By PAUL SIEGEL
The New York Times rediscovered Vietnam recently. Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam War, it had a series of articles on Vietnam as it is today and on present Vietnamese and American attitudes toward the war.
The general tenor of the articles was that a new generation had come into being in each country and that the former foes, both perhaps wiser with time, were reaching out to each other. Vietnam was discovering the virtues of capitalism, although U.S. investment was much smaller than it might be because the government had still not learned to loosen authoritarian controls. But the U.S. government for its part was extending its hand and was magnanimously ready to let bygones be bygones.
The meaning of the war was glossed over in the articles. There was scarcely more of an attempt to analyze it than there was in the class on the war at West Point described in one of the articles. As might be expected, the class was not concerned with why the U.S. government had fought the war but with why it had lost it.
To this question the cadets gave many answers-military bungling, interference from government officials, poor popular morale, and so forth. The officer teaching the class gave as his opinion that the reason was that the enemy was ready to take any number of casualties.
The officer’s comment was an echo of Gen. Westmoreland’s statement during the war that Asians don’t value human life the way Westerners do. The racist view that Asians are akin to lower animals, not susceptible to pain and grief, was by a strange logic used to justify a policy of raining more than twice as many bombs on a small, peasant country as were loosed in World War II in all theaters together-killing 3 million people, many of them civilians, out of perhaps 30 million.
How then did the National Liberation Front bring about the ignominious departure of U.S. forces from its country and the defeat of the U.S. puppet regime? The answer is also an answer as to the nature of the war. It was engaged in a struggle of national liberation against an imperialist power, a struggle intertwined with the struggle for socialism.
Eisenhower early on, musing with his aides about why “in interventions of this kind [in Laos], … the morale of the Communist forces was better than that of the democratic forces,” stumbled on the answer, but it could not be acted upon by government officials and military commanders. “The Communist philosophy,” he said, “appeared to produce a sense of dedication.”
Torture and “tiger cages”
The “democratic forces” in South Vietnam, incidentally, headed a particularly brutal police state, where, as reported at the time and amply documented in Noam Chomsky’s “The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism,” systematic torture with the knowledge and complicity of the U.S. government was standard operating procedure. In the retrospectives on the war in The Times and other mainstream media, however, the “tiger cages” and torture have been forgotten.
The NLF finally won as a result of its remarkable determination and fighting power and the overwhelming support of the peasantry. It was aided by the growth of the antiwar movement in the United States, which began as a trickle of people, frequently confronted by pugnacious counter-demonstrators, and became a mighty torrent that engulfed more and more sectors of society.
The “Pentagon Papers,” the collection of smuggled-out documents that the government sought to suppress, reveals the fear with which the antiwar movement was regarded in the White House and the Pentagon. Generals objected to sending more troops to Vietnam because they thought the troops might be needed to maintain order in the United States.
The recent retrospectives on the war have not given a true picture of the effect of the antiwar movement on rank-and-file soldiers, frequently stating that antiwar protesters derided and spit upon GIs. Actually, the movement set up “GI coffee houses” near army bases, where soldiers were fraternized with and spoken to about the war.
Veterans of the war participated in the antiwar demonstrations. Many brought their medals and threw them on a pile to be returned to the Army to symbolize their opposition to government policy.
Although the imperialist Goliath was thus felled, in some respects imperialism gained its objective despite its defeat. The policy makers feared that if Vietnam was reunited and became successful it would have an attractive power for other countries in South East Asia, whose raw materials and markets U.S. capitalists would lose.
But the tremendous destruction of the war, followed by the wars of the Khmer Rouge and China, supported by the United States, plus 14 years of a punishing embargo by Washington and its allies brought about a desperate situation for Vietnam that made it turn in 1986 to the “free market.”
As in other Third World countries, this resulted, as British reporter John Pilger showed in “Hidden Agendas” in the great enrichment of a few and the further impoverishment of the many. A 1995 report of the World Bank admitted that, seven years after the “structural reforms” it had dictated, 70 percent of the Vietnamese were in “absolute poverty,” more than ever before. “The magnitude of stunting and wasting among children,” it said, “appears to have increased significantly.”
North Vietnam, as acknowledged in a UN Development Program report, had been a leader among Third World countries in health care. A 1993 World Bank report stated, however, that “despite its impressive performance in the past, the Vietnamese health sector is currently languishing.”
But the Vietnamese working class is fighting back. Nike, which has 35,000 women workers in the country, has had a number of strikes.
And American imperialism is still inhibited by what it has called “the Vietnam syndrome,” using the same kind of disease imagery that it did during the war, when it spoke of the “virus” of communism spreading in Asia. As determined as ever to maintain its dominance, it now seeks to employ other means to do so-Contras in Nicaragua, sanctions that have caused the death of hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq, the destruction of the economic infrastructure by intensive high-tech bombing in Yugoslavia.
This does not mean, however, that the use of troops is forever ruled out if the policy makers are convinced it is necessary. Colombia, which the government proposes to aid with supplies and advisers in its “war against drugs”-in reality a war against an insurgency-may become another Vietnam.
It is not only the rulers who remember their Vietnam War experience. The war remains a disturbing memory of the American people despite the partially successful attempt by the media to efface its features. Its lessons have been passed on to the growing number of rebels of the new generation through college courses on the war and the accounts of participants in the antiwar movement.
When Madeline Albright spoke at the University of Ohio a couple of years ago on the occasion of a threatened all-out bombing attack on Iraq, students in the packed stadium challenged her and raised questions so embarrassing in their pertinence that she felt impelled to make some insulting remarks about their “ignorance.”
This year, at the commencement exercises at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, dozens of students protested against Albright, who was the commencement speaker, and the valedictorian of the graduating class denounced the sanctions killing the children of Iraq. (See story, page 18.) The Vietnam syndrome seems incurable.