Planning in Hanoi for a winter-spring offensive during 1968 had begun in early 1967 and continued until early the following year. According to American sources, there has been an extreme reluctance among Vietnamese historians to discuss the decision-making process that led to the General Offensive General Uprising, even decades after the event. In official Vietnamese literature, the decision to launch Tet Mau Than was usually presented as the result of a perceived U.S. failure to win the war quickly, the failure of the American bombing campaign against the North Vietnam, and the anti-war sentiment that pervaded the population of the U.S. The decision to launch the general offensive, however, was much more complicated.
The decision signaled the end of a bitter, decade-long debate within the Party leadership between first two, and then three factions. The moderates believed that the economic viability of North Vietnam should come before support of a massive and conventional southern war and who generally followed the Soviet line of peaceful coexistence by reunifying Vietnam through political means. Heading this faction were party theoretician Trường Chinh and Minister of Defense Võ Nguyên Giáp. The militant faction, on the other hand, tended to follow the foreign policy line of the People’s Republic of China and called for the reunification of the nation by military means and that no negotiations should be undertaken with the Americans. This group was led by Party First Secretary Lê Duẩn and Lê Ðức Thọ (no relation). From the early-to-mid-1960s, the militants had dictated the direction of the war in South Vietnam.
General Nguyễn Chí Thanh the head of Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), communist headquarters for the South, was another prominent militant. Strangely, the followers of the Chinese line centered their strategy against the US and its allies on large-scale, main force actions rather than the protracted guerrilla war espoused by Mao Zedong.
By 1966-1967, however, after suffering massive casualties, stalemate on the battlefield, and destruction of the northern economy by U.S. aerial bombing, there was a dawning realization that, if current trends continued, Hanoi would eventually lack the resources necessary to affect the military situation in the South. As a result, there were more strident calls by the moderates for negotiations and a revision of strategy. They felt that a return to guerrilla tactics was more appropriate since the U.S. could not be defeated conventionally. They also complained that the policy of rejecting negotiations was in error. The Americans could only be worn down in a war of wills during a period of “fighting while talking.” During 1967 things had become so bad on the battlefield that Lê Duẩn ordered Thanh to incorporate aspects of protracted guerrilla warfare into his strategy.
During the same period, a counterattack was launched by a new, third grouping (the centrists) led by President Hồ Chí Minh, Lê Ðức Thọ, and Foreign Minister Nguyễn Duy Trinh, who called for negotiations. From October 1966 through April 1967, a very public debate over military strategy took place in print and via radio between Thanh and his rival for military power, Giáp. Giáp had advocated a defensive, primarily guerrilla strategy against the U.S. and South Vietnam. Thanh’s position was that Giáp and his adherents were centered on their experiences during the First Indochina War and that they were too “conservative and captive to old methods and past experience… mechanically repeating the past.”
The arguments over domestic and military strategy also carried a foreign policy element as well, because North Vietnam was totally dependent on outside military and economic aid. The vast majority of its military equipment was provided by either the Soviet Union or China. Beijing advocated that North Vietnam conduct a protracted war on the Maoist model, fearing that a conventional conflict might draw them in as it had in the Korean War. They also resisted the idea of negotiating with the allies. Moscow, on the other hand, advocated negotiations, but simultaneously armed Hanoi’s forces to conduct a conventional war on the Soviet model. North Vietnamese foreign policy, therefore consisted of maintaining a critical balance between war policy, internal and external policies, domestic adversaries, and foreign allies with “self-serving agendas.”
To “break the will of their domestic opponents and reaffirm their autonomy vis-à-vis their foreign allies” hundreds of pro-Soviet, party moderates, military officers, and intelligentsia were arrested on 27 July 1967, during what came to be called the Revisionist Anti-Party Affair. All of the arrests were based on the individual’s stance on the Politburo’s choice of tactics and strategy for the proposed General Offensive. This move cemented the position of the militants as Hanoi’s strategy: The rejection of negotiations, the abandonment of protracted warfare, and the focus on the offensive in the towns and cities of South Vietnam. More arrests followed in November and December.