During the fall of 1967, the question whether the U.S. strategy of attrition was working in South Vietnam weighed heavily on the minds of the American public and the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), believed that if a "crossover point" could be reached by which the number of communist troops killed or captured during military operations exceeded those recruited or replaced, the Americans would win the war. There was a discrepancy, however, between the order of battle estimates of the MACV and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) concerning the strength of Viet Cong guerrilla forces within South Vietnam. In September, members of the MACV intelligence services and the CIA met to prepare a Special National Intelligence Estimate that would be used by the administration to gauge U.S. success in the conflict.
Provided with an enemy intelligence windfall accrued during Operations Cedar Falls and Junction City, the CIA members of the group believed that the number of VC guerrillas, irregulars, and cadre within the South could be as high as 430,000. The MACV Combined Intelligence Center, on the other hand, maintained that the number could be no more than 300,000. Westmoreland was deeply concerned about the possible perceptions of the American public to such an increased estimate since communist troop strength was routinely provided to reporters during press briefings. According to MACV's chief of intelligence, General Joseph A. McChristian, the new figures "would create a political bombshell", since they were positive proof that the North Vietnamese "had the capability and the will to continue a protracted war of attrition".
In May, MACV attempted to obtain a compromise from the CIA by maintaining that VC militias did not constitute a fighting force but were essentially low-level fifth columnists used for information collection. The agency responded that such a notion was ridiculous since the militias were directly responsible for half of the casualties inflicted on U.S. forces. With the groups deadlocked, George Carver, CIA deputy director for Vietnamese affairs, was asked to mediate the dispute. In September, Carver devised a compromise: The CIA would drop its insistence on including the irregulars in the final tally of forces and add a prose addendum to the estimate that would explain the agency's position. George Allen, Carver's deputy, laid responsibility for the agency's capitulation at the feet of Richard Helms, the director of the CIA. He believed that "it was a political problem ... [Helms] didn't want the agency ... contravening the policy interest of the administration."
During the second half of 1967 the administration had become alarmed by criticism, both inside and outside the government, and by reports of declining public support for its Vietnam policies. According to public opinion polls, the percentage of Americans who believed that the U.S. had made a mistake by sending troops to Vietnam had risen from 25 percent in 1965 to 45 percent by December 1967. This trend was fueled not by a belief that the struggle was not worthwhile, but by mounting casualty figures, raising taxes, and the feeling that there was no end to the war in sight. A poll taken in November indicated that 55 percent wanted a tougher war policy, exemplified by the public belief that "it was an error for us to have gotten involved in Vietnam in the first place. But now that we're there, let's win – or get out." This prompted the administration to launch a so-called "Success Offensive", a concerted effort to alter the widespread public perception that the war had reached a stalemate and to convince the American people that the administration's policies were succeeding. Under the leadership of National Security Advisor Walt W. Rostow, the news media then was inundated by a wave of effusive optimism.
Every statistical indicator of progress, from "kill ratios" and "body counts" to village pacification, was fed to the press and to the Congress. "We are beginning to win this struggle", asserted Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey on NBC's Today show in mid-November. "We are on the offensive. The territory is being gained. We are making steady progress." At the end of November, the campaign reached its climax when Johnson summoned Westmoreland and the new U.S. Ambassador, Ellsworth Bunker, to Washington, D.C., for what was billed as a "high-level policy review". Upon their arrival, the two men bolstered the administration's claims of success. From Saigon, pacification chief Robert Komer asserted that the CORDS pacification program in the countryside was succeeding, and that sixty-eight percent of the South Vietnamese population was under the control of Saigon while only seventeen percent was under the control of the VC General Bruce Palmer Jr., one of Westmoreland's three Field Force commanders, claimed that "the Viet Cong has been defeated" and that "He can't get food and he can't recruit. He has been forced to change his strategy from trying to control the people on the coast to try to survive in the mountains."
Westmoreland was even more emphatic in his assertions. At an address at the National Press Club on 21 November, he reported that, as of the end of 1967, the communists were "unable to mount a major offensive ... I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing...We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view." By the end of the year the administration's approval rating had indeed crept up by eight percent, but an early January Gallup poll indicated that forty-seven percent of the American public still disapproved of the President's handling of the war. The American public, "more confused than convinced, more doubtful than despairing ... adopted a 'wait and see' attitude." During a discussion with an interviewer from Time magazine, Westmoreland defied the communists to launch an attack: "I hope they try something because we are looking for a fight."
Planning in Hanoi for a winter-spring offensive during 1968 had begun in early 1967 and continued until early the following year. According to American sources, there has been an extreme reluctance among Vietnamese historians to discuss the decision-making process that led to the General Offensive General Uprising, even decades after the event. In official Vietnamese literature, the decision to launch the Tet Offensive was usually presented as the result of a perceived U.S. failure to win the war quickly, the failure of the American bombing campaign against North Vietnam, and the anti-war sentiment that pervaded the population of the U.S. The decision to launch the general offensive, however, was much more complicated.
The decision signaled the end of a bitter, decade-long debate within the North Vietnamese Government between first two, and then three factions. The moderates believed that the economic viability of North Vietnam should come before support of a massive and conventional southern war and they generally followed the Soviet line of peaceful coexistence by reunifying Vietnam through political means. Heading this faction were party theoretician Trường Chinh and Minister of Defense Võ Nguyên Giáp. The militant faction, on the other hand, tended to follow the foreign policy line of the People's Republic of China and called for the reunification of the nation by military means and that no negotiations should be undertaken with the Americans. This group was led by Communist Party First Secretary Lê Duẩn and Lê Đức Thọ (no relation). From the early to mid-1960s, the militants had dictated the direction of the war in South Vietnam. General Nguyễn Chí Thanh the head of Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), headquarters for the South, was another prominent militant. The followers of the Chinese line centered their strategy against the U.S. and its allies on large-scale, main force actions rather than the protracted guerrilla war espoused by Mao Zedong.
By 1966–1967, however, after suffering massive casualties, stalemate on the battlefield, and destruction of the northern economy by U.S. aerial bombing, there was a dawning realization that if current trends continued, Hanoi would eventually lack the resources necessary to affect the military situation in the South. As a result, there were more strident calls by the moderates for negotiations and a revision of strategy. They felt that a return to guerrilla tactics was more appropriate since the U.S. could not be defeated conventionally. They also complained that the policy of rejecting negotiations was in error. The Americans could only be worn down in a war of wills during a period of "fighting while talking". During 1967 things had become so bad on the battlefield that Lê Duẩn ordered Thanh to incorporate aspects of protracted guerrilla warfare into his strategy.
During the same period, a counter-attack was launched by a new, third grouping (the centrists) led by President Hồ Chí Minh, Lê Đức Thọ, and Foreign Minister
Nguyễn Duy Trinh, who called for negotiations. From October 1966 through April 1967, a very public debate over military strategy took place in print and via radio between Thanh and his rival for military power, Giáp. Giáp had advocated a defensive, primarily guerrilla strategy against the U.S. and South Vietnam. Thanh's position was that Giáp and his adherents were centered on their experiences during the First Indochina War and that they were too "conservative and captive to old methods and past experience... mechanically repeating the past."
The arguments over domestic and military strategy also carried a foreign policy element, as North Vietnam, like South Vietnam, was largely dependent on outside military and economic aid. The vast majority of North Vietnam's military equipment was provided by either the Soviet Union or China. Beijing advocated that North Vietnam conduct a protracted war on the Maoist model, fearing that a conventional conflict might draw China in, as had happened in the Korean War. They also resisted the idea of negotiating with the allies. Moscow, on the other hand, advocated negotiations, but simultaneously armed Hanoi's forces to conduct a conventional war on the Soviet model. North Vietnamese foreign policy therefore consisted of maintaining a critical balance between war policy, internal and external policies, domestic adversaries, and foreign allies with "self-serving agendas."
To "break the will of their domestic opponents and reaffirm their autonomy vis-à-vis their foreign allies", hundreds of pro-Soviet, party moderates, military officers, and intelligentsia were arrested on 27 July 1967, during what came to be called the
Revisionist Anti-Party Affair. All of the arrests were based on the individual's stance on the Politburo's choice of tactics and strategy for the proposed General Offensive. This move cemented the position of the militants as Hanoi's strategy: the rejection of negotiations, the abandonment of protracted warfare, and the focus on the offensive in the towns and cities of South Vietnam. More arrests followed in November and December.
General Offensive and Uprising
The operational plan for the General Offensive and Uprising had its origin as the "COSVN proposal" at Thanh's southern headquarters in April 1967 and had then been relayed to Hanoi the following month. The General was then ordered to the capital to explain his concept in person to the Military Central Commission. At a meeting in July, Thanh briefed the plan to the Politburo. On the evening of 6 July, after receiving permission to begin preparations for the offensive, Thanh attended a party and died of a heart attack after drinking too much.
After cementing their position during the Party crackdown, the militants sped up planning for a major conventional offensive to break the military deadlock. They concluded that the Saigon government and the U.S. presence were so unpopular with the population of the South that a broad-based attack would spark a spontaneous uprising of the population, which, if the offensive was successful, would enable the North Vietnamese to sweep to a quick, decisive victory. Their basis for this conclusion included: a belief that the South Vietnamese military was no longer combat-effective; the results of the September 1967 South Vietnamese presidential election (in which the Nguyễn Văn Thiệu/Nguyễn Cao Kỳ ticket had only received 24 percent of the popular vote); the Buddhist crises of 1963 and 1966; well-publicized anti-war demonstrations in Saigon; and continuous criticism of the Thiệu government in the southern press. Launching such an offensive would also finally put an end to what have been described as "dovish calls for talks, criticism of military strategy, Chinese diatribes of Soviet perfidy, and Soviet pressure to negotiate—all of which needed to be silenced."
VC special forces are sworn into the forces before the Tet Offensive
In October, the Politburo decided on the Tet holiday as the launch date and met again in December to reaffirm its decision and formalize it at the 14th Plenary session of the Party Central Committee in January 1968. The resultant Resolution 14 was a major blow to domestic opposition and "foreign obstruction". Concessions had been made to the center group, however, by agreeing that negotiations were possible, but the document essentially centered on the creation of "a spontaneous uprising in order to win a decisive victory in the shortest time possible."
Contrary to Western belief, General Giáp did not plan or command the offensive himself. Thanh's original plan was elaborated on by a party committee headed by Thanh's deputy, Phạm Hùng, and then modified by Giáp. The Defense Minister may have been convinced to toe the line by the arrest and imprisonment of most of the members of his staff during the Revisionist Anti-Communist Party Affair. Although Giáp went to work "reluctantly, under duress", he may have found the task easier due to the fact that he was faced with a fait accompli. Since the Politburo had already approved the offensive, all he had to do was make it work. He combined guerrilla operations into what was basically a conventional military offensive and shifted the burden of sparking the popular uprising to the Viet Cong. If it worked, all would be well and good. If it failed, it would be a failure only for the Communist Party militants. For the moderates and centrists, it offered the prospect of negotiations and a possible end to the American bombing of the North. Only in the eyes of the militants, therefore, did the offensive become a "go for broke" effort. Others in the Politburo were willing to settle for a much less ambitious "victory".
VC special forces study maps of District 7, Saigon, prior to the Tet Offensive
The PAVN official history states that the objectives of the Tet Offensive were to: annihilate and cause the total disintegration of the bulk of the puppet army, overthrow the "puppet" (South Vietnamese) regime at all administrative levels, and place all government power in the hands of the people. Annihilate a significant portion of the American military's troop strength and destroy a significant portion of his war equipment in order to prevent the American forces from being able to carry out their political and military missions; on the basis, crush the American will to commit aggression and force the United States to accept defeat in South Vietnam and end all hostile actions against North Vietnam. In addition, using this as the basis, they would achieve the immediate goals of the revolution, which were independence, democracy, peace, and neutrality in South Vietnam, and then move toward achieving peace and national unification.
The operation would involve a preliminary phase, during which diversionary attacks would be launched in the border areas of South Vietnam to draw American attention and forces away from the cities. The General Offensive, General Uprising would then commence with simultaneous actions on major allied bases and most urban areas, and with particular emphasis on the cities of Saigon and Huế. Concurrently, a substantial threat would have to be made against the U.S. Khe Sanh Combat Base. The Khe Sanh actions would draw PAVN forces away from the offensive into the cities, but Giáp considered them necessary in order to protect his supply lines and divert American attention. Attacks on other U.S. forces were of secondary, or even tertiary importance, since Giáp considered his main objective to be weakening or destroying the South Vietnamese military and government through popular revolt. The offensive, therefore, was aimed at influencing the South Vietnamese public, not that of the U.S. There is conflicting evidence as to whether, or to what extent, the offensive was intended to influence either the March primaries or the November presidential election in the U.S.
Viet Cong troops pose with new AK-47 assault rifles and American field radios
According to General Trần Văn Trà, the new military head of COSVN, the offensive was to have three distinct phases: Phase I, scheduled to begin on 30 January, would be a countrywide assault on the cities, conducted primarily by VC forces. Concurrently, a propaganda offensive to induce ARVN troops to desert and the South Vietnamese population to rise up against the government would be launched. If outright victory was not achieved, the battle might still lead to the creation of a coalition government and the withdrawal of the Americans. If the general offensive failed to achieve these purposes, follow-up operations would be conducted to wear down the enemy and lead to a negotiated settlement; Phase II was scheduled to begin on 5 May and Phase III on 17 August.
Preparations for the offensive were already underway. The logistical build-up began in mid-year, and by January 1968, 81,000 tons of supplies and 200,000 troops, including seven complete infantry regiments and 20 independent battalions made the trip south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This logistical effort also involved re-arming the VC with new AK-47 assault rifles and B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, which granted them superior firepower over the ARVN. To pave the way and to confuse the allies as to its intentions, Hanoi launched a diplomatic offensive. Foreign Minister Trinh announced on 30 December that Hanoi would rather than could open negotiations if the U.S. unconditionally ended Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. This announcement provoked a flurry of diplomatic activity (which amounted to nothing) during the last weeks of the year.
South Vietnamese and U.S. military intelligence estimated that PAVN/VC forces in South Vietnam during January 1968 totaled 323,000 men, including 130,000 PAVN regulars, 160,000 VC and members of the infrastructure, and 33,000 service and support troops. They were organized into nine divisions composed of 35 infantry and 20 artillery or anti-aircraft artillery regiments, which were, in turn, composed of 230 infantry and six sapper battalions.
Suspicions and diversions
Signs of impending communist action were noticed among the allied intelligence collection apparatus in Saigon. During the late summer and fall of 1967 both South Vietnamese and U.S. intelligence agencies collected clues that indicated a significant shift in communist strategic planning. By mid-December, mounting evidence convinced many in Washington and Saigon that something big was underway. During the last three months of the year intelligence agencies had observed signs of a major North Vietnamese military buildup. In addition to captured documents (a copy of Resolution 13, for example, was captured by early October), observations of enemy logistical operations were also quite clear: in October, the number of trucks observed heading south through Laos on the Hồ Chí Minh Trail jumped from the previous monthly average of 480 to 1,116. By November this total reached 3,823 and, in December, 6,315. On 20 December, Westmoreland cabled Washington that he expected the PAVN/VC "to undertake an intensified countrywide effort, perhaps a maximum effort, over a relatively short period of time."
Despite all the warning signs, however, the allies were still surprised by the scale and scope of the offensive. According to ARVN Colonel Hoang Ngoc Lung the answer lay with the allied intelligence methodology itself, which tended to estimate the enemy's probable course of action based upon their capabilities, not their intentions. Since, in the allied estimation, the communists hardly had the capability to launch such an ambitious enterprise: "There was little possibility that the enemy could initiate a general offensive, regardless of his intentions." The answer could also be partially explained by the lack of coordination and cooperation between competing intelligence branches, both South Vietnamese and American. The situation from the U.S. perspective was summed up by an MACV intelligence analyst: "If we'd gotten the whole battle plan, it wouldn't have been believed. It wouldn't have been credible to us."
From early to late 1967, the U.S. command in Saigon was perplexed by a series of actions initiated by the PAVN/VC in the border regions. On 24 April a U.S. Marine Corps patrol prematurely triggered a PAVN offensive aimed at taking Khe Sanh Combat Base, the western anchor of the Marines' defensive positions in Quảng Trị Province. For 49 days during early September and lasting into October, the PAVN began shelling the U.S. Marine outpost of Con Thien, just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The intense shelling (100–150 rounds per day) prompted Westmoreland to launch
Operation Neutralize, an intense aerial bombardment campaign of 4,000 sorties into and just north of the DMZ.
On 27 October, an ARVN battalion at Sông Bé, the capital of Phước Long Province, came under attack by an entire PAVN regiment. Two days later, another PAVN regiment attacked a U.S. Special Forces border outpost at Lộc Ninh, in Bình Long Province. This attack sparked a ten-day battle that drew in elements of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and the ARVN 18th Division and left 800 PAVN troops dead at its conclusion.
The most severe of what came to be known as "the Border Battles" erupted during October and November around Dak To, another border outpost in Kon Tum Province. The clashes there between the four regiments of the PAVN 1st Division, the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade and ARVN infantry and Airborne elements, lasted for 22 days. By the time the fighting was over, between 1,200 and 1,600 PAVN and 262 U.S. troops had lost their lives. MACV intelligence was confused by the possible motives of the North Vietnamese in prompting such large-scale actions in remote regions where U.S. artillery and aerial firepower could be applied indiscriminately, which meant that tactically and strategically, these operations made no sense. What the North Vietnamese had done was carry out the first stage of their plan: to fix the attention of the U.S. command on the borders and draw the bulk of U.S. forces away from the heavily populated coastal lowlands and cities.
Westmoreland was more concerned with the situation at Khe Sanh, where, on 21 January 1968, a force estimated at 20,000–40,000 PAVN troops had besieged the U.S. Marine garrison. MACV was convinced that the PAVN planned to stage an attack and overrun the base as a prelude to an all-out effort to seize the two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam. To deter any such possibility, he deployed 250,000 men, including half of MACV's U.S. maneuver battalions, to I Corps.
This course of events disturbed Lieutenant General Frederick Weyand, commander of U.S. forces in III Corps, which included the Capital Military District. Weyand, a former intelligence officer, was suspicious of the pattern of communist activities in his area of responsibility and notified Westmoreland of his concerns on 10 January. Westmoreland agreed with his estimate and ordered 15 U.S. battalions to redeploy from positions near the Cambodian border back to the outskirts of Saigon. When the offensive did begin, a total of 27 allied maneuver battalions defended the city and the surrounding area. This redeployment may have been one of the most critical tactical decisions of the war.
Before the offensive
South Vietnam, Corps Tactical Zones
By the beginning of January 1968, the U.S. had deployed 331,098 Army personnel and 78,013 Marines in nine divisions, an armoured cavalry regiment, and two separate brigades to South Vietnam. They were joined there by the 1st Australian Task Force, a Royal Thai Army regiment, two South Korean Army infantry divisions, and the Republic of Korea Marine Corps brigade. South Vietnamese strength totaled 350,000 regulars in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. They were in turn supported by the 151,000-man South Vietnamese Regional Forces and 149,000-man South Vietnamese Popular Forces, which were the equivalent of regional and local militias.
In the days immediately preceding the offensive, the preparedness of allied forces was relatively relaxed. Hanoi had announced in October that it would observe a seven-day truce from 27 January to 3 February for the Tet holiday, and the South Vietnamese military made plans to allow recreational leave for approximately half of its forces. General Westmoreland, who had already cancelled the truce in I Corps, requested that South Vietnam cancel the upcoming cease-fire, but President Thiệu (who had already reduced the cease-fire to 36 hours), refused to do so, claiming that it would damage troop morale and only benefit communist propagandists.
On 28 January, eleven VC cadres were captured in the city of Qui Nhơn while in possession of two pre-recorded audio tapes whose message appealed to the populace in "already occupied Saigon, Huế, and Da Nang". The following afternoon, General Cao Văn Viên, chief of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff, ordered his four Corps' commanders to place their troops on alert. Yet, there was still a lack of a sense of urgency on the part of the allies. If Westmoreland had a grasp of the potential for danger, he did not communicate it very well to others. On the evening of 30 January, 200 U.S. officers—all of whom served on the MACV intelligence staff—attended a pool party at their quarters in Saigon. According to James Meecham, an analyst at the Combined Intelligence Center who attended the party: "I had no conception Tet was coming, absolutely zero ... Of the 200-odd officers present, not one I talked to knew Tet was coming, without exception."
Westmoreland also failed to communicate his concerns adequately to Washington. Although he had warned the President between 25 and 30 January that "widespread" communist attacks were in the offing, his admonitions had tended to be so oblique or so hedged with official optimism that even the administration was unprepared. No one – in either Washington or Vietnam – was expecting what happened.
Lt. Gen. Weyand invited CBS News Correspondent John Laurence and Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer to his III Corps headquarters in the week before the Tet Offensive to alert them that a major enemy attack was coming "just before or just after Tet." He said the Vietnamese had too much respect for the holiday to attack during Tet itself. Weyand said he had moved 30 U.S. and South Vietnamese battalions closer to Saigon to defend the city.