Tet 9

Even so, Westmoreland and the U.S. military establishment in Viet¬nam were clearly caught off guard by the Tet offensive. A West Point textbook on the war, published years later, attributed the “complete surprise” achieved by the Communists to a U.S. “intelligence failure ranking with Pearl Harbor.” American intelligence specialists reached roughly the same conclusion in March 1968, after going to Saigon to conduct an official investigation. “The intensity, coordination and timing” of the attacks “were not fully anticipated,” they found— adding that another “major unexpected element” had been the Com¬munists’ ability to hit so many targets simultaneously. But above all, U.S. officers had been lulled into a false sense of security because illusory reports on North Vietnamese and Vietcong casualties, infil¬tration, recruitment and morale “had downgraded our image of the enemy.”
Communist defectors and prisoners, captured documents, electronic espionage devices and covert agents provided American experts with piles of information. But, like medieval scholars interpreting theo¬logical scriptures, various intelligence specialists detected different meanings in the material. So, as early as December 20, 1967, West¬moreland warned Washington to expect a “maximum effort” by the enemy—while Admiral Sharp deemed the prospect of an offensive “remote.” In any case, Westmoreland expected that the main action would be centered on South Vietnam’s northernmost provinces, and he shifted troops to the region. He also envisioned the onslaught coming before Tet, presuming that the Communists would not court the risk of alienating the population by violating a truce they them¬selves had proclaimed for the sacred holiday.
Unfamiliar with Vietnam’s past, very few Americans knew that one of the most famous exploits in the nation’s history occurred during Tet of 1789, when the Emperor Quang Trung deceptively routed a Chinese occupation army celebrating the festival in Hanoi. Nor did they understand that the Vietnamese, after centuries of internecine turmoil, were inured to duplicity.
Westmoreland later acknowledged his misjudgment, admitting that he had not anticipated the “true nature or the scope” of the enemy attacks—yet he at least took the precaution of putting his forces on the alert. But South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, dis¬regarding the potential danger, furloughed most of his troops for the holiday and went off with his wife to her family’s home in the Mekong Delta town of Mytho.
Looking back on the offensive during our chat in Hanoi in 1990, Giap sounded oddly like Westmoreland as he sought to underline his achievements and minimize his setbacks. I asked him whether he had actually expected the cities to rise up, as the Communists had pro¬claimed at the time. “We foresaw that possibility,” Giap replied awk¬wardly. “Waging war is not easy, vous savez. There were uprisings in some places and not in others.” Still, he emphasized, Tet was an overall political and diplomatic victory. “We chose Tet because, in war, you must seize the propitious moment, when time and space are propitious. Their scope and ardor proved that both our army and people were disciplined and determined. We attacked the brains of the enemy, its headquarters in Saigon, showing that it was not inviolable. Our forces destroyed large quantities of the enemy’s weapons and other equipment and crushed several of its elite units. We dramatized that we were neither exhausted nor on the edge of defeat, as West¬moreland claimed. And, though we knew that most Americans had nothing against us, we wanted to carry the war into the families of America—to demonstrate, n’est-ce pas, that if Vietnamese blood was being spilled, so was American blood. We did all this, and more and more Americans renounced the war.”
But Giap’s assessment benefited from the clarity of hindsight. If the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies were napping before the Tet upheaval, the Communists also blundered. “We have been guilty of many errors and shortcomings,” their first official evaluation of the campaign confessed. They deplored such deficiencies as their fail¬ure to inspire the South Vietnamese population to rebel, and their inability to rally Saigon soldiers and government employees to their banners. Numbers of North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops were plainly disenchanted by the realization that, despite their enormous sacrifices during the offensive, they still faced a long struggle ahead. Senior Communist cadres expressed alarm at the erosion of morale among their comrades, many of whom had “lost confidence” in the cause, and had become “doubtful of victory and pessimistic, and dis¬play shirking attitudes.”
Tran Van Tra, a senior Communist general in the south at the time, candidly admitted in a military history published in Hanoi in 1982 that the offensive had been misconceived from the start. “During Tet of 1968,” he wrote, “we did not correctly evaluate the specific balance of forces between ourselves and the enemy, did not fully realize that the enemy still had considerable capabilities and that our capabilities were limited.” The Communists had set objectives “that were beyond our actual strength,” founded “in part on an illusion based on our subjective desires.” Thus, Tra went on, “we suffered large losses in materiel and manpower, especially cadres at various echelons, which clearly weakened us.” As a result, “we were not only unable to retain the gains we had made but had to overcome a myriad of difficulties in 1969 and 1970 so that the revolution could stand firm in the storm.” Revisiting Vietnam after the war, I was astonished by the number of Communist veterans who retained bad memories of the Tet epi¬sode—and openly recalled to me their disappointment at its outcome. Dr. Duong Quynh Hoa, at the time a secret Vietcong operative in Saigon, had joined the commandos invading the capital. In retrospect, she bluntly denounced the venture as a “grievous miscalculation” by the Hanoi hierarchy, which in her view had wantonly squandered the southern insurgent movement. Captain Tran Dinh Thong, a North Vietnamese regular, was equally frank. He remembered feeling “de¬pressed and worried about the future” after the abortive operation, and he blamed its planners for having “incorrectly” surveyed the situation beforehand. Even General Tran Do conceded that the attacks had not been a resounding triumph. Indeed, he explained to me, the Tet campaign went in an unexpected direction: “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the south. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Amer¬icans and their puppets, and that was a big gain for us. As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention—but it turned out to be a fortunate result.”

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