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One of the greatest mysteries of the Vietnam War is how the allied military victory achieved during the 1968 Tet Offensive—a victory so complete that for the rest of the war the Viet Cong guerrillas could never again play a significant military role—was ultimately turned into a crippling American political defeat. The stock answer has long been that it was all the fault of the news media. But there is much more to it than that.

While the media unquestionably played a role, the real answer has to do with the collapse of the nation’s “national command authority,” the top-level chain of command, including the president, the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

“What was striking—and important—about the public White House posture in February and March 1968 was how defensive it was,” wrote Peter Braestrup in Big Story, his landmark 1983 work on Tet. “In retrospect, it seemed that President Johnson was to some degree ‘psychologically defeated’by…the onslaught on the cities of Vietnam.”

That in itself was strange. Compared to previous American battlefield setbacks, the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 1968 Tet Offensive was rather tame. In this century alone there was the disastrous Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, where the United States lost most of the Pacific Fleet; the surprise German counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, where the Allied advance was halted and two whole regiments of the U.S. 106th Infantry Division surrendered to the enemy; the initial defeats in Korea in July 1950, where the commanding general of the 24th Infantry Division was captured and the entire Eighth U.S. Army decimated and pushed back into the Pusan Perimeter; and the cataclysmic shock of the Chinese Communist forces intervention in November 1950, which inflicted terrible casualties and drove the Eighth Army and X Corps out of North Korea.

In each case the initial news media accounts were filled with hysterical prophesies of doom and defeat. And Tet 1968 was no exception. However, in previous cases, these hyperbolic initial reports were countered by reassuring government statements that the situation was under control and that things were not as bad as they seemed—that American forces would soon be back on the road to victory.

But there was no such political counterattack during Tet. Instead of rallying the nation, as Franklin Roosevelt had done after Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Bulge, and as Harry Truman did after Taejon, Kuni-ri and Chosin, Lyndon Johnson remained reclusive in the White House.

“If he did not appear in public to be as depressed as those subordinates whom he later chided for their gloom, he did not strike a decisive public stance,” noted Braestrup. “He emphasized the need to stand firm, but he did not spell out what this meant, or how the battlefield situation was changing, as he saw it, in Vietnam. He left a big void, which others hastened to fill.”

Why did the Tet Offensive have such a profound effect? For one thing, LBJ’s heart was not really in the war in the first place. Believing it jeopardized his “Great Society” programs, all he really wanted was for the war to go away. But war is not for the faint of heart. And the great military theorist Karl von Clausewitz noted 175 years ago in On War, “The more modest your own political aim, the less reluctantly you will abandon it if you must.”

But the fault was not Lyndon Johnson’s alone. Contributing to and compounding his “psychological defeat” was the perfidy—by definition the “deception through faith”—of his principal national security advisers, Secretaries of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Clark Clifford, and General Earle G. Wheeler, the chairman of the JCS.

To understand why these political happenings in Washington were to have such a profound effect, one must have a basic appreciation of the fundamentals of war. Traditionally Americans have seen war and politics as things apart, but in reality they are inexorably linked, for war in its essence is what Clausewitz called “a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means.”

Further clouding our understanding is the fact that the Vietnam War is usually explained in terms of the revolutionary guerrilla war theories of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-tung. However, the key to understanding the Vietnam War in general, and the 1968 Tet Offensive in particular, lies not in the then new and trendy counterinsurgency theories propagated by civilian academic experts and their soul mates within the military who arrogantly believed that with the tools of social science they could change the world. The answer instead lies in the age-old fundamentals of military science.

Paradoxical as it may seem, the explanation for the Tet debacle of 1968 was formulated some 130 years earlier. Writing in 1838 about what he called centers of gravity, “the hub of all power…on which everything depends,” Clausewitz described several such centers: “In small countries that rely on large ones, it is usually the army of their protector. Among alliances, it lies in the community of interest, and…the personalities of the leaders and public opinion. It is against these that our energies should be directed,” he went on to say. “I would…state it as a principle that if you can vanquish all your enemies by defeating one of them, that defeat must be the main objective in the war. In this one enemy we strike at the center of gravity of the entire conflict.”

Albeit by accident, that is exactly what the NVA and VC did with their 1968 Tet Offensive. While they could not and did not defeat the Army of South Vietnam’s protector (the U.S. military) on the battlefield, they did strike fatal blows at the community of interest between the United States and South Vietnam, at the personality of the U.S. commander in chief, Lyndon Johnson, and at American public opinion. As Clausewitz predicted, these centers of gravity proved decisive.

“War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale,” said Clausewitz, “but a picture of it as a whole can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers. Each tries through physical force to compel the other to do his will; his immediate aim is to throw his opponent in order to make him incapable of further resistance.” President Johnson was not only thrown by the enemy’s 1968 Tet Offensive, but pinned as well. And his handlers were no help at all.

The comparison with earlier wars is telling. After the disasters in World War II, FDR could count on the support and advice of his longtime friend Admiral William D. Leahy, his personal chief of staff and ad hoc chairman of the JCS, as well as the backing of the chiefs themselves, General George C. Marshall and Admiral Ernest J. King. And during the Korean War, President Truman could count on Secretary of Defense Marshall, who had been the Army chief of staff during World War II, and on General of the Army Omar N. Bradley, the chairman of the JCS. But President Johnson lacked such a solid base of support to fall back on.

Most Americans do not realize that unlike President Roosevelt in World War II and, to a lesser extent, President Truman in the Korean War, President Johnson did not directly command the armed forces through the JCS—which originally included the chairman, the Army chief of staff and the chief of naval operations, but after 1947 also including the Air Force chief of staff, and after 1952, the commandant of the Marine Corps.

With the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, the Congress created the Department of Defense, and the president delegated his command authority over the armed forces to the newly created secretary of defense. The secretary of defense became in fact, if not in name, the nation’s military commander in chief. President Truman quickly realized that fact after the initial disasters of the Korean War in 1950. He fired Louis Johnson, a political patronage appointee, and appointed General of the Army George Marshall to head that critical wartime post.

During the Korean War, the chain of command extended from the president as commander in chief to the secretary of defense and then to the unified geographic commands— i.e., the European Command, the Far East Command, etc.—through the JCS. An “executive agent” system prevailed in which the JCS designated a service chief—the Army chief of staff during the Korean War—to provide the link between the unified command and the JCS.

But the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958 abolished the executive agent system that had worked so well during the Korean War and in effect took the JCS out of the chain of command. The Vietnam War was the first (and only) war conducted under this new system.

Unfortunately, the Defense Reorganization Act coincided with a shift in focus of the responsibilities of the secretary of defense. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the concern was not with fighting a war but with managing the defense budget. Accordingly, a succession of businessmen—General Motors’ Charles Wilson in Dwight Eisenhower’s administration and Ford’s Robert McNamara in the John Kennedy administration—were named to that post. Known for his “whiz kid” team of accountants, bookkeepers and systems analysts, McNamara was a ruthless and efficient administrator.

But that was only part of his job. McNamara was retained in office after Kennedy’s assassination, and when the United States opted for direct military involvement in Vietnam, McNamara’s primary focus as secretary of defense should have shifted from management to his leadership responsibilities as the military commander in chief.

As defense secretary, he was the U.S. counterpart of North Vietnam’s defense minister, General Vo Nguyen Giap. The absurdity of the situation is apparent. Giap, the hero of Dien Bien Phu, was a military genius whose will to win never wavered. “During the war against the Americans,” wrote Stanley Karnow in Vietnam: A History, “[Giap] spoke of fighting ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty years, regardless of the cost, until ‘final victory.’ ”

But by McNamara’s own later admission, Giap had him whipped from the start. McNamara confessed during the 1984 CBS–Westmoreland libel trial that he became convinced as early as 1965 or 1966 that the war “could not be won militarily.” In other words, three years before Tet, the will to win of the U.S. military commander in chief had already been broken.

That was fatal, for war at its essence is a contest of wills. And the will of the commander is crucial, especially when things go wrong. “It is the ebbing of moral and physical strength…that the commander has to withstand—first in himself, and then in all those who directly, or indirectly, have entrusted him with their thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears,” said Clausewitz. “The inertia of the whole gradually comes to rest on the commander’s will alone. The ardor of his spirit must rekindle the flame of purpose in all others….Only to the extent that he can do that will he retain his hold on his men….Once that hold is lost, once his own courage can no longer revive the courage of his men, the mass will drag him down to the brutish world where danger is shirked and shame is unknown.”

McNamara reached those depths early on. Instead of telling LBJ of his long-held reservations about the war, he kept silent while at the same time sending the troops under his command into a war he believed was not winnable.

A month after the Tet Offensive began, McNamara resigned as secretary of defense and was replaced by Clark Clifford. But that was no improvement. A longtime Washington wheeler-dealer and Johnson crony, Clifford admitted in his 1991 memoir, Counsel to the President, that he was brought in because Johnson wanted “a secretary of defense who supported his policy.” But instead, as Clifford himself makes clear, President Johnson was betrayed again.

“At a time when what was needed was new leadership and a new strategy in Vietnam,” noted Lewis Sorley in a review of Clifford’s book, “Clifford set about ensuring that…American involvement in the war and American support for the South Vietnamese would be progressively and inexorably eroded. What is more significant, he did this not in furtherance of his president’s policy and direction but in defiance of it, forcing the president into one untenable position after another and ultimately usurping the role of commander in chief. This may be deduced from Clifford’s own testimony, given proudly and without apology.”

Clifford told his staffers, “I want to impress upon the president that our posture is basically so impossible that we have got to find some way out.” But, “far from convincing Johnson,” Sorley notes, “Clifford simply hamstrung him.” As Sorley concludes: “It is one thing to seek to influence the formulation of policy, quite another to faithlessly undermine that policy once formulated. Clifford represents himself as being very proud in doing the latter.”

Sad to say, the support President Johnson received from the JCS was no better. While the chiefs of staff did not consciously betray their commander in chief, neither did they provide him with the kind of straightforward military advice to which he was rightfully entitled.

The most damning critique of the role of the JCS during the Vietnam War was made by one of its own members, Army General Bruce Palmer Jr. “The JCS seemed to be unable to articulate an effective military strategy that they could persuade the commander in chief and secretary of defense to adopt,” Palmer said in his 1984 work, The 25- Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam.

“There was one glaring omission in the advice the JCS provided the president and the secretary of defense….Not once during the war did the JCS advise the commander in chief or the secretary of defense that the strategy being pursued most probably would fail and the United States would be unable to achieve its objectives.”

“The only explanation of this failure,” Palmer concluded, “is that the chiefs were imbued with the ‘can do’ spirit and could not bring themselves to make such a negative statement or to appear to be disloyal.” But by withholding their negative views from LBJ, they were the very embodiment of disloyalty, guilty of what the U.S. Military Academy’s honor code calls “quibbling,” a form of lying by evasion where the entire truth is deliberately left unstated.

Far from rallying to the president’s support at Tet, the JCS further undermined his will and resolve and, in so doing, unwittingly gave what would prove to be the coup de grâce to further American involvement in Vietnam. Instead of convincing Johnson that things were not as bad as they seemed, they used the enemy attack as a pretext for pushing for mobilization of the Reserves to shore up America’s depleted strategic reserves.

From their standpoint, that deception was justified. As Palmer pointed out, the JCS had earlier “lost control of the overall strategic direction of American armed forces as the burgeoning force demands of Southeast Asia quickly consumed the strategic reserve of forces in the United States previously earmarked for the reinforcement of Europe or Korea, or for an unforeseen contingency elsewhere.”

During Tet, North Korea seized USS Pueblo and a possible crisis in Berlin was brewing. Thus “the administration could not be certain,” said Herbert Y. Schandler in The Unmaking of the President: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, “that these events did not represent a concerted Communist offensive designed to embarrass and defeat the United States not only in Vietnam but elsewhere in the world.”

With that threat in mind, wrote Schandler, Wheeler and the chiefs of staff “saw Tet as an opportunity to force the president’s hand and achieve their long-sought goal of a mobilization of the reserves.” To that end the chiefs “laboriously solicited an ‘emergency’ request for reinforcements from a supposedly beleaguered field commander.” The U.S. commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, was led to believe that “the administration was ready to abandon the strategy of gradualism it had been pursuing and perhaps allow him the troops and authority he had long wanted in order to end the war in a reasonable timeframe.”

“I envisaged a new approach to the war that would take timely advantage of the enemy’s apparent weakness” said General Westmoreland, “for whereas our setback on the battlefield was temporary, the situation for him as it developed…indicated that the enemy’s setbacks were traumatic.”

But General Wheeler had his own agenda. “In his report to Washington,” said Schandler, “General Wheeler emphasized the gravity of the situation in South Vietnam and said nothing about a new strategy, about contingencies that would determine the level of forces required there, or about reconstituting the strategic reserve for possible use independent of Vietnam. Indeed his report contained a very somber and pessimistic picture of the South Vietnamese government and army.”

Wheeler’s report had really ominous overtones to it,” Clifford told Schandler. “It seemed to me he was saying that the whole situation was a precarious one, and we had to have additional troops. I thought (and everyone did) that he was saying he needed 206,000 additional troops in Vietnam. Whatever the reasons, he made a case for 206,000 more men. He came back [from Saigon in February 1968] with a story that was frightening. We didn’t know if we would get hit again, many South Vietnamese units had disappeared, [and] the place might fall apart politically.”

Westmoreland had been set up. In stressing the negative aspects of the situation in Vietnam, Schandler concludes, Wheeler “saw Tet and the reaction to it as an opportunity, perhaps the last opportunity, to convince the administration to call up the reserve forces and…allow some military flexibility to meet other contingencies. Vietnam was the excuse, but was not necessarily to be the major beneficiary of a [reserve] call-up.”

But he was too clever by half. General Wheeler’s ploy backfired badly. Instead of precipitating a reserve call-up as intended, his report triggered a major reevaluation of the war. “Give me the lesser of evils,” President Johnson told Clifford, his incoming secretary of defense. “Give me your recommendations.” As Schandler points out, “It would become one of the most controversial episodes in recent American history.”

What made it especially controversial, noted Dave Richard Palmer in his landmark work Summons of the Trumpet: US–Vietnam in Perspective, was not so much the hot debate within the administration, but the fact that “it was almost as quickly pre-empted by a press leak. A disgruntled official told The New York Times of the military’s request for 206,000 reinforcements, although failing to mention that it was supposed to support a proposed change in operations.

“The news broke in headlines spread across three columns of the Sunday edition of 10 March 1968. For all intents and purposes, that story ended the debate—and killed Westmoreland’s plans for a dynamic new strategy.

“Looked upon erroneously but naturally by readers as a desperate move to avert defeat,” Dave Palmer wrote, “news of the request for 206,000 men confirmed the suspicions of many that the result of the Tet offensive had not been depicted accurately by the president or his spokesmen. If the Communists had suffered such a grievous setback, why would we need to increase our forces by 40 percent?

“For years officials had been uttering rosy public statements; for years the war had dragged on. Just three months before, in fact, [General Westmoreland] himself had returned to America to assure the public that all was well, that the end was in sight. Now the war had exploded, and that same general was asking for still more men to wage a still wider war.

“It was too much,” wrote Dave Palmer. “The public rebelled. From that moment on the majority of Americans no longer supported the president in his conduct of the fighting. In the election year of 1968 there could be no further escalation of the conflict, not if the Democrats hoped to retain the White House.”

“We had won a major victory,” says Clifford in his autobiography, referring to his successful fight for control over the text of the presidential speech that marked the beginning of American disengagement from Vietnam. But that “victory” soon turned to ashes.

In a television address on March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced, as a bid for peace, a partial cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam. He also took himself out of the race for a second term. As Dave Palmer concludes: “the nation and its president had received a wrenching psychological defeat, had suffered a galling defeat of the very soul. That the defeat was largely self-inflicted made it no less real or crippling.”

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here