Review of Asian Studies

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Virginia Review of Asian Studies

Volume 17 (2015): 40-92

Head: Tet Offensive



[Editor’s Note: Eminent military historian Dr. William Head is working on a comprehensive history of the Vietnam War. VRAS is publishing individual chapters as a service to help Dr. Head elicit public reactions to his work. VRAS published one chapter in 2014 and is including three chapters as separate articles in this issue.]
Tet or the Lunar New Year is one of, if not the most important, holidays of the year in Vietnam. One custom practiced during Tet is giving yellow chrysanthemums to close friends and relatives. In particular the traditional flower is part of the custom of Tao Mo when family members visit the graves of their ancestors on the last day of every lunar year to clean and decorate the graves. In this way their ancestors can help welcome the New Year. With the dawn of the Lunar New Year, the Vietnamese people decorate their homes with the yellow chrysanthemums which have a vivid hue and gentle fragrance. They arrange vases and pots at the front door to welcome the New Year because the chrysanthemum is symbolic of a composed and unpretentious lifestyle. It is favored on Tet holidays to let everyone know that a harmonious and happy family lives in the home. The bright yellow clusters represent confidence and hope for a happy New Year. A chrysanthemum vase put in the house seems to bring a cozy feeling to the family.
Each generation has taken time from daily activities to celebrate the New Year and to pay homage to their ancestors and their traditions. Even in times of war and pestilence they take time to follow these ancient traditions. As the Tet holiday of 1968 drew near, the leaders of both North and South Vietnam indicated that they would respect a ceasefire to honor this important holiday. Ultimately, this ceasefire was torn asunder by a series of battles that in total became known as the “Tet Offensive.” Instead of pristine yellow mums spread across cities like Saigon and Hue, the flowers were spattered with blood and tears. The war in Vietnam had taken a new turn which would lead to seven more years of carnage and eventually the fall of South Vietnam.
America’s Role
Many analysts believe the Tet Offensive caused one of the deepest and most permanent of the tears in the fabric of the U.S. public unity. So much so that it became the turning point in America’s war in that part of the world. To some it was a defining moment when the United States seized defeat from the jaws of victory, while to others it was the wake-up call that convinced U.S. leaders and citizens that the War was unwinnable. Normally, such events possess the redeeming virtue of eventually leading to a general synthesis that awaits even the most heated of historical debates. However, such are the political stakes and personal passions that swirl around this aspect of the Vietnam War that the integration of the competing interpretations of Tet has proven elusive. Was Tet a turning point because of the military actions of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or was it a case of U.S. politicians and media throwing away the fruits of a major battlefield victory? To answer this question, it is necessary to re-examine the great battle that changed the war once and for all.
Defining the Tet Offensive
In the foreword to the Center of Military History’s (CMH) account of the Tet Offensive,
The offensive itself, and all-out effort by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces to overrun the major cities of South Vietnam, marked the turning point of the Vietnam War. Although the attacks were costly failures in military terms, they set the United States on a path of disengagement from the war that ultimately led to the fall of Saigon some seven years later.1
As the spring of 1967 faded, the cost of the Vietnam War continued to grow for both sides with no clear or final military victory in sight. As a result, leaders in Hanoi decided to initiate a general offensive in the countryside and a popular uprising in the main urban centers of South Vietnam. Their primary goals were to subvert the regime in Saigon and to compel the U.S. to agree to a pro-Communist settlement. The main planner for the campaign was Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap, the chief architect of the Viet Minh victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Giap had taken over as the primary strategist when Gen. Nguyen Chi Thanh was killed. In later years, Giap claimed he had opposed the offensive plan but went forward with it “reluctantly under duress from the Le Duan dominated Politburo.” Giap had always advocated using guerrilla tactics against Allied forces, whereas Thanh had promoted offensive action. Even so, the Northern political leaders decided that the time was ripe for a major conventional offensive. They believed that the South Vietnamese government and the U.S. presence were so unpopular in the South, that a widespread attack would spark an extemporaneous uprising by the Southern population, allowing the NVA to conclude a swift and decisive victory.2
As a result, NVA planners created strategy first calling for units of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) to assault South Vietnam’s border regions to divert U.S. attention. Once engaged, they planned on direct Viet Cong (VC) attacks against all the South’s major population centers. This they anticipated would initiate the disintegration of the Saigon government and instigate full-blown popular revolt. Northern leaders anticipated that this would force the Allies of the South Vietnamese to leave the country or face decisive attacks by the VC and PAVN forces.3
In October 1967, the Communists initiated the first phase of what would become known as the Tet Offensive with a series of small raids against isolated border areas designed to draw American and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces away from Southern cities. The NVA infiltration rate grew to 20,000 per month during the last three months of 1967. As intelligence reports warned of this increase, senior officers at Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in Saigon, came to expect a major enemy incursion as early as January 1968. Leaders believed the area around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) would be able to hold out against the most determined Communist attack. Thus, U.S. units deployed to bolster northern border positions, while the ARVN were re-positioned to defend the Saigon area.4
On October 23rd, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) sent a memorandum to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declaring “The Joint Chiefs of Staff are opposed to any stand-down during Christmas, New Year’s or the Tet period.” They concluded, “In the past, these stand-downs have resulted in increased casualties to US and allied forces.”5 Even with this warning local troops were in a holiday mood and not as vigilant as they should have been. Perhaps it is easy to say in hindsight, but it seems all too obvious that Tet was a perfect time for a large assault. Even with adequate time and intelligence to prepare for the enemy uprising, in the days just before the Tet Offensive, neither the ARVN nor their U.S. allies seemed terribly concerned about an attack. Looking back, it seems likely the South Vietnamese, especially, did not believe that an attack would come during such an important holiday for all Vietnamese. By mid-January, 1968, more than one-half of the ARVN forces were on leave preparing to celebrate the Tet holiday. Concurrently, leaders in Hanoi had announced that they planned to observe a seven-day truce from January 27 to February 3, 1968, in honor of the Tet holiday. As a result, leaders in Saigon granted most of their troops leave.6

The Communists Strike
In the early morning darkness of 30 January 1968 the NVA and VC struck towns and cities all across South Vietnam. It was a new twist for the Allies. American forces had been in Vietnam for three years and the vast majority of the combat they had encountered took the form of small guerilla-style skirmishes. Although the U.S. had more and better weapons, as well as hundreds of thousands of trained soldiers, they were bogged down in a stalemate with the Communist forces. They had only begun to comprehend the enemy’s low intensity combat tactics and that their own traditional set piece tactics were not working; a lesson they should have learned from the failures of their French predecessors. Even though the U.S. and ARVN intelligence predicted an enemy assault and the NVA had already launched what appeared to be a diversionary attack against the U.S. Marine outpost at Khe Sanh on January 21, 1968, Allied leaders and positioned forces seemed to be taken mostly by surprise when the enemy struck on such a broad scale. Not only did the attacks break the traditional New Year ceasefire that had been agreed upon, but the breadth of these attacks immediately staggered the Allies.7
The next day, the all-out offensive began, with simultaneous enemy attacks on five major cities, thirty-six provincial capitals, sixty-four district capitals, and numerous important villages. The attack in Saigon was particularly shocking. Around 1:30 a.m., suicide squads attacked, in order, President Thieu’s home at the Independence Palace, the main radio station, the ARVN's joint General Staff Compound, Tan Son Nhut airfield, and the U.S. Embassy, causing extensive damage and sending the city into a state of panic. Estimates of the Communist forces varied. Senior ARVN leaders estimated they totaled 323,000 including 130,000 NVA regulars and 160,000 main force troops. Experts at MACV projected that the numbers were around 330,000 while the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and U.S. State Department hypothesized that they numbered between 435,000 and 595,000. Ultimately, the majority of the attacks were broken within a few days, most often due to U.S. aerial bombing and artillery attacks. As much damage as they caused the enemy they also caused terrible destruction in South Vietnam’s urban areas.8
Around 2:45 a.m. on January 31, 19 Viet Cong commandos attacked the U.S. Embassy compound. For some reason, even though enemy VC attacks had occurred throughout the city for more than an hour, the guards at the Embassy had not been told, nor had they been reinforced. The sappers with the Communist squad blew a hole in the compound wall, killed several Military Police (MPs), and entered the grounds. Now alerted to the danger the few surviving American guards retreated into the Embassy building and bolted down the doors. During the initial firefight the two officers leading the enemy unit were killed. Probably for this reason the remaining guerrillas milled about aimlessly and even though they possessed an abundant supply of explosives, they decided not press their attack. Eventually, more U.S. forces arrived, and by 8:00 a.m., they retaken the compound, killing all of the attackers.9
Thus, began a bloody series of battle throughout South Vietnam that would devastate much of the larger cities in the Republic of Vietnam and, at home in the U.S., bring into question both the efficacy and requirement for an American presence in mainland Southeast Asia. The combined VC and NVA forces attacked nearly 100 major cities and towns all across South Vietnam. The Allies were particularly surprised by size and ferocity of Tet Mau Thanh. The two major battles of the offensive proved to be in the cities of Saigon and Hue. While the siege of the Marine base at Khe Sanh took place at roughly the same time, it was a separate battle designed to divert American attention away from the Tet battles and to protect their supply lines.
In the meantime, it took more than two weeks for ARVN and American forces to secure control of Saigon and nearly a month to retake the city of Hue. From a military viewpoint, the United States defeated the Communists since they did not take control of any part of South Vietnam. The enemy also suffered severe losses with estimates of those killed ranging from 45,000 to 50,000 and twice that many wounded. However, whether on purpose or accidentally, the Tet Offensive shattered American faith in ultimate victory and caused many to question why our young men should be fighting and dying in this far off land. The impact, and surprise caused by the attacks led to a major U.S. reassessment that, eventually, led to an American withdrawal. In this work, I have focused on the two major battles of the Tet Offensive; Hue and Saigon.
So how had it come to this? And, why did the Communists decide to act at this point and what was their goal. Western historians and analysts interpret Tet in one of two ways. Many like General Westmoreland believe that the offensive had intended political consequences designed to discourage prolonged U.S. participation in the war.10 While in 20/20 hindsight this would appear logical, as James J. Wirtz in his work on Tet notes, it “fails to account for any realistic North Vietnamese military objectives, the logical prerequisite for an effort to influence American opinion.”11 The alternative thesis, which in the aftermath of the Vietnam War is supported by Communist documents, argues that the goal of Tet Mau Thanh was the overthrow of the government in Saigon, the creation of a coalition government in the South or seizure of large portions of Southern territory.12 What is clear is that the seeds for the bloody struggles of early 1968 were sown in the fall of 1967.
The Events of 1967 and the Lead in to Tet Mau Thanh
In mid-1967, with the 1968 U.S. general election just over the horizon in November 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson became increasingly immersed in successfully concluding the Vietnam War. General William C. Westmoreland, MACV Commander, had developed a strategic theory that postulated that if the Allies could reach a point where the number of enemy personnel killed or captured during military operations exceeded their ability to recruit replacements, the U.S. would win the war. He was convinced his numbers proved his plan was working. This was a reality which the CIA disputed; a fact demonstrated in September when MACV intelligence services and the CIA met to prepare a Special National Intelligence Estimate that the Johnson Administration wanted in order to determine the War’s success.13

General William C. Westmoreland MACV Commander
The U.S. should have had a significant advantage since they had obtained a glut of intelligence data on VC planning during Operations Cedar Falls and Junction City. With these materials in hand the CIA and other analysts had determined that there might be as many as 400,000 enemy guerrillas, irregulars, and cadre in South Vietnam poised for some kind of major action. Concurrently, MACV’s Combined Intelligence Center, reported to Gen. Westmoreland that there were only 300,000. Even at 300,000 Westmoreland realized that during the recent past Western reporters had been consistently told that the numbers were much lower. These new numbers he feared might change American public attitudes about an imminent U.S. victory in a war that had already lasted longer than most citizens had anticipated.14 General Joseph A. McChristian, MACV's chief of intelligence, expressed such concerns when he privately admitted the new figures “would create a political bombshell,” since they were positive proof that the Communists “had the capability and the will to continue a protracted war of attrition.”15
In the early summer of 1967, MACV and CIA intelligence analysts continued to argue about the both the numbers and the enemy’s intent. MACV claimed that VC militias were in no way a real fighting force. Rather, they were for all intents and purposes “low level fifth columnists used for information collection.” Their CIA counterparts contended that this was absolute nonsense since up to that point this same militia force had been directly responsible for half of the casualties inflicted on U.S. forces. It soon fell to the CIA’s deputy director for Vietnamese affairs, George Carver, to reconcile the disagreement. By September, Carver, under pressure from his boss, CIA director Richard Helms, settled on a politically motivated compromise. The CIA agreed that the irregulars should not be counted as part of the enemy forces. Instead they included an addendum that explained the agency’s position. It was a ridiculous choice and one that would contribute to future problems for U.S. forces during Tet.16
While U.S. intelligence groups squabbled with each other, from June to December 1967, the Johnson Administration, with a national election just over a year away, became concerned about the increasing internal and external criticism of its policies in Vietnam policies. Public opinion polls indicated that the percentage of Americans who opposed the deployment of U.S. troops to Vietnam had grown from 25 percent in 1965 to 45 percent by December 1967. The main reason for this change was not because opponents did not believe in the war, but was due to the rising casualty figures, increasing taxes, and the sentiment that there was no end in sight.17
It must also be noted that many within the Administration such as Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach, Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs William Bundy, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, deputy MACV commander, General Creighton W. Abrams, and II Corps Field Commander, Lt. Gen. Frederick C. Weyand, all urged the White House to consider a changed in strategy.18 As the Pentagon Papers later revealed, the President refused to accept the notion that CIA’s or Pentagon’s “negative analysis” held any validity. Instead, he embraced the “optimistic reports from General Westmoreland.” In retrospect the policy that evolved came from what the President wanted to believe, not reality.19
A poll taken in November 1967 indicated that 55 percent of Americans wanted a tougher war policy. According to Stanley Karnow, this was based on the popular belief that, “it was an error for us to have gotten involved in Vietnam in the first place. But now that we’re there, let’s win – or get out.”20 Instead of bending to public desires, Johnson initiated what became known as the “Success Offensive.” It was a rigorous effort to change the pervasive public perception that the war had reached an impasse and to persuade the American people that his strategy was working. Led by Walter W. Rostow, the White House National Security Advisor, the program flooded the news media with hundreds of stories and reports suggesting an imminent and positive outcome to the war. Every statistical indicator of progress, from “kill ratios” and “body counts” to village pacification, was crammed down the throat of both the press and the Congress. In mid-November, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey told NBC’s Today Show hosts that, “We are beginning to win this struggle! We are on the offensive. Territory is being gained. We are making steady progress.”21
This public relations ploy reached a climax late in November 1967, when the President ordered Gen. Westmoreland and the new U.S. Ambassador, Ellsworth Bunker, to come to Washington for a “high level policy review.” The two men spent most of their time explaining to the media just how successful the Administration’s Vietnam policies were. In Saigon, pacification Chief Robert Komer told reporters that the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) pacification program in rural South Vietnam had proved incredibly successful, and that 68 percent of the Southern population was now loyal to the Saigon regime and only 17 percent to the VC. In turn, General Bruce Palmer, Jr., one of the three American Field Force commanders, publically declared that, “the Viet Cong have been defeated” since “he can’t get food and he can’t get recruits. He has been forced to change his strategy from trying to control the people on the coast to trying to survive in the mountains.”22
Westmoreland went even further in his November 21st speech to the National Press Club, when he announced that as of the end of 1967, the Communists were “unable to mount a major offensive...I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing...We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.”23 All of this had the desired effect. Even so, in early January, an in depth Gallup poll showed that 47 percent of the U.S. public still disapproved of the President’s handling of the war. What Johnson’s snow job had done was create an untenable situation. On the one hand, the citizenry was, “more confused than convinced, more doubtful than despairing and had adopted a ‘wait and see attitude.’”24 On the other hand, they also expected Johnson to be telling the truth. If he was not, they were prepared to dump his policy and perhaps his Administration. The icing on the cake came during an interview by Westmoreland with Time magazine where he challenged the Communists to attack, saying “I hope they try something, because we are looking for a fight.” 25
Plotting and Planning in Hanoi
In the meantime, Communist planners in North and South Vietnam spent nearly a year from early 1967 to early 1968, conceiving a winter-spring offensive during 1968. According to official Vietnamese sources Tet Mau Than or the General Offensive General Uprising, was the product of a perceived U.S. failure to win the war quickly, the failure of the American bombing campaign against North Vietnam, and the growing American anti-war sentiment. In fact, this is an oversimplification. It was the culmination of an acrimonious, decade-long debate among leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party. The moderate faction led by Party theoretician Truong Chinh and Defense Minister, Vo Nguyen Giap, who supported the Soviet’s policy of peaceful coexistence, advocated assuring the economic viability of North Vietnam before becoming involved in a massive and conventional conflict in South Vietnam. The radicals, led by Party First Secretary Le Duan and Le Duc Tho supported the foreign policy concepts of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that promoted reunification of the nation by military means without negotiations with the U.S. Since the early 1960s, they had shaped the direction of the war in South Vietnam mainly through the efforts of General Nguyen Chi Thanh, the chief of the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN). The militants centered their strategies on large-scale, main force actions rather than the protracted guerrilla war espoused by Mao Tse-dung.26
The radicals’ strategic predominance began to fade in 1966 and 1967 due to the heavy loses they experienced, the battlefield stalemate, and the disintegration of the Northern economy caused by U.S. bombing during Operation Rolling Thunder. Some leaders in Hanoi began to believe that if these trends continued they would soon be unable to win a military victory in the South Vietnam even with the expanding infiltration routes, growing supplies and troops, and pipelines. Throughout 1967, the battlefield situation was so bad, that Le Duan directed Gen. Thanh to infuse aspects of protracted guerrilla warfare into his overall strategic planning. With these concerns facing the Politburo, increasing numbers of members called for negotiations and a revision of the existing strategy. They argued that a return to guerrilla tactics fit the situation better since, as constituted, they could not win a conventional war against the U.S. The moderates argued the appropriate strategy called for resiliency, wearing down the Americans in a war of wills that could best be described as “fighting while talking.”27
It was at this point, that a new centrist group evolved led by President Ho Chi Minh, Le Duc Thọ, and Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh who advocated negotiations. While Ho’s health was failing and his actual role in the Party and nation had dwindled since 1963, his name and reputation alone still carried great influence. Simultaneously, from October 1966 through April 1967, Thanh and, his main military rival, Senior General Giap carried on a very public debate over military strategy both in the newspapers and on the radio. Giáp called for a defensive, primarily guerrilla strategy against the U.S. and South Vietnam, while Thanh scolded Giáp and his supporters for being tied to their outdated tactics and policies from the First Indochina War.28 Thanh accused them of being too cautious and conservative because they were bogged down in “old methods and past experience... mechanically repeating the past.”29
These debates also had a political component to them. Each side was heavily influenced by loyalties or belief in the attitudes either held in the Soviet Union or PRC. This was in large measure based on the fact that North Vietnam was totally dependent on outside military and economic aid from one or the other of their Communist brethren. By late 1967, leaders in Beijing pushed their North Vietnamese counterparts to conduct a protracted war on the Maoist model, fearing that a conventional struggle might draw China into the conflict as it had late in the Korean War. They also opposed negotiations with the U.S. and/or South Vietnamese. Moscow

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