Vietnam Full Disclosure

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Philip Jones Griffiths’ Viet Nam

2016 National Book Award Finalist, Viet Thanh Nguyen:

“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory . . . . Memory is haunted, not just by ghostly others but by the horrors we have done, seen, and condoned, or by the unspeakable things from which we have profited.”

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The Full Disclosure campaign is a Veterans For Peace effort to speak truth to power and keep alive the antiwar perspective on the American war in Viet Nam -- which is now approaching a series of 50th anniversary events. It represents a clear alternative to the Pentagon's current efforts to sanitize and mythologize the Vietnam war and to thereby legitimize further unnecessary and destructive wars.

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This Month in History: 1968

1968 “No light at the end of the tunnel” after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; Johnson doesn’t run for a 2nd term; Nixon defeats Humphrey for Presidency; and the antiwar movement becomes increasingly militant.

January Vietnam veteran Jeff Sharlet launches the first GI-run anti-war paper addressed to GIs, calling it Vietnam GI (VGI). His associate editor is David Komatsu, and the editorial board of ex-Vietnam GIs include Jan Barry, William Harris, Peter Martinsen, Dink McCarter, James Pidgeon, Gary Rader, Francis Rocks, David Tuck, and James Zaleski. A civilian conscientious objector, Thomas Barton, serves as VGI’s East Coast distributor, responsible for shipping bundles of the paper to Vietnam.

Vietnam GI quickly becomes a success among GIs stateside and in Vietnam18 where soldiers like Terry DeMott, a helicopter door gunner in the Americal Division stationed near Chu Lai, and a number of sympathetic unit mail clerks help circulate the paper surreptitiously. It is free to GIs, and requests for individual subscriptions as well as multiple copies for distribution in stateside barracks and Vietnam combat units soar, with the print run reaching 30,000 copies by fall 1968. Letters-to-the editor indicated that single copies passed through many hands.

UFO coffee shop opens in Columbia, South Carolina near Fort Jackson as outreach to GIs. See December 1967 entry.

January 5 Operation Niagara I: to map NVA (or PAVN – Peoples Army of Vietnam — or VPA – Vietnam Peoples Army) positions around Khe Sanh begins.

Servicemen in all branches of the military are threatened with Article 15 (non-judicial punishment) if they speak out against the War.

January 15 5,000 women rally in D.C. in the Jeannette Rankin Brigade protest. This is the first all female antiwar protest, aiming to get Congress to withdraw troops from Vietnam.

January 18 While in the White House for a conference about juvenile delinquency, Black performing artist Eartha Kitt loudly criticizes First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson about the generation of young men dying in the war

January 21 20,000 NVA (or PAVN or VPA) troops attack the American air base at Khe Sanh. A 77-day siege begins as 5,000 U.S. Marines in the isolated outpost are encircled. The siege attracts enormous media attention back in America, with many comparisons made to the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu (Điện Biên Phủ) in which the French were surrounded and eventually defeated. “I don’t want any damn Dinbinfoo,” an anxious President Johnson warns Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Earle Wheeler. As Johnson personally sends off Marine reinforcements, he states “…the eyes of the nation and the eyes of the entire world, the eyes of all of history itself, are on that little brave band of defenders who hold the pass at Khe Sanh…” Johnson issues Presidential orders to the Marines to hold the base and demands a guarantee “signed in blood” from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that they will succeed.

Operation Niagara II then begins a massive aerial supply effort to the besieged Marines along with heavy B-52 bombardment of NVA (or PVAN or VPA) troop positions. At the peak of the battle, NVA (or PVAN or VPA) soldiers are hit round-the-clock every 90 minutes by groups of three B-52s, which drop over 110,000 tons of bombs during the siege, the heaviest bombardment of a small area in the history of warfare.

January 30-February 24 The Tet (Tết) Offensive: The NLF launches simultaneous attacks on all US military bases in Vietnam and 110 cities and towns in South Vietnam, including 34 of 44 provincial capitals and 64 district capitals.

The turning point of the war occurs as 84,000 NLF guerrillas aided by NVA (or PVAN or VPA) troops launch the Tet (Tết) Offensive attacking a hundred cities and towns throughout South Vietnam. The surprise offensive is closely observed by American TV news crews in Vietnam which film the U.S. embassy in Saigon being attacked by 17 NLF commandos, along with bloody scenes from battle areas showing American soldiers under fire, dead and wounded. The graphic color film footage is then quickly relayed back to the states for broadcast on nightly news programs. Americans at home thus have a front row seat in their living rooms to the NLF/NVA (OR PVAN OR VPA) assaults against their fathers, sons and brothers, ten thousand miles away. “The whole thing stinks, really,” says a Marine under fire at Hue after more than 100 Marines are killed.

There is a good deal of controversy about the effectiveness of the Tet (Tết) Offensive. Who won the Tet (Tết) offensive – and what exactly winning consisted of – is still a matter of intense debate. See for instance, David Hunt, Ngô Vĩnh Long: (“Remembering the Tet Offensive,” By David Hunt, 359-377 in Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and America: A Documented History (NY: Grove Press, 1995) and Long, Ngô Vĩnh, “The Tet Offensive and its aftermath”, pp. 23-45. (An updated and detached version of the realities of the Tet offensive in J. Werner and D. Hunt, eds. The American war in Vietnam (1993). The first piece vividly describes the shock and power of the 1968 Tet (Tết) offensive, which many see as the key turning point in the war, especially for American public opinion. The second describes its multiple and contradictory impacts on the National Liberation Front as well as on the Americans and ARVN. In any case, the impact on the American public was powerful, demonstrating that there was no imminent ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, no imminent victory, in sharp contrast to General Westmoreland’s November, 1967 assurance. And a reassessment of American strategy was forthcoming. The NLF, especially in the second and, more so, third phases in May and August 1968 did take heavy losses. There are also differences as to the goals of the offensive; some American historians see the political impact on American consciousness as an unintended consequence. A stated goal of the offensive was a general uprising and overthrow of the Saigon government; this did not happen. Again sources differ on how and if the NLF recovered from these losses. For the standard US view, see Don Oberdorfer, Tet!: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War.

There were also differences inside the Vietnam Workers’ Party in the North (DRV) between Le Duan (Lê Duẩn) and Ho Chi Minh (Hồ Chí Minh) and Vo Nguyen Giap (Võ Nguyên Giáp) with apparently both Ho and Giap in opposition to the offensive. This led to the sidelining of both Ho and Giap in favor of Le Duan’s faction. Le Duan succeeded Ho Chi Minh after Ho’s death in1969. See Lien Hang T. Nguyen Hanoi’s war: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam, ch. 3, pp. 87-109 for more details.

Daniel Berrigan travels to Hanoi with Howard Zinn during the Tet Offensive to “receive” three American airmen, the first American POWs released by the North Vietnamese since the U.S. bombing of that nation had begun.

January 31-March 2 In the Battle for Hue (Huế — former imperial capital and 3rd largest city) during Tet, 12,000 NVA (or PVAN or VPA) and NLF troops storm the lightly defended historical city. On the holiday morning of January 31, the gold-starred, blue-and-red National Liberation Front banner was flying atop the historic 120-foot-high Citadel flag tower. South Vietnamese troops and three U.S. Marine battalions counter-attack and engage in the heaviest fighting of the entire Tet Offensive. They retake the old imperial city, house-by-house, street-by-street, aided by American air and artillery strikes. By February 24, U.S. Marines occupy the Imperial Palace in the heart of the citadel. Estimates of up to 3,000 civilian deaths have been reported.

There is controversy over the extent and cause of these deaths. Western sources (including Oberdorfer, Gunther Lewy, and Douglas Pike in the 1970 report, “The Viet Cong Strategy of Terror) claim that 3,000 civilians were executed as part of a systematic plan. Others (including Marilyn Young and free-lance journalist Len Ackland) put the number at 300-400. NLF (National Liberation Front of South Vietnam) and DRV (Democratic Republic of Vietnam or North Vietnam) sources sometimes cite a loss of discipline among troops (rather than a systematic plan) or claim that other civilians were instrumental in the killings. In the June 24, 1974, issue of Indochina Chronicle titled “The 1968 ‘Hue Massacre,'” political scientist D. Gareth Porter called the massacre one of the “enduring myths of the Second Indochina War.” He asserted that Douglas Pike was working in collusion with the ARVN 10th Political Warfare Battalion to manufacture the story of the massacre at the direction of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. While acknowledging that some executions occurred, Porter contended that the killings were not part of any overall plan. Additionally, he claimed that Pike overestimated the number of those killed by the VC cadres and that “thousands” of civilians killed in Hue “were in fact victims of American air power and of the ground fighting that raged in the hamlets, rather than NLF [National Liberation Front] execution.” Moreover, Porter claimed that teams of Saigon government assassins fanned out across the city with their own list of targets, eliminating NLF sympathizers.

In any case, the narrative of the massacre became the basis for warnings of a massive bloodbath if the DRV and NLF triumphed throughout the country.

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