Vietnam To Yugoslavia: What I Learned

Once I realized it was about exploitation, it all made sense.

The summer before I started grad school, President Lyndon Johnson sent 200,000 troops to Vietnam. I didn't know why. Neither did any of my friends.

I heard a few people repeat the government's line: "We have to stop the communists in Vietnam, or we'll have to stop them in California." The Vietnamese communists were going to sail their sampans across the Pacific to invade the Left Coast? Nobody I knew could swallow that. "We're saving democracy." With Buddhist monks burning themselves, and Vietnamese students - students like me - dying, in protest against the "democratic" South Vietnamese government? No way!

Besides, the U.S. government had been promoting fascism - called "Jim Crow" or "segregation" - in the South for 80 years, only budging reluctantly when forced by massive Civil Rights protests. "Saving democracy"? Didn't sound like it.

Was it a misguided policy, "good intentions but stupid execution"? "That must be it," I thought. In November 1965, I wrote President Johnson a letter. Millions of other people were doing it too.

Thirty months later my friends were still getting drafted. A few got wounded. One was killed. I talked with a lot of people, read a lot of things. It was important.

At some point it struck me that all the Harvard Ph.D.s in the Johnson Administration might be many things, but "stupid" was not one of them. There had to be some other explanation.

One day somebody told me: "You've got it all wrong. The U.S. is an exploitative, imperialist power, led by an exploitative elite. This is an imperialist war." The war was about exploitation!

I looked into this. I found out that capitalism itself is based on exploitation. A boss pays the lowest wages he can, to get the most work for the least money. If he doesn't, another capitalist will drive him out of business. My father was a manager; I'd heard this before - not called by the name "exploitation," but still, the same thing.

Slowly it all began to make sense. I read more, talked with more people. The French imperialists had controlled Vietnam, worked the workers to death. They supported a landlord class that took up to 60% of the peasants' crops as "rent." They killed those rebels who opposed them. The Japanese imperialists had taken Vietnam from the French, but the French got it back after World War II.

The Communists led an anti-imperialist war, supported mainly by peasants and workers, along with many honest students and intellectuals. They defeated the French army. Now, the U.S. had replaced France.

It made more and more sense. My friends in the military were fighting, killing, and dying, to make American corporations rich. To let American companies move abroad, where labor was cheaper. To lose their own jobs!

Finally, I got it. The American ruling class would kill as many Vietnamese, and as many young Americans, as they had to, to keep making their profits. The defeat of the U.S. government was a victory for me, and for my friends, and for all people like us!

I learned that back during World War I Lenin, the Communist, wrote that imperialism was only an aspect of capitalism. Reading Lenin, I learned more deeply about this connection. But I would never have read him, never have learned this, except for the Vietnam War.

In the early 80s I spent two years designing a course on the Vietnam War, so that I could better understand what had happened to me and to my generation. Only, "Vietnam" wasn't over. Now the U.S. was fighting to keep Central American peasants poor and landlords rich; supporting fascists in South Africa, Indonesia, and a dozen or two other places. And all in the name of "liberation from communism."

Exploitation disguises itself in the name of "liberation." Fascism wraps itself in the mantle of anti-communism, even of anti-fascism. It still made sense.

In 1990 President Bush called Saddam Hussein of Iraq "another Hitler." But the American ambassador had just told Hussein that the U.S. wanted higher prices for oil, and wouldn't interfere in his "dispute" with Kuwait. Around 200 American, and maybe 10,000 Iraqi soldiers, die. Iraqi oil is embargoed. The price of oil rises!

In the next nine years, a million Iraqis die from the embargo. American oil companies continue to make the profits from Arab oil, instead of French or maybe German companies.

It's 1999. Once again, American capitalists - those who control the government - and their twins in other NATO countries are "fighting for liberation" in Yugoslavia. Only now, I know the drill. I've been this way before.

April 1999: I find an article on the web arguing that the war is really over control of oil pipeline routes from the Caspian Sea area.  Looking around the 'Net, I find a lot of different people making the same connections, saying it's another imperialist war to profit big corporations. The "oil motive" figures in many of these articles. I think back over the past thirty years of my life, of the life of a generation. Once more, it all makes sense.

What to do? Plenty

Yeah, "the richest" - but for whom? For the bosses; not for people like me. Not for the workers. A system that can't provide a decent living standard for all decent people does not deserve to exist.

One day, capitalism has got to go.

Grover Furr
English Department