General Offensive and Uprising
The operational plan for the General Offensive and Uprising had its origin as the “COSVN proposal” at Thanh’s southern headquarters in April 1967 and had then been relayed to Hanoi the following month. The general was then ordered to the capital to explain his concept in person to the Military Central Commission. At a meeting in July, Thanh briefed the plan to the Politburo. On the evening of 6 July, after receiving permission to begin preparations for the offensive, Thanh attended a party and died of a heart attack after drinking too much.
After cementing their position during the Party crackdown, the militants sped up planning for a major conventional offensive to break the military deadlock. They concluded that the Saigon government and the U.S. presence were so unpopular with the population of the South that a broad-based attack would spark a spontaneous uprising of the population, which, if the offensive was successful, would enable the communists to sweep to a quick, decisive victory. Their basis for this conclusion included: a belief that the South Vietnamese military was no longer combat effective; the results of the fall 1967 South Vietnamese presidential election (in which the Nguyễn Văn Thiệu/Nguyễn Cao Kỳ ticket had only received 24 percent of the popular vote); the Buddhist crises of 1963 and 1966; well-publicized anti-war demonstrations in Saigon; and continuous criticism of the Thieu government in the southern press. Launching such an offensive would also finally put an end to what have been described as “dovish calls for talks, criticism of military strategy, Chinese diatribes of Soviet perfidy, and Soviet pressure to negotiate—all of which needed to be silenced.”
North Vietnamese Defense Minister Võ Nguyên Giáp
In October, the Politburo decided on the Tet holiday as the launch date and met again in December to reaffirm its decision and formalize it at the 14th Plenary session of the Party Central Committee in January 1968. The resultant Resolution 14 was a major blow to domestic opposition and “foreign obstruction.” Concessions had been made to the center group, however, by agreeing that negotiations were possible, but the document essentially centered on the creation of “a spontaneous uprising in order to win a decisive victory in the shortest time possible.”
Contrary to Western belief, General Giáp did not plan or command the offensive himself. Thanh’s original plan was elaborated on by a party committee headed by Thanh’s deputy, Phạm Hùng, and then modified by Giáp. The Defense Minister may have been convinced to toe the line by the arrest and imprisonment of most of the members of his staff during the Revisionist Anti-Party Affair. Although Giáp went to work “reluctantly, under duress,” he may have found the task easier due to the fact that he was faced with a fait accompli. Since the Politburo had already approved the offensive, all he had to do was make it work. He combined guerrilla operations into what was basically a conventional military offensive and shifted the burden of sparking the popular uprising to the Viet Cong. If it worked, all would be well and good. If it failed, it would be a failure only for the Party militants. For the moderates and centrists, it offered the prospect of negotiations and a possible end to the American bombing of the North. Only in the eyes of the militants, therefore, did the offensive become a “go for broke” effort. Others in the Politburo were willing to settle for a much less ambitious “victory.”
The operation would involve a preliminary phase, during which diversionary attacks would be launched in the border areas of South Vietnam to draw American attention and forces away from the cities. The General Offensive, General Uprising would then commence with simultaneous actions on major allied bases and most urban areas, and with particular emphasis on the cities of Saigon and Hue. Concurrently, a substantial threat would have to be made against the U.S. combat base at Khe Sanh. The Khe Sanh actions would draw North Vietnamese forces away from the offensive into the cities, but Giáp considered them necessary in order to protect his supply lines and divert American attention. Attacks on other U.S. forces were of secondary, or even tertiary importance, since Giáp considered his main objective to be weakening or destroying the South Vietnamese military and government through popular revolt. The offensive, therefore was aimed at influencing the South Vietnamese public, not that of the U.S. There is conflicting evidence as to whether, or to what extent, the offensive was intended to influence either the March primaries or the November presidential election in the U.S.
According to General Trần Văn Trà, the new military head of COSVN, the offensive was to have three distinct phases: Phase I, scheduled to begin on 30 January, would be a countrywide assault on the cities, conducted primarily by Vietcong forces. Concurrently, a propaganda offensive to induce ARVN troops to desert and the South Vietnamese population to rise up against the government would be launched. If outright victory was not achieved, the battle might still lead to the creation of a coalition government and the withdrawal of the Americans. If the general offensive failed to achieve these purposes, followup operations would be conducted to wear down the enemy and lead to a negotiated settlement; Phase II was scheduled to begin on 5 May, and Phase III on 17 August.
Preparations for the offensive were already underway. The logistical build-up began in mid-year, and by January 1968, 81,000 tons of supplies and 200,000 troops, including seven complete infantry regiments and 20 independent battalions made the trip south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This logistical effort also involved re-arming the Viet Cong with new AK-47 assault rifles and B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, which granted them superior firepower over their less well-armed ARVN opponents. To pave the way and to confuse the allies as to its intentions, Hanoi launched a diplomatic offensive. Foreign Minister Trinh announced on 30 December that Hanoi would rather than could open negotiations if the U.S. unconditionally ended Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. This announcement provoked a flurry of diplomatic activity (which amounted to nothing) during the last weeks of the year.
South Vietnamese and U.S. military intelligence estimated that communist forces in South Vietnam during January 1968 totaled 323,000 men, including 130,000 North Vietnamese regulars, 160,000 Viet Cong and members of the infrastructure, and 33,000 service and support troops. They were organized into nine divisions composed of 35 infantry and 20 artillery or anti-aircraft artillery regiments, which were, in turn, composed of 230 infantry and six sapper battalions.