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Vietnam and the Anti-War Movement

Vietnam will one day take its place beside Hiroshima and Auschwitz as an example of a time when the sickness of capitalism exploded into a kind of psychotic nightmare. It is no mere piece of sensationalism, either, to compare Vietnam with Hiroshima and Auschwitz, for there is a direct parallel between the causes, method, and results of all three events. Their causes can be traced to capitalist society. The method in each case amounts to genocide: the slaughter of as great a number of a population in as short a time as possible. The results thus far have been to create a world that looks like something out of a nightmare. For how else are we to regard a country that invests a quarter of a million dollars in the death of every “communist’  guerrilla, when close to one- third of its population lives in poverty?* How else are we to describe a system where announcements of the latest Viet Cong body count come over the radio and TV networks in the U.S. almost as regularly as the weather report?

But if we call this behaviour insane, it is not therefore purposeless. The United States is turning Vietnam into a virtual death camp for a purpose—a purpose which results directly from the way in which modern capitalist society is organised. And it is only when we understand this purpose and this society that we can see the insanity of the Vietnam war and its cause for what it is.

Capitalism generates wars because it is organised in such a way that its wealth can only be produced and distributed by a process of competition. The industries of capitalism are the private property of a small class of persons, and wealth is produced primarily for sale with a view to profit. A capitalist enterprise requires markets, trade routes, supplies of wage labour, raw materials, places to invest capital, and the power of a state to protect these interests. The foreign policy of a capitalist state attempts to acquire these needs in its relations with other countries. The rub is that there are several capitalist states in the world competing intensively for the same needs, and the size of the planet is limited. They must necessarily come into conflict with one another; and if the conflict cannot be settled or negotiated to the satisfaction of all parties concerned, they go to war.

In competing for their essential business needs, capitalist countries seek control over territories in which they can sell goods, and from which they can extract profit and raw materials. The United States, for example, has over $10,000 million worth of direct capital investments in South and Central America, which return enormous rates of profit, varying from 15 to 50 per cent a year. In addition, Latin America supplies the United States with oil, iron ore, copper, tin, nitrates, coffee, cocoa, beef, and bananas at cheap costs, and Latin America is a lucrative market for U.S. commodities. France, Britain, Germany, and Russia all have similar relations with territories in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. If another power were to seek control over Latin America (as did Russia in 1962, for example) or if the United States were to seek control of the European Common Market, antagonisms would erupt between these nations which could easily lead to war.

It is this kind of economic control which the United States has tried to secure in Asia ever since the arrival of Commodore Perry in Japan in 1853; the U.S. interest in the South-east portion rapidly accelerated with the withdrawal of the French after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In supporting the South Vietnamese dictators Ngo Dinh and Marshal Ky, the United States has only followed the pattern of control that it has followed for decades in Latin America, with its support of various civilian dictators and military juntas.

Capitalism generates more than one type of war: for example a war between an imperialist power and a rebellious subject territory, and a war between developed capitalist countries for sources of profit, markets, and territories. The armed conflicts between France and Algerian rebels, and the United States and Dominican rebels, are examples of the former type. World Wars I and II were both examples of the latter. The war between United States troops and Viet Cong guerrillas was at first primarily an example of the former type, but with the forced entrance of the more industrial North Vietnam and threatened hostilities with China, the war has been steadily escalating into the latter as well. The reasons the United States is in Vietnam are all directly contingent on its requirements as a capitalist power. United States capitalism does not wish to give up control of this potentially lucrative area; and the United States fears threatened rebellions in Latin America should the Viet Cong rebellion set a successful example.

The working class, of course, has not one shred of interest to justify their participation in any of capitalism’s wars. They will not invest capital in Vietnam when and if it is cleared of Viet Cong. They will make no profit by employing the Vietnamese at low wages, selling commodities in a Southeast Asian consumer market, and extracting cheap raw materials from the area. They stand to lose no property if Latin American countries rebel. The only task they will be called upon for is to leave their mangled bodies in the jungle slaughterhouse. And the interesting thing about the Vietnam War, to the socialist, is that so many American workers are beginning to realise it. Perhaps not since 1898 has the war propaganda of the United States been so completely cynical or so completely transparent to so many people. The mental contortions required to believe it would tax the citizens of 1984: a war to protect the “freedom  of the U.S. which supports an avowed Hitlerite dictator (Ky), bars the Viet Cong from representation in elections, and spreads its happy gospel of democracy among Vietnamese villagers with napalm, rice poison B-52s. and razor-blade bombs. It is no wonder that so many draft-age Americans take to the picket line. The wonder is that there are not more.

The Philadelphia based Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, in fact, reports a growing list of those who prefer prison sentences to military service. The courage of many of those in the American peace movement cannot fail to impress the socialist. But however stirring its appeal, the movement has an equally disheartening and perhaps tragic weakness that is slowly emasculating it. Most of its participants do not understand that capitalism generates wars. It is capitalism which must be attacked, not the foreign policy of the United States, which is simply asserting its vital interests as a capitalist power. Even more depressing, perhaps, is the conduct of many of those who claim to represent the “socialist" base in the movement: Students For A Democratic Society; Young Socialists Advance; Socialist Workers Party; the Du Bois Clubs, and the American “new left". A genuine socialist would point out that the war is part of a whole related pattern of social problems generated by capitalism; and because it is part of a related pattern, the war cannot be attacked in isolation from the rest of the pattern or from its roots in the needs of capitalist society; the only way this problem, and others like it, can be permanently solved is to establish a system of society in which the means of production are owned and democratically controlled by the whole people, and goods are produced for use and not for competitive exchange and profit.

The solutions of the “new left”, however, are the old, reformist, and futile solutions which have failed to stop any war since 1914: “negotiation", “disarmament". Support a League of Nations or a United Nations Repeal Conscription. Or, at their most imaginative, withdraw the troops, fight anti-communism, and institute a type of Soviet-style state-capitalism in the United States. Solutions which involve joining the other side, of course, are not even seriously intended to be peaceful.

The American peace movement, in short, is contradicting itself into impotence by opposing a war and then supporting the system of society which has generated it. It is not a socialist movement, and because of this fact it is already beginning to wither into crowds of confused and frightened students and quarrelling splinter-groups. Whether it ever becomes anything more will depend upon whether it ever develops a socialist consciousness. For until it does, the body counts will only grow higher, and the nightmare of capitalism will continue—business as usual.

Stan Blake (World Socialist Party of U.S.A.)

* For verification of this figure, see Gabriel Kolko, Wealth & Power in America (Praeger, 1962) p. 101.