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IT might be thought that the Tet offensive, a key moment of the Vietnam war that started at the end of January 1968, 50 years ago, is something that the Western media might prefer not to dwell on too much.
The line in 1967 from Democratic US president Lyndon Johnson had been that the war was reaching its final stages, that Vietnam would stay as two countries: a communist state in the north and a US client state designed to maintain US imperial interests in Indochina in the south.
General Giap, the military leader of the Vietnam People’s Army, had other ideas.
At the end of January he launched an assault on the south, capturing the city of Hue and making advances in other areas.
The offensive was overcome in due course, and in the nature of war, many were killed and injured on both Vietnamese and US sides. The US army was a conscript force including many who had no desire to be there.
The political impact on the US was profound. It also created waves in Britain. Harold Wilson had not sent troops to support the US in Vietnam as Tony Blair did later in Iraq.
There were reasons for this. The US was using British military facilities in the Far East to provide assistance for its Vietnam operation. Wilson kept this quiet.
What he did not keep quiet was Britain’s role in the Vietnam “peace” talks. These were jointly run by Russia and Britain.
Russia was held, broadly, to support the North, while Britain was the US representative supporting the South.
As 1968 started the aim had been to move towards an agreement. That meant essentially that the communists gave up their idea of a united socialist Vietnam and in return the US, retaining its regional power base in Saigon, would stop attacking the North.
Tet completely changed that equation. For Wilson there was a wider imperial and military issue and one that is still playing out 50 years on.
The debacle of Suez in 1956, where Britain had acted without US backing in an attempt with France and Israel to police the Middle East and was forced to withdraw in short order, had led to a serious rethink about Britain’s role as a world power.
By the late 1960s it was clear that Britain could no longer afford a military role in the East. The issue was what role could be played and how to maintain the special relationship with the US.
The impact of the Tet offensive was immediate. By the end of March, president Johnson had announced a ceasefire and proposed further talks.
He concluded his speech with the words: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
It was the beginning of the end for the US in Vietnam and the events of early 1968 sparked anti-Vietnam war protests around the globe including several well-known ones at the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, central London.
The right-wing commentator Max Hastings reflecting on Tet after 50 years in the perhaps unlikely space of the Daily Mail noted: “Here is a lesson for all modern wars: generals can sometimes claim victory — as the West did after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and in the 2003 invasion of Iraq — yet find that is far from the end of the story.”
Blair, whose New Labour project deliberately eschewed historical knowledge, did not however learn the lessons of Vietnam, committing Britain to join the US in the Iraq war.
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