have finished off North Vietnam right at the beginning of the guerilla war (these people are meanwhile in office). Liberals say the U.S. miscalculated the Vietnamese mentality, listened to too many narrow-minded military experts and thus actually "slid" into the war; it really should have tried Buddhist monks instead of Catholics, and powdered milk instead of napalm. The hopeful interpretation produced by anti-imperialist leftists has it that the U.S. only escalated the war to the point of bombing North Vietnam in order to cover up its own failure and delay its defeat by the people — that is, it simply kept on proving how weak it is on every level (= "paper tiger"). None of these positions has anything to do with the real strategy pursued by the U.S. in the Vietnam War.
a) In no phase of U.S. engagement in Vietnam was it a mere ruse that an independent South Vietnamese regime was to be set up, including the occasional staging of a semblance of democratic legitimacy through fake elections. On the contrary, the imperialist program of the United States was centered around establishing its rule over the world in the form of sovereign local rulers who treat the U.S. as a friend and ally with equal rights — this is what the U.S. had the South Vietnamese suffer through, down to the last detail.
In supporting the Diem government, the Americans first placed their stakes on the anticommunist elements of South Vietnamese nationalism, relying on it to succeed until it was almost too late. Even after the military putsch against Diem the U.S. by no means installed a quasi-colonial "puppet regime," but rather trusted entirely in the only reliably anticommunist force in South Vietnam: the military leaders, who were pursuing their own fascist ideal of South Vietnam as a local power. Therefore, U.S. troops were never sent in to replace the military will to self-assertion the South Vietnamese state had, but always to support it. That this was not at all a fiction is shown by the ratio of casualties in the South Vietnamese military to those in the American military. Even at its climax, U. S. engagement was calculated closely (unlike the abundant brutality of its effects); it was too little for the goal of completely subjugating South Vietnam again, but always plenty for the goal of maintaining a South Vietnamese state which aspired, of its own accord, to "purge" its national territory of its enemies. The bombing of North Vietnam would have been very different — in view of the military means the U.S. had at its disposal — if the purpose had been a final victory.
The purpose was thus not simply to annihilate the North Vietnamese state. Right up to the end, and most clearly in the final phase when the Paris peace talks were taking place at exactly the same time as the worst bombings, the purpose was to force the North Vietnamese to put up with the existence of South Vietnam at least formally and temporarily, i.e. to force the enemy to recognize the sovereignty installed by the U.S. It appears paradoxical — but is not — that the U.S. gave up its conception of supporting a local sovereign as an ally only in the final phase of the Vietnam War, which was explicitly carried out under the program heading of "Vietnamization of the war." Only at this stage did the Americans treat South Vietnamese sovereignty in practice as being merely fictitious; they acted quite cynically in accordance with the fiction, which no one seriously believed in, that the native government, with U.S. military assistance, was master of the situation. The objective of U.S. engagement had been definitively fulfilled at the end of its negotiations with North Vietnam: South Vietnam could now be written off as a "tiny backward nation."
Thus, the course of the Vietnam War makes the fascist ideal of a victorious blitzkrieg against North Vietnam look pretty ridiculous. Never before had a war been such a freely employed means of imperialist politics, all the enemy's courage of desperation, self-sacrifice and military skill notwithstanding. The very way the war dragged on, right up to the unique constellation consisting of peace negotiator Kissinger daily ordering from the Air Force the exact number of tons of bombs he considered necessary for the momentary progress of the talks — this war served as the backing for the imperialist reorganization of the world.
b) The U.S. did not limit itself to using military means to install a sovereign pro-American South Vietnam. It supported the South Vietnamese government in all areas of domestic policy in making the first and foremost democratic principle reality, that a functioning state is not complete without a functioning people.
First of all, it convinced the South Vietnamese government of the necessity of dividing its population into enemies and useful subjects — and not just one-sidedly by wiping out all suspicious elements, but also by constructively concentrating all the others under its protection, that is, putting them under military/police control. "Pacification" was the motto by which whole sections of the population were resettled in concentration camps in order to preserve their liberty. Hand in hand with its copious destruction of the people's basis of reproduction, the U.S. not only granted financial aid by generously paying the state budget; it thereby also made sure that new jobs were created in the army (even if they were not held for too long). And the way the U.S. took care of its own soldiers, opening up countless opportunities for the private initiative of black marketeers, it made an indispensable contribution to a quite novel economic achievement: a parasitic survival economy. The constructional error of this economy — the utter dependence on U.S. products — is even more painful for the South Vietnamese today than it was in those days. The deeper U.S. involvement became, the more American ethnologists and sociologists focused their imaginations on the problem so relevant to cultural policy and social reform of whether there were not more effective ways than bombing for discouraging the South Vietnamese from believing that conditions would at least not be worse under Communist rule.
Thus the course of the Vietnam War also makes every liberal look pretty ridiculous when he wonders whether South Vietnam could have been more easily won over to the Free World by more democratic reforms and less war. Right up to the daily "body count" of dead enemies, even military actions obeyed the thoroughly democratic principle of conveying to the recalcitrant people the illusion that their state power was useful (the "body count" proved, after all, that only enemies had to pay the price) as a reason for them to consent voluntarily to being ruled.
c) It is true that the Vietnam War was a military and strategic test — but not in the sense that the military power of the U.S. was put on trial, or even refuted in practice, by the conception of a "people's war." This issue was of serious concern only to the research and development departments of a few arms companies, and otherwise stimulated the tactical imagination of the officers, giving rise to such convincing ideas as that of erecting an electronic barrier between the North and the South to guarantee that every living creature crossing the border be instantly wiped out.
The decisive test, in reality, was the one the U.S. conducted with its two main enemies, North Vietnam's two guarantors, the U. S. S. R. and China. The installation of a sovereign government in South Vietnam in open violation of the Accords of 1954 was in itself already proof that a treaty concerning the sovereignty of a country is worthless if it lacks an American signature and, above all, that the Soviet Unions's daring to act as a guarantor is utterly irrelevant in the hard world of imperialist facts. On the basis of this fundamental clarification, every step the U.S. took to extend and intensify its war was a practical investigation of the question of whether, and how, the U.S.S.R. as "guarantor" and China as the self-appointed "protector" would make their promise of protection come true against the U.S. And one thing is certain: this test could not possibly have yielded better results for the U.S.
The U. S. S. R. supported North Vietnam with arms supplies which allowed for the continuation of the war, but it never ran the risk of acting as the guarantor of Vietnamese "reunification" and even attempting to prevent the continuation of the war by addressing a corresponding threat to the U.S. It did not even do so when the U.S. started systematically bombing the U.S.S.R.'s ally into oblivion. On the contrary, even before the democratic American slaughter of the Vietnamese had reached its climax, the U.S.S.R. decided to pursue a policy of détente towards its imperialist enemy, i.e. to aim at arrangements which did not restrict the world-wide rule of capitalism, but rather gave it a less threatening form and were even supposed to benefit the Communist economy a little (through Eastern bloc trade). Thus, the longer the U.S.S.R. participated in the Vietnam War, the more clearly it demonstrated exactly what the U.S. was bent on proving: that the leading power of the Eastern bloc did not aspire to obstruct American imperialism any more than the mere existence of the Eastern bloc already did, and that even this obstruction was not meant to be that absolute.
China also supported North Vietnam, but, like the U.S.S.R., it never did so in such a way as to hurt the U.S. Instead, it propagated the brutal piece of cynicism — as if it were the happiest political discovery about imperialism since Lenin — that this American warfare was nothing but the impotent cowardice of a "paper tiger." China launched a "cultural revolution" with its people, just as if the Socialist salvation of mankind (starting with Chinese mankind) depended on the maneuvers the Chinese CP dreamed up for staging all the more ideological unity between it and the people now that its real services for them had begun to fade.
It does not really matter when it was exactly that China started suspecting its North Vietnamese protégé of being an instrument of the U.S.S.R.'s anti-Chinese policy of encirclement, and conceived of continuing the Vietnam War in a further, "Chinese" phase. What is certainly true is that the American-Chinese friendship, which awakened so powerfully under President Nixon, was not due to Peking's relief that the Americans had finally stopped destroying its Socialist ally. This friendship had a lot more to do with China proving to the U.S. that anti-imperialist solidarity within the "Socialist camp" no longer even existed as a memory, having been replaced by the solidarity between world power number one and the great power China against world power number two, which each hated for opposite reasons.
The course of the Vietnam War thus sheds a highly unfavorable light on the pretended anti-imperialism of both the U.S.S.R. and China, along with their respective ideals of a people's war and international solidarity. In every phase it was the U.S. that put these ideals into practice the way it behooves an imperialist and democratic world power. International solidarity was with the South Vietnamese government, and "victory in the people's war" meant the democratically controlled annihilation of the enemy and its "paper" forces.
3. Public Opinion on the War and the Antiwar Opposition
Logically enough, the theories about the U.S. pursuing a misguided strategy in Vietnam and the final failure of its military engagement also include notions that its retreat out of Indochina was essentially due to critical (international) public opinion. It is said that the latter stabbed its own armed forces in the back and undermined the troops' morale; or, conversely, that it gave the government no choice, morally, but to give up its exaggerated goals and "fetch the boys home" or else run the risk of facing a disastrous rupture within the nation and "losing" its critical youth.
It is true that the role of public opinion in the Vietnam War is highly remarkable — but not at all as the ideology has it, that it was the reason for ending the war.
a) First of all, it must be noted that the U.S. public was basically unanimous in supporting the Vietnam War (as was the entire Free World; in West Germany criticism was forbidden by the slogan "Berlin's freedom is being defended in Vietnam!"). What is remarkable, for a start, is that the U.S. government did not, in any phase of its engagement, feel called upon to effectively suppress the criticism of the war within the American public, the liveliness of which kept pace with the military escalation. On the contrary, there was probably no other country in which people criticized the course of the war so freely and so harshly as in the U.S. itself — without obstructing the increasingly ruthless warfare in the least. The U.S. managed to wage a war which daily refuted its own ideological justification and allow itself, at the same time, a public opinion that daily pointed out just that. It remained an untroubled democracy in the midst of the "dirtiest war."
The solution to this riddle is partly that the American war opposition was never an opposition against the imperialist purpose of the whole undertaking. Those who were horrified by what the world's greatest and most solid democracy was capable of doing with unruly peoples, were at the same time unshakably convinced that this democracy could not possibly be the author of the war. They addressed their criticism to the military, who were supposed to be conducting "their" war after high-handedly freeing themselves from democratic supervision. They addressed it to the arms industry, which was supposed to be promoting the prolongation and expansion of the war to make money out of it and develop its arms technology further. And they addressed it to politicians, who were supposedly collaborating with the "military-industrial complex" due to their blind obsession with power.
All these "abuses" were invented out of an interest in denying that the imperialist democracy itself was the initiator of the events. This interest, in its idealistic form, i.e. as a protest against the deeds of a nation certain of its "responsibility" for the fate of the world, expresses the same self-righteousness of democratic consciousness that led the majority of American citizens to approve of their government's military venture. Good citizens are convinced that a democracy truly oriented towards the "basic values of the American constitution" can do no wrong, being instead called upon to impose these very "basic values" of ruling upon the entire world. Even the hippie slogan "Make love not war," which epitomized the U.S. antiwar opposition, was based on this "fundamental consensus" of American democracy in that it also took for granted that it is up to the U.S. to see to the way the world is ruled; this slogan is thus an infantile outgrowth of democratic-imperialist consciousness.
However, a democratic nation must also be able to afford such criticism of its military undertakings, no matter how affirmative this criticism may be. The reason the U.S. could — and this also determines the extent to which it could — is that the Vietnam War was never anything more than a foreign policy action for this country. The United States' existence as a nation was not at stake in any way at any time. There was therefore never even a shadow of a necessity to subordinate the nation's political and economic activities to the objective of waging a war in Vietnam. As is fitting for a war not waged to gain power but to assure it all around the world, the Vietnam War was not paid for out of the substance of American power and American wealth, but waged on the basis of a surplus in every respect. And because the U.S. was thus exercising its role as the leading world power in Vietnam, it never needed to stop exercising its sovereignty democratically at home. Not even in wartime was it necessary, in the interests of ensuring the nation its clear conscience, to bring public opinion into line by decree; on the contrary, the nation retained its clear conscience even then democratically, by acknowledging its own criticism as a department of its public opinion. And when student demonstrations went too far in disturbing public affairs, they were dissolved, with the approval of most American citizens, by efficient National Guard operations. That is the real sovereignty of a world power!
b) As we have shown, the early idealistic protest against the Vietnam War was based on anything but an awareness of what the enemy and the purpose of the war were. The later "antiwar movement," which demanded that "our boys" be fetched home and the nation end its no longer convincing "involvement" in the political jungle of Indochina, had just as little interest in really opposing the war. What idealistic democrats consider a victory of critical public opinion over militarism is in reality exactly the opposite lesson on the function of public opinion in a democracy.
This antiwar feeling, which was clearly more massive than before, used the following arguments as justification. The "containment" of Communism in Southeast Asia was no longer as urgent because the U.S.S.R. and China had stopped joining forces. Besides, why should American boys risk their lives for the freedom of a people so obviously uninterested in their own freedom? And, furthermore, it did not exactly honor a world power to be in such a clinch with a "tiny backward nation" (cf. McNamara). The arguments are all based solely on the success the U.S. had achieved by this time after the long years of war. Suddenly everyone, from the worried parents of draftees to the military themselves, knew that Vietnam was not a domino whose fall would upset the entire capitalist order of the world. The public discovered that it, and even the Senate at the time, had been deceived by the authorities on the "Tonkin Gulf incident" which Johnson had used to gain a free hand to escalate the war — as if any good citizen would ever seriously doubt that when fishermen armed with shotguns "attack" American warships, this is naturally a reason for war if the U.S. government chooses to see it that way.
There was indeed a "reversal of public opinion" on the war in the U.S., and with this "reversal" the American public proved itself to be the democratic organ for perceiving the momentary state of world affairs with respect to its own nation's imperialist interests. In the form of criticism of its rulers, the public expressed its awareness that Vietnam was really no longer anything but a relatively insignificant outpost. Questions such as "Why should we bleed for those people down there?" subscribed as stubbornly as ever both to the ideology that the U.S. was waging its war for the sake of the South Vietnamese, and to the fascist desire that "once we're at it" the whole matter should be settled by one annihilating blow. Because, and only because, public opinion was in fact right — the objective of the war had actually been reached — public opinion was also considered right by its democratic leaders when they stopped the war — five years after the public had made this discovery. First of all, there could now be no more doubt that the U.S. had succeeded and, secondly, the North Vietnamese had not only had their country properly devastated but had also been forced to admit formally that they were only continuing the war in order to reunite two wastelands and were no longer opposing the world power of the U.S. in any way.
The protest against the Vietnam War in the U.S. is thus a prime example for the significance of democratic procedures for imperialist foreign policy: it shows how a world power checks its own actions using the criterion of imperialist expediency, and also corrects them — by means of a president (Nixon) who succeeded in his electoral campaign with the most popular slogans.
4. The Consequences of the War
If any evidence is still required to show that North Vietnam was anything but the victor of this war and the U. S. was even less the loser, it can be found most unmistakably in the postwar period in each country.
a) North Vietnam, by conquering the southern half of the country, gained neither power nor wealth but instead burdened its economy, which the U.S. had already "bombed back into the Stone Age" pretty successfully, with a problem of survival that was virtually impossible to solve. The American presence in South Vietnam had been the basis of reproduction for the people there after the Americans' war had robbed them of, and destroyed, their agricultural way of life. Since their "conquest" of the South, the Vietnamese authorities have therefore had to administer both utter destitution, and a black market which keeps renewing itself on the basis of this destitution.
The reason why the North Vietnamese government was nonetheless known to be quite enthusiastic about imposing this burden on its people became amply apparent as soon as this government, after liberating South Vietnam from its military dictatorship and the U.S., set about liberating its neighbor Cambodia from its military dictatorship and Chinese sponsors. Obviously, this state has greater things in view than to give its people some peace and quiet and means of subsistence after a generation of practically uninterrupted war. A state is certainly pursuing an insane logic when it fights for control of a famine-afflicted area and, for this purpose, subjects its own country to a famine which can only be dealt with by offering every citizen who is still in possession of a little cash the alternative of departing perilously by sea in exchange for the cash. The Chinese have invented the term "hegemony" for this, because they subscribe to the same reasoning and therefore make a "blood sacrifice" by fighting against Vietnam, which they never would have considered doing for Vietnam and against the U.S. Vietnam thus has its hands full enjoying its victory and trying to assert itself as a local great power.
Vietnam's military successes made it lose all the moral credit that international public opinion had never granted it, but now nevertheless unfortunately saw the need to revoke — and not because of the famine Vietnam bestows on its people. The Western world greets the poverty and the refugees produced by Vietnam after its "liberation" — not, of course, when they take the form of masses wanting to immigrate, but rather as proof (and for the sake of this proof, a few properly screened specimens are even let in now and then). The refugees and poverty are useful for showing how inhuman Communist unfreedom is — as if the Vietnamese refugees swim out into the ocean for freedom of speech, or Vietnamese agriculture were suffering from a lack of human rights (just as the same Islamic "fanatics" who are criminal in the case of Iran happen to be heroic freedom fighters when they oppose the Afghanistan government; and Polish refugees soon surpassed the Vietnamese in Western popularity).
But the Free World is not content with such purely ideological weapons — the Vietnam War goes on. Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia was the occasion to start treating it once again as a military opponent and ally of enemy number one. This time it is being "bled white" by a permanent state of war using Pol Pot's troops, Thailand as a front state and China's competition with the U.S.S.R. And what does public opinion have to say about it? Vietnam has still not managed to build up socialism after more than a decade!
b) As for the United States, its Vietnam War brought it a few thousand cripples, whom nobody cares about, and led it to two conclusions. The first was expressed in the (cinematic) arts as a need to overcome the events of the war psychologically, and consisted in the lie that the war, when seen in the proper light, was a borderline phenomenon of human existence and, as such, was really extraordinarily interesting in the most general way, in spite of its atrocity. (Note how even Hollywood adapts to the political climate: psychodrama takes over from glorification of the Green Berets at just the right moment, and now it's back to glorification.) All the way up to "Apocalypse Now," American intellectuals showed their unlimited ability to make even the worst and most uncomplicated massacres into a source of intellectual pleasure with the help of the psychological category of "human interest." As is always the case with such feats of American culture, there was no dearth of critical voices which jabbered on about this branch of art being daring self-criticism, the American soul breaking with itself, etc. In reality, this "soul" was just demonstrating how well it had managed to remain in agreement with itself and its nation's imperialist violence throughout the entire war.
The other conclusion concerns the way the U.S. acts in foreign policy, and involves just about the opposite of what a lost war usually makes the loser think. Far from growing tired of its responsibility for the world, the U.S. elected Reagan for his lie that the seventies were a decade of American weakness, thereby demonstrating the vehemence of the claims the U.S. is now asserting on the world. The only sense in which Vietnam can be taken to be a defeat for the U.S. is the latter's resolve to conduct its international affairs absolutely unhampered: with an arms program of unprecedented proportions to "write the final chapter in the history of Communism." As of the eighties, dying for Vietnam was an honor, and the mere idea of American "war-weariness" approaches treason.