The Vietnamese call it "Chien Tranh Chong My Curu Nuoc" or "The War against the Americans to save the nation." In the course of this war, some 58,000 US soldiers were killed in action, as well as 304,000 wounded. But these figures pale in insignificance beside the horrific casualties suffered by the Vietnamese. Almost 1,400,000 North and South Vietnamese were killed in action.
To this we must add 2,100,000 wounded. It was one of the bloodiest wars in history, and one that took a particularly high toll of civilian lives. The total number of Vietnamese people killed in this conflict will never be known but was probably not fewer than three million, and the total number of casualties not fewer than 8 million.
The number of American soldiers in Vietnam rose from 23,300 in 1963 to 184,000 in 1966. In January 1969 the total number of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam reached its peak - 542,000. Despite this the U.S. Army was unable to subdue Vietnam. This was the first time in history that the USA has been defeated in a war (Korea was a draw).
In August 1963 the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, ordered the first bombing of North Vietnam, operation "Rolling Thunder". The purpose was to break the Vietnamese will to struggle through "shock and awe". The number of bombs dropped over Vietnam in this campaign alone was greater than the total dropped during the entire Second World War: the equivalent of roughly 15 kilograms of bombs for every man, woman and child in Vietnam. Chemical weapons defoliated 10 percent of the country's surface.
But the numbers of dead and wounded do not tell the whole story. The country was devastated by years of carpet-bombing. Thousands of square miles were laid waste. Billions of dollars were wasted. Thousands of acres of forest were destroyed by the dropping of poisonous chemicals by the US air force ("defoliants"). This, in plain English, is known as chemical warfare. Many US soldiers developed serious illnesses through contact with these chemical agents. But for a huge number of Vietnamese it meant generations of deformed babies, miscarriages, cancers and all manner of hideous illnesses.
The origins of the war
The origins of the Vietnam War were rooted in the long and bitter struggle of the Vietnamese people against French colonial rule. In 1932 the puppet Bao Dai returned from France to reign as emperor of Vietnam under the French. Ho Chi Minh and his followers set up the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930. Its main purpose was to fight against French colonial rule, and it always had a heavy nationalist element. As in China, the struggle for social emancipation was inseparably linked to the struggle for freedom from foreign rule.
The Second World War threw everything into the melting pot. In September 1940 Japanese troops occupied Indochina, but allow the French to continue their colonial administration of the area. Japan's move into southern part of Vietnam in July 1941 sparked an oil boycott by the U.S. and Great Britain. The resulting oil shortage pushed Japan to risk war against the U.S. and Britain. The result was Pearl Harbour and the declaration of war by the USA.
The policy of the USA was dictated by its ambition to dominate Asia and the Pacific. This strategic aim meant that not only Japan but the old imperial powers (Britain and France) also had to be ejected. Washington's policy after 1945 was dictated by this goal. It is the reason for the apparent friendliness of Washington to Ho Chi Minh at that time. In fact the Americans helped to save his life. In 1945 the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) parachuted a team into his jungle camp in northern Vietnam to treat Ho, who was seriously ill with malaria and other tropical diseases.
In August, 1945 Japan surrendered and the French colonialists returned to reclaim their former possessions. The Vietnamese resisted and a long period of anti-colonial struggle commenced. Ho Chi Minh established the Viet Minh, a guerrilla army, which overthrew Bao Dai in a general uprising. On September 2, 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent after 80 years of colonialism under French rule and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh attempted to negotiate the end of colonial rule with the French, but without success. French imperialism had no intention of giving up Vietnam. A bitter struggle began, in which the country was divided north and south. The French army shelled Haiphong harbour, killing over 6,000 Vietnamese civilians, and open war between France and the Viet Minh commenced.
By this time the Cold War between the U.S.A and Russia had begun. The Chinese Revolution alerted the USA to the danger of "Communism" in Asia. Washington therefore recognized Boa Dai's regime as legitimate, and began to subsidize the French in Vietnam. On the other hand, Mao, having won the civil war in 1949, began to supply weapons to the Viet Minh. In the end, the U.S. was bearing half of the cost of France's war effort in Vietnam. But to no avail. The French imperialists were decisively defeated in the celebrated battle of Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954. Despite substantial American backing, the French finally lost control of their Vietnamese colony. They suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the army of Vo Nguyen Giap, Supreme Commander of the Vietminh. Later Giap was to comment:
"The Dien Bien Phu campaign was a huge victory. It was the first time a poor feudal nation had beaten a great colonial power that had a modern industry and a massive army. The victory meant a lot, not just to us, but to people all over the world."
The French-Indochina War was at an end. After the humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French were forced to leave Vietnam after a century of colonial rule. The Geneva Conference on Indochina declared a demilitarised zone at the 17th parallel with the North under the rule of the Vietnamese Stalinists and the South under the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem.
This division of the country into two halves was supposed to be temporary.
The Vietnamese Communist Party could have easily taken power after Dien Bien Phu. But Stalin, fearing a direct conflict with the USA, put pressure on Ho Chi Minh to agree to a settlement by which the Stalinists would be given the northern part of the country and the French to the South pending the holding of general elections, which would decide who would rule the country.
The beginnings of US intervention
The power that succeeded the French was the United States. US imperialism was already intervening in Vietnam in the 1950s. In June 1954 the CIA established a military mission in Saigon. The same year Bao Dai selected Ngo Dinh Diem, the future dictator, as prime minister of his government. The new regime in North Vietnam modelled itself on the Stalinist regimes in China and Russia. The North Vietnamese embarked on a policy of radical land reforms. The landlords were expropriated and imprisoned. This was unacceptable to Washington, which was embarked on a worldwide confrontation with "Communism".
It was agreed that countrywide elections would be held in 1956. But America opposed the elections, so they never took place. In his book Mandate for Change President Eisenhower later said that he thought Ho Chi Minh would have obtained 80% of the vote if free elections had been held. General Andrew Goodpastor, aide to President Eisenhower, stated:
"It was felt that the elections could not be free in the North in particular. I would say that was part of it. The other was a sense that even if free elections were held, they probably would be dominated by the Communists and the Communists would gain control."
This expresses with admirable clarity the conception of democracy held by US imperialism. Elections are very good, as long as they serve to elect governments that are friendly to the United States. But if they do not, they are not to be recommended. This has been the philosophy of Washington ever since. Having deliberately split the country in half, the United States underwrote the vicious dictatorship of President Diem in South Vietnam, a fanatical anti-communist. Diem ruthlessly suppressed any opposition. But Washington nevertheless backed him as a "democrat".
The decision not to hold elections made war inevitable. The Americans pumped vast economic and military resources into South Vietnam in order to build a puppet state in South Vietnam just as they are doing today in Iraq. The South Vietnamese generals became over-confident as a result of American support. They decided to attack North Vietnam. In 1956 fighting began between the North and the South. The first American combat deaths in Vietnam occurred in 1959 when Vietnamese guerrillas attacked Bien Hoa billets, killing two US servicemen. But the combat only commenced in earnest in the following decade.
In 1960, National Liberation Front (known to its enemies as the "Viet Cong") was set up by Hanoi in order to fight Diem and to unite the country. This was supported by Moscow. The NLF fighters were making gains in the countryside in the South. In order to cut off the guerrillas from the peasants, Diem's troops burned entire villages to the ground. The inhabitants were moved into fortified "strategic hamlets," built under the supervision of American advisers. This policy was carried out with brutal coercion and was extremely unpopular with the peasants, who flocked to the ranks of the guerrillas.
The reasons why the USA became involved in Vietnam had nothing to do with "democracy", as its actions clearly show. It was dictated by the defence of imperialist interests and strategic questions such as the need to contain Russia and China and halt the advance of "Communism" in Asia. As early as 1954 the article "Why is the US risking a war in Indochina" was published on April 4, 1954 in the "U.S. News and World Report". The article stated:
"One of the richest areas in the world will be open to the victor in Indochina. This is what lies behind the growing U.S. interest... pewter, rubber, rice, strategic key primary produce are the true reasons for this war. The U.S. considers this an area in which to maintain control - by any means necessary."
In Washington the fear grew that Vietnam would fall, causing a "domino effect" throughout Asia. Robert McNamara, U.S. secretary of defence at the time, explained:
"The objective was to prevent the dominoes from falling. The loss of Vietnam would trigger the loss of Southeast Asia, and conceivably even the loss of India, and would strengthen the Chinese and the Soviet position across the world."
In 1961 President John F. Kennedy was elected. As a Democrat, some supposed that he would favour a more peaceful foreign policy. Nowadays, it has become fashionable to paint Kennedy as a progressive and a man of peace. But this is in flagrant contradiction to the facts. Within a year of his election, he backed the invasion of Cuba, which ended in the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba. Smarting from the effects of this humiliation, Kennedy set out to show the strength of US imperialism in Asia.
The first stages of US military involvement in Vietnam were extremely limited and cautious. The U.S. military build-up in Vietnam began with combat advisors. These advisers were initially sent to train the South Vietnamese army in counterinsurgency. However, President Kennedy declared that they would respond if fired upon. They encouraged the use of brutal methods against the insurgents, in which Diem's troops were already fairly proficient. Indeed, violence was the normal weapon used to prop up a brutal and unpopular regime against its own people. All this was justified by Washington with its customary cynicism. Speaking on May 23, 1962, Robert McNamara said:
"The actions of the ruler, President Diem, have been declared autocratic and perhaps his personal actions are to some degree, but one realizes the chaos he faced, the complete anarchy that existed there, it's conceivable that autocratic methods within a democratic framework were required to restore order."
But these "autocratic methods within a democratic framework" were not so popular in Saigon as in Washington. There was a growing opposition. South Vietnamese protesters organized a wave of demonstrations. In the summer of 1963 Buddhist monks burnt themselves to death, in protest at Diem's religious intolerance. The discontent spread to the tops of the army, where a group of generals plotted a coup against Diem. Washington knew all about the coup but did nothing to stop it, hoping for a stronger pro-US regime in Saigon. It was clear to Washington that the South Vietnamese army could not defeat the guerrillas and this forced America to launch a direct military intervention in Vietnam. As in Iraq, the imperialists were over-confident. According to McNamara, they expected to withdraw the force of 16,000 military advisers by the end of 1965, and that the first unit of withdrawal would be completed within 90 days, by the end of December 1963. Not for the first or last time, the imperialists had miscalculated badly.
On November 1, 1963, the government was overthrown by a group of dissident generals. Diem was murdered by his own soldiers. The people of Saigon came out onto the streets to celebrate Diem's overthrow. Within three weeks of Diem's murder, President Kennedy was himself assassinated. His replacement, Lyndon Johnson, was a virulent anti-communist and like Kennedy, totally committed to pursuing the war in Vietnam. Direct military American intervention in Vietnam began in the same year with the declared aim of stopping the South falling into "communist" hands. In August, Lyndon Johnson, who had taken over the American presidency in the wake of the assassination, ordered the first air strikes on the North.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident
On May 4, 1964 a trade embargo was imposed on North Vietnam. This was a notable stepping up of hostilities. It is sometimes said that trade embargoes are a more satisfactory alternative to war, but in fact, if they are to be effective, trade embargoes usually lead to war. This was no exception.
In South Vietnam, the NLF now had 170,000 men and women in the field. They could move and operate throughout most of the country. They were able to stage attacks in the heart of Saigon whenever they liked. Tran Bach Dang, an activist of the National Liberation Front in Saigon recalled:
"People were fighting back. We would establish contacts with them, and guide them. The protest movement of students and intellectuals, including Catholics and Buddhists, was widespread. When people saw that our methods were effective, they would join us."
The rottenness of the bourgeois regime in Saigon was clear to all. The government was in a constant state of crisis. One coup followed another. The uninterrupted rise and fall of ministers, each as unpopular and corrupt as the last, was a symptom of the impasse of the regime. Without US support, it would not have lasted one week.
Johnson increased the US military presence in Vietnam. He sent Gen. William Westmoreland, a veteran of Korea and World War II, to take charge of military operations. Johnson was determined to take the American military intervention in Vietnam to a qualitatively different level. But in order to convince the US public of the need for drastic action in South East Asia, Johnson needed an excuse. He found it in the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which served the same purpose as Pearl Harbour or the 11th September - a causus belli - an excuse for war.
In August 1964, an American destroyer, the USS Maddox, on patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin, exchanged fire with North Vietnamese torpedo boats. President Johnson issued instructions that in the event of a further attack upon US vessels in "international waters" they were to respond with the objective of destroying the attackers. Two days later, the ship's captain thought he was again coming under attack. But one of the pilots was not so sure. In a television interview, Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who was a pilot at Tonkin, made the following statement:
"Well, I was over that ... those destroyers for over an hour and a half, below a thousand feet, lights off, watching everything they did. I could hear 'em chit-chatting on the radio, the Maddox and the Joy, they seemed to have some intermittent radar targets. I took it upon myself to get out there where they thought the boat was and try to kill it if they didn't. But it was fruitless ... and I'd go down there and there was nothing."
Ignoring the conflicting evidence, the Pentagon insisted there had been a second attack. On August 5, 1964, the U.S. secretary of defence stated:
"In retaliation for this unprovoked attack on the high seas, our forces have struck the bases used by the North Vietnamese patrol craft."
This was a clear provocation. There was no Vietnamese attack on a US warship. But Johnson used the Tonkin Gulf incident to push a resolution through Congress allowing the president to wage war in Vietnam. On August 7, 1964 Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which allowed the president to take any necessary measures to repel further attacks and to provide military assistance to any South Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) member. Senators Wayne L. Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska cast the only dissenting votes. President Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam. On March 8-9, 1965 the first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam.
Moscow and Beijing
The war was a battle between, on the one side, the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world, and on the other side, a barefoot guerrilla army armed with weapons left over from World War Two. North Vietnam was a poor agricultural country with virtually no industry. Ho Chi Minh was therefore obliged to seek aid from China and the Soviet Union. Moscow agreed to increase military aid to the North Vietnamese. Three weeks after the marines landed, forces of the NLF bombed the American Embassy in Saigon. Johnson blamed China for these attacks. On May 13, 1965 he said:
"Their [China's] target is not merely South Vietnam - it is Asia. Their objective is not the fulfilment of Vietnamese nationalism, it is to erode and to discredit America's ability to help prevent Chinese domination over all of Asia."
There was not a shred of evidence for this accusation. As a matter of fact, it was the Soviet Union and not China that was now supplying most aid to the Vietnamese. North Vietnamese pilots were being trained in the Soviet Union, which was also providing money and arms to Hanoi. Moscow was looking for an advantage over the USA in Asia, and at the same time was anxious to stop Vietnam from falling under the influence of China. This was the period of the Sino-Soviet split in which two rival Stalinist bureaucracies confronted each other and vied for influence in the world "communist" movement.
The Soviet Union gave considerable aid to North Vietnam. Moscow sent missiles to North Vietnam. And more than a thousand Soviet advisers worked on air defences against the Americans. This was a serious factor limiting the possibilities for US aggression against the North. However the scale of this aid was adversely affected by growing tensions between the Russian and Chinese Bureaucracies, which were then engaged in a bitter struggle dictated by the narrow nationalist interests of both sides. Fyodor Mochulski, deputy Soviet ambassador to China comments:
"The Chinese demanded that we hand over all military equipment for Vietnam on the Soviet-Chinese border and that China in its turn would pass it on to the Vietnamese. We discovered later that the Chinese weren't handing everything over. Some of the equipment they unloaded for themselves."
This view is supported by Igor Yershov, Soviet military adviser to Vietnam:
"What surprised me was that we could send the newest anti-aircraft missiles to Egypt, a capitalist country, but not to Vietnam. Our commanders used to say that it was because there was a danger they would fall into the hands of the Chinese."
Operation Rolling Thunder
In March 1965 the first American ground troops landed at Da Nang. The first major military engagement between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces occurred on November 14-16, 1965. The USA was being inexorably sucked into a major war on the Asian mainland. Like Bush at the start of the invasion of Iraq, Johnson and his generals were suffering from delusions of grandeur. They made the mistake of exaggerating their own power and underestimating that of the enemy. They imagined that the mere appearance of the U.S. Marines in Vietnam would terrify the enemy into surrendering. This was a bad mistake. Johnson's optimistic assessment of the situation in South Vietnam - which closely resembles that of George W. Bush in relation to Iraq - was rapidly falsified by events. The military situation worsened by the day.
In June, a military outpost at Dong Suay was destroyed. An elite South Vietnamese regiment was decimated, and there were many civilian casualties. McNamara returned to Vietnam to reassess the war. A mere glance at the situation was enough to convince him that without the commitment of massive American forces, the puppet government of South Vietnam was doomed. General Westmoreland feared that South Vietnam would be cut in two. The first major battle of the war was fought out in the Ia Drang valley in the Central Highlands. It showed the tremendous fighting capacities of the Vietnamese. The Americans defeated the North Vietnamese at Ia Drang, but casualties were heavy: 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed; and 300 elite American infantry died in the battle. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander of the North Vietnamese Forces, commented:
"The battle at Ia Drang was our first big victory. We concluded that we could fight the Americans and win. The key thing was to force the Americans to fight the way we wanted - that is, hand to hand."
The NLF forces launched an attack on Pleiku airbase in which eight Americans were killed and a hundred more were wounded. Johnson responded by launching Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive campaign of bombing against the North. He hoped it would boost Southern morale and force Ho Chi Minh to the negotiating table. The North was supplying the guerrilla forces in the South through the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail. This complex network of tracks linked the North with the South through the impenetrable jungles of Central Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The Vietnamese, displaying great courage, carried supplies along this trail day and night, constantly changing their tactics to keep ahead of the enemy. One driver on the Trail, Kim Nuoc Quang, recalls the extremely dangerous conditions in which they worked:
"One night we counted 14 cannons firing, reddening and lightening the whole sky with explosions. It was like fireworks night in Hanoi. We were constantly driving through bullets and smoke."
It was the inability of the US army to inflict a serious defeat on the Vietnamese on the ground that led Johnson to step up the massive bombing of the North, although he occasionally ceased the bombing to "encourage" the North Vietnamese to negotiate. But all these stratagems failed. The war continued.
All history shows that bombing alone will not win a war. Hitler's bombing of British cities did not force Britain to surrender, but only increased the hatred and bitterness of the British people against Nazi Germany. The same process occurred in North Vietnam. In the end, as was predictable, the USA was compelled to commit a large force of ground troops to stop the collapse of the puppet regime in Saigon, which otherwise would have been a foregone conclusion. As McNamara stated:
"It became more and more clear that President Johnson was going to have to choose between losing South Vietnam or trying to save it by introducing U.S. military force and taking over a major part of the combat mission."
Quite early on, the Americans gave up the idea of defending territory, and instead used their superior mobility to launch so-called search and destroy missions. These left behind a bloody trail of death and destruction, of burning villages and dead peasants and livestock. The forces that claimed to be "saving" South Vietnam were systematically destroying it. And this fact, far from weakening the guerrilla forces, only served to strengthen them. This is also true in Iraq.
The French revolutionary leader Robespierre once said that nobody likes missionaries with bayonets. The American soldiers were told then that they had gone to South Vietnam to fight communism, just as the American soldiers are now told that they have been sent to Iraq to fight for democracy. But just as in Iraq today, so in Vietnam the American soldiers met hostility from those they were supposed to be helping.
Mao Zedong said that the guerrilla must learn how to swim among the people like a fish in water. The support of the population is the first and most important conditions for the success of the guerrillas. It is in the nature of a guerrilla war that it is difficult to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. The guerrilla fighters strike suddenly and then melt away into the general population. As in Iraq, so in Vietnam, American troops found it impossible to tell which Vietnamese were friends and which were enemies. The potential is therefore always present for abuses and atrocities against civilians. This in turn tends to drive the population still more firmly into the arms of the guerrillas.
Any army is made up of contradictory elements, like society itself. The officer caste must maintain discipline and keep the killing spirit alive among the troops. In the concrete conditions of a guerrilla war, where the front lines are blurred and the enemy is mixed up with the population, the troops must be hardened to the idea of killing civilians. The American troops in Vietnam were told not to worry too much about who was killed: "if it's dead and Vietnamese, it's VC." That was they were told. The inevitable result was that a lot of civilians who were not guerrilla fighters were killed. This stoked the fires of resentment against the occupying forces.
Despite steadily increasing numbers of American troops in Vietnam, the guerrilla operations continued without a break. In response to the American troop build-up, Hanoi sent thousands of North Vietnamese to join the guerrilla fighters in the South. What the Pentagon thought would be a relatively easy and quick operation turned out to be a protracted and bloody conflict.
In general a guerrilla army involved in a war of national liberation has a great advantage over the occupying forces. They are willing to die. This weapon is potentially far more potent than the most sophisticated modern weapons. This was true in Vietnam and it remains true in Iraq today. What the military planners in the Pentagon could not understand is that when an entire people stands up and says no, no force on earth can force them to submit. This was the lesson the British learned in India and the French had to learn the hard way in Algeria and Dien Bien Phu. The Americans are still learning the same lesson in Iraq. They should have paid more attention to the experience in Vietnam, or even to their own history. After all, the United States itself was born out of a revolutionary war of independence that pitted farmers with hunting muskets against the might of the British army. The latter was one of the most powerful army in the world at the time, but in the end the farmers won.
In many ways the guerrilla struggle in Vietnam has echoes of the present war in Iraq. Just listen to the memories of a former guerrilla fighter, Tong Viet Duong, from the National Liberation Front, Saigon:
"At 8 o'clock in the morning of March 23rd, we hit them. Our artillery destroyed aircraft. We killed not only some guards, but also the American quartermaster. Our commando unit also attacked the police training school. We killed many trainee police officers whilst they were watching a movie."
In an attempt to justify their brutal rape of Vietnam, the apologists of US imperialism frequently refer to the alleged cruelty of the NLF. It is true that any civil war or national liberation struggle is characterised by cruelty. Let us remind ourselves that there was no lack of savagery displayed in the American Civil War. In part this reflects the conditions of a kind of warfare where there is no clearly defined boundaries, no definite front line, no rules of engagement, no rights and no law. It is a war that most often takes place in the midst of a civilian population.
Furthermore, the guerrilla forces are fighting against a vastly superior professional army in conditions of extreme inferiority. The US forces had all the paraphernalia of modern high-tech warfare. The Vietnamese had to rely on the most primitive methods, such as concealed pits with sharp spikes at the bottom. It is a simple mechanism but very effective, like many other of the methods of guerrilla warfare. And let us not forget that the aim of all warfare is to kill the enemy. In conditions of military inferiority the guerrilla forces cannot renounce any method that achieves this aim and that strikes terror into the hearts of the invader. In any case, the methods used by the American forces - including the indiscriminate use of napalm to incinerate people alive, or the even more indiscriminate use of chemical agents discharged over vast tracts from the air - were infinitely more cruel and devastating than any of the tactics used by the Vietnamese.
The anti-war movement
The war in the South dragged on with no end in sight. At the beginning of 1967, the Americans used B-52s to bomb NLF bases near Saigon in a vain effort to clear the area of guerrillas. By August, in a desperate effort to put more pressure on Hanoi, Johnson extended the bombing of the North to within 10 miles of the Chinese border. This was playing with fire. In vain Johnson argued that this was not aimed against China:
"First I would like to make it clear that these air strikes are not intended as any threat to communist China, and they do not in fact pose any threat to that country. We believe that Peking knows that the United States does not seek to widen the war in Vietnam."
The official optimism clashed at every step with the crude reality of the casualty lists and the never-ending conflict. As the savagery and futility of the war became clear, there was increasing dissent back home. The US forces were now taking heavy losses. The American casualty rate increased steadily every year. Jack Valenti, aide to President Johnson, recalls the situation:
"I would go in the president's bedroom, at 7 o'clock in the morning. Every morning, he'd be on the phone, with a 12-hour time difference, checking the casualties of the day before. 'Mr. President, er, we lost 18 men yesterday, Mr. President, we lost 160 men, we had 400 casualties' - morning after morning after morning."
In the end Johnson was utterly undermined by the rapid growth of the anti-war movement in America. One of the most important elements in the equation was the disproportionate number of poor working class and black kids among the casualties. As in every war, it is always the poorest, most oppressed and downtrodden layers of the population that provide most of the cannon fodder. Inside the USA there was a growing swell of discontent. The black Americans were tired of being second-class citizens. In the Southern States, the civil rights movement was engaged in a ferocious struggle against discrimination and racism, for equal rights. But the war in Vietnam highlighted in an extreme form the oppression of the blacks. The two issues became indissolubly linked. On April 15, 1967 black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. said:
"This confused war has played havoc with our domestic destinies. Despite feeble protestations to the contrary, the promises of the great society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam. The pursuit of this widened war has narrowed the promised dimensions of the domestic welfare programs, making the poor - white and Negro - bear the heaviest burdens both at the front and at home."
Napoleon explained long ago the vital importance of morale in war. No soldier likes to fight and put his life at risk when he feels that he is not backed by public opinion at home. The American soldiers in Vietnam increasingly felt the backlash of opposition in the USA. They began to feel that they were fighting an unjust and unwinnable war. Lt. Col. George Forrest, U.S. Army recalls:
"When you turned on AFN and you saw riots in the streets, and whatever, and guys were saying: ‘Wait a minute. Why am I fighting here when these guys at home are saying this is the wrong thing to do?'"
The growing opposition to the war even found expression in pop music. There was a very popular song around at that time by "Country Joe" McDonald that contained the words:
"Come on, mothers, throughout the land"And it's 1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?
Pack your boys off to Vietnam
Come on, fathers, don't hesitate
Send your sons off before it's too late
Be the first one on your block
To have your boy come home in a box!
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn.
Next stop is Vietnam.
And it's 5, 6, 7, open up the Pearly Gates
Yeah, there ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee! We're all gonna die!"
In April 17, 1965 the first major anti-war rally was held in Washington. By October of the same year anti-war protests are held in about 40 American cities. As is usually the case, the ferment began among the students, who always act as a sensitive barometer of moods in society. 25,000 people gathered in Washington, 20,000 in New York and 15,000 in Berkeley, California, to demonstrate against the war. In April 1967, 300,000 people demonstrated in New York On Oct. 21-23, 1967 50,000 people demonstrated against the war in Washington. The anti-war movement was now spreading fast. More than five million people are estimated to have been involved one way or the other.
The Tet Offensive
It is now generally recognized that Vo Nguyen Giap was one of the brilliant generals of the 20th century. He was trained in the tactics of guerrilla war in the long struggle against French imperialism, in which his small forces were fighting against a bigger, well-trained and well -equipped force. Under these conditions Giap developed a strategy for defeating superior opponents. This was not to simply outmanoeuvre them in the field but to undermine their resolve by inflicting demoralizing political defeats through bold and unexpected tactics. His slogan was that of Danton: "de l'audace, de l'audace et encore de l'audace!" (audacity, audacity and yet more audacity!) Nowhere was this more evident than in the Tet Offensive.
Giap was also a ruthless general. He was always prepared to take a gamble, irrespective of the cost in lives. He must have known that in conventional combat he was at a disadvantage. Whenever they had met the American forces in open battle his divisions had been hammered. In the South the War was not going well. The guerrillas, though still active, were slowly being pushed back. By September 1967 Giap concluded that the war had reached a stalemate and that something needed to be done. On the other hand Hanoi could see the growing anti-war movement in the USA. Giap decided that what was needed was a coup de grace that would break Washington's will to continue the War.
This was the origin of the Tet offensive - a campaign of breathtaking breadth, speed and scope. It shook US imperialism to its roots and had a dramatic and lasting effect on US public opinion. He carefully planned the offensive, utilising techniques he had learned in the struggle with the French, where he had learned to approach his enemy's strengths as if they were weaknesses to be exploited. As early as 1944, Giap sent his tiny forces against the French army in Indochina. As with the Tet Offensive, he chose a moment to attack when it was least expected: Christmas Eve. In 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, Giap lured the overconfident French into a disastrous battle and won a stunning victory by means of brilliant deployments. Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1968, Giap was aiming for a quick and decisive victory to influence the result of the 1968 US Presidential campaign.
He prepared a bold offensive on two fronts. The first was to be an attack on the US Marines' firebase at Khe Sanh. Simultaneously the NVA and the NLF would stage coordinated attacks on South Vietnam's major cities and provincial capitals. This would present the Americans with a military dilemma. If they opted to defend Khe Sanh, they would be stretched to the limit when battles erupted all over the South. Giap had set the campaign's minimum and maximum objectives. As a minimum the Tet outbreak would force the halting of the aerial bombardment of North Vietnam and force the Americans into negotiations. As a maximum the offensive could drive the Americans out of Vietnam all together opening up the path to liberation and unification.
The battle for Khe Sanh
The Vietnamese decided upon a daring but high-risk strategy. They worked out a plan for concerted attacks throughout South Vietnam at the start of 1968. With consummate skill and tremendous audacity, they moved large amounts of weapons, ammunition and supplies to the South for an offensive planned for the Vietnamese New Year - known as Tet. They hoped to spark a general uprising across the country.
One of the bloodiest battles in the offensive took place in Khe Sanh, where there was a small US army base. General Westmoreland believed that Giap's troops were converging on Khe Sanh as part of the policy to seize control of the northern provinces. He was basing himself on an analogy with the battle of Dien Bien Phu. But the analogy with Dien Bien Phu was misleading. The US was in a far stronger position than the French were in 1954. In "Operation Niagra" the US had unleashed the greatest air attack in military history. B52 bombers caused tremendous losses to the Vietnamese, who suffered as many as 10,000 dead, for the loss of only 500 US marines.
The attack on Khe Sanh was linked to the overall strategy. Once the general offensive was in full swing, the over-stretched American forces would be unable to come to the help of Khe Sanh and prevent the base from being overrun. In this way, Giap might indeed have repeated his triumph of Dien Bien Phu. But that was not the central idea. Actually, the Vietnamese were not trying to re-enact Dien Bien Phu, but had organised a very successful diversion to draw the Americans away from the big towns and cities, leaving them open to attack.
Westmoreland fell into the trap prepared by Giap. As a result, the Americans were caught off guard by the rapidity and scope of the offensive. Years later a West Point textbook compared the US intelligence failure to see what was happening with the shock of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. A 1968 CIA report concluded: "The intensity, coordination and timing of the attacks were not fully anticipated," adding that the ability of the NLF guerrillas to hit so many targets simultaneously was "another major unexpected point"
The village of Khe Sanh lay in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, close to the Laotian border just below the Demilitarised Zone. It had been garrisoned by the French during the first Indochina war and later became an important US Special Forces base. Due to its proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, US artillery in Khe Sanh could shell the trail and observe NVA traffic moving southwards. In 1967, the Marines took over Khe Sanh and converted it into a large fire base, while the Special Forces moved their base to the Montagnard village of Lang Vei.
Towards the end of 1967, two NVA divisions - the 325th and the 304th - were spotted moving into the Khe Sanh area and a third was positioning itself along Route 9 where it would be able to intercept reinforcements coming in from Quang Tri. The same NVA divisions had fought at Dien Bien Phu. The message was clear and General Westmoreland had no intention of duplicating the French mistakes at Dien Bien Phu. He began to reinforce the base. By late January, some 6,000 Marines had been flown into Khe Sanh and thousands of reinforcements had been moved north of Hue.
This was just what Giap wanted them to do. The NVA continued its build-up: at least 20,000 North Vietnamese were ultimately moved in around Khe Sanh. Some estimates put the number at twice that. The White House and the US media were taken in by this stratagem. They became convinced that they were witnessing the preparations for the decisive battle of the War. Day after day Khe Sanh became lead-story. TV news reports were obsessed with Giap's alleged replay of Dien Bien Phu. Finally, shortly before dawn on January 21st, the first attack began when the NVA attempted to cross the river running past the base.
The attack was beaten back but followed by an artillery barrage which damaged the runway, blew up the main ammunition stores, and damaged a few aircraft. Other attacks were launched against the US Special Forces at Lang Vel and against the Marines dug-in on the hills surrounding Khe Sanh. These attacks were clearly aimed at testing the defences. But the entire episode was a diversionary tactic that succeeded very well. The attention of the US commanders was concentrated on Khe Sanh, while the NVA and NLF forces were preparing an all-out offensive in South Vietnam's cities.
The Vietnamese attack on Khe Sanh was defeated only thanks to massive aerial bombardments of NVA positions. B-52's and strike aircraft dropped tons of bombs and napalm, with great accuracy, within a few hundred feet of Khe Sanh's perimeter. Despite bad weather and increasing anti-aircraft fire, planes and helicopters kept dropping cargo. The battle settled down into a siege. Khe Sanh was finally relieved on April 6th. Fighting continued around Khe Sanh for a time but any hope of overrunning the base had to be abandoned. But it had served its purpose, which was to act as a feint to cover preparations for a general offensive in the South.
Preparations for the offensive
Up to this time the war had been mainly in the jungles and swamps and rural areas where the NLF guerrillas had their main base of support. They now planned and executed a bold offensive, which was aimed at penetrating South Vietnam's supposedly impregnable urban areas. The General launched a major offensive against American and South Vietnamese forces on the eve of the Tet lunar New Year celebrations, in order to seize the element of surprise.
Whilst the attention of the world was focused on Khe Sanh, NVA and NLF regulars were also drifting into Saigon, Hue, and most of the other cities of South Vietnam. They came in small groups of twos and threes, disguised as refugees, peasants, workers, and ARVN soldiers on holiday leave. Gradually, roughly the equivalent of five battalions of NVA/NLF infiltrated Saigon without any of the ubiquitous security police noticing, or anyone informing on them. This was a considerable achievement given the sheer scale of the operation.
There was already a guerrilla network in Saigon and the other major cities, which had long stockpiled stores of arms and ammunition drawn from hit-and-run raids or bought openly on the black-market. Through contacts and spies the guerrillas had managed to store arms, ammunition and explosives in a secret location in preparation for the attack. It was common knowledge that the guerrillas on leave from their units drifted in and out of the cities. Some who were captured during the pre Tet build up were mistaken for regular holiday-makers or deserters. In the general noisy crowd of New Year merry-makers, the NLF's secret army of infiltrators went completely unnoticed.
Weapons were brought in separately in flower carts, jury-rigged coffins, and trucks apparently filled with vegetables and rice. Tong Viet Duong, a guerrilla fighter with the National Liberation Front in Saigon describes the preparations for the Tet offensive:
"Taxis carried chrysanthemums into Saigon for the Tet market. Hidden underneath them were AK-47s. The people supported the revolution. They helped us - we were able to penetrate the security in the city. We changed our clothes and carried fake identity documents. The people of Saigon hid us in their houses."
Tet had traditionally been a time of truce in the long war and both Hanoi and Saigon had made announcements that this year would be no different - although they disagreed about the duration. US Intelligence had gotten wind that something was brewing through captured documents and an overall analysis of recent events, but Westmoreland's staff tended to disregard these generally vague reports. At the request of General Frederick Weyand, the US commander of the Saigon area, however, several battalions were pulled back from their positions near the Cambodian border.
General Weyand put his troops on full alert but - due to a standing US policy of leaving the security of major cities to the ARVN - there were only a few hundred American troops on duty in Saigon itself the night before the attack began. Later General Westmoreland claimed that he knew about all these preparations. All the evidence shows that he was not prepared for anything approaching the intensity of the attack that came and that he was still concentrating his attentions on the developing battle at Khe Sanh where he thought Giap would make his chief effort. In reality, the US army was taken completely off guard.
London, 30th January 2008.
- The Tet Offensive: the turning point in the Vietnam War – Part Two by Alan Woods (January 31, 2008)
- How US imperialism was defeated in Vietnam by Jonathan Clyne (October 15, 2002)