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Forty years on from Tet: how the US won Vietnam

By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Spectator, Wednesday 30th January 2008

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Stanley Johnson returns to Vietnam four decades after the offensive that shattered American confidence in the war — but reflects that the US went on to win the cultural battle

US tank, Ho Chi Minh CityFor the last few days they have been putting the flags and bunting up in the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in preparation for the nationwide celebrations which will mark the Lunar New Year or Tet. Forty years ago, on the night of 30–31 January 1968, the Liberation Army, as it is now known here, launched its famous Tet offensive with a series of co-ordinated surprise attacks on a wide range of targets south of the 17th parallel. In and around Saigon, mortars pounded the US airbase at Tan Son Nhut, as well as the US embassy, the Presidential Palace, the General Staff Headquarters of the South Vietnamese Army and the Navy Command.

In the United States, the Tet offensive had a devastating impact on public opinion. President Lyndon Johnson might have proclaimed: ‘We cannot be defeated by force of arms. We will stand in Vietnam.’ But at the end of April 1968, he announced — in a televised addressed to the nation — that he would not run again for President. Robert McNamara, Secretary of State for Defense and one of the principal architects of the war, left to run the World Bank. The 1968 Tet offensive marked the beginning of the end of American efforts to ‘win’ the war in Vietnam. After that, the only way out lay at the negotiating table.

I first visited the now reunified Vietnam in 1991 when I toured the country as a guest of the Vietnam National Women’s Revolutionary Committee. Hanoi then was still a delightful backwater. You could buy a meal from a street vendor for 20 American cents. The bicycle was the principal, often the only, mode of transport. Decent places to stay were few and far between. The Metropolitan Hotel, one of the loveliest relics of the French colonial era, had survived the bombing but it needed a substantial upgrade. The Hanoi ‘Hilton’, a sinister square building in the middle of town, was the place where the American POWs were held.

Back then, even in the economically more vibrant south, the trauma of the war was never very far away. On that first visit, I flew from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (the new name for Saigon) to learn about the efforts the government was making in the field of health and family planning. One afternoon some senior female cadres (the Party was very much in control) took me to visit a clinic in a village in the Mekong Delta, an area where so much of the fighting had taken place. I spent a long afternoon meeting village leaders and hearing about the various programmes on offer. From time to time, groups of schoolchildren would appear to chant revolutionary slogans.

Ho Chi Minh House, HanoiFor me, the most poignant moment occurred as we drove in a battered jeep back into HCMC. My official host, a woman of about 40, sitting beside me in the back of the vehicle, suddenly burst into song. The interpreter explained: ‘Mrs Nguyen is singing about how when Ho Chi Minh died the nation’s heart burst with grief and all the birds fell from the branches of the trees.’

We were driving along a narrow country lane at the time, weaving our way between buffalo carts and peasants on bicycles. Moments later, we crossed a rickety wooden bridge and I could see the water below. The interpreter went on to tell me: ‘During the war, Mrs Nguyen was one of the leaders of the guerrillas in this area.’

I had a sudden vision of a younger, possibly slimmer, black-pyjama-clad Mrs Nguyen breathing under water through a rice-straw beneath the very bridge we had just crossed, and hoping against hope that some American GI wasn’t going to throw a grenade into the river just for the hell of it.

Returning to Vietnam after an absence of 17 years, I am struck by how much has changed. Of course, the symbols are still there. Ho Chi Minh is still the Revered Leader. In Hanoi last week I waited in line to pay my respects to Ho’s embalmed body at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. (They had to fly Ho’s corpse to Moscow for three months but, as far as I could tell, the Russians made a good job of it.) I queued again to visit the simple one-storey house where Ho Chi Minh lived until he died — in 1969 — with victory in sight if not yet achieved. Unless there is a Vietnamese Jung Chang out there somewhere, I doubt if we shall ever see the metaphorical defenestration of ‘Uncle Ho’.

Street scene, HanoiThe Glorious Revolution is still remembered. ‘Say not the struggle naught availeth!’ That could well be the motto of the Vietnamese nation. They fought the Japanese, the French, the Americans, even the Chinese. Vietnam’s increasingly frequented tourist trail includes some must-see war-related sites.

Take, for example, the Cu Chi tunnel complex, an hour or so outside HCMC. At the height of the Vietnam war, there were 150 miles of underground passages where complete divisions of the Liberation Army holed up to fight. Today, if you are thin enough, you can wriggle down through a trapdoor to follow a section of a tunnel. My guide explained: ‘Sometimes, the guerrillas would have to stay underground three months at a time. The B52s dropped approximately three kilograms of bombs for each square metre of land at Cu Chi. They took the powder from the unexploded bombs and made it into anti-tank mines.’

If you want a double-dose of propaganda, go to the War Relics Museum in HCMC where you can see a collection of captured American weaponry, including tanks and planes, as well as the so-called ‘Tiger Cages’ where America’s South Vietnamese Allies (the ‘puppet-regime’ of Diem and Thieu) kept its unfortunate prisoners.

Policeman, HanoiAnd yet. And yet. With the passage of time, even potent symbols can lose their force. The Vietnamese Communist Party may still hold its regular congresses, producing National Plans and other exhortatory documents. The leadership may talk about their commitment to a ‘socialist market economy’ but one can’t help feeling that this is so much window-dressing. Like it or not, the world has moved on and Vietnam has moved with it.

The reality is that Vietnam today is one of the rising economic stars of Asia. A year ago it joined the World Trade Organisation. Its growth rate may not equal that of China, its giant neighbour to the north, but at over 8 per cent a year for the last several years, its achievements in material terms at least are extraordinary.

Schoolchildren, Ho Chi Minh CityIn Hanoi today, bicycles have largely been replaced by motorcycles and the rush hour extends throughout the day. In Ho Chi Minh City, there seem to be almost as many cars now as there were once motorcycles, such has been the increase in affluence. There are over 100 Kentucky Fried Chicken establishments in HCMC alone and, unless bird flu intervenes dramatically, there will soon be more. Childhood obesity has become a national health problem. When I flew in from Laos, people told me not to bother to change money on arrival as the US dollar was universally accepted. At the end of 2006, foreign investment exceeded $3 billion, and the government had sold $750 million in bonds on the international market.

Did America, bizarrely, somehow manage to win the Vietnam war after all?


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