THE TET OFFENSIVE TURNING POINT OF THE VIETNAM WAR
Every battle turns into a stalemate;
The one who fights on with renewed dedication
becomes the victor: General William Westmoreland
The communist Tet Offensive of 1968 was the turning point of the Second Indo-chinese war. Before this offensive, most Americans supported the war and believed America was winning. After the offensive most Americans believed America could not win, that the war was a stalemate (Oberdorfer, Tet! p x.) Since its adventure in Indochina is the only time that America was clearly defeated, the Tet Offensive is significant. The question which is addressed is whether the Tet Offensive was a last ditch gamble which failed tactically, but succeeded psychologically in demoralizing the American public, or whether the Tet attacks were part of a well thought out strategy which accomplished their end. (Gilbert and Head, The Tet Offensive, p 15.)
The Tet Offensive began just after midnight, 30 January 1968, with a communist attack on the coastal resort city of Nha Trang and was declared over by the Pentagon on 1 April 1968 (Vietnam time) (Oberdorfer pp 343, 351.) The communists attacked, on 30 and 31 January, over a hundred cities and towns and numerous military installations. (Dougan et al Nineteen Sixty Eight p 11.) Few of the attacks were successful; only the symbolically important Imperial capital, Hue, was held by the communists for more than a few days. The communists lost 58,373 men; the Americans lost 3,895 men; the South Vietnamese lost 4,954; the other allied forces (Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Thai) lost 214 (Oberdorfer p v). Finally, tens of thousands of the South Vietnamese civilians died or were wounded. Millions of dollars worth of property was destroyed (Dougan et al p 8.)
Despite a mistake in planning, which resulted in some units attacking a day earlier than the main wave, the communist onslaught achieved complete tactical surprise In the main operations center at Military Assistance Command -- Vietnam (MACV), displays illustrating communist activity lit up like “pinball machines”. The attacks, according to one general, were “surprisingly well coordinated, surprisingly intensive and launched with a surprising amount of audacity” (Dougan et al pp 8, 12).
Yet the allies were not caught completely flat footed. Although American intelligence analysts were puzzled by communist moves prior to Tet, Lieutenant General Frederick Weyland, third corps commander and a former intelligence officer, warned General William C. Westmoreland, over all American commander in Vietnam, to pull back troops from the border region where they had been drawn deliberately, lured by communist probing attacks. Westmoreland responded by pulling back from the border regions fifteen battalions and positioning them around Saigon. And because of the attacks on some cities on 30 January, Westmoreland’s headquarters had placed all troops, “maximum alert” (Dougan et al p 7.) Unfortunately, no one was worried because false alarms had become routine. (Oberdorfer p 9.)
The attacks which most shocked the South Vietnamese, the Americans, and the world, came in Saigon at 3:00 a.m. on the morning of 31 January, when 19 communist sappers (engineer/commandos) from the C-10 Sapper Battalion blasted their way into the American embassy compound in the heart of Saigon. The sappers lost both of their leaders at the beginning of the attack and, directionless, they succeeded only in blowing a few holes in the chancery building, and otherwise caused no physical damage aside from killing five American soldiers while breaking into the compound (Oberdorfer p 1, 23-24).
Elements of the 716th Military Police Battalion surrounded the embassy compound, and troops from the 101st Airborne Division helicoptered onto the roof. Six and one half hours after the communist assault began, it was over (Dougan et al p 15).
The American Embassy was a symbol of the American presence in Vietnam. The wire services, in Saigon, became preoccupied with the situation at the embassy simply because there was nothing else nearby to focus on. Thus the communist assault on an American symbol (Dougan et al p 15), which was thought to be safe, in a city which was supposed to be safe, became dramatic evidence that the claims of “progress” by the Johnson administration and the American military, were not true.
The attack on the embassy was not the only enemy effort in Saigon on the thirty first. Elements of the same unit (the C-10 Sapper Battalion) which attacked the embassy also attacked the South Vietnamese presidential palace and took over the national radio station. Because the transmitter power had been shut off by a prearranged signal, the communists were unable to broadcast their tape calling for a popular uprising. South Vietnamese airborne troops killed the sappers as they tried to withdraw (Dougan, p 15.) Numerous reports of sniping, etc., poured into American headquarters during the night. Most were false alarms due to stray bullets (Oberdorfer p 144).
But these were attacks by only the C-10 Sapper battalion. In all, 35 communist battalions attacked Saigon and its surrounding area (Dougan et al p 14.) In one pointless assault, communist troops seized the South Vietnamese armor and artillery headquarters, planning to use the tanks and howitzers against Tan Son Nhut Airbase. But the tanks had been moved to another compound and the breech blocks had been removed from the howitzers (Dougan et al p 19).
The heaviest attack in the Saigon area on the night of 31 January was against the American Military Assistance Command Headquarters, Vietnam (MACV) Bien Hoa. An intense indirect fire attack and a ground assault by 3 communist battalions from three different directions threatened to capture Westmoreland’s headquarters. The communists ground troops were stopped only by the South Vietnamese 8th Airborne Battalion and, attacking from the rear, the 3rd Armored Squadron of the American 25th Infantry Division. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) -- South Vietnamese -- troops were not supposed to be there; they had been awaiting transport to Hue to put down Buddhist demonstrations. Despite the heavy American presence in South Vietnam, most of the communist attacks were against, and were put down by, the ARVN. The worst actual debacle for the Americans and the greatest physical victory for the communists came at Hue.
When asked two years earlier what he would do if he were the enemy, General Westmoreland had responded without hesitation, “Capture Hue.” The former imperial capital of all of Vietnam had been the cultural center of South Vietnam for over a hundred years. It was the dominating point in the northern two provinces. Westmoreland feared the communists would take them and possibly win the war (Dougan et al pp 12, 13, 25, 26).
Hue was attacked starting at 3:40 a.m. 31 January by elements of two communist’s divisions. Driving toward the headquarters of the ARVN First Division, the 800th Battalion of the 6th Regiment of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN i.e. communist) was stopped by the ARVN “Black Panther Company”, an elite unit specially positioned to defend the airfield inside the Citadel . This was on the north bank of Perfume River, in the Citadel, near the Imperial Palace of Peace. On the south side of the Perfume River, at the local MACV headquarters, near Hue University , an ad hoc force of 200 Americans held off the communists in very close fighting. But elsewhere the communist troops roamed the streets at will, killing all government officials and supporters they could find. Province headquarters and police stations were among the targets.
By morning, only the 1st ARVN Division headquarters and MACV were still in allied hands (Dougan et al p26.) The National Liberation Front, i.e. Viet Cong, flag flew over the Citadel. As the ARVN commander, General Truong called in disparate units and managed to maintain his position, the communists consolidated theirs.
The Citadel was “a labyrinth of readily defensible positions” (Dougan et al p.26) but the Americans had an abundance of “105 mm, 155mm, and 8 inch howitzers; self propelled 40 mm (pom-pom) guns -- ‘Dusters’ - Ontos vehicles” mounting 106 mm recoilless rifles; tanks, helicopter - gunships and fighter-bombers as well as naval guns on ships off the coast (Dougan pp 27, 28.)
At first, the Americans were reluctant to use their firepower, wishing to avoid damage to the ancient city and its population; however the American command soon decided desperate measures were necessary. During the desperate house-to-house fighting that raged for 24 days by three under strength Marine battalions, six U.S. Army, and eleven ARVN battalions, much collateral damage occurred (Dougan et al pp 28, 29.)
At 5:00 a.m. 24 February, after overrunning PAVN defenders in the area of the main flagpole, ARVN troops hoisted the South Vietnamese flag over Hue.
Throughout South Vietnam, the communists, in the cities and towns they entered had an agenda: kill, often in a brutal fashion, any supporter or functionary of the government they found and proselytize as much as the situation would allow. Thousands died in Saigon and Hue. Some in Hue were apparently buried alive (Dougan et al pp 19, 36).
The one place the Americans had expected an all out assault during Tet was the isolated Marine combat base of Khe Sanh. In 1964, General Westmoreland became impressed with the “strategic location” of Khe Sanh, the northern most of the Special Forces camps in the western mountains of Vietnam; it is close to the borders of both Laos and North Vietnam. Its purpose was to block infiltration from the North. Despite assertions by Brigadier General Lowell English, assistant commander of the third Marine division that “When you’re at Khe Sanh you are not really anywhere,” the base was reinforced until at Tet, there were 6,000 men at Khe Sanh, as well as twenty four 105 mm and 155 mm howitzers, six heavy mortars, six tanks and ninety two variously mounted recoilless rifles. Khe Sanh had become the “western most anchor” of a string of spaces designed to prevent an anticipated PAVN move across the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam) and had become a target of the People’s Army of Vietnam. Two to four PAVN divisions, 20,000 to 40,000 men, were threatening Khe Sanh at the time of Tet. Khe Sanh was the center of attention for both President Johnson and his staff, and the American people. Most feared a Dien Bien Phu type debacle, and although a nearby special forces base (Lang Vei) was overrun by communist tanks, but despite heavy shelling and numerous ground probes the expected massive, all out assault never came. (Dougan et al pp 41, 42, 43).
Following Tet the 1st Air Cavalry Division relieved the Khe Sanh garrison, and the seventy seven day siege was over (Dougan et al pp 50, 51).
President Johnson was obsessed with the similarity between Dien Bien Phu, the military disaster which helped force the French from Indochina, and Khe Sanh. Johnson had a sand table of Khe Sanh constructed in the White House situation room. Johnson said he did not want any “Din Bin Phoo”. However, it was incorrect to compare Khe Sanh with Dien Bien Phu. The French troops at Dien Bien Phu included a large part of the French army in Indo China, whereas the American at Khe Sanh consisted of less than two percent of the Allied Forces in Vietnam. The besieged Americans received six time as many tons of supplies as the French did. And the Americans had more than ten times the number of aircraft as the French; the combat and cargo capacity of these aircraft was much greater than that of the aircraft the French used. The Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu outnumbered the French by more than five to one while the PAVN outnumbered the Marines at Khe Sanh, at times, by less than four to one. In addition Dien Bien Phu was battered by twenty times as many rounds per day as hit Khe Sanh (Dougan et al p 55). While the combat base at Khe Sanh was an important symbol, the Khe Sanh -- Dien Bien Phu comparison was “fraught with historical misapplication” (Gilbert and Head p 18).
General Westmoreland had announced in a speech on 21 November 1967 “we have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view”. This was the most sanguine declaration in a long train of optimistic expressions by military and civilian officials under the Johnson administration. But the American public began to doubt the “rosy assessments of its leaders”. Even such establishment publications as the New York Times editorialized in November against “official expectations (in Southeast Asia) that were never fulfilled”. A “credibility gap” developed because of differences between official pronouncements of the more concrete observations of the press. “More confused than convinced, more doubtful than despairing,” the public decided withhold judgement (Dougan et al pp 66, 67).
When the war started most Americans supported it. In 1965, over 65% of those questioned said they were in favor of the war; less than 25% said they were against it. Over time, this gap narrowed until, in November 1967 more Americans thought the war was a mistake than did not (Dougan et al p 69).
Around June 1967 Westmoreland’s Army intelligence people (at MACV) had announced that the mystical “crossover point,” the point at which more communist soldiers were being killed than could be recruited, had been reached, another “crossover point” was reached in public opinion surveys. In late November 1967, for the first time, more Americans thought the war was a mistake than did not. By 31 March 1968 (1 April Vietnam time) when the Tet offensive officially ended, the gap between the believers and disbelievers in the war had widened, with still more people against the war (Dougan et al p 69).
However, at that time more considered themselves “hawks” (in favor of the war) than “doves” (against the war), the number of “hawks” climbing until Tet, when it started to fall, and by March was at the same level as that of the “doves”. The will of the American people to fight the communists in Southeast Asia was neutralized by March 1968.
(Oddly, around the time General Westmoreland’s intelligence officers at MACV headquarters decided the “crossover point” had been reached, the “crossover point” of doubters and believers had also been reached. During the crisis of the Tet attacks, Americans “rallied around the flag” and supported the commander-in-chief. But thereafter support failed (Oberdorfer p 159).)
One’s view of the war is often dependant on one’s view of Tet. The two primary views of Tet may be called the “revisionist view” and the “more recent view”. The former depends on such concrete indicators as body counts and kill ratios, lack of physical success in occupying strategic objectives, i.e. the cities, and the failure of the communists’ plans to provoke a popular uprising. The psychological victories the communists achieved are believed due to the impression left by the news media and it is felt the American people “snatched a defeat from the jaws of victory.” The “more recent view” depends on recently declassified communist documents to reveal the master plan of the communists and to see how the Tet attacks helped them achieve their goals according to their theory. Recently released documents shed light on the inscrutable Orientals’ actions, which once seemed akin to madness.
The total communists forces involved in Tet were (Wirtz “Intelligence to Please? The Order of Battle controversy during the Vietnam War.” Para 30) between 180,000 and 250,000 combatants. Early esitmates were that the communist lost 58,000 dead; it can be seen that the communists lost between twenty and thirty percent of their soldiers. Since the Americans and South Vietnamese (ARVN) lost only one or two percent of their forces, the communists could not claim victory based on causalties, as the Americans have. The Viet Cong (southern communists) never recovered from their Tet loses to the point were they were a significant threat (Sobey Interview by author).
In addition to their failure to inflict heavy casualties on the Americans and their allies, the communist failed to occupy more than a few cities and towns. Although they held Hue for several weeks and were entrenched a couple of towns for several days, they were driven off, ultimately, with severe casualties. The general uprising which the communists believed would occur in the cities did not take place. Since the Winter -- Spring Campaign of which Tet is a part was termed, the “General Offensive/General Uprising,” in which the military action is intended to provoke a mass rebellion, the Tet offensive seems to be a failure for the communists in these respects as well.
Colonel General Tran Van Tra admitted in his memories that many mistakes had been made during the Tet Mau Than, or “Tet General Offensive”. There was a lack of coordination between gorilla and main force units, and between the Viet Cong and the PAVN. At the moment the main force units were to join the local force units in the cities to ignite a general uprising, “nothing happened”. Part of the problem for the communists was (Ford Tet 1968: Understanding the Surprise pp 117, 118) that they differed on what the term Tong Cong Kich/Tong Khoi Nghia (“General Offensive/General Uprising”) meant. The southerners interpreted this term, as the westerners did, as a “one shot” blow but what Hanoi meant by TCK/TKN was a process (Ford Tet 1968: Understanding the Surprise p 66). Units were on adjacent streets (in Saigon) but failed to link up and become formidable forces; “the two components of the concept did not fuse. And the general uprising did not happen” (Ford pp 117, 118). On the basis of the above, President Johnson, on 2 February 1968 declared the Tet offensive a “complete failure (for the communists)” (Oberdorfer pp 343, 344).
The Tet Mau Than had been implanting since 1965. It was combined with the concepts of Tong Cong Kich (“General Offensive”) and Tong Khoi Nghia (“General Uprising”). The TCK/TKN was a symbol of passionate expectations long before the Tet offensive (1968), an event which would drive out the foreigners for so much of its history, and leave “Vietnam for the Vietnamese”. It was “the Vietnamese Conclusion to the Peoples War”. Plans for Tet Mau Than evolved over a period of years as the theory of TCK/TKN developed and was refined. (Ford p 116).
The Vietnamese have a long tradition of winning against superior forces. They did not win by numbers but by “superior position.” Psychological and diplomatic factors determine the outcome of the conflict. A “decisive victory” is one whose psychological and diplomatic precipitants determine the whole issue. The military and other actions were motivated by a “social myth,” in Douglas Pike’s words, which is self-fulfilling. In this way, the fact the communists lost a large portion of their attack force during the Tet Mau Than (“Tet General Offensive”) does not matter; the psychological and political consequences were present, and determined that the offensive was a victory (Ford pp 9-11).
It may be said that there are three forms of national contention. These are the purely military efforts of the west, at which America excels; the non-violent movement with which Ghandi and King such awesome results and dau than, or combined military and political struggle, the forte of the Vietnamese communists. The American military vaguely grasped that there was a political aspect to the Vietnamese conflict, but rarely did their operations show they were cognizant of this (Andrew F. Krepinevech, Jr. The Army and Vietnam p 260).
Napoleon is the western paradigm of a general. He maintained that a general’s business is war, and that political matters are secondary (David G. Chandler The Campaigns of Napoleon p. 917). The object of military actions is to win battles. General Douglas MacCarther may have been echoing this doctrine when, in Korea and at odds with civilian authority, he proclaimed there is no substitute for victory. What he may have meant is that only a military victory would settle the outstanding political issues. Westmoreland was certainly no politicians (Ford p 102) His request for 206,000 more troops after proclaiming that Tet was a defeat for the communists, was catastrophic in its timing: it looked, to the American people, like a mammoth contradiction. If he was winning, why did he need more troops? (Oberdorfer pp 348, 349) Communists generals on the other hand are all skilled politicians whose military science is intertwined with Marxist and Maoist theory. They weigh the political effects of any action (Gilbert and Head p 75).
The objective of Tet Mau Than, was a “decisive victory.” However, the offensive would not end the war immediately, rather it would demonstrate to the Americans that the war was a stalemate. By great effort, it could be shown to Washington that the cost of remaining in Vietnam was more than it wanted to pay (Ford p 93). In 1962, Pham Van Dong, a high ranking member of the North Vietnamese politburo, told Bernard Fall, a journalist who saw the issues in southeast Asia with more lucidity than any other westerner of his time, “Americans do not like long inconclusive wars, and this is going to be a long inconclusive war.” The result of the “decisive victory,” which would bring home to America that the war in Vietnam would be long, costly, and essentially pointless was that serious peace talks could begin, and the war would enter a new phase (the phase between fighting and signing an agreement namely Danh vua Dam, “fighting while negotiating” (Ford pp 14, 93). (Communist General Tran Do suggested that a “less ambious name” should have been chosen for the winter-spring offensive so that confusion could have been avoided and better use could have been made of the forces available in South Vietnam (Ford p 116).)
A communist peace contact (code named Buttercup by the Americans) just before Tet, said he wanted some assurance from the Americans that they were serious about peace talks, and named a halt in the bombing of the North as that guarantee. The Americans thought this was the same sort of intransigent they had encountered before. They responded that there must be some sign from Hanoi that it was sincere before the bombing could stop. Actually what Buttercup meant was that when the Americans finally realized that they could not win, and, therefore earnestly sought to withdraw from Vietnam, they would cease bombing the North (Oberdorfer pp 63-64).
On 27 February as the American government anxiously awaited the next communist move, President Lyndon Baines Johnson said in a radio and television broadcast, “there must be no weakening of the will…” but on the same day, in a personal report Walter Cronkite, who had great power over a nationwide TV audience announced that the war was a stalemate. By 20 March, more Americans called themselves “doves” i.e. in favor of peace than “hawks” i.e. in favor of war -- with regard to Vietnam. On 31 March, the day the Tet Offensive ended President Johnson said, “we are prepared to move immediately toward peace…” and announced a partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam (Oberdorfer pp 247, 279, 348, 351).
What caused the turnaround in American public opinion? Partly, a disgusting “credibility gap” had developed. Americans did not, in many cases, believe what their officials, governmental and military, were saying. There was too much optimism on the part of the establishment -- elected officials, generals, etc., and not enough tangible results. The fact that there was a Tet Offensive at all following General Westmoreland’s bright statements of 21 November 1967 was enough to shake people. The news media was not to blame. They only reported what they saw and heard, unless, like Walter Cronkite, they editorialized, in which case they were merely putting into words what people already thought. There was a lot in Tet to editorialize about: the on-camera execution of a Viet Cong suspect by General Loan, chief of police in Saigon. The destruction of the South Vietnamese town of Ben Tre -- the American major there said it was “necessary in order to save it.” America seemed to have abandoned its policy of nation building in favor of all out war. The wasting of the work of art that was Hue -- the list could be expanded. And there was no end in sight (Oberdorfer pp 246, 251).
But what of President Lydon Baines Johnson? He was also defeated by the Tet Offensive. Official Washington was shaken as well. And the American Army in Vietnam? Warrant Officer Arthur Sobey was impressed in June, 1968 with the reality that “…we weren’t winning, we weren’t even trying to win.” (Oberdorfer p 258; Sobey)
It is pointless to cast blame. Twenty years later it seems easier to soberly look in the face of the reality that Tet was a brilliant victory for the communists. They were more clever than we were. They had thought the matter through.
Since it is polite to give the victor the last word, the last words of this paper are those of General Tran Do; “We can endure the hardships of a lengthy war, but they cannot endure the hardships of such a war because they are well to do people.”
Posted on 05 Dec 2007