The Tet Offensive is widely regarded as the most significant event of the Vietnam War due to the impact it had made and the importance it had on the subsequent withdrawal of the United States. Why is the Tet Offensive considered a success even though statistically the North Vietnamese received a crushing defeat? One of the most effective impacts the Offensive did was breaking the stalemate of the War. The US, sensing the defeat of the South Vietnamese rural influence, introduced a large number of combat troops in 1965. The US had been preparing for this to happen ever since the anti-Diem coup, so they could make the transition from MAAG, which played an advisory role, into a more combat type - resulting in the creating of the MACV in 1962 on February 8th. However before this, the pre-1965 period is known as the “Golden Age” for the Vietcong forces. Based on testimonies by former insurgents, volunteers for the Vietcong exceeded the planned recruitment goal with an abundance of volunteers leftover. People preferred to join the Vietcong organisation rather than that of the more militant South due to a better known standard of living and reward based schemes. With both the Vietcong and MACV forces amassing a huge number of troops a sense of uneasiness and destruction of the stalemate seemed close by. The MACV received not only more troops but more firepower also, the equipment needed to fight a wider war if need be. As these senses heightened the US began search and destroy missions planning for the Vietcong destruction due to overwhelming firepower. But this was largely ineffective, and only lead to increased despair for the civilians of Vietnam, the US forces and the US homeland. This continued for many years and in 1967 the Vietcong began to push for a wide offensive as a means to break the stalemate in their favour.
The objectives and plans of the Offensive can be contributed by the key payer for the southern revolutionaries, General Nguyen Chi Thanh. Thanh believed that a large-unit offensive would be able to break the stalemate, a different plan to what they did at Dien Bien Pay to the French. Although achieving the requirements for the “The General Offensive-General Uprising” would certainly be doable, General Vo Nguyen Giap disagreed and criticised this plan. Giap was well respected as a Defence Minister and a hero of Dien Bien Phu, he argued that the timing of Thanh’s plans was not the best and that with the American forces spread so thin, harassing guerrilla attacks would be more effective. Whose end goal was to have “a withdrawal of American Forces from South Vietnam to bring about the negotiations leading to a new, communist government in the South”. This clearly shows that from the beginning Giap and the revolutionary forces were well aware that from a military aspect ti would be unlikely that they would achieve victory. So he devised a plan around achieving a political long term goal. Even though Thanh’s sudden death in July 1967, and the command switching to Giap, the objectives for the Tet Offensive became a mixture of both Thanh’s and Giap’s plans. This mixture can be seen in the three objectives according to James Willbanks: 1. Provoke a general popular uprising in the South, 2. Shatter the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces, and 3. Convince the US that the war is un-winnable. The first two objectives clearly originate from Thanh’s plans due to their militant nature but the third being more political. This is incredibly important as the third objective as this drove them to attack the cities which they hoped would expose any weaknesses of the southern forces. Even though the military objective was to weaken the South Vietnamese Air Force, the communists did not draw them out to fight rurally but bring the fight into the cities. This plan required the use of both the standard units and the paramilitary units with each having their respective tasks. According to the official history of the PAVN, the forces allocated to the operations in the I Corps were given “the missions of annihilating enemy forces and of drawing in and tying down significant portion of the mobile reserve forces of the US and puppet armies [ARVN], thereby creating the favourable conditions for the focal points of our attacks and uprisings, especially for Tri-Thien and Hue”. The Offensive was preceded by multiple light probing attacks along the Cambodian-Vietnamise border as a means to test the strength of the opposition. Followed by the majority of the regular units and some local units massing near the DMZ. This force served as a feint to draw the US military focus away from the cities, and it worked. The night before the Offensive an estimated around 50 percent of the MACV was concentrated to defend Khe Sanh where General Westmoreland thought the main attack would come from. Leaving the other half to defend the rest of the country. The first attack was at Nha Trang in the II Corps, followed by several more on the two cities in the I Corps and other five in the II Corps. However it is unknown why these attacks occurred one day before the major part of the Offensive. Nonetheless they communists had achieved a surprise attack when the North used up all of its 80,000 available units on the 31st of January. Ultimately, a total of 36 out of 44 provincial capitals, 5 out of 6 self-governing cities, and 30% of district towns and other military installations.
Now with these objectives as a backdrop we can assess who won the Tet Offensive. In a sense neither sides achieved a clear victory. However the revolutionaries had achieved their objectives more than that of the US and South Vietnamese. The first objective was in fact a failure, they wanted to provoke a general uprising of the South Vietnamese civilians however they did not. If anything their actions made the people even fear a communist takeover due to events such as the killings in Hue. The second objective, the destruction of the RVN’s military, achieved a mixed result. The Vietcong showed that they could muster a large force but eventually suffered large losses as the US forces gained momentum and utilised their far superior weaponry. Nonetheless, the communists performance in the third objective to change American policy was very effective as the large scale destruction, especially that of Hue was increasingly effective in the media. According to an estimate, the urban ares that received higher destruction from the offensive were: 50% of the capital of Pleiku, 40% of the town of Ben Tre, 25% of Vinh Long and Ban me Thuot, and 20% of Da Lat were destroyed in the fighting. And naturally the third objective was the most important objective when assessing in hindsight, the events of the Offensive affected the approval ratings of the war and President Johnson leadership abilities. After Tet, the two numbers of those who identified themselves as “Hawk” or “Doves” moved in opposite directions and the ratings equaled around mid-March 1968. The disapproval of the war in the Media increased tenfold and when the New York Times broke the story on the 10th March about Westmoreland requesting an additional 206,000 troops, dissatisfaction of the public was overpowering. Out of the 206,000 requested troops only 13,500 would be approved. On 25th March 1968, a Harris Poll reported that 60% of American public opinion saw the Tet Offensive as a standoff or defeat for the US cause in Vietnam.
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