Reflections on the Vietnam War

Since the Tet Offensive,* propaganda has been churning out deceit with ever greater intensity. While the killing game goes on 10,000 kilometers away, newspapers and television the world over revel in sensationalistic images of an intolerable carnage to which the public is becoming increasingly habituated. This two-way brainwashing helps people to die, or to watch the dying, if their sensitivity has not already been completely dulled by the relentlessly deepening quagmire.

Young Americans go off to defend the “Free World” of the dollar and of military bases in the Pacific, and end up rotting under Russian or Chinese rocket fire in the ricefields and hillsides of Vietnam. Young Vietnamese in one camp or the other are sent to slaughter, willingly or not, in the name of “national independence,” “national liberation,” or “socialism.” Sooner or later the killing will cease, when “peace” is declared by the masters of the contending states. The American survivors will head back to their country’s factories, offices, and farms; the invalid veterans, those left armless or legless, will drag out the remainder of their decorated existence. On the other side of the globe, the “heroes of the resistance” — Vietnamese peasants and workers — will return to their ricefields or find themselves cast into industrialization’s new factories, soon to lose whatever illusions they may have had. Neither the American-style capitalist regime nor Ho Chi Minh’s state capitalism will put an end to their exploitation under a police-state dictatorship. If the bourgeoisie and the landowners are driven out, the bureaucracy will carry on the same exploitation with even greater efficiency.

The Vietnam War is part of the permanent war opposing two capitalist blocs in today’s society. The stake is fundamentally the same as in the World Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 — world domination. What obscures that fundamental aspect is the cooption and manipulation of the anti-imperialist peasant revolts that erupted in Vietnam and elsewhere when the colonial structures collapsed following World War II. The bourgeois nationalist or “Communist” parties brought to power by those “peasant wars,” with the major powers’ direct or indirect acquiescence, took over as ruling bureaucracies and converted the rebel peasantry into hierarchical troops whose struggle ultimately benefited one bloc or the other. The so-called wars of “national liberation” enable the two opposing Cold War powers to test their respective strengths without going to war directly against each other. The newly formed states amount to nothing more than a change in the form of exploitation.

The United States, engaged in a policy of coexistence with Russia and its satellites, tacitly accepts the fact that Russia is neutralizing China’s influence by delivering prescribed doses of arms to Ho Chi Minh and the NLF. The Russians, for their part, have no reason to fear a prolonged war that unremittingly bleeds America dry. This bloodbath also presents a favorable opportunity for China, which is striving to become a great power: the two larger vultures’ fight over the carrion gives China time to develop its atomic weaponry and to prepare for its entry into the Southeast Asian free-for-all.

As for the working class, as long as its existence is not directly threatened it remains indifferent to the destructive designs of its masters. The experience of the last two World Wars is tragic but instructive: the majority of workers, like most other people, marched behind the flag of their exploiters in each camp, despite the heroic resistance of a handful of revolutionary workers and intellectuals.

In the United States, the active participation of students, intellectuals and hippies in the antiwar movement, however significant, is powerless without working-class support. As for the American labor unions, they are accomplices to Johnson’s policies.

In Europe, intellectuals swallow and regurgitate the lies of the “Communist” camp. When people like Sartre and Bertrand Russell parrot the Nuremburg Trials to denounce American “aggression” and “war crimes,”* they are not condemning the war as such. They avoid challenging the social content of a conflict which, far from liberating workers and peasants, can lead to nothing but a change of masters; they employ the legalistic jargon in fashion since the last war, lending it new credibility rather than exposing it as a lie. In reality, the slaves sent to their death are the dupes and victims of the barbarism of both camps. What do words like “aggression” and “war crimes” mean to them, when peace and war are decided exclusively by their masters? Are we to believe that those gentlemen who call for resistance by others to the point of total extermination would be satisfied if the war was fought with bayonets and rifles instead of napalm and cluster bombs, or if the blankets of bombs from B52s were dropped on combatants alone instead of razing villages and blowing women and children to pieces?

Everyone is receptive to the image disseminated by the Stalinist-orchestrated leftwing propaganda, which depicts the North as David bringing down Goliath; everyone is revolted by the destruction; everyone sympathizes with the sufferings of a population cruelly afflicted for the past twenty-eight years; and everyone naïvely applauds the heroism of the combatants without realizing that warmongering heroism can mask every type of enslavement and every type of tyranny. Hence the widespread tendency to think that victory by Ho Chi Minh and the NLF over America would restore an “equitable” peace in the world. The French Communist Party has taken full advantage of this popular sentiment, especially after the latest developments: in Hanoi, Waldeck-Rochet loyally parroted the Russian line, thereby incidentally serving de Gaulle’s policy.*

The only way to really stop the killing and prevent any possibility of further genocides is through an awakening awareness by the workers of the world. The antiwar struggle has to come from the workers of the United States and from the workers and peasants of Vietnam, and it must be integrally connected with a struggle for emancipation from capital, whether “democratic” or “Communist.” Although we must regretfully admit that we currently see no such prospect emerging, we should let nothing prevent us from fighting the mystifications that shroud the true face of this war, a war whose victims are, as always, the workers and peasants.

April 1968


“Réflexions préliminaires sur la guerre au Viêt-nam” originally appeared in Cahiers de discussion sur le Socialisme de conseils #8 (Paris, April 1968). This translation by Ken Knabb is from Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010).

[Spanish translation of this text]
[Italian translation of this text]