The Spark

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

40 years ago:
The Tet Offensive
– a turning point in the Vietnam War

Feb 18, 2008

In 1968, starting on the Vietnamese New Year holiday known as Tet, Vietnamese fighters carried out an offensive against U.S. forces in over 100 cities and towns in the southern part of the country. The Vietnamese insurgents attacked military installations, police stations, government offices and radio stations. The drive lasted throughout the month of February.

A group of 19 commandos fought their way into the U.S. embassy in Saigon and held out for six-and-a-half hours. Images of the fighting were broadcast around the world.

The insurgents held the city of Hue, the third largest city in the South, for 25 days before the U.S. recaptured it through house-to-house fighting.

The U.S. responded with a massive attack on the Vietnamese population. It pulverized cities supporting the insurgents, aiming to terrorize the population. In Hue, 116,000 of the city’s 140,000 people were made homeless. Across the South, 630,000 civilians were driven from their homes, turned into refugees within two weeks. When the U.S. recaptured the completely destroyed town of Ben Tre, a U.S. major made the now infamous remark, “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”

What the Tet Offensive demonstrated was not simply this vulgar brutality by the U.S. forces. It also showed that the United States itself would have to pay an enormous price if it were to remain in Vietnam. The U.S. may have had a massive advantage in military technology over the Vietnamese fighters. What the U.S. didn’t have was the support of the Vietnamese population, no more than it has support from the Iraqi people today.

Up to Tet, U.S. officials steadfastly claimed the war in Vietnam was going well. Those claims had no more basis in reality than do the claims today about the success of the “surge” in Iraq. In very dramatic fashion, the Tet Offensive put the lie to the official story. And that created a much more widespread opposition to the war in this country.

Tet marked a turning point in the war. It led to the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Johnson’s public approval ratings had already been dropping, but they dropped dramatically after the attack. Public approval for his handling of the war dropped from 40% to 26% in the following six weeks.

Tet forced Richard Nixon, in his run for office, to promise to end the war. When he didn’t, the situation in Vietnam turned support away from him in the American population.

After Tet, the U.S. decided to rely more heavily on South Vietnamese troops to police the population, in the same way today that it relies on Iraqi warlords, tribal leaders, and the ethnic militias to police the Iraqi population.

Some in the antiwar movement argued at the time that the war in Vietnam was a mistake. It was not a mistake, but rather part of a policy dating back as far as the 1800s, when the U.S. went to war repeatedly to extend its domination over first the entire Western Hemisphere, then into Asia and eventually the Middle East.

The U.S. went to war in Vietnam to put up a barrier to the nationalist revolts that were spreading across Asia and Africa. Knowing it was going to leave Vietnam, the U.S. decided to demonstrate to the world the heavy price the Vietnamese population had to pay for standing up to U.S. imperialism.

In the same way, the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq was not about removing Saddam Hussein or about weapons of mass destruction. It is part of a long-term policy to control oil and strategic areas of the Middle East.

In Vietnam, the U.S. was ultimately driven out by the insurgency, the Vietnamese population, and an ever wider opposition in the U.S. population, particularly the black revolt in U.S. cities.