The Significance of the Tet Offensive

Fifty years ago the world received a lesson in the revolutionary power of protracted people’s war when some 84,000 Vietnamese communist peasants stunned the world’s greatest military power, the United States, with an astounding offensive considered impossible by America’s Army generals who had only weeks before declared the communist revolutionaries of South Vietnam essentially defeated.

This amazingly shocking assault was the Tet Offensive of January-February 1968. It was so powerful in its execution and effects that it became the crucial event of America’s Vietnam War. No history of that war can be complete without an analysis of this offensive. The significance of Tet was that it compelled the American leadership to make the decision to quit Vietnam; it was thus the pivot point in the war. Often described as a military loss for the communist forces, it was nonetheless a political loss for the Americans and their Saigon client regime – a loss so great that the United States eventually began a process of gradual, yet brutally violent, disengagement. The study of how that definitive decision to disengage came to be and how it was subsequently interpreted after the war offers important lessons regarding the contradictions of the war exposed by Tet – contradictions involving the imperatives of international finance, the exercise of political power, the dishonesty and incompetence of military leadership, the erosion of America’s moral legitimacy at home and abroad, the reemergence of communist politics within the United States, the dramatic upsurge in leftist resistance globally, and the rewriting of history to hide the failures of the American military.

What was the Tet Offensive? It was the first of three offensives in 1968 in which the communist forces of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in coordination with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attempted to take over cities and towns throughout South Vietnam in hopes of causing a collapse of the South Vietnamese government. Tet was the largest of the three offensives and was the one that had the most damaging effect against the United States and its Saigon protégés. Beginning January 30 and 31 the NLF attacked 5 of 6 major cities including Saigon, 35 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 of 242 district seats, and more than 50 hamlets for a total of 166 targets throughout South Vietnam (Prados, 2009: 239). In this first assault alone, much of the countryside – and thus the rural pacification program–was lost to the communists as the Saigon regime pulled back 8,000 troops to defend towns and cities. On May 4 a second offensive lasting into early June began with attacks on 119 cities, towns and bases. Because the American military had claimed that the first offensive resulted in losses so great for the communist forces that they were “on the ropes” without major offensive capability, the second offensive’s rather substantial nature could not be acknowledged – doing so would be an admission of continuing communist strength. The U.S. military therefore referred to the second offensive as “mini-Tet.” On August 17 a third set of attacks began with fighting continuing for six weeks (Young, 1991: 221-222). All in all, the Tet Offensive of late January 1968 kicked off a series of communist offensives over a period of eighteen months inflicting relatively high American losses.

As Edwin Moïse has pointed out in his recent book, The Myths of Tet, although the U.S. military claimed that the first Tet offensive was disaster for the National Liberation Front army (the “Viet Cong”) and its political and administrative organizations (the Viet Cong “infrastructure”) because many of their guerrillas and cadre had been killed or wounded presumably rendering them impotent, the NLF actually did play a large role in the second and third offensives of 1968 and were certainly involved in the January and May offensives of 1969. Tet of January-February 1968 was, thus, not a one-time event resulting in a crippling defeat of the communists but was the beginning of a series of offensives stretched out over a year and half that consistently inflicted major losses on American troops. As Moïse has observed: “The number of Americans killed in action was above 1,000 in twelve of those eighteen months; it had been above 1,000 in only a single month before January 1968” (Moïse, 2017:150). Tet increased the burden of the war for the Americans and, after eighteen months of heavy fighting, President Nixon announced, in June 1969, a major change in war strategy: Vietnamization. The burden of fighting the communist forces would be shifted to the South Vietnamese army. In August 1969 the first U.S. troop withdrawals began.

To appreciate the achievements of these audacious assaults it is necessary to understand how the war had been fought, how the American military publicly presented its progress through 1967, and how the domestic and international political and economic contexts of 1967 and early 1968 affected the judgment of the American ruling class.

War Strategies: American and Communist

In 1965 the Americans abandoned their prior policy of advising and aiding the South Vietnamese government (itself a creation of the United States in 1955) in its effort to defeat the NLF-led peasant rebellion that began in 1960. With much of the country held by the rebels, with an incompetent South Vietnamese army (ARVN) led by officers more into corruption and comfort than combat, and with a Saigon regime lacking popular support, the Americans decided to take over the war of counterinsurgency themselves. Eventually they amassed an army of more than 500,000 men. They controlled the air and the sea and would, by war’s end, spray 19 million gallons of toxic defoliants on six million acres in South Vietnam, and drop 7.5 million tons of bombs including 400,000 tons of napalm as they relentlessly pounded South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos from the air.

The American strategy as enunciated by U.S. commander General William Westmoreland was to fight a war of attrition that killed enemy forces faster than they could replace themselves. At some juncture a “cross-over point” would be reached in which the communist forces could no longer sustain effective combat operations. At that point the Americans would begin a phase of “mopping up” the remnants of the enemy’s units. This war of counterinsurgency was a war of tabulated killing – mainly through the use of massive firepower. Because the Americans counted the dead and measured casualties against their estimate of the enemy’s order of battle (i.e. the number of communist combat forces), they could calculate when they hit the cross-over point.

The communist forces, in contrast, adopted a strategy of fighting a protracted people’s war in which both moral commitment and time would be decisive factors. With the Saigon regime supporting a landlord class that lived off the exploitation of the peasant farmers, the communists, as champions of a social revolution of land redistribution, could count on the commitment of a majority of the peasantry to support the armed struggle. With the Americans thousands of miles away from home fighting a war with an army of conscripts that required an expensive logistical system, the communists, as native Vietnamese, knew they had the home court advantage of time. The Americans could not stay forever in Vietnam; sooner or later the costs in blood and treasure would necessitate a retreat from Southeast Asia. The guerrilla forces could win the war by not losing.

President Johnson’s concern: Vietnam and the upcoming presidential election of 1968

After more than two years of fighting, American citizens wanted to know how much the war had progressed. The question of the war’s progress became pressing for President Lyndon Johnson because it was posed, on the cusp of an election year, in the political context of a growing antiwar movement and numerous black uprisings and in the economic context of inflation, forced overtime, and speedup causing an uptick in wildcat strikes within the manufacturing sector. Therefore, in late autumn 1967, Johnson brought field commander Westmoreland back to the States to reassure the public.

Thus it happened that, on November 21, 1967, General William Westmoreland addressed the National Press Club claiming, in so many words, that the cross-over point had been reached and that it would not be long before U.S. forces began the process of mopping up the last of the communist forces. Such good news communicated by a confidant commander calmed many and buoyed Johnson’s outlook. There was, however, a problem with Westmoreland’s analysis: he was wrong, very wrong.

From the beginning of the NLF rebellion in South Vietnam in December 1960 the war had been fought in the rural areas. The urban enclaves were relatively secure under the protection of ARVN and the Americans. In this war, the countryside was the front, the cities and towns the rear. The Tet Offensive reversed this pattern by taking the war to more than 150 cities, towns, and hamlets and did so with communist cadre who, according to Westmoreland, did not exist. In less than five months most of the countryside was lost to the NLF, the rural pacification program was crippled, and the 1.4 million U.S., ARVN, and token allied troops were trapped in defensive positions around the cities and towns and their bases.

General Westmoreland was so shaken by the breadth and depth of Tet that he considered using nuclear weapons in South Vietnam. According to Edwin Moïse, “He had officers both at MACV and in I Corps working until February 12 on plans for such use under the code name ‘Fracture Jaw’ ” (Moise, 2017: 191).

The ability to infiltrate into the cities 84,000 cadre, their weapons, and ammunition over a period of several weeks in preparation for the uprising without discovery by the security apparatus could only take place with a high degree of commitment and coordination on the part of many people. In other words, Tet revealed two important facts: first, the cross-over point had not been reached and, second, the guerrilla fighters had tremendous popular support. This revelation stunned the Johnson administration; the president soon demanded a high level in-depth review of the war from an assemblage of trusted advisors.

As the historian Gabriel Kolko observed, the purpose of Tet was to show that the U.S. could not secure the urban areas of South Vietnam and would thus have to expend greater costs to defeat the NLF and the NVA. These greater political and economic costs for the U.S. would be unacceptable; Tet therefore indicated the impossibility of a U.S. victory. The U.S. was forced into a process of retreat.

Contradictions exposed

Tet forced the American ruling class to confront a body of contradictions arising from the war that hitherto had been ignored or glossed over. Six are notable.

1) The MACV Order of Battle deception versus the Tet Offensive reality

The first contradiction emerging from Tet was the discrepancy between the military’s own assessment of enemy strength (the order of battle estimate) and the realities of the battlefield. The U.S. armed forces in Vietnam were designated the Military Assistance Command Vietnam or “MACV” for short. Headed by Army General William Westmoreland, MACV engaged in compiling deliberately erroneous estimates of the enemy order of battle to fit the war into a politically acceptable framework. These fabricated estimates allowed Westmoreland to claim in late 1967 that the communists had suffered such great losses that the U.S. was definitively winning the war. Westmoreland actually had made this claim earlier when he told President Johnson privately in April 1967 that the cross-over point had been reached (Prados, 2009: 186). Tet exposed his deception.

There was thus a politically damning chasm between Westmoreland’s claim that the cross-over point had been reached in late 1967 and the reality of the offensive itself in early 1968. If enemy forces had been substantially diminished as claimed, where did the guerrilla forces come from? If the cross-over point had been reached, Tet was impossible – yet it happened. Tet destroyed Westmoreland’s credibility as field commander and, in doing so, destroyed the credibility of his sponsor, President Lyndon Johnson. There was also the contradiction between Westmoreland’s claim the Tet was a major defeat for the communists and his subsequent demand for 206,000 more troops. If the enemy was defeated, why would he need 206,000 more Americans in Vietnam? His request was denied and he was relieved of his command with a promotion.

And then there was the telling exchange at a Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) post-Tet briefing before the Senior Informal Advisory Group (the “Wise Men”) when a military briefing officer, General William E. DePuy, was questioned by the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Arthur Goldberg, about the communist order of battle. It was a moment revealing the confusion of the military at the highest level after three years of combat in Vietnam. It’s been recounted before in other histories but is worth repeating here.

“The briefing began with the military officer saying that the others side had suffered 45,000 deaths during the TET offensive…. ‘What,’ asked Goldberg, ‘was the enemy strength as of February 1, when TET started?’

‘Between 160,000 and 175,000,’ the briefer answered.

‘What is their wounded-to-killed ratio?’ Goldberg asked.

‘We use a figure of three and a half to one,’ the officer said.

‘Well, if that’s true, then they have no effective forces left in the field,’ Goldberg said.

What followed was a very long and devastating silence.” (Joseph, 1981: 268)

[NOTE: The account in John Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (2009: 249) uses different figures: Communist dead at 80,000, wounded-to-killed ratio: 3 to 1, total enemy casualties of 320,000 and an enemy order of battle in the range of 230,000 to 240,000. Goldberg’s conclusion, while still the same in its point, is worded differently: “Who the hell is there left for us to be fighting?”]

That the JCS and MACV came out looking so badly in this exchange was the their own fault. MACV had forced its own intelligence analysts to minimize the enemy order of battle. It had exerted tremendous and regrettably successful efforts to repress the more accurate CIA estimate of the enemy order of

battle at interagency conferences in 1967. For the military the problem with the CIA estimate of approximately 500,000 armed enemy forces was that it made the Vietnam War untenable for the U.S. given the limitations on the number of American troops that could be deployed and the time it would take to achieve victory. An estimate just below 300,000, however, made the war feasible in terms of costs and timetable. By foisting a misleading number of enemy strength upon the American people, MACV exposed itself (and the civilian leadership that backed it) to a massive erosion of trust when the Tet offensive hit.

In addition to politically motivated duplicity regarding the communist order of battle, MACV estimates of enemy strength, assessments of pacification efforts, analyses of battles fought, and forecasts of enemy strategies and tactics were marked by bureaucratically induced incompetence. “With more than ten thousand officers and civilians employed in intelligence work in South Vietnam, the sheer amount of information left MACV little time for properly evaluating, responding to, or disseminating warnings” [of a communist offensive in 1968]. (Daddis, 2011:138) As admirably analyzed by Gregory Daddis in his book, No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War, by measuring everything MACV, in a sense, measured nothing (Daddis, 2011:10). The production of data and the comprehension of data were inversely related. The incompetence and duplicity of both the civilian and military leadership revealed by Tet widened the credibility gap into a chasm that could not be collapsed.

2) The alleged importance of the war versus the lack of U.S. allies

A second contradiction facing the U.S. leadership was that, although it presented the Vietnam War as a necessary defense of the “Free World” against communist aggression, the United States had no significant allies supporting its war although the Johnson administration claimed that thirty-one countries were assisting the war effort. The Germans sent only a hospital ship with a team of doctors. Neither the British nor the French were interested in making any substantial effort to show support for the Americans. Research by Senator William Fulbright revealed that about half of America’s thirty-one allies “had each contributed services or materials amounting to $26,000 or less over a two-year period” (Hoopes, 1969:169). Compared to the U.S. expenditure of $2.5 billion per month, the cumulative contribution of “allies” was negligible. The U.S. was able to get small commitments from South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand only by paying for the costs of any personnel they sent to South Vietnam. Japan merely dispatched a small team of medical staff to Saigon and limited further aid to $1.5 million “in the form of medicines, prefabricated buildings, twenty-five ambulances, and 20,000 radios” (Fredrik Lovegall, “America Isolated,” in Daum, Gardner, and Mausbach, 2003:189)

Assistance from Australia and New Zealand was minimal – especially when compared to their efforts against Japanese aggression in WWII. In the 1940s Australia sent almost 682,000 men to war while New Zealand sent 157,000. Yet, with Vietnam supposedly a battleground to halt Soviet and Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia, Australia contributed only about 8,500 men while New Zealand mustered up a mere 450. When Clark Clifford, Robert McNamara’s future replacement as Secretary of Defense, undertook a tour of South Asian capitals in 1967, he found no Asian leaders much concerned about the possibility of a communist victory in Vietnam. This reality certainly influenced his thinking a few months later when he participated in the A-to-Z review of the overall strategic significance of Vietnam. (Hoopes, 1969:167-171).

The absence of allied enthusiasm for an American war in Vietnam was one of the factors prompting the American leadership to enter the conflict with “graduated pressure” – a slow buildup of military escalation that would not panic allies and push them into the openly antiwar position of France (Lovegall, “America Isolated,” in Daum, Gardner, and Mausbach, 2003: 193-194). The absence of allied enthusiasm also reveals the duplicity of the Johnson administration, its Congressional supporters, and hawkish media pundits who all were adamant that, if the United States did not go to war in Vietnam, its credibility among its allies would be severely, perhaps irreparably, damaged when, in fact, the opposite was the case.

3) The needs of the war versus the needs of maintaining the empire

Another problem emerging at the time of Tet was the British announcement on January 16, 1968, that Britain was quitting its role as Mideast police power by removing its military forces in the Persian Gulf by the end of 1971. British disengagement would create a security gap in the Mideast – a gap that

was of great concern to the U.S. which viewed the politics of the Mideast through a Cold War lens.

The absence of a Western military presence could create a power vacuum permitting the expansion of Soviet influence. Caught up in a war without apparent end in Southeast Asia and with Americans themselves more and more unwilling – especially after Tet – to go to war abroad, the U.S. ruling class had no immediate way of replacing the British in the Mideast. America’s impotence was the reality behind the Nixon Doctrine of 1969 in which President Nixon declared that American Mideast interests would be protected by relying on local allies as exemplified by Washington’s new “two pillar” strategy of arming Iran and Saudi Arabia as its proxies and by solidifying its military relationship with Israel (Shlaim, 1994: 45, 60-63).

Another sign of America’s inability to secure the empire was its failure to prevent the North Korean seizure of an American intelligence-gathering vessel, the U.S.S. Pueblo, on January 23, 1968. It would take eleven months of negotiations to secure the release of the crew (but not the ship) from North Korean captivity on December 23, 1968.

Additionally, the war in Vietnam took experienced officers and soldiers away from U.S. NATO forces in Europe thus weakening the American position in Europe. The NATO alliance had already suffered when France, in 1966, withdrew 70,000 troops from NATO’s military structure and West Germany refused to increase its troop commitment beyond 400,000 men. Because of Vietnam, the United States could not immediately offset the losses to NATO resulting from the French and West German actions. Vietnam had become a distraction from America’s self-proclaimed responsibility to directly defend Europe; the broad needs of maintaining the empire globally could not be neglected for a territory in Southeast Asia smaller than California.

4) The cost of the war versus international financial stability

“Vietnam is a monetary albatross around America’s neck.” (Davidson and Weil, 1970: 216)

This paramount contradiction involved the financial effect of the war on the U.S. dollar which was the reserve currency for international trade. Unwilling to raise taxes to pay for the cost of the war, the Johnson administration printed more dollars. But the increase in the global supply of dollars threatened the value of the very currency that was the world’s reserve currency for international trade. The problem here was that the supply of dollars was elastic while the supply of gold was not. Printing more dollars could conceivably create a situation in which the worldwide supply of U.S. dollars exceeded the supply of gold necessary to redeem each dollar at a pre-set fixed rate of exchange thus making the dollars worth-less. Although U.S. financial leaders such as David Rockefeller and Douglas Dillon had warned as early as 1966 that the U.S. war in Vietnam should not upset the balance of payments, their warnings went unheeded until Tet forced the issue.

The war thus produced inflation eroding the value of the dollar. While inflation had averaged 1.3% annually from 1961 through 1965, in 1966 it jumped to 2.9%. Although the first six months of 1967 saw inflation decline to 2.3%, in the last six months it vaulted to 3.8% and in the first four months of 1968 ran at 4.4%. As Joyce Kolko summarized the period: “…between 1965 and 1969 the dollar lost 19 percent of its value.” (Joyce Kolko, 1974:5) Domestically the result was an upsurge in wildcat strikes among workers and episodic ghetto uprisings. Internationally the problem was potentially much worse.

The value of the dollar was pegged to the value of gold at a fixed rate of exchange; the values of foreign currencies were tied to the dollar. The possibility of dollar devaluation through an American increase in the price of gold caused several foreign banks holding reserves in dollars to exchange their dollars for Fort Knox gold. This produced, in March of 1968, what Time magazine called “the largest gold rush in history” with almost $2 billion in gold bullion withdrawn from Fort Knox. And, in the same month, “European bankers refused to accept American travelers checks.” (Joseph, 1981: 264) The run on gold was a powerful warning to the U.S. capitalist class that its leadership position in global finance and trade was eroding as foreign countries lost confidence in America’s ability to keep the dollar strong.

Without a strong dollar as an accepted reserve currency for global trade there could possibly be a contraction of liquidity and the adoption of restrictive economic policies among nations with a consequent decline of international trade provoking, in turn, a deflationary period and crash not unlike the Great Depression of the 1930s. This was theconcern on Wall Street and in the White House. Its gravitas was expressed in a quote from Doris Kearns, LBJ’s confidante and biographer, concerning Johnson’s preoccupation with the dollar crisis: “The spector of 1929 haunted him daily.” (quoted in Kolko, 1986: 314; emphasis added)

As Gabriel Kolko himself wrote, “The gold and dollar crisis colored all of Washington’s thoughts on responses to the precarious military situation in South Vietnam.” (Kolko, 1986: 314) Vietnam hoisted the U.S. on its own financial petard and the Tet Offensive made clear that the crisis must be solved.

By early 1968 Townsend Hoopes, the Under-Secretary of the Air Force, had calculated that the war would cost $25 billion for 1968 alone and that figure itself was nearly equivalent to the projected budget deficit for that same year. Vietnam was thus directly implicated in the dollar-gold crisis. Hoopes gave his estimate of the war’s cost to Clark Clifford on March 14 as Clifford was conducting his review of U.S. war policy in Indochina.

The route to restore confidence in U.S. financial leadership was, of course, to reduce the balance-of-payments deficit and curb inflation. Doing so required reining in the cost of the Vietnam War. This meant that, rather than give Westmoreland his 206,000 extra troops and expand the war, the U.S. would instead craft a program of disengagement. The danger of wrecking the system of international finance was more ominous than the danger of losing South Vietnam to the communists.

Tet and the concomitant dollar-gold crisis compelled the American leadership to realize that the United States could not afford both “guns and butter,” war and welfare, at the same time in spite of its wealth. Furthermore, western European economies such as France and Germany had become powerful rivals with the ability to apply pressure on the United States if they chose to do so. The dollar-gold crisis of 1968 followed by Richard Nixon’s 1971 abandonment of the gold standard with a devaluation of the dollar led the Germans and the French to press ahead in creating an alternative currency. That effort would eventuate in the creation of the Euro. U.S. financial hegemony was meeting its limits.

5) Government policy versus popular resistance

Another massive contradiction exacerbated by the continuation of the war was the opposition between the will of the administration to prosecute the war and the will of many people – civilian and military – to resist it. More war meant more resistance and Tet boosted the resistance. This resistance was exemplified in a number of ways: draft refusal, troop desertion, flight from the country (mainly to Canada), actual attacks on draft boards to destroy the government’s conscription files, and, within the armed forces, sabotage of equipment, protests, publication of antiwar literature, search and evade maneuvers, disobedience to orders, and assassinations of military officers within Vietnam. To get an idea of the opposition facing the Johnson administration consider the following partial list of civilian antiwar activities in 1967 – the year preceding the Tet Offensive.

In January 1967 the Black Panther Party opened its first office in Oakland, California. Its popular mix of active self-defense against police brutality and its grass-roots community service programs coupled with anti-capitalism, black nationalism, and expressions of solidarity with the Vietnamese revolutionaries made it the object of police repression including the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that was focused on preventing the rise of a “black messiah.” Surveillance, infiltration, the employment of agent provocateurs, and assassination were among the methods used to suppress black dissent. (The BPP’s own internal schisms and episodic lumpen activities only made the government repression easier.)

On January 3, 1967 Carl Wilson, a singer for the popular band, the Beach Boys, refused to report for induction.

Also in January, the interdenominational Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) organized a 2,000 member demonstration at the White House against the war. The next month CALCAV organized a nationwide Fast for Peace with more than one million people taking part. CALCAV also commissioned a study of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam that it published in January 1968 under the title In The Name of America.

On April 4, 1967, CALCAV member, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” to 3,000 people at the Riverside Church in New York City. With this speech he finally came out publicly against the war referring to the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world and on the wrong side of a global peasant revolution for justice. He reiterated his points less than two weeks later with a speech at a mid-April antiwar demonstration in NYC. CALCAV subsequently distributed 100,000 copies of Dr. King’s speech.

On April 28 the popular world heavy weight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, refused induction into the army. In June 1967 he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000, and stripped of his heavyweight title and boxing license until 1970. He stayed out of prison while appealing the court decision. (The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in June 1971.)

Also in April David Harris and Steve Hamilton in San Francisco formed “The Resistance” to encourage young men to resist the draft. Other antiwar activists spent months in organizing “The Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam.”

On April 15 about 120,000 people in New York City and 60,000 people in San Francisco marched against the war.

It was at the New York demonstration that a few Vietnam veterans met under a banner proclaiming “Vietnam Veterans Against the War”. From that happenstance meeting they would go on to form a powerful antiwar organization: Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). This group would eventually have thousands of members and the collective testimony of the veterans themselves coupled with their participation in numerous antiwar actions was a direct contradiction to the government’s claims that the war was necessary, justified, and supported by the troops.

In May and November 1967 the famous philosophers, Bertrand Russell of Britain and Jean Paul Sartre of France, sponsored investigations into American war crimes in Vietnam. The proceedings were later published in a book entitled Against the Crime of Silence.

These antiwar activities in the first six months of 1967 so disturbed President Johnson that he ordered the FBI, CIA and U.S. Army Intelligence begin spying on the antiwar movement to identify its sources and leaders and figure out how to stop it.

In September 1967 an antiwar group of business executives from mainly mid-size corporations, Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace (BEM), was founded. Eventually it would have almost 1,000 businessmen as members including retired military officers such as Brigadier General William Wallace Ford and Brigadier General Samuel Griffiths.

On October 2, 1967 a manifesto to resist the war, “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority,” was released at a press conference at the New York Hilton. Based on a draft by Arthur Waskow and Marcus Raskin of the Institute for Policy Studies, it was a statement urging support for The Resistance. With 320 signatories–many of whom were well known intellectuals, clergy, professors, and artists— it soon was published in the New York Review of Books and The New Republic.

On October 21 and 22, 1967 almost 100,000 people convened in Washington, D.C. for an antiwar protest at the National Mall; between 35,000 and 50,000 then participated in the March on the Pentagon. That same month war resisters organized “Stop the Draft” week in Oakland, California and, on Friday October 20, about 10,000 activists closed the Oakland induction center for several hours while they battled police for control of the streets. “Stop the Draft Week” events took place at Cornell University and in New York City in December.

On October 27 the first draft board raid of the “Catholic Left” was carried out when the “Baltimore Four” entered a draft board and poured blood on the Selective Service files.

An interesting statistic indicative of the growth of antiwar sentiment at American colleges comes from Melvin Small (2004:87) who compared organized protests involving a minimum of 35 people each: in the Fall semester of 1967 there were 71 demonstrations against the war on 62 campuses; in the Winter/Spring 1968 semester, after Tet, this figure had grown to 221 demonstrations on 101 campuses.

Internationally, “Large public demonstrations against the war were by then [1967] a regular feature in cities the world over – in London and Tokyo, in Stockholm and Vancouver, in Brussels and Johannesburg” (Lovegall, “America Isolated,” in Daum, Gardner, and Mausbach, 2003: 195).

The “long, hot summer” of 1967: black rebellions against the Great Society

In addition to the spreading activist dissent against the war, the Johnson administration had to contend with continuing black uprisings. Beginning with the Harlem rebellion of 1964, each subsequent year was punctuated with rioting on a scale greater than city police themselves could handle. 1967 and 1968 were the years of the greatest violence.

The war in Vietnam exacerbated the racist pressures on black and brown Americans segregated into ghettoes and barrios. Although substandard ghetto and rural schooling did not provide young men with the literacy skills necessary to pass the Armed Forces Qualifying Test, the Department of Defense magnanimously lowered entrance requirements so that more poorly educated, black, brown, and white youths could be accepted into the army to receive the imperial experience of killing peasants of color. While young middle class, predominantly white, men received college deferments or admission into the National Guard, proletarian youth were sent to Vietnam. This burden upon the working class was resented and, coupled with other racist policies involving housing, employment, inflation, and policing, led to episodic explosions of black rage on such a large scale that militarized repression was applied.

The contradiction between the benign promises of the “Great Society” and the reality of ongoing exploitation of ghettoized people living with high unemployment under inflationary conditions exploded in the summer of 1967 with dozens of unorganized rebellions referred to by ruling class media as “riots”. Some were relatively small and quickly subdued while others such as the uprisings in Newark, New Jersey and Detroit, Michigan continued for several days requiring large military deployments to subjugate them. Almost 8,000 police officers and National Guard troops were required to put down the Newark “riot” of July 12-17. The Great Rebellion in Detroit was defeated by the deployment of an armed force of more than 13,000 men including 360 Michigan State Police, 8,000 National Guard troops, and 4,700 U.S. Army soldiers sent from the 82ndand 101stAirborne Divisions.

With violent challenges to political authority on such a large scale, the Johnson administration was effectively prohibited from sending the National Guards to Vietnam. They were needed at home to restore order year after year in ghettoes and on campuses. The inability to use the Guard in Vietnam thus put more pressure on the draft as the source of bodies for the army in Vietnam. This pressure in turn led to greater draft resistance challenging the government’s ability to control its unruly population.

6) Anti-communism versus communism

With the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s the bipartisan American political establishment had more or less successfully curtailed the communist movement in the United States through a variety of strategies and tactics. Anti-communism became, during the twenty years from 1948 to 1968, a dominant and seldom questioned force in American political life. The question of communism as a political-economic-cultural alternative to capitalism was a closed question. Although the U.S. Communist Party still existed, its membership and reputation had been greatly reduced. New leftist groups emerging in the early to mid-1960s with socialist and communist visions remained small. Tet, however, provided hope and inspiration to these revolutionaries because it showed the power of a communist peasant insurgency against the most powerful military in the world.

After Tet, the peasant communists of Vietnam were no longer simply the unfortunate victims of U.S. imperialism – they were now the unbeatable, inspirational revolutionary force bringing a communist future to Vietnam and perhaps all of Indochina.

After Tet, National Liberation Front flags appeared at antiwar demonstrations in the U.S.

After Tet, a new antiwar slogan appeared: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; the NLF is going to win!”

After Tet, communist forces in the United States grew as an uncounted number of people began to study class struggle and its analytic application to problems of poverty, racism, sexism, and imperialism.

After Tet, the anti-imperialist left around the world grew hopeful.

After Tet, workers and students in many countries throughout 1968 politically rebelled against their ruling classes in a series of demonstrations, occupations, and strikes.

The growth of global resistance in 1968 – a few examples:

In the United States Chicano students organized the East L.A. “blowouts” (walkouts) of several high schools in protest against substandard education. After Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, violent protests erupted in more than 115 cities across the country.

In the Spring of 1968 Columbia University students occupied campus buildings in protests against the university’s ties to the Defense Department and its plans to encroach on a Harlem park.

In August there was a huge antiwar protest at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. On orders from Democratic mayor Richard Daley the police violently attacked the demonstrators.

At the Olympics Games in Mexico City, American track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested racism at their medal award ceremony by raising their black-gloved fists in the air during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner – a song written by slave owner Francis Scott Key. For this they were dismissed from the U.S. Olympic team and sent home where they were vilified in the press and with hate mail.

In November students began a student strike against racism that shut down San Francisco State College for five months.

In Mexico ongoing student protests against government policies led to the army’s occupation of UNAM’s central campus. This was followed in early October by the massacre of more than 100 demonstrators by police and army snipers at Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City.

Italy saw the emergence of the “Sessantotto” (1968) movement. Students closed the University of Rome for 12 days in an anti-war protest. In May students occupied all universities in the country with the exception of one.

In Spain students and workers organized demonstrations against the fascist Franco regime. The University of Madrid was closed for 38 days during the Spring semester because of student protests.

In Britain protestors against the war in Vietnam physically attacked the British Home Secretary and the Defense Secretary in March. The Grosvenor Square anti-war demonstration at the U.S. Embassy involved 100,000 people. In June British university students founded the Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation.

In West Germany 10,000 West Berlin students participated in a sit-in protesting the American war in Vietnam.

In France May 1968 brought the occupations of factories and schools as the country was rocked by both general strikes and wildcat strikes. Aproximately10 million workers were involved.

North of the border antiwar Canadians mailed 5,000 copies of a “Manual for Draft Age Immigrants to Canada” to the United States .

Japan saw student protests against the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Perhaps none of these actions were causally related to the Tet offensives of 1968. They were, however, complements to Tet in that they were widespread and seriously disruptive working class offensives against ruling class policies.

Confronting the contradictions: the Wise Men conduct an A to Z Review

The American ruling class was incapable of understanding the realities of those they dominated: it could not believe that rebellious peasants in South Vietnam could resist and overcome American military power, it could not believe that young Americans would not only resist conscription but would also seek to stop the war itself while embracing leftist politics, and it was blindsided when black Americans arose in multiple revolts throughout the United States. In each of these cases the rulers believed that the violent opposition had been encouraged by “outside agitators” – namely, communists ultimately connected to Moscow. The Tet Offensive, however, compelled the American capitalist class to confront the confounding contradictions contained in the conflict.

The need to analyze and resolve these contradictions led the new Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, to convene, at the behest of President Johnson, a systematic examination of the war – the famous A to Z review – by convening a series of meetings with the Senior Informal Advisory Group otherwise known as the “Wise Men” – most of whom were the members of the American foreign policy Establishment through their membership in the Council on Foreign Relations.

History of the Establishment

The origins of the Establishment as a body of astute internationalist capitalists who sought to provide guidance on foreign policy go back to America’s involvement in the First World War. That particular war gave the ruling class of the United States, as a major military participant, an authoritative place among the leading capitalist powers in matters of imperialism. In order to provide long-term postwar guidance for the business class, the progenitors of the Establishment established the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and its journal, Foreign Affairs. By bringing capitalists, academics, and politicians together for discussions and debates the CFR could facilitate the establishment of a bipartisan foreign policy consensus.

“The Establishment was not a cultural circle or another name for the old ruling class. It was a foreign policy Establishment, and its agenda was from the first to the last concerned with the place of the United States in the world. … The Establishment’s policy … was to oppose isolationism and to work … to maximize American power and influence in the world … it aspired to supersede the British Empire in its double role of protecting a certain Western liberal, capitalist world order… most [of its members] … worked, as bankers or lawyers, at the heart of the capitalist system, often literally on Wall Street.” (Hodgson, 2005: 221, 222)

“Key members of the Establishment – Root, Stimson, the elder Bundy, and later John J. McCloy, John Foster and Allen Dulles, and McGeorge Bundy, for example – were all Republicans … Only after the New Deal did substantial numbers of the Establishment become Democrats. … The Establishment’s technique involved working not through electoral politics but out of the public eye, chiefly [as advisors] through the executive branch.” (Hodgson, 2005: 223; emphasis added)

The Establishment’s reservations about Viet Nam

Although naturally and solidly anti-communist, several Establishment members saw Viet Nam as a diversion of U.S. attention away from Europe (where French General de Gaulle was challenging the unity of NATO) and from the Middle East (which held most of the world’s oil).

“John J. McCloy, in particular, who by this time was often half jocularly referred to as the chairman of the Establishment, was asked by Johnson to go to Saigon as ambassador, but refused … he simply thought it [Viet Nam] was a diversion of resources and of … priorities from western Europe … And, as the lawyer who represented several major oil companies, he also thought that the Middle East was a higher priority than Southeast Asia.” (Hodgson, 2005: 241, 242)

As an indication of the place of Viet Nam relative to the broad concerns of the capitalist class the Council on Foreign Relations from 1960 to 1968 “organized no study group on Southeast Asia.” The CFR did take a poll of its members in 1965 as the U.S. undertook a massive combat role and found that one quarter wanted to expand the U.S. war, one quarter wanted to disengage, and half took the middle ground of war without expanded effort. These doubts and misgivings were allayed by the activist Establishment representatives from within the Johnson administration – particularly the Bundy brothers: “Both Bundy brothers, and others from an Establishment background played a vocal part in selling the Vietnam policy, not least at a series of meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations.” (Hodgson, 2005: 241)

Formation of the Wise Men and their series of meetings with Johnson administration over Vietnam

The failure of the U.S. to form a viable anti-communist state in the south of Viet Nam meant that there was no significant indigenous force to effectively oppose the communist-led national liberation movement. The glaring failure of ARVN at the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963 and the huge desertions of ARVN soldiers in 1964 and 1965 made it clear that the U.S. would have to assume a major combat role. As Johnson committed the first combat troops to Viet Nam he turned to senior members of the Establishment for advice; these were men who had advised past presidents on foreign policy since the end of World War II. They constituted the “Wise Men” who advised the administration in a series of meetings from 1965 through 1968.

The first meetings of the Wise Men occurred in July 1965. First, “ a group of about twenty distinguished elder statesmen that included Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, and John J. McCloy was invited for briefings on Vietnam at the State Department. The next day a smaller group of them met the president and enthusiastically endorsed plans for the escalation in Southeast Asia. ….On July 22, 1965, McCloy and Arthur Dean, the senior partner in the leading Wall Street firm of Sullivan and Cromwell … were invited back … On January 27, 1966, there was a second full Wise Men group meeting. McCloy, Harriman, the Bundy brothers, George Ball, Arthur Dean, and Clark Clifford were present. … there was still no open breach over the president’s war.” (Hodgson, 2005: 243)

In fact, the Establishment’s Wise Men attempted to move public opinion toward greater support of the administration by forming “A Committee for an Effective and Durable Peace in Asia”. This was not enough for LBJ who persuaded one of his friends plus a White House aide to form in 1967 another group to lobby public opinion, the “Citizens Committee for Peace with Freedom in Vietnam”. It was chaired by a former U.S. Senator, Paul Douglas, and included as members Dean Acheson and former President Eisenhower; John McCloy, however, refused to participate.

Another meeting of the Wise Men was held on November 1 and 2, 1967. Present were Johnson’s advisor Clark Clifford, Abe Fortas, Mac Bundy, Averell Harriman, Douglas Dillion, Arthur Goldberg, and Arthur Dean, and Dean Acheson. General Earle Wheeler, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave an optimistic briefing on the progress of the war. The Wise Men were still behind the war effort but they were beginning to harbor misgivings. Vigorous criticism of the war was spreading throughout the country and the world; some of the antiwar critics were from within their own families.

To deal with these criticisms LBJ flew General Westmoreland back to the United States to rally public opinion behind the war. Speaking at the National Press Club on November 21, 1967 Westmoreland claimed that the Vietnamese rebellion had essentially been defeated and all that remained was a final “mopping up”. Nine weeks later the communists launched the Tet Offensive taking the war to the supposedly secure cities and towns of South Vietnam. Clearly the enemy remained a formidable opponent and Westmoreland’s earlier claims were shown to be false. The Tet Offensive put the Johnson administration in a crisis: After claiming that the war was almost won, it now had to explain to the American people what the real situation was. To do this the administration first had to find out exactly whatwas going on in Viet Nam. To this end LBJ charged his new Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, to give him a report. Clifford then guided the Wise Men in an “A to Z review” that consisted in great part of sustained interrogation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Social Composition of the Wise Men

The Wise Men were referred to as members of “the Establishment”. This term originated in Britain to describe the “movers and shakers” of society; its non-Marxist conception was closer to that of a power elite consisting of common status, backgrounds, and origins. Empirically, however, the men of this Establishment were more than an “elite”; they were members of the capitalist class; they came from capitalist families, were owners or directors of the large business firms, and thereby exercised authority over investment decisions and the labor process.

The Senior Informal Advisory Group was an assemblage of men with both civilian and military backgrounds who were active members of the capitalist class through current or former positions as directors, attorneys, or chairmen of the board at major corporations and banks including Aetna Life Insurance, IBM, Morgan Guaranty Trust, Chase Manhattan Bank, Allied Chemical, Dillon Read and Company, AT&T, Lehman Brothers, Time, Life and Fortune magazines, and the Ford Foundation among others. These men, as members of the corporate “inner circle” – a broad and often interlocking network of directors of corporate boards – had served, on and off, as advisors to various presidential administrations – some of them going back to the 1940s. Their thoughts represented the collective wisdom and consensus of the foreign policy leadership of the American capitalist class. They included General Omar Bradley, General Matthew Ridgway, General Maxwell Taylor, Dean Acheson, McGeorge Bundy, Abe Fortas, Henry Cabot Lodge, George W. Ball, Arthur Dean, Douglas Dillon, John McCloy, Robert Murphy, and Cyrus Vance.

Beginning on February 29, 1968 and continuing through most of March, the Wise Men met with the principal officers of the military and the Johnson administration as well as secondary level analysts from the government bureaucracy for their A to Z review of the war. Disillusioned by the military’s double failure to accurately assess the enemy order of battle and to present a cogent, coherent plan for battlefield success and buffeted by the dollar-gold crisis as it peaked in March, the Wise Men came out against the continuation of the war opting instead for negotiations and disengagement. Essentially the political and economic costs of continuing the war were judged unsupportable.

The political costs of acquiring offensive capability in Vietnam would entail mobilization of the reserves, an increase in the draft, and a commitment to several more years of war. It was estimated that military success in Vietnam would require a minimum of 700,000 troops fighting for another seven to ten years. Yet the reserves and even stateside federal troops were needed at home to put down episodic rebellions and riots. Continuing the war meant that the U.S. would also have to be prepared to accept casualties of 1300-1400 men per month – possibly for years and would confront more disruptive antiwar resistance. The United States government politically could not afford to fight a protracted war – a point the communists wanted to make clear with the Tet Offensive.

The economic cost of acquiring offensive capability would involve an increase of billions of dollars in the war budget. This increase would require an imposition of new taxes on the American people who were already experiencing the erosion of their purchasing power because of war-induced inflation. Furthermore, the U.S. balance of payments would become worse threatening international financial stability and the leadership position of the United States in global economic affairs. U.S. political leaders were forced to accept the financial imperatives of empire by shifting to a policy of “Vietnamization” that replaced American soldiers with South Vietnamese.

The Significance of the Wise Men and Their A to Z Review:

The political significance of the Wise Men is that their advice to the Johnson administration regarding Viet Nam reveals how the most momentous State decisions were shaped not by the elected representatives of the country’s citizens but by the activist members of the capitalist class.

The significance of the fact that their decision to disengage became policy was pointed out many years ago in an essay by scholars Laura Anker, Peter Seybold, and Michael Schwartz:

 “… the most significant policy change in the American Vietnam War effort was made without any elaborate official policy planning. The government bureaucracy was not involved. The cabinet was not even involved. The decision [to disengage] was made by representatives of business – by an informal group that combined experience in government with inner circle affiliations.” (Schwartz, 1987:113)

When the issue of U.S. disengagement from Vietnam – sometimes referred to as “abandonment” of Vietnam – is discussed, the responsibility for the decision is typically attributed to a defeatist press and/or politicians and/or antiwar activists insufficiently aware of the dangers of communism. Yet none of these parties made the decision: not the media, not the Congress, not Johnson’s Cabinet, and not the antiwar movement that, if it had power to make the decision, would not have been in the streets. It was the unelectedleading members of the American capitalist class.

The power of the Tet Offensive to force this decision was underscored by an observation of the historian, George Herring, who noted that several of the Wise Men were the advocates of early Cold War positions dating from the late 1940s: the Truman doctrine and the containment doctrine. The Truman doctrine stipulated that the United States would assist “free peoples” in resisting attempted conquest by “armed minorities.” This was an excuse to intervene in cases of communist- led rebellions within a country. Containment doctrine argued that the U.S. must stop the spread of communist revolution throughout the world. Communist power was to be confined to where it existed. The decision to disengage from Vietnam – thus writing it off as a loss – was, in effect, a repudiation of a full commitment to these earlier Cold War era doctrines. (Herring, 2008: 754).

A brutally violent retreat

Death is our business and business is good” – slogan within the U.S. Army Ninth Infantry Division during the Speedy Express accelerated pacification operation of late 1968-early1969.

Disengagement would take time because the Vietnamization of the war would take time. The Americans thus still shouldered the burden of fighting after Tet. And, as the U.S. prepared to retreat, it actually ramped up its military efforts with “accelerated” pacification operations, an extensive assassination operation – the Phoenix Program, an intensification of bombing – especially over Cambodia, and an actual invasion (“incursion” was Nixon’s word) into Cambodia.

In 1969 Nixon and his National Security advisor Henry Kissinger escalated LBJ’s covert tactical bombing of Cambodia into massive, unprecedented carpet-bombing with B-52s. Nixon’s bombing involved two campaigns: the first, covert, the second, overt. The first was Operation Menu and lasted from March 18, 1969 to May 26, 1970. The American public only learned of it in December 1972. The second was Operation Freedom Deal extending from May 19, 1970 to August 15, 1973. The purpose was to hinder communist forces on the Ho Chi Minh Trail so that the U.S. would have time to build up the Saigon regime and withdraw its own forces. When the formerly secret bombing from 1965 through 1968 is included in the tabulation of bombing totals for Cambodia, the data show that the U.S. flew 230,516 sorties against 113,716 sites and dropped a total of 2,756,941 tons of bombs. In light of these new data former estimates of Cambodian dead in the range 50,000 to 500,000 will have to be revised upward.

On April 29-30, 1970 U.S. and RVN forces invaded Cambodia in an ultimately futile attempt to destroy COSVN – the communist guerrillas’ “Central Office for South Vietnam.” Nixon’s announcement of the invasion reignited the dormant antiwar movement – particularly on college campuses where approximately 80% announced strike actions with 500 colleges cancelling classes and 51 failing to re-open for the remainder of the Spring semester. 30 ROTC offices across the country were destroyed by enraged students; the National Guard was called to 21 campuses.

Although Vietnamization was a failed proposition as evidenced by the mauling the NVA gave ARVN in the Lam Son 719 operation of February-March 1971, the Americans could no longer come to rescue. By late 1972 hardly any America combat troops remained. It was just as well since the army had become more and more discontented, dispirited, resentful, and rebellious. In spite of a peace agreement signed in January 1973 and a complete American exit weeks later, the war continued for another two years until communist forces conquered Saigon. This denouement was foretold by the Tet Offensive.

The lessons of Tet

What lessons do Tet, as the pivot point of the Vietnam War, have to offer?

Lesson 1: Describing Tet as a political victory yet simultaneously a military defeat for the communist forces is misleading.

On the face of it, it was a military defeat: the communists could not hold on to the cities and towns they had attacked and there was no general uprising of the population against the Thieu regime. Yet, after Tet, the communists still had sufficient reserve capacity to wage a deadly level of combat for the next year and a half. And the failure of the urban population to rise up did not mean that they supported the Saigon regime; continuing desertions from ARVN demonstrated the lack of loyalty to the South Vietnamese government. Also, the withdrawal of ARVN units from the countryside to the cities negated Saigon’s rural pacification program and allowed the communists more freedom to recruit and organize among the rural population. Furthermore, in the long run Tet produced what the communist forces had desired – the minimization of U.S. force. As Pierre Asselin has pointed out in his recent book on the war from the communist point of view:

“Le Duan [the Communist Party leader in North Vietnam] had long believed that striking forcefully at the South Vietnamese armed forces, while keeping their American counterparts bogged down elsewhere, represented the likeliest way to exploit the vulnerability of the former, while neutralizing the might of the latter. Should that occur, it would be enough to change the strategic balance of the war, and deliver victory” (Asselin, 2018:153).

With Tet producing Vietnamization with concomitant American withdrawals, Le Duan got his wish and, eventually, his victory. Tet can thus be said to have been a strategic victory of monumental significance. The communists knew that South Vietnam was an artificial state. It was created by the Americans, financed by the Americans, and defended by the Americans. When the Americans withdrew their financing and their defense, the artificiality was exposed and the Saigon regime collapsed.

Lesson 2: Even great powers have limits to their power. 

The U.S. was limited by the collective will of revolutionary communist peasants to oust the Americans from Vietnam, by the passive and active resistance of millions of Americans and peoples in foreign countries, and by the constraints of international finance. These limits were established not through electoral politics but through many grass-roots efforts and factors beyond the control of major political parties. As Laurence Shoup and William Minter point out in their study of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Senior Informal Advisory Group (the Wise Men – most of whom were members of the Council)) was pushed to its decision to disengage by four factors: (1) the tremendous ongoing resistance of the Vietnamese to the American invasion, (2) the growing disruption of social order by the domestic antiwar movement, (3) the dollar-gold crisis, and (4) the erosion of America’s moral standing with other countries. (Shoup and Minter, 2004: 243)

Lesson 3: The communist adage that in war “politics are primary” was confirmed. 

Certainly, the revolutionaries of Vietnam could not have pulled off the Tet Offensive and then reinforced it throughout the next eighteen months with further coordinated offensives without a broad and deep moral commitment on the part of the peasantry. Fighting for years without cannon and tanks, helicopters and fighter-bombers, destroyers and aircraft carriers against an enemy that had all of those machines of death, they could not have prevailed unless they had broadly based political support. And in the end on January 27, 1973 the peasants prevailed as the Americans accepted a peace treaty that embodied, more or less, not only the NLF ten point demands of May 8, 1969 but also the major provisions of the Geneva Accords of July 21, 1954. People’s war in Vietnam forced the United States to agree in writing to conditions that the rest of the world had accepted almost twenty years before.

Conversely, the deep collective moral commitment supporting the peasant war did not exist to nearly the same extent on the Saigon side nor the American side. Belief in the moral legitimacy and authority of government is a sine qua nonfor effective war making. If the people do not believe in the civilian and military leadership, large armies cannot be easily assembled and effectively deployed. This maxim applied to both the armies of South Vietnam and the United States. When trust is eroded within the military, the armed forces become unusable. The credibility gap affecting the Johnson and Nixon administrations steadily penetrated America’s military leading to distrust, dissent, and disobedience to orders. The magnitude of the problem was reflected in the title of Marine Colonel Robert Heinl’s article in Armed Forces Journal of June 1971: “The Collapse of the Armed Forces”.

Lesson 4: Regaining the trust of the people once it is lost is a difficult endeavor. 

Today in 2018 it is a plausible proposition that the American government has not overcome the damaging effects of the Vietnam era credibility gap which gave rise to the Vietnam Syndrome – an unwillingness on the part of much of the population to support wars abroad. For its wars in the Mideast and Central Asia the United States has relied on a volunteer army that returns its soldiers to the theaters of combat two, three, and even four times after their initial deployments. There is no demographic reason for doing this except that not enough young people are volunteering to serve in the armed forces. Most likely they don’t believe in the wars – which is to say they don’t trust the men and women in high positions who would send them to war. The government could conscript the youth of America by reactivating the draft but no administration appears willing to do so. Why? Is it a fear of provoking dissent and resistance? Better to let sleeping dogs lie? Whatever the reason for its failure to conscript youth for military service, the United States has replaced labor-intensive warfare (many boots on the ground) with capital-intensive warfare using aerial bombardment, drone strikes, private military contractors, and elite commando raids as replacements for popular support. The United States has a deadly military force but not a popular one and that is a grave political weakness. The distrust of government and unwillingness of Americans to participate in wars abroad may be one of the most powerfully enduring effects of the Tet Offensive of 1968.

Lesson 5: Military leadership is not to be trusted. 

The deliberate manipulations of the enemy order of battle by Westmoreland’s intelligence office that forced its analysts to produce declining estimates of enemy forces in spite of evidence to the contrary coupled with the incompetence of the military’s intelligence gathering apparatus raises serious questions about the command’s view of the GIs sent to do the fighting. Were the young to be sacrificed so the commanding officers could have their chance at war making? Were truth and loyalty to the troops callously disregarded so that Westmoreland and his coterie of careerists could have the chance to earn wartime honors? Are aspirations for advancement more important than the lives of young men? MACV’s actions made a mockery of traditional sayings so close to the hearts of pro-war hawks – sayings such as “defense of the nation”, “duty, honor, country”, “love of country”, and “defense of freedom” and, in doing so, eroded trust in the military itself.

Lesson 6: Imperialist rulers value their egos and careers far more importantly than the lives of people they govern as well as people they seek to govern.

Working class Americans and Vietnamese peasants died by the tens of thousands after 1968 because Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger persisted in continuing the war to avoid a loss. And a large part of their persistence came from an infuriation borne of racist arrogance – an arrogance that raged within in them because neither Nixon nor Kissinger could believe that Vietnam, which they viewed as a little “shit-ass,” “fourth rate” country, didn’t have a breaking point. Future soldiers and their families should remember this point.

Lesson 7: Uncomfortably critical history will be rewritten by the ideologues of empire.

Although Tet was defeat for the Americans, mythologies have been deliberately promoted that the “liberal” media portrayed Tet as a disaster for the United States and, consequently, “liberal” politicians decided to not pursue victory even though such victory was possible. Popular myths are: (1) Tet was a “one-time” event and communist loss, (2) Tet resulted in a U.S. victory which was, however, sabotaged by a liberal press and liberal Democrats of the Johnson administration, and (3) Tet was a plan by Hanoi to wipe out the NLF. These nonfactual revisions are essentially ways of salvaging the military’s reputation while disparaging that of the civilian leadership and the antiwar movements and avoiding any recognition of the class conscious capitalists who passed a binding judgment on the war. They are also a way to dismiss the Vietnamese communists and the power of a people’s war. For an extensive discussion of several revisionist mythologies, I recommend Edwin Moïse’s recent book, The Myths of Tet.


Laura Anker, Peter Seybold, Michael Schwartz, “The Ties That Bind Business and Government” in Michael Schwartz (editor), The Structure of Power in America: The Corporate Elite as a Ruling Class (1987: 97-122)

Pierre Asselin, Vietnam’s American War – A History (2018)

Robert Buzzanco, Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (1996)

Clark Clifford with Richard Holbrooke, Counsel to the President: A Memoir (1991)

Robert Collins, “The Economic Crisis of 1968 and the Waning of the ‘American Century’”, American Historical Review, April 1996, pp. 396-422

Gregory A. Daddis, No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War (2011)

Andreas Daum, Lloyd C. Gardner, and Wilfried Mausbach (eds.), America, the Vietnam War, and the World: Comparative and International Perspectives (2003)

Ian Davidson and Gordon Weil, The Gold War (1970)

Charles DeBenedetti (Charles Chatfield – assisting author), An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (1990)

Barry Eichengreen, Exborbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System (2011)

James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (1988)

James P. Harrison, The Endless War: Vietnam’s Struggle for Independence (1989)

George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (Fifth edition, 2014)

George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (2008)

Godfrey Hodgson, “The Foreign Policy Establishment”, in Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (editors), Ruling America (2005) pp. 215-249

Townsend Hoopes, The Limits of Intervention – An inside account of how the Johnson policy of escalation in Vietnam was reversed (1969)

David Hunt, “Remembering the Tet Offensive” – revised from the original essay in Radical America, 11-12 (November 1977-February 1978, pp.79-96) and published in Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young, and H. Bruce Franklin (editors), Vietnam and America, second edition, (1995: 359-377)

Paul Joseph, Cracks in the Empire: State Politics in the Vietnam War (1981)

Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War (1986)

Joyce Kolko, America and the Crisis of World Capitalism (1974)

Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (2010)

John Marciano, The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration? (2016)

Edwin Moïse, The Myths of Tet: the Most Misunderstood Event of the Vietnam War (2017)

John Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (2009)

Sidney E. Rolfe and James L. Burtle, The Great Wheel: The World Monetary System, a Reinterpretation (1973)

David Schmitz, The Tet Offensive (2005)

Avi Shlaim, War and Peace in the Middle East (1994)

Laurence H. Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy (1977, 2004)

Melvin Small, Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds (2004)

Ronald Spector, After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam (1993)

Robert Warren Stevens, Vain Hopes, Grim Realities: The Economic Consequences of the Vietnam War (1976)

Martin Walker, The Cold War: A History (1993)

Jayne Werner and David Hunt (editors), The American War in Vietnam (1993)

James H. Willbanks, The Tet Offensive: A Concise History (2007)

Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (1991)

Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan, Who Spoke Up? American Protest Against the War in Vietnam 1963-1975 (1984)

By Chuck O’Connell
Source: Counter Punch


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