Viet Nam soldiers

courtesy of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

"Crack the Sky, Shake the Earth..." A Look Back at Tet
| published February 14, 2015 |

By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review contributor

The celebration of “Tet Nguyen Dan,” or “Tet” in abbreviated form, marks the arrival of spring based on a Vietnamese variation of the Chinese lunar-solar calendar. The Tet is one of the most important celebrations in Vietnamese culture. Special meals are cooked, families come together and pilgrimages to temples are made. In late 1967, the war-weary people of Vietnam were looking forward to the celebration of Tet. It was also a traditional time of truces. However, North Vietnam had planned a major offensive against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces timed to coincide with Tet.

Hanoi’s intention was to influence South Vietnamese (SV) public opinion more than opinion in U.S. Dissension among the leadership in North Vietnam delayed the planning but they were also aware of growing opposition to the war in the U.S. and dissatisfaction in South Vietnam. In Hanoi, moderates clashed with hard-liners and the leadership was also divided between a pro-Soviet camp and a pro-China camp. The “Moscow” faction was invested in conducting a more conventional war as a precursor to possible negotiations. The “Beijing” group favored a continuance of guerrilla strategy, opposed negotiation, and believed the U.S. position in Vietnam was vulnerable. Communist leader Ho Chi Minh had advocated what he described as “elephant and tiger tactics,” which the earlier Viet Minh guerrillas employed against the French in the 1950’s. Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap favored a moderate course and he believed that the north should strengthen its economic base before embarking on large-scale conventional operations. However, a purge occurred in late 1967, largely eliminating the moderates’ direct influence on Hanoi’s strategy. Northern leadership aimed to disrupt daily life in the south, sparking riots and disorder and eroding the legitimacy of the Saigon regime.

The government of Nguyen van Thieu in Saigon struggled with economic problems, social dissent to his policies and, of course, fighting the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and Viet Cong guerrilla group (VC). In addition, it didn’t help President Thieu that his country was becoming increasingly dependent on support from the United States. The U.S. and South Vietnamese fought with a double-edged sword—many South Vietnamese recognized the necessity of outside support to fight the communists. On the other hand, the American presence created resentment as well. The U.S. influence reminded many Vietnamese of the French colonial occupation. The Saigon government also wrestled with the wavering loyalty of its army, known as ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam).

In the United States, the war was gradually becoming unpopular, but most Americans were still of the impression that the war’s progress was going well. Daily news reports issued body counts of the enemy, implying that the enemy’s numbers were severely depleted and the north incapable of major ground operations. Many of the weekly and monthly enemy casualty numbers being reported from U.S. commanders in the field were overstated or based on faulty information. Still, those casualty numbers were being used by the Johnson administration as an index of success. Bombings were causing significant economic disruption in North Vietnam and American and South Vietnam intelligence were aware of the political infighting in Hanoi. President Johnson’s advisors, especially General William Westmoreland, had led him to believe that the military situation in the field gave reason for optimism. That optimism would soon deteriorate.

On the eve of Tet, American forces totaled 500,000. Other allies around 60,000. ARVN had 685,000 men under arms. Allied strategy consisted primarily of destroying communist bases in, and stopping infiltration of, the south. As 1968 dawned, General Westmoreland was cautious, but hopeful of progress on the battlefield.

The NVA numbered about 300,000 plus over 100,000 of the Viet Cong. Both the NVA and VC had been battered in direct, conventional military engagement with American forces. General Giap wanted to execute a bold stroke on the military and political fronts in order to weaken resolve in Washington and Saigon.

Two significant sources of intelligence for military and political planning purposes were the CIA and MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam). The MACV was the joint-service command for the American military effort in Southeast Asia. The conclusions reached by MACV intelligence often clashed with the conclusions of the CIA. Thus, cooperation between the two organizations was problematic. In addition, intelligence gathered by the South Vietnamese forces added to the information stew. American intelligence analysis focused on enemy capabilities instead of enemy intentions. This practice ultimately proved to be a mistake because the U.S. underestimated the enemy’s capabilities and misread its intentions.

The attack began in earnest on January 30th, with NVA and VC attacks on every major town and city in South Vietnam. Initially, a diversion was launched against the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh, in the northern province of Quang Tri, located within I Corps area of control. General Giap designed the attack on the base as a means of drawing attention and forces away from the cities of the south. The NVA had moved in additional forces of their own to isolate the base, which, in turn, had been augmented by extra units from the 3d Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), the army’s 1st Cavalry Division, the 7th air force and various ARVN units. They were opposed by the 304th and 325th NVA divisions.

The marines had occupied Khe Sanh since 1964 as a base for operations in Laos and the Quang Tri area of South Vietnam. An airstrip was built there in 1966. Beginning in October, 1967, the NVA began a series of attacks on Khe Sanh. The attacks were all defeated by base defenders, and the North Vietnamese sustained heavy casualties each time. However, U.S. attention was now largely fixed on the I Corps region and away from the cities in the South. A debate has existed since 1968 regarding the true intentions of General Giap—was Khe Sanh a diversion or the main prize à la Dien Bien Phu? General William Westmoreland regarded it as the main effort and the U.S. actions reflect that conclusion. Massive support was lent to the Marines as “Khe Sanh” became a battle cry much like “Remember the Alamo!” Tenacious resistance and strong resolve prevented the base from falling into enemy hands.

The VC and NVA also attacked the major cities and towns in South Vietnam. The goal behind the attacks was to disrupt and damage the civilian infrastructure so as to cause a breakdown in law and order and political upheaval. Ultimately, the aim was to discredit and bring down the regime in Saigon. But the majority of the urban population in South Vietnam was indifferent to political ideology; for the most part, they did not support the aims and goals of the communists, but conversely they felt little or no loyalty to the Saigon regime, either. Cultural differences existed between north and south, which would ultimately prove to be an obstacle to reunification, along with the political issues further dividing public opinion.

During the Tet Offensive, fighting was bloody and protracted. The most violent attacks occurred against Saigon and the old imperial capital of Hûe. Saigon was the capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and the nerve center for its military and political direction. Hûe was chosen as a target due its historical and symbolic significance as the seat of ancient Vietnamese culture. The siege at Khe Sanh lasted approximately two months, lifted by the addition of ground forces to the area. Most of the attacks in the cities in the south had been contained after ten days or so of fighting. Hûe was severely damaged as were parts of Saigon and other cities.

In Saigon, an assault on the U.S. embassy compound was emblematic of the largely political focus of the Tet offensive. The compound was attacked in the early morning hours of January 31st by nineteen VC soldiers. Despite the fact that the embassy was defended by a contingent of Marines and Army MP’s, the Viet Cong—using grenades and explosives—breached the embassy wall before dawn and gained access to the interior of the compound. The Marines were successful in beating off the attack, but only after being reinforced by nearby units. Of the nineteen VC attackers, eighteen were killed and one was captured. One Marine and four Army MP’s were killed.

The assault on the embassy compound lasted only a few hours and was tactically and militarily insignificant. However, the north scored a psychological victory because the embassy, the symbol of U.S. influence in Vietnam, had been attacked. The physical damage to the property was slight but the psychological damage significant. The assault was likely a suicide mission for the VC soldiers who attacked it but they made an impact out of proportion to their small number, especially in the American media, which gave the embassy attack more weight than it probably deserved and played into Hanoi’s hands.

Media coverage in the United States of Tet had a significant impact on public attitudes toward the conflict as people began turning against the war; the numbers of people participating in anti-war marches increased greatly, riots were sparked, and political debate over the course of the war became intense. Television images from the fighting galvanized anti-war opinion, as well. One photo, in particular, achieved instant notoriety: South Vietnamese police general Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed a Viet Cong terrorist in broad daylight in front of Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams and a small film crew. The photo was snapped at the moment General Loan fired his pistol, killing the prisoner. The picture aroused the anti-war movement as a symbol of the vicious fighting in Vietnam. However, it became known subsequently that the prisoner, Nguyen Van Lém, was responsible for killing several members of the national police in Saigon and their families. Nevertheless, the image served as one of several media catalysts which fueled anti-war sentiments in the United States.

Strategically and tactically, the Tet Offensive had played itself out by April. Cities and towns captured by the enemy had been re-captured and the enemy driven out. Militarily, the Tet battles were an American/South Vietnamese victory. Both the NVA and the Viet Cong sustained heavy casualties and the VC were virtually destroyed as an effective fighting organization, requiring the NVA to assume nearly the whole burden of the fighting on behalf of Hanoi. In addition, the offensive did not cause the intended destruction of ARVN, nor did it spur societal disruptions or create a massive civilian uprising against the regime in Saigon.

In political terms, though, the Tet was a resounding victory for Hanoi. The offensive was responsible for sparking and galvanizing the anti-war movement in the United States and it eroded even further the legitimacy of the government in Saigon. That result was not wholly anticipated by Hanoi but it made excellent fodder for propaganda. Media images, such as those in Hûe and the streets of Saigon, brought the reality of the war into the homes of millions of Americans. Another illustration of the nature of the fighting was a quote attributed to the S-3 (operations and training) of the 3d battalion, 39th Infantry, a Major Booris: “We had to destroy the town in order to save it…..” He was referring to his unit’s re-capture of the town of Ben Tre. The assault succeeded in driving out the enemy once a massive response from American artillery and bombers nearly leveled the town. The quote became a metaphor for the war itself. Many Americans were starting to conclude that we would need to destroy South Vietnam in order to save it.

In Washington, D.C., President Johnson’s advisors were asking him to send an additional 200,000 troops to Vietnam. That idea was a non-starter because it would necessitate either calling up more reserves or stripping troops from Europe. The former plan was politically unpalatable in domestic terms while the latter was impossible due to likely protests from European allies. The decision was made to “Vietnamize” the war by shifting more of the burden of the defense of South Vietnam to Saigon. That plan, too, ultimately proved unfeasible. Saigon was never properly prepared to defend the country and much of its population was indifferent to its defense—a result of their government’s own apathy, corruption, and instability. In less than two years, the U.S. began withdrawing substantial forces from Vietnam. Shortly after Tet, President Johnson decided to not seek re-election, General Westmoreland was replaced by General Creighton Abrams, and the U.S. began negotiating with Hanoi.

Fighting dragged on for seven more years until the fall of Saigon in April, 1975. By the time the last U.S. Marines, MPs and other military personnel evacuated Saigon that month, more than 50,000 Americans had died in Vietnam.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Silent Night, Christmas 1914; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; December 21, 2014.

Vietnam: How History Repeats Itself; book review of The Last Valley; R. Alan Clanton; August 10, 2013.