[Excerpted from James Rogan's new book, On to Chicago: Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968]
On Jan. 31, 1968 – 50 years ago today – in a jungle country 9,000 miles from Washington, a horde of communist soldiers and sympathetic guerrilla fighters launched a massive attack against a nascent democratic republic across their southern border. The democratic forces and their allies repelled the invaders easily and crushed the assault. However, that raid became the first falling domino that led to the destruction of an American presidency, the murder of a leading presidential candidate, over a decade of politicians degrading the U.S. military and a permanent reconfiguration of America.
Modern historians refer to that failed attack as the "Tet Offensive," and they often cite its aftermath as America's only lost war – Vietnam. We will return to that latter claim momentarily.
The vast majority of Americans living today were not yet born when the Vietnam War ended, yet thanks to what they have been taught in school, most believe it was a "bad" war – but they don't know why. Explain to them that the U.S. went into Vietnam to blunt Soviet and Red Chinese communist domination of Southeast Asia, and they blink in confusion. The Soviet Union? That totalitarian empire crumbled when they were in diapers. "Red" China? Is that like today's "red state-blue state" political distinction? Don't bother trying to explain the "Domino Theory" to a generation that never played Dominoes – or any other game not accessible on a video screen. To the "bad war" crowd, Vietnam was just bad – period – and everyone knows it. What's your next question?
Summarizing the origins and legacy of the Vietnam War in a few paragraphs is an exercise in farce, but for those opinionated latecomers, a brief explanation of why America fought there might help lift the fog.
After a century of occupation by various countries, in the post-World War II years a peace agreement divided Vietnam into two states – the communist North and the democratic South. Later, the North attacked the South to force a reunification under Stalinist domination. The Soviet Union and Red China (so called in those days to distinguish it from the non-communist Republic of China, which relocated to Taiwan during China's civil war in 1949) supported their fellow communists in the North. Since South Vietnam was ill-equipped to defend itself against this troika, the U.S. faced two choices: let them fall to the communists and risk the spread of totalitarianism in the region, or step in and help.
We chose to help.
President Eisenhower sent advisers; President Kennedy sent military personnel disguised as more advisers. Formal combat operations began in 1964 under President Lyndon B. Johnson after communist guerillas reportedly fired on two U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Congress approved a resolution authorizing the president to respond militarily to such aggression, but over the next four years, Johnson treated the Gulf of Tonkin resolution as a de facto declaration of war. From 1965 until the end of his presidency in January 1969, Johnson ordered his generals to attack, but not obliterate, the North and their Vietcong guerrilla allies. Johnson's policy was not to defeat the communists, but rather to coerce them into signing a peace treaty. Johnson feared an all-out attack on the North might bring Red China into the war directly and precipitate a nuclear confrontation.
From the man who led the effort to oust Bill Clinton from office, Rep. James Rogan's "Catching Our Flag: Behind the Scenes of a Presidential Impeachment"
LBJ's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, later recalled the night in 1966 when Johnson told neutralist Burmese President Ne Win that he was doing everything he could for peace, and then he asked Ne Win why that goal eluded him. Ne Win replied, "What you are doing wrong is asking for peace. The North Vietnamese view that as a sign of weakness." Johnson insisted that, as president, he must do everything possible for peace. Ne Win told LBJ, "The North Vietnamese do not hear your peace overtures as an honest, legitimate desire for peace, but as weakness. You must make them believe there will be no peace until they are defeated. When they understand you are going to destroy them, then there will be peace."
Johnson shook his head glumly. "I can't do that," he replied, thus dooming any prospect for military success during his tenure.
Despite its increasing cost in American lives and tax dollars, throughout most of his presidency Johnson's Vietnam policies enjoyed bipartisan congressional and public support. In 1966, when Sen. Morse offered an amendment to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the Democrat-controlled Senate defeated his proposal 92-5. Even as late as 1967, with Johnson escalating militarily, antiwar congressional forces mustered a meager five votes in the Senate to end American involvement. In 1968, one from their ranks, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, challenged Johnson for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, promising to end all U.S. military action in Vietnam if elected. When the unknown senator announced his candidacy, Johnson enjoyed a 50 percent favorable rating in the polls, McCarthy's name identification registered a blip, and Americans overwhelmingly favored the administration's Vietnam policies. Most political analysts expected Johnson to coast to an easy re-election victory in 1968.
Then came the Tet Offensive.
In late January 1968, North and South Vietnam agreed to a cease-fire so both sides could celebrate "Tet," the Vietnamese new year. On Jan. 31, the day of the agreed truce, Northern communist troops and Vietcong guerrillas launched a massive sneak attack on over 100 South Vietnamese cities. They succeeded in blasting their way into the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon. Although the Tet assault took U.S. and South Vietnamese forces by surprise, they repelled it in a few weeks with relative ease and inflicted heavy enemy casualties on the North.
Before Tet, Johnson and his generals had been assuring Americans for a year that we were on the verge of victory and peace in Vietnam, and most believed the claim. Once the Tet assault began, and for the several weeks that it lasted, the U.S. network news broadcasts aired nightly footage of heavy enemy fire on U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Americans watching this on television were shocked that our "defeated" enemy could launch such widespread attacks – even hitting our embassy. These images produced a rapid public backlash against the war. Although U.S. and South Vietnamese troops defeated the communists militarily, the reds inflicted a psychological wound on the American voter. Public opinion shifted, and many people adopted what a small minority of antiwar activists had been preaching for years: LBJ and the Pentagon were lying about our military prospects in Southeast Asia.
Next, LBJ magnified this simmering public displeasure by suggesting he might need to call up 200,000 more U.S. troops for Vietnam – on top of the 500,000 already there. Once high school seniors and college students learned that a quarter million new induction notices might issue, they hitchhiked or took Greyhound buses by the thousands to New Hampshire to help McCarthy battle Johnson in that state's presidential primary.
Six weeks after Tet, on the day of the first-in-the-nation primary, McCarthy came within 200 votes of outpolling Johnson in perhaps the most pro-Vietnam War state in America. LBJ's now-exposed vulnerability proved too irresistible: Sen. Robert Kennedy, who had refused repeatedly to challenge Johnson for the nomination, jumped into the race and offered himself as an alternative peace candidate to McCarthy.
With fresh polls showing another likely humiliation in the upcoming Wisconsin primary only two weeks later, Johnson stunned America and announced he would not seek re-election. The man who wanted to be remembered for his Great Society social programs and public works spending frenzy saw his presidency run aground on the shoals of Vietnam.
Vice President Humphrey joined McCarthy and Kennedy in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. Two months after LBJ withdrew, and while campaigning in California, Kennedy was assassinated. Humphrey beat McCarthy for the nomination at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and then he went on to lose the November election narrowly to Richard Nixon.
Over the next four years, President Nixon succeeded in turning over more of the responsibility for the war to South Vietnam. He began a steady drawdown of American forces overseas while maintaining strategic and aggressive U.S. bombing campaigns against the communists. Nixon's "Vietnamization" policies finally brought the North to heel, and the communists signed a peace treaty with the United States and South Vietnam in early 1973. Soon after Nixon brought peace, however, his presidency began unraveling from Watergate. With Nixon's and America's attention diverted by this domestic specter, and showing as much fidelity to their 1973 peace treaty as they showed to their 1968 Tet cease-fire, the North Vietnamese quietly rebuilt their military during this interlude and prepared for another invasion.
In 1974 Nixon resigned and Vice President Gerald Ford succeeded him. During the Ford administration the Democrat-controlled Congress set in motion an end to South Vietnamese military aid. By 1975, with no further likelihood of U.S. retaliation facing them, the heavily fortified and re-armed communists once again overran their neighbor. The Democratic Republic of South Vietnam collapsed and the communists took control of the nation.
Are the historians correct when they cite Vietnam as America's first defeat in war?
America didn't lose the Vietnam War. America ended the war with South Vietnam relatively secure from communist aggression, and then withdrew from the battlefield after Nixon brought peace. When communist aggression again arose, and the South looked to her ally to honor their prior commitment of help, the overwhelming post-Watergate Democratic congressional majority followed through on a campaign promise to end U.S. involvement there.
In Vietnam, America did suffer a defeat, but it was not a defeat inflicted by superior military might. It was the psychological defeat of our will to win. But for an indecisive president who squandered countless opportunities for victory in the name of limited warfare, and then later a war-weary Congress with the political muscle to overrun an unelected president, it might have been otherwise.
The seed of that defeat was sown 50 years ago today, and on this black anniversary of the Tet Offensive we remember the 58,200 Americans who died in the jungles of Vietnam, the 300,000 Americans wounded there, the 1,600 Americans still missing in action, and the nearly 2 million South Vietnamese casualties killed or wounded in the battle for a worthy cause – living free.