America’s Retreat from Asia Will Have Consequences

Historians/History
tags: Vietnam War, Tet Offensive



Ang Cheng Guan is the author of "Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War" (London: Routledge, 2010). His most recent book is "Southeast Asia’s Cold War: An Interpretive History" (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2018).

Black smoke covers areas of Sài Gòn during Tet Offensive


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, which many consider a critical turning point of the Vietnam War. Much has been written in recent weeks to remember this historical event from the American, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese perspectives. This article adds to the voices by recalling particularly the immediate responses of the “Domino states”—Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. (There was no reaction from Burma.)

Even before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, established in August 1967) reached its one-year mark and was able to put its own house in order, the Vietnamese communists launched the General Offensive General Uprising (AKA: the Tet Offensive) on the Vietnamese New Year or Tet on 31 January 1968. The heavy casualties suffered by the communists during the Tet Offensive compelled the Hanoi leadership to re-examine its strategy and led to the resumption of the debate between the escalation camp and the protracted war camp over military strategy and the appropriate time to begin negotiations with the enemy. Although, the Tet Offensive failed to achieve North Vietnam’s goal, the general perception at that time was that it was an American defeat. This perceived defeat triggered the convoluted process of America’s extrication from the Vietnam War. The fact that the non-communist South Vietnamese forces actually foiled Hanoi’s offensive was completely overlooked.

Hanoi’s decision between late March and early April 1968 to accept President Johnson’s proposal to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War wasa turning point. The communist decision to negotiate was not unanimous. But having agreed to negotiations, the Vietnamese communists had to quickly achieve some tangible military victory to bolster its negotiating position. The first round of the Tet Offensive had failed militarily although it led to President Johnson’s decision not to run for president in 1968.

The North Vietnamese therefore made the controversial decision to launch a second and third round of military offensives. These went on through the end of September 1968. All failed. Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese communists dragged their feet over the pre-conditions for peace talks. After almost eight months of wrangling, the Four-Party talks finally convened in Paris in January 1969. But the talks were mainly forthe public eye; the real negotiations took place in private between Le Duc Tho and Averell Harriman (who was succeeded by Cabot Lodge after 20 January 1969).

The Tet Offensive created a disproportionate level of anxiety in non-communist Southeast Asia—a region that President Dwight Eisenhower referred to as falling dominoes. All five ASEAN member states were distressed by the turn of events after Tet. The two countries that had been the most vocal about US-policy post-Tet were Thailand and Singapore. As Eugene Black (President Johnson’s Special Adviser for Economic and Social Development of Southeast Asia) noted, “Thai politicians who were closely identified with the American build-up are understandably uneasy over the inability of the United States to bring the war in Vietnam to a smooth conclusion.” Soon after Johnson’s announcement not to seek re-election, Thai foreign minister Thanat Khoman said that Thailand should not be blamed if it were to seek an accommodation with Beijing.

Washington was aware it needed to handle the withdrawal of US forces from Thailand without causing distress and panic in the Asian country. President Johnson told Thai Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn that he would devote the remainder of his time in office to achieving an “honorable peace” and would not “run out on his commitments, his principles, or his friends.” Despite Johnson’s assurances, by the end of 1968, Bangkok was re-evaluating its relations with Washington and Beijing.

In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew won a land-slide victory in the first general election after independence in April 1968, winning all 58 seats in the Parliament. Although Lee had successfully crippled the opposition, communist and non-communist alike, he remained concerned over serious unemployment in Singapore and a revival of communist insurgency in Malaysia (from which Singapore had broken three years earlier). Lee believed that Singapore’s survival as a non-communist state would henceforth have to depend on the US presence in Southeast Asia. For this reason, Lee had consistently expressed his unequivocal support for the US defeat of the communists in South Vietnam. According to information that emanated from the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), by 1967, the CPM began to talk about the possibility of resuscitating the armed struggle and on 1 June 1968, during the 20th anniversary of their armed struggle, the Party officially announced its intention to revive the armed struggle in Malaya.

While Kuala Lumpur continued to support US policy in Vietnam after Johnson’s post-Tet decision, there was a noticeable shift in Malaysian policy from the beginning of 1968. US officials based in Malaysia reported that the Tunku’s public and private comments on Vietnam and security matters had increasingly reflected “a disposition on the part of Kuala Lumpur towards posture of non-alignment.” One of the manifestations of the gradual shift in Malaysia’s foreign policy was establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. The USSR was the first communist country that Kuala Lumpur recognized. Malaysian and Soviet officials had discussed the Vietnam War during the period when Washington and Hanoi were sparring over the site for the peace talks. The Malaysians told the Soviets that they supported US action to reduce bombing and urged Moscow to persuade Hanoi to reciprocate. Kuala Lumpur was moving toward the view that the Big Powers (including the Soviet Union) should guarantee the independence and neutrality of the region – a view which was subsequently crystallized as ZOPFAN (Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality) in November 1971.

A week after Johnson’s 31 March 1968 announcement, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos said that if the Americans pulled out of Asia, Manila might have to reach an accommodation with Beijing. The Filipinos were generally “apathetic about the war in Vietnam.” American intelligence assessed that while the communists or the Left had the potential “to convert existing apathy and resignation into discontent and eventually active opposition,” they did not pose any immediate threat to the country in the immediate future.

Indonesia seemed to be the least affected by the events after Tet. In Jakarta, the Suharto government was in effective control and the army was in an unassailable position. The Indonesian communists no longer posed any threat to the country. American assessment was that over the next three to five years it was unlikely that “any threat to the internal security of Indonesia will develop that the military cannot contain.” Jakarta believed that the main threat to itself and other Southeast Asian countries lay in “internal communist subversion designed to capitalize on their economic and social weaknesses.” The solution was to devote their energy to improving the living condition of their people and strengthening their internal security organizations. In Suharto’s view, US assistance to Indonesian recovery “was an investment in Southeast Asian security that would bring far reaching beneficial results”.

These countries’ reactions reveal the importance of the United States in their eyes. One finds more or less the same reaction from them when the Nixon Doctrine was announced in 1969 or when they learnt from the media of Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 or the fall of Saigon in 1975. Although the context is different, these countries remain very sensitive to any perceived signs of American weakness or American retreat from the region, such as is presently underway under the Trump administration. There’s a lesson in that.


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