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 HuĂ© 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

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