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 fo 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. Eventually, a total of 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 5 of 6 self-governing cities, and 30% of district towns and other military installations.
Now with these objectives as a stage 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.
Since the beginning of the Second World War, media has evolved significantly. Television in particular since then has gradually improved and has been manufactured in large quantities. In the 1950s, around 9% of American homes owned a television, but in 1966 this figure rose drastically to 93%. Therefore it is evident that television became the most important source of news for the American public during the Vietnam war. The US government had increased difficulty in censoring any damaging material as along with television, there was a rise in new recording technologies such as the video recorder and audio recorder. This also allowed the journalists and reporters to relay information through many different medians. The distaste of the media eventually was the direct reason for the US withdrawal however the Tet Offensive not only marked a major turning point on the warfront but also as a major turning point in the media’s coverage of the war. Effectively the offensive was a clear military failure for the North, the media reported an omitting story. They largely focused on unfavourable events within the Offensive such as the Battle of Hue or the Vietcong’s attack on the US embassy in Saigon, while the media (intentionally) missed any large reception that it was a success. Following the Offensive, the media coverage of the war become mostly negative. The media focused heavily on images of both civilian and military casualties as shock value is an effective way to gain views as a broadcasting news network. This can be argued to not be the case as suggested by journalism historian Daniel Hallin, who suggests that it wasn’t the American media shifting to an oppositional stance but the fact that the media coverage of US action in Vietnam only became critical once the division between the political elite became known. Media simply reflected these divisions and did not manufacture dissent as a means to make the public oppose the government and its actions. Nonetheless the percentage of success orientated stories decreased from 62, pre Tet, to 44, post Tet. Moreover, many pictures from the war had become iconic around the world, such as The Execution of Nguyen Van Lem, The Napalm Girl (Pulitzer Prize winning) and the self-immolation of Vietnamese monk Which Quang Duc. These powerful images are very important for the increasing decline of public support during war-time.
Post Tet Offensive, the war continued to become more and more unpopular. This sparked more protests and demonstrations by the people throughout the US. For example the Peace Moratorium held on November 15th 1969, this involved around half a million people gathering around the White House. The rally was well organised and featured events such as antiwar speeches, physical and vocal protests and musical performances. With a memorable moment occurring when the large crowd sang along to John Lennon’s new song called “Give Peace A Chance”. The Peace Moratorium was later believed to be the largest demonstration in the US’s history. Two events in particular shook the US Homefront effectively; the My Lai massacre and the Kent State Shootings. The My Lai massacre on the 16th March 1968, involved a company of American soldiers brutally killing the majority of the population of the South Vietnamese village of My Lai. This event was covered up for over a year before it somehow surfaced. Having surfaced, there was international outrage and a special investigation was created for the event damaging the governments credibility hugely. And then the Kent State Killings. This was the shooting of unarmed college students who were involved and spectating protests towards the Vietnam war at the university by the Ohio National Guard. This event was arguably the most influential home front catalyst for the peak of Public distaste in the War and the very soon after withdrawal. This is most likely due to being on home soil and the manner in which they were killed. Pre Tet Offensive, the impact of the media towards any form of US withdrawal was close to non-existent. At the beginning of the war the press showed little interest in Vietnam. Few reports were made, of which primarily focused on concepts such as the Domino Theory. This was until the end of 1960, when many civilians in a coup against president Diem were killed the media slowly began to become more interested. Now with more focus on the war, naturally there was more material to work with and more negative news could now find its war into American Homes. During 1960 to 1964 brought many things into light, for example, the battle of Ap Bac being described as a complete failure. And then the icon event of Which Quang Duc’s self-immolation. The number of press corps in the war clearly presents the increasing interest in the war having grown from 40 corps in 1964 to 419 in August 1965. Over the course of the war and the Media’s increasing role, the government had to eventually make compromises with the people. In 1969, President Nixon began to implement the Vietnamization policy and began a gradual withdrawal of the US forces from Vietnam. Steadily from 1971 to 1973 the focus of the US media declined and after the Paris Peace Accords eventually signed on January 1973 the war was considered over for the US and its Media.
US Tactics and StrategiesThe US in early 1965, did not have a defined military strategy for the forces of North Vietnam. Yes, they did still maintain they're overall 'grand strategy' to contain and prevent the Domino Theory in Vietnam as a whole. But a strategy for the military had not been adopted yet. Until,August 1965, the JCS advocated an overall strategic concept for Southeast Asia, this include three goals: 1. get Hanoi to “cease and desist” in the south; 2. defeat the Vietcong in the South and improve government control of the South; 3. reject any interference from the Chinese and defeat any intervention if needed. In order to support these tasks, partial mobilisation was needed in order to make a sustaining force in Southeast Asia.1 Essentially what the JCS wanted in order to lay a structure for these goals was a sustained air and naval campaign against North Vietnam, blockades of North with land and air control in Laos and Cambodia as a means to stop movement of enemy troops and supplies. However this concept would become extremely restricted by President Johnson's Great Society Program which would only allow the military to operate within the confines of the South, a program of which he was very adamant on maintaining.
In order to not violate Johnson's wishes by expanding the war, and with no exact policy from the Secretary of Defence and the JCS, General Westmoreland implemented the military strategy of attrition war. This was labeled as “Search and Destroy.” Westmoreland's strategy contained four crucial attributes: firstly, that the main threat was the main forces of the Vietcong and the NVA in particular rather than the harassing guerillas. Secondly, the enemy force operated in unpopulated rural areas so the US needs to relocate the forces needed out of the urban populated areas to avoid potential social and economic issues. Thirdly, this then allows the US forces to fight a ground war without the hindrance to coordinate with South Vietnamese military and civilian authorities. Lastly, Westmoreland insightfully recognised that leaving pacification in the hands of the South Vietnamese would be more effective than the US.2 This strategy of attrition set the stage for military action that continued from June 1965 until the Tet Offensive of 1968. Westmoreland believed this strategy would allow the US the freedom to combat the communists forces effectively. However this strategy would then go on to impose very troubling consequences.
The weakness of the US strategy in South Vietnam can be attributed to both the military operations and the political factors which restricted the execution of such operations. The first weakness of the strategy is the difficult parameters already placed upon the commanders responsible for the war. Westmoreland was forced to create plans and execute a war with a passive/defensive military strategy. This was due to, as mentioned earlier, because of the restrictions created by president Johnson. These border restrictions made this passive strategy disastrous for a number of reasons. First, for the North Vietnamese these restrictions crucial for their own strategies. They could easily resupply men or material by moving across the 17th parallel and/or into Laos where the US could not pursue making these borders sanctuaries for the communist forces. Furthermore this ease of replenishing the forces needs allowed them to essentially control the momentum of the war as they could assume offensive operations at a timing and location when they choose. Secondly, this military strategy required the forces to defend all areas throughout South Vietnam. Combat support was heavily needed for the multiple bases scattered around the South, thinning the offensive force to the extent of creating a stalemate. Naturally, these bases would then require transport links for supplies, of which the North would utilise to their advantage. They would be used to attack populated areas and main supply routes as these smaller routes would not be guarded sufficiently due to the thin spread of US soldiers. Lastly, the fundamental weakness of the search and destroy strategy itself. The strategy required four crucial elements in order to be successful: find the enemy, fix the enemy, fight the enemy, and destroy the enemy.3 Step one in itself was extremely difficult. The Vietcong
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