Image: Credit John Olson/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty
This article originally appeared at the nytimes.com.
By Edwin Moise
The Tet offensive, a wave of Communist attacks throughout South Vietnam, began on Jan. 30 and 31, 1968. It achieved partial surprise. American commanders had known something was coming, but they had not expected such a widespread pattern of attacks.
Partly this was because they had been underestimating both the size of the Communist forces and their ability to sustain heavy combat. On Feb. 1, Gen. William Westmoreland said that the enemy forces were “about to run out of steam.” He later claimed they had indeed quickly run out of steam, saying that “almost everywhere except on the outskirts of Saigon and in Hue the fighting was over in two or three days.”
Many have accepted this view of events — that Tet was an intense but relatively brief campaign, and a failure for the North. But it did not match the experience of the troops Westmoreland was commanding.
The fighting did shift out of most towns and cities quite soon, and out of Saigon and Hue before the end of February. But it did not shift far. The Communist forces remained on the offensive, rather than retreating to sanctuaries. The bloody urban combat in Hue, which lasted for weeks, was unusual — significant fighting continued, but of it took place in rural areas and around smaller towns.
About 400 Americans were killed by hostile action in the week the Tet offensive began, more than in any previous week of the war. Another 400 were killed the next week. But worse was to come. The first wave of Tet attacks had been aimed mostly at the towns and cities, which meant mostly at the forces of the South Vietnamese government. Many of the Communist units had dodged around American units instead of hitting them directly.
Then, during the following four weeks, from Feb. 11 to March 9, a period of widespread American counterattacks, there were 500 American deaths each week. By the middle of March, the level of combat was no longer this extreme, but it remained abnormally high. The rate at which Americans were dying in combat remained at least 50 percent above the 1967 average through the rest of March and April.
For the American forces in South Vietnam as a whole there was not even a brief respite in the three months after the offensive began, even as the Communists were gathering forces for another surge in early May.
Americans have often played down that May offensive; they call it “Mini-Tet.” It did not have even the degree of partial surprise that the original Tet offensive had had, so it did not come as close to achieving important successes. But there was nothing miniature about it. May 1968 was the bloodiest month of the war for American forces, with 536 killed, and even in the first half of June the death tolls remained well above pre-Tet levels.
The Communists, of course, were losing far more more men than the Americans. Many analysts have subsequently criticized the Americans for not launching a counteroffensive in the aftermath of Tet; they say that the Communists were so weakened that they couldn’t continue heavy combat, but that the United States had been so shocked by Tet that it lost the will to continue pushing for victory. General Westmoreland wrote that President Lyndon Johnson “ignored the maxim that when the enemy is hurting, you don’t diminish the pressure, you increase it.” Many more recent authors have also said that Johnson de-escalated the war in response to Tet.
Johnson himself had laid the groundwork for this notion in his television address of March 31, 1968, in which he announced that he was not running for re-election. The president said that in an effort to get peace talks started, he was “reducing — substantially reducing — the present level of hostilities.”
But this was not true. He was still committed to American victory. He was interested only in a peace settlement in which the Communists abandoned their effort to win control of South Vietnam. And in order to make them accept such a settlement, he was increasing, not decreasing, the military pressure he put on them.
Johnson did not send to Vietnam the major reinforcements, more than 200,000 men, that his generals had recommended. But he did send reinforcements. There had been 498,000 American military personnel in Vietnam when the Tet offensive began, at the end of January. There were 515,000 by the time Johnson gave his speech, two months later. There would be 536,000 two months after that.
They were fighting hard, and Johnson was urging them on. Even in the autumn, after Gen. Creighton Abrams had replaced Westmoreland as commander in Vietnam, Johnson’s orders to Abrams were: “Follow the enemy in relentless pursuit. Don’t give them a minute’s rest. Keep pouring it on. Let the enemy feel the weight of everything you’ve got.”
He also was escalating his use of air power. The heaviest bomb tonnage the United States had ever dropped on Indochina in a single month before the Tet offensive was 83,000 tons. For March 1968, the month leading up to Johnson’s speech, the figure was 97,000 tons. It was over 110,000 tons in each of the next five months, from April through August.
But Johnson was facing criticism, much of it from within his own party, that his policy in Vietnam was one of mindless violence. So he did not say he was intensifying his bombing of enemy forces. Instead he said that he was narrowing the area in which American bombs would fall. He used misleading language that suggested he was narrowing that area more than he actually was.
Ground combat did not remain continually intense after the middle of 1968, as it had from late January through late June. But the Americans were continuing to push, and the Communists pushed back enough of the time to create significant periods of intense combat.
Of the 12 bloodiest months of the Vietnam War, the ones in which the largest numbers of Americans were killed in action, eight came after Johnson’s speech. Four of those eight were in 1969, after Richard Nixon became president.
Nixon in his first months had continued Johnson’s policies of heavy bombing and heavy ground combat. It was not until well into 1969 that the bomb tonnages being expended in Indochina, the number of American military personnel in South Vietnam, and the willingness of American commanders to sustain heavy casualties in aggressive ground operations, finally began to decline.