Tuesday, February 08, 2011

"A Drastically Different Kind of War": The Tet Offensive

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story. In this passage, I describe the American shock and confusion in the wake of North Vietnam's Tet Offensive in South Vietnam in early 1968.

During the summer of 1967, congressional leaders confronted President Lyndon Johnson about the immense costs of both the Vietnam War and Johnson’s beloved “Great Society” social programs. By this point the war cost $20 billion a year (more than $127 billion a year in 2009 dollars.) To pay the bills for these expensive projects, the president would have to propose tax increases and/or budget cuts. Johnson opted for a 10 percent tax surcharge to be assessed all corporate and individual taxpayers. “Until that moment, most Americans had not been asked to do anything or pay anything to support the war,” journalist Dan Oberdorfer wrote.

"For most of them, the conflict was remote from their personal lives and experience . . . For all the talk of coffins coming back, it is likely that the vast majority of 200,000,000 Americans did not know personally any of the 13,000 men who had been killed in action in Vietnam from 1961 to the summer of 1967. More Americans than that died per year from accidental falls, twice as many died per year from cirrhosis of the liver and four times that many died per year in motor vehicle accidents."

Nevertheless, disturbing signs abounded that the war would take a more violent turn. By the summer of 1967, American military commanders received intelligence indicating a buildup of North Vietnamese forces in Khe Sanh in the far northwestern corner of South Vietnam, not far from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two countries. Commanders dispatched Marines to reinforce the base against an anticipated North Vietnamese Army (NVA) assault. The North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front (Vietcong) troops began bombarding Khe Sanh and laid siege to the base. American air superiority allowed the military to keep Khe Sanh supplied. As fighter planes attacked communist anti-aircraft batteries, helicopters dropped ammunition, food and other essentials to the Marines below. The siege lasted 77 days and resulted in 703 American and South Vietnamese deaths and 2,642 wounded.

Many journalists, politicians and historians later agreed that the Battle of Khe Sanh, which began on January was an intentional distraction, aimed at forcing American commander Gen. William Westmoreland to divert resources to an unimportant corner of South Vietnam as part of a grand strategy. Such analysts believe that the communists intended to draw American troops away from multiple cities across South Vietnam in preparation for a campaign launched on January 30 that came to be known as the Tet Offensive.

Americans had negotiated a ceasefire with the North Vietnamese during Tet season, a Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration. The Americans anticipated a quiet holiday. Instead, close to 70,000 Communist soldiers launched a surprise attack at the beginning of Tet, on January 30. The North Vietnamese and their NVA allies attacked more than 100 cities and towns, including 39 of South Vietnam’s 44 provincial capitals.

Caught by surprise, the military leadership had no idea how many communist troops had been thrown into the campaign and how many had been held in reserve. The North Vietnamese and their NLF allies also startled the Americans with their abrupt change of tactics. The communists had always tried to avoid direct confrontation with the better-armed U.S. military, preferring ambushes and hit-and-run attacks. For the Tet Offensive, suddenly the communists fought as an effective conventional army.

“They [the communists] fought stubbornly, sometimes blindly, and frequently abandoned their flexible tactics to defend untenable positions,” Stanley Karnow wrote in Vietnam: A History. “In many places they were swiftly crushed by overwhelming American and South Vietnamese military power, its destructive capacity brought to bear with uncommon fury – and often indiscriminately. [The NVA and Vietcong] also displayed unprecedented brutality, slaughtering minor government functionaries and other innocuous figures as well as harmless foreign doctors, schoolteachers and missionaries.”

When the Vietcong seized control of the South Vietnamese city of Huế, they carried with them a detailed enemies list that included top South Vietnamese soldiers and residents who had collaborated with the American-supported regime in Saigon, Americans, Germans and Filipinos. As journalist Don Oberdorfer noted in his book Tet: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War, Vietcong soldiers were instructed to seize wanted men and women as soon as possible and to evacuate them from the city. If evacuation proved impossible, the guerilla warriors were to execute their captives immediately. Quickly communist forces seized control of much of Huế and began rounding up political targets. During the weeks communists held the city, they massacred between 3,000 and 6,000 supporters of the “puppet regime” in Saigon.

Four thousand communist troops struck the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, and his officers displayed a keen awareness of the importance of press coverage to their military campaign. They launched the offensive in the dead of the night, including the all-but-doomed assault on and occupation of the American embassy by 19 guerillas, in sufficient time for film to be shot, processed and transmitted from Japan just in time for the evening news broadcasts in America. The battle at the embassy captured the attention of the world press. Film of a battle unfolding at the embassy, the center of American power in Southeast Asia, made a mockery of Johnson administration claims that victory over the communists was at hand.


Three months of planning prepared guerillas for the capture of the U.S. embassy. The communists easily transferred weapons, explosives and ammunition, hidden in trucks bearing rice and tomatoes, from a hidden base in the countryside to the capital. The NVA stored their weapons inside a Saigon automobile repair store owned by a supporter of the revolution. The story that the communists had seized control of the embassy became the screaming page one banner headline of Washington’s evening newspaper, The News, which proclaimed in all capital letters, “WAR HITS SAIGON.”

The images of Tet broadcast back home delivered a demoralizing message. “After seven years of steadily increasing warfare, all the battles seemed to blur together into a single jumbled image,” Charles Kaiser later wrote. “[V]ery young, helmeted GIs, bolstered by B-52 bombers, naval bombardments, napalm, Agent Orange, tanks, helicopters, and mortars, locked in perpetual conflict with a seemingly endless supply of slightly built, bareheaded men and women wearing black pajamas and sandals fashioned from the Goodyear tires salvaged from American jeeps and trucks. The mystery was why our absurd technological advantage never translated into a predictable pattern of success on the battlefield.”

One searing image from the Tet Offensive fixed in the American mind the brutality of the Vietnam War and the distance between the spin offered by Johnson and his cabinet and the ugly realities on the ground. On February 1, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the chief of South Vietnam’s national police, conducted a spontaneous street execution of a communist guerilla. Images of the killing reached newspaper readers and television viewers around the world.

Loan had ruthlessly crushed a dissident Buddhist movement in Huế two years before. During the Tet Offensive, Communist soldiers had killed several of his men, including a major who was a close friend, along with the major’s wife and children. That day, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams and Vo Suu of the National Broadcasting Company cruised around the gun-blasted South Vietnamese capital, eventually approaching the An Quang temple. They spotted South Vietnamese Marines who held in custody a man in black shorts and a checkered shirt, with his hands tied behind him. They led the prisoner to General Loan, who carried a pistol.

Loan used the gun to wave away a gathering crowd, stretched his right arm towards the prisoner’s temple, and pulled the trigger. “The man grimaced – then, almost in slow motion, his legs crumpled beneath him and he seemed to sit down backwards, blood gushing from his head as it hit the pavement,” Karnow writes. “Not a word was spoken. It all happened instantly, with hardly a sound except for the crack of Loan’s gun, the click of Adams’ shutter, and the whir of Vo Suu’s camera.” Loan calmly holstered the pistol, walking away and telling the NBC photographer, “'These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me.''

Adams’ camera had captured the moment when the bullet from Loan’s gun first struck the prisoner’s temple. Transmitting that picture with radio transmitters to the AP’s New York office, Adams had photographed one of the iconic and most devastating images from the Vietnam War. “Everyone knew it was a prizewinner,” Oberdorfer wrote, “one of the great pictures of the Vietnam War.” Adams’ photograph appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. The next day NBC broadcast film of the incident shot by Vo Suu in color as part of The Huntley-Brinkley Report. As Kaiser observed, “This image did more damage to the idea that America was bringing civilization to South Vietnam than any other event . . . It was an honest portrait of the brutality of war and the ruthlessness of our Vietnamese ally” even if viewers did not understand the brutality of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong during the Tet Offensive.

The Johnson administration’s efforts to manage the news from South Vietnam suffered another body blow on February 7. The American military organized a field trip for reporters to Ben Tre, the capital of Kien Hoa province, that had been home to 35,000. The town lay in ruins and the battle there produced a high number of civilian casualties. One major told AP reporter Peter Arnett, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” If Adams’ and Suu’s photography captured the savagery of the Vietnam War, the quote reported by Arnett captured the war’s insanity. The tremendous technological advantage the United States brought to the war obviously had failed to crush the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong’s will to fight, but the advanced weaponry clearly had destroyed much of America’s South Vietnam ally and its people.

Years of empty assurances from President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara about success in Vietnam lay in ruins. The Tet Offensive can be considered the death knell of Johnson’s credibility with the American voting public. A substantially larger percentage of Americans believed that the United States was losing the war in Vietnam in late February 1968 than had the previous November. The number saying America was losing went up from 8 to 23 percent in that four-month period, according to a Gallup organization poll, while the number believing that America was making military “progress” dropped from 50 percent to 33 percent.

Newspaper humorist Art Buchwald captured this mood, comparing Westmoreland to General George Armstrong Custer during the massacre of his men at Little Big Horn, in a February 6, 1968 Washington Post column.

"LITTLE BIG HORN, Dakota, June 27, 1876 – Gen. George Armstrong Custer said today in an exclusive interview with this correspondent that the Battle of Little Big Horn had just turned the corner and he could now see light at the end of the tunnel.
'We have the Sioux on the run,' Gen. Custer told me. 'Of course, we still have some cleaning up to do, but the Redskins are hurting badly and it will only be a matter of time before they give in.'"

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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