Saigon’s ‘Year of Sand’ Revisited: The 1968 Tet Offensive and Rise and Fall of Anti-Communist South Vietnam
On Thursday, December 9th, Dr Sean Fear will be joining us during our monthly online panel. He will be presenting and discussing his latest research on U.S.-South Vietnamese relations.
This event is open and free to all. There’s no need to register.
Dr Sean Fear will be presenting for approximately half an hour, after which there’s plenty of time to have a lively discussion.
Dr Fear’s work is titled:
Saigon’s “Year of Sand” Revisited: The 1968 Tet Offensive and Rise and Fall of Anti-Communist South Vietnam
In many popular English-language accounts of the Vietnam War, the 1968 Tet Offensive – a sweeping series of communist attacks against American and South Vietnamese military bases, provincial capitals and even the United States Embassy in Saigon – is recalled as a defining moment in American public opinion towards the conflict.
Long overlooked, however, has been the equally significant political impact of Tet in South Vietnam itself, where the attacks diminished communist prestige and temporarily tipped the balance in favour of the South Vietnamese military government. Regarded in the United States as a turning point in Hanoi’s favour, the Tet Offensive was in fact an unambiguous military defeat for the communist side. The southern Communist National Liberation Front (NLF) sustained heavy losses, prompting communist forces to retreat and regroup, and exacerbating North-South tensions within the Communist movement.
The Hanoi politburo had also gambled that urban Southerners would join them in toppling South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s fledgling administration. Instead, the urban South largely spurned the Communists, recoiling in horror from the violence that the Tet Offensive had unleashed. Far from evincing public sympathy, the Communist offensive instead achieved the unlikely feat of uniting long-antagonistic parties and factions in their outrage and determination to resist a North Vietnamese takeover. A wave of anti-Communist solidarity swept through South Vietnam’s cities and provincial towns. Bitter political and religious rivals set aside their differences and formed coalitions to serve in the new National Assembly. And South Vietnamese military forces took advantage of NLF weakness to expand the Saigon government’s presence into Communist-dominated areas in the countryside.
This post-Tet spirit of resolution arguably marked the zenith of anti-Communist cohesion in Vietnam. And for a time, it appeared plausible that the balance in Vietnam’s decades-long political conflict might be tipping in Saigon’s favour. But as we shall see, in the years that followed, the Nguyễn Văn Thiệu government squandered this uniquely poised opportunity by moving to monopolise political power at the expense of civilian parties and institutions. Thiệu’s authoritarian turn betrayed the constitutional order on which the state’s legitimacy was based, in turn deflating post-Tet enthusiasm, accelerating American funding cuts, and catalysing the state’s abrupt collapse from within during a final Communist offensive in the spring of 1975.
Drawing on American and especially Vietnamese-language sources including archival records, memoirs and contemporaneous print media, this paper explores South Vietnam’s turbulent political scene in the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive. It aims to combine the “high politics” of conventional diplomatic studies with the turbulent but long-neglected realm of South Vietnamese social and political history. Challenging conventional views of the Vietnam War as a bipolar clash between Cold War powers and their proxies, the paper also asserts the centrality of overlooked Vietnamese political actors in shaping the course of South Vietnam’s ultimate demise.
Dr Sean Fear is a lecturer in International History at The University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. He completed his PhD in History from Cornwell University and his BA from the University of Toronto. His research focus explores the intersection of domestic politics and foreign relations in the Vietnam War, modern Southeast Asia, and the global Cold War. His forthcoming book, under contract with Harvard University Press, examines the South Vietnamese state’s failure to win legitimacy in the eyes of its divided constituents, a critical but poorly-understood factor in the denouement of the Vietnam War.