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JAMES R. ARNOLD
TET OFFENSIVE 1968. TURNING POINT IN VIETNAM

In the summer of 1967 North Vietnamese warriors and diplomats met in Hanoi and decided to take an immense strategic gamble. While the Tet Offensive was Defence Minister Giap's brainchild, Ho Chi Minh gave his blessings to the effort. His recorded tapes were meant to be played on captured South Vietnamese radio stations. Communist planners believed that everyone would rally to the popular 'Uncle Ho' and help drive out the hated foreigners.

The Plan is Born

In July 1967, the Communist high command, including political and military leaders from both North and South Vietnam, met in Hanoi. Because North Vietnam recalled its foreign ambassadors to attend the meeting, American intelligence learned of the unusual gathering. It could have been the first piece in the intelligence puzzle leading to anticipation of the coming offensive. Instead, analysts believed the meeting's purpose was to consider a peace bid.

The offensive required a long lead time because of the difficulty of moving supplies south along the tortuous Ho Chi Minh Trail. This section of the supply line consists of a road carved into the side of a hill for the movement of light trucks.

Reviewing events, the Communist leaders recognized that heretofore their battlefield strategy- had relied upon well-planned, periodic small- to medium-sized surgical strikes against selected targets and daily small-scale actions designed to raise the enemy's anxiety level and destroy his self-confidence. However, aggressive American tactics during 1967 seemed to auger poorly for the future. A Viet Cong general explains:

'In the spring of 1967 Westmoreland began his second campaign. It was very fierce. Certain of our people were very discouraged. There was much discussion on the course of the war - should we continue main-force efforts, or should we pull back into a more local strategy. But by the middle of 1967 we concluded that you had not reversed the balance of forces on the battlefield. So we decided to carry out one decisive battle to force LBJ to de-escalate the war.'

While this statement was written with hindsight, it is doubtful if strategists believed that they could force an American de-escalation so readily. It is notable that aggressive American tactics were producing results and prompted Hanoi to take a huge gamble.

Impatient and concerned over the trend of events, General Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese Defence Minister, proposed a general offensive. While it is difficult to ascertain the high command's exact expectations - as of 1989 they remain obscured by propaganda and the difficulty of gaining access to North Vietnamese records - Giap apparently believed that such an offensive would trigger a popular uprising in the South. Hanoi labelled the plan 'the general offensive/ general uprising' indicating that they clearly believed that civilians in the South would rally to their cause. Giap further proposed that the offensive take place during the next lunar New Year festival, some six months hence. The slow, tortuous progress with which supplies could move south dictated this long lead time. While the sacrilege of attacking during Tet might offend many Vietnamese, Giap believed the festival would provide the perfect cover. Furthermore, it had an historic precedent: in 1789 Vietnamese patriots had attacked the occupying Chinese in Hanoi during the lunar New Year festival.

The beginning of the large search and destroy missions in 1967, with their attendant increase in American casualties, coincided with a large increase in racial and civil unrest in the USA. During the first nine months of 1967, public anti-war protest, ranging from minor demonstrations to full-scale riots, occurred in 150 cities. These events drained military resources. The October, 1967 demonstration in Washington, DC, shown here, culminated in the Pentagon Riots. Over 10,000 Marines and Army troops manned positions inside the nation's capital. Three battalions guarded the Pentagon itself. Military planners had to consider seriously the possibility of national insurrection. Such results justified the North Vietnamese emphasis upon relating battlefield events and American public opinion.

THE TUNNELS OF CU CHI

Cut-away diagram of Viet Cong underground storage and assembly complex.

Twenty miles northwest of Saigon was the Iron Triangle and the adjacent Cu Chi district. Here, since 1945, the Vict Cong and their village sympathizers had laboured to construct an incredible maze of in multi-layered, many chambered tunnels. Its existence was a matter of geology, geography and tactics. The soil itself, laterite clay, was ideal for tunnelling since it did not crumble and formed a brick-hard, impermeable surface. The tunnels served as a storage and assembly area. Via a geographic oddity, a protruding linger of Cambodia pointed toward the Iron Triangle and Saigon. Munitions and infiltrating guerrillas moved from sanctuaries in Cambodia to the secure, concealed assembly areas in the tunnels. Allied strategists well understood this and viewed the Iron Triangle as a dagger pointed at Saigon.

However, they failed to appreciate the tactical importance of the tunnels. They had a higher purpose than mere concealment. Communist doctrine decreed: 'If the tunnels are dug so as to exploit their effectiveness fully, the villages and hamlets will become extremely strong fortresses. The enemy may be several times superior to us in strength and modern weapons, but he will not chase us from the battlefield, because ire will launch surprise attacks from within the underground tunnels.' Until well past Tet this proved to be exactly the way the VC operated from the tunnels.

The Americans aimed several large-scale search and destroy operations at the Iron Triangle, the best known of which, Operation 'Cedfar Falls', employed more than 30,000 troops. Literally on the surface, these operations were complete successes: mechanized forces with heavy infantry escorts dominated the above-ground terrain. American officers failed to realize that the absence of the enemy merely meant that he had disappeared underground. The US Army claimed to have destroyed 525 tunnels during 'Cedar Falls', yet the local Viet Cong tunnel inspector noted that only the first 50 metres, at most, of any tunnel was damaged. Given that one village had a 1,700-metre long tunnel system, such destruction was hardly paralyzing. In sum, the sweeps through the Iron Triangle disrupted the Viet Cong, but that is all. As soon as the Americans left, the VC resumed their normal routines. As 1967 drew to a close an important part of this routine involved stockpiling resources for the coming offensive.

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