Aftermath – North Vietnam
The leadership in Hanoi must have been initially despondent about the outcome of their great gamble. Their first and most ambitious goal, producing a general uprising, had ended in a dismal failure. In total, approximately 85,000–100,000 communist troops had participated in the initial onslaught and in the follow-up phases. Overall, during the “Border Battles” of 1967 and the nine-month winter-spring campaign, 45,267 communist troops had been killed in action.
The keys to the failure of Tet are not difficult to discern. Hanoi had 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, which was amply demonstrated by the 30 January attacks; their violation of the principle of mass, attacking everywhere instead of concentrating their forces on a few specific targets, allowed their forces to be defeated piecemeal; the launching of massed attacks headlong into the teeth of vastly superior firepower; and last, but not least, the incorrect assumptions upon which the entire campaign was based. According to General Tran Van Tra: “We did not correctly evaluate the specific balance of forces between ourselves and the enemy, did not fully realize that the enemy still had considerable capabilities, and that our capabilities were limited, and set requirements that were beyond our actual strength.
The communist effort to regain control of the countryside was somewhat more successful. According to the U.S. State Department the Vietcong “made pacification virtually inoperative. In the Mekong Delta the Vietcong was stronger now than ever and in other regions the countryside belongs to the VC.” General Wheeler reported that the offensive had brought counterinsurgency programs to a halt and “that to a large extent, the V.C. now controlled the countryside.” Unfortunately for the Vietcong, this state of affairs did not last. Heavy casualties and the backlash of the South Vietnamese and Americans resulted in more territorial losses and heavy casualties.
The horrendous losses inflicted on Viet Cong units struck into the heart of the irreplaceable infrastructure that had been built up for over a decade. MACV estimated that 181,149 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops had been killed during 1968. From this point forward, Hanoi was forced to fill one-third of the Viet Cong’s ranks with North Vietnamese regulars. However, this change had little effect on the war, since North Vietnam had little difficulty making up the casualties inflicted by the offensive. Some Western historians have come to believe that one insidious ulterior motive for the campaign was the elimination of competing southern members of the Party, thereby allowing the northerners more control once the war was won.
It was not until after the conclusion of the first phase of the offensive that Hanoi realized that its sacrifices might not have been in vain. General Tran Do, North Vietnamese commander at the battle of Hue, gave some insight into how defeat was translated into victory:
“In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans and their puppets, and this was a big gain for us. As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention—but it turned out to be a fortunate result”.
Hanoi had in no way anticipated the political and psychological effect the offensive would have on the leadership and population of the U.S. When the northern leadership saw how the U.S. was reacting to the offensive, they began to propagandize their “victory”. The opening of negotiations and the diplomatic struggle, the option feared by the Party militants prior to the offensive, quickly came to occupy a position equal to that of the military struggle.
On 5 May Trường Chinh rose to address a congress of Party members and proceeded to castigate the Party militants and their bid for quick victory. His “faction-bashing” tirade sparked a serious debate within the party leadership which lasted for four months. As the leader of the “main force war” and “quick victory” faction, Lê Duẩn also came under severe criticism. In August, Chinh’s report on the situation was accepted in toto, published, and broadcast via Radio Hanoi. He had single-handedly shifted the nation’s war strategy and restored himself to prominence as the Party’s ideological conscience. Meanwhile, the Vietcong proclaimed itself the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam, and took part in future peace negotiations under this title. It would be a long seven years until victory.