War and Protest - the US in Vietnam (1968) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

War and Protest - the US in Vietnam (1968)

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I don't know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.
- Albert Einstein


The Battle of Khe Sanh

On 21 January, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army attacked the American air base at Khe Sanh, deploying 20,000 troops. The 5000 US Marines stationed there soon found themselves encircled and under siege. The US media began drawing parallels to the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu, in which the French were ultimately defeated.

President Johnson told Joint Chiefs Chairman General Earle Wheeler that he didn't 'want any damn Dinbinfoo'. Johnson personally sent off Marine reinforcements and told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he wanted a guarantee 'signed in blood' that the American force at Khe Sanh would not be defeated.

The battle at Khe Sanh lasted 77 days. At one point, groups of B-52 bombers were hitting North Vietnamese positions around Khe Sanh every 90 minutes, around the clock. Before the siege ended, the United States had dropped more than 110,000 tons of bombs in the area.

In June 1968, General Westmoreland determined that the base in Khe Sanh was no longer needed. He authorised abandoning and demolishing that base.

The Tet Offensive

On 30 January, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army and NLF/PALF troops launched what is known as the Tet Offensive.

Tet Nguyen Dan, called 'Tet', is the Vietnamese holiday celebrating the lunar New Year. It's the most significant holiday in Vietnam. The Tet holiday is three days long, officially, but the celebration frequently lasts a full seven days. Vietnamese folk tradition holds that the events of these days forecast the events of the coming year. Generally, family feuds are ended, children go out of their way to behave well, and people try to lead their lives in a manner that bodes well for the coming year.

The Tet Offensive was a well-organized surprise attack in Saigon and 26 provincial capitals, among other cities and towns. Battles were raging in more than 100 locations within 48 hours.

American television crews in Saigon filmed an attack on the US embassy, and sent graphic footage showing the bloody battle, along with dead and wounded American soldiers to news networks. This footage was broadcast on television as part of the evening news, giving the American public a dinner-time view of the realities of war.

One of the cities attacked during Tet was Hue. During the Battle for Hue, 12,000 North Vietnamese Army and NLF/PALF troops stormed the city and systematically executed more than 3000 South Vietnamese government officials, South Vietnamese officers, Catholic priests and others that they had identified as 'enemies of the people'.

In what proved to be the heaviest fighting of the Tet Offensive, the South Vietnamese and US military retook Hue, one street, sometimes one house, at a time. US officials stated the casualty figures as 216 Americans killed and 1364 wounded, 384 South Vietnamese killed and 1830 wounded, and an estimated 5000 North Vietnamese and NLF/PALF troops killed, in Hue alone.

The Tet Offensive proved disastrous for the North Vietnamese military, which was defeated at every location. An estimated 37,000 North Vietnamese and NLF/PALF troops were killed over the course of the Offensive, as compared to about 2500 Americans.

The graphic news footage broadcast in the United States, along with the number of Americans killed, also had the effect of turning large portions of the American public against the war in Vietnam.

In Saigon, on 1 February, 1968, the police chief of South Vietnam, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed a suspected NLF/PALF guerrilla by shooting him in the head. An NBC news cameraman and an Associated Press still photographer, Eddie Adams, captured the execution on film. The photo taken by Eddie Adams was on the front page of most American newspapers the next morning. NBC news broadcast the execution as part of the nightly news.

It was also during the Tet Offensive that an American officer, talking about a small city near Saigon that had been destroyed by bombs, said 'We had to destroy it, in order to save it'. Within the United States, that officer's words became a metaphor for the entire war.

On 27 February, 1968, Walter Cronkite, the respected news anchor person for CBS, had just returned from Saigon. During his broadcast that night, he told the American public that he was certain that 'the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate'.

Public opinion polls after the Tet Offensive showed that President Johnson's overall approval rating by the American public was at 36 percent and approval of his Vietnam policy was at 26 percent.

My Lai

The village of My Lai is in the South Vietnamese district of Son My, an area that was known to have had a heavy NLF/PALF concentration. On 16 March, 1968, members of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry US Army entered My Lai on a 'search and destroy' mission.

Hugh C Thompson Jr was flying his helicopter just above the treetops in a reconnaissance mission in support of the ground troops. Larry Colburn and Glenn Andreotta were in the helicopter with him.

Thompson, failing to see any NLF/PALF troops, decided to mark the location of wounded civilians with smoke so that the ground troops could begin treating some of them. 'The first one that I marked was a girl that was wounded', Thompson later testified, 'and they came over and walked up to her, put their weapon on automatic and let her have it'. Colburn told the Inspector General that the girl was about 20 years old and was lying on the edge of a dyke outside the village with part of her body in a rice paddy.

She had been wounded in the stomach, I think, or the chest. This captain [later identified as Ernest Medina] was coming down the dyke and he had men behind him. They were sweeping through and we were hovering a matter of feet away from them. I could see this clearly, and he emptied a clip into her'.

Thompson flew north back over the village and saw a small boy bleeding along a trench. Again he marked the spot so the ground troops could provide medical aid. What he saw then was a lieutenant casually walk up and empty a clip into the child. He saw another wounded youngster: again he marked it, and this time a sergeant came up and fired his M16 at the child. Colburn, who was 18-years-old at the time, stated that 'the infantrymen were killing everything in the village. The people didn't really know what was happening'.

Thompson tried to radio the troops on the ground to find out what was going on, and got no response. He then reported the wild firings and unnecessary shootings to brigade headquarters.

Thompson's testimony continued, 'I kept flying around and across a ditch... and it... had a bunch of bodies in it and I don't know how they got in the ditch. But I saw some of them were still alive'. He landed near the ditch, and asked a soldier there if he could help the people out: 'He said the only way he could help them was to help them out of their misery'. Thompson took off again, then landed a second time, after noticing a group of mostly women and children huddled together in a bunker near the ditch. 'I don't know, maybe it was just my belief, but I hadn't been shot at the whole time I had been there and the gunships following hadn't'. Thompson saw Lt Calley and '... asked him if I could get the women and kids out of there before they tore it up, and he said the only way he could get them out was to use hand grenades'.

Colburn testified that, before climbing out of his aircraft, Thompson '... told us that if any of the Americans opened up on the Vietnamese, we should open up on the Americans'. Thompson called in two helicopter gunships to rescue the civilians. While waiting for the gunships to land, Thompson '... stood between our troops and the bunker. He was shielding those people with his body. He just wanted to get those people out of there'. The helicopters landed and rescued nine persons - two old men, two women and five children.

After Thompson and Colburn took off again, Calley ordered his men to begin firing into the ditch to make sure there were no survivors. Calley told a squad leader to assemble a team to do the job. 'I really believe he expected me to do it', the team leader said. They headed for the hamlet plaza instead.

While this was going on, Thompson's helicopter landed again. Colburn and Andreotta had noticed some movement among the mass of bodies and blood in the ditch. They found a young child still alive. Andreotta climbed into the ditch. 'He was knee-deep in people and blood', Colburn recalled. The child was buried under bodies, still holding on to his dead mother. Thompson and his men flew the baby to safety.

One of the ground troops at My Lai was to testify that:

We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village - old papa-sans, women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don't remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive. The only prisoner I saw was in his fifties.

In the end, 450 - 500 people were killed in My Lai that day.

Thompson filed a formal complaint relating to the events in My Lai on 16 March, 1968. An official investigation determined that there had been nothing out of the ordinary that day.

The American public first learned of the massacre in 1969, when reporter Seymour Hersh published a story detailing his conversations with Ron Ridenhour, a Vietnam veteran. Ridenhour had learned about what happened at My Lai from members of Charlie Company who had been there. Only after appealing to Congress, the White House and the Pentagon to investigate the My Lai massacre did Ridenhour decide to go to the press. The story of My Lai was published in November 1969, two months after a military investigation resulted in Calley being charged with murder.

Calley testified that Captain Ernest Medina had ordered him to kill everyone in the village of My Lai. The court determined that the photographic and recorded evidence was great enough to convict only Calley. He was sentenced to life in prison. After a series of appeals, he was released in 1974 and issued a dishonourable discharge. After his discharge, Calley entered the insurance business. As of this writing, he manages a retail jewellery business.

A Melbourne, Australia newspaper published photographs of the My Lai massacre in December 1969. It was prosecuted for 'obscenity' but the charge was later dropped.

Clemson University professor David Egan knew about Hugh Thompson's stand against Medina, Calley and the rest of the ground troops at My Lai, and was determined that Thompson should be honoured for his actions that day in 1968. Egan and his wife began a letter-writing campaign in 1988, sending more than 100 letters to congressmen, senators, military officials and others.

In August 1996, the Army agreed to present Thompson with The Soldier's Medal, an award presented for heroism and voluntarily risking one's life under conditions other than those in conflict against the enemy. When informed that he would be presented with this award in a private ceremony in the Pentagon, Thompson refused. He insisted that the medal be presented at a place open to the public, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. He also insisted that Colburn and Andreotta receive the award as well. The three men were presented with the award in March 1998. Andreotta received it posthumously, having been killed in the line of duty in Vietnam three weeks after he helped rescue the civilians at My Lai.

WR Peers, the three-star Army General who lead the official inquiry into the My Lai massacre, described Thompson as a hero, saying 'He was the only American who cared enough to take action to protect the Vietnamese noncombattants. If there was a hero at My Lai, he was it'.

The US military has now incorporated accounts of Thompson's integrity, grace under fire and courageous deeds into cadet ethics courses at the US Air Force Academy.


On 12 March, 1968, President Johnson, who was planning on running for re-election in the presidential election to be held that November, won the New Hampshire Democratic primary election by only 300 votes. He was running against Eugene McCarthy, whose focus was solely on getting the United States out of Vietnam.

Four days later, Robert F Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency. When asked about his anti-war stance, in light of his previous participation in forming President John F Kennedy's Vietnam policy, he stated:

Past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation.

On 31 March, 1968, President Johnson announced his decision not to seek re-election, with the words, 'If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve'. His announcement threw the Democratic Party into chaos. Until that announcement, it had been taken as given that he would be the Democratic candidate.


On 4 April, 1968, Reverend Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. Dr King had been outspoken against US involvement in Vietnam and in his quest for civil rights for African-Americans. His assassination led to racial unrest in more than 100 American cities.

Two months later, on 5 June, 1968, Robert F Kennedy was shot and killed in a Los Angeles hotel just after winning the California Democratic presidential primary election. Photojournalist, Harry Benson was present. He described the scene, and his reactions:

Bobby started to work his way toward the kitchen exit. I followed, and as I neared the kitchen, I heard a horrifying scream.

There's something about violence - you can feel it - and Martin Luther King had been assassinated just three months before. So I knew Bobby had been shot. I kept taking pictures, telling myself 'This is for history; mess up tomorrow, don't mess up today'.

People were screaming and crying; yelling 'F**k this country - not again, not again'. I was moving in and out like a rat, stuffing the exposed film into my socks so the police wouldn't find them and take them away. When it was all over and he'd been taken away, a young woman placed her straw campaign hat beside the pool of blood'.

The War Continues

On 11 April, 1968, US Secretary of Defense Clifford announced that General Westmoreland's request for 206,000 additional soldiers would not be granted.

On 30 April, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army, attempting to open an invasion corridor into South Vietnam, started a battle at Dai Do. A battalion of US Marines, under the command of Lt Col William Weise and assisted by heavy artillery and air strikes, succeeded in defending Dai Do. When the battle ended on 3 May, 1568 North Vietnamese troops had been killed, as well as 110 US troops killed and 427 wounded. This was the last attempt by North Vietnam to directly invade South Vietnam until 1972, after most of the Americans had left the country.

On 5 May, 1968, the NLF/PALF started what was called a 'Mini Tet', launching rocket and mortar attacks against Saigon and 119 cities and military installations in South Vietnam. The US responded with air strikes using Napalm and high explosives.

On 10 May, 1968, a North Vietnamese battalion attacked a Special Forces camp at Kham Duc, near the border of Laos. After North Vietnamese forces encircled the camp, US military forces were evacuated on C-130 transport planes. When the evacuation had been completed, it was discovered that three US Air Force controllers had been left behind. The camp was now in the hands of the North Vietnamese Army. Two C-130s had already been shot down. Lt Col Joe M Jackson, piloting a C-123 Provider, landed on the airstrip under intense fire, rescued the three controllers, and took off again. Jackson was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

On 30 September, 1968, the 900th US aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam.

October, 1968 saw the beginning of 'Operation Sealord', the largest combined naval operation of the entire war. More than 1200 US Navy and South Vietnamese Navy gunboats and warships targeted North Vietnamese Army supply lines from Cambodia to the Mekong Delta. This operation continued for two years.

On 31 October, 1968, President Johnson announced a complete halt of US bombing of North Vietnam. During the course of the three and one half year bombing campaign, an average of 800 tons of bombs per day had been dropped on North Vietnam. The bombing was Generally considered to have failed in its goal of stopping the flow of soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam. The secondary goal of damaging morale within North Vietnam had also failed. In fact, the bombing increased sentiment against the United States and North Vietnamese citizens had increased their support of their government in response to the bombing.

On 31 December, 1968, there were 536,100 American soldiers in Vietnam. 30,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam. An average of 1000 per month died during the course of that year. The war had left an estimated 4 million South Vietnamese civilians homeless.


On 5 January, 1968, Dr Benjamin Spock, William Sloan Coffin (the chaplain of Yale University), novelist Mitchell Goodman, Michael Ferber, (a graduate student at Harvard University) and Marcus Raskin (a peace activist) were charged with conspiracy to encourage violations of the draft laws by a grand jury in Boston. These charges were related to actions taken at a protest rally the previous October, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. On 14 June, 1968, Spock, Coffin, Goodman and Ferber were convicted. Raskin was acquitted.

On 23 April, 1968, students at Columbia University had planned a rally and occupation of the Low Administrative Building, to protest the University's participation in the Institute for Defense Analysis. Conservative students and University security blocked the occupation of the Low Building. The demonstrators marched to the site of a proposed new gymnasium at Morningside Heights to show support of neighbours who used the site for recreation. The demonstrators grew in numbers and militancy, until they ended up taking over five buildings on the campus; Hamilton, Low, Fairweather and Mathematics Halls, and the Architecture building. Seven days later police stormed the buildings and removed the student protesters and their supporters, at the request of the Columbia administration.

'The Whole World's Watching'

The announcement 'The Yippies are Going to Chicago', was first publicized on 7 July, 1968. The Yippies intended to hold a 'Festival of Life' at the Democratic National Convention, which was to be held in Chicago. They held that this was to contrast the convention, which they termed a 'Festival of Death'.

The Democratic National Convention opened on 26 August. Mayor Richard Daley was ready for trouble. Chicago's entire police force (11,900 officers) was on 12-hour shifts. At Daley's request, 6500 federal troops and 5000 members of the Illinois National Guard were put on active duty in Chicago. The convention hall was protected by barbed wire on the outside and filled with police officers and security personnel on the inside.

The number of demonstrators actually present in Chicago has been estimated at 10,000. There were a number of confrontations between the demonstrators and the police during the week before the official start of the convention and during the first two days of the convention. During the convention, demonstrators deliberately provoked the police, deliberately ignoring reasonable orders and shouting 'pig' or obscenities at them. The police managed to ignore these provocations, but did react angrily when the demonstrators sang 'God Bless America' or recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Yippies, to demonstrate their opinion of the available choices for President of the United States in the coming election, nominated their own candidate, a pig they had named Pigasus.

Commenting on the amount of media coverage they were receiving, demonstrators chanted the phrase 'The whole world's watching' at a rally on 27 August.

On Wednesday, 28 August, as the convention was nominating Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic candidate for president, about 3000 of the demonstrators prepared to parade to the convention hall. They had been denied the parade permit. Police told the demonstrators to disperse. In five minutes, several busloads of police reinforcements arrived.

Then, the events that came to be known as the 'Chicago Police Riot' occurred, while the whole world was watching. Members of the Chicago Police Department waded into the crowd. As demonstrators tried to flee, they were chased and beaten with fists and nightsticks. A window in the ground-floor lounge of the Chicago Hilton gave way under the pressure of the mob being forced against the building. About ten people fell through the broken glass into the lounge. Police officers followed them in and beat them, there on the floor of the lounge.

Aids to Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had unsuccessfully tried to gain the Democratic nomination for president, set up a makeshift hospital in their headquarters on the 15th floor of the hotel.

The police didn't limit themselves to attacking demonstrators. At least two convention delegates were dragged from the hall by police and beaten. News reporters, photographers, passers-by and members of the clergy were not exempt from attack. Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine felt a nightstick that evening. A grandson of Winston Churchill, there in his capacity as a journalist, was beaten. Anne Kerr, a member of the British Parliament vacationing in Chicago, was maced and taken to jail.

Inside the convention centre, Senator Ribicoff grabbed the microphone and condemned what he called the 'Gestapo tactics' of Mayor Daley and the Chicago Police Department.

Representatives of the media, including major television networks from all over the world and virtually every major newspaper on the planet were there, witnessing, reporting and taking pictures for later publication or broadcasting live images of rampaging police officers.

Before the night was over, at least 100 protesters and others had gone to hospital emergency rooms due to injuries sustained at the hands of the police. It has been estimated that at least another 700 sustained injuries that did not require hospital treatment. 175 were arrested.

On the convention floor, reporter Dan Rather was shoved around by a group of Mayor Daley's bodyguards, prompting Walter Cronkite to say, on national television, 'Dan, it looks like there's a bunch of thugs down there'.

Not every person who had been called up to 'defend the City of Chicago' against the demonstrators answered the call. More than a dozen African-American soldiers, many of them Vietnam veterans, were arrested and court-martialled for refusing to mobilize against the anti-war demonstrators.

That was Wednesday night. At about 5am the following Friday, after the convention had ended, eleven Chicago police officers raided the Eugene McCarthy headquarters in the Chicago Hilton. The police officers, who did not have evidence or a search warrant, claimed that the campaign workers had thrown 'smoked fish, ashtrays and beer cans' from their 15th floor headquarters onto the police below. They clubbed the campaign workers, with one officer actually breaking his club on a volunteer's skull.

Mayor Daley stood by his Police Department, characterising the demonstrators as 'terrorists', who, he said, '...use[d] the foulest of language that you wouldn't hear in a brothel house'.

In addition to the events in Chicago that week, there had been 221 student protests at 101 colleges and universities, in 1968 alone, by that time.

When, in 1976, the Democratic National Convention was again held in Chicago, some police officers who had been on the force in 1968 wore t-shirts bearing the words 'We kicked their father's butt in '68 and now it's your turn'.


In the November 1968 Presidential Election, Richard M Nixon, the Republican candidate whose campaign included a promise that he had 'a secret plan' to end the war in Vietnam, defeated the liberal Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey and the conservative independent candidate, George Wallace. Nixon received 43.4 percent of the popular vote, compared to Humphrey's 42.7 percent and Wallace's 13.5 percent.

On 27 November, 1968, President-elect Nixon asked Henry Kissinger, a professor at Harvard University, to be his National Security Advisor. Kissinger accepted.

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