Before the Storm
By the beginning of January 1968, the U.S had deployed 331,098 Army personnel and 78,013 Marines in nine divisions, an armored cavalry regiment, and two separate brigades to South Vietnam. They were joined there by the 1st Australian Task Force, a Royal Thai Army regiment, two South Korean infantry divisions, and a Republic of Korea Marine Corps brigade. South Vietnamese strength totaled 350,000 regulars in the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. They were in turn supported by the 151,000-man South Vietnamese Regional Forces and 149,000-man South Vietnamese Popular Forces, which were the equivalent of regional and local militias.
In the days immediately preceding the offensive, the preparedness of allied forces was relatively relaxed. Hanoi had announced in October that it would observe a seven-day truce from 27 January to 3 February for the Tet holiday, and the South Vietnamese military made plans to allow recreational leave for approximately half of its forces. General Westmoreland, who had already cancelled the truce in I Corps, requested that its ally cancel the upcoming cease-fire, but President Thieu (who had already reduced the cease-fire to 36 hours), refused to do so, claiming that it would damage troop morale and only benefit communist propagandists.
On 28 January 11 Viet Cong cadres were captured in the city of Qui Nhon while in possession of two pre-recorded audio tapes whose message appealed to the populace in “already occupied Saigon, Hue, and Da Nang.” The following afternoon, General Cao Van Vien, chief of the Vietnamese Joint General Staff, ordered his four corps commanders to place their troops on alert. Yet, there was still a lack of a sense of urgency on the part of the allies.
If Westmoreland had a grasp of the potential for danger, he did not communicate it very well to others. On the evening of 30 January, 200 U.S. officers—all of whom served on the MACV intelligence staff—attended a pool party at their quarters in Saigon. According to James Meecham, an analyst at the Combined Intelligence Center who attended the party: “I had no conception Tet was coming, absolutely zero… Of the 200-odd officers present, not one I talked to knew Tet was coming, without exception.” The general also failed to communicate his concerns adequately to Washington. Although he had warned the President between 25 and 30 January that “widespread” communist attacks were in the offing, his admonitions had tended to be so oblique or so hedged with official optimism that even the administration was unprepared. No one – in either Washington or Vietnam – was expecting what happened.