In the early hours of 31st January 1968, 70,000 North Vietnamese soldiers, together with guerrilla fighters of the NLF, launched one of the most daring military campaigns in history. The Tet Offensive was the real turning point in the Vietnam War. On its 40th anniversary, Alan Woods analyses the events that led to the Vietnam War and the significance of the Tet Offensive in bringing about the defeat of US imperialism, and draws some parallels with Iraq.
The offensive commences
On the night of January 31, 1968 the North Vietnamese army and the NLF launched the Tet Offensive. The NLF broke the truce they had made for the New Year festivities and fought its way into more than one hundred cities, including the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. Throughout the country provincial capitals were seized, garrisons simultaneously attacked. Vietnamese irregular soldiers stormed the highland towns of Banmethout, Kontum and Pleiku, they then simultaneously invaded 13 of the 16 provincial capitals of the heavily populated Mekong Delta. The dimension and sweep of the offensive astonished US army generals, one of whom commented that tracking the assault pattern on a map was like a "pinball machine, lighting up with each raid."
The guerrilla army even succeeded in penetrating the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Through contacts and spies the NLF had managed to store guns, ammunition and explosives at a secret location in preparation for the attack. At 3.15 am a group of guerrilla soldiers drove up to the embassy in a taxi. Within five minutes they had killed the five guards on duty and seized the building. They failed to blast their way through the main Embassy doors with anti-tank rockets and found themselves pinned-down by the Marine guards. An intense fire fight began, which lasted all morning, and ended with the bodies of all nineteen guerrillas scattered around the Embassy courtyard.
Although the damage to the Embassy was slight, this attack on "American soil" was publicized in the USA and throughout the world and had tremendous psychological significance. Other guerrilla squads attacked the Presidential Palace, the radio station, the headquarters of the ARVN Chiefs of Staff, and even Westmoreland's own compound at Tan Son Nhut airbase. In the heavy fighting that followed, things were so bad that Westmoreland ordered his staff to find weapons and join in the defence of the compound. When the fighting was over, twenty-three Americans were dead, eighty-five were wounded and up to fifteen aircraft had suffered serious damage.
Two NVA/NLF battalions attacked the US air-base at Bien Hoa and crippled over twenty aircraft at a cost of nearly 170 casualties. They fought with great bravery. Guerrilla units fought to the death in the French cemetery and the Pho Tho race track. The suburb of Cholon became an operations base for the guerrilla attacks in Saigon and surrounding area. Fourteen guerrilla soldiers who attacked the main radio station in Saigon were under siege for 18 hours, after which they blew themselves up along with the building.
Everywhere the attacks came as a total surprise. The sheer scale and ferocity of the Tet offensive was as much of a shock to Westmoreland as it was to a stunned American public, which watched with disbelief as their South Vietnamese allies engaged in desperate hand-to-hand fighting with the guerrillas in the streets of Saigon. It took over a week of ferocious fighting to liquidate the pockets of resistance scattered around the city. The entrenched guerrillas fought against tanks, helicopter gunships, and aircraft, which blasted buildings and reduced parts of the city to rubble. Using guerrilla tactics, they fought as long as they could, and then slipped off to fight somewhere else. The radio station, factories, and a large block of low-cost public housing were flattened along with the homes of countless civilians who were forced to flee as the city dissolved into chaos.
Large areas of Saigon and Hue suddenly found themselves liberated. Guerrillas marched through the streets waving guns and proclaiming the revolution while others rounded up prepared lists of collaborators and government sympathizers. The Americans used air power to pulverize the enemy. The B-52 strikes against NV and NLF positions outside Saigon came within a few miles of the city. Even when the guerrillas were finally driven out of Saigon, they continued to put up a determined rearguard action in the surrounding government villages, forcing the US and ARVN to bomb and shell and destroy their own fortified villages, thus further alienating the rural population. A month after the beginning of the offensive, the Americans calculated the number of civilian dead at around 15,000 and the number of new refugees at anything up to two million and the fighting was still continuing.
The battle for Hue
The success of the Tet offensive varied from place to place. In some areas the attacks were beaten back in a short time, but in others there was bitter fighting. In cities like Ban Me Thuot, My Tho, Can Tho, Ben Tre, and Kontum, the insurgents entrenched themselves in the poorer neighbourhoods and stubbornly repelled efforts to push them out. By February 5th most of the fighting within Saigon was over, but it continued in Cholon until the end of the month. Although Cholon was bombed, strafed and shelled, the guerrillas held on with grim determination, and even mounted counter-offensives against the American and ARVN positions within the city. Fighting in the resort city Dalat went on until mid-February and left over 200 guerrillas dead. The total NVA/NLF death total in Saigon during the Tet offensive was nearly 1200.
However, the fiercest battle raged the ancient city of Hue, which had been captured by the insurgents and which the US army only recaptured with great difficulty. Hue was also a sacred city to the Vietnamese and the violent suppression of anti-government protests by Buddhist monks had crisis had alienated the population from the Saigon Government. The insurgents therefore found considerable support among the populace. Insurgents supported by some ten NVA battalions infiltrated Hue, the ancient Vietnamese capital, and within a few hours overrun the entire city except for the headquarters of the ARVN 3rd Division and the garrison of US advisors. Thousands of political prisoners were set free and thousands of government officials and sympathizers were rounded up and many were shot.
US Marines and ARVN counterattacked but resistance was heavy and the bitter street-by-street fighting slow and costly in lives. In the end the US forces and their allies bombarded the historic Citadel, which was ferociously defended by the insurgents backed. Then US forces crossed the Perfume River in a fleet of assault craft and on February 2Oth launched the final assault. Not until February 23rd were the insurgents finally overwhelmed. Even then, resistance in Hue continued in isolated pockets of sniper teams. The fight for Hue ended on February 25th at a cost of 119 Americans and 363 ARVN dead. American wounded during the battle for Hue came to just under a thousand, compared to slightly over 1,200 ARVN. The NVA and insurgent dead was about sixteen times that number.
The big difference in fatalities makes the battle look a one sided affair. But it wasn't. The difference in casualty figures came largely from the heavy use of artillery and aerial bombardment to devastate NVA/NLF positions. Large sections of the ancient and revered city Hue were reduced the city to piles of rubble strewn with dead bodies. Without this, the US/ARVN casualties would have been much higher. Close to 6,000 civilians were killed, mostly by the indiscriminate bombing and shellfire and nearly 120,000 citizens of Hue had been made homeless. Those parts of Hue that escaped relatively undamaged were later wrecked by days of looting by soldiers from the original ARVN garrison, who had played no role in the fighting.
Did Tet succeed?
The Tet offensive showed a considerable degree of military preparedness, skill and bravery on the part of the Vietnamese. It shook the morale of the US army, which was forcibly made aware of its own vulnerability, and it had a profound effect on US public opinion. However, from a military point of view it must be seen as a defeat for the NLF. One of the main aims was to drive a wedge between the Americans and the South Vietnamese. The Embassy attack was aimed at showing up the vulnerability of the American forces. The NLF hoped that their liberation of towns and cities would lead to an uprising against the Americans by the South's war-weary soldiers, discontented peasantry and rebellious youth. However this perspective did not materialise, or did so only on a sporadic basis.
It was a bold plan, but the perspective of a nationwide uprising was based on an incorrect reading of the situation. The NLF leadership expected large sections of the urban populace to rise up in revolt. But although the NLF had support in this cities and towns, its main base was the peasantry. The city dwellers of South Vietnam did not support the Saigon Government but were suspicious of the Stalinists. They generally remained inactive and the guerrillas did not get the support they expected. The mass executions of Catholics in Hue also alienated a section of the population that might otherwise have supported them.
When the offensive was over, the Americans remained in control and the NLF had suffered heavy losses. NVA/NLF dead totalled some 45,000 and the number of prisoners nearly 7000, while the Americans and South Vietnamese lost 6000. Within a matter of days they were driven from most of the positions they had conquered. This was both the high point of guerrilla actions in the war and the beginning of their decline. Since the planners of the offensive expected a people upraising, the most secret cells were ordered to emerge from clandestinity. When the offensive was defeated, cell members had to flee to the jungle. Thus, the Tet offensive ended in the destruction of much of the NLF infrastructure in the South. This was a heavy blow. After the Tet offensive, the regular North Vietnamese army did most of the fighting against the U.S.
However, the Tet Offensive brought about a different kind of turning point. It strongly influenced the opinion of the American public. For the first time in a major war, the power of television became apparent. Fifty million people watched the destruction brought on by the war. The U.S. government was no longer able to portray the war as clean, simple and easily won. Johnson and the generals had claimed the enemy was in decline. This was falsified by events. The moment Vietnamese commandos penetrated the American Embassy in Saigon, all the official propaganda crumbled to dust.
During Tet the Americans and their ARVN ally had suffered over 4,300 killed in action, some 16,000 wounded and over 1,000 missing in action. It is true that the enemy suffered far more but to an already skeptical US public this mattered little. What mattered was that the war now seemed never-ending, just like Iraq today. And just like Iraq, it no longer had any definite, realistic objective. The scenes of slaughter and devastation in Saigon, Hue, and other cities horrified the average US citizen, to whom the conflict now seemed senseless. The senselessness of it was reflected in the notorious comment of a US officer who explained the destruction of about one-third of the provincial capital of Ben Tre: "It became necessary to destroy it in order to save it". The same words could serve pretty well as an epitaph for the invasion of Iraq.
In Washington something akin to panic reigned in high places. Congressmen were now turning on the president. On February 7, 1968 Senator Robert Kennedy, who was preparing himself to assume the mantle of his dead brother, commented:
"It is said the Viet Cong will not be able to hold the cities, and that is probably true. But they have demonstrated that despite all of our reports of progress, of government strength, and of enemy weakness, that half a million American soldiers, with 700,000 Vietnamese allies, with total command of the air, total command of the sea, backed by the huge resources and the most modern weapons, that we are unable to secure even a single city from the attacks of an enemy whose total strength is about 250,000."
General Westmoreland, supreme commander of US forces, compared the Tet offensive to the Battle of the Bulge in World War Two where the Germans staged a desperate bid to break through the US lines before meeting an inevitable defeat. But this analogy was completely false. It was not the Vietnamese but the Americans who were heading inexorably for defeat. After the war General Giap said:
"For us, you know, there is no such thing as a single strategy. Ours is always a synthesis, simultaneously military, political and diplomatic - which is why quite clearly, the Tet offensive had multiple objectives."
Although the Tet offensive had failed in its major objectives, it had a profound and lasting effect on the course of the war. The cost in North Vietnamese casualties was horrendous but Giap's gambler's throw proved to be a turning point in the War. It was a media disaster for the White House and effectively ended the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, America's commander in chief. According to US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger:
"Henceforth, no matter how effective our action, the prevalent strategy could no longer achieve its objectives within a period or within force levels politically acceptable to the American people."
The scale of the offensive shook President Johnson to the core. The shockwave from the fighting undermined his will to carry on. McNamara resigned as Secretary of State for Defence, a disillusioned man, and was replaced with Clark Clifford. But from subsequent statements we learn that the latter had absolutely no idea where he was going:
"I'd ask questions like when is the war going to end? Well, we don't know. How many more men do you think we're going to lose? Well, we really don't know. Then I finally got down to it and said, 'What is our plan to win the war in Vietnam?' Turned out there wasn't any. The plan was just to stay with it and ultimately hoping that the enemy would finally give up."
To win even a game of chess some kind of strategy is necessary. And war - the most complicated of all equations as Napoleon called it - is far more difficult than a game of chess. A general staff needs a combination of a clear and well-defined strategy and flexible and intelligent tactics. The Americans had neither. The "strategy" outlined above in the words of Mr. Clifford ("to stay with it and ultimately hoping that the enemy would finally give up.") is the military equivalent of the philosophy of that incorrigible bankrupt Mr. Micawber, who was always "confidently expecting that something will turn up." This is very bad economics and even worse military doctrine.
The fall of Johnson
In 1963, when he came to power following the assassination of Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson's approval rating was over 80%. By 1967 it had fallen to 40%. Stanley Karnow wrote: "But then came Tet - and his ratings plummeted - as if Vietnam were a burning fuse that had suddenly ignited an explosion of dissent." By the beginning of March the popularity of the President was only about 30%, while endorsement for his handling of the war was only 6%. Like George W. Bush, his credibility had collapsed. A 1971 poll showed that 60% of Americans with college degrees were in favour of an American retreat from Vietnam. However, 75% of those with only high-school diplomas and 80% of those without any secondary education supported a retreat. This showed a sea change in the attitude of the American working class.
Even the mule-headed Texan Johnson finally understood that the war could not be won on the battlefield, and that he must negotiate. After years of bombing hell out of North Vietnam, he suddenly announced a cessation of the bombing: "I renew the offer I made last August to stop the bombardment of North Vietnam. We ask that talks begin promptly, that they be serious talks on the substance of peace." However, despite the opening of negotiations with the North Vietnamese, US, troop levels remained at about 500,000 and the war would drag on for another five years. More American soldiers were killed after Tet than before, and the United States itself would be torn apart by the worst internal upheavals in a century.
Westmoreland was pressuring Washington for 206,000 troops to carry on the campaign in the South and even to make a limited invasion of North Vietnam just above the DMZ. As the battle for Hue died out, Johnson asked Clark Clifford to find ways and means of meeting Westmoreland's request. Clifford consulted CIA Director Richard Helms who presented him the Agency's pessimistic forecast. On March 4th Clifford told Johnson that the war was far from won and that more men would not make much difference.
Clifford was not alone. Johnson's main advisors, including Generals Omar Bradley, Matthew Ridgway, and Maxwell Taylor; Cyrus Vance, Dean Acheson, and Henry Cabot Lodge, had all turned against the war. Recent CIA studies revealed that the programme to win Vietnamese "hearts and minds" was failing in forty of South Vietnam's forty-four provinces and that the NLF's manpower was actually twice the number that had been estimated previously.
The extreme right-wingers naturally supported the war, and condemned the Administration for not going all out for victory. But this was an increasingly minority opinion. The CIA's gloomy reports cooled the enthusiasm of even the most hawkish members of the administration. Johnson was in a dilemma. To meet the generals' manpower requests would mean either withdrawing American troops from Europe or calling up the active reserves. Neither option was politically feasible. Westmoreland therefore had to settle for half of the over 200,000 additional troops he was demanding.
In the first period of the war any opposition was usually seen as anti-patriotic and anti-American. But now the perception of the American public changed dramatically. Bourgeois liberals like Robert Kennedy achieved overnight popularity by speaking out against the war. Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy, an unknown standing on an anti-war ticket, challenged Johnson for the Presidential nomination. He was supported by thousands of students and young Americans opposed to the war.
At the New Hampshire Democratic primary, Johnson polled only 300 votes more than Eugene McCarthy. This was an unprecedented humiliation. Normally an incumbent President could expect to be re-elected unopposed. The result was the final nail in the coffin for the administration of Lyndon Johnson. On March 31st, Johnson went on TV to announce a bombing halt of the North and America's willingness to meet with the North Vietnamese to seek a peace settlement. Now hopelessly demoralized, Johnson announced to an astonished world his decision not to stand again as President: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President." Johnson said that would spend the rest of his term in a search for peace in Indochina.
Soon after, General Creighton Abrams replaced Westmoreland as head of US forces in Vietnam. Westmoreland was recalled to become Army Chief of Staff - theoretically a promotion, but in practice a move to get him out of the way. Westmoreland's deputy commander, Abrams had been present at the special CIA briefing that convinced Johnson that a change of course was needed. Abrams was sent to Saigon with a mission: he was to institute a programme of "Vietnamization", that is to say, to take all necessary measures to enable the ARVN to take on the burden of the fighting, and gradually reduce the American role to that of advisors. This is the very same tactic that they are trying to carry out in Iraq. But ever since 1965 it was quite clear that Saigon was incapable of doing the job. We now see exactly the same pattern emerging in Iraq, and the end result will also be similar.
Nixon escalates the war
The resignation of Johnson did not end the war. In fact, it was actually escalated until it spread throughout the whole of South East Asia. On May 10, 1968 the peace talks between U. S. and Vietnamese officials began in Paris. But the bloody war on the ground continued. The election of the Republican hawk Richard Nixon did nothing to improve matters The American deployment that had started with only 23,300 in 1963 rose inexorably to 184,000 in 1966 and reached a peak of 542,000 in January 1969 under Richard Nixon's presidency. The war was now costing £30 billion a year: a huge drain of blood and gold even for the richest and most powerful country on earth. And the perception grew among Americans that it was unwinnable. The mood was turning against the war even in the American ruling class. But Richard Nixon belonged to that wing that believed that "one last push" could end the war, or at least compel North Vietnam to negotiate a settlement acceptable to Washington. This reminds one of George Bush and the notorious theory of the "surge" and of the famous remark of Karl Marx: "history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce."
In April 1970 the armies of the U.S. and South Vietnam invaded Cambodia, alleging the presence of North Vietnamese troops on Cambodian soil. The real aim was to disrupt the flow of supplies to the NLF along the The Ho Chi Minh Trail and to intimidate Hanoi. The Trail passed through neutral Laos and Cambodia. As a result both had suffered heavy American bombing. General. William Westmoreland stated:
"Over the years Cambodia, the border area of Cambodia and Laos, were used freely by the enemy, but by virtue of the policy of my government, we could not fight the overt war or deploy troops overtly, military troops, into those countries."
However, in practice the USA did intervene militarily against Cambodia and Laos, violating their neutrality. In particular, Cambodia was subjected to a savage air bombardment that killed large numbers of Cambodian peasants. This fact is never mentioned as one of the main causes that led to the brutality of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces when they finally entered Phnom Pen. The Americans could not, however, invade North Vietnam for fear of the Russians, as McNamara pointed out:
"On one or two occasions, the chiefs recommended U.S. military intervention in North Vietnam and stated that they recognized this might lead to Chinese and/or Soviet military response, in which case, they said, 'We might have to consider the use of nuclear weapons.'"
Jack Valenti, aide to President Johnson, said on the same subject:
"The president was worried about China and Russia. He didn't know ... in Korea nobody thought the Chinese were going to cross the Yalu with a million men, and we were caught by surprise. And I remember time after time, when the military would suggest mining Haiphong or having er ... sending in war planes to bomb Haiphong, he said, 'Hell no,' he said, 'some damn aviator will drop a bomb down a Russian smokestack and then I've got World War III on my hands.'"
But Nixon was not concerned about such details. Like George W. Bush he was a strange combination of a narrow-minded provincial and an irresponsible adventurer. And like Bush he displayed a pig-headed determination to follow his own agenda, regardless of the consequences. The policies of Nixon and his White House clique set off a chain of events that led to a nightmare for the people of Cambodia and had serious effects inside the USA. The result was a further intensification of the anti-war movement. The invasion of Cambodia sparked off campus protests all over the USA. On November 15, 1969 250,000 people demonstrated against the war in Washington, D.C. On May 4, 1970 National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio. The killings sparked hundreds of protest activities across college campuses in the United States. At the University of New Mexico the police also used murderous violence against the protesters. More than 100 colleges were closed as a result of student demonstrations against the invasion of Cambodia.
US public opinion was further shaken by news of the infamous massacre at My Lai, where American soldiers slaughtered a hundred peasants, including women and children. Early in the morning of March 16 in 1968, a group of American soldiers entered a small village in South Vietnam. In "The My Lai massacre: An American Tragedy" Adam Silverman and Kristin Hill recall the events:
"The American soldiers shot at anything that moved, including cattle, chickens, birds and worse yet: civilians. The villagers did not offer any resistance; still the Soldiers threw hand grenades into huts, shouted orders and killed without distinction. The atrocities continued throughout the morning. Infants were killed, young children shot and women raped at gunpoint. Before long 500 civilians lay dead on the ground. But their work wasn't finished... after this the village was set on fire. Bodies, homes, supplies, food - everything was burned."
These events were hushed up until November 13, 1969. In March 1970 Captain Ernest Medina was charged with murder for the massacre at My Lai. This began a chain of events leading up to the My Lai Courts-Martial, ending with the conviction of Lieutenant William Calley on March 29, 1970. When the horrific facts about the My Lai massacre became known, many people's view of the war changed fundamentally. High-ranking American officers were guilty both of the massacre and the subsequent cover-up. However, in the end only four soldiers were tried and only one of them, Calley, was convicted. This murderer of women and children did not pay a serious price for his war crimes. President Nixon pardoned him after only three years under house arrest.
This was not an isolated case. The brutal massacre of unarmed Vietnamese civilians at My Lai was just the tip of the iceberg of appalling atrocities perpetrated on the Vietnamese people by imperialism. In his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger Christopher Hitchens he writes that the U.S. Army admits to killing 10,899 enemies during operation "Speedy Express" in early 1969, but says that they only seized 784 weapons.
The myth of America's humanitarian and civilizing mission was dealt a blow from which it never recovered. By this time, not just the American people but also a growing section of the US ruling class had had enough of the war. Public opinion in the USA, already swinging against the War after Tet, was further alienated by the sickening callousness revealed in the court case. At this point opposition to the war was to be found not only among young people and students but also increasingly among working class Americans.
Inexorably, the USA was being sucked into a wider conflict that was spreading all over South East Asia. In February 1971 South Vietnamese and U.S. troops invaded Laos in an attempt to sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This resulted in a further intensification of anti-war activity. The largest demonstrations were held on April 24, 1971. In San Francisco about 300,000 people marched against the war, in Washington between 500,000 and 750,000. These were the biggest political demonstrations in the history of the United States. In December 1972 the US air force commenced its Christmas bombing of Hanoi and North Vietnam in an attempt to force the Vietnamese to the conference table. Towards the end of December the North Vietnamese announced that they would return to Paris if Nixon ended the bombing. The bombing campaign was halted and the negotiators met during the first week of January 1973.
From a military point of view, the U.S. always enjoyed a clear superiority over the Vietnamese. They had complete command of the air and were continuously bombing the country, north and south. Theoretically, the Americans could have stayed in Vietnam for many more years. They might even have won. But in order to do so they would have needed an army of half a million soldiers, and they would have to be soldiers like Hitler's SS. Such an army did not exist. The changing mood of the working class and the soldiers from working class families made it impossible to continue the war. If the government had had prolonged the war, it would have brought the U.S. to the brink of revolution.
A total of 2,59 million Americans were sent to fight in Vietnam. The harrowing experiences of these soldiers in Vietnam had an extremely demoralizing effect on them. From returning soldiers, first-hand knowledge of the situation in Vietnam slowly began to percolate into many ordinary working class American households, producing a change in the psychology of the working class. There was increasing sympathy for the Vietnamese people. New York Times/CBS News published the results of a poll in June 1977. The question asked was: "If the president would recommend helping Vietnam, would you want your representative in congress to approve aid for Vietnam in the form of food and medicine?" 66% answered yes, and only 29% said no.
In his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen describes an experiment he carried out during lectures delivered in the 1990s, when he asked the audience was asked to guess the level of education among those who opposed the Vietnam War in 1971. Most thought that 90% of college graduates were against the war, but only 60% of those with only a high-school education. The real figures are precisely the opposite. The growing opposition to the war among the American working class was the result of hard experience. Kids from poor working class homes were the overwhelming majority of those drafted to fight in Vietnam. They were the ones most likely to be killed and maimed. As in Iraq, a disproportionate number were black or Latino. Rich kids and college students could often avoid getting drafted - as the case of a certain George W. Bush shows.
The anti-war movement in the USA increasingly influenced the mood of the soldiers in Vietnam. It is one thing to fight and die for a just cause, which earns the praise and admiration of the folks back home. It is another thing entirely to risk your life and suffer daily dangers and hardships for a cause in which you no longer believe and which your fellow citizens detest. The demoralization among US troops in Vietnam is well documented. Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr. wrote in The Collapse of the Armed Forces shortly after the US withdrawal from Vietnam:
"The morale, discipline and fighting condition of the armed forces are, with a few exceptions, lower than ever this century and perhaps lower than ever in the history of the United States. In every possible way, the armed forces still in Vietnam are on the brink of collapse. Separate units avoid or refuse battle, kill their officers, are full of drugs and are without enthusiasm when not on the verge of mutiny.
"Although no high ranking officer (especially not while on duty) could openly make a similar assessment, the conclusions... above are almost unanimously backed up by a number of anonymous interviews with high and midlevel commanding officers. As they are by lower ranking officers in all positions.
"In Vietnam the after troops of an army of 500,000 men, formerly the best army ever sent to battle by the U.S., are trying to retreat from a nightmare-like war that they feel has been dumped upon them by smart civilians. Civilians now at universities in America, are writing books about the stupidity of the whole venture.
"One American soldier, stationed at Cu Chi, is cited in the New York Times. He speaks of ‘separate companies for soldiers refusing to fight. It is no longer a big deal to simply refuse to participate in battle. If a soldier is sent somewhere he no longer bothers to go to the trouble of refusing. He'll simply pack his shirt and goes off to visit a friend at another base. Many guys don't even wear their uniforms any more... The American garrisons at the larger bases are in effect disarmed. Professional soldiers confiscate their weapons and lock them up.'
"Could this be common or even true? The answer is unfortunately yes. By now "fragging" is the preferred expression among soldiers for murder or attempted murder of authoritarian, unpopular, or aggressive officers. When officers are reported dead there is cheering in the trenches or at the movie-theaters of some regiments.
"In the underground GI publication "GI Says" a reward of $10,000 is offered for killing lieutenant colonel Weldon Honeycutt, shortly after the costly attack at Hamburgar Hill in mid 1969, which was led and initiated by Honeycutt.
"The issue of combat refusal, an official euphemism for refusing battle and the worst crime a soldier can commit, recently surfaced again when Troop B of the First cavalry at the Laotian border refused to retrieve their captain's commanding vehicle containing communication devices, codes and secret orders. Yet, as early as 1969 a whole company at 196 Light Infantry Brigade officially sat down in the middle of a battlefield. Later that year another unit from the famous First Air Cavalry Division refused - on air on CBS television - to advance on a dangerous footpath.
"Search and evade (when a unit silently avoids battle) is practically a principle by now. The GI expression for this is "CYA (cover your ass) and get home". That the practice of search-and-evade hasn't gone unnoticed by the enemy is emphasized by the fact that the Viet Cong delegation at the peace negotiations in Paris stated that: ‘Communist units in Indochina have been told not to attack American units unless provoked'."
American soldiers were killing their own officers. This practice gave rise to a new word in the English language: "fragging", derived from "fragmentation bomb." An unofficial web page of the US military police gives the following estimate of the number of victims:
"Between 1969 and 1973, there was an increased incidence of fragging, says the historian Terry Anderson from Texas A&M University. The U.S. Army does not have any exact statistics on how many officers were killed in this manner. But they do know of at least 600 cases of confirmed fragging and another 1400 where officers died under suspicious circumstances. As a result of this, the U.S. Army was not at war with the enemy in the beginning of 1970. They were at war with themselves."
This was the main reason why US imperialism was compelled to abandon the war in Vietnam. If they had continued, there could have been revolutionary consequences in the USA itself. The imperialists therefore drew the conclusion and threw in the towel. On January 23, 1973 the United States, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending America's combat role in Vietnam. The U.S. military draft was ended and five days later a cease-fire went into effect. By the end of March the last of the U.S. combat troops left Vietnam. The war was really over at this point, although the puppet regime in Saigon clung to power for almost another two years. But deprived of American military backing, it was doomed.
The fall of Saigon
Nixon, who was increasingly showing signs of mental instability, looked out of control. The Establishment therefore organized a legal coup d'etat to remove him from power in August 1974, using the Watergate scandal as a convenient excuse to get rid of him. The US ruling class was now looking for some face-saving formula to cut their losses and get out of Vietnam as painlessly as possible. But in the end they were forced to withdraw under the most humiliating circumstances.
On April 21, 1975 Thieu resigned as South Vietnamese President. The rats were already leaving the sinking ship. Just over a week later, on April 30, tanks of the NLF smashed their way through the gates of the presidential palace, the heart of the US-backed Saigon government. The United States finally extricated itself from Vietnam in conditions of incredible chaos, panic and confusion. In a final indignity, the US diplomatic staff had to escape in helicopters from the roof of the embassy in Saigon. All afternoon American helicopters - Chinooks, Hueys, Jolly Green Giants - wheeled above, landing precariously on the tops of high buildings to take off Vietnamese and other evacuees. In an article entitled "US abandons Saigon to Communists", The Guardian's correspondent in Saigon Martin Woollacott reported on Wednesday April 29, 1975:
"More than 80 helicopters ferried the remaining Americans as well as thousands of Vietnamese, including former Vice-President Ky, to an armada of ships in the South China Sea. Pilots were fished out of the water as they ditched their helicopters to make room for more on the landing pad. Thousands more Vietnamese were evacuated in boats form Vung Tau and others left by plane for Thailand and the Philippines. The final departure came on the orders of Washington and at the insistence of President Duong Van Minh. Early this morning a helicopter with 11 US Marines helping in the evacuation finally took off after being delayed by a burst of small arms fire in the US Embassy."
The Guardian reporter continued:
"The way the Americans went was a spectacle in itself. It is a long time since Vietnam has seen so many helicopters, and they swept in at speed, with Phantoms flying overhead. Orange and red flare smoke mushroomed up from the American Embassy and other pick-up points for US personnel.
"The evacuation was a fantastic scene as the choppers roared in against a grey and leaden sky, sometimes as many as two dozen visible at once from Central Saigon, and the air was filled with the mutter of their blades.
"General Cao Van Vien, Chief of the General Staff, and other senior officers and politicians were reported to have left the city aboard American helicopters, as the North Vietnamese close in for the kill they now seem intent on making."
Nobody knew whether or not the NLF troops would storm the capital. There were rumours that the Provisional Revolutionary Government and the new Saigon Administration had reached agreement to call a cease-fire. But nobody could confirm or deny anything. The city awaited its fate. Everybody knew that the war was now over and the American occupation in its last death-throes.
The Quislings in Saigon now no doubt regretted the day when they accepted the advice of Richard Nixon to "hang on" in the hope of getting a better deal. Now the only deal open to them was a bumpy ride in an American helicopter and an uncertain future in foreign exile. In a desperate attempt to salvage something from the wreckage, the old regime elected a new leader, President Duong Van Minh, who offered to negotiate. But the time for negotiations had long since passed. Now everything would be settles by force of arms, and the Saigon regime had no arms to use.
Lenin explains that the state in the last analysis is armed bodies of men. And the old state was disintegrating before one's very eyes. Order was breaking down and chaos reigned as police and militia disappeared from the streets. Amidst scenes of indescribable panic, hundreds of Vietnamese who had collaborated with the occupying forces and the old regime struggled to get into the American embassy. ARVN soldiers roamed the city, destroying property and looting.
The Provisional Revolutionary Government naturally rejected the cease-fire and negotiations offer made by President Minh. Why should they, when all the cards were now in their hands? "At the very least they want Saigon down on its knees," a Western diplomat said before leaving, "they want to see those M16s stacked up in a surrender." This task was now not very difficult. The demoralized ARVN soldiers were utterly unable to fight. Most threw their weapons away and ran for their lives or else turned their coats and joined the NLF.
The objective of warfare, as Clausewitz explained long ago, is to disarm the enemy and make him submit to your will.. The only task that remained for the NLF was to liquidate what little was left of the ARVN forces and organize a new state power in Saigon. But such a state in the given conditions would necessarily be modelled on the lines of Stalinist North Vietnam.
One diplomat responsible for evacuating American and Vietnamese - tidying up after- was reported as saying: "I feel like someone with a dustpan and broom," one said, "but at least we're trying to fulfil our last obligations." That is a fairly accurate comment. All that was left after twenty years of American policy in Indo-China was so much useless waste to be swept up as tidily as possible. The US imperialists doubtless fulfilled its obligations to those collaborators fortunate enough to be evacuated to more or less comfortable destinations in the USA. This would apply to the top echelons, but the rest were abandoned unceremoniously to their fate.
After 28 years of war, US imperialism was finally forced out of Vietnam in the most humiliating circumstances imaginable. The fall of Saigon marked the official end to a war. After the expenditure of $150,000 millions and the loss of 50,000 American lives, the USA had been defeated by a small Asian country of poor peasants. The most powerful army in the world was forced to flee from Vietnam with its tail between its legs. What did they leave behind?
"And when they have created a wilderness, they call it Peace" (Tacitus)
The defeat of US Imperialism in Vietnam was a most progressive development and one that was enthusiastically welcomed by the workers of the world and by the Marxist Tendency. It permitted the north and south to reunify and allowed the Vietnamese people to determine their own fate. But a decade of brutal war had reduced Vietnam to rubble, its cities bombed, its industries destroyed, its agriculture, transport and infrastructure dislocated. Most of its largely agrarian population of 82 million remains poor with per capita income hovering around $550 (£288) a year. The expropriation of the landlords and capitalists was a great step forward, although the new regime had nothing in common with the regime of workers' democracy established by Lenin and Trotsky in Russia after 1917. It was a totalitarian bureaucratic caricature modelled on Stalinist Russia. Nevertheless, thanks to the advantages of a nationalised planned economy, Vietnam made a remarkable recovery from the devastation of war.
Perhaps worst of all was the heritage of chemical war that the US waged against the Vietnamese people. During the Vietnam War, 80 million litres of herbicides with high concentrations of dioxin, known as Agent Orange, were repeatedly sprayed over 12 percent of the rainforest and mangroves of South Vietnam in an attempt to destroy the foliage that provided cover for the Vietcong guerrillas. The inheritors of this chemical war are thousands of Agent Orange children, victims of the poison clouds their parents inhaled. Recent research has linked Agent Orange to a third generation. The Vietnam War is long over, but its toxic legacy is still poisoning the food chain in "hot spots" close to former US bases, causing cancers and birth deformities. Writing in The Guardian thirty years later, Tom Fawthrop writes:
"Tran Anh Kiet, whose feet, hands and limbs are twisted, lives an hour away from Ho Chi Minh City, in Cu Chi district. He is 21, but his body appears to belong to a 15-year-old, and he has a mental age of around six. He has to be spoon-fed and his attempts at speech are confined to grunts.
"Today in Vietnam there are 150,000 children like Kiet, whose parents believe their birth defects are the result of exposure to Agent Orange during the war, or the consumption of dioxin-contaminated food and water since 1975. A further 800,000 Vietnamese are reported to be suffering from dioxin- related diseases, including various cancers."
Who is responsible for these atrocities? In the first place the US government and armed forces, in the second place the big US companies that supplied these poisonous agents and made fortunes out of them. Yet thirty years later, the USA refuses to accept responsibility for the consequences of chemical warfare. Not long ago a lawsuit was launched in the US courts, accusing chemical companies of complicity in war crimes and demanding compensation. A US judge ruled against the Vietnamese. Meanwhile, two of the companies concerned, Monsanto and Dow Chemical, have been allowed to set up branch offices in Ho Chi Minh City, in line with Vietnam's desire to attract foreign investors.
Today Vietnam faces a new threat - the threat of capitalist restoration, which is already far advanced in China. Department stores sell French perfumes and Italian shoes to an emerging urban Vietnamese middle class. A French-owned five-star hotel has opened across the street from the US consulate. Even in the annual victory parade some floats, sponsored by Vietnamese banks, sport the logo of American credit card companies. US warships are allowed to visit Vietnamese ports. In Ho Chi Minh City, the renamed capital, a new elite of Vietnamese businessmen is enjoying the good life in trendy bars and restaurants, toasting business success and the new market economy. The privately owned businesses are engaged in the ruthless exploitation of the workers, just as they do now in Russia and China.
The United States has now become Vietnam's single-largest trading partner. US imperialism may yet achieve through trade and investment what it failed to achieve with bombs and napalm. Was it for this that the workers and peasants of Vietnam fought with such inspiring heroism and defeated the mightiest imperialist power the world has ever seen? Will they allow the bureaucracy to privatise the economy and, like China, lead Vietnam back to capitalism? Or will the working class fight against the pro-capitalist elements and lead Vietnam onto the road of genuine Leninist socialism, based on the democratic control and administration of the working people themselves? This question has not yet been answered by history. It is our fervent hope that it will be the second variant and not the first. The working people of Vietnam deserve no less!
London, 31st January 2008.
Postscript: The workers of the world will never forget the crimes perpetrated by US imperialism on the people of Vietnam. In the "Rolling Thunder" air campaign alone more bombs were dropped on North Vietnam alone than were used in the whole of the Second World War. In the following five years the two Vietnams received the equivalent of 22 tons of explosives for every square mile of territory, or 300lb for every man, women and child. 7 million tons of bombs and defoliants were dropped in total and nearly three million Vietnamese were killed. Forty years later, U.S. imperialism is involved in another criminal occupation: this time in Iraq. The parallels will immediately strike anyone who takes the trouble to study the Vietnam War.
For almost a decade the U.S. bombed Iraq. The reason for invading Iraq, according to the US Government, was, among other things, to destroy Iraq's chemical weapons. Yet the U.S. government did not hesitate to use chemical warfare when fighting the Vietnamese guerrillas hidden beneath the leaves of the jungle. These are the ladies and gentlemen who attempted to justify the rape of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein allegedly possessed the means of waging chemical warfare - something which US imperialism has been doing for decades and is still doing. The US military are still carrying on the same kind of chemical war in Colombia, under the excuse of a "war against drugs". Obviously, for them chemical weapons are only unpleasant when they are not using them themselves.
Someone once said that there can be no such parallels because in Iraq there are no jungles. But there are deserts and cities that can harbour guerrilla forces just as well. Bush's infamous "Mission accomplished" speech echoed the many triumphalist declarations made by President Johnson in the early stages of the Vietnam War. The American forces are trapped in an unwinnable war and this is now increasingly evident to the people of the United States. As in the case of Vietnam, it will be the American people who will put an end to the criminal invasion of another people's land.
- The Tet Offensive: the turning point in the Vietnam War – Part One by Alan Woods (January 30, 2008)
- How US imperialism was defeated in Vietnam by Jonathan Clyne (October 15, 2002)