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50th Anniversary of the Tet Offensive

Published on: January 29, 2018

Filed Under: Featured

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Photo: Feb. 5, 1968 | Vietnam | A large section of rubble is all that remains of this one square block area of Saigon after fierce combat. (AP)

January 30-February 24 The Tet (Tết) Offensive: The NLF launches simultaneous attacks on all US military bases in Vietnam and 110 cities and towns in South Vietnam, including 34 of 44 provincial capitals and 64 district capitals.

The turning point of the war occurs as 84,000 NLF guerrillas aided by NVA (or PVAN or VPA) troops launch the Tet (Tết) Offensive attacking a hundred cities and towns throughout South Vietnam. The surprise offensive is closely observed by American TV news crews in Vietnam which film the U.S. embassy in Saigon being attacked by 17 NLF commandos, along with bloody scenes from battle areas showing American soldiers under fire, dead and wounded. The graphic color film footage is then quickly relayed back to the states for broadcast on nightly news programs. Americans at home thus have a front row seat in their living rooms to the NLF/NVA (OR PVAN OR VPA) assaults against their fathers, sons and brothers, ten thousand miles away. “The whole thing stinks, really,” says a Marine under fire at Hue after more than 100 Marines are killed.

There is a good deal of controversy about the effectiveness of the Tet (Tết) Offensive.  Who won the Tet (Tết) offensive – and what exactly winning consisted of – is still a matter of intense debate. See for instance, David Hunt, Ngô Vĩnh Long: (“Remembering the Tet Offensive,” By David Hunt, 359-377 in Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and America: A Documented History (NY: Grove Press, 1995) and Long, Ngô Vĩnh, “The Tet Offensive and its aftermath”, pp. 23-45. (An updated and detached version of the realities of the Tet offensive in J. Werner and D. Hunt, eds. The American war in Vietnam (1993).  The first piece vividly describes the shock and power of the 1968 Tet (Tết) offensive, which many see as the key turning point in the war, especially for American public opinion.  The second describes its multiple and contradictory impacts on the National Liberation Front as well as on the Americans and ARVN. In any case, the impact on the American public was powerful, demonstrating that there was no imminent ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, no imminent victory, in sharp contrast to General Westmoreland’s November, 1967 assurance.  And a reassessment of American strategy was forthcoming. The NLF, especially in the second and, more so, third phases in May and August 1968 did take heavy losses.  There are also differences as to the goals of the offensive; some American historians see the political impact on American consciousness as an unintended consequence.  A stated goal of the offensive was a general uprising and overthrow of the Saigon government; this did not happen.  Again sources differ on how and if the NLF recovered from these losses.  For the standard US view, see Don Oberdorfer, Tet!: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War.  

There were also differences inside the Vietnam Workers’ Party in the North (DRV) between Le Duan (Lê Duẩn) and Ho Chi Minh (Hồ Chí Minh) and Vo Nguyen Giap (Võ Nguyên Giáp) with apparently both Ho and Giap in opposition to the offensive.  This led to the sidelining of both Ho and Giap in favor of Le Duan’s faction.  Le Duan succeeded Ho Chi Minh after Ho’s death in1969.  See Lien Hang T. Nguyen Hanoi’s war: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam, ch. 3, pp. 87-109 for more details.

Daniel Berrigan travels to Hanoi with Howard Zinn during the Tet Offensive to “receive” three American airmen, the first American POWs released by the North Vietnamese since the U.S. bombing of that nation had begun.

January 31-March 2 In the Battle for Hue (Huế — former imperial capital and 3rd largest city) during Tet, 12,000 NVA (or PVAN or VPA) and NLF troops storm the lightly defended historical city. On the holiday morning of January 31, the gold-starred, blue-and-red National Liberation Front banner was flying atop the historic 120-foot-high Citadel flag tower.  South Vietnamese troops and three U.S. Marine battalions counter-attack and engage in the heaviest fighting of the entire Tet Offensive. They retake the old imperial city, house-by-house, street-by-street, aided by American air and artillery strikes. By February 24, U.S. Marines occupy the Imperial Palace in the heart of the citadel. Estimates of up to 3,000 civilian deaths have been reported.

There is controversy over the extent and cause of these deaths.  Western sources (including Oberdorfer, Gunther Lewy, and Douglas Pike in the 1970 report, “The Viet Cong Strategy of Terror) claim that 3,000 civilians were executed as part of a systematic plan.   Others (including Marilyn Young and free-lance journalist Len Ackland) put the number at 300-400.  NLF (National Liberation Front of South Vietnam) and DRV (Democratic Republic of Vietnam or North Vietnam) sources sometimes cite a loss of discipline among troops (rather than a systematic plan) or claim that other civilians were instrumental in the killings.  In the June 24, 1974, issue of Indochina Chronicle titled “The 1968 ‘Hue Massacre,'” political scientist D. Gareth Porter called the massacre one of the “enduring myths of the Second Indochina War.” He asserted that Douglas Pike was working in collusion with the ARVN 10th Political Warfare Battalion to manufacture the story of the massacre at the direction of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. While acknowledging that some executions occurred, Porter contended that the killings were not part of any overall plan. Additionally, he claimed that Pike overestimated the number of those killed by the VC cadres and that “thousands” of civilians killed in Hue “were in fact victims of American air power and of the ground fighting that raged in the hamlets, rather than NLF [National Liberation Front] execution.” Moreover, Porter claimed that teams of Saigon government assassins fanned out across the city with their own list of targets, eliminating NLF sympathizers.

In any case, the narrative of the massacre became the basis for warnings of a massive bloodbath if the DRV and NLF triumphed throughout the country.

The newest book on the battle for Hue is Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden.and see Michael Uhl’s rein at http://vietnamfulldisclosure.org/index.php/hue-back-vietnams-pivotal-battle-reconsidered/

February 1 In Saigon during Tet (Tết), a suspected NLF guerrilla is shot in the head by South Vietnam’s police chief Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan (Nguyễn Ngọc Loan), in full view of an NBC news cameraman and an Associated Press still photographer. The haunting AP photo taken by Eddie Adams appears on the front page of most American newspapers the next morning. Americans also observe the filmed execution on NBC TV.

March 12 By a slim margin of 300 votes, President Johnson defeats anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire Democratic primary election, a sign that political support for Johnson is seriously eroding.

Public opinion polls taken after the Tet (Tết) Offensive reveal Johnson’s overall approval rating has slipped to 36 percent, while approval of his Vietnam War policy slipped to 26 percent.

March 22 Announcement is made that General Westmoreland is being relieved of his command.

March 25-26 As pessimism over U.S. prospects in Vietnam deepens, President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with 14 informal advisers, known, collectively, as “The Wise Men.”   They met with LBJ after being briefed by officials at the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA. They had been informed of a request from Gen. William Westmoreland for additional troops in the wake of perceived U.S. setbacks in the Tet Offensive.  They are given a blunt assessment of the situation in Vietnam, including the widespread corruption of the Saigon government and the unlikely prospect for military victory “under the present circumstances.”  Present at the White House meeting are Dean Acheson, George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, Clark Clifford, Arthur Dean, Douglas Dillon, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, Averell Harriman, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Robert Murphy, Cyrus Vance and Gens. Omar Bradley, Matthew Ridgway and Maxwell Taylor.  In the words of Acheson, who summed up the recommendations from 11 of the men, “we can no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left, and we must begin to take steps to disengage.”

Murphy, Taylor and Fortas dissent.  That was a change from Johnson’s first series of such meetings, on Nov. 1-2, 1967. Then, the Wise Men had unanimously opposed leaving Vietnam. “Public discontent with the war is now wide and deep,” Bundy had said, but he told Johnson to “stay the course.”

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