All Honor To General Giap and the Vietnamese Victory Against Imperialism
Workers Vanguard No. 1035
29 November 2013
Friday, December 13, 2013
General Giap and the Vietnamese Victory Against Imperialism
On October 12-13, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese gathered all over the country to pay their respects to General Vo Nguyen Giap in two days of national mourning. Giap, who died on October 4 at the age of 102, was the chief architect of the defeat in Vietnam of two world powers: first France, which had colonized Vietnam in the mid 19th century, and then the U.S. The wars in Vietnam, which lasted 30 years (1946-75) and cost some three million lives, were part of the imperialist crusade to “roll back Communism,” aimed at restoring capitalist rule in the Soviet Union and drowning in blood struggles for national liberation and social revolution by workers and peasants elsewhere.
A former history teacher and journalist, Giap was the top military commander of the Vietnamese army that decisively defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The victory of the Vietminh (Vietnam Independence League, a bloc led by Ho Chi Minh’s Communists that included some bourgeois nationalists) resulted in the division of the country between a bureaucratically deformed workers state in the North and a capitalist regime in the South under U.S. imperialist domination. Dien Bien Phu gave tremendous encouragement to independence struggles in France’s remaining colonies, in particular helping spark Algeria’s national liberation struggle, which broke out later that year.
The U.S. would go to meet a stunning defeat at the hands of the North Vietnamese Army and the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF, or Viet Cong). The brutal, seemingly endless war would produce an explosive situation in the U.S., the heartland of world imperialism, and radicalize a whole generation of youth throughout the world. The spectacle of the massive American military machine losing to the workers and peasants of a poor Third World country inspired other oppressed peoples to fight for their own liberation. However, numerous attempts to replicate the peasant-based Chinese, Vietnamese and Cuban guerrilla movements failed, at the cost of the lives of many would-be revolutionaries.
The overthrow of capitalist rule in Vietnam was a historic victory for the international working class, whose duty is to defend such conquests tooth and nail against imperialism and domestic counterrevolution. This is despite the rule of a Stalinist regime that from the beginning has politically suppressed the working class and opposed the fight for workers revolution elsewhere. In contrast, the proletarian October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, established the rule of workers and peasants councils (soviets), and two years later the Communist (Third) International was launched in Moscow to promote the fight for world socialist revolution.
Giap was North Vietnam’s defense minister in 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army and NLF, leading to the reunification of North and South Vietnam. For years, U.S. imperialism’s defeat in Vietnam constrained the American rulers in pursuing their bloody designs around the world. For his outstanding role in the liberation of Vietnam, we Trotskyists honor Vo Nguyen Giap, whose military genius and dedication will be remembered in history.
Stalinism and the Fight Against Imperialism
Vo Nguyen Giap joined Ho Chi Minh’s Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) in the early 1930s. Building the Vietminh’s military forces from scratch and later leading North Vietnam’s conventional armed forces, he was praised as an outstanding military strategist, even by many of his enemies. Most famous for Dien Bien Phu, Giap was involved in many other key battles and was credited with creating the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” the crucial supply line for the NLF fighters in the South. He also organized the 1979 invasion of Cambodia, which toppled the demented Pol Pot regime. While details about Giap’s early life are sketchy, it is clear that he paid a devastating personal price for his leadership of anti-imperialist struggle, with close relatives, including his wife, killed at the hands of the French.
Even while noting that Giap is often classed among the great military leaders of the 20th century, the New York Times (4 October) obituary harped on his supposed “profligate disregard for the lives of his soldiers,” quoting war criminal General William C. Westmoreland’s statement that “any American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap would not have lasted three weeks.” This is the sneering of the losers in Vietnam, the same imperialists who were willing to inflict any amount of death, destruction and suffering on those fighting for national and social liberation. General Giap waged revolutionary warfare: the workers and peasants who fought under his command were prepared for sacrifice to free themselves from the colonial yoke and the local landlords, oppressors and exploiters. “In the final analysis, victory in any war is determined by the willingness of the masses to shed blood on the battlefield,” Giap once wrote.
In the starkest contrast, the heavily working-class American conscript troops were fighting a war on behalf of their own exploiters and oppressors. Especially as it became clear that the U.S. was losing, they increasingly opposed their own officers and government. When Muhammad Ali made his famous declaration, “No Vietcong ever called me n----r,” he expressed the sentiments of growing numbers of soldiers, particularly black GIs who were aware that the “freedom” they were supposed to be fighting for in Vietnam was denied them at home.
But Giap’s role was contradictory. The program of the ICP and its successors reflected the perversion of Marxism by the Stalinist bureaucratic caste that politically dominated the Soviet workers state beginning in 1923-24. In the vain hope of softening the imperialists’ class hatred of the USSR, the bureaucratic regime abandoned the Bolshevik program of world revolution and adopted the dogma of “socialism in one country.” The Communist International was increasingly transformed into an instrument of the bureaucracy’s search for “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism.
In 1935, the popular front—the codification of the Stalinist policy of seeking alliances with “progressive” bourgeois forces—became the systematic practice of the Third International, leading to the betrayal of revolutionary opportunities throughout the world. As World War II loomed and the USSR faced the deadly menace of Nazi Germany, this policy meant selling the “democratic” credentials of one set of capitalist exploiters and imperialist oppressors (except for the brief period of what is known as the Stalin-Hitler pact). In the name of anti-fascism, Communist parties in countries militarily allied with the USSR became loyal supporters of the capitalist governments, backing their war aims against rival imperialists, opposing strikes and other struggles at home and opposing independence for their “own” colonies. In Vietnam at the time, this meant that the Communist Party did not challenge France’s colonial stranglehold.
In WWII, Trotskyists called for working-class opposition to all the imperialist combatants, continuing to pursue the class struggle at home while fighting for unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union. In several colonial and semicolonial countries where the Communist parties repudiated the fight for national liberation, Trotskyists as a result gained significant influence in the proletariat. One such country was Vietnam, and this would put the Trotskyists in the crosshairs of not only the imperialists but the Stalinists as well.
Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Accords
Toward the end of WWII, the Kremlin bureaucracy made a series of agreements with its U.S., British and other wartime imperialist allies, including over control of their colonies and semicolonies. Vietnam, which had been under Japanese occupation, was divided between North and South at the 16th parallel, the North awarded to Chiang Kai-shek’s China and the South to Britain (and subsequently France). However, the Vietminh took over the North when Japan withdrew, and Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). He then accepted the reintroduction of French troops in the North in the framework of limited independence within the “French Union.” But once the French army came back in force, it turned on Ho Chi Minh’s government. In November 1946, the French shelled Haiphong harbor, killing at least 6,000 Vietnamese.
The attack at Haiphong was met with a broad counteroffensive by the Vietminh, touching off a protracted war of liberation. At the end of 1953, the French military command decided to fortify Dien Bien Phu, a small village near the border with Laos. The intent was to create a secure base from which to harry Giap’s Vietminh in the northwest mountains. The French built a formidable entrenched camp and brought in 16,000 troops, among them the Foreign Legion, its elite expeditionary corps. The surrounding forests and mountains were assumed to be impassable for the enemy’s heavy artillery, which would in any case be vulnerable to air attack.
The Vietminh could access Dien Bien Phu only through a narrow, steep 55-mile-long mule path interrupted by scores of mountain streams. In a few months, they built dozens of bridges despite constant attack by French artillery as well as heavy rain and flooding. Thousands of sampans and countless convoys of mules and bicycles using rivers, streams, roads and trails moved 4.5 million tons of materiel. Artillery was moved up the steep path in sections, then reassembled.
By January 1954, 55,000 Vietminh troops were positioned in the hills overlooking the garrison, and on March 13 General Giap launched the attack with a massive artillery barrage. “We were all surprised…how the Viets have been able to find so many guns capable of producing an artillery assault of such power,” wrote one of the survivors. What was intended as a display of colonial might turned into a bloody trap for the French. Wading in the mud and muck, hammered relentlessly by artillery, they lost 4,000 men by some estimates. After 55 days of fighting, crushed and humiliated, the French surrendered to the Vietnamese, ending nearly a century of France’s domination of Indochina.
With the Western imperialists seeking a compromise, a conference took place in Geneva that year attended by the Soviet Union, the U.S., France, Britain and China, where capitalist rule had been smashed in 1949. Going into the conference, Communists controlled most of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. But when they left the conference, which redivided Vietnam at the 17th parallel, they controlled only North Vietnam. A U.S. official wrote: “Ironically the agreement written at Geneva benefited all parties except the winners…. Ho Chi Minh somehow was persuaded—apparently by a joint Sino-Soviet effort—to settle for half the country on the grounds that the other half would be his as soon as elections were held.” Since 80 percent of the population in South Vietnam was thought to be in favor of independence, the imperialists saw to it that those elections never took place. But in the North, the capitalists were expropriated and a collectivized economy was introduced, although the working class was denied political power.
The Geneva conference was one of several times that the Vietminh, and later the DRV/NLF, gave away imminent victory at the bargaining table at the behest of Stalin and his successors as well as Mao Zedong’s Chinese Stalinists. But while the North Vietnamese settled for “socialism” in half a country, the relentless persecution of their comrades in the South did not stop, particularly under the Ngo Dinh Diem regime. In 1956, the Stalinists began giving real support to the resistance struggle in South Vietnam.
While it was pretty easy for the Moscow and Beijing bureaucrats to sell out someone else’s revolution, for the Hanoi Stalinists total sellout would have meant cutting their own throats. The Stalinists’ political perspective was an alliance with the native capitalists, but this class was too weak to present a real possibility for power-sharing. Under attack by imperialism and with their own bourgeoisie rebuffing all offers of a coalition, they were forced to rely on the workers and peasants, sometimes acquiescing to revolutionary measures. Thus, the Vietnamese war posed a social revolution from the beginning, with the workers and peasants on one side and the domestic bourgeoisie and the imperialists on the other.
U.S. Sent Packing
After the French departure, the U.S. took over the campaign to crush the Vietnamese Revolution. When the resistance struggle by the NLF picked up once again, President John F. Kennedy turned to covert operations, sending special ops forces (50,000 “advisers”) to South Vietnam. The CIA initiated the Phoenix program of infiltration, torture and assassination.
In February 1965, hoping to force North Vietnam to restrain the NLF, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration launched a full-scale war. Washington unleashed a massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam that lasted three years while massively increasing the number of U.S. troops in the South. At the height of the war, the U.S. had half a million combat troops in Vietnam and another 300,000 in the surrounding region. Over the war’s course, the U.S. dropped more bomb tonnage than the combined total of all combatants in World War II. All told, the U.S. killed at least two million Vietnamese, maiming and wounding millions more and devastating most of the countryside.
To break the will of the American government to continue fighting, on 31 January 1968 the North Vietnamese and the NLF launched the Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of fierce attacks by some 80,000 men and women on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam. Though U.S. and South Vietnamese puppet forces managed to hold off the attacks, Tet demonstrated the determination of the DRV/NLF fighters and further sapped the morale of their foes.
As it sank in that Vietnam had become a losing war, the U.S. sought negotiations. Peace accords were signed in 1973 in Paris, ending direct U.S. involvement in the war but keeping South Vietnam under imperialist bondage. The formal program of the Stalinists continued to be for a Southern coalition government with bourgeois forces. But unlike the situation resulting from the 1954 sellout, large numbers of DRV/NLF troops remained in the South, and the civil war went on for two more years. Finally, in early 1975 the government of North Vietnam carried out the “Great Spring Offensive” to liberate the South. Giap oversaw the final push on Saigon, and on April 30 DRV and NLF tanks rolled triumphantly into the South Vietnamese capital. Leaders of the defeated puppet regime and the South Vietnamese bourgeoisie fled by every available means; helicopters airlifted the last Americans out of the country.
Stalinism and Trotskyism in Vietnam
As noted above, agreements between the Allied imperialists and the Kremlin bureaucracy at the end of WWII dictated that South Vietnam would be returned to the French. But reimposition of Western colonial rule was resisted by the Trotskyists, who had acquired a mass working-class base, as well as by various nationalists. When the British and the French reoccupied Saigon in September 1945, an insurrection broke out. As people’s committees sprang up, particularly around Saigon, the peasants in the countryside rose up, burning the villas of large landowners. The Trotskyists called for the people’s committees to take power, for arming the people and for nationalization of industry under workers’ control. (For more, see the 1976 Spartacist pamphlet Stalinism and Trotskyism in Vietnam.)
This program was a threat to the Stalinists’ aim of accommodation with the bourgeoisie. As Nguyen Van Tao, the Vietminh’s interior minister for the South at the time, declared: “Whoever encourages the peasants to take over the landed properties will be severely and pitilessly punished.... We have not yet carried out a communist revolution, which would bring a solution to the agrarian problem. This government is only a democratic government, and therefore it cannot undertake this task.”
The best-known Trotskyist leader, Ta Thu Thau, was arrested on the orders of the Vietminh. Tried three times by people’s committees, he was acquitted each time. Finally, he was shot on the orders of southern Stalinist leader Tran Van Giau. As the French reinvaded the South in October 1945, the Stalinists stood by, concentrating their fire on the Trotskyists, whose leaders were all killed. Shortly thereafter, the Vietminh were forced out of Saigon by the Allies. Once Ho Chi Minh had physically liquidated the Trotskyist leadership with the aid of Giap, then the North’s interior minister, he capitulated to the Allies in the North.
In this conflict the French Communist Party, which had several ministerial posts in the capitalist government in Paris, illustrated the lengths to which the Stalinists would go in attempting to ingratiate themselves with the bourgeoisie. While Ho Chi Minh was dissolving the Indochinese Communist Party and agreeing to permit French troops into the North, his French comrades were busy explaining why the right of national self-determination did not apply to Vietnam and voting war credits to finance the French expeditionary force! On 20 December 1946, a month after the French bombed Haiphong, Communist deputies in the French Assembly voted to send congratulations to the Expeditionary Corps and its lead executioner, General Leclerc.
The Vietnamese Communists were caught between their program of seeking to share power with the bourgeoisie—in accordance with the Stalinist schema of “two-stage revolution”—and the needs of their own survival, which ultimately meant a struggle to the end against the imperialists and the national bourgeoisie. As Leon Trotsky explained in developing the theory of permanent revolution, in the imperialist epoch the weak bourgeoisies of economically backward countries, closely intertwined with imperialism and mortally afraid of the worker and peasant masses, are incapable of carrying out the democratic tasks of national liberation and agrarian revolution. Those tasks can be achieved only through smashing bourgeois rule and establishing a proletarian dictatorship supported by the poor peasantry.
Despite their official program, the Vietnamese Stalinists, like Mao’s forces in China, were compelled to take power in their own name and, either immediately or in the short term, break rotted-out bourgeois rule. The fact that those petty-bourgeois guerrilla movements could carry out social revolutions was conditioned by highly exceptional historic circumstances, including the extreme weakness of the domestic bourgeoisie, the absence of the working class as a contender for power and the counterweight to imperialism provided by the Soviet Union. Against ostensible Trotskyists and other leftists who saw these guerrilla movements as a substitute for mobilizing the proletariat in revolutionary struggle, the Spartacist League has always insisted that the most that these forces could achieve, under extraordinarily favorable conditions, was the creation of deformed workers states.
As we wrote in hailing U.S. imperialism’s defeat in Indochina (“Capitalist Class Rule Smashed in Vietnam, Cambodia!” WV No. 68, 9 May 1975): “Because their rule is based on the political expropriation of the working class, these petty-bourgeois bureaucratic castes are incapable of mobilizing the proletarian masses for an international revolutionary assault on the bastions of world capitalism, since it would simultaneously mean their own demise.” The nationalist Stalinist regimes from Havana to Hanoi and Beijing must be overthrown by workers political revolutions led by Trotskyist parties in order to open the road to socialist development.
America: The War Comes Home
Throughout the U.S. war in Vietnam and the mass antiwar protests, the Spartacist League called for unconditional defense of North Vietnam and for military victory to the NLF in the South while giving no political support to the Stalinist leadership. Our slogan “Victory to the Vietnamese Revolution!” expressed our understanding of the class nature of the war. While our slogans were attractive to many young people in this period of leftward motion, we had to swim against the stream, combating the false ideologies popular among the more radical activists, particularly Maoism and the adulation of Ho Chi Minh. We opposed antiwar rallies being made into platforms for bourgeois politicians, stressing that imperialist war is inherent in the capitalist system and can be fought effectively only on the basis of a revolutionary socialist program.
In early propaganda, we criticized the bureaucratic regimes in the USSR and China for their inadequate military aid to the Vietnamese and demanded: “Soviet nuclear shield must cover China, North Vietnam!” We denounced the Sino-Soviet split—a falling-out driven by the competing national interests of the two regimes—and called for Communist unity against imperialism. In response to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the SL raised the call, “All Indochina Must Go Communist!”
The U.S. Army was seething with discontent, while those back home were becoming increasingly alienated from the war, its Cold War rationale and economic costs, as well as from the lying government. Although the AFL-CIO labor bureaucracy headed by George Meany remained a bastion of support for the government until the end, the war was mostly unpopular among workers, and all the more so as it became widely perceived as an endless quagmire. Students were becoming radicalized as the Democratic Johnson administration escalated the military engagement. Many activists were breaking away from the official antiwar leadership of liberal pacifists and such reformist leftists as the Communist Party (CP) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who did donkey work for Democratic Party “doves” preaching about the need for negotiations and saving America’s image.
The Vietnam antiwar movement arose on the heels of the mass, plebeian civil rights struggles that had punctured the smug political climate of 1950s anti-Communism. By the late 1960s, the antiwar protests coincided with an upturn in strikes as well as explosions of anger in the urban ghettos over police brutality, segregation and poverty. Despite the students’ petty-bourgeois elitism and the best efforts of the racist AFL-CIO Cold Warriors, soldiers and young workers were open to radical arguments.
A Spartacist leaflet widely distributed at one of the massive marches on Washington (“From Protest to Power,” 21 October 1967) noted that “the anti-war movement can force Johnson to withdraw U.S. troops only if he is more afraid of it than of the victory of the Vietnamese Revolution. No demonstration, however effective and militant, can do this. Only a movement capable of taking state power can. The anti-war movement has no future except as a force for building a party of revolutionary change.” The leaflet called on militants to break out of the student milieu and orient to the proletariat. This would mean ceasing to build support for strikebreaking “antiwar” capitalist politicians and sellout black leaders like Martin Luther King, who backed the suppression of ghetto upheavals.
The Spartacist League opposed draft resistance and college student deferments, an example of class privilege that also had the effect of keeping antiwar students from impacting the views of working-class draftees. We called for mobilizing a one-day general strike against the war and for a labor party built through linking discontent over the war to the rising labor militancy and the explosiveness of the ghettos, charting a course for fighting against the entire capitalist system. The SL gained a hearing for these views and recruited substantially from the antiwar movement and New Left. But the official, pro-Democratic Party leaders (with the assistance of the CP and SWP) kept most of those who hated the war within the framework of social-patriotic, pro-imperialist politics.
A more far-sighted wing of the establishment was becoming defeatist from their own class standpoint: they had ceased to believe the U.S. could win in Vietnam and were increasingly alarmed at the war’s social consequences. They especially feared that the Army was being destroyed as an effective fighting force, rife with drug addiction and with rank-and-file soldiers often more hostile to their officers than to the “enemy.” Opening the road to bourgeois defeatism over Vietnam were the events in Indonesia in 1965, when the “progressive” Sukarno regime was toppled by a reactionary coup instigated by the CIA. The coup ushered in the massacre of over a million Communists, workers, peasants and ethnic Chinese. With the world’s largest non-ruling Communist Party utterly destroyed, elements in the U.S. ruling class could more easily talk about cutting their losses in Vietnam.
Vietnam Was a Victory!
For years, many self-described socialists and ex-radicals nostalgic for the massive demonstrations of the Vietnam War era have peddled the myth that the antiwar movement ended the war. But it was the heroism and tenacity of the Vietnamese on the battlefield that broke the imperialists’ will and drove them out of the country.
Today Vietnam, a country still scarred by pitiless bombing and devastating defoliation, continues to be squeezed by the far more powerful economies of the imperialists and by their massive military might. The diplomatic rapprochement of the Vietnamese Stalinists with the U.S. over the past decade reflects the country’s isolation following the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union, the continuing pressures of poverty and the nationalist antipathy pitting the Beijing and Hanoi bureaucracies against each other (see “Stirring Up the South China Sea—U.S. Imperialism Tightens Military Vise on China,” WV No. 1005, 6 July 2012). The Stalinist regime has also spurred widening social inequality stemming from its version of “market socialism.”
It remains the duty of revolutionaries in the belly of the imperialist beast to unconditionally defend Vietnam and the other remaining deformed workers states—China, Cuba, North Korea and Laos—against imperialist and domestic counterrevolutionary forces. The struggle for workers political revolutions to sweep away the Stalinist regimes in those countries is inseparable from the fight to mobilize the proletariat to overthrow capitalist rule in North America, Japan and West Europe—the prerequisite for building a world socialist society of material abundance. This requires the construction of Leninist-Trotskyist revolutionary parties.
When the U.S. launched air attacks against North Vietnam on 7 February 1965, we sent a telegram to Ho Chi Minh, stating: “Spartacist in fullest solidarity with defense of your country against attack by United States imperialism. Heroic struggle of Vietnamese working people furthers the American revolution.” When the workers of this country take power from the murderous rulers of decaying capitalism, they will surely tear down the monuments to the imperialist war criminals (and Confederate generals) and erect in their place memorials to Vo Nguyen Giap and others who fought to rid this planet of exploitation and oppression.