Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Holy Shit, The Tet Offensive!

First Battle of Saigon

This one time, America got involved in a bit of a kerfuffle over in Vietnam. You may have heard of it. You may have also heard of the Tet Offensive, possibly the most important engagement of the entire conflict. You might not know that, while it ended up being the first step toward a North Vietnamese victory in the war, it was actually a massive tactical victory for America. Here's how it went down.

At the end of 1967, the Johnson administration saw with growing alarm that people were no longer all that keen on sending kids overseas to die needlessly. In response, they announced that the war was going absolutely swimmingly. In fact, one of the top Field Commanders, General Bruce Palmer, Jr., went on record to say, "The Viet Cong has been defeated."
Bruce Palmer, Jr.
Here he is sitting in a completely non-symbolic armchair.

About a month after he waved a proverbial red flag at the hulking behemoth of fate, the Viet Cong shouted a collective "NUH UH!" But with guns. And bombs. And they did this on the first day of the Tet Lunar New Year, a two-day celebration that had been informally set aside as a ceasefire period.

North Vietnam and the Viet Cong guerrillas attacked just about everywhere in the country, sparking the major battles of Hue, Khe Sanh, and Saigon. The goal was to surprise and utterly incapacitate the Allied forces long enough to incite a general uprising among the South Vietnamese, who were not completely thrilled with the country's leadership.
Tet Offensive map
But seriously, everywhere.

What North Vietnam failed to take into consideration was that most of the people who would rise up had already done so. That, and the fact that the Allies were extraordinarily talented at mobility and redeployment, which meant that they could counter just about any attack the Viet Cong could surprise them with.
Marines in Hamo Village
People still died, though. A lot.

By the time the offensive was called off, the Viet Cong were utterly depleted and North Vietnam was looking at an existential crisis. Their casualty rate was somewhere around 50 freaking percent. Party leaders started eyeing each other nervously and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then they started hearing what the South Vietnamese and Americans were saying.

In the South, people were faced with the stark reality that their government couldn't guarantee any kind of safety, even with the massive weight of the United States behind them. In the U.S., the political blow that North Vietnam dealt cost Johnson his career. When Nixon eventually took the reins, his policy toward the war was "Vietnamization," which basically meant "Y'all are on your own."
Fall of Saigon
No other policy in history will ever be so perfectly illustrated.

Ultimately, North Vietnam's ruinous defeat ended up being their greatest victory. Not only did they kick over the first domino that would lead to the U.S. getting out of their hair, but they removed any potential contention with the Viet Cong after reunification by depleting them and replacing them with North Vietnamese regulars.

You'd think it's what they meant to do all along, but you'd be wrong. Despite the opportunistic propaganda they shouted at the time, North Vietnamese leadership maintains today that the Tet Offensive failed to achieve any of its major objectives. That failure turned the tide of the war to their favor.

Holy shit.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.