Vietnam Part VII
The Tet Offensive
“The communists are unable to mount a major offensive…”
“I hope they try something, because we are looking for a fight.”
-General William Westmoreland
Remarks made weeks before the massive Tet offensive
We often forget that there are many participants in a war. It is never a matter of Ali vs. Frazier. Numerous factors enter into the decisions that are made before, during, and after combat. Often the strongest side does not win. It is safe to say that the side that wants victory in the worst way has a decided advantage.
In mid-1967 all the participants in the Vietnam conflict were at a crossroads. South Vietnam’s president and vice-president were bitter rivals and were more interested in eliminating each other than in helping their country. Up north, Ho Chi Minh was in poor health (he died in 1969) and maybe was shell-shocked after 48 years of struggles, imprisonments, disease, and utter frustration at being unable to unify his country. The Communist Party was divided among “hawks” that wanted a military victory and no part of negotiations (the “Chinese” faction) and people who saw no chance of victory and wanted to talk (the “Russian” point of view).
The Viet Cong depended on North Vietnam for money, weapons, and intelligence, but there was rivalry between their commanders. They were also uncertain as to what would happen if they finally “won.” Would the northern commanders take over and ignore them?
Back in the USA, support for the war was eroding. Polls showed that half of the population saw no end to the conflict, and they wondered how many more of our soldiers would be killed or crippled. Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary, was preparing to resign. There was a budget crisis; it would take an additional $10 billion to extend the war for a few months (plus an additional 200,000 troops). The country was in no mood to increase taxes, and they did not believe Lyndon Johnson’s rhetoric that we could afford both guns and butter without more taxes. Financial advisors were warning about an impending collapse of the economy.
By late 1967 politicians were setting the stage for the 1968 presidential elections. You know how vicious that gets. President Johnson was torn apart by a number of domestic issues and frankly had no idea of who to believe about what was going on in Vietnam. He resorted to calling on strategy gatherings for advice. The best that these people could do was agree that whatever we had been doing until then, even though it was ineffective, should be what we continued to do.
A terrible mess. No matter: there was no shortage of people who thought that they could fix it all. In North Vietnam the “hawks” won the political battle. Dozens of “doves” were arrested or eliminated. The plans for a major offensive were drawn up. General Giap, their best officer, was against this decision but went along with the plans (his other choice was to be imprisoned or killed). Hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops were mobilized. The Tet holiday (Vietnamese New Year) was designated as D-Day.
Both American and South Vietnamese forces knew that something was afoot. General Westmoreland, who in November had been summoned by President Johnson to speak to Congress in order to convince them that he needed more money, thought that this mass mobilization was in preparation for an attack on Khe Sanh. He ordered more than 100,000 troops to move north. This left Saigon vulnerable. Westmoreland’s second in command was able to convince him to bring the troops back. In retrospect, a wise decision.
Late January 1968 a massive, coordinated attack on most of the major population centers in the south began. Hué, the storied Imperial City, suffered the most.
South Vietnamese forces, for the most part, did their duty. American forces, despite the fact that their commanders had been utterly surprised (200 high-ranking officers were at a cocktail party in Saigon that evening), reacted quickly and effectively. Most of the invaders had been rejected within two days. The battle for Hué was house to house and bloody; it took weeks for that tide to turn.
In the end, the VC and North Vietnamese forces suffered frightening losses. More than 100,000 killed during 1968. North Vietnam’s infrastructure and economy had been devastated. They clearly had no way of continuing for long.
Fortunately for them, American public opinion was outraged. The people had been told that the “communists” were about to be defeated; that they had no capability to mount an all-out attack. Then they saw that Saigon and Hué were threatened. The political pressure was on.
Clark Clifford, the new defense secretary, had a reputation for being an advocate of a military solution. Once he took office he backtracked. He saw negotiations as the only way. Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for president; he would punt the decision to a new man. Support for the war collapsed. The rest is history.
Hué’s story is both sad and inspirational. The Citadel, the ancient home of the emperors, had been chosen as a site for South Vietnamese troops to house themselves. This was the first place the Viet Cong attacked. Sixty percent of the old buildings were destroyed; I mean to the ground. A large part of the Citadel was destroyed. The invading forces had local agents who led double lives; they worked in Hué but were called upon to guide the invading troops to key sites within the city. Once the invaders were turned away they felt that they had no choice but to kill everyone who had seen the double agents helping them. Once the South Vietnamese gained control of the city several mass graves were found.
Today Hué is a vibrant and progressive city. Home to some of the best universities in the country. Thousands of young people frequent its bars and restaurants, having little idea of what happened to their home 48 years ago. The Citadel is home to a booming tourist trade. When there is enough money the old structures will be rebuilt.
Many lessons to be learned. Our president trusted the generals too much. I agree that experts should be in charge of their expertise, but oversight is key: results should count for something.
We should never, ever decide to start a war before we know how this venture will be paid for. If American people had been told that Vietnam (and Iraq, for that matter) would mean a tax increase there is no chance that that vote passes Congress. It should be up to the generals and the politicians to convince us that this new adventure will be worth the money.
Everyone should serve. During Vietnam many of the wealthy and influential got deferments. People who had no intention of finishing college enrolled because they were protected against the draft. Donald Trump did not serve; neither did Bill Clinton. This is ridiculous. We should commit to national service for all, at age 18, with no deferment for anyone. The current burden of serving in the military is borne by a small percentage of the population. I think this is immoral. We should all go; if not in the military in some form of service to the country.
I wish I could say something logical about bombing architectural treasures, but both sides are at fault here. The South for housing their troops in treasured sites; the North for attacking them; the US for trying to kill the enemy. I doubt this will ever change.
Today I extend my best wishes to this beautiful and often tortured nation. May they continue to grow through trade and education. May the growing middle class exert enough pressure on the established order to force meaningful establishment of the rule of law. May your fields always be green, and your sun always bright.
May we soon call you and all of Southeast Asia best friends.