The Tết Offensive was a military campaign conducted in 1968 by the combined forces of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (or Việt Cộng) and the Vietnamese People”s Army during the Vietnam War. The goals were the uprising of the South Vietnamese population against the Republic of Vietnam, to demonstrate that American claims that the situation was improving were false, and to divert military pressure from the countryside to the South Vietnamese cities.
The offensive began prematurely on January 30, 1968, one day before the lunar new year, Tet. On January 31, 80,000 North Vietnamese troops attacked more than 100 cities across the country in the largest military operation conducted at that point in the war.
The attacks took the Americans and South Vietnamese by surprise, but were contained and repulsed, and the NLF suffered enormous losses. The first phase of the offensive partially achieved its objectives even if it did not succeed in obtaining the hoped-for general uprising. Moreover, it shocked American opinion, which believed that the North Vietnamese were incapable of such an assault, and deeply affected the administration of Lyndon Johnson, whose many personalities took a stand against this war, which decisively altered its course.
The situation in the United States
During the fall of 1967, two questions occupied the Americans: first, the effectiveness of the war of positions, and second, the question of who would win. The CIA estimated the number of men in the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF) at about 430,000. Military command intelligence in Vietnam maintains that the number does not exceed 300,000. The generals were concerned about the impact of revealing too high a figure, which would show that the NLF and the North Vietnamese army could continue the positional war. A compromise was reached that excluded irregulars from the figures.
The communist preparation
Hanoi prepared an offensive for the winter-spring of 1968 from the beginning of 1967. Little is known about the preparation of the “General Offensive, General Uprising” offensive because of Vietnamese reluctance to reveal it and military historians to discuss it, even decades later. In official regime literature, the decision to launch Tet is often presented as the result of American failure to win the war quickly, the failure of bombing against North Vietnam, and the anti-war sentiment that was being expressed in the American population.
In reality, the decision signals the end of a decade-long disagreement within the party leadership. The moderates believed that the economic viability of the north took priority over a conventional, massive war effort; they followed the Soviet line of peaceful coexistence, which advocated reunification by political means. At the head of this faction were the theoretician Trường Chinh and Defense Minister Võ Nguyên Giáp. The militants, on the other hand, tended to follow the foreign policy drawn by the People”s Republic of China and called for reunification by military means and rejected negotiations. This group was led by the “Le brothers”-the first party secretary Lê Duẩn and Lê Đức Thọ. From the mid-1960s, the militants dictated the conduct in the war in South Vietnam.
General Nguyễn Chí Thanh, the leader of the military effort in southern Vietnam, political commissar and commander-in-chief was in the militant camp. Under his command, which strangely did not emulate the form of guerrilla warfare used by Mao, the North Vietnamese had followed the military escalation of the conflict step by step.
In 1966-1967, after the allies had inflicted massive casualties and destroyed the North Vietnamese economy, the moderates called for a revision of the strategy towards more guerrilla warfare and argued that the Americans could not be defeated by conventional warfare. They preached the simultaneous conduct of combat and negotiations. In 1967 things deteriorated to the point that Le Duan ordered Thanh to increase the guerrilla component.
A third trend emerged, led by party leader Ho Chi Minh, Lê Đức Thọ, and Foreign Minister Nguyễn Duy Trinh, who called for negotiations. During the first months of 1967, military strategy was debated by radio between Thanh and his rival for military leadership; Giap advocated guerrilla warfare in contrast to Thanh.
These negotiations have important implications for the continuation of equipment deliveries, on which North Vietnam is totally dependent. Beijing advocates the military model used by Mao, a kind of mobile warfare and guerrilla warfare, and China wishes to avoid being drawn into the conflict as in the Korean War. It rejected the idea of negotiations when Moscow advocated them, as well as the conduct of a conventional war. The North Vietnamese position is therefore to maintain a balance.
On July 27, 1967, hundreds of pro-Soviet, party moderates, officers and administrators were arrested to assert the country”s independence against its foreign allies in what is sometimes called the case of anti-party revisionists. The explanation for these arrests is that the Politburo has decided in favor of a general offensive. The position of the militants triumphed: rejection of negotiations, abandonment of guerrilla warfare, general uprising in the cities of South Vietnam.
The plan “General Offensive, General Uprising” was drafted in Thanh”s quarters in May 1967. On July 6, after having had his plan accepted by the Politburo, Thanh died of a heart attack after drinking too much.
The militants believed that the popularity of the South Vietnamese government and the Americans was very low and that the population would rise in their favor during the offensive, which would allow for a quick victory. They took for granted the inefficiency of the southern army. Triggering the offensive would put an end to the dove”s calls for negotiations, the criticism of military strategy, the Chinese diatribes about Soviet perfidy, and the Soviet pressure to negotiate.
The decision to launch the offensive during Tet was made in October. Since the beginning of the conflict, Tet “Nguyên Đán,” or New Year”s celebration, which fell between January 20 and February 19, marked a period of truce in the fighting. That was why, in July 1967, the leaders of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam decided to launch a surprise attack at that time. Contrary to popular belief, Giap was not the author of the plan. The general only reviewed it, probably keeping his criticism quiet so as not to fall victim to the militant purge. In any case, the blame for any failure would be placed on the militants.
The operation would be divided into two phases: border attacks to divert American forces from the real objectives; simultaneous attacks on American bases and cities in South Vietnam, especially Hue and Saigon. An attack on Khe Sanh at the same time would draw away North Vietnamese military forces, but Giap felt it was necessary to ensure supplies and distract American attention. The offensive was intended to convince South Vietnamese opinion, not American, and incite it to rise up.
According to General Tran Van Tra, who replaced Thanh, the offensive was divided into three phases: the first, beginning on January 31, was an assault throughout the country mainly by FNL forces. At the same time: active propaganda to incite uprisings and desertions. The goal is to obtain a complete victory or the formation of a coalition government and the American withdrawal. In case of failure, other operations would weaken the enemy in order to obtain a negotiated settlement. Phase 2 is scheduled to begin on 5 May, and Phase 3 on 17 August.
In January 1968, 81,000 tons of equipment and 200,000 soldiers had already made the journey to South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. To complete its operation, Hanoi launched a diplomatic offensive at the end of 1967, calling for a unilateral halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder.
South Vietnamese and U.S. intelligence estimates the Communist forces in South Vietnam in January 1969 at 323,000 men, including 160,000 NLF, 130,000 Northern Army regulars and 33,000 logistics personnel.
The unpreparedness of the Allies
Signs of military readiness were noted by the Allies. During the summer and fall of 1967, both U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence noted a significant change in the military planning of the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army. By mid-December, the Allies were convinced that something big was going on. The number of trucks counted going south across the Ho Chi Minh Trail climbed from 480 per month to 1,116 in October. In November, there were 3,823 and in December 6,315. On December 20, General William Westmoreland alerted Washington to the foreseeable increase in the Communist effort throughout the country for a limited period of time.
Despite these indications, the Allies were surprised by the scale of the attack. From an American perspective, such an assault was not credible.
From the spring to the end of 1967, the American command was perplexed by various North Vietnamese and Viet Cong actions on the border territories. Khe Sanh was attacked prematurely. The most important of these battles took place around Dak To in October and November, between 1,200 and 1,600 North Vietnamese and 262 American soldiers lost their lives. Intelligence failed to determine the North Vietnamese objective, triggering large-scale actions in remote areas where the U.S. Army could return fire without constraint. Tactically and strategically, these operations seemed to make no sense. In fact, the Communists succeeded in fixing the attention of the U.S. command on the borders and in pushing aside the U.S. shield protecting the most populated areas of the coast and the cities.
Westmoreland was concerned about the situation at Khe Sanh, where, on 21 January 1968, an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 North Vietnamese besieged the American garrison. The command was convinced that the enemy was trying to take the base before seizing the northernmost provinces with a considerable military effort. It deployed 250,000 men.
This development raises questions. Lieutenant General Frederick C. Weyand commanded U.S. forces in Corps II. A former intelligence officer, Weyand found the activities in his sector alarming and notified Westmoreland of his concerns on 10 January 1968. Westmoreland ordered 15 battalions to redeploy from positions near the Cambodian border to the outskirts of Saigon. This redeployment had decisive consequences.
By early January 1968, the Americans had deployed 331,098 soldiers and 78,013 Marines, comprising nine divisions, an armored regiment and two brigades to South Vietnam. Australian, Thai and Korean forces joined them. The South Vietnamese forces numbered 350,000 regulars. They were supported by 151,000 regional forces and 149,000 local militia.
In the days preceding the offensive, the allies relaxed. North Vietnam announced a truce for Tet, from January 27 to February 3, 1968.
On January 8, FNL cadres were arrested with tapes calling for an uprising in the “already occupied” cities of Saigon, Hue and Da Nang. Troops were put on alert, but the Allies did not worry much about it. On January 30, two hundred senior officers attended a party without suspecting anything.
If Westmoreland had any fears, he did not communicate them well. Although he alerted Washington between January 25 and 30 about preparations for large-scale Communist attacks, no one in Washington or Saigon expected what would happen.
Whether by accident or design, the first wave of attacks began shortly after midnight on January 30 when the five provincial capitals in Corps II and Da Nang, in Corps I, were attacked. Nha Trang, one of the headquarters of U.S. forces, was the first hit, followed shortly thereafter by Buôn Ma Thuột, Kontum, Hôi An, Tuy Hoa, Da Nang, Qui Nhon, and Pleiku. During all of these operations, the Communists followed a similar method: mortar or rocket attacks followed quickly by massive ground assaults led by battalion-sized NLF forces (sometimes supported by the North Vietnamese Army). These forces then joined with local FNL cadres who guided them to the most important headquarters and radio station. Operations, however, were not well coordinated at the local level, and by daybreak almost all Communist forces had been moved away from their objective. General Phillip B. Davidson, the new chief of intelligence for the U.S. military, notified Westmoreland that “this is about to happen in the rest of the country tonight and tomorrow morning. All U.S. forces were placed on high alert, and requests were made to the ARVN forces. However, the principal parties concerned did not understand the urgency of the situation: the orders cancelling departures on the occasion of the truce arrived too late or were ignored.
At 3 a.m. on January 31, NLF and Vietnam People”s Army forces assaulted Saigon, Cholon, and Gia Định in the Military Capital District; Quảng Tín (again), Hue, Quang Tin, Tam Kỳ, and Quảng Ngãi as well as U. S. bases at Phu Bai and Chu Lai in Corps I; Phan Thiết, Tuy Hoa, and U. S. facilities at Bong Son and An Khê in Corps II; and Cần Thơ and Vĩnh Long in Corps IV. The next day, Bien Hoa, Long Thanh, Bình Dương in Corps III and Kien Hoa, Dinh Tuong, Go Cong, Kiên Giang, Vinh Binh, Bến Tre, and Kien Tuong in Corps IV were assaulted. The final attack of the initial operation was launched against Bạc Liêu in Corps IV on February 10. A total of approximately 84,000 Communists participated in the attacks while thousands assisted them as reinforcements or to block. Communist forces fired mortars or rockets at all major Allied airports and attacked 64 districts of the capital and a large number of villages.
In most cases, the defense against the general offensive is handled by the South Vietnamese authorities. Local militias or ARVN forces, supported by the national police, usually repelled the attackers within two or three days, sometimes within a few hours; but heavy fighting continued for days at Kontum, Ban Me Thuot, Phan Thiet, Can Tho, and Ben Tre. The outcome was generally determined by the competence of the local commanders-some impressive, others cowardly or incompetent. During this crucial crisis, no South Vietnamese units defected to the Communists.
General Westmoreland, although he claims to have reacted optimistically to the attacks, appears to those around him to be stunned and deeply shocked. According to Clark Clifford, at the time of the initial attacks, the reaction of the U.S. military command tended toward panic. Westmoreland maintained until February 12 that Khe Sanh was the real objective of the Communists, although it seemed risky to consider that 155 attacks by 84,000 men were only a diversion.
Although Saigon was the focus of the offensive, the Communists did not seek complete conquest. They had primary targets: the ARVN command headquarters, the Independence Palace, the U.S. Embassy, the Long Binh naval base, and the national radio station. The plan requires these initial forces to hold their positions for 48 hours before being relieved.
Poor intelligence and very little local coordination compromised Communist attacks as soon as they began. For example, the Communists planned to use the tanks and artillery that were supposed to be in some army headquarters, but the tanks had been moved two months earlier and the artillery was out of action. One of the most important targets is the national radio station. FNL troops brought in a recording of Hồ Chí Minh announcing the liberation of Saigon and calling for a general uprising against the Thieu regime. The building was taken and held for six hours but its occupants were unable to broadcast, the lines having been cut from a studio in another location as soon as the station was taken. On the air, Viennese waltzes and Beatles songs were broadcast.
The U.S. Embassy in Saigon, a massive six-story building in a large complex, had just been completed in September. At 2:45 a.m. it was attacked by a 19-man sapper team that breached the compound and charged. Their officer was killed in the attack and the attempt to gain access to the building failed, so the sappers wandered around the embassy until reinforcements eliminated them. At 09:20 the embassy and its surroundings were secured.
Throughout the city, small NLF groups spread out to attack officers, conscript barracks, ARVN officers” houses and district police stations. Equipped with “blacklists” of military officers and civil servants, they executed all those they found. Brutality begets brutality: on February 1, General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, head of the national police, publicly executed Nguyễn Văn Lém, an FNL officer captured in civilian clothes in front of a photographer and cameraman. The image will shock the world, although it is not explained in the media broadcasting it that the suspect had just been captured at the scene of a mass killing in which he is suspected of having participated and which involved 34 victims including 7 South Vietnamese officers.
A total of 35 battalions of Communists, most of whom had been working and living in the city for years, had been assigned to targets in Saigon. By dawn, the bulk of the attacks in the city center had been eliminated, but heavy fighting between NLF and allied forces was taking place in the Chinese suburb of Cholon near Phu Tho Road, used as a command center by the NLF. A house-to-house street fight took place on February 4, the inhabitants of Cholon were ordered to leave their homes and the area was declared a free fire zone. The battle ended on March 7 with the reinforcement of elite South Vietnamese troops.
Aside from Hue and mopping-up operations in and around Saigon, the first wave of the offensive was over by the second week of February. The Americans estimated that during the first phase (January 30-April 8), approximately 45,000 NLF and North Vietnamese soldiers were killed, and an unknown number wounded. For years, this estimate was considered excessive, but it was confirmed by Stanley Karnow in Hanoi in 1981. Westmoreland claimed that during the same period 32,000 Communists were killed and 5,800 captured. During the same period the South Vietnamese suffered 2,788 killed, 8,299 wounded and 587 missing. The United States and its other allies suffered 1,536 killed, 7,764 wounded, and 11 missing.
At 3:40 a.m. on the foggy morning of January 31, Allied positions were attacked in Hue. The ARVN defenders managed to hold their positions, led by General Ngo Quang Truong, but the majority of the citadel fell into Communist hands. The battle was bloody and lasted 28 days.
The allies estimated that North Vietnamese forces had between 2,500 and 5,000 killed and 89 captured in and around the city. 216 U.S. Marines and soldiers were killed in the fighting and 1,609 wounded. 421 ARVN soldiers were killed, 2,123 wounded and 31 missing. More than 5,800 civilians lost their lives, 116,000 were left homeless out of an initial population of 140,000.
After the recapture of the city, mass graves were discovered containing a total of about 2,800 people. The origin of these executions remains controversial.
The attack on Khe Sanh, which began on 21 January, may in absolute terms have served two purposes – the attempt to actually take the position or to draw American attention and forces away from population concentrations. In General Westmoreland”s view, the rationale for the base was to provoke the North Vietnamese into a focused and prolonged confrontation over a limited geographic area that would permit the use of massive artillery and aerial bombardment and inflict heavy casualties in a relatively sparsely populated area. By the end of 1967, MACV had moved nearly half of its maneuver battalions to Corps I in anticipation of such a battle.
Westmoreland (and the American media, which intensely covered the action) frequently made inevitable comparisons between the actions at Khe Sanh and the battle of Diên Biên Phu, where a French base had been besieged and then conquered by Việt Minh forces commanded by General Giap during the First Indochina War. Westmoreland, who knew of Nguyen Chi Thanh”s penchant for large-scale operations (but not his death) believed that he would attempt to repeat his victory. He proposed to stage his own “Dien Bien Phu in reverse.
Khe Sanh and its 6,000 defenders, ARVN, U.S. Marines and U.S. Army combined, were surrounded by two or three PAVN divisions, totaling approximately 20,000 men. The battle turned largely into an artillery duel. The American planes carried out massive bombardments with their B-52s. An air bridge supplied the troops.
Each side claimed that the battle had served its own purposes. The Americans estimated that 8,000 PAVN were killed and considerably more wounded compared to 730 Allied dead and 2,642 wounded.
Phases II and III
To increase their political position at the time of the Paris Accords, which opened on May 13, the North Vietnamese launched the second phase of their offensive in late April and early May. U.S. intelligence estimates that between February and May the North Vietnamese dispatched 50,000 men over the Ho Chi Minh Trail to replace losses in the earlier fighting. One of the longest battles of the war took place from April 29 to May 30 near the U.S. base at Dong Ha: the Battle of Dai Do. The North Vietnamese lost 2,100 men after inflicting 290 Allied casualties and 946 wounded.
Early in the morning of May 4, Communist units initiated the second phase of the offensive (sometimes called “Mini-Tet”) by attacking 119 targets across South Vietnam, including Saigon. This time the element of surprise was absent. Most forces were intercepted, although some introduced chaos into the capital.
American forces in Quang Tin province suffered a defeat in the battle of Kham Duc, attacked on May 10. The allies evacuated the base.
The Communists returned to Saigon on May 25 and unleashed a second wave of attacks on the city, without targeting American installations. The NLF occupied six pagodas in the mistaken belief that they would never be targeted by artillery fire or aerial bombardment. The heaviest fighting continued in Cholon. On June 18, 152 FNL members surrendered, the largest number of the war. 87,000 additional inhabitants were left homeless, 500 were killed and 4,500 wounded. During the second phase (May 5 – May 30) American casualties amounted to 1,161 dead and 3,954 wounded. 143 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed and 643 wounded.
Phase III of the offensive began on 17 August, Corps I, II, and III were attacked. Significantly, during these actions only PAVN forces participated. Attacks on the borders were a diversionary tactic to draw forces away from the cities.
Saigon was still under attack but the attackers were still easily repulsed. In five weeks of fighting and the loss of 20,000 combatants, not a single objective was achieved during this “final and decisive phase. But, as historian Ronald Spector pointed out, “Communist failures were neither final nor decisive.” During this period 700 American soldiers were killed.
The important losses and sufferings endured by the FLN soldiers
The command in Hanoi was initially brought down by the outcome of its great gamble. Its first and most ambitious objective, to create a general uprising, had ended in failure. In all, approximately 85,000-100,000 FNL and APNV men had participated in the initial assault and subsequent phases. In the end, during the 1967 border battles and the nine-month campaign, 75,000-85,000 NLF and VNPA men were killed.
The reasons for the failure are easy to identify. The Communist leaders underestimated the strategic mobility of the Allied forces, which allowed them to redeploy at will to threatened areas; their battle plan was too complex and difficult to coordinate, as demonstrated by the attacks of January 30; their violation of the principle of massing, attacking everywhere instead of concentrating their forces on a few selected targets, exposed them to being easily defeated; the launching of massive head-first attacks against vastly superior firepower; and last but not least, the incorrect assumptions on which the entire campaign was based.
According to NVA General Trần Văn Trà, they had not properly assessed the balance of power between themselves and the enemy, had not realized that the enemy still had considerable capabilities, that their own capabilities were limited, and had set goals beyond their true strength.
The Communist effort to regain control of the interior was somewhat more successful. According to the U.S. State Department, the NLF made pacification impossible. In the Mekong Delta, the NLF had strengthened and other interior areas were in Viet Cong hands. General Wheeler reported that the offensive had halted counterinsurgency programs and that the Viet Cong largely controlled the interior. Unfortunately for the FLN, this state of affairs did not last. Heavy losses and the retaliation of the South Vietnamese and Americans resulted in even more territorial and manpower losses.
The enormous losses inflicted on NLF units cut to the core an irreplaceable structure built up over 10 years. From that moment on, Hanoi was forced to supplement the ranks of the NLF with one-third North Vietnamese troops. Some Western historians have come to believe that an insidious ulterior motive of the campaign was the elimination of competing party members from the south, thereby increasing the control of those in the north when the war was won. However, this change had little effect on the war, since North Vietnam had little difficulty in replenishing the losses inflicted by the offensive.
It was not until the end of the first phase of the offensive that Hanoi realized that its sacrifices had not necessarily been in vain. General Tran Do, commander of the NVA at the battle of Hue, provides some insight into how a defeat was turned into a victory:
“In all honesty, we did not accomplish our main objective, which was to provoke uprisings throughout the south. However, we did inflict heavy casualties on the Americans and their puppets, and that was a big gain for us. As for the impact on the United States, that had not been our intention, but it turned out to be a happy result.”
Hanoi had in no way anticipated the political and psychological effect the offensive would have on the U.S. government and people. when the northern leaders saw how the U.S. reacted to the offensive, they began to propagandize their “victory. The opening of negotiations and diplomatic struggle, the option feared by party activists before the offensive, soon came to occupy an equal place with military combat.
On May 5, Truong Chinh addressed a congress of party members, vilifying the party activists and their gamble for a quick victory. His attack provoked a debate within the leadership that lasted four months. As the leader of the faction that favored a quick victory and a conventional military strategy, Le Duan was severely criticized. In August, Chinh”s report was accepted, published and broadcast by Radio Hanoi. It alone deviated the war strategy and restored its ideological primacy. During this time, the FNL reorganized itself as a provisional revolutionary government and took part in the peace negotiations under a new name. Seven more years would pass before victory.
South Vietnam was a nation in turmoil during and after the offensive. The tragedy grew as the cities were attacked for the first time. As government troops withdrew to defend urban areas, the NLF filled the vacuum in the country. The violence and destruction witnessed during the offensive left a deep psychological scar on the civilian population of South Vietnam. Confidence in the government was shaken, as the offensive seemed to show that even with massive American support, the South Vietnamese government could not protect its citizens.
The human and material cost to South Vietnam was enormous. The number of civilian deaths was estimated by the government at 14,300 and 24,000 wounded. 630,000 new refugees had emerged, joining the 800,000 already displaced by the war. By the end of 1968, one in twelve South Vietnamese lived in a refugee camp. More than 70,000 homes had been destroyed in the fighting and perhaps 30,000 more were heavily damaged. The national infrastructure was virtually destroyed. The South Vietnamese army, although performing better than the Americans expected, suffered from low morale, with desertion rates rising from 10.5 per thousand before Tet to 16.5 per thousand in July.
At the beginning of the offensive, however, the Thieu government showed a frank determination. On February 1, the president declared martial law, and on June 15, the National Assembly voted to request a general mobilization of the population and the addition of 200,000 conscripts to the armed forces by the end of the year (a measure the opposition had prevented five months earlier). This increase would bring South Vietnamese troops to more than 900,000. Military mobilization, anti-corruption policies, political unity demonstrations, and administrative reforms were quickly put in place. Thieu established a committee to oversee food distributions, resettlements, and the construction of shelters for the new refugees. The government and the Americans were encouraged by the new determination shown by the citizens of the republic. Many townspeople were outraged that the FNL had launched its attacks during Tet, and many previously neutral people began to actively support the government. Journalists, political figures and religious leaders-even militant Buddhists-stated their confidence in the government”s plans.
Thieu saw the opportunity to consolidate his personal power and seized it. His only rival was Vice President Ky, a former air force commander, who was defeated by Thieu in the 1967 presidential elections. After Tet, Ky”s supporters in the army and the administration were dismissed, arrested or exiled. The South Vietnamese press was further subject to censorship or repression, and there were fears of a return of members of former president Ngô Đình Diệm”s Can Lao Party. By the summer of 1968, President Nguyen Van Thieu had earned the sobriquet “little dictator” among the South Vietnamese population.
Moreover, Thieu became very suspicious of his American allies, unable to accept (as did his compatriots) that the United States had been taken by surprise by the offensive. When he met with an American official, he asked him for confirmation (“Now that it”s all over, you really knew it was coming didn”t you?”). Lyndon Johnson”s unilateral decision of March 31 to stop bombing North Vietnam confirmed Thieu”s fears – the Americans were about to abandon South Vietnam to the Communists. This pause and the beginning of negotiations with the North did not bring hope for the end of the war but a latent fear of peace. Thieu was somewhat reassured only after a June 18 meeting with Johnson in Honolulu, where the U.S. president affirmed that Saigon would be a full partner in all negotiations and that the United States would not support the imposition of a coalition government, or any other form of government over the people of South Vietnam.
The Tet offensive created a crisis within the administration, which gradually became incapable of convincing the American public that the communists had suffered a major defeat. The optimistic statements made before the offensive by the administration and the Pentagon were heavily criticized and ridiculed, and the credibility of the administration, which had been in trouble since 1967, collapsed.
The shocks from the front were increasing: On February 18, MACV reported the highest weekly American casualties of the entire war – 543 killed, 2,547 wounded. On February 23, 48,000 men are drafted, the second highest number of the war. On February 28 Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense who had overseen the escalation of the war in 1964-1965, but who had ultimately turned against him, resigned.
During the first two weeks of February, Generals Westmoreland and Wheeler communicated about the need for reinforcements or troop increases in Vietnam. Westmoreland was concerned about the lack of urgency he perceived in his interlocutor, who went to Saigon on February 20 to determine military requirements. Wheeler and Westmoreland were very pleased with the replacement of McNamara by the hawkish Clark Clifford and were hopeful that the military could get permission to expand the war. Wheeler”s report mentions no new strategy but suggests that the request for 206,756 men is vital. Westmoreland wrote in his memoirs that Wheeler deliberately obscured the truth to force the president”s hand on the issue of the military reserve.
On February 27, Johnson and McNamara discussed the proposal to increase troops. To accept it required an increase in the military force of about 400,000 men and the expenditure of $10 billion for the fiscal year 1969 and $15 billion for 1970. In the fall of 1967 and spring of 1968, the U.S. was struggling with the most severe currency crisis. Without tax increases and budget cuts, inflation would rise and the monetary system could collapse. Clark Clifford, a friend of Johnson”s, worried about the public”s reaction to the escalation.
According to the Pentagon Papers, Wheeler”s request puts the United States in a bind: accepting it means full military involvement, refusing it means that the United States has reached the peak of its involvement.
To evaluate Westmoreland”s request and its possible national political impact, Johnson set up the “Clifford Group” on February 28 and charged its members with a complete redefinition of the policy being conducted. Some believed that the offensive presented an opportunity to defeat North Vietnam, others believed that neither side could win militarily, that North Vietnam would be able to sustain the military escalation, that the bombing of the north should be stopped, and that a change in strategy was required to achieve not victory but a negotiated settlement. This would require a less aggressive strategy that would protect the people of South Vietnam. The group”s divided March 4 report “fails to seize the opportunity for a change of direction … and seems to recommend that we continue by gradually slowing down on the same road.
On February 29 Clifford had succeeded McNamara as Secretary of Defense. During this month Clifford, who had come into office as a strong supporter of the war and had opposed McNamara”s views in favor of de-escalation, turned against the war. He became convinced that the troop surge would only lead to a more violent stalemate and sought to get others in the government to help him convince the president to reverse the escalation, to cap forces at 550,000, to seek negotiations with Hanoi, and to turn over responsibility for the fighting to the South Vietnamese.
He was aided in his case by the so-called “8:30 Group” – Nitze, Warnke, Phil G. Goulding (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs), George Elsey, and Air Force Colonel Robert E. Pursely. According to Clifford, the military had failed to provide any argument to support their position. Between the results of Tet and his meetings with the group that bore his name, the Secretary of Defense became convinced that de-escalation was the only solution for the United States.
On February 27, Secretary of State Dean Rusk had proposed a partial pause in the bombing of North Vietnam and that an offer of negotiations be extended to Hanoi. On March 4, Rusk reiterated his proposal, explaining that during the rainy season the bombing was less effective and that in reality there was no military sacrifice. This was a political maneuver, the North Vietnamese would probably still refuse to negotiate, putting the blame on them and freeing Washington”s hand. But at the same time, the question of the original rationale for the bombing was being raised in Congress. One wondered if the Gulf of Tonkin incident in early August 1964, which had justified the bombings, was not a set-up by the Johnson administration.
On March 25, Johnson convened a conclave of the “Wise Men. With a few exceptions, all members of this group had previously been considered hawks during the war. The group was joined by Rusk, Wheeler, Bundy, Rostow and Clifford. The final assessment of the majority stunned the group. All but four members called for disengagement, leaving the president deeply shocked. According to the Pentagon Papers, the group”s advice was decisive in convincing Johnson to scale back the bombing of North Vietnam.
Lyndon Johnson was depressed and disgusted with the developments. The New York Times article had appeared just two days before the New Hampshire primary for the Democratic nomination, in which the president suffered an unexpected setback, barely finishing ahead of Senator Eugene McCarthy. Shortly thereafter, Senator Robert Francis Kennedy announced that he was joining the contest for the Democratic nomination, illustrating the erosion of support for the Johnson administration from the Tet.
The president was preparing to address the nation on Vietnam policy on March 31 and was deliberating both troop requests and his response to the military situation. On March 28 Clifford worked hard to convince him to soften his war talk. To Clifford”s surprise, Rusk and Rostow (who had previously opposed any form of de-escalation) offered no opposition to his suggestions. On March 31, President Johnson announced a unilateral (albeit partial) pause in bombing during his televised address. He then surprised the nation by declining to run for a second term. To Washington”s surprise, on April 3 Hanoi announced that it would conduct negotiations, scheduled to begin on May 13 in Paris.
On June 9, President Johnson replaced Westmoreland as commander of MACV with General Creighton W. Abrams. Although this decision had been made in December 1967 and Westmoreland was appointed Army Chief of Staff, many see his removal as punishment for the Tet debacle. Abrams” new strategy was quickly implemented with the closing of the “strategic” base at Khe Sanh and the end of search and destroy operations. Discussions of a victory against North Vietnam also disappeared. Abrams” new doctrine, One War, focused on transferring the fight to the South Vietnamese (through Vietnamization), pacifying the country, and destroying Communist logistics. The new administration of President Richard Nixon would oversee the withdrawal of American forces and the continuation of negotiations.