war on the rocks

The Importance of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive

January 29, 2018

For Le Duan, the Hanoi Politburo’s first secretary, a major battlefield success in 1968 promised a great deal. Decisive victory would break a stalemated war in South Vietnam. It would force the Americans into negotiations. It would compel the United States to withdraw its troops. A decisive military victory would lead to unification and true Vietnamese independence.

Le Duan’s hopes in late 1967 and early 1968 offer us important perspective on strategy — at its core, strategy is an aspirational art. If we consider Colin Gray’s definition of strategy as the “bridge that relates military power to political purpose,” then those crafting strategy must consider whether or not the goals they outline are, in fact, attainable. A strategist might be able to calculate, rather precisely, the resources available, but setting overarching goals requires delineating certain expectations. And far too often in the planning process, those expectations are based on unexamined or unrealistic assumptions rather than considered reasoning.

Nowhere was this truer than during the 1968 Tet offensive. In late January, beginning on the most sacred of Vietnamese holidays, communist forces launched a sweeping assault across the breadth of South Vietnam. The offensive shook the American military command and, perhaps more importantly, the American home front. And while Le Duan hardly achieved the decisive victory he so desperately wanted, Tet quickly came to symbolize something larger than the fighting it inspired.

The episode has attained near mythical status as the turning point of America’s long war in Vietnam. Some seeking lessons from that conflict saw Tet as a fateful lost opportunity to “convert military success into meaningful political gain.” Esteemed historian George Herring, for his part, goes further, arguing that Tet “represented the high-water mark of post-World War II American hegemony, that point at which the nation’s establishment came to recognize that its international commitments had begun to exceed its ability to pay for them.”

Fifty years on, what should we make of Tet? What perspective can we can gain from studying one of the most consequential moments of the entire American war in Vietnam? While most critics, especially military officers, tended to paint the Tet offensive as a military victory turned political defeat, it seems more useful to consider this chapter of the war as a strategic tutorial on flawed assumptions among American and North Vietnamese leaders and commanders. At its core, the 1968 Tet offensive, from all sides, remains a profound case study on misplaced expectations about how war unfolds and what it promises.

Distorted Assumptions in Washington, MACV, and Hanoi

The offensive that Hanoi’s leaders launched in late January 1968 resulted from the estimation — shared by nearly all observers in mid-1967, Americans and Vietnamese — that the war in South Vietnam was stalemated. On the American side, this realization led to a purposeful campaign by the Johnson White House to publicize wartime progress. Some senior officers later argued that Gen. William Westmoreland, head of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), was “being used for political purposes.” In any event, the general dutifully played his part in a nation-wide propaganda campaign that year. For example, in a November 1967 speech to the National Press Club, Westmoreland pronounced “We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.”

Such public optimism overshadowed not only the difficulties that still lay ahead in Vietnam, but the comprehensiveness of Westmoreland’s campaign plans for 1968. The general aimed to fuse military operations with pacification (a mission of “paramount importance”) in hopes of expanding Saigon’s political control across the South Vietnamese countryside. As 1967 came to a close, however, there was another worry. The enemy might attempt a major offensive to break the ongoing stalemate.

In fact, Le Duan had planned for just that — a “general offensive” by communist fighting forces to gain a “decisive victory” over the “puppet regime’s” army to be followed — inevitably, in Le Duan’s mind — by a “general uprising” of the common people to topple the Saigon government. In a letter to southern comrades just before the Tet holiday, he painted South Vietnam and its allies as consumed by “internal contradictions,” their troops’ “morale sagging,” and their soldiers “encircled by our people’s armed and political forces.” But Le Duan’s optimism proved even less justified than Westmoreland’s.

Without question, Saigon’s government continued to wrestle with lasting social and political tensions. Many among the rural population remained committed to the communist cause. Corruption and faulty leadership still plagued the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) in 1968 as they had in 1966 and 1963. And allied military operations most certainly were tearing at the very fabric of South Vietnam’s social order — to the evident benefit of communist propagandists and political cadres. Yet Hanoi’s assumptions misread the reality of a political community whose fortunes had improved, if only ever so slightly, in the aftermath of the 1967 presidential elections. Saigon was hardly the lifeless puppet that communist propagandists painted it to be.

If Hanoi was deceived by Saigon’s apparent political instability, its Politburo leaders engaged in their own form of deception. For a “general offensive-general uprising” to succeed in the South’s urban areas, U.S. troops had to be pulled away from the cities. Thus, in late 1967, large North Vietnamese army (NVA) units sought to engage U.S. forces in battle in the Central Highlands and along the borders of South Vietnam’s northernmost provinces, drawing the most capable allied formations away from the major population centers in the south.

Westmoreland welcomed the news. It allowed him to exploit American advantages in firepower away from populated areas, while hopefully limiting the enemy’s access to the people. As the general later recalled, these border battles seemed “the most logical course for the enemy.” While Westmoreland clearly saw the war as more than just pitched battles, to him and his staff, the NVA only had the capacity to threaten the northern provinces of I Corps.

Yet MACV’s assumptions proved mistaken. True, the enemy had targeted provinces adjacent to North Vietnam and his own staging areas in Laos. And Westmoreland certainly could not allow massed NVA units to roam the border areas unchecked without putting the population in harm’s way. But the American command had engaged in a form of mirror-imaging. Its leaders and intelligence analysts were making assumptions about the enemy based on the belief that the communists thought and thus behaved like the Americans themselves. But Hanoi’s strategic objectives actually lay elsewhere.

The siege of the Marine base at Khe Sanh only solidified MACV’s faulty belief that allied positions along the demilitarized zone were Hanoi’s real target. Westmoreland’s intelligence chief later noted Khe Sanh’s “deceptive similarity to Dien Bien Phu,” the French garrison overrun at the close of the French-Indochina War. (The White House drew similar parallels.) But there was more to the flawed intelligence picture.

As Edwin Moïse recently has argued, MACV seriously underestimated enemy capabilities, especially those of the insurgent forces operating inside South Vietnam. Throughout the latter part of 1967, MACV headquarters and the CIA battled over enemy strength estimates, with the military headquarters reaching more bullish conclusions about enemy attrition than the intelligence analysts had. If Westmoreland did not actually lie about his evaluations, according to Moïse, he also “did not realize that the intelligence estimates were being massively biased to fit his expressed preferences.” In short, political pressure to demonstrate progress was infecting intelligence assessments — and thus affecting strategic planning.

With the Tet holiday nearing, Hanoi similarly saw what it wanted to see when it looked southward. A mid-January 1968 resolution suggested that “millions of the masses are seething with revolutionary spirit and are ready to rise up.” Communist forces apparently had the “initiative throughout the entire battlefield” and, politically, the Americans and South Vietnamese had “sunk into a serious and complete crisis.” As the resolution declared, a general offensive combined with a general uprising would “secure a decisive victory for our side.”

The offensive unleashed across the expanse of South Vietnam in late January clearly exceeded the expectations of Westmoreland’s command. NVA regulars and National Liberation Front insurgents — dubbed the “Vietcong” — struck 36 provincial capitals, the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and the six largest cities in South Vietnam. Yet the coordination of such an ambitious nationwide offensive misfired and some units attacked a day early, providing MACV with a crucial warning of the impending assault.

Still, the offensive brought destruction to areas previously unscathed by war. While the attack on the U.S. embassy garnered much media attention in Tet’s early days, fighting engulfed numerous rural provinces and urban towns across South Vietnam. In the imperial city of Hue, hit hard by the communists, official estimates after the battle reckoned that 80 percent of the houses and buildings there were destroyed or damaged. “There were graves everywhere,” American journalist Don Oberdorfer recalled, “in parks, front yards, alongside streets and lanes.”

Westmoreland surely had miscalculated the capacity of Hanoi’s forces to launch such a massive offensive. Yet he also responded quickly, moving his forces to parry the enemy’s assaults and prepare for his own counterattack. As early as February 4, Westmoreland was reporting to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the fighting across all corps tactical zones in South Vietnam — in Hue, Saigon, Kontum City, and the Mekong Delta. Suggestions that he and, to a lesser extent, U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker focused on the tactical battle ranging around Khe Sanh at the expense of other military and political crises wrought by the enemy offensive are misplaced.

In fact, by the first weeks of February, it became increasingly apparent to MACV that Hanoi’s gambit to incite a popular uprising had failed. A communist assessment that March acknowledged that “organized popular forces were not broad and strong enough” and a post-mortem after the war noted that the Politburo had been “subjective in our assessment of the situation, especially in assessing the strength of the mass political forces in the urban areas.” Moreover, Hanoi’s flawed assumption that the ARVN would collapse if hit hard enough led to catastrophic losses among the outmatched communist forces that exposed themselves in the offensive, ensuring that years of hard fighting lay ahead.

Such indeed was the case as casualty rates on both sides spiked as the allies regained their footing and went on the counterattack. Westmoreland pushed South Vietnamese forces into the countryside to regain lost territory while U.S. troops sought to isolate and grind down enemy main force units. Might it be possible, American officers wondered, to turn the enemy’s tactical surprise into their strategic undoing?

Senior officials in the White House, however, were asking their own sets of questions. Among them was Clark Clifford, the new secretary of defense who had replaced Robert S. McNamara while the Tet fighting raged on. How was it possible the enemy could launch such a wide-ranging offensive? Was the ongoing fighting in Vietnam actually weakening the United States, both at home and abroad? Was it true, as Clifford recalled, that the price was no longer “commensurate with the goal”? On a deeper level, were there invalid assumptions on which the entire war effort had been based?

Unsurprisingly, Clifford’s tough questions were being mimicked in the American press. In the war’s aftermath, military officers found a convenient scapegoat in the media, one Marine general disparaging the “incapacity of some reporters to see and report more clearly and in better context.” This fits with a popular notion that Tet turned the press against the war, who then turned the nation. Yet the journalistic response to Tet, in truth, proved far more measured than generally has been accepted. Certainly, reporters asked tough questions in Tet’s aftermath. And some, like NBC’s Frank McGee, correctly argued that the communists had won “a psychological victory in the battle of Saigon.”

But the media hardly painted the picture of an American military defeat during Tet. Nor, for that matter, did the communists ever insinuate they were going to abandon the war after Tet (though Le Duan would be severely criticized in Hanoi, and the political ascendancy of the “militant” faction he led was briefly threatened after the offensive’s failure became evident that summer). No evidence exists to corroborate the myth that Hanoi was saved by an American media that had purposefully tainted U.S. public opinion and turned the nation against the war.

Rather, the genesis of the myth portraying a military victory undermined by political defeatism largely came from the American officer corps. Here again, faulty assumptions drove the argument. Veterans like Harry G. Summers argued in an influential work that Tet was a “resounding failure for the North Vietnamese,” yet a “strategic success” against American public opinion and political leadership. To these officers, they had destroyed the insurgency during Tet — indeed, they had not — and were on the cusp of final victory before the home front lost its will.

Such faulty assumptions reinforced yet another myth emanating from the ashes of Tet. According to this narrative, Westmoreland’s successor, Creighton Abrams, presided over the consolidation of the Tet military victory and brought the allies even closer to winning the war. The political decision to withdraw U.S. forces, however, undermined these successes and left a South Vietnamese ally ripe for invasion from the north. Yet Abrams’s imagined accomplishments hardly held up to reality, even if they assuaged veterans seeking answers in a lost cause narrative after Saigon’s fall in 1975.

Abrams’s ascension to MACV command in the spring of 1968, though, came at a time when Hanoi already had decided to reinforce the fighting in South Vietnam. While dubbed “mini-Tet,” it is important to see these operations as Hanoi did — as maintaining a “continuous offensive posture.” The Tet offensive was not a week-long, even month-long battle. In truth, the campaign ebbed and flowed throughout much of 1968, as evidenced by the mounting casualties on all sides. Historian Ronald Spector rightfully has described 1968 as “the bloodiest year in Vietnam,” yet all that bloodshed could not break the stalemate of a war found ever more questionable by an increasing number of Americans.

Similar reactions could be found among the South Vietnamese. Senior U.S. advisors in the field knew the all-important pacification program had “braked almost to a halt” after Tet and, indeed, Abrams spent most of his first few months in command trying to reinvigorate MACV’s nonmilitary and development programs. But the seemingly intractable problem of reestablishing a functioning political community inside South Vietnam would plague the American effort for the war’s duration. On yet another level, assumptions on what U.S. power could achieve in Southeast Asia fell short in Tet’s wake.

Ultimately — and especially after the fall of Saigon in 1975 — the circles of these many flawed assumptions on Tet and its aftermath would have to be squared when writing the history of the American war in Vietnam. Many veterans — and particularly senior officers — found solace in a storyline highlighting military successes, of a “forsaken triumph” that ensured the U.S. armed forces could still take credit for their battlefield acumen. Others went a step further, with one officer arguing that elected officials “can’t meddle in operational matters,” and likening such interference to telling a “surgeon how to cut.”

In this way, the history of the Tet offensive turned into a search not for perspective, but rather for blame and a way to determine winners and losers. One marine, for example, damned the “left-wing activists” with their “emphasis on liberal arts studies and their upper-class patronage.” Retired Adm. U.S.G. Sharp — not incidentally, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific from 1964 to 1968 — pilloried the “handwringers” who had taken “center stage” and the “anti-war elements” who were “in full cry.” And, more recently, one popular editorial writer, James Robbins, has suggested a more basic, American-centric point: “We lost the Vietnam War by choice.”

A better reading of the 1968 Tet offensive, especially for civilian policymakers and military strategists, would include a more thoughtful dissection of what we expect to accomplish through war, how we understand the mechanism through which violence is meant to effect political change, and why our unblemished faith in the general political efficacy of force persists. This is not to imply that pessimism should serve as the central component of strategic planning. Rather, Tet suggests there are weighty consequences when we assume too much about the relationship between action and effect in war. In John Prados’s words, “What happened at Tet was people succumbing to preconception.”

Strategy may be aspirational, but it must be more than just wishful thinking. If Colin Gray is correct in asserting that “surprise is unavoidable in war,” then assumptions about cause and effect are critical building blocks of successful strategy. A failure to think critically about whether doctrine actually works as intended or what enemy response can be expected from a particular action by our own forces is a recipe for disaster.

Thus, we should revisit 1968 with a clearer vision than that held by far too many military officers who served in Vietnam and more recent “lost victory” revisionists. Assumptions in strategic planning must be more than just ways for plans to magically accord with a certain sense of reality. And, in large sense, it is here that the supposed turning point of the war tells us something much deeper, and arguably much more important, about the American experience in Vietnam.

There are dangers when we assume, as an article of faith, that the merits of employing military power always outweigh the limits of that power.

 

Gregory A. Daddis is an associate professor of history and director of Chapman University’s MA Program in War and Society. His most recent book is Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 2017).