It has been 40 years since the Army of Communist North Vietnam attacked over
20 major cities in the South on the Lunar New Year. Over 50% of Vietnamese today
had either not yet been born or were too young to know about the assault, as
adults during the time accounted for only about a quarter of the population.
Many are elderly, have died, or do not want to recall such a painful time, only
to further exhaust their already exhausted spirits
Now seems to be a propitious time for the victors of the war, a metamorphosed Vietnamese Communist Party and the Government, to bring up the history of this attack, to create a haloed myth for themselves – much needed as they have not much to be proud of since their victory in 1975. Consequently, there has been a call to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Tết Offensive, and to open an exhibition entitled “Tết Mậu Thân – A Turning Point in History.” Lê Khả Phiêu, former Secretary General of the VCP and leader of the 9th regiment in the assault, went to the opening of the exhibit and said : “This exhibit, a collection of images from the assault and the uprisings in the spring of 1968 by the armed forces and the people in the south, put on by the Museum of Vietnamese Military History on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the offensive is the earliest exhibit of these images, with very important and rich meaning. This exhibit showcases the bright guidance of the Central Committee and Chairman Hồ, the courageous, persistent, heroic and innovative struggle of the armed forces and the people on the battlefield in the South; this was able to bring a glorious and honourable victory that has inspired admiration from the whole world, including the United States.”
There are also articles in Tạp Chí Cộng Sản Vol 146 (2) and Vol 147 (3) in 2008 by Nguyễn Mạnh Hướng, Assistant Professor at the Military Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences and Lê Thanh Hải, a member of the Politburo and the Political Commisioner of Hồ Chí Minh City. They wrote about “the meaning and outstanding characteristics of the Tết offensive and uprisings.”
There was an offensive, but uprisings there were not, according to all of the photographs, documents, and firsthand accounts.
The Vietnamese communities abroad, perhaps in defiance to the celebration and ballyhooed distortion of this offensive, have had the energy worldwide to compile and display documents, images, and firsthand accounts on the Tết Offensive. The most shocking is the Huế Massacre, an area the Communist Army occupied for 25 days. According to Douglas Pike, there were over 7500 people – including women and children – who had been killed. The evidence found from their remains in mass graves shows that they were shot, tortured to death, bludgeoned, and even buried alive. There are accounts that describe that the youth who were captured had been killed because they asked to be left behind when the army was withdrawing. Recently, a man who was 16 at the time of the massacre named Tuấn and had survived after being forced to dig mass graves for those killed was interviewed by freelance journalist Nam Dao. He detailed what happened during the weeks of the Communist occupation; he had remained silent until now. In his talk with Nam Dao, his emotions overran him to a point that frightened even the journalist.Nam Dao said: “There were times I was so afraid that he would die. He wept uncontrollably, would breathe heavily, and at times seemed to stop breathing like he was suffocating, like a baby that had choked in its fit of crying.” That Tuấn survived is a matter of luck, and there are not many like Tuấn around, because those in his position had already all been killed. His stories let it be known there were “people courts” with summary executions and allow us to understand the atrocities that occurred, such as the live burials.
Naturally, we do not need accounts like this nowadays to know of the atrocities that occurred in Huế because there have already been many publications that have broached this subject with images on the 40th anniversary.
Wynsberghe from the National Post (Canada) wrote: “Oberdorfer conducted many
interviews in Hue for his 1971 book on Tet, and came away with a thorough
account of deliberate executions that went on for weeks. Years later, Karnow was
so convinced by the available evidence that he declared, ‘Balanced accounts have
made it clear that the Communist butchery in Hue did take place – perhaps on an
even larger scale than reported during the war.’”
Even at Huế, there had not been uprisings but a few protests, the largest of which numbered around 100 people who had been incited by underground agents. The underground agents who are still alive are now mostly serving in the Government of Vietnam. One individual, Lê Văn Hảo, remains silent and is living in France.
Of course the accounts of the Tết Offensive by the Vietnamese Communist Party in the aforementioned exhibition do not make any mention of the Huế Massacre. We can also not forget Mr. Bùi Tín, a former colonel in the North Vietnamese Armed Forces and ¬deputy editor of Nhân Dân Daily, who, currently living in France, is the lone voice that defended the massacre in Huế. He said in a recent interview with the BBC that the orders did not come from the upper echelons, that the actions taken by the regiments were so extreme because they were in a state of chaos while retreating from the counterattack, and that they had hidden their actions from their superiors. This is also the basis for the leftist view held by Gareth Porter and Len Ackland, who explained in 1969 that the military was undisciplined and lost composure while retreating. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman would echo this sentiment a decade later, while begrudgingly admitting there were also 700 who had been killed.
Scott Van Wynsberghe opened his article “Losing the Battle, Winning the War” about Mậu Thân in the National Post in Canada on the 31st of January 2008 with, “Ho Chi Minh’s Tet offensive--begun on this day 40 years ago-- was a fiasco for the Communists. But that’s not how many of us remember it.”
David Warren on the Ottawa Citizen on the 3rd of February 2008 summarized:
“Breaking the negotiated annual truce, for surprise, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars launched the Tet Offensive, in the night of 30/31 January 1968, named for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. This campaign continued in various forms through September of that year, ending in total military defeat, for the aggressors. And a brilliant propaganda victory, for the same.”
“Then, enormous mass graves of women and children were found. Most had been clubbed to death, some buried alive; you could tell from the beautifully manicured hands of women who had tried to claw out of their burial place.”
“The Tet Offensive ended not only in a huge allied victory in the field – some 45,000 of the Communist soldiers had been killed, and their infrastructure entirely destroyed. It was victory after an event that showed skeptical South Vietnamese, and should have shown the world, the nature of the enemy our allies were fighting.”
”The media turned a tremendous victory into a tremendous defeat.”
Not many pundits have posed the question: how can an armed force,
self-touting liberators, perform such atrocities to its own people, the very
people they aimed to liberate? Perhaps that is because it is a rather difficult
question to answer. The answer is that these people were Communists entering the
South to fulfill their “international duty”: to expand Communism. That they
carried the banner of liberating the people – liberating the people from their
lifestyle in a capitalistic economic system – was merely a righteous explanation
for their true intent of communism expansion. The southerners could thus be
killed rather coldly, in the spirit of class struggle, and without compromise
for the enemy. In fact, it is this same Communist expansionist ideology that led
to the practice of concentration/reeducation camps and the discrimination
against the South after the North triumphed in 1975. But to accept this notion
of Communist expansion would be to contradict the banner of liberators given to
the North by the media; it would also further contradict the media contention
that the war was started and waged by the people from the South, and not
essentially due to a Northern invasion.
It is understandable that the Vietnamese people speak about the Tết Offensive 40 years later because they were in the struggle. But why is it that Western media would rehash this event? Arthur Herman from the Wall Street Journal wrote on the 6th of February 2008 in his article that, “In truth, the war in Vietnam was lost on the propaganda front, in great measure due to the press’s pervasive misreporting of the clear U.S. victory at Tet as a defeat. Forty years is long past time to set the historical record straight.”
This is a rather good idea. At least the correcting of the history can help give exact data that would show that the misrepresentation by the media was a cause for the failure in Vietnam, as Herman wrote: “But the public didn’t hear about who had won this most decisive battle of the Vietnam War, the so-called Tet offensive, until much too late.”
However setting the record straight may not completely be the reason for this revisitation. Herman added, “Media misreporting of Tet passed into our collective memory. That picture gave antiwar activism an unwarranted credibility that persists today in Congress, and in the media reaction to the war in Iraq. The Tet experience provides a narrative model for those who wish to see all U.S. military successes – such as the Petraeus surge – minimized and glossed over.”
David Warren has also said, “We have seen this ‘Vietnam syndrome’ writ large, through the intervening years. We see it today in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Romans, too, won all the ground battles.”
If this is the case then the important reason to mention the United States’ failure in Vietnam after 40 years is to alert the United States from a similar failure in Iraq and Afghanistan – if we believe the current media.
But when Washington Post correspondent Peter Baestrup stood at one of the mass graves of the victims of the massacre, he asked an American TV cameraman, “Why don’t you film this?” He answered, “I am not here to spread anti-communist propaganda.” We cannot help but be alerted by this. Either he espoused those views personally, had received orders to not film, or had already been previously reprimanded for recording such sights. Everyone knows that American media is a business. If the tragic passing of a dog in America can be a hot news item that many media outlets choose to cover, then surely the mass graves that women and children struggled to escape while being buried alive should also be worthy of reporting. Stories like this, if not reported by one station, would naturally be reported by another in attempts to draw listeners, viewers, and readers. Now when an entire media industry chooses not to disseminate “anti-communist propaganda,” the impetus must come from the highest level – perhaps the CEOs, presidents, or even the “faceless policy-makers.” So high so that the United States could withdraw from Vietnam, under the guise of pressure from the (more or less justified) anti-war movement. All that happened after that was simply dumped upon the media, which had transformed a justifiable war for US interests in the aid of South Vietnam to block Communist expansion into a war caused by an “invasion,” in which the true perpetrators were the Communists. The time had come when containment was no longer necessary. The reasons for stopping the war contradicted the lofty and righteous reasons of going to Vietnam to protect freedom.
Therefore, it can be said that the current media reports on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are simply following a familiar pattern that has been and will continue to be used. If we pay attention we can easily see that the media often uses the practice of reporting half-truths – at times reporting this half, and at times the other – depending on the situation. In the case of Vietnam, the other half of the truth about the Tết Offensive was reported “far too late,” according to Herman. In the case of Iraq, the other half of the truth about President Bush and his aids lying over a thousand times was also reported too late, after nearly 5 years of war.
If this is the case, then perhaps the media is merely a scapegoat for policy changes that are hard to explain to the people.