Fifty years ago this week Vietnamese liberation forces showed the world that it was possible to resist the horrors of US imperialism.
Their Tet Offensive, launched on 31 January, was a turning point in the Vietnam War.
And it kickstarted 1968, a watershed year that saw resistance to war and oppression across the globe.
The Vietnamese had forced their French colonial rulers out of the country in 1955.
But “peace talks” partitioned the country between communist North Vietnam and the US puppet regime in South Vietnam.
The National Liberation Front (NLF), dubbed the Viet Cong, fought on against the brutal US occupation.
Vietnamese New Year on 31 January, known as Tet, traditionally marked an unofficial 36-hour ceasefire.
But by 1968 the Viet Cong had built up enough strength to launch a major offensive against the US.
Along with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), they attacked US military installations across South Vietnam.
In the capital Saigon, Viet Cong fighters blasted a hole into a US embassy compound and stepped foot on their occupiers’ soil.
It was the moment US power was exposed as fallible. For months the US ruling class had sold the lie that there was “light at the end of the tunnel” in the Vietnam War.
Invitations to the New Year’s Eve party at the US embassy in Saigon carried that same message.
Sam Oglesby, an agent for the US International Development Agency during the war, described the US military’s arrogance.
He filed a report about widespread Communist infiltration in South Vietnam after accompanying a French colonist to a rubber plantation near Saigon.
“The American intelligence team scorned any effort to provide real information as ‘tainted’ and ‘French’,” Oglesby wrote.
They were “barricaded in their compound with the noise of ear-splitting generators blocking them from the real world outside and fed fabricated ‘intelligence’ by paid informers”.
The US Army leadership was largely oblivious to NLF and NVA forces secretly encircling Southern cities.
A broadcast by North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh on 1 January had given the signal for tens of thousands of NVA troops to sneak across the border. Le Van Cho, an NVA soldier, remembered, “To operate in the daytime we had to look like civilians, so we pretended to be farmers and puppet officials.
“We would dress up like women and put our AKs under our dresses.”
As Vietnamese forces amassed outside the cities, the NVA attacked Khe Sanh, the US’s westernmost base in South Vietnam. It was a diversion—and it worked.
The scale of the Tet Offensive a few days later was huge—36 of 44 provincial cities in South Vietnam were attacked, as well as major cities and US bases.
Vietnamese Communist Party general secretary Le Duan argued that resistance fighters should attack the cities. “They told us to get ready for a major attack on the cities,” said NVA fighter Nguyen Ngoc.
“A total attack and a total uprising. We were on the outskirts of the cities. We could go in and out easily so I thought we would be successful.”
Le Duan said the local population would rise up as they had in 1945 against the Japanese and the French.
And he also believed the South Vietnamese army, which worked with the US, would switch sides.
Unfortunately Le Duan was wrong on almost every count.
Despite the anger at the US occupation, with some exceptions, workers in the Southern cities did not rise up.
They faced brutal repression from the US and South Vietnamese dictatorship, and the Communists hadn’t organised among the working class in the cities.
Some of the heaviest fighting took place in the ancient city of Hue near the border.
After a 26-day battle, some 6,000 civilians were dead and 110,000 homes out of 130,000 were destroyed.
In Hue and Ben Tre, near Saigon, the Communists had been able to mobilise popular support for the offensive. They had built a base among peasants living in and around the cities.
But in Saigon itself the uprising was weakest. The working class, the vast majority of the city’s population, had not been won over.
Militarily the Tet Offensive was a decisive defeat for the resistance.
Of the estimated 84,000 soldiers that took part, over 58,000 are thought to have been killed, wounded or captured.
This devastated the NLF’s organisation on the ground.
But the Tet Offensive showed the heroism of the Vietnamese resistance—and that the US was not all powerful.
US war criminal Henry Kissinger said, “We fought a military war—our opponents fought a political one.
“In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war—the guerrilla wins if he does not lose, the conventional army loses if it does not win.”
The US had been waging a brutal war on Vietnam since 1955.
US soldiers burned villages and terrorised the peasant population.
And from 1962 it sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other chemicals onto Vietnam’s forests to deprive the NLF of cover.
Children with deformities are still being born today.
The Tet Offensive exposed the bloody reality of US imperialism.
Ben Tre was razed to the ground in the battle to push the resistance fighters back.
One US general was widely reported to have said, “We had to destroy the city in order to save it.”
And South Vietnamese police commander executed NLF officer Nguyen Van Lem on live television. “Many Americans begin to ask themselves ‘are we supporting the wrong side here?’” said US army adviser James Willbanks.
“It brings home to the dinner table the brutality of this war and the fact that it seems like it’s never going to end.”
No one believed the US ruling class’s lies that it was winning the war anymore.
US society became polarised. Senior White House staff looked at protests outside their offices to see their families taking part.
By 30 March 1968 a Gallup poll showed that 63 percent of people in the US disapproved of the way Democratic president Lyndon Johnson had handled the war.
Another poll showed just 35 percent of people approved of the war.
Johnson said he would not stand for re-election.
Marxist author Chris Harman argued, “Tet represented the turning point in the war because it persuaded key sections of big business that the US simply could not afford the cost of maintaining control of the country.”
The crisis for US capitalism unfolded on an international scale.
As Kissinger argued, “A demonstration of American impotence in Asia cannot fail to lessen the credibility of American pledges in other fields. We are no longer fighting in Vietnam only for the Vietnamese, we are also fighting for ourselves and for international stability.”
In truth, the US was never in Vietnam “for the Vietnamese”.
As Kissinger alludes to, it was there largely to limit China’s ability to export its brand of “communism” throughout Asia.
The US was desperate for an end to the war, but it did not want to be seen to surrender.
It started peace negotiations in 1968, but troops would stay in Vietnam for another five years.
Republican Richard Nixon, Johnson’s predecessor, tried to continue the war after he won the presidency by promising peace.
The liberal US journalist Theodore White wrote about the impact of the Tet Offensive on the US. “Here, enshrined like myth, in January 1968, was the visible symbol of American faith.
“That the power of the United States can be curbed by no one, that the instruments of American government need but the will to act and it is done.
“In 1968 this faith was shattered.
“The myth of American power broken, the confidence of the American people in their government, their institutions, their leadership, shaken as never before since 1860.”
That was down to a badly-armed peasant army fighting the world’s greatest military power.
Their courage sparked a remarkable year of resistance that would shape history to this day.
by Jonathan Neale, £7.00
The Fire Last Time—1968 and After
by Chris Harman, £9.95
Both available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848
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