This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
On 30 January 1968 the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the People’s Army of Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive against US and allied troops in South Vietnam. On the 50th anniversary of this key stage in that war, we print edited extracts from ‘Empire Defeated: Vietnam War, the lessons for today’ by Peter Taaffe.
A massive military offensive was first launched against the US by the NLF on 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. Undoubtedly, the Vietnamese had calibrated their attack to coincide with the beginning of an election year in the US.
The battle was linked to, and a prelude to, the much more intense and vital events around the Tet Offensive launched on 30 January 1968.
When it began, Khe Sanh, which was part of and merged into this general battle, produced great consternation in the US. General William Westmoreland, overall commander of the US forces, 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 imminent defeat.
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. The hand-to-hand combat between US troops and the Vietnamese was broadcast throughout the length and breadth of the US on TV.
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.
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.
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. But 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 12 years, was the NLF guerrillas’ model for the kind of society they would construct in the south.
However, the working class was not directly the dominant ruling political power in the north, nor did democratic organisations, like the 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, the guerrillas undoubtedly met with a sympathetic attitude from significant sections of the urban population.
The Tet Offensive was not ‘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.
Blow to imperialism
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.”
The Tet Offensive – a coordinated 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.
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.
At the siege of Khe Sanh before Tet had begun, Cronkite 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.”
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.”
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. Forced to fight street by street, the town 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.'” 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. Nevertheless, the Tet Offensive had a dramatic effect, giving a fillip to anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist forces worldwide.
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. 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.
Bolstered by the growing anti-war 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.
Debates on the left
The mass left student movement, in particular, was given a boost by the Tet Offensive. However, some of the leaders of this movement 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.
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.
Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party) 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.
We argued these points, for example, at a meeting in Caxton Hall, London, in April 1968 organised by the ‘United Secretariat of the Fourth International’ (USFI).
Just a few months after Tet, ten million workers in France came out in the greatest general strike in history and occupied the factories for almost a month.
Ho Chi Minh’s regime was modelled on that of Stalinism – elements of a planned economy but with state power and political control exercised by a bureaucratic elite through the ‘Communist’ Party.
We 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 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.