The Tet Offensive – Brief Overview

While the American people had been told repeatedly that there was a light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam, the deployment of some 525,000 troops had brought the United States no closer to achieving its limited political goals, and there would soon be a call for major new increases in troop deployments. In effect, the United States faced a stalemate in Vietnam because the enemy controlled the strategic initiative. During the early morning hours of 31 January 1968, the Vietnamese New Year, known as Tet, approximately 80,000 North Vietnamese regulars and NLF guerrillas attacked more than one hundred cities in South Vietnam. The military goal was to spark a popular uprising and, as captured documents revealed, “move forward to achieve final victory.” This final victory was not achieved, but psychological and political gains were made. The front page of the 1 February New York Times showed a picture of the U.S. embassy in Saigon under assault. Guerrillas had blasted their way into the embassy and held part of the embassy grounds for nearly six hours. All nineteen guerrillas were killed, as were four MPs, a marine guard, and a South Vietnamese embassy employee.

The enemy sustained major losses at Tet, from which it would take years to recover. But Tet also demonstrated the enemy’s great skill in planning, coordination, and courage. North Vietnamese regulars and NLF forces had successfully infiltrated previously secure population centers and discredited Saigon’s claims of security from attack.

On 27 February, Johnson received JCS chairman Earle Wheeler’s report on military requirements in South Vietnam. The document contained a request for 206,000 additional troops. To some, this was proof of the bankruptcy of the army’s strategy in Vietnam. Despite the large enemy losses during Tet, the United States was no closer to achieving its goal in Vietnam than it had been in 1965. There appeared to be no breaking point in the enemy’s will to continue the struggle indefinitely. The new reinforcements would bring the total American military commitment to three-quarters of a million troops. It was becoming increasingly evident that no amount of military power would bring North Vietnam to the conference table for negotiations.

That same evening CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite told the nation that the war was destined to remain deadlocked:

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds…. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.

Quotes

You can kill ten of my men for everyone I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.

–Ho Chi Minh to the French, late 1940s

You have a row of dominoes set up; you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is that it will go over very quickly.

–Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954

Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.

–John F. Kennedy, 1961

This is not a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity.

–Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964

Tell the Vietnamese they’ve got to draw in their horns or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.

–Gen. Curtis LeMay, May 1964

We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.

–Lyndon Johnson, Oct. 1964

We are at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars, and it has been said if we lose that war, and in so doing lose this way of freedom of ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening.

–Ronald Reagan, 1964

We should declare war on North Vietnam. . . .We could pave the whole country and put parking strips on it, and still be home by Christmas.

–Ronald Reagan, 1965

I see light at the end of the tunnel.

–Walt W. Rostow, National Security Adviser, Dec. 1967

The war against Vietnam is only the ghastliest manifestation of what I’d call imperial provincialism, which afflicts America’s whole culture–aware only of its own history, insensible to everything which isn’t part of the local atmosphere.

–Stephen Vizinczey, 1968

Let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.

–Richard M. Nixon, 1969

I’m not going to be the first American president to lose a war.

–Richard Nixon, Oct. 1969

This war has already stretched the generation gap so wide that it threatens to pull the country apart.

–Sen. Frank Church, May 1970

By intervening in the Vietnamese struggle the United States was attempting to fit its global strategies into a world of hillocks and hamlets, to reduce its majestic concerns for the containment of communism and the security of the Free World to a dimension where governments rose and fell as a result of arguments between two colonels’ wives.

–Frances Fitzgerald, 1972

We believe that peace is at hand.

–Henry Kissinger, Oct. 1972

You have my assurance that we will respond with full force should the settlement be violated by North Vietnam.

–Richard Nixon in a letter to President Thieu, Jan. 1973

If the Americans do not want to support us anymore, let them go, get out! Let them forget their humanitarian promises!

–Nguyen Van Thieu, April 1975

Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America–not on the battlefields of Vietnam.

–Marshall McLuhan, 1975

Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. These events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world.

–Gerald Ford, April 1975

Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.

–Michael Herr, 1977

Some of the critics viewed Vietnam as a morality play in which the wicked must be punished before the final curtain and where any attempt to salvage self-respect from the outcome compounded the wrong. I viewed it as a genuine tragedy. No one had a monopoly on anguish.

–Henry Kissinger, 1979

It’s time that we recognized that ours was in truth a noble cause.

–Ronald Reagan, Oct. 1980

There is the guilt all soldiers feel for having broken the taboo against killing, a guilt as old as war itself. Add to this the soldier’s sense of shame for having fought in actions that resulted, indirectly or directly, in the deaths of civilians. Then pile on top of that an attitude of social opprobrium, an attitude that made the fighting man feel personally morally responsible for the war, and you get your proverbial walking time bomb.

–Philip Caputo, 1982

Above all, Vietnam was a war that asked everything of a few and nothing of most in America.

–Myra MacPherson, 1984

No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now.

–Richard M. Nixon, 1985

Myths and Facts

Common Myths Dispelled:

Myth: Common belief is that most Vietnam veterans were drafted.
Fact: 2/3 of the men who served in Vietnam were volunteers. 2/3 of the men who served in World War II were drafted. Approximately 70% of those killed in Vietnam were volunteers.

Myth: The media have reported that suicides among Vietnam veterans range from 50,000 to 100,000 – 6 to 11 times the non-Vietnam veteran population.
Fact: Mortality studies show that 9,000 is a better estimate. “The CDC Vietnam Experience Study Mortality Assessment showed that during the first 5 years after discharge, deaths from suicide were 1.7 times more likely among Vietnam veterans than non-Vietnam veterans. After that initial post-service period, Vietnam veterans were no more likely to die from suicide than non-Vietnam veterans. In fact, after the 5-year post-service period, the rate of suicides is less in the Vietnam veterans’ group.

Myth: Common belief is that a disproportionate number of blacks were killed in the Vietnam War.
Fact: 86% of the men who died in Vietnam were Caucasians, 12.5% were black, 1.2% were other races. Sociologists Charles C. Moskos and John Sibley Butler, in their recently published book “All That We Can Be,” said they analyzed the claim that blacks were used like cannon fodder during Vietnam “and can report definitely that this charge is untrue. Black fatalities amounted to 12 percent of all Americans killed in Southeast Asia, a figure proportional to the number of blacks in the U.S. population at the time and slightly lower than the proportion of blacks in the Army at the close of the war.”

Myth: Common belief is that the war was fought largely by the poor and uneducated.
Fact: Servicemen who went to Vietnam from well-to-do areas had a slightly elevated risk of dying because they were more likely to be pilots or infantry officers. Vietnam Veterans were the best educated forces our nation had ever sent into combat. 79% had a high school education or better.

Myth: The common belief is the average age of an infantryman fighting in Vietnam was 19.
Fact: Assuming KIAs accurately represented age groups serving in Vietnam, the average age of an infantryman (MOS 11B) serving in Vietnam to be 19 years old is a myth, it is actually 22. None of the enlisted grades have an average age of less than 20. The average man who fought in World War II was 26 years of age.

Myth: The common belief is that the domino theory was proved false.
Fact: The domino theory was accurate. The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand stayed free of Communism because of the U.S. commitment to Vietnam. The Indonesians threw the Soviets out in 1966 because of America’s commitment in Vietnam. Without that commitment, Communism would have swept all the way to the Malacca Straits that is south of Singapore and of great strategic importance to the free world. If you ask people who live in these countries that won the war in Vietnam, they have a different opinion from the American news media. The Vietnam War was the turning point for Communism.

Myth: The common belief is that the fighting in Vietnam was not as intense as in World War II.
Fact: The average infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II saw about 40 days of combat in four years. The average infantryman in Vietnam saw about 240 days of combat in one year thanks to the mobility of the helicopter. One out of every 10 Americans who served in Vietnam was a casualty. 58,148 were killed and 304,000 wounded out of 2.7 million who served. Although the percent that died is similar to other wars, amputations or crippling wounds were 300 percent higher than in World War II. 75,000 Vietnam veterans are severely disabled. MEDEVAC helicopters flew nearly 500,000 missions. Over 900,000 patients were airlifted (nearly half were American). The average time lapse between wounding to hospitalization was less than one hour. As a result, less than one percent of all Americans wounded, who survived the first 24 hours, died. The helicopter provided unprecedented mobility. Without the helicopter it would have taken three times as many troops to secure the 800 mile border with Cambodia and Laos (the politicians thought the Geneva Conventions of 1954 and the Geneva Accords or 1962 would secure the border).

Myth: Kim Phuc, the little nine year old Vietnamese girl running naked from the napalm strike near Trang Bang on 8 June 1972 (shown a million times on American television) was burned by Americans bombing Trang Bang.
Fact: No American had involvement in this incident near Trang Bang that burned Phan Thi Kim Phuc. The planes doing the bombing near the village were VNAF (Vietnam Air Force) and were being flown by Vietnamese pilots in support of South Vietnamese troops on the ground. The Vietnamese pilot who dropped the napalm in error is currently living in the United States. Even the AP photographer, Nick Ut, who took the picture, was Vietnamese. The incident in the photo took place on the second day of a three day battle between the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) who occupied the village of Trang Bang and the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) who were trying to force the NVA out of the village. Recent reports in the news media that an American commander ordered the air strike that burned Kim Phuc are incorrect. There were no Americans involved in any capacity. “We (Americans) had nothing to do with controlling VNAF,” according to Lieutenant General (Ret) James F. Hollingsworth, the Commanding General of TRAC at that time. Also, it has been incorrectly reported that two of Kim Phuc’s brothers were killed in this incident. They were Kim’s cousins not her brothers.