Vietnam was a French colony from 1890 to 1954 (with an interruption of Japanese control from 1940-45); there were many nationalistic attacks against the French and Japanese colonial occupiers. (Even earlier, the Vietnamese people had been occupied and dominated by Imperial China until 1789, when the Chinese were finally driven out.) Independent-minded, the Vietnamese people revered their national heroes who fought for their freedom from domination and occupation. In the minds of many Vietnamese in the South as well as the North, Ho Chi Minh*, the communist-nationalist leader, was such a patriot.
After WWII, Ho Chi Minh tried to get US support for a free and independent Vietnam. President Harry S. Truman ignored his entreaties. Meanwhile, Truman encouraged and supported the French in reestablishing colonial domination in French Indo-China in order to “contain” Communism.
1954: In May, the French forces were defeated at Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh forces of Ho Chi Minh. The French military compound in northwestern Vietnam was heavily defended. It was, however, a vulnerable military location lacking an easily passable land route. It could only be resupplied and reinforced by air, which proved difficult with constant bombardment and foul weather. In a valley, it was heavily bombarded by artillery and mortars rounds from the surrounding hills. Its remote location doomed the French and their costly war to retain control of their colony. (Back in France, the public was growing weary of the on-going war in French Indo-China, which was costly in human and monetary terms. The French public’s eagerness to end their involvement there, along with the government’s faltering imperial policies, gave encouragement to the Algerians, who embarked in 1954 on their own war for independence.)
*Born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890, he assumed his nom de guerre, Ho Chi Minh (meaning: “one who enlightens”), in the late 1930s. He was near the end of his life when the Tet offensive was being planned and put into action. He died in September 1969. The son of a Confucian scholar, he was educated at a French Lyceum in Hue. As a young man, he traveled to France, England, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. He became a Marxist while in France during the early 1920s. As a Marxist, he was enthralled by Lenin’s revolutionary writings and adhered to some of Mao Tse Tung’s revolutionary practices, especially in regard to guerrilla warfare and purging. He was also captivated by the French and American constitutions; he wanted to bring those democratic ideals to a free Vietnam. While in China in 1929, he would help form the Communist Party of Indo-China. A seasoned revolutionary and an ardent nationalist, he would marry nationalism to communism. Yet he would claim: “It was patriotism, not communism that inspired me.” He fought fiercely against the French, Japanese and Americans to bring independence to his people. Yet, his image in the West is that of a ruthless, authoritarian demagogue. To many Vietnamese, he was simply, Uncle Ho.
1954: The Geneva Accords of July divided French Indo-China into four countries: Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (North and South). Vietnam was divided into two entities along the 17th parallel: The North became the Democratic Republic of Vietnam with Ho Chi Minh as president; and the South was ruled by the French puppet, Emperor Bao Dai whose government was weak and lacked popular support. Bao Dai was assassinated in 1955 and replaced by Nyugen Diem, a French educated Catholic in a predominately Buddhist society. (About 850,000 Catholics had fled the North and migrated to the South after the Geneva Accords were put into effect.) Fearing a communist takeover, the USA soon asserted its presence in the South.
INVOLVEMENT IN SOUTH EAST ASIA
President D.D. Eisenhower fearing the “domino effect” began aiding the Republic of South Vietnam economically and militarily with advisers to strengthen the Republic’s fledgling Army. Joint elections, called for by the Geneva Accords, to determine the “pending” reunification of the two Vietnams were never held.
Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, a virulent anti-communist who responded to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charges of communist infiltration into the State Dept, had purged it of leftists and New Dealers. This purge was particularly damaging in the Far East Section, where a nuanced interpretation of the facts, instead of a good versus evil Cold War mentality, was necessary to comprehend the complicated context of Southeast Asia.
During the late 1950s, the North Vietnamese began to send troops south to assist the Viet Cong (VC) insurgents against the American occupiers. The US responded by sending more military advisers and aid.
During John F Kennedy’s inaugural address in January 1961, the new president said, reflecting Cold War realities: “We’ll pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe for the survival and success of liberty.” Soon after, his administration escalated American involvement in South Vietnam with the policies of “counter-insurgency” and “nation-building.” As a result, the number of advisers and the scale of aid increased. Just a week before Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, President Diem had been assassinated by a group of South Vietnamese generals with the assistance of the CIA.
A military junta was soon installed and dominated by Generals von Nyugen Thieu and Cao Key, who were rivals for power. It was given a veneer of legitimacy by a Constitution, but the Republic of South Vietnam would remain a military regime characterized by elitism, nepotism and rampant corruption. It was also perceived as a puppet government of the USA by many South Vietnamese, especially in the rural areas, and by the North Vietnamese, which in the mid-1960s accelerated its military insurgency against the Republic of South Vietnam and the American imperialist “occupiers.”
After JFK’s assassination, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson became president. As he admitted, his forte was domestic policy not foreign affairs. Under the influence of Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was assured that the war against the Viet Cong and their northern ally was “winnable.” An air of arrogance prevailed in these deliberations as it was argued that American military technology and “firepower” would over-match the “third world” Vietnamese. Despite the concerns of some advisers, LBJ moved to increase American presence in SVN.
AMERICANIZATION OF THE WAR AGAINST THE INSURGENCY
In early July 1964, days after the Tonkin Gulf Incidents (which were then shrouded in the fog of war, but which now look like exaggerated engagements incited by U.S. provocations) Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave the Johnson administration authorization to move against the North Vietnamese for their alleged attacks upon US Naval vessels in international waters. The Johnson administration conveniently interpreted the Tonkin Gulf Resolution as a declaration of war. Soon after, American presence in and support of South Vietnam (SVN) escalated dramatically.
Given the weakness and ineffectiveness of the South Vietnamese military, LBJ, following the advice of the military, authorized the Americanization of the war effort. General William Westmoreland+, fresh from the command of West Point, was appointed to lead the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, known as MAC-V. Westmoreland oversaw the dramatic build-up of American forces, developed the aggressive “search and destroy” strategy, and became indelibly linked to the optimistic daily reports of American success in Vietnam. By early 1968, over 500,000 American soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen were stationed in SEA to fight the communist-nationalist insurgency.
+General William Westmoreland (b. March 26, 1914 in South Carolina), a 1936 graduate of West Point, saw combat as an artillery officer in Tunisia, Sicily, France and Germany during WWII; and in Korea in the early 1950s. In the early 1960s, he was the commanding officer at West Point. In 1964, he was assigned to command the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam. Under his command, there was a huge increase in American military personnel. He is noted for developing the aggressive “search and destroy” strategy in Vietnam. Its objective was to find and kill as many members of the insurgency as possible. That innocent people were caught in the middle and mistaken for the enemy was the sad reality of war. These victims were most often counted as enemy dead. “If he’s dead and Vietnamese, he’s VC”, the reasoning went. By the end of 1967, Westmoreland reported that the VC had lost 90,000 fighters. As he would later say, Vietnam “became a war of attrition, [and] we were winning the war of attrition.” The problem with this calculus was that “the price that the enemy was prone to pay greatly exceeded our expectations.” He also became associated with daily reports on the status of the war which were deemed by many to be overly optimistic statements of American success in Vietnam. Although there was some accuracy to his appraisals, his reports were increasingly questioned by the media. On the role of the media in Vietnam, he said in an interview: “Vietnam was the first war that we’ve ever fought on the television screen and it was the first war that our country fought where the media had full reign (sic)…they had no restraint.” This was LBJ’s policy, he said, “and the enemy exploited it.”
AMERICANIZATION OF THE WAR – continued
The guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong and their northern allies proved to be quite troublesome for American forces. Ambushes, booby-traps and hit-and-run tactics represented classic guerrilla warfare, but our tactics and firepower were also a great challenge for the insurgents whose light weaponry included AK-47s, mortars, rocket propelled grenades (which were very effective against American tanks and armored personnel carriers) and small rockets (122mm and 140mm), which were not particularly accurate, were still very effective militarily and psychologically. Virtually all were supplied by the USSR. The NVN also had artillery situated in the DMZ that was used effectively against American camps and outposts in the north, particularly Khe Sanh.
THE NATIONALIST-COMMUNIST INSURGENCY
A relationship of mutual dependence existed between the Viet Cong, the insurgents in the South, and Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist/communist regime in the North. The VC were mostly organized at the local, usually rural level. But it had some regional and urban capabilities as well. The VC were largely dependent upon the North for supplies and arms which moved south via the numerous mountain trails collectively called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A steady stream of arms, supplies and troops moved down these trails. The long trek was arduous with many natural obstacles but it became extremely dangerous beginning in early 1967 when there was the constant threat of bombings by American aircraft. Nonetheless, arms and supplies hauled by small carts and wagons, and by human travail made it to the South.
Most of the supplies came from the Russians and, to a much lesser extent, the Chinese, who both made this conflict in Southeast Asia a proxy war against the USA. Tens of thousands of reinforcements were also going south to join the war against the American imperialists. The Viet Cong and their northern ally were driven by a nationalist mission: drive out the American imperialists and unify the Vietnamese people under one national government. The North wanted this unified country controlled by Ho Chi Minh.
AMERICAN DOMESTIC OPPOSITION TO U.S. MILITARY IN SEA
Meanwhile, there was growing domestic American opposition to our presence in Vietnam. This was primarily happening on American college campuses. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other groups led the campaign against the war and the Selective Service drafts which were sweeping tens of thousands of middle and lower class young men into the Army and Marines. Exemptions to the draft allowed the rich and privileged to remove their sons from harm’s way by staying in school or enlisting in the National Guard or the Reserves. Vietnam was a war fought largely by draftees and those young men who volunteered to serve. The iniquities of the draft were obvious and morally repugnant to many. That the first opposition to the war arose on the college campuses was no surprise.
The size and scope of the United States at war also attracted the attention of the American media. Television crews and newspapers reporters were drawn to the action that engulfed our nation’s young. The media served the traditional role of providing information about the war, but it also provided first-hand glimpses of the war, which in turn raised many questions about the war. The North Vietnamese understood that there were undercurrents of opposition and skepticism in the US. It also understood that the growing American presence was increasing its own casualties and undercutting its chances for a successful takeover of the South. Changing circumstances called for a different strategy.
PLANNING THE TET OFFENSIVE
In July 1967, facing aggressive and growing American military operations against its campaign to “liberate” the south, Ho Chi Minh, his military leaders, led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Defense Minister, and Vietnamese political leaders and diplomats met in Hanoi. They clearly understood that the dynamics of the war had changed. They felt compelled to dramatically alter the course of the war.
They decided to use conventional military tactics, as the Viet Minh did at Dien Bien Phu against the French in 1954, and take the offensive in the South. The campaign was planned to coincide with the festive Lunar New Year, called Tet, in very late January and early February 1968. There were some misgivings about the timing of the attack during the festive holiday; but they were dismissed when reminded that in 1789 Vietnamese patriots drove the Chinese occupiers out during the Tet celebrations. Moreover, it was argued that the Tet provided a perfect cover for the “surprise” attacks.
This plan represented a dramatic altering of their guerrilla tactics. By using battalions and regiments to attack the provincial capitals, cities, towns and hamlets of South Vietnam, as well as American bases and installations, the North Vietnamese hoped to incite a general uprising against the “puppet” South Vietnamese government and ‘the American imperialists.’ This plan incorporated a bold military plan which also had broad political implications.
The North Vietnamese leaders hoped to affect the U.S. domestic scene where there was growing skepticism and opposition to the war and a presidential election to be held in late 1968. To underscore the political purpose, the plan included an attack on the American embassy in Saigon as well as American military bases and outposts. The Tet offensive also offered a great opportunity to assert the dominance of the North in the insurgency.
This elaborate strategy would require months of planning and preparation. Arms and supplies had to be moved down the Ho Chi Minh trails. Troops had to be trained and redeployed in the south. Enemy targets needed to be reconnoitered. And arms and saboteur soldiers had to be secreted into the cities where “safe houses” would serve as bases of operation. The plan required extensive and complicated coordination as 65,000 to 70,000 troops were to attack over 150 targets in the South. It also had as an objective the seizure of the national radio station in Saigon and the broadcast of Ho Chi Minh’s appeal for a national uprising against the “puppet” regime and its American protectors.
Leaders knew of the July 1967 meeting of the North Vietnamese leadership. The return of Vietnamese ambassadors and diplomats to Saigon led American officials, who were convinced that the aggressive US military actions might have sobered the North Vietnamese, to conclude that Ho Chi Minh’s men were deliberating a peace initiative. This perception was quickly dispelled when the NVA began shelling Khe Sanh with its artillery from the DMZ. These diversionary attacks also occurred upon northern and western provincial cities, like Pleiku, and remote American outposts.
Intelligence garnered from a captured document indicated that large scale attacks upon South Vietnam’s cities and hamlets were being planned. This intelligence was counter-intuitive to the American military leadership. Classic guerrilla tactics, as practiced by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, did not include large group attacks, direct engagements with the enemy and holding seized territory. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese would not risk exposing its troops to the firepower of American forces, according to the American military’s perspective. The captured document was therefore determined to be propaganda. So, the signals of changed tactics by the Viet Cong and the NVA were not interpreted to suggest large North Vietnamese attacks ahead.
A few American military leaders (Major General Charles Stone and General Earl Wheeler), however, suspected that something big was about to occur. In response, General Westmoreland redeployed several fighting units from the western highlands and stationed them around Saigon and other major US installations. Westmoreland also convinced President Thieu to reduce the Tet festival ceasefire to 36 hours. He preferred no ceasefire, but compromised to satisfy the South Vietnamese sensibilities. Westie also put US forces on “maximum alert,” but it was issued late and was ignored in many instances because it seemed like they were always on “maximum alert.” Crying wolf too often can cause a lax response. That 36-hour period gave the Viet Cong insurgents and their northern allies the window of opportunity that they needed. During the early hours of January 31th, the infiltrators began the Tet offensive throughout SVN.
THE OFFENSIVE: January 31 – February 8, 1968
The surprise attacks began in the early hours of January 31. Hue, the imperial city, was attacked around 2:00 a.m. Saigon was hit at several locations beginning around 3:00 a.m. In the course of the next several days over 150 locations were attacked across South Vietnam.
Saigon, the capitol of SVN and the heart of American and Vietnamese operations, was stunned by the attacks upon several sites in and around the city. The SVN military headquarters, Independence Place (President Thieu’s office), and American military installations were hit. Tan Son Nhut, the huge American airbase, was attacked with rockets and mortars. The SVN national radio station was seized. The VC ‘sappers’ were to broadcast a taped message of Ho Chi Minh calling for a national uprising against the SVN government and the American interlopers. This strategy was foiled by the Vietnamese officer who had in place a contingency plan to turn off the power and incapacitate the transmitter if there was an attack.
The assault on the American Embassy, however, was the most dramatic. About 19 VC “sappers” attacked the embassy by blasting a hole in the wall surrounding the compound. A skeletal group of Marines held off the attack, killing several VC, until members of the 716 US Army Military Police Battalion arrived. Although the VC had penetrated the embassy compound, they did not get into the embassy itself. The “sappers” had lost their initiative when their two officers were killed in the initial assault on the embassy.
American journalists, who lived near the embassy, soon arrived on the scene. And in the course of one interview, the fate of the American presence in SEA was determined. A journalist asked a MP sergeant if the enemy had gotten into the embassy, the sergeant perhaps misunderstanding the question, responded yes. That news quickly was communicated back to the US and spread rapidly across the country. The American military command tried in vain to correct the story by confirming that the compound had been breached but the embassy itself was never compromised.
With much suspicion about the trustworthiness of the military’s version, MAC-V’s could neither change the perception nor the story. The die was cast. Westmoreland’s daily rosy comments about the US winning the war were now in doubt for many Americans. How could we be winning the war, it was commonly thought, when the VC managed to enter the US embassy in Saigon and successfully attack several targets in Saigon and numerous targets throughout Vietnam?
The old imperial city of Hue saw the fiercest fighting of the offensive. Several VC and North Vietnamese battalions were committed to this battle. They captured the old Citadel fortress and seized most of the city. The attackers were not finished once Hue was under their control. Special units gathered the political, cultural and intellectual elite of Hue and murdered them. There was a second purge as their control of the city began to collapse. In total, several hundred were assassinated. It is a footnote in the history of the insurgency, but it was a clear indicator of what would happen if the North gained control of South Vietnam.
There was initial success for the insurgents as the Tet campaign seized many cities and towns, including Hue and its Citadel, and the penetration of the U.S. Embassy compound. These attacks stunned American forces, the U.S. military command and mainstream America. They also put General Westmoreland and the Johnson administration on the defensive. Many felt “embarrassed,” but the impact went well beyond embarrassment.
THE ALLIED COUNTER-OFFENSIVE
The counter-offensive began almost immediately or as soon as the shock of the attacks ended. Within a week, Saigon was largely under control again as cells of the insurgents were captured or killed. Counter-actions around the country were undertaken quickly and in most cases were successful in routing the insurgents. Hue was a battleground for nearly a month. The VC had setup a formidable defense of the city. And the Citadel fortress had built-in defenses. The 1st Marine Division and the First Cavalry Division, along with some elite South Vietnamese units, carried the day. Reminiscent of World War II, there was house to house combat.
Casualties were high on both sides, but especially for the VC and the North Vietnamese, who, characteristically, had no plan of retreat. They were to hold their ground until the reinforcements arrived. They never did. This was the case throughout South Vietnam. And it explains why the VC and their northern allies lost a total of 30,000 to 35,000 fighters. The VC incurred most of the losses. Those who were killed were quickly replaced by North Vietnamese.
The counter-offensive had two other incidents that are worthy of brief mention. One occurred in the river city of Ben Tre in the Mekong delta region during mid-February. It gave us one of the most memorable and repeated quotes of the war. During Tet, the city of 35,000 was partially taken over by a VC regiment. As the counter-offensive began, the VC resistance was fierce. In response, the US Army resorted to a constant bombardment via air attacks and artillery shellings which caused extensive damage. An Army captain explained the city’s devastation to an AP journalist: “It became necessary to destroy it to save it.” That remark resonated for the remainder of the war.
The second incident occurred during the aftermath of the Tet Offensive when three U.S. Army platoons descended upon the remote village, My Lai, which was strongly suspected of having an allegiance to the Viet Cong. This suspicion was reinforced by the fact that all the men and teenage boys had fled the scene. Frustrated and embittered about the loss of their buddies during the previous few months, the American troops, under the command of Lt. William Calley, rounded up the women, children and elderly and murdered them. Five hundred and four souls were cold-bloodedly massacred. Given the growing criticisms about the war, this tragic incident was covered up by the American military command. (It was covered up for over a year when Seymour Hersh, the acclaimed investigative reporter, finally lifted the cover and revealed the gruesome details.) It only added fuel to the anti-war movement, which by now was given credibility by VVAW, Vietnam Vets Against the War.
THE IRONIC OUTCOME TO THE TET OFFENSIVE
The Tet campaign was a short-term military success for the nationalist insurgency, but American and Vietnamese forces quickly struck back and over the course of several weeks had reversed the NVA and Viet Cong advances. The price for the fleeting success of the offensive was that more than 30,000 insurgents were killed; most were VC.
Despite the subsequent defeats, the Tet Offensive was a psychological and propaganda triumph for Ho Chi Minh and the insurgency. Indeed, it proved to be a psychological blow to the American public, who perceived it as a defeat. All the military reports of success and body counts seemed hollow compared to the initial success of the Tet Offensive.
Middle-class Americans on the home front began to question our military strategy and presence in SEA. The anti-war movement grew from being a campus phenomenon into a broader movement. Despite American success in rolling back the insurgent attacks during the ensuing weeks and months, skepticism among Americans about the optimistic military reports and the “body counts” accelerated after Tet. Yet in a poll during the aftermath of the Tet offensive, a majority of American still supported the war but they wanted stronger leadership. LBJ, having doubts about the war effort and the advice he had received, was unable to provide that leadership.
THE AFTERMATH TO THE TET OFFENSIVE
Media coverage of the war turned increasingly critical and even negative at times. This was especially true of the major TV networks, CBS and NBC. And the print media was led by the NY Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and the LA Times, and involved a host of other newspapers. Perhaps the most memorable moment occurred on February 27, when Walter Cronkite, the venerable CBS news anchor, commented during his national broadcast – upon his return from a brief visit to Vietnam – that it was “more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” Cronkite’s remarks alarmed LBJ, who dejectedly said to an aide: “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost middle America.” LBJ was becoming a tragic figure.
On March 10, a front-page story in the NY Times, by Hedrick Smith and Neil Sheehan, reported that Westmoreland had requested an additional 206,000 troops for the war in Vietnam. Moreover, it stated that the request had set off an intense and “divisive internal debate” in the Johnson administration. Westmoreland was stunned and bewildered by the story because the plan was a contingency plan put together at the request of General Earl Wheeler of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Regardless, it set off a firestorm. Congress met the idea with scorn and disbelief. And Westmoreland, understandably, was on the defensive.
On March 12, anti-war U.S, Senator Eugene McCarthy finished just 330 votes behind LBJ in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. What a jolt it was for LBJ. Within days, Robert F. Kennedy also tossed his hat into the ring to become candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. LBJ’s political viability was being directly challenged and the Democratic Party was openly and irrevocably divided over the war.
Meanwhile, LBJ began polling his advisers and other noted experts on the war. Even men like Dean Acheson, who had favored the war, had a change of heart. He now viewed the war as hopeless. Arthur Goldberg, the UN Ambassador, saw the war as a stalemate and recommended stopping the bombing of the North as a goodwill gesture. McGeorge Bundy reported to LBJ that the “Wise Men,” former cabinet members, generals and ambassadors, thought it was time to “disengage.” Former hawks and supporters of the war had gone 180 degrees on the war.
The American public’s views on the war were also changing. Gallup polls in the weeks after the Tet Offensive pointed to a declining confidence in LBJ and indicated a tipping point in American support for the war. In mid-February, a poll showed that 50% of the American public disapproved of the president’s handing of the war. In mid-March, poll results indicated for the first time that more Americans were against the war than those that supported it. Indeed, the times were a-changin’!
March 23: Nothing reflected that change more than when General Westmoreland was reassigned to be the Army’s Chief of Staff back in Washington.
For LBJ, the culmination of these events and new advice came on March 31. In a national televised address, the president, who had doubts about the war from the beginning, startled the nation when he announced:
- He would send 13,500 additional troops to Vietnam.
- He would limit the bombing of North Vietnam to just above the DMZ.
- He named Averell Harriman as his personal representative to seek peace talks with Hanoi.
- Then he dropped a bombshell, when he said: “I shall not seek…not accept,” the democratic nomination “for another term as your president.”
Once again, the nation was stunned by this turn of events.
After the Tet offensive, major media had a profound impact upon American perceptions of the war. Television images focused on the gruesome side of the war while mainstream journalists painted with words a cynical and critical view of the war and American policies. Even Walter Cronkite, the esteemed anchor of CBS Nightly News, became skeptical after the Tet offensive. In February, he visited Vietnam for a first-hand look at the war effort. In late February, on his nationally aired broadcast, Cronkite voiced his concerns about the war. His remarks were direct and unsettling. Upon hearing his remarks, LBJ uttered to one of his aides, “If I have lost Cronkite, I have lost middle-America.”
THE IMPACT OF THE TET OFFENSIVE UPON AMERICAN POLITICS
The anti-war movement spawned the candidacy of US Senator Eugene McCarthy to challenge LBJ for the Democratic nomination for the 1968 presidential election. Showing political viability in New Hampshire, McCarthy’s strong showing encouraged Robert F. Kennedy to join the primary race to be the Democratic candidate to displace LBJ, whose declining popularity and diminishing credibility made him a liability for the Democratic Party.
The Tet Offensive had indeed undermined LBJ’s political standing. Embarrassed and feeling dejected, if not betrayed, LBJ dropped two bombshells on the American public in late March when called for negotiations to end the war and announced that he would not seek re-election in the November presidential election. Privately, LBJ lamented that he felt he had been deceived about the war.
Within days of this shock wave, the social conscience of the United States and a vocal critic of the war, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. Amid the divisions over the war, American society now had to deal with riots across the country.
Indeed, the war had come home to the U.S. with draft dodgers fleeing to Canada and elsewhere, street demonstrations, sit-ins, candlelight vigils, and a greatly divided American public. The war in SEA also fractured the New Deal Coalition that had made the Democrats the dominant political party in the US. The Democratic Party had lost its unity and credibility. The pulse of America was irregular and the axis of America was now quite wobbly.
By mid-Spring, Robert Kennedy, a fierce critic of the war, became the leading candidate for the anti-war Democrats, but his candidacy tragically ended in early June when he, like his brother John, was assassinated. The Democratic Party was in complete disarray. This was poignantly demonstrated at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The party was split by the war. There was rancor in the convention hall and chaotic demonstrations on the streets. The public perception was that of a party devouring itself. It was not one to attract sympathy and support.
Out of the mayhem, the Party made a safe choice in Hubert H. Humphrey to be their candidate. He was handicapped by his position as Vice President to LBJ, but he was a vigorous campaigner and in the end made a gallant try against the Republican candidate, Richard Milhous Nixon, who campaigned under the banner of “Peace with Honor.” Nixon had re-emerged from political exile as the Republican candidate and narrowly defeated Humphrey, despite his last-minute surge.
Nixon continued the war for another four and a half years with massive bombings of North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and a futile attempt at ‘Vietnamizing’ of the allied war effort. Regardless, he never realized “peace with honor.”
From the threat of defeat by the growing and aggressive presence of Americans in South Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh’s forces implemented the Tet Offensive, which, despite initial military success, turned into a costly defeat, yet turned the American media and people increasingly against the war and determined our inglorious defeat.
It was, in the minds of many, a defeat of our will and not our military. The war, they would argue, had too many restrictions and lacked clear achievable objectives. Moreover, the major media had lost faith in the American military and trust of the president, and in turn it bombarded the American public with gruesome images and harsh words that fed doubt and fostered opposition to the war. The end result was a divided nation at war with itself and its cherished values.