The Korean and Vietnam Wars: Conflicts for Capitalism and Empire

During the Cold War (1947-1991), the US government targeted many countries in an attempt to root out self-determination and autonomy within them so that it could gain control and rebuild these states in its own capitalist, imperialist vision after the destruction from WWII. The Soviet Union aimed to do the same and the perceived threat of Soviet intervention fueled much of the USG hostility towards the regime. Korea was a source of particular contention between them, and disagreements about its future culminated in the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.

Before the war was waged, Korea had been fighting for independence from Japanese rule since 1910. A functional, interim government called the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was originally established in 1919 in China to replace the Japanese Empire. But the Japanese Empire still ruled much of the population until 1945 when the Japanese surrendered to the USG at the 38th Parallel of Korea, (38 degrees north of the Earth’s equator). The US then established the “United States Army Military Government in Korea” (or USAMGIK) with John Reed Hodge at the helm as military governor, and the Korean provisional government was disbanded by the new state along with many of the popular people’s committees suspected of being “communist.” The US and Soviet Union decided to divide the country at the 38th parallel into two divisions, so that they could each have a piece of the country to rule. The Southern division was occupied by American forces while the Soviet Union took the North.

The capitalist policies implemented by the USAMGIK robbed the workers and common people of Korea of their autonomy who had been working so hard to gain their independence from the Japanese Empire. The USAMGIK, in fact, employed many of the same people who collaborated with the Japanese regime. Worker dissent led to the popular, peasant led Autumn Uprising of 1946 wherein protesters demanded an end to the US occupation, the return of people’s committees, better working conditions, the release of political prisoners, and the right to organize. The protests started in Busan but spread to Seoul, Gyeongsangnam-do, Gyeongsangbuk-do, Chungcheongnam-do, and Jeollanam-do and outside of Daegu train station where protesters threw rocks at police who were notorious for their brutality. Unsurprisingly, the United States puppet regime responded violently by mobilizing strike breakers, declaring martial law on October 3rd, and killing many citizens. Ultimately, the uprising did not succeed, the National Council of Korean Labor Unions was weakened, and civilians were kidnapped and tortured by police.1

Syngman Rhee, President of the Provisional Government from 1919-1925, then Chairman of State Council, and later the first President of South Korea repeatedly pushed for the invasion of the North to unify Korea. The Korean war broke out on June 25th 1950 but reports on who started it are mostly conflicting. Historian, Bruce Cumings notes, “There is no evidence…to back up the North’s claim that the South launched a general invasion; at worst there may have been a small assault across the parallel, as happened many times in 1949. Whatever transpired, the North met it with a full invasion.” This was the first armed conflict of the Cold War.

When UN troops crossed the 38th parallel on the first of October 1950, Stalin requested Mao Zedong and Zhou send Chinese troops into Korea, and after some days of deliberation they agreed concerned that if the USG conquered Korea, China would be next.. Hundreds of thousands of people who lived in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) were killed by the US military, the forces of the Republic of Korea, (South Korea) and the rest of the UN coalition forces, which included troops from the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Some were also imprisoned for “reeducation.” After ruthless UN operations like Operation Killer and Operation Ripper, the civilian population of Seoul was cut down from 1.5 million to 200,000 by 1951. 2 At least 526 civilians died in UN prisoner of war camps.3 On July 26, 1950 alone, 300 civilians (some refugees) were killed at once by the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment in the No Gun Ri massacre. One veteran recalled the instruction from a commanding officer, ““fire on everything, kill ‘em all.”4

Soon after Stalin died in March of 1953, an armistice agreement was signed by some of the warring parties on July 27 1953 but there was no peace treaty and the “arms race” continued. Nikita Khrushchev replaced Stalin in 1954 and he was almost as violent, but slightly less despotic. He reduced censorship on the airwaves and released millions of Soviet political prisoners from the Gulag labor camps who had been imprisoned by Stalin. But he had approved of much of these imprisonments when Stalin was in power. He also helped build Russian nuclear weapons and further austerity measures.


6.5 The Vietnam War


Before the war in Korea, the British, US, and other capitalist empires set their sights on Vietnam, but the Vietnam War was a far longer conflict than the war in Korea. Vietnam was conquered by the French in the late 1800s and was under French colonial rule for seven decades before the Vietnam War began. Bảo Đại, (1913-1997) the last Emperor of the dynasty, ruled Annam (the Vietnam region) from 1926 to 1945 when he resigned. In 1940 during WWII, Imperial Japan occupied the French colonies of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, (French Indochina) only allowing the French colonial administration marginal power behind the scenes. In 1945 the Japanese coerced Đại into declaring Vietnamese independence from the French, turning Vietnam into a short-lived Japanese puppet state. But when the Japanese surrendered to the Allies on August 15 1945, a power vacuum formed. A month prior, sensing Japanese surrender was imminent, the Allies decided to split French Indochina at the 16th parallel.

Ho Chi Minh, (1890-1969) leader of the Viet Minh Independence Movement convinced Đại to abdicate in August after the Japanese surrender and Minh was subsequently appointed Prime Minister and President of the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the north section of Vietnam above the 16th parallel) in 1945 by the National Assembly. However, French authorities put Đại back in power in Southern Vietnam (below the 16th parallel) to mitigate Minh’s influence in the North. Đại ruled Vietnam as the chief of state from 1949 to 1955, but he spent much of his time in France. The Soviet Union backed Minh’s government while the United States and its allies supported Đại. Both governments were fairly corrupt, violent, and misleading.

Britain invaded Vietnam in 1945 from the south initially to help reestablish French colonial rule over Vietnam and enforce the surrender of the Japanese. The British rearmed the French and tried to help them retake North Vietnam. Minh wanted to negotiate with the French, but the French government was not willing, so they began fighting the Viet Minh for control. This was the beginning of the War in Vietnam of 1945-1946 codenamed “Operation Masterdom” by the British. On December 19 1946, 30,000 Viet Minh attacked the French in the Battle of Hanoi, sparking a larger conflict called the First Indochina War.

The US spent one billion dollars on the war effort and sent 300,000 small arms to the French, (they also considered bombing Vietnam with atomic weapons) but they lost the war regardless in 1954 in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, resulting in French withdrawal from Vietnam. A ceasefire was negotiated at the Geneva Conference and the Northern and Southern divisions of Vietnam were officially split at the seventeenth parallel by the Geneva Peace Accords. The Accords stated that Vietnam would be reunited in 1956 when elections were to be held. The National Liberation Front also known as the Việt Cộng, a contraction of Việt Nam Cộng-sản, which means Vietnamese Communist was formed in 1954 shortly after the Geneva Accord. Many Việt Minh members joined the Việt Cộng after 90,000 were pushed to the North. They along with the People’s Army of Vietnam or the North Vietnamese army would later become the major belligerents in the war in Vietnam led by the US.

When the country was officially divided, US officials opposed unification and elections because they knew the country wanted a communist leader like Ho Chi Minh. According to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh.” Therefore, the USG rigged the election in favor of Ngo Dinh Diem, an extremely conservative, nationalist, religious extremist. He won with 98.2 percent of the vote in October 1954. In Saigon, Diem claimed to receive 600,000 votes even though only 450,000 were on the electoral roll there.

Diem appointed Catholics almost exclusively in his government and his policies always favored them. He also persecuted peoples of other religions and banned the Buddhist flag.  When Buddhists protested, many were shot, and Buddhist pagodas were demolished by Diem’s Catholic paramilitaries. Diem also arrested, tortured, and executed anyone who was thought to be a communist or against his government. Thousands were killed, and Diem put thousands more in concentration camps. Diệm also refused to sign the Geneva Accord and announced in July 1955 that elections for reunification would not be held. Diem jailed 40,000 more suspected “communists” and dissenters by 1958, yet President Eisenhower supported him unconditionally and held a parade in his honor in New York.  In May 1959 Diem passed Law 10/59, which made crimes “against the security of the state” punishable by execution.

Diem, like his US handlers, refused to consider land reform, and farmers had to pay high rents for their land to a minority of very wealthy landlords as a result. Minh, on the other hand, instituted “land reforms”, but many of these resulted in the deaths of landlords and their families. Diem was put in power to work for the rich and already (or previously) powerful, as well as ensure the poor masses were never able to organize and rise from poverty and imperial subjugation. Diem’s religious intolerance also made him an ideal puppet ruler for the United States.

When the Second Indochina War (what most Americans know as the “Vietnam War” but which also included the the Cambodian Civil War and the Laotian Civil War) started is a matter of debate because US troops were deployed in Indochina before the fighting began. But in January 1959 the Central Committee of the North Vietnamese Communist Party adopted Resolution 15, which authorized the North Vietnamese army (the armed wing of the North Vietnamese Communist Party) to “end the plight of the poor and miserable people in the South” and “defeat each wicked policy of the American imperialists and their puppets,” and this is when the bulk of the fighting began. This is also recognized by some historians as the beginning of the war. The Việt Cộng and North Vietnamese army fought the war seeking democracy, autonomy, and independence from the rule of the US and all empires.

A similar story played out in Laos and Cambodia as these were French colonies that the French briefly lost control over to the Japanese during WWII, (the Japanese disbanded the French colonial regime in Cambodia on March 9 1945 but Cambodian independence only lasted until October) over which they sought to reestablish control with the help of other empires. But they faced opposition mainly from the Khmer Issarak in Cambodia and the Viet Minh. The North Vietnamese People’s Army established several base areas and sanctuaries in Eastern Cambodia via an agreement with the prince of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, who helped establish a brief independence from French rule on November 9th 1953. However, in the Cambodian coup of 1970, (which is suspected to have been orchestrated at least in part by the CIA) Prince Sihanouk was replaced by his Prime Minister, Lon Nol, a far-right politician who ordered all Vietnamese to leave the country, catalyzing the killings of thousands of Vietnamese and the Cambodian Civil War. Likewise, Laos was used by the North Vietnamese army to transport troops and supplies to the Viet Cong and South Vietnam via the Ho Chi-Minh Trail. They also acted as a source of support to the Pathet Lao, a communist political movement in Laos. Vietnamese of all political affiliations made up a great portion of the population of Laos in urban areas, so there was large support for them. In an attempt to disrupt these efforts, the CIA trained a guerrilla force led by the Royal Lao Army General, Vang Pao, supported by Thailand and the Royal Lao Air Force to fight the NLF and the North Vietnamese army in Laos. The US Air Force also made massive air strikes in the country to hinder their efforts. Meanwhile, the USG denied they were involved in any way in Laos because the state had signed agreements stipulating it would not attack Laos.

Around the time that Diem came to power, the CIA began a propaganda campaign in North Vietnam against the communist government to get the Vietnamese population to move south.5 The campaign was mostly aimed at the Catholic population of Northern Vietnam. The CIA and Colonel Edward Lansdale printed thousands of posters and pamphlets that claimed “the Virgin Mary has departed from the North” and “Christ has gone South” because of their “hatred of communism.” Some of their propaganda claimed communists were cannibals who would eat their children. They also convinced many people that Ho Chi Minh would persecute Catholics. The USG even gave the Vietnamese cash handouts for moving south. But the most effective way they persuaded Northerners to move south was by threatening to decimate the entire North with an atomic strike. About one million Vietnamese residents who were mostly Catholic left as a result. The CIA also bombed civilians in the South and blamed it on the Viet Cong to turn the people against them.6

John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960 and while Kennedy did not like communism (mainly because he associated it with the brutality of the self-proclaimed “communist” Soviet Union) he did not want to simply demolish Vietnam and he was opposed to large scale military aggression. After Diem was killed on November 2nd 1963, several, similar, military, puppet regimes were established in Vietnam all by the US, and after Kennedy was assassinated, the far more brutal and tyrannical US Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson, was sworn in as US president. His response to massive losses of life from the war was to send more and more troops into Vietnam and millions died because of his orders.

On August 2nd of 1964, the American military destroyer USS Maddox attacked three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Four Vietnamese sailors were killed, six were injured, but there were no US casualties. A second attack was reported but it was a false-flag. (The radar images used a “proof” of the attack were false positives and no North Vietnamese torpedo boats were in the vicinity.) Despite this Johnson used this false flag in an attempt to justify more airstrikes on Vietnam and the deployment of many more troops. Only 2,000 US troops were deployed to Vietnam in 1961. But by 1964 there were 16,500 and in the following year 196,500 more were deployed. In the same year, Johnson announced there would be three more air strikes on Vietnam called Operation Flaming Dart, Operation Rolling Thunder, and Operation Arc Light. Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force wrote “We’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” By the time Johnson finished his term in 1969, U.S. bombing had ceased, but 36,956 Americans7 had been killed in the war (the majority of whom died during his term) along with countless more Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

Nixon was sworn in as President on January 20, 1969 and he supported the war, but he knew it was widely unpopular, so he withdrew 150,000 troops from Vietnam and replaced them with Vietnamese troops. However, Nixon also approved secret bombings of Cambodia that devastated its population and Operation Linebacker II, a massive bombing of Hanoi. Four unarmed college students at Kent State were killed by the Ohio National Guard for protesting these bombings and nine were injured. This became known as the Kent State Massacre, which spurred bold student strikes around the country.

Public support began to dwindle for the war, especially after the college shootings. Horrific scandals like the Mỹ Lai Massacre (some victims of which are pictured in the featured image) also contributed. During this massacre, 504 unarmed civilians, mostly women, infants, and elderly people in Mỹ Lai (a town in Vietnam) were raped, mutilated, and killed by US Army platoon, “Charlie Company.” They then burned the village to the ground. Only one soldier, Second Lenient, William Calley, was found guilty. He was convicted of 22 counts of murder and originally sentenced to life in prison, but he only served three and half years under house arrest. The massacre was perhaps one of the least punished, most devastating human rights violations in modern US history following slavery and the colonization of America.

By the end of the Vietnam War, 3.8 million Vietnamese (most of whom were civilians) had been killed8 along with 300,000 Cambodians9 and 28,000-115,000 Laotians according to the just cited survey published in the British Medical Journal. Nearly 60,000 American soldiers were killed as well. Most of the Vietnamese people only wanted independence, autonomy, and unification for their broken country, yet nearly five million people worldwide died from the war due to the misunderstandings, greed, and prejudices of our parasitical rulers. The Paris Peace Accords finally put an end to this tragic, criminal war in 1973. They called for the unification of Vietnam and free elections as the Geneva Accord had almost 20 years earlier. However, the effects of the war are still felt today due the inherited trauma and the birth defects caused by the US military’s spraying of dioxins in Monsanto’s defoliant, Agent Orange.

Despite what most pacifists claim, it was not the peace movement or mass demonstrations that brought this war to an end. It was the relentless and brave resistance of the Viet Cong that put it to an end, along with the assassinations of US commanding officers by rank and file dissidents in the US military.10 However, this should not be taken as an endorsement of the Viet Cong as they killed civilians too, albeit far fewer the US empire, and they had internment camps as well. According to journalists Ginetta Sagan and Stephen Denney, when the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese government won the war and took over the south they became particulary brutal, interning “medical doctors, religious leaders, artists, poets, political leaders and schoolteachers” in hard labor camps rife with disease, hunger, and death. Much like the Soviet Union, they labeled anyone who expressed dissent as “counter-revolutionary” and much earlier on June 20 1961, this targeting of dissidents was codified into policy, namely Resolution 49-NQTVQH. “Others sent to the camps in June of 1975 included nearly 400 writers, poets and journalists and over 2,000 religious leaders, including 194 Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant chaplains,and 516 Catholic priests and fathers.”  Those brought to trial received three to twelve years imprisonment for attempting to flee the country and five to fifteen years imprisonment for “undermining the religious policy” of the government or “causing disunity among the various religions, between believers and non-believers and between believers and the administration.” Torture of prisoners was also common: “In a camp in Nghe Tinh, Than Chuong district of Nghe Tinh province, some prisoners in the dark cells had their hands and feet tied so tightly that they became afflicted with gangrene and lost their hands or feet or died.” Released prisoners continued to face persecution as they were “put under probation and surveillance for six months to one year, and during this time they have no official status, no exit visas, no access to government food rations and no right to send their children to schoolApproximately 60% of those released have been re-arrested, according to a high-ranking Vietnamese official, Hoang Bich Son, Acting Foreign Minister of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, whose remarks were reported by Dermot Kinlen in his June 1981 report.” Up to 300,000 were imprisoned in these camps and about 2 million fled the regime from 1975 to 1995, of whom around 10% died at sea according to estimates cited by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Ethnic minorities like the Cham, Montagnard, and Khmer Krom in Vietnam were also persecuted by the Viet Cong and the South Vietnam puppet regime during the Vietnam War. All of this shows the fundamental problem of the state and especially of the fraud of “state socialism.” However, the Viet Cong’s successful resistance of foreign imperalism in the face of endlessly brutal and rapacious empires (France, Japan, and then the US) is one of the best arguments for violent resistance to imperialism and terror. It also shows that this resistance must come from the people from the bottom strata of society, not states or authoritarian organizations like the Viet Cong. The USG was never interested in “liberating” Vietnam. It only desired socioeconomic control over the country and violent resistance was the only factor that stopped it. Empires will never stop terrorizing and exploiting because of moral appeals. If this wasn’t true, they would have stopped long ago as millions have made heartfelt, genuine, and accurate moral appeals only to be decimated by the state machine. One cannot appeal to the humanity of rulers who have none; they can only be fought.


1 “We must properly understand and define the 1946 Daegu uprising.” Hankyoreh. Jan.22,2013.

2 Korea Institute of Military History (2000). The Korean War: Korea Institute of Military History. 3-volume set. 1, 2. Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press. pp. 512–29, 730.

3 Fort Lee, VA: Army Quartermaster Museum, US Army

4 Steven: The No Gun Ri massacre, 1950. Libcom. August 27, 2014.

5 Jacobs, Seth: Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950–1963. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-7425-4447-8. 2006. Print.

6 Hugo Turner: The CIA’s “Phoenix Program” in Vietnam and the “War on Terror”. February 7 2016.

7 National Archives: Vietnam War U.S. April 29, 2008. Military Fatal Casualty Statistics.

8 Ziad Obermeyer,, et. al: Fifty years of violent war deaths from Vietnam to Bosnia: analysis of data from the world health survey programme. June 26, 2008. British Medical Jouranl.

9 Heuveline, Patrick: “The Demographic Analysis of Mortality in Cambodia”. Forced Migration and Mortality. National Academy Press. pp. 102–04, 120, 124. 2001.

10 Richard Boyle: Flower of the Dragon — The Breakdown of the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Ramparts Press. 1972.

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