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Why was the Tet Offensive of such significant importance?

The 1968 Tet Offensive is widely regarded as the most significant event which occurred during the Vietnam War and a major turning point. The United States had been fighting a ground war in Vietnam for three years prior to the launching of the Tet offensive in January 1968. The Tet offensive was a stark change in strategy by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Vietcong, who had been fighting a guerrilla campaign up to this point. “Communists used new weapons, new tactics and actually stayed to fight for prolonged periods.”

Over the course of this essay many important questions will be posed which are vital, in terms of understanding why Tet was of such massive importance. What aims did the North Vietnamese government have for the Tet offensive and what did they expect it to achieve? Did they achieve these goals? What role did the US media have to play in altering the popular opinion of the US population on the war? How much of an impact did US grandstanding and deception to the US people before the Tet offensive, have on the losing the people’s trust in their ability to win the war?

We will first look at what the planning process of the North Vietnamese was and discuss what they hoped to achieve with the attacks. The North Vietnamese had not taken the decision to launch this attack lightly and the original plan for what they called ‘The General Offensive-General Uprising’ was created by General Nguyen Chi Thanh. It called for “amassing both military and political strength to carry out a series of surprise attacks in places where the enemy least expected, specifically Saigon, Hue and Danang; drawing out and striking at US forces in the mountainous region of Tri Thien, Tay Nguyen(Central Highlands) and in the south-east region.” “The decision to embark on the General Offensive-General Uprising was not taken at one particular meeting. Rather it was a process which began in Spring 1967 when the Vietnamese communist leadership came to accept that it could not afford to prolong the war indefinitely.”

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It was only after Thanh’s death on 6 July 1967, that Defence Minister Vo Nguyen Giap took control of overseeing the application of the plan. The ultimate communist aim for Tet before it was enacted was that they were striving for “a withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam to bring about negotiations leading to a new, Communist dominated government in the South.” This was the vision of the Communists, who now viewed a military victory in the South as unlikely and were concentrating on their political goals. They were concerned with creating a chasm between the relationship of the US forces in the South and the South Vietnamese, which they believed to be already strained. They were also interested in destroying the pacification program which the US was undertaking in the South. The main military aims for the communists during Tet were “first, destruction of American main forces, then, in descending order, American and Allied bases, ARVN, and the Saigon government.”

In order to fully comprehend what the significance of the Tet offensive was, it is important to give a brief summary of the important events and tactics used. The North Vietnamese moved troops to Khe Sahn and lay siege to the city a week prior to the full Tet offensive, in what now is widely regarded as a diversionary tactic to lure American troops away from Saigon and other built up areas.

This extract was taken from a Hanoi radio broadcast and also appeared in the daily Communist army newspaper the same day. “The Americans were surprised strategically, surprised as to the time and the place where they were attacked. The US aggressors expected attacks on the northern Khe Sanh area, as predicted by US generals, but they did not expect attacks on almost every city and important base-the areas the US puppet troops firmly believe they absolutely control.” Giap had enough troops at Khe Sanh to take the city, but he didn’t do this, which again is a clear indicator that this was not the objective of the Communists.

Even if the Americans realised that this was a diversion, they could not simply abandon the city, so they needed to defend it in a strong fashion. “The Khe Sanh base was the western anchor of the DMZ defences, that its loss would allow the enemy into the areas contiguous with the heavily populated coastal zones and that abandonment would be a major propaganda victory for the enemy.” The full Tet offensive struck during the first night of the Tet holiday in late January 1968. There were attacks on over 80 cities, army bases and towns, the most important being attacks on Saigon and Hue.

While the military aims and goals of the Communists, which were discussed in the planning section above, were of high priority, the most important aspect of the Tet attacks were firstly, that they would be a major psychological blow to the Americans resolve to win the war Secondly, that they expected a vast amount of South Vietnamese to see them as liberators and to join them during and after Tet. The first point about the psychological aspect of the attack is a very interesting one and shows how cunning and methodical the Communist thinking was. This is linked most clearly to the Communist attack on Saigon. The battle of Saigon was a massive surprise to both the Americans and the South Vietnamese, not least because it occurred during the truce period for the Tet holiday. The Vietcong attacked during the first night of the holiday, and even managed to enter the US embassy, where they remained for six hours.

There was widespread chaos throughout the city that night. “Indeed, the attack on Saigon was one of the longest of the battles of the offensive. The Communists had entrenched themselves well around the airport and the allied forces were finding it extremely difficult to oust them from their positions, even with air support.” Saigon was headquarters for US operations in Vietnam and was thought of as being out of reach for a Communist attack. While the city was never really in danger of falling to the Communists, it showed that there was no place in Vietnam that they were unwilling to go, and was a huge victory for the Vietcong in terms of affecting the US outlook on the war. Saigon was a massive “psychological attack that would show the Americans that they were not threatened by their heavy fortified base of command. This attack was so shocking to the American public, that it helped change public perception of the war.”

The fact that most American journalists were based in Saigon also made it vital to changing the public opinion at home towards the war and indeed changing the US governments view as well. The attack could be described as an assault on US hopes and attitudes. How the war was being reported during and after the Tet attacks changed and because of modern technology it “provided the press a means of indirectly involving the American public with the war on an almost hourly basis.” They were in a since directly emotionally involved in a war like never before.

Reporters like Walter Cronkite, ‘the most trusted man in America’, had a stellar reputation in the eyes of the public and his pessimistic reporting of what was happening during Tet and after, really instilled in the US people, and also the US government, the sense that this war was unwinnable. “It was the first time a war had been declared over by an anchorman.” “when Walter Cronkite announced during the Tet Offensive of 1968 that he believed the conflict was no longer winnable, the statement destroyed the American public’s will to continue to resist the Communist aggression in South Vietnam.” The fact that the US government did not censor the press in Vietnam and they were allowed to access all areas turned out to be a blunder of gigantic proportions. There was no unified political agenda. This mistake made by the US in Vietnam was never to be repeated.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems for the US was the fact that before the Tet attacks, they had been painting a rosy picture for the US people to digest, in relation to US progress in the war. The US army spokesman in Saigon kept saying the war was “as good as over.” General Westmoreland was as guilty of this as anybody else. On 21 November 1967, Westmoreland stated in an address to the nation “With 1968, a new phase is now starting. We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.”

These reassurances were offered to the American people in abundance before the Tet attacks occurred, so they served to increase the sense of shock and dismay in the people when the images of the attacks on Saigon and other places were beamed into their living rooms. “If the war was being won, how could Tet have occurred?” The reason this campaign, to enhance US public support for the war, was undertaken by Oval Office was that support was starting to wane for the war in the year preceding the Tet attacks. Johnson knew he needed to redress this trend and felt that “America can be made to swallow an ugly war with the promises of ‘victory’, especially if the process does not intrude too greatly on the normalcy of domestic life.”

Ironically, it was this building up of public confidence that was to be Johnson’s downfall in the end. The fact that the people felt lied to and that they had their expectations risen by these bogus and exaggerated claims of US progress in Vietnam, created a sense of hopelessness when the Tet attacks removed the veil of governmental deception. The presidential election was to be held in the US in 1968 and there is evidence that the Communists took this into consideration when planning the Tet attacks. This was taken from highly classified US documentation in 1968. “In a US election year they apparently expect the overall political/military results will cause the US to seek an end to the war on terms favourable to the Communists.” What occurred during the New Hampshire primary gives a great indication of the fallout from Tet.

It was scheduled for March 12, just six weeks after Tet was launched. Johnson’s main opponent was Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was running on an anti-war campaign but was expected to not be any real threat to Johnson. However, McCarthy came agonizingly close to defeating Johnson, which can be directly traced back to public fallout from Tet. “Although polls conducted in January indicated that McCarthy would garner only 10 percent of the Democratic vote, his numbers surged in the aftermath of Tet and he came close to beating the incumbent, falling short only by several hundred votes.” A few weeks later Johnson addressed the nation and announced that he would not be seeking re-election. Tet was also responsible for removing Westmoreland from his command and this was of tactical importance.

Westmoreland had always favoured his troops fighting a ground war and after his removal from command, the reliance on this tactic faded into the past. This helped create a situation where the North Vietnamese felt they were in a better position to achieve their ultimate goal of a Communist lead South. “Bernard Brodie, in one of the more balanced and illuminating interpretations of Tet, concludes that the Communist planners of Tet knew what they were doing and that their plan was to shock Washington into a change of heart on the war so as to hasten American withdrawal from the ground war, such withdrawal being the necessary and sufficient condition for victory in the South.”

The other psychological aspect to the Tet attacks involved the view held by the Communists that they could garner support from a vast amount of the population in South Vietnam and that they would be seen as liberators. They tried to use propaganda to drive a wedge between the US and the people of South Vietnam as well as the army of Vietnam (ARVN). They tried to raise doubts in the minds of the South Vietnamese that the American commitment was not strong.

This issue was raised in former US classified documentation written in June 1968. “South Vietnamese doubts of the future have probably increased sharply, and there is considerable concern about the strength and depth of the US commitment. Despite some tightening of the ranks both inside and outside the government, the total response of the GVN has not yet taken shape, and the non-Communist political forces have still not developed the kind of political cohesion that would permit the leadership to act with sureness in the new situation.”

The Vietcong also used various propaganda tools to “plant the notion of an alternative political solution in the minds of the South Vietnamese.” They used radio stations to assert that the South Vietnamese government was collapsing and urged listeners to either join with the revolt or to remain neutral.

They also made wild claims that it was not they who had violated the Tet holiday truce, but the Americans and this insurgence was simply a response to these heinous American crimes against Vietnamese sacred times. They insisted that the Vietcong were winning incredible victories throughout the country and that American and South Vietnamese forces were attacking innocent civilians. These outrageous claims by the Vietcong were “intended to terrify the population, aggravate the chaos in the streets, and soften up the population for the next onslaught. Their efforts were supported by attacks on South Vietnamese radio stations that took them off the air during the first few hours of the offensive.”

The next step in this psychological attack was the ‘Golden Opportunity’ theme, which basically called upon ARVN soldiers to turn their guns on the Americans or hand them over to Vietcong troops. Families were urged to persuade members to fight for the Communist side, and civilian administrators and functionaries were told to simply walk away from their jobs in the Saigon government.

These people would be rewarded with positions within the Communists regime if they complied. “All ARVN units who deserted en masse would be rewarded, and their commander’s given positions of responsibility in the Vietcong. Anti-Regime politicians would be welcomed and given the leading role in the ‘Alliances’…….anybody who pointed out a government agent or functionary or who turned over to the Vietcong stolen government documents would be welcomed and rewarded.”
These attempts by the Communists to engage the population of the south with the objectives of the north proved to be fruitless on the whole. “The marginalized urban masses remained immune to their appeals, and although a substantial minority were attentistes (opportunists who support the side that is winning), most of them were of doubtful reliability.

In many rural areas the party’s stress on physical security did not allow it to operate freely among peasants, many of whom had become apathetic or too traumatized by repeated suffering and repression to dare to make a visible political commitment to anyone- whether the NLF or the Saigon regime.” They had underestimated how much support that they would receive from the South Vietnamese people, a lot of whom by this point in the war had no other ambitions other than to survive. Also many civilians were outraged by the actions of the Vietcong during the Tet attacks.

They had attacked during a sacred time for the Vietnamese people and had also committed some devastating atrocities during these attacks, most notably at Hue, where the failure of civilians to comply with NVA troops caused mass killings. Hue was also important because it was where the ancient citadel was located, which the Communists would try to use in their psychological battle with the civilians of the south. If it was under their control, they could threaten its destruction if the population did not comply with their demands.

The US did not do themselves any favours in their response to these attacks, treating the civilian population as badly as the Vietcong and NVA did and also showing disregard for Vietnamese tradition. Ancient sections of Hue were destroyed by US forces who rained down devastation upon it from the air, also killing many civilians. As one soldier put it “we had to destroy the town to save it.” Another massacre by the US occurred in the village of Song My.

The US forces believed it to be centre for Vietcong. When the villagers refused to talk when the company interrogated them, they went on a rampage. “Soldiers threw an old man down a well, bayoneted others, and shot children and women running down the road. Then Calley ordered them to push hundreds into a ditch and start firing. When it was over by 11:00am, more than five hundred Vietnamese civilians lay dead.

The US troops were showing the effects of the psychological scars which the Tet attacks had left on them and they were creating a chasm between themselves and the South Vietnamese civilians.

When looking at the Tet offensive’s significance, the most obvious point to make was that it changed the minds of the American people and government about the ability of America to actually win this war. The realisation that hit the American hierarchy was that in order to be triumphant in Vietnam, they would have to pay an almighty price, a price they really couldn’t pay. “After Tet, the consensus of wise men was that this was no longer a war that could be won at an acceptable cost.” Tet showed America and indeed the world that the Vietcong were willing to pay whatever price was necessary in order to win.

They suffered very heavy losses during Tet, but Hanoi would have been aware that massive losses would be an inevitability when the plan was created. The carrying out of this plan despite this inevitability, showed the Americans that they were willing to pay the ultimate price for the cause. “They realized that whatever the losses at Tet, Hanoi retained the manpower, will and logistical means to replenish its capabilities in the South, and could do so for an indefinite future. In essence, the light at the end of the tunnel, always dim and distant, disappeared altogether.” Could it be said that the American troops were as committed as the Vietcong? Clearly not, and the sacrifice made by these North Vietnamese troops added to the psychological aspect of the Tet attacks.

They were not planning on winning the war with Tet, but rather creating an atmosphere in the South where they could gain victory in the future. They showed that they were in this for the long haul. “Perhaps the clearest point to emerge is that the Communists were not discouraged by the initial results. Their dramatic move reinforced world attention on the Vietnam War and increased their worldwide stature, and it created staggering social and economic problems for the Saigon government, problems that require a rapid solutions. The Communists did not achieve victory in one fell swoop, but this does not appear to have been their intention.”

The Communists got many of their assumptions right about the consequences of Tet in the US. Tet questioned US commitment to the war, and this was found to be lacking. “Tet was the moment when the public, Congress and the media gave up on the war.” They also were very astute in their timing of Tet, reasoning that by launching the attack in a US presidential year, that it would have an effect on future Vietnamese strategy from the US. This is also linked to the public perception of the war, and the general consensus was that “America won no hearts or minds in Vietnam- they lost them.”

Although certain points were very negative for the Communist side during Tet, it clearly stands out as the moment where they created a situation for themselves to win the war and stands out as the turning point of the whole Vietnam war. “the Tet Offensive convinced the American electorate and America’s leader, President Johnson, that the war could not be won and that it was time to begin negotiations for a settlement and an American withdrawal. It was a turning point in the war, a moment from which there was no turning back.”

Bibliography
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Guan, Ang Cheng, Decision Making Leading to the Tet Offensive (1968)- The Vietnamese Communist Perspective, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 33, No. 3, (Jul., 1998), pp. 341-353.
Hammond, William M., The Press in Vietnam as Agent of Defeat: A Critical Examination, Reviews in American History, Vol. 17, No. 2 (June, 1989), pp. 312-323.

Helms, Richard M., The Pacification Effort in Vietnam, (16 Jan, 1969), http://www.foia.cia.gov.
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Pribbenow, Merle L., General Vo Nguyen and the Mysterious Evolution of the plan for the 1968 Tet Offensive, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, (Summer 2008), pp.1-33.
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Uschuk, Pamela, Remembering the Tet Offensive as Troops Ship out for a U.S. Attack on Iraq, Ploughshares, Vol. 30, No. 4, (Winter, 2004/2005), pp. 157-158.
Walton, Jennifer, The Tet Offensive: The Turning Point of the War, OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 18, No. 5, Vietnam (Oct., 2004), pp. 45-51.

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