The reaction of the NLF’s senior leaders, Tang wrote in A Viet Cong Memoir,
was especially resentful. Many of us were from well-to-do families and had been used to the good life before we enlisted in the revolution. Our reasons for joining were perhaps varied, but we all regarded ourselves as people who had already sacrificed a great deal for the nation and were quite ready to sacrifice everything. Many of us had struggled in one way or another against the French, and in moving to the jungle all of us were decisively committed against the Americans. Whatever comforts we might previ¬ously have enjoyed were part of history. We were not touched by guilt about our class background, and we felt that our motives were every bit as pure as those of our ideologically minded colleagues. The idea that some of the cadres regarded our previous, citified life-styles as a subject for mock¬ery and contempt was insupportable. After the prisons, B-52S, diseases, and malnutrition, it was outrageous to suggest that we were somehow second- class revolutionaries.
Despite the military losses and the resultant tensions, the political div¬idends Hanoi gained from the Tet Offensive were huge. “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective,” North Vietnamese General Tran Do said. “As for making an impact on the United States, it had not been our intention-—but it turned out to be a fortunate result.” Suddenly, Americans were thinking, If the Viet Cong can pull off a coordinated, nationwide offensive, surely the light at the end of the tunnel has been an illusion.
U.S. public sentiment against the war grew, support in Congress waned, protests spread. Backing for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s han¬dling of the war fell from 40 percent before Tet to 26 percent. Three weeks after shocked U.S. TV audiences watched Marines battle Viet Cong guerrillas inside the fortress U.S. Embassy, CBS-TV anchor Walter Cronkite, one of the most influential American journalist of our time, said on the evening news: “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate…. To say that we are close to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the op¬timists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest that we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclu¬sion.” He went on to say, “The only rational way out.. . will be to negoti¬ate, not as victors, but as honorable people.”
A month later, on March 31,1968, President Johnson made his historic announcement: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my Party for another term as your president.” The United States would spend the next seven years trying to extricate itself from Vietnam.
THE VIETNAMESE PRESS made scant mention of the Tet Offensive during the holiday when Dai and I shared banh chung in his apartment. Dai, in fact, who was twenty-four, had never heard of the offensive, and as far as I could tell older Vietnamese didn’t even speak of it. Why spoil the sweetness of a peaceful Tet with dark memories? There was peace. Families were together again. There was ample food on the table. The isolation and deprivation were over. That is precisely what the Viet¬namese had prayed for during the wartime Tets. Having achieved it, they were more than willing to let the past slip away.
I carried Truong Nhu Tang’s memoir with me when I headed for Quang Tri Province a few days after Tet to sec what had happened to the 1st Corps battlefields I remembered from the war. The Vietnamese had not yet gotten back into high gear from the Tet holiday, and the flight to Hue was half-empty. I had not heard of Truong Nhu Tang before I found his book in a Bangkok shop—it wasn’t available in Vietnam—and I was struck by the grace of his prose and his nationalistic, reasonable tone. He had been a revolutionary for thirty years, serving as a high-level econom¬ics official in the South Vietnamese government while secretly organizing the Viet Cong resistance. He had served as minister of justice in the Pro¬visional Revolutionary Government and helped design the policy of na¬tional reconciliation intended to reunite Northerners and Southerners af¬ter the war.
But for Tang the war’s end brought deep disillusionment. The political prisons of the South were empty yet the reeducation camps were full. The Americans had gone yet the Russians had arrived. The guns had fallen silent in the DMZ yet the shooting had begun on the Cambodian border. Now there were new enemies: hunger, poverty, isolation, and ideological arrogance. Tang fled to Paris where a generation earlier he had been a student and first been smitten with the romance of revolution.
“The national democratic revolution itself became a casualty, choked by the arrogance of power among those who were responsible for the na¬tion’s fate,” he wrote in 1985. Instead of national reconciliation and independence, Ho Chi Minh’s suc¬cessors have given us a country devouring its own and beholden once again to foreigners, though now it is the Soviets rather than the Americans. In the process, the lives that so many gave to create a new nation are now no more than ashes cast aside. That betrayal of faith will burden the souls of Vietnam’s revolutionary leaders—even as surely as their rigid ideology and bellicose foreign policies have mortgaged the country’s future.