From Jan. to Dec.1972, I studied Vietnamese at the Anacostia Naval Station, DLIEC, Military District of Washington. In October, I received orders to Vietnam. The following January while stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base, they were canceled. I am a non-combat Vietnam veteran. I asked a combat Marine, who was overrun twice, “What was the war about, John? “He replied: It was about nothing…”
President Lyndon B. Johnson in Vietnam in 1966. CreditYoichi Okamoto/LBJ Presidential Library
The president continued, “What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? … What is it worth to this country? … It’s damn easy to get in a war, but it’s going to be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.”
These two calls, placed less than a half-hour apart, say everything there is to say about the crisis that would soon shroud Johnson’s presidency. The question is, how did a president who understood all of this — and who had people around him to make sure he didn’t forget — nevertheless lead the country into a disastrous war?
Buddhists against Catholics. Northerners against southerners. Civilians against the military. Capital against periphery. Ethnic Vietnamese against ethnic minorities. In 1967, anti-Communist South Vietnam was a caldron of overlapping rivalries, precipitating and reinforcing the political chaos consuming the country after President Ngo Dinh Diem’s 1963 assassination during a military coup.
The ground fighting in South Vietnam intensified in the late fall. Following Le Duan’s plan, North Vietnamese and N.L.F. troops attacked the towns of Loc Ninh and Song Be near Saigon and Dak To in the Central Highlands. As per the script drafted in Hanoi, Westmoreland sent large detachments of troops to those areas, inflicted heavy casualties and drove enemy forces back into their sanctuaries. But not without cost: At Dak To especially, the United States suffered major casualties. Westmoreland and Washington were pleased with the enemy’s new willingness to fight, but baffled by its larger intentions.
At 3 o’clock in the morning of Jan. 31, 1968, North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces launched a wave of simultaneous attacks on South Vietnamese and American forces in major cities, towns and military bases throughout South Vietnam.
The fighting, the heaviest and most sustained of the Vietnam War, coincided with the Lunar New Year, or Tet, and it has been called the Tet offensive ever since.
It was a military turning point in the war, but it was far more than that in its painful demonstration of the limits of American power in Asia and in the psychological impact it was to have on Americans at home.
The daring of the Tet attackers extended into the heart of Saigon and, most startling, into the very confines of the American Embassy. A handful of Vietcong, wearing South Vietnamese uniforms, held parts of the embassy for the first six hours of the offensive. Martial Law Declared
Hanoi radio said the aim of the offensive was to overthrow the South Vietnamese Government of President Nguyen Van Thieu. The next day, President Thieu declared martial law throughout South Vietnam.
The Tet offensive is generally considered to have ended Feb. 25, when the last Communist units were dislodged from the ancient imperial citadel at Hue. But the struggle in Vietnam was to continue for another seven years; eventually, a frustrated and war-weary United States withdrew and, at the end, Communist North Vietnam’s army rolled over the demoralized forces of South Vietnam.
By mid-February, or two weeks into the offensive, Washington was estimating that enemy casualties had risen to almost 39,000, including 33,249 killed. Allied casualties were placed at 3,470 dead, one-third of them Americans, and 12,062 wounded, almost half of them Americans.
A week later, on Feb. 25, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of United States forces, compared the Tet offensive to the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, Nazi Germany’s last major drive in World War II. ‘Advantage, but Defeat’
”Although the enemy has achieved some temporary psychological advantage, he suffered a military defeat,” the general said in Saigon.
Viet Minh in battle in Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam. CreditCollection Jean-Claude Labbe/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images
The Japanese had occupied French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) in 1940, and they left the fascist Vichy French government, allied with Tokyo’s German partner after the fall of France in 1940, in charge of day-to-day affairs. This collaboration ended in early 1945, as the Allies terminated the German hold on Europe and prepared to defeat the Japanese in Asia. In March, worried that Vichy troops would turn on them, the Japanese overthrew the French, ending 80 years of colonialism. A few months later, the Japanese capitulated, creating a power vacuum in Vietnam.
American soldiers watching helicopters landing as part of Operation Pershing in South Vietnam in 1967. CreditPatrick Christain/Getty Images
The legacy of the war still shapes America, even if most of us are too young to remember it.
The Vietnam War