Vietnam’s long struggle for independence culminated in victories for this small country against the military might of France and of America…
Forty years ago Saigon was liberated and the long Vietnam War effectively came to an end. The Vietnamese fight for independence has ancient roots. The nation emerged in 208 BC, forged in response to incursions from China. Vietnam repeatedly challenged domination by its much larger neighbour. Periods of independence alternated with occupations that were resisted or repelled.
When the French occupied Vietnam in 1858, struggle against foreign invaders was already a tradition. There were periodic uprisings against this Western empire too. By 1930 the Indochinese Communist Party was formed and opposition gathered. The Japanese occupied Indochina after France fell to Germany in 1940, but it kept the French administration intact.
In 1941 the Vietminh national front started a protracted guerrilla war against all these occupiers. Many Vietnamese leaders had received military training during the 1930s and 1940s in the revolutionary base areas of China. By summer 1944 larger guerrilla detachments were formed and a general insurrection was unleashed in August 1945. On 2 September the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was declared.
On 26 September 1945 British forces landed in Saigon and returned authority to the French imperialists. They tried to reconquer Vietnam, with massive financial and military support from the US. That prompted renewed resistance that lasted a further nine years.
The French imperialists dispersed their forces to occupy Vietnam. But the guerrilla forces concentrated themselves and turned the imperialist rear into their liberated front lines. As more territory was freed, French plantations were broken up, feudal landlords’ holdings were distributed to the peasants and local people’s power set up. Over the nine years America spent $3 billion trying to help the French military crush the fledgling DRV state. Vietnam’s abundance of rice, rubber and coal made it an attractive place to imperialists.
The Vietnam Workers Party was formed in 1951. Its programme was to win independence, unify the nation, abolish the colonial regime, obliterate feudal vestiges, give the land to the peasants and develop popular democracy. It grew in strength alongside the military struggle.
"Unite the greatest number possible against the invader."
In May 1954 the French were finally defeated in the greatest anti-colonial battle ever at Dien Bien Phu. The French military had considered that base impregnable. They didn’t know that thousands of Vietnamese volunteers had created hundreds of miles of roads and trenches. A further 200,000 hauled artillery, ammunition, food and fuel over mountains using bicycles, oxcarts and other crude vehicles.
After 55 days of continuous fighting, the fortified camp was destroyed and over 11,000 French troops surrendered. Within months, the French were forced to enter into peace talks in Geneva and leave Vietnam.
But the Geneva Accords denied the Vietnamese what they had won on the battlefield when the country was divided into north and south. The independence of the DRV was recognised, but the elections that were supposed to be held to reunify the country within two years were cancelled by Ngo Dinh Diem, the first of many US-backed puppet rulers in Saigon. Vietnam was forced to fight on against the US war machine for a further 15 years. Ultimately, over half a million US troops were deployed.
In 1960 the National Liberation Front (NLF) was created to develop resistance to the partition of the country. Political factors dominated military planning, and new NLF recruits received 15 days of education and training before receiving a gun, unless enemy activity interrupted the course. The first 5 days were devoted exclusively to political education.
The Vietnamese knew that to liberate their country they required not only a fighting force but also a politically conscious and motivated population. The task was to unite the greatest number possible against the invader. There should be no separation between the trained fighters and the general population but willing cooperation, involving millions who would provide food, shelter and intelligence.
The US military feared everyone and carried out many massacres of the civilian population. The most notorious, My Lai in 1968, wasn’t an exception. The Pentagon’s demands for higher and higher body counts and a culture of “kill anything that moves” generated war crimes. The US also adopted relentless bombing as well as chemical warfare, dropping Agent Orange chemicals to defoliate jungle hideouts and destroy crops.
The Vietminh had used the Ho Chi Minh Trail for communications in the war against the French. Now the complex web of ancient jungle paths was revived against the Americans. The ingenuity and organisation behind the Trail were astounding. It developed into an intricate maze of roads, foot and bicycle paths. There were supply bunkers, storage areas, barracks, hospitals, and command facilities. All were concealed from US planes by natural and man-made camouflage. By 1973 trucks could drive the entire length of the trail without emerging from the canopy except to cross streams.
The Tet Offensive from January to March 1968 was a decisive blow, sending shock waves across the world. The NLF and DRV armies simultaneously attacked nearly every US military base and headquarters plus 140 cities and towns in South Vietnam. It took the US and puppet forces completely by surprise. Major targets were attacked in Saigon including the US Embassy and the Presidential Palace.
This wasn’t irregular or guerrilla war but an all-out offensive, which won a crucial political victory despite severe Vietnamese casualties. And when the Vietnamese launched a spring offensive in 1975, the Saigon regime collapsed in less than two months; the South was liberated by 30 April. Unforgettable images of South Vietnamese collaborators scurrying to the top of the US Embassy to flee Saigon in US helicopters were beamed around the globe.
Vietnam was reunified, Saigon renamed Ho Chi Minh City. American imperialism was badly weakened, though subsequent conflicts have not been as successful.
Vietnam’s contribution to the twentieth century was extraordinary. Its victory was due to the tenacious application of nationalism and communism from a communist party in touch with the traditions of its people and inspired by a revolutionary spirit.