Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Book Review: "People's History of the Vietnam War"

Book Review: “A Peoples’ History of the Vietnam War”, by Jonathan Neale, 2001

This book is part of a series of peoples’ histories, edited by, who else, Howard Zinn. These books take the view of ordinary people, as distinguished from the ‘great man’ histories, mostly typical of bourgeois historiography. Besides Zinn’s own groundbreaking volume on the United States, it also includes probably the best book every written on the U.S. Civil War, predictably titled “A People’s History of the Civil War” by Georgia professor David Williams. The latter includes the well known struggle in the North against the aims of the northern capitalist class. But its central narrative is the almost unknown majority mass struggle against the war and the planter aristocracy by white southern workers, sharecroppers and small farmers. A taste of this was seen in the film, “Cold Mountain.” This book puts to rest the myth of the South united under slavery, propagated by apologists for the Confederacy. A myth many northerners also buy into.

No such grand feat is accomplished by this volume by Neale, who is a writer and also supporter of the Schactmanite International Socialist Organization (ISO) at Amherst. However, it includes some valuable and oft-overlooked aspects to the Vietnam war, even to those familiar with the basic story. Neale has to compete with books like “Working Class War” by Christian G Appy. To do so, he attempts to talk about the Vietnamese side as well, applying a class analysis all around. Neale himself is a PHD graduate of Warwick University in England.


Neale makes a convincing case that the domino effect, pooh-poohed by liberals, was actually an operative factor. The war against the Soviet Union and China, the ‘cold war” behind all these events, was a war waged to prop up world-wide U.S. hegemony. Neale himself thinks the cold war was a war by the U.S. against other ‘capitalist’ powers. This analysis is the long running weakness in the book. It makes the Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions out to be, yes, ‘capitalist’ revolutions, lead by the bourgeoisie! Those clever, progressive capitalists … ! In effect, he diminishes the actual global class war that was raging between classes.

Neale contends that the domino theory is real. Anti-communism had been the glue that welded U.S. employers and the government together against the labor movement here at home. They used anti-communism to successfully ‘declaw’ the movement of reds in the '50s. McCarthyism actually existed long before McCarthy, starting under Truman and J Edgar Hoover, and was mostly directed at the labor movement. 3,000 longshoreman lost their jobs due to it. Here in Minnesota, chubby Hubert Humphrey helped purge the "Democratic" Farmer Labor Party of reds and leftists. In addition, the military ‘draw’ in Korea was still fresh in the minds of the U.S. ruling class. The Cuban revolution had just turned to the left. The U.S. was afraid a success by the Vietnamese could spill over into Cambodia and Laos.

Neale brings up Exhibit D, much forgotten, the peoples’ movement in Indonesia, where a mass Communist movement contested for power. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and its labor and peasant allies were drowned in blood by Sukarno in 1965. Over half a million people were slaughtered by the government army and their right wing Muslim allies. The spine to do this was put into Sukarno by U.S. military support of the various South Vietnamese regimes. 450,000 U.S. troops were within a day’s flight sitting in Vietnam. And orders from the CIA, of course, as Indonesia was far more important to U.S. imperialism than Vietnam. Liberals shed no tears over this slaughter – they approved it. They never mention it.

And of course, Laos and Cambodia did fall. We must recall Che Guevara's call for "two, three, many Vietnams." The eventual military defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam is the cause for the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ that still exists – a seeming reluctance by the majority of the American population to die in a foreign war. It is still in effect, even through two Iraq wars. Yes, folks, it was quite a defeat. There was a domino effect.


Anyone who reads about the war in Vietnam, the “American” war, knows that ordinary Vietnamese peasants and workers had to contend with the most aggressive military tactics and ordinance known to mankind. According to Neale, 1.5-2 million Vietnames peasants, Viet Cong and NVA died in Vietnam alone, though the Vietnamese own numbers are higher. Neale puts the total for all countries at 3 million. The numbers are staggering, of humans and animals dead, wounded, crippled, ecosystems destroyed, poisons unleashed, buildings razed, dikes broken, paddies flooded, bridges bombed, across three countries - Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In Cambodia several hundred-thousand peasants died under bomb attacks approved by the U.S. and the Lon Nol government, nearly a tenth of the population. The Plain of Jars in Laos was made a wasteland. Schools, hospitals, churches, pagodas even leper colonies in North Vietnam were repeatedly bombed and strafed by John McCain and his compatriots. Neale cites eye-witnesses at one leper colony, which suffered 36 bombings. Anti-personnel bombs holding 180,000 darts a piece were dropped. The U.S. dropped 8 million tons of ordinance in all sectors – 3 times the weight of all bombs dropped by ALL sides in World War II. Yes, read that again. 3 times the weight of all bombs dropped by ALL sides in WW II.

And why is it that to defeat fascism in WW II or the U.S. in Vietnam, millions had to die? While to defeat the dreaded USSR, hardly anyone died in the counter-revolution lead by Boris Yeltsin? Think about it.

The point of all this was break the will of the population to resist. It didn’t work, but it wrecked havoc on the Vietnamese people. The book, “Sorrow of War”, by Bao Ninh, a north Vietnamese soldier, is the most poignant description of that misery, and one of the great books every written about war. You can buy it from crippled Vietnamese soldiers on the streets of Hanoi to this day.


For all the blowhard reactionaries who still think we should have ‘escalated’ the war in Vietnam, there was one ace in the hole held by the Vietnamese resistance movements that is relatively unknown. To his credit, Neale brings is up. China had troops in north Vietnam, seeded in various locations, working some anti-aircraft guns, barracked in others. A large scale invasion, a nuclear attack, a mass parachute drop – any event like this could have precipitated the involvement of China, and if China had been attacked, the Russians could also have become involved. Both countries were supplying Vietnam with weapons and aid. This is why it never happened. So it was not just the ‘little’ Vietnamese people against the ‘big’ Americans, though that is most of the story. It was a global front against the United States.


Neale has chapters on the resistance at home against the war, and the resistance within the military. He cites the 1969 anti-war march of 500,000 as the biggest march in U.S. history, bigger than the anti-poverty march headed by Dr. King. This is familiar territory for most readers, so I will not repeat it. Neale’s chapters on the resistance in the military reminds us of how broad the military opposition was – to the point where the draft army would no longer fight – something the brass and the government knew in 1970-71. 93,000 mostly working-class soldiers deserted between 1968-1972. There were hundreds of anti-war newspapers on every military base in the world, the names of which Neale details. Navy ships had their own, like the USS Coral Sea and the USS Constellation. Even the Air Force, the aristocracy of the military, had anti-war activists. One fighter pilot and one B-52 bomber pilot refused to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong during the Christmas bombing campaign in 1972. The B-52 crews at Guam and U Tapao in Thailand had such bad ‘morale’ that many bombing flights were canceled.

These are the airmen we should celebrate, not John McCain. McCain was the son of a long line of brass, and still thinks he should inherit the U.S. military. He was born with a silver sword in his mouth. May he choke on it.


After the success of the war against the Americans, the Vietnamese still did not have peace. They intervened in Cambodia in 1978 to defend themselves from constant cross border raids by the Khymer Rouge, and defended themselves from the Chinese in 1979. Only in 1989 did peace come to the Vietnamese when they pulled out of Cambodia after the fall of the USSR, whose proxy they had become. They have now been at peace for almost 20 years, an unheard of luxury and a great source of happiness for the Vietnamese people.

Neale covers the red thread of the story of rice and land, which is the heart of Vietnamese relations in the country-side. There was a small working class in the cities, in which some Trotskyists were active. Trotksyists were also working on some of the rubber plantations in the south. The Trotskyists took part in the Saigon general strike of 1938 and participated in the Saigon revolt of August 21, 1945. However, the bulk of the population were landless or commune peasants. The French always supported local large landlords against the collective property of the villages, or the smaller landholders. The French extracted extortionate rice levies and tax levies, subsuming poor peasants into debt or sharecropping, or into wage labor, in order to pay the tax. Large landlords then got larger. This was the main reason the Communists and Viet Minh were able to gain solid support in the rural areas, because when they took power in an area, they threw out the landlords and distributed the land, while lowering taxes. The overwhelming growth of the Viet Cong in the South was due to this same policy.

In spite of this, Neale’s theory is that the Vietnamese Communist Party was dominated by intellectual ‘mandarin’ cadres closer to ‘progressive’ landlords than peasants. While they became revolutionaries of sorts (I guess), once taking power they treated the peasants much like the old landlords of yore, taxing them of their rice beyond endurance. As a result, the Vietnamese cooperatives during and after the war, while modeled after earlier Vietnamese rural forms, were impoverished by demands from the urban ‘state.’ Neale calls this ‘state capitalism.’ Later, land divisions in 1988 resulted in many old landlords with friends in high places regaining much of their land.

I find this argument unconvincing. I have seen the village Ho was from, and it is extremely modest, just outside Hue. I would not call these people ‘very’ mandarin! It is possible that the peasants could have been supplied with urban goods, education and health care, in exchange for their rice levies. I think it was a program of uber-industrialization and forced collectivization, based on a Stalinist model, that resulted in the impoverishment of the peasantry, and not the presence of an alleged ‘state capitalism.’ The fact the landlords were able to re-gain some land after the land dispersal in 1988 reflects a lack of democracy under the Vietnamese workers state – the bureaucracy has always had close ties with businessmen, as we have seen over and over again. Nevertheless, Neale’s history of the development of Vietnamese rural relations is extremely factual, and brings a relatively untold story to U.S. readers.

As a response, Neale reports that strike levels since the '90s, outside the official unions in Vietnam, run higher than in bourgeois democracies, including our own paradise of labor. A recent strike over rice in northern Vietnam against a Taiwanese clothing factory made world-wide headlines. Perhaps the storied patience and 'labor peace' promised to our lords of capital in the lowly 'third' world is ending. This shows the Vietnamese working class is mobilizing again. Their history would predict nothing less.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog, 6/24/2008

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