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Ian Birchall

Vietnam: Myth and Reality

(February 1973)

From Notes of the Month, International Socialism (1st series), No.55, February 1973, pp.3-4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ian Birchall writes: The Vietnam war began as a struggle for freedom, and, above all, for land, by the ordinary people of South Vietnam. As such, it was a war quite different in nature from, say, the Korean war, which was a power struggle between the two great blocs of which the Korean people were merely passive victims. Far from being the aggressor, the North Vietnamese regime was in fact scandalously slow in coming to the aid of those fighting in the South. As for Russia and China, their support has always been half-hearted, though the Sino-Soviet dispute made it impossible for either of them to be openly seen to abandon the Vietnamese. The Chinese, who pressured the Vietnamese into the ill-starred compromise of the 1954 Geneva agreements, have always had a minimal participation in the Vietnamese struggle, and it has become a growing embarrassment to them in their new international strategy. And the Russians, faced with internal economic difficulties, are equally anxious to get the war over with.

The Vietnamese National Liberation Front, by its courage, tenacity and success, aroused the justified admiration of socialists throughout the world. Even the recent savage bombing could not break them; the dispersal of population and the large areas of friendly territory in Laos and Cambodia mean they could continue the war for years to come.

It would, however, be quite wrong to accept the rather complacent myths about Vietnam that have had wide currency on the left. The Vietnamese are not ‘invincible’; they are not the spearhead of world revolution, the force that can shatter US imperialism. The North Vietnamese have made very considerable concessions in the negotiations over the last few months. Nor is there any magic quality in guerrilla warfare, as many believed in the late sixties; indeed, as the war has gone on it has been forced increasingly into conventional forms.

The programme of the NLF is not a socialist programme; it is, in the tradition of Mao and the Popular Front, explicitly class-collaborationist. While there are reports of a hard-line opposition to the NLF in South Vietnam, this no more offers a political alternative than, say, the Provisional IRA. And this absence of a class programme is one of the reasons for the almost complete absence of urban working class support for the NLF. Of course the Vietnamese working class is small, ana there are objective social and economic reasons for its passivity. But the working class has grown during the war; it does have traditions of revolutionary struggle; and a decisive move by Saigon workers could have changed the course of the war. Politics count, and in these terms the NLF has failed.

However the negotiations turn out, the future for Vietnam is bleak. For the peasants, poverty and terror will remain. Struggle between pro- and anti-Communists, between Thieu and his rivals, will inevitably intensify. Even if the US withdraw completely, it may not be a permanent farewell.

But the impact of Vietnam extends far beyond South-East Asia. It has taught nationalists throughout the underdeveloped world that US imperialism can be beaten into at least a partial retreat. The war has probed the deep sores of American capitalism; it has taught American blacks the reality of their condition – and many of them it has taught to fire a gun in self-defence. In Europe Vietnam provided one of the first bridgeheads by which revolutionary ideas began to find their way back to the masses. It is the success of these new struggles that will decide the place of the Vietnam war in history.

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Last updated: 27.1.2008