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International Socialism, Spring 1991


Charlie Hore

Vietnam and Cambodia:
Winning the war, losing the peace


From International Socialism 2 : 50, Spring 1991, pp. 51–98.
Transcribed by Camilla Royle.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Vietnam and Cambodia have had an enormous impact on the left for over 20 years. In 1968 the Vietnamese struggle was an inspiration. It was the issue that united student movements in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Yugoslavia and the United States itself.

The war was a catalyst for the left for two main reasons. The first was the sheer scale of its brutality. The sight of the mightiest military machine in human history raining down ton after ton of high explosives and napalm on one of the poorest countries in the world turned the stomachs of many who had grown up believing in liberal democracy. As the protest movements grew, Vietnam came to be seen as a symptom of much wider ills in society. What Chris Harman argued about the US was equally true elsewhere:

Dissent could soon tum to bitter alienation from society as students discovered how great were the lies told by the government, and its supporters in the university power structure, to justify the war. [1]

The second reason was that, from the Tet offensive of January 1968 onwards, it was clear that the Vietnamese were winning. Across the Western world revolutionary socialists who called for ‘victory to the NLF’ found the widest audience ever for their ideas. They were able to mobilise far greater numbers than the Communist and social-democratic parties who simply called for ‘peace in Vietnam’. Millions sympathised with the Vietnamese as victors, not as victims.

Their example was contagious. US imperialism had dominated the ‘western world’ politically, militarily and economically since the end of World War Two. Che Guevara’s famous slogan, ‘Create two, three, many Vietnams’, expressed a widespread sense that the old order was vulnerable to a determined fight against it, not just in Asia but everywhere. But the very popularity of the slogan highlighted a political weakness that was to be fatal for the left.

The revolutionary left which mushroomed after 1968 was dominated by the ideas of ‘Third Worldism’. While this took a variety of forms, it had at its core two essential ideas. The first was that the decisive struggle against capitalism was being waged by guerrilla fighters in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This implied that the Western working classes (and, for that matter, the rapidly growing urban working classes in the Third World) were no longer the central agents for socialist change. In some versions of the theory this was spelt out explicitly: imperialism had bought off the working classes. [2] In others it was merely implicit. But the practical conclusions were the same. On this view, Vietnam was a model both of an anti-imperialist struggle and (in the North) of a socialist society; any criticism from the left was counter-revolutionary. [3]

The International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) were almost alone on the revolutionary left in rejecting this approach. We argued that, while it was essential to support Vietnam’s struggle against US imperialism, it was also necessary to understand the lintitations of that struggle. A guerrilla army could win militarily, but it could not break imperialism’s stranglehold on the world economy as a whole. And the NLF’s aim of ‘national liberation’ had nothing in common with Marx’s idea of socialism as the self emancipation of the working class.

The US withdrawal in 1973 and the defeat of the Saigon regime were celebrated by all socialists as a major victory. US imperialism had suffered its first direct military defeat ever, one which structured its foreign and military policy throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The ‘Vietnam syndrome’, the inability to send troops abroad for fear of either defeat or mutiny, constrained their ambitions for almost 20 years.

In that sense, Vietnam was a world historic victory. Yet, far from ushering in an era of national liberation wars, it was to be almost the last of its kind. The dominant ideas of ‘Third Worldism’ meant that most on the left saw it as a victory for socialism. Yet by 1978 the dream had turned sour. It became impossible to explain the mass exodus of the ‘boat people’ as the flight of ‘counter-revolutionaries’. The invasion of Cambodia in the same year proved similarly traumatic. One author argued, in an influential book Imagined Communities, that:

A fundamental transformation in the history of Marxism and Marxist movements is upon us. Its most visible signs are the recent wars between Vietnam, Cambodia and China. These wars are of world-historic importance because they are the first to occur between regimes whose independence and revolutionary credentials are undeniable, and because none of the belligerents has made more than the most perfunctory attempts to justify the bloodshed in terms of a recognisable Marxist theoretical perspective. [4]

Finally, the tragedy of Cambodia’s killing fields seemed to make the very idea of ‘national liberation’ meaningless. Few ‘Third Worldists’ could provide any credible explanation of what had happened; for some, it broke any hope of human emancipation.

It was, and is, impossible to justify the bloodshed; it is, however, possible to use the ideas of classical Marxism to explain it. That perspective has to begin with the recognition that the revolutions in Vietnam and Cambodia were purely nationalist ones, and that the new societies which emerged had nothing to do with socialism. ‘Liberation’ for the new rulers meant building strong national economies within a world capitalist system, thus accepting the priorities of that system. That forced on the new rulers a process of competing both militarily and economically with the world economy (and with each other). The needs and wishes of the mass of the population were at best irrelevant, at worst an obstacle, to this aim.

Explaining why that proved impossible is important. But something else needs explaining. Events in the Gulf lie outside the scope of this article; but it is clear that large sections of the US ruling class and military are again confident that they can act as the world’s policeman. With the effective collapse of the Warsaw Pact, this has led many on the left to argue that we live in a world now dominated by one superpower more powerful than ever. Understanding how US imperialism was beaten last time round is important if socialists are to counter the pessimism that flows from such arguments.

This article therefore consists of two distinct parts: a history of imperialism in Vietnam and the resistance to the war both in Vietnam and the US; and an examination of economic reconstruction since 1975, the Cambodian revolution and its relationship to Vietnam, and the Vietnamese ruling class’s tum to a variant of ‘market socialism’ since 1982.

The two parts are linked in a variety of ways. The most important is that the tragedy of Vietnam and Cambodia since 1975 is a direct consequence of the vicious war that was waged against them. History does not prove that they were wrong to fight imperialist domination. What it rather shows is that the politics of ‘national liberation’ were incapable of taking that fight to the finish.

French imperialism in Vietnam

Vietnam became a French colony in 1883, at the same time as China was being carved up into ‘spheres of influence’ by rival imperialist powers. For France, control of Indochina (as it called Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) was important both to prevent British domination of South East Asia and its sea trading routes, and as a link to French ‘spheres’ in south western China. Vietnam had only been unified under an Emperor in 1801, and the new dynasty was incapable of defending itself. Yet the process of colonisation faced major resistance from the peasantry. In 1859, 1863, 1885, 1893 and 1907–8 there were province wide risings, in addition to numerous smaller rebellions.

By the turn of the century imperialism had almost completely destroyed the traditional Vietnamese economy. The French set up major rice and rubber plantations, coal mines and construction projects. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were forced off their land to work for these enterprises in the most appalling conditions. During the construction of a railway from Hanoi to the Chinese border, for example, 30 percent of the labourers died. [5]

The French also sought, through a series of ruinous taxes, to make the peasantry pay for the costs of their oppression, forcing the majority of peasants into dire poverty. This led to a marked social polarisation. Most of the remaining peasants were reduced to the status of sharecroppers, while a new landlord class (often doubling as tax collectors) came to control most of the land. By 1939 in the Mekong delta (Vietnam’s most fertile farmland) 2 percent of the population owned 45 percent of the land. [6]

Imperialist rule also produced a small but significant educated middle class. French policy of using a Westernised elite to run colonial administrations led to the founding of schools and colleges teaching in both French and Vietnamese, built to turn out an obedient class of officials to run the administrations in Laos and Cambodia as well as in Vietnam itself. But they also produced angry and articulate nationalists. The enormous gulf between the rhetoric of the French Revolution taught in these schools and the reality of colonial life could not but breed rebellion.

That sense of rebellion was by no means confined to the educated middle classes. The years 1928–31 saw a series of major strikes among the working class, which had grown to over 200,000 (in a population of 17 million). In 1928 there were strikes at breweries, petrol refineries, rubber plantations, cement works, in textiles and among rickshaw drivers, followed in 1929 by railway and aviation workers. In 1930 the movement spread throughout all major groups of workers and then into the villages – in two provinces revolutionary administrations held out until mid-1931. [7]

Yet there was a gap between the spread of the anger and the extent of organisation. The major nationalist party was effectively destroyed in 1929 after organising a mutiny in a northern garrison town. Other nationalists existed only as discussion circles or émigré groups.

The sole exception was the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), which united three small Communist groups in early 1930 around the charismatic figure of Ho Chi Minh. They began with just 211 members. [8] But in the ferment of the 1930s, given the absence of any serious opposition, they were able to lead large numbers of workers and peasants in anti-colonial struggles. Ho Chi Minh was the dominant figure from the start. It was only his prestige, as a fighter against imperialism since the early 1920s, that persuaded the three factions to unite, and even in exile he dominated the party.

Ho’s political career began in France in small nationalist groups in 1917. In 1920 he joined the French Socialist Party and was a delegate to the Tours Congress which voted to join the Third International. His account of this, written in 1960, is revealing:

I loved and respected Lenin purely because he was a great patriot who had set his countrymen free; so far I had not read any of his works. I had joined the French Socialist Party purely because ces Messieurs-Dames (as I used to call the Party comrades) had shown sympathy for the struggle of the oppressed people. [9]

Absolute opposition to colonialism and imperialism was one of the main dividing lines between the Second and Third Internationals, and this led Ho to join the CP after the split. But, in practice, the French CP never fully broke from the pro-imperialist heritage of the Socialist Party. They were loath to argue openly for colonial liberation, and were frequently criticised by the Comintern for their failings. [10] This contributed to the fact that Ho remained a nationalist; the combination of lip service to principles and opportunist practice simply confirmed his previous beliefs.

Stalin’s rise to power in Russia converted the Comintern into a tool of Russian foreign policy. Opposition on principle to all forms of colonial rule was abandoned: agitation in the colonies was stepped up or dropped according to Russia’s relationship with the particular colonial power. The VCP followed every twist and turn of Stalin’s policies, even insisting, during the brief rule of the French Popular Front in 1936, on distinguishing between ‘ultra-colonialists’ and ‘anti-fascist colonialists’. [11] The VCP was from its inception a purely nationalist party shaped in the Stalinist mould.

The repression following the revolts of 1930–31 abated in 1936 because of the election of a popular front government in France, and the VCP was able for a time to operate legally, even working in a brief united front with Vietnamese Trotskyists. [12] The ability to organise legally, and the promises of reform from the French Popular Front government, gave an enormous impetus to workers’ struggles. Between October 1936 and August 1937 there was a succession of strike waves which were the largest ever in any French colony. These culminated in a general strike in mid-1937, for a combination of economic and political demands – the eight hour day, trade union rights, freedom of the press, etc. – in which Trotskyists played a leading role. The colonial administration cracked down, banning all unions and the political press and jailing hundreds of militants. As Japan’s armies advanced across China and the war in Europe grew closer, the political situation became more unstable. With the outbreak of European war in 1939 the repression crushed all political activity in the cities.

During World War Two the VCP became a force that could successfully challenge for power. In 1941 it founded a nationalist resistance organisation popularly called the Vietminh (short for Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh – Vietnam Independence League). This had a purely nationalist perspective of:

uniting all patriots, without distinction of wealth or political outlook, so that they may work together for the liberation of our people and the salvation of our nation. [13]

The Vietminh did not lead a mass guerrilla war against the Japanese. For most of the war they were a small propaganda group, whose first guerrilla attack only came m December 1944. Yet a mere eight months later they were the acknowledged leaders of a mass revolution that was able to declare Vietnamese independence. This sudden rise to power was due to two crucial factors.

The first was a virtual power vacuum. In 1940 the French administration had backed the collaborationist Vichy regime. In consequence, though Japan occupied Vietnam, the French remained in control. Then in March 1945 the Japanese interned all French administrators and troops, giving nominal power to a puppet emperor with no armed forces. As a consequence, when Japan surrendered in August 1945, there was no other force that could stop the Vietminh taking over.

The second and more important factor was the development of a revolution from below. The Japanese occupation never inflicted a military terror on Vietnam, but the economic costs of the occupation were vast. Peasants were forced to turn land over to industrial crops, and to hand over their rice to army granaries. In the winter of 1944–5 a devastating combination of famine and flooding killed between 1 and 2 million people (out of a population of 10 million).

The Vietminh had a brilliantly simple solution: ‘Raid the granaries.’ This call was taken up by masses of peasants, the vast majority of whom had never heard of the Vietminh before – in mid-1944 the VCP’s total membership was only 2,000 to 3,000. [14] When the Vietminh called a general rising, their call was answered by hundreds of thousands in the main cities, and by peasants across the north. In Saigon:

... from the morning onwards, veritable masses of people assembled like ants and filled the Norodom Boulevard, then the Botanical Gardens near the governor’s palace, and then crossed the major arteries in order chanting slogans ... whilst the flags and banners floating above this moving army indicated the presence of the Vanguard Youth, who had been a pro-Japanese organisation only yesterday, peasants led by Stalinist militants who had come from the environs of Saigon, workers of Saigon-Cholon, Cao-daists [a syncretic religious sect], Buddhists of various sects grouped around their bonzes [priests] and the militants of the Trotskyist ... groups. The latter, under the flag of the Fourth International, raised the slogans of ‘the land and ricefields to the peasants, the factories and enterprises for the workers!’ [15]

The Vietminh set up a Provisional Government, and in the villages revolutionary committees began fanning. In Saigon a number of armed workers’ militias sprang up, many of them under Trotskyist influence. In late September British troops landed in Saigon and began releasing French and Japanese troops to help them in ‘restoring order’. [16] The Vietminh called for these troops to be welcomed as ‘anti-fascist allies’, but a spontaneous insurrection broke out across the working class districts. Streets were barricaded, and the colonial police hunted down and shot. The Vietminh were not indifferent to the possibility of workers’ power; they were actively hostile to it. As one Trotskyist argued:

The Vietminh had certainly not called for an insurrection. Their one preoccupation was ‘law and order’ and their own accession to power following negotiations. [17]

The French broke the leaderless insurrection (for the Trotskyist movement was simply too small to effectively lead such a mass movement) by a combination of starvation and military force, with the active support of the Vietminh. This support went much further than avoiding any confrontation with the occupying forces. As the French extended their control, Vietminh forces set about eliminating their political opponents. Practically the entire Vietnamese Trotskyist movement was murdered in this way, as well as many working class militants who had independently established workers’ militias or guerrilla groups.

Meanwhile in March 1946 north and central Vietnam were recognised as an independent state within the French Union, while the future of the south was to be determined by a referendum at some unspecified date. The Vietminh also agreed to the stationing of 25,000 French troops for the next five years. Ho Chi Minh came under massive attack for what was widely seen as a betrayal. His answer to his critics reflected both the depths of his nationalism and the Vietminh’s military weakness:

Don’t you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life. [18]

However much the Vietminh were prepared to compromise, the agreement never stood a chance. The French government (in which the French CP were coalition partners) would settle for nothing less than restoring the old colonial order. Small scale fighting had begun as soon as the French returned. By November 1946 this had escalated into total war.

The war became quickly bogged down in small scale jungle fighting, With the French controlling the cities and main road, and the Vietminh most of the countryside. Nineteen forty nine was a turning point. Mao’s victory in China gave the Vietminh access to bases across the border and large quantities of arms. It also brought the US into the war. By 1954 American ‘aid’ was paying almost 80 percent of the French military budget in Vietnam.

The extra arms brought the French no nearer victory, however. They decided to go for one decisive battle in which they would force the Vietminh to stand and fight. The site chosen was Dien Bien Phu, a village astride the main pass from north Vietnam into Laos which would cut the Vietminh’s supply lines. The Vietminh used armies of peasants to carry arms and supplies across hundreds of miles and surround the base. The French were entirely reliant on supplies coming from the air and once the Vietminh had cut that lifeline the outcome was never in doubt. When Dien Bien Phu fell the French were finished. Yet what the Vietminh had won on the battlefield they were soon to lose at the negotiating table.

The United States’ war

Contrary to many of the histories, the growth of the US involvement in Vietnam was no accident, nor a series of impromptu responses to particular crises. The French war effort was only possible because of US funding, and between 1955 and 1958 US aid accounted for 85 percent of the South Vietnamese budget. As the guerrilla war intensified so did the aid. Military and economic competition with the Eastern Bloc was the driving force of US foreign policy, and Vietnam became a crucial part of that competition. Since the Korean War American strategists had seen As1a as the crucial battleground in the Cold War, and their policy was based on the ‘domino theory’ – if Vietnam ‘fell’, Thailand would be next, then Burma, and so on. Vietnam was important not because of its intrinsic value to US imperialism, but as the place to assert US military strength against Russian power.

The Geneva talks of 1954, which negotiated an end to the war were seen as a major diplomatic victory for Russia, and even more so for China. For the first time the new Chinese state was recognised by the world powers as a player in an international conference. And it was primarily the Chinese who persuaded the Vietminh to accept a shabby compromise.

The Geneva agreements partitioned the country, recognising the Vietminh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the north, but confirming a French installed ‘Republic of Vietnam’ as the sole authority in the South. Elections were to be held to determine the future status of the country, after which the French would withdraw. It was universally agreed that the VCP would sweep the board in free elections. One State Department document asserted that:

If the scheduled national elections are held in July 1956, and if the Vietminh does not prejudice its political prospects. the Vietminh will almost certainly win. [19]

Therefore the elections were never held. The US pumped aid into the ‘Republic of Vietnam’, backing its dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem had little or no popular base, and set about ruthlessly suppressing all opposition, whether religious, ethnic or even pro-French. By the end of 1958 at least 12,000 people had been killed and another 40,000 jailed, including at least two thirds of the VCP’s southern members. [20]

Far greater numbers of peasants were alienated as Diem reversed the Vietminh’s land reforms. The regime’s confiscation of French land meant simply replacing one landlord with another-and the new administrators pushed rents up steeply. The programme of building ‘agrovilles’ or ‘strategic hamlets’ (fortified villages to which peasants were forcibly removed, modelled on British strategy in the Malaysian war) further deepened peasant resentment. Some 500,000 peasants were moved in 1958–9, and several millions in the early 1960s.

Until late 1957 the VCP tried to prevent guerrilla activity in the South, arguing that the priority was ‘socialist construction’ in the North. Faced with the flat refusal of the southern VCP to toe the line – for it meant their extinction – they swung round in late 1958. In 1960 they set up the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) to bring together scattered guerrilla bands. Like the Vietminh, the NLF was a purely nationalist movement which aimed at removing the pro-US government, and called simply for ‘national unity and independence’. Though it attracted widespread nationalist support from a variety of forces, it was from the outset led and controlled by the VCP.

Though they initially played down the land question to attract landlords, the NLF quickly spread across the countryside. Their call to tear down the ‘agrovilles’ and ‘strategic hamlets’ proved particularly popular. In January 1960 one entire province was taken over in a mass, but short lived, insurrection. The regime’s response was to step up the repression and to call for further US aid.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the US had suffered a series of setbacks in the Cold War. Castro’s victory in Cuba, and his subsequent alignment with the USSR, was the most serious of these. Following the abject defeat of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 President John Kennedy argued: ‘Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.’ [21] By the end of 1962 there were 11,000 US ‘military advisors’ in Vietnam.

As the undeclared war escalated, Diem’s unpopularity grew, even with his fellow rulers. In 1963 he was overthrown in a military coup backed by the CIA, but the new rulers proved no more successful in containing the NLF. US military involvement officially began in 1964, when air raids were carried out on North Vietnam in retaliation for alleged attacks on two US patrol boats, the infamous Tonkin Gulf incident.

The ‘incident’ was a total fabrication. South Vietnamese commandos had attacked coastal installations in North Vietnam. North Vietnamese patrol boats chasing them came upon a US intelligence gathering ship, and a 20 minute fight ensued. Exactly one North Vietnamese bullet hit the US ship. The next day the same ship fired wildly for three hours at shadows on the radar screen caused by thunderstorms. Senior US officials knew it was bogus. Even President Lyndon Johnson told an aide that ‘those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.’ But it provided the excuse they wanted to step up the undeclared war. A resolution was rushed through the Congress and Senate authorising ‘all necessary measures to repel attacks against US forces and prevent further aggression’. [22]

Within a year there were 120,000 US ground troops in Vietnam. By July 1966 the figure had risen to 300,000. The US military were convinced they could not lose. They used their power to murderous effect The bombing of North Vietnam started in earnest in February 1965 and carried on without a day’s respite until the end of 1967. In the South heavy artillery, bombers and helicopters rained down millions of tons of explosives, napalm and defoliants on any suspected areas. As the Air Force commander described it:

It was our policy that after contact with the enemy was established our ground forces would pull back a sufficient distance to allow artillery and air power to be used without restraint. Then the army would follow up. [23]

In one battle alone, around the US base of Khe Sanh in the Central Highlands, 110,000 tons of bombs were dropped in 11 weeks in 1967–8, the explosive equivalent of five Hiroshimas. [24]

On the ground the brutality of the US troops was no less intense. The army’s demands for ‘body counts’ and the impossibility of distinguishing the NLF from the peasantry led them to define their job in starkly racist terms – ‘killing gooks’. The human costs were incalculable. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were killed and millions became homeless refugees. One secret document advocating the ‘production’ of another 2 million refugees, admitted that:

Although the policy to create refugees for military purposes does not, in so many words, appear in any MACV [Military Aid Command, Vietnam] document, the necessity is openly recognised as a realistic requirement ... [25]

In other words, the only way to remove the peasantry’s support for the NLF was to remove the peasantry. Yet despite the bombings and the depopulation of the countryside the NLF kept on growing, supplemented by increasing numbers of North Vietnamese troops. As the war machine expanded, so did its costs. The US budget for the 1967 fiscal year had allocated $11–$17 billion for Vietnam – the final cost was over $21 billion. [26] For the first time since the Civil War the government budget went into deficit, and the following year the deficit soared to three times the 1967 figure. President Johnson was forced to ask Congress for tax increases, which they refused. Mainstream organs of ruling class opinion such as Time, Life and the New York Times began to voice doubts about the war.

This sudden shock highlighted growing US economic weaknesses which were to have important consequences for the world economy. The US’s share of world trade, for instance, dropped from 48 percent m 1948 to 25 percent in 1964 (and would drop to only 10 percent by 1969). [27] One of the crucial underpinnings of the long boom was the role of the dollar as a world trading currency. But the US’s relative decline made the dollar increasingly overvalued and unstable. This had a number of consequences, none of them favourable. From the early 1960s onwards imports grew much faster than exports, creating an ever growing foreign dollar holding, which led in turn to further pressure on the dollar’s international role. Harold Wilson’s devaluation of the pound in November 1967 led to a scramble for gold which threw the whole financial system into turmoil. [28]

The problems were compounded by the effects of the war on the US economy. The rapid increases in military output, at a time when the economy was already showing signs of ‘overheating’ and profit rates were starting to fall, led to a sudden rise in inflation, which in turn added to the pressures both on the dollar and on the budget deficit. A significant section of the ruling class began to doubt whether the war could be afforded any longer.

The economic problems came on top of growing political opposition to the war. The anti-war movement (discussed below) had grown enormously. But discontent went far wider than the minority prepared to demonstrate on the streets. In 1966 and 1967 over 15,000 Americans – overwhelmingly working class and disproportionately black and Latin – were killed in Vietnam. [29] The sight of so many friends, relatives and neighbours coming home in body bags, and of the tens of thousands more who returned physically or mentally disabled for life, began to turn the working class against the war. This opposition was still passive: opinion polls regularly recorded majority approval for the aims of the war. But the same polls showed that by October 1967 a majority of Americans had come to regard Vietnam as a ‘mistake’. [30]

The Tet offensive of January 1968 was a fundamental turning point m the war, and dealt the ruling class’s increasingly fragile confidence a body blow. It blew apart the myth that the US was winning the war and showed for the first time the real possibility of an NLF victory. On 30 January, the start of the Tet (New Year) festival, NLF commandos and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops hit at every major city and town in South Vietnam. Though there were only some 4,000 NLF commandos in Saigon, it took three weeks of house to house fighting to finish them off. Elsewhere the fighting was even fiercer.

The Northern city of Hue was taken and held for six weeks by NVA troops. Four fifths of the city was destroyed in air attacks and street fighting. In the Mekong delta, the provincial capital of Ben Tre was levelled to the ground. Pressed to explain his actions, the US commander argued, ‘We had to destroy the city in order to save it.’ It was to become one of the most enduring quotes of the war – and, for many in the US ruling class, It summed up their dilemma in Vietnam.

The US military claimed victory. General Westmorland, the head of MACV, said that over half the NLF had been killed or captured in the offensive – and demanded a 40 percent increase in US troops. For the first time Johnson refused.

Militarily, Tet was indeed a defeat for the NLF. Losses had been far higher than foreseen, and the NLF came increasingly to rely on NV A troops to carry on the war. Politically, too, they had suffered a major setback ... one of the aims of the offensive had been to spark off risings m the cities, which had completely failed.

Yet overall it was the US which lost. Strategically they had been outsmarted, having moved most of their combat troops to central Vietnam in the expectation of an attack across the North-South border. More importantly, the continual boasts that the NLF were almost finished were exposed as simple lies. Closely coordinated attacks on over 60 cities and towns were clearly not the actions of an army on its last legs. And the spread of the war to the cities meant that the media could properly convey the full scale of the war’s horrors. One photograph in particular went round the world – a South Vietnamese general in full uniform shooting a prisoner dead in the middle of a crowded street. Tet brought home to the US ruling class for the first time the possibility of losing the war, and gave an enormous boost to anti-war sentiment in the US.

The anti-war movement

The movement really began in the spring of 1965 with ‘teach-ins’ on the war on major university campuses. The format – supporters and opponents of the war debating before audiences of several thousand – spread very quickly, and was extremely effective in exposing the hypocrisy of the war’s supporters and drawing large numbers of students into activity. By October 1967 the movement could draw over 100,000 people to marches in some 60 cities across the United States. [31] Though small in comparison to the later marches, it began a process of mass activity and radicalisation that was to continue throughout 1966, 1967 and 1968.

The movement was powered by the continuous escalation of the war in those years, and in particular by the fact that the war’s demands meant that students (previously exempt from the draft) began to be called up in large numbers. In April 1967 over 400,000 people demonstrated m New York and 75,000 in San Francisco, where there was a 7,000 strong contingent of trade unionists. But the movement remained strongest among students, and the extent of its influence was shown in Apri11968 when over a million students joined a one day strike. The strike drew in large numbers of high school students and extended to even the most conservative areas – at the University of Arizona, for instance, 50 percent of students joined the strike.

There were from the beginning major political differences inside the movement, reflected in the bewildering number of national organisations which at various times claimed to lead it. One major argument was over the central demands: whether to call for getting the troops out now, or to press for a negotiated settlement. This reflected a more fundamental difference over the nature of the movement. Those who called for negotiations saw the movement’s function as supporting sympathetic politicians who would change government policy from the inside. They therefore tried to argue down any radical action or demands that would frighten off the politicians, and to turn the movement towards working for liberal Democrats (and the occasional Republican) at election times.

Those arguing for immediate withdrawal for the most part rejected traditional two party politics, insisting that only mass action would force the government to withdraw. Their distrust of politicians echoed the feelings of most of those newly radicalised by the war, who remembered that President Johnson had been elected in 1964 on promises to end the war; and the ‘Out now!’ demand best reflected the moral outrage against the war that had initially drawn most of the movement into action. Fred Halstead noted that local anti-war committees:

... found through experience that it was easier to appeal to the ordinary people they were reaching on the campuses and on the streets with a demand for getting the US out of Vietnam lock, stock and barrel, than with the complicated and equivocal appeals that preoccupied the negotiations wing of the movement. [32]

The dominant politics of the movement came to be those of the ‘New Left’, radicals who argued for ever greater militancy on the streets, and who saw the war as just one facet of a system that had to be destroyed. Revolutionary socialists, in particular the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of James Cannon, were central to the anti-war organisations, but the SWP’s insistence on restricting the movement to the single issue of the war, which meant simply going from one national demonstration to the next, cut them off from the majority of newly radicalised youth. Yet the vague politics of the New Leftists, a mixture of Third Worldism Maoism and anarchism, meant they had no real perspective for the movement beyond greater and greater disruption on the streets. In particular, they had no way of broadening the movement’s base from the colleges to those sections of US society who had the real power to stop the war: blacks and the working class.

The growing black revolt of the 1960s pre-dated the anti-war movement, and had initially very little connection with it. The ghetto uprisings, in Harlem in 1964, Watts in 1965, and Newark and Detroit in 1967, were directed against the everyday discrimination and police violence suffered by northern blacks. And almost all the established leaders of the Civil Rights Movement muted or stifled altogether their personal feelings about the war, in order to preserve relations with President Johnson, who was still seen as being a supporter of Civil Rights as late as 1966. By 1967 the situation had changed dramatically, and opposition to the Vietnam War became a central, if rarely focused, part of the black revolt.

The spiralling costs of the war forced cutbacks in Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programme, ending many of the welfare projects in the inner cities for which Civil Rights leaders had fought. But the cost of the war to the black communities was far greater than that. Blacks were disproportionately drafted, making up over 20 percent of all combat troops, and suffering well over a quarter of all casualties. Yet moderate leaders still avoided speaking out. When Martin Luther King publicly declared his opposition in early 1967, calling Vietnam ‘... a war that seeks to turn the clock of history back and perpetuate white colonialism’ [33], he was attacked by many of of his allies. But for the proponents of black power, who had become increasingly influential among blacks as the struggle moved to the cities of the north, the link between fighting racism at home and opposing a racist war abroad had been blindingly obvious for several years. It was never more succinctly expressed than by Muhammed Ali, then world heavyweight boxing champion, who explained his refusal to be drafted by saying, ‘No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.’

The black explosion reached its highest point in 1968, when the assassination of Martin Luther King sparked off uprisings in over 100 cities across the US. The war literally came home, as veterans in city after city took to the rooftops as snipers, while many more fought in the streets. That same year the Black Panther Party – an armed revolutionary group who, among other things, openly supported the Vietnamese NLF – were estimated by the FBI to command ‘great respect’ among a quarter of all blacks, including almost half of those under 21. [34]

Yet there was an enormous gap between the anger and the organisation. The potential power that could have come from linking the black upsurge to the anti-war movement was enormous, but the vast majority of the anti-war movement’s leaders backed away from any such link, either fearing for their respectability or accepting the argument that only blacks could organise blacks into the movement. The result was that black participation in the anti-war movement was greatly limited.

The potential among unionised workers was far less obvious. The anti-communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s had made the left utterly marginal inside the unions, and the union leaders backed the war to the hilt. At the AFL-CIO convention in 1965 anti-war protesters were forcibly removed from the visitors’ gallery, and not a single delegate protested. [35] Until 1970 the biggest union backed demonstrations were those in support of the war.

In these circumstances, the New Left’s argument that American workers had been ‘bought off’ by imperialism, and were part of the problem rather than part of the solution, came to be accepted by the vast majority of anti-war activists. It was strengthened by the fact that those who did argue for an orientation on the unions, principally the SWP, were among the more conservative forces in the movement.

Yet it was the working class, both black and white, who bore the greatest costs of the war’s escalation, and who made up the vast majority of those killed and wounded. The growing anger this produced led some in the lower union bureaucracy to distance themselves from the war. In mid-1967 a National Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace conference in Chicago drew over twice the expected number of delegates, with over 500 union officials from 63 unions attending. Yet, while the conference marked a significant break in the unanimity of union support for the war, very little came out of it. It stood well to the right of most of the movement, backing demands for a negotiated peace, and attacking the New Leftists as a ‘lunatic fringe’. More importantly, it was never seen as a campaigning body. As one historian rather politely put it:

Probably the fact that the NILAP was primarily a movement of union functionaries and never reached down to the rank and file to any extent limited its effectiveness. [36]

Nevertheless, individual union locals did begin to take an anti-war stance, and increasingly appeared as sponsors of marches and meetings. And there were straws in the wind which suggested that working-class opposition was much broader. In November 1966 John Anderson, a revolutionary socialist who was a veteran of the CIO sit down strikes of the 1930s, got a referendum on the war organised in Dearborn, a white working class suburb of Detroit. Over 40 percent of voters voted for immediate withdrawal of the troops. A year later a similar referendum in San Francisco won a 36 percent vote for immediate withdrawal, despite serious ballot rigging. [37] And in January 1968 a Gallup poll (taken before the Tet offensive) showed that almost half of unionised workers were opposed to the war. [38] Gabriel Kolko noted that:

Rather consistently, the older population was most strongly against the war ... The correlation between class and education was also close, those with the least education being the most critical of the war. The older blue-collar workers were most hostile, and they were the audience the anti-war movement ignored. [39]

That growing opposition to the war was in part a product of a rising tide of wage militancy among American workers. The number of strikers in 1968 was double that of the previous year, and the strike wave carried on through 1969 and 1970, with a great upsurge in unofficial and local strikes, and a noticeable increase in revolts against wage contracts signed by union officials. The anti-war movement never seriously attempted to relate to this upsurge, and missed a vital opportunity to broaden their attack on an increasingly weak government. The possibilities were shown in May 1970, with a three minute work stoppage in memory of the former head of the United Auto Workers. In the Chicago Ford plant 2,000 workers stayed out for the day in protest against the war, while similar strikes took place in 20 Detroit car plants. [40] But such actions remained isolated.

From Tet to defeat

The Tet offensive was decisive in turning significant sections of the ruling class against the war. In March 1968 President Johnson was beaten in the Democratic Party primary election in New Hampshire by Senator Eugene McCarthy, standing on an openly anti-war platform. That same month he was told by a group of senior advisers that:

... the Establishment – yes, Wall Street – had turned against the war ... It was hurting the economy, dividing the country, turning the youth against the country’s best traditions. [41]

Johnson withdrew from the presidential race, and McCarthy continued to win support in the primaries. He openly argued that an anti-war stance was necessary to channel the anti-war activists into the Democratic Party, in which he was very successful. Thousands of students went to work for McCarthy, and arrived at the Democratic convention in Chicago in August 1968 convinced that the party could be converted to ending the war.

Chicago 1968 is the most famous of the anti-war demonstrations, but it was one of the smallest. The widespread support for McCarthy meant that only about 10,000 people turned up to demonstrate against the convention. What made Chicago famous was the police’s deliberate brutality in breaking up any protests. Demonstrators, reporters, convention delegates and passers by were clubbed and teargassed in the streets, and the police were used against delegates on the floor of the convention. Inside the convention McCarthy was stitched up by the Democratic Party machine, who chose Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice-President and an archetypal machine politician, famously characterised by the radical journalist Hunter S. Thompson as ‘a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a goddam bottle and sent out with the Japanese Current’. [42]

The police brutality was the worst used against white crowds since the strike waves of the 1930s. The combination of the systematic violence on the streets and the cynical manipulation inside the convention had the effect of, as Chris Harman described:

... pushing the opposition outside the establishment to even more radical conclusions ... Young people went to Chicago to protest as pacifists or to hand out leaflets in support of Gene McCarthy and left as revolutionaries. [43]

Meanwhile Johnson had not only refused Westmorland’s request for more troops, but had started to withdraw numbers of them to placate public opinion. In the summer of 1968 he announced a new strategy of ‘Vietnamisation’, which was to be carried on by Richard Nixon, who won the 1968 election on promises to end the war.

‘Vietnamisation’ involved withdrawing US troops while increasing military aid to the South Vietnamese regime and stepping up US bombing. It also meant that peace talks were opened up in Paris involving US, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese government and NLF negotiators. Most importantly, it meant that the American ruling class had realised that they could not ‘win’ the war. Their aim now was not to lose. Nixon added two further dimensions. The first was what he himself called ‘the madman theory’ He explained to one of his aides:

I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry – and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ ... Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace. [44]

The second dimension was his attempt to use the Sino-Soviet split to bring pressure on North Vietnam to settle. By 1969 the split had widened into armed clashes on China’s north eastern border, and both sides were seeking to improve relations with the US. Diplomatically, this led to a series of US successes. Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972 was followed three months later by a summit meeting with Brezhnev, which opened as US bombers were pounding Hanoi and Haiphong. Yet, as far as Vietnam was concerned, the strategy led nowhere. The same rivalry that Kissinger was using to make diplomatic advances meant that neither the Soviet Union nor China could be the first to reduce their aid.

Until 1971 the troop withdrawals were largely cosmetic, though the remaining troops’ combat role was cut back. US deaths continued to rise throughout 1969, reviving the anti-war movement. In November 1969 the largest demonstrations in US history were held, mobilising some 750,000 people in Washington and 250,000 in San Francisco. Yet, while the scale of the war was being wound down, its scope widened drastically as part of the ‘madman strategy’. In March 1969 secret bombing raids began on NLF and North Vietnamese bases in eastern Cambodia. As the bases moved westwards to avoid the raids, the scope of the bombing increased and the Cambodian government became increasingly unstable. Prince Sihanouk, the neutralist ruler of the country since independence in 1954, was overthrown by a CIA backed military coup in March 1970. The US military now pressed for what they had long wanted, a direct invasion of Cambodia to wipe out the NLF headquarters. Nixon began a large scale bombing campaign of North Vietnam, which was to last until the end of 1972, and approved the invasion of Cambodia by over 12,000 US troops.

The invasion led to the largest upsurge ever of the US anti-war movement. Hundreds of thousands of students new to the movement protested against this latest barbarity. The National Guard was sent onto campuses, and four students were killed at Kent State University in Ohio and two at Jackson State in Mississippi. Far from calming the protests down, the killings further outraged the movement. There were significant demonstrations at half the colleges in the US, involving over 4 million college students and untold numbers of high and junior high school students. And, in response to a pro-war march organised by right wing union leaders, New York unions called the first ever union anti-war march which drew over 25,000 people.

The extent of the protests in May further alarmed large sections of the ruling class who were already worried that the withdrawal from Vietnam was leading to increased involvement in Cambodia. The administration was driven to greater lengths of secrecy because Nixon’s strategy involved expanding the war in order to end it, while saying that he was ending it. This meant hiding the real state of affairs, not only from Congress, but also from the Pentagon and the State Department. As establishment dissent increased, the Nixon administration began tapping the phones and raiding the houses of some of their most prominent opponents, a process which culminated in the Watergate scandal of 1973 which drove Nixon from office.

The limits of ‘Vietnamisation’ were exposed in early 1971 when the South Vietnamese army attacked Laos to break the Ho Chi Minh trail. This was the first South Vietnamese campaign in which the US played only an advisory role. The South Vietnamese were slaughtered. The retreat turned into a wholesale rout, with South Vietnamese troops boarding evacuation helicopters being shot by US ‘advisers’ anxious to save their own skins.

At the same time US commanders in Vietnam were increasingly anxious to withdraw in order to save the army. The first significant anti-war actions by US troops were in 1967, since when almost every demonstration had its contingent of troops in uniform. By 1971 the influence of the anti-war movement and the knowledge that they were fighting a war they could not win had provoked open rebellion in the ranks. One senior officer argued that:

By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-comissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near mutinous. [45]

To underline the seriousness of the situation, he drew an explicit parallel with the collapse of the Russian Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917. This was no exaggeration. By 1973 it was estimated that 20 percent of GIs were heroin addicts, while marijuana use was endemic. Black troops (a quarter of all combat troops) were becoming increasingly influenced by the black power movement and the Black Panthers. Most seriously of all, the GIs simply refused to fight, and increasingly killed those officers who tried to make them. There were between 1969 and 1972 over 1,000 recorded attempts by GIs to kill their officers (known as ‘fragging’ because the commonest weapon was a fragmentation grenade). The real figure was much higher – the senior officer quoted above reported that in one division ‘fraggings ran one a week’ in early 1971 and ‘word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies.’ [46]

The threat itself was enough to make officers overlook a refusal to obey orders, or even refuse to give orders they knew would be unpopular. The GIs developed ‘search and evade’ patrols, where they lit fires to tell the NLF where they were, and ‘talking it out’, which involved units discussing their orders with their officers, and voting on whether or not to accept them. Nor was the spirit of rebellion confined to Vietnam. In 1972 one in four US troops across the world were recorded as being AWOL or deserters. [47]

The collapse of the army, the growing economic crisis and the continuing pressure from the anti-war movement forced Nixon to end direct involvement. Agreement on a peace formula was reached in January 1973. Nixon ordered the South Vietnamese government to accept it, threatening to cut all aid, but then promptly announced that they recognised the South Vietnamese regime as the only legitimate government’ and increased military aid. The last combat troops left on 29 March 1973, by which time the war was again in full swing. In that year the South Vietnamese army used over 40 percent of the US munitions industry’s output. [48] Yet without US air power (whose use was finally ended by Congress in August) the South Vietnamese army would be no match for the NLF and the NVA.

The VCP estimated that the final offensive would last at least two years, but when it was finally launched in March 1975 the South Vietnamese army simply fell apart. City after city was abandoned as senior officers fled with their spoils. As the last remaining US advisers beat an ignominious retreat, leaving their Vietnamese collaborators to fend for themselves, the liberation forces moved into Saigon. On the morning of 30 April one tank broke down the gates of the Presidential Palace, and a soldier ran upstairs to hang the NLF flag from the flagpole. The war was now officially over.

Economy and society 1975–1980

South Vietnam’s liberation was greeted with joy by the left around the world. The slightly breathless assessment of New Left Review echoed the hopes of many:

Indochina has been lost to capitalism at a time of mounting disarray on every front ... the example of a socialist revolution succeeding against such formidable opposition, and after so many cruel disappointments, will stimulate the struggles of the oppressed and exploited everywhere. It will have a special resonance in those many lands where the hopes aroused by the defeat of fascism in the Second World War were to be subsequently frustrated or repressed ... In 1968 the Tet offensive helped to detonate the May events in France. The immediate reverberations of the liberation of Indochina cannot yet be seen, but they will already be silently making history. [49]

Not everyone swallowed these illusions. Socialist Worker rather more soberly argued that:

There are no workers councils in Vietnam, no democratic bodies whereby workers can control the process of industrialisation. And so, inevitably, there will be a clash between those who control the economy and those who do the work. Class differences may have been blurred over by the common struggle against the Americans. But they will not remain blurred. But this cannot detract from the tremendous achievement of the people of Vietnam and Cambodia in throwing out the Americans. By doing so, they have shown oppressed people everywhere that the most powerful regime in the world can be defeated. [50]

Fifteen years on it is clear which was the more accurate assessment. Their defeat was to haunt the US ruling class throughout the 1970s and 1980s, marking the end of the absolute hegemony over the Western world they had enjoyed since 1945. But the history of Vietnam itself has been a particularly cruel and dispiriting one. Far from being an ‘example of a socialist revolution’ to inspire struggles elsewhere, Vietnam today is an economic disaster area, barely able to feed its population.

The liberation forces who took over South Vietnam in 1975 inherited a society ravaged by 30 years of war. At least 3 million people had died since 1965, and as many again were seriously wounded. US planes had dropped 8 million tons of bombs across the country as a whole; untold quantities of napalm and chemical weapons; and over 11 million gallons of Agent Orange (a herbicide containing the deadly poison dioxin) which wiped out over a third of the country’s forests and caused widespread and long term genetic damage.

Vietnamese society had been equally brutally devastated. In the South some 10 million people (half the population) had been forced to flee their homes as refugees, and the cities had swollen enormously. Saigon had grown from 500,000 people in 1945 to between 3.5 and 4 million by 1975. The vast majority of the refugees became either unemployed or worked servicing the US military-official estimates spoke of 500,000 full-time prostitutes alone.

The economy was distorted beyond recognition, both by the effects of the war and by the vast amounts of US ‘aid’ swallowed by the ruling class. Vietnam’s main exports had traditionally been rice and rubber: from 1965 onwards the South was a net importer of rice, while rubber exports declined by two thirds between 1962 and 1973. In 1969–70 export earnings covered just 3 percent of the cost of imports. The industrial decline was such that in 1970 just four French-owned companies – two breweries and two cigarette makers – produced 43 percent of industrial output! [51]

In the North the devastation, though less severe, had been nonetheless crippling. Far fewer people died, because of systematic evacuation of the cities and a massive network of bomb shelters, but the economic damage was massive. Almost 70 percent of the North’s villages were hit by bombing raids, leaving them dependent on Chinese rice simply to feed the population. In industry, the production of coal, cement, timber, paper, bicycles and soap all declined in absolute terms. [52]

The new rulers were only too conscious of their desperate economic plight. The 1976 Fourth Congress of the VCP set the simple target of becoming self-sufficient in food production by 1980, and all the plans for economic recovery were entirely dependent on foreign aid. Le Duan, the VCP Secretary, admitted that ‘accumulation from internal sources is non-existent’. [53] In fact, the Second Five Year Plan, drawn up at that Congress, was largely based on a promise by Richard Nixon of substantial post-war aid for reconstruction-money which was never paid. [54]

In reality, any idea of independent economic development in such a backward and isolated country was impossible, as the horrific events in Cambodia were shortly to prove. Even without the impact of the war that would have been true. As it was, the Vietnamese ruling class did not even have the space to attempt it.

The new government initially leant over backwards to attract Western investment and aid, joining the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank in late 1975, and stressing their willingness to work with Western capital under almost any conditions. But by 1977 they had received only trickles of aid from a few Western European governments, less than $40 million in indirect aid from the US, and nothing from the IMF or World Bank, due to US obstruction. China halved its aid in 1976 cutting it off entirely in 1978. Only Russia was prepared to giveth; necessary aid. In October 1975 Moscow agreed to fund some 60 percent of the Second Five Year Plan. As with Cuba in the early 1960s, Vietnam was driven into dependence on Russia by US intransigence, but in Vietnam’s case their plight was complicated by the growing alliance between China and the US. As the extent of the crisis became more apparent, the state moved quickly to extend its control over the economy.

In the cities of the South this had two major consequences. The first was the dispossession of the wealthiest businessmen and traders in September 1975. In practice, it was essentially an expropriation of Chinese big, and not so big, businesses, justified by a thinly veiled racism which attacked them for being ‘unpatriotic’.

The second consequence was the founding, from 1976 onwards, of the New Economic Zones (NEZs). These were essentially state farms, which were to be built up from scratch by people forcibly moved from the cities. By early 1978 some 750,000 people had been moved to the NEZs. [55] They were created in order to use every available resource to boost production and begin the process of ‘internal accumulation’ to fund the development of industry. The primitive and arduous conditions of life imposed in these state farms were not deliberate punishments; they were rather consequences of the state’s attempts to conserve extremely scarce capital. by spending as little as possible.

The NEZs rapidly came under fire in the West as being nothing more than concentration camps. Supporters of the US war had long argued that if North Vietnam won there would be a bloodbath in the South, and the NEZs were seen as proof of this. In reality, they were nothing of the sort. There were, of course, real prison camps set up for those who had fought the new rulers, but the VCP was lenient compared to the US forces. One of the most hostile sources gives a figure of 343,000 people interned by the end of 1975, of whom 210,000 were South Vietnamese armed forces officers and NCOs, and 73,000 Civilian officials. [56] On this figure, even most former soldiers and officials were not jailed.

To the people who had to live in the NEZs, however, the difference must have seemed academic. Many of them were based in areas where the land was completely unsuitable for large scale agriculture, and all were set up in uninhabited areas where even houses had to be built by the deportees who were supplied with practically nothing in the way of tools or materials.

In the villages the government began by simply setting targets for mandatory grain sales, but from 1977 pushed for the collectivisation of agriculture. This was to be carried out as it had been in the North in the 1950s, based on village level, semi-independent collectives, where state control was mainly concerned with extracting forced deliveries at the end of the harvest. The real aim was to increase the amount that could be squeezed from the countryside. As one VCP politburo member argued, while tax collected on individual farms could be at most 10 percent of the crops, in collectives that could be raised to 30 to 40 percent. [57] The need to increase the amount accumulated was urgent. In 1976 only half of the state purchasing quota was met in the Mekong delta. The figure fell even lower in 1977 and again in 1978, causing widespread shortages in the cities. [58]

In central Vietnam collectivisation went ahead quite quickly. In the coastal plains the peasantry was poorer, lacking in machinery and draught animals, and was far more at the mercy of bad weather. There was also a long tradition of communal land holding, as well as large areas of abandoned land laid waste by the war. But in the Mekong delta the situation was quite different. A ‘Land to the Tiller’ programme of 1972 (which had simply confirmed an NLF land reform) had created a large majority of middle peasants, owning enough land to feed themselves. They resisted both joining the collectives – by 1980 less than half the households in the Mekong delta were in collectives – and producing to the state’s orders.

By late 1977 rice was selling on the black market for ten times the official price, reflecting the massive shortages throughout the country. Major natural disasters (typhoons, floods and droughts) added to the chaos, sending living standards plummeting. In 1979 government workers in Hanoi were rationed to 6–7 kilos of rice a month, and only 2–3 kilos in Ho Chi Minh City (13–14 kilos a month represented basic subsistence). [59] Many people, in particular the 2 million still unemployed in the southern cities, were living on far less.

By 1980 none of the targets for the Second Five Year Plan had been met, and less than half the country’s industrial capacity was in use for lack of power, raw materials or components. The ravages of the war were at the root of this crisis, but two closely linked processes greatly aggravated it: the mass exodus of the ‘boat people’ in 1978–9 and the wars with Cambodia and China. Any understanding of the economic disaster that overtook Vietnam in the late 1970s has to start with those traumatic events.

The tragedy of the ‘boat people’

It was in 1978 that the term ‘boat people’ first came into use, to describe the growing flood of refugees arriving at ports across South East Asia in rickety boats crammed to the brim with people and a few possessions. They became the subjects of a massive propaganda campaign across the West. In Britain, Tory politicians who had joined in the racist outbursts over the arrival of Ugandan Asians in 1976 (and who would demand the forced repatriation of the same ‘boat people’ from Hong Kong in 1989) fell over themselves to welcome the refugees. But it was in the United States that the hysteria reached its greatest heights.

The hypocrisy of those who had called for greater killing of Vietnamese in the 1960s now welcoming them as refugees was rightly denounced by many anti-imperialists. And even the Washington Post noted that:

while the United States is acting to admit more Indochinese immigrants who wash ashore in Asia, it is attempting to deport other thousands of ‘boat people’ who have landed on southern Florida beaches from Haiti. [60]

But because of their Stalinist or Third Worldist politics, many of those who so ably denounced this hypocrisy went on to play down the scale of the tragedy taking place, arguing that the bulk of the refugees were ‘middle class intellectuals’ or former Saigon officials – by implication that they had deserved what they got.

But as the flood continued it became clear that such arguments were simply untrue, and that the refugees were fleeing from a combination of economic crisis and state racism. The vast bulk of the refugees leaving in 1978 and 1979 were members of the Chinese minority in Vietnam who had been forced out. The situation of the Chinese in Vietnam had worsened largely because of the deterioration in relations between China and Vietnam. During the war the VCP had attempted to remain neutral in the Sino-Soviet split, but had always stressed that a key part of their ‘national heritage’ was opposition to Chinese expansionism. This was part of the calculation that pushed them to siding decisively with Moscow after 1975. The argument was spelt out crudely by an unnamed Vietnamese diplomat in 1983:

In all of our history we have been secure from China in only two conditions. One is when China is weak and internally divided. The other is when she has been threatened by barbarians from the north. In the present era, the Russians are our barbarians. [61]

By 1978 the Vietnamese ruling class had clear grounds for concern. China’s cancellation of food aid, support for the Cambodian Khmer Rouge and growing rapprochement with the United States all added up to an obvious threat to Vietnam. But at the same time Chinese hostility had been increased by racist measures taken against the Chinese minority in Vietnam.

In early 1976 a census was taken in preparation for national elections. People were asked to declare their nationality, and it was made clear that anyone who kept Chinese citizenship would lose all civil rights, including rights to food rations. The vast majority of the ethnic Chinese in the south were forced to take Vietnamese citizenship. Later that year all Chinese newspapers and Chinese-run schools were closed down, and the various Chinese community associations were disbanded.

Then in March 1978 a wholesale confiscation of Chinese run businesses in Saigon was carried out, with some 30,000 companies being nationalised. This time there were no veiled allusions to ‘lack of patriotism’ – the argument used to justify the expropriations was starkly racist:

The bourgeois of Chinese descent ... controlled nearly all economic positions, and especially controlled firmly three key fields: processing, distribution and credit. At the end of 1974 they ... nearly achieved a trading monopoly ... They completely controlled the purchase of rice and paddy [unhusked rice] ... through the network of medium and small traders of Chinese origin ... They built a closed world based on blood relations, strict internal discipline and a network of sects ... This was truly a state within a state. [62]

Between 1975 and the beginning of 1978 something like 10,000 people had fled the country, predominantly former Saigon officials and army personnel. In 1978 alone over 150,000 people fled by sea, to be followed by some 270,000 in 1979. But the largest single exodus was by land. After April 1978 several hundred thousand ethnic Chinese applied to leave north Vietnam for China. [63] This made nonsense of the Western claim that the refugees were ‘fleeing from Communism’, and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt the racist nature of the pressures that forced people to leave.

In the north the Chinese community was fully integrated into Vietnamese society as skilled workers, peasants and fishermen. While in south Vietnam the regime clearly wanted to force ethnic Chinese out, this was not the case in the north, as the economic havoc caused by their departure showed. But the climate of fear caused by the rise of official racism made it too dangerous for them to stay.

The human cost of all this was worse than the figures for numbers of refugees indicate, for they only record those who survived the journey. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people drowned or were murdered by pirates. [64] The final sick twist to this tragedy was the fleecing of the departing refugees to accumulate capital for the state. From mid-1978 onwards the government set up offices in southern coastal towns selling exit permits for gold (up to 15 ounces per person) and dollars. On one (admittedly hostile) estimate, this netted the state some US$115 million in 1978 alone. [65]

By 1980, with most of the Chinese minority out of the country, the numbers leaving dropped sharply. Yet large numbers of people still took to the seas (over 85 percent of them ethnic Vietnamese), this time mainly to escape the rigours of the economic crisis then gripping Vietnam, to which the wars of 1978 and 1979 had contributed greatly. That exodus continued throughout the 1980s, yet once the initial propaganda value of the boat people had worn off, the Western governments they looked to largely lost interest m them. By the mid-1980s the US had sharply reduced the numbers allowed in, and gave tacit approval to the policy adopted in several Asian countries of simply towing refugee boats back out to sea. The British authorities in Hong Kong adopted the same policy, and when this failed to stem the tide began to forcibly repatriate refugees to Vietnam. Betrayed by the failure of ‘liberation’, they were to be no less betrayed by the promises of the ‘free world’.

Cambodia before the war

The popular picture of Cambodian history presented by the Western media is one of a happy, peaceful and prosperous country which just wanted the rest of the world to leave it alone until, in 1975, the Khmer Rouge turned the entire country into a concentration camp, systematically organising a genocide unparalleled since Hitler’s murder of the Jews. After 1979 a new and contradictory twist was added to the tale: that Vietnam’s invasion amounted to colonising Cambodia, making the new government simply a puppet of Hanoi. This has been used by the Western powers to Justify refusing any aid for reconstruction or to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government.

The obscene hypocrisy implicit in this – that a regime described by the West as Nazi mass murderers has been kept alive by Western aid has been brilliantly exposed by a few campaigning journalists, most notably John Pilger. [66] But the main argument has been accepted by most of the left, leading to a widespread justification of the Vietnamese invasion as an altruistic liberation of the Cambodian people.

Illusions in the Khmer Rouge were far less widespread on the left than in the case of Vietnam, largely because very few people knew anything about them: One of the few who did, Malcolm Caldwell, a leading British Third Worldist, was murdered on a visit to Pnomh Penh in 1978, almost certainly by the Khmer Rouge. After this it was almost impossible to find anyone who would support them. [67] But they were generally regarded on the left as ‘building socialism’ in some form: and the revelations about the mass murders were even more traumatic for the Third Worldist left than the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people.

But the popular picture is wrong in every major respect. Cambodia before 1970 was a land of huge and growing class divisions. Even in those areas where peasant plots were sufficient to feed a family (the well irrigated plains around the two major rivers) peasant life was far from idyllic. Corrupt officials, moneylenders and merchants all squeezed them dry, and any resistance was met by brutal police repression. As Michael Vickery argues:

for the rural 80–90 percent of the Cambodian people arbitrary justice, sudden violent death, political oppression ... were common facts of life long before the war and revolution of the 1970s. [68]

The surplus drained from the peasants went into consumption by the ruling class, not productive investment. To paraphrase Marx, the limits to the peasants’ exploitation were determined by the walls of the rulers stomachs. By the 1960s those walls had expanded greatly:

Before the modern world impinged on Cambodian life the old system could work passably well .. the propensity to accumulate wealth by the elites must have been limited by the limits of consumption, or use, within the country. In the mid-20th century, however ... [this] involved the acquisition of expensive foreign products, frequent trips abroad ... the result was a generalised corruption and a draining of wealth into unproductive investments. [69]

The political system was equally oppressive. Prince Sihanouk, the ruler of the country since 1941, ran from 1955 a one party state which tolerated no serious opposition. Placed on the throne by a pro-Vichy French colonial administrator he collaborated with Japan until 1945, then again with the French until gaining effective independence in 1953. Yet he allowed the NLF to organise supply bases inside Cambodia, and denounced the US involvement in Vietnam, describing himself as a neutralist. This was simply a recognition of the power realities of Indochina at the time. Sihanouk gambled that a combination of a neutralist foreign policy and an increasingly right-wing domestic policy would keep both sides out of Cambodia.

He was right about North Vietnam, which consistently backed him against the small Cambodian Communist Party, but wrong about the US. In 1970 he was overthrown by an US backed military coup led by his Prime Minister, Lon Nol. US and South Vietnamese forces quickly invaded to attack the NLF sanctuaries, and the devastation of the Vietnam War came to Cambodia’s villages. It was the war that created the Khmer Rouge, as the only serious nationalist force capable of regaining independence.

The Khmer Rouge and the war [70]

Although the Indochinese Communist Party organised in Cambodia in the 1930s and 1940s, their members were almost entirely Vietnamese and Chinese. When it was dissolved in 1951, Cambodian members were reorganised into the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) with some 300 members. But in the war against the French they grew quickly, commanding guerrilla forces of several thousands by 1954. As the Geneva peace talks opened, most of the country was controlled either by the KPRP or nationalist guerrillas increasingly influenced by them.

The Geneva talks, however, gave them nothing at all. With the agreement of Russia, China and the Vietminh, Sihanouk was confirmed as the sole ruler of the country. The KPRP did not even get an area in which to regroup their forces, as the guerrillas in Laos did. They faced a stark choice: move to North Vietnam or take their chances with Sihanouk. Their options were further limited by the erosion of their mass support, as their objective, independence from France, had been won by Sihanouk. Half of them went to Vietnam (where they constituted a separate wing of the KPRP, and were to suffer for it under the Khmer Rouge). Those who returned to the villages met a bloody repression, as whole villages suspected of sympathy with the KPRP were wiped out. By 1960 the movement barely existed in the countryside. In Pnomh Penh their fate was rather different.

Sihanouk alternated between successful attempts to co-opt the KPRP’s intellectuals into government positions, and repression. The combination left the movement seriously weakened. In the late 1950s a third force, students educated in Paris, entered the KPRP. Most of those who were to become notorious as Khmer Rouge leaders after 1975 – Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and Son Sen – came from this group. Their cohesion, and the general weakness of the movement, enabled them to become very influential. By 1960 they held three of the eight places on the KPRP Central Committee.

The repression in the cities increased greatly in the 1960s, as Sihanouk shifted further to the right, and by 1967 the entire movement had been forced to flee to the countryside. There they launched a small scale guerrilla war (against Vietnamese advice) which by 1970 was barely surviving. The military coup and the subsequent invasion changed their fortunes. They formed a National Liberation Front with Sihanouk at its head This quickly became a serious threat to the new government. The choice of Sihanouk despite the fact that he had murdered most of the KPRP’s members, followed from the logic of ‘national unity’. But it also reflected the fact that he retained a great popularity in the countryside.

As in Tsarist Russia and Imperial China, the belief was fostered that the ruler was genuinely concerned with the people’s welfare, and that the miseries of everyday life were the fault of corrupt officials who hid the true facts from him. (Stalin and Mao were later to find this a useful device.) Sihanouk retained a real popularity among many peasants, and his call for an uprising against the military coup was widely followed. One rubber plantation worker described a common experience:

All the rubber plantation workers joined the demonstration. The Lon Nol troops fired on the crowd. I saw about 30 people killed. About 200 of us workers drove back home in three trucks ... I went to say goodbye to my parents, and joined the revolution. I was so angry after being shot at; I wanted to take to the forest and build a new country. I went to Damber … and five companies of fighters, people who had just enlisted, were already in the forest there. [71]

As the war progressed, the contrast between the murderous attitude of south Vietnamese and Cambodian government troops further strengthened the Khmer Rouge. One CIA report admitted that they:

take great care not to antagonise the peasantry. They help them with the harvesting, offer to pay a reasonable sum for the supplies they need, treat the women with respect and refrain from abusive language or behaviour ... They have gained considerable support from the peasantry. [72]

But it was the US bombing campaign above all that drove hundreds of thousands into the resistance. In 1970–1 the US bombing moved deeper into the country affecting the most heavily populated areas. In 1973, after the Paris peace agreements had been signed, the full might of the US Air Force was turned on Cambodia. That year over 250,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped. In one ‘accident’ alone, 30 tonnes of bombs dropped on a suburb of Pnomh Penh – 137 people were killed, over 250 wounded, and the local hospital was destroyed. The plane’s navigator was fined US$700 dollars for carelessness. [73]

No one knows how many people died in the war – estimates vary from 600,000 to over a million. [74] Tens of thousands died in the increasingly desperate battles around Pnomh Penh in the last months of the war, but the vast majority were killed by US bombing and its effects among the 3 million refugees (half the population) created by the bombing. [75] Tens of thousands more were to die after the war from wounds, disease and malnutrition caused by the bombings. There was indeed a systematic genocide carried out in Cambodia in the 1970s, but it was committed by US imperialism, not by the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia 1975–1979

The Khmer Rouge marched into Pnomh Penh in April 1975 to take over a country utterly ruined. Half the population had become refugees, swelling the city’s population to over 2 million, compared to less than 600,000 before the war. Rice production had fallen from 3.8 million tonnes in 1969–70 to an estimated 762,000 in 1973–4. Half the farmland was fallow or unusable because of the bombings, three quarters of all domestic animals and one third of all bridges had been destroyed. [76] As William Shawcross argued, ‘[the bombing] had destroyed the old Cambodia forever.’ [77]

Within days the Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated the entire urban population. They justified this by arguing that the cities had only enough rice for another two weeks (which was true), and that the only way to ward off starvation was to mobilise everyone for the spring planting.

There was, however, a deeper rationale. The new rulers had come to power in a nationalist revolution, committed to a Stalinist model of development which would ultimately place the stress on industrialisation. But with the devastation caused by the war, an immediate stress on industry was unthinkable – most of what little existed was crippled by lack of fuel and raw materials. The agricultural collectives in which the deportees were housed were partly a means of avoiding mass famine by equalising the poverty. More importantly, they were also a more efficient means of extracting a surplus than private farming. The evacuation was not a mindless act of revenge – it flowed from the nationalist politics of the Khmer Rouge, as did their refusal of all foreign aid to feed the hungry.

As one hostile observer admits: ‘By May [the deportees] had all been assigned lodgings in cooperatives, in time for planting.’ She goes on to say:

In some zones these ‘new people’ ... were welcomed with hospitality by the old people who had lived in Khmer Rouge zones during the war. In other zones the ‘new people’ were met with bitter animosity and little food ... everywhere the ‘old people’ or ‘base people’ were overwhelmed with the prospect of incorporating the city people into their village cooperatives. [78]

This contains two important insights into the horrors that were to be reported by refugees. The first concerns the relationship between the peasants and the cities. To the peasants, the cities were parasites, sending officials, merchants and moneylenders to fleece them and giving nothing back to the villages. This was reflected in the attitudes of the Khmer Rouge. The Maoist concept of a peasant army surrounding the cities had become in the minds of most of them a war against the cities.

But there was a simpler material reason for the vicious treatment of the deportees. The villages were faced with having to feed a greater number of months than before, knowing that if the harvest failed all would starve. The deportees had to work the fields as fast as possible, and this had to be enforced by any means necessary – lower rations, beatings and even executions. The brutality with which this was carried out varied enormously, depending on the material circumstances of the particular village, but also partly on the local rulers, whose practice was far from uniform.

For there were enormous differences between different areas of Cambodia. [79] Though there was a centralised Khmer Rouge command in practice real power lay with the commanders of the various regional armies. The post-war power structure reflected this fragmentation. The country was divided into eight zones, whose leaders were effectively autonomous. Broadly speaking, the treatment of the deportees was more humane in the more fertile east of the country, and worst of all in the barren and underpopulated regions. But even within the zones there was an enormous variation from region to region, and even village to village.

It is those differences that belie the pernicious comparison with Hitler’s holocaust. The collectives were organised to produce a surplus for the state, and the extremely harsh conditions of life varied according to economic necessity, and the sadism or humanitarianism of those placed in absolute power. Hitler’s concentration camps were centrally organised machines for the mass murder of millions of human beings because of their race, political beliefs, sexual preferences or state of health.

This is not to whitewash the Khmer Rouge. As I describe below, they were responsible for the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of people. It is rather to argue that the ‘holocaust’ comparison is part of a right-wing propaganda attempt to tie the very idea of socialism to death camps and mass murders. It is a pathological explanation – the Khmer Rouge were evil because they were evil reds – which socialists have to reject.

If we want to understand the awful tragedy of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, the real analogy is with Russia in the 1930s: a ruling class struggling to compete in an extremely hostile world, forcing a murderous pace of work in order to accumulate capital for industrial development, and in the process destroying any real or suspected opposition.

That opposition was substantial. The reappearance of the KPRP members who had gone to North Vietnam in the 1950s, and the great degree of autonomy of local officials, left the group around Pol Pot in a minority. Only two of the eight zone leaders were loyal to Angkar (the organisation, as Pol Pot’s group was known). Once the economy had recovered to a limited extent, those loyalists were used to purge the leaders and cadres of the other zones and install Angkar loyalists. They, in turn, went on to purge the neighbouring zone. But the wider the purges went, the more they took on a logic of their own. Association with anyone who had been purged, failure to meet set targets or just simple incompetence became capital offences. The worst purge of all took place in 1978 in the Eastern zone. Michael Vickery, not a cold warrior, says of this:

... [it] involved tens of thousands, perhaps as many as 100,000 people. They included, first, East Zone cadres; then ‘new’ people of 1975; anyone believed to be Vietnamese, part Vietnamese or pro-Vietnamese; and even many ordinary base peasants. Many ... were killed on the spot; and many of the rest were eventually killed after they reached the Northwest. Even in the relatively bad areas there, people had not seen such brutality before; and most of the mass graves and stacks of bones probably date from that time ... [80]

The Khmer Rouge’s resentment of Vietnam was deep rooted. As they saw it, the Vietnamese had consistently sold out their struggle. Moreover, they accused Vietnam of wanting to colonise Cambodia in the way it had supposedly colonised Laos after 1975. [81] The accusations of colonial aspirations, usually based on ahistorical notions of a thousand year old Vietnamese ‘drive to the south’, were essentially groundless. What is certainly true, however, is that the VCP saw Laos and Cambodia as subordinate to the war in Vietnam. France, and later the United States, saw Indochina as one battlefield; therefore the VCP had to do the same: Vo Nguyen Giap, the VCP’s leading military strategist, argued in 1950:

... We cannot consider Vietnam to be independent so long as Cambodia and Laos are under imperialist domination ... the imperialists used Cambodia to attack Vietnam ... Therefore we need to open the Lao-Cambodia battlefield ... [82]

And there was no question of an equal partnership. The VCP were the ‘elder brothers’ of the nationalist revolution. Vietnamese domination of Laos and Cambodia was not for economic exploitation, but rather for military and strategic reasons. The Laotian nationalists accepted this. The Khmer Rouge did not.

There was a further twist to the relationship. Much of southern Vietnam had been part of the Cambodian empire until the mid-18th century, and the boundaries had been arbitrarily drawn by French imperialism. Vietnam was later to claim that Pol Pot wanted to take back the Mekong delta. Whatever the truth of that, it is certainly the case that the Khmer Rouge began the war, which first broke out at numerous places along the border in 1975. In 1977 the Khmer Rouge launched full scale attacks deep into Vietnam. Elizabeth Becker argues persuasively that:

In 1977 the Pol Pot regime needed an active enemy ... to blame for the awful problems overwhelming their country. There had to be an element of imminent danger in the threat ... And the enemy had to be believable ... it had to be a foreign country with a history of conflicts with the party as well as Cambodia itself. [83]

The gamble appears to have been that Vietnam was in no state to mount a full scale invasion, and that persistent attacks would wear it down. The Vietnamese conclusion was instead that Pol Pot would have to go. Some 60,000 Cambodians had fled to Vietnam by early 1978, and by March numbers of them were being trained for an invasion. [84] The murderous purges in the Eastern Zone in May 1978 brought further mass defections.

On 25 December the invasion was finally launched. Within two weeks they had taken Pnomh Penh, meeting practically no popular opposition. The invasion may not have had the massive support the Vietnamese later claimed, but very few Cambodians were willing to fight for Pol Pot. The original intention was simply to establish a buffer zone to secure Vietnam’s borders, rather than to destroy the Khmer Rouge altogether. A member of the new Cambodian government admitted in 1981 that:

We were just thinking in terms of taking over half the country, the half on one side of the Mekong, and leaving the rest to Pol Pot ... But then when the attack was launched and there was no resistance, they just kept withdrawing, we just kept going. [85]

By April 1979 the last Khmer Rouge bases had been overrun, and they had to retreat into Thailand. Vietnam set up a friendly government in Cambodia, many of whose leaders were drawn from Khmer Rouge rebels. But the cost of their victory was to be far higher than they had anticipated.

Cambodia since 1979

For over ten years between 100,000 and 150,000 Vietnamese troops were stationed in Cambodia, the last of them withdrawing in late 1989. They were unable to drive the Khmer Rouge and other anti-Vietnamese guerrillas out of the refugee camps in Thailand from which they drew their support, and as the Vietnamese withdrew the guerrillas again began to advance. (The other two opposition groups are the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, a collection of quarrelling warlords whose forces are effectively part of the Thai army, and a smaller force of Sihanouk loyalists. The two groups have at most 25,000 fighters, less than half the Khmer Rouge forces. Though all three are linked together in a coalition government, they operate independently and frequently fight each other.)

The Khmer Rouge were kept alive and enabled to regroup by massive amounts of Chinese and US aid, and through the support of United Nations agencies. As John Pilger recorded:

More than half of the funds of the UNICEF and ICRC [United Nations Children’s Fund and International Red Cross] Joint Mission were spent on the Thai border, paying for the needs of some 300,000 people, while between 6 and 7 million people, who represented the population of Cambodia, received the other half ... in 1983 ... Western governments pledged $70 million for work on the Thai border and less than $2 million for all of Cambodia itself. [86]

That imbalance made the camps a magnet for thousands of starving and desperate people. And as the Khmer Rouge controlled the camps and food distribution, they gained thousands of new recruits and conscripts. They also received open military support from the West. Between 1980 and 1986 the US gave them $85 million in direct aid, $54.5 million in 1980 alone. [87] Cambodia itself was placed under a virtual blockade. United Nations recognition of Pol Pot as the ‘legitimate government’ of Cambodia meant that United Nations relief and aid agencies were forbidden to work in Cambodia, despite the fact that by 1983 the IMF was describing it as the poorest country on earth. US charities were refused export licences for vaccines, fish nets, paper and pencils, and even children’s toys.

US support for the Khmer Rouge was essentially aimed at Vietnam, partly out of simple revenge for their defeat in 1975, and partly in order to demonstrate what would happen to any country which followed Vietnam’s example. As in Afghanistan, the objective was not that the forces they backed should win, but rather that they should wear down the enemy. That was why the largest amounts of aid were given in the early 1980s, to enable the Khmer Rouge to rebuild, and then tailed off to smaller sums. But the Khmer Rouge were not simply US puppets, and whatever US policy might be, they were fighting to win.

By early 1990 the guerrillas had won substantial victories over government forces in the west of the country, and Khmer Rouge forces were capable of penetrating Pnomh Penh. Prince Sihanouk’s symbolic return to live in captured territory in January 1990 showed the extent to which the opposition had regained ground. There are two major reasons for this. The first reason is that the Vietnamese occupation has allowed the Khmer Rouge and other opposition forces to pose as genuine nationalists. They have been kept in business primarily by huge amounts of Western and Chinese aid. But guns alone cannot motivate armies. What keeps the young teenage guerrillas going is the conviction that they are fighting to free Cambodia from Vietnamese domination.

The second reason is the condition of the economy and society. Although the economy recovered from its parlous state in the early 1980s, it is still dependent on Russian aid. While life has improved for many Cambodians since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, few people are actively willing to fight for the current regime. And as the regime has turned increasingly to the market to revive economic life, so the old inequalities have returned. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review:

... the growing wealth and corruption in Pnomh Penh following the economic liberalisation earlier this year [1989] is demoralising the government’s troops in the much poorer countryside. [88]

Russian and Vietnamese pressure forced the Cambodian government into negotiations with the resistance coalition, which opened in the Indonesian capital of Djakarta in 1988. But until 1990 nothing had come of them. What started to change things was the sudden US decision to withdraw its support for Pol Pot in mid-1990. This was mainly prompted by the fear that the Khmer Rouge were winning the war, which was never part of US strategy. But it was also related to changing foreign policy priorities. Good relations with the countries around Indochina are now more important than any lingering desire for revenge on Vietnam, while the threat of the ‘Vietnamese example’ is no longer real. Moreover, the enormous changes in Eastern Europe and the growing rapprochement with Russia mean that the old Cold War perspectives are now seen as generally redundant.

The US move sparked off a complex and still largely secret series of moves between China, Vietnam and Russia. The upshot was that the US, Russia and China agreed on a ‘peace plan’ at the United Nations to impose on their respective clients. This led in September 1990 to the founding of a Supreme National Council composed of six members of the Cambodian government and six from the resistance coalition, chaired by Sihanouk. The theory is that this will set dates for disarming the various factions and multi-party elections, to be supervised by the United Nations.

Whether this will work is another matter. All the major powers involved want to wash their hands of Cambodia and stop arming their clients. Russian aid to Vietnam and Cambodia has already been cut back massively, and Vietnam is thus even more desperate for better relations with the US and China. But neither the Khmer Rouge nor the Cambodian government are simply puppets. Neither side has so far agreed to a ceasefire, and both have sufficient arms to wage the war for a good while longer.

Even if it does work, in the sense of ending the war, it holds out no real prospect of change for the mass of the Cambodian people. Both sides are committed to a form of national economic development in which the needs of the majority are subordinate to the needs of accumulation. But it is most unlikely that the plan can work. It is far more probable that the war will go on, though on a smaller scale. The return of the Khmer Rouge would be a disaster for Cambodia, but the present government can offer nothing positive to commit people to fight for them. The simple, brutal reality is that there is no solution to Cambodia’s tragedy within the confines of Cambodia itself.

1979–1990: wars, economic reform and crisis

Vietnam’s ten year occupation of Cambodia ended in 1979 principally because the Vietnamese government could no longer afford it. The occupation had drained even more resources from an already crisis ridden economy and was only affordable because of Russian military aid. When that aid was cut back sharply in 1979, Vietnam was forced to speed up the process of withdrawal.

The problem was compounded by continuing tension with China, which forced Vietnam to keep large armies along the border in case of a repeat of the 1979 invasion. That brief war had cost both sides dearly. On one estimate, 26,000 Chinese and 30,000 Vietnamese soldiers died in the month long fighting, as well as untold numbers of Vietnamese peasants. [89] Three Vietnamese provincial capitals were virtually razed to the ground (towns which had escaped bombing during the US war, precisely because of their proximity to the Chinese border). The Chinese army took a severe beating, because of old equipment and lack of combat experience, and a number of units almost mutinied. But proportionately the cost to Vietnam was far higher.

By mid-1980 the armed forces numbered over a million people (the highest proportion of population in the world) and the defence budget was almost half of total government spending, or about 14 percent of GNP. [90] As the events of the 1980s showed, such a level of military spending can be crippling even for an advanced industrial economy such as Russia. Vietnam began the 1980s in a near terminal state of economic collapse. Paddy output had risen by a mere 467,000 tonnes in four years [91], industry was producing at less than 50 percent of capacity, and corruption was rampant among all levels of the bureaucracy. Only aid from Russia and Eastern Europe kept the regime from total collapse. Yet that aid merely added to the long term problems, for it came at a high price – 86 percent of Vietnam’s export earnings were spent on debt repayments by the end of 1981, and that same year the regime defaulted on repayments to the IMF. [92]

The combination of all of these factors forced a major turn round in economic policy at the start of the 1980s. The VCP announced a package of reforms which both reduced and redirected state control over the economy, given the general title of doi moi (renovation). In industry, factories producing for export were given absolute priority in supply of raw materials, finance and even food rations for their workforce. In addition, private traders in the cities were allowed to compete with state stores in selling food and other necessities. In effect, the black market was legalised.

The biggest changes took place in the countryside. The collective fields were abolished, and peasant families allowed to contract individual plots of land, in a reform very similar to that carried out in China in the late 1970s. [93] Unlike China, however, the collectives continued to distribute seed, fertiliser, and other inputs; to provide (fairly minimal) welfare services; to maintain irrigation systems and machinery; and, most importantly for the state, to collect taxes and the paid requisition of produce. Deliveries to the state were ensured by guaranteed supplies of essential inputs exchanged against fixed amounts of produce (for example, one kilo of phosphate fertiliser cost 1.5 kilos of paddy, irrespective of the market prices). [94]

In the short term the state thus reaped the advantages of the Chinese agricultural reforms, a huge leap in output, while avoiding many of its drawbacks. Between 1979 and 1984 paddy output grew by over 45 percent, while state procurement rose from 10 percent of total grain output to over 22 percent. [95]

It is impossible to know whether the reforms were directly copied from the Chinese experience, but both derived from the same circumstances. Output on the collective fields was stagnating, while productivity was far higher on the individual peasants’ plots. The desired effect in both cases was to raise the level of productivity across agriculture by effectively converting all land to private plots. Melanie Beresford draws a useful parallel with other forms of capitalist agriculture:

... the household plot becomes the means by which the collective body is able to mobilise labour to produce means of subsistence in a way which reduces costs ... the ‘product contract’ system can be seen as an extension of this system of mobilising labour to the collective fields ... to continue the analogy with capitalist farming, we might see the contract system as similar to the use of sharecropping as a way of enhancing the profitability of an enterprise ... by relating income of labourers more directly to effort expended ... and thereby increasing productivity. [96]

The problem, however, is that such extensive methods of exploitation can only raise output up to a certain point. There is a simple physical limit to the hours that can be put in. Beyond that limit, further growth depends on increasing intensive exploitation of the land. In China the assumption was that the peasants’ increased income would be reinvested in the land – which turned out to be quite wrong. In Vietnam the target was simply to feed the cities and so increase industrial output. Even this more modest aim proved impossible.

The end of the Third Five Year Plan in 1985 showed that, while economic growth had recovered from the stagnation of the late 1970s (average annual national income grew 6.4 percent in 1981–86, compared to only 0.4 percent in 1976–80) [97], few of the targets set in the plan had been met. Those targets which had been met were far more modest than the previous plan. More importantly, the limited industrial growth that had been achieved was almost entirely due to costly Russian and Eastern European aid. Exports still failed even to pay for imports, and a growing proportion of national income was going on debt repayments.

The ruling class’s response took two main forms. The Fourth Five Year Plan (1986–1990) altogether abandoned the stress on heavy industry, instead concentrating on agriculture and on the infrastructure. At the same time, it extended the market reforms. Industrial managers were given greater powers to buy and sell on the market, fixed state prices for a number of commodities were abolished, and unprofitable enterprises were threatened with closure. By 1987 a new foreign investment law had come into effect, offering numerous concessions to attract Western investors.

Inside the factories the same logic meant greater emphasis on shifting wages from time rates to a variety of piece-rates. More importantly, on IMF advice food subsidies were abolished in 1985, replaced by general wage rises which supposedly reflected the market prices for food. At the same time a currency reform was introduced which replaced the old unit of currency with a new one at the rate of one for ten, strictly limiting the amounts of old currency which could be exchanged. The aim was to confiscate a large amount of the profits accumulated in the urban markets in the previous few years. The result, combined with the effects of the market reforms, was to plunge the country back into economic crisis. As Melanie Beresford described it:

... it also succeeded in creating acute problems for many state enterprises, which had been in the habit of keeping large amounts of cash on hand in order to be able to by-pass official state trade channels in purchasing scarce inputs ... the sudden drying up of cash holdings only served to disrupt the circulation of goods, further exacerbating the already acute shortages ... in 1986 inflation continued to spiral – with reported rates ranging from 50 percent to 1,000 percent. [98]

It was not the wage rises which created the inflationary pressures. They barely compensated for the abolition of food subsidies. Rather it lay with the private traders’ control of the food supply. They knew that large nominal wage rises and continuing shortages meant they could force prices up. ‘Market forces’ simply took advantage of the currency reform to claw back some of what they had lost in the reform.

But the logic of the market was making the crisis worse in a number of other ways, principally in agriculture. The growth in output had been extremely uneven across the country, strongest in those areas where land was fertile and labour plentiful. In 1984 per capita foodgrain output was 304 kilos, but in the Mekong delta it was 504 kilos. The Red River delta in the north apart, it was the only region producing a surplus for export to other regions. [99]

But that very productivity meant that it became increasingly difficult for the government to control the pace and direction of its growth. As early as 1984 several provinces were reducing the number of paddyfields in order to produce more lucrative fruit and vegetables. This had a double edged effect; while it reduced the amount of surplus grain available to feed other provinces, it provided much needed goods for export to Russia and Eastern Europe, which were demanding a greater return for their aid.

More importantly, the delta’s peasants were were well placed to default on their contracts with the state and sell their grain on the market. The combination of rampant inflation and fixed state prices made this an economic necessity for many peasant families. By the end of 1987 southern provinces as a whole had paid only 54 percent of their grain tax, and also fell far short of meeting their contracted grain sales. [100]

The ‘reformers’ who had pushed through the renovation programme of the early 1980s had succeeded at the sixth VCP Congress in late 1986 in retiring almost all of the wartime generation of VCP leaders. Their reaction to this new crisis was to sack yet more ministers for incompetence, and to launch a renewed purge of corrupt party members and officials. The VCP daily paper charged in August 1988 that:

The relationship between the party and the masses has eroded, and the party’s prestige has waned ... Bureaucratism and alienation from the masses, theft of public property and bribe taking remain prevalent, especially among a small number of cadres who abuse their position and power. [101]

Yet that increase in corruption was largely due to the effects of the market reforms. Decentralisation of economic power to provincial authorities and enterprise managers had allowed such officials to operate independently of the government, building up their own power at the expense of the state. And the various extensions of the free market had created greater opportunities for them to supplement their meagre salaries.

The ‘reformers’ began to infuse something of the spirit of glasnost into the press, using the flood of complaints that appeared about living conditions to put further pressure on the lower levels of the bureaucracy. But in the economic field they stepped up the dismantling of central state controls, allowing peasants to keep more of their crops, increasing the autonomy of factory managers and granting even greater concessions to foreign investors.

These new reforms have failed to solve any of the fundamental problems facing Vietnam. The extent of the dependence on foreign aid was starkly exposed in April and May 1988 when serious famine bit a dozen northern provinces, and the government was forced to beg emergency relief from charities and international relief agencies. While the market has stimulated private trade and luxury consumption for a minority in the cities, it has done nothing to improve the desperate poverty of the vast majority of Vietnam’s inhabitants.

Indeed, it will only deepen the misery. In 1989, as world rice prices rose sharply, Vietnam re-emerged as a major rice exporter. By August almost 500,000 tonnes had been shipped, and the year’s total was close to a million tonnes – roughly 10 percent of the harvest – making Vietnam the world’s third biggest rice exporter. [102] In the summer of 1990 internal shortages led to a doubling of street prices in Ho Chi Minh City, yet 1990 exports were still expected to be double those of 1989. [103] That is a measure, not of the success of the market in stimulating production, but of the truly desperate trap in which Vietnam is caught. The country entered the 1990s poorer and deeper in debt than ever before, entirely dependent for survival on Russian and Eastern European aid. To pay for this ‘aid’ the regime has, literally, to take the food from its people’s mouths. And even that lifeline is now being cut off.

In the first six months of 1990 foreign aid dropped by 63 percent compared to the same period in 1989 [104], and the future looks even bleaker. Russia has insisted that all trade must be calculated in hard currency from January 1991, and that the trading deficit must be paid off by the end of 1991. Given that Vietnam’s debts to the USSR alone stand at over 10 billion roubles, and that in mid-1990 they had enough foreign exchange reserves to pay for two days worth of imports [105], it will be impossible for Vietnam to meet these conditions.

At the same time, the Russian and Eastern European regimes are also cutting off Vietnam’s main source of foreign earnings. Since the mid-1970s Vietnam has ‘exported’ well over 100,000 workers to Russia and Eastern Europe. They have faced treatment even more racist than that meted out to most immigrant workers in the West. In Czechoslovakia, for instance, the first group of Vietnamese workers to arrive had clauses written into their contracts forbidding them to marry Czech women, and threatening any worker who got a woman pregnant with deportation. [106]

They quickly became convenient scapegoats for the new regimes in Eastern Europe. By the end of 1990 Germany and Bulgaria had deported practically all Vietnamese immigrant workers, and substantial numbers had been deported from Poland, Bulgaria and Russia. Gorbachev and the new rulers in Eastern Europe have simply decided that they can no longer afford any support at all for Vietnam. The results are likely to be catastrophic.


‘Now Ho Chi Minh City has one of Asia’s top hotels’ ran the headline on a Far Eastern Economic Review centre page advert. It went on to list its many attractions:

... the deluxe Saigon Floating Hotel is quay side at Hero Square ... offer[ing] 200 fully appointed deluxe air conditioned rooms, which even include satellite TV and hotel purified drinking water ... two international standard restaurants ... discotheque, two bars, 24-hour room service, sauna and gym. [107]

Meanwhile in the same city some 200,000 people are unemployed, with less than half of all school-leavers finding jobs. Demobilised ex-soldiers are begging in the streets, while in the countryside there is serious malnutrition. And, as if to symbolise the tenuousness of Vietnam’s ties to the world market, the hotel is not even built on Vietnamese soil. It is a converted cruise liner, moored at the dockside but – capable of weighing anchor and leaving at any time. Ho Chi Minh City is not unique in South East Asia in showing such extremes of wealth and poverty. But it is a far cry from the dreams of national liberation and socialist transformation that inspired Vietnam’s supporters across the world 20 years ago.

The market will not correct those inequalities: it is the market which creates them. The contract system in agriculture has produced a one off increase in food production, but it has also made it more difficult to get food to the cities at a price that workers and the unemployed can afford. The reforms have freed local officials and managers from layer upon layer of bureaucratic restriction – and allowed them to pursue their own interests irrespective of the wishes of the ruling class. And to the extent that they have attracted foreign capital into the country, the price has been to further distort the ruling class’s aims for the economy. [108]

Yet the ruling class has no choice but to chase greater amounts of Western investment, whatever the cost, to compensate for the loss of the Russian and Eastern European loans and investment which have kept the economy going for the past ten years. The aim of economic independence, fur which the NLF fought for so long, has been abandoned as impossible.

That failure is part of the wider collapse of state capitalism as an economic system, shown most graphically in the Eastern European revolutions of 1989. State capitalism – a centrally directed economy which could develop a modernised industrial base from its own resources and hold its own against world competition – was possible in the conditions of the 1930s, when the world was largely divided into separate trading blocs, as the success of Stalin’s Russia showed. Indeed, as the examples of Iran and South Africa showed, in backward countries it was only the state which could generate industrial development in such conditions.

Again in the post-war world boom it was possible for many countries, both in Eastern Europe and in Africa and Asia, to develop through state directed industrialisation. And again in many such countries it was only the state which could accumulate the necessary capital (and discipline the working class) to make such development possible.

By the 1980s, because of the growing economic interdependence of world capitalism, and the long crisis which began in 1974, such a course was no longer possible. In such conditions the pressures from the increasingly intense competition generated by the world economy could not be held back by national boundaries. The older state capitalist systems could limp on in worsening stagnation, but in countries on the margins of the world system it was simply impossible even to begin the process of independent economic development. The failure in Vietnam was mirrored by similar processes in Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Cuba and Nicaragua. [109]

The convergence of the state and capital was a general trend across the world system, of which the the completely state run economies were simply an extreme example. It had absolutely nothing to do with socialism, that is with working class power. But because so much of the left identified socialism as being state control of the economy, the collapse of state capitalism has thrown them into crisis. The Eastern European revolutions have led many left organisations into decline or collapse, unable to explain why those states failed or to defend any coherent idea of socialism. The tragedies in Vietnam and Cambodia had the same effect on the revolutionary left in the late 1970s and 1980s.

To defend or justify the racist expulsions of the ‘boat people’ as in any way the acts of a ‘socialist’ state meant upholding a definition of socialism that had nothing to do with human freedom, let alone the self-emancipation of the working class. Similarly, to defend the invasion of Cambodia as an act of altruistic liberation made a joke of the very concept of ‘national liberation’. So much was clear to the vast majority of Third Worldist socialists. But their political heritage could provide no rational explanation for the mass exodus of the ‘boat people’, the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, or the horrors of Pol Pot’s killing fields. For many on the left, the impossibility of explaining what had happened led them at best into a retreat from any political commitment; for a minority, it led to their transformation into born again cold warriors. [110] Elizabeth Becker argues rightly that:

The conservatives used the stories from Cambodian refugees to promote the thesis that the post-war horrors proved that the US involvement in the Second Indochina War had been noble. It was a strained leap in logic not supported by the facts ... but it gained credence as long as the left denied there was any truth to the refugee tales. [111]

Vietnam and Cambodia, like Afghanistan and the prison camps of the Russian Gulag Archipelago, became powerful ideological weapons for the right. The decline of the revolutionary left in Europe and North America during the late 1970s had material roots in the downturn in working class struggle and the revival of reformism. But the retreat was made worse by the inability of the vast majority to explain how ‘socialist countries’ or even ‘deformed workers’ states’ could act this way. [112]

The defeat of the US in Vietnam was an enormous gain for workers the world over – it was US imperialism’s worst ever military setback, from which they are only now recovering. But the victory of the NLF never held any prospect of real improvements for Vietnam’s workers and peasants so long as the ruling class’s aim was to build a state run economy which could, eventually, compete both economically and militarily with the world economy. That necessarily implied that the needs of workers and peasants would be subordinated to the needs of capital accumulation.

While that is a general truth about any state capitalist economy, the specific conditions of Vietnam after the war, in particular the wars with Cambodia and China, made the demands on accumulation even greater. That meant both a further squeeze on living standards, and the racist campaign against ethnic Chinese that began the tragedy of the ‘boat people’.

But what failed was in no sense socialism, but rather the myth that a ruling class could isolate itself from the pressures of the world economy. What has happened since the war proves the utter inability of escaping from that power without a struggle against capitalism as a world system. Imperialism continues to dominate and to crush Vietnam. The Vietnamese ruling class·are not passive victims of that process, but very junior players inside the system, seeking to increase their power within it no matter what the cost to Vietnam’s workers and peasants.

The working class has grown substantially since 1974 despite the continual economic dislocations, to something like 2 million, including over 400,000 industrial workers in Ho Chi Minh City alone. While there is ample evidence for their discontent, there are few if any reports of organised working class opposition to the regime. Despite being a small minority of the population, the working class in the 1930s and 1940s Vietnamese workers proved capable of immense struggles against French colonialism and capitalists. It is in the rediscovery of that militant tradition by a new generation of workers that the only real hope for Vietnam lies.


My thanks to Sam Ashman, Sue Caldwell, Sue Clegg, Mike Gonzalez, Teresa O’Donnell, John Rees and Steve Wright for their help, comments and criticisms.

1. C. Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and after, London 1988, p. 67.

2. In particular Guevara and Frantz Fanon. But it was Adolfo Gilly, long-standing member of the Fourth International, who wrote in 1965:

it is easy to imagine that if one day the transistor radio of a Bolivian miner, or a Colombian peasant, or an Algerian fellah tells them that Moscow or Peking have been destroyed by atomic bombs, they will rise up furiously anti instantaneously ... if in the same moment they are also told that ... New York has disappeared from the map, their strength will be multiplied because they will see that their enemies no longer have any support, and they will feel that an immense weight has been lifted from their shoulders.
Introduction to Frantz Fanon, Studies in a Dying Colonialism, London 1989, p. 20.

3. In 1969 a memorial meeting for Ho Chi Minh in London ended in uproar when Chris Harman of the International Socialists spoke of Ho’s responsibility for the murder of Vietnamese Trotskyists. See D. Widgery (ed.), The Left in Britain 1956–1968, London 1976, pp. 412–415.

4. B. Anderson, Imagined Communities, London 1983, p. 11.

5. G. Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of War 1940–75, London 1987, p. 16.

6. M. Beresford, Vietnam: Politics, Economics and Society, London 1988, p. 9 (hereafter referred to as Beresford 1988).

7. See ibid., p13/14, and J. Lacoutre, Ho Chi Minh, London 1969, p. 51.

8. Beresford 1988, p. 13. In October 1930 the name was changed, on Comintern instructions, to the Indochinese Communist Party. Dissolved into the Vietminh in 1941, it was refounded as the Vietnam Workers’ Party in 1951. For simplicity’s sake, I have used the term VCP throughout.

9. Quoted in J. Lacoutre, op. cit., p. 31.

10. For example, in Trotsky’s letter to L’Humanité of 23 July 1921:

Colonial questions are treated in the pages of L’Humanité in much too weak a tone ... The leading article in the 20 May issue dealing with the alleged conspiracy in Indo-China is written in a democratic and not Communist spirit We must utilise every opportunity to implant in the minds of workers that the colonies have the right to rise up against and separate from the metropolises ... Any vagueness in this connection becomes a source of and a cover for chauvinism.
L. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 1, London 1973, pp. 221–222.

11. J. Lacoutre, op. cit., p. 62.

12. This was possible because of the strength of the Trotskyist movement, the absence of any real bourgeois nationalist tradition, and the fact that the Comintern didn’t know what was happening. Once they found out, they quickly stamped on it. There is no good history of Vietnamese Trotskyism in English. Revolutionary History, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Autumn 1990), contains a number of interesting documents which give some sense of their influence and development. The following account draws heavily on these documents.

13. J. Lacoutre, op. cit., p. 68.

14. According to G. Kolko, op. cit., p. 32.

15. Ngo Van Xuyet, On Vietnam, Revolutionary History, op. cit., p. 23.

16. The history of this little known episode is told best in G. Rosie, The British in Vietnam, London 1970.

17. Ngo Van Xuyet, op. cit., p. 23.

18. Quoted in S. Karnow, Vietnam: A History, London 1984, p. 153. The ‘thousand-year Chinese occupation’ ended in 967 AD.

19. G. Kolko, op. cit., p. 84.

20. Ibid., pp. 89, 101.

21. Quoted in S Karnow, op. cit., p. 248.

22. See ibid., pp. 366–374 for a fuller account of the ‘incidents’.

23. Quoted in G. Kolko, op. cit., p. 189. My emphasis – C.H.

24. According to M. Herr, Dispatches, London 1978, p. 25.

25. Quoted in G. Kolko, op. cit., p. 239. The most honest (and most gruesome) accounts of how US soldiers saw the war are M. Herr, op. cit.; M. Baker, Nam, London 1982; and T. O’Brien, If I Die in a Combat Zone, London 1980, and Going after Cacciato, London 1988.

26. S. Karnow, op. cit., p. 487.

27. G. Kolko, op. cit., p. 285.

28. This simplified sketch of a far more complex process follows the account in ibid., pp. 283–292. Explaining the role of arms spending in stabilising the long boom and the contradictions in the boom which led to the US’s relative decline lies outside the scope of this article: for an analysis of this see C. Harman, Explaining the Crisis, London 1984, chapter 3.

29. S. Karnow, op. cit., p. 512.

30. Ibid., p. 488.

31. F. Halstead, Out Now!, New York 1978, p. 89. I have drawn heavily on this excellent account of the movement for much of what follows, and all figures for size and extent of demonstrations not otherwise noted are taken from it.

32. Ibid., p. 95.

33. Quoted in D. Garrow, Bearing the Cross, London 1988, p. 545.

34. C. Harman (1988), p. 76.

35. P. Foner, American Labor and the Indochina War, New York 1971, p. 32. My thanks to Nigel Davey for lending me this valuable source.

36. Ibid., p. 59.

37. F. Halstead, op. cit., pp. 203–4 and 347–8.

38. P. Foner, op. cit., p. 57.

39. G. Kolko, op. cit., p. 172.

40. P. Foner, op. cit., p. 107.

41. C. Harman (1988), p. 75.

42. H.S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, London 1974, p. 135.

43. C. Harman (1988), p. 83.

44. Quoted in W. Shawcross, Sideshow, London 1986, p. 90.

45. Quoted in F. MacLear, op. cit., p. 383.

46. Quoted in F. Halstead, op. cit., p. 639.

47. F. MacLear, op. cit., p. 385. For further details of the collapse of morale, see G. Kolko, op. cit., pp. 363–367 and Halstead, op. cit., pp. 633–42.

48. G. Kolko, op. cit., p. 463.

49. New Left Review 91, May/June 1975, p. 4. The description of the liberation of South Vietnam as a socialist revolution was not one used by the NLF themselves.

50. Socialist Worker, 17 May 1975.

51. Economic figures are taken from Beresford 1988, pp. 147–8, and M. Beresford, National Unification and Economic Development in Vietnam, Basingstoke, 1989, pp. 65–88, hereafter referred to as Beresford 1989.

52. Beresford 1989, pp. 169–170.

53. Quoted in G. Evans and K. Rowley, Red Brotherhood at War, London 1990, p. 38.

54. In a private letter to North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong dated February 1973. The letter promised:

1. The Government of the United States of America will contribute to post-war reconstruction in North Vietnam without any political conditions. [My emphasis – C.H.]
2. ... appropriate programs for the United States contribution to postwar reconstruction will fall in the range of 3.25 billion dollars of grant aid over five years. Other forms of aid will be agreed on between the two parties.
Quoted in Nguyen Van Canh, Vietnam Under Communism 1975-1982, Stanford, California 1985, pp. 231–2.

55. All such figures are massively disputed by pro- and anti-VCP sources. The figure of 750,000 comes from N. Chomsky and E.S. Herman, After the Cataclysm, Montreal 1979, p. 116. Chomsky and Herman are pro-VCP, and so unlikely to accept an inflated figure.

56. Quoted in Nguyen Van Canh, op. cit., pp. 197–199. It should be stressed that this is an extremely hostile source, and the figure given is higher than most other estimates.

57. Quoted in Beresford 1989, op. cit., p. 114.

58. Quoted in Beresford 1988, op. cit., p. 154.

59. Figures taken from K. Rowley and G. Evans, op. cit., p. 55, and Beresford 1988, op. cit., p. 61.

60. Quoted in N. Chomsky and E.S. Herman, op. cit., p. 56.

61. Quoted in ibid., p 135.

62. Quoted in K. Rowley and G. Evans, op. cit., p. 51.

63. All such figures are highly approximate, and the caution given above applies here more than anywhere else. These figures are drawn from Beresford (1978), op. cit., p. 153, Nguyen Van Canh, op. cit., p. 136, and K. Rowley and G. Evans, op. cit., pp. 50–52, all of whom give essentially the same global figures.

64. According to N. Chanda, Brother Enemy, New York 1986, p. 247.

65. On the taxing of refugees, see loc. cit.; King, op. cit., p. 119; and Nguyen, op. cit., pp. 128–9.

66. See, for example, J. Pilger and A. Barnett, Aftermath, London 1982, and J. Pilger, Heroes, London 1989. More recently, Pilger’s TV documentary, Cambodia: the betrayal, shown on British television on 9 October 1990, has provided further damming evidence of Western support for the Khmer Rouge. Valuable as Pilger’s material is, there are serious flaws in his political analysis. His account of the Khmer Rouge is pure demonology, presenting them as psychopathic killers who apparently murder because it is in their nature to do so. He effectively whitewashes the Vietnamese invasion, and presents far too rosy a picture of the Hun Sen regime. Most seriously, in his most recent work (though not in Heroes) he attributes all of Cambodia’s ills to the Khmer Rouge, leaving the US air war entirely out of his account.

67. E. Becker, When the War Was Over, New York 1987, describes the murder on pp. 433–436. Becker was one of the journalists who visited Cambodia with Malcolm Caldwell. I have been unable to find a single book sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge written after 1976.

68. M. Vickery, Cambodia 1975–1982, Sydney 1984, p. 17.

69. Ibid., pp. 22–23.

70. This simplified sketch of a very complex history follows the account in B. Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power, London 1985, the best history of Cambodia before 1975.

71. Ibid., pp. 302–303.

72. Quoted in W. Shawcross, op. cit., pp. 248–9.

73. Ibid., pp. 294–297. B. Kiernan, op. cit., gives harrowing details of what the bombings meant in just a few villages (pp. 349–357).

74. E. Becker, op. cit., p. 183, quotes official (Cambodian) estimates of 500,000 dead m government held areas and 600,000 in Khmer Rouge areas; K. Kiljunen (ed.), Kampuchea: Decade of the Genocide, London 1984, quotes a total estimate of 600,000. All the other sources referred to above give estimates within this range.

75. In March 1975, a month before the end of the war, there were 8,000 reported deaths from hunger in Pnomh Penh alone (Vickery, op. cit., 1984, p. 79).

76. Figures from E. Becker, op. cit., p. 183 and K. Kiljunen, op. cit., pp. 6–8.

77. W. Shawcross, op. cit., p. 264.

78. E. Becker, op. cit., p. 214. ‘New people’ were the deportees from the towns and cities· ‘old’ or ‘base people’ those who had lived under the Khmer Rouge during the war.

79. This section follows closely the discussion in M. Vickery (1984), pp. 64–188, which develops in greatest detail the differences between the various zones and regions.

80. Ibid., p. 136 (my emphasis). The question of how many people the Khmer Rouge killed is so overladen by ideology as to be incapable of resolution. The figures of 2–3 million are almost certainly exaggerations for propaganda purposes: as Vickery notes, the current regime’s figures of 3 million dead and a population in the mid-1980s of 7.2 million are ‘demographically implausible, if not impossible’ (Vickery (1986), p. 3). Vickery (1984), p. 187, gives a figure of:

740,800 deaths in excess of normal and due to the special conditions of [the Khmer Rouge regime] ... over half [of which] would have resulted from hunger, exhaustion and illness,leaving, say, [!!] 2–300,000 to be attributed to executions.

There is something rather nauseating about the casual way in which mass murder on such a scale is dispassionately analysed. Nevertheless, it is probably closest to the real figure.

81. Politically, the war in Laos was as much a faction fight inside the royal family as a national liberation struggle. The Lao nationalists (Pathet Lao) were led by one Prince Souphanouvong (now President) whose half-brother led most governments between 1951 and 1973 (and was after the war an adviser to the new government). The war was mostly fought from the air by the United States – over 2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped between 1963 and 1974, and a quarter of the population became refugees. A coalition government was set up in 1974, and the Pathet Lao, took power after defeat of the US. A good general history is M. Stuart-Fox, Laos: Politics, Economics and Society, London 1986.

82. Quoted in N. Chanda, op. cit., p. 120.

83. E. Becker, op. cit., p. 300.

84. N. Chanda, op. cit., p. 215.

85. Quoted in ibid., pp. 345–346.

86. J. Pilger, op. cit., p. 421.

87. Ibid., p. 420.

88. Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), 14 December 1989, p. 33.

89. K.C. Chen, China’s War with Vietnam, 1979, Stanford, California, p. 115.

90. K. Rowley and G. Evans, op. cit., p. 148.

91. Beresford 1989, p. 113.

92. K. Rowley and G. Evans, op. cit., p. 149.

93. For an explanation of the Chinese agricultural reforms and the problems they have led to, see chapter five of my forthcoming China: The Road to Tiananmen Square, London 1990.

94. Beresford 1988, p. 162. M. Beresford’s two books are far and away the most useful sources on Vietnam’s economy in the 1980s.

95. Beresford 1989, pp. 113–118.

96. Ibid., p. 157.

97. Beresford 1988, op. cit., p. 172.

98. Ibid., p. 169.

99. Beresford 1989, op. cit., pp. 222–223.

100. Asia 1989 Yearbook, FEER, Hongkong 1988, p. 252.

101. Ibid., p. 249.

102. FEER, 3 August 1989.

103. FEER, 16 August 1990.

104. FEER, 30 August 1990.

105. FEER, 5 July 1990.

106. Information from a member of the Czech Left Alternative.

107. FEER, 18 January 1990.

108. In 1988 almost 1,000 groups visited Vietnam to look at investment projects. Just 12 contracts were signed, in electronics, banking, tourism, seafood, and airport development (Asia 1989 Yearbook, p. 253).

109. This is merely a sketch of a far more complex and long drawn out process; for an amplification of it see C. Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, London 1988, and P. Binns, Revolution and State Capitalism in the Third World, International Socialism 2 : 25.

110. This transformation was most significant in France, where a number of former Maoist intellectuals became the intellectual standard bearers of the hard right. For a further explanation of this see G. Elliott, Althusser: The Detour of Theory, London 1987, pp. 275–289.

111. E. Becker, op. cit., p. 383.

112. That confusion was not limited to the Maoist groups. In 1979 a furious polemic developed inside the Fourth International over the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Ernest Mandel argued (correctly) that revolutionaries had to oppose it, but the American SWP defended it. For an account of the dispute, and the questions it raised about the ‘degenerated workers state’ thesis, see P. Goodwin, Razor-sharp factional minds – the FI debates Kampuchea, International Socialism 2 : 5.

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