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The Meaning Of Tet
A historian argues that in Vietnam America’s cause was just, its arms effective, and its efforts undermined critics back home—and that this is how things must work in a free society
May 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 3
If there are generalizations to be made, it seems largely a question of class. The vast majority of those who fought in Vietnam as frontline combat troops—two-thirds of whom were volunteers, not draftees—were lower-class whites from Southern and rural states. These were young men of a socioeconomic cosmos vastly different from the largely middle- and upper-class journalists who misrepresented them, the antiwar activists and academics who castigated them, or the generals of the military high command who led them so poorly. Class was the third rail that antiwar activists did not want to touch. Perhaps that unease explains why popular films like The Deer Hunter (which the war correspondent Peter Arnett called “fascist trash”), the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Fortunate Son”), and the early songs of Bruce Springsteen (“Shut Out the Light,” “Born in the U.S.A.”)—which all dealt with either ethnic or lower-class attitudes toward the inequities in the conduct of the war—were either ignored or disparaged by the elitist critics of Vietnam.
Charges were leveled that a decade of American bombing might have inadvertently killed 50,000 civilians. If true, this is a terrible and tragic consequence of the war, and it reflects poorly on the Air Force’s often indiscriminate bombing of rural trails, jungles, and hamlets to stop the flow of supplies. But as a percentage of the total North Vietnamese population, that grim figure still represents a far smaller civilian toll than that which Germany or Japan suffered during World War II and a fraction of the 400,000 civilians killed by indiscriminate communist shelling and rocketing of cities, as well as terrorist attacks.
The communist victory brought greater death and dislocation to the Vietnamese than had the war, albeit more often slowly by starvation, incarceration, and exodus rather than by outright mass murder. The Japanese and French occupations had led to moderate exoduses from Vietnam in the past, but nothing in the history of the country was comparable to the mass flight from South Vietnam after the communist take-over. Exact numbers are in dispute, but most scholars accept that well over one million left by boat, and hundreds of thousands of others crossed by land into neighboring Thailand and even China. America alone eventually took in 750,000 Vietnamese and Southeast Asians, other Western countries another million. Those who died in leaky boats or in storms numbered between 50,000 and 100,000; to leave, most bribed communist officials—only to be robbed on the high seas by the Vietnamese navy.
In the first two years after the fall of Saigon, there were almost twice as many total civilian fatalities in Southeast Asia —from the Cambodian holocaust, horrendous conditions in concentration camps, and failed escapes by refugees—as all those incurred during 10 years of major American involvement.
The Vietnam experience is the worst scenario imaginable in a free society at war—a test of America’s very institution of free criticism, in which many of the dissidents were ignorant, their tools of communication instantaneous and enormously powerful, and their sympathies more with the enemy than with their own soldiers. Yet the allowing of such a critique did not undermine the power of the United States in the long run. The loss of Vietnam to communism was not a harbinger of things to come, given the apparently inevitable march of democratic capitalism during the 1980s and 1990s, a tide that finally even washed away Vietnam’s former patron, the Soviet Union, and eroded orthodoxy in communist China. Today, 179 of the 192 autonomous countries in the world have some sort of genuine legislature, with elected representatives. Vietnam, like Castro’s Cuba, was, and is, on the wrong side of history.
Determinists will argue that Vietnam, sooner or later, will be free and that the American war was mostly a peripheral theater of needless American losses that did not affect the major containment of Soviet communism or the inevitable global onslaught of democratic consumer capitalism. On the other hand, supporters of the war might counter that the fighting in Vietnam did weaken communism and helped protect the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore—and that the final American defeat ensured that thousands of Southeast Asians were killed or doomed to suffer in poverty and tyranny until the supposedly inevitable wave of Western-style freedom reaches them in the twenty-first century.