Forty years ago this month, on January 30-31, 1968, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regular army forces launched the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces and officialdom, and the U.S. public at home, were taken almost completely by surprise.
As the battles played out in South Vietnam and on television and in newspaper columns across the U.S., a profound shift took place in the American attitude toward the war. Defeated on the battlefield, the enemy won a propaganda victory of enormous importance. Because of Tet, the administration of Lyndon Johnson chose to scale back U.S. involvement in the war. The “Big Push” of 1966-67 was replaced on the American side by the beginnings of “Vietnamization,” a policy formalized under President Richard Nixon in 1969. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese found that their gamble had paid off – not militarily, for they had been badly beaten in the field – but psychologically, in that they had dealt a decisive blow to the American psyche. Victory in the field followed seven years later.
U.S. involvement in Indochina began during the Second World War. While President Franklin Roosevelt favored trusteeship under UN auspices to the restoration of French colonial rule, in typical FDR fashion he put off any formal decision until the end of the war in the Pacific. With his death, U.S. policy became more pro-French. While still favoring eventual independence for the region, Washington allowed its relationship with France to dictate the pace of events.2
The First Indochina War between France and the Communist Viet Minh (led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap) began in late 1946. U.s. involvement in the war was minimal until the outbreak of fighting in Korea in 1950. At that point, the U.s. dispatched a military mission and began subsidizing the French war effort. By 1953, the U.S. was pay- ing over half the cost of the war.3
The defeat at Dien Bien Phu (1954) spelled the end of French military power in Indochina. The U.S. came close to intervening with both combat airpower and ground troops at that time, but eventually agreed to a negotiated settlement at Geneva. This gave the Viet Minh control over Vietnam north of the 17th parallel. Ironically, it now appears that had the u.s. gone to war in 1954, the Viet Minh would have been completely defeated.
As it was, the U.S., in the name of worldwide anticommunism, took on South Vietnam as a client state. The North Vietnamese, after a period of recuperation, activated the National Liberation Front (NLF), called by Americans the Viet Congo It was composed of cadres left behind in the South in 1954, plus new recruits. By 1960, a new war had begun for control of South Vietnam, pitting the Viet Cong against the American-supported forces of Ngo Dinh Diem, the “George Washington of Asia.”
Diem was not simply an American puppet. His over- throw (at U.S. instigation) and murder in 1963 placed South Vietnam squarely in America’s lap. This was one of the Kennedy Administration’s greatest blunders. Diem’s death made a face-saving withdrawal or negotiated settlement much more difficult to achieve.
Nevertheless, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, probably could have negotiated his way out of Vietnam. For reasons that remain unclear to this day, he chose not to do so.
In 1964-65, events approached a crisis. With the Viet Cong moving from strength to strength throughout the country, and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infiltrating its first troops, it became apparent that South Vietnam could not long survive without a major U.S. military intervention.
By spring, 1965, South Vietnam was on the edge of the precipice. The U.S. had already begun bombing the North in February. In June-July, the final decisions were made to Americanize the war, and U.S. combat units began to pour into the South.
The American Army and Marine Corps that entered South Vietnam in 1965 represented one of the finest instruments of war ever honed, comparable to the Roman legions, Napoleon’s veterans, and the elder Motke’s Prussians. If this force had an Achilles’ heel, it was in the officer corps, specifically the generals and senior colonels who formed its leadership.
The great majority of these officers possessed a conventional outlook, wedded to a degree of hubris. In the American Army of that da)’, such an attitude was virtually required for
The Americans were to find that this enemy was every bit as brave as they were. In addition, he was fighting on his own soil.
promotion to senior rank. What these men knew, they knew well. What they did not know, they had not yet begun to suspect existed. Exhaustively trained and technically competent, they nevertheless lacked the “feel” for events that is the hallmark of great leaders. They stood at the pinnacle of the military arm of the greatest power in history. To put it another way, they were ripe for a fall.
Gen. William Westmoreland commanded the American forces in South Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. “Westy” epitomized the American general of his time. One author aptly termed him “the inevitable general.”
Westmoreland managed the troop buildup in 1965 and early 1966 superbly. His forces prevented the Viet Cong-NVA forces from overrunning the country. From spring 1966, he
As early as the fall of 1966, McNamara had privately opposed further escalation. Now he had forfeited Johnson’s confidence, and on the eve of Tet departed the administration to become president of the World Bank.
planned to defeat the enemy by employing a conventional strategy of attrition. In this at least he resembled his famous predecessors Grant and Eisenhower.
But Vietnam was a fight more political than military in nature. Moreover, in its purely military aspect the ground to be fought over was most unsuitable for the application of attrition tactics. The Viet Cong were, for the most part, close to or among the civilian population. The NVA was based in the remote countryside, which consisted of triple canopy jungle and rugged mountain ranges. Westmoreland’s strategy required that American troops be sent into these areas to find and destroy the enemy forces. The Americans were to find that this enemy was every bit as brave as they were. In addition, he was fighting on his own soil.
During 1966-67, Westmoreland carried out a series of large-scale, tactically successful operations with uninspiring code names like “Attleboro” and “Junction City.” Again and again, U.S. forces killed large numbers of the enemy. Territory gained, however, remained under U.S. or South Vietnamese control only so long as Allied troops stood on that ground. Once they departed, the enemy was free to return. The North Vietnamese, despite their heavy casualties, were perfectly capable of replacing the losses they suffered.
By 1967, both sides were feeling the strain. The American people were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with a situation that looked more and more like a stalemate. The North Vietnamese, despite their ability to stay in the fight (with Soviet and Chinese aid) so long as the U.S. effort remained short of total war, were nevertheless finding the conflict increasingly burdensome. The two sides responded to this situation in radically different ways. Their responses were to determine the eventual outcome of the war.
On the American side, President Johnson refused to escalate the war to a point beyond North Vietnam’s capacity to endure. Characteristically, he chose instead to shore up the home front with a PR campaign. He ordered the American commander in Vietnam home to rally the Congress and the people once more to the cause.
Westmoreland addressed a joint session of Congress on April 28, 1967. For the first time in American history, a commander in the field spoke to Congress while the war he directed was raging. The general’s firm jaw and military bearing carried the day as he proclaimed, “We will prevail in Vietnam over the Communist aggressor.” Congressional applause was deafening.
The effect of Westmoreland’s oratory soon wore off. Heavy fighting continued throughout the summer and autumn, with heavy U.S. casualties and no discernible progress toward victory. Both hawks and doves were dissatisfied. In August, the Senate Armed Services Committee convened hearings whose main purpose was to persuade the administration to intensify the bombing of North Vietnam. During his testimony, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara left the impression that the war was unwinnable. As early as the fall of 1966, McNamara had privately opposed further escalation. Now he had forfeited Johnson’s confidence ,and on the eve of Tet departed the administration to become president of the World Bank. Nor was he the first to leave. Johnson had already lost such key advisers as McGeorge Bundy, George Ball, and Bill Moyers.
While the Johnson administration was losing cohesion, the social fabric of the nation was beginning to unravel. The antiwar movement was spreading and becoming radicalized. On October 21, 50,000 people marched on the Pentagon. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, clashes occurred between student protesters and police – the first violent episode of the student revolt that was to engulf campuses nationwide in coming years.16 Antiwar sentiment was grow- ing in Middle America, though still reflecting more a frustration with lack of progress on the battlefield than a rejection of the war per se. Racial conflict, which many Americans had hoped would subside with passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), was becoming increasingly violent. The ghettos of Los Angeles, Newark, and Detroit had already exploded, requiring in Detroit’s case the intervention of the 82nd Airborne Division to quell the rioting. Inflation was heating up, the effect of the Johnson administration’s obfuscations about the cost of the war, and the resulting failure to finance it properly.
The social crisis was further inflamed by the character and appearance of the man who led the nation. No one who has studied Lyndon Johnson objectively can avoid the conclusion that he was a liar, a coward, and a bully. Despite the legislative achievements of his first 18 months in office, he failed to gain the affection or respect of most of the American people. He, more than any other individual, was responsible for the notorious”credibility gap” that was straining traditional ties between government and the media, and between government and the average citizen. The dichotomy between government pronouncements and events in Indochina – heightened by the reportage beamed nightly via satellite into living rooms across the nation – was by late 1967 becoming increasingly obvious. Johnson bore the primary responsibility for this, though Westmoreland’s headquarters in Saigon came a close second.
At this point, Westmoreland was called to Washington again. After briefing the White House and members of Congress, he spoke at the National Press Club on November. Here he stated, “We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.” He went on to say that Viet Cong strength in South Vietnam was”declining at a steady rate.” Within two years or less, he asserted, the beginning of a turnover of responsibility to the South Vietnamese was foreseeable. The next day’s Washington Post lead story was headlined, “War’s End in View, Says Westmoreland.”
Westmoreland’s words would soon come back to haunt him. For the enemy had prepared a riposte of great boldness and breathtaking scope.
The Other Side of the Hill
A general Viet Cong-NVA offensive in South Vietnam was first mooted within the North Vietnamese leadership at the end of 1965. In January 1967 General Nguyen Chi Thanh, the top Communist commander in South Vietnam, proposed what became the Tet Offensive. Thanh was killed in a U.S. bombing raid the following July, but in that same month the North Vietnamese Politburo sanctioned the “General Offensive and General Uprising” that was designed to win the war.
Whether the North Vietnamese leadership actually believed the offensive would result in military victory is unknown. Vietnam has not opened the relevant archives to scholars. Naturally those who were to carry out the offensive were told it would bring victory. Whether the leadership believed this must be doubted, though the Communist propensity for. self-deception should not be discounted. Certainly, the timing of the offensive points to an attempt to produce the maximum political effect in the United States during an election year.
Additionally, the Vietnamese Communists saw the offensive as a means of relieving pressure on their own forces, locked as these were in an ongoing struggle of attrition with the Americans. Westmoreland’s troop strength and fire- power were still growing in 1967, and his forces had for the most part held the initiative since the late summer of 1966. Most worrisome from the Communist point of view, the Viet Cong’s base of support in the countryside was being eroded by the flight of many peasants to the relative safety of the cities.
The Communist conception was for an offensive in three stages. First, they would launch preliminary attacks in remote areas, to lure U.S. forces away from South Vietnam’s cities. In
No one who has studied Lyndon Johnson objectively can avoid the conclusion that he was a liar, a coward, and a bully.
the second. stage, the Viet Cong, aided by the NVA, would attack the cities. It was hoped that this would lead to a popular uprising against the South Vietnamese government and the Americans, with the South Vietnamese armed forces (or large parts of them) switching sides to join the attackers. If the second stage succeeded, it was planned to deliver the coup de grace by a direct invasion of the South from the North.
Such was the plan. N-Day (equivalent to D-Day in the Vietnamese language) was fixed for Tet (the Vietnamese lunar New Year and the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar), which was to begin on January 31, 1968.
On the Eve of Tet
Preparations for the offensive were thorough and efficient – remarkably so, given the Communists’ primitive logistical base. Secrecy was maintained right up until N-Day.
Once convinced that a major Communist offensive was imminent, Westmoreland still failed to sound the alarm publicly. As a result, the psychological effect of Tet was considerably greater than it would otherwise have been.
Nevertheless, there were indications of what was to come. At the end of October, the Viet Cong attacked the district capital of Loc Ninh. Rather than making a hit-and-run raid, they tried to take and hold the town, a tactic they had previously avoided. In November, the NVA undertook a major operation at Dak To, near the point where the borders of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia met. An NVA document captured during the battle seemed to indicate a changeover to more conventional infantry tactics. Westmoreland refused to place any significance in this.
An increase in enemy activity throughout South Vietnam was discernible, at least to U.S. soldiers and officials who had their ears to the ground. These did not include Westmoreland and his staff, or Johnson’s military and civilian advisers in Washington. In late November, the CIA’s Saigon station put out a paper on the indications of a change in Communist strategy. Westmoreland’s HQ vigorously disputed the CIA’s interpretation, maintaining instead that the enemy’s strength was waning.
In mid-December, the U.S. command turned over responsibility for the defense of Saigon to the South Vietnamese Army. As part of its strategy for 1968, it planned to deploy some three-quarters of its forces in the III Corps Tactical Zone (south-central South Vietnam, including Saigon) away from the towns to defeat the enemy in the distant countryside. This was exactly what the enemy was hoping the Americans would do.
One high-ranking American officer was not fooled. He was the commander of U.S. forces in III Corps, Gen. Frederick Weyand. Weyand, a former chief of Army Intelligence, had become alarmed by such intelligence as there was indicating enemy interest in Saigon. He voiced his concerns to Westmoreland in a face-to-face meeting on January 10.
Since the middle of December, Westmoreland had come round to the idea of a major Communist offensive, though not one aimed specifically at the cities. After his meeting with Weyand, he gave orders for U.S. troops to move back closer to the populated areas. Had this not been done, Tet might have proved a military disaster on a scale not experienced by U.S. forces since the Chinese hordes crossed the Yalu in Korea in 1950.
Westmoreland and his J-2 (staff officer responsible for intelligence) briefed the U.S. mission in Saigon on January 15. Westmoreland was now convinced that a major Communist offensive was imminent, though he still did not believe it would be directed against the cities. In any case, he failed to sound the alarm publicly. As a result, the psychological effect of Tet on the U.S. public and officialdom was to be considerably greater than it would otherwise have been.
In early January, the North Vietnamese began massing forces near the Marine firebase at Khe Sanh, near the Laotian border. The specter of Dien Bien Phu suddenly gripped President Johnson and his advisers. But their focus on the big picture remained blurred; they were, for all intents and purposes, oblivious to what the enemy had in store. (Their attention was further diverted by the North Korean seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo on January 23.)
The Battle Is Joined
The enemy’s offensive began in the early hours of January 30, due to a mix-up caused by North Vietnam’s recent introduction of a new lunar calendar. The offensive began with attacks on seven towns in northern South Vietnam, includ- ing Nha Trang, Da Nang, and Pleiku. On the 31st the storm truly broke. Attacks were launched from the Demilitarized Zone in the north to the Mekong Delta and beyond. All told, Communist forces struck at 36 of 44 provincial capitals and 64 of 242 district capitals. Most spectacularly, they assaulted Saigon itself, the national capital and nerve center of the Allied war effort. A squad of Viet Cong soldiers briefly penetrated the U.S. embassy compound – an insignificant event from the military point of view, but one that had an immediate and profound psychological impact in America.
An observer versed in military affairs should have known almost immediately that with this offensive the enemy had committed an enormous blunder. While the attacks were boldly conceived and well coordinated, the Communists had exposed the cream of their forces to the overwhelming fire- power and superior mobility of the Americans. The American forces, which had spent most of the previous two and one- half years chasing the enemy through jungles, now had him in their gun sights. A great slaughter followed.
This is not to say that the battle was entirely one-sided. The enemy had achieved tactical surprise, and his troops fought and died with great bravery. American casualties were heavy – some 500 per week killed during the height of the fight- ing – and bitter, drawn-out battles occurred, particularly at Hue (the old Vietnamese imperial capital), which took weeks to clear. Nevertheless, it was soon obvious that the offensive was a failure. Notably, the South Vietnamese civilian population and armed forces made no move to join the attackers.
The battles of Tet were over by early March. Despite enormous casualties, the Communists conducted fresh offensives in May and September. These too failed. The Viet Cong never recovered from Tet and the succeeding offensives. They could not make good their losses, particularly among experienced cadres. Essentially, the war against the Viet Cong was won in 1968.44 This U.S. victory was, however, a Pyrrhic one. For at home Tet was perceived as a U.S. defeat.
The American Reaction: Collapse of the Home Front
The shock wave of Tet hit the American home front almost as hard as Pearl Harbor. The public had been told that we were winning, that month by month the enemy was losing strength. Tet gave the lie to the claims of the president and his advisers. Westmoreland now paid the price for his earlier optimism, and for his failure to sound the alarm bell publicly in the days before the enemy’s offensive opened.
The Johnson administration and the U.s. military unquestionably bore primary responsibility for the shock and revulsion felt by the U.S. public over Tet. For years, they had misrepresented the causes, progress, and objectives of the war. Now the trust between government and the governed was broken; the credibility gap became a chasm. The tremendous military defeat suffered by the enemy simply did not register in such an atmosphere.
That said, the role played by the media both before and after Tet was highly deleterious. Despite some doubts about the conduct of the war, the major newspapers and television networks had generally toed the government line on Vietnam. Blindsided by Tet, they now turned with a vengeance on the administration and Westmoreland. They neglected to look inward and analyze their own mistakes. Worse, they failed to report accurately what was happening on the battlefield.
Two events epitomized the media’s failure. First was the absurd coverage given to the penetration of the U.S. embassy grounds in Saigon by a few Viet Cong. Militarily, this event lacked even tactical significance, but for the media it symbolized the hollowness of the administration’s pre-Tet claims. It received tremendous coverage during the first crucial hours
An increase in enemy activity throughout South Vietnam was discernible to U.S. soldiers and officials who had their ears to the ground. These did not include Westmoreland and his staff, or Johnson’s military and civilian advisers in Washington.
and days of the battle. It dominated both television and newspaper coverage – rivaled only by graphic pictures of the South Vietnamese national police chief publicly executing a man suspected of being a VC. The larger and far more important events of Tet were, by comparison, either downplayed or misinterpreted. Context, to say the least, was missing.
Visiting the scene after the clearing of the embassy grounds, Westmoreland spoke of the battle in general as an enemy defeat. He was correct – but the correspondents to whom he addressed his remarks weren’t buying it. This moment, captured on film, cost Westmoreland what credibility he still had with the press corps and the public.
The second event occurred in late February. The passage of a few weeks had not caused the media to pause and reflect. Now”the most trusted man in America” .set a seal on the prevailing view of Tet as a defeat.
In 1968, the anchor of the CBS Evening News was Walter Cronkite. He was a veteran journalist who had seen war at first hand. Like most of his professional brethren, he had sup- ported the war before Tet. His reporting from Vietnam in 1965 had done much to calm the public’s nervousness about a land war in Asia. During Tet, he returned to Vietnam for another look. He came back to the States to host a CBS News special on the crisis.
At the close of this program, Cronkite chose to editorialize. His “personal assessment” of the situation was highly colored and failed to reflect the reality on the battlefield. No mention was made of American successes or the enemy’s heavy losses.
This was perhaps the most irresponsible piece of journal- ism ever printed or broadcast by an American of influence. A journalist held almost in awe by much of the nation took it upon himself to declare a war stalemated and negotiations with the enemy a necessity, based on a few days of personal observation of the situation.·It was the most powerful of the blows that were being delivered by the media against the U.S. war effort (in what amounted to a veritable “treason of the clerks”).
Johnson’s press secretary, George Christian, later remarked that when Cronkite changed on the war “the shock waves rolled through the government.” “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country,” LBJ was said to have remarked.
At this moment (March 1968), a U.S. victory in Vietnam was still possible. The enemy had been badly beaten in the first major, semi-open fighting of the war. According to text- book strategy, the time was ripe for a knockout blow. The enemy had been weakened; he must not be given the opportunity to recover. A renewal of U.S. offensive operations on the ground in South Vietnam, combined with an intensified air campaign against the North, might have achieved vic- tory or at least peace on terms similar to those obtained by Richard Nixon in 1973.
It was not to be. Westmoreland wanted to clean up the situation left by Tet and then regain the initiative through offensive operations. To do this he requested an additional 206,000 troops, which would have brought his strength up to almost three-quarters of a million men.
Johnson hesitated. He called upon his new Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, to undertake a complete review of Vietnam policy. Clifford, who had never believed in the policy, swiftly quashed the idea of a big troop increase. Johnson, after mulling the situation for a few weeks, on Mar. 31 announced a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam above the 20th parallel. He also called for negotiations to end the war. Westmoreland was given a token reinforcement of 24,500 men – the last troop increase of the war.54 In the same speech, Johnson withdrew as a candidate for reelection to the presidency. The final chance to win the war was gone. Tet had ultimately paid off in a big way for the Vietnamese Communists.
Why did the nation fail to rally behind the war effort after Tet, as it had after Pearl Harbor? As already mentioned, it felt betrayed by the Johnson administration. Despite the government’s claims, the war, it seemed, had been going badly all along. What point could there be in pouring more resources into a losing cause? The media, which in different circumstances might have led public opinion back to support for the war, instead did the opposite. It allowed its resentment of the administration to influence its reporting and analysis of events. At no point during or after Tet did it undertake an objective assessment of the military situation in Vietnam (it had similarly failed to do so when we were “winning”).
Even more fundamental was the fact that Vietnam was a luxury war, not one that truly involved the national interest. This being so, it should never have been fought – or, if the nation’s leadership was determined to fight, then overwhelm- ing force should have been used from the start, in order to achieve a quick victory. It was sheer nonsense to believe that the citizenry would stand for a prolonged stalemate against a fourth-rate power, while American boys bled and died in the thousands. The lesson of the last two years of Korea was plain.
Johnson and his advisers saw the Cuban Missile Crisis as the template for Vietnam. Their view was that modulated responses, the prudent application of U.S. power, would bring the desired result. They could not have been more wrong. The American people, and above all the peoples of Indochina, suffered terribly for their misjudgment.
Tet was a landmark in the decline of Western power and prestige in Asia, on a level with the fall of Singapore (1942) and Dien Bien Phu. It can also be said to mark the ebb of America’s westward expansion, which, far from ending at the Pacific, reached out across that ocean to Hawaii and the Philippines, and then to the rim of Asia in the war of 1941- 45 against Japan. Victory in Vietnam would have established the American military permanently on the Asian mainland at Cam Ranh Ba)’, and given U.S. oil companies unfettered access to the rich deposits of the South China Sea. Whether this might have led eventually to an even bigger war with China is impossible to say. Perhaps our “defeat” at Tet was a blessing in disguise, after all.