Vietnam War: divergences on imperialist policy shake US bourgeoisie
American involvement in Vietnam began following French imperialism’s defeat in Indochina when the US moved in to pick up the pieces for the West. The strategy, again a manifestation of containment, was designed to prevent what Eisenshower’s Secretary of State Dulles had called the “domino theory” – one country after an another falling to Russian imperialism like dominoes. The aim was to transform the temporary separation of Vietnam into a northern and southern zone created by the Geneva agreements into a permanent division, as in the Korean peninsula. In this sense the American policy of subverting the Geneva agreements began under the Republican Eisenhower regime and continued under Kennedy, who began dispatching military advisers to Vietnam in the early 1960s. The Kennedy administration played an integral role in running the country, even authorising a military coup and the assassination of President Diem in 1963. The impatience of the White House with the general who delayed in assassinating Diem, has been well documented. Following the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, Johnson continued the American intervention in Vietnam, which mushroomed into America’s longest military war.
The American bourgeoisie was united behind this venture, even as a vocal anti-war movement, under leftist and pacifist auspices began to grow. The anti-war movement was largely marginal in American politics from 1965 until 1968, a safety valve for radicalised students and black activists. The Tet Offensive launched in January 1968 by North Vietnam and the NLF in the South, which included suicide attacks on the American embassy and presidential palace in Saigon, actually ended in bloody defeat for the Stalinists, but the very attempt completely exploded the American military’s long standing propaganda that the war was going so well that victory was just a few months away. Important elements within the bourgeoisie began to go sour on the war as it was now clear that the war in Vietnam would be a long drawn out affair, an orientation in stark contrast to Eisenhower’s warning, when he left office, about avoiding getting bogged down in a protracted land war in Asia.
Simultaneously another strategic orientation for American imperialism crystallised around the necessity to switch focus towards the oil rich, strategically important Middle East, where Russian imperialism was making headway in the Arab world.
President Johnson was approached by a committee of Democratic Party elder statesmen and urged to discard his plans to run for re-election, and to concentrate on ending the war – essentially an internal palace coup. In March, Johnson went on television to declare that he would not seek, nor would he accept, his party’s nomination for re-election, and that instead he would devote his energies to ending the war. At the same time, reflecting the growing divergences on imperialist policy within the bourgeoisie, the American mass media jumped on the anti-war bandwagon. and the anti-war movement was brought in from the leftist margins to the centre of American politics. For example, Walter Cronkite, the news anchorman for one of the major television networks, who ended each broadcast with his slogan “and that’s the way it is”, went to Vietnam and came back and announced that the war had to be stopped. The NBC network began a Sunday evening broadcast called Vietnam This Week, which featured at the end of every show a segment where they displayed photos of the American 18 and 19 year old boys who had been killed that week in Vietnam – an anti-war propagandistic gambit to personalise the war.
Johnson’s troubles were exacerbated by the onset of the open economic crisis and the fact that the proletariat was ideologically undefeated, and that the attempt to implement a policy of “guns and butter” – to wage the war without the necessity of material sacrifice on the home front –proved too costly to sustain. The onset of the open crisis, and the return of the class struggle was echoed in the US by a growing wave of wildcat strikes that continued from 1968 through 1971, often involving angry and disgruntled Vietnam veterans, and which caused serious political difficulties for the American ruling class. The year 1968 in fact symbolised the divisive upheaval in the US as the internal dispute within the bourgeoisie heated up, at the same time as unrest grew on the home front. A couple weeks after Johnson announced his withdrawal from the presidential race, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, who had joined the anti-war chorus in 1967 and who was rumoured to be on the verge of renouncing non-violent protest, was assassinated, triggering violent riots in 132 American cities. In early June Robert F Kennedy, younger brother of John F. Kennedy, who had participated in his brother’s cabinet as Attorney General, who was present in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis advocating war with Russia, and again in 1963 as the Kennedy Administration waited impatiently for the assassination of Diem, and had now become an anti-war candidate for president in the Democratic primaries, was also assassinated after winning the California primary. There were violent clashes in the streets outside the Democratic convention in July, as the left of the Democratic Party fought bitterly against the Humphrey forces who were bound to continue the war. Nixon, the conservative Republican, won the presidency, promising that he had a secret plan to end the war.
Meanwhile, by October 1969, the NY Times was listing the schedule of events for the Vietnam Moratorium demonstrations on page 2 of the newspaper to help assure a massive turn out. Mainstream politicians and celebrities began to speak at the rallies. The Nixon administration negotiated with the Vietnamese Stalinists but were unsuccessful in terminating the war. Despite the continuation of the war, however, Nixon was pressed to make strides in implementing the détente suggested by Johnson, including diplomatic state visits to Moscow, and negotiating arms control agreements. Though of course they don’t have a Marxist understanding of capitalism’s global economic crisis, even bourgeois analysts have observed that American interest in détente with Russia and scaling back the cold war temporarily were prompted by US economic difficulties that accompanied the onset of the crisis and the return of the proletariat to class struggle. For example David Painter noted that “the war had exacerbated long-standing economic difficulties” for the US, “feeding inflation and further undermining the US balance of payments position (Encyclopedia of US Foreign Policy, p.283-284), Brzezinski cited “US economic difficulties,” (op. cited. P. 200), and George C. Herring observed, “By 1969 it (the war) had raised critical economic and political problems and compelled a reassessment of policies that had gone unchallenged for more than twenty years. Massive military expenditures caused a runaway inflation that undercut postwar prosperity and aroused growing discontent,” all of which “induced the Republican administration of Richard M. Nixon to seek détente with the Soviet Union (Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, p. 121).
In 1971, Nixon abandoned the Bretton Woods economic system that had been in place since 1944 by suspending the dollar’s convertibility into gold, which led immediately to the free floating of international currencies and a de-facto devaluation of the dollar. At the same time, Nixon imposed a 10 percent protective tariff on imports, and wage and price controls on the domestic economy. Some capitalist analysts and journalists even began to talk of a permanent decline of American imperialism and the end of the “American century.”
The divisions within the bourgeoisie that insisted on disengagement from Vietnam and a switch in focus to the Middle East were reinforced by continuing unrest and difficulties in the Middle East region, including the Arab oil boycott. Kissinger simultaneously and unsuccessfully handled negotiations with the Vietnamese and personally engaged in shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. Nixon’s détente initiatives included an opening towards China, which had broken ideologically with Moscow, thus opening up still further opportunities for American imperialism. The cold war posture of refusing to recognise Mao’s regime and insisting that Taiwan was the legitimate government of all of China, maintained with great anti-communist, “freedom loving” ideological rhetoric throughout the 1950s and 1960s was discarded in favour of a project to woo China to switch to the American side in the cold war, which would encircle Russian imperialism with military threats not only from the west in Europe, the south in Turkey, the north (from the US and Canadian based missiles launched over the pole), but also from the east. This new imperialist option only served to increase demands to terminate the war in Vietnam within the American ruing class as liquidation of the war was a precondition for China’s alliance with the US. As a regional power, China had strong interests concerning a conflict in south-east Asia, and was at the time a supporter of North Vietnam.
It was his failure to complete the shift in foreign policy emphasis towards the Middle East and to liquidate the war in order to bring China into the western bloc, that led to the incredible political turmoil of the Watergate period and Nixon’s being driven from office (Agnew, Nixon’s bellicose, hatchet man vice president had been forced to resign earlier on corruption charges in preparation for an orderly transition to an acceptable presidential replacement – Gerald R. Ford).
Within 8 months of Nixon’s removal, with Ford in the White House, Saigon fell to the Stalinists, and American imperialism withdrew from its Vietnam imbroglio, a war that cost 55,000 American and upwards of 3,000,000 Vietnamese. Carter entered the White House in 1977; by 1979 the US had switched to official recognition of mainland China, which now took China’s seat on the Security Council.
The period of 1968-1976 illustrated the tremendous political volatility that accompanies serious political divergences within the American ruling class on imperialist policies. In 8 years, there were four presidents (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter), of whom two presidents had been driven from office (Johnson and Nixon); Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated and an attempt had been made on the life of George Wallace, right wing populist third party candidate (1972); and the FBI’s and CIA’s role in domestic spying on political adversaries of the administration had brought those two agencies into disrepute with “reform” legislation formally curtailing their powers. The fact that the ruling clique under Nixon used the agencies of the state (FBI/CIA) to gain a decisive advantage over the other clique was intolerable for those fractions of the ruling class who found themselves threatened as a result. The so-called national security crisis following 9/11 has permitted these agencies to once again function completely unfettered.
After the Cold War US imperialist policy adjusts to the absence of a bipolar world
The collapse of the Russian bloc at the end of the 1980s was an unprecedented event. An imperialist bloc disappeared not because it was defeated in imperialist war but because it imploded under the pressure of the historic impasse in the class struggle, the economic crisis and an inability to continue to compete in the arms race with the rival bloc. While American propaganda celebrated its victory over Russian imperialism, and lauded the triumph of democratic capitalism, 1989 proved a Pyrrhic victory for American imperialism, which quickly saw its hegemonic dominance challenged, even within its old alliance, as the discipline that held the two blocs together disappeared. The sudden disappearance of the bipolar confrontation that had characterised the imperialist arena for 45 years eliminated any compulsion for secondary or tertiary powers to adhere any longer to bloc discipline, and the “each for himself” tendency within capitalist decomposition quickly asserted itself on the international level, as newly emboldened smaller imperialisms began playing their own cards, declining any longer to subjugate their interests to those of American imperialism. The first expressions of this decomposition had appeared a decade earlier in Iran, where the Khomeini-led revolution became the first instance in which a country came to break with the US bloc, without the US being able to bring it back into line, and at the same time without it going over to the Russian bloc. Previously, countries on the periphery of world capitalism might play one bloc off against other, and might even switch sides, but none had succeeded in remaining outside the bipolar system. By 1989 this tendency became dominant on the inter-imperialist terrain.
American policy makers suddenly had to adapt to the new array of forces on the international terrain. The expansionist activities of German imperialism were particularly alarming to US imperialism. The Gulf War against Iraq, which had as its pretext Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, an “aggression” that US imperialism itself had set in motion when the American ambassador told the Iraqis that the US would not interfere in an Iraqi-Kuwaiti conflict, was a vehicle for American imperialism to reassert its dominance, and to remind an “everyman for himself” family of nations that the US was the world’s only remaining superpower, and was prepared to exert its military power as the world’s policeman. Against their will, and against their better judgements the European powers, even those who had been cultivating economic and political relationships with Iraq, found themselves obliged not only to formally approve the American war plans, but even to join the “international coalition.” The war was a tremendous success for American imperialism, demonstrating its military superiority, including its smart weaponry, and willingness to exercise power. At home, Bush, the elder, enjoyed incredible political popularity – at one point getting over a 90% approval rating in the opinion polls following the war.
However, Bush proved incapable of consolidating the American success in the Gulf. The restraint against other powers playing their own cards on the international level proved to be a very temporary phenomenon. German imperialism’s advances into the Balkans continued anew, with an acceleration in the splintering of the Yugoslavia, and “ethnic cleansing.” The Bush administration’s inability to consolidate the gains of the Gulf War and formulate an effective strategic response in the Balkans was a central factor in Bush’s failure to be re-elected in 1992. During the presidential campaign, Clinton met with the Pentagon chiefs and assured them he would authorise air strikes in the Balkans and pursue an assertive policy establishing American presence on the ground in that region, a policy that has been an increasingly important aspect of American imperialist policy over the past decade. Despite Republican criticism of Clinton’s policy of committing troops to military interventions without an exit plan during the 2000 campaign, the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan, plans for invasion of Iraq, and dispatch of troops to countries around the globe (US troops are currently stationed in 33 countries) represents a continuity and further evolution of the Clinton policy.
During the Clinton administration a significant policy divergence developed within the American bourgeoisie in regard to Asia, with the far right opposing the strategy to partner with China in the far east rather than Japan. The right wing saw China as an anachronistic communist regime, at risk of implosion, and an unreliable ally – a potential enemy in fact. It was this dispute that underlay the various scandals during late 1990s and the Clinton impeachment. However, all living former presidents, from both parties (with the exception of Alzheimer’s patient Reagan) endorsed the China policy strategy and opposed the impeachment. The right wing paid a heavy price for failing in its attack on Clinton. Newt Gingrich was forced from politics, and other leaders of the impeachment forces were removed from office. In this context it is important to note is that when there are significant imperialist policy disputes within the bourgeoisie and the stakes are high, the combatants do not demur from risking destabilisation of the political order.
Recent divergences within the US ruling class on unilateral action in Iraq
In 1992 Washington adopted a very clear, conscious orientation to guide its imperialist policy in the post cold war period, based on “a fundamental commitment to maintaining a unipolar world in which the United States has no peer competitor. No coalition of great powers without the United States will be allowed to achieve hegemony” (Prof. G.J. Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs, Sept/Oct. 2002, p.49). This policy seeks to prevent the rise of any power in Europe or Asia that could challenge American prominence and serve as a pole of regroupment for the formation of a new imperialist bloc. This was initially spelt out in the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance policy statement drafted by Rumsfeld in1992, during the last year of the first Bush administration which clearly established this new grand strategy: “To prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat of the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union…These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia…the U.S. must show the leadership necessary to establish and protect a new order that holds the promise of convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests…in the non-defence areas, we must account sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order…we must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”
The policy continued during the Clinton administration, which undertook a tremendous weapons development programme designed to discourage the ambitions of any potential rival, and further enunciated the policy in the 1997 National Military Strategy: “The United States will remain the world’s only global power for the near-term, but will operate in a strategic environment characterised by rising regional powers, asymmetric challenges including WMD, trans-national dangers, and the likelihood of wild cards that cannot be specifically predicted.” The policy was further reiterated by the current Bush administration in the Quadrennial Defense Review Report, issued September 30, 2001, less than three weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, which identified as an “enduring national interest” the goal of “precluding hostile domination of critical areas, particularly in Europe, Northeast Asia, the East Asian littoral, and the Middle East and Southwest Asia.” The Quadrennial report argued that “well targeted strategy and policy can…dissuade other countries from initiating future military competitions.” And in the National Security Strategy 2002 the Bush administration asserted: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States.“ In June 2002, speaking at a West Point graduation ceremony, President Bush affirmed yet again that “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenges—thereby making the destabilising arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”
All of this combines to demonstrate the essential continuity in American imperialist policy, across party lines, for well over a decade since the end of the cold war. Continuity of course does not imply that the implementation of this orientation is identical in all respects. Obviously there has been an evolution , especially on the level of the practical application of this orientation, as the world situation has changed over the past decade. For example, the ability of US imperialism to organise an international “coalition” to endorse its military adventures increasingly runs into greater difficulties as time progresses, and the tendency for the US to increasingly go it alone, to act unilaterally, in its strategic efforts to prevent the rise of a rival in Asia or Europe has reached proportions that have triggered serious debates within the ruling team itself.
This debate reflects a recognition of the difficulties American imperialism faces. Though it is incapable of a “complete” consciousness of the development of social and economic forces in the world in the Marxist sense, it is clear the bourgeoisie, and the American bourgeoisie in particular, is quite capable of recognising certain key features in the evolution of the international situation. For example, an article entitled, “The Reluctant Imperialist: Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American Empire,” by Sebastian Mallaby, noted that US policy makers recognise growing “chaos” in the international arena, the phenomenon of “failed” states that are incapable of maintaining a modicum of stability in their societies, and the consequent dangers of massive uncontrolled migration and flow of refugees from the periphery to the metropoles of world capitalism. In this context, Mallaby writes, “The logic of neo-imperialism is too compelling for the Bush administration to resist. The chaos in the world is too threatening to ignore, and existing methods for dealing with that chaos have been tried and found wanting” (Foreign Affairs, Mar/Apr, 2002, p.6). Mallaby and other American bourgeois foreign policy theorists advocate the need for the US as the world’s superpower to act to stem the tide of this chaos, even if it has to do so alone. They even talk openly of a “new imperialism” that the US must implement to block the centrifugal forces that threaten to rip global society apart. In the current international situation, they also recognise that the possibility of pressuring America’s erstwhile allies into an international “coalition” in the manner of the 1990-91 Gulf War is virtually zero. Hence the pressure, previously identified in the ICC press, for the US to act unilaterally on the military level is growing immeasurably. The recognition of the need to be prepared to act unilaterally can be traced back to Clinton administration officials who began to openly discuss this option, and lay the groundwork for unilateral action by American imperialism. (See for instance Madeline Albright’s “The Testing of American Foreign Policy’ in Foreign Affairs, Nov./Dec 1998). So in this sense, in Afghanistan when the US secured the “blessing” of the international community for its military operations based on its ideological and political manipulation of the 9/11 aftermath, but then conducted the actual military operations on the ground on their own, even freezing out its close buddy, Great Britain, the Bush administration was acting in continuity with the policy initiated under Clinton.
Even if the bourgeoisie is aware of the need for the US to ultimately act unilaterally, the question of how soon to go how far in acting unilaterally is a serious tactical question for US imperialism, the answer to which is not guided by the precedents of the cold war, when the US frequently acted without consultation with its NATO and other allies, but could count on its power and influence as bloc leader to get the others to fall in line (as it did in Korea, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, in Vietnam, in the case of the Pershing and Cruise missiles in the early ’80’s, etc.). That answer will also have a profound impact on the future evolution of the international situation as well. It is particularly notable that the debate that occurred over the summer months of 2002 took place primarily within the Republican Party leadership itself, within the traditional foreign policy establishment of the Republican Party, in fact. Kissinger, Baker, Eagleburger, even Colin Powell, raised a cautionary warning not to act unilaterally too soon, and argued that it was still possible, and preferable, to secure UN approval for the US hostilities towards Iraq. Some bourgeois commentators in the US even raised the possibility that the Republican foreign policy elders might have been speaking on behalf of George Bush the elder as they argued for a repeat of the approach which guided the previous Gulf War. The Democrats, even the left of that party, were remarkably silent in this dispute within the ruling party, with the sole exception of a brief foray into the spotlight by Gore who tried to score points with the left of the Democrats by issuing a statement that war with Iraq would be an error, distracting attention and focus from the war against terrorism.
The question for us is what is the significance of these divergences within the bourgeoisie of the world’s only superpower.
First, it is important not to exaggerate the significance of the recent debate. Historical precedent demonstrates amply that when there are serious imperialist policy disputes within the American bourgeoisie, while the antagonists understand that the stakes are high, they do not shy away from pursuing their policy orientations even at the risk of provoking political turmoil. Clearly these political consequences were not present in the recent debate, as they were, for example during Vietnam. In no way did this debate reflect any break in the fundamental unity of the American bourgeoisie on imperialist policy. Second, the disagreement was not on the question of war against Iraq, upon which there is nearly complete agreement within the American ruling class. All sides agree with this policy objective, not because of anything that Saddam Hussein has done or threatens to do, or out of a desire to avenge the failings of Bush the elder, or the desire to boost Exxon’s oil profits in any vulgar materialist sense, but because of the necessity to serve a warning again to the European powers who would play their own card in the Middle East, Germany especially. This warning is meant to serve notice that the US is not afraid to use military force to maintain its hegemony. Therefore, it was no accident or particular surprise that it has been German imperialism that has been most vehement in its opposition to the US war preparations, since it is its imperialist interests that are primarily targeted by US imperialism’s offensive.
The debate within the US ruling circles has focused on when and on what basis to unleash the war, and perhaps more critically how far should the US go in acting alone at the present time. The American bourgeoisie knows on the one hand that it must be prepared to act unilaterally, and that acting unilaterally will have significant consequences for it on the international terrain. It will undoubtedly contribute to further isolation of American imperialism, provoke greater resistance and antagonism on the international level, and potentially push other powers to look for possible alliances to counter American aggressiveness, all of which will further impact on the difficulties facing American imperialism in the coming period. So the actual moment when the US discards any pretext of securing international endorsement of its military actions and acts unilaterally is in fact a tactical decision that has serious strategic implications. In March, 2002, Kenneth M. Pollack, currently a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director at the Council on Foreign Affairs and formerly Director for Gulf Affairs on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration openly talked of the need for the government to act quickly to unleash war against Iraq before the war fever whipped up so successfully in the US following 9/11 and the international sympathy created by the terrorist attacks that facilitated other nations into acquiescing in the US military operations evaporated. As Pollack put it, “Too much delay could be as problematic as too little, because it would risk the momentum gained from the victory over Afghanistan. Today the shock of the September 11 attacks is still fresh and the US government and public are ready to make sacrifices – while the rest of the world recognises American anger and may be leery of getting on the wrong side of it. The longer the wait before an invasion, the harder it will be to muster domestic and international support for it, even though the reason for invading would have little or nothing to do with Iraq’s connection to terrorism…The United States can afford to wait a little while before turning to Saddam, in other words, but not indefinitely” (Foreign Affairs, Mar-Apr 2002, p.47). The opposition to US military intervention in Iraq, both within the US working class, which is not all lined up behind this coming war, and around the world among secondary and tertiary powers implies in fact that the US may have indeed delayed too long before attacking Iraq.
It is clear that the more cautious elements within the ruling team, notably Colin Powell, who advocated diplomatic arm twisting to gain Security Council endorsement for military action against Iraq, prevailed within the administration last fall, and, as events have demonstrated, their tactical approach has proven quite effective, in gaining a unanimous vote, which gives the US the pretext to unleash war against Iraq when it wants. But clearly by February any momentum gained last fall has been largely dissipated, as France, Germany, Russia and China have openly opposed American war plans, with three of them (China, France and Russia) having veto power in the Security Council. Critics within the American bourgeoisie have raised concerns that the Bush administration lacks sufficient skill in manoeuvring to gain international endorsement for war (see for example recent comments by Sen. Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee).
The contradictions inherent in the present situation raise extremely serious problems for the US. Decomposition and chaos on the international level pose the impossibility of creating new “coalitions” on the international level. Thus in fact Rumsfeld and Cheney are right when they insist that it will never again be possible to constitute an international coalition on the level of 1990-91. Yet it is impossible to imagine that US imperialism could permit such a situation to block it from ever again taking military action in pursuit of its own imperialist interests. On the other hand, if the US does take unilateral military action, whatever the short term success it will achieve, it will only isolate the US further on the international level, alienate the smaller countries, and make them contestationist, more resistant to the bully superpower. On the other hand, if the US backs off and does not wage unilateral warfare in the current framework, it would be a serious show of weakness by the superpower, that would only embolden smaller powers to play their own cards and directly challenge US dominance.
The issue for revolutionaries is not to fall into the trap of predicting at what precise moment the American bourgeoisie will unleash unilateral war, whether in Iraq in the near future, or in some other venue at a future date, but to understand clearly the forces at work, the nature of the debate within the US ruling circles, and the serious implications for further chaos and instability on the international situation in the period ahead.
1 This policy of encirclement directed against Russian imperialism bears remarkable similarities towards the current US strategy of encircling Europe.
2 According to the Pentagon, “the east Asian littoral is defined as the region stretching from south of Japan through Australia and into the Bay of Bengal.”