Exclusively for CounterPunch, Matthew Stevenson travels from Haiphong and Hanoi, in what was North Vietnam, to the Central Highlands and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and the capital, in search of the remnants of the American war in Vietnam. This is Part IV of an eight-part series.
In traveling around Vietnam, one of the American battlefields most difficult to visit is that of the Tet Offensive, which erupted in winter 1968 as if a primetime wildfire between the Demilitarized Zone and the American Embassy in Saigon.
On the ground, it was the Viet Cong’s big push. Even though the U.S. military broke the sieges in Khe Sanh, Hue, and Saigon, the Communists won an important psychological victory over the Americans during Tet, which indicated that the so-called “light at the end of the tunnel” was nothing more than the Reunification Express headed south on the NVA tracks.
Three years into the American involvement in the fighting, the scenes on the nightly news were not supposed to show guerrillas on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Nor were they supposed to show the Hue Citadel flying the Viet Cong flag or Marines fighting for their lives at Khe Sanh, which was in a remote corner of the DMZ, hard against the border with Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Later studies of the uprising indicated that, militarily, Tet was a costly offensive for the Communist side. It depleted NLF forces in the South, and might have postponed the North’s victory for another seven years. In his biography of General Giap, Victory at Any Cost, Cecil B. Currey writes: “Tet was a tactical disaster . . . . Never again was the Viet Cong able to fight in even battalion-sized units.”
Nor, on the American side, was Tet the defeat that was featured on the evening news. For the first time in the war, the North and its VC allies fought in conventional formations, allowing American preponderance in air power and artillery to destroy piecemeal many Communist regiments. (Previously, the Americans had been chasing ghosts in the jungle, to little effect.)
But the Communist victory at Tet was political, in that it broke the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, removed William Westmorland from his command, and ended the illusion that the Americans could ever win a ground war in Vietnam.
Currey concludes: “In the middle of a tactical defeat. Giap breached a gap in the American will to continue through broadcast pictures of a burning C-130 at Khe Sanh, of sappers in the very compound grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and of the fighting for the Citadel at Hue.”
Hue – The Old City: “What the hell is going on?”
On this trip I biked around Hue even though the traffic around the citadel and the imperial city has aspects of a jet wash. Yes, it is possible to ride alongside the brick walls that U.S. Marines took back from the NVA (the fighting in the old city lasted some six weeks), and to poke around some of the military vestiges that the Americans left behind, which are now scattered around a military museum.
Hidden from view in Hue, even when you’re on a bicycle, is the extent to which American strategy, into the year 1968, was an incompetent failure, such that several NVA regiments snuck into Hue before anyone in the American command sounded the alarm.
From 1965-68 Westmorland and the American government thought that by bombing the North, dropping napalm on the jungle, killing guerrillas on patrol, and herding the population of the South into “strategic hamlets”, South Vietnam might emerge as a stable democracy, one worthy of so much American blood and treasure.
The ARVN wasn’t in the war to defeat Communism so much as to prop up the succession of puppet regimes in the South, which is the bitter lesson that John Paul Vann learned at Ap Bac, when local commanders (on orders directly from Saigon) refused to commit their forces to the battle.
Nor could even 550,000 American soldiers and sailors ever suppress both a Viet Cong rebellion and an NVA invasion of the South. At best American air power could maintain a precarious balance in the fighting, but then, as Vann figured out a lot faster than the rest of the American government, dropping napalm on villages doesn’t win over a lot of hearts and minds.
Nor was Westmorland’s attrition strategy anything more than an update on the extermination wars fought against American Indians in the West. Professor Christian Appy, in American Reckoning, writes: “Journalist Michael Herr once heard a GI in Vietnam offer his opinion on the domino theory: ‘All that’s just a load, man. We’re here to kill gooks. Period.’”
In his excellent if troubling history, Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did, Loren Bartiz writes:
The killing became the objective. General Westmoreland did not know what else to do: “What alternative was there to a war of attrition?” Captain Jenkins understood that this is what had become of America’s military goals: “The operations are the strategy.”
Why Westy thought the North Vietnamese would grow discouraged over casualty lists is one of the enduring mysteries and blunders of the war. Many times Ho Chi Minh said: “You will kill ten of our men and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it.”
In the new book, Hue 1968, by journalist Mark Bowden, and in the Ken Burns mini-series The Vietnam War, the courage of the Marines in liberating the imperial city is one of the epics of Americans-at-arms.
Less than a full regiment of Marines, fighting door-to-door with the valor that took Tarawa, cleared the old city of the occupying NVA forces (although not before the Hanoi soldiers had massacred some 5,000 collaborators).
Left out of the war movies is that such American bravery had no influence in the outcome of the war. Once the enemy flag had flown over the citadel, the American war effort was effectively over.
In his book The Real War (much of it was published in 1968), New Yorker correspondent Jonathan Schell writes about Tet: “The precise target that was destroyed by the foe at Tet was not any military installation but a certain picture of the war that had been planted in the minds of the American people by their government.”
Dupe-in-chief, CBS’s evening anchor Walter Cronkite, put it like this: “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war.”
First the French, Then the Americans
In traveling around Vietnam, what is hardest to fathom is why so few in the American political establishment figured out that Vietnam was a lost cause. From the 1954 Geneva conference until the 1970s, if not beyond, American politicians made fact-finding tours to Vietnam, listened to briefings, looked at the murky landscape (the French compared the foggy weather to spit), and went away convinced that the war could be won with boots on the ground and B-52s in the sky.
Did anyone notice that Vietnam is longer than California, with a landscape that might well be a blend of the Florida Everglades and the Allegheny Mountains? In such terrain a mechanized army would bog down in rice paddies or forlorn valleys, just as air and artillery shells would become spent forces when hitting the jungle. But then, instead of husbanding his troops around cities, Westy sent them to remote corners of the jungles, where all supporting firepower was rendered nearly useless.
Geographically, Vietnam was an invitation to a hanging, and the same illusion that in 2003 would prompt the invasion of Iraq with 145,000 men and some Blackwater contractors would send to Vietnam an army of 550,000 men, and think it could make any headway along a front that stretched more than a thousand miles, if measured along the coast. (By comparison, consider that it took 600,000 American troops to pacify Okinawa, and that battlefront was ten miles wide and about forty miles long.)
North of Hue
If ever there was a fork in the road to the quagmire in Vietnam, it lies between Hue and Quảng Trị City, among the small hamlets and villages that line the sand dunes and rice paddies between Highway 1 and the South China Sea.
The French soldiers who landed here in 1953 nicknamed one of the roads Street Without Joy, testament to the hard fighting that took place there between French forces and Viet Minh guerrillas, who blended well into a landscape that has the somber aspects of a Dutch painting.
In the early 1960s, the French-American scholar and journalist, Bernard Fall, entitled his first book (about both the French and American wars in Vietnam) Street Without Joy, which for him might well have been a metaphor for everything that went wrong in the fighting after 1945, when the French decided to reimpose their colonial will on Indochina (Vietnam in particular).
I first heard about Fall’s history when I was in college in the 1970s. It had been the book of choice during the early years of the Kennedy administration, at the time when it was considering sending military advisers to help the war efforts of the South Vietnamese army.
I only read Fall’s book after visiting Vietnam in 2016, and then I came to the conclusion that not many around President John F. Kennedy could have finished such as history, given that his last sentence reads:
And this is perhaps as good an epitaph as any for the men [the French] who had to walk down the joyless and hopeless road that was the Indochina War until 1954; and for the Americans who now have to follow their footsteps.
He writes in detail about the difficulty of the fighting in this sector north of Hue:
What made the operation so difficult for the French was, as usual in Indochina, the terrain.
This zone is followed by the “Street Without Joy” itself, fringed by a rather curious system of interlocking small villages separated one from the other by often less than 200 to 300 yards. Each village forms a veritable little labyrinth that measures barely more than 200 feet by 300 feet and is surrounded by bushes, hedges, or bamboo trees, and small fences which made ground as well as aerial surveillance almost impossible.
Close to 20 miles long and more than 300 yards wide, this zone of villages constituted the heart of the Communist resistance zone along the central Annam coast.
As fate would have it, proving how little things were to change in Vietnam, Fall would go back to the “Street Without Joy,” in February 1967, when he and a cameraman went out on a patrol there with a platoon of U.S. marines.
In 1967, however, the Americans were having no better luck than the French in 1953 in pacifying the area, and tragically, while out on that patrol, Fall stepped on a landmine and died instantly.
Up in smoke went some fifteen years of serious scholarship and journalism on the subject of the French and American wars in Vietnam, perhaps one reason the fighting would continue for almost another ten years.
Bernard Fall Returns to the Street Without Joy
After my 2016 visit to the Street Without Joy, I sought out a number of books and articles about Fall’s career, including a biography that his widow, Dorothy Fall, published in 2006, under the title Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar.
Fall’s rendezvous with destiny on the Street Without Joy came after the most circuitous journey. He was born in Vienna, to Jewish parents, who fled the Nazis in 1938 and settled in southern France.
Bernard was thirteen years old when World War II began, and he saw quickly both parents consumed in its holocausts. His father died fighting with the French resistance, and his mother was deported to Auschwitz. At age 16, Bernard himself joined the resistance and fought through the liberation in late 1944.
Fall’s keen mind and lively intellect brought him in 1945 to the attention of the American army, which engaged him, then age 19, as a translator (he spoke French, German, and English fluently) during the Nuremberg trials.
After that, he continued his studies in Paris and Munich, and in 1950 won a scholarship to work on his doctorate at Maryland and Syracuse universities. He got his masters in 1952 in political science.
Casting about for a subject for this Ph.D thesis at Syracuse, he was encouraged (as someone who had served in the French military during World War II) to take up the study of the First Indochina War, then raging across the country. As Dorothy writes in her memoir, Bernard was an unusual academic, in that he wanted to see the landscape of his thesis for himself.
Beginning in 1953 he undertook a number of trips across Indochina, leading to his first book, Street Without Joy (1961), which was, in part, put together from some of his letters home to Dorothy.
As a professor based in Washington, D.C. and someone who understood the follies of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu (1954), Fall found himself in much demand as a speaker and advisor as the Americans descended into the same vortex that consumed the French army from 1946-54.
Dorothy writes of his broad influence:
One person who did act as a result of reading Street Without Joy was a soldier, Ron Ridenhour, who later became an award-winning journalist. In 1969 Ridenhour wrote a letter to Congress and the Pentagon in which he exposed for the first time the horrifying massacre and coverup of My Lai. Ridenhour was not with his old company when the barbarism took place but was told the story by many of the men who had participated in the massacre. When asked why he and he alone spoke out, Ridenhour replied, “I had read Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy on the boat going over to Vietnam and it gave me a historical perspective that few of my peers seemed to have.” He told the truth.
Despite Fall’s friendship with the likes of senators William Fulbright and George McGovern, among many others, nothing he could say or write about the earlier Vietnam wars made any impression on official U.S. policy in Vietnam after the French withdrawal.
In his last message to his wife, he wrote: “Tomorrow morning I’m going into a heliborn assault with the First Battalion, Ninth Marines, and guess where: the Street Without Joy. The VC is still in it, still holding it.”
As President Kennedy liked to say when he was angry: “There’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word…”
Trying to Memorialize Bernard Fall
Fall was killed outside the small village of Lai Ha, to which, for the second time, I drove in a taxi from the city of Hue. It took about twenty-five minutes to get there. As I did on my first visit, I walked along the edge of the road, trying to imagine his last patrol. Needless to say, there’s no marker at the spot; nor did anyone close at hand have any recollection of one death fifty years ago, in a war that claimed hundreds of thousands, both soldiers and civilians.
Many years after her husband was killed, Dorothy Fall went to the village of Lai Ha with her daughters. But they only got close to the exact spot, which otherwise has been lost in the fog of war. She writes:
We walked to an isolated spot on the edge of the village that looked like the start of the Street Without Joy. For all its fame, it was only a path into swampland. We didn’t follow it. We were close enough.
I can never imagine that the government of Vietnam would allow a marker to be placed in Lai Ha, in memory of Bernard Fall. Paying homage to French-American scholars is not something they encourage.
Nor, too, given that it ignored the lessons of his histories, could I imagine that the American government would go to the trouble to consecrate the ground where he fell. For too many years most government officials ignored what he wrote in his prophetic books.
I did, however, in my mind, come up with an inscription that might work well on a bronze plaque sunk into the boggy terrain. It could read:
At this location on February 21, 1967, the French-American scholar and author, Bernard Fall, was killed, along with Sergeant Byron G. Highland, a U.S. Marine Corps photographer. Fall died while on patrol with elements of the First Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment. His death on what was called the Street Without Joy recalls both the French soldiers in action here in 1953 and the title of his 1961 best-selling book, which made the point that the Americans in Vietnam were doomed to repeat the earlier mistakes of the French army. Had Fall’s words been heeded, his death—and those of so many Americans, French, and Vietnamese on these streets without joy—might have been avoided.
Another epitaph was spoken for Fall when Lt. Colonel Lucein Conein summed up the American experience in Vietnam. Conein was a freebooter, with both the French and American armies in Indochina. Plus he did time, so to speak, with the CIA. Of the war effort, he recalled, as is quoted in Cecil Currey’s biography of General Giap:
“So. . . we sent ten times the amount of air force. The B-52s. Rolling Thunder. And we had our own little Beau Geste outposts which we called fIre support bases. We were. . . roadbound. The same thing that happened to the French happened to us. We didn’t learn one goddam thing.”
Up Next: Across the DMZ to the siege of Khe Sanh. To read earlier installments in the series, please click here.