Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bad Days in American History: January 31, 1968

On this date in 1968, the United States suffered one of its most embarrassing military setbacks in history--the Tet Offensive.

Early January 1968 found both North Vietnam and the United States in a difficult position. The U.S. was struggling with a war that seemed to never end, supporting an unstable, corrupt government in South Vietnam that had no support from the people, and fearing the fall of South Vietnam to communism would mean the loss of all Asia.

Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese were suffering greatly from the pounding American pilots were providing every day. They wondered how long they could hold out against this beastly assault. In addition, their great anti-colonialist leader Ho Chi Minh was weakening. The North Vietnamese leadership knew they needed a big victory before Ho's passed away. So they decided to take the war to the U.S.

On January 31, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong took a page out of the U.S. historical playbook, picking a major holiday to launch a surprise attack. They launched operations in all parts of South Vietnam, even infiltrating the U.S. embassy in Saigon for a brief time. From a military perspective, the Tet Offensive was a total failure. The North Vietnamese had way over-extended themselves and they could not hold the positions they took against superior firepower.

But despite the military losses and high casualty rates, the Tet Offensive succeeded beyond anything the Vietnamese could have expected. This was the turning point in the war.

The U.S. was in Vietnam for any number of reasons. Lyndon Johnson committed himself to the war effort because he was captured within Democrats' box of fear of being called soft on communism. Johnson was determined not to be the next Harry Truman, whose reputation was at a low point during these years. Republicans tainted Truman with "losing" China. This was utterly unfair since a) Chiang Kai-Shek was a terrible leader and not popular with his people and b) it's entirely unclear what more U.S. military support would have accomplished except for more dead Chinese and Americans. When the newly communist Chinese entered the Korean War, it was a great embarrassment for Truman and emboldened Republican shouts of a communist-infiltrated government.

Johnson wouldn't let this happen to him. But of course he didn't know what to do about Vietnam. No one did. Knowledge of Indochina in the State Department amounted to a hill of beans. Almost no one spoke these languages or specialized in the region. We backed up French recolonization efforts after World War II because we wanted to get the French back on their feet as an anti-communist ally. We fretted after Ho's forces kicked the French out in 1954 after their victory at Dien Bien Phu. We refused to allow Ho to take over the country, creating a puppet regime in Saigon known as South Vietnam. This was only supposed to last 2 years, leading to a 1956 election that would reunify the country. But fearing Ho's communism and afraid it would lead to more red advancement in an area where the U.S. had almost no economic or strategic investments before this, the Eisenhower Administration refused to allow the elections to be held. Eisenhower and Kennedy raised the stakes and when Johnson took over in 1963, he felt he had no choice but proceed.

Like any successful politician after World War II, he had to talk a big game about fighting communism. And when things started to go bad, he didn't think the American people were ready to hear it. So he began to lie about everything associated with Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive put the lie to the Johnson Administration's claims that the war was near victory. The ensuing "credibility gap," which had begun before the offensive grew. Johnson's ability to govern fell. He was hopelessly trapped in lies and with no good options. Seeing no light at the end of the tunnel, Johnson, who had won the presidency in 1964 in one of the greatest landslides in U.S. history, withdrew his name from nomination for re-election in 1968.

From an American perspective, the most tragic thing about the Tet Offensive is that it provided the final nail in the coffin to the man who could have been the greatest president since Lincoln. While Johnson was hamstrung by Cold War imperatives, he also showed the greatest passion for the poor of any president in our history. His desire to end poverty, to create environmental legislation, to sign civil rights legislation--these were the hallmarks of a great leader. But in the end, fighting the Cold War took precedence, even if it meant tens of thousands of dead Americans and hundreds of thousands of dead Vietnamese. Even if it meant throwing his presidency away on a country America knew nothing about.

From a Vietnamese perspective, obviously this day marks a enormously important point in their freedom struggle. I'm not sure how the Vietnamese mark the day today, but I imagine they see it as a great day of martyrdom for the cause of freedom. And we should probably see it that way as well.