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Q: Regular readers of MHQ are probably aware that the 1968 Tet Offensive was a loss for North Vietnam. They also understand that it became a negative piece of propaganda in the United States, based on lack of understanding and political motivation. I would like to know how the North Vietnamese military leadership viewed it and how the political leadership spun it in North Vietnam.
—Duncan Rice, Coquitlam, Canada
A: The leadership in Hanoi knew that the Tet Offensive would be a gamble. In fact, the decision to launch the offensive was very controversial. Although many historians have reported that Vo Nguyen Giap was its architect, recent scholarship reveals that he was against it. However, the proponents of the offensive, Communist Party First Secretary Le Duan and Gen. Van Tien Dung, prevailed, and the decision was made to launch the general offensive in the hope that it would instigate a general uprising by the people in the South.
The offensive achieved some stunning psychological successes, particularly in the opening phases. The images of Viet Cong sappers inside the U.S. Embassy grounds were powerful, and the bitter fighting that raged at Hue, Khe Sanh, and throughout South Vietnam shook the confidence of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, causing many Americans to question the advisability of continuing the war. However, as subsequent phases of the offensive extended into the early fall of 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong sustained heavy casualties, with some estimates ranging as high as 58,000. Communist morale suffered as the casualties mounted; the official history of the People’s Army of Vietnam admits that “rightist thoughts, pessimism, and hesitancy” appeared among the Communist troops.
With the heavy losses, the Communists’ combat power declined and they suffered additional setbacks on the battlefield. However, the leadership in Hanoi could rightfully claim that the Tet Offensive eventually drove the American president out of office, caused the cessation of Operation Rolling Thunder, and forced the United States to come to the negotiating table. In a very real sense, the leadership in Hanoi saw the Tet Offensive as part of a process, not a one-blow effort.
To their troops, they portrayed the offensive as a great victory while continuing to send North Vietnamese regulars down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam, executing a “talk-fight” strategy.
After the war, the North Vietnamese leadership admitted that they had “set their goals too high” and made several mistakes in launching the offensive in 1968. Not the least of these was overestimating the amount of support that the Communist cause enjoyed in the South, while grossly underestimating the strength and resilience of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Nevertheless, the Tet Offensive proved to be the turning point in the war.
James H. Willbanks is director of the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and has written extensively on the Vietnam War, including The Tet Offensive: A Concise History (2006).