Vietnam’s Thirty Year War
Published in Socialist Worker 1 September 1979, as one of the regular columns I wrote in 1979-80 under the title: “It’s The Same the Whole World Over”.
‘What possible grounds can there be morally, politically, historically or ethically for the admission to this country of large numbers of persons from Indochina – a country with which we have no connection and towards which we have no obligations.’
In these words Enoch Powell explained to the House of Commons a few weeks ago why the ‘boat people’ should be left to drown.
Powell claims to be a historian, but that doesn’t prevent him from being pig-ignorant about the history of his own country’s crimes.
The present tragedy in Vietnam can be explained only if we look at forty years of aggression and murder by Japanese, French, Americans … and British.
In September 1945, at the end of the Second World War, it was British troops who landed in Vietnam to take over from the defeated Japanese. The French, who had colonised the country for nearly a hundred years previously, were in no position to do the job of restoring ‘law and order’, so Britain’s newly elected Labour government took on the job.
The British Army soon turned its guns against the Vietnamese. Workers in Vietnam staged an armed rising. Militants from a big tramway depot established a workers’ militia. This and many other risings were crushed by British troops.
The Vietnamese press was suppressed. The British even mobilised troops from the former Japanese occupying army (an act described by American General MacArthur as an ‘ignoble betrayal’). At least 2,700 Vietnamese were killed.
In March 1946 Britain handed Vietnam back to the French. It took eight years of hard struggle before the Vietnamese drove them out.
When the American war against Vietnam began in the mid-sixties, Britain (once again under a Labour government) gave slavish support.
In that war the United States dropped more bombs on Indo-China than were dropped throughout the world in World War Two. Vietnamese agriculture was destroyed. By the end of the war Vietnam was importing rice, instead of exporting it as it had used to. Prostitution became nearly as big a part of the economy as agriculture.
Besides giving political support to the Americans, Britain sold napalm and poison gas for use in Vietnam. Rolls-Royce, AEI, Elliot Automation and other British firms got profitable contracts for war supplies.
The Vietnam which gained independence in 1975 was indelibly marked by over thirty years of war. There were at least two million out of work, with five million more dependent on them.
But this doesn’t mean that the present rulers of Vietnam have clean hands. There was another road for Vietnam – that of socialist revolution. In 1945 Vietnam had a militant working class. The Vietnamese Communists made the struggle a purely nationalist one – and murdered the Trotskyists who might have given it a different direction.
During the long war against the Americans the programme of the National Liberation Front was ‘unity of all classes’ and protection of ‘ property rights’.
The NLF made little attempt to relate to the struggles of workers and other town-dwellers. So, after liberation, the only way they could deal with the swollen town populations was bureaucratic and authoritarian. Instead of the town-dwellers participating in a workers’ democracy they were shunted out to the New Economic Zones in the countryside.
For three years after liberation the Vietnamese preserved private enterprise, hoping to attract French and Japanese investment. Only when this had failed, in Spring 1978, did they decide to nationalise private businesses, most of them owned by the Chinese who, along with Chinese workers, became ‘boat people’.
Unlike Enoch Powell we have to look our responsibilities in the face. In the short term to welcome Vietnamese refugees to our shores, in the longer term to destroy imperialism before it commits more crimes of this sort.