Lessons true and false from the Tet Offensive

In this Jan. 31, 1968, file photo, two U.S. military policemen aid a wounded fellow MP during fighting in the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon, Vietnam, at the beginning of the Tet Offensive. (Associated Press photo)

(Chicago Tribune, Feb 10,2018): This year brings a number of important anniversaries, especially half-century benchmarks from one of the most eventful, unpredictable and violent periods in American history. This includes our military experiences. One of the earliest and most important is the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive.

On Jan. 30, 1968, during an agreed ceasefire, the Viet Cong (VC) along with some military elements of North Vietnam’s army (NVA) suddenly attacked virtually every city and town across South Vietnam. The term Viet Cong designates the military arm of the National Liberation Front, the communist-aligned revolutionary movement in South Vietnam closely allied with the communist regime based in Hanoi.

The U.S. military term “Victor Charlie” reflects the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) designation of the letters V and C; hence, the soldiers’ informal reference to “Charlie” when discussing the enemy.

Heavy fighting went on for weeks; sporadic military action continued into the fall of the year. Initially, the enemy gained ground, killed large numbers of both Americans and South Vietnamese, and enjoyed tremendous shock effect.

In short, daring, well-organized, well-coordinated enemy forces made spectacular initial impact. In particular, VC suicide squads penetrated the grounds of the United States Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). The enemy shrewdly used city sewer systems for both movement and surprise. Although they never got inside the embassy, Americans remained trapped within during the assault.

Enemy forces occupied much of Hue, the former regional capital to the north with significant historic architectural value. Days and nights of brutal house-to-house, street-by-street combat by South Vietnamese and U.S. forces including the First Cavalry Division finally defeated the enemy. In Hue as elsewhere, the communists executed large numbers of civilians.

U.S. and international news media, including television networks, quickly disseminated worldwide dramatic film and written reports of the carnage. This was thanks to the fact that the Johnson Administration refused to impose any sort of sustained military censorship in the war zone, in contrast to other wars before and since.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, a devious and duplicitous man, nevertheless decided to give reporters extensive access to operations. He apparently felt that otherwise public support of the war would be difficult to maintain.

This was decades before the instant information — and misinformation — of the contemporary internet, but the earlier global electronic communications revolution was underway. Enormously respected and influential news anchor Walter Cronkite of CBS delivered an unusual personal anti-war editorial, urging U.S. flexibility in the face of military stalemate.

The American public’s support for the Vietnam War had remained relatively strong, but collapsed quickly. In the New Hampshire Democratic primary March 12, anti-war challenger Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota won 42 percent to Johnson’s 48 percent. Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York entered the race. LBJ, confronted with defeat by Kennedy in the Wisconsin primary, withdrew from contention.

The Tet Offensive ended in military victory for South Vietnamese and U.S. forces, but Hanoi focused on the wider strategic context. Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and field commander Gen.William Westmoreland during 1967 trumpeted military victory was in sight.

Tet proved them wrong.

The U.S. military fought with disciplined determination into 1968. After that, disastrous crime, drug and morale problems poisoned our Army. Tet decimated the Viet Cong, which ultimately facilitated NVA dominance of the South from 1975.

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