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

During the Tet Offensive the American military had achieved notable successes and suffered some important failures. In spite of advance warning, Westmoreland had failed to alert adequately all units before the enemy assault. He was caught in mid-shift of major formations northward. He underestimated the psychological importance of Saigon and Hue. He failed to establish a coordinated ARVN-US plan for city defence.

Tactically, the surprise offensive caught the Allies short of weapons and lacking appropriate tactics for urban warfare. The military- had consciously discarded many of the heavier weapons associated with conventional combat in order to improve mobility in Vietnam's hinterland. Suddenly forced into tough house-to-house fighting, soldiers found themselves without direct-fire heavy weapons such as the Marine's 106mm recoilless rifle. They had to rely upon helicopter gunships, air strikes and artillery, all of which were less accurate and increased destruction of civilian life and property.

Tet was a major setback for the slowly improving South Vietnamese military. Along with their advisers, ARVN units fought unaided on the ground in 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 of 242 district capitals, and 50 hamlets attacked at the beginning of Tet. The best units acquitted themselves very well during the fighting. Some poorly regarded divisions fought much better then expected. Others, such as the 2nd Division at Quang Ngai which had been judged combat effective, displayed little fighting spirit. Overall, the units that fought the best suffered serious losses and declined as a result of Tet. The official casualty count probably understated South Vietnamese losses: 4,954 killed, 15,097 wounded, 926 missing. Unofficial estimates counted at least double this total of soldiers killed.

The stunning violence of the Communist assault demonstrated to South Vietnamese civilians that their own government, supported by the Americans and despite their weapons and promises, could not protect them. The Communist occupation of the old Imperial City of Hue had an adverse impact on South Vietnamese morale comparable to the American public's reaction to the embassy attack. Nation-wide war-weariness set in and desertion rates soared. At the end of 1967 the desertion rate was 10.5 per thousand. After heavy fighting and new mobilization orders, the July 1968 rate was 16.5 per thousand. Some 13,506 men deserted in July alone.

The Tet Offensive was also a bad setback for the pacification effort. More than one-third of the ARVN regular battalions assigned to pacification in rural areas had to withdraw into nearby cities. In the absence of protection, half the rural development teams, who had been making some progress at winning popular support for the government, abandoned their villages. These teams were the lynchpin of the pacification effort, which, in turn, was fundamental to Allied strategy.

From the Communist perspective, on the battlefield Tet had achieved far less than had been hoped. The Hanoi command had seemingly overestimated the readiness of the southern people to rise and overthrow the government. Giap had apparently yielded to impatience and misjudged the situation. The months following the offensive witnessed a doctrinarial debate within the Hanoi Command. A key conclusion was that victory could be achieved by remaining in Mao's Stage Two of guerrilla war without ever massing for Stage Three combat. This conclusion was a dramatic departure from previous doctrine.

The war would now be won by the 'super- guerrilla'. This fighter was anything but the black-pyjama-clad, lightly armed, local guerrilla. Rather he was a well-trained fighting man armed with the best weapons jthat the Communist world could provide. He used modern communications equipment to co-ordinate his effort, and would conduct deadly raids against enemy installations in order to limit the enemy's initiative and wear him down. Doctrine aside, however, such were the Tet losses that the Communists were unable to launch any major attacks during 1969.

The Tet Offensive, along with the subsequent summer offensives, nearly annihilated the Viet Cong. The VC suffered irreplaceable losses among key leaders and agents. As one survivor lamented: 'We lost our best people.' Henceforth, the North Vietnamese would have to bear the brunt of all combat operations. Combined VC/NVA casualties had been so severe that they required four years to recover before launching another major offensive. Even then, the Easter offensive of 1972 relied upon NVA soldiers for 90 per cent of the combat.

Given the important differences between Hanoi's and the National Liberation Front's objectives, the destruction of the Viet Cong was not entirely unwelcome in the North. The Offensive killed off many leaders who might have challenged Northern hegemony. Events after the war support this dark view of Hanoi's strategy. Many surviving high-ranking Viet Cong were terribly disheartened at what befell their movement. They felt betrayed by their northern brothers. Some had to flee the county. Northern historians, on the other hand, minimized the importance of the VC's contribution. Some virtually denied that the NLF and the VC had much to do with the war. While as of 1989, Hanoi has apparently solid control over the country, according to reports from people who flee the country, strife between north and south still simmers beneath the surface. From the Viet Cong perspective, Tet must be seen as a terrible bloodbath, a catastrophic defeat.

For the North Vietnamese, Tet marked the turn of the tide. But this was not readily appreciated at the time. Responding to a question of whether the High Command knew they had won the war in 1968, a general replied: 'Yes and no. Nixon began the withdrawal, but Vietnamization was a difficult period for us... 1969 and 1970 were very hard on us. The fighting was very fierce.'

While Communist post-mortems of many of the attacks, particularly those in Saigon, were full of honest self-criticizm, Hue was deemed a battle whose 'most outstanding feature was that we won an overall success'. The Communist command was particularly pleased to note that 'Hue was the place where reactionary spirit had existed for over ten years. However, it took us only a short time to drain it to its root.' Without apologies, such was the Viet Cong view of civilian massacre.

Whether the Communists could have endured an Allied counter-offensive during 1968 of the type proposed by Westmoreland is one of the tantalizing 'what ifs' of the Vietnam War. But as memories of the war's horror fade with time, and generals propound theories on how it could have been won, recall the words of a North Vietnamese officer who acknowledged the terrible losses suffered during Tet: 'We had hundreds of thousands killed in this war. We would have sacrificed one or two million more if necessary.'

The Tet Offensive of 1968 failed to defeat the American combat soldier on the battlefield, but it had defeated his general's strategy, his political leaders, and reversed the support of the people back home. It was one of the few battles of history that can be called decisive.

CHRONOLOGY

1967

7 July Decision in Hanoi to launch the General Offensive/General Uprising.

Late July Viet Cong leaders meet in Cambodia to plan how to implement the offensive.

29 July Detroit Riots, 15,339 federal and national guard troops sent to Detroit.

7 August Army Chief of Staff reports 'smell of success' surrounds Allied effort; beginning of Johnson administration propaganda campaign. 21-3 October Pentagon Riots; three battalions backed by tear gas repulse civilian stone- and bottle-throwing assault.

21 November General Westmoreland predicts US troop withdrawals to start in two years.

15 December Responsibility for Saigon's defence passes to ARVN.

20 December Westmoreland warns Washington of Communists' decision to attempt country-wide war-winning offensive.

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