On the offensive

31 January 2018 by Claire Hunter

Soldiers from 7RAR

He was known as “the most trusted man” in America, so when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite returned from a two-week fact-finding tour of the war in Vietnam to deliver a special broadcast on the Tet Offensive 50 years ago, people listened.

“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion,” he told Americans in a brief, but potent, editorial on 27 February 1968. “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honourable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” 

Among those listening was American President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was reportedly watching the broadcast live on television in the White House when he turned to his aides and said: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

He did and he had. It would help turn what was a major military defeat for the Communists into an unexpected political and propaganda victory for the North. And it would become a turning point in American and allied perceptions of the war, creating the impression that the war could not be won, and fuelling anti-war sentiment in the West.

“The Tet Offensive is enormously significant, not as a tactical or strategic success on the battlefield, but in its political and propaganda impact,” said senior historian at the Australian War Memorial, Ashley Ekins.

“Its impact was enormous because it went worldwide. Some nations may have been sympathetic previously to the idea that the Americans were fighting a worthy cause, and that this was a war that could be won; but it was, in Cronkite’s words, increasingly evident that this could now only ever end in stalemate.

“If an attack on this scale could be mounted, then clearly the enemy was not defeated, nor was it giving up. And that had always been the attitude of North Vietnam’s President Ho Chi Minh, right from the start. ‘Even if we have to fight for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years or longer still, we will resolutely fight until total victory .... You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.’”

As the Vietnamese prepared to celebrate the Lunar New Year 50 years ago, both sides agreed to a cease-fire to mark the annual Tet festival. It was a risky move, and the Communists took advantage of the Tet cease-fire to launch a massive offensive on 30 January 1968 that would attack virtually every major city and town in the south.  

“By late 1967, the war was very much a stalemate,” Ekins said. “Both sides were claiming they were winning, yet both sides were looking for a new strategy. The principal architect of the Tet Offensive was the southern-based commander of Communist forces in the south General Nguyen Chi Thanh. He argued that the only way for a chance of a Communist victory was for a massive general offensive to break the deadlock and spur a general uprising in the south.”

In January, the Communists launched a series of border battles, including attacks near the Demilitarized Zone at Khe Sanh, to draw the allied forces and the South Vietnamese forces into the more remote, mountainous areas, and away from their principal targets, the populous cities and large military bases.

“Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese army and the southern insurgents were secretly bringing into the south an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 men, and huge quantities of supplies were also coming south for this massive offensive,” Ekins said.

“The Americans were drawn into the border battles, but increasingly there is a sense that something major is coming. It is not the total surprise that it is often said to be. The stage was clearly set for an enemy offensive, but few in the allied side anticipated the magnitude of the Communist onslaught soon to break over into the South.

“They had no idea that there would be attacks on what amounts to 36 of the 40-odd major sites – major cities and military sites – and many subsidiary smaller places. It’s an enormous onslaught when it happens.”

South Vietnamese and allied forces were at first overwhelmed by the scale of the offensive, but within hours they had recovered and secured many areas; and after four days the Communist forces had been driven out of most towns. In Saigon, however, the fighting continued until mid-February, destroying large sections of the city, resulting in civilian casualties.

“In Saigon, the dominant images were some 20-odd suicide squad Viet Cong breaking through the outer perimeter of the American embassy compound,” Ekins said. “They don’t get any further than that and were all killed within the compound, but there was some very savage fighting, and much of that was captured on television. It was a huge shock to the American people.”

The worst destruction, though, occurred at Hue, Vietnam’s former imperial capital.

“The most protracted and bitter fighting of the war occurred when the Communists invaded Hue, captured the citadel and had to be driven out,” Ekins said.

“That resulted in 25 days of really vicious fighting and they left behind nearly 3,000 dead. And later a mass grave was found of almost the same number of civilians who were deliberately targeted, from government officials to school teachers.”

North Vietnamese soldiers massacred thousands of civilians before being defeated in fierce fighting which left much of the historic city in ruins and shocked the world.

“In some ways the offensive was a surprise to both sides,” Ekins said. “The Communists sincerely believed that they would be joined by the people, who would rise up in revolt and join them. In fact most fled for refuge with the South Vietnamese army. The army was called back from leave and there was a great degree of panic, but in the end the army rose to the occasion – with American and Australian military support. In all these areas, gradually the Communists were either defeated or driven back and their losses were enormous. The exact number may never be known, but it is generally estimated that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army suffered 45,000 to 50,000 battle deaths and lost some 6,000 soldiers captured.”

It was an overwhelming defeat of the Communist forces and the Viet Cong took several years to recover from their losses, needing to be reinforced with North Vietnamese Army troops.

“[But] it had another effect,” Ekins said. “It was meant to severely damage the Americans and force them to pull out – and to have the South Vietnamese people rise up to join the Communists. That didn’t happen and I think the most honest account I’ve come across, from the Communist side, is from General Tran Do, one of those in charge of the offensive.

“Tran said: ‘In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the south. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans and their puppets, and that was a big gain for us. As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention, but it turned out to be a fortunate result.’

“So if there was a turning point in this – and it’s always claimed that Tet is a turning point – it’s probably the turning point in American realisations. Up until then there had been a lot of forecasting of victory. American commander General William Westmoreland had addressed the National Press Club in Washington in November 1967 and talked confidently of seeing ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’.”

Westmoreland thought the United States might begin to scale down its commitment within two years and that victory was close at hand.  In fact, in the second week of the Tet offensive, the US Army suffered its most costly week of the war when 543 Americans were killed and more than 2,500 were wounded.

“That roughly equals Australia’s total losses in the entire war,” Ekins said. “And what some of the shrewder heads on both sides were beginning to see was that the war would be won, not in the number of dead Vietnamese on the Communist side (the controversial ‘body count’ statistics of Westmoreland’s attrition strategy), but its counter-side: the number of US servicemen’s coffins going home to America. The impact of the homeward flow of dead American soldiers was probably one of the most powerful of all these things, and to have 540 in a single week was a shock to America. Suddenly the ‘credibility gap’ between the reality and what the American public had been told by the generals and politicians, had been exposed.”

For Australian forces, the Tet offensive brought a number of changes. On 1 February troops from the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), along with cavalry and artillery support, were given the task of recapturing Ba Ria, the capital of Phuoc Tuy province, which had been occupied by the Viet Cong.

“It took the Australians hours of fighting on the first day, and more fighting the next, to drive them out,” Ekins said. “It was crucial. For a while it was quite a pitched battle, and in urban surroundings, something the Australians hadn’t trained for. They had been trained for fighting in the jungles, and on very different sorts of counter-insurgency operations. Suddenly they were fighting an urban war against an enemy who had taken over many of the buildings – it was fierce fighting, but it didn’t last long.”

Moving quickly in a spirited attack, the Australians were successful, and 3RAR also successfully dealt with a similar Viet Cong attack against Long Dien a few days later.  The rest of the Australian task force, 2RAR and 7RAR, along with supporting arms, had been earlier deployed to Bien Hoa province during Operation Coburg to cover the north-eastern approaches to the Long Binh – Bien Hoa air base complex. In the days leading up to the Tet Offensive, the Australians fought a series of patrol clashes with the enemy.  Fighting intensified during February when Fire Support Base Andersen, came under repeated ground assault, but was successfully defended. Operation Coburg concluded on 1 March and the task force returned to its base at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province.

“A change in direction did come, of course,” Ekins said.

“You can’t directly attribute that to the Tet Offensive, but it was foreshadowed by President Johnson’s address to the American nation on the 31st of March, just two months after the offensive began. Looking a very tired and troubled man, he announced a unilateral halt to the bombing of North Vietnam and extended the offer of peace talks with the Communist leaders. He also stated he would not seek re-election. The war in Vietnam had disrupted his ‘Great Society’ vision of social and civil rights reforms and Johnson retired disillusioned to his Texas ranch where he sadly died alone in 1973.”

But the Tet Offensive didn’t really turn the course of the war significantly.

“It’s been widely regarded as a pivotal turning point in the war, but its effects were political and psychological as much as military,” Ekins said.

“It was a military victory for the South, although most of the world perceived it as a defeat for American forces because of exaggerated reporting of the widespread Communist assaults on cities and American bases.

“But the war still had a long way to travel and the major impact of Tet was to spur a reappraisal at the top levels of the US administration.

“In the end, the war would grind on until America finally withdrew its forces in 1973; but it would not end until the Communist military victory and the collapse of the Republic of [South] Vietnam on 30 April 1975. By then the Tet Offensive had become a distant memory of a milestone event that occurred in the midpoint of an agonisingly long and costly war.”