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FORTY-FIVE years ago my wife Ann, me and most of our mates were celebrating for the whole of May. We were delighted that the Vietnamese had finally won their war of independence and kicked the Yanks out of their country.
On the very last day of April 1975 we had watched as the last US troops were being lifted off of the roof of the CIA building in Saigon. Quisling Vietnamese who had worked for them were fighting their old bosses for a place on the helicopters. Thousands of Vietnamese and Koreans were locked out of the compound. Delays in the evacuation cost thousands of lives.
The Vietnamese People’s Army had anti-aircraft guns and were tracking the helicopters but they held their fire – just glad the Yanks had finally been given their marching orders.
This fall of Saigon marked the end of the Vietnam War and the start of a transition period that would re-unite two countries as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City
Hundreds of thousands of British people had campaigned for peace in Vietnam. Lots of my schoolmates were involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the anti-Vietnam War peace movement.
Members of the Young Communist League (YCL) – and I was one –went further, we wanted Ho Chi Minh, the National Liberation Front (NLF)and the Vietnamese people to win the war and kick the Yanks out of their country.
I had joined the YCL in the very early 1960s when still at school. We young communists wanted the Americans kicked out, and so we met with young communists from Vietnam and asked exactly what we could do to help them to victory.
They told us that the huge campaign for medical aid, involving everyone from Quakers to Trades Unionists needed to be supported and encouraged. But they also said they wanted blood plasma – and surprisingly they wanted bicycles.
They used these bicycles to move all kind of military materiel along the narrow jungle paths that made up the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Yanks had Detroit-built multi-dollar, multi-ton trucks — but in the jungles of Indochina, up to their axles in mud, they were useless.
Not everyone thought we were right to be supporting the Vietnamese in this way. Dyed-in-the-wool Tories said we should keep out of the war – and support Uncle Sam.
One leading ultra-leftist – I’ll spare his blushes – told YCL general secretary Barney Davis that giving blood plasma was a “bourgeois distraction.” I’m sure the wounded Vietnamese soldiers who got the transfusions would have appreciated this sharp political analysis.
Those bicycles, the Vietnamese told us, when strengthened with bamboo frames and fitted with huge racks, could each move half a ton of all kinds of essential equipment for soldiers fighting in the jungle.
The British YCL sent a hundred bikes. We organised a ride-in from Watford to one of the big Trafalgar Square demonstrations.
It started with the steep and long Bushey Hill — one YCLer told me recently she still remembers that hill and the fact that her husband planned the route.
YCLer Bob Allen vividly remembers collecting money with other comrades at public meetings in Nottingham’s famous Slab Square.
They tried to collect enough money each Saturday to buy a bike from nearby Halfords. The manager couldn’t believe it, but they bought ten bikes in three months.
The YCL ensured that the Vietnamese flag flew all over Nottingham, on one occasion secretly hoisting it atop Nottingham Castle and making the front page of the Nottingham Evening News.
However, the flag placed on the ground for passersby to throw their money in was the hated Stars and Stripes.
YCLers didn’t forget the Medical Aid either. The YCL bought an old coach, painted it in Vietnamese colours and sent it round Britain to collect money. My wife Ann spent three weeks touring the Welsh mining valleys finishing up at the Miners’ Gala in Cardiff.
When the coach broke down in Oxford comrades from the car factories lent tools and made parts to keep it on the road, but finally we asked too much of it, and it just stopped going.
We replaced it with a furniture lorry, again painted as a Vietnamese flag and that took our medical aid and our bikes to the World Youth Festival in Sophia, Bulgaria.
From there it was taken home by Vietnamese comrades attending the festival. With it went masses of other aid collected by progressive and communist youth groups across Europe.
Political campaigning was important too. My wife Ann, our 10-month-old son Julian and I and joined thousands of others for an anti-Vietnam War rally and a march to the US embassy in Grosvenor Square.
Trafalgar Square saw tens of thousands opposing both US action in Vietnam and our own government’s support for the war, and Ann was a speaker at that meeting.
She climbed up on to the plinth under Nelson’s Column with Julian in her arms to appeal for practical funds and donations to keep the campaign going.
She explained her part in that group of young communists touring Britain collecting medical and other aid that was going directly to liberation forces in Vietnam.
TV loved the pictures of a young mum and her babe-in-arms speaking, and we still see the clip in documentaries about 1960s politics on TV today.
Ann explained to the demonstrators the need to save young people, not just in Vietnam but also from the US and indeed all future generations, just like our son Julian.
We needed to end this and all wars and that could only be, Ann explained, by victory for the Vietnamese people.
Then we joined the march from Trafalgar Square to the American Embassy. Sadly the cheerful and peaceful atmosphere evaporated as we arrived at Grosvenor Square. Here the police attacked, many on horses, and more than 200 people were arrested.
What none of us knew then was that 6,000 miles away US forces had just killed 128 civilians in what became known as the My Lai Massacre. Men, women, children and infants, some as young as our own son, had been murdered.
Later a young victim and her grandmother, both from My Lai, visited Britain. The YCL offered the mainstream media a photo opportunity but they demanded a happy picture of grandma pushing the child on a swing.
When the Vietnamese refused, one photographer walked away saying “If those dames want a picture they must do what we say.”
Only 26 My Lai US soldiers were charged. Just one, Lieutenant William Calley Jr, was convicted. He would serve only three years of house arrest.
This month, 45 years on, while Trump and his media still try to hide their shame by rewriting history I, and many of my comrades, get a warm feeling in our chests when we remember the tiny, but inspiring and useful part we played in that great war n which the forces of US imperialism fought against the Vietnamese people — and lost.
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