Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Shadowy Origin of the 1968 Tet Offensive

The late summer of 1967 was relatively quiet around Khe Sanh and much of South Vietnam, although North Vietnamese Army regulars were continuing to be sent south in growing numbers. Both they, and we American troops stationed there, could not have known at the time that we were being used as pawns in a high-stakes political game that was playing out in the communist north, a game so secretive that no one, neither General Westmoreland nor President Johnson, had an idea of what was to come.

In Hanoi, the ascendant militant faction, led by Party First Secretary Le Duan, concerned that relentless American bombing of the north, coupled with hard fighting in the hills around Khe Sanh between U.S. Marines and crack NVA battalions from April through June, would soon drive a consensus of the Politburo to sue for a negotiated peace.

To prevent that, in July 1967 Le Duan ordered the arrest of hundreds of moderates, military officers and intelligentsia, pushing the venerable Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap aside in what was later called the Revisionist Anti-Party Affair. While it was a common belief by those in the western world that Ho and Giap were still at the helm and the struggle for national unification was fought by unified leadership and patriotic volunteers from both the north and south, historian Lien-Hang T. Nguyen points out that "in reality, Le Duan constructed a national security state that devoted all of its resources to war and labeled any resistance to its policies as treason." 

With moderates now out of the way, Le Duan set in motion his plan for a broad conventional military offensive that would strike hundreds of targets in South Vietnam. He believed the south was ripe for change and would erupt in a popular uprising at the sight of communist forces in the streets of their cities, sweeping the Saigon regime and Americans out of the country.  While a launch date for the campaign against Khe Sanh had to be moved up to January 20 after NVA preparations there were accidentally discovered by the Marines, the broader nationwide offensive was to begin ten days later, on January 31, the first feast day of Tet, during a holiday ceasefire declared by the Americans and South Vietnamese.

Le Duan’s confidence in an extensive popular uprising proved to be a delusion (or based on extremely faulty intelligence information). The South Vietnamese Army remained loyal and relatively few civilians were drawn to the ranks of the Viet Cong—who would never fully recover after their losses during Tet.  Le Duan’s colossal miscalculation left his forces stranded and eventually decimated in cities like Hué and Saigon, places they’d hoped to hold with the aid of the multitude rallying to their cause.   

How this effected the fate of the remote combat base at Khe Sanh will be the subject of a later post.

All the best,
Le Duan and Ho Chi Minh

Saturday, August 5, 2017


Welcome! I'm excited about launching this new blog and posting material on a regular basis that I hope you will find interesting and useful. 

Despite the passage of nearly half a century, the legacy of the 1968 fight for Khe Sanh, and other horrendous battles during the Tet Offensive, particularly in Hue and Saigon, have had an unrelenting influence on American life. This is not just seen in the damaging reverberations through generations within the families of loved ones who were lost or suffered in that war. Columnist George Will recently observed that the diminished confidence in government felt by many Americans today can be traced directly to those battles--and never again rising to pre-1968 levels of trust. 

Famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, The West, etc.), in a speech to the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills California this week,  said that much of his upcoming 18-hour, 10-part, documentary series The Vietnam War (which premieres on PBS at 8 pm PDT September 17), will show how eerily similar America's chaotic national predicament during the Vietnam War is to what we are experiencing today.

In response to a question about what the youth of America will find relevant in The Vietnam War, Burns said: "This is a story about mass demonstrations all across the country against the administration, about a White House obsessed with leaks and in disarray because of those leaks, about a president railing against you, the news media, for making up news."

"It's about asymmetrical warfare, which even the might of the United States Army can't figure out the correct strategy to take, and its about big document drops of classified material that has been hacked [The Pentagon Papers] that is suddenly dumped into the public sphere destabilizing the conventional wisdom about really important topics and accusations that a political campaign reached out to a foreign power [Candidate Nixon to the Republic of Vietnam] at the time of a national election to influence the election." 

Burns' remarks reminded me why I so value history and the lessons it can teach us and why I work so hard to drill down though decades of varnish, spin and downright myth to uncover what was actually happening in real time and the decision making process that led us deeper and deeper into that quagmire, in which the Vietnamese people suffered millions of casualties and more than 210,000 American men and women were wounded, died or went missing and many others, like myself, returned deep in the throes of what historian William Manchester once described as: "The supreme indifference of young men who have lost their youth and will never recover it." 

In my next post, I'll share with you some information about political maneuverings, like some ominous chess game, being played between leaders in Washington and Hanoi beginning fifty years ago this summer leading to those   horrifically costly battles a few months later. As these momentous events   transpired in the summer of 1967, my friend Tom Mahoney and I were working our way through Marine Corps boot camp, on schedule to meet that approaching havoc at the most inopportune time--in terms of our survival.

Until then, please visit for more information and thanks for dropping by.

Éirinn go Brách,

I have several Irish forbearers, including my maternal grandmother, Lizzie Connor, who, as a young girl, along with her mother, Kitty, arri...