The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Vietnam, February 1968:
When the Tet Offensive Shook U.S. Domination

Mar 5, 2018

In the night between January 31st and February 1st, 1968, during the holiday of Tet (Vietnamese New Year), fighters of the Viet Cong, the South Vietnamese guerrilla organization of the National Liberation Front (NLF), rose up against the U.S. military occupation. They took control of more than 100 towns and cities, including the capital, Saigon.

Although, from a military point of view, the disproportionate level of forces did not allow the Viet Cong to hold these cities for more than a month, the world nevertheless viewed the Tet Offensive as an NLF victory. The NLF had proved that it had the support of the majority of the population, whom the ferocious war waged by the most powerful imperialism on the planet had failed to crush.

At the beginning of 1968, there were 500,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Vietnam. They possessed an ultra-modern military arsenal with an unprecedented capacity for destruction and massacre. There was no comparison between this force and what could be put forward by a small country ravaged by French and Japanese imperialism that had already been through 13 years of war.

Despite all this, in one night, some tens of thousands of Viet Cong fighters were able to rattle the most powerful army in the world, deep within its own strongholds in the cities. They went so far as to occupy Tan Son Nhut, the U.S. air base, and even held the U.S. embassy for three hours, as heavily guarded as it was. And they held onto many of the cities they took for almost a month – in some cases even longer.

It was not easy for the U.S. army to retake the occupied cities, since, as in Cuba during the U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion, the population stood firm against it. The Viet Cong showed that they were not just implanted in the countryside, but also among the urban workers. The U.S. military command put an end to the occupation only by bombing whole neighborhoods.

After WWII and the defeat of Japan, French imperialism had taken back control of its old colony of Indochina and had come up against the Viet Minh, the movement led by Ho Chi Minh. The French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, then forced to leave Vietnam. The country was divided in two. With the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh in the north, supported by the Soviet Union and China, the U.S. and French installed their government in the south. The “peace” that was negotiated promised a referendum would be organized so people north and south could vote on whether to unify their country. It was obvious the referendum would succeed, and that Ho Chi Minh would be elected to lead the whole country. The referendum was opposed by the U.S. and never held.

The Origins of the U.S. War in Vietnam

When the French left Vietnam, the United States moved in behind them in the south. For the last four years of the French war, the U.S. had already been financing 80% of its cost. This was at the height of the Cold War, when U.S. policy was aimed at stopping independence struggles around the world, preventing the extension of the Soviet Union’s influence. This was particularly true in Southeast Asia, which had been marked by the success of the Chinese revolution, under Mao Tse-tung, in 1949.

The United States installed a puppet government in South Vietnam, along the model of what it had already done in Latin American countries and in South Korea. However, just as happened in other parts of the world, the South Vietnamese leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, revealed himself to be just as brutal and corrupt as the rest, searching for ways to extract the most profit with no regard for the population. Opposition to the regime grew in the countryside, where the peasants, who also had the model of North Vietnam before their eyes, increasingly rallied to the Viet Cong, a movement that respected them and gave them access to land in the regions it controlled.

In 1962, under the pretext of guaranteeing the independence of the Vietnamese population in the face of the “communist peril,” U.S. president John F. Kennedy came to the aid of Diem’s government. This did not change the relation of forces, and did not even save Diem, who was assassinated in 1963. His successors were just as unpopular. The 1954 Geneva Accords had authorized the presence of 685 U.S. advisors. Under Kennedy’s presidency, this number had already climbed to 16,000 and continued to increase until 1965, when the United States intervened directly, sending 200,000 GIs to South Vietnam. It sent the same number the following year. By the start of 1968, there were half a million U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.

In the areas it controlled in the south, the U.S. military command implemented a scorched earth policy against any perceived resistance. It carried out bombings to an unprecedented degree, including pulverizing cities in North Vietnam. When they were not demolished by bombs, entire villages in the south were burned, their inhabitants massacred; forests and rice fields were sprayed with defoliants or napalm, cutting off all sources of food and drinkable water for the Viet Cong guerillas – and also for the peasants, among whom they lived. Far from breaking the resistance of the Vietnamese population, the attacks ordered by the U.S. military command increased their hatred for the occupying power and reinforced the Viet Cong.

Opposition to the War

The Tet Offensive also reinforced opposition to the war in Vietnam in the rest of the world, especially in the United States. 20,000 U.S. soldiers had already been killed, and many tens of thousands had already been wounded, with no end to the war in sight. On the other hand, the horror of the massacres committed against a whole people began to touch public opinion.

Starting in 1965, there had been isolated protests and refusals to join the army in the name of pacifism. But by 1968, desertions from the army and refusals to fight in the field increased dramatically. More and more returning soldiers who had fought in Vietnam were denouncing the atrocities they had witnessed or been ordered to commit, in a war that they considered unjust. The feeling of having been sent to die to fight a “rich man’s war,” as one banner held by protestors read, was even more present among the black troops, who had almost no possibility of avoiding the draft and were sent into the most dangerous situations.

It was during these same years – from 1965 to 1968 – that major U.S. cities were hit by insurrection. The rebellion of the black population was reaching its climax as city after city went up in flames. Muhammad Ali refused induction, saying “No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger,” a phrase which was repeated in the ghettoes. In major U.S. cities, demonstrations against this filthy war grew larger and larger. In Vietnam itself, the U.S. army was breaking down under the effect of demoralization, drug use, and disgust with what the soldiers were forced to do.

The Tet Offensive marked the height of the war of the Vietnamese people against the occupation. With U.S. cities burning, and with the situation on the ground in Vietnam untenable for the U.S. army, the U.S. ruling class was forced to make the decision to leave the country. The U.S. began to draw down its troops, even while it intensified the bombing. If the U.S. army could not win the war, it would still make the Vietnamese pay for the defeat they inflicted on the U.S.

This war, which demanded ever more human lives and equipment, created problems for the country's finances, all for a conflict with no end in sight. Above all, the Tet Offensive showed the whole world that even the most powerful government on the planet could not dominate a country whose inhabitants were determined to fight for their independence. The NLF and the Viet Cong held more and more of the country.

In 1975, the U.S. scrambled to empty its embassy, in the capital, Saigon. Its last officials were rushed away by helicopters from the embassy roof, signaling the defeat of U.S. imperialism.