Vietnam Will Win: End of an Illusion

Theatre performance at NLF base, South Vietnam, 1965. Photo: Wilfred Burchett

When North Korean naval forces boarded, seized and made off with the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo, on January 23, 1968 – the first time such an indignity had been perpetrated against an American naval vessel for 150 years – the world shuddered and awaited the thunderbolts from the Pentagon. Minds naturally went back to a much more nebulous incident in the Gulf of Tonkin almost four years earlier in which it was claimed, but never proven, that torpedoes had been fired at the U.S. destroyer Maddox. Within 48 hours, North Vietnam’s cities had been bombed in retaliation and the U.S. Congress presented President Johnson with a “blank check” for carrying out war measures in North and South Vietnam. But there was nothing nebulous about what the North Koreans had done. They had physically seized and made off with a ship which contained everything most secret in electronic espionage instruments and had hit the United States in one of its most sensitive spots, the Navy, the very heart of the country’s pride and prestige. Nothing since Pearl Harbor seemed so “outrageous.”

Secretary of State Dean Rusk denounced the seizure as an “act of war” and some senators demanded an ultimatum to the North Korean government of Kim II Sung to free the Pueblo within 24 hours “or else.” Others suggested the dispatch of a naval task force into Wonsan harbor – where the vessel was being held – to free the Pueblo and its crew. South Korea’s President Pak Chung Hi demanded the simultaneous bombing of all North Korean cities as a preliminary punishment. The U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise headed toward North Korean shores. While the world held its breath and waited for the lightning to strike, the North Koreans replied that not only would they continue to hold ship and crew but that the latter would probably be tried on charges of espionage. After a few days of ultimatums and bluster, the Enterprise made a 180-degree turn and sailed away from North Korean waters. What had happened?

It was the end of an illusion. Senator Fulbright put his finger on it within a few hours of the seizure, in what must be considered a model of understatement:

“The U.S. commitment in Vietnam,” he is quoted as saying, “caused other countries to feel more free than normal from serious retaliation…”[1]

If there was no “gunboat up the Yangtze” follow-up, it did not signify any sudden coyness in the Pentagon, but rather that no “gunboats” were available. Total U.S. combat air strength in South Korea comprised just eight planes, and these were nuclear bombers. There was not a single American fighter-bomber in South Korea or anywhere else in the area within flying and combat distance of North Korea. It took three days for President Johnson to scratch up a total of 36 planes and dispatch them to South Korea. Only by calling up Air Force reservists could he get enough pilots to fly them and crews to service them. Unlike North Vietnam, the DPRK[2] has mutual defense pacts with both China and the Soviet Union. But even without these, as things stood in early 1968, North Korea was easily capable of standing up to everything – short of nuclear weapons – that the U.S. could mobilize in the way of air, naval and ground forces in that corner of the world. For ground forces, the Pentagon had two divisions (apart from one company of Thai troops, all that remained of “United Nations” forces in South Korea). But these were down to about half strength because effectives had been siphoned off quietly to replace Vietnam battle casualties.

The illusion shattered by the Pueblo affair was that the United States with its great military and economic might, could play the role of a global super gendarme. One “little war” against an underdeveloped country had proved too much. The illusion that U.S. armed forces could be whisked around the world to move into every situation where U.S. interests, imaginary or otherwise, were threatened, has been destroyed by the Vietnamese people and confirmed by the North Korean people.

When emergency measures were taken to shore up the U.S. military posture in South Vietnam, necessitated by the NLF’s Lunar New Year offensive, the U.S. public perhaps realized for the first time just how deeply the war had eaten into U.S. military might, how frail were the reserves. Therein lay the real reason for the “soft” reaction to the Pueblo affair.

“In the event of another emergency outside Vietnam, the army would not have even one complete infantry division ready for immediate deployment overseas,” reported Neil Sheehan of the New York Times.[3] Sheehan pointed out that President Johnson’s decision to airlift another 10,500 Army and Marine troops to South Vietnam had “seriously depleted this country’s trained force of active, strategic reserve divisions.” After the Dak To battle, the Pentagon had already committed the remaining two brigades of the 101st, one of the Pentagon’s two reserve airborne divisions, intended for the defense of the United States itself. After the Têt offensive, one brigade of the remaining airborne division, the 82nd, was also rushed out. This left only two more brigades of the 82nd and three other divisions, the 1st and 2nd Armored and the 5th Mechanized divisions, inside the United States, none of the latter three in any way suitable for the jungle, rice paddy or street warfare of South Vietnam. Although on paper there were still three Marine divisions available, in fact, after the dispatch of the 27th Regiment of the newly formed 5th Marine Division to make up the 10,500-man emergency force, there existed only a little more than one Marine division in the United States. Effectives had been siphoned off the 2nd, 5th and even the reserve 4th Marine divisions to replace battle casualties and to inflate what were officially only two Marine divisions in South Vietnam, but which in terms of effectives (83,000 including the 27th Regiment) were the equivalent of more than four divisions.

Replacements for the very high ratio of casualties the Marines were taking, plus rotation, plus a drastic falling off in volunteers in the Marine Corps, had reduced Marine units within the United States to mere skeletons. During all of 1967, Marines had been quietly transferred from one division to another, from home-based units to combat units to cover up the heavy battle losses. The same had been happening inside Army divisions, as was revealed when the 82nd Brigade was dispatched. Many of the effectives involved were non voluntarily sent on a second tour of duty, without the stipulated two years out of a war zone which was supposed to follow one year’s service in Vietnam. Many of the 82nd Brigade men had just returned from Vietnam service with other units. They had hardly time to receive family congratulations on their survival than they were off again on another venture in which the risks of non survival had sharply increased, the average weekly toll of American dead, as officially reported, having doubled from the end of January 1968. Incidentally, the addition of 10,500 to an existing force of 500,000 U.S. troops was obviously not going to make any difference to fortunes on the battlefield, but it did mean that armed strength within the United States itself had been reduced far below the minimum six divisions and two brigades the government is supposed to maintain for national security.

There was no shortcut out of the dilemma. In the event of another crisis in the Caribbean for instance, or the Middle East or anywhere else except Europe, there were no trained units, planes or pilots available. By early 1968, the United States had become badly “overextended ” The situation would not be cured by simply calling up manpower. It takes ten months to a year to form, train and equip a combat-ready U.S. infantry division.

This situation was also a contributing factor to the American “soft” reaction to the Warsaw Pact forces invasion of Czechoslovakia. More important even than Johnson’s obsession of letting nothing interfere with his plans for a face-to-face meeting with Kosygin on nuclear disarmament, was the impotence of the U.S. military posture in Europe, at least as far as conventional military affairs were concerned. U.S. troops had gradually been siphoned off, if not for direct dispatch to Vietnam, at least to replace other units in the United States that had been assigned to the bottomless pit of South Vietnam.

These were chilling thoughts for the Pentagon, where the Têt offensive had precipitated something of a “revolt” by the “Young Turks,” who clamored for a pullout from Vietnam and a return to the old policy of “massive retaliation.” They complained that Johnson had destroyed or crippled a major part of U.S. armed strength in the Vietnamese “meat-grinder” in an adventure having nothing to do with U.S. national interests, leaving virtually defenseless vast areas where the “Young Turks” believed vital national interests were involved. There must have been some other chilling thoughts in the Pentagon as the full-scale U.S. commitment dragged into its fourth year.

Air power as a decisive, or even effective, instrument of military policy had proven to be a myth. After three years of bombing the North at a shattering cost in planes and pilots, the Saigon communiqués still listed the same targets as in the first weeks of the attacks: Dong Hoi radar installations, Vinh airfield, road and railway bridges in the “panhandle,” trucks and barges. And month by month, year by year, the Pentagon reported a steady increase instead of a decrease in the volume of supplies moving south. Air power could destroy, but used with unprecedented force against the North it had demonstrated its impotence to halt production or the movement of supplies.

In the South, air power could also destroy but it could not occupy. It could influence tactics on the battlefield but it could not produce decisive results. And if reflections on the inefficacy of air power in the North were sobering for Air Force generals, then what must be the reflections of Army generals who speculate about the performance of U.S. combat troops if they had to fight without a monopoly of air power, as would undoubtedly be the case if they were involved in ground fighting in North Korea or in China or against Soviet troops in Europe. If U.S. forces were able only to achieve such meager results against “Vietcong” in spite of an absolute monopoly of strategic and tactical air power, the performance would logically be substantially worse if these monopolies were canceled out. Air support has often robbed the NLF forces of otherwise clear-cut victories on the battlefield. On the other hand, air power has never enabled the U.S.-Saigon forces to win a clear-cut victory on the battlefield, nor has it enabled them to occupy territory – the real aim of military operations, notwithstanding the double talk about “fix, find and destroy,” “search and destroy” and other tactical phrases that had been used by Westmoreland to cover up his inability to secure and occupy territory.

Specifically, in South Vietnam, the monopoly of airpower used on a scale unprecedented in military history has not enabled the American military commanders to achieve what was one of their prime strategic objectives – establishment of a military front, a definite line behind which they could say: “That is ours; a secure, stable rear in which we can establish bases, mobilize manpower and resources that will multiply as we move our line forward.” Harkins, Maxwell Taylor and Westmoreland all were unable to achieve this, and so U.S. bases and military installations still remain scattered, isolated islets in a totally hostile sea.

Another byproduct of the U.S. inability to occupy territory has been the gradual changing of relations of strength, even in air power, between North Vietnam and the United States. In August 1964, when the first “retaliatory” American raids were made after the Tonkin Gulf “incident,” North Vietnam had no air force. It still had none when the regular bombing attacks started in February 1965. There was a complete U.S. monopoly of air power over the North as there was over the South. But after some months, pilots from a fledgling North Vietnamese Air Force began to measure their skills against some of America’s finest air aces. American air “monopoly” was de-escalated to air “superiority,” although U.S. air superiority included the ability to bomb the North’s airfields at will. In spite of the immensely superior firepower of America’s latest jets compared to the outmoded MIG-17s; and in spite of the immeasurably greater experience of American pilots, the young air force of the North continued to grow in quantity and quality and by the end of 1967, more and more MIG-21s were making their appearance. The vigorous, young North Vietnamese Air Force had become something that American pilots had to take into account.

The DRV Air Force started from scratch like the guerrillas in the South, with the same unrelenting process at work, resulting in a steady change in the relation of forces in all spheres. Concerning the continued growth and activity of the young North Vietnamese Air Force, the American press occasionally reported that destruction of the MIGs on the ground was being averted by their being flown to “sanctuaries” over the border in China and there were rumors of “hot pursuit” into China and even the bombing of the Chinese “sanctuaries.” But these rumors quieted somewhat when it was pointed out that the United States was using “sanctuaries” in Thailand, from where an estimated 80% of bombing attacks against North Vietnam and most of the B-52 attacks against the South were being mounted. Attacks against “sanctuaries” could work in two directions. Any U.S. attacks on real or imaginary “sanctuaries” in China would certainly be countered by retaliatory Chinese air attacks against the much more venerable American air “sanctuaries” in Thailand. Washington was well aware of this and so took another “soft” line toward rumors that North Vietnam’s MIGs were flown across the border for protection and servicing in China. Three years earlier, when the North Vietnamese Air Force was still in gestation, the Pentagon was yearning for such rumors to justify “hot pursuit” and “denial of sanctuaries,” the official jargon used to camouflage hawkish hopes of hitting China.

In other words, overextension in Vietnam was having a sobering effect on Washington’s posture in many areas and at many levels.

Official indignation and public frustration over the Pueblo affair were still rankling when the NLF launched its generalized offense against the main strongholds of American power in the cities, dealing a blow to U.S. prestige which only added to the humiliation of the Pueblo incident. The scope of this simultaneous offensive throughout the length and breadth of South Vietnam; the complete secrecy with which it was prepared and executed; the cooperative or quiescent attitude of Saigon military and administrative organs towards the NLF in many regions; the catastrophic military and political setbacks inherent in the temporary seizure in whole or in part of 140 cities and towns – all this gave the lie to the “military progress,” “increasing popular support” and “end of the war in sight” myths which had been fed to American and world opinion for months preceding the offensive. To many people it was clear that the United States could not play the role of a world super gendarme and it was extremely conjectural how much longer Washington could continue its role of gendarme in South Vietnam.

What, from a military viewpoint, was the significance of the offensive against the towns? This was a question I put to Nguyen Van Hieu, former secretary-general of the NLF’s Central Committee, released from that position to become chief NLF spokesman abroad. At the time I met him he was representative of the NLF with ambassadorial status in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. As such he was in very close touch with events on the other side of the frontier. A round-faced, plump person with a calm, reflective expression and a fine analytical mind, Nguyen Van Hieu, a former Saigon professor of mathematics, is very typical of the militant intellectuals within the top leadership of the NLF.

“If we speak exclusively of military results,” he said, “the Americans themselves have admitted that they were forced to withdraw troops everywhere from the countryside to try to defend the towns. They and their Quislings have been forced to abandon even that small part of the countryside they still controlled at the time of our offensive.

“Enormous human and material losses were inflicted on American and puppet troops. The Saigon army started to disintegrate. Two hundred thousand deserted in the week following our first blow. Some went back to their villages. Others came over to our side as units, including one unit with its tanks. But one of the most important military results is that our forces have secured new bases in and around the cities themselves. A new phase in the war has started.”

I pointed out that the second wave of attacks on February 17-18 seemed much weaker than the first offensive and was widely interpreted as signifying a decline in NLF strength because of losses incurred in the earlier action.

“On the contrary,” replied Nguyen Van Hieu, “The second attacks were a logical consequence of the success of our first action. Rocket and mortar fire was directed with great precision against virtually all the most important American military installations from positions our forces secured in the first attack. We were able to hit airfields, munitions dumps and oil storage depots, port facilities, radar installations and transmission and communications facilities, without infantry assaults as in the past.

“We will continue to hit such installations from new positions secured in our generalized offensive around all U.S. bases and logistics centers throughout South Vietnam.”

I then asked Hieu to explain the chief features of the “new phase in the war” to which he had referred.

“The war has moved from the countryside into and around the cities and American bases,” he said. “Before, the Americans considered the cities as their safe rear from which they could launch attacks against our forces in the countryside. Now the cities are front line areas. Our bases are established in the outskirts of Saigon and other cities and will remain there. Our rear is now partly in the cities themselves. In other words, our bases in the outskirts are organically linked with our rear bases in the jungle and mountains on the one hand, and with the urban population in the cities on the other. The jungle and mountains and the cities are now united.

“Our first wave of attacks entirely changed each side’s strategic situation. Before, it was a big problem for our main forces to approach major American bases. Now the problem of approach no longer exists. Our forces are there permanently. That is why we can launch rocket and mortar attacks against Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airfield even in broad daylight. We attacked this super guarded base nine times in the week that followed our second round of attacks…

“Such attacks will continue and will grow in intensity, not only around Saigon and American installations there, but in and around all other bases.

“American forces are dispersed in fixed positions more than ever. Because of our generalized offensive against the cities and subsequent actions made possible by this, the American forces have still further lost their mobility and capacity for offensive action.

“The United States Army, as an ultramodern army, also requires an ultramodern infrastructure, with efficient supply, communications, transport and transmission facilities, radar installations and so forth. Even with a small interruption in communications and transmission, for example, the U.S. army loses much of its efficiency. Much money and time were spent building this infrastructure in South Vietnam. Now it is all disorganized. Radio and radar installations have been destroyed, all strategic roads and the main river ways are controlled by our forces, logistic centers including port facilities are in ruins. The result in lowered U.S. military efficiency was immediately noticeable… in lack of coordination between American and Saigon forces; lack of coordination between their own ground units and between ground units and air support; and frequently a total absence of support for platoon and company-sized units caught in our ambushes. They will replace some of the installations, open a road here or there, but for every installation they replace we will destroy two or three more from our positions around these bases which we consolidated in the first month following the offensive, which are now permanent and win be strengthened every day.”

Professor Hieu mentioned another example of the changing relation of forces. “At the moment that their communications deteriorate, ours improve. We captured many tens of tons of transmission equipment alone, not to mention hundreds of trucks. But if we lost all this again, we can still go back to our bikes and foot runners, while the Americans have no such reserves to fall back on.

“We estimate that in our attacks against 45 airfields in our first two big assaults, we destroyed 1,800 planes and helicopters on the ground. At many of these airfields, which included 11 of the 14 major American air bases, we actually occupied the terrain for hours and even days and we were able to destroy all aircraft in the parking lots. This had a dramatic effect on American air activities over the whole of South Vietnam. Except for attacks around the besieged marine positions south of the demilitarized zone and attacks against Saigon, Hué and some other cities, the air space over the rest of South Vietnam is free from the noise of American planes for the first time in many years. Our troops are able to move along roads and river ways in broad daylight without even a reconnaissance plane to worry them. They may replace the planes, but it will take time and in the meanwhile our forces are consolidating their positions around all the air bases to keep them permanently under fire.”[4] About the time Nguyen Van Hieu gave this interview, an American officer was telling correspondents in Saigon that to establish a security belt around Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airbase, sufficiently wide to protect it against “Vietcong” rocket attacks, it would require 200,000 U.S. troops in permanent position, with no other task than that of guarding the base, because of the seven mile range of NLF rockets.

I asked Nguyen Van Hieu to comment on official Washington claims that NLF forces did not receive the support they expected from the urban population in their initial assaults against the cities.

“Nonsense!” he responded. “We could not possibly have carried out an offensive of such tremendous scope without the support of the people in the towns. In fact, this support was the decisive factor in our success. Even General Westmoreland belatedly admitted that he was caught by surprise. ‘Tactical surprise,’ he said, but in reality it was a strategic surprise.’ The fact is that we attacked more than 140 towns. The Americans claimed we infiltrated eight or nine battalions into Saigon alone. Westmoreland also acknowledged that ‘the tactic of infiltration into the population centers was used to a far greater degree than anticipated…’ What does this mean? Our forces have no modern transport, no logistics system as generally understood. It was the local population of Saigon and other cities who helped carry supplies; who hid our arms and munitions; who protected and fed our troops. Many hundreds of thousands of people in the towns all over South Vietnam helped our troops for days on end before the attack was launched. And there was no betrayal. Absolute secrecy was maintained. It is difficult to imagine any greater demonstration of the total support our forces received from the local population.”

“How do you evaluate the main political results?” I asked Professor Hieu.

“There are many,” he replicating they are developing very quickly, in most varied forms. The collapse of Saigon’s power in the countryside is one important result. The destruction of whatever grip the Quisling regime still had on the cities is another. This is illustrated by Thieu and Ky collaborating with the Americans in ‘destroying cities to save them,’ as one American general expressed it. People in the towns, within a few hours or days, saw with their own eyes the barbarities that have been inflicted on our people in the countryside by the Americans and the Saigon regime for years past. Loudspeakers mounted on helicopters ordered people out of their homes, shooting them down when they tried to flee, while American bombers reduced whole city blocks to rubble. They saw with their own eyes the fascist ferocity of the American and Quisling troops and the heroism of the NLF forces.

“The fact that Thieu and Ky try to cling to power by calling in American tanks and troops in the streets of Saigon, Hué and other cities; by American helicopters mowing people down from the rooftops; by American bombs, napalm and naval gunfire used to destroy the city of Hué; and the fact that the Mekong Delta cities like Ben Tre and My Tho were smashed to bits by American bombs and shells – all this has exposed the true face of the Saigon Quislings as never before. They will never recover from this and eventually win suffer the fate history reserves for such traitors.

“The collapse of Saigon’s power is very significant. For the type of neocolonialist war the Americans are waging, they need the myth of local administration and army; they need the existence of a local power structure which they can claim they are there to support. For this they needed to maintain a power base in Saigon and the countryside. This was one of the imperatives of ‘pacification.’ The base has now collapsed and can never be restored. This is a strategic political defeat of primary importance for the Americans, which even Washington seems slowly to be recognizing.

“The natural remit of the collapse and discrediting of the Saigon administration has been the creation of new political and administrative organizations. People’s self-management committees sprang up in the cities to take care of day-to-day affairs like public health and food distribution. Those will continue to exist even if the Thieu-Ky clique manage to partially restore administrative services in some places. New political forces like the League of National and Peace-loving Forces in Saigon[5] and a similar body in Hué, have emerged with a program which coincides with the main points of our political program, that is: the overthrow of the Thieu-Ky regime, the withdrawal of American and satellite troops, the setting up of a coalition regime with the NLF and peace based on the total independence of the country. We welcome the formation of such new political forces and support them. The extent of the isolation of the Thieu-Ky regime can also be seen by the arrests of a number of prominent political, religious and trade union personalities, including former members of the Saigon government; these arrests are also a measure of the increasing opposition even among circles considered close to the regime. The ouster of two of the four military zone commanders and the rumored imminent dismissal of the remaining two are in the same order of things. Thieu and Ky are badly worried about further large-scale revolts and defections within their armed forces. All this is a result of our generalized offensive against the cities, which succeeded beyond our expectations.”

What also emerged from the conversation with Nguyen Van Hieu was that the tactics of exploiting contradictions between dispersal and concentration were employed during the attacks on the cities. The case of Hué was an example. For prestige reasons Westmoreland concentrated all available forces and took 25 days and three battalions of decimated Marines to retake what the NLF forces seized in a couple of hours and practically without firing a shot. But while the marines were battling their way into the Hué citadel and destroying the old Imperial City block by block, NLF forces took over the rest of Thua Thien Province of which Hué is the capital, including solid positions in the western outskirts of the city itself.

In Saigon, diversionary attacks were carried out against the U.S. Embassy, the Presidential Palace and other buildings, where the U.S.-Saigon Command had to concentrate its forces, while the NLF seized priority targets like the munitions depots to get arms and strategic points in the outskirts which could be transformed into future bases. While the U.S.-Saigon forces concentrated on defending or recapturing objectives of prestige value, the main body of NLF forces was busy setting up permanent positions in the various city outskirts, around airfields and other major U.S. bases and military installations. In the past, attacks against these bases were of a “hit and run” type; everything was worked out so that approach, attack and withdrawal would be effected in the hours of darkness, because by dawn the attacking force had to be out of sight of U.S. planes. In the future the bases could be hit by day or night, the attackers maneuvering around within their permanent spider web complexes of trenches and tunnels, or withdrawing temporarily to fade out into the cities in an emergency.

Scores of thousands of arms were seized and distributed to new units formed from among the urban youth. From the time of the offensive against the cities, new terms appeared in the NLF communiqués. There were frequent references, for instance, to actions by the “revolutionary armed forces,” a term applied to a combination of NLF armed forces, units of the Saigon army which had crossed over to the NLF and new units set up from urban workers and students, armed from the huge stores taken from captured munitions depots and arsenals. During the attacks around Saigon, there were NLF news bulletins with sections like the following: “thus in two days the revolutionary armed forces of the 7th ward[6] killed 110 GIs, wounded many more and burned out one M-113 tank…” Units began to be identified by the city district on which they were based. News items often identified city streets in which ambushes had taken place. The war had indeed entered a new phase with the cities and bases as the focal points of military activity.

In the weeks that followed the offensive, main American efforts, apart from trying to retake prestige targets, were directed at trying to reopen road and river communications and to clear areas around their bases. The question of trying to restore some semblance of a Saigon presence-power would not be the appropriate term – in the countryside, was admitted by U.S. correspondents on the spot to be a hopeless task for a foreseeable future.

“In effect, South Vietnam has temporarily abandoned its own countryside. If not dead, the vital pacification program is in a state of suspension Ironically, the Vietcong achieved this setback to the important pacification program by directing its offensive not at the ‘priority pacification areas’ in the country but at South Vietnam’s major cities and towns . .” reported Charles Mohr, February 15, in the New York Times. And the International Herald Tribune (Paris), on February 26, after describing the collapse of Saigon power observed that “ the enemy has demonstrated with appalling clarity that pre-Têt convictions were bunt on sand

“The picture is the same everywhere in Vietnam. Americans are waiting, holding defensive positions, stretched thin trying to occupy the ground that pacification maps carried as occupied months ago. No troops are left to go out and chase the enemy. It has never been more clear that he fights when and where he chooses

All this sounded like a confirmatory postscript to certain analyzes and predictions of General Vo Nguyen Giap and President Nguyen Huu Tho quoted earlier.

The generalized offensive against the cities and its aftermath with the almost continuous hammering of American bases and the political bankruptcy in Saigon, represent the most complete application, at the time of writing, of the political-military strategies and tactics of the Front analyzed in depth in the preceding chapters of this book.

Reactions to all the setbacks in Vietnam by the men in the Pentagon were typical of frustrated military men. One headline from US. News & World Report sums it up: “The Real Reason Why War Has Dragged On? Big Differences Between U.S. Military Men And Their Civilian Superiors.” The story that followed was a rehash of the familiar lament of captains of war when victory eluded their grasp: “If only civilians and politicians had not tied our hands!”

Generals Harking, Maxwell Taylor, Westmoreland and their chiefs in the Pentagon, if they were realists, could have taken one grain of comfort. No other generals and Pentagon planners would have done less badly! Having covered this type of war in Asia for the past 27 years, I am convinced this is so.

Only by ridding itself of the illusion that colonialism, neocolonialism or anything similar can be re-imposed on the Vietnamese people, or that destiny has designated the United States to become the super policeman of the world – we had enough of that with Hitler – can Washington put itself in the right frame of mind for a realistic and reasonable solution. Much more blood will unfortunately be spilled before this happens. Once the change of mind comes about, whoever is in the White House will find the leaders of the NLF and the DRV surprisingly reasonable and generous people to deal with. Pierre Mendès-France, then prime minister of France, found this to be true at Geneva in 1954, even at the moment of the Vietminh’s greatest triumph at Dien Bien Phu. Mr. Harriman could also have discovered it at the Paris talks if Johnson had given him the slightest chance to act as a real negotiator, instead of making him a postman for the former President’s latest whims. There is every indication that Harriman actually discovered just this and made recommendations accordingly. But they were rejected by Johnson, who preferred to take the advice of hawks like Bunker in Saigon and his counterparts in the Pentagon and State Department.


[1] International Herald Tribune, Paris, January 24, 1968.

[2] Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as distinct from the ROK (Republic of Korea) in the South.

[3] Published in the International Herald Tribune on Feb. 16, 1968.

[4] Nguyen Van Hieu was obviously speaking of the period immediately after the Têt offensive. Within a few months, the U.S.-Saigon Command was able to divert considerable air power, especially B-52s, from use against the North to carry out bombing raids of unprecedented violence against the South, especially in the immediate neighborhood of the big cities.

[5] Later a single Alliance of National, Democratic and Peace Forces was set up on a national level, incorporating the former Saigon and Hué organizations. It held its first congress in the Saigon-Cholon area on April 20-21, 1968, and a second congress on July 30-31, 1968, at which a Political Program was approved, similar to but not identical with that of the NLF. The formation of the Alliance was supported by the NLF and the DRV, as were also the main points of its Political Program. Significant for future developments was an NLF Communiqué of September 13, 1968. Referring to the fighting in Tay Ninh Province, the communiqué mentions “Les Forces Unifiées Nationales du Commandant Huynh Thanh Hung.” The latter is a leading figure in the Cao Dai sect who recently placed his armed forces at the disposal of the NLF and Alliance and undertook decisive military action during the recent Tay Ninh offensive in releasing some 200,000 Cao Dai believers from a huge camp in which they had been concentrated in starvation conditions by the U.S.-Saigon administration. That other sections of the Saigon armed forces will rally to the side of the NLF and the Alliance is certain. The U.S. Defense Department, in a statement on September 20, admitted that desertion rates in the Saigon Army had jumped 25% during the first half of 1968.

[6] “Arrondissement” in the original of the NLF’s French language bulletin of March 3, 1968.

NEXT: Epilogue

Wilfred Burchett was an Australian journalist, who covered World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. His many books include Shadows of Hiroshima, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist and Vietnam Will Win. Burchett died in 1983.