Tet And The Left: 50 Years Later

For Mark Rudd, the chairman of the Columbia University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), 1968 began with him selling drugs to raise money for a trip to Cuba, where he wanted to meet with the North Vietnamese.

This may sound like a right-wing satire meant to parody the student Left — but in actuality this information comes from Rudd's 2009 memoir Underground. As a student, he had immersed himself in the writings of Wilfred Burchett and had become convinced of the righteousness of North Vietnam's cause. (We now know from Soviet documents that Wilfred Burchett was a paid KGB agent, though even at the time it was pretty obvious that he was a Communist.)

Rudd wasn't the first SDSer to make the pilgrimage to Cuba. SDS founder Tom Hayden had already been there with his comrade Carl Davidson. Davidson — then serving as SDS vice-president and international secretary — remembers fondly how "I had a chance to meet with Fidel. At the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1968, Dave Dellinger, Tom Hayden and I were whisked away to a safe house, were we sat up with Fidel late into the night, discussing everything under the sun. He wanted to know our opinion of McGovern, Dellinger wanted to know about Che and Regis Debray, Hayden and I asked to start what became the Veceremos Brigade."

(Later, Rudd would become a founding member of the Weather Underground, which took advantage of these Cuban connections. Larry Grathwohl, a Vietnam veteran who infiltrated the WU for the FBI, recalled that the WU-organized Venceremos Brigades "with the sole purpose of sending members of their underground cells to Cuba for training in the administrative functions of organizing a revolution, as well as being trained in the creation and the use of explosives. The Venceremos Brigade itself was composed of young students who were sent to Cuba under the guise of being there to help harvest sugarcane, but included were members of the WU whose reason for being there was to receive this specialized training from the DGI." Furthermore, "This connection between the Cubans and the WU was so extensive that in the event that an individual lost contact, they could go to a Cuban Embassy in Canada and simply tell them that they were (the first name didn't matter) Delgado, which was a codename to be used to re-establish contact with the WU. I also know of at least one incident where Bill Ayers and Naomi Jaffe traveled to Canada to make contact with the Cubans in the Québec Liberation Front in order to obtain funds in the amount of at least seven to ten thousand dollars. They returned to Buffalo, New York, after having been gone for a day and a half, with this money.")

Rudd was mesmerized by Cuba:

Cuba seemed to me a society inspired by a new morality. Cubans we met appeared to be working selflessly, not for their own gain but to improve the whole society. Young people were in charge—the director of a school for teachers located on a mountaintop was twenty-three years old; his counterpart at a rural clinic was in her late teens. I wandered around Havana in a euphoric haze, entranced by the thought that everything I saw—the buildings and the shops and the parks and the doorknobs—all were now produced and owned by the state, by the Cuban people themselves, not the capitalists and land- owners. Students, workers, and artists we met spoke to us of working not for material advantage but for "moral incentives," meaning building their country for all the people. They claimed they were creating the new socialist man, a notion first advanced by Comandante Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Cuba’s socialism was the moral and political wave of the future. I was stoned on socialism!

(Rudd is not a very perceptive observer of Cuban youth. Later that year, in a September 29, 1968 speech — delivered after the crushing of the Prague Spring — Fidel Castro would go into a screaming fit about "some groups of teenagers, some numbering as much as a hundred" who "carry around their little battery radios to flashily maintain their leaning toward imperialist propaganda" and do awful things like "destroy pictures of Che ... [W]hat did the youths think? That we were living under a bourgeois regime. No, we have not one hair that is liberal. We are revolutionaries. We are socialists. We are collectivists. We are communists. And what did they want to introduce? A revived version of Prague? … The comrade minister of education tried persuasive means with some of those youths--he tried to counsel them well, though counseling alone was not going to be all--and if they do not understand persuasion, then they will have to understand other types of procedures." In his book Exposing the Real Che Guevara, Humberto Fontova interviewed three Cubans who in the 1960s were imprisoned for possession of Rock albums, playing Rock music, or listening to American Rock stations on illegal Russian short-wave radios. In a separate article, a former Cuban political prisoner named Charlie Bravo tells Humberto: "When Castro’s goons caught me with a Led Zeppelin record, they led me to a Stairway alright—but at bayonet-point and this stairway hardly led to Heaven, instead it led down into a dark jail cell.")

Rudd had arrived in Cuba the day that the Communists in Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive. He said of the experience that "I felt as if I had gone through the looking glass." It's a more apt description than he realizes. He was, in fact, viewing a distorted reality — a communist specialty that works wonders on stupid visiting sympathizers.

"The Cubans we met during our three weeks there spoke incessantly of Vietnam," Rudd remembers, "and hoped the Tet Offensive would drive the Americans out. Cuba was the United States turned on its head: On La Rampa, one of Havana’s main streets, there was a huge neon-outlined map of Vietnam that gave the latest tally of American planes shot down. Posters exhorted people to work harder, como en Vietnam (like in Vietnam), comparing production to the battlefield against U.S. imperialism. ... When our tour bus pulled in to a small town, people greeted us with the latest news of battles in Vietnam, as if it were the World Series. Encounters like this mesmerized and energized me. I was in heaven."

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In reality, the Tet offensive, launched January 30, 1968, was hell for the Vietnamese Communists.

What was supposed to happen, according to the Stalinist intellectuals in the North, was that the people of South Vietnam would welcome the Communists attacking their cities, and rise up and join them in a final attack that would obliterate the Americans and South Vietnamese authorities. Instead, the opposite happened. In the span of a few weeks, the communists lost an estimated 58,000 fighters. Truong Nhu Tang, the former Viet Cong minister of justice, said in an interview:

We had been preparing for the Tet offensive since 1966, to create pressure, and to help the anti-war movement in the United States. We needed to deliver a dramatic blow so that the public opinion in the world and the United States would turn against the American government.... We lost a lot of fighters. We had five divisions...but after the Tet offensive all of these divisions ended up with not even half of them forces. From the military point of view, I believe that the Americans at Tet did not sustain great losses of human lives.

The problem was, as Truong says, "from the political point of view, it was a very heavy blow for President Johnson's government. The loss made the American anti-war movement exert pressure on the American government. So what we lost on the military front, we won on the diplomatic and psychological fronts. Above all, on the fourth front, the mass media, the press, television, and the liberals in the United States."

The best summary of these events was provided in 2004 by Dolf Droge, a civilian official who was involved in Vietnam at every stage of the conflict:

The guardian of this country for the Tet offensive should have been the media, because they were out there when 44 cities were struck, 44 cities were hit in one night, but what was the prevailing [South Vietnamese] response of 44 cities, except one? "What is going on in the streets?" "Well, the Viet Cong came in and took the cities in the night." "They did?'" "Slam another bolt on our door.'" "What do you mean?'" "I mean batten down the hatches, we ain’t going out."

The whole population of Saigon said "slam another lock on the door" and every city in the country had the same reaction: "My God, they are coming! We don’t want anything to do with them." This is the revolutionary cause that is coming to liberate the country and every city was hit.

Did a reporter ever mention that there was no one in Saigon that turned out to greet these people? That they had to come in with guides from the Communist forces up the Delta to be lead into the city by city guides because they could not find their way into Saigon because they had never been in Saigon, and that went for every city in the country. Did they miss a story? I would say they missed the story.

But something else, the Vietnamese kept their doors shut for that whole Tet holiday. So where did they strike? The American Embassy. My God! The American Embassy guards said to people are going home for the Tet holiday "Now, when you get home, if you hear any gunfire over this weekend, climb under your bed and stay there, okay, because we are ready." "For what?" "For a Communist attack and we know what is coming in and we put an extra Marine on the door. There are three of us now, and we are going to defend this embassy if they come, and we know they are coming."

Twenty-six sappers blew a hole in the wall of that embassy. They got as far as the door. 26 sappers died in that courtyard minus the one that jumped into the Chancery courtyard and there the guys on the grounds threw a pistol up to the man that lives in the Chancery and he shot the Communist that was there.

That was the "penetration of the American Embassy", that’s all. Peter Arnett was on his stomach in the street broadcasting "their sniping from the seventh floor", and NBC says, "We corrected these mistakes later in the evening." How many people tune into a correction when you got a news story like that where you have totally misreported the situation? This was the failure of the US media at a gargantuan height, but more than that it was the failure of the Press Corps to report from that city, "My God, the Vietnamese are slamming the door the same way the embassy guards are! Nobody is turning out for the so called Viet Cong occupation of the city."

One of Vietnam war scholar Stephen Morris's criticisms of Ken Burns's documentary was that it did not examine "the psychological effect of Tet in South Vietnam, where it made previously neutral or fence-sitting segments of the population commit themselves more to the South Vietnamese government cause." This is, without a doubt, the greatest irony of the Tet offensive — that the Communists' brutality destroyed much of the support they had in the South.

One event in particular drove this home. In the city of Hue, as recounted by Dolf Droge:

[The Communists] invited all the social groups of Hue to come to the outskirts of the city. They said "we didn’t come to attack you, but we want to acquaint you with the new society that is coming." And they took the best, the absolute best of Hue leadership. At every level, with every social organization. The only group that had sympathy toward the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese forces happened to be the students, and they were at the University, and as students get, you know, kind of radical when they want to skip the homework, these students were typical students. So they noted where these people were meeting on the outskirts of the city, and these were the creme de crème.

You take a cross section of the city leadership, these were the people, including the students. [The Communists] buried them alive, and they shot them in the head, and they strangled them with cords, and they killed 6,000 people, and this was on the Tet attack occasion in Hue and the battle for Hue stretched all the way into April and May, and a farmer stumbling across the field had a wire from the ground bruise his foot. And he reached down and grabbed the wire and up came a hand, and then we got the story in April that the Hue massacre had taken place.

It ran for one day on the front page of the New York Times, one day, and nothing else was printed about it. My God, they even buried alive the students who knew where the bodies were buried. Now, was this a victorious force? No. It was a force that couldn’t claim anybody in Hue that wanted them except the people they had just killed. They killed their admirers! The Vietnamese got the message. And all over Vietnam, there came this new [attitude]: "There is no compromise that can be worked out [with the Communists]. We have got to defend ourselves and we cannot lose."

(A few years later, Tom Wicker of the New York Times wrote that "careful research" by "D. G. Porter and L. E. Ackland" showed how "most of these wicked executions took place in the heat of battle and as 'the revenge of an army in retreat' and were not the deliberate policy of Hanoi." There are a number of problems with this story, starting with the fact that it is a bald-faced lie. Captured Communist documents prove that the massacre was pre-planned and deliberate. Secondly, Mr. Wicker did not point out that the "researchers" he sited were extremely biased, dedicated communist sympathizers — one of whom would become a notorious apologist for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Finally, the fact that the Times would publish an article trying to minimize and excuse this Communist bloodbath speaks volumes. The ghost of old man Walter Duranty must have been proud.)

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It cannot be overstated the extent to which the media blew it in regard to Tet.

In the mid-1970s, Edward Jay Epstein conducted a study on the inner workings of broadcast journalism. Among his findings, as he told an audience at Hillsdale College, was how "all the network decision-makers I interviewed, or observed at work, read and relied on a single newspaper each morning — the New York Times. Av Westin [the executive producer of ABC News] explained ‘Like it or not, the Times is our Bible: it tells us what is likely to be considered to be important by others.’ Producers, editors, and correspondents at all the networks are powerfully aware of the fact that network executives read the Times."

According to Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite, CBS executives saw Harrison Salisbury’s (false) New York Times reports on mass civilian casualties from the bombing of North Vietnam (as detailed previously, the "reporting" trip to North Vietnam was arranged by KGB agent Wilfred Burchett, and a significant part of this "reporting" was plagiarized from the North Vietnamese propaganda pamphlet "Report on U.S. War Crimes in Nam-Dinh City"). CBS concluded that their Vietnam reporting was too timid and started pushing for more hard-hitting coverage. As Brinkley reveals:

[President of CBS’s news division Richard] Salant wrote a highly confidential memo in the late summer of 1967 instructing correspondents to explain what their stories from Vietnam meant in the larger context of the war. Tell us what it all means, Salant implored. This, it seemed to [correspondent John] Laurence, was an order to draw conclusions from what he witnesses in the war, to provide personal impressions at the end of his reports, to do commentary for the first time.

One of the CBS correspondents who saw this memo was Cronkite. After the Tet offensive, he traveled to South Vietnam and received military briefings that did not impress him. "It was sickening to me," he recalled. "They were talking strategy and tactics with no consideration of the bigger job of pacifying and restoring the country." (An ironic statement, because, as Steven Morris writes, "The pacification program was actually helped by Tet, since the southern Communist cadres who had surfaced in the campaign were able to be identified and either captured or killed. The expansion of the number of South Vietnamese troops and reconstitution of local village, district, and provincial armed forces brought new stability. And the U.S. focus on intelligence-gathering under the Phoenix program helped to suppress the Viet Cong infrastructure.")

On February 13, in Saigon, Cronkite reported the truth:

First and simplest, the Viet Cong suffered a military defeat. Its missions proved suicidal. If they had intended to stay in the cities as a negotiating point, they failed at that. The Vietnamese army reacted better than even its most ardent supporters had anticipated. There were no defections from its rank, as the Viet Cong apparently had expected. And the people did not rise to support the Viet Cong, as they were also believed to have expected.

But on February 27, back in New York, he said something very different:

Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I'm not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. ... To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. ... it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could. This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.

Cronkite was America's most trusted anchorman. So his comments were a significant blow to morale — and to President Johnson.

Most bizarrely, efforts to correct the false narrative of a Vietcong victory were suppressed. Edward Jay Epstein has written that "In late 1968, Jack Fern, a field producer for NBC, suggested to Robert J. Northshield a three-part series showing that Tet had indeed been a decisive military victory for America and that the media had exaggerated greatly the view that it was a defeat for South Vietnam. After some consideration the idea was rejected because, Northshield said later, Tet was already 'established in the public's mind as a defeat, and therefore it was an American defeat.'"

On February 7, 1986 there was a special screening at the White House of Accuracy In Media's documentary about the Tet offensive and media malpractice, "Television's Vietnam: The Impact of Media." (President Reagan was not at the event, but a copy of the film — narrated by his friend Charlton Heston — was given to the President as a birthday gift 5 days later.) That month's Accuracy In Media newsletter detailed the comments of former Newsweek editor and veteran journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave immediately following the screening:

He had reported to Newsweek from Saigon that the Vietcong Tet offensive in 1968 had been an unmitigated disaster for them. He said that Osborn Elliott, then the editor-in-chief of Newsweek, engaged in a bit of advocacy journalism and declared that it was the consensus of the senior editors of Newsweek that we had lost the war and that we should get out. De Borchgrave said: "My file from Saigon reported just the opposite, and not one word of what I filed got in." He added that even though he was a senior editor, he had not been consulted and was obviously not part of the alleged consensus of senior editors. ... "Then there was Wilfred Burchett," de Borchgrave said. "How can people say they were not manipulated by Wilfred Burchett, especially those who were desperately anxious to get into Hanoi?" he asked. "There was the case of Pham Xuan An, who was a Time magazine staff correspondent," he recalled. He said that after the war, this very influential "journalist," whose name had been proudly carried on Time's masthead, turned up as a colonel in North Vietnamese intelligence. De Borchgrave said he had spotted Pham Xuan An as a disinformer because he was pushing the idea that the NLF was independent of Hanoi, something that he knew to be false.

With the ongoing fighting in Vietnam, the media malpractice, and the chaos within the Democratic Party, LBJ cracked under the pressure and announced that he would not accept the Democratic nomination for president.

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This crisis of confidence coincided with an upswing in radical student activity. Specifically, it was at this time that Mark Rudd returned from Cuba with new purpose: "Che—revolutionary martyr and saint—touched my twenty-year- old soul. He had written, 'The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution,' meaning that it’s not enough to talk about revolution, you have to take action. Like a Christian seeking to emulate the life of Christ, I passionately wanted to be a revolutionary like Che, no matter what the cost. After only three weeks in Cuba, I was burning to get back to New York and make my own contribution."

So it was that, on April 23, Rudd led the Columbia University SDS in a riot. He even included Che banners. It was the first in a two-year wave of multi-campus riots.

Rudd's fellow campus revolutionaries and Cuba alums, Tom Hayden and Jerry Rubin, set out for Chicago to disrupt the Democratic Convention. Their former comrade, David Horowitz has for years insisted that Hayden's hope was that the riot would destroy the liberal anti-communist wing of the Democratic party, whereby the hard-Left forces allied with George McGovern could take over. (Fidel Castro spoke with Hayden about McGovern earlier that year.) Evidence presented in Norman Mailer's book Miami and the Siege of Chicago supports this conclusion. Mailer quotes a speech from Hayden, saying:

The overdevelopment of bureaucracy and technology can lead to a breakdown. A clock can be wound too tight. The super-carrier Forestal was destroyed by one of its own rockets. In Chicago this week, the military and security machinery ... might devour its mother, the Democratic Party.

Jerry Rubin — who in 1964 met Che Guevara in Cuba, and was told by the Argentinian Stalinist apparatchik that "The most exciting struggle in the world is going on in North America. You live in the belly of the beast." — wrote in a 1976 Chicago Sun-Times newspaper column:

Let's face it. We wanted disruption. We planned it. We were not innocent victims. We worked on our plans for over a year before we came here. We made our demands on the city so outrageous because we wanted the city to deny us what we were asking. We did all of this with one purpose in mind - to make the city react as if it was a police state, and to focus the attention of the world on us. The prosecution, all during the trial, said we were guilty. And you know what? We were. Guilty as hell! Guilty as charged! … Chicago's officials and Chicago's police reacted just as we knew they would ... Chicago snapped at our bait...

In a 2011 speech, David Horowitz recalled how "in 1968, of course, Hayden organized a riot at the Democratic Convention over the Vietnam War. But when Hubert Humphrey was defeated, then McGovern, who comes from the [Henry] Wallace campaign and had these politics, he becomes the candidate and the left en masse actually marches into the Democratic Party. [McGovern and the left] change the rules of the party and they [create] all these caucuses based, of course, on race and identity and so forth." The hard left — through its various identity front groups — hold control of these caucuses to this day, and continue to play a major role in the affairs of the Democratic Party.

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