Tet Offensive: A Major Turning Point
Villagers carried coffins filled with guns and ammunition through towns, accompanying them were the sounds of fireworks and flutes. Those sounds soon turned to the sound of assault rifle fire and explosions. Flares and green tracers dart through the night sky like hundreds of fireflies; gun flashes replaced Tet fireworks, and could be seen as far as the eye could see. This major event in the Vietnam War is called the Tet Offensive. After a surprise attack in the beginning, the United States and South Vietnamese army came back to overpower the Vietcong and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and decisively win all the battles. Even though the United States and South Vietnamese won the Tet Offensive, it was a major turning point towards ending the Vietnam War. Escalation of the war would end and withdraw would begin. The Vietcong and NVA lost the battle on the battlefield but they had won a major political battle. The American public became disillusioned with what was called a military intervention. Intelligence failure, Johnson’s over confidence in the war, and its profound impact on American attitudes about involvement in Vietnam are three major reasons why the Tet Offensive was the turning point in ending the war.
Intelligence failure was one of the main reasons why the Tet offensive happened. The allies undergo a failure of intelligence before Tet, a failure that helped plan the stages for changes in the strategies of the US. The four parts of intelligence are crucial in determining the actions of the enemy. The four tasks consist of collection of information, the analysis of the information, the decision to respond to a warning issued in the analytical stage, dissemination of the order to respond to the field commanders.
The first task in intelligence is the collection of accurate information about the opponent’s intentions and capabilities. There are many ways to obtain the accurate information needed, which include reading a foreign press release to advanced monitoring technology. Though this may seem simple, the enemy government goes through great lengths to prevent accurate information from reaching their enemies. In the spring of 1967, General Giap, in charge of the NVA, began battles in the outlying country away from cities in an attempt to draw the US army and ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam) away from the large cities and provincial capitals. This was so General Giap could sneak in large amount of supplies, weapons, and ammunition. A secondary plan was to have the stronger US troops deployed away from the areas he planned to attack.
The second stage of intelligence is the analysis of the information gathered. From April to December of 1967, the intelligence was unable to accurately predict the coming Tet Offensive on January 30th and 31st 1968. Why wasn’t the intelligence organization aware that no battles were being fought around major cities of Sigon, Hue, and Da Nang? Why didn’t they see the massive amount of troop build up from the North? They even missed all the supplies being brought down from the North to stage the attacks. Almost 3,000 vehicles a month are coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail near the end of 1967. In the many months before Tet, it is hard to believe that the civilian and government of South Vietnam did not see or hear about the pending offensive.
The third stage is the decision to respond to the warning issued in the analytical stage. The third stage of intelligence was not even responded to because of the failure of intelligence in the second stage. In fact, almost the opposite was true. President Lyndon Johnson and the American public were fed false information from General Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that we were winning the war. In fact, they were able to build the American troops strength to 500,000 troops and significantly increase military spending. At the same time they were not aware of General Giap’s plan to attack the entire South Vietnam.
The fourth stage of intelligence is dissemination of the order to respond to the field commanders. The realization of the pending attacks comes only days before the Tet offensive. The US military recognizes the lack of engagement of the enemy and the reduction of communications between the enemy troops as a sign that something may happen around Sigon and some other major cities, even though they had a premonition of the upcoming attack. They lacked the detailed information they would need to convince the South Vietnamese President Nguyen Duy to cancel the holiday leaves of two-thirds of the ARVN troops.
After a surprise attack in the beginning, the United States came back and overpowered the Vietcong and drove them out of cities and provincial capitals under siege. Because the Americans failed to analyze the evidence soon enough the American’s were surprised when the Vietcong and NVA attack. This was due to a failure of the intelligence gathering effort. They did not identify the enemy, estimate the possibility of an attack, determine what type of action is involved, identify the location of the attacks, estimate the timing of the attacks, and determine the motivation behind the offensive. Even though the United States won the Tet Offensive, it was a major turning point towards ending the Vietnam War. The Vietcong lost the battle on the battlefield but they had won a major political battle. After Tet, U.S. policy towards Southeast Asia shifted, reducing American involvement in Vietnam. The Tet offensive demonstrates how difficult it is to achieve these simple goals.
Skepticism was pervasive at the White House. Johnson and his assistant Walt Rostow did not have sufficient belief in the intelligence information that they had received. The NVA and Vietcong objectives appeared to be unrealistic based on the mood of the South Vietnamese population. As a result the dismissed the NVA and Vietcong calls for a general uprising as propaganda. At the same time, Middle America was starting to protest the war and losing confidence in our government handling of the conflict. General Earle Wheeler and Joint Chiefs of Staff were telling the President and the American public that the NVA and the Vietcong are not yet at the end of their military rope. They felt they still needed the ability to send more troops to the south and that the war could be won.
The Chicago Tribune and many of the nation newspapers brought the shocking news of the Tet Offensive to American homes the morning of February 1st, 1968. On January 30/31st 1968, the NVA and the Vietcong attacked cities and providential capitols with coordinated and well-synchronized attacks. Their strategy was brilliant and had gone undetected by our intelligence community. Only days before the offensive, the American public was led to believe that something of this magnitude could never happen. After Tet, the American public wanted out of the war and felt that there was no need to be involved in South East Asia. The media, which at times was pro war, quickly became part of the anti-war protests. The American public quickly turned on the president. The Democratic Party had Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy as anti-war candidates running for the presidency. On March 31st, 1968, President Johnson went on TV and told the American public that he will not run for president or accept his party’s nomination for president of the United States in the fall elections.
This was not our first intelligence failure. Looking back to 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. We knew that there were indications that Japan was going to bomb us but the intelligence community failed to recognize the imminent attack. The Tet Offensive could be compared to the Battle of the Bulge where the German caught the US off guard; this was the same for Tet Offensive when the Vietcong and the NVA attacked unexpectedly during the Lunar New Year cease fire. After the Vietnam War, the United States almost reverted to isolationism of post WWI. From the Time that America pulled out of the Vietnam War until the Gulf War, as Americans we tried to avoid any conflicts that we compare to the Vietnam War. If only our intelligence information would have been analyzed fully we might not have impacted the United States public opinion so dramatically.