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International Socialist Review Issue 33, January–February 2004

From the overthrow of Diem to the Tet Offensive
Vietnam: The war the U.S. lost

By Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a union activist in Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago. This is the second of a three-part series. Part one of this article, Vietnam: From the French conquest to the overthrow of Diem, appeared in ISR 29, and can be found in the ISR archives at

FROM THE end of the Second World War to 1965, the United States attempted to prevent the triumph of the nationalist forces in Vietnam without the large-scale use of its own troops. U.S. administrations tried to do this by first supporting the French in their failed effort to reconquer their former colony, which, under the leadership of the Viet Minh, had declared independence following the end of the war. Following the defeat of the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. strategy was to partition Vietnam along the 17th parallel and create an anti-communist puppet state in the southern half of the country around the figure of Ngo Dinh Diem.

The Geneva Accords had stipulated that the country would quickly be reunited after national elections. U.S. policy aimed at making the 17th parallel a permanent dividing line. As historian Marilyn Young notes, U.S. propaganda in support of its intervention in Vietnam "cast Vietnamese who lived and worked north of the 17th parallel as more foreign to South Vietnam than the Americans, for the Americans were invited as guests, while North Vietnam was an enemy country."1 While this strategy was initially successful, by the early 1960s it was in complete disarray, as the population of South Vietnam turned increasingly to open rebellion against the Diem regime.

By the end of 1963, the Kennedy administration decided that Diem had to go in order to forestall the collapse of the Saigon government. Diem and his brother Nhu, head of the secret police, were overthrown and assassinated in a military coup directed by the CIA and U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge.2 Despite the removal of the Diem family, who were a political liability, the Saigon government continued to spiral downward and the revolutionary movement led by the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF) continued to move forward. Diem’s removal from power set off over a year of political instability that would eventually lead to the direct U.S. invasion of South Vietnam in 1965.

Regime changes in Saigon

The emergence of an exceptional leader could improve the situation and no George Washington is in sight.

–General Maxwell Taylor, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, September 1964.3

Lyndon Johnson became president of the United States after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Johnson inherited two things from the Kennedy administration concerning Vietnam. One was a rapidly deteriorating situation in South Vietnam, with an NLF victory on the immediate horizon. The second was a coterie of advisers who had presided over America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam and who were now arguing for an even more dramatic escalation of U.S. involvement. Among these advisers were Defense Secretary William McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisers Walt Rostow and McGeorge Bundy. These were the men who would eventually take the U.S. into total war in Vietnam, but in the meantime they struggled with finding the "right man" to lead the Saigon government.

Despite the removal of Diem, the Saigon government remained on the verge of collapse. It was plagued by a series of military coups following Diem’s assassination, sponsored by the U.S., that further weakened it politically and militarily. Diem’s immediate successor was General Duong Van Minh, known as "Big Minh." Many people in South Vietnam initially greeted his government with much approval and hope. Minh infuriated the Americans by making a rapprochement with the Buddhist forces that organized massive demonstrations against the Diem regime. He began talking about possibly opening talks with the NLF. Minh also began to describe his government as "non-communist" as opposed to "anti-communist" and raised the possibility of his government adopting a diplomatic position of "neutrality" in world affairs. This was clearly not what the Americans wanted from a military coup.4

Soon after, the Americans spearheaded another military coup, this time organized by the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam, the main body that U.S. military aid and "advisers" were organized through in Vietnam. This coup, at the end of January 1964, has gone down in the history books as the "Pentagon Coup," and it brought to power General Nguyen Khanh. Khanh seemed to be what the Americans wanted. He was committed to fighting the war against the NLF, and seemed whole-heartedly to accept military and political strategies emanating from the U.S. embassy. However, he immediately ran into a renewed wave of antiwar activity from the Bhuddists and radical students of South Vietnam. Khanh was completely thrown off balance by this and began to talk about a negotiated end to the war. In fact, the CIA learned that Khanh had contacted the NLF in December 1964, and had had more serious contacts with them in January and February 1965. Clearly, he also had to go.5

The Americans, led by the new U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, a retired general who returned to government service under Kennedy, brought enormous pressure to bear on Khanh, who subsequently left Vietnam for exile in France. Power now passed to the military triumvirate of Generals Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Chanh Thi and Nguyen Van Thieu. The leading figure was Ky, who became prime minister (Thieu became chief of state). Ky would hold onto power until 1967, when elections excluding anyone holding "pro-communist" or "neutralist" views delivered Ky’s position to Thieu, who won with only 35 percent of the vote. Ky first came to the attention of the U.S. by working for the CIA in covert operations against North Vietnam in the early 1960s. He would later embarrass the U.S. by telling reporters that his only real hero was Hitler. Ky and Thieu were both trained by the French and had fought against their own people in the First Vietnam War. If this wasn’t enough to prove their loyalty to the Americans, they pledged, on March 1, 1965, that they would never negotiate with the NLF or the North Vietnamese. They also made it clear that they would follow the lead of Washington on all military, political and diplomatic affairs.6

While military coups wracked Saigon throughout 1964 and 1965, a much deeper crisis was brewing in South Vietnam. By mid-1964 the various military and political strategies developed by the U.S. for combating the NLF were at a dead end. "Viet-Cong" forces–as the U.S. insisted on calling the nationalists–controlled 40—50 percent of the countryside. U.S.-sponsored counter-insurgency tactics, rather than strengthening the regime, were turning the mass of the peasantry against it. The Strategic Hamlet program, in which peasants were forcibly uprooted from their traditional villages and burial grounds and concentrated into walled camps, was a disaster. These villages were essentially concentration camps designed to separate the peasant population from the guerrillas. Where they were not torn apart by internal dissention, they were overrun by NLF fighters. Army of Vietnam troops (ARVN–Diem’s forces) deserted in droves, unwilling to defend the regime. Marine pacification expert Lieutenant Colonel William R. Corson admitted that the role of the U.S. puppet regime in South Vietnam was "to loot, collect back taxes, reinstall landlords, and conduct reprisals against the people."7

As historian James Gibson summed up the situation: "Strategic hamlets had failed…. The South Vietnamese regime was incapable of winning the peasantry because of its class base among landlords. Indeed, there was no longer a ‘regime’ in the sense of a relatively stable political alliance and functioning bureaucracy. Instead, civil government and military operations had virtually ceased. The National Liberation Front had made great progress and was close to declaring provisional revolutionary governments in large areas."8 Finding the "right man" would not do away with these fundamental issues that at the end of the day produced the NLF and a weak Saigon government–class inequality, absence of basic democratic rights and a strong desire for the reunification of Vietnam.

The war was quickly moving beyond being a proxy war funded by the United States to becoming a full-fledged American war. By 1962, the Kennedy administration had boosted the number of U.S. military advisers to over 15,000 and had authorized them to lead combat missions. By this time, U.S. pilots were also bombing North Vietnam. Despite all of this, the South Vietnam government continued to lose the war against the NLF. In the face of these mounting defeats, U.S. intelligence reported that the Saigon government was on the verge of abandoning its five northern provinces altogether.9 A fundamental shift in American policy was about to take place.

Manufacturing an excuse for war

A lie is a lie...and it’s supposed to be a criminal act if said under oath, but Mr. Johnson wasn’t under oath when he said it.

–Sen. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the Tonkin Gulf incident10

The new escalation of American involvement in Vietnam was taking place during a presidential election year. The 1964 election would ultimately pit the sitting Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, running as a "peace candidate," against the right-wing Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who was considered by many people to be a dangerous right-wing extremist. "We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves,"11 Johnson assured his supporters. But while the election campaign proceeded, the Johnson administration was planning behind the scenes to introduce hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops into South Vietnam after the election. "Just let me get elected," Johnson told a meeting of the joint chiefs of staff at the end of 1963, "and then you can have your war."12 Like many of the decisions made about U.S. policy toward Vietnam, it was concealed from the public. This was the beginning of the famous "credibility gap" that developed between what the Johnson administration stated as its policy toward Vietnam and what it actually did.13

The large-scale introduction of U.S. combat troops would be a fundamental shift in American policy. Most Americans at this point were unaware of the deep involvement of their country in the war in Vietnam. Sending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to Vietnam, as some in the Johnson administration and the military were contemplating, would require both public support and some form of congressional authorization. A resolution had already been drafted in early 1964 by the State Department for that purpose, but was shelved because of election year considerations.14 What was required was an "incident" to get both public and congressional support for war, preferably an attack on U.S. forces.15 The incident that they were looking for came in early August 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam, as a result of one of the many covert operations the U.S. was carrying out against North Vietnam.

On July 30, 1964, the CIA and South Vietnamese military were engaged in covert operations against North Vietnam called "34A ops." All covert operations against North Vietnamese were run by a secret White House committee called the 303 Committee. The purpose of these operations was to identify and destroy North Vietnamese coastal radar stations. To do this, U.S. Navy destroyers were ordered to patrol well within what the North Vietnamese regarded as their territorial waters to force the North Vietnamese to turn on their radar. These patrolling operations were called "DeSoto." Once these sites were identified, the CIA agents and South Vietnamese commandos would move in and destroy them. On August 2, the Navy destroyer USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats while on one of these DeSoto patrols. The Maddox sank one North Vietnamese patrol boat, while fighter jets from the U.S. aircraft carrier Ticonderoga damaged two others.16

On August 3, 1964, U.S. naval forces carried out more South Vietnamese raids during the night.

During the following night, the Maddox reported that it was under persistent attack from North Vietnamese Patrol Torpedo boats, but its radar could find no target except the USS Turner Joy, which it almost fired on. The Turner Joy did not hear any torpedoes, nor did its radar find any targets, but it fired anyway. Commodore John J. Herrick, the commander of the two-destroyer flotilla in the Tonkin Gulf, reported it "doubtful" that U.S. forces were fired upon, blaming the incident on "freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen." Reporting "no actual visual sightings by Maddox," Herrick recommended a "complete evaluation before further action taken."17 While Herrick was doubtful about the whole encounter and wanted, in his own words, a "complete evaluation"–Johnson had the incident that he desired. Though Johnson remarked later that "for all I know, our navy was shooting at whales out there,"18 he wasn’t about to admit it then. Johnson immediately announced that American ships had been involved in an unprovoked attack in international waters and ordered U.S. aircraft to "retaliate" against North Vietnam on the night of August 4.

Johnson also called for the congressional approval of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. On August 7, 1965, the Senate voted 98 to 2 and the House of Representatives voted 441 to 0 in favor. It was not repealed by Congress until 1971. The resolution allowed Johnson "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."19 Johnson then had the legal authority to wage the expanded war that he wanted in Vietnam. He waited until after the November 1964 election to invade South Vietnam. The marines landed in Da Nang on March 8, 1965–the beginning of a U.S. troop build-up that would eventually number over 500,000 soldiers. Seven years of war followed, as the strongest military machine on earth unleashed its savage fury on one of the poorest countries in the world.20

The price of empire

Surrender anywhere threatens defeat everywhere.

–Lyndon Johnson, 1964.21

Why did the U.S. choose the course of total war in Vietnam? Why did they believe they could win a war against a nationalist movement that defeated the French a decade earlier? Inside the Kennedy and Johnson administrations it was recognized that the client regime created by them was highly unstable and enormously unpopular. In sharp contrast, the popularity of the NLF was acknowledged and its military capabilities taken very seriously. Why didn’t the U.S. government accept something short of total victory–such as the various proposals for a coalition government and neutrality in Saigon? The NLF itself was prepared to accept such a proposal. In fact, Charles De Gaulle, president of France, was proposing such a plan for all of Southeast Asia at the time.

The Johnson administration chose war because anything less than a total victory of U.S. imperialism would be seen as a defeat. As Lyndon Johnson put it in 1964, "Surrender anywhere threatens defeat everywhere." This wasn’t some peculiar perspective of Johnson and his advisers, it flowed from the position that the United Sates found itself in after the Second World War as the guardian of the capitalist world. The U.S. emerged from the war as the dominant capitalist country with a string of military bases around the world to enforce its interests. Like the British Empire in the 19th century, it would find itself embroiled in conflicts and wars in remote parts of the globe in order to ensure that its "credibility" was not undermined. The failure of the U.S. to intervene could be taken as a sign of weakness by its chief rival, the USSR, or by indigenous national liberation movements. Vietnam was the weakest link in the chain of American imperialism during the Kennedy and Johnson years.22

Soon after Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, General Edward Lansdale met with Kennedy and Walt Rostow, and presented a report on the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. The thrust of Lansdale’s report was to urge increased support for the Diem regime. Kennedy, turning to Rostow, said: "This is the worst one we’ve got isn’t it?"23 After the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and after being bullied by Russian Premier Nikita Krushchev at the Vienna summit, Kennedy was determined not have another defeat on his hands. Kennedy wanted to reestablish U.S. "credibility" in the world. In his own words, "Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place."24

Kennedy escalated U.S. involvement in South Vietnam to the point where the U.S. was essentially fighting a proxy war on the ground. After the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, the Vietnam question became magnified even more through the lens of superpower rivalry. "The Cuban crisis did not ease the Cold War as direct it into channels, ones less likely to produce nuclear conflict," according to military historian Michael Sherry.25 The stabilization of a pro-American regime in Saigon or a victory of the National Liberation Front would have a dramatic impact on the ability of the U.S. to influence Third World nations.

The Kennedy administration set the course that Johnson could not stray from. In March 1965, John McNaughton, assistant secretary of defense, was asked by his boss Robert McNamara to summarize U.S. political strategy and war aims in Vietnam. McNaughton began by attacking any support for a political settlement in Vietnam that would lead to a U.S. withdrawal. This, he argued, would "be regarded in Asia, and particularly among our friends, as just as humiliating a defeat as any other form." He went on to summarize U.S. war aims: "U.S. aims: 70 percent–To avoid a humiliating defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor). 20 percent–To keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands. 10 percent–To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life."26 This sentiment was also echoed by Ambassador Maxwell Taylor. "If we leave Vietnam with our tail between our legs," he wrote, "the consequences of this defeat in the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America will be disastrous."27

While the U.S. believed it faced enormous difficulties in Vietnam, it was sure that it could overcome these difficulties through the sheer weight of its enormous economic and military power. Rostow exuded the arrogance of this way of thinking when he wrote in 1964 that victory in Vietnam "flows from the simple fact that at this stage in history we are the greatest power in the world–if we behave like it."28 Michael Sherry sums up the mindset of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations: "What defined the arrogance of leaders was not blindness to such difficulties but confidence that they could overcome them. They were both desperate and arrogant–but not about the same things: fearful about South Vietnam, but sure about American power."29

While Vietnam did not have any direct economic or strategic importance to the United States–it had no great natural resource like oil nor did it command vital sea lanes, like the Panama Canal–it took on great political importance. Success or failure there involved what American political leaders would call "credibility," "resolve" or "commitment" at different points in time. War in Vietnam was the price to be paid for having a global empire and an arrogant leadership who believed that they could bully anybody into line. Though it tried to justify its intervention in Vietnam by saying that it was fighting foreign "communist aggression" against South Vietnam directed by Moscow and Beijing, the only aggressors and foreigners in Vietnam were Americans.

The American way of war

The American way of war is particularly violent, deadly and dreadful. We believe in using "things"–artillery, bombs, massive firepower.

–General Fred C. Weyand, assistant to General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam.30

Every major war has one or two enduring images that last long after the conflict has faded into history. The Vietnam War has left us with a kaleidoscope of images. Among them: the massive B-52 carpet-bombings of North Vietnam; Vietnamese children running naked with their flesh scorched by napalm; American soldiers burning down villages with Zippo lighters; and the summary execution of a suspected Viet Cong fighter by the Saigon police chief. This kaleidoscope of images is the memory for most people of the "deadly and dreadful" war that America brought to Vietnam.31

When the U.S. invaded and occupied South Vietnam beginning in 1965, the NLF then controlled most of the countryside. Regular combat units of the North Vietnamese army had been fighting alongside NLF forces for over a year in South Vietnam, making their way there by the Ho Chi Minh Trail–an elaborate network that comprised 12,000 miles of paths and roads connecting North and South Vietnam. The U.S. invasion brought them face to face with an experienced regular army led by the hero of Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap, and a well-entrenched guerrilla movement in the south. In attempts to defeat such a formidable opponent, the U.S. constructed a killing machine of extreme proportions under the command of U.S. military forces in Vietnam–U.S. Army General William C. Westmoreland.

Westmoreland was a graduate of West Point, Harvard Business School, a former commander of the 101st Airborne Division and superintendent of West Point. He first arrived in Vietnam in June 1964 and he eventually commanded one of the largest expeditionary forces in American history, which by late 1967 numbered nearly 500,000 men with a colossal support apparatus. Each month, the U.S. spent nearly $2 billion on the war and delivered over one million tons of supplies. American engineers built a massive road network, deep-water ports and nearly 100 airstrips to facilitate the war effort. This was augmented by bombing missions carried out from U.S. bases in Thailand, Guam and from aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. It was the best trained, funded, equipped and most mobile military force in the world. Yet despite the incredible destructive power it brought to bear in Vietnam, it failed miserably.

Westmoreland’s war strategy was deeply flawed. His central strategy was to fight a "war of attrition." The object, in Westmoreland’s own words, was to decimate the North Vietnamese population "to the point of national disaster for generations to come," while in South Vietnam his aim was to kill off "Viet Cong" fighters faster than the population could replace them. The goal was simply to pulverize the enemy into submission. The Pentagon called this strategy the "meat grinder." This was to be achieved through massive bombing of North Vietnam and "search-and-destroy" missions in the south that would flush out the NLF and destroy them with American air power. It was hoped that this strategy would buy time for the Saigon government to become a viable political and military entity.32

Right away the attrition strategy ran into trouble on several fronts. First, the massive U.S. troop presence and bombing campaigns actually increased the hostility by the mass of the population towards the Saigon government and their American masters. Instead of the huge American army intimidating the NLF and North Vietnamese, U.S. atrocities increased the number of Vietnamese willing to join the resistance and fight back. Despite a promise of a quick victory over the NLF in the time period between 1965 and 1967 (during the massive build-up of U.S. forces) a clear-cut military victory eluded the U.S., while the initiative of the war remained in the hands of the NLF and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). In 1967, with nearly 500,000 U.S. troops on the ground, roughly 80 percent of the contacts between American troops and NLF/NVA forces were still at the time and place of the nationalists’ choosing.33

But even where the U.S. was able to fight at a time and place chosen by U.S. commanders, there were problems. In Operation Starlight, a large-scale military engagement in August 1965, the U.S. combined massive air, land and sea power in which 6,000 marines killed 573 defenders and lost only 46 of their own. The problem was that three-quarters of the Vietnamese fighters escaped to fight another day. Moreover, as soon as the marines departed, the NLF moved right back in.34 These early battles–especially the Battle of Ia Drang in November 1965–taught the Vietnamese the necessity of mostly using quick hit-and-run tactics, and, when fighting pitched battles, only to engage American forces at close quarters to make it hard for U.S. forces to use their air superiority.

The failure of the attrition strategy was best symbolized by Operation Junction City. Carried out in the first three months of 1967, it was the largest American operation of the war to that date. Over 35,000 American and South Vietnamese troops swept along the Cambodian border northwest of Saigon hoping to destroy longstanding NLF bases of support. Despite the huge number of highly mobile U.S. troops involved in the operation, they failed to engage the NLF in any significant fights. Later, one official account concluded that they "had little to show for their effort." When large American forces swept through an area, the NLF would carefully avoid any contact. After the Americans left the area, the NLF would move back in. This would be repeated many hundreds of times during the course of the war. It was an attrition strategy–only it was the NLF’s. By 1967, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA reluctantly acknowledged that a "long and costly" war lay ahead for the U.S. in Vietnam.35

Historian Gabriel Kolko sums up well the dilemma of America’s military strategy in Vietnam: "The Americans won a large number of battles, and the PLAF [People’s Liberation Armed Forces] and PAVN [People’s Army of Vietnam] lost enormous numbers of men, but the revolution throughout this period dominated the overall military situation." Ultimately, Westmoreland’s strategy of a war of attrition "failed because firepower and mobility were not decisive in military, much less political, terms."36 While 80 percent of the contacts between U.S. and NLF forces were determined by the NLF, the U.S. was never able to dominate the field outside of their immediate battle successes. While the Johnson administration privately knew that their strategy was failing and a long war was forecast, they gave an upbeat assessment of the war, constantly portraying victory as just around the corner.

This assessment was the thrust of Westmoreland’s tour of the U.S. at the end of 1967. In Washington, D.C., at the National Press Club, he said, "With 1968, a new phase is starting…. We have reached an important point where the end comes into view."37 The U.S. embassy in Saigon sent out invitations to its New Year’s Eve party saying "Come see the light at the end of the tunnel."38 Unbeknown to the party-goers at the embassy that night, the light at the end of the tunnel was not an American victory, but the freight train of the Tet Offensive coming straight at them.

Racism and total war

The only thing they told us about the Viet Cong was they were gooks. They were to be killed. Nobody sits around and gives you their historical and cultural background. They’re the enemy. Kill, kill, kill. That’s what we got in practice. Kill, kill, kill."

–A Vietnam veteran on basic training.39

What was the American war like for the majority of people in South Vietnam, where the bulk of the fighting took place? While Westmoreland’s war of attrition would ultimately prove unable to break the will of the Vietnamese people, it did unleash incredible destruction on them. According to antiwar critic Noam Chomsky,

In a very real sense the overall U.S. effort in South Vietnam was a huge and deliberately imposed bloodbath. Military escalation was undertaken to offset the well-understood lack of any significant social and political support for the elite military faction [the Saigon government] supported by the United States.40

This "huge and deliberately imposed bloodbath" consisted first and foremost of large-scale bombing. Bombing was, and still is, one of the great sacred cows of the American way of war.41 America’s incredible industrial infrastructure allowed it to build a huge air force and virtually a limitless amount of ordnance during the Cold War. The B-52, which was originally designed for dropping nuclear weapons on Russia, was re-fitted for "conventional" warfare in Vietnam with devastating results. The U.S. dropped over one million tons of bombs on North Vietnam. South Vietnam, the primary battlefield of the war, had over four million tons of bombs dropped on it during the war. The amount of bombs dropped by the U.S. on South Vietnam, from the air war alone, was double the tonnage it used in all of the Second World War! Life was made unbearable in the South Vietnamese countryside. While it is probably an underestimate, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Refugees reported the civilian casualties at 400,000 dead, 900,000 wounded and 6.4 million refugees by 1971. They concluded "that there is hardly a family in South Vietnam that has not suffered a death, injury or the anguish of abandoning an ancient homestead."42

The Vietnamese people were subjected to the virulent racism of the occupying American army. The Vietnamese people were regularly referred to as "gooks," "slants" and "dinks" by American troops. It’s important to remember that this racism started with the top brass. General Westmoreland believed that the "oriental doesn’t value life in the same way as a westerner."43 While this could be dismissed as the casual bigotry of a son of a rich southern family, in other cases it bordered on the genocidal. Colonel George S. Patton III, son of the notorious Second World War general and a combat commander in Vietnam, sent out Christmas cards in 1968 which read: "From Colonel and Mrs. George S. Patton III–Peace on Earth." The attached Christmas cards contained photographs of Viet Cong soldiers dismembered and stacked in a pile.44 This racism worked its way down to the troops through basic training. As one combat veteran recalled basic training, "The only thing they told us about the Viet Cong was they were gooks. They were to be killed."

It was during search-and-destroy missions that the most direct contact took place between American soldiers, Vietnamese civilians and NLF supporters. For historian Christian Appy, "search and destroy was the principal tactic; and the enemy body count was the primary measure of progress" in Westmoreland’s war of attrition.45 Search and destroy was coined as a phrase in 1965 to describe missions aimed at flushing the Viet Cong out of hiding, while the body count was the measuring stick for the success of any operation. Competitions were held between units for the highest number of Vietnamese killed in action, or KIAs. Army and marine officers knew that promotions were largely based on confirmed kills. The pressure to produce confirmed kills resulted in massive fraud. One study revealed that American commanders exaggerated body counts by 100 percent.46

It also resulted in atrocities. "As much as the military command might deny its significance, the widespread local support for the full-time main forces of the NLF and NVA was the central disadvantage faced by American soldiers."47 Villagers would supply the NLF with soldiers, food and assistance in the planting of land mines. What many U.S. soldiers feared most were land mines and then ambushes. Soldiers would become demoralized by weeks of mundane patrolling and then they would be hit unexpectedly by the explosion of land mines or an ambush. Enraged soldiers would go back to the nearest area they had just been through and brutalize the villagers in a racist fury. The effect of fighting a total war on an entire population was to create a situation where all Vietnamese people were seen as fair game to kill. The most famous case of this (but by no means the only one) was the My Lai massacre in March 1968, where Charlie Company, led by Captain Ernest Medina and Lieutenant William Calley, murdered over 350 unarmed women and children. An army psychiatrist reported later that, "Lt. Calley states that he did not feel as if he were killing human beings rather they were animals with whom one could not speak or reason."48

My Lai was not an aberration–smaller, unreported My Lais happened throughout the war. James Duffy, a machine-gunner on a Chinook helicopter for Company A of the 228th Aviation Battalion, 1st Airborne Division, served from February 1967 to April 1968. Testifying at the "Winter Soldier" investigation, held in Detroit in 1971, he reported one incident he was involved in:

I swung my machine gun onto this group of peasants and opened fire. Fortunately, the gun jammed after one or two rounds, which was pretty lucky, because this group of peasants turned out to be a work party hired by the government to clear the area and there was GIs guarding them about fifty meters away. But my mind was so psyched out into killing gooks that I never even paid attention to look around and see where I was. I just saw gooks and I wanted to kill them. I was pretty scared after that happened because that sort of violated the unwritten code that you can do anything you want to as long as you don’t get caught. That’s, I guess that’s what happened with the My Lai incident. Those guys just were following the same pattern that we’ve been doing there for ten years, but they had the misfortune of getting caught at it.49

When the Americans decided that an area could not be "pacified" they would turn it into a "free-fire zone" where anyone could be shot on sight, and which were subject to constant artillery barrages. In other areas, the Americans would literally plow the land down using huge Rome plows –giant bulldozers. The most famous case of this was the "Iron triangle." A 32-mile perimeter 22 miles north of Saigon and an NLF bastion of support, it was first flattened by B-52s and artillery fire beginning in January 1967, and then the plows moved in and bulldozed everything in sight. Despite this, the NLF built a vast area of tunnels and was operating in the area again within six months.50 If bombing and plowing couldn’t deny an area to the NLF, the U.S. would use defoliants, such as the cancer-causing Agent Orange and other herbicides, to destroy jungle cover and food. The U.S. dropped over 100 million pounds of herbicides across Vietnam during the war with long-lasting effects on the Vietnamese and American soldiers. The U.S. simply turned whole swaths of Vietnam into dead zones. The mindset of the military command can be summed up by the slogan painted on the wall of the U.S. Army’s Ninth Division helicopter headquarters during Operation Speed Express: "Death is our business and business is good."51

The bitterness and demoralization among troops also encouraged a growing resistance to the war, in the form of going AWOL (Absent Without Leave), avoiding combat, "fragging" officers, and even active political resistance. This development contributed greatly to the eventual defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam. This will be one of the subjects taken up in the final article in this series.

The NLF: Surviving the American onslaught

For better or worse, our endeavor was meshed into an ongoing historical movement for independence that had already developed its own philosophy and means of action. Of this movement, Ho Chi Minh was the spiritual father…. And yet, this struggle was also our own.

–Truong Nhu Tang, founding member of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam52

The American invasion of South Vietnam in 1965 saved the Saigon government from collapse. It prevented both the formation of a coalition government committed to peace and U.S. withdrawal and an outright NLF victory. During the previous four years, the various pacification and counterinsurgency programs instigated at the behest of the U.S. government not only failed to dislodge or erode the NLF’s base of support, they in fact fuelled it. In the two-and-a-half years following the American invasion, the NLF continued to control a significant section of the countryside in the face of massive American firepower. What accounts for the ability of the NLF to survive the American onslaught?

The NLF was able to survive the American invasion for three reasons: nationalism, repression and the class relations in the countryside. The NLF was latest political formation in the long struggle against foreign oppression. "For better or worse, our endeavor was meshed into an ongoing historical movement for independence that had already developed its own philosophy and means of action. Of this movement, Ho Chi Minh was the spiritual father…. And yet, this struggle was also our own," said Truong Nhu Tang, a founding member of the NLF, who later went into exile in France. The Diem regime and his successors were seen by the mass of the population as a puppet regime for foreign domination of their country by the Americans. The Saigon government could not escape this "colonial taint" to its rule, and the U.S. invasion only made this more glaring.

The NLF, to most people in the countryside, was the latest name for the Viet Minh which had been fighting for the independence of Vietnam and land reform in the countryside since the 1940s. This continuity of struggle was reinforced by Viet Minh veterans who had regrouped after the 1954 armistice in the north and were now returning home to the south to reignite the struggle against Diem and his successors. In 1959—60, about 4,500 Viet Minh veterans returned to the south; by 1961 the number rose to over 6,200.53 As one peasant recalled, "some of us thought they had died. We were surprised to see them return, and we were very happy to hear them say that they wanted to organize the liberation in the area," a peasant from a village near Hue recalled.54 These returning veterans and those that survived the repression of the Diem years set up NLF committees in thousands of villages across South Vietnam. These people had an authority, "living heroes" as one peasant called them, that the Saigon government couldn’t challenge.

The second reason was repression. "Had Ngo Dinh Diem proved a man of breadth and vision we would have rallied to him. As it was, the South Vietnamese nationalists were driven to action by his contempt for the principles of independence and social progress in which they believed," recalled Truong Nhu Tang.55 This was an expression of middle-class and bourgeois alienation from Diem that only got worse under his successors. The Saigon government was hopelessly corrupt, undemocratic and violently repressive. By the mid-to-late-1960s there were thousands of political prisoners in South Vietnam. Elections were a sham, there was no viable course for reforming the Saigon government and as a result many reformers joined the armed struggle because they had no other recourse.56

The third reason for the continued survival of the NLF was the class relations in the countryside. The vast majority of the population lived in villages in the countryside where the key issue was land reform. The Viet Minh had reduced rents and debts; and had leased communal lands, mostly to the poorer peasants. Diem brought the landlords back to the villages. People who were farming land they held for years now had to return it to landlords and pay years of back rent. This rent collection was enforced by the South Vietnamese army. This produced a fury in the countryside. "I knew the rich oppressed the poor…. So I joined the Liberation Front," said one peasant.57 "Everywhere [Diem’s] army came," another peasant remarked, "they made more friends for the V.C." "Cruel," exclaimed another peasant, "like the French." "The divisions within villages reproduced those that had existed against the French: 75 percent support for the Front, 20 percent trying to remain neutral and 5 percent firmly pro-government," says historian Marilyn Young.58 As the NLF came to control an area the rich fled to the cities, "leaving the poorer element as almost the sole dwellers in the countryside," an American report concluded, "and the war became in a real sense a class war."59 This class war only intensified under the American occupation as the Saigon rich grew fat off the war while the poorer peasants suffered under the weight of American firepower. The failure of the Americans to alter class relations in the countryside was recognized by Robert Komer, the head of the pacification effort. In February 1967, Komer reported, "By themselves none of our Vietnam programs offer high confidence of a successful outcome."60

The U.S. had a large and lumbering military machine in Vietnam, very capable of inflicting incredible destruction. In Quang Ngai province–referred to by the U.S. Army as "Indian Country" because of the NLF’s wide support–the Americans destroyed 70 percent of the villages. Yet the Americans were about to learn that firepower alone can’t win a war.61

The Tet Offensive: The turning point

To say that we are closer to victory is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past…. It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out, then, will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people…[who] did the best they could.

–Walter Cronkite, CBS News62

While General Westmoreland was touring the U.S. in 1967 at the behest of Lyndon Johnson, talking about the "thinning of the ranks of the Viet Cong" and the coming end of the war, an earthquake was building beneath his feet–the Tet Offensive.63 Tet was the turning point in the American war in Vietnam. It had a dramatic effect on domestic U.S. politics. From Tet onward the question was no longer when would the U.S. win the war, but how quickly could the U.S. get out of Vietnam.

Tet was the Lunar New Year, a major holiday in Vietnam. It is celebrated by relatives travelling long distances to visit one another. Since the American bombing campaign had driven many people into the cities, a great many people traveled to the largest cities. Fireworks of various sorts marked the Tet holiday, and it was "normal" that many strangers would be around. This made it a perfect time for a military offensive in the cities. The plans for Tet were drawn up a year before in Hanoi with the personal approval of Ho Chi Minh. While there had been military offensives in the past around Tet, the one planned for February 1968 was nothing less than an effort to shift the course of the war against the United States.

The offensive itself actually began in late 1967–during the dry season in Vietnam–as the North Vietnamese and the NLF launched military feints to draw American military forces away from the major cities. Up until Tet, the major cities had seen little of a war that was primarily confined the countryside. The French newspaper Le Monde reported in January 1968 that a "sustained and general offensive" had the Americans pinned back in defensive positions.64 On January 20, the North Vietnamese Army began a siege of the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh near the Laotian border. Westmoreland was convinced that the Vietnamese wanted to repeat at Khe Sanh the victory they had at Dien Bien Phu 15 years earlier. Johnson was so nervous about the situation that he had a model of Khe Sanh in the White House and made his generals pledge that Khe Sanh could be held no matter what. He reportedly barked at his generals: "I don’t want any damn Dinbinphoo!"65

Westmoreland and Johnson’s obsession with Khe Sanh, a base of little strategic value, revealed how much they were misreading the battlefield. While the NVA were laying siege at Khe Sanh and Westmoreland correspondingly rushed troops to reinforce his besieged troops, the NLF moved into place. In January, tens of thousands of NLF troops moved into the larger provincial towns and cities. They smuggled weapons and explosives in coffins, burying them in cemeteries for future use. As one American journalist observed, once in the cities "the Viet Cong were absorbed into the population by the urban underground like out of relatives attending a family reunion."66 It is a testament to the deep roots and widespread sympathy for the nationalist movement that no one tipped off the Saigon government or the Americans that such a large military build-up was taking place.

On the night of January 29—30, the main part of the offensive began, when 70,000 NVA/NLF soldiers attacked 34 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 district capitals and many military installations. Over 100 targets were hit all over South Vietnam, including the American embassy in Saigon, the citadel of American power. Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, fell to the combined forces of the North Vietnamese Army and the NLF.67 "The feat stunned U.S. and world opinion," according to liberal anti-communist historian Stanley Karnow.68 Westmoreland tried to portray the offensive as the death rattle of the NLF, similar to the Battle of the Bulge by the Germans in the final phase of the Second World War in Europe.

The U.S. responded with what one reporter called "the most hysterical use of American firepower ever seen,"69 particularly air power. "The Viet Cong had the government by the throat in those provincial towns," explained one U.S. military adviser. "Ordinary methods would have never gotten them out, and the government did not have enough troops to do the job, so firepower was substituted." The nationalists occupied Hue for three weeks, and it was only retaken after being virtually destroyed by the Americans. "Nothing I saw during the Korean War, or in the Vietnam War so far," wrote Robert Shapen, who toured Hue after its destruction, "has been as terrible, in terms of destruction and despair, as what I saw in Hue."70 Ben Tre in Kien Hoa province was obliterated by U.S. firepower. "We had to destroy the town to save it," the commanding officer in charge of recapturing Ben Tre told reporters71–"coining one of the most notorious phrases of the war and a fitting motto for the U.S. counterattack against the Tet offensive," writes historian David Hunt.72

While American firepower pushed back the Tet offensive, the costs were high. During the offensive South Vietnamese (ARVN) forces were severely mauled at the hands of the NVA and the NLF. The Americans suffered nearly 4,000 casualties between January 30 and March 31. American military forces were clearly demoralized after Tet, beginning the process of decay and rebellion that would reach crisis proportions in the remaining years of the war. A March 3 State Department report dismally concluded: "We know that despite a massive influx of 500,000 U.S. troops, 1.2 million tons of bombs, 400,000 sorties per year, 200,000 KIA in three years, 20,000 U.S. KIA, etc., our control of the countryside and the defense of the urban levels is now essentially at pre-August 1965 levels. We have achieved a stalemate at a high commitment."73

The Vietnamese fighters fought heroically. In Saigon, for example, 1,000 fighters fought off 11,000 U.S. and ARVN troops for three weeks. Yet it should be noted that Tet was also extremely costly for the nationalist forces, especially for the NLF. The anticipated urban uprisings that the attacks were meant to inspire did not happen. Moreover, in addition to the tremendous casualties inflicted in the battle by U.S. forces to retake the cities from the NLF and NVA, the absence of NLF fighters in the villages exposed their rural bases to attack. Writes Marilyn Young:

In Long An province, for example, local guerrillas taking part in the May—June offensive had been divided into several sections. Only 775 out of 2,018 in one section survived; another lost all but 640 out of 1,430. The province itself was subjected to what one historian has called a "My Lai from the Sky"–non-stop B-52 bombing.74

Nevertheless, the political effect of Tet in domestic U.S. politics was swift and dramatic. While Johnson’s personal popularity had been declining for two years, Tet decimated his credibility with the American public. Six weeks after the Tet Offensive began "public approval of his overall performance dropped from 48 percent to 36 percent–and, more dramatically, endorsement for his handling of the war fell from 40 percent to 26 percent."75 Eugene McCarthy, a relatively obscure first-term U.S. senator from Minnesota who was for American withdrawal from Vietnam, nearly defeated Johnson in the February New Hampshire Democratic primary. Soon after McCarthy’s new victory, Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.), a much more substantial threat for Johnson’s re-nomination by the Democratic Party, announced that he too would be running for president on an antiwar platform. Robert McNamara, secretary of defense and an architect of the war in Vietnam, was replaced by Clark Clifford. Clifford, a longtime Washington lawyer and adviser to Democratic presidents, began a massive review of U.S. war policies in Vietnam that would quickly convince him of the need for the U.S. to get out. Johnson was besieged.

The final blow to Johnson came from the very same people who had just recently endorsed his war policies, the U.S. State Department’s Senior Informal Advisory Group–popularly known as the "wise men." The wise men were a group of the most senior advisers on foreign policy in the United States, many of whom were architects of the post-war world, including Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state; John J. McCloy, former American high commissioner for occupied Germany and many others. They met with Johnson on March 18 and told him that his policies were in shambles and that U.S. interests demanded that the U.S. begin withdrawing from Vietnam. Johnson was stunned.76 The sentiment of the American ruling class can be summed up by Walter Cronkite, dean of American broadcast journalism, who made a fresh report on Vietnam on February 27: "To say that we are closer to victory is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past…. It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out, then, will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people…[who] did the best they could." Johnson addressed the nation on March 31 and announced that he would not seek reelection as president.77

The presidential race was now wide open. The antiwar movement began to surge in the U.S. and American politics began to be dominated by the question of how quickly athe U.S. could get out of Vietnam. Yet, the Tet Offensive was only the opening shot of a year in which the U.S. ruling class faced its most severe challenges in a generation. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and 100 cities rose in rebellion. Robert Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary in June. Chicago Mayor Daley’s cops’ brutal attack on antiwar demonstrators at the Democratic convention drew the world’s attention to political repression in America. While in Vietnam, the U.S. military started to report major disciplinary problems with its troops that marked the beginning of a soldiers’ rebellion never witnessed on such a scale before in American history. In November 1968, Richard Nixon won the presidency over Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president, by almost the same margin he had lost eight years ago against Kennedy. Nixon won largely due to the impression given by his campaign that he had a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam. The war would continue for another four years as the U.S. fought a savage, bloody retreat from Vietnam.

1 Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars: 1945—1990 (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), p. 104.

2 It is a popular myth that John F. Kennedy would not have escalated U.S. military involvement in Vietnam had he lived, an argument put forth most notably in Oliver Stone’s film JFK. A superficial knowledge of Kennedy’s policies would show that this is wishful thinking without any sound basis in fact. The Kennedy administration commited itself to escalating, funding and military training to maintain the puppet regime’s army in South Vietnam, and committed an increasing number of U.S. military advisers, military technicians, as well as U.S-piloted planes and helicopters and maintenance personnel. Under Kennedy, the number of U.S. military advisers in Vietnam grew from 800 to almost 16,000, as the region became a testing ground for U.S. "counterisurgency" warfare techniques. There is no reason to believe that, had he lived, Kennedy would not have continued these efforts and felt the same pressures as Johnson to resort to full-scale invasion to prop up a client state it had done so much to create and bolster over the previous years. Indeed, the same people who ran the war under Kennedy became Johnson’s foreign policy advisers.

3 Quoted in Young, p. 126.

4 George McT. Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1986), pp. 182—200.

5 Ibid., pp. 203—235.

6 Young, p. 138.

7 Quoted in Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War (New York: The New Press, 1985), p. 133.

8 James Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (Boston/New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), p. 88.

9 Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, Four Hours in My Lai (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 29.

10 Quoted in Peter Davis, Hearts and Minds (Janus Films, 1974). Hearts and Minds won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1975.

11 Quoted in Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin, 1986), p. 395.

12 Quoted in Karnow, p. 326.

13 Irving Bernstein, Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), for an overview of the 1964 election and Great Society programs of the Johnson administration.

14 Gibson, p. 89

15 ‘Incidents’ real, imagined or manufactured have played a major role in shifting American public opinion behind a particular administration’s war drive. Among the most famous were the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898, the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

16 Gibson, p. 89.

17 Quoted in Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (New York: Viking, 2002), p. 10.

18 Quoted in Bob Richter, "Tonkin incident might not have occurred," San Antonio Express News, August 3, 2002.

19 Gibson, p. 89.

20 For the complete text of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution see Marvin Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young and Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and America: A Documented History (New York: Grove Press, 1995), p. 252.

21 Quoted in Michael Sherry, In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 252.

22 For an overview of the superpower rivalry between the U.S. and the former USSR and its effect on emerging Third World countries, see Walter LaFeber, America, Russia and the Cold War 1945—1990 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991).

23 Quoted in Karnow, p. 249.

24 Ibid., p. 248.

25 Quoted in in Sherry, p. 250.

26 Quoted in Young, p 135.

27 Quoted Kolko, p. 113.

28 Quoted in Sherry, p. 251.

29 Ibid., p. 252.

30 Quoted in Bilton and Sim, p. 15.

31 Davis, Heart and Minds.

32 Bilton and Sim, p. 32.

33 Kolko, p. 180.

34 Young, p. 161.

35 Quoted in Kolko, p. 178.

36 Ibid., p. 180.

37 Quoted in Bilton and Sim, p. 25.

38 Quoted in Johnathan Neale, The American War: Vietnam 1960—1975 (London, Chicago and Sydney: Bookmarks, 2001), p. 92.

39 Christian G. Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), p. 107.

40 Noam Chomsky, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (Boston: South End Press, 1979), p. 304.

41 Michael Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Race for Armageddon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

42 Chomsky, p. 312.

43 Davis, Hearts and Minds.

44 Seymour Hersch, My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and its Aftermath (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), p. 9.

45 Appy, p. 153.

46 Ibid., p. 156.

47 Ibid., p. 166.

48 Bilton and Sim, p. 336.

49 Winter Soldier Investigation, Testimony given in Detroit, Michigan, on January 31, 1971, February 1—2, 1971. Testimony of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, part II. The full text of the investigation is available at

50 Young, pp. 173—74

51 Chomsky, p. 314.

52 Quoted in Truong Nhu Tang, A Viet Cong Memoir (New York: Vintage, 1986), p. 68.

53 Young, p. 71.

54 Quoted in Young, p. 71.

55 Quoted in Tang, p. 68.

56 Young, p. 184.

57 Quoted in Neale, p. 34.

58 Quoted in Young, p. 73.

59 Ibid., p. 73.

60 Quoted in Kolko, p. 178.

61 Jonathan Schell, The Real War (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988); Chapter 3, "The Military Half: An Account of the Destruction of Quang Ngai and Quang Tin."

62 Quoted in Walter Cronkite, A Reporter’s Life (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1996), pp. 257—58.

63 Quoted in Karnow, p. 514.

64 David Hunt, "Remembering the Tet Offensive" in Gettleman, et. al., p. 364.

65 Quoted in Karnow, p. 541.

66 Quoted in Hunt, p. 365.

67 Hunt, p. 366.

68 Karnow, p. 525.

69 Qouted in Young, p. 219.

70 Ibid., p. 217.

71 Ibid., p. 219.

72 Hunt, p. 368.

73 Ibid., p. 369.

74 Young, p. 223.

75 Karnow, p. 546.

76 Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men (New York: Touchstone, 1986), p. 676—713.

77 For the full text of Johnson’s speech, see "Peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia" in Gettleman, et. al., p. 401.

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