Week 9: Neu, Chapter 6. Tet and Beyond, 1968
Origins of the Tet Offensive
Summer of 1967 – Hanoi leaders were worried about the course of the war. The mounting intensity had strained the resources of the VC and the NVA, resulted in a decline in morale. With the death of COSVN director General Nguyen Chi Thanh in July, the balance of forces in Hanoi shifted to a new strategy – a general offensive that, if successful, would crush the South Vietnamese gov’t and force the US to withdraw. Even if the offensive fell short of its maximum goals it was reasoned that it would weaken the US position and push the war into a new, more vulnerable phase. The offensive had two phases – first, a series of NVA attacks along the South Vietnamese border to draw American forces away from the urban areas, and second, an assault on South Vietnamese cities and key facilities within them.
On January 21, 10 days before Tet, the NVA opened fire on the US base at Khe Sanh in the northwest corner of South Vietnam. The motives of Giap in laying siege to Khe Sanh remain difficult to determine – it may have been part of the plan to draw attention away from the cities in the South or he may actually have hoped to overrun the base.
The Shock of Tet
Communist leaders made some serious miscalculations – they were unable to coordinate successfully, and premature assaults put US and ARVN commanders on the alert, they underestimated the firepower and mobility of US troops and misjudged the morale of ARVN, and finally they misjudged the mood of the urban masses, who they had expected to rise up in revolt against the US. Of the 80,000 NVA and VC troops involved, 30,000 were killed, wounded or captured. In most areas the fighting lasted only a few days but in some places like Saigon and Hue it dragged on for weeks. American commanders had not anticipated the scope and intensity of Tet – despite evidence that Communist forces were gathering for an attack, it seemed inconceivable that the enemy would launch an assault that was doomed to failure. The fighting was bloody and actions on both sides revealed more than ever the brutality of the war – having been lulled by optimistic assessments of the war, Americans were shocked that the allegedly defeated enemy had attacked seemingly anywhere it wished to in South Vietnam.
The US Military’s Response
Tet Offensive seriously damaged Westmoreland’s reputatuion. From Westmoreland’s perspective however the military situation in Vietnam was hopeful. The US had successfully defended Khe Sanh, killing about 10,000 North Vietnamese while sustaining only 650 casualties. As the assault on the cities wound down, Westmoreland realized the extent of the enemy’s catastrophe and hoped to seize the initiative and launch a series of offensives. In March 1968 he requested an additional 206,000 troops.
Reassessment in Washington
The press portrayed Westmoreland’s request as a desperate measure in a failing war effort rather than a plan for offensive operations, contributing to public anger and disillusionment. In mid-March, the Johnson administration faced a serious economic crisis, and Johnson’s public approval was at an all-time low. After a meeting with his top advisors, Johnson announced his plan to take steps to limit the war in Vietnam. He announced a unilateral halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, in the hope that this would induce the north Vietnamese to begin negotiations. The Tet Offensive and the reaction to it had finally forced him to rethink his politics.
The War at Home
Johnson announced on March 31 that he would not run for reelection – stunned the American people and threw the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns into disarray. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy in June, McCarthy withdrew and Humphrey emerged as the democratic front-runner.
The Bloodiest Year
Both Westmoreland and his Communist adversaries believed that the Tet offensive has seriously weakened the other side. On March 23, Johnson announced that Westmoreland would step down as commander, to be replaced by General Creighton Abrams. Abrams de-emphasized the body count and big-unit operations, seeking instead to protect the population, capture enemy supplies, and interdict infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As many of the Viet Cong’s most experienced soldiers had died during Tet and morale was at an all-time low, leaders in Hanoi were put on the defensive. After another failed offensive in August, many NVA and VC units withdrew to remote bases where they could reorganize and replace their losses.
Talks with the government in Hanoi, which began in mid0May, were quickly deadlocked – the North Vietnamese wanted a complete end to bombing and complete US withdrawal, while Johnson was unwilling to compromise his goal of an independent South Vietnam. In late July, after visiting South Vietnam, Clifford gave a pessimistic report on the conditions in South Vietnam – he doubted that the South Vietnamese army could take over the conflict and urged the president to make a strong effort to settle the conflict in the next six months. Johnson was angered with his inability to find a way out of the war – he was unwilling to make concessions, but neither was he in a mood for heroic measures when American casualties remained high and prospects for victory seemed bleak.
The Fall Campaign
While the Democrats were fiercely divided, Republicans united behind their recently chosen candidate, Richard Nixon. After Tet, Nixon had moderated his position on Vietnam and now called for “a progressive de-Americanization of the war… neither peace at any price nor a camouflaged surrender.” Nixon won a narrow victory by less than one percentage point, in part because voters were looking for a candidate who seemed likely to end the war in Vietnam – they were looking for a change from the policies of the past, to which Humphries remained tied.
Week 9: McMahon, Chapter 10. The Tet Offensive