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Bernard C. Nalty

The Tet Offensive altered the course of the air war in several ways, direct and indirect, immediate and gradual, in some instances accelerating or magnifying changes already under way when the enemy attacked in January and February 1968. Tet directly and immediately persuaded the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson that an open-ended war of attrition could not force the North Vietnamese to abandon their attempt to conquer the South. The Johnson administration reacted by imposing a ceiling on the American commitment to the defense of South Vietnam, cutting back and then ending the air war against North Vietnam in the hope of luring the Hanoi regime into negotiating a peace settlement that would somehow enable South Vietnam to survive as an independent state.

The United States had been trying for years to manipulate North Vietnam into following a certain course of action, but since 1965 emphasis had rested on using air power to help bludgeon Hanoi into behaving as the United States desired. The Johnson administration had embraced an aerial strategy of stick and carrot-fierce attacks on important but heavily defended North Vietnamese target systems like transportation or oil storage, followed by pauses during which the enemy could reconsider his conduct and change it.

Because Hanoi had not responded as expected, and the bombing of the North was becoming increasingly expensive in lives and aircraft, different targets had to be found.

President Johnson's decision to end the bombing of the North in the hope of encouraging negotiations shifted the air war to South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Battlefield targets and lengthy supply lines replaced North Vietnam's military infrastructure as the target of the air war, while President Johnson took the first tentative steps toward returning responsibility for the war to the South Vietnamese, thus reversing the course of events since 1965.1

During the lull in fighter combat that followed the imposition of restrictions on the air war in the North-and the suspension later in 1968 of strikes there-the Air Force missed an opportunity to review replacement policy, replacement training, and combat tactics. Determined to spread the experience of Vietnam broadly throughout the service and thus avoid involuntary second tours, the Air Force persisted in replacing individuals rather than rotating units until the spring of 1972, when the Easter invasion required the deployment of entire fighter wings, complete with support elements and additional crews.

The training of fighter-pilot replacements continued to emphasize numbers and deadlines, with air-to-air combat receiving whatever time and resources were available upon completion of the standard curriculum. As a result, individual replacement pilots seldom trained in combat tactics and formations until joining a tactical fighter outfit in Southeast Asia.

With one exception, scrapping the policy of assigning pilots to the rear seats of F-4 Phantoms, the Air Force made no major changes in fighter operations in the aftermath of the Tet offensive. The so-called Guy In Back evolved from an apprentice waiting for an opening in the front seat into a Weapon Systems Officer, a non-pilot who located targets and spotted threats for the aircraft commander. Besides increasing the pool of front-seaters, the new policy enabled the back seater to concentrate on sharpening his vital skills rather than learning to command an F-4.2

The Tet Offensive put an end to Air Force civic action at the time this assistance program was most needed. Until Tet, airmen, many of them off-duty volunteers, had helped South Vietnamese civilians living in villages near the American air bases. The Americans provided inoculations, instruction in the essentials of public health, and contributions of cash and labor to sustain schools and clinics and build or repair housing. Since the airmen who carried out civic action were recently fired on from some of the villages they had been helping, enthusiasm for the program rapidly evaporated. No wonder that commanders proved reluctant to send their men among people who had either participated in the Tet Offensive or failed to warn of the enemy's presence.3

Besides putting an end to civic action, Tet made the Air Force shift its tactical transports from routine flights to emergency operations. Until highways again became safe for convoys, aircraft had to haul supplies and reinforcements that otherwise would have traveled in trucks; one such airlift mission required a flight of only 14 miles. Because the fighting that closed roads also isolated some crews from their transports, the reaction to Tet started slowly but rapidly gained momentum after 16 additional C-130s arrived from Japan.4

The Tet fighting also disillusioned an influential segment of the American press, notably Walter Cronkite, a respected television newsman, who visited South Vietnam as the Tet Offensive ended. He reported that the urban destruction caused by the counterattacking American and South Vietnamese forces made a mockery of the publicized objective of building a South Vietnamese nation. As if to dramatize the contradiction between building and destroying, an anonymous Army officer, justifying the bombing of enemy-occupied Ben Tre, declared that "it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it."

The press reaction to Tet, along with the scaling back of war aims from imposing a settlement to negotiating one, intensified the existing opposition to the conflict. Demonstrations against the war had already taken place, including a so-called siege of the Pentagon in October 1967, persuading the administration to begin during November to use its commander in South Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, to drum up support for the war. Unfortunately, the Tet fighting gave lie to the general's highly publicized reports of steady progress, and contributed to the mood of disillusionment. Humorist Art Buchwald suggested, for example, that Westmoreland's kind of optimism could have turned the Battle of the Little Big Horn into a victory for Colonel George Armstrong Custer.5

Those who hoped to end the fighting increased their efforts, as did those who argued that the United States should settle for nothing less than victory. A new President, Richard M. Nixon, now sought to appease both extremes by minimizing American casualties as he continued the war. In 1969, he announced the policy of Vietnamization and withdrawal, arming and training the South Vietnamese to fight the war, which the United States had taken over in 1965. American ground troops, many of them draftees, would begin coming home.

At first, President Nixon and his advisers intended to time the troop withdrawals to reflect progress in negotiating a settlement and strengthening the South Vietnamese armed forces, but it proved impossible. The President's National Security Adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, warned at the outset that troop withdrawals might become like salted peanuts, each sharpening the public's appetite for another. As the program of withdrawals took on a life of its own, American air power, wielded by professionals and nominal volunteers, and South Vietnamese ground forces increasingly provided the shield for Vietnamization and withdrawal.6

President Nixon insisted on minimizing American losses as the withdrawals continued, substituting air power for the ground forces, including many draftees, that thus far had suffered a lion's share of American casualties. In February 1968, for example, during the grim fighting to defeat the Tet offensive, Air Force units suffered 260 casualties, with 39 men killed in action. The total American losses, however, averaged some 450 killed and almost 1,600 wounded each week during that same month.7

The administration feared a North Vietnamese offensive launched as the American withdrawal neared completion. Air power played the pivotal role in guarding against such an attack, hitting the enemy in South Vietnam, occasionally in North Vietnam, and in Laos and Cambodia. But the aerial shield at times had to be reinforced by ground action. In 1970, for example, after a year of secretly bombing North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia, American troops, supported by aircraft, joined in a three-month incursion into that country. In 1971, South Vietnamese troops, supported by American aircraft, failed to choke off traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the major enemy supply route through southern Laos.8

The Tet Offensive-or more precisely the feint toward Khe Sanh-temporarily diverted resources from an attempt, undergoing test in late 1967 and early 1968, to establish an electronic barrier across the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Sensors detected traffic and fed data to a computer at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, which helped direct air strikes against the supply complex. When shifted to the vicinity of Khe Sanh, the sensors covered the limited number of approaches to the base and generated an impressive list of targets for air strikes and artillery. Success here encouraged the campaign against the trail, an effort that ultimately cost some $2 billion and produced claims of tens of thousands of trucks destroyed. However, jungle cover, strong antiaircraft defenses, and a skillful and determined enemy prevailed over electronics; the system failed, for example, to detect the tanks that traveled the Ho Chi Minh Trail to spearhead the enemy's Easter Offensive of 1972.9

The Tet Offensive of 1968 did not suddenly cause drug use, racial animosity, and lack of discipline, the problems that within two years inflicted painful wounds on the Air Force. At the time of the Tet fighting, drug abuse seemed to mean smoking marijuana, and the air arm believed that racial friction was a problem only for the services that relied on draftees rather than volunteers.10

This complacent attitude did not reflect reality, however. Many a volunteer had chosen the Air Force to escape the danger, discomfort, and stricter discipline of the Army or Marine Corps and was merely serving his time. The pressure of the draft had thus forced into uniform many reluctant airmen, and they shared the attitudes of their contemporaries in civilian life and in the other services -racial animosity, an acceptance of drug use, and indifference, if not contempt, toward authority.11

The declining public support for the war, accelerated by the Tet fighting, affected the morale of officers and airmen in Southeast Asia. Debate took place in Congress and demonstrations against the war, and less frequently for it, flared in American streets. In the absence of unified and articulate public support, airmen came to believe that only suckers went to Vietnam, and commanders used to being obeyed discovered that they had to reason with enlisted men and even junior officers. As an earlier generation of Air Force-trained pilots began retiring from the airlines, replacements stood ready to leave the service and its recurring tours of dangerous duty.12

After the failed Tet Offensive, North Vietnam blunted the ground thrusts into Cambodia and Laos and prepared for a future offensive, while maintaining pressure on the Americans with hit-and-run raids against airfields and fire support bases. Long periods of tedium, punctuated by occasional moments of terror when rockets or mortar shells began exploding, caused young airmen to seek escape. They found it all too easily in heroin refined from the opium of the golden triangle, where the territories of Burma, Thailand, and Laos converged. Drug abusers formed an alienated minority within the Air Force; since being discharged, even dishonorably, seemed an escape rather than punishment, these individuals were impervious to ordinary discipline.

To reach them, the Air Force combined the promise of rehabilitation, which proved especially attractive among those who hoped to rid themselves of drug addiction before returning to the United States, with the threat of detection and punishment. The Air Force routinely offered amnesty, detoxification, and rehabilitation to anyone who turned himself in before being apprehended; those who were caught could expect punishment and a resulting delay in their return to civilian life. A program of education warned of the danger of drugs, and a combination of random and regularly scheduled testing-the latter focusing on persons whose tour of duty in Southeast Asia was ending-increased the likelihood of being caught. Despite these efforts, drugs remained a problem as long as Air Force units served in Southeast Asia.13

While the drug problem pitted users of hard drugs against users of alcohol-dopers against foam-heads-and both against a system they perceived as unjust, racial strife set whites and blacks against each other despite policies of equal treatment and opportunity in force for two decades. Only in battle, where a person's life depended on teamwork, did the races cooperate spontaneously. Elsewhere a sense of unity rarely prevailed, reflecting divisions in civil society over race and Vietnam, which increasingly seemed a white man's and rich man's war but a black man's and poor man's fight.

A resurgent racism, based at least in part on essentially economic grounds infected both whites and blacks. At their most extreme, white racists charged that blacks were taking over white jobs and neighborhoods, and black racists saw every white as an oppressor determined to keep them poor and powerless. This mutual hatred did not vanish when a person donned an Air Force uniform; indeed, it often became the lens through which members of both races viewed their assignments and the training and treatment they received.

When existing policy and ordinary discipline failed to relieve racial tension, the Air Force sought to improve communication and understanding between the races, at first through interracial discussion groups and advisory committees. In 1971, a study directed by Colonel Lucius Theus of the Air Force, a black officer serving in the Office of Secretary of Defense, produced a program, adopted for all the services, that trained instructors and developed a curriculum to teach racial amity. The education effort had begun by the time the Vietnam War ended in the cease-fire of January 1973.14

A tangle of threads linked the disaffected airmen of 1970, and the Air Force in which they served, to the Tet Offensive. Disillusionment arising from the Tet fighting fueled opposition to the war that ultimately helped isolate airmen from the society they defended and from each other. The Tet Offensive also elevated negotiation to the status of a war aim. The change in objective, plus public disenchantment with lengthy lists of casualties, led to a policy of Vietnamization and withdrawal. This policy, in turn, brought about an emphasis on air power to hold the enemy in check, along with an understandable reluctance to be the last American killed in Vietnam. The end of Air Force civic action and the temporary reliance on air transport to do the work of truck convoys resulted directly from the Tet Offensive but had minor impact on the course of the war. The critical flaw in the American reaction to Tet may well have been the inability, due largely to the nation's disillusionment with the war, to link the troop withdrawals firmly to progress toward both a negotiated settlement and the successful Vietnamization of Saigon's armed forces.

Whatever the failings of American policy, President Nixon succeeded in giving the American people what they wanted and liquidating the war. As he did so, the Air Force encountered two problems-drug use and racial conflict-that defied ordinary methods of discipline. The service managed to fashion and carry out new programs that neutralized both until the war ended, but only when peace returned could the Air Force make real headway against them.


1 U.S. Department of Defense, The Department of Defense History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Senator Gravel Edition (Boston, 1971), vol. IV, pp 555-556, 575-602; David M. Barrett, Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and His Vietnam Advisers (Lawrence, Kansas, 1993), pp 124-126, 144-159; Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York, 1989), pp 134-146.

2 Marshall L. Michel, III, Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1997), pp 166-172, 183-185, 290.

3 Lee Bonetti, USAF Civic Action in Republic of Vietnam (HQ PACAF [Pacific Air Forces], Project CHECO [Contemporary Historical Evaluation of Current Operations], April 1, 1968), pp 24, 36; Maj A. W. Thompson, USAF Civic Action in Republic of Vietnam (Hq PACAF, Project CHECO, March 17, 1969), pp 4-5,22-24; comments, Capt Paul Boulanger, base civic action officer, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Effects of Tet on Civic Action, n d [March 1968].

4 Maj A. W. Thompson and C. William Thorndale, Air Response to the Tet Offensive, 30 Jan-29 Feb 1968 (Hq PACAF, Project CHECO, August 12, 1968), pp 42-45, 47-49, 51; history, 834th Air Division, July 1967-June 1968, pp 33-34.

5 Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet in 1968 in Vietnam and Washington (Boulder, Colorado, 1977), vol I, pp 253-256, vol II, appendix 26; Don Oberdorfer, Tet! (Garden City, New York, 1971), pp 184-185, 246-251; James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974, vol X of The Oxford History of the United States (New York and Oxford, 1996), pp 635-636, 680-681.

6 Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (Boston, 1974), pp 271-272.

7 Thompson and Thorndale, Air Response to the Tet Offensive, p 71; Directorate of Management Analysis, Hq USAF, USAF Mgt Summary, SEA, February 23, 1968, p 1, and March 1, 1968, p 1.

8 Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1945-1975 (Novato, California, 1988), pp 559-564, 573-596; Department of Defense Report, Selected and Ground Operations in Cambodia and Laos, September 10, 1973.

9 Eduard Mark, Aerial Interdiction: Air Power and the Land Battle in Three American Wars (Washington, 1994), pp 341-344; Hearings before the Electronic Battlefield Subcommittee of the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on the Armed Services, 91st Congress, 2d Session, Investigation into the Electronic Battlefield Program, pp 84-90; Report of the Electronic Battlefield Subcommittee of the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on the Armed Services, 92d Congress, 1st Session, pp 12-13.

10 TIG [The Inspector General] Brief. vol xx, no 6 (March 29, 1968), p 17, (September 27, 1968), p 20; hist, Office of the Surgeon General, USAF, January-June 1968, p 149, July-December 1970, p. 33.

11 William L. Hauser, America's Army in Crisis: A Study in Civil-Military Relations (Baltimore, 1973), pp 98-102; Jack D. Foner, Blacks and the Military in American History: A New Perspective (New York, 1974), p 216; Air Force End of Tour Report, Col Arden C, Curfman, Comdr, 483d Combat Service Group, Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, October 1970-October 1971, n d, pp 7-11.

12 Air Force End of Tour Report, Col Robert M. Slane, Vice Comdr and Comdr, 553d Reconnaissance Wing and Comdr, 6251st Combat Service Group, 1970-1971, November 15, 1871, pp 7-8.

13 Msg, Chief of Staff of the Air Force to All Major Commands, 081623Z March 1971, subj: Privileged Communication for Drug Abusers, unnumbered supporting document to hist, Pacific Air Forces, July 1970-June 1971, vol II; Maj Richard B. Garver, Drug Abuse in Southeast Asia (Hq PACAF, Project CHECO, January 1, 1975), pp 7-14.

14 Maj Alan Osur, "Black and White Relations in the Military," Air University Review, vol xxxii (November-December 1981), pp 76-77; Air Force historical interviews, Lt Col Robert G. Zimmerman with Col John E. Blake, Comdr, Travis Air Force Base, California, 1970-1971, July 24, 1974, pp 66-87; and Shelby Wickham with Lt Col Thomas J. Sizemore, Chief, Social Actions Office, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, 1974-1977, March 3, 1977, pp 16-19; David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Congress (New York, 1986), pp 429-430, 469-470.

23 September 2003