General Offensive, General Uprising: ‘Tet!’ by Don Oberdorfer

‘The enemy has been defeated in battle after battle. He continues to hope that America’s will to persevere can be broken. Well, he is wrong.’ President Lyndon Johnson spoke before a joint session of Congress, addressing the country’s ongoing fight with the Communist forces of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong guerrillas. The United States had made real progress in the war against the communists he claimed. More dead enemy bodies were being recorded than U.S. and South Vietnam casualties and the bombing of the North was taking a grievous toll. We are winning the hearts and minds of the people and a strong, independent anti-communist government in southeast Asia is defending democracy in the face of tyranny.

At least this was the narrative promoted across the country in President Johnson’s public relations success offensive for the American people. The longest running debate in the history of the Vietnam War was the disconnect between the what the U.S. government and military knew versus what they told the American people. What followed in 1968 was one of the most intense and shocking military offensives in the history of the Vietnam War; the General Offensive and General Uprising, otherwise known as Tet (named after the Vietnamese Lunar New Year) Beginning on January 30th, 1968 and lasting for almost four months with smaller offensives occurring simultaneously, the offensive was meant to knock out every U.S. military and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) installation and fuel a popular uprising against the South Vietnam government. From a military perspective, Communist forces failed to fully destroy any U.S. installations or overthrow the South Vietnamese government. What the North Vietnamese did not accomplish with a military victory, they succeeded with a psychological victory in the U.S. media, political agendas, and turning popular opinion against the war.

Map of the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam (image courtesy of the U.S. Military Academy)

Don Oberdorfer, a journalist for the Washington Post, meticulously compiled official casualty statistics and field reports to recreate the impact of the Tet Offensive. ‘Tet!‘ was published in 1971, three years after the offensive occurred and at that point, much of the country was against the war and the administration of President Nixon was withdrawing large numbers of U.S. troops from southeast Asia. It appeared that the Tet Offensive finally had the intended effect of causing U.S. troops to pull out and leave the South Vietnamese government and the ARVN without superior firepower and personnel to continue the fight against Communist forces. Oberdorfer splits the focus of his book into eight chapters, highlighting various aspects of Tet: the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the logistical and military planning for the offensive in North Vietnam, intelligence gathering pointing to some type of large scale operation, widespread attacks throughout the south, the climactic battle for the city of Hue, and the political and psychological fallout that challenged America’s perception of whether the war could be won. Oberdorfer approaches the subject with the detail oriented work ethic one could expect from a veteran investigative journalist and ‘Tet!‘ sheds light on why certain aspects of the Tet Offensive had greater impact on the American public and why some North Vietnamese and Viet Cong generals believed that it would be a catastrophic failure.

Many believed that the U.S. Embassy in Saigon was the safest place in all of South Vietnam. Viet Cong sappers blasted a hole in the security wall and infiltrated into the embassy grounds in the early morning hours on January 31st, 1968 (U.S. Military History Center)

One engagement that Oberdorfer examined in depth summarizes the broad impact of the Tet Offensive becoming a catalyst in changing American public opinion about Vietnam was the attack on the U.S. Embassy. Saigon was the largest target for Viet Cong forces and the embassy was no exception. The entire compound was protected by Military Police units and Marine Security Guards, but was not outfitted with a large amount of defense weaponry. State Department, CIA, and various military intelligence analysts believed that some kind of large scale attack was going to occur, but reports on enemy action had been routinely classified as high alert and didn’t occur, so not many put stock into high alerts anymore. Shortly after midnight on January 31st, 1968, sappers from the C-10 Battalion drove towards the embassy, fired on the MP guard gate,  and minutes later, blew a hole in the outer perimeter wall allowing remaining Viet Cong commandos to enter the grounds. Specialist 4 Charles Daniels frantically radioed for help: “They’re coming in!!” “They’re coming–” the radio went dead and Daniels was later found shot in the back. He would be one of five servicemen who died protecting the embassy.

A Viet Cong sapper killed inside the U.S. Embassy grounds, January 31, 1968 (The Vietnam Center and the Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive)

Marine Security Guards on the embassy roof could see the attack brewing and they immediately radioed for backup detachments. Small arms fire was exchanged by the MPs, guards, and Viet Cong commandos who made their way through the grounds towards the Chancery building. As the battle raged on, journalists from various news outlets (The Associated Press and NBC) sent signal flashes alerting people to the violence that was unfolding in South Vietnam. At 6:25 PM New York Time, the AP office received the following bulletin from veteran combat journalist, Peter Arnett:

BULLETIN

VIETNAM (TOPS  161)

SAIGON (AP) – THE VIETCONG ATTACKED SAIGON WEDNESDAY AND SEIZED PART OF THE U.S. EMBASSY. AMERICAN MILITARY POLICE TRIED TO STORM INTO THE EMBASSY AS DAWN BROKE BUT WERE DRIVEN BACK BY HEAVY OUTBURSTS OF FIRE FROM THE EMBASSY BUILDING.

SAIGON-ADD VIETNAM (169)

DAWN BROKE OVER THE TENSE CAPITAL ABOUT 7 AM AND FIGHTING SWELLED UP AROUND THE EMBASSY IN THE HEART OF THE CITY. US MILITARY POLICE ON THE SCENE SAID IT WAS BELIEVED ABOUT 20 VIET CONG SUICIDE COMMANDOS WERE IN THE EMBASSY COMPOUND AND HELD PART OF THE FIRST FLOOR OF THE EMBASSY BUILDING. THE VIET CONG’S SEIZURE OF PART OF THE EMBASSY FOLLOWED EXCHANGE OF GUNFIRE WITH THE US MARINE GUARDS POSTED THERE.

The confusion coming from South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive was fueled by large numbers of unconfirmed reports. New correspondents, security guards, State Department officials, and senior military officers were scrambling to get a complete understanding of the situation, but it was difficult. A follow up bulletin by UPI (United Press International) verified that Viet Cong commandos actually did not occupy the Embassy building, but many thought they had with the amount of gunfire coming from the building itself:

AT LEAST 19 VIET CONG WERE KILLED INSIDE THE EMBASSY COMPOUND. DURING THE HEART OF THE FIGHTING, US MILITARY MEN SAID THE TERRORISTS HAD OCCUPIED FIVE FLOORS OF THE EMBASSY. LATER, A SPOKESMAN SAID THE COMMUNISTS DID NOT PENETRATE THE MAIN BUILDING AND THE STATE DEPARTMENT IN WASHINGTON CONFIRMED THIS.

Cpl. George Moyer and Spec. John Singer march a blood-splattered Viet Cong captive away from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon (US Military History Center, January 31, 1968)

By 8:00 AM Saigon time, a detachment of the 101st Airborne was able to land on the Embassy roof and proceeded to clear the grounds of enemy combatants. At 9:15 AM, General Westmoreland declared the Embassy secure and in front of a large group of reporters, he told them that the despite a well-laid plan and deceitfully taking advantage of the temporary ceasefire for the Tet holiday, the enemy was defeated and inflicted only minimal damage. This was just a diversion from other larger attacks in other areas of the country like Khe Sanh. Nineteen enemies were killed to only five U.S. servicemen; a positive body count to Westmoreland and MACV (the U.S. command in South Vietnam, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam).

This book reflects on the grisly truth of how entrenched the United States became in South Vietnam. Commanders continually painted a rosy picture from the battlefield and politicians in Washington DC rallied support for the struggle against Communism. However, many people began to openly question the Johnson administration’s candor about the war. For most of the end of 1967 and the first month of 1968, the President Johnson, Cabinet officials, and the military command had been telling the American people that the war was being won. So when Tet occurred, it brought everything under scrutiny. ‘Tet!‘ brilliantly explains the groundwork, execution, and aftermath of the offensive, but the main lesson is how only a few images from the operation changed the course of two nations for future generations. The attack on the US Embassy, the battle for Hue, and the intimate execution of a Viet Cong soldier, Nguyen Van Lem by Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The brutal images of war that filled the evening news on television and splashed across the front page of newspapers signaled to many of whether the war was worth fighting any longer. Oberdorfer asked that question in 1971 and we still ponder that question today.

Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executes Viet Cong Captain Nguyễn Văn Lém. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography. The image was captured at the exact moment the trigger was pulled and the bulge from the exiting bullet can be seen on the left side of Van Lem’s head (Eddie Adams, The Associated Press, February 1 1968)

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