The Tet Offensive began forty years ago today.
The Year of the Monkey
Nineteen Sixty-Eight was a strange year. First there was Tet or Vietnamese New Years, the occasion for the North Vietnamese offensive. Then I was in the hospital for a week, which was the week of the Martin Luther King riots. I spent the week lying on my back watching the country burn down on TV. Then there was the Democratic Convention. Some said they would disrupt the convention. The Mayor said he was going to protect the right of people to peacefully hold a political convention. It was clear that if you liked to bash in heads for fun or else have your head bashed that was the place to be. I did not care for either so I stayed home. Generally it seemed like rioting was the recreation of choice that year around the world, the tactics and method of the “sixty- eighters,” if not their stated goals, seemed awfully brown shirtish. There seemed to be general mood that year that things were bad and getting worse. The year wasn’t all bad; I escaped (graduated) from high school and went to college.
The War at Home.
This was the height of the Viet Nam war. Going to school in the morning, right in front of our school bus was the Navy ambulance bus taking casualties from the Air Station to the Naval Hospital. I remember sitting on my parent’s sofa watching the news. Not news of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide idiots that every one takes so serious these days, but regular armies maneuvering divisions and engaged in major battles. Two hundred to three hundred US dead a week, week in week out. North Viet Nam was being bombed, but apparently under so many restrictions it was almost usless. There were negotiations about the shape of the peace table if there were ever real peace negotiations. It seemed a Dien Bien Phu II was shaping up at Khe Shan. A truce had been announced by both sides for the Tet holiday, the question being when and where the North Vietnamese would violate it. They violated it everywhere. Saigon, Hue, Dak To, Da Nang, Pleiku all with enemy forces in the city. The US Embassy in Saigon occupied. The walled citadel of Hue, the old Vietnamese Imperial capital, was lost. News coming so fast you couldn’t absorb it. That week, over seven hundred dead. Like Nine Eleven, everyone was sitting glued to the TV watching the bad news. Unlike Nine Eleven no stories of dramatic escapes and heroic rescues.
On the third day the New York news teams got to Viet Nam to report what happened. I remember watching Walter Cronkite in dirty wrinkled fatigues and a dented helmet reporting how serious things were, if we actually survived this battle you knew the war was lost. Statements by military press officers were ridiculed.
This was a shock wave. The net effect of months of watching heavy fighting on television, the staggering scope of the enemy attack, along with a narrative that said we were defeated even if we survived this battle changed the mood of the country. The next few years are only understandable when you realize we were in a state of national “ongoing traumatic stress syndrome.”
US and South Vietnamese forces defended and attacked to no pattern we saw in the media. The Embassy was recaptured. The Battle of Hue dragged on forever. It was agreed to end the negotiations about negations and have negotiations on the same subjects as the negotiations about negotiations. The war seemed to continue as before. Johnson stopped the bombing of North Vietnam not for any gain but because he thought it would help win the 1968 election. Even so Nixon won the 1968 election.
Nixon invaded Cambodia. This resulted in riots in the US that culminated in the Kent State incident. Next Nixon invaded Laos. In 1972 North Vietnamese tanks crossed the border. To read the newspaper headlines or watch the TV news it seemed things were getting worse. A keystone of Nixon’s policy was the Vietnamazation program of upgrading the South Vietnamese Army and tuning things over to the South Vietnamese. The media reported every problem and generally trashed the program. A company went berserk at My Lai and massacred about a hundred people, apparently covered up by the Army. The Special Forces tried to but failed to liberate some POW’s in North Viet Nam. In 1972 the bombing of North Viet Nam was resumed, including this time the ports and Red River Delta. The press and others were frantic; this was an escalation that would bring China into the war.
But then, almost from no place, the 1972 peace agreement was signed. The US and the North Vietnamese agreed to a cease fire and to mutually withdrawal from South Viet Nam. The US was allowed to keep a very finite amount of advisors and promised to come to the aid of South Viet Nam if North Vietnam went back on the agreement. In the press it seemed like a face saving surrender. There was some doubt that the US would keep its promise. (At this point I remember in our first week of Officers Basic they told us that even if we volunteered we could not go to Vietnam, the mock groan of disappointment was overwhelming.)
Nixon cut corners to be sure he won reelection in 1972 against one of the most unelectable Democratic candidates ever. His burglars were caught at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Apartments; the step by step investigations eventually forced him to resign in 1974. But he was politically paralyzed long before that, and his successor was, by default, a seat warmer until the 1976 elections.
In 1975 South Vietnam fell. Congress made it clear we would not keep the promise to come to South Viet Nam’s aid. The first wave of boat people came to the US. The second wave was abandoned at sea. South Vietnam was put under a totalitarian regime that rivaled anything of Hitler, Mao or Stalin. The same for Laos. But this was child play compared to what the Khmer Rouge (Communist Party) did in the killing fields of Cambodia.
Bandaging he Wounds
I think three things aided national reconciliation,
- The Independence Bi-Centennial celebration in 1976. This turned everyone’s attention to something all could agree on or at least use the same words if we didn’t agree.
- Richard Nixon and Watergate. He became the scapegoat for every thing from 1954 to 1975. He was guilty of enough that no one cared if he was being accused of things he didn’t or couldn’t have done. “It’s all Nixon’s fault”, even if it wasn’t, was a statement that allowed people to avoid accusing friends neighbors and relatives of supporting the “wrong” side, whichever side that was.
- And a number of myths about the war grew and were accepted. Often not factual, but allowing people to live together, except when one myth challenged another, or worse, was challenged by facts.
And we went from “ongoing” to “post traumatic stress syndrome.”
The Real War
Some of this was apparent at the time, to a political and military geek such as my self, much I learned later.
In 1959 the North Vietnamese Government ordered the Viet Cong to begin military action to take over South Viet Nam. They used the classic guerilla war pattern of Mao Zedung. They were greatly helped because they had much more resources than normal to start up a guerilla campaign. Much of the prepatory work had been done by the old Viet Minh while fighting the French, there was logistic support from North Vietnamese base areas in Laos and Cambodia, the South Vietnamese government had major problems, really the problems of any third world government, but easy to exploit. By 1965 this campaign had progressed to Mao’s third or mobile phase. The South Vietnamese were in a bind. They had no uncommitted reserves. (I think I remember reading at the time that South Viet Nam has one or two battalions available everything else was committed). And the North Vietnamese were massing a mobile force of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese divisions to finish off their victory. If the South Vietnamese army consolidated forces to defeat the mobile units they would abandon a fatal amount of territory, but leaving their forces disbursed meant their units would be destroyed one at a time by the enemy mobile forces.
The solution was the introduction of US combat units to fight the North Vietnamese mobile forces, and have the South Vietnamese deal with the guerillas. (This was the general plan though there were exceptions, such as the Army Special Forces and the Marine CAP platoons, and token South Vietnamese forces always accompanied large US operations.)
The introduction of US troops put the North Vietnamese generals in a bind. They could not defeat the US Army and Marines in the field. Not that they didn’t try. Through 1965, 1966 and into 1967 they launched a number of operations trying to defeat the US forces. They quickly learned that human wave attacks against fire bases using howitzers as shotguns was suicidal. Sometimes they would win against a small unit but they could never win against a force large enough to advance Mao’s mobile war strategy. All they ended up with was massive amounts of casualties; even the small battles they won were often Pyric victories. They needed to change their strategy.
Their problem was Mao’s theory said they had to capture the county side first before moving into the cities. Prematurely moving into the cities would cut them off from their bases and invite destruction. But they were unable to defeat US forces to take over the countryside. There were two proposals considered, to back off the lower level phases of guerrilla war to wear down the US so it would grow tired and withdraw, or launching a major offensive to dislodge the US forces. They decided to take a long shot gamble on the later.
It was always possible to infiltrate the cities but any thing larger than a patrol that could melt into the population could not survive the counter attack. They decided if they infiltrated enough forces into the cities, launched a surprise attack and captured enough critical points they could survive the counter attack and it would be the US forces that were cut off. They expected that there would be a large response to a call for a popular uprising. Success required they obtain firm control over their critical targets in the first twenty-four hours or so isolating the US forces from their bases.
They obtained the initial surprise. We knew what their doctrine was, we believed it was good doctrine, but we did not realize they were so desperate that they would throw it out on a gamble.
They got into the cities, captured large amounts of space. They got control of civilian areas that had no defense force beyond local police. A call for a general uprising was made. The Viet Cong political officers came out and started to organize a new government and had “counter revolutionaries” rounded up and executed.
Many South Vietnamese and US units were isolated, some destroyed. Support units of all types became infantry to survive. But most held until relived or even counter attacked.
There was no popular uprising. The North Vietnamese captured no critical military bases. The combat units in the field turned around and came back to the cities, made sure the bases were secure and cleared the cities. That sounds so easy, it wasn’t. By the third day it was clear the offensive had failed. The North Vietnamese were still in control of what most of what they had captured, but couldn’t take more and were being attacked. There were still several months of fierce fighting to clear the cities and restore the pre-offensive status.
In many areas the defeat of the offensive resulted in the destruction of the local Viet Cong infrastructure. Many Viet Cong units joined the offensive and were lost or seriously damaged. After a few months when units with the name and number of a Viet Cong unit rejoined the fight it was almost exclusively staffed with North Vietnamese. When the local Viet Cong political cadres outed themselves to set up a new government their identities became common knowledge. Killing the counter revolutionaries left a lot of people who wanted revenge for dead relatives and friends. They were known and easy target for Operation Phoenix. In many places vigilantes acting on their own killed them. The Viet Cong’s local political organization never recovered though it took a long time exploit this.
The Vietnamazation program, which really should have started earlier, meant pulling units off line giving them a rest, new equipment, time to train and develop confidence. When it went back on line it was a much better trained, equipped and confident force. They were able to slowly gain control over larger areas of the countryside on their own. By 1972 guerilla activity had ceased to be a major problem in much of South Viet Nam. (I read a news report that in parts of the Mekong delta the per capita rate of guerilla attacks was about the same as the pre-WWII per capita rate of criminal activity.) Aggressive large operations such as the border crossings gradually reduced the North Vietnamese Armies ability to conduct large scale operations in South Viet Nam. When the North Vietnamese crossed the DMZ in a tank assault in 1972 it was the South Vietnamese Army that stopped them.
US units were being withdrawn. Because of the individual replacement policy there were very few unit homecomings to make this visible in the US. A unit was deactivated in place it’s people redistributed and that many replacements were not sent. By 1972 most US combat troops were gone.
Ending the War
So long as North Viet Nam could they would continue to send its armed forces to south to capture South Viet Nam. Attacking North Viet Nam involved risks of escalating the war by bringing in China or Russia to help North Viet Nam. This was a real risk though it probably played larger in Washington’s mind than was the real case. How to convince them? Negotiations by themselves would not do it. Their first and last fallback negotiating position was that they would get complete control of all Viet Nam. Invasion and regime change of North Viet Nam (to use the current term) was politically impossible in the US political situation. Bombing risked intervention and excessive political fallout if not successful in a short period of time.
Nixon’s National Security Advisor (and later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger had a plan.
The first part was for the vigorous prosecution of the war in South Viet, as well as destroying bases in sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos.
The second was Vietnamazation program to turn the war back to South Viet Nam. This would allow the US to leave at some point.
Third was to give both China and Russia a reason not to intervene if bombing in the North was resumed.
Fourth was to launch a bombing campaign that would make North Viet Nam agree to stop the war in the South.
While it wasn’t obvious in the news Russia and China did not get along. In 1969 they even had a large border fight in Manchuria. China refused to let Russia transship to North Viet Nam across Chinese territory. Most of the equipment that North Viet Nam needed to support the war came from Russia and was unloaded at the port of Hiaphong. China was only able to provide basic infantry weapons and a large manpower pool if they intervened, which North Viet Nam probably did not want because they could not be sure it go away after the war. This was an opportunity. If a strategic bombing program could close Hiaphong Harbor and hit other high value targets, North Viet Nam would not get the weapons it needed to prosecute the war, or maintain a basic economy, and possibly stay in power.
Kissinger opened a diplomatic campaign to make both Russia and China feel they had more to lose by interviewing to support North Viet Nam than if they just left it to it’s own devices. To the Russians he opened a softening of détente including signing the ABM and SALT weapons reduction treaties. To China he offered diplomatic recognition and opening of trade relations. President Nixon’s famous visit to China in 1972, was part of this campaign.
The strategic bombing campaign was started. It closed Haiphong Harbor. Bridges on major highways were destroyed. North Viet Nam had to agree to withdraw in order for their government to survive. But it did not change their goal of taking over the South.
An agreement was signed. POW’s came home. Both sides withdrew. South Viet Nam started to recover from the war. North Viet Nam rebuilt it’s Army. In 1975 they attacked with fourteen divisions from Cambia, Laos, and North Viet Nam. South Viet Nam asked the US for air support, the request was denied despite our promise in the peace agreement. This caused the South Vietnamese Government to panic, and the war was lost. The general opinion is that South Viet Nam could have held with air support and quite possibly without it if they had not panicked.
Negotiations had started early in the war. They preliminary negotiations stalled. The North Vietnamese insisted that they and the Viet Cong be separate parties and negotiate with US only. Accepting this would deny that the US was helping a sovereign government against foreign attack. The US insisted that the US and South Viet Nam be separate parities and negotiate with North Viet Nam only. Accepting this would deny that the Viet Cong was an indigenous uprising. Every so often one side would make a proposal that the other found unacceptable, which had an annexed diagram for a table, about the least important part of the proposal. The press only reported on the shape of the table. (After the war North Viet Nam’s military published in their professional journals a number of “how we won articles” that make it clear that the Viet Cong was always an instrument of North Vietnamese policy and never an indigenous movement or independent organization.) After the Tet offensive President Johnson to proposed a plan that sidestepped the issue by ignoring it, thus doing nothing to advance the negotiations or produce peace; and got the North Vietnamese to agree to the proposal by stopping the bombing. Both of which Johnson also believed would help a in the 1968 elections.
The Cold War stand off with the Soviet Union resulted in a de facto policy of what was called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) though it always seemed to me that something like Massively Asinine Dumbness would be a better name. A central concern was to prevent an escalation of violence to the point where nuclear weapons were used. This concern had a major impact on US military policy during the war. On one hand President Johnson considered a withdrawal or defeat as politically unacceptable. On the other hand the question he asked was how to prevent escalation, not how to end the thing. As a result the Johnson kept the war in “maintenance mode” with no purpose or end in sight. Maybe earlier in the war there was no way to end it without unacceptable escalation, maybe not, but the “no escalation” groupthink prevented serious consideration of how to end the war.
The press’s “investigative reporting” of the My Lai massacre broke the story two weeks after an Article 32 board returned an indictment. Article 32 Board are open hearings, normally that would follow an investigation that would take at least a year. It developed that there had been a few small incidents like this, the Army and Marines investigating and prosecuting whenever there was evidence to convict. The press usually knew about these but did not report them until after the My Lai incident.
Unlike most of today’s news persons, the main news teams in New York had been covering wars since WWII and were usually pretty good military analysts in their own right. In addition to his confidence building style Walter Cronkite of CBS news was one of the best. It is hard to imagine when he made that report from a studio in Saigon, with borrowed fatigues and helmet that he did not understand the actual situation.
Thousands of Vietnamese “boat People” came the US at the fall of South Viet Nam. (Many got on boats and sailed to US ships thus the term.) Later, in response to the communists “reeducation” polices there was a mass emigration from Viet Nam by boat, it was clear if the President ordered the navy to pick them up he would have major confrontation in Congress he could not win, so the Navy was ordered not pick them up, even if the boat was not seaworthy and sinking.
At a conference after the war a (North) Vietnamese Colonel was asked about the North Vietnamese Army never wining a significant battle against the US military. He responded
I wanted to add some more links and hypertext the main post, but
that day that dreaded day
is here. These will have to do.
Hanks Eclectic Meanderings
Maothought or Who is Winning
My summery of Mao’s three phase guerilla war theory.
Viet Nam War
The TET ’68 Offensive
MORE ABOUT THE 1968 TET OFFENSIVE
THE HANOI'S 300,000 MIA'S
Why We Lost South Vietnam?
National Congress of Vietnamese Americans
Some Vietnam War Issues Revisited: The Role Played By ARVN
Digger History (The Tet Offensive 1968)
BBC report 31 January 1968
CNN: Interview with General Giap
Tran Van Tra's comments on Tet '68
How North Vietnam Won The War
US Army Center for Military History Published material – Viet Nam
Named Campaigns Viet Nam
AMERICAN MILITARY HISTORY VOLUME II THE UNITED STATES ARMY IN A GLOBAL ERA, 1917-2003
Chapter 10. THE U.S. ARMY IN VIETNAM: BACKGROUND, BUILDUP, AND OPERATIONS, 1950-1967
Chapter 11 THE U.S. ARMY IN VIETNAM: FROM TET TO THE FINAL WITHDRAWAL, 1968-1975
VIETNAM STUDIES RIVERINE OPERATIONS 1966-1969
Chapter 9 Tet Offensive of 1968 and U.S. Reaction
Who Owns the Viet Nam War
The History Place
Time line thru 1968
Time line from 1969
International Socialist Review
Tet: Turning point in the Vietnam War
6 months ago