Historical and political significance of My Lai massacre

March 16, 2018, is the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, when U.S. troops massacred more than 500 women, men and children in Vietnam. Note that the truth of what happened went unreported for a year and a half, not becoming widely known in the U.S. until November 1969, which is why Sam Marcy’s analysis of the historical and political significance was written in December 1969.

Workers World, Vol. 11, No. 22, December 5, 1969

The horrible revelations of the My Lai massacre have justly shocked all of progressive mankind and exposed more clearly than ever the brutal, bestial character of the U.S. war against the Vietnamese people. It has aroused millions of people both abroad and in this country to the necessity of conducting a struggle against the U.S. war-makers.

Nothing, however, will be gained and a great, great deal will be lost if the My Lai revelations are not put in a true historical and political perspective. The unprecedented anger of millions of people who have hitherto been dormant or passive in the anti-war struggle will be dissipated if the discussion around My Lai is confined to the question of “individual responsibility” or more correctly, if the discussion is narrowed and confined to a mere incident to be condemned on a “moral” basis and divorced from the entire chain of historical events from which it flows.

This incident must be seen in the light of other such incidents – like Lidice, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, like the merciless bombing of the cities of Shanghai, Canton and Mukden by the Japanese and Tokyo by the Americans. If public opinion is not to be misled, as it has so often been during periods of great crisis in American history, we must see these incidents as social phenomena that grow organically from the social system. Every social phenomenon that springs from a social system driven by class antagonisms and dominated by a ruling exploiting class must be viewed from a class point of view.

Cruelty of the ruling class

Since the prevailing ideas at any time are the ideas of the ruling class, even more so are the prevailing customs, practices and conventions imposed on society by the ruling class. And this is even more true in war than in peace.

Cruelty and barbarism are an invariable concomitant to every war waged by the ruling class. In the epoch of imperialism this is a thousand times more true than in the earlier era of capitalist development.

Whenever the ruling class is caught red-handed, after committing a particularly shameful, odious and barbarous deed, it inevitably seeks to divest itself of responsibility as a class and shift the responsibility for its criminal deed to other shoulders, to its minions and its puppets. And it covers its own retreat with high-sounding phrases about “conscience” and “morality.”

We must view the My Lai massacre in the same light as we view the destruction of Lidice and other similar acts perpetrated by the monopolist ruling class. To condemn the pilots of the plane which unloosed the A-bomb on Japan without condemning the Truman Administration and the entire U.S. ruling class is to shift the responsibility to the tools of the war-makers, rather than to the masters themselves. Of course, no one who actively participates in any commanding position in a reactionary war should be excused of responsibility for the crimes which he helps carry out. But it is another thing to entirely condemn the minor officers while absolving the real perpetrators.

Whitewash at Nuremberg

The Nuremberg trials had one singular progressive effect, in that they made individual responsibility in the participation of a reactionary war a criminal offense, regardless as to whether the individual understood the political consequences of his own action.

But the Nuremberg trials did not go far enough. What the Nuremberg trials actually did was to absolve the ruling classes on whose behalf the Nazi war criminals acted. The actual responsibility for the imperialist war should have been placed on the ruling classes in whose interest the war was carried out.

But this would have also incriminated the U.S., British and French imperialists, who are no less voracious in their appetite for plunder and predatory wars of imperialist aggression than their Nazi opponents.

The entire era of monopoly capitalism is a history of violence, of cruel and merciless wars carried out against all oppressed people, not only in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but also against the working classes in the Western hemisphere. To divorce the My Lain massacre from its class roots is to do violence to facts, to confuse the masses and make them amenable to a bourgeois solution of the U.S. ruling class problem in Vietnam.

In assessing responsibility in the United States for the My Lai massacre we should not only consider the criminal act of the officers in immediate charge, but of the entire military camarilla that reigns in the Pentagon and its overlords in Wall Street, including all those political leaders of the bourgeoisie who have been openly for the war, or silently acquiesced in its prosecution, or double-talked their way through its seven-year prosecution.

Rift in the ruling class

More significant than the revelation itself is the fact that the ruling class was either unable or unwilling to hide the massacre. This unquestionably points up what has been apparent for several years now; namely that there has been a growing division in the ruling circles of the bourgeoisie on the entire course of the war.

No social class in capitalist society is altogether homogeneous. And the ruling class is always torn by innumerable inner contradictions which reflect, in a general way, differing and often irreconcilable economic interests. The factions are almost always united in the struggle against the oppressed and exploited class. But this does not for one moment wipe out the basis for their own internal antagonisms, which more often than not are papered over to put up a strong united front in their struggle against the working class and oppressed at home as well as abroad.

But whenever the ruling class takes a plunge which may seriously endanger its entire existence as a ruling class, their inner antagonisms under the pressure of setbacks and defeats come to the fore, break out on the surface and often lead to acute political struggle. This usually takes the form of one of the factions in the ruling class making a sham appeal to the broad mass of the people on the basis of popular demands which are dear to the hearts of the masses and in their interests. We now have a classical example of this in the persons of the motley crew of Fulbright, McCarthy, Goodell and a great many others of the same variety, who are talking anti-war, appealing to the masses of the people, urging protests, and even participating in demonstrations.

It’s an old story

While such a situation may appear entirely novel to a new generation that has not had the opportunity to study the world historical role of monopoly capitalism and its political practitioners, it is not a new or original phenomenon. During the First and Second World Wars and during other periods of social crisis experienced by the capitalist class, similar splits and fissures in their midst have occurred with varying degrees of acuteness. The struggle becomes particularly sharp when the destiny of the ruling class itself and its survival is, or seems to be, at stake.

The continuation of the mad adventure in Vietnam along with all of the other so-called “commitments” to safeguard Wall Street’s rights of exploitation around the globe is precisely such a situation.

The longer the war continues, the greater the danger of a complete collapse. It would be utterly unrealistic to expect any ruling class to remain united under these circumstances. In order to get out of its dilemma, a section of the ruling class, perhaps even the more substantial section, has, with hesitation and vacillation, with half-truth and with apologies, sought to directly appeal to the broad masses of the people in order to stop the war half-way, or even pull out altogether.

It is for this reason that the My Lai massacre was brought to light.

A sign of panic

Perhaps it first came out accidentally, but certainly the ruling class media did not try to hide it, and in fact, judging by the combustible character of the exposure, must have designed at one point or another to bring this out into the open. It must be viewed as a sign of their near-panic. Vice President Agnew must have known that they were planning it. His speech was calculated to discredit the networks as a small clique of “Eastern establishment manipulators.” It was designed to offset the shock that would come as a result of the exposure.

It should be clear that the My Lai exposure by the capitalist media is a measure of the acuteness of the inner struggle in the camp of the bourgeoisie over the course of the war and the fear for the destiny of the entire system of imperialist exploitation.

What attitude should a Marxist take toward this inner struggle within the ruling class? It is first of all necessary to state clearly the relationship between the right wing, ultra-militarist, adventurist section of the bourgeoisie, and what passes for the moderate or liberal section.

Will rulers stay split? 

For the liberal bourgeoisie to have a definite, fixed position which would sharply demarcate it from the rabidly pro-war section of the bourgeoisie (much less guarantee a real fight to the finish between the factions!), there would have to be a different economic base for one faction as opposed to another.

A dispassionate appraisal of the liberal bourgeois position clearly indicates that it has no such independent base, as opposed to the other faction. The real basis for the struggle is one faction’s fear of defeat for the whole class. This fear arises from the extreme pressure exerted upon this faction by the actual defeats and by the growing revolt of the masses at home and abroad.

Liberals will betray the masses

At the moment, millions upon millions of people are deeply aroused against the war. The My Lai disclosures can only intensify this. The plight of the Black people makes them ever more susceptible to rebellions and to the struggle for liberation. Any serious appeal made to the masses by the liberal bourgeoisie can generate a movement which may easily go beyond the bounds which the Fulbrights, McCarthys and Goodells have set for it.

As soon as the masses begin to move further than the confines set for them, the liberals betray them. This was made plain by the recent March on Washington. These leaders were made more fearful of a show of militancy (let alone violence) than of anything else.

In any serious struggle against the right wing, the liberals will show that their principal political trait is not one of firm struggle or fidelity to political slogans and speeches made in the heat of a campaign, but that of vacillation, fear and inconstancy which ultimately lead to complete capitulation. That’s the lesson of classical democratic enlightened liberalism of pre-Nazi Weimar Germany.

Its American counterpart will surely play an even more ignominious role of surrender to racist reaction and unbridled militarism – especially if a real mass struggle should break out against the war. For the first concern of bourgeois liberal leaders, it must be remembered, is to save the system, not to help the masses sweep it away.

A revolutionary Marxist leader who forgets this lesson, especially during a time when the ruling class is undergoing such a profound crisis, forfeits his right to lead the masses. Knowing well that the majority of the people who are opposed to the war are still under the ideological domination of this very grouping of bourgeois liberals, the duty of a revolutionary Marxist leader is first of all to find every means available to dispel the illusion of the masses regarding the capabilities of the liberal bourgeoisie, to warn them of the coming betrayals, as the struggle becomes even more acute, and to systematically explain the class character of imperialist exploitation and the need for an independent proletarian class line on the war. Without that, the masses will remain a pawn in the hands of one of the factions of the ruling class. The masses must be shown that the bourgeois liberals have exposed the My Lai massacre in an effort to fortify imperialism, not to put an end to imperialist war.

No ‘lesser evil’ 

To understand the divergent political attitudes of factions in the ruling class is one thing. To regard one of the factions as a “lesser evil” is another. So deeply imbedded is this latter idea in the consciousness of large sections of the masses that only a herculean effort on the part of all the class-conscious revolutionary elements in the movement against militarism and racism will suffice to end them.

Does this then mean that revolutionaries can never enter alliances with the liberal bourgeoisie?

Every Marxist who knows his ABCs knows that joint actions with the liberal bourgeoisie are absolutely unavoidable, especially when it has the ideological hegemony over the broad masses of the people. Marching separately but striking together is the key Leninist tactic in the relation between the working class and other class groupings in the struggle against the capitalist government.

It was correct to march in the same demonstration with the liberals in the November 15 March on Washington. But it was necessary for revolutionaries to have their own independent class slogans, their own speakers, their own banners. And swinging a mass of people to the Justice Department was a dramatic way for revolutionaries to illustrate their own class view of the imperialist war in Vietnam and the racist war on Black America.

As the crisis deepens and the bourgeoisie shows more and more that it is incapable of disengaging itself from its adventurous, expansionist war policies, the liberal bourgeoisie seeks more and more to frighten the Administration. With dramatic exposures such as the My Lai massacre, it hopes to garner mass support as a lever to bargain with the Administration and to show that it alone knows how to win back loyalty to the imperialist establishment and to refurbish the tarnished image of Wall Street in Western Europe.

A revolutionary coalition

All the more necessary for all the political tendencies in this country that are truly anti-imperialist, who are truly opposed to the tactic of being a tail to the liberals’ kite and who have faith in the proletarian as against the bourgeois struggle against the war, to form a revolutionary coalition, the purpose of which would be to act as a counter-weight to the false leadership of most of the anti-war movement.

The groups that demonstrated at the Justice Department on November 15 could serve as the core for just such a coalition, begin the work of disabusing the masses of bourgeois pacifist ideology and link them up with the struggle of the workers and more particularly, with the Black liberation movement.

Simple Share Buttons

Share this
Simple Share Buttons