Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

The Tet Offensive 40 years on

The end of January 2008 marked the 40th anniversary of an event that astonished the world, changed the course of history, and remains pregnant with lessons for today. In the early hours of 31 January 1968, soldiers of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and the Army of North Vietnam launched what came to be known as the Tet Offensive (it coincided with Tet Nguyen Dan, the lunar new year) against the US occupiers and their puppet government, writes Mike Marqusee

February 12, 2008
6 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


  share     tweet  

The insurgents struck simultaneously across the country, targeting more than one hundred cities and towns, from Pleiku in the highlands to Danang on the coast, from Khe Sanh in the north to the Mekong Delta in the deep south. American historian Stanley Karnow describes Tet as “a surprise offensive of extraordinary intensity and astonishing scope… audaciously shifting the war for the first time from its rural setting to a new arena – South Vietnam’s supposedly impregnable urban areas.” As police stations, army barracks, prisons and government offices came under attack, only heavily fortified US bases remained secure, and even in a few of these insurgents breached the walls. Most spectacularly, a group of 19 commandos fought their way into the US Embassy compound in Saigon, where they held out for six and half hours – long enough for the images of defiance to be broadcast around the world.

Hue, the ancient capital and the south’s third largest city, was only recaptured by the US after twenty five days of fierce house to house combat. Here atrocities against the civilian population were committed by both sides, and by the battle’s end, 116,000 of the city’s population of 140,000 were left homeless. The US had lost 216 troops; their opponents 3-5,000.

Across the country, NLF and North Vietnamese casualties reached terrifying proportions. Perhaps one half – 45,000 – of the soldiers engaged in the initial offensive were killed. What’s more, they were unable to hold any of the ground they had seized. The aim had been to precipitate a popular uprising in the south. When that did not materialise – partly because the Communist party was weak among urban workers – the US’s superior armaments prevailed.

In his remarkable novel, The Sorrow of War, Vietnamese writer (and veteran of the conflict) Bao Ninh describes the insurgents’ harrowing retreat from Saigon, pursued by US forces on the ground and from the air, dragging their wounded on stretchers across mountain, scrub jungle and terrain “ground to powder by the B52s”. “In less than a fortnight they had been encircled twice, and twice in utter desperation had broken out of the traps, fighting fearlessly… They were all short of food and their units had been torn to shreds…”

The US counter-offensive was ferocious and indiscriminate. Urban areas held by the NLF were pulverised. Within two weeks, 630,000 Vietnamese civilians had been made refugees. On 7th February, when the US recaptured the charred wasteland of what had been the Mekong Delta town of Bentre, a US major explained to the press: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it”. Soon after, in the course of flushing out alleged collaborators in Saigon, General Ngoc Lona, chief of South Vietnam’s national police, was filmed calmly shooting a bound prisoner in the head. This image also went round the world, further eroding US claims to moral purpose. Worse was to come – though the public was not to know of it for two years – when, on March 16, US soldiers entered the village of My Lai and slaughtered 500 unarmed peasants, mostly women and children.

Tet is sometimes described as a military disaster that became a political triumph. Years later, General Tran Do, one of the architects of the offensive, commented: “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans and their puppets, and this was a big gain for us. As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention – but it turned out to be a fortunate result.”

For an American public reared on a belief in the US’s matched military and moral supremacy, Tet was a shock. For three years, they had been assured that the war in Vietnam was being won. As recently as 21 November, 1967, General William Westmoreland, US commander in Vietnam, had informed a credulous media that the Communists were “unable to mount a major offensive”.

Tet made the disparity between US government claims and reality on the ground untenable. The anti-war movement, which had been gathering strength for two years, stood vindicated. Influential establishment voices abandoned the war. A Wall Street Journal editorial intoned: “The American public should be getting ready to accept, if they haven’t already, the prospect that the whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.” In the New Hampshire primary, held on 12 March, President Lyndon Johnson was embarrassed by the strong showing of anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. Four days later, Robert Kennedy announced he would challenge Johnson for the White House. On 31st March, two months after Tet, the president announced that he would not seek re-election, and offered to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese, who accepted on 3 April.

Tet caused fear and trembling in the corridors of power, but in the wider world it inspired millions. The spectacle of the greatest power on the planet defied and humiliated by an army of poor people emboldened radicals everywhere to challenge long-established hierarchies. The student insurgencies for which the year 1968 is famous took off in the wake of Tet, first in Germany and Italy in February, then spreading to the USA and climaxing in France in May.

However, the US war in Vietnam was to continue in its destructive fury for another four years. US policy did change after Tet: towards what became known as “Vietnamisation”, in which US troop exposure was curbed and reliance on air power increased. US casualties were steadily reduced, from 16,000 in 1968, to 6,000 in 1970 and 600 in 1972. Meanwhile, however, casualties on the other side steadily mounted. Perhaps half of the 5 million killed in the course of the US-Vietnam conflict (according to Government of Vietnam figures) perished during these post-Tet years. Vast tracts of the country were destroyed and poisoned. In May 1970, the US expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos, killing another 700,000.

Here is the ominous lesson for Iraq. There are few things as dangerous as an imperial power in retreat. Yes, the Iraq war is discredited, its architects will soon be out of office, and the major US presidential candidates say they want to reduce the US troop presence. None, however, seems prepared to abandon the US mission in Iraq, which is also propped up by an array of corporate forces, not least the oil companies. As Vietnam showed, the alternative to a prompt and complete withdrawal is not a happy compromise, but prolonged devastation.

www.mikemarqusee.com

This article first appeared in The Hindu

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power


5