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

The first option seemed unpromising because strategically the Tet Offensive undercut Westmoreland's attrition strategy. The essential weakness of this strategy should have been apparent before Tet. In mid-1967 the NVA comprised some 450,000 men of whom a mere 70,000 served in Laos and South Vietnam. Each year about 200,000 young men reached the age of eighteen. Simple arithmetic could show that the Communists had the manpower to endure the kind of terrible losses they suffered in 1967 for years to come. If attrition strategy could not kill the enemy fast enough, in spite of amazing favourable kill ratios of 10 to 1 or better, then the outcome hinged on will. Recent history" against the French, let alone the long history of Vietnamese resistance to the Chinese, clearly demonstrated that Communist morale, which had assumed the mantle of stubborn Vietnamese nationalism, would not crack.

The 'Mini Tet' Offensive in May brought a return to street lighting in Saigon.

If escalation would not work, negotiation seemed the only alternative. Many historians point to the night of 27 February 1968 as a turning point in the war. That evening, the popular and much- respected American broadcaster Walter Cronkite delivered a televised special report summing up the Tet Offensive. Cronkite had just returned from a whirlwind tour of South Vietnam and what he had seen had greatly depressed him. He began his report in the most despairing manner. While the camera panned over battle damage in Saigon, he intoned that the ruins 'in this burned and blasted and weary land... mean success or setback, victory or defeat, depending on who you talk to'. He proceeded to juxtapose official comments minimizing setbacks with selected eyewitness accounts that claimed disaster. He left no doubt what he personally felt, using such terms as 'the shattered pieces' of pacification, stating that the South Vietnamese government 'could salvage a measure of victory from defeat'. His interviews and film seemed to discredit all official pronouncements. Cronkite concluded:

'We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders... To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past... To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion... it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.'

Initially, Press reports including Cronkite's did. little to alter the public's attitude toward the war.

Whereas before Tet 45 per cent believed that sending American troops to Vietnam was a mistake, 49 per cent felt this way after Tet. More important, the extremely influential Eastern television and print media moguls, and substantial numbers of the Washington, DC, opinion makers and politicians, concluded that the war was lost. They began to disseminate this message to the country, and the public listened. Consequently, February and March led to a turning point in American opinion about the war. During the two months following Tet, one in every five Americans switched from pro- to anti-war. Johnson's popularity among both pro- and anti-war people plummeted. Public frustration encompassed roughly equal numbers of hawks - who were angered at the administration's half-measures that seemed only to produce more dead American boys - and the doves who simply wanted to get out.

The American Press played a decisive role in the Tet Offensive. Yet, in both detail, analysis and conclusion, Press reporting of the Tet Offensive was highly misleading. An inexperienced, or lazy, reporter covering the war from the comfort of Saigon could not understand how the Communists had been able to mass for their surprise assaults without detection. They reported that it must be because of a sympathetic civilian population who helped conceal Communist movements. Here was more evidence, ran a common Press refrain, to undermine the administration's claims about the war's progress.

In fact, the majority of the South Vietnamese civilian population was neutral, more interested in survival than anything else. The Communists needed little assistance beyond that provided by their local cadres, who represented a small percentage of the total population. The terrain provided the rest. Even Saigon lay surrounded by swamps, woods and canals. The Communists took advantage of this concealment to march in secret to staging areas on the city's outskirts. But this important fact was unknown to the majority of the Press and so remained unreported to the public. The public could only conclude that an obliging citizenry had escorted the enemy to the gates of the American bases. Similarly, the Press had few contacts within the South Vietnamese military.

The handful of reports that did focus on ARVN performance highlighted those units and leaders who had fought the poorest. This message reinforced the growing sense that America fought alone.

At the time, political and military leaders from Johnson and Westmoreland down blamed the Press for losing the war. The effort continued for years thereafter as discredited leaders sought to recover prestige. But their carping obscures the fact already described that even with a fully muzzled Press America had no viable war-winning strategy.

By the end of March the domestic sea change led to the announcement by the proud, enbittered President Lyndon Johnson that he would not run for re-election. In an effort at negotiated settlement, Americans and North Vietnamese met in Paris in mid-May 1968, some three months after Tet. American leaders never fully comprehended the masterful Communist negotiating strategy of 'fighting and talking'. More Americans would be killed after the 'peace talks' opened then before they began.

On 3 July, General William Westmoreland departed as MACV commander to become the new Army Chief of Staff. Few doubted that, defeated and discredited, he had been kicked upstairs. Responding to domestic political pressure, his replacement - General Creighton Abrams - ordered sweeping strategic changes. American tactical aggressiveness gave way to the new mandate to reduce American battlefield casualties. Equally important, the high command decided that, henceforth, South Vietnamese troops would switch from pacification to mainstream combat. This decision, formally announced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 16 April 1968, marked the beginning of what would become the ill-fated 'Vietnamization' policy. Thus the Tet Offensive achieved a certain symmetry of results: it destroyed the Viet Cong but caused the Americans to begin to disengage as they turned the war over to the South Vietnamese. The future would depend on the contest between the regulars of North and South Vietnam.

Scenes of urban death and destruction once again provided film for television cameras. Vietnamese Rangers collect the bodies of slain Met Cong in June 1968.

Meanwhile, in selected areas American soldiers would continue offensive operations. But the nature of the war changed. Abrams, much to the disgust of more junior, hard-charging officers, responded to new political realities by emphasizing city security. He badly wanted to avoid a repeat of the Saigon and Hue battles. The need to defend cities took manpower away from offensive action. None the less, adequate ARVN-US planning for Saigon's defence did not take place until after the second major Communist assault exploded through the capital in May.

The Tet Offensive demonstrated to many the essential dilemma the American military faced in Vietnam: 'Guerrillas win if they don't lose. A standard army loses if it does not win.' Even this comment obscures the most important facet of the war: first and foremost it was a political struggle. The Communists clearly recognized this from the beginning and wove an integrated military/political war-winning strategy. American politicians refused to mobilize the political will of the country, meddled with military strategy- to its profound detriment but, in the end, listened to the generals who claimed they could conquer on the battlefield. The military, in turn, did not appreciate the political consequences of what it did. They had some understanding of domestic American consequences, but little regard for the impact of operations on the citizens of Vietnam. A North Vietnamese officer, explaining why America lost, put it most plainly: 'Your second weak point was to try to win the hearts and minds of the people while you were using bombs to kill them.'

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