On the 45th Anniversary of the Tet Offensive
The following texts are based on an introduction on the Tet Offensive, given by LeiLani Dowell, and a talk on the Vietnamese liberation struggle given by Naomi Cohen at a Workers World Forum on January 30.
The Tet Offensive of 1968
This year is the 45th anniversary of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which began on the night of Jan. 30, 1968, and continued throughout Vietnam for several months. This military offensive was launched by the National Liberation Front simultaneously in 140 cities and towns throughout South Vietnam and took the U.S. military and its puppet forces completely by surprise.
According to the 1968 book “Vietnam Will Win” by Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, “The NLF forces, without any modern means of transportation or communications attacked almost every major military and administrative installation in South Vietnam in complete secrecy under the noses of the most sophisticated military machine that has ever taken the field. … Among the objectives attacked were all four zonal headquarters of the Saigon Army, eight out of 11 divisional headquarters, and two American army field headquarters. Among the 18 major targets attacked in Saigon itself were the U.S. Embassy, the ‘Presidential Palace,’ the joint U.S.-Saigon armed forces headquarters, and the South Vietnam naval headquarters.”
On Jan. 31, the liberation forces entered the city of Hue, hoisted the NLF flag on the main tower of the Imperial City and freed 2,000 prisoners. Fierce fighting continued in Hue for a month, until the U.S. resorted to massive bombing and completely destroyed the city to retake it.
Although the Pentagon and President Johnson declared the offensive a failure, it completely exposed the bankruptcy of the puppet regime in Saigon and the U.S. military in Vietnam. It was a dramatic illustration of the popular character of the Vietnamese liberation struggle and showed the strength of the resistance at a time when U.S. military leaders were promising a quick victory in the war and boasting that the NLF was on the run.
Instead, U.S. General Westmoreland, who was in charge of the war effort for the Pentagon, was relieved of his command and within months President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. Washington was forced, in fact, to agree to hold discussions with the Vietnamese on ending the war as massive anti-war demonstrations spread in the U.S.
The youth group of Workers World Party, Youth Against War & Fascism, was the first organization to call a demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy sent 12,000 so-called advisors to Vietnam to prop up the puppet regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in the South. We are proud to say that President Ho Chi Minh heard of the YAWF demonstration at that time and told a reporter visiting in North Vietnam that this was the kind of solidarity the Vietnamese needed in the struggle.
A few years later, comrade Deirdre Griswold (now the editor of Workers World newspaper) was sent as a representative of YAWF to work with the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal, which indicted the U.S. for war crimes in Vietnam.
— LeiLani Dowell
The Vietnamese Liberation Struggle
The Vietnamese struggle for liberation has such a long and rich history that it is impossible to cover the subject in one meeting. There are so many aspects of this struggle, including the anti-war movement, that Workers World Party was deeply involved in, that we cannot even begin to cover.
What I would like to focus on is the legacy of those leaders and organizations that won the war against not one, but two, imperialist powers, and the ideology that guided them through a people’s war that lasted for decades.
The Vietnam struggle for liberation was not confined to the limits of Vietnam, or even Southeast Asia. It was connected to and inspired people’s movements all over the world, reaching from Asia to Africa and the Middle East to Latin America and into the imperialist centers in Europe and North America. It is therefore an important part of the legacy of the working class and oppressed peoples all over the world and must be preserved for future generations.
The Vietnamese communists based themselves on Marxist theory, Lenin’s analysis of imperialism and the national question, and employed a class analysis of Vietnam, the imperialist enemy and internationalism throughout the war.
Just as no analysis of the Cuban revolution could be given without discussing the role of Fidel Castro in the revolution, any discussion of the Vietnam revolution must begin with Ho Chi Minh, who is universally considered the founding architect of the Vietnamese liberation struggle.
Ho was born in a small village in central Vietnam on May 19, 1890. He was educated in Vietnamese, Chinese and French. Ho’s early life led him to the anti-colonial struggle against the French occupation of his country. In 1911, following the anti-colonial revolution in China, Ho signed on to a French ship to leave Vietnam. He travelled widely as a seaman and got to see firsthand the condition of the French colonial subjects in Africa and the Middle East, which deeply affected his thinking. He lived in the U.S. for a while around 1912-13 in Harlem, N.Y., and Hoboken, N.J., washing dishes and doing menial jobs. While in the U.S. he learned firsthand about lynching and the Ku Klux Klan and later wrote a now-famous essay exposing the horrors of racism in the U.S. Ho wrote in part:
“It is well known that the spread of capitalism and the discovery of the New World had as an immediate result the rebirth of slavery, which was for centuries a scourge for the Negroes and a bitter disgrace for humanity. What everyone does not perhaps know is that after 65 years of so-called emancipation, American Negroes still endure atrocious moral and material sufferings, of which the most cruel and horrible is the custom of lynching.”
On the eve of World War I, Ho went to England to live, where he took a keen interest in the Irish struggle against British colonial rule. He also joined a clandestine organization of Asian expatriates in London called Overseas Workers. By 1917 he moved to France to join other Vietnamese patriots in advocating for the independence of their country. He became involved in the French Socialist Party and took on the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot). Ho founded and wrote for a journal “La Paria” (The Outcast) that advocated for the colonial peoples all over the world.
At the close of World War I, the imperialist powers convened the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles to divide up the colonial plunder won in the war. Ho Chi Minh went to the conference to petition Woodrow Wilson and the other imperialist powers for self-determination for Vietnam, but he was unceremoniously shown the door.
Ho Chi Minh and the Third International
While the imperialists were carving up the world for colonial rule by Europe and the U.S., the Bolshevik revolution was exposing the role of the imperialist powers in the colonial world and putting forward Lenin’s theses on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. This had a powerful influence on Ho Chi Minh, and he described his conversion to communism in an essay called “The path which led me to Leninism.”
Ho followed the debates over whether to remain in the Second International (whose member parties had supported their own imperialist governments in the imperialist war) or to join the Third International organized by the Bolsheviks.
“What I wanted most to know — and this precisely was not debated in the meetings — was: which International sides with the peoples of colonial countries? I raised this question — the most important in my opinion — in a meeting. Some comrades answered: It is the Third, not the Second International. And a comrade gave me Lenin’s ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Questions.’
“There were political terms difficult to understand in this thesis. But by dint of reading it again and again, finally I could grasp the main part of it. What emotion, enthusiasm, clear-sightedness and confidence it instilled into me! I was overjoyed to tears. Though sitting alone in my room, I shouted out aloud as if addressing large crowds: ‘Dear martyrs, compatriots! This is what we need; this is the path to our liberation!’
Ho Chi Minh became a founding member of the French Communist Party and for the rest of his life kept the perspective of building solidarity between the oppressed colonial subjects of French imperialism and the working class of France.
Ho Chi Minh spent a number of years in the Soviet Union and China during the 1920s, and in 1930 collaborated with other Vietnamese Marxist revolutionaries to found the Indochinese Communist Party.
It is instructive to read the 10-point program that Ho drew up for the party at the time. It included a call to overthrow French imperialism and Vietnamese feudalism; to make Indochina completely independent; to confiscate the banks and other enterprises belonging to the imperialists and put them under the control of the worker-peasant-soldier government; to confiscate all the plantations and property belonging to the imperialists and the Vietnamese reactionary bourgeoisie and distribute them to the poor peasants; to implement the 8-hour working day; to provide universal education; and to realize equality between man and woman.
This was a revolutionary program to fundamentally change the property relations in society. It gave the Vietnamese people the political confidence, backed up by a strong, centralized organization, to take up arms against the French and begin the long struggle for liberation.
Once the party was formed and its program proclaimed, the liberation struggle in Vietnam escalated. Throughout the 1930s, Ho was unable to return to Vietnam because he was being hunted by the French police. But he was the consummate organizer of the liberation fighters both inside and outside the country. Ho was arrested and imprisoned a number of times; he was even imprisoned for two years by the Chiang Kai-shek forces in China.
By 1941, Ho was finally able to establish a base in a cave at Pac Bo in the north of Vietnam where he, along with Vo Nguyen Giap, founded the League for the Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh, which carried out the struggle for independence against the French and then Japanese occupation of Vietnam during World War II.
Ho Chi Minh indicts French imperialism
The Viet Minh was so popular in the anti-colonial struggle that within weeks of the defeat of the Japanese imperialist army at the end of World War II, on Sept. 2, 1945, it was able to declare the formation and independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) with Ho Chi Minh at its head. In a speech to a huge crowd gathered in Hanoi for the declaration of independence, Ho Chi Minh indicted French imperialist rule in Vietnam, saying:
“They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood. They have … forced us to use opium and alcohol. In the field of economics, they have fleeced us to the backbone, impoverished our people and devastated our land. They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials. … They have mercilessly exploited our workers. …
“For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has a right to be a free and independent country — and in fact it is so already.”
Within weeks of this declaration, however, the French imperialists, with the military and financial backing of the U.S., began the campaign to reconquer Vietnam and opened up nine more years of bloody French colonial rule.
However, the Vietnamese leaders had gained years of military training in China during the revolutionary struggle there and were prepared to fight guerrilla warfare against the invaders. In the meantime, the triumph of the Chinese revolution in October 1949 gave the Vietnamese a strong ally to the north and within a few months China, as well as the Soviet Union, recognized the Vietnamese government.
By February 1951 the leaders in Vietnam called a revolutionary congress to form the Vietnamese Workers’ Party. Its program was to win independence and unify the nation, to abolish the colonial regime, to obliterate feudal and semi-feudal vestiges, to give the land to the peasants, and to develop popular democracy as the basis for socialism.
In the continuing fight against the French imperialists, General Vo Nguyen Giap was the most famous of the Vietnamese military leaders. He wrote what is now considered the authoritative work on guerrilla warfare entitled, “People’s War, People’s Army.” In it, he described how the French had to disperse their forces to occupy Vietnam, giving the guerrilla forces the opportunity to transform the imperialists’ rear into the liberation forces’ front lines. As the guerrillas liberated more and more territory, they broke up the French plantations and feudal landlords’ holdings to distribute the land to the peasants and set up local people’s power. Giap wrote, “There was no clearly defined front in this war. It was there where the enemy was. The front was nowhere, it was everywhere.”
In the early years, the Vietnamese fighters had almost no arms. The few arms they had were used to organize what were called armed propaganda units. The Vietnamese leaders knew that first the people had to know what they were fighting for and who the enemy was. This emphasis on political education as primary in the fight against the imperialists was characteristic of the Vietnamese struggle throughout the decades.
The French were finally defeated in one of the greatest anti-colonial battles in human history at Dien Bien Phu, a heavily fortified stronghold of the French military in northwest Vietnam that was considered to be impregnable. Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander-in-Chief of the Vietnam People’s Army, directed the battlefield strategy.
Tens of thousands of volunteers built hundreds of miles of roads, dug hundreds of miles of trenches and some 200,000 volunteers hauled artillery and ammunition as well as food and fuel up and down mountains using thousands of bicycles, ox-carts and other crude vehicles to prepare to bombard the French stronghold.
After 55 days and nights of continuous fighting, on May 7, 1954, the Vietnamese army completely destroyed the Dien Bien Phu fortified camp. Forced to hoist a white flag, the entire French command surrendered, along with over 11,000 troops.
A Vietnamese historian described the battle this way: “The Dien Bien Phu victory was the greatest victory of our army and people in the protracted resistance against the French colonialists and American interventionists, one of the greatest battles in the history of the oppressed peoples’ struggles against the professional armies of the colonialists.” (“An Outline History of the Viet Nam Workers’ Party (1930-1975),” published in Hanoi in 1976.)
The effects of this victory were felt around the world. It inspired the development of the Algerian liberation movement, also suffering under French colonial rule. Within a few years liberation movements spread across Africa, and in 1956 the July 26 Movement, which had stormed the Moncada Barracks in Cuba on that date three years earlier, opened a guerrilla war on the island .
But in Vietnam, U.S. intervention had begun long before the French defeat. Washington and Wall Street were seeking to expand their empire in Asia. Even while they were fighting to stop the Korean Revolution in a bloody war from 1950 to 1953, some estimates show that by 1954 the U.S. was already paying 80 percent of the cost of the French military expedition in Vietnam. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles offered to give the French nuclear weapons to use in Vietnam.
French leave, U.S. takes over south
Within months of their defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French were forced to enter into peace talks in Geneva and leave Vietnam. However, the Vietnamese were denied in the Geneva Accords what they had won on the battlefield. Vietnam was divided into north and south. The independence of the DRV was recognized, but the elections that were supposed to be held to reunify the country within two years were cancelled by the U.S.-backed puppet Ngo Dinh Diem in the south. The U.S. had never signed the Geneva Accords. Instead, Washington backed Diem until 1963 and then installed one puppet government after another in Saigon and determined to continue the occupation of the country, much as it had done in South Korea.
Vietnam, a relatively small and underdeveloped country, was now forced to fight on for another 21 years against the Pentagon war machine, which threw over half a million U.S. troops into the slaughter. It is hard for the mind to fully comprehend how this was possible. Yet it was done and it is important to understand the decisive role that political class consciousness and strong organization on the part of the Vietnamese played in this historic victory.
Wilfred Burchett, an Australian journalist who lived in Southeast Asia for many years, wrote the following in the book titled “Vietnam Will Win!” published in 1968:
“One did not have to spend very much time with a unit of the National Liberation Front forces to realize that political factors dominate all others in military planning and execution.” In describing the training for new recruits to the NLF, which was formed in 1960 to carry on the resistance after the partition of the country, Burchett notes that they “receive 15 days of education and training before they are given a gun, unless enemy activity interrupts the course. … The first five days are devoted exclusively to political education.”
Thus the Vietnamese recognized that to carry out the program of liberating their country, they needed a politically conscious and motivated fighting force and population. There was no separation between the trained fighters and the general population, which cooperated with the resistance in the millions and provided them with food, shelter and intelligence.
The NLF was fighting a people’s war. This is precisely why the U.S. military carried out so many massacres of the civilian population as the war continued. Having won the vast majority of the people over to the resistance, the NLF was in fact indistinguishable from the people. Thus the U.S. and its puppet regime in Saigon engaged in one tactic after another to isolate the NLF from the general population. When it became clear that the rural population was feeding and sheltering the resistance fighters, the U.S. tried to herd the people into “strategic hamlets,” which were nothing but concentration camps, to try to cut off support to the NLF fighters. The Pentagon used chemical warfare, dropping Agent Orange to defoliate jungle hideouts and destroy crops. When these tactics didn’t work, relentless bombing of so-called “free-fire zones” followed.
A new book titled “Kill Anything That Moves” by Nick Turse documents the war crimes committed by the U.S. forces in Vietnam. Based on newly released classified information, it shows that massacres of the population like the one at My Lai were the rule and not the exception. Demands by the Pentagon for higher and higher body counts to prove the effectiveness of U.S. operations fueled the massacres of the population.
As millions of people were driven off the land into urban areas, this only spread the resistance. NLF sympathizers and spies were everywhere. In fact, after the Tet offensive it was revealed that the chauffeur for the U.S. Ambassador in Saigon was in the NLF and led the storming of the Embassy grounds during the offensive. After the war, it was also revealed that the head of NLF intelligence in Saigon was a woman who had worked in a U.S. officers’ club, gathering information as she waited on tables and supplying this information to the NLF.
U.S. forced to negotiate
In 1968, following the Tet Offensive, the U.S. was finally forced to agree to open up negotiations to end the war. In another dramatic first, the Vietnamese showed the world how seriously they took the role of women in the war effort when they appointed Madame Nguyen Thi Binh as head of the delegation for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam to the Paris peace talks. The appearance of this woman resistance fighter in Paris had an electrifying effect on the anti-war and women’s movements around the world.
Madame Binh had been an activist in the Vietnamese communist movement since 1948 when she was 21 years old. She was imprisoned by the French in Saigon between 1951 and 1953. During the war against the U.S. she became a member of the Central Committee of the NLF and Vice Chair of the South Vietnam Women’s Liberation Association. In 1969 she was appointed the Foreign Minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam and played a major role in the Paris peace negotiations, facing numerous threats by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to unleash nuclear weapons on Vietnam. She was a signatory to the Paris Peace Agreements of Jan. 17, 1973, and after liberation in 1975 was twice elected Vice President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam between 1992 and 2002.
The Vietnamese liberation forces always made sure to highlight the leading role that women played in the struggle against the U.S., sending delegations of women fighters and former prisoners to many international conferences. Some of us from Youth Against War and Fascism had the honor of attending one such conference in Toronto, Canada, in 1970. A number of the Vietnamese women there had been imprisoned in the infamous tiger cages built to torture Vietnamese prisoners of war. Some of them had walked for over a month through jungles and under threat of carpet bombing to get to where other transportation could take them to the conference.
While the Tet Offensive was a blow to the U.S. ruling class and its puppet forces and politically exposed U.S. lies about the nature of the war, the Pentagon and the Nixon administration were determined to continue the war. They decided to step up the massive bombing of North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Meanwhile, the anti-war movement and the anti-war sentiment among GIs, many of them conscripted into the military, grew exponentially. In August 1966 heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the army, saying, “The Vietcong never called me [the N word].” By April 1967 Martin Luther King had already made his famous speech against the war at Riverside Church. The Tet offensive accelerated the decline of support for the war, and the U.S. war effort was clearly coming apart on both fronts.
‘Vietnamization’ fails, Vietnam wins!
Nixon and the U.S. generals were forced to declare the “Vietnamization” of the war, that is, the withdrawal of U.S. forces, but they stepped up the arming and training of puppet troops and launched massive attacks on the liberated territories in the south. It became clear that another offensive had to be launched to counter these attacks and blatant violations of the 1973 peace agreements. General Van Tien Dung, Chief of Staff of the Vietnam People’s Army, wrote about the preparations for the final battles in a book published soon after the 1975 victory, titled “Our Great Spring Victory.”
He described how in October 1974, the Political Bureau of the Vietnam Workers Party and the Central Military Committee met to analyze the international and internal situation and consider plans for an offensive. They concluded that the Saigon troops were growing weaker militarily, politically and economically; that the U.S. was in no position to re-enter the war and would not be able to rescue the puppet Saigon regime. They saw that there was growing sympathy and strong support for their struggle around the world.
Just as they had done massive preparation for the siege of Dien Bien Phu and for the Tet Offensive, they prepared to launch the spring offensive of 1975. In under two months the Saigon regime collapsed and all of the South was liberated by April 30, giving us those unforgettable images of the South Vietnamese collaborators scurrying to the top of the U.S. Embassy to flee Saigon in U.S. helicopters. Saigon was soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City in a reunified Vietnam.
Of course, in the aftermath of the war, the U.S. never paid a cent of the reparations that it was supposed to contribute to the rebuilding of the country. It only left a legacy of death and destruction, with an estimated 13.5 million people killed, wounded or made refugees. An estimated 40,000 Vietnamese have died since 1975 as a result of the unexploded bombs left on the land, and untold millions suffer from the effects of chemical warfare that could affect the population for generations to come. These effects of the war, combined with the loss of aid from the socialist bloc when the USSR collapsed and conflict with China following the war, have all combined to make the process of rebuilding Vietnam even more difficult than anticipated. But that is the subject of a whole other discussion.
Perhaps the slogan that best summarizes the legacy of the Vietnamese liberation struggle was raised by the Black Panther Party when they said, “The power of the people is greater than the man’s technology.” But the power of the people had to be organized. The Vietnamese people, who began their war of liberation with only bows and arrows, were organized by communist revolutionaries into the most determined and experienced anti-imperialist fighting force ever seen. This is how they defeated the most powerful military on earth.
Ho Chi Minh and his comrades were not only wise in military tactics, but they knew how to reach out to every progressive layer of Vietnamese society — from religious groups, to minority peoples, to students, intellectuals, workers and peasants — to forge unity in the struggle. And beyond that, they knew how to reach out to workers and oppressed peoples around the world to win allies and strengthen their fight. In other words, communist politics and organization were the key to their victory.
Ho Chi Minh did not live to see the final victory in 1975. He died in 1969, but he was confident in the final outcome. I urge comrades to read the last testament that he wrote in May of 1969. It is a remarkable document, too long to read in full, but here is a small excerpt:
“Even though our people’s struggle against U.S. aggression, for national salvation, may have to go through more hardships and sacrifices, we are bound to win total victory. This is a certainty. …
“Our countrymen in the South and in the North will certainly be re-united under the same roof. We, a small nation, will have earned the signal honour of defeating, through heroic struggle, two big imperialisms — the French and the American — and of making a worthy contribution to the world national liberation movement. …
“My ultimate wish is that our entire Party and people, closely joining their efforts, will build a peaceful, reunified, independent, democratic and prosperous Vietnam, and make a worthy contribution to the world revolution.”
And indeed they did. Long live the example of the Vietnamese revolution!
— Naomi Cohen
A source of much information on Ho Chi Minh’s life is “Ho Chi Minh, A Political Biography” by Jean Lacouture, 1968.