James Willbanks: Tet’s Truths, Myths and Mysteries

When Lieutenant Colonel James Willbanks, U.S. Army (ret.), was teaching courses on the Vietnam War at the University of Kansas, he found there wasn’t a good book on Tet that drew all the various strings of the offensive—or its subsequent interpretations—together. Willbanks’ 2007 book, The Tet Offensive: A Concise History, which he said he wrote essentially to be a guide for teachers, has filled that void well. The Vietnam veteran, who served as an infantry adviser during the two-month siege of An Loc in 1972, has also written The Battle of An Loc and Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War. As we mark the 45th anniversary of Tet, the director of the department of military history at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth discusses how the surprise offensive came to be and how it changed the course of the war.

When did you serve in Vietnam?
I was commissioned in 1969 at Texas A&M and after training at Fort Benning was sent to Germany, where I spent 17 months in the 3rd Infantry Division before volunteering for Vietnam. By then most of the U.S. combat troops were gone, so I was to be an adviser. After 11 weeks of language school at Fort Bliss, I arrived in Vietnam in December 1971. I worked with the Royal Thai Army for two months before I was transferred to the 18th ARVN Division as an infantry adviser. The first couple of months were relatively uneventful, but then, on Good Friday, the Easter Offensive began and we went to An Loc on April 12, right before the first attack on the city. A major and myself replaced an advisory team that had been wounded and evacuated earlier in the battle for Loc Ninh.

An Loc was an epic battle. What was your impression of the ARVN troops?
Every element of their ground forces, with the exception of the Marines, was represented in the battle of An Loc, and the combat peformance was uneven at best, from extremely good to not very good. The troops that were well-led were good and those poorly led were poor.

What did you do after your tour in Vietnam?
I left in December 1972 and stayed in the Army for the next 20 years. I served in the 1st Cavarly Division, the 9th Infantry Division, was with Southern Command in Panama and a tactics instructor at Fort Leavenworth. After retiring in 1992, I was working on a doctorate at the University of Kansas and joined the faculty at Fort Leavenworth.

I did take a two-year leave of absence in the late ’90s to work on writing infantry doctrine for the Royal Saudi land forces. It was an odd experience, but I enjoyed what I was doing and it gave me the opportunity to complete my dissertation on Vietnamization and the fall of Saigon.

And, how is your Vietnamese?
I’ve got nothing left after 40 years. I know enough to probably order a machine gun in a 7-11 in South Houston, and that’s about it.

Was Tet a brilliantly designed and executed offensive or a monumental U.S. intelligence failure?
Both. The North Vietnamese were able to plan a wide-scale offensive, but they weren’t totally prescient. There was a lot of conflict among the planners, and factions within the politburo’s military committee in Hanoi. There were those who took the more protracted-war approach and those who wanted to increase the level of violence. Those who wanted to escalate won out.

What were the chief factors contributing to the U.S. intelligence failure?
It largely was a result of what our measurement of effectiveness had been up until then. If General William Westmoreland’s metric was body count, then we were doing pretty well in 1967. There were major battles at Con Thien, the hill fights, Khe Sanh, out along Highway 9 and Loc Ninh down south, and the really big battle at Dak To. At each of those, the other side suffered horrendously, so by the metric of body count, we were doing well.

And that upbeat assessment based on body count was being actively propagated?
Yes. President Lyndon Johnson, who was under fire in his own party, needed to show progress on the war. So he launched the “success campaign” to convince the media and public that we were winning in Vietnam. In late 1967 he brought Westmoreland home to do the same thing, and he went all around, including the National Press Club, saying that the war was getting better every day and that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Then, on January 30-31, the world fell in.

Was there adequate intelligence to indicate that Tet was coming?
There was a flow of intelligence, but nobody was putting it all together. Perhaps more important, the intelligence we were getting flew in the face of our own preconceived notions about how the war was going. So, if you get intelligence that says the enemy is going to launch a nationwide offensive, you say, well that’s impossible, because we are hammering them at Con Thien and Dak To and places like that. So you think that perhaps the information about a pending uprising and such is just for the enemy’s own consumption, to build up the morale of their troops, who are dying in droves. No one was really doing the fusion and putting all the different things together. We knew there was an increase in traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; we captured operational orders and plans— even a training manual captured at Tay Ninh said there was going to be an uprising. We captured Viet Cong cadre with audio tapes that were going to be played on the day of liberation. But no one is putting the intel together in a way that said these guys might be capable of launching an attack with 80,000 troops. Then, even when we did believe a large offensive was coming, certainly after January 20, we believed Khe Sanh was the target.

Was the Khe Sanh attack intended to distract?
It certainly drew the attention of both the White House and MACV who, if they believed the indications about a new offensive were right, then believed Khe Sanh was it. So Westmoreland launched Operation Niagara and began to pound those 20,000 troops closing in on Khe Sanh. There is evidence that Westmoreland believed Khe Sanh was still the main target, even after the broad country-wide attacks were launched on January 31.

Was the misreading of intelligence a case of being locked in by entrenched beliefs, incompetence or hubris?
I think what happened is we convinced ourselves that body count was the right measure of effectiveness. Once we decided we were doing well, the information running contrary to that perception was pretty easy to simply reject, perhaps as wishful thinking on the part of the enemy. There were lists and lists of intelligence indicators, but none of them rose to the level and no one was pasting them together to predict a major attack. Johnson did say in Australia at the end of 1967 that he expected some form of offensive after the first of the year, but there was no notion of the scope and magnitude.

Why was Tet seen as a devastating American loss, even though the United States soundly defeated the enemy militarily?
Partly because of the expectations that had been fostered. We were doing well, and then the North Vietnamese suddenly launched a massive surprise attack, which was initially devastating in its impact. The rest of the story is that most of those attackers were either killed or captured—including those who were captured at the embassy, which was such a vivid portrayal of the fact that they could attack the seat of U.S. government power in Saigon at will. The damage was done by the images of the fighting on the grounds of the embassy.

To what extent was the media reporting responsible for the ultimate perception of Tet?
It certainly had a part to play but as far as I’m concerned that was the Army’s fault as well. When you go all the way back to 1963 to the battle of Ap Bac and the Army decided they were just going to put the best face on everything…well some things you can’t put a good face on, and when you continue to try, then pretty soon that which starts very small in terms of a credibility gap gets to be monumental by Tet. So when Westmoreland was standing there in the embassy trying to explain to reporters that we were winning, that is a pretty damn hard sell at that point.

In spite of the massive NVA/VC losses, wasn’t the North Vietnamese Offensive masterfully executed?
Recent findings from documentary evidence from the North Vietnamese show that they made some major miscalculations. There was substantial self-criticism after the fact, admitting they were guilty of subjective thinking, as we were. The North Vietnamese expected to win. They had to convince themselves that the time was right. Those things that didn’t fit in their preconceived idea were rejected out of hand, and they paid horribly for it. But in the end, that turned out to be irrelevant. When you look at the polls, American support for the war was spiking at the time of the surprise attack, then began to head toward the floor. And LBJ was like a stunned mullet. Once the initial stories were out there, there was really no effort by the administration to counter them with the facts that the offensive failed militarily. So the next thing you saw was your president basically saying I won’t run for reelection. So LBJ was the ultimate victim of Tet ’68.

Did the North Vietnamese believe Tet could cause such domestic tumult in the United States?
One of the things they set out to do was to convince the United States that the war was not winnable, but I don’t think they had any idea of the impact it could have, that they were going to force the sitting U.S. president out of office and the country would then unilaterally decide to withdraw. We had 500,000 troops on the ground at that point!

Was this the first time that the surprise in and of itself altered the balance of political will between combatants?
I suppose you could make the same kind of case about Pearl Harbor. The Japanese wanted it to be a knock-out blow. But, in that case, the unintended consequences was that a sleeping giant was awakened. In the case of Tet, for the North Vietnamese, the unintended effects turned out to be a very big positive.

How was it that Tet was such a pivot to U.S. strategy?
It is more about the expectations you build, and the expectations built by Westmoreland and the White House was that we were winning the war, and then suddenly to be attacked by 80,000 troops, that belied the image and added velocity to what was an already growing credibility gap. Tet was really the death blow to the credibility of the White House. When Johnson announced that he was bowing out of the presidential race, he was a broken man.

So managing the message and expectations becomes a big part of strategic thinking?
I wrote an op ed for the New York Times on the anniversary of Tet when General David Patraeus was ensconsed in Baghdad, stressing the point that he was a student of the Vietnam War and he wasn’t going to make any utterances that the end was near, because he understood that building expectations, that perhaps weren’t built on facts or were built on wishful thinking, was not a very smart way to go.

Doesn’t the public always want to know victory is within sight?
Well, sure. You can just unilaterally declare we are leaving, which we did in 1972, and are going to do now in Afghanistan, and then those poor sods who are left out there by themselves as advisers are up for grabs. Having been one of those poor sods in Vietnam, I understand what they are feeling. When Richard Nixon took over, he declared Vietnamization had succeeded. And it did, with massive airpower support and U.S. advisers on the ground. Nixon and Henry Kissinger determined that we were leaving, and that we needed to provide enough support for a decent interval so we could get our hats on and leave withnot too bad of a conscience. You have to ask yourself, how cynical is that? We told the South Vietnamese we would be there, and in the long run we were not. Then we signed the Paris accords that were ultimately the same agreement we had agreed to before we bombed the North Vietnamese in December 1972. We exacted nothing from the bombing, even when they were defenseless. The accords were the death warrant for South Vietnam, as it left all the remnants of the enemy’s 14 divisions and some 25 regiments in the south.

How well do we understand that military operations are not always the most important factor in winning?
Speaking for myself, not the Army; I think military leaders understand, but I’m not at all sure all civilian leaders do.

How important was the embassy attack to the overall impact of Tet?
When people think about Tet, they think of the attacks that ranged up and down the country. The embassy attack was part of it, but there were only19 guys, when some 80,000 others were actively engaged. I think what was so stunning was the scope and simultaneity of the whole thing.

You noted in your book that Vietnam was still holding back records about the war. Any improvement since then?
I think they are a bit more forthcoming. In Lien-Hang T. Nguyen’s Hanoi’s War [excerpted in the February 2013 issue of Vietnam magazine], in which she has had extraordinary access to documents, she says they’re still not too open about the planning of Tet. I guess they remain sensitive to the contentiousness and factionalism that existed within the politburo between the guys who wanted to go the more protracted approach and those who wanted to go for broke.

What is left to really learn about Tet, and do you expect more to emerge?
I think the remaining mysteries to be unwound relate to the machinations that took place in Hanoi. And some of that is coming out in the secondary literature, such as articles in Vietnamese newspapers and military history magazines.

Was Tet a big gamble or calculated campaign?
It was a calculated risk from the word go. All you have to do is look at what was happening to the NVA in the field. They were getting hammered everywhere. It was brutal. So the idea that they were in such a position of strength to launch the offensive is kind of laughable. On the other hand, the protracted war approach had cost them a tremendous number of lives, and I think that is a reason why they decided to go for decisive victory. The thinking was, the countryside will rise up, the ARVN will collapse and the United States will eventually go home. But they could have no idea it would be as successful as it was, despite the fact that they lost a tremendous amount of people. I never saw a Viet Cong in the year I was there.

Might it have been different if the intelligence had been fused?
I always wonder what would have happened if the intelligence failure hadn’t led to the immediate splash; what the outcome might have been if there hadn’t been a giant surprise and Westmoreland had realized there was a big offensive coming. And then, if the results even approximated what actually happened and LBJ didn’t resign, what would that have done to the war effort? Of course, we can never know the answer to that.

What should we all understand from Tet?
The key lesson is, you have to realistic and never build unreasonable expectations among the American public. You have to be careful about what the intelligence indicators are, and you have to have an open mind when you look at that intel, and if it does tell you something that runs counter to the popular opinion, then you need to go back and look at that intelligence with the view that perhaps the popular perception is wrong. In the instances of Tet, it was wrong.

Why was there no general uprising?
For one thing, the Communists had to denude their cadre in order to carry out the attacks. There were areas in the south prone to rise up, but in order to generate the number of soldiers for the attacks, the NLF had to pull cadre away from their political roles. Also, when you go in and massacre 2,800 civilians in Hue, as the North Vietnamese did, you begin to remove the ambiguity among the local populace of who the bad guy really is. I know that by 1972, the PAVN could care less about winning hearts and minds. When I was at An Loc, they were shelling the civilians and the same thing happened in II Corps and I Corps as well.

How much impact did Eddie Adams’ “Saigon Execution” photograph have on American perceptions?
The scene was also played on TV and the brutality of the war was brought home in spades, as the chief of South Vietnam’s national police so casually walks up and offs this prisoner. When people, say in Iowa, see that, immediately they say, “Crap, are we with the right guys here?” The rest of the story is irrelevant at that point.

That’s the whole idea of the small defeating the large…you have to mobilize public opinion the way you do that is with your own variety of shock and awe. That’s how asymmetrical warfare is prosecuted.

How has your role as an adviser in Vietnam influenced your outlook on the current situation in Afghanistan?
I can identify with the lads and lasses who will be left out there when the preponderance of U.S. forces are pulled out. There is talk of the residual force to be left as advisers and, you know, that worries me. I’ve got skin in the game with a son who is a captain in the 1st Cavalry.
This interview appeared in the February 2013 issue of Vietnam magazine.