Today is the 50th anniversary of North Vietnam’s “Tet offensive” that is largely credited with finally breaking the back of American resolve to prevail in Vietnam. As Peter Braestrup demonstrated in copious detail in his terrific book Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, the media and most historians got the story completely wrong—a story recounted well today in the Wall Street Journal by William Luti. It was, Luti points out, a massive example of what we now call “fake news.”
Tet was a massive military defeat for North Vietnam, but a political victory because it was portrayed as defeat for the United States here at home. That is not to say that the Johnson Administration, our military leaders, and especially our intelligence community at the time don’t bear some culpability for their own counterproductive self-delusions that contributed to the left-liberal media narrative. Here’s some of my account of Tet from chapter 5 of the first volume of The Age of Reagan:
On January 30, in the middle of the Tet new year holiday, North Vietnamese regular army troops and Viet Cong troops struck in a coordinated attack on 36 of South Vietnam’s 44 provincial capitals, and 70 other towns in the country. The North Vietnamese also unleashed a ferocious attack on the U.S. base at Khe Sanh that lasted two months. The North Vietnamese stormed the coastal city of Hue; it required some of the hardest fighting of the war over the next month for U.S. Marines to retake the city. The most stunning blow of the surprise attack was the guerrilla raid on the U.S. embassy in downtown Saigon. Nineteen Viet Cong commandos blasted a hole in the perimeter wall of the embassy compound at 3 a.m., and killed five U.S. GIs upon storming the embassy grounds. (Four South Vietnamese policemen assigned to guard the embassy fled when the shooting started.) U.S. forces killed all of the commandos within a few hours, but the episode, occurring amidst an unexpected and widespread offensive, was a severe embarrassment for the U.S. . .
The Tet offensive proved to be the turning point of the war, delivering a fatal blow to political support for the war in the United States. Even though Tet was a disappointing defeat for North Vietnam in strictly military terms, it exposed the bankruptcy of U.S. war policy and aims in Vietnam, and prepared the way for America’s eventual humiliation. The most surprising aspect of the Tet offensive was that it was not really a surprise at all. Yet the episode shows how even a superior force can be taken by surprise both militarily and politically when it lacks the initiative in war. Since the North Vietnamese had the initiative instead of the U.S., it was possible for their elaborate campaign of deception to succeed in maintaining the element of surprise, even though the U.S. discovered numerous details of the attack to come. . .
Throughout the Fall the signs of a major attack continued to accumulate. In October the number of trucks observed heading south on the Ho Chi Minh trail jumped from the previous monthly average of 480 to 1,116. . . In November the number of southbound trucks spotted on the Ho Chi Minh trail jumped again, from 1,116 counted in October to 3,823—an eightfold increase over the previous year’s monthly average of 480. A series of documents were captured that outlined the battle plan in general terms (including the notebook released to the media on January 5 mentioned above). North Vietnam began conducting a swift and brutal purge of officials who urged negotiations with the U.S. rather than a military offensive. Over 200 officials, some of them very senior in the Communist party and the government, were arrested and given long prison sentences. Some were executed. There would be no doves in Hanoi. Near the end of November a CIA analyst named Joseph Hovey circulated a memorandum to U.S. leaders including President Johnson that predicted a major North Vietnamese offensive against South Vietnamese cities in the coming months. Hovey’s analysis was dismissed as unrealistic.
In December the signs intensified. The number of trucks seen on the Ho Chi Minh trail nearly doubled again, from 3,823 spotted in November to 6,315. On December 20 Gen. Westmoreland cabled a warning to Washington, explaining that the signs suggested that North Vietnam had decided “to undertake an intensified country-wide effort, perhaps a maximum effort, over a relatively short period.” . . .
With the memory of Dien Bien Phu prominently in mind, Westmoreland and U.S. leaders cast their eyes up to the large U.S. base at Khe Sanh, located in a northern province of South Vietnam not far from the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). Four divisions of North Vietnamese regular army troops—over 40,000 troops—were massing near Khe Sanh, where 5,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese troops were stationed, in what looked like a repeat of the Dien Bien Phu strategy. Westmoreland and U.S. intelligence thought that all this Viet Cong talk of an uprising in the cities was a diversion away from Khe Sanh, where the main attack was expected to fall. They had it exactly backward: Khe Sanh was the deception, intended to draw U.S. attention and resources away from the cities, and the U.S. largely fell for it. The U.S. calculation actually made good sense. U.S. intelligence knew that there was little prospect for a spontaneous uprising of the South Vietnamese populace, and couldn’t believe that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong believed it. (It turned out that many VC cadres on the ground in the South didn’t believe it either, but never told their higher ups. Several VC officers captured during Tet told interrogators that they never expected an uprising in their assigned area, but carried out their attack in hopes that it would stir an uprising in other cities.) In an ironic way the blinders of Communist class struggle ideology helped serve the purpose of deception.
So even as more intelligence accumulated in January that an attack on South Vietnamese cities was a serious prospect, U.S. war planners continued to downplay the threat and misjudge the timing. On January 9 U.S. intelligence received a captured document that described a reorganization of the command structure of Viet Cong forces. “At the present time,” U.S. analysts wrote, “no explanation is available as to the reason for this reorganization.” Caches of weapons and propaganda leaflets calling for an uprising were found near Saigon throughout January. Well-equipped VC sapper teams were caught infiltrating areas near U.S. bases. The National Security Agency, which collects and analyzes “signals intelligence” (SIGINT), reported that radio intercepts indicated preparations for attacks on cities in the central coast region of South Vietnam, and increased enemy activity near Saigon. But based on the predominance of radio traffic near the borders and the DMZ, the NSA still thought, along with Westmoreland, the main blow would come at Khe Sanh. Only General Fred Weyand thought that the action elsewhere might be significant. On January 10, Weyand, the commander for the southern region of South Vietnam including Saigon and the Mekong River delta, canceled plans to move troops in his sector toward the Cambodian border, and ordered 15 battalions to be redeployed near Saigon, a fortuitous move that greatly aided the defense of Saigon during Tet. But neither Weyand nor anyone else in high command thought that the attack would come during the Tet holidays, and over half of U.S. combat forces were detailed for the northern provinces, away from the cities. . .
The Tet offensive was a military failure—for the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam failed to take any major South Vietnamese city except for Hue, from which they were ejected within a month—but not until after massacring over 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians, an episode only lightly reported by the media. Except for Khe Sanh, Hue, and one or two other locations, the enemy offensive was spent within a few days. By the end of February Hanoi was ordering a general retreat, which ironically happened to coincide with the moment of maximum pessimism in Washington. Out of a total attack force of 84,000 troops, nearly 50,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were killed in Tet. These losses decimated the Viet Cong, destroying their command structure and morale among troops. Viet Cong offensive capabilities suffered and dwindled for the next three years; much of the rest of the war was fought by North Vietnamese regular army troops. Viet Cong defections increased dramatically in the aftermath of Tet. The U.S. suffered 1,100 dead; the South Vietnamese lost 2,300. Indeed it can be argued that General Giap botched the attack; having achieved tactical surprise, the attack was dispersed too widely, with not enough troops in any one location to score decisively.
There’s much more, including the role played by the North Korean seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo around the same time, but this is enough for today. You’ll just just have to get the book to read the rest!