It is hard to believe that 40 years have passed since the start of the Tet Offensive. For those of us who were there, it seems like only yesterday that we were first alerted in the early morning hours— the middle of the night, actually—of January 31, 1968. Something big was happening. Most of the generals and senior commanders probably had a feel for just how big it was, but for those of us down in the line units it was just a matter of “saddle up and move out.”
The saga of the Tet Offensive actually started in early July 1967, when a top-ranking North Vietnamese Army (NVA) general died in a military hospital in Hanoi. For many years it was reported that Senior General Nguyen Chi Thanh had been killed by an American B-52 strike while at his command post somewhere in South Vietnam. More recent evidence suggests that he died from far more natural causes. Regardless of the cause, however, the timing of his death had a profound impact on the North Vietnamese decision-making process that led to the 1968 Tet Offensive and, by extension, led the course of the war to its dismal conclusion.
Thanh was the top North Vietnamese military commander in the South. Aside from Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, he was the only other man to hold four-star rank in the NVA. He was also a major political power—for 17 years he had been a member of North Vietnam’s ruling Politburo. In addition, he had been a longtime opponent of Giap’s policy of meeting America’s military might head-on. But now his voice was forever stilled. Immediately after Thanh’s state funeral on July 7, the Politburo met to consider Giap’s bold plan to bring the war to a speedy and successful conclusion.
The war had not been going well for the Communists. Thanh’s Viet Cong (VC) and NVA troops in the South had been losing in every encounter with the Americans since taking a bloody pounding in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. Thanh considered it madness to try to compete with superior U.S. firepower and mobility. He wanted to scale back operations and conduct a protracted guerrilla struggle, slowly grinding down the American will to continue. But General Giap, the victor of Dien Bien Phu 13 years earlier, wanted to stage another masterstroke to bring America quickly to its knees. With Thanh now dead, there was no other voice of dissent in the Politburo.
The key to Giap’s plan was the concept of the “General Offensive,” borrowed from Chinese Communist doctrine. Following the General Offensive, in a one-two punch, would come the “General Uprising,” wherein the people of the South would rally to the Communist cause and bring down the Saigon government. The General Uprising was a distinctly Vietnamese element of revolutionary dogma.
The success of Giap’s plan depended on three key assumptions: 1. that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would not fight and would collapse under the initial impact; 2. that the people of the South would follow through with the General Uprising; and 3. that when faced with an overwhelming shock action, the American will to continue the fight would crack.
The timing of the General Offensive was set for Tet 1968, the Lunar New Year that began the Year of the Monkey. Tet is far and away the most important holiday of the Vietnamese year. It is almost impossible for a Westerner to understand its significance. It’s like Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July and your birthday, all rolled into one.
Giap’s buildup and staging of the Tet Offensive was a masterpiece of deception. General instructions were sent to units in the field, but the exact timing and specific unit objectives of the attacks were withheld until the last moment. Starting in the fall of 1967, Giap staged a series of bloody but seemingly pointless battles in the border regions and in the north of the country near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). On October 29, the 273rd VC Regiment attacked the district capital of Loc Ninh, in the “Fishhook” region northwest of Saigon. On November 23, the 4th NVA Regiment launched a major attack on Dak To. In early January 1968, several NVA divisions began to converge on the isolated U.S. Marine outpost at Khe Sanh, near the DMZ.
All of these actions were part of Giap’s “peripheral campaign,” designed to draw U.S. units out of the urban areas and toward the borders. For the most part they were carried out by NVA troops, while VC units moved into their Tet jump-off positions, built up their supplies and rehearsed their battle drills. In the case of the 273rd VC Regiment’s attack at Loc Ninh, captured enemy documents later revealed that the purpose of that battle had been to give the Viet Cong experience in conventional attack formations. The Communist military leadership used the 1967 Christmas cease-fire to good advantage. Senior commanders used the truce to reconnoiter their assigned objectives. Thus the stage was set to launch Giap’s great gamble in the early days of 1968.
Tet did achieve surprise at the strategic level, although at the tactical level American intelligence had recognized that there would be attacks during the holiday season. Lieutenant General Fred Weyand, the commander of U.S. II Field Forces and himself a former intelligence officer in World War II, had concluded that something was probably going to happen on a larger rather than smaller scale. He convinced General William Westmoreland to let him redeploy 13 of his maneuver battalions closer to Saigon in mid-January. As a result, U.S. forces were not caught completely flatfooted when the attack came. Throughout most of the country, the battle was over in a matter of days, but in places such as Saigon’s Cholon district, Hue and Khe Sanh, the protracted fighting dragged on for weeks. By the time it was all over, Giap had been proved dead wrong in two of his three key assumptions. The people of the South did not rally to the Communist cause. The General Uprising never took place—even in Hue, where Communist forces held an entire city for the longest time. Nor did the ARVN fold. It may have buckled in a few areas, but by and large it fought, and fought amazingly well.
If there was a single big loser in the Tet Offensive, it was the Viet Cong. The guerrillas of the South led the main attacks, and they suffered the heaviest casualties. The guerrilla infrastructure, so carefully developed over many years, had been decimated with a single throw of the dice. From that point on, the Second Indochina War was entirely run by the North. The VC were never again a significant force on the battlefield. When South Vietnam finally fell in April 1975, it was at the hands of four NVA corps.
And yet, Giap was quite correct in his third assumption—about the will of his enemy. The rest of the world, and the American people in particular, were stunned by the apparent strength of the Communist attacks. The subsequent overwhelming battlefield victory achieved by American and South Vietnamese units could not reverse the image of disaster and defeat that became so firmly entrenched in the public mind. With one hand, the United Earle G. Wheeler put together a plan requiring an additional 206,000 American troops to exploit the enemy’s debacle, but someone in the Johnson White House leaked the plan to the press. The story broke on March 10, 1968. The American public concluded that the extra troops were needed to recover from a massive defeat, with accusations that it had been lied to by the government. It was a psychological turning point. Less than three weeks later, President Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. As the American military historian Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall summed up later, the 1968 Tet Offensive was “a potential major victory turned into a disastrous retreat through mistaken estimates, loss of nerve, bad advice, failure in leadership, and a tidal wave of defeatism.”
But Tet should have not have been the shocking surprise it was. Military history is full of examples of last-ditch gambles to reverse a losing war. There were at least three major examples of such desperate surprise attacks in the first half of the 20th century alone.
In March 1918, the Germans launched their massive Operation Michael, also known as the Kaiser’s Battle, an attempt to knock the British out of the war before freshly arriving American forces could tip the strategic balance against Germany. Like Tet, the German attack was not a total surprise to the Allies, but its size and intensity were. Operation Michael achieved one of the biggest tactical successes of World War I, but it was a strategic failure. It failed to shatter the will and confidence of the Allies, and Germany still lost the war.
The Germans tried the same thing again in December 1944. This time the Battle of the Bulge was an almost total surprise, but it turned out to be both a tactical and a strategic failure, and Germany once more lost the war. American forces were again surprised in late October 1950, when it appeared that all North Korean resistance had crumbled between the 38th Parallel and the Yalu River. But from October 14 to November 1, Chinese Communist Forces managed to put some 180,000 troops south of the river. When they counterattacked the U.S. Eighth Army, the surprise was almost total. This time the attack was both a tactical and a strategic success, and the Korean Peninsula remains divided to this day.
Taken together, these four examples of desperate, last-ditch-gamble surprise attacks represent all four possible combinations of tactical and strategic success and failure. Just as Operation Michael showed that tactical success did not lead automatically to strategic success, Tet showed that tactical failure did not necessarily lead to strategic failure. The clear lesson here is that the final verdict of victory or defeat in such situations is more often than not decided in the mind of the side being attacked. As Napoleon noted, “In war the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” This is a lesson we should keep in mind for the future.
Most of us who fought in Tet 40 years ago as very young men find ourselves now poised on the verge of senior citizenship. Those of our comrades who were five to 10 years older back then are now old men, about the same age the World War I veterans would have been when we were kids in the 1950s. Our senior leaders, those who were Korea and World War II veterans, are now positively ancient—those fortunate enough to still be with us.
Thus, this 40th anniversary marks an important milestone, and a fitting occasion to offer a retrospective on the battle that became the turning point of the Vietnam War. In our Tet 40th Anniversary Special Issue of Vietnam Magazine we depart from our usual format to offer our readers an in-depth analysis of Tet, along with eyewitness accounts from men who were on the ground. Professor (Lt. Col., ret.) Jim Willbanks, author of a critically acclaimed history of Tet, offers new insights into the intelligence failure of Tet, not only on the Allied side, but on the Communist side as well. We also reprise an insightful article by Vietnam’s founding editor, the late Colonel Harry Summers, written for the 25th anniversary of Tet. An eyewitness account of the VC assault on the U.S. Embassy from former ABC reporter Don North meanwhile examines the heavy psychological impact that the failed strike had on the public’s perception of Tet.
There was really nothing new about the Tet Offensive. If there is one constant in the history of warfare it is the nasty surprise. There have been many “Tet Offensives” throughout the course of military history, and we are very likely to see something similar again.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.