The Tet Offensive

Steven Hayward

April 1, 2004

This article was excerpted from Steven F.Hayward’s book, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Liberal Order, 1964-1980.

On January 5th, the Joint United States Public Affairs Office in Saigon released to reporters the contents of a Viet Cong soldier’s notebook that had fallen into the hands of U.S. intelligence two months before. The key passage read:

“The central headquarters has ordered the entire army and people of South Vietnam to implement general offensive and general uprising in order to achieve a decisive victory. . . Use very strong military attacks in coordination with the uprisings of the local population to take over towns and cities. Troops should flood the lowlands. They should move toward liberating the capital city [Saigon], take power and try to rally enemy brigades and regiments to our side one by one. Propaganda should be broadly disseminated among the population in general, and leaflets should be used to reach enemy officers and enlisted personnel.”1

Because the VC soldier’s notebook had been captured up near the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), not far from where North Vietnamese troops were thought to be massing for an attack on the U.S. base at Khe Sanh, U.S. intelligence dismissed the contents of the notebook as disinformation, as a means of diverting attention away from where the main blow was expected to fall. Hence it received little emphasis by U.S. military commanders in Saigon, and little notice in the news media. This was merely one of the countless missed signals contributing to what Army General Bruce Palmer later called “an allied intelligence failure ranking with Pearl Harbor in 1941″—the surprise of the Tet offensive.2

On January 30, in the middle of the Tet new year holiday, North Vietnamese regular army troops and Viet Cong troops struck in a coordinated attack on 36 of South Vietnam’s 44 provincial capitals, and 70 other towns in the country. The North Vietnamese also unleashed a ferocious attack on the U.S. base at Khe Sanh that lasted two months. The North Vietnamese stormed the coastal city of Hue; it required some of the hardest fighting of the war over the next month for U.S. Marines to retake the city. The most stunning blow of the surprise attack was the guerrilla raid on the U.S. embassy in downtown Saigon. Nineteen Viet Cong commandos blasted a hole in the perimeter wall of the embassy compound at 3 a.m., and killed five U.S. GIs upon storming the embassy grounds. (Four South Vietnamese policemen assigned to guard the embassy fled when the shooting started.) U.S. forces killed all of the commandos within a few hours, but the episode, occurring amidst an unexpected and widespread offensive, was a severe embarrassment for the U.S.

The Tet offensive proved to be the turning point of the war, delivering a fatal blow to political support for the war in the United States. Even though Tet was a disappointing defeat for North Vietnam in strictly military terms, it exposed the bankruptcy of U.S. war policy and aims in Vietnam, and prepared the way for America’s eventual humiliation. The most surprising aspect of the Tet offensive was that it was not really a surprise at all. Yet the episode shows how even a superior force can be taken by surprise both militarily and politically when it lacks the initiative in war. Since the North Vietnamese had the initiative instead of the U.S., it was possible for their elaborate campaign of deception to succeed in maintaining the element of surprise, even though the U.S. discovered numerous details of the attack to come.

The complete battle plan for the Tet offensive has never been revealed, but it is evident that the plan for a major offensive against South Vietnam originated in the summer of 1967, following the death of North Vietnamese General Nguyen Chi Thanh. (Thanh is thought to have been killed in an American bombing raid in Cambodia, though rumors of assassination—which might have been disinformation—made the rounds.) North Vietnam used the cover of Thanh’s funeral to recall its diplomatic corps to Hanoi for consultations. This was the first signal that U.S. intelligence missed. U.S. analysts assumed that the diplomatic recall was purely for the purpose of attending Thanh’s funeral, forgetting that the only previous time such a wholesale diplomatic recall had taken place was immediately after the U.S. had committed its first ground troops in 1965. Some American analysts hoped that the diplomatic recall was a precursor to a North Vietnamese peace offer.

With the death of Thanh, General Vo Nguyen Giap became the unrivalled strategist for the North Vietnamese war effort. Giap ironically embraced Thanh’s war strategy after having opposed it for two years; whereas Giap had previously advocated using primarily guerrilla tactics against the U.S. and South Vietnam, Thanh had advocated general main force action, which had led to the big (and losing) battles in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. Now Giap decided that the time was ripe for a major conventional offensive. Giap and the North Vietnamese leadership came to this conclusion out of an odd combination of hard-headed realism and head-in-the-clouds Marxist ideology. They thought their military position was weakening, and would continue to deteriorate without some dramatic act. This calculation was largely correct. They also thought that the South Vietnamese government and the U.S. presence were so unpopular in the South that a broad-based attack would spark a spontaneous uprising of the South Vietnamese population, which would enable the North to sweep to a quick, decisive victory. This calculation was wholly fantastic, and would prove to be the undoing of the Tet offensive.

By September the signs of a new North Vietnamese initiative were starting to emerge. North Vietnam announced substantial new military aid agreements with both China and the Soviet Union. (There were nearly 4,000 Soviet “advisers” in North Vietnam at this time, some of them manning surface-to-air missile batteries.) U.S. and South Vietnamese forces soon began noticing that Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces were equipped with new AK-47 assault rifles and B-40 rocket launchers. The North also increased the tempo of its propaganda activities. One of the obvious difficulties with trying to carry off a surprise attack of this kind is that it is necessary to communicate the plan and its objectives to all of the Viet Cong cadres and “sleepers” in place in South Vietnam. It is obviously impossible in such a war to communicate with all the cadres by telephone or telegram. Yet the odd idiom of Communist propaganda and bombast is ideal for communicating a general outline of a battle plan concealed amidst a jumble of slogans and boilerplate jargon about smashing American imperialism and its South Vietnamese puppets. Ideological cadres understand the significance of such messages and could “decode” their meaning, while U.S. eavesdroppers were mostly just bored. In September Radio Hanoi broadcast General Giap’s battle message, “The Big Victory, The Great Task,” which was in fact an outline for the Tet offensive. Americans and South Vietnamese listened as Giap’s message said that the time had come for a major offensive against U.S. forces, but also including an attack on South Vietnam’s cities. “U.S. generals,” Giap said, “are subjective and haughty, and have always been caught by surprise and defeated.” Key to Giap’s strategy was the view that the U.S. would not decide to send major reinforcements beyond to already announced troop ceiling of 525,000. “The longer the enemy fights,” Giap observed, “the greater the difficulties he encounters.”

Knowing that Americans would hear Giap’s war message, North Vietnam masked its seriousness with the first of several effective diversions. Days before the broadcast, North Vietnam struck hard at the U.S. base at Con Thien near the DMZ (using, among other new Soviet-supplied weapons, large gauge long range artillery for the first time). The North Vietnamese judged—correctly, as it turned out—that the U.S. would make a connection between the broadcast of the battle message and the Con Thien siege. At the same time, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces stepped up the tempo of skirmishes along the Laos-Cambodia-South Vietnam border, successfully drawing U.S. forces away from the cities.

Throughout the Fall the signs of a major attack continued to accumulate. In October the number of trucks observed heading south on the Ho Chi Minh trail jumped from the previous monthly average of 480 to 1,116. North Vietnam also announced in October that it would observe a seven-day truce from January 27 to February 3, 1968, in honor of the Tet holiday. Such truces had always been honored in the past—the North Vietnamese usually used the truce period (which typically meant a short halt in U.S. bombing as well) to resupply, and South Vietnam used truces to allow many of its troops to take a short leave. With the North’s announcement of the Tet truce, the South Vietnamese army made plans to allow half of its troops to go on leave during Tet.

In November the number of southbound trucks spotted on the Ho Chi Minh trail jumped again, from 1,116 counted in October to 3,823—an eightfold increase over the previous year’s monthly average of 480. A series of documents were captured that outlined the battle plan in general terms (including the notebook released to the media on January 5 mentioned above). North Vietnam began conducting a swift and brutal purge of officials who urged negotiations with the U.S. rather than a military offensive. Over 200 officials, some of them very senior in the Communist party and the government, were arrested and given long prison sentences. Some were executed. There would be no doves in Hanoi. Near the end of November a CIA analyst named Joseph Hovey circulated a memorandum to U.S. leaders including President Johnson that predicted a major North Vietnamese offensive against South Vietnamese cities in the coming months. Hovey’s analysis was dismissed as unrealistic.

In December the signs intensified. The number of trucks seen on the Ho Chi Minh trail nearly doubled again, from 3,823 spotted in November to 6,315. On December 20 Gen. Westmoreland cabled a warning to Washington, explaining that the signs suggested that North Vietnam had decided “to undertake an intensified country-wide effort, perhaps a maximum effort, over a relatively short period.” President Johnson, then in the midst of a state visit to Australia, warned that the desperate North Vietnamese might engage in “kamikaze attacks.” But he made this warning privately to the Australian cabinet; no public acknowledgement was ever made in the U.S. that trouble might be brewing. Following North Vietnam’s January 1 offer to negotiate in exchange for a bombing halt, Westmoreland judged that the prospective offensive was an attempt “to gain an exploitable victory before talks so that he might negotiate from a position of strength.” This is exactly what the North Vietnamese had done to the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu.

With the memory of Dien Bien Phu prominently in mind, Westmoreland and U.S. leaders cast their eyes up to the large U.S. base at Khe Sanh, located in a northern province of South Vietnam not far from the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). Four divisions of North Vietnamese regular army troops—over 40,000 troops—were massing near Khe Sanh, where 5,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese troops were stationed, in what looked like a repeat of the Dien Bien Phu strategy. Westmoreland and U.S. intelligence thought that all this Viet Cong talk of an uprising in the cities was a diversion away from Khe Sanh, where the main attack was expected to fall. They had it exactly backward: Khe Sanh was the deception, intended to draw U.S. attention and resources away from the cities, and the U.S. largely fell for it. The U.S. calculation actually made good sense. U.S. intelligence knew that there was little prospect for a spontaneous uprising of the South Vietnamese populace, and couldn’t believe that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong believed it. (It turned out that many VC cadres on the ground in the South didn’t believe it either, but never told their higher ups. Several VC officers captured during Tet told interrogators that they never expected an uprising in their assigned area, but carried out their attack in hopes that it would stir an uprising in other cities.) In an ironic way the blinders of Communist class struggle ideology helped serve the purpose of deception.

So even as more intelligence accumulated in January that an attack on South Vietnamese cities was a serious prospect, U.S. war planners continued to downplay the threat and misjudge the timing. On January 9 U.S. intelligence received a captured document that described a reorganization of the command structure of Viet Cong forces. “At the present time,” U.S. analysts wrote, “no explanation is available as to the reason for this reorganization.” Caches of weapons and propaganda leaflets calling for an uprising were found near Saigon throughout January. Well-equipped VC sapper teams were caught infiltrating areas near U.S. bases. The National Security Agency, which collects and analyzes “signals intelligence” (SIGINT), reported that radio intercepts indicated preparations for attacks on cities in the central coast region of South Vietnam, and increased enemy activity near Saigon. But based on the predominance of radio traffic near the borders and the DMZ, the NSA still thought, along with Westmoreland, the main blow would come at Khe Sanh. Only General Fred Weyand thought that the action elsewhere might be significant. On January 10, Weyand, the commander for the southern region of South Vietnam including Saigon and the Mekong River delta, canceled plans to move troops in his sector toward the Cambodian border, and ordered 15 battalions to be redeployed near Saigon, a fortuitous move that greatly aided the defense of Saigon during Tet. But neither Weyand nor anyone else in high command thought that the attack would come during the Tet holidays, and over half of U.S. combat forces were detailed for the northern provinces, away from the cities.

As more signs and enemy troop movements were reaching a crescendo in mid-January, a new distraction occurred several thousand miles away. On January 10, the U.S. Foreign Broadcast Information Service published the transcript of a North Korean radio broadcast in which the North Koreans threatened to take action against U.S. Navy surveillance ships operating in international waters off North Korea, which patrolled there to keep tabs on the Soviet fleet operating out of Vladivostok. The threat was ignored. Up until June 1967, lightly-armed U.S. spy ships enjoyed an escort of two destroyers. But the destroyers had been reassigned, and no notice of the North Korean threat was sent to the Navy. North Korean harassment of U.S. spy ships was routine, so when North Korean PT boats began circling the U.S.S. Pueblo on January 23—as they had done several times in the previous few days—the Pueblo’s captain Lloyd Bucher saw no reason for special concern. But this day the North Koreans boarded the slow-moving Pueblo, whose top speed was 13 knots. The crew belatedly tried to smash much of its sensitive intelligence equipment and throw code and cipher books overboard, but the North Koreans still captured an estimated 600 pounds of classified information—an intelligence bonanza for the Soviets, who were en route to North Korea within hours of the Pueblo’s capture. Most valuable of all, the Soviets received an only slightly damaged KW7 cipher machine off the Pueblo, which was the standard code equipment of the U.S. Navy. (The U.S. Navy took no chances, changing codes and cipher keys fleetwide within hours. U.S. intelligence felt the KW7 machine would be of little use without the cipher keys and code books. Alas, the Soviet Union was already receiving U.S. naval code keys from the Walker family spy ring, which would not be broken until 1985. The Soviets were able to read U.S. Navy coded transmissions like an open book for much of that time.) Although it took over two hours to tow the Pueblo into North Korea’s Wonsan harbor, the U.S. was powerless to come to the Pueblo’s aid. The four warplanes on alert at U.S. bases in South Korea were outfitted for nuclear weapons; it would have taken three hours to refit them for a close support mission. All other U.S. planes in the region were out of range. The Pueblo was the first U.S. Navy ship captured since 1807, during the Napoleonic wars.

The White House went into full crisis mode, assembling many of the same advisers and conveying much of the mood of the Cuban missile crisis six years before. Secretary of State Dean Rusk candidly called the Pueblo’s seizure “an act of war.” Congress was in an uproar, with the notable exception of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman William Fulbright, who said we might find out what really happened “in two or three years. We’re just now finding out what took place in the Gulf of Tonkin.”3 A Navy carrier battle group was dispatched to take up position off North Korea, and an assassination attempt against South Korea’s president a few days later kindled additional fears that war might erupt again on the Korean peninsula. President Johnson agreed to a limited call up of U.S. reserves—a move he had resisted for Vietnam—and a buildup of U.S. forces in the Far East, but decided to pursue a diplomatic solution to the Pueblo crisis. (The 83 crewmen were finally released 11 months later, after suffering torture and humiliation, and during which time North Korea missed few opportunities to taunt the U.S. Bucher was later tried in a naval court of inquiry for having given up the Pueblo without a fight.)

There has never been any proof that North Korea deliberately timed its seizure of the Pueblo as a diversion for North Vietnam’s imminent offensive, though it is unlikely that it was a coincidence. (A Czech general who defected to the West in 1969 claimed that Soviet defense minister Andrei Grechko had spoken of plans to have North Korea seize a U.S. spy ship eight months before the Pueblo was taken. This might explain why Soviet intelligence specialists were so quickly on the scene.4) Even if the Pueblo capture didn’t distract the U.S. in Vietnam, it threatened to disrupt the allied effort in South Vietnam in meaningful ways. Over two divisions of South Korean troops were deployed in South Vietnam, and plans were being made to send these troops quickly home to South Korea when Tet began.

The final clues that a serious attack against South Vietnam’s cities was imminent came on January 28, when South Vietnamese forces captured eleven Viet Cong guerrillas in the central coast city of Qui Nhon. Their mission was to capture a radio station and broadcast two audio tapes announcing that the cities of Saigon, Hue, and Da Nang had been occupied, and calling for the population to rise up and overthrow the government. Under interrogation the VC prisoners admitted that the attacks were to begin during the Tet holidays. The next day U.S. forces near Saigon captured two Viet Cong guerrillas who confessed that their mission was to guide main force troops in an attack on the city. Separately other U.S. units reported significant enemy troop movements around Saigon, Bien Hoa, and Da Nang. Westmoreland cabled to Washington on January 29 that “there are indications that the enemy may not cease military operations during Tet.”

Notwithstanding the accumulation of intelligence pointing to an attack on South Vietnam’s major cities, Westmoreland and other U.S. commanders continued to regard this prospect as no more than a diversion from Khe Sanh, where the North Vietnamese attack had already begun. Westmoreland did send out an alert to U.S. forces throughout South Vietnam, but it was not given special emphasis above the other alerts that had been given over previous months. (U.S. forces had been at a state of high alert nearly 50 percent of the time over the last 12 months before Tet.) The allied cease fire for Tet began at 6 p.m. January 29; South Vietnamese president Thieu left town for a vacation at the coast, and nearly half of South Vietnam’s army went on leave. The North Vietnamese attack began just a few hours later, shortly after midnight.

The attacks that began in the early morning hours of January 30 were premature; several units of Viet Cong troops were not informed that the attack had been postponed 24 hours to January 31. But ironically this mistake may have actually reinforced the perception among U.S. command that these actions were a deception. Although Westmoreland reiterated his alert, warning of “the likelihood of immediate widespread attacks,” they still underestimated the magnitude of the bow that was about to fall. Perhaps the commanders had cried “wolf” too often. 200 U.S. colonels in Saigon went to a pool party at bachelor officer’s quarters the evening of January 30 (none of whom was aware that a major attack on Saigon was in prospect), and only one extra guard was stationed at the U.S. embassy, bringing the number of on-duty guards to three.

The Tet offensive was a military failure—for the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam failed to take any major South Vietnamese city except for Hue, from which they were ejected within a month—but not until after massacring over 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians, an episode only lightly reported by the media. Except for Khe Sanh, Hue, and one or two other locations, the enemy offensive was spent within a few days. By the end of February Hanoi was ordering a general retreat, which ironically happened to coincide with the moment of maximum pessimism in Washington. Out of a total attack force of 84,000 troops, nearly 50,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were killed in Tet. These losses decimated the Viet Cong, destroying their command structure and morale among troops. Viet Cong offensive capabilities suffered and dwindled for the next three years; much of the rest of the war was fought by North Vietnamese regular army troops. Viet Cong defections increased dramatically in the aftermath of Tet. The U.S. suffered 1,100 dead; the South Vietnamese lost 2,300. Indeed it can be argued that General Giap botched the attack; having achieved tactical surprise, the attack was dispersed too widely, with not enough troops in any one location to score decisively.

The Tet offensive failed in part because one of the central premises—that South Vietnam’s population would spontaneously revolt—was wrong. In fact, the lack of an uprising exposed the hollowness of North Vietnamese propaganda claims. But Tet did provoke an uprising—among U.S elites, including the inner circle around President Johnson. Because of the prior political and public relations handling of the war at home, Tet demolished the illusion of control and progress.

Despite the battlefield outcome, a number of shocking vignettes from Tet had a powerful impact on American opinion and became etched in the American mind. Gallup Poll data suggest that between early February and the middle of March a fifth of people who had regarded themselves as “hawks” changed their minds and became “doves.”5 It is commonplace to refer to Vietnam as America’s first televised war, but in fact prior to Tet few television reports contained much footage of actual close combat. With a few notable exceptions, most of the TV coverage was typified by correspondent stand-up shots in front of arriving or departing helicopters, or in front of U.S. patrols marching near a tiny village or rice paddy. Much of the “reporting” from Vietnam consisted of swapping stories and rumors in hotel bars in Saigon where journalists loitered. Most reporters had but limited exposure to real gunfire. Tet was different. Now the entire Saigon press corps could watch combat from their hotel window. American TV viewers could see the chaos and destruction in Saigon up close. And then there was the Eddie Adams photograph.

On the morning of January 31, the first full day of the Tet attack, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams and a Vietnamese TV cameraman employed by NBC were wandering around Saigon getting photos and footage of the battle damage when they noticed a small contingent of South Vietnamese troops with a captive dressed in a checked shirt. From the other direction came Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of South Vietnam’s national police. As Adams and the NBC cameraman aimed their cameras, Loan calmly raised his sidearm and shot the prisoner—a Viet Cong officer—in the head. Loan walked over to Adams and said in English: “They killed many Americans and many of my men.” (It was not reported at the time that the prisoner had also taunted his captors, saying “Now you must treat me as a prisoner of war,” and had been identified as the assassin of a South Vietnamese army offcer’s entire family.)

Adams’ stunning photo of the prisoner’s grimace as the bullet struck his head ran on the front pages of newspaper all across America two days later. Only the Associated Press reported Loan’s remark to Adams that “They killed many Americans and many of my men.” Most news accounts of the photo ignored this context; the drama of the picture was just too irresistible for most news organizations to try to put it in any kind of balanced context. NBC, which had only a silent film clip because no sound man had accompanied its camera man, went so far as to embellish its TV broadcast of the episode by adding the sound of a gunshot. Tom Buckley, a writer for Harper’s magazine, said Adams’ photo was “the moment when the American public turned against the war.”6

The visual shock of the Adams’ photograph (for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize) was soon matched by the journalistic interpretation of events. On February 7, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett filed a story from the Mekong Delta town of Ben Tre, where hard fighting had inflicted severe damage and high civilian casualties. The third paragraph of Arnett’s report quoted an unnamed U.S Major: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The phrase proved an immediate sensation, and was picked up and amplified by the media echo chamber. The phrase came to be repeated countless times by other media outlets, and was adapted into an all-purpose slogan to describe hard action in other cities such as Hue. For many Americans, and not just those in the anti-war movement, it became an epigram that captured the disproportion between America’s seemingly excessive use of firepower and our limited war aims. (Arnett refused to identify the source of the quote, but later revealingly referred to his source as “the perpetrator.” The New Republic identified the source at the time as Major Chester L. Brown.)

Arnett’s sensational quotation was only the beginning of the bad press the Tet offensive unleashed. “Rarely,” wrote Peter Braestrup in his two-volume analysis of the press coverage of Tet (Big Story), “has contemporary crisis journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality. . . To have portrayed such a setback for one side as a defeat for the other—in a major crisis abroad—cannot be counted as a triumph for American journalism.”7 Braestrup later went even further, describing media coverage of Tet as “press malpractice.”8 Media critics, especially conservatives, have long charged that antiwar bias emerged openly in the wake of Tet. Former Los Angeles Times and Newsweek correspondent Robert Elegant, who covered Vietnam for ten years, wrote that “For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield, but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen.”9 The coverage of Tet can be charitably attributed as much to press incompetence and a journalistic herd instinct as it did to outright bias. There was no prior public warning that North Vietnam might launch some kind of serious attack, and given the Johnson administration’s public relations campaign of the previous Fall that “progress was being made,” the element of surprise was important in shaping the shock value of the news coverage. But by 1968 much of the media was disposed to cover the war in the most negative light possible. David Halberstam plaintively confessed in The Best and the Brightest, that “we were on the wrong side of history”—a judgment he says he reached as early as 1963. It was not just the media that read the situation this way. Republican Senator George Aitken of Vermont, most famous for his remark that the U.S. should declare victory in Vietnam and go home, said, “If this is a failure, I hope the Viet Cong never have a major success.”10

Above all, the Tet offensive exposed the fundamental weakness of Johnson’s war policy: there was no clear strategy or timeline for ending the war, a point which antiwar critics in Congress reiterated in the media day after day. Even if the media had no bias about the matter, the act of merely reporting the rising crescendo of war criticism would have tilted the coverage in a negative way. The Johnson administration had set itself up for a press whipping, and it would have been a surprise if the media coverage had been otherwise. As Braestrup put it, “when the crisis came, Johnson was not given the benefit of the doubt, as Presidents usually are.” Walter Cronkite expressed the surprise felt throughout the media when, after seeing the first bulletin about the Tet attacks on January 31, said, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning this war.” Army Major Colin Powell, attending an Infantry Officers Advanced Course at Fort Leavenworth, was similarly stunned: “When I went to class that day, the atmosphere was one of disbelief, as if we had taken a punch in the gut.”11 (Powell would head to Vietnam for a second tour of duty six months later.) The “credibility gap” had become a yawning abyss; Tet may have been the point of no return for the growing public distrust of the federal government.

The Wall Street Journal was the first major media organ to weigh in against the war in the aftermath of Tet. On February 23 the Journal editorialized: “We think the American people should be getting ready to accept, if they haven’t already, the prospect that the whole Vietnam effort may be doomed, that it may be falling apart beneath our feet.” But it was Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” who dealt the hardest media blow against the war. Cronkite had gone to South Vietnam after the fighting had subsided. In a special CBS News broadcast on February 27, Cronkite concluded his gloomy assessment: “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and in Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. . . To say that we are mired in a stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. . . It seems increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate.”12 Johnson, who was airborne in Air Force One at the time of the broadcast, took the blow personally when briefed about it later. If I’ve lost Cronkite, LBJ told aides, then I’ve lost the country.

The Cronkite broadcast opened the floodgates for the media to offer their judgments, as opposed to their reporting, about the war. Frank McGee of NBC, not to be outdone by rival CBS, on March 10 declared that “the war is being lost by the administration’s definition,” adding the by-now familiar cliche spawned by Peter Arnett: “It’s futile to destroy Vietnam in the effort to save it.”13 (Several months later an NBC producer proposed to correct the record with a three-part series showing that Tet had in fact been an enemy defeat. The idea was rejected by higher ups at the network because, a senior producer said, Tet was seen “in the public’s mind as a defeat, and therefore it was an American defeat.”14) Newsweek piled on a few days later: “The Tet offensive . . . has exposed the utter inadequacy of the Administration’s war policy. . . Those who opposed the war can now find new reasons to justify their criticism.”

Public opinion about the war held remarkably steady despite the tide of negative press. Although polls found that a rising plurality of Americans had for many months judged that American involvement in the war to have been a “mistake,” it is erroneous to suppose that this judgment meant that Americans were increasingly antiwar. What the polls failed to capture was the implicit reproach in the minds of many Americans towards Johnson’s war policy; the center of American opinion held the common sense view that the U.S. should have pursued a policy of “win or get out.” This explains why polls during Tet showed declining approval for Johnson at the same time that support for the war remained steady or even rose (in some polls), as is typical in moments of national crisis. Even after the Cronkite broadcast and other negative press, a late February poll still found the antiwar candidacy of Eugene McCarthy attracting only 11 percent of the vote in the upcoming New Hampshire primary (though this poll was stale by the time it was published). It would take yet more self-inflicted wounds to ruin Johnson’s prospects irretrievably.

In Saigon, Gen. Westmoreland was worried, as all competent commanders should be, about the risk of a “worst-case scenario” occurring at Khe Sanh and other U.S. positions in the northern provinces. But he also saw a huge opportunity: he thought he could win the war outright. Within days of the start of the Tet offensive, Westmoreland knew that the enemy offensive had suffered major losses and constituted a strategic defeat for North Vietnam. But U.S. forces were stretched thin, and Westmoreland wanted reinforcements, not only to bolster weak spots, but also, as he wrote to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on February 12, “to capitalize on [the enemy’s] losses by seizing the initiative in other areas. Exploiting this opportunity could shorten the war.”15 Westmoreland wanted to go on the offensive in a big way, including ground operations against the Ho Chi Minh trail, raids against enemy sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, and even an invasion of North Vietnamese territory above the DMZ. “If I could execute those moves fairly rapidly following the heavy losses the enemy had incurred in the Tet Offensive,” Westmoreland wrote in his 1976 memoirs, “I saw the possibility of destroying the enemy’s will to continue the war.”16

Westmoreland had no way of knowing that despite Johnson’s tough talk in public about staying the course in Vietnam (LBJ was even contemplating asking Congress for a formal declaration of war), his inner circle was in the process of losing its nerve. Incoming Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, reputed to be a hawk, was in fact turning decisively against the war, and would shortly use his influence to reverse LBJ’s war policy. But General Bus Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had encouraged Westmoreland to ask for more troops. Three days into the Tet offensive, Wheeler cabled Westmoreland that “if you need more troops, ask for them.” Westmoreland replied that he wanted the modest additional troops already scheduled for Vietnam to be sent immediately. Wheeler replied this would be done, but reiterated his previous encouragement for Westmoreland to think big: “I do not believe that you should refrain from asking for what you believe is required under the circumstances.”

The common sense reader will ask: Why was not the nearly 500,000 American personnel in place in South Vietnam sufficient to take the offensive against a less well-equipped and battered enemy force of less than 300,000? How could such a seemingly immense force be “stretched thin”? To the average American, the U.S. force level sounded enormous, an impression easily reinforced by the huge bomb tonnage (already by 1968 more than had been dropped on Germany in World War II) and artillery ordinance used so far. Few Americans realized that no more than 15 percent of the total force—about 80,000—were actually ground combat troops. The rest were all “support” personnel: supply sergeants and quartermasters, cooks, doctors, nurses, engineers, pilots, radio technicians, officers’ club bartenders, mechanics, intelligence officers, janitors, and squads of clerks and statisticians to process the mountains of paperwork required by Pentagon whiz kids to feed into their computer models. The American war effort in Vietnam was carried out with an enormous logistical “tail,” whose most characteristic expression was the large base camp complete with creature comforts such as movie theaters, swimming pools, and ice cream parlors. The greatest enemy facing American personnel in Vietnam, a reporter wrote, was not the Communists—it was boredom.17 With such a lopsided “tail to teeth” ratio, U.S. and allied forces were arguably outnumbered.

Even for the richest nation in the world, this kind of effort took its toll on U.S. forces committed elsewhere. Because Johnson had refused to mobilize the reserves to keep overall U.S. military forces at full strength, the Vietnam effort had seriously weakened U.S. forces worldwide. The Vietnam War, Gen. Bruce Palmer wrote in his history of the conflict, “destroyed the U.S. 7th Army in Germany without firing a shot. It destroyed that army because we were so strategically out of balance we used the 7th Army as a replacement [pool] for Vietnam.”18 Active duty reserves in the U.S. were dangerously thin; only 2/3rds of one division were available. Meeting Westmoreland’s request for substantial new troops would require calling up the reserves, and using many of them to bolster weakened active duty forces elsewhere in the world so that trained troops could be used in Vietnam.

In order for Westmoreland to have the 108,000 new troops he wanted in Vietnam, total U.S. force levels would need to be increased by more than 200,000, so that reserve units in the U.S. and elsewhere could be replenished. Johnson and his advisers were conferring on Westmoreland’s request in late February when the Cronkite broadcast hit the airwaves. Clifford and other Johnson advisers were against the troop request, and the turning of the media posed further difficulty for the idea. On March 8, Gen. Wheeler told a disappointed Westmoreland that the additional troops were unlikely to be forthcoming. The idea was virtually dead.

All of these deliberations were supposed to be secret, of course. But as so often happens with fast-moving events, there was a press leak that resulted in a muddled story. On March 10, two days after Wheeler told Westmoreland that the troop request was dead, the New York Times led with the bombshell headline: “Westmoreland Requests 206,000 More Men, Stirring Debate in Administration.” The lead of the story, written by Hedrick Smith and Neil Sheehan, read: “Gen. William C. Westmoreland has asked for 206,000 more American troops for Vietnam, but the request has touched off a divisive internal debate within high levels of the Johnson Administration.” Unnamed sources were quoted calling Vietnam “a bottomless pit,” and the Tet offensive “a body blow.” Ironically, Smith and Sheehan had emphasized the policy fight in their first draft of the story, but New York Times editors insisted that the number of troops involved—206,000—needed to be in the headline and in the lead of the story.

This outdated story, which, without context, reinforced the panicky view that the military situation in Vietnam was falling apart, spread like wildfire in newspapers across the nation within 24 hours. 72 hours later the voters went to the polls in New Hampshire, and gave 42.4 percent to Eugene McCarthy (to Johnson’s 49.5 percent). But 5,500 Republicans cast write-in ballots for McCarthy, bringing him virtually even with LBJ when all the votes were finally counted the next day. Even McCarthy’s ebullient supporters were stunned. It was an earthquake immeasurable on the political richter scale.

The timing of the New Hampshire vote amidst the general reaction to events in Vietnam and the specific controversy over the troop request lent verisimilitude to the view that the McCarthy vote represented a thumbs-down referendum on the war. But the full evidence presents a more complicated picture, suggesting that the vote reflected more a thumbs-down-on-LBJ vote than an antiwar vote. An NBC exit poll found that fewer than half the voters could correctly describe McCarthy’s position on the war.19 Later it was found that the largest plurality of McCarthy supporters before the Democratic nomination was decided switched their votes in November to George Wallace—hardly a “peace candidate.”20 There is even some evidence suggesting that many New Hampshire voters may have actually had a different McCarthy in mind when they cast their ballots. Following a speech to the Manchester Kiwanis Club, for example, McCarthy was presented the customary service club thank-you plaque with an inscription expressing “appreciation to Senator Joseph McCarthy.”21 (Emphasis added.) No wonder Gene McCarthy attracted some hawkish votes.

But as with Tet, the media interpretation of the New Hampshire result proved inexorable. As if the McCarthy campaign weren’t enough of a headache for Johnson, four days after the New Hampshire primary Robert F. Kennedy, having said there were no “foreseeable circumstances” under which he might run, jumped into the race. “The thing I feared from the first day of my presidency was coming true,” LBJ wrote in his memoirs. “Robert Kennedy had openly announced his intention to reclaim the throne in the memory of his brother.” Over the next six weeks, Johnson would gradually relent on his resolve over the war, and, facing certain defeat to McCarthy in the April 2 Wisconsin primary, he announced his withdrawal from the race on March 31, a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, and the willingness to begin negotiations. In ten weeks LBJ had fallen from the threshold of presidential greatness (according to Time) to the ignominious station of a reviled lame duck.

The triumphal myth of the antiwar movement ever since 1968 has been that the furor over Tet and the McCarthy upset in New Hampshire was the crucial turning point in their crusade to stop the war. At the instant LBJ withdrew from the race, the McCarthy camp felt as though it had deposed the king; outside the White House, a small gaggle of activists sang “We have overcome.” “In a sense,” Moynihan wrote of Johnson’s decision to step aside, “he was the first American President to be toppled by a mob. No matter that it was a mob of college professors, millionaires, flower children, and Radcliffe girls.”22 Narratives of the struggle inside the White House, meanwhile, fix upon the dramatic turnabout of the so-called “Wise Men,” which included former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Supreme Court Justice (and LBJ confidant) Abe Fortas, and Generals Maxwell Taylor and Omar Bradley, who told Johnson on March 26 that the war was lost. Clark Clifford’s self-dramatized realization that there was no plan to end the war, and his clandestine machinations inside the White House and the bureaucracy to force LBJ to capitulate, also receive great emphasis. And while these factors should not be slighted, they have come to eclipse the most fundamental reason why Westmoreland’s troop request, and the general war policy, collapsed at this particular moment: The troop buildup would cost $2.5 billion immediately, and $10 billion in 1969. This cost was intolerable, because the richest nation in the world was staring into the abyss of bankruptcy.

1. James J. Wirtz, The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War (Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), p. 74. Return to Text

2. Berman, LBJ’s War, p. 181. Return to Text

3. Time, February 2, 1968, p. 11. Return to Text

4. “Defector Confirms Suspicions Moscow Plotted Pueblo Seizure,” Combat (a National Review publication) Vol. 1, No. 21, July 1, 1969, p. 2. Return to Text

5. Lewy, p. 434. Return to Text

6. William McGurn, “Vietnam Through a Lens Darkly,” Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2000, p. A26. Return to Text

7. Braestrup, p. 508. Return to Text

8. Braestrup, “The Press and the Vietnam War,” Encounter, April 1982, p. 92. Return to Text

9. Elegant, “How To Lose a War,” Encounter, August 1981, p. 73. Return to Text

10. Cited in Berman, p. 151. Return to Text

11. Powell, My American Journey, p. 123. Return to Text

12. Kaiser, p. 77. Return to Text

13. Braestrup, p. 493. Return to Text

14. Braestrup, p. 509. Return to Text

15. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (Doubleday, 1976), p. 352. Return to Text

16. Westmoreland, p. 355. Return to Text

17. Lewy, p. 160. Return to Text

18. Record, The Wrong War, p. 97. Return to Text

19. Kaiser, p. 103. Return to Text

20. Braestrup, p. 506. Return to Text

21. Kaiser, p. 88. Return to Text

22. Pat, p.168. Return to Text

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. This article was excerpted from his book, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Liberal Order, 1964-1980.