Naval Historical Center home page Image of an anchorColloquium on Contemporary History Project
Flag banner

Dr. Edward J. Marolda
Senior Historian
Naval Historical Center

I am Ed Marolda, Senior Historian of the Naval Historical Center, located here in the historic Washington Navy Yard.

On behalf of the Director of Naval History, Dr. William S. Dudley, who unfortunately could not be with us this morning, I welcome you to the Naval Historical Center's Colloquium on Contemporary History. Today's conference is the eleventh in this series of morning gatherings that focus on issues affecting the U.S. Armed Forces in the modern era. We provide a forum for the exchange of new interpretations, approaches, and information. We also hope to nourish lasting professional contacts among those of us interested in national and international security issues. Past conferences have dealt with such topics as the birth of NATO, joint operations in Korea, women in combat, and ballistic missile development.

Today's colloquium is entitled Tet: The Turning Point in Vietnam. Many Americans remember the Communist Tet Offensive of 1968 as an unmitigated disaster for the U.S. armed forces. They have images of dead GIs and Viet Cong sappers scattered around the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon; of bandaged and bloody Marines clinging on top of a tank in the devastated old Imperial Capital of Hue; of aircraft burning on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut air base; and Navy river patrol boats firing into their own overrun bases ashore in the Mekong Delta. One can visualize Walter Kronkite, "Uncle Walty," suggesting in his deep, sonorous voice on the CBS Evening News that the war is lost; and a sad-faced, exhausted Lyndon Johnson announcing to the American people that he was halting the bombing in most of North Vietnam and that he would not seek reelection in November 1968. This was a clear admission that his war leadership and his strategy for Southeast Asia, such as it was, had failed. Shocked by this turn of events and pessimistic about the future, after Tet an increasing number of Americans pressed for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam.

What was the real impact of Tet and the enemy's post-Tet offensives on American arms? Were our forces bloodied and beaten in the field, compelled to withdraw to more secure enclaves, to avoid casualties, to surrender the countryside to the Communists, and to cease bombing enemy supply lines in North Vietnam? That may be the image that many Americans have, but as we will learn today the reality was quite different.

The U.S. military developed new strategies and tactics for fighting the war that were anything but retrenchments or retirements. U.S. Army, U.S. Marine, and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops aggressively attacked North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces the length and breadth of the country; the Navy pushed its units right up to the border with Cambodia and into the deepest reaches of the Mekong Delta; and Air Force and Navy aircraft squadrons redoubled their interdiction efforts in southern North Vietnam and Laos. We hope to learn much more today about the innovative strategic, tactical, and technological approaches adopted by the American military in the period after Tet.

A common complaint many of us have is that Stanley Karnow, Neil Sheehan, and other writers routinely give short shrift to the five years of battle after Tet. Clearly, they consider the period anticlimactic and irrelevant to the outcome of the war. Some historians, especially Ron Spector in his book After Tet have begun to reverse that trend, and I am confident that the papers and discussion we hear today, the result of serious scholarship and thoughtful analysis, will take us even further along that bearing.

23 September 2003