Forty years ago this month, the Vietcong’s Tet Offensive shattered American optimism about the Vietnam War. Although the US military beat off the attack, it was the beginning of what eventually proved
to be a humiliating defeat for the world’s greatest military power.
Paul Johnson, then editor of the New Statesman and a man of the left, wrote this trenchant article in February 1968, predicting accurately what was to happen seven years later.
Selected by Robert Taylor
Has there ever been a war which constitutes such a devastating compound of horror, futility and political poison as the Vietnam conflict? In the confusion which followed the end of World War II. a group of empire-minded French officers and administrators persuaded a divided and uncertain government in Paris to attempt to reimpose French rule in Indo-China. They were blind and foolish men, no doubt, but might not even they have hesitated if they could have foreseen the terrible chain of events they set motion?
More than 20 years of butchery, with no end yet in sight; the loss of France’s honour; 2 million dead; the debauching of intelligent and industrious people; the creation of a new market for fiendish weapons, and a human laboratory in which to test them; a progressive erosion of the standards by which civilised nations wage war; the first wholesale experiments in chemical warfare and the systematic destruction of the earth-cover. Could they have that this small country would become the chief impediment to understanding between the super-powers and, indeed, a detonator of nuclear conflict? That it would drag down in its agony the mightiest nation on earth, cover its armed forces with humiliation and dirt, imperil its currency, divide its people as never in this century, and cause decent men and women everywhere to revile its name?
Vietnam is a tragedy without mitigation, without a solitary redeeming feature. It has engulfed a whole nation in physical loss and spread subtle poisons many thousands of away. It was in Vietnam that professional French officers first learnt the systematic use of torture and first formed the attitudes which led them to kill the Fourth Republic. Their American brothers are now the same tolerance of evil, and the men who serve under them the same indifference to life or human dignity of any kind. The blood daily spilt in Vietnam glitters, in full colour, from the TV sets in millions of American homes: it is reflected in a heightened domestic violence, which all condemn and none knows how to cure; it is a growing factor in the racial war which threatens to tear apart America’s cities. It leads young men to renounce their country tarn to exile; to engage, in cities across the world, in brutal and senseless battles with the police. It turns universities into schools of hatred, writers and artists into vessels of propaganda for one side or the other, weak-minded social democrats — like our present government — into hypocrites. Vietnam is the corrupter of the world.
On the Vietnam stage the West enacts a kind of travesty of itself, spoken in Newspeak, performed by fake heroes and real buffoons. America protects the freedom of the Vietnamese by helicopters armed with batteries of machine-guns, which spray entire villages with bullets and ‘flush out’ — the clean, antiseptic military phrase — their inhabitants; by cumbersome, big-bellied aircraft which, every week, pour hundreds of tons of herbicides on growing crops. They drop steel blades (‘Hound Dog’) by the thousand and clusters of steel balls, the size of hand-grenades, which break on impact and scatter lethal pellets through the thin partitions of the peasants’ huts. In Vietnam the treasures of the American way of death are spread out as in a shop-window.
In normal times — if one can use such a phrase about a country at war for a generation — the shop-window is brightly illuminated for the benefit of those Americans who sponsor the show from the security of Washington. An expensive and highly-professional public relations machine maintains the willing suspension of disbelief. According to an illuminating article in the Wall Street Journal (25 January), over 2,000 American VIPs visited Saigon last year, and the season reaches its height over Christmas and the New Year. One such visitor was Representative Joseph Y. Resnick, first elected as a New York congressman in 1964, and described as a ‘burly and energetic self- made millionaire’. Mr Resnick seems to have been a difficult guest to please. Travelling with his administrative assistant, his 19- year-old son and his 17-year-old daughter, he ‘berated’ a PRO colonel for failing to provide his children with helicopters. ‘You’ve nearly ruined my entire trip,’ he said, ‘...Now my daughter won’t be able to write an article for Teen Age America.’ The Representative came loaded with gifts. Each unit he visited was presented with a carton of Kool-Aid; each New Yorker he met got a handsome sheath-knife, donated by a knife-company in Mr Resnick’s district. A certain Rabbi Rosenberg actually handed out the knives, and was heard to mutter: ‘So for this I went to rabbinical school, to schlepp [carry] knives for a congressman’. Some units could not, alas, produce their quota of New Yorkers, and men from Illinois and Michigan got their knives quite unconstitutionally, their commander informing Mr Resnick that they were ‘out-of-staters sincerely interested in meeting the congressman’. Mr Resnick was greeted with a banner which said: ‘Welcome Congressman Resnick’ and was entertained by a ‘display of civic action’. Doctors and dentists treated patients for him. Glass- and brick-making were demonstrated. A band played lively tunes, then cake was handed round. His visit terminated in a champagne breakfast for the press in Saigon, at which Mr Resnick said: ‘Whichever way you want to measure it, we are winning this war and winning it big’.
But there are some physical facts which even the best-regulated PR machine cannot overcome, and for the Americans in Saigon the moment of truth must have come last week. Not even a congressman loaded with Kool-Aid and sheath-knives, to say nothing of teenage children, can carry out his part in the fantasy when the Vietcong enter the American embassy, supposedly impregnable, and snipe at Pentagon East, General Westmoreland’s own headquarters. And for the world outside, it is hard to maintain confidence in the fiction of America preserving democratic freedoms in Vietnam when a thousand newspapers carry photographs of the chief of the Vietnamese police shooting, in cold blood and without a pretence of a trial, an unarmed man whose hands are tied behind his back. The fact that this crime was carried out in front of photographers suggests that America’s ‘allies’ no longer believe the fiction is worth the trouble.
Of course those who are determined to delude themselves will cling to it tenaciously. Mr Bernard Levin tells readers of the Daily Mail that the Americans are dying in Vietnam so that he can enjoy Wagner. Mr Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph thinks the events of last week will ‘boost America’s conscience’, ‘go a long way towards removing America’s debilitating sense of guilt’ and unleash ‘a truly terrible spirit of righteous revenge’. Those who find such concepts credible are beyond the reach of argument, or indeed of ocular evidence. But there can’t be many of them left.
How many, for that matter, are left in the American high command and in the White House? The propaganda trumpets still sound but they give forth an uncertain note. ‘It is felt that we now have the initiative,’ said a Pentagon East spokesman, ‘and that we are no longer reacting to enemy-initiated actions but are seeking out the enemy’; even as he spoke the bullets were whistling round Westmoreland’s ears. The general himself felt that the ‘enemy is running out of breath’; but another of his spokesmen, the next day, disagreed: the offensive had just begun. Saigon issues figures of enormous Vietcong casualties; but who believes them? Does Lyndon Johnson? The atmosphere in which the President negotiates with his generals may be measured by the fact that he now demands written assurances from them on the feasibility of military operations. And what remains of the central fiction — the very foundation of America’s presence in Vietnam — that it is winning the hearts and minds of the people? What became of ‘pacification’, if the Americans cannot even hold the major cities? Even the French contrived as much. If this fiction, too, must be abandoned, then the war will be seen for what it is, a naked power-struggle, in which the Vietnamese themselves are expendable pawns. Or, as the late Harold Holt put it: ‘It is bad luck on the Vietnamese people that the cold war should be fought out on their territory’.
How long can the American people be persuaded to continue a war, which is costing them so much, and dividing them so bitterly, if the last shred of moral respectability which clothed it is snatched away? They are indeed capable of great self-deception, and great cruelty and ruthlessness in pursuing what they see to be an honourable cause. But they must have an ideal; if this is no longer seen to be credible, the will to continue the struggle will collapse. France abandoned the attempt to subdue Indo-China because she suffered military defeat, and her people did not possess the belief in her mission to recover from the defeat. The Americans are unlikely to suffer a Dien Bien Phu, and the analogy is in any case misleading. What faces them, rather, is the choice which baffled the Tory leadership at Suez: whether to continue a war whose moral justification was dubious but which might wreck the currency and plunge the nation into real economic hardship. Mr Harold Macmillan spoke at one time of ‘selling the National Gallery’ to ensure that the Canal remained British; but when the point came, he, like the rest, meekly put economic self-interest first. In the long run the Americans are likely to make the same choice. The war will end, I suspect, not with a bang but with the chink of devalued dollars.