|It is a strange event for any American, Australian, New Zealander, South Korean or Thai who fought in the Viet Nam War to celebrate the Tet offensive in South Viet Nam which occurred fifty years ago last month. The offensive preceded the Tet holiday or lunar new year celebrated by the Vietnamese. The Tet offensive spawned a massive escalation in the Viet Nam War and resulted in the loss of an average of 45 American soldiers per day that year. It led President Lyndon Johnson not to seek a second term of office. Accordingly, it was a celebratory event for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese because they won a war we would just as soon forget. Despite their initial surprise successes to demoralize the western world, they suffered huge casualties and were vulnerable if the U.S. had mounted a retaliatory assault.
The author relocated to Bangkok in 1968 to find countless American soldiers on R&R and a war in Viet Nam and Laos with considerable involvement from the Joint US Military Advisory Group in Bangkok. It was during a hopeless period we can call the true "dark days" of Southeast Asia although the war hatched the economic boom of Thailand. It is even stranger that Joey and I were in what was formerly Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, at the time of the Tet anniversary celebration. Like others, the Viet Nam leaders love a good military parade.
In fact, the front page of the Viet Nam News, The National English Language Daily, featured the above image along with a scratchy photograph of an American tank which was captured by the Viet Cong soldiers in the spring of 1968. Note their "Uncle Ho" sandals made out of tires.
The caption beside it was ...the event remains a shining symbol of victory for the Party, Viet Nam and Vietnamese people. Accordingly, we should remember in a war of national liberation, it is difficult to overcome with weapons the will, passion and determination of the people, which was the theme of our own American Revolution.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Joseph Zengerle wrote an account of his experience as a 25-year-old Army captain assigned to be the special assistant to General William Westmoreland, the American commander in Saigon, Viet Nam. At the time of Zengerle's arrival in Viet Nam in late December 1967, Westmoreland had just given a speech in Washington stating that the end was beginning to "come into view." Unfortunately, the end reflected the success of the other side. Captain Zengerle, shown below, related his account of the coordinated large-scale assault of the Vietcong which erupted throughout South Viet Nam.
The term "Tet Offensive" usually refers to the January-February 1968 offensive, but it can also include the so-called "Mini-Tet" offensives that took place in May and August, or the 21 weeks of unusually intense combat which followed the initial attacks in January. During this period, there were over 100,000 total casualties. Zengerle reported that Westmoreland requested an additional 200,000 troops to the existing level of 500,000 which was not granted. The clarity in Washington was the time had come to end U.S. involvement in Viet Nam and make a graceful exit with as much dignity that could be mustered. Unfortunately, it took seven more years to declare victory and retreat.
At the outset of the Tet offensive, Saigon and Tan Son Nhut airport, home to the headquarters of the U.S. 7th Air Force, became a war zone as shown on the street leading to the airport. Not surprisingly, Tan Son Nhut was the last stop out in the mass exit on April 30, 1975.
The initial attacks stunned both the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies resulting in a loss of control of several cities. The most notable one was Hue, the ancient imperial capital of Viet Nam. It took one month to resume control of Hue and the battle represented the longest and bloodiest one in the war. During the North Vietnamese occupation of Hue, they executed thousands of people in the Massacre at Hue which did not bode well for future captured cities.
When one considers the cadres of Viet Cong shown below, it does not seem to represent a lethal fighting force and certainly would not create a suitable image in a military parade. On the other hand, guerilla forces that could seldom be found were extremely effective.
The combination of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces during the Tet offensive had a profound effect on the U.S. public which had been led to believe that the other side was being defeated. Guerilla warfare and passionate fighters are not unique to the Viet Nam period of fifty years ago. There continues to be religious and nationalistic causes in most regions causing wanton loss of life. When will we ever learn?