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The Military Says “Stand Down” to Trump
“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.” (War is a Racket)
“I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own. That they design and want. That they fight and work for. [Not one] crammed down their throats by Americans.”
Two Marine Generals, Smedley Butler and David Shoup, uttered those words, in 1933 and 1966, to condemn U.S. military intervention and aggression in foreign countries. They’re not typical. Few people with their rank and status speak out. But they weren’t as rare as one might think either. While Butler and Shoup offered powerful criticisms of national policy, it hasn’t been that unusual for military officers, and especially retired officers, to weigh in on national issues and dissent from national policy.
During the Vietnam era, a large number of retired brass criticized the war and, importantly, active-duty military officials offered a steady drumbeat of pessimistic and bleak views of Vietnam and warned against intervention and escalation–to little avail of course. Among those who were outspoken against Vietnam were Matthew Ridgway, who had commanded U.N. forces in Korea, and James Gavin, an ex-NATO Commander. Other retired officers joined their dissent and provided space for more opposition to the war. It’s one of the less-known stories of Vietnam but nonetheless a vital part of the narrative.
It would be easy to dismiss these officers as a novelty, a few cranks going against the grain, but in the context of Vietnam, they were important. The main reason for the U.S. failure in that was in Vietnam itself–the protracted and often-brilliant resistance of the the forces of liberation there–the NLF, the VC, the PLAF, the PAVN.
But outside of Vietnam the U.S. had to contend with a few forces that also made victory impossible–mainly the active resistance of soldiers on the ground in Vietnam, where antiwar activities that went as far as fragging of officers was common, and in vets groups like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), which had huge protests and launched the career of John Kerry who, in the most noble act of his political life before becoming an establishment politician and avid interventionist, testified before Congress and condemned “this barbarous war” and hoped that veterans would help Americans come to grips with the horrors of Vietnam “so when, in 30 years from now, our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory but mean instead the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.”
So the civilian administrations waging the war in Vietnam had to contend with the fear of rebellion in the ranks and the significant opposition of military veterans. It also had to confront the critical responses of ruling-class figures, like the generals who opposed the war publicly or offered somber analyses of it private, and Wall Street and corporate leaders who warned that Vietnam was destroying the national economy. During the Iraq War that started in 2003, a similar dynamic was at play, as respected pillars of the military, notable names like Anthony Zinni and Wesley Clark, spoke out against U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
To be clear, these were not antiwar activists condemning the American role in the world or American power (though Butler and Shoup did). They were insiders who believed that U.S. aggression would undermine global stability and harm American interests and they were concerned about the credibility of their own institutions as well. But since the ruling class isn’t democratic, doesn’t care a lot about what “the people” think or do, these military (and Wall Street) critics were important as the elites who run the country debated global military, and economic, strategies.
Fast forward to 2020, as the U.S. faces multiple systemic crises–a global pandemic with already over 100,000 dead mishandled in the most egregious manner, an economic crash with over 40,000,000 unemployed and banks and corporations getting bailed out while millions lose jobs and health insurance, and now national rebellions sparked by racist police killings stoked by an angry violent White Supremacist president but encompassing years of racism, neglect, economic precarity, and ruling-class indifference to the lives of working Americans.
And into that combustible mix the American president has poured gas on the fires unrelentingly, calling for the most repressive responses and repeatedly threatening to deploy not just police or National Guard, but U.S. military troops in the streets of America to “dominate” the immense number of Americans protesting a failed society.
And amid this, we are now seeing significant representatives of the military ruling class, not just retired brass but active-duty officials, say “Stand Down” to the commander-in-chief. These men do not have the same political ideas or interests as people in the streets to be sure, but they have created a visible and significant obstacle to Trump’s plans to put active-duty military into action against the American people protesting in America’s streets. That’s not an unimportant development.
The most powerful denunciation of Trump has come from James Mattis, a retired General who had commanded the U.S. Joint Forces Command, was commander of the U.S. Central Command, and served as Trump’s defense secretary until 2018, and has served on several corporate boards of directors (and, to be thorough, probably committed war crimes as a commander in Fallujah). As much as anyone Mattis is an exemplar of the Military-Industrial Complex. In a strident essay, an “angry and appalled” Mattis assailed Trump for dividing Americans and inciting conflict. Putting himself on the side of the people in the streets and invoking the concept of “equal justice under law,” Mattis explained that “this is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding.”
Surprisingly, he did not denounce the protestors, and admonished that Americans “not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers.” He excoriated Trump for not uniting Americans, in fact “he does not even pretend to try,” and then, most strikingly, compared Trump to the Nazis: “Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that ‘The Nazi slogan for destroying us … was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is “In Union there is Strength.'”
Had Mattis admonished Trump, it would have been news by itself, but other generals offered similar public statements. Indeed, even before Mattis, Admiral Mike Mullen, the JCS Chair from 2007-2011, wrote in The Atlantic that “it sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church.”
What was striking in both the Mattis and Mullen statements was not just that they publicly denounced a sitting president, but that they went beyond the constitutional aspects of Trump’s behavior, went beyond the way Trump was politicizing the deployment of troops, and actually discussed the underlying causes of the current rebellions.
Mullen frankly discussed the angry protests about racism, conceding that he couldn’t fully grasp the plight of American Blacks, “but as someone who has been around for a while, I know enough—and I’ve seen enough—to understand that those feelings are real and that they are all too painfully founded.” He, like Mattis, strongly supported “the right—indeed, the solemn obligation—to peacefully assemble and to be heard. These are not mutually exclusive pursuits.”
John Allen, another retired Marine four-star and president of the Brookings Institution, added his disgust that Trump and Barr had peaceful protestors physically routed but that “this photo-op sought to legitimize that abuse with a layer of religion.” He bluntly added that this current rising could lead to change, and in a cryptic shout-out to protestors, said “it will have to come from the bottom up. For at the White House, there is no one home.”
Others have joined in the chorus of condemnation as well. Martin Dempsey, Army General and past JCS Chief, tweeted “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy,” and then in what seemed to be a barb at the First Lady added the hashtag #BeBetter.
Michael Hayden, former director of both the NSC and CIA, took a clear shot at General Mark Milley, the current JCS Chair, who accompanied Trump and Barr for the photo op at St. John’s Church in Washington, saying “I was appalled to see him in his battle dress. Milley (he’s a general?!?) should not have walked over to the church with Trump.”
General Tony Thomas, ex-head of Special Operations Command, took aim at Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s description of the Washington D.C. using the language of war: “The ‘battle space’ of America??? Not what America needs to hear…ever, unless we are invaded by an adversary or experience a constitutional failure…ie a Civil War…”
Though these officers are retired, they are no doubt in communication, most likely frequent, with active-duty officers and it’s logical to assume that they’re publicly saying what officials in the Pentagon are telling them. More so, given that Trump has already had public spats with military officers, it’s not unlikely that they may have already pushed against his plans and called on their retired colleagues to make the public case for them. Collectively, as media described it, Trump was “facing an unprecedented revolt” from the military over his strongman tactics in the streets.
Even more problematic for Trump were the public statement of active-duty officers in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the 150 or so uprisings in American cities, and Trump’s escalating threats to unleash the military at home, including using the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy troops against Americans in areas where the uprisings were taking place.
On June 1, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, published an extraordinary and powerful series of tweets on being Black in America: “Who am I? I am a Black man who happens to be Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I am George Floyd…I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice.” Wright talked of his outrage at “watching another Black man die on television before our very eyes.” Wright, the second African American to be the Air Force’s highest ranking enlisted officer, bluntly said that “what happens all too often in this country to Black men who are subjected to police brutality that ends in death…could happen to me. As shocking as that may sound to some of you…” as he announced an independent review his own service after reports showed a disproportionate number of young black airmen have been punished.
Before tweeting, Wright spoke with Air Force Chief of Staff General Dave Goldfein, who approved of his statement and then went on record in support of him, denouncing the death of George Floyd and acknowledging racism in the Air Force: “Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes it’s subtle, but we are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination and unconscious bias. We see this in the apparent inequity in our application of military justice. We will not shy away from this; as leaders and as airmen we will own our part and confront it head on.” The commander of the new Space Force put out a similar memorandum, saying that George Floyd’s death “also serves as a stark reminder that racism and unequal treatment is a reality for many and a travesty for all. As members of the United States Space Force we are not immune. Many in our Service feel this pain a daily basis and we all are hurting as we have experienced the sickening events that have played out in our cities around the country.”
By that point, the floodgates had opened and Milley (who, according to inside sources in recent reports had been against the idea of deploying active-duty troops from the beginning) had no choice but to offer a statement in support of the constitution (a quite frightening development in its own right) and told the service chiefs to “please remind all our troops and leaders that we will uphold the values of our nation, and operate consistent with national laws and our own high standards of conduct at all times.”
Perhaps the strongest public statment came from Sergeant Major Michael Grinston, Chief of Staff James McConville, and Secretary Ryan McCarthy of the Army. On June 3d, they released a statement through their Public Affairs Office acknowledging in detail the crisis of racism in America, saying that “we feel the frustration and anger. We felt it this week while traveling through the nation’s capital with the DC National Guard. We feel it, even though we can never fully understand the frustration and life experiences of people of color, in or out of uniform. But we do understand the importance of taking care of people, and of treating every person with dignity and respect.” And they continued
Every Soldier and Department of the Army Civilian swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution. That includes the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. We will continue to support and defend those rights, and we will continue to protect Americans, whether from enemies of the United States overseas, from COVID-19 at home, or from violence in our communities that threatens to drown out the voices begging us to listen. To Army leaders of all ranks, listen to your people, but don’t wait for them to come to you. Go to them. Ask the uncomfortable questions. Lead with compassion and humility, and create an environment in which people feel comfortable expressing grievances. Let us be the first to set the example. We are listening. And we will continue to put people first as long as we are leading the Army. Because people are our greatest strength.
After that remarkable 48 hours of retired officers and active-duty chiefs repudiating Trump’s threats, Esper had little choice but to backtrack on any plans to deploy troops on American soil and broke ranks with the president, saying that he now believed that soldiers should not be put into American cities. Trump was predictably livid over the whole affair, furiously denouncing Mattis and others in tweets and apparently considering replacing Esper.
Yet the military condemnation has continued. General Douglas Lute, who had been on the NSC under both Bush and Obama, warned that “there is a thin line between the military’s tolerance for questionable partisan moves over the past three years and the point where these become intolerable for an apolitical military. Relatively minor episodes have accumulated imperceptibly, but we are now at a point of where real damage is being done.” But, for the time being, at least one element of an ongoing national crisis seemed to be tempered.
Generals are not allies of street protestors, but have provided important support for resistance in this crisis by forcing the White House to reverse its plans to turn American streets into a war zone, at least as I write this on June 5th. Because their concern is the systemic breakdown of virtually every aspect of our national life in the past few years–the economy, politics, the healthcare system, race relations, global credibility–they have finally stepped in, for now, to put the brakes on Donald Trump’s reckless and unhinged behavior in every area of public life. They understand that Capitalist prosperity, and global hegemony, require stability.
A country with systemic crises in healthcare, the economy, and racism, especially police violence against Blacks causing rebellions in 150+ cities, with an vast and rapidly growing chasm between a few people with immense wealth and vast majorities living on the edge cannot be stable. In just a few months, the veneer has been ripped away and American exceptionalism and the U.S. role in the world have been exposed–a failed state and a paper tiger.
In surveys after the risings started, 64 percent of American supported the protests, while, more amazingly, 54 percent approved of torching a Minneapolis police precinct. Major corporations which have been non-political forever have issued statements that supported the protests–Nordstrom’s, Bleacher Report, Planet Fitness, even Harley Davidson, hardly a list of socially progressive businesses. Even George W. Bush, Michael Jordan, and, shockingly, Pat Robertson have added to the public discourse against Trump. Amid such a stark level of political chaos and uncertainty, these military leaders have stepped into the breach to stop the hemorrhaging, both to prevent further damage and to protect their own class interests because stability is a sine qua non of the economic system, more so than ever in late-stage Capitalism.
In this particular instance, since Trump represents such a grave threat to . . . everything, their interventions have seemed to offer a bit of breathing space to . . . everyone. But in the longer term, a society with that type of military influence will confront a new set of issues. Just as Americans have, forever, respected and honored police officers and basically ignored their everyday violence . . . until now, the military is still widely respected and little questioned.
To be clear, though, there’s also a big difference between soldiers and cops.
The military is probably the most diverse institution in America with regard to race, ethnicity, and gender. Non-Whites now make up 40 percent of the Armed Forces so the idea of sending them into the streets of American cities to quell a rebellion and perhaps kill people based on race is simply not feasible.
These retired officers and commanders who have spoken out understood that if Trump had sent armed soldiers into the current firestorm in the streets there might have been a serious fissure among troops, a significant number of whom have experienced situations similar to that of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor.
And, unlike most cops, who make a career out of police work, many young men and women join the military because it provides them with some income, health insurance, and perhaps some training or education. Most don’t make a career out of it. They return to civilian life and a fair number develop progressive political attitudes or even become radical–on this, listen to a recent episode of Green & Red Podcast, “War is a Racket,” featuring antiwar Vet Graham Clumpner (@turncoatveteran). Groups like VVAW and Vets for Peace are still active, and About Face offers community and support to antiwar, radical and anarchist vets, and would have surely been in the streets counseling soldiers to resist if Trump had deployed them. While antiwar, antiracist, and antimperialist veterans are commonplace, there aren’t similar groups of cops who repudiate their violent pasts and join the fight for justice.
The military and Trump have had a difficult relationship from the start as well. It’s an open secret than many (most?) officers don’t respect him–he’s a bombastic war-mongering draft dodger whose racism and sexism were never hidden and who mocked soldiers and officers as “losers” and worse. They’ve had open spats with him over pardoning war criminals and then firing the Navy Secretary after he balked, and relieving Capt. Brett Crozier of command of an aircraft carrier after his plea for help amid a coronavirus outbreak on his ship became public. Trump, who often boasts of masculinity and derides weakness, even as he hides in the White House bunker, sought out public confrontations with the military to prove his toughness, but it was a battle he could never win, as we’ve seen this week.
These Generals who’ve gone public, and probably the overwhelming majority of officers, want to see the Trump era end and also want to see this popular uprising in the streets over as well. They would have no problem with a Biden presidency, just as they had no problems with Bush, Obama or Clinton. They seek stability and probably reforms in order to return to some level of normalcy, so we may see a bump in the minimum wage, some kind of healthcare reform, some changes in the way police forces are put together and the way cops behave.
They are not rebels or anarchists or socialists, it goes without saying. There is no doubt they want to take this growing movement and channel it into reformist, and thus more controllable, pathways. Because of their credibility and “patriotism,” the media offers space to these Generals whenever they utter a word of dissent, but that is important to the resistance in the streets too. The ruling class is not homogenous, and whenever fissures occur, like now, protestors need to be aware of them and ready to operate in the new spaces created.
The issue now is for the millions of people in the streets to build off the events of the past few days. The work of fundamentally changing American society, an almost incomprehensibly immense task, begins with deposing the old regime, in this case Donald Trump, however that happens. After the events of this week, the likelihood of Trump trying to stop or steal the election is probably lessened. The military would not accept that and, more importantly, millions more would pour into the streets.
Trump, and the cops, have radicalized people in ways that radicals have never been able to do. These officers have worked in parallel ways by helping to discredit the use of force (at least on a federal level–local cops are still brutalizing protestors) and providing cover for some governors to recall or refuse to deploy National Guard units. They’ve also made sure the issues of racism and police violence remained the focus of the uprisings. Those are not small contributions.
Mattis et al are not modern-day versions of Smedley Butler or David Shoup or Hugh Thompson, the warrant officer who landed his helicopter at My Lai and forced the American Division to end its massacre of Vietnamese peasants. They’ve stopped a wannabee autocrat from causing mass bloodshed, but they have not questioned aggression abroad or the very nature of the American empire. Still, many people have asked me in the past few days “was this a ‘fuck you’ to Trump from the military?” Yes, it was. And we can be okay with that.
Systemic crises unfold and are played out in phases. No matter your ultimate goal, getting rid of the regime in power has to be the first step–Ho and Fidel knew they had to oust Bao Dai and Batista before moving forward. A socialist revolution in America is far from even beginning, but the point is that there is now an opening to do something real, and big. The very people that may have helped in ending Trumpism (and one can never underestimate what he’ll do when cornered even more and how these military officers will respond to him) will be a barrier to what the masses seek in the future.
I mentioned Ho Chi Minh above. I don’t think an American protestor in 2020 is a lot like a Viet Minh guerrilla in 1945, but Ho was brilliant in many ways and always could see far ahead and develop strategy accordingly. After World War II, as the French reentered Vietnam, many of his comrades in the Indochinese Communist Party wanted him to make a strong stand, to threaten France with war if they tried to thwart Vietnamese sovereignty. But Ho signed an agreement for shared power and a gradual transfer of independence, much to the anger of some comrades.
Ho explained that he’d rather sniff French shit for another five years than eat Chinese shit for another thousand…….
Updated, 6 June: Since writing this a couple more developments of note to add, which are part of the military’s rebuke of Trump.
On June 5th, the pentagon disarmed the National Guard in Washington D.C. and sent active-duty forces home; and on June 6th the Marine Corps put in a complete ban on the Confederate flag and any mugs, t-shirts, stickers, etc. with that image on it.
To commemorate the Viet Minh victory over France in the First Indochina War I published part 1 of this history a few weeks ago. Here is part 2, covering the period from the outset of that war up to Dien Bien Phu.
(The story below is largely derived from my books Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life, and Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era, as well as other articles and edited collections).
The First Indochina War Begins
Following the French shelling of Haiphong, the Viet Minh war against the French had begun. Though the Vietnamese would ultimately focus on a strategy of guerrilla warfare, protracted war, a long grind to erode the morale and fighting strength of the enemy, the war did not begin that way.
In 1950 Giap, though a brilliant guerrilla war strategist, began large-scale engagements with the French. In October the Viet Minh attacked enemy forts along the Chinese border, with the French losing 6000 troops and large numbers of mortars, trucks, machine guns, and rifles. Hoping to build on that success, Giap, in January 1951, began a general offensive, hoping for a Tet victory. About 15,000 Viet Minh who had been hiding in the mountains outside the Red River delta launched a “human wave” attack on French garrisons at Vinh Yen, near Hanoi.
But the French repulsed that attack with 6000 Viet Minh killed. Giap did not retreat, though, striking French positions along the delta. In the spring, the situation worsened when Giap tried to cut off the French by sea by occupying Haiphong. The battle, “Operation Hoang Hoa Tham II,” ended in another defeat. Just two months later, in the battle of “Ha Nam Ninh,” French aircraft and armor blunted Giap’s charges. By mid-June, the Viet Minh was backtracking and bloodied.
Many Viet Minh called for Giap to be fired, but Ho intervened on behalf of hiscommander, and he and Giap also shifted to a strategy of protracted war–from then on, the Viet Minh would try to spread out French forces in defensive positions throughout the country so that they could be attacked in smaller engagements and, in time, French morale would collapse. When the time and conditions were right, Giap could then conduct big-unit engagements to gain decisive victories.
Beginning in mid-1951, the Viet Minh, working with local tribes, sucessfully struck at many French district capitals in the mountains of the northwest, and did the same in league with Communit Pathet Lao guerrillas in Laos. Also at this time Chinese Communist forces, flush off their 1949 victory in their civil war, sent larger quantities of arms, equipment, and supplies to Ho–thousands of tons monthly by the end of the war–while a quarter million Chinese troops along the border served as a warning to the French and others against expanded warfare. Continue reading
The French, Vietnamese Nationalism and Communism, and American Imperialism
(Part 1 of 2, from French colonization to putative independence and war against France. The story below is largely derived from my books Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life, and Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era, as well as other articles and edited collections).
On May 7th, 1954, the Viet Minh, combined Communist and Nationalist forces fighting a war of liberation to remove their colonial occupier, France, successfully ended their long struggle by defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, a base in an isolated mountain valley near the border of Laos in northwest Vietnam. The “First Indochina War,” as it became known would allow the Viet Minh, the leading political-military group in Vietnam to claim sovereignty and establish a national government. Those goals, those dreams, however, did not last long as the United States refused to accept Vietnamese independence of Ho Chi Minh, a longtime Communist-Nationalist revolutionary. So while one war ended, another was about to begin.
But understanding the history of Vietnamese resistance to the French that culminated in Dien Bien Phu is essential to learning about the role the Americans assumed, the way they waged that killed millions of Vietnamese and destroyed much of the country, and the nature of the U.S. empire in the Cold War.
Vietnamese Nationalism against the French
Vietnam already had a long-established tradition of fighting off foreign invaders before the French occupied Indochina in the mid-19th Century. In 1858, a French fleet with 3000 troops arrived in Da Nang and began to attack the Nguyen dynasty, and within a decade had established control over Vietnam. In 1862, a collaborator in the Vietnamese court ceded the southern third of Vietnam, Cochinchina, to the French, and it became a French colony with its capital at Saigon. A year later, hoping to create a trade route along the Mekong River all the way into China, the French established a protectorate in Cambodia, which lay immediately west of Cochinchina. But the Mekong was not navigable to China’s borders, so the French turned their attention northward, and by the 1880s they held protectorates in the central (Annam) and northern (Tonkin) regions of Vietnam, and in Laos, north of Cambodia and west of Vietnam, as well.
For the next seven decades, this area would be known as French Indochina. Like their nationalist predecessors who’d fought the Chinese and Mongols, Vietnamese nationalists in the 1880s and thereafter began to rebel against the brutal conditions created by an outside power. The French established rubber plantations and coal mines with Vietnamese workers virtually enslaved, and colonial administrators used corvée labor–forcing peasants to work on public projects like roads or bridges in place of paying taxes–to build up the infrastructure.
In a short story by the Vietnamese writer Ngo Tat To—“When the Light’s Put Out”–he illustrated the burdens of life under the French and their Vietnamese lackeys. A woman, Mrs. Dau, traveled to the home of Representative Que, a collaborator with the French, to negotiate the release of her husband from prison, where he had been sent for not being able to pay his “body tax.” In exchange for Mr. Dau’s freedom, his wife was forced to trade four valuable puppies, and, tragically, her daughter Ty. Adding insult to injury, before gaining her husband’s release, she also had to pay a body tax for her brother-in-law, even though he had died months earlier. On her way out, Mrs. Dau’s fine was increased because she had paid in coin, not paper currency, and there was a “transfer fee” as well.
Ngo Tat To’s story not only revealed the colonial administration established by the French, but also the role of the Vietnamese upper classes who worked with the Europeans to exploit their own people. To the Vietnamese, those countrymen, usually large landholders and converts to Catholicism, were a threat to national sovereignty. Nationalists might refer to a collaborator as a “God-cursed traitor who acted like a worm in one’s bones,” while Court officials were “cowards excessively anxious to save their lives.”
Confronted by such Vietnamese traitors who were loyal to France, Nationalists pledged to fight–often in verse:
We possess our life, but we must know how to give it up
Shall we remain silent and thereby earn the reputation of cowards?
As long as there exist people on this earth, we shall exist
As long as there is water, we must bail it out
We must read the Proclamation on the victory over the Wu
We shall follow the example of those who exterminated the Mongols
In fact, the greatest patriot of this generation was a poet, Phan Boi Chau, who taught that the Vietnamese Mandarin class as well as the French had refused to listen to the people, who, for their part, did not assert themselves strongly enough. As a result, Phan saw a land “splashed with blood. The whole country has a tragic hue.” And he urged the Vietnamese to fight forcefully against the French:
Ten thousand Vietnamese can at least kill one hundred Frenchmen,
One thousand Vietnamese can kill ten Frenchmen,
One hundred Vietnamese can kill one Frenchman.
In this way four to five hundred thousand Vietnamese can wipe out four to five thousand Frenchmen!
Those grey-eyed, heavily-bearded people cannot live if Vietnam is to live!
World War I then became a decisive turning point in the history of the Vietnamese revolution. By the 1920s, younger, more militant patriots, inspired by the likes of Lenin, Bakunin, and Sun Yatsen, and imbued with the growing spirit of anti-colonialism, were moving to the forefront of the resistance, led by a young Annamite born in 1890 who was variously called Nguyen Sinh Cung, Nguyen Tat Thanh, and Nguyen Ai Quoc, but who would become known to the world as Ho Chi Minh. As a young boy, so the legend goes, he sat at the feet of Phan Boi Chau and listened to his nationalist poetry; he heard his father, a civil servant, attack the French administration and refuse to learn its language, thereby getting fired from his job, although the French made up charges of drunkenness and embezzlement to justify the dismissal; and he saw his neighbors in Nghe An, in Annam, forced to do corvée labor.
So Ho turned even further to the left, befriending Chinese Communists like Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqui, joining the Parti Communiste Français and the Comintern, and making his first trip to the Soviet Union, where he wrote articles using the name Nguyen O Phap, or “Nguyen the anti- French.” In Moscow, the Comintern appointed Ho to organize the “League of East Asian Oppressed Peoples” in Guangdong, China, the center of the Vietnamese resistance in Asia.
The Rise of Ho Chi Minh
As Ho’s major biographer, Jean Lacouture, described it, while in China Ho “began a practical course in political philosophy and behaved in general in the manner of a secular saint, chopping wood, stopping the barber from beating his wife . . . and feeding the little boy; he played a role that was part Buddha and part Lenin-in-Finland.”
As a consequence of his time in Guangdong, Ho also began developing contacts with many other Vietnamese Leftists who would help him make the Revolution, including Ho Tung Mau, Le Hong Phong, Le Hong Son, and, especially, Pham Van Dong, Truong Chinh, and, later, Vo Nguyen Giap. In February 1930, many of them formally established the Indochinese Communist Party [ICP, or the “Dang Cong San Dong Duon.”].
With an appeal to both “the oppressed colonies and the exploited working class,” the ICP stressed nationalist objectives such as ousting the French and establishing Vietnamese independence, along with Communist goals like land redistribution, while also promising civil rights, public education, and equality between men and women.
From the 1930s forward, Ho and the Party would often have to respond to pressures for action from below as well, and that was the case in 1930 and 1931, as workers, protesting the dire impact of the world depression on their wages and prices, spontaneously staged strikes at cement factories, rubber plantations, and textile mills, while also organizing work stoppages and demonstrations at various sites in Tonkin and Annam on 1 May, International Labor Day. The most serious actions took place in Ho’s home region of Nghe Tinh, in northern Annam. Peasants and workers there had established “soviets” to guide the protests and, in some cases, had unseated the local administration, reduced rents, and redistributed land, all without any centralized control from the ICP.
Local police who collaborated with the French arrested over 1000 Vietnamese suspected of being Communists or taking part in the rebellions, executed over 80 protestors, and handed long prison sentences to over 400 others. The ICP estimated that, nationwide, over 2000 militants were killed and over 50,000 arrested, including Pham Van Dong, Truong Chinh, and Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam, and Ho in Hong Kong. Ho’s efforts to build up an organized and disciplined movement would have to begin from scratch.
Ho then spent the 1930s organizing from outside Vietnam, principally in China. Although criticized for his attempts to work with “class enemies,” he understood and emphasized as an overall organizing principle the one issue certain to appeal to all layers of Vietnamese society–land. Indeed, the Vietnamese struggle in the 1930s, and thereafter, revolved around the central issue of land ownership. French landholders and Vietnamese collaborators held vast tracts of the countryside.
In Cochinchina, for instance, just 6200 landlords owned over half the rice acreage, while another 60,000 owned about 40 percent. The remaining 4.5 million Vietnamese held little land or were tenants, with 60 percent of the rural population [approximately 2.7 million] altogether landless. In Tonkin, 2 percent of the landholders controlled nearly half of the rice lands, and tenants on those plantations had to pay their landlords between 40 and 60 of their crops as rent. Worse, these percentages were fixed amounts based on a “normal” year’s yield. If flood, drought, or other such problems occurred, rents could reach eighty percent or higher in real terms.
WW II and Vietnamese Sovereignty?
World War II was a major turning point in the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation and social revolution. As war broke out in Europe in the Fall of 1939, the situation in Vietnam for the resistance was, as always, precarious, and quite confusing as well. In Asia, the Japanese were trying to establish what they called the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, an alliance of Asian states under Japan’s control. Already brutally occupying China and Korea, Japan could be expected to expand throughout the continent. Thus Ho Chi Minh, along with Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap, operating out of southern China, trained Chairman Jieng Jieshi’s troops in guerrilla warfare to use against the Japanese.
Simultaneously, the French began another crackdown in Vietnam. Because the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression treaty with Hitler in August 1939, Communists everywhere were held in greater suspicion, and the French declared the ICP to be illegal and arrested over 2,000 activists, mostly from urban areas. Eventually, however, the French repression forced the Nationalists to shift their focus to the countryside, thus building the foundation for later struggle, and once more demonstrating the Vietnamese capacity to take advantage of apparent setbacks. Though under attack at home by France and threatened externally by the Japanese, Ho and his comrades working out of China were able to revitalize and expand the resistance.
At the same point, however, France fell to Germany, and its Axis ally, Japan, came into Vietnam, sending troops to Haiphong in September 1940. But the crisis also gave the Viet Minh an opening, and mid the various conflicts and political confusion (China vs. Japan, France vs. the Viet Minh, Japan vs. France, and so on), in May 1941, for the first time in thirty years, the man now calling himself Ho Chi Minh [“He Who Enlightens”] entered into his homeland. In Pac Bo, Ho lived in a cave he named “Karl Marx” with a stream next to it that he called “Lenin,” and he secretly wrote and distributed a newsletter titled Viet Lap, or “Independent Vietnam.”
In a meeting at Pac Bo, Ho and the ICP established the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, “The League for Vietnamese Independence,” better known as the Viet Minh. Ho and the Viet Minh stressed nationalist sentiments, emphasizing Vietnamese history and culture. They called on all “rich people, soldiers, workers, peasants, intellectuals, employees, traders, youth, and women who warmly love your country” to join the cause. “National liberation is the most important problem,” he insisted. “We shall overthrow the Japanese and French and their jackals in order to save people from the situation between boiling water and boiling heat.”
Before beginning that struggle, however, Ho was arrested in China, even though he was helping train army forces there to fight against Japan. Jiang Jieshi feared Ho’s independent, nationalist streak and wanted to establish a puppet Vietnamese party of his own. While serving his fifteen-month sentence under terrible conditions in Chinese prison, Ho, a poet-warrior, continued to work for liberation, often defiantly mocked challenging his captors:
Being chained is a luxury to compete for.
The chained have somewhere to sleep, the unchained haven’t . . .
The State treats me to its rice,
I lodge in its palaces,
Its guards take turns escorting me.
Really, the honor is too great . . .
After his release, Ho and his comrades in the ICP agreed that “the phase of peaceful
revolution is behind us,” but he also warned Giap that “the time for general insurrection has not yet come.” Yet, late 1944 marked the beginning of the armed struggle, as Ho envisioned the creation of an Armed Propaganda Unit as the “embryo” of a Vietnamese Liberation Army. Accordingly, Viet Minh guerrillas, at times fighting with French troops, began engaging the Japanese in Thai Nguyen Province, northeast of Hanoi not far from the Chinese border, and even successfully convinced several French garrisons to desert. Viet-French cooperation was not typical, however. Anticipating that the allied powers would defeat a badly weakened Japan in 1945, the French planned to regain full control over Indochina after the war.
However, “the gods were on Ho’s side” as the Japanese, on 9 March 1945, arrested and jailed every French official with even the slightest authority. The Japanese then returned Emperor Bao Dai to the throne and nullified the 1884 treaty that had established French control over Indochina. Any thoughts of Vietnamese independence, however,were short-lived as the Japanese maintained their authority and placed their own Vietnamese puppets in power.
Vietnamese Independence: The War Begins (From Haiphong to 1950)
But in early August 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing surrender, so On 16 August, Ho addressed the National Liberation Committee, introduced the movement’s new flag–a gold star on a red background–and emotionally called for a countrywide rebellion and described the Front for national independence. The Viet Minh then forced the abdication of Emperor Bao Dai, and after a lifetime of struggle, Ho and his fellow Nationalist-Communists had achieved independence and gained power—so it seemed.
Thus on 2 September 1945, Ho faced a half million of his fellow Vietnamese in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi and proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam [DRVN], with himself as president and minister of foreign affairs. Ho’s words that day were quite remarkable, and ironic.
“All men are created equal,” he began; “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” He deliberately chose words from the United States Declaration of Independence to connect the Vietnamese Revolution with other such historical movements, to announce to the world the democratic nature of the DRVN, and to try to convince America of his good intentions.
After a long condemnation of the French and Japanese, Ho concluded that “Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country–and in fact is so already,” and he was “now convinced that the Allied Nations [then organizing the United Nations] . . . will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Viet-Nam.” In fact, the new state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or DRVN, as Ho envisioned it, should be a broad alliance of all patriotic groups, including progressive bourgeoisie and large landowners. Toward that end, the ICP formally dissolved itself on 11 November. Though communism would remain a vital force in Vietnamese life, the DRVN would have a Vietnamese, not Communist, government.
In reality, it would have neither, as the French returned to Vietnam to assert their control over what they still considered their colony. Ho, controversially, opposed the ICP hardliners who wanted to fight the French, and cut deals with colonial officials from Paris. Hated as the French were, Ho figured that it was better to have them in Vietnam than the traditional Chinese enemy.
As he reminded his critics in Hanoi, “Don’t you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”
Though Ho had hedged his bets by advising Viet Minh units to conduct guerrill operations in the south while he negotiated, many of his associates berated him as a traitor, a puppet of the French, and a sellout. In an open letter, many Viet Minh followers lamented, “little did we suspect that we should have to renounce all hope after [the March pact]. You have signed an agreement to accept self-government, not independence! The strength of our faith in you in the days when your name stood for the great revolutionary idea is equaled today by the rage in our hearts–we are ashamed that we should have chosen the wrong elder . . . But the Vietnamese people never lose hope for long . . . They will continue along the path which you have been unable to follow to the end.”
Despite Ho’s efforts to reconcile with the French and pacify Viet Minh hardliners, skirmishing between the two sides continued into the Fall. Then, in November, the French began to provoke the Vietnamese, first by opening a charnel house in Haiphong. Days later, after the Viet Minh fired on a French ship in the harbor at Haiphong, the French, violating Fontainebleau, ordered all Vietnamese troops removed from the area. General Jean Valluy, the French commander in Vietnam, instructed the officer in charge at Haiphong, Colonel Dèbes, “to give a harsh lesson” to the Viet Minh. “By every means at your disposal you must take control of Haiphong and bring the government and the Vietnamese army to repentance.”
On 23 November, Dèbes ordered a full evacuation of Haiphong, and three hours later, with the Viet Minh still in positions there, opened fire and called in naval artillery support. By the end of the day, over 6000 Vietnamese had died, another 25,000 were wounded, and Haiphong had fallen to the French. The DRVN then declared the agreements with the French null and void and, on 19 December, General Giap called for armed resistance.
The next day Ho appealed to the entire population to rise against the French: “Men and women, old and young, regardless of creeds, political parties, or nationalities, all the Vietnamese must stand up to fight the French colonialists to save the Fatherland. Those who have rifles will use their rifles; those who have swords will use their swords; those who have no swords will use spades, hoes, or sticks. Everyone must endeavor to oppose the colonialists and save his country. The hour for national salvation has struck! We must sacrifice even our last drop of blood to safeguard our country.” The First Indochina War was about to begin.
Barely a year after gloriously proclaiming Vietnamese independence with Thomas Jefferson’s words, Ho once more was fighting for national liberation against an occupying power. But, through unrivaled strategic skills, and at times what appeared to be magic, the Viet Minh defeated defeated the French and appeared to have won national independence. The Viet Minh—representing a front of Communists, nationalists, and other anti-French fighters—were badly outnumbered.
The French Union Forces [FUF]–comprised of French and Vietnamese troops–grew from 70,000 men in the early 1940s to over 500,000 by 1954; the French Expeditionary Corps [FEC], the occupying army, increased from 70,000 troops at the outset of World War II to 115,000 in 1947, and 180,000 by the 1950s; the Vietnamese National Army [VNA], created by the French and consisting of Vietnamese soldiers, had about 375,000 troops in it by 1954. General Giap, meanwhile, had about 300,000 Viet Minh and militia fighters under his charge, with only a third equipped with small arms initially, and no naval or air forces. Even as they acquired military supplies from China during the war, Ho and Giap would always be outgunned by the French and their western supporters.
But in the end technological power would not be decisive. The Viet Minh controlled the loyalty of the population and Vietnamese morale remained high. Ho could be a hardheaded military strategist, telling a French official that “you would kill ten of my men for every one I killed of yours. But even at that rate you would be unable to hold out, and victory would go to me.” The Vietnamese were fighting a “People’s War.” All segments of their society–including women, children, and the aged–contributed to the resistance; indeed one of the more crucial support groups was that of “combat mothers,” older women who adopted soldiers into their own families. Militarily, people’s war, derived from Maoist doctrine in the Chinese Civil War, emphasized constant movement and flexibility.
As Truong Chinh explained, “if the enemy attacks us from above, we will attack him from below. If he attacks us in the North, we will respond in Central or South Vietnam, or in Cambodia and Laos. If the enemy penetrates one of our territorial bases, we will immediately strike hard at his belly and back . . . cut off his legs, destroy his roads.” Such tactics would anger and frustrate the French, with one of their officers complaining “if only the Vietnamese would face us in a set battle, how we would crush them!” Ho and Giap realized that too, and would spend the next generation eluding French, and American, forces.
Part 2 forthcoming.
For about a week now, media and liberal hysterics have been riveted to scenes of protestors in many states having outdoor demonstrations to demand that “the economy” reopen. They’re white people, many of whom are hoisting Confederate flags and Trump signs. The most notable has been a young woman proclaiming her pro-choice ideology, not for reproductive rights, but with regard to her refusal to wear a mask, and supporting Trump in 2020. The Media has jumped all over these protests, even though their numbers aren’t great.
It’s a country of 330 million and you’ve had, cumulatively, a few thousand people out to pimp for businesses to open and risk people’s lives. Back in my activist days, Scott Parkin and I organized dozens of actions in Houston–protests, marches, teach-ins, vigils–on various issues with hundreds of people typically attending, and we never got covered in the Grey Lady or WaPo. The Right-Wing spectacle brings clicks and sells papers.
For his part, Trump has incited these crowds, tweeting for his supporters to “Liberate” Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota, and and invoking the Second Amendment, which wasn’t a call to “protest,” as the media reported it, but indeed an incitement to become violent.
Also, it’s worth noting that he left out instructions to liberate Ohio and Maryland, two states with the same shelter-in-place policies but with Republican governors (neither of whom, not coincidentally, is particularly well -liked by the White House). It’s also worth noting that these protests are not spontaneous uprisings by individuals who want their freedom, but, as the journalist Steve Horn described, they have been orchestrated, paid for, and organized by well-established right-wing groups with money and connections–gun groups, Devos, Mercer, Koch, and so on, the same people behind the opposition to Global Warming. “Plus ça change……”
So this is dystopian America in April, 2020. States are bidding against each other for ventilators and arranging surreptitious drops for masks and other PPE before the feds find out and swoop in and steal them away (like a bad heist movie), people are arranging sewing bees to make masks for docs and nurses, sick folks are not even getting tested and dying at home, nursing homes looking like charnel houses…..and Trump’s little Nazis are out there protesting public health measures on behalf of rich plutocrats who want more people to die so they can make more money.
To be clear, “opening the economy” means that workers in reopened businesses can’t make unemployment claims, so they’re literally faced with risking their lives or losing their jobs–It’s like a Capitalist Fantasy Camp, or a game show where they dangle a low-wage job in front of a hungry group of people and see who’s most desperate to grab it. Trump, these “protestors,” the governors who’ve reopened flea markets, hair salons, gyms, and bowling alleys, are a Death Cult (literally, not just rhetorically). And Trump, even though some lefties think he has a master plan and is outsmarting people, has no ideology other than nihilism and destruction, inciting an open Social Darwinism to bully and terrorize frightened and sick people.
But it’s not all bleak, not at all. The vast majority of Americans, Dem and GOP alike, are turned off, repulsed even, by these Aryan mobs. Only 22 percent support them, while 71 percent of Americans, and 56 percent of Republicans, are concerned that restrictions will be lifted too quickly rather than too slowly. Most importantly, only 29 percent favor reopening businesses “as soon as possible to prevent further economic damage.” And 52 percent say that COVID testing is inadequate compared to only 22 percent who think it’s sufficient.
Polling also shows that Americans overwhelmingly support the efforts of governors who’ve put in place measures to shelter during this pandemic, over Trump, who’s advised Americans to do nothing but die for Capitalism. And on the economy–3/4 of Americans think the government needs to spend more to help people impacted by the crash, so they’re rejected austerity and the Death Cult.
(Another obvious issue here, blatantly obvious, is that these Right-Wing, gun-toting white boys are walking around without any problem while in many cities African Americans are arrested for doing COVID testing or not maintaining adequate distance–and then being tossed into a holding cell with a dozen other people in what seems to be an attempt by Cops to make sure those people get the virus…i.e. manslaughter).
Donald Trump had barely been inaugurated when the warnings started, in political discussions, memes, social media postings, everywhere. In the next election, non-Trump supporters were obliged, with no discussion or demurral allowed, to vote for whomever the Democratic running for president in 2020 was. If you were anti-MAGA, you could not vote for the Greens or any other party; you could not even just not vote. There were clear marching orders: “Vote Blue, No Matter Who.”
And now that time has come and the chorus has grown even louder. The nominee, the inevitable nominee, Joe Biden, semi-lucid and mezzo morto, as Junior Soprano would say, will go into the ring against Trump (I keep having visions of Chuck Wepner when I use that metaphor). And now Bernie Sanders’s supporters, $180 million and a lot of miles on their shoes shy after a lot of labor and love fighting for a candidate who never was going to be the Democratic nominee, are being
urged told instructed ordered to vote for Biden.
And then, I just saw this, “an open letter from the old left to the new left,” and it’s deeply saddening. This missive, lecturing and condescending, came from alumni of the Students for a Democratic Society and other partisans of the “New Left.” (See Staughton Lynd and C. Wright Mills on the New Left). Without going into exhaustive detail, SDS was one of the most important organizations of the tumultuous 1960s, dedicated to bringing a “participatory democracy” to the U.S., not a contrived political system in which simply voting for elite-chosen candidates was one’s only civic role. And the New Left was a large and amorphous description for scholars and radicals who took on the Capitalist state and, most importantly for us here, developed the idea of Corporate Liberalism.
In maybe 30 minutes this morning I’ve seen about a half-dozen stories attacking China and blaming it for COVID-19, in The Guardian, WaPo, Foreign Policy and other publications. That’s not a coincidence….the media has joined in Trump’s crusade to deflect attention from the failed state we live in and the utterly dismal health care system that’s been exposed just as the Democratic Party whacked the one candidate who’d made National Health Care the signal issue of his campaign, and then foisted a barely-lucid liberal hack who could very well run a campaign worse than Clinton’s in 2016, which one would think would be metaphysically and cosmically impossible.
It’s been pretty clear for a while that the Chinese government kept the impact of Coronavirus under wraps and thus let it spread. Trump and his minions have been blaming the “Wuhan Virus” or the “Chinese Virus” from the start–and inflaming anti-Asian violence in the U.S. at the same time. And, all the while he was placing tariffs on Chinese goods and blaming them for COVID, he, and his family, continued to make bank on their Chinese investments.
Voting is okay, Organizing is mandatory, Resistance is essential
Now that Sanders is officially out, the dead end of electoralism could not be more clear. During Sanders bid for the 2020 presidency, he raised a staggering $180 million, including some record hauls. He took in $34.5 million in the 4th quarter of 2019, $25 million in January 2020, and a massive $46 million in February 2020.
While Sanders was awash in money, running a campaign that the Democratic establishment would NEVER let him win, it’s useful to look at what a core element of the Democrats was doing–Unions. The AFL-CIO reduced its organizing budget to about 10 percent of its total budget, while the “Political, Electoral, and Mobilization Fund” accounted for 35 percent of its spending (see Bill Fletcher interview and tables below).
Imagine if the unions and others who gave money to Sanders, and volunteered an immense amount of time going door-to-door, making phone calls, etc. had focused that cash and energy on grass-roots organizing around key issues. Sanders has never in his life been “a movement guy.” He’s been an elected official. He’s never organized people for anything other than a campaign.
Within the current framework of American politics he’s far superior to anyone else, but it’s cringe-inducing to hear people call him “revolutionary.” And in the end he absorbed an immense amount of money and human resources that might have been used organizing workers, stopping environmental destruction, demanding access to health care, access to contraceptives and abortion….you name it.
There’s still a lot to learn from Arno Mayer and Gabriel Kolko
Arno Mayer is one of the more important historians in modern times. His works have influenced more than one generation of historians, particularly those of us on the Left. His work is varied, and always incisive and often brilliant, and one of his overriding themes, and the title of one of his earlier classics, is “the persistence of the old regime.”
His work that his influenced me the most was Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918-1919. It’s on a pretty short list of history books that shook up the way I looked at the past and the world in general. In it, he established the framework that the Great War had created a conflict between the “forces of order” against the “forces of movement.” It’s a formula I’ve used ever since. As the war became increasingly bloody, with no end in sight, the Left–the unions, Labor parties, Socialists–the forces of movement, began to organize and demand an end to the fighting and a recasting of society in the home countries. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution became a real-time example of that. The old regime, the forces of order, recoiled at the Left’s organization and power and especially loathed the Bolsheviks.
And so, while the Great War raged, there was a concurrent political struggle in western Europe. To cut to the chase, despite some gains by the Left, the forces of order were able to reestablish their political-economic hegemony and stave off socialism in Europe, and part of their strategy did include making some reforms that the Left sought but that did not change the fulcrum of power in the existing systems. To use another historian’s idea, Bourgeois Europe was “recast” into a more modern state, but did not adopt the type of liberal capitalism that the United States was developing…..yet.
Though he didn’t use the same terms, Gabriel Kolko showed much the same in his work on the early Cold War. In The Politics of War, and even more in The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954, written along with his wife Joyce Kolko, a couple books to also shake anyone reading them up, he showed a political economic terrain much like the one Mayer depicted. The Left led much of the resistance to fascism throughout Europe, and its partisans were nationally recognized leaders, openly identifying as Communists and Socialists. When the war ended, the credibility and political power of the Left resistance was a grave threat to American interests. In France and Italy, via democratic elections, Socialists and Communists were winning local offices and joining popular front governments. In places like France and Italy, the established governments that had led before the war often took action against partisans in 1945, in some cases jailing or eliminating them.
This outbreak of radical democracy terrified the U.S. ruling class, which dispatched operatives and huge sums of money to Europe to contain the Left there. Diplomatic officials, the CIA, Organized American Labor, the AFL and the “radical” CIO [or the AFL-CIA, as people joked], cultural figures and other “black ops” characters went to various European countries to establish counter-institutions [such as anti-communist trade unions or American-centric cultural cooperatives] to contain the Left. The case of Italy is instructive. In the first postwar elections in 1946, the Left won 39.6 percent of the vote–the Socialists received 20.7 and the Communists received 18.9–to 35 percent for the Christian Democrats, and the most respected political figure was the Communist Palmiro Togliatti. The Americans were firm in their resolve to contain the Italian Left so began an intensified campaign of subversion in Italy. The CIA, the Mafia, and the Vatican joined together (the Vatican funneled tens of millions of dollars to anti-Communist groups), along with American labor representatives who undermined Left unions, to ensure Christian Democrat success. Time Magazine featured the Christian Democrat, Alcide de Gasperi on its cover with a menacing “polpo rosso,” red octopus, symbolizing the Left. In the 1948 elections, the American efforts paid off, with the Christian Democrats gaining 48 percent to the Left’s 31 percent. Again, the forces of order had restrained the forces of movement and remained in charge of the global political world.
The same dynamic was happening inside the U.S. Various groups generally outside the halls of power–organized labor, African Americans, the Left, women–had been forces of movement at home. Blacks and women worked in factories because of the need for ramped-up wartime production; unions negotiated deals with industry for better wages in exchange for no-strike pledges; the left joined in the anti-fascist fight. But once the war ended and those groups wanted to cash in for the efforts–with better wages for workers, genuine civil rights for African Americans who lived in an apartheid system but had helped defeat Nazi tyranny, women who wanted to work rather than simply become part of the Baby Boom–the state and corporate America, the forces of order, reacted. The Taft-Hartley Act, the attack on radical African Americans like Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and Harry Haywood, McCarthyism in its broadest sense, Hollywood Blacklists, and convincing women to leave the workplace were all part of the political revanchist strategy of the old regime to remain firmly in charge without changing the dynamics of power.