- Interview by
- Joe Allen
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Tet Offensive, the surprise assault that kicked off one of the most tumultuous years in American history and fatally undermined US determination to prosecute the Vietnam War.
In this interview for Jacobin, Joe Allen speaks with Christian G. Appy, author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. They discuss Richard Nixon’s covert machinations, the antiwar movement, the role of independent journalists like I. F. Stone, and how a new generation is learning about the war from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
1968 was a tumultuous year in world politics. The year began with the Tet Offensive, when the North Vietnamese and the liberation forces in South Vietnam launched a nationwide campaign against the US military and the Saigon government. Tet shook the US political establishment and changed the course of the presidential election. Why did it have such an impact?
The Tet Offensive is rightly considered a watershed event because it marks the moment when a majority of Americans — including many establishment figures — concluded that the war was unwinnable, unworthy of the cost, and had to be brought to an end. The offensive was profoundly shocking because it came after many months of official assurances that the Vietnamese enemy was on the ropes — increasingly demoralized, depleted, and all but defeated. The ability of communist-led forces to pull off a massive, coordinated, surprise attack all over South Vietnam, and bring the war to the heart of major cities, was stunning evidence that the promised “light at the end of the tunnel” might well be coming from an oncoming train.
US President Lyndon Johnson dramatically withdrew from the Democratic primaries after little known Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota won nearly 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Soon afterwards, Bobby Kennedy entered the race. But video from that era shows Bobby Kennedy sounding a lot like Ronald Reagan on Vietnam. What were antiwar Democrats actually proposing to solve the Vietnam dilemma?
Both Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy ran for president in 1968 as “antiwar Democrats,” but it should be remembered that neither of them pledged immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. Kennedy was particularly vague about his plans to bring peace. Both spoke about the need for a “negotiated settlement,” and McCarthy seemed committed to some kind of staged withdrawal (what Nixon later called Vietnamization), but there is no guarantee either of them would have ended the war quickly. That said, there is good reason to believe that even the ultimate Democratic winner, the pro-war Hubert Humphrey, would have withdrawn US troops sooner than Richard Nixon. But, as I always tell students, you can’t replay history, and it’s hard enough trying to figure out history as it was actually lived, not as it might have been.
A lot of younger people know the Tet Offensive from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s latest documentary series, The Vietnam War. How do think Burns and Novick portrayed Tet? He emphasizes major differences within the North Vietnamese about its goals and success?
With a few exceptions, the Burns/Novick handling of Tet is pretty conventional fare — the communists sought a general uprising with hopes of immediate victory, but failed, taking enormous casualties in the process, particularly among the ranks of the southern forces (the “Viet Cong” or Peoples Liberation Armed Forces). However, the enormity of the attacks produced a major political and psychological shock that ultimately turned the tide of the war.
What the documentary fails to capture fully, however, are the devastating consequences of the US counteroffensive — the massive and indiscriminate bombing and shelling of populated areas of South Vietnam to drive back the Tet attackers. The counteroffensive killed many thousands of South Vietnamese and provided the hardest possible evidence that the US was not a reliable ally and, in moments of crisis, would treat the South Vietnamese just like the enemy. In other words, the Tet Offensive disillusioned not only the American public but millions of South Vietnamese as well. One of the best accounts of the counteroffensive comes from the writer Tobias Wolff, a former Special Forces officer, in his memoir, In Pharoah’s Army. He was in My Tho during the Tet Offensive and the US counteroffensive:
We leveled shops and bars along the river. We pulverized hotels and houses, floor by floor, street by street.… The corpses were everywhere.… One day I passed a line of them that went on for almost a block, all children.… The Viet Cong … knew that once they were among the people we would abandon our pretense of distinguishing between them. We would kill them all to get at one. In this way they taught the people that we did not love them and would not protect them; that for all our talk of partnership and brotherhood we disliked and mistrusted them, and that we would kill every last one of them to save our lives.
Martin Luther King spoke eloquently against the Vietnam War in April 1967. A year later, he was assassinated in Memphis during the historic sanitation workers strike. Is it possible that the assassination of Martin Luther King was more important than the Tet Offensive in spreading antiwar sentiment among Black GIs and the broader black community?
That may be true. Of course, by the time of King’s assassination there was already deep and growing disaffection over the Vietnam War among African Americans. King was just one of many black leaders who denounced the war, exposed the flagrant contradictions between official claims and war-front realities, and connected the racism abroad to the racism at home. African Americans surely also noticed that the mainstream media viciously attacked King’s antiwar position, particularly his claim that the United States was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Although King is now in the pantheon of American heroes, his accession to that position required lopping off any memory of, or tribute to, his anti-imperial critique of US foreign policy. That was the price of admission and yet another reminder that in American culture there is no pantheon of peace activists.
The collusion between the Nixon campaign and the Saigon government to sabotage the Paris negotiations that seemed on the verge of ending the Vietnam War in the autumn of 1968 is in Burns and Novick’s documentary, and it may be the largest audience to date that has been presented with the history of this collusion. Why is this not better known? It pales in comparison to anything of which the Trump campaign is accused.
Yes, in 1968 Nixon sought to improve his chances of victory in the presidential election by sending an emissary, Anna Chennault (a Republican activist and widow of the famous commander of the “Flying Tigers” Claire Chennault), to urge South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to boycott the peace talks in Paris. Nixon worried that any sign of progress in Paris might help Humphrey win the election. Thieu did indeed denounce the peace talks and Nixon won the election by a sliver.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that Nixon’s actions scuttled a realistic opportunity for peace; all sides had irresolvable differences and Thieu had his own reasons for objecting to the talks. Nonetheless, Nixon’s undeniable treachery is dramatic evidence of just how far he would go to win. Whether it exceeds Trump’s treachery is debatable. The incident is not well known in large part because the evidence only surfaced decades later and Americans are not famous for their attention to history. President Johnson knew about Nixon’s effort to sabotage the Paris talks, but did not say anything, perhaps because he did not want to reveal how he knew or perhaps because he was ambivalent about a Humphrey victory and not overly troubled by the prospect of a Nixon victory.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post has won a lot of praise for reminding Americans of the importance of a free press during the Vietnam era. What was the actual importance of the print and television media is shaping antiwar sentiment during the war?
The short answer is that there is simply no convincing evidence that the mainstream media turned against the war before the American public. Indeed, until the final years of the war there was little in the press that challenged the legitimacy or justice of the US war in Vietnam. That’s why the antiwar movement depended so much on alternative sources of information such as the I.F. Stone Weekly and Ramparts and hundreds of underground newspapers. In the early years famous reporters like David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Malcolm Browne merely challenged the effectiveness of US policies, not their moral or political basis. That said, by the time of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, the defiance of the media to the Nixon administration was quite impressive. Something like seventeen newspapers printed excerpts in defiance of a Nixon ordered injunction (and prior to a Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of the papers to print the documents).
Despite the dramatic events of Tet and the surge in antiwar sentiment, Richard Nixon, the former vice-president of an infamous Republican anti-communist, won the presidency. Why did this happen?
Nixon won because he promised to end the Vietnam War and restore domestic order while his opponent waited until the final days of the campaign to suggest that he might be more than a cheerleader for ongoing war in Vietnam. Nixon was famously vague about his plans for bringing “peace with honor,” but he rightly pointed out that the Democrats had run the war for eight years without a successful conclusion. Nixon also had a lot more money! And finally, quite a few antiwar voters were so disillusioned with electoral politics as a means to bring significant change that they bowed out of the election.
You’ve studied and written about the Vietnam War and its impact on American life for forty years. Your latest book, American Reckoning, sums up many of your thoughts on the war. Looking back at many of debates about Tet, the US antiwar movement, and the GI rebellion since the end of the war in 1975, what is the most important legacy for younger activists today in a country that is still the dominant imperial power in the world?
It may sound a bit pat, but the most important legacy of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement (and indeed all the liberal/left movements of that era) is the necessity of stamina and persistence. The forces that serve imperialism count on citizen apathy and deference and the disillusionment of activists. Of course, in the face of seemingly endless war and militarism, disillusionment is understandable. But throughout history, public opposition has acted as a brake on some forms of aggression. For example, in his memoirs, Nixon conceded that he did not follow through on Operation Duck Huck (a set of escalating threats he issued to Hanoi in 1969) because of his concern that they would further inflame an already massively growing antiwar movement.
There is a lot to learn from, and be inspired by, in the long history of political resistance. In recent years, for example, I’ve been struck by the important links being made between antiwar Vietnam veterans and younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Cross-generational and multi-issue alliances are crucial. It is ever more important to identify, and act upon, the connections between anti-imperialism, anti-racism, movements for economic, sexual, and gender equality, the global climate justice movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and more.