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empire defeated - vietnam war, lessons for today by Peter Taaffe

4. 1968 and the Tet offensive

The US troops were now to receive a bloody lesson at the hands of the NLF learnt earlier by the French at Dien Bien Phu.

A massive military offensive was launched against them in the Marine Base at Khe Sanh, at the beginning of 1968. Two elite North Vietnamese divisions came south along the ‘Ho Chi Minh trail’ to join the southern guerrillas to make a force estimated at 80,000. They faced 6,000 US troops who were besieged for 77 days, in a battle which was up to then the most controversial of the Vietnam War. Undoubtedly, the Vietnamese had calibrated their attack to coincide with the beginning of an election year in the US itself.

The easy comparisons with Dien Bien Phu were mistaken, however. Logistically, the disposition of forces on either side was different. In 1954, the French were positioned in a valley. The US held the high ground at Khe Sanh and, moreover, had far superior firepower than the French. Nevertheless, there were obviously some similarities with Dien Bien Phu, the most noticeable being the implacability and intransigence of the Vietnamese attackers to an alien imperialist force which was seeking to dominate their country. The battle unfolded somewhat differently, at least immediately, from the one 14 years before. It was linked to, and a prelude to, the much more intense and vital events around the Tet Offensive launched on 31 January 1968. This was to be a spectacularly bold, nationwide assault on the urban strongholds of the US and its South Vietnamese puppets.

Tactical nuclear weapons

When it began, Khe Sanh, which was part of and merged into this general battle, produced great consternation in the US. As with the threats made in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the general commanding the US forces, Westmoreland (Schlesinger called him “the most disastrous American general since Custer”1) stated in his personal account later that ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ would have been considered to deter North Vietnamese forces in the event of the US facing a similar situation to the French – imminent defeat. Westmoreland also shows just how far he was prepared to go. He reveals none of the restraint displayed by US politicians earlier at the battle of Dien Bien Phu:

“There was another possibility at Khe Sanh: tactical nuclear weapons. Early in the fight President Johnson telephoned… to ask if there might be a chance he would have to make such a decision, for he had no wish to be faced with it… Because the region around Khe Sanh was virtually uninhabited, civilian casualties would be minimal. If Washington officials were so intent on ‘sending a message’ to Hanoi, surely small tactical nuclear weapons would be a way to tell Hanoi something, just as two atomic bombs had spoken convincingly to Japanese officials during World War II and the threat of atomic bombs induced the North Koreans to accept meaningful negotiations during the Korean War. It could be that use of a few small tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam – or even the threat of them – might have quickly brought the war there to an end. No one could say so with certainty, of course, but surely a detailed consideration of the possibility was warranted. Although I established a small secret group to study the subject, Washington so feared that some word of it might reach the press that I was told to desist. I felt at the time and even more so now that to fail to consider this alternative was a mistake.” 2

There is a consistent threat of the use of the nuclear option in the policies of the US general staff, in 1954, in 1968, in Afghanistan at one stage, and it now forms an essential part of the military doctrine of US imperialism today.

The vulnerability of the US was graphically shown in Khe Sanh, with the North Vietnamese using tanks supplied by Russia for the first time to overrun the perimeters of the Marines base. The hand-to-hand combat between US troops and the Vietnamese was broadcast throughout the length and breadth of the US on TV. As Maclear put it: “The six o’clock news has become the living-room war.” 3 Vietnam was the first war in which television played a key role. Because of its deleterious effect in shaping mass consciousness on the war and, therefore, on the interests of the ruling class, in future it went to great lengths to prevent a repetition. The British ruling class learnt from the ‘mistakes’ of its US counterpart. This was noted by Ben Bradlee. As the editor of the Washington Post, he had helped to expose the Watergate conspiracy. On a TV programme in August 1982, “he agreed that television could sway a nation, and that the British policy adopted in the Falklands’ War of not releasing television coverage of the battles probably prevented a softening of British public support for that war.”4 More recently, the same undemocratic suppression of unpalatable news was carried out by the US and British military with the system of ‘embedded journalists’ during the Iraq War. Today, in the world of the internet, it is virtually impossible to prevent the truth about a war ultimately emerging. However, in the short term, ‘management of the news’ is a powerful weapon in shaping public opinion. Witness the way that the Bush regime managed to convince the majority of the US population that Saddam and Iraq were instigators with al-Qaeda in the bombing of the Twin Towers.

Following the Vietnam War, Johnson himself regretted not resorting to what would have been dictatorial methods in the US over TV coverage of the Vietnam War. Westmoreland related Johnson’s views, after he visited him: “Early in the war he should have imposed press censorship, no matter how complex the problems that might have generated.” Others, such as General Maxwell Taylor also implied that “some form of press and TV censorship should be imposed within the United States as well as in an overseas combat area.”5

Prelude to Tet

Khe Sanh was besieged for ten days before the Tet Offensive began and its agony was played out alongside this catastrophe. The North Vietnamese generals conceived Khe Sanh as a massive diversionary tactic from the main goal. The aim was to take the guerrilla struggle from the countryside into the towns, and stage simultaneous uprisings in the urban areas. Something similar had happened in 1945. But as explained earlier, the guerrilla struggle was based largely on the peasantry, whereas the urban population, particularly the working class – at least in the big cities, more removed from the influence of the agricultural areas – had a different consciousness. The North Vietnamese regime, which by the time of the Tet Offensive had been in power for twelve years, was the NLF guerrillas’ model for the kind of society they would construct in the South. However, the working class was not the dominant ruling political power in the North, nor did democratic organisations, like soviets in the early part of the Russian Revolution, exist as organs of this power. Therefore, the South Vietnamese working class, in the main, was not attracted to this model.

Nevertheless, given the sense of national humiliation which existed at the growing US occupation, the hatred for the acolytes of US imperialism and the fact that the urban population was connected to the villages, through family, etc, the guerrillas undoubtedly met with a sympathetic attitude from significant sections of the urban population. At the same time, amongst the guerrilla leadership, as with some of the leadership in the North, there was incredible naivety about the ability of the NLF to militarily defeat US imperialism at this stage. The idea of ‘one big push’ as being sufficient to topple the rotten regime in the South, reckoned still without the unprecedented military machine of US imperialism which had been amassed in Vietnam.

Co-ordinated uprising

In the Tet Offensive the US was ultimately ‘militarily successful’, in the sense that the guerrillas did not hold the towns which they initially took. Nevertheless, it was a devastating psychological blow to the US, and effectively marked the beginning of the end of US and imperialist power in Vietnam. America’s ‘venerable newscaster’ Walter Cronkite commented in the middle of the battle: “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning this war.” 6 The Tet Offensive – a co-ordinated uprising in 100 cities throughout the country – was at one and the same time a military defeat for the NLF and a crushing blow to US imperialism, from which it never really recovered. It would take a further seven years of agony for the Vietnamese people and US troops and their families before the US was to pull out, but as the greatest chronicler of the Vietnam War, Michael Maclear, commented: “The impact of that moment was the beginning of the end of American involvement in Vietnam, but like the slow rise and retreat of an Asian typhoon, the extrication from the ruins would last longer than the storm, the casualties still mounting while the fury lingered.”7

As George Brown, British Foreign Secretary and deputy leader of the Labour Party in the 1960s, commented once: “No privileged group disappears from the scene of history without a struggle and usually that’s with no holds barred.” The US, which was peddling the myth on the eve of the Tet Offensive that the war was almost won, was absolutely stunned initially by the ferocity of the guerrillas’ onslaught. An estimated 4,000 guerrillas barricaded themselves in the central, heavily populated areas of Saigon, as others attacked the main airport. The military headquarters and the presidential palace, as well as the US embassy, came under fire. The fact that the guerrillas had penetrated into the very heart of US power, the US embassy in Saigon, had an electrifying effect throughout the world and particularly in the US itself.

Some accounts of the battle for Saigon maintain that the NLF forces could have delivered an even greater blow to the US forces and particularly its high command. Many generals and colonels lived in twos and threes in individual houses widely scattered about Saigon. Protection was minimal with ‘watchmen’ who

“lethargically hung around the billets of the other generals and colonels… All of these ‘watchmen’ disappeared at sundown on the evening of 30 January, a sure harbinger of a Viet Cong attack against Saigon. A small Viet Cong sapper unit could have killed or captured the senior officers, from Westmoreland on down, with relatively few losses. By so doing Giap could have gained not only a major propaganda victory but at the same time could have paralysed [US command headquarters] MACV’s reaction to the Communist attacks until senior officers and their subordinate commands could have come to Saigon to take over.” 8

US intelligence later established that Viet Cong terrorist groups in Saigon not only knew where every general lived, but how he was ‘guarded’. The hesitation in delivering this savage blow to the US was probably motivated by a fear on the part of the NLF commanders of the even more furious reaction from the US side this would have provoked.

“Destroy it to save it”

At the siege of Khe Sanh before Tet had begun, Walter Cronkite – “the most trusted man in America” who, up to then, had supported the Johnson administration – in a rare personal report, called the war “a stalemate” and said that negotiations were the way out. Johnson reputedly said to his press secretary: “If I’ve lost Walter, I’ve lost Mr Average Citizen.” 9 Some 80,000 Vietnamese troops were committed to the first wave of attacks during the Tet Offensive, the great majority of them Southern guerrillas who knew every urban street. Within a day US forces were in action, sometimes fighting block by block in parts of Saigon. US fighter planes were called in to bomb and strafe guerrillas located in densely-populated areas. Nearby towns, believed to be occupied by guerrilla forces, were levelled. After this happened in one town, Ben Tre, an American officer stated: “We had to destroy it to save it.”10

Soon, US representatives, led by Johnson and Westmoreland, were claiming a quick and easy victory. But these claims were totally undermined by the character of the struggle which ensued. For instance, in Hué the battle lasted for almost a month. This was the second largest city in South Vietnam and a symbolic cultural and religious centre. The Viet Cong had assembled 5,000 men who were reinforced by an equivalent number soon after. Within 24 hours they had seized most of the city. Forced to fight street by street, Hué was “devastated”, in the words of one American commanding officer.

“The Vietnamese ‘small wooden’ homes had been ‘completely blown away’; the business district was ‘rubble all over.’” This observer stated: “I can’t really describe how devastated it was… it’d really been destroyed.”11

In Hué alone 5,800 civilians died, ten times the combined American and South Vietnamese troop losses.

Overall the US claimed that there were ‘37,000 enemy dead’ but the Tet Offensive had also cost the lives of 2,500 Americans troops and left half a million refugees in its wake. A colossal debate now took place at every level of US society, with an open questioning as to how such an offensive could be launched, in alleged US strongholds in the urban areas, and with half a million troops present in the country to prevent such a situation. The guerrillas had also suffered a defeat, which meant that, in some areas, they never recovered fully until the US was eventually evicted. They dragged their wounded and scattered forces into the countryside, over the border and into Laos. Nevertheless, the Tet Offensive had a dramatic effect, giving a fillip to anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist forces worldwide.

1968 – Debates on the Left

The mass left student movement, in particular, was given a boost. However, some of the leaders of this movement, who were influenced by the ideas of the Trotskyists in the ‘United Secretariat of the Fourth International’ (USFI) in Britain, France and Germany, drew entirely the wrong conclusions from the experience of the guerrillas in Vietnam and how this could be applied to the struggles of workers and youth in the industrialised countries. The policies of the USFI in general looked towards the colonial world, guerrilla struggles in particular, as the new, ‘modern’ methods of struggle which should be picked up by socialists and Marxists. In effect, they had totally discounted the fighting capacity, the revolutionary potential, of the working class in Europe, the USA and Japan, in the ‘metropolitan’ centres of world capitalism. They were therefore unprepared for the earth-shaking events which were about to take place in Europe, where the role of the working class would be dramatically underlined.

This was shown in a meeting which took place in Caxton Hall, London, in April 1968, addressed by the leaders of the USFI, prominent amongst them Pierre Frank, the secretary of the USFI, its leading theoretician Ernest Mandel from Belgium and Livio Maitan from Italy. The representatives of Militant gave support to the struggles in the colonial world, including guerrilla movements. At the same time, we emphasised the role of the working class as the main agency for socialist change worldwide. This was met with derision from the platform. Mandel commented that, “Nothing would happen in Europe, the working class would not move, so long as the US dollar remained permanent, stable, and that was likely to be the case for the next few decades”. He also claimed that, “Vietnam was the October Revolution of today” in its international effects.

Therefore, the expectation of mass working class struggle in Europe was downplayed, to say the least, in favour of the heroic struggle of the peasantry in the colonial world. One month later, ten million workers in France came out in the greatest general strike in history and occupied the factories for almost a month. Power was within their grasp and, with it, the beginning of socialism throughout Europe and the world, but for the perfidious role played by the leaders of the ‘Communist’ Party and the French Socialist Party at that stage, which was a bourgeois workers’ party.

No less important were the events which would soon transpire in Italy in the so-called ‘hot autumn’ of 1969, when Italian workers found themselves in a similar position to their French counterparts. These events ushered in a period of almost ten years of unparalleled mass movements and convulsions, in which the working class showed its decisive power. Paul Ginsborg, a noted historian on Italy, wrote later about the events:

“There followed a most extraordinary period of social ferment, the high season of collective action in the history of the Republic. During it the organisation of Italian society was challenged at nearly every level. No single moment in Italy equalled in intensity and in revolutionary potential the events of May 1968 in France, but the Italian protest movement was the most profound and long-lasting in Europe. It spread from the schools and universities into the factories, and then out again into society as a whole.” 12

These events struck terror in the ranks of the Italian ruling class:

“Symptomatic of the climate of the time was the confession, many years later, of one of the principal stockbrokers of the Milan Stock Exchange, Aldo Ravelli, a man not given to easy panic; ‘Those were the years in which – I am telling you to give you some idea of the atmosphere at that time – I tested how long it would take me to escape to Switzerland. I set out from my house in Varese and got to the frontier on foot.’ Ravelli never had to make the walk in earnest.” 13

The main reason why Ravelli did not have to seriously ‘walk the walk’ was because the leaders of the mass organisations of the Italian working class in effect saved capitalism. They refused to base themselves on the colossal movement which was driving in the direction of overthrowing capitalism and establishing a socialist Italy.

The peasantry and the working class

The social role of different classes from amongst the ‘people’, particularly the peasantry, was a closed book to the USFI and other left grouplets at this stage. They continued to hail the Vietnamese Revolution and had a completely uncritical approach to the leadership of this struggle. Wilfred Burchett, a radical journalist and fellow-traveller of the Stalinists, in his book, The Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist, provides an insight into the political character of Ho Chi Minh and, thereby, the leadership of the NLF which was fighting the guerrilla war in the South. On a visit to the former states of Indochina he had talks with Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. He comments: “I found Ho Chi Minh deeply distressed at the increasing hostility between the Soviet Union and China and at the violence of Khrushchev’s attacks against Stalin and the Albanian Communist leadership at the Soviet’s twenty-second Party Congress in October of the previous year [1961].” At this time Albania, under the unspeakable dictator Enver Hoxha, was a “touchstone of loyalty to the Soviet or Chinese party leadership”; the Vietnamese, led by Ho Chi Minh, were performing a balancing act between the “two Communist giants” in order to shore up its position in the struggle against the US. Ho Chi Minh resented “the surrogate role allotted to Albania”. He commented to Burchett:

“I am very angry at the attacks against Albania… I am also angry at the nature of the Albanian attacks against the Soviet leadership after the congress.” Burchett also comments that Ho Chi Minh revealed, “He had written to Khrushchev, making three points: Stalin belonged to the international Communist movement, as well as to the Soviet Union, and his image should not have been destroyed without consultations with other fraternal parties; Albania must still be considered part of the socialist bloc”.14

Ho Chi Minh well understood the character of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, having been based in Russia at one stage, working as a functionary of the so-called ‘Communist’ International controlled by Stalin and his supporters. Despite the liturgy of crimes of Stalin – personally and by his regime – which had been spelt out by Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, Ho Chi Minh still extolled Stalin’s virtues. This is not at all accidental, as his own regime was modelled on that of Stalinism – the elements of a planned economy but with state power and political control exercised by a bureaucratic elite through the ‘Communist’ Party. Trotskyists opposed Stalinist totalitarianism and called for workers’ democracy. To clearly recognise the political character of North Vietnam did not in any way diminish the effect of campaigning for the victory of the Vietnamese Revolution and specifically around the slogan: “Withdraw all US troops, let the Vietnamese decide.”

The Marxists-Trotskyists around Militant were to the fore, with many other groups on the left in this campaign but in no way did we act as political cheerleaders for Ho Chi Minh or the leadership of the NLF in the South. The Vietnamese Revolution, we said, would be enormously progressive when it finally evicted the US from the country. Isolated to one country, however, and a largely economically underdeveloped one at that, the political character of this regime could not be ‘socialist’ but would have many of the aspects of the regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The task of Marxists at all times is to seek to raise the overall level of understanding of the working class and this involves calling things by their right name. It is entirely wrong to dignify regimes which are a caricature of ‘socialism’ – which by its nature is democratic and liberating – with false labels.

Split in ruling class

The bloody events around the Tet Offensive ignited massive upheavals worldwide, but particularly within the US itself. An unprecedented questioning now developed within the ranks of not just the US ruling class but also within the Johnson presidency. McNamara, the proponent of ‘technological warfare’, now suffered a huge loss of confidence, virtually a nervous breakdown, at the terrible results flowing from his and US imperialism’s application of war ‘technology’. This Cold War warrior, “an international ballistic missile machine on legs”, an arrogant ‘automaton’, a man often condemned as a warmonger who applied the cool corporate efficiency he had learned running Ford to the Vietnam war, saw his will to fight the war “ebb away, bit by bit”. In reality, “Vietnam had defeated Robert Strange McNamara.” 15

He had obtained confirmation of a New Yorker report that there had been “tremendous destruction” of villages from “random artillery fire”. Navy Secretary Paul Nitze reported: “The results had been horrible” and, said Nitze, “McNamara felt this was ‘not the way to fight a war.’” He now considered that the military effort he had orchestrated for seven years was “futile and immoral”. McNamara was kicked upstairs to the World Bank, publicly revealing his inner torment when he replied to Johnson’s address after he was leaving with the words: “Mr President, I cannot find the words to express what lies in my heart today. And I think I’d better respond on another occasion.”16 Only recently, more than 25 years after the end of the Vietnam War has he broken his silence, in a documentary film, Fog of War. McNamara now claims:

“That like President Kennedy he wanted to pull American advisers out of South Vietnam and advised Lyndon B. Johnson to do so after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. But Johnson… overruled him and called [McNamara] defeatist.”

McNamara also claims that, “If Kennedy had lived he would have made a difference.” He also noted that, “Two or three times as many bombs were dropped during [Operation] Rolling Thunder than on Western Europe during the Second World War and warned [President] Bush not to repeat the ‘folly’ of Vietnam through ‘American involvement’ in Iraq.”17

A split now developed within the ranks of the US ruling class. The generals, led by Westmoreland, pressed for even greater military efforts to defeat the Viet Cong while others pressed for a ‘negotiated settlement’. This resulted in the sending of a further 10,000 troops to Vietnam. Clark Clifford, who was brought in by Johnson to replace the wobbly McNamara as Defense Secretary and was originally considered to be a ‘great hawk’, now became an even more determined ‘great dove’. Clifford did not just “change his mind – he reversed it 180 degrees”.18 He urged Johnson to get out of Vietnam right away. This was after he had taken soundings about the real situation in Vietnam and the US and had concluded that further military engagement was “a real loser”. By this time, US combat deaths in Vietnam were near to 19,000, with 115,000 wounded – 40% of the eventual overall toll. South Vietnamese deaths were 57,000 – one-fifth of what they would become.

Clifford, and also Johnson, were moving towards a negotiated settlement and withdrawal, because they were losing in Vietnam and also because of the political pressures which the administration was coming under in the US. Bolstered by the growing antiwar movement, Bobby Kennedy announced in March 1968 he was going to try to challenge Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency. The day after Kennedy announced his decision, 139 members of the House of Representatives – including 41 Democrats – passed a resolution calling for an immediate review by Congress of US war policy. At the same time, the US military was clamouring for a massive increase in troop deployment, with Westmoreland suggesting an extra 206,000 troops should be sent to Vietnam. The main advice Johnson received was that he should not increase the number of troops but at the same time he should not negotiate. Caught on the horns of a dilemma, besieged in Vietnam and also in his own backyard, Johnson soon announced that he would not stand again for the presidency. The Tet Offensive had gained a huge scalp, Johnson’s, and had changed forever the course of the war.

But the greatest pressure for a US withdrawal came not from the summits of US society, Congress, but from the grassroots, the mass million-fold movement that was demanding an end to the war.