For most of us, war is, thankfully, an abstract thing. Something for the history books. But for those who lived it, war remains a reality every day.
"The memories are so strong with me,” says Vietnamese American journalist Nguyen Qui Duc. “I think of the ghosts living in the trees. I think of the temples and the graves. And I can't go there, because the spirit is there, that whole sadness is there with me."
On Jan. 30, 1968, Nguyen and his entire family were swept into the vortex of war.
That was the day the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong guerrilla allies launched what became known as the Tet Offensive — one of the key turning points of the Vietnam War.
The Tet Offensive is the centerpiece of the final episode of the podcast series "LBJ’s War." It was a massive, nationwide offensive launched by the Communists against the US and their South Vietnamese allies.
For three years, the administration of Lyndon Johnson had deployed increasing numbers of US ground troops to try to defeat a Communist insurgency, which was backed by the forces of North Vietnam.
By 1968, there were half-a-million US troops in South Vietnam — mostly teenage draftees. Until that time, US public opinion and the press had been reluctantly in support of the war. The US commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, had just told the American people that the “light was at the end of the tunnel.”
For the American public, the Tet Offensive was an enormous shock.
Communist casualties were severe, and they were quickly driven back from their gains — except in the central city of Hue, where fighting dragged on for several weeks.
And yet, the verdict of senior US observers like influential TV journalist Walter Cronkite was that the war was now “unwinnable.” The Communists, it seemed, “would just not quit.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson was furious. “I don't admit that this is a Communist victory,” he told one reporter. “And I don't think anybody but a goddamn Communist admits it.”
It would take four more years before the US was able to negotiate an exit from the war.
Nguyen Qui Duc was just 10 years old at the time. His family lived in Da Nang but decided to go to Hue for Tet, which is New Year in the Vietnamese lunar calendar and the biggest holiday of the year.
Nguyen writes about his and his family’s experience in the Smithsonian magazine. He also spoke with PRI’s The World on the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive from his new home — Hanoi.
"To me at that point, even at 10 years old, it was a shock to see North Vietnamese soldiers coming into our country,” Nguyen said. “The war had always been away, outside, and this was the first time North Vietnamese soldiers, with heavy, thick Northern accent, came to overtake the city.”
"Again, it was a terrible shock,” he added. “And when we were in the guesthouse, the government guesthouse, we thought they were Southern soldiers. We had no idea that they had surrounded the town. And then they took all the men upstairs and then they herded us — my mother and my sisters and other families — into a basement next door. And we were kept in there in the dark, both figuratively and otherwise. We had very little light, and no news. We were there for about a week, or week-and-a-half, and then the American soldiers and southern soldiers came to liberate the area.”
There was no sign of Nguyen’s father. As civilian governor of Hue — an official of the South Vietnamese government — Nguyen’s father was clearly a target for the Communists.
“We didn't know for years where my father had been taken, or whether he was alive, killed, or what," Nguyen told The World.
The Communists killed thousands of captives during their few weeks in control of Hue in 1968. Their targets were people they called “reactionary elements.” Officials like Nguyen's father.
Yet somehow Nguyen’s father survived.
"He was marched up the Ho Chi Minh Trail and taken to the north where he was imprisoned in various parts of the country, and then ended up in a re-education camp,” Nguyen explained. He learned the story years after the fact.
“He was held for a total of 12 years before he was released,” says Nguyen. “And I didn't see him for 16 years because, at the end of the war, I ended up in the US and then he didn't come until four years after he was released."
The family had huge troubles adjusting after so many years apart, so much trauma and such a change in status — from respected official to refugee in a foreign land.
One of the hardest parts for Nguyen, though, was growing up and simply not knowing if his father was dead.
“It was horrible to live without news. To not know,” he says. “And then, when the mass graves were discovered, that became a terrible ordeal for all of us because it was so horrible. My mom went to look for my father and saw the bodies and the mass graves and she said there's no way he's in there.”
Nguyen says the experience "definitely defined me. I became — lacking my father and anybody else — I became the morose young man who had to be responsible. I had to escort my mom everywhere. But in those first years, we didn't know where my father was, so I was an orphan, somewhat. But at the same time, he wasn't dead."
"We couldn't talk about it in our house because our grandfather was living there,” says Nguyen. “We didn't want him to know, because we were afraid [he] would have a heart attack. So all of us always went to the neighbors ... and cried.”
The grief and uncertainty haunted his childhood. "You know, you're 10 years old. You go to school and your friends would have games and would talk about normal things, and you'd join in. And then, at a certain moment, you drift away, and you go back to your pain and your grief. It took years for us to adjust to it. And I don't know that I ever quite adjusted to it."
The Tet Offensive is little known among young Americans. But in Vietnam, it's still trumpeted as a major success. Among the diaspora from South Vietnam, the memory is of the massacre in Hue and other atrocities committed by the Communists.
"It's sad that 50 years on, people [in Vietnam] don't recognize what happened,” says Nguyen. “And the narrative there has always been that the Communist party led the people in these wars against foreign aggression. Against the French, against the Americans, against the Chinese. And it never — the government here and the party here — never acknowledged that there was a civil war."
Besides the Communist atrocities, the South Vietnamese responded with atrocities of their own, especially against captured Viet Cong.
For Nguyen in Hanoi, the 50th anniversary brings a “deep sadness.”
“There’s still some anger in me,” he says. “That there are so many people who died, who suffered through it, who are not recognized. And that these triumphant, victorious, loud pronunciations are still there. It takes away any sense of humanity from you — that you can’t recognize the suffering, you only recognize the triumphs and victories, and yet not recognize that mistakes had been made, that people died, people suffered. Fifty years on, there’s no honesty there. And that saddens me.”
“And it saddens me that personally, I can’t even go back to Hue,” adds Nguyen, “even though my family still has members there. I go there and the memories are so strong with me and I think of the ghosts living in the trees. I think of the temples and the graves. And I can’t go there because the spirit is there, that whole sadness is there with me.”
“LBJ’s War” is a podcast series, in six installments, co-produced and distributed by PRI. You can find the series on the PRI website and on iTunes. Our thanks to series executive producer Steve Atlas for making it available.