Tet: The turning point in Vietnam

February 1, 2008

Forty years ago, a nationwide offensive by the fighters of the liberation struggle in Vietnam exposed the Pentagon lie that the U.S. was winning the war. Here, we print an excerpt from an article on Tet in the new issue of the International Socialist Review, by Joe Allen, the author of a new book on Vietnam and the antiwar struggle, due to be published later this year by Haymarket Books. Click here to read the full article in the ISR.

IN THE early morning hours of January 30, 1968, the first day of Tet, the Vietnamese celebration of the lunar New Year, soldiers of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) breached the wall surrounding the American embassy in Saigon. They then raced across the compound, where they tried but failed to enter the main building.

The NLF soldiers (derisively known as the "Viet Cong" to the Americans and their Saigon allies) sprayed the embassy with rockets and fought a six-hour battle with American military police. All 19 NLF soldiers were killed or badly wounded, along with five Americans and one South Vietnamese employee of the embassy. One reporter at the scene of the battle described it as "a butcher shop in Eden."

This attack on the very citadel of American power in South Vietnam was brazen in and of itself, but it soon became clear that this was the opening battle of a nationwide military offensive by the NLF and the North Vietnamese that shook the foundations of the American military and political establishment.

The Tet Offensive actually began in late 1967--during the dry season in Vietnam--when the North Vietnamese and the NLF launched military feints to draw American forces away from the major cities.

What else to read

The complete version of Joe Allen's article, "The Tet Offensive: Turning point in the Vietnam War," is available online at the International Socialist Review Web site.

For more on the Tet Offensive and its impact, see Tet: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War, by Don Oberdorfer, plus the collection of essays in Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War, edited by Marvin Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young and H. Bruce Franklin.

Gerald Nicosia's Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement is a history based on hundreds of interviews with men who fought in Vietnam and then came home to be active in the antiwar movement. The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam by Tom Wells is a comprehensive history of the antiwar movement, from its earliest days to the end of the war in 1975.

For an excellent history that focuses specifically on the GI rebellion during the war, read David Cortright's Soldiers in Revolt, republished by Haymarket Books.

On January 20, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began a siege of the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh near the Laotian border. Gen. William Westmoreland was convinced that the Vietnamese wanted to repeat at Khe Sanh the victory they had achieved at Dien Bien Phu 14 years earlier.

President Lyndon Johnson was so nervous about the situation that he had a model of Khe Sanh in the White House and made his generals pledge that Khe Sanh could be held no matter what. He reportedly barked at his generals: "I don't want any damn Dinbinphoo!"

Westmoreland and Johnson's obsession with Khe Sanh, a base of little strategic value, revealed how much they were misreading the battlefield. While the NVA was laying siege at Khe Sanh and Westmoreland correspondingly rushed reinforcements to his besieged troops, the NLF moved into place elsewhere.

In January, tens of thousands of NLF troops moved into the larger provincial towns and cities. They smuggled weapons and explosives in coffins, burying them in cemeteries for future use. As one American journalist observed, once in the cities, "The Viet Cong were absorbed into the population by the urban underground like out of town relatives attending a family reunion."

It is a testament to the deep roots and widespread sympathy for the Vietnamese nationalist movement that no one tipped off the Saigon government or the Americans that such a large military build-up was taking place.

But it is also a testament to the bureaucratic complacency of American planners, who had in their possession an appeal to the People's Army [the official name of the North Vietnamese Army] that recommended "strong military attacks in coordination with the uprisings of the local population to take over towns and cities."

American arrogance and racism also played its part in the Tet fiasco. Americans, whether in uniform or civilian garb, referred to the Vietnamese people as "dinks" and "gooks," while boasting that Americans had never lost a war. This lethal mix of inertia, arrogance and racism was about to blow up in their faces.

ON THE night of January 29-30, the main part of the offensive began, when 70,000 NVA/NLF soldiers attacked 34 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 district capitals and many military installations. More than 100 targets were hit all over South Vietnam, including the American embassy in Saigon.

Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, fell to the combined forces of the NVA and the NLF. "The feat stunned U.S. and world opinion," according to liberal anticommunist historian Stanley Karnow. The NLF flag flew over the citadel in Hue for the next three weeks. In Saigon, 1,000 NLF troops took the city and managed to hold it for three weeks against a combined force of more than 11,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) troops.

Westmoreland tried to portray the offensive as the death rattle of the NLF, similar to the Battle of the Bulge by the Germans in the final phase of the Second World War. Michigan Gov. George Romney told a group of New York reporters, "If what we have seen in the past week is a Viet Cong failure, then I hope they never have a victory."

The U.S. responded with what one reporter called "the most hysterical use of American firepower ever seen," particularly air power. "The Viet Cong had the government by the throat in those provincial towns," explained one U.S. military adviser. "Ordinary methods would have never gotten them out, and the government did not have enough troops to do the job, so firepower was substituted."

But firepower alone in some cases wasn't enough. The NVA and the NLF held Hue for 25 days, and it was only retaken in vicious house-to-house fighting by Marines and ARVN forces.

Superior firepower (in the air and on the ground), however, tipped the balance. "Nothing I saw during the Korean War, or in the Vietnam War so far," wrote Robert Shaplen of the New Yorker, who toured Hue after its destruction, "has been as terrible, in terms of destruction and despair, as what I saw in Hue." One report after the battle found that 80 percent of the city's buildings had been destroyed.

The American and South Vietnamese response to Tet forever altered the American public's perception of the war in Vietnam. It was clear from the scope of the Tet Offensive that the mass of the South Vietnamese people were opposed to the Americans and in support of the NLF, the complete opposite of what the American public had been told for years. The destruction U.S. forces wreaked on South Vietnam shocked many back home and the Orwellian thinking to justify the violence made it even worse.

Ben Tre in Kien Hoa Province was obliterated by U.S. firepower. "We had to destroy the town to save it," the commanding officer in charge of recapturing Ben Tre told reporters--"coining one of the most notorious phrases of the war and a fitting motto for the U.S. counterattack against the Tet offensive," wrote one author.

The war literally came into American homes every night, with film footage of besieged American soldiers huddled behind tanks fighting for their lives, not in the remote countryside, but in the "secure" cities.

Then came the film footage, broadcast all over the world, of Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam's police chief, summarily executing a suspected NLF officer by shooting him in the head with a pistol, a scene that looked to many as straight out of film clips of Nazi-occupied countries during the Second World War.

Another Nazi-like incident took place at a village called My Lai in March 1968, when American soldiers led by Lt. William Calley executed more than 300 unarmed men, women and children in ditches. It would be a year and a half before the My Lai massacre became public.

While American firepower pushed back the Tet Offensive, the costs were high. During the offensive South Vietnamese forces were severely mauled at the hands of the NVA and the NLF. The Americans suffered nearly 4,000 casualties between January 30 and March 31, 1968. American military forces were clearly demoralized after Tet, beginning the process of decay and rebellion that would reach crisis proportions in the remaining years of the war.

THE EFFECT of Tet on domestic U.S. politics was swift and dramatic. Walter Cronkite, the anchor of CBS Evening News and considered the most respected figure in television journalism, was apparently furious when he heard about the Tet Offensive. "What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war!" he is reported to have said.

Cronkite went to Vietnam in late February and then in front of millions of American viewers said: "It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out, then, will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people...[who] did the best they could."

Johnson's personal popularity had been declining for two years. Tet decimated his credibility with the American public. Eugene McCarthy, a relatively obscure first-term U.S. senator from Minnesota who was for American withdrawal from Vietnam, nearly defeated Johnson in the February New Hampshire Democratic primary. Soon after McCarthy's new victory, Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.), a much more substantial threat for Johnson's re-nomination by the Democratic Party, announced that he too would be running for president on an antiwar platform.

Johnson was stunned. He addressed the nation on March 31 and announced that he would not seek re-election as president. The presidential race was now wide open.

The antiwar movement began to surge in the U.S., and American politics was dominated by the question of withdrawal from Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive was only the opening shot of a year in which the U.S. ruling class and its allies around the world faced the greatest challenges to its rule in a generation. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and 100 U.S. cities rose in rebellion. In May, a student rebellion in Paris ignited a general strike by French workers, the largest in that country's history, putting back on the agenda the possibility of a workers' revolution in an advanced industrial country.

Mayor Richard Daley's cops' brutal attack on antiwar demonstrators at the Democratic convention in Chicago drew the world's attention to political repression in America, while the Democrats, ignoring the wishes of their primary voters, nominated Johnson's pro-war Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the presidential nominee of their party.

These brutal and treacherous events (all related in some way to the war in Vietnam) convinced a substantial number of political activists to embrace one form or another of revolutionary politics in order to change the world.

Meanwhile in Vietnam, the U.S. military started to report major disciplinary problems with its troops that marked the beginning of a soldiers' rebellion. Within a few years, the U.S. Army was no longer capable of waging a war on the ground and had to be withdrawn from Vietnam.

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