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The War’s Decisive Event

By James H. Willbanks
February 2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Communists attacks in January 1968, and the reaction to them, dashed U.S. hopes for an all-out victory in Vietnam.

In January 1968, during Vietnam’s Tet holiday, the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong guerrillas launched an offensive that ended in a disastrous military defeat for the Communists, but the extensiveness and strength of their attacks reverberated in the U.S. with dispiriting aftershocks that would ultimately give America’s enemy all the territory it had failed to win during Tet.

This is how it happened:

In the summer of 1967, frustrated with the stalemate on the battlefield and concerned about the aggressive American tactics during the previous year, Communist leaders in Hanoi decided to strike a decisive blow against the South Vietnamese and their U.S. allies. Their new campaign was designed to break the stalemate with a “general offensive” that would hit sites throughout South Vietnam, including previously untouched urban centers, and achieve three objectives: Provoke a “general uprising” among the South’s population, shatter the South Vietnamese armed forces and convince the Americans that the war was unwinnable.

The Communists prepared for the offensive with a massive buildup of troops and equipment in the South. They also initiated diversionary attacks against remote outposts to lure U.S. forces into the countryside, away from the targeted population areas.

After some premature attacks on Jan. 30, the offensive began in earnest in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 1968. About 84,000 NVA and VC troops took advantage of the cease-fire customary during the Lunar New Year celebration, called Tet in Vietnam, to mount more than 150 simultaneous assaults in the South. Many South Vietnamese troops were on holiday leave, and the Communist forces initially enjoyed widespread success. Within days, however, most of the attacks in the smaller towns and hamlets were turned back. Heavy fighting, however, continued at some places in almost all of South Vietnam’s regions, including Saigon, and subsequent phases of the offensive would extend into the early fall months of 1968.

Gen. William Westmoreland, the top general in South Vietnam as head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, declared in a statement on Feb. 6 that “the enemy’s treacherous military and terrorist offensive has failed to attain its objective, for which he has paid, and will continue to pay, a tremendous price.” Westmoreland seemed to be saying that the failed Communist attacks represented the “last gasp” of a losing cause.

A C-47 Skytrain, struck by rocket and mortar shelling during Tet, is just a pile of wreckage at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside Saigon. (Getty Images)

Americans stunned by the scope and ferocity of the offensive, however, saw not a victorious military but a government that had misled them about allied progress in the war. In November 1967, Westmoreland had raised expectations when he said that Americans were winning the war. What people watched on their television sets every night during the Tet Offensive said otherwise.

In the wake of Tet, the media took an increasingly unfavorable view of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, and news reports during and after Tet had a significant impact on already downward-trending public opinion. The extensive media coverage enabled the American public to see for itself the bloodshed and devastation wrought by the fighting. The pictures from Vietnam made it clear that America’s foe remained much stronger than the politicians and generals had led people to believe.

Walter Cronkite, the anchorman for “CBS Evening News” and perhaps the most trusted journalist in the nation, flew to South Vietnam in mid-February and visited Hue, where the battle still raged. In a special half-hour report after his return to the United States in late February, Cronkite told his audience: “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion….It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate….It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Cronkite’s broadcast had a significant impact on Johnson. It has been reported that the president remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” There is no authoritative proof that Johnson uttered those words, but they nonetheless are close to the truth because Cronkite clearly reflected the widespread dissatisfaction with the administration’s policies. Previously, journalists had generally accepted the optimistic reports of military and government authorities, but like many other Americans, they were shocked by the bloody fighting and the ability of the Communists to launch such a broad offensive.

Johnson’s policies were also under attack in Congress. Democratic Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York claimed that Tet had “finally shattered the mask of optical illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves.” But it was a Republican senator, George Aiken of Vermont, who expressed the view of many in Congress when he said, “If this is a failure, I hope the Viet Cong never have a major success.”

The president’s poll numbers plummeted. By late February 1968 surveys showed that only 32 percent of Americans endorsed Johnson’s handling of the war, down from 51 percent in November 1967.

Johnson’s deteriorating public support would get worse over one of the most controversial issues to develop in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive—a request for additional troops. On Feb. 3, Gen. Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a message to Westmoreland asking if he needed reinforcements. Westmoreland replied that he did not need anything except the approximately 10,000 troops already promised. The next day, Wheeler sent a message saying the president was considering diversionary attacks north of the Demilitarized Zone or in eastern Laos to relieve pressure on the nearby Marine base at Khe Sanh, which had been under siege since Jan. 21.

After another exchange of messages, Wheeler again urged Westmoreland to ask for troops if he needed them. This time Westmoreland said he could use more men to replenish his forces after the Tet battles. Although the enemy had lost some 40,000 troops, it still had a large force that threatened the provinces just south of the DMZ, and intelligence reports indicated Hanoi was sending in more soldiers to restock its ranks. Even so, Westmoreland thought he had the Communists on the run and more troops in pursuit could drive them from border sanctuaries in Cambodia and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail with a thrust into Laos. He also believed calling up additional troops would convince the North Vietnamese that the United States was serious about achieving a victory.

Wheeler’s concerns about troop levels extended beyond Southeast Asia. With 30 to 50 percent of the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force committed to fighting or supporting the war in Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs chairman had told Johnson he was worried that the U.S. might not be able to respond to a flare-up elsewhere unless more reservists were mobilized and combat-ready. He saw the fighting that continued after Tet as an opportunity to persuade Johnson to call units of the reserves into active duty to strengthen the “strategic reserve”—forces kept readily available to react to any global threat.

The president sent Wheeler to Saigon to confer with Westmoreland. Upon his return to Washington on Feb. 25, Wheeler predicted a renewed Communist offensive and contended that more troops were necessary unless the United States was “prepared to accept some reverses.” On Feb. 28, Wheeler presented Johnson with a request from Westmoreland for 206,000 more troops (in addition to the small increase promised earlier). There were more than 515,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam at the time.

The 206,000-troop increase would be accomplished in three steps. The first increment of 108,000 troops would go to Vietnam by May 1. And the remaining 98,000 would be sent in two increments, on Sept. 1 and Dec. 1. However, Wheeler did not plan to deploy the final two increments to Vietnam unless the NVA launched another successful offensive. Instead, he intended to use them to bolster the stateside reserve forces. Wheeler’s report to Johnson did not mention his plans to use the second and third increments other than in Vietnam.

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite interviews a professor at the University of Hue in February 1968. In a broadcast later that month, Cronkite described the war in Vietnam as “mired in stalemate.” (Everett collection Inc./Alamy)

Johnson was taken aback by Westmoreland’s request for 206,000 more troops. The president realized an increase of that size in Vietnam would require a call-up of the reserves—a move that would not only energize the anti-war movement but also threaten the American economy and the future of his Great Society programs in civil rights, health care, education and the “war on poverty.” The costs of running the war in Vietnam and financing the Great Society agenda were more than the United States could afford. The president had proposed a 10 percent surtax on income in 1967, but Congress had refused to pass the legislation until the tax hike was accompanied by cuts in domestic spending.

Johnson asked new Defense Secretary Clark Clifford, who had taken office March 1, to form a task force within the Defense Department to evaluate the situation in South Vietnam and make a recommendation on Westmoreland’s request. The president told Clifford, “Give me the lesser of the evils.” Clifford had succeeded Robert McNamara, who had quietly turned against the war and departed in January 1968. Clifford directed Johnson’s election campaign in 1964 and been a leading supporter of the war effort, but like McNamara he was now having doubts about U.S. involvement.

Clifford’s task force assessed U.S. strategy in Vietnam and reviewed the proposals for additional troops. The group examined the implications of any new escalation and concluded that the existing policy in Vietnam was failing. Clifford, who provided the group’s findings to Johnson on March 4, believed an increase in U.S. forces promised “no early end to the conflict, nor any success in attriting the enemy or eroding Hanoi’s will to fight.”

Shunning a large troop increase, the task force advised the president to send about 22,000 additional troops to Vietnam and approve a call-up of 245,000 reservists “to improve our strategic reserve in the United States,” but link any further troop increases in Vietnam to the performance of the Saigon government and its armed forces. Privately, Clifford told the president: “The major concern of the people is that they do not see victory ahead. The military has not come up with a plan for victory. The people were discouraged as more men go in and are chewed up in a bottomless pit.”

The situation for the Johnson administration worsened considerably when The New York Times ran a story on March 10 revealing Westmoreland’s request for the 206,000 troops. NBC News reporter Frank McGee told the nation that the additional troops would only result in more destruction, not peace and victory.

For much of the American public, the Tet Offensive battles in January and February had been a rude awakening to the realities of the war and prompted a re-evaluation of the nation’s commitment. And now in March, after being repeatedly told by political and military leaders that the Communists were fading, Americans were shocked to find that Westmoreland and Johnson were considering a troop increase in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, television, newspaper and magazine pictures of close-quarter fighting reminded families once again of the escalating human costs of the war. It seemed to them that no matter how many troops we sent in, how many of the enemy we killed, the Communist leadership would replace them with large numbers of more men, regardless of the huge cost in North Vietnamese lives. And the war would go on without end.

By late March, a new poll on the Vietnam War revealed that 78 percent of the surveyed Americans felt the United States was not making any progress in the war, and only 26 percent approved of Johnson’s handling of the war.

On March 12, two days after news broke about the proposed 206,000 additional troops, the Democratic presidential primary was held in New Hampshire. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, relatively unknown outside his state of Minnesota and running on an anti-war platform as the “Peace Candidate,” astonished the nation by coming within a few hundred votes of defeating Johnson.

Four days after the New Hampshire primary, a potentially much stronger Democratic candidate, Robert Kennedy—seeing the reaction to the Tet Offensive, the president’s low poll numbers and the results of the primary—announced his decision to enter the race. Kennedy, like McCarthy, made opposition to the war the central issue of his campaign.

Johnson also faced a more hostile Congress. Sen. J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, opened new hearings on administration’s conduct of the war. In the House, 139 members signed a petition asking Johnson for a complete review of Vietnam policy. These responses reinforced the administration’s belief that additional escalation would prove increasingly divisive.

A beleaguered Johnson called for a meeting of 14 unofficial senior advisers he referred to as the Wise Men—former Cabinet officers, presidential aides, ambassadors, generals and others. They included former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, former Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy and three retired generals, Omar Bradley, Matthew Ridgway and Maxwell Taylor.

Johnson had gone to the Wise Men for counsel as recently as November 1967. They had recommended that the president stay the course in Vietnam and press ahead with his current program. Now in the wake of the Tet Offensive, Johnson turned again to the group for advice.

The Wise Men met on March 25, joined by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Clifford. The group was briefed by military and CIA officials, who said that even with reinforcements it might take an additional five to 10 years to defeat the Communists in Vietnam. After two days of discussion, the Wise Men met with the president and told him they had concluded that the war was unwinnable with current policies. Though there was some disagreement, the Wise Men had reached a general consensus on America’s role in South Vietnam. No additional troops should be sent. The bombing of North Vietnam should be halted. And the United States should move toward a negotiated settlement and disengagement.

Johnson was shocked by this shift in opinion among these solidly anti-Communist elder statesmen and military leaders, some of whom had helped shape the policies that had gotten the United States involved in Vietnam in the first place. A visibly angry Johnson complained, “The establishment bastards have bailed out [on me].” Nevertheless, the Wise Men’s recommendations, clearly a repudiation of his war policies, greatly influenced the president. He wrote in his memoirs that he had asked himself at the time, “If they [the Wise Men] had been so deeply influenced by the reports of the Tet offensive, what must the average citizen in the country be thinking?”

On Sunday, March 31, Johnson spoke to the American people in a nationally televised broadcast. He said the Tet Offensive had been a failure for the Communists, but he did not offer any optimistic predictions. Instead, the president announced a halt to the bombing raids in North Vietnam except for an area north of the Demilitarized Zone and called upon North Vietnamese leaders to join the United States in peace talks. And at the end of the speech Johnson paused and said: “With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office—the presidency of your country.” Then he stunned his listeners: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” The Vietnam War had finally destroyed Johnson’s presidency.

In June 1968, Westmoreland, who had commanded MACV for 4½ years, was brought home and promoted to U.S. Army chief of staff. Johnson had made the decision to replace Westmoreland with his deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams, in mid-January before the Tet attacks, but the delayed announcement enabled Westmoreland’s critics to maintain that the president had become disenchanted with the general for reasons related to Tet and “kicked him upstairs.”

In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive and Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election, the United States became embroiled in a bitter election campaign. Former Vice President Richard Nixon received the Republican nomination for the presidency and implied that he had a “secret plan” to end the war if elected. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party splintered over the war issue. McCarthy and Kennedy won most of the presidential primaries. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who did not compete in the primaries, entered the race in April with Johnson’s support. Kennedy was assassinated in June after winning the California primary, and Humphrey won the nomination in August at a chaotic Chicago convention marred by bloody street battles between anti-war protesters and local police. Humphrey was too closely identified with Johnson’s failed policies in Vietnam to unite his party, and Nixon won the Nov. 5 election. He was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1969. Vietnam was now Nixon’s war.

Nixon began to implement a policy called Vietnamization, which bolstered South Vietnam’s armed forced with improved training and a vast modernization effort. Concurrently, he began a withdrawal of American troops that continued until almost all U.S. ground soldiers had left by the end of 1972. In spring 1972, U.S. advisers and massive American air power helped the South Vietnamese beat back a North Vietnamese invasion.

After secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese and a stepped-up U.S. bombing campaign, the combatants reached an agreement to end the war. The Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, and a cease-fire was initiated soon thereafter. By March all American military forces had been withdrawn from South Vietnam. The cease-fire, however, was only a momentary lull in the fighting, which continued for two more years until the final Communist offensive overran South Vietnam in April 1975.

The Tet Offensive proved to be the turning point of the Vietnam War, and its effects were far-reaching. Even though the Communists were soundly defeated at the tactical level, their psychological victory at the strategic level set into motion the events that culminated in the long and bloody U.S. withdrawal and then the fall of South Vietnam. 

James H. Willbanks, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and decorated Vietnam veteran, is the General of the Army George C. Marshall Chair of Military History at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the author or editor of 14 books, including The Tet Offensive: A Concise History, published in 2007.

First published in Vietnam magazine’s February 2018 issue. 

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