Vietnam’s ‘Great Spring Victory’ over the US – forty years on

PHOTO: © Philip Jones Griffiths

Bill Bonnar gives a personal recollection Picture the scene. It is 1am in Moscow on May 1st 1975; 40 years ago. I was an 18 year old on a delegation walking home to my hotel. All around workmen were putting up huge banners of Ho Chi Min; the former Vietnamese President along the route of the Moscow May Day demonstration which would take place the next day. By the time I got back to my hotel the significance was clear. Vietnamese liberation forces had entered Saigon and driven the last of the American occupiers out. Vietnam was free.

This marks the 40th anniversary of that tumultuous time and the end to one of the defining struggles of the 20th century. Vietnam had been a French colony until the French were driven out by the liberation forces led by Ho Chi Min.

In 1954, a peace conference was held in which the country would be divided between the North with its capital in Hanoi and the South with its capital in Saigon. The arrangement was to be temporary pending elections.

These elections took place in the North resulting in landslide victory for the communist-led Liberation Front. Fearing the same result in the South, the United States organised a military coup and the permanent division of the country.

From 1956 to 1975 South Vietnam was ruled by a military dictatorship controlled, armed and financed by the United States; a puppet regime. It was the start of American military aggression against the Vietnamese people which would eventually lead to two million dead, millions more wounded and the total destruction of the country, before they were eventually defeated.

The aggression started slowly with Operation Phoenix in 1958 which involved American controlled death squads running an assassination programme. By 1960 an estimated 200,000 Vietnamese had been murdered. When this proved ineffectual US ground forces arrived to take the fight for ‘freedom and democracy’ to the heart of the conflict.

Proving no match for the National Liberation Army the Americans increasingly relied on air power which soon took on the character of a war against the whole Vietnamese civilian population. By the beginning of the seventies this war had reached almost genocidal proportions aimed at destroying Vietnam as a functioning society.

Targets included cities which were reduced to rubble and fields and irrigation systems with the aim of starving the population into submission. Vietnam’s centuries old system of dams were targeted causing catastrophic flooding. The strategy also embraced chemical warfare with millions to tons of chemical defoliants dropped on forests’, jungles and fields.

Even today huge numbers of Vietnamese suffer cancers and disabilities caused by this chemical warfare. The United States even considered using nuclear weapons but decided against fearing the reaction of the growing anti-war movement at home. Anyway, they didn’t need them because they had something just as effective up their sleeves; Operation Rolling Thunder.

This was an attempt at what Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described as ‘bombing Vietnam back into the stone age’ For one week over Christmas 1972 the United States launched the greatest ariel bombardment in history. During that week more bombs were dropped on North Vietnam than on the whole of Europe during the whole of the Second World War.

This saturation bombing destroyed every city and town in North Vietnam as if they had been attacked by a barrage of nuclear weapons. And still it did not break the resolve of the Vietnamese government and people.

In fact from 1973 the Vietnamese Liberation Army based in the south supported by North Vietnam gradually pushed the South Vietnamese/American forces back resulting in the final victory in May 1975. The cost of defeating the American aggression was enormous in terms of human lives and a totally destroyed society. In that sense Kissinger succeeded.

They did bomb Vietnam back into the stone age and it is only now that their society is beginning to recover. As part of a final sick irony Henry Kissinger and the Vietnamese Foreign Minister were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after peace negotiations in 1973. The Foreign Minister described the award to Kissinger as ‘an insult to the intelligence of the people of the world’ and refused to accept the award.

Although the liberation of Vietnam lay in the hands of the Vietnamese people themselves they were supported by a worldwide anti-war movement particularly in the United States which plunged American society into crisis as more and more ordinary Americans came to recognise what their government was doing in their name.

Most telling were veterans of the US army which helped to liberate Europe during the Second World Way. They regularly described American action in Vietnam as similar to what the Nazis did in Europe. In Britain the anti-war movement was also very effective particularly in forcing the hand of the then Labour Government into not actively supporting the American aggression.

As a young socialist activist who first took part in an anti-Vietnam war demonstration as a 14 year old in 1972 protesting against Operation Thunder and who followed the course of the war almost daily from that point on; that May Day demonstration in Moscow in 1975 was one of the highlights of my life.

Particularly the sights of hundreds of Vietnamese students from Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba International University marching proudly behind an enormous banner of Ho Chi Min. We all shared in this victory for humanity.

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