1968 was one of the most dramatic years in my life. Many of the unshakeable pillars holding up the status quo began to shake, even if only temporarily in some cases. The world seemed to be beginning to reshape itself and suddenly all sorts of heady possibilities began to take shape. A spectre really did seem to be about to haunt Europe – indeed the world. Over the next few months I aim to pull together my memories of some of those events, some only experienced as a spectator at some distance, other experienced as a direct participant. The first of these events is the Tet Offensive.
Almost exactly forty five years ago, on 31 January 1968, between 85,000 and 100,000 North Vietnamese regulars and guerrillas of the National Liberation Front (known as Viet Cong, a translation of ‘Vietnamese communists’) launched an audacious and ambitious all-out offensive against urban centers across the whole of South Vietnam.
It was not the success that the North Vietnamese had planned – they had hoped to trigger a general uprising against the corrupt puppet regime of General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, an uprising that just didn’t happen. General Tran Do, North Vietnamese commander at the battle of Hue, said later: “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.”
By the time the offensive ended in the middle of February (except for Hue and in and around Saigon, where the battles raged until early March) 32,000 North Vietnamese and NLF troops had been killed and another 5,800 captured, the South Vietnamese had suffered almost 3,500 killed or missing in action and U.S. and other allied forces suffered over 1,500 killed or missing in action, with over 7,500 wounded. However, the offensive changed the face of the war in Indochina and signaled the beginning of the process that was to lead to the fall of Saigon on 30 April, 1975 and the ignominious scramble of the last US forces to evacuate by helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy.
As ever, the top brass were fighting the previous war and were completely unprepared for simultaneous attacks on 155 cities and towns – including the capital. General Westmoreland was, apparently “stunned that the communists had been able to coordinate so many attacks in such secrecy” and he was “dispirited and deeply shaken.” For days he was convinced that that the Khe Sanh base near the border with North Vietnam was the real objective and that all the other attacks were a diversion. American journalists, who witnessed the attacks in the capital, including those on the National Radio Station, the Headquarters of the South Vietnam Army General staff and, most daringly of all, on the US Embassy, were incredulous; “How could any effort against Saigon, especially downtown Saigon, be a diversion?” said one.
Dramatic footage of street battles in the very heart of Saigon were beamed around the world and fatally shook the confidence of of many millions of Americans in the military and moral superiority of US forces and the inevitability of victory. A photograph showing the summary execution of a Viet Cong in Saigon on February 1 became a symbol of the brutality of the war, and in a broadcast on February 27, when battles were still going on in the suburbs of Saigon, the most respected of all American journalists, Walter Cronkite said for the first time that the war was a ‘stalemate’ and could only be ended by negotiation.
Although it was an almost complete military defeat for North Vietnam and the NLF, the political and psychological effect the offensive had on the leadership and population of the U.S. can hardly be overstated. This was the first world wide prime time TV battle – and the Viet Cong won it.
The impact of the Tet Offensive was to be seen again less than three months later – this time on the consciousness of radical students and other young people across the world – on college campuses in Europe and elsewhere in the West, and particularly on the streets of Paris.