Long-held beliefs that the Tet Offensive was intended to produce a single-stroke victory are challenged by new insights into one of the 20th century’s most astute military commanders.
General Vo Nguyen Giap understood very early in the game what the major players in the United States’ strategy failed to grasp until 1968—that a South Vietnamese government and society sustained by American power was by definition mired in contradictions and at odds with itself. We may never have a complete understanding of how the plan for the Communist 1968 Tet Offensive evolved and was formally approved; written accounts do not note internal debates, and recollections are invariably politically biased. There was no “main effort” in the traditional military sense. The attacks on Saigon were only symbolically more important than those elsewhere. Communist forces went after everything, everywhere: cities, towns, rural districts, airfields and military camps defended in many cases by a mere company or two. As General Tran Van Tra recalled: “Different military forces had to be formed to suit different targets….Therefore, it was of the utmost importance that, at a very early stage, we build special mobile attack units and on-the-spot sapper units and pre-assign them to each and every target.”
In an excerpt from his book Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam, James A. Warren reexamines Giap’s stamp on the Tet Offensive.
The Communists suffered ghastly casualties in the general fighting in February and March 1968. About 45,000 of the 80,000 troops in the first waves were killed or badly wounded within that time frame. The People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) [Viet Cong] guerrilla units had spearheaded the attacks on the cities, where resistance was far stronger than in the hinterlands. So badly were these units mauled that many were never reconstituted. Other PLAF battalions and regiments took on large numbers of replacements, but they were usually North Vietnamese troops, and the fighting for the remainder of the war would be dominated by regular People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) [NVA] units trained and equipped in the North.
The infrastructure in the South was badly damaged, but not irretrievably so. The Communists failed to hold on to any of their early territorial gains, largely because once American ground commanders recovered from the shock, they were able to drive comparatively lightly armed, widely dispersed Communist units from their positions with superior numbers of infantry and massive firepower. The South Vietnamese army suffered heavy casualties, though nowhere near as heavy as those suffered by the PLAF, but the people of South Vietnam failed to rise up en masse against the Saigon government, as some of the PAVN and PLAF senior commanders in the field and members of the senior leadership in Hanoi had fervently hoped.
If the allies had more than held their own in the offensive in a tactical sense, beating back Communist forces expeditiously and putting Giap on the defensive militarily, it was equally clear that Tet was a stunning strategic victory for the Communists, and the war’s critical turning point. It clearly set into motion a series of events that would lead to the abandonment of America’s long quest for military victory and a decision by President Lyndon Johnson to de-escalate the conflict. Week after week following the launching of the offensive, as Johnson and his advisers weighed their policy options, the gruesome images of the fighting in Hue flickered across American television screens. The tenacity of the enemy belied General William Westmoreland’s sunny reports of Hanoi’s imminent demise. Public pressure on the Johnson administration to change course escalated sharply, as more and more American opinion makers—national newscasters, business leaders and academics—joined the ranks of the doubters, and in some cases, the protesters in the streets.
Shortly after the offensive commenced, General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attempted to pressure Johnson to call up the reserves to meet worldwide strategic obligations and to send a large number of reinforcements—about 100,000 in all—to Westmoreland in Vietnam, hinting obliquely that if he failed to do so, the United States might soon be faced with a military catastrophe. Wheeler’s assessment was disingenuous and manipulative. In no sense was South Vietnam on the verge of collapse, not with half a million American troops spread all around the country, and Wheeler knew it. A public furor erupted when the story of the request for the call-up of 200,000 troops was leaked to the New York Times in early March, fueling an already acrimonious debate within the administration over war strategy.
Johnson by this point was agonizing over Vietnam and, according to some accounts, exhausted, on the brink of collapse. Each day it seemed there were new outbursts of public dissent and criticism from the media, the doves in Congress and the burgeoning antiwar movement. Under growing pressure from all sides, Johnson instructed his new secretary of defense, the urbane moderate Clark Clifford, to undertake a searching reexamination of options in Vietnam. An influential coterie of civilian defense analysts in the Pentagon had already produced a series of trenchant reports and memos, arguing that further escalations were likely to produce more casualties and more public dissent, but no decisive results in Vietnam. One of the most influential of these documents focused on the nub of the problem: “The enemy can control his casualty rate, at least to a great extent, by controlling the number, size and intensity of combat engagements. If he so chooses, he can limit his casualties to a rate that he is able to bear indefinitely. Therefore the notion that we can ‘win’ this war by driving the VC and NVA from the country or by inflicting an unacceptable rate of casualties on them is false.”
By the end of March, Clifford had consulted at length with “the wise men,” a group of distinguished American generals and statesmen, including Omar Bradley, Dean Acheson and Averill Harriman. After considerable reflection and debate, Clifford and the wise men reached a consensus. The U.S. strategy in Vietnam was not working. The United States could not impose a military solution on the Communists, “at least not in any time the American people will permit,” opined Acheson, who served as the group’s spokesman. Expanding the war with additional forces would only result in needless death and destruction.
What, then, should be done? The only prudent option, they explained, was to extend an overture to Hanoi to seek negotiations, to begin to draw down U.S. forces and to gradually shift the burden of fighting to the South Vietnamese.
Two months after the offensive began, the Johnson administration abandoned an attrition strategy that sought victory through the destruction of Giap’s military forces, and kicked Westmoreland upstairs to become the Army’s chief of staff. Search-and-destroy operations would continue for some time under the command of Westmoreland’s successor, General Creighton Abrams, but they would no longer be a core element of U.S. strategy. In a dramatic address on March 31, Johnson spoke in measured tones of “peace in Vietnam.” He would take the “first steps to de-escalate the conflict” and was prepared to “move toward peace through negotiation.” To encourage Hanoi to compromise, he had ordered a bombing halt over all of North Vietnam except for its panhandle, the staging area for infiltration of PAVN forces into South Vietnam. He went on to remark that the “main burden” of defending South Vietnam “must be carried out” by the South Vietnamese themselves. Then came the shocker: He “should not permit the presidency to become involved in partisan divisions” then enveloping the country, nor would he seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency.
Although it is seldom mentioned in histories of the Vietnam War written by Americans, Giap did in fact launch two more offensives in 1968, just as his 1967 plan had called for. The attacks in the later offensives of May and September were far fewer than in Tet, but generally involved stronger forces. In the northernmost five provinces, the fighting was particularly intense. Here more than half of all American combat forces—54 battalions—squared off against PAVN forces of the same strength in a series of extended, inconclusive engagements. In eastern Quang Tri, the Marines and the PAVN fought throughout the month of May in a brutal engagement around Dong Ha that cost the Americans about 1,900 casualties and Giap’s forces 3,600. In total, U.S. forces suffered more men killed in action in May than in February. The second and third offensives reinforced the (correct) impression that Hanoi remained militarily strong enough to carry on fighting, its resolve unbroken by casualty rates that dwarfed those of the Americans. In November 1968 Johnson called a halt to the bombing of all North Vietnam, and for the first time the American president indicated that he would be willing to grant the National Liberation Front (NLF) its own seat at the negotiations table, joining Hanoi’s, Saigon’s and Washington’s delegations. The war was about to enter the “fight and talk” phase the Communists had long sought.
While there is a clear consensus among serious students of the conflict that Tet was a conventional military defeat but a strategic victory for the Communists, they disagree passionately as to whether its outcome was the result of Giap’s brilliance as a strategist, or a misinterpretation of the offensive’s results and a regrettable lack of willpower on the part of the United States. The “stab-in-the-back” school is loath to give any credit at all to Giap (and by extension, Hanoi) for America’s strategic defeat. The origins of this school lie with General Westmoreland, who would claim as the fighting came to an end in Hue that the Communists had “used up their military chips” in a last “throw of the dice.” Westmoreland thought the offensive had been a devastating failure that should have led to a decisive U.S.–Government of Republic of Vietnam counteroffensive, including an “amphibious hook” by U.S. forces into North Vietnam’s panhandle to crush Giap’s divisions near the DMZ and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He also envisioned thrusts into NVA sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. Instead of pressing on with an aggressive counteroffensive that could very well break the Communists’ back once and for all, Washington and the American people lost their nerve.
The media deserved a great deal of the blame, as Westmoreland would explain years after the war had ended, in its biased obsession with the egregiously low estimates by Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) of Communist military strength, and the failure of the attrition strategy implied by the very launching of the Communist offensive. Liberal reporters and editors had distorted the meaning of the offensive, playing up the shocking ferocity of Giap’s audacious attacks and MACV’s failure to anticipate the scope of the Communist initiative.
In the 1980s and 1990s a number of respected analysts, notably Harry Summers and Lewis Sorley, put forward more nuanced variations of this interpretation, focusing attention not so much on the media, but on the Johnson administration’s misreading of what really happened on the ground and on the opportunities the offensive opened up for U.S. military operations. It was not the audacity and superior strategic understanding of the Communist leadership that led to strategic victory, but misperception on the part of the policymakers in Washington and generals in Saigon. Summers believed the United States should have spent less time and effort in pacification and anti-guerrilla actions and instead made a full-bore effort to isolate the PAVN from the battlefields of South Vietnam, causing the Communist forces to wither and die in big-unit battles.
In A Better War, Sorley presents the Tet Offensive as a failure for the Communists, for it demonstrated that the people of South Vietnam by and large did not support the revolution’s quest for reunification. Quite the reverse, he claims: “One of the great, if unremarked ironies of the war was that the enemy’s ‘General Offensive/General Uprising’ provoked not the anticipated uprising of the population in support of the invaders, but just the opposite—general mobilization in support of the government.” Both Sorley and Summers see Giap as having cynically sacrificed PLAF units, holding back North Vietnamese divisions, presumably to enhance the power of Hanoi at the expense of the NLF in the revolutionary enterprise. In their reading, the decimation of the Viet Cong exposed the illegitimacy of Hanoi’s leadership rather than its audacity or resolve. Phillip Davidson, another prominent historian of the conflict, suggests that Giap launched the offensive not so much after a careful and accurate assessment of the political and military state of play in Vietnam, but because he had to do so. American battlefield successes had forced him to abandon protracted war in favor of “an all-out drive for victory at one stroke.”
Lingering beneath the surface of these interpretations, one detects a strong current of hurt pride and humiliation over what transpired in the hellish early months of 1968. (Summers, Sorley and Davidson all fought in Vietnam as U.S. Army officers.) Davidson, and to a lesser degree Sorley and Summers, seems determined to denigrate the Communist victory because it was won not on the battlefield, but in the living rooms of the American people and in a series of agonizing conferences over scores of position papers filed by civilian “experts.” How could the Communists be said to have won when so many of the objectives they presented to their own soldiers and civilians failed to materialize? Yet, was it not true that what Giap’s forces did on the battlefield served as the catalyst for political defeat? Surely it was.
The release of classified documents on both sides since war’s end, as well as our growing understanding of Giap’s way of war, has gone far in exposing fatal weaknesses in the stabin-the-back school and its variants. While there is no denying that the South Vietnamese people failed to rally in droves to the Communists, which was one of Giap’s stated objectives, Sorley’s assertion that the people of South Vietnam rushed to mobilize behind the government is wishful thinking, plain and simple. The evidence suggests that the civilian population of South Vietnam hardly rose up in passionate defense of their government in Saigon. Rather, they were traumatized by the heavy combat and, in classic Vietnamese fashion, “sat on the fence,” not wanting to attach themselves to one side or the other while the issue was in doubt.
In a sense, the fury of the military action all over the country forced them to do so. Their first concern was to stay alive, and Tet’s main effect on civilians was to deepen their despair and war-weariness. The offensive produced more than half a million new refugees, mostly the result of the destructiveness of American supporting arms. Never at any phase of the American war in Vietnam did the government of the Republic of South Vietnam enjoy strong support among its own people. True loyalty to Saigon among the South Vietnamese was in as short supply as the belief that the regime had a coherent vision for a brighter future for its peasantry.
Top-secret assessments of the fighting during the offensive among the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff reveal they had the same doubts and concerns that were expressed by the American media. For the most part, the media had reported what it had seen and heard in an unbiased fashion. Even the most seasoned and respected journalists in the United States were shaken by Tet and sensed its ominous ramifications for the entire U.S. war effort.
While it is certainly true that Hanoi called on its own people “to overcome all hardships and sacrifices,” “overthrow the puppet regime at all administrative levels” and place “all governmental power in the hands of the people,” this was hardly the critical objective by which Hanoi would judge Tet a victory or defeat. Rather, these were Tet’s optimal objectives. One seriously doubts that a strategist with Giap’s realistic appreciation of the strength of American forces in late 1967 truly expected to achieve them. In his articles assessing the current state of the war in late 1967, Giap cautioned his comrades against excessive optimism. He indicates obliquely that he did not expect a quick or total victory from the next major revolutionary initiative—clearly a reference to Tet. A mid-1967 Central Committee resolution echoes Giap’s sentiments, painting the attacks of early 1968 as “the first stage in a process [italics mine] involving a very fierce and complex strategic offensive which will combine military and political attacks to be carried out… in combination with the diplomatic offensive.”
If the complete collapse of Saigon and a Communist as- cension to power were not seen by Hanoi as Tet’s crucial objectives, what were? No one really knows for sure because we have no access to detailed discussions of the issue in late 1967 and early 1968. My own belief is that the crucial objective was not outright victory but, as the official history of the People’s Army of Vietnam put it, “to crush the American will to commit aggression and force the United States to accept defeat in South Vietnam and end all hostile actions against North Vietnam.” Given Hanoi’s healthy respect for American military strength, and what little we do know of its pre-launch discussions, it seems far more plausible that this, indeed, was the most important of the several objectives enumerated in the Central Committee resolution. As historian Gabriel Kolko writes, Giap’s “main concern was with the impact of military action on the political context of the war, both in South Vietnam and in the United States. That political framework…would prove crucial, and an offensive was an essential catalyst in the process of change…. In the largest sense, the primary objective of the offensive was to influence the United States.”
If we judge Tet in this light, it was clearly a brilliant success, albeit a costly one in blood. Despite Phillip Davidson’s claim that Tet marked the abandonment of protracted war and a quest for “complete victory in a single stroke,” neither Giap nor the Communist leadership as a whole thought of it that way. Tet was the continuation of protracted war by other means, an escalation in revolutionary violence, but it hardly marked the abandonment of protracted war strategy.
Of course, this does not mean that Hanoi had no hope at all that the attacks would bring about Saigon’s collapse, but it seems much more plausible that that lofty objective was meant primarily to inspire revolutionary fervor—the mysterious “power of the masses” that Giap and the other senior leadership believed to be a defining element of people’s war; indeed, it might be said to be the distinguishing element of people’s war. The popular uprising was more a goal to inspire than a make-or-break objective. As historian and archivist of the Vietnam War Douglas Pike points out, the idea of the general offensive–general uprising in Vietnamese military thinking had long functioned largely as a “social myth” designed to capture the “Vietnamese imagination, to heighten revolutionary consciousness and rouse the peasant to battle….Whether the general uprising would ever become a reality was irrelevant, what mattered was that people were willing to act out their lives as if it were a reality.”
Johnson’s speech confirmed that Giap and Hanoi had achieved Tet’s most important objective. Tet turned out to be what Giap had hoped it would from the beginning of the planning process: not the final victory in the American war, but a decisive victory nonetheless. It had set in motion a chain of events that would lead to withdrawal, and it signaled the end of the long phase of American escalation.
In a 1990 interview with journalist Stanley Karnow, Giap explained: “We chose Tet because, in war, you must seize the propitious moment, when time and space are propitious. [The attack’s] scope and ardor proved that both our army and people were disciplined and determined. We attacked the brains of the enemy, its headquarters in Saigon, showing it was not inviolable. Our forces destroyed large quantities of other equipment and crushed several of its elite units. We dramatized that we were neither exhausted nor on the edge of defeat, as Westmoreland claimed. And though we knew most Americans had nothing against us, we wanted to carry the war into the families of America, to demonstrate, n’est pas, that if Vietnamese blood was being spilled, so was American blood.”
Vo Nguyen Giap’s Tet campaign revealed at once his audacity, acute sense of timing and breadth of thinking about the chemistry of war and politics. Don Oberdorfer writes in his classic account of the Tet Offensive that he “came to the conclusion that Tet was a classic case study in the interaction of war, politics, the press and public opinion.” So it was, and Vo Nguyen Giap was its principal author. In planning and executing Tet, Giap went beyond Mao’s doctrine, practicing a way of war that was distinctly his own. For the second time, he had forced a great nation to see the limits of its power and the futility of challenging the Communist revolutionaries on the battlefield. Tet was Giap’s second masterpiece as the commander in chief of the People’s Army of Vietnam.
Excerpted from Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam, by James A. Warren. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.