Challenge archive: Fighting Vietnam

In this article from March 1968, Trevor Hyett writes on the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation

We all know about it; we can’t get away from it; some even say they are fed up with it – but not half as fed up as the napalm-bespattered kids in Vietnam or the poor in the States who see the wealth of their country being poured down a bottomless drain.

Much has been said about the terrible results in human, political and economic terms of the American war on Vietnam.

I’m assuming when I write this that you agree the Americans are wrong. If you don’t, and are one of those naive, innocent and self-deceptive Bernard Levinites, then don’t bother reading further, for it will only serve to convince you that the Americans are wrong, and more than that, are going to lose out on all their main objectives. Also that the Americans are not just fighting a bunch of nutty little men in black pyjamas, but an entire nation.

The Americans try to kid the world that all the misnamed Viet Cong have to their credit is a bloody nerve, and large chunks of pretty useless jungle. “The VC”, as they say, “have no support in the towns and don’t even dare to show their faces anywhere near a populated part of South Vietnam.”

The last few weeks have put an end to any such day-dreams. 20 – or was it 30 or 40 – major towns in South Vietnam were either completely or partially taken over by the South Vietnam National Liberation Front, including the South Vietnam/American (they are note separate) Government Radio Station, and – bloody sauce – even the US Embassy right in the heart of Saigon. The Embassy which, said the Americans, was impregnable after its being rebuilt some 18 months ago following an NLF bomb attack which blew the building in two.

Hitler chose to take countries over by blatantly marching over boundaries. Today the approach is more subtle. One doesn’t actually have to march in – if one can help it – one simply dominates the economy of the victim and thereby takes over effective control. In more and more places, however, this rather thin disguise has been seen through, the domination challenged and the former, Hitlerite, more clumsy, costly and embarrassing course has had to be taken.

This has been the case in South Vietnam.

But my purpose is not to tell of the crimes resulting from the US invasion – sickening and numerous though they are – but to tell of the fight back which is being staged by the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam and by the National Liberation Front in the South with its small businessmen and Communists, Buddhists and Catholics, youth organisations and trade unions.

While the means of fighting back vary (both in sophistication and effectiveness) the determination to kick out the Americans does not. The feeling is high and it gets even higher.

From a simple wooden spike to a captured US bazooka – these are the weapons of the people.

But it is not only fighting units who are in the thick of it – the civilian population has its part to play – in both North and South.

Julius Lester, an American folk-singer recently out in Vietnam (North) told us: “There is a war going on and the entire population is involved in fighting. Those not actually wielding weapons, see their jobs as weapons. Thus there are types of song: songs for fighting and songs to increase production.”

This indicates the way the DRV as a nation is tackling its unwanted, but determinedly fought war. Life is on 3 levels: fighting the Americans, striving to maintain production and educating the population.

Despite the continually escalating war, and the hindrance to normal life this creates, the uplifting of educational levels is amazing.

For example, in the past 10 years, the number of general school pupils has increased by 350% to over 2.5 million. This perhaps gives an idea of the determination of the Vietnamese and also indicates the confidence, despite the daily bombardment by the greatest range yet assembled of various perversions of science.

Hanoi and Haiphong are the only two towns that have not been razed to the ground, but even Haiphong is only half intact.

Olivier Todd, a French journalist recently returned from North Vietnam, in an interview with New Left Review, explained as follows: “The atmosphere is one of normalcy. This expresses itself not only in the theatres, cinemas and cafés that are open and the surprising smiling atmosphere of the town (Hanoi) but also the fact that whenever a street is hit, whenever a house is destroyed by American bombing, the North Vietnamese clear it up immediately. They repair things, they try to keep the town as normal as possible.”

But this isn’t to say the Democratic Republic is not constantly aware of the dangers and prepared for them.

The whole population is armed. Life has an almost schizophrenic character. Normal one minute… then the next, prompted by air raid sirens, it’s all out on an anti-aircraft mission – with rifles!


For example, from Olivier Todd again: “Everybody gets into position very fast, weapons suddenly appear, and the charming waitress is transformed into a militia woman with a helmet and a Red Cross bag, and a Chinese sub-machine gun.”

Hanoi is not exceptional. Throughout the country people are at the ready. And they are organised. Come the air attacks and “people use sub-machine guns and rifles to push the American planes higher, and there the machine guns come in. And after that the guns come in and finally the SAMs (missiles).”

The population’s rifle-power has been responsible for an estimated 3% of US plane losses – approximately 75 planes. The other 2,425 have been brought down by Russian-supplied (free of charge) missiles.

In the South, information is understandably not so forthcoming. But the recent events in the towns of South Vietnam give a good indication of the NLF’s work. There is political mobilisation throughout the whole of the South. Also there are the constant attacks on the US air bases. And here, as shown by the Lang Vei incident and the way things are shaping up in Khe Sanh, the NLF has the advantage because it is mobile, and this its tactics are flexible whereas thr US are committed to fixed bases and are far more rigid in their military approach (or are they just thick?)

This has been the history of the war in the South. Due to the great mobility of the Front, they can inflict blows on the Americans and disappear before the US have a chance to recover and give chase. The desperation and frustration at this is shown in the introduction of the “search and destroy” operations conducted by General Westmoreland. This crazy scheme further increased that frustration by its failure. Also the Front has many small roving units which go from place to place harassing the Americans. To have this level of organisation demands much discipline and initiative… and these effectively flow only from deep conviction and loyalty. The whole of the South is mobilised against the Americans. In the towns there have been the demonstrations, and the self-immolations of Buddhist monks.

In the country, the villages actively back up the Front and are in fact part of it. They supply the Front with food and shelter – despite the inhuman reprisals meted out arbitrarily to any village suspected of harbouring or assisting “VC”. They set up their own defence against the US rampages – mainly booby traps – matchsticks against tanks.


People of some humanity have been given to think hopefully that the past few weeks in South Vietnam herald the imminent withdrawal of American troops. If desperation is a sign of impending defeat, then we are at an advantage.

Trevor Hyett

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