Reflections on returning to Vietnam

I recently came back from a remarkable return visit to Vietnam.

My first trip to Vietnam was in 1972 during the war, when Nixon decided to bomb Hanoi during the Christmas holidays. The contrast with today’s Vietnam was enormous.

At that time Vietnam was completely on a war footing. A Communist Party USA delegation, led by then-CPUSA Chair Gus Hall, had been invited by the Vietnamese Workers Party so that we could witness first hand the harsh realities of the U.S. war against their country. When we returned we brought back the urgency of stepping up the fight to end the war.

At that point tens of thousands of Vietnamese and thousands of U.S. and allied troops were being wounded and killed every month. U.S. planes were dropping bombs, napalm and other anti-personnel weapons. It was a racist, genocidal war not just against the socialist north but against all the people of Vietnam. The reasons given for invading Vietnam were as bogus and contrived as the WMDs that were not there in Iraq.

The U.S. had a scorched earth policy. U.S. planes spread Agent Orange, the cancer-causing chemical defoliant, over thousands of acres of jungle in South Vietnam. The U.S. commanders thought the fighters from Vietnam’s National Liberation Front would no longer be able to carry out their guerrilla war undetected if the foliage was destroyed. It did not work, but it did cause terrible long-term damage to the people and environment of Vietnam.

The peace movement

At that point opposition to the war in the U.S. was at or near a majority sentiment. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were marching against the war. In 1972, the Nixon administration, seeking reelection, was using all manner of spying and dirty tricks to undermine the majority desire for peace. This was the time of the Watergate break-in.

The U.S. peace movement was under attack. There were trials, frame-ups and provocations to try to isolate and destroy it. The government was looking for “Communist control.” Peace activists were under surveillance.

The warhawks’ “domino theory” claimed that if the U.S. “lost” the war, freedom would be threatened all over Asia. They talked about a bloodbath in Vietnam if U.S. troops pulled out. They suggested that the Communists would go on a murderous crusade and kill all U.S. collaborators. That did not happen.

In fact, those hysterical predictions were a diversion from the horror that was already happening. Vietnam was already a bloodbath and the U.S. was the culprit. More bombs were dropped on Vietnam by the U.S. than all the bombs dropped by all countries during World War II. In My Lai, 109 civilians (mainly women, children and old people) were slaughtered by U.S. troops. There were many other U.S. atrocities. Whole villages were burned to the ground. People were tortured and put in prison-like “strategic hamlets.” Some 300,000 Vietnamese were missing in action (MIA), compared to 3,000 Americans. All this was done in the name of stopping the spread of communism and bringing freedom to Vietnam.

War propagandists said those protesting were against the troops. In 1968, the peace movement called for withdrawal of our troops but the Johnson administration refused. At that point, 48,000 U.S. troops had perished and many more were wounded. By the end of the war, in 1975, the number of U.S. dead was up to 58,000. If the peace movement’s demand had been heeded in 1968, 10,000 U.S. and countless Vietnamese lives would have been spared. So, who was really supporting the troops?

Lessons for today

Almost exactly 34 years later, in December 2006, our Communist Party USA delegation — Sam Webb, CPUSA chair; Scott Marshall, labor secretary; Pamella Saffer, international secretary; and myself — arrived in Hanoi, the capital of the new, unified Vietnam. It was just a few days after Congress granted Vietnam “most favored nation” trade status, like other U.S. trading partners.

We traveled to four cities in six days and got a glimpse of Vietnam’s “doi moi” (renovation) economic reform program, which is moving ahead at a rapid pace. The standard of living of the people is going up.

We visited the Friendship Village in Ha Tay Province, west of Hanoi. This is a residential facility for those born with serious birth defects due to Agent Orange and for mentally disabled veterans of the war. The village is financed by donations mainly from the U.S., including many Vietnam veterans, and other countries. It is a beautiful place where the disabled, young and old, can enjoy nature, live a dignified life, get appropriate care and learn a skill, including creating beautiful needlepoint and other handicrafts.

It is also a place where international peace and friendship truly reside. This is a project that everyone should support.

When the residents found out that we were a delegation from the U.S., we got wide smiles and big hugs. We stood there with tears in our eyes because we were in the presence of those who had suffered so much at the hands of our government. Yet at that very moment, U.S. corporations were falling all over each other trying to do business in Vietnam. So the question naturally came to my mind, “What purpose did U.S. aggression against Vietnam serve?”

We have to ask, have Bush and company learned nothing from that tragic war in Vietnam? The hardcore neocons say that what made the U.S. lose the war in Vietnam was a lack of will. That idea is so dangerous to the entire world. And that’s the thinking behind the current escalation in Iraq.

But history is a hard teacher. What our government did in Vietnam was wrong, dead wrong. And what it is doing in Iraq today is dead wrong as well. What U.S. warhawks lacked in Vietnam is the same thing they lack in Iraq today: the support of the people, there, here and around the world. That is why these tragic wars are not “winnable.” The majority of the U.S. Congress now understands this thanks to the last election results.

Today the Bush administration aims to control Iraq through a compliant regime there. It wants to control the world’s second largest oil deposits and maintain a permanent U.S. military presence in the Middle East. As in Vietnam, this too shall fail.

On Jan. 27 thousands marched in Washington and then hundreds stayed to lobby Congress for peace. If we understand the lessons of Vietnam, we need to keep the pressure on until this war is brought to an end.

Jarvis Tyner ( is executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA.