Tet 6

His long-range strategy was to continue to bleed the Americans until they agreed to a settlement that satisfied the Hanoi regime. For that reason, the Communists were willing to endure terrible casualties during the Tet campaign, as they did throughout the war. The Tet offensive was not intended to be a decisive operation, but one episode in a protracted war that might last “five, ten, or twenty years.” Es¬sentially, Giap was repeating to the United States what Ho Chi Minh had warned the French a generation before: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”
A collateral concept in Giap’s grand design stemmed from his per¬ception that the United States and its South Vietnamese clients were inextricably interdependent. Though the South Vietnamese “puppets” relied completely for their survival on the Americans, they neverthe¬less played a vital role by defending U.S. facilities, fulfilling police functions, managing pacification projects and performing other static duties. Above all, their veneer of sovereignty cloaked what the Com¬munists derisively called a neocolonial relationship. In short, there was no way for either ally to wage the war alone.
But Giap was persuaded that the alliance was inherently unstable and would eventually disintegrate as the United States increased the pressure on the Saigon government to prosecute the war more effec¬tively. He was equally convinced that latent anti-American sentiment pervading South Vietnam could be exacerbated and exploited. One of the Communist goals of the Tet offensive was to drive a wedge between the Americans and the South Vietnamese—a goal that was discernible from the start of the operation.
By attacking the American embassy, for example, the Communists sought to demonstrate to the South Vietnamese people that the United States was vulnerable despite its immense power. They assaulted the cities and towns in the expectation that part of the southern regime’s urban administration would turn against the Americans. And their attempt to disrupt the pacification effort was aimed as well to attract rural officials to their side. They also believed that South Vietnam was ripe for revolution, and that weary government soldiers, dislocated peasants, frustrated religious factions, fractious youths and other un¬happy elements of the southern population would rise in opposition to the Saigon authorities and the Americans.
President Johnson’s aides, no less parochial, were persuaded that the Communists planned their actions to resonate in the United States. On one occasion, for instance, Walt Rostow assured his staff that a Vietcong strike against a remote village had been calculated to coincide with a Senate debate on U.S. appropriations for Vietnam—as if tac¬ticians in Hanoi consulted the Congressional Record before deploying their units. But the Communists fundamentally conceived the Tet offensive to sway South Vietnamese opinion rather than influence American opinion. Nor was it timed to the U.S. presidential election of November 1968. Giap’s blueprint clearly relegated the political scene in America to a secondary place in the Communist strategy. He routinely praised the U.S. antiwar movement for its “sympathy and support,” yet he emphasized that the “decisive” arena was Vietnam itself, where Communist success hinged on “changing the balance of power in our favor.” Similarly, he dismissed the election as merely a reshuffle “in the hierarchy of the capitalist ruling class” that would not alter the “nature” of America’s “aggressive imperialism.”
For all their propaganda promises of impending victory, however, the Communists were realistic enough to chart the Tet campaign with maximum and minimum objectives in mind. Ideally, of course, they hoped to topple the Saigon regime and promote the formation of a neutralist coalition government dominated by their Vietcong surro¬gates, which would expel the Americans and put Vietnam on the path to reunification under Communist control. But they reckoned on improving their position even if the offensive failed to fulfill that ambitious goal.
They estimated that President Johnson, confronted by the disarray of the Tet outbreaks, would finally stop bombing North Vietnam and submit to beginning negotiations on their terms. So, at the very least, they were hoping to propel the war into the phase of simultaneous fighting and talking—a classic Communist maneuver. One of their motives was to project the impression, especially to the South Viet¬namese population, that they were conciliatory. But more impor¬tantly, the ploy would weaken the alliance between South Vietnam and the Unitfcd States by arousing in the Saigon regime’s senior officers the fear and suspicion that the Americans might abandon them if the enemy agreed to an accommodation—as was indeed to occur in Oc¬tober 1972, when Henry Kissinger and his North Vietnamese coun¬terpart, Le Due Tho, reached a compromise at the expense of the Thieu government.
On the eve of the Tet offensive, therefore, the Communists added a diplomatic dimension to their plan. Until then, they had insisted, peace talks could not start before the Americans met several conditions. But now the North Vietnamese foreign minister, Nguyen Duy Trinh, issued a more tempting offer. At a reception in Hanoi on December 30, 1967, he declared that the Communists “will” open discussions with the United States once the air strikes against North Vietnam were halted. This was, with variations, a repetition of the gesture made by Ho Chi Minh almost exactly fourteen years earlier, when he proposed negotiations to the French as both their armies braced for the showdown battle at Dienbienphu.
Now as then, the Communists were gambling—“We cannot an¬ticipate all specific conditions and situations that will develop,” one of the internal directives explained. But, they stressed, the risks would be worth the wager if “we are highly determined in our actions” and learn to adapt to events “in the process” of the combat.
The Tet offensive had actually started in September 1967, when Communist troops launched a series of attacks against a string of isolated American garrisons scattered across the highlands of central Vietnam and along the Laotian and Cambodian frontiers. Westmore¬land had just told a group of American correspondents in Saigon that “a sense of despair” pervaded the enemy ranks as their losses mounted, but his description of them scarcely fit the facts. Deployed in regiments and even divisions, the Communist forces were equipped with superb new Soviet automatic rifles, flamethrowers and backpack radios as well as mortars, rockets and big antiaircraft guns, and they struck with extraordinary precision. Their first target was Conthien, a small U.S. marine fire base located atop a barren hill south of the porous boundary separating the two Vietnams. Then they hit Locninh and Songbe, a pair of American outposts near the Cambodian border north of Saigon. And, in early November, they began the largest engage¬ment of the war to date, a battle that raged for twenty-two days around Dakto, a dense jungle region in the mountains above Pleiku.

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