The Myths of Tet
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The Myths of Tet

The Most Misunderstood Event of the Vietnam War

Edwin Moise

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The Myths of Tet

The Most Misunderstood Event of the Vietnam War

Edwin Moise

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Late in 1967, American officials and military officers pushed an optimistic view of the Vietnam War. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) said that the war was being won, and that Communist strength in South Vietnam was declining. Then came the Tet Offensive of 1968. In its broadest and simplest outline, the conventional wisdom about the offensive—that it was a military defeat for the Communists but a political victory for them, because it undermined support for the war in the United States—is correct. But much that has been written about the Tet Offensive has been misleading. Edwin Moïse shows that the Communist campaign shocked the American public not because the American media exaggerated its success, but because it was a bigger campaign—larger in scale, much longer in duration, and resulting in more American casualties—than most authors have acknowledged. MACV, led by General William Westmoreland, issued regular estimates of enemy strength in South Vietnam. During 1967, intelligence officers at MACV were increasingly required to issue low estimates to show that the war was being won. Their underestimation of enemy strength was most extreme in January 1968, just before the Tet Offensive. The weak Communist force depicted in MACV estimates would not have been capable of sustaining heavy combat month after month like they did in 1968.Moïse also explores the errors of the Communists, using Vietnamese sources. The first wave of Communist attacks, at the end of January 1968, showed gross failures of coordination. Communist policy throughout 1968 and into 1969 was wildly overoptimistic, setting impossible goals for their forces.While acknowledging the journalists and historians who have correctly reported various parts of the story, Moïse points out widespread misunderstandings in regard to the strength of Communist forces in Vietnam, the disputes among American intelligence agencies over estimates of enemy strength, the actual pattern of combat in 1968, the effects of Tet on American policy, and the American media's coverage of all these issues.

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Information

Year
2017
ISBN
9780700625031
Topic
History
Subtopic
Vietnam War

1

ESCALATING THE VIETNAM WAR, 1964–1967

During 1962 and 1963, General Paul Harkins, commander of MACV, reported that the war was being won, and he put heavy pressure on his subordinates to report the same. Many in Washington, though not all, believed him.
Harkins continued to talk optimistically well into 1964, but hardly anyone still believed him. General William Westmoreland, his deputy, thought his optimism “incredible.”1 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, once a leading optimist, was an extreme case. At a meeting of the National Security Council Executive Committee on May 24, he said, “The situation is still going to hell. We are continuing to lose. Nothing we are now doing will win.”2 Other top officials were less gloomy than McNamara, but not dramatically so. They spoke optimistically in public, but over the course of 1964 they increasingly came to acknowledge that the Communists were winning the war and that the government in Saigon that the United States was supporting (the Republic of Vietnam [RVN]) did not seem capable of reversing this trend. Only the direct use of American combat forces on a substantial scale could be expected to rescue the situation.
The Communists also thought the end of the war was in sight. During 1964, the B2 Front—the Communists’ regional command for the southern half of South Vietnam—was drawing up plans, in considerable detail, for a general offensive that would seize Saigon. Their forces were not yet strong enough for such an operation, but those forces were growing.3
During the 1964 presidential campaign, the White House asked CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Ray Cline whether the United States could afford to wait until after the election to escalate the war. Would South Vietnam already be irretrievably lost by that time? Cline’s evaluation was that it would barely be possible to put off a major increase in the US effort until after the election; “You’re going to have your back to the wall.”4
On the other hand, many officials were optimistic about the likely results of escalation. Thomas Hughes, head of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, later commented, “The one thing that the policy makers of 1965 were incapable of accepting was the idea that there was no positive way out. There had to be some road to victory.”5 Many thought that an American force of quite moderate size, much smaller than the one the United States eventually did send, might be adequate to handle anything the Vietnamese Communists could put up. When McNamara recommended in April 1965 that the number of US military personnel in Vietnam be increased to 82,000, with a possibility of 42,000 more being sent later, he held out hope that the war would effectively be won in “perhaps a year or two.”6
The broader public was not inclined to extremes of optimism or pessimism. A Gallup Poll taken in the autumn of 1965 asked Americans how they believed the war would end. The percentage of the public who said they believed the war would end with “Communist victory” or “We will pull out” was zero, but only 29 percent thought there would be an American victory. The most common response, at 30 percent, was “Stalemate.”7
The escalation of 1965 was pushed by official recognition that the situation was very bad. President Lyndon Johnson was an extreme case. Four days after the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder, the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, he told a trusted friend, Senator Richard Russell, “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit.”8 Contemplating “light at the end of the tunnel” with Bill Moyers around the same time, he said, “Hell, we don’t even have a tunnel, we don’t even know where the tunnel is.”9
Most high officials were less pessimistic than President Johnson, but they were willing to recognize that the situation was bad, because they did not have to see it as primarily an American failure; they could blame the Republic of Vietnam.
General Westmoreland had replaced Harkins as commander of MACV in 1964. In June 1965, Westmoreland wrote,
The South Vietnamese battlefield strength is declining in the face of North Vietnamese reinforcements and a Viet Cong offensive. It is my considered opinion that the South Vietnamese Armed Forces cannot stand up to this pressure without substantial U.S. combat support on the ground. . . . The Viet Cong are destroying battalions faster than they can be reconstituted and faster than they were planned to be organized under the buildup program. The Vietnamese Armed Forces Commanders do not believe that they can survive without the active commitment of US ground combat forces.10
During the months that followed, as American combat units poured into Vietnam, it was widely assumed that US forces could accomplish what the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) could not. On September 1, 1965, MACV issued its “Concept of Operations in the Republic of Vietnam.” It defined a three-phase plan. Phase I, intended “to halt the Viet Cong offensive—to stop losing a war which is rapidly intensifying,” would be completed by December 31, 1965. Phase II, involving an “offensive to destroy VC forces . . . in high priority areas,” would last through June 30, 1966. Phase III, intended “to destroy or render militarily ineffective the remaining organized VC units and their base areas,” was to be accomplished within “one to one and one-half years following the completion of Phase II,” in other words, between July and December 1967.11 Congressman Robert McClory (Republican of Illinois) later recalled that when he visited Vietnam in October 1965, Westmoreland gave him an even more optimistic projection: the war would be over in about a year.12
Marine Lieutenant General Victor Krulak told the commandant of the US Marine Corps on September 18 that he thought it likely, though not certain, that the Viet Cong, unable to endure casualties inflicted on them in recent operations, would in the future avoid direct combat between their organized units and US forces.13 After meeting with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and other senior officials on September 11, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy reported, “Our common guess is that the Viet Cong will try to avoid major engagements with our forces and that they will be quite successful in doing so.” They worried that there might be so little serious combat that both American troops and the American public might be “frustrated” by its lack. Rusk even suggested that the United States might not really need a force as large as the 200,000 men currently being planned, although his colleagues did not agree.14
Walt Rostow, later to become President Johnson’s national security adviser, was the most extreme. Daniel Ellsberg recalled Rostow saying in August 1965, “Dan, it looks very good. What we hear is that the Vietcong are already coming apart under the bombing. They’re going to collapse within weeks. Not months, weeks.”15
Heavy combat in the Ia Drang Valley southwest of Pleiku in November came as a rude shock. The Communist forces had no intention of backing off from the American challenge. The Communist leaders, especially general and Politburo member Nguyen Chi Thanh, head of what the United States called the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), the organization controlling the B2 Front, were determined to use their forces aggressively, fighting in order to inflict casualties on the Americans even though this meant suffering much heavier casualties themselves.
Communist forces expanded rapidly; recruitment within South Vietnam and infiltration from North Vietnam far more than compensated for their losses in battle. The US military’s estimate of Communist strength in South Vietnam, which had been fairly stable during 1963 and 1964, increased dramatically in 1965. The New York Times reported (probably based on a not-for-attribution MACV press briefing on December 31, 1965) that the total had grown from about 103,000 at the beginning of 1965 to 230,000 at the end of the year.16 The true levels were surely far higher than was reflected in these estimates, though not necessarily as high as was suggested by a PAVN official history published after the war, which said there were almost 346,000 by the end of 1965.17
At the end of 1965, with 184,000 US military personnel in South Vietnam and more arriving every week, the ARVN was no longer teetering on the edge of defeat. But it was obvious that a far larger force would be needed if the United States were to win the war. General Westmoreland told Secretary of Defense McNamara “that the war had been characterized by an underestimation of the enemy.”18 The records of his meetings in December with officers in various areas of Vietnam said that he had “warned the advisors against over-confidence after a few successful operations and tendency to underestimate the enemy.” “General Westmoreland warned against what he described as an inclination toward optimism concerning the course of the war.” “The VC/PAVN is a formidable enemy who is continually improving. If the friendly reinforce—the enemy reinforces. The enemy is better tactically and better equipped than six months ago and will continue to improve.”19 After a briefing by the compulsively optimistic Rand Corporation researcher Leon Gouré about declining enemy morale, Westmoreland wrote in his journal that Gouré’s claims were not consistent with Viet Cong performance in combat.20
General Westmoreland said early in 1966 that the United States was no longer losing in Vietnam but was not yet winning.21 This assessment was not something President Johnson could accept for long. The United States needed a victory, not just a stalemate, and especially not a stalemate that was growing steadily more expensive in money and in lives. In February 1966, General Westmoreland met in Hawaii with President Johnson, Secretary of Defense McNamara, Secretary of State Rusk, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) General Earle Wheeler, and other officials. Westmoreland asked that the current American force in Vietnam be approximately doubled, and he won approval for most of the increase he was requesting. But President Johnson said he wanted to see progress in Vietnam; he wanted “coon skins nailed to the wall.”22
At this conference, General Westmoreland’s superiors also gave him a specific goal: by the end of 1966, the level of losses being inflicted on Viet Cong and PAVN forces in South Vietnam should be as high as those forces’ ability to add new manpower.23 The point at which the enemy forces stopped expanding and then began to shrink soon came to be called the “crossover point.”
MACV does not appear to have been confident of reaching the crossover point even by the end of the year. At Westmoreland’s weekly intelligence briefing on March 12, there was some discussion of probable future trends in enemy force strength. In Westmoreland’s papers there is a set of three graphs (probably presented to Westmoreland at that briefing, possibly constructed as a follow-up to it) presenting alternative projections of enemy and Allied strength in South Vietnam. All three projections showed enemy strength in the last quarter of 1966 as at least 30 percent larger than in the first quarter. One showed enemy strength as essentially stable, though still growing by a tiny amount, in the first quarter of 1967; the second and third showed enemy strength still growing significantly in the first quarter of 1967.24
At a press conference in July 1966, Westmoreland for the first time said that the United States was winning the war.25 The evolution of his thinking over the following months was gradual. His last known warning to his subordinates about excessive optimism was in April 1966, when he said, “It is better to overestimate enemy strength than underestimate it.”26 But occasional entries in his journal up to the beginning of 1967 noted that he thought some of the people with whom he was dealing, including General Lewis Walt (commander of the marines in I Corps, the northernmost part of South Vietnam), were more optimistic than was justified by the facts.27 There is no evidence that he was putting pressure on his subordinates to be more optimistic until the spring of 1967. Even in March 1967, he permitted Colonel Douglas Kinnard, who as MACV’s chief of operations analysis was responsible for the monthly progress report, to initiate a change in procedures that seemed likely to produce less favorable evaluations of ARVN performance. Westmoreland seemed “obviously unhappy” about the implications—Kinnard recalled their meeting as having been “unpleasant”—but he did not prevent Kinnard from doing what he thought necessary to get valid measurements.28
General Westmoreland occasionally expressed concern “that I thought this was going to be a long war and steps should be taken to prepare the American people for such an eventuality.”29 Far more often, he expressed worry that the Communist forces might achieve some “spectacular” victory somewhere in South Vietnam in an effort to gain more political leverage.30
The official US figure for enemy strength in South Vietnam (including political cadres) was 239,000 in March 1966. By August, it had risen to 282,000, but from then through February 1967, it fluctuated in a range between 279,000 and 284,000. Even when the figure dropped somewhat, from 283,102 in September to 279,173 in October, MACV treated this simply as a fluctuation and carefully avoided suggestin...

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Citation styles for The Myths of Tet
APA 6 Citation
Moise, E. (2017). The Myths of Tet ([edition unavailable]). University Press of Kansas. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/532850/the-myths-of-tet-the-most-misunderstood-event-of-the-vietnam-war-pdf (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Moise, Edwin. (2017) 2017. The Myths of Tet. [Edition unavailable]. University Press of Kansas. https://www.perlego.com/book/532850/the-myths-of-tet-the-most-misunderstood-event-of-the-vietnam-war-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Moise, E. (2017) The Myths of Tet. [edition unavailable]. University Press of Kansas. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/532850/the-myths-of-tet-the-most-misunderstood-event-of-the-vietnam-war-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Moise, Edwin. The Myths of Tet. [edition unavailable]. University Press of Kansas, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.