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Vol. 74/No. 5      February 8, 2010

Vietnam War and crumbling
of U.S. military morale
(Books of the Month column)
Printed below is an excerpt from Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the U.S. against the Vietnam War, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for February. Washington’s 1960--75 military intervention in Vietnam, which resulted in the deaths of more than 2 million Indochinese people, ended in defeat. The U.S. rulers met formidable opposition from Vietnamese workers and peasants, who were fighting for national liberation and against imperialist exploitation. Gaining momentum from the proletarian-led fight in the 1960s for Black rights, millions mobilized in the United States and around the world in opposition to the war, defended the right of GIs to voice their dissent, and raised the demand: Bring the troops home now! The piece below is from the chapter titled, “The Crumbling of U.S. Military Morale.” Copyright © 1978 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

History testifies that most of the individuals who comprise a ruling class in decay will rationalize brutality and corruption as the way things have to be done. The closer they are to an impasse, the stronger the tendency will become. The wealthiest families of America, who control the two-party system, are no exception. The standards and practices of the CIA and the Pentagon, for example, exemplify the morality of their masters. There are individual exceptions, of course, both among the ruling rich and among the Democratic and Republican politicians they control. But these people were not chosen—nor could they be—by the class as a whole to make or implement major policy. “The time chooses the man” is an old saying. “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad,” goes another.

The American ruling class has not reached the point where it deliberately selects madmen to rule, though it came surprisingly close to that in the early 1970s, as Nixon and some of his aides personified.

Deputy to Henry Kissinger, General Alexander M. Haig could nonchalantly speak in those days of “brutalizing” the Vietnamese in order to gain a point or two in the negotiations for a truce.

The tendency for some sections of the antiwar movement to focus their appeal on the Establishment and to trim their demands to the confines of two-party politics was not without its logic. The U.S. government was the one force which could have stopped the war any time it wanted to. But neither the threat nor the unsuccessful attempt to tie up Washington, nor the sacrifices of those who committed civil disobedience, nor, for that matter, the huge mass demonstrations, succeeded in improving the morality of the American power structure. For all their tactical disputes, its leaders never did change their minds about their right to “brutalize” Vietnam to keep a piece of it under U.S. domination as proof of their ability to police the world. This was in keeping with their morality.

America’s rulers were never persuaded morally. They were forced—first of all by the resistance of the Indochinese peoples but also by the American antiwar movement and the international opposition to the U.S. role—to maneuver within ever more restricted bounds. They backed off reluctantly, bit by bit, “brutalizing” as much as they could get away with, all the way to the end. The function of the American antiwar movement was not to blusteringly threaten them or cajole them, but to add as much weight as possible to the relationship of forces working against them… .

The Laos invasion of 1971, which had begun in February, was over by April. The operation was aimed at cutting the supply and replacement routes to the NLF [National Liberation Front] areas from North Vietnam and was supposed to prove the success of the “Vietnamization” policy. That is, the ability of the refurbished Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam (ARVN) to hold its own against the NLF, Pathet Lao, and North Vietnamese army (NVA) units.

The ARVN, however, was badly mauled and retreated in wild disorder. The American command was surprised at the heavy losses of its own helicopters flown by American crews. Here and there American ground units refused orders to advance and in general dragged their feet. The Pentagon was unable to rescue the operation by using massive numbers of additional American ground troops. The American antiwar movement made that course too socially explosive at home, especially since the move would have to come just as the spring antiwar offensive was building. The specter of May 1970 haunted the American Establishment.

Instead, the administration issued rose-tinted reports of the Laos operation and continued to try to defuse the antiwar sentiment by cutting draft calls, sending word to field commanders to reduce GI casualties, and stepping up the withdrawals of American troops. This worked to some extent, but at a military cost. In the spring of 1971 there were over 330,000 U.S. military personnel in Vietnam, two-thirds the March 1969 peak. By the end of the year the level was down to one-third the peak with very few involved in ground combat. As the U.S. ground-combat role melted away, the Pentagon fixed its hopes on air raids to keep the Saigon regime in business. The antiwar movement had forced this shift along with spreading opposition to the war among GIs in Vietnam itself. Even before the large-scale withdrawals of 1971, the American ground-combat effectiveness in Vietnam was already disintegrating from within.

Until 1968, most American GIs in Vietnam still rationalized that the war had some good purpose. But when they returned to the U.S. after the regular one-year tour of duty, they inclined to turn against the war, in part because they could now think about it without the psychological trauma of admitting they were facing death for no good reason, and in part because by 1968 the antiwar sentiment had penetrated deeply among the American youth population.  
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