Aftermath – South Vietnam
South Vietnam was a nation in turmoil both during and in the aftermath of the offensive. Tragedy had compounded tragedy as the conflict reached into the nation’s cities for the first time. As government troops pulled back to defend the urban areas, the Vietcong moved in to fill the vacuum in the countryside. The violence and destruction witnessed during the offensive left a deep psychological scar on the South Vietnamese civilian population. Confidence in the government was shaken, since the offensive seemed to reveal that even with massive American support, the government could not protect its citizens.
The human and material cost to South Vietnam was staggering. The number of civilian dead was estimated by the government at 14,300 with an additional 24,000 wounded. 630,000 new refugees had been generated, joining the nearly 800,000 others already displaced by the war. By the end of 1968, one of every twelve South Vietnamese was living in a refugee camp. More than 70,000 homes had been destroyed in the fighting and perhaps 30,000 more were heavily damaged and the nation’s infrastructure had been virtually destroyed. The South Vietnamese military, although it had performed better than the Americans had expected, suffered from lowered morale, with desertion rates rising from 10.5 per thousand before Tet to 16.5 per thousand by July. 1968 became the deadliest year of the war to date for the ARVN with 27,915 men killed.
In the wake of the offensive, however, fresh determination was exhibited by the Thieu government. On 1 February Thieu declared a state of martial law and, on 15 June, the National Assembly passed his request for a general mobilization of the population and the induction of 200,000 draftees into the armed forces by the end of the year (a decree that had failed to pass only five months previously due to strong political opposition). This increase would bring South Vietnam’s troop strength to more than 900,000 men. Military mobilization, anti-corruption campaigns, demonstrations of political unity, and administrative reforms were quickly carried out. Thiệu also established a National Recovery Committee to oversee food distribution, resettlement, and housing construction for the new refugees. Both the government and the Americans were encouraged by a new determination that was exhibited among the ordinary citizens of the Republic. Many urban dwellers were indignant that the communists had launched their attacks during Tet and it drove many who had been previously apathetic into active support of the government. Journalists, political figures, and religious leaders alike—even the militant Buddhists—professed confidence in the government’s plans.
Thiệu saw an opportunity to consolidate his personal power and he took it. His only real political rival was Vice President Ky, the former Air Force commander, who had been outmaneuvered by Thiệu in the presidential election of 1967. In the aftermath of Tet, Ky supporters in the military and the administration were quickly removed from power, arrested, or exiled. A crack-down on the South Vietnamese press also ensued and there was a worrisome return of former President Ngô Đình Diệm’s Can Lao Party members to high positions in the government and military. By the summer of 1968, the President had earned a less exalted sobriquet among the South Vietnamese population, who had begun to call him “the little dictator.”
Thieu had also become very suspicious of his American allies, unwilling to believe (as did many South Vietnamese) that the U.S. had been caught by surprise by the offensive. “Now that it’s all over,” he queried a visiting Washington official, “you really knew it was coming didn’t you?” Lyndon Johnson’s unilateral decision on 31 March to curtail the bombing of North Vietnam only confirmed what Thiệu already feared, that the Americans were going to abandon South Vietnam to the communists. For Thiệu, the bombing halt and the beginning of negotiations with the North brought not the hope of an end to the war, but “an abiding fear of peace.” He was only mollified after an 18 July meeting with Johnson in Honolulu, where the American president affirmed that Saigon would be a full partner in all negotiations and that the U.S. would not “support the imposition of a coalition government, or any other form of government, on the people of South Vietnam.”