That left open a race for influence in the newly decolonialized Third World. Most often the struggle manifested itself through foreign aid missions – the Soviet ruble vs. the American dollar – but sometimes armed conflict broke out with the superpower adversaries backing rival fighting groups. Ideally, Moscow and Washington preferred to steer their sides in the local wars at arm’s length – through military advisors and weapons deliveries.
Occasionally, however, one side or the other was about to go under and required rescue, as the Soviets did in Afghanistan in ’79 to save the local pro-communist regime, and then found themselves stuck there for nearly a decade. Likewise of course, Washington found its proxy, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), foundering against the insurgent People’s Liberation Army or Viet Cong (VC), and decided to make the war its own in ’65. And just as the CIA clandestinely fed weapons to the Afghan insurgents, including Stinger missiles that destroyed so many Soviet helicopter gunships, a decade earlier the USSR had supplied North Vietnam with SAMs, surface-to-air missiles, that brought down many a US fighter bomber in the course of our long entanglement in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam was initially our arm’s length proxy war as part of America’s broad ‘Containment strategy’ to prevent the USSR from expanding its control beyond the frontiers of its Eurasian communist empire. During his first year in office, 1961, President Kennedy (JFK) had suffered a series of setbacks in the Cold War arena – the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, his poor performance in talks with Khrushchev in Vienna, and the ultimate humiliation of having to stand by as the East German communist regime, with Soviet approval, erected the Berlin Wall to seal off West Berlin.
Seeking a way to reassert his personal authority and US power, JFK settled on the long simmering, low intensity civil war in Vietnam as the place we would show the Soviets our stuff. Vietnam was simply a conflict of convenience for the United States in its ongoing Cold War standoff with Moscow – nothing more. It was a duel of Cold War surrogates – their North Vietnamese Communists against our South Vietnamese nationalists or, as a scholar once put it, their guys against our guys.
After JFK’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) inherited what had already become our Vietnam quagmire. LBJ’s dilemma: our Cold War surrogate was failing, but pulling out would have been politically risky for the President given the strong anti-communist sentiment in the States. Fearing Saigon was on the verge of losing control and that he’d be blamed for losing a country to the communists, LBJ took us in feet first in early ‘65 – sending the first US combat troops into the South while launching a bombing campaign in the North. With troop levels rapidly escalating throughout the year, it soon became an American war.
Three years on in ’68, the Cold War writ large and its Southeast Asian conflict had become inextricably intertwined in policy and public perception. That was a fateful year for both ‘wars’. Early on in January, a crack occurred in Moscow’s East European bloc when a reform Communist, Alexander Dubcek, became leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (CP), opening the way to what became known as the ‘Prague Spring’.
That was good news for our side in the Cold War, but was soon overshadowed by the Viet Cong’s surprise Tet Offensive on January 30th. It began with a high profile attack by a VC suicide team against the US Embassy compound during the night. A young American-Vietnamese couple asleep within view of the embassy heard shots, assumed it was another coup attempt at the presidential palace, and went back to sleep. In the morning they learned that the VC had simultaneously attacked over a hundred cities and towns throughout the country.*
The VC assault on the center of American power, although of little military significance, had great symbolic import. While they were quickly defeated nearly everywhere and the national uprising they hoped to provoke did not occur, the VC reaped an unexpected psychological victory. They had emerged from the jungles and boldly struck the heretofore secure urban strongholds of the South Vietnamese regime – the news dramatically flashed across America. General Westmoreland himself was the main US military casualty – having just assured LBJ of a light at the end of the tunnel, his judgment and leadership were now in question, and he was discreetly kicked upstairs to a desk job at the Pentagon.
Just as Tet attacks had been getting underway, killing any remaining illusions about ‘victory’, ex-Vietnam GI Jeff Sharlet was launching Vietnam GI (VGI) 9,000 miles away in Chicago – an antiwar paper addressed to the GIs fighting the war. The first issue featured Jeff’s long interview with a combat vet who talked about being put on ‘point’, fragging officers, and the GIs’ distrust of the ARVN, topics not usually found in mainstream media coverage of the war. Walking point was the most dangerous position in a patrol, and if “a guy was against the war” or crossed the First Sergeant, he would find himself assigned there. The trooper also spoke of an unpopular officer, thought to be a danger to his men, who was ‘accidentally’ shot and killed during a night ambush. As for ARVN troops, he added that he never met a GI who had any respect for them.
As the Prague Spring began to loosen up the Czech regime, especially in the arts and media, students in neighboring Communist Poland took note. When a Polish apparatchik banned a 19th c. play by Poland’s most distinguished man of letters because of references deemed critical of Russia, students at Warsaw University publicly protested. They were met by police clubs. When on the following day 2,000 students marched in protest of the police action, they too were clubbed and many arrested.
Winter gave way to spring in America as shocking news ran through the country like an electric current – Martin Luther King (MLK), a nonviolent leader of the Civil Rights movement and critic of the Vietnam War, had been assassinated. Dozens of inner-city Black communities erupted in anger and violence, including Chicago where the Army was called in to restore order. About to go to press with its fourth issue in April, VGI bumped the war in Nam off the front page in favor of a lead entitled “War in the States?” Jeff began the piece:
This country is in real trouble. I say this because from my apartment on the North Side I have watched the West Side burn for the last couple of days. … I caught both Mayor Daley and General Dunn, commanding general of the Illinois National Guard, on the radio Saturday. They said … the situation had deteriorated … therefore the President was sending in 5,000 Army troops from the 5th Mechanized at [Fort] Carson and the 1st Armored at [Fort] Hood. All together [with the 7,500 National Guardsmen and the 5,500 cops], that’s more manpower than the Marines had at Khe Sanh!
Soviet tanks entering Prague, August 1968