Thursday, October 19, 2006

Tết Offensive

[Will this month's surge in American deaths in Iraq become a turning-point propaganda victory for the insurgents? An analogue:]
The Tết Offensive (January 30, 1968 - June 8, 1969) was a series of operational offensives during the Vietnam War, coordinated between battalion strength elements of the National Liberation Front's People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF or Viet Cong) and divisional strength elements of the North Vietnam's People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), against South Vietnam's Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and United States military and other ARVN-allied forces. The operations are called the Tết Offensive as they were timed to begin on the night of January 30–31, 1968, Tết Nguyên Đán (the lunar new year day). The offensive began spectacularly during celebrations of the Lunar New Year, and sporadic operations associated with the offensive continued into 1969.

The Tết Offensive can be considered a crushing military defeat for the Communist forces, as neither the Viet Cong nor the North Vietnamese army achieved any of their tactical goals. Furthermore, the operational cost of the offensive was dangerously high, with the Viet Cong essentially crippled by the huge losses inflicted by South Vietnamese and other Allied forces. Nevertheless, the Offensive is widely considered a turning point of the war in Vietnam, with the NLF and PAVN winning an enormous psychological and propaganda victory. Although US public opinion polls continued to show a majority supporting involvement in the war, this support continued to deteriorate and the nation became increasingly polarized over the war.[1] President Lyndon Johnson saw his popularity fall sharply after the Offensive, and he withdrew as a candidate for re-election in March of 1968. The Tết Offensive is frequently seen as an example of the value of propaganda, media influence and popular opinion in the pursuit of military objectives....

In total, the United States estimated that 45,000 Viet Cong and PAVN soldiers were killed, though this figure may be significantly lower due to the nature of overclaims. About 6,000 were captured, with the number of wounded being unclear. The USA, ARVN, and allied Australian and South Korean forces suffered 4,324 killed, 16,063 wounded, and 598 missing....

The Viet Cong's operational forces were effectively crippled by the Offensive. Many Viet Cong who had been operating under cover in the cities of South Vietnam revealed themselves during the Offensive and were killed or captured. The organization was preserved for propaganda purposes, but in practical terms the Viet Cong were finished. Formations that were referred to as Viet cong were in fact largely filled with North Vietnamese replacements. In reality, this change had little effect on the war, since North Vietnam had no difficulty making up the casualties inflicted by the war.[12] The National Liberation Front (the political arm of the Viet Cong) reformed itself as the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, and took part in future peace negotiations under this name.

The Communist high command did not anticipate the psychological effect the Tết Offensive would have on America. For example, the attack on the U.S. Embassy was allocated only 19 Viet Cong soldiers, and even the expenditure of this force was considered by some VC officers to be misguided. Only after they saw how the U.S. was reacting to this attack did the Communists begin to propagandize it. The timing of the Offensive was determined by the hope that American and South Vietnamese forces would be less vigilant during the Tết holiday. It was purely coincidence that it occurred at a time when it would have maximum effect on a U.S. presidential Election....

That the Communists were able to mount a major, country-wide assault at all was a blow to U.S. hopes of winning the war rapidly, and starkly called into question General Westmoreland's now-infamous public reports of the previous progress in the War. Likewise, the optimistic assessments of the Johnson administration and The Pentagon came under heavy criticism and ridicule.

Seeing the complete collapse of the PAVN/Viet Cong offensive, the lopsided casualty ratio, the lack of a popular uprising in support of the attacks, and the failure of the attacking forces to gain and hold significant territorial assets, Westmoreland considered it an appropriate opportunity for a counteroffensive action. He put together a request for 206,000 additional troops to prosecute the war in the wake of the Offensive, a move that would have required mobilization of the U.S. Reserves.

While this was being deliberated, the request was leaked to the press and published across three columns of the Sunday edition of The New York Times on March 10, 1968. Then-Lieutenant Colonel Dave Palmer later wrote in Summons of the Trumpet: "Looked upon erroneously but understandably by readers as a desperate move to avert defeat, news of the request for 206,000 men confirmed the suspicions of many that the result of the Tết Offensive had not been depicted accurately by the President or his spokesmen. If the Communists had suffered such a grievous setback, why would we need to increase our forces by 40 percent?"

Many people, both at the time and in retrospect, have criticized the U.S. media for the negative light in which it portrayed both the war in general and the Tết Offensive in particular. Earle Wheeler, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, complained of "all the doom and gloom we see in the U.S. press" after Tết.

The most famous example of an anti-war attitude on the part of an influential press figure was Walter Cronkite's special report on the war of February 27, 1968. After touring the ruined streets and battlefields of the Tết Offensive and interviewing discouraged soldiers and officers in the field, he directly criticized the military leadership and the Johnson administration: "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest cloud." He concluded by saying that the U.S. was "mired in a stalemate" and called for a negotiated end to the conflict.[14]

Days after the publication of the New York Times story concerning Westmoreland's request for additional troops, President Johnson suffered a staggering setback in the United States Democratic Party New Hampshire Primary, finishing barely ahead of United States Senator Eugene McCarthy. Soon after, Senator Robert F. Kennedy announced he would join the contest for the Democratic nomination, further emphasizing the plummeting support for Johnson's Administration in the wake of Tết. Although some have asserted Johnson's lack of support implied the public sought disengagement from Vietnam, others have suggested it was Johnson's failure to prosecute the war effectively that caused his decline at the polls. On March 31, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, and announced a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam.

Also in March of 1968, Johnson announced that General Westmoreland would be replacing General Harold K. Johnson as Army Chief of Staff. Although technically a promotion, few doubted that Westmoreland was being "kicked upstairs" in response to Tết...[15]


1 comment:

mikeyarmo said...

Wow, what a blast from the past (that being: Grade 11 American History!). Thanks for the reminder!