For those who wonder if the struggle is worth it, if there is reason to believe that we can ever fundamentally transform our society, today is a day to have one’s hope renewed. On this day, 30 years ago, the United States hurriedly completed the withdrawal of all its military troops from Vietnam as the Vietnamese independence movement entered and took control of the city of Saigon, since renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
This was one of the most profound political and military accomplishments of the 20th century. A poor and primarily peasant society defeated the greatest military power in the world in a war that went on for close to two decades. It did so despite more bombs being dropped on this small corner of the world than were dropped in all of World War II in both Europe and the Pacific. It did so despite the presence of half a million heavily armed U.S. troops and many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese forced into military service to fight on their side. It did so despite the deaths of over a million Vietnamese and the wounding and displacement of many millions more.
The war in Vietnam had far-reaching effects. It opened the eyes of many millions of people in the United States to the true reality of our government as an imperialistic, brutal, very flawed “democracy.” It brought into existence a massive anti-war movement which, together with the Black freedom movement, helped to spawn a women’s rights movement, Native American, Puerto Rican, Chicano and Asian American movements, a lesbian and gay rights movement, a progressive upsurge within labor, an environmental movement and more. It inspired other independence and social justice movements around the world. It indirectly brought down President Richard Nixon. It led to an exposure of the illegal and undemocratic actions of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation as they ran roughshod over people’s rights which, in turn, led to the passage of a number of laws to make such acts more difficult.
The election of Ronald Reagan in November, 1980 signaled the beginning of a domestic and international counter-revolution which, 25 years later, has profoundly altered the political playing field. As one example, think John Kerry back then-leader of the peace movement-and John Kerry today-apologist and supporter of war and occupation. Other examples include the continuing loss of trade union membership, an environmental movement trying to get a handle on how to combat the deep crisis of global warming, and a CIA and FBI, since 9-11, allowed to operate with fewer and fewer restrictions.
And yet, a closer look reveals many reasons to be hopeful about the possibilities for reversing this counter-revolution, even with Bush/Cheney in power. A majority of U.S. Americans believe the Iraq war was not worth it. Within the Democratic Party there is organizing taking place that is beginning to win victories, as at a recent California Democratic convention, in a campaign to pressure the party leadership to call for an end to the occupation and the setting of a date for troops to leave.
Environmental, labor, student, religious and other groups have begun meeting for serious discussions about how to join forces to organize visible, large-scale mass actions on the climate crisis. A vigorous debate is underway within the AFL-CIO about how to make a course correction that will put the movement back into the “labor movement.” And the Bush/Cheney administration is falling flat on its political face in its efforts to privatize Social Security.
Perhaps, thinking about how the Vietnamese defeated the U.S.
government can help us in our struggle here. How did they win?
They won because they understood that there was a difference between the U.S. government and its citizens. We should also remember that on a wide range of issues a majority of our peoples don’t go along with the positions of either Republicans or Democrats.
They won because they built independent organizations deeply rooted among the people, as must we.
They won because they were able to build coalitions and united fronts among a wide range of political forces, both within Vietnam and internationally.
And they won because they understood that theirs was a protracted struggle which would have many twists and turns, ups and downs, but which could eventually emerge victorious if they refused to give up and were able to learn from both their victories and their defeats.
Is Vietnamese society since the gaining of independence all that we wish it could be? No. It is far from a perfect society. But it is a country at peace, with independence, struggling to develop within a world economic system that, to be charitable, does not prioritize social and economic justice.
It is our responsibility, here in the belly of the beast, to use our intelligence, our commitment to justice, and our love for this world and its peoples to function in such a way that, over time, we will bring about the kinds of changes in this society that will benefit our threatened ecosystem and struggling humanity around the globe. We can settle for nothing less.