IV. Military Line
In Vietnam military line was decisive; that is, it was the concentrated expression of ideological and political line in the concrete conditions of the struggle in Vietnam over several decades. For the greater part of the last 50 years, war was the main form of the Vietnamese revolution. Hence, an analysis of the military line and strategy of the Vietnamese leadership is key to understanding, and must of necessity reflect, the roots of the political and ideological line that led them into the camp of revisionism and social-imperialism.
In his work On Protracted War, Mao Tsetung pointed out that:
“In the struggle, correct subjective direction [i.e. correct direction by the subjective factor, leadership in the war] can transform inferiority into superiority and passivity into initiative, and incorrect subjective direction can do the opposite. The fact that every ruling dynasty was defeated by revolutionary armies shows that mere superiority in certain respects does not guarantee the initiative, much less the final victory. The inferior side can wrest the initiative and victory from the superior side by securing certain conditions through active subjective endeavor in accordance with the actual circumstances.”54
There is no question that in terms of military and technological might, the Vietnamese were vastly inferior to the French and U.S. imperialists. The imperialists and all their military masterminds could never figure out how it was possible for the people of Vietnam to win against such odds, how a small country fighting a just war of liberation could defeat imperialists fighting a war of aggression. In a 1969 article on the war, General Giap referred to Lenin to put a finger on the basic reasons for this. Lenin, he said, pointed out that “in the final analysis, victory in any war is determined by the willingness of the masses to shed blood on the battlefield. The masses’ awareness of the cause and objectives of the war is of very great significance and is a guarantee of victory.” Further, he quoted Lenin’s analysis that “whichever has more reserves and human resources and whoever can stand more firmly among the masses and people than others will win victory in a war.”55
The heroic and selfless resistance of the Vietnamese people in their millions in both the north and the south is testimony to their willingness to shed blood on the battlefield and of their awareness, to a large extent at least, of the causes and objectives of the war. And together with the low morale, the constant disintegration and the open rebellion of the French, U.S. and puppet troops, coupled with the growing hatred towards the war and the unwillingness to continue aggression among the masses in the imperialist countries themselves and the world-wide support for the just revolutionary struggle, is proof that what Lenin said applied to the victory of the Vietnamese people.
But there is another, and today more immediate question that must be answered. How is it that a country that fought so long and so valiantly to drive out Japanese, French and U.S. imperialism could fall so quickly into the clutches of Soviet imperialism, defeated not by armed might, but betrayed from within?
We have already begun to show that overall and at key junctures a revisionist line increasingly dominated in the Vietnam Workers’ Party. And the next section will demonstrate that far from building socialism, the VWP has locked the country into a neo-colonialist relationship to the Soviets and has turned the country into a swamp of capitalist relations of exploitation.
But how could a Party so infected with revisionism and opportunism lead the people to victory over French and U.S. imperialism?
First of all, bourgeois or petty bourgeois nationalists, as opposed to proletarian, Marxist-Leninist forces can and have led successful military struggles against reactionary regimes and colonialist and imperialist armies. To cite just a few examples, this was true in Cuba56, Algeria, South Yemen, Angola, Mozambique and Nicaragua. But the decisive factor, as is also shown in these countries, is that, despite the fact that the leading parties and organizations in many of these countries call themselves Marxist, only a party thoroughly rooted in and guided by a Marxist-Leninist line can lead the struggle to complete victory, i.e. to real independence from imperialism and carry through the struggle to build a society free from exploitation and oppression. In almost every case cited above of a victorious national liberation struggle in an underdeveloped country, the liberation war has led to new forms of colonial dependence and subjugation to imperialist countries, principally the U.S. or the Soviet Union.57
Secondly, the objective conditions and contradictions in these colonial and semi-colonial countries largely determine the form the struggle will take, as well as giving them their overall progressive, anti-imperialist character. Lacking the sophisticated military and technological capability of the oppressor, which results in a decided initial balance of forces in favor of the enemy, it is generally necessary for the popular forces to wage a protracted, people’s war. That is, even to accomplish the defeat of the immediate enemy, let alone to win complete emancipation, even bourgeois revolutionaries must, to a certain degree, rely on the mobilization of the masses of people and the strength of the masses, who are largely armed with only the most primitive weapons. They are able to mobilize the masses because the struggle is objectively in their interests, yet are also able to assert bourgeois leadership because the bourgeois nationalists have a common battle with the masses: to get rid of the colonialist regime.
Generally the struggle has initially taken the form of guerilla war, where small, highly mobile popular forces hit the enemy where they can defeat it, quickly and decisively, and in every battle gradually strengthening the popular forces and weakening the enemy. This war must be waged over a long period of time because the enemy, due to its superiority, will not weaken easily and quickly. As the balance of forces begins to shift, and the popular forces grow stronger, regular military units can be formed, and the enemy can be taken on successfully in larger engagements. Since most of the colonial and neo-colonial countries are primarily semi-feudal, with predominantly peasant populations concentrated in the rural areas, while the enemy forces and strength are concentrated in the cities, these wars have usually taken the form of surrounding the cities from the countryside.
Mao Tsetung summed up the theory and strategy of people’s war, and carried it to its highest level, in the course of the Chinese Revolution. He described the protracted people’s war as overall a war of attrition. But within this overall war of attrition, it was key to fight battles of annihilation, to wipe out the enemy’s forces bit by bit and gradually change the balance of forces. He did not argue for protracted war for the sake of dragging it out. His point was that the struggle must be waged in a way that deals the heaviest blows to the enemy while conserving and strengthening the people’s forces. He stressed the importance of luring the enemy in deep, surrounding it with the masses, cutting off its forces into various parts and annihilating them; he insisted on the principle of concentrating a superior force against a numerically inferior force to wipe it out in any particular battle or campaign.
Mao did not look at the strategy of people’s war from a purely military standpoint—it was based on an overall evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the people and the enemy—militarily, politically and economically. This strategy was important in weakening the enemy politically and in strengthening the people’s forces politically, both to win military victory and to carry through and build on that victory so that, having driven out the imperialists and their domestic lackeys, the masses of people could move forward to construct a socialist society.
Mao put the strategy of people’s war in the context of the two-stage revolution necessary in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, a revolution that required and was defined by proletarian leadership. Without such leadership it is impossible to carry through the first stage of the struggle to completion and to advance to the second, socialist stage. Both waging people’s war and building socialism require educating, mobilizing and relying on the masses of people. The bourgeoisie and those imbued with a bourgeois line, even if at the time they do not constitute a bourgeois class as such, are able to do this only in a limited way and around limited, i.e. nationalist, aims. This is because of their fundamental contradiction with the masses, because they want to get rid of the old rulers and exploiters so that bourgeois class interests can develop and hold sway. At every step their orientation is to look for some other means of victory or shortcut to victory that will forestall or reduce the necessity of mobilizing and relying on the masses, for even when forced to rely on the masses to a degree, their bourgeois outlook makes them recoil at the sight of the people aroused in revolutionary struggle.
This bourgeois orientation comes out very sharply today in the line advanced by the USSR and embraced by bourgeois nationalist forces who have led liberation struggles in many of the colonial and semi-colonial countries. They say that it is only possible to defeat U.S. imperialism by relying on Soviet aid and arms—and paying the political price that will be extracted for such aid. And after initial victory has been won, this line argues that the only way to successfully develop and “modernize” the economy and the country as a whole is to rely on aid, imports of technology (including military) and advisors from more advanced and industrialized countries of the Soviet bloc. This is a tried and tested neo-colonialist line. The U.S. imperialists ran a similar line as they sought to replace European colonialism in Asia and Africa after World War 2.
But the Chinese revolution had great influence on Vietnam and the leadership of the Vietnamese resistance, as they themselves admitted. Early in their struggle against French colonial domination, the Vietnamese leaders adopted the strategy of people’s war. From their writings it is evident, at least early on, that there was some ideological unity with Mao’s line on the question of people’s war and new democracy. And even from the standpoint of the pragmatism that increasingly dominated their own outlook, they had to admit that it worked. As Le Duan said in summing up the method of proceeding step by step to victory: “Nothing succeeds like success...”58
But while they made use of the Chinese experience, the Vietnamese leaders during the course of the war against U.S. imperialism also expressed sharp disagreement with key aspects of it. Of particular significance was their opposition to Mao’s formulation of the tactic of concentrating a superior force to defeat a numerically inferior force. As Le Duan put it, “… our troops and people have invented unique tactical methods which enable a lesser force to attack a larger force.” This was not just a question of military tactics, but involved, as we shall gee, the question of which is principal, relying on the masses vs. reliance on weapons and technology and the extent to which it is necessary to mobilize and politically educate the masses.
Of course, it is not the case that the revolutionary struggle in one country should mechanically and slavishly follow the example and experiences of another country, nor is it that one country should not creatively adopt a generally correct strategy to the particularities of its own situation. Neither is it a matter of looking at differences in military strategy and tactics and saying the Vietnamese leaders must be revisionist because they deviated at this or that point from Mao’s policies. What has to be assessed is how the Vietnamese leaders looked at the struggle and the military strategy and tactics overall, and what orientation and political line was expressed in their military policies. Some of the roots of their military line could be seen in the war against the French, but these tendencies became full-blown in the war against U.S. imperialism.
When the war against France began, the balance of forces was clearly in favor of the colonialists. As a Party history describes the situation:
“Our resistance war began in extremely difficult conditions. The horrible famine caused by the French and the Japanese in 1945 had almost exhausted our people. The enemy possessed air, naval and land forces with modern weapons. We had only a newly organized infantry with little experience and lacking everything.”59
The Party quickly adopted a three-stage plan of protracted people’s war.
“Early in 1947, Comrade Truong Chinh wrote The Resistance Will Win .... The fundamental principles were laid down as follows: our people were fighting against imperialism—an enemy possessing a strong army and plenty of weapons. That is why we had to fight a protracted war in the course of which we were to put out of action an increasing number of enemy effectives while preserving and developing our own forces.... To fight a protracted resistance war, we had to rely on our own forces....To win victory, it was necessary to unite the entire people, mobilize their manpower, material resources and intellectual capabilities for resistance, and struggle in all fields-military, political, economic and cultural. Our people’s protracted resistance was to go through three stages: strategic defensive, active attrition and general counter-offensive.”60
As can be seen, this approach generally corresponded with the people’s war strategy Mao developed for China. The first years of the war were battles of movement and position, with the Viet Minh preventing the French from consolidating their hold on the countryside. The guerrilla force units grew in strength and the mobile regular force units were welded together. The French first tried the strategy of lightning attacks to wipe out concentrations of Viet Minh troops and prevent the establishment of base areas in the north. The victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949 marked an important advance in the war, for it gave the Viet Minh ready access to a steady supply of arms and a base area for the training of troops. There then began a series of musical chairs changes in the French command and battlefield strategies for defeating the Viet Minh.
Finally the French decided to abandon their attempts to extend their forces and occupy the countryside, and instead hit upon the strategy of concentrating their troops in the population centers of the Red River Delta and the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong in the North, where most of the military action was centered. In mid-1953 the French generals and their U.S. advisors and financiers hit upon their “war to the end” plan. The Navarre Plan, as it was called, aimed on the one hand to launch a mopping-up campaign to destroy the Viet Minh guerrilla bases and to attack the Vietnamese free zone on the Chinese border in order to attract and exhaust their main forces. Simultaneously, the French intended to create new battalions of puppet soldiers and regroup new units in the Red River Delta.
Giap describes the Viet Minh strategy to break the Navarre plan:
“The concrete problem was: the enemy was concentrating forces in the Red River delta and launching attacks on our free zones. Now, had we to concentrate our forces to face the enemy or to mobilize them for attacks in other directions? The problem was difficult. In concentrating our forces to fight the enemy in the delta we could defend our free zone: but here the enemy was still strong, and we could easily be decimated. On the other hand, in attacking in other directions with our main forces, we could exploit the vulnerable points of the enemy to annihilate the bulk of their forces; but our free zone would thus be threatened.... Keeping the initiative, we should concentrate our forces to attack strategic points which were relatively vulnerable. If we succeeded in keeping the initiative, we could achieve successes and compel the enemy to scatter their forces, and finally, their plan to threaten our free zone could not be realized.”61
That describes what happened. In the winter-spring campaign of 1953-54 the Viet Minh launched rapid-fire major campaigns throughout the length of Vietnam and even in Laos and Cambodia. The French were forced to break the Red River Delta concentration to run troops from one place to the other to block the offensive. When the battle centered in northern Laos, the French began building up their troop concentration at Dien Bien Phu, an eleven-mile long plateau in the mountainous northeastern section of Vietnam which they had already been fortifying to serve as a springboard to an offensive against the free zone in the northeast. Dien Bien Phu became the focus. The French considered it an impregnable fortress. Almost twenty thousand troops were concentrated in three heavily fortified bases, protected by heavy artillery placed in the foothills above.
The Vietnamese decided to take Dien Bien Phu, to attack the enemy’s strongest fortified entrenched camp and win a decisive victory. It was a classic siege battle, and in 55 days of blistering warfare, beginning March 13, 1954, the Viet Minh broke the enemy defenses and dealt the French a devastating defeat. The losses were tremendous on both sides, but it broke the back of the French and their determination to carry on the war.
Dien Bien Phu was the culmination of eight years of people’s war in which the Viet Minh wore down the strength of the enemy while building up their own. The sole criterion for the decision to launch the battle, said Giap, was whether they could win. Based on a range of factors, they determined they could—and they were right. Given the conditions, the strategy of taking Dien Bien Phu was correct. But in looking back on Dien Bien Phu from the perspective of the war against the U.S. imperialists that began on a full scale ten years later, and the military line that emerged during that war, it seems clear that an outlook accompanied that victory, and grew, which was far from entirely correct. The Vietnamese leaders’ summation of Dien Bien Phu was an important factor, as an overall revisionist line increasingly held sway, in orienting them towards a strategy of quick and decisive victory won with regular troops in major battles and away from thoroughly mobilizing the masses in people’s war. And further, a declining French imperialism in 1954 was not the same enemy as U.S. imperialism in 1965 or 1968.
U.S. designs on Vietnam were not subtle. In the months leading up to the Geneva accords in July 1954, the U.S. imperialists pushed a plan to get Britain and France to go along with a “united action” invasion of Vietnam to block a Viet Minh victory. Failing in that, they were the ramrod for the eventual settlement which, in effect, divided the country at the 16th parallel, and they moved swiftly to consolidate the U.S. puppet Ngo Dinh Diem regime in the south.
When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, the U.S. faced a major crisis in its efforts to maintain its stranglehold on south Vietnam. Despite all its efforts, the Diem regime was in a shambles. His ruthless and bloody measures to reimpose landlord rule and feudal conditions on the people in the regions that had been liberated by the Viet Minh during the war against the French, and the overall rampant decay and degeneration, corruption and oppressiveness of the regime, with its U.S.-trained and supplied police and military, had given rise to an intense wave of popular resistance and struggle.
As the resistance to Diem’s government became increasingly active, and non-communist as well as communist anti-imperialist forces felt the brunt of his oppressive measures, it became clear that the struggle was moving, largely spontaneously, to a higher and more organized level. The leaders of north Vietnam, despite their line about cooling out the struggle in the south and concentrating on the construction of the north, clearly understood that not to play a more active and supportive role in the south possibly risked losing leadership to non-Party elements. Their decision to take a more active role in the growing resistance war in the south was manifested both in the resolution at the Third Party Congress in late 1960 that the struggle in the south was one of the two major tasks of the Party, though the secondary one, and in the formation of the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam.
The NLF was formed in December 1960. It united and galvanized many nationalist forces and the masses of people in growing political struggle and open guerrilla warfare against the U.S. and its puppet Diem. The American ruling class called for new measures to reassert its control, and Kennedy responded with his “special war” in south Vietnam devised by General Maxwell Taylor, who eventually became the U.S. ambassador in Saigon.
This special war brought a drastic increase in U.S. military “advisers” in the south and greatly increased military and economic aid to Diem. One of the special features of this special war was the U.S. “strategic hamlet” plan, a forerunner of Johnson’s pacification program for the countryside, which boiled down to turning villages in the rural areas where the liberation forces were strong and active into concentration camps.
Even before LBJ took over, Kennedy’s special war was a proven failure in the face of NLF victories, and Diem had shown himself increasingly useless to U.S. objectives. So the U.S. imperialists had Diem assassinated and installed another puppet. Later, Johnson replaced the “special war” with his own escalation, termed “limited war.”
During this period the Vietnamese leadership in the north attempted to follow the line set at the Third Party Congress of “restricting” the war in the south while building the north as a “strong base area.” It would be silly to suggest that the NLF was formed in opposition to, or even completely independent of, the leadership in the north. On the other hand, between the settlement at Geneva and the formation of the NLF in 1960, the resistance movement in the south had developed self-reliantly, uniting not only former Viet Minh cadre and supporters, but other anti-Diem, nationalist forces. The practical effect of these developments and the fact of minimal aid from the north was that the struggle waged by the NLF against the U.S. and its puppets developed as a people’s war, and at this stage, a guerrilla war. And it began to rip apart U.S. dreams of stabilizing the situation and consolidating its grip.
By 1964 the U.S. faced the decision of accepting a defeat in the south or escalating the war. Needless to say, it chose escalation. Using the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 as a pretext, Johnson soon ordered the bombing of the north and by early 1965 had begun “Americanizing” the war by sending in the first huge waves of U.S. troops that would eventually reach a force level of over half a million men.
The developments in the struggle in the south and the U.S. escalation and bombing of the north forced a change in the priorities and military approach of the Vietnamese leaders in the north and, at least temporarily, in their public stance regarding the political and ideological struggle between China and the Soviet Union, as described above.
The Chinese revolutionaries had continued to stress to the Vietnamese the aggressive nature of U.S. imperialism and the fact that it would stop at nothing to maintain and extend domination of Indochina, and this had an aspect of sharp two-line struggle between them over the line of de-emphasizing in practice the struggle in the south.
As it became more apparent to the Vietnamese leaders that the policy set at the Third Party Congress could not work in the way they had envisioned, and that the U.S. imperialists left them no option but military struggle, Ho, Le Duan and the other Vietnamese leaders did their flip-flop towards the Chinese. In 1962 they took a more open and direct hand in the leadership of the NLF with the formation of the People’s Revolutionary Party in south Vietnam and increased their statements about the necessity of armed people’s war—as well as their attacks on “modern revisionism.”
The bombing of the north and the ground troop escalation in the south brought a new turn, however, and revealed the extent of the Vietnamese leadership’s unity with the Soviets, not only on the questions of socialist construction and the major issues at stake in the Sino-Soviet debate, but on questions of military strategy as well. For when Kosygin came to Hanoi in 1965 with promises of aid, and received the warm reception that resulted in dropping Hanoi’s attacks on modern revisionism, he was promising Soviet-style aid on Soviet terms—fighting a Soviet revisionist kind of war, which de-emphasized the mobilization of, and reliance on, the masses in people’s war. And behind the new Soviet willingness to supply military aid for the Vietnamese there was no intention of seeing the struggle through to military victory. The aid was coupled with a renewed and continued Soviet pressure for a negotiated settlement with the U.S.
In contrast to the kind of military aid supplied by the Chinese (mainly AK-47’s and other small arms needed to fight a people’s war—although they also supplied anti-aircraft artillery as well as manpower for road-building, etc.), Soviet aid did not predicate a protracted people’s war—just the opposite. The Soviets described their aid in a letter against the Chinese circulated at the 23rd Congress of the CPSU in 1966:
“The Soviet Union delivers large amounts of weapons to the D.R.V., including rocket installations, anti-aircraft artillery, airplanes, tanks, coastal artillery, warships and other items.... The D.R.V. is receiving support in the training of pilots, rocket personnel, tank drivers, artillerymen and so on.”62
This was not the type of military aid required for the kind of war that the Vietnamese would be forced to fight, but it was the kind of aid that would make them dependent on the Soviets for training, technology and replacements. And if the Vietnamese became enmeshed in the web of Soviet aid, it would give them considerable leverage, if not outright control, over the military policy and goals of the Vietnamese struggle. It was military aid for fighting large-scale regular troop engagements with the enemy—in line with the Soviet hopes of quickly forcing the struggle to a negotiated settlement when the battlefield situation would have been decisively against the Vietnamese. The approach and intentions of the Soviets were seen in their scurrilous attack on and distortion of the Chinese position in the 23rd Congress letter:
“... the Chinese leaders need a lengthy Vietnam war to maintain international tensions, to represent China as a ‘besieged fortress.’ There is every reason to assert that it is one of the goals of the Chinese leadership to originate a military conflict between the U.S.S.R. and the United States. They want a clash of the U.S.S.R. and the United States so that they may, as they themselves say, ‘sit on the mountain and watch the fight of the tigers.’”63
What the Chinese feared and fought against was the Vietnamese getting themselves in a position where they could be sold out by the Russians. For Soviet aid was not in contradiction to continued Soviet collaboration with the U.S. imperialists. The Chinese were, and correctly so, worried about the joint efforts of the U.S. and the USSR to encircle and perhaps even attack China. And in fact, there were at the time important sections of the U.S. bourgeoisie who thought that it might not be such a bad thing at all if the Vietnamese became dependent on Soviet-style aid, or even if there were a direct Soviet presence in the north. Zbigniew Brzezinski, long a major imperialist spokesman on such matters, voiced this opinion in 1965:
“... eventually, an arrangement might be contrived involving the stationing of Soviet troops in North Vietnam ... while American troops remain in South Vietnam ... one of the paradoxical advantages of more direct Soviet military involvement would be the establishment of a direct American-Soviet bargaining relationship in this area.”64
In fact, in the first stage of the war after the U.S. escalation and the sending of north Vietnamese army regulars to the south, the Vietnamese approach was principally one of seeking decisive victories against the U.S. puppet troops in regular unit pitched battles. A secret memo from the Undersecretary of Defense to MacNamara in 1967, when the U.S. was trying to evaluate the troop levels they thought would be necessary to defeat the NLF, makes this clear:
“From reliable detailed accounts of 56 platoon-sized and large fire-fights in 1966 we have classified these fights according to how they developed. The first four categories in the table all represent cases in which the enemy willingly and knowingly stood and fought in a pitched battle, these categories include 47 (86%) of the 56 battles.”65
In other words, the Vietnamese tended towards a strategy of slugging it out with the U.S. with regular forces—and of course relying on the type of Soviet aid that would push them even more in this direction. Why? For one thing we must look at the link between the Vietnamese leaders’ approach towards socialist construction in the north and their initial military strategy in 1965-66. At a stage when the completion of the democratic revolution in the south was clearly still the principal contradiction facing the people of Vietnam, the leadership focused instead on the industrialization of the north. Not that it was wrong to move rapidly to build up the economy of the north, and to make it as strong as possible a base area for the war that was inevitable. But was that really the outlook of the VWP? Rather, their embrace of the Soviet pollyanna talk about peaceful coexistence and restriction of the struggle in the south indicates that their outlook was more one of seeing an outbreak of struggle in the south as an interference to carrying out the principal task of modernization of the north. Hence a desire for a quick and decisive victory over the U.S. in order to prevent the destruction of the new industrial base that would result because of the U.S. air war. At least they hoped that there might be some chance of a quick negotiated settlement.
But despite their search for a shortcut to victory, it was soon apparent to the north Vietnamese leadership that the conditions were unfavorable for a negotiated settlement at the time. With the U.S. troop build-up in the south in full stride in 1966 and ’67, the military struggle was far from resolved, and negotiations could only lead to consolidation of the U.S. grip on the south. In late 1966 the Vietnamese leaders also seem to have summed up that a policy of attempting to meet U.S. forces head on with regular army units would not work.
In 1966 the chairman of the reunification department of the VWP analyzed the line on the military struggle and negotiations promoted by different forces:
“The Americans find it necessary to negotiate, but negotiate from a strong position.... A number of countries want us to enter into negotiations, any form of negotiations—so that a big war does not break out and that the war can be ended—regardless of the interests of Vietnam. Some other countries wonder whether we can defeat the Americans, and if not, [they think] we should enter into negotiations. (Most of these countries are nationalist countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.) A number of East European socialist countries hold the view that [proper] conditions [for negotiations] do prevail, and are ripe for achieving success.... China holds the view that conditions for negotiations are not yet ripe [and will] not [be] until a few years from now, and, even worse, seven years from now. In the meantime, we should continue fighting to bog down the enemy.... Our policy: to continue fighting until a certain time when we can fight and negotiate at the same time.”66
But although they were forced in practice to oppose Soviet (i.e. “Eastern European”) pressures and turn again more towards the people’s war strategy, which was called for by the conditions and necessities of the war, their inclination to look for a quick and decisive victory and the tendency to emphasize high-technology warfare remained.
Throughout the writings of General Giap and other Vietnamese leaders, there is a potpourri of formulations describing the kind of war that they were fighting. What emerged from all this, in theory as well as practice, was not something absolutely and in every case incorrect. But theirs was an overall orientation which, while not by any means eliminating the role of the masses in the struggle, tended to glamorize and put increasing emphasis on the highly technical operations of “a new type” of people’s war, “the method of independent fighting by the crack special units, whose numbers are small, but whose quality is high.” And this concept was posed as an alternative in opposition to Mao’s line of always concentrating a superior force to defeat an inferior force. This strategy did lay “special emphasis on developing the highest efficiency in the use of all kinds of weapons and equipment.”67
In brief, the military strategy and line developed by Giap and the other leaders after 1966 can be summarized as follows: The heart of the fighting force is the regular unit army, and particularly independent fighting by each armed branch. “Aside from the infantry force, the other armed branches of the liberation armed forces, such as the artillery units, the crack special units, the engineer units, the anti-aircraft units, and so forth, have their fighting methods.”68 The masses armed with more primitive weapons are mobilized to provide a fighting force auxiliary to these forces and to supply the necessary logistical and production support. Hence Giap states: “Our Party advocates the necessity of associating modern and relatively modern weapons with rudimentary weapons, and of continually improving and modernizing our weapons and equipment in such a way that the fighting power of our three forces and all our people will increase.”69 But other statements, such as “Arms and equipment are the material and technical base of combat armies, the basic element of their strength,”70 along with the growing emphasis on these well-equipped crack units, reveal what the Vietnamese leaders actually saw overall as key to victory.
According to Giap, the front of the battle is everywhere—the mountainous areas, the rural areas (plains and deltas), and the towns. Throughout, there is no differentiation as to which is principal and why. This is related to the strategy of constant offensive, whether with the crack units in smaller engagements, or with full regular units in larger battles. And while there was clearly an accompanying strategy of guerrilla actions trapping and ambushing the enemy, there was much less emphasis on luring the enemy in deep and surrounding it with the masses, part of what Mao described the strategic defensive.
In the development of the stages of people’s war, the final phase of general counter-offensive takes the form of general insurrection. In this view of the final stage, Giap seems to draw heavily on the experience of the August 1945 revolution when the enemy stronghold in Hanoi collapsed from within, accompanied by a general uprising.
The Vietnam war showed the inexhaustible enthusiasm of the masses for a people’s war. But this lesson was lost on the Vietnamese leaders who continually sought for one shortcut after another to victory, hoping to avoid a protracted conflict.
It is interesting to note the assessment of a bourgeois, but sympathetic, French military expert in 1970. He comments that Giap’s ideas about the crack, elite military units are closer to Che Guevara’s concept of a guerrilla elite than to Mao’s theories. These highly mobile small groups, composed primarily of various types of specialists and armed with high-quality equipment and artillery, were the spearhead of the Tet offensive.
However the Vietnamese leaders actually viewed the balance of forces in 1966 and most of 1967, by the end of 1967 they began to say that the conditions were favorable for launching an all-out offensive that would spark a general uprising in the south and lead to final victory in a short period of time.71 On January 29, 1968, during the Tet Lunar holiday, such a coordinated general offensive was launched throughout south Vietnam. Liberation forces attacked every major city in the south. In Saigon they hit the Military High Command headquarters and the U.S. Embassy itself. NLF and DRV forces occupied the old capital city of Hue for 25 days. But if the military leadership expected a general popular uprising to follow, such did not occur.
The Tet offensive was a stinging political defeat for the U.S. imperialists and their puppet regime. It exploded the garbage that the U.S. rulers had been pumping through the American media that the Saigon regime had the support of the masses of people, that the NLF was virtually defeated and incapable of mounting an offensive. In the U.S., Tet gave increased momentum to the growing anti-war movement.
In Vietnam itself the Tet offensive had a significant demoralizing effect on U.S. troops and marked a new wave of resistance to the war inside the U.S. military. And it was a severe blow to the puppet regime. During the Tet offensive, large numbers of Saigon government agents and lackeys were executed, which had a decisively chilling effect on those who might have considered following in the same line of work.
It forced a massive “A to Z” re-evaluation of the U.S. war strategy, particularly the efficacy of pouring in hundreds of thousands more troops as General Westmoreland urged, and a new estimation of the growing anti-war sentiment among the American people. The 45-day Tet offensive led to the recall of Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, and forced the resignation of LBJ, whose whole Vietnam strategy, with its “pacification” and “search and destroy” campaigns, was thoroughly discredited; and finally, it pushed the U.S. to make an offer to open negotiations.
But the liberation forces also suffered heavy losses and in the end were unable to hold any of the cities. Much of their infrastructure of underground cadres in the cities of the south was either forced to withdraw with the PLAF troops or, if they remained in the cities, now exposed, were wiped out by the U.S. and its puppet forces.
How should the Tet offensive be evaluated militarily and in terms of the line guiding it? U.S. military “experts” to this day insist that the Tet offensive was a military defeat for the Vietnamese forces, that although caught by surprise, the puppet army fought well. They claim that it was only the hysterical negativism of the U.S. press that portrayed the battle as a defeat for the U.S. and Saigon regime. But this view of Tet was countered even by Pentagon analysts themselves at the time:
“The political reality which faced President Johnson was that ‘more of the same’ in South Vietnam, with an increased commitment of American lives and money and its consequent impact on the country, accompanied by no guarantee of military victory in the near future, had become unacceptable to these elements of the American public. The optimistic military reports of progress in the war no longer rang true after the shock of the Tet offensive.”72
The fact however, is that the Tet offensive did not achieve a military victory for the Vietnamese in the sense of toppling the Saigon regime with a general uprising and driving the U.S. out. But it did have a tremendous impact and was really the turning point in the war.
But what was the outlook and orientation of the Vietnamese leadership in launching Tet, what were their objectives and how was this reflected in their further conduct of the war? On the surface, there seem to be two possibilities: either they actually thought that they could win a decisive victory in the Tet offensive and grossly miscalculated, or, they never had any intention of winning a military victory but instead saw it as a negotiating ploy in hopes of getting the U.S. to start peace talks.
Neither interpretation, however, gets to the essence of the situation. Much more likely, and consistent with the VWP’s efforts to win quick and decisive victory, is that they were looking back at Dien Bien Phu and aiming at a military action that would deal a severe blow to the U.S. imperialists and destroy their will to continue the war. And they did not look at this in purely military terms either. For some time the Vietnamese leaders had given particular attention and importance to the growing anti-war sentiment in the U.S. It seems that what they hoped for was a military victory, not on the scale of Dien Bien Phu (massive and decisive), but at least one that would severely weaken the puppet government’s position in the south and dramatically change the battlefield conditions to such an extent that, coupled with its impact inside the U.S., it would force the Johnson administration (or its successor, as the timing of Tet with the 1968 elections was hardly coincidental) to negotiate a quick end to the war.
Militarily and politically this represented two errors. First it was an overestimation of the effectiveness of the “crack elite units” and their ability to take on and decisively defeat U.S. and puppet troops in large-scale and extended confrontations. And second, it was a definite underestimation of the determination of the U.S. imperialists to hold on to Indochina. For, as pointed out earlier, U.S. imperialism in 1968 was not French imperialism in 1954.
A strong argument for the degree to which the Vietnamese leaders failed to understand the nature of the U.S. ruling class and its determination to win victory in Vietnam is the way they approached “exploiting the contradictions within the ranks of the enemy camp.” On the one hand they spoke of the contradiction between the American government and the American people,73 but the way they dealt with this in practice was to try to concentrate on the contradictions they saw within the bourgeoisie itself, for example, between Johnson and McCarthy in 1968, or in 1972, between Nixon and McGovern. And at the same time, they actually helped to promote some of these bourgeois forces as leaders of the anti-war movement and as representatives of the opposition of the masses of people to the war.
Here, as well as in their general assessment of the strength and determination of the enemy in launching the Tet offensive, they were blinded by their desire to find a shortcut to victory and by their failure to apply materialist dialectics to the analysis of the concrete conditions.
The fact of the matter is that the positive accomplishments of the Tet offensive, the demoralization of the enemy ranks, the impetus given to the anti-war movement in the U.S., and so on, could have been achieved in the course of continuing to wage protracted people’s war, including waging major battles—but on a correct basis. Nor would it necessarily have taken years to accomplish.
This whole period in the war reveals also how the VWP understood mobilizing and relying on the masses. For while they certainly did rely on the masses—from the role the people played in the arduous, and what the French thought be the impossible, task of pushing heavy artillery pieces through the mountains to attack Dien Bien Phu, to the heroic work of hundreds of thousands of people ferrying thousands of tons of equipment and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail under intense U.S. bombardment—they saw the masses’ role (in an overall sense, not merely militarily) as secondary and supportive to the role played by the well-armed regular units, to the brilliance of military logistics and tactical planning, and really, to the arms supplied by the Soviets and other countries.
Seen in its best light, the Tet offensive was a shining testimony to the power of the struggle of the masses and wars of national liberation fought by the whole people. The Chinese emphasized those aspects of Tet that spoke to the power of the correct strategy of people’s war. A March 25 report in the Chinese news agency Hsinhua stated: “The great Tet victories of the P.L.A.F. and people are eloquent proof of the fact that people’s war is an effective magic weapon in dealing with U.S. imperialism and its lackeys. In the sublime spring offensive, the south Vietnamese people were mobilized and organized in tens of thousands in the city and countryside and they joined the P.L.A.F. in besieging and wiping out the enemy.”74
Yet the political and military line of the Vietnamese leadership represented by the Tet offensive was something considerably less than “sublime.” And the Chinese gave ample evidence of their view with a sort of backhanded complimenting of the offensive that was all that circumstances would let them say (or would be correct to say) publicly at the time. Hsinhua commented on March 19: “At present the U.S. aggressors are engaging in unbridled massacre and persecution of the people rising up against them in the cities and towns in the fond hope of reversing the situation. However… as our great leader Chairman Mao has pointed out, ‘all military adventures and political deceptions by U.S. imperialism are doomed to fail.’ So long as the south Vietnamese people... follow up their victories and press ahead, surmount every difficulty, persevere in protracted war, give full play to the matchless might of people’s war and continuously wipe out the enemy’s effective strength, they are bound to win final victory.”75
This and subsequent statements by the Chinese were hitting at the “short-cut” outlook and any attempt by the Vietnamese leaders to try to pull a victory out of the U.S. imperialists at the negotiating table when it had not yet been won on the battlefield.
Of course there is nothing wrong in principle with negotiations. Sometimes they are a necessary and correct form of, as Mao said, “giving tit for tat.” And there is nothing wrong in principle with the liberation forces of a country like Vietnam waging offensives on the scale of Tet. But what is decisive throughout any of the phases and stages of the struggle is the political line which leads the struggle; whether the leaders strive to keep the initiative in the hands of the masses and in a thoroughgoing way rely on the masses and their conscious activism as the only force capable of completely defeating the enemy, or instead go in for schemes and idealist notions that the enemy can be defeated by any method short of this mobilization of the masses and perseverance in struggle. The way in which the Vietnamese leadership approached the question of negotiations, as well as any of the possible explanations of the Tet offensive, display their unwillingness to really rely on the masses to carry the struggle through to the end.
The Chinese took an extremely dim view of the negotiations which began in 1968.76 They saw behind them, with good reason, the sinister hand of U.S.-Soviet collaboration to put an end to the “dangerous situation” in Vietnam. Throughout 1967 the Soviets had been exerting heavy pressure to get negotiations started. “This,” said the Chinese, “is a vain attempt to coax and coerce the Vietnamese people into laying down their arms and capitulating to the U.S. aggressors in the midst of their tremendous and many victories in the war against U.S. aggression and for national salvation.”77
But there was an objective contradiction between Soviet and Vietnamese interests. For while the former would have been willing to settle for an agreement that left the U.S. power intact in the south, the Vietnamese were not. And neither were the U.S. imperialists looking at the negotiations as a “way out” in 1968. Their aim was to force the DRV forces to withdraw from the south and use the negotiations to strengthen their puppet troops against the NLF. As part of their negotiating strategy, the U.S. alternated between “pauses” in the war in the south and greatly intensifying both the ground and air war. And the slackening of the war in the south was accompanied by an intensification of the war in Laos and Cambodia, where the U.S. had two objectives: destroying NLF sanctuaries and interdicting the flow of supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail; and propping up the puppet regimes in those two countries and dealing blows to the Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge forces.
While the war continued to rage in the south, at varying degrees of intensity, what came to characterize the Vietnamese strategy was fighting geared mainly to influence the negotiations, and to try to make breakthroughs at certain junctures in the negotiations with more large-scale engagements. During the next few years the focus of the fighting shifted to Laos and Cambodia. In the U.S., opposition to the war reached flood-tide proportions. Nixon began the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the “Vietnamization” of the war, coupled with intensification of the air war.
After Tet, the tendency it represented was strengthened—to go along with the Soviet line of big battles, and fighting geared to negotiations and U.S. political elections. The liberation forces did not launch another major offensive until the spring of 1972, which again clearly seemed tied to the upcoming elections in the U.S. Again it was a large-scale, regular troop confrontation, with most of the battles taking the form of fixed positional warfare. One of the most intensive battles was for An Loc northwest of Saigon, just inside the Laotian border. Like Tet, while it was not militarily successful in the sense of taking and holding key cities and provinces, it did accelerate the demand for withdrawal and an end to the war in the U.S. And it was coupled with Vietnamese efforts to promote the election of McGovern.
Despite their hopes of quick victory through decisive battles, the approach the Vietnamese leadership tried to follow could not bring the quick settlement that they were looking for. In fact, the actual peace agreement was not signed until five years after negotiations began, and the final victory took seven years.
So in the final analysis, despite the efforts in the opposite direction, the Vietnamese leaders were forced to rely on a strategy more in keeping with people’s war against the U.S. imperialists. They were required to a certain extent to mobilize the masses of people. But the military line implemented by the VWP and what followed after the victory over the U.S. underscores what the Chinese Party had written on this subject: that while people’s war can be led, at least to some degree, by various class forces, and forces representing classes other than the proletariat can, to varying degrees, mobilize the masses to defeat the immediate enemy, the struggle cannot he carried through to ultimate victory under their leadership. And in the case of Vietnam, these bourgeois forces that were in control of the revolutionary struggle betrayed the victory and the people to the Soviet imperialists.
For their nationalist reasons, the Vietnamese leaders were prepared to fight the U.S. imperialists to the end. With the same nationalist outlook, they believed that they could accept massive military aid from the USSR and not fall completely under Soviet domination. But while this was possible to a certain extent during the war itself, imperialist aid never comes with “no strings attached,” as the Vietnamese were to find out fully after the defeat of the U.S., when the Soviets called in their chips. And when the Vietnamese leadership was relieved of the constraints of fighting a people’s war against the U.S., its own revisionist outlook came to full flower, both in terms of its overall policies for Vietnam, and military, as it quickly transformed its army into a “mighty force” to hurl against the Cambodians—and to de facto occupy Laos.
The Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea is vivid proof that, while they were forced to wage people’s war against the U.S., these bourgeois leaders never really understood it or thoroughly based themselves on it. In their effort to extend Soviet domination in Southeast Asia and advance their own “great power” ambitions, the Vietnamese launched what they thought would be a blitzkrieg attack to bring down the government and party of Democratic Kampuchea and install their own puppet regime, just as the U.S. had attempted to do in Vietnam. Instead, just like the U.S., they have won some temporary success because of their initially superior military might. But they have themselves now become bogged down and enmeshed in combating a people’s war waged by the people of Kampuchea. The Vietnamese revisionists could well find this war as difficult to win as the U.S. found its war in Vietnam to be.