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Tet: The Turning Point in Vietnam

Colloquium on Contemporary History September 29, 1998 No. 11

Opening Remarks
by 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.

Duty, Duplicity, and Design the Army's Reaction to TET
Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr., USA (Ret.)


"You know you never beat us on the battlefield," I said to my North Vietnamese Army (NVA) counterpart in Hanoi a week before the fall of Saigon. "That may be so," he replied, "but it is also irrelevant." His words applied not only to the war as a whole but to the 1968 Tet Offensive in particular. For the American military that offensive was a grand paradox. At the battlefield tactical level, the enemy was defeated and turned back at every turn without achieving any territorial gain. At the theater-of-war operational level, their Tong Cong Kich/Tong Khoi Ngia (General Offensive/General Uprising) campaign was an absolute failure. Not only did the South Vietnamese people fail to flock to their banners, the South Vietnamese military stood firm and their own Viet Cong guerrilla forces were so decimated that they ceased to be an effective fighting force for the remaining seven years of the war.1

But at the strategic level, the Tet Offensive was an unmitigated disaster for the United States. The American people saw it as a defeat and were confirmed in their belief, arrived at the previous October, that sending troops to Vietnam had been a mistake.2 Many believed that the media was responsible for turning a tactical and operational military victory into a strategic political defeat. But as the late Peter Braestrup argued in his classic account of media reporting on the Tet Offensive, that blame was misplaced. While some of the media reporting was distorted, the real reason for the debacle was the void created by President Lyndon Johnson's "psychological defeat." His two months of inaction after Tet allowed critics to define the terms of this perceived disaster.3

Deception and Design

A major reason for President Johnson's psychological defeat was that he had been ill served by his senior civilian and military advisors, including Secretaries of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Clark Clifford and General Earle Wheeler, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Particularly duplicitous was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. By law the Secretary of Defense, not the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as most civilians assume, is the military's "general-in-chief." As such he is in direct command of all U.S. armed forces in the field.

That command places an enormous demand on his will and his strength of character. As the great military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz emphasized in 1832, anyone can lead when all is going well. But when disaster strikes, everything "comes to rest on the will of the commander alone." It is his spirit that "must rekindle the flame of purpose in all others." If he cannot, "the mass will drag him down to the brutish world where danger is shirked and shame is unknown." As Clausewitz concludes, "the higher the position, the greater the strength of character he needs to bear the mounting load."4

But McNamara proved to be a man of no character whatsoever. Although President Johnson had charged him with winning the war, McNamara betrayed him and the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines under his command from the outset. During his testimony in the 1984 CBS-Westmoreland libel trial, McNamara said that he had come to the belief as early as 1965 or 1966 that the war "could not be won militarily."5 That belief, however, did not prevent him from sending thousands of American men and women-myself included-into harms way in Vietnam and getting many of them killed in a war that he did not believe was winnable. To add insult to injury, in an August 3, 1992 Newsweek article he bragged that while he was sending the troops into battle he was schmoozing with the leaders of the anti-war movement to show what a sensitive and politically correct guy he had been.

The magnitude of McNamara's failings is revealed by comparing him with his counterpart, North Vietnam's Defense Secretary Vo Nguyen Giap. Where McNamara admits that his will to win was broken before the war even started, Giap's long-range strategy "was to continue to bleed the Americans until they agreed to a settlement that satisfied the Hanoi regime. . . . For him, "the Tet Offensive was not intended to be a decisive operation but one episode in a protracted war that might last 'five, ten, or twenty years'."6 While the United States was far superior to North Vietnam in the quantifiable physical dimensions of war so beloved by McNamara and his number-crunching "whiz kids," because of his lack of will we were outclassed completely in war's more important moral dimension that was not susceptible to their computer analysis.

In his 1995 apologia, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of the Vietnam War, McNamara made what former Senator Eugene McCarthy called a "Presbyterian confession" (i.e., absolving himself while blaming everyone else) for his sins in Vietnam. But this time his schmoozing fell on deaf ears. "His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers," editorialized the New York Times on April 12, 1995. "The ghosts of those unlived lives circle around Mr. McNamara. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades later."

A month after the Tet Offensive began, McNamara resigned as secretary of defense. Unfortunately his successor, Washington lobbyist Clark Clifford, was no improvement. Although a longtime Johnson crony, he too betrayed the president. In his 1991 memoir, Counsel to the President, Clifford admits that he was brought in because Johnson wanted "a secretary of defense who supported his policy." As retired Colonel Lewis Sorely noted in his review of Clifford's book in the September 1991 issue of Army, "Clifford set about ensuring that . . . American involvement in the war and American support for the South Vietnamese would be progressively and inexorably eroded. What is more significant he did this not in furtherance of his president's policy and direction but in defiance of it, forcing the president into one untenable position after another and ultimately usurping the role of commander-in-chief."

As Sorely concludes, "It is one thing to seek to influence the formulation of policy, quite another to faithlessly undermine that policy once formulated. Clifford represents himself as being very proud in doing the latter."

Sadly, the advice and support the president received from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) was no better. As I related earlier in my "Turning Point of the War," in a February 1993 piece in Vietnam, "While the chiefs of staff did not consciously betray their commander-in-chief, neither did they provide him with the kind of straight-forward military advice to which he was rightfully entitled."

As then Army Vice Chief of Staff General Bruce Palmer wrote, "The JCS seemed to be unable to articulate an effective military strategy that they could persuade the commander-in-chief and secretary of defense to adopt." As he goes on to say, "There was one glaring omission in the advice the JCS provided. Not once during the war did the JCS advise . . . that the strategy being pursued most probably would fail and the United States would be unable to achieve its objectives.

The only explanation of this failure," Palmer concludes, "is that the chiefs were imbued with the 'can do' spirit and could not bring themselves to make such a negative statement or to appear to be disloyal."7

Far from rallying to the president's support at Tet, the Joint Chiefs further undermined his will and resolve. Instead of convincing LBJ that things were not as bad as they seemed, they used the enemy attack as a pretext for pushing for mobilization of the reserves to shore up America's depleted strategic reserves. From their perspective, the deception appeared justified. As General Palmer noted, the JCS had earlier "lost control of the overall strategic direction of the American armed forces as the burgeoning force demands of Southeast Asia quickly consumed the strategic reserve of forces in the United States previously earmarked for the reinforcement of Europe or Korea, or for an unforeseen contingency elsewhere."8

With the Tet crisis coinciding with the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo and with intelligence reports indicating a developing crisis in Berlin, "the administration could not be certain," wrote retired Colonel Herbert Y. Schandler, that these events did not represent a concerted Communist offensive designed to embarrass and defeat the United States not only in Vietnam but elsewhere in the world." With that threat in mind, says Schandler, JCS Chairman General Earle Wheeler and the chiefs of staff "saw Tet as an opportunity to force the president's hand and achieve their long-sought goal of a mobilization of the reserves." To that end they "elaborately solicited an 'emergency' request for reinforcements from a supposedly beleaguered field commander."9

Thus by design General Wheeler and the JCS set out to deceive not only the president and the secretary of defense, but also their military commander in the field, General William C. Westmoreland, Commander U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (COMUSMACV). Westmoreland was led to believe that "the administration was ready to abandon the strategy of gradualism it had been pursuing and perhaps allow him the troops and authority he had long wanted in order to end the war in a reasonable timeframe." For his part, Westmoreland "envisaged a new approach to the war that would take timely advantage of the enemy's apparent weakness, for whereas our setback on the battlefield was temporary, the situation for him as it developed during February indicated that the enemy's setbacks were, for him, traumatic."10

But General Wheeler had his own agenda. In his report to Clark Clifford, the new Secretary of Defense, Wheeler "emphasized the gravity of the situation in South Vietnam and said nothing about a new strategy, about contingencies that would determine the level of forces required there, or about reconstituting the strategic reserve for possible use independent of Vietnam." Instead, "his report contained a very somber and pessimistic picture of the South Vietnamese government and army."11

Secretary Clifford was shaken by what he heard. As he later told Schandler, "Wheeler's report had really ominous overtones to it. It seemed to me he was saying that the whole situation was a precarious one, and that we had to have additional troops. I thought (and everyone did) that he was saying he needed 206,000 additional troops in Vietnam. Whatever the reasons, he made a case for 206,000 more men. He came back [from a February 1968 visit to Saigon] with a story that was frightening. We didn't know if we would get hit again, many South Vietnamese units had disappeared; the place might fall apart politically."12

Westmoreland had been set up. In stressing the negative aspects of the situation in Vietnam, General Wheeler "saw Tet and the reaction to it as an opportunity, perhaps the last opportunity, to convince the administration to call up the reserve forces and to reconstitute a military capability within the United States that would allow some military flexibility to meet other contingencies. Vietnam was the excuse but was not necessarily to be the major beneficiary of a call-up of reserve forces."13

But General Wheeler had been too clever by half. Instead of precipitating a reserve call-up as he had intended, his duplicity backfired and unwittingly gave what would prove to be the coup de grace to American involvement in Vietnam. When President Johnson was briefed on Wheeler's report, he told Defense Secretary Clifford to conduct a major re-evaluation of the war. "Give me the lesser of evils," he said.14

Unfortunately, what he got was evil itself. Before the re-evaluation even began, the troop request was leaked to the press by a disgruntled official. As Lieutenant Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Dave Palmer related inSummons of the Trumpet, his landmark 1978 analysis of the war, the news broke in headlines spread across three columns of the Sunday edition of the 10 March 1968 New York Times. "Looked upon erroneously but understandably by readers as a desperate move to avert defeat, news of the request for 206,000 men confirmed the suspicions of many that the result of the Tet Offensive had not been depicted accurately by the president or his spokesmen. If the Communists had suffered such a grievous setback, why would we need to increase our forces by 40 percent?"

"It was too much. The public rebelled. From that moment on the majority of Americans no longer supported the president in his conduct of the fighting." As Dave Palmer concluded, "the nation and its president had received a wrenching psychological defeat, had suffered a galling defeat of the very soul. That the defeat was largely self-inflicted made it no less real or crippling."15


The contrast between the duplicity and design of the senior civilian and military advisors to the president in Washington during the Tet Offensive, and the dedication to duty of those doing the fighting could not have been more stark. As far as the Army was concerned, three senior generals were key to the enemy's defeat-General William C. Westmoreland, Commander U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Lieutenant General Fred C. Weyand, the commander of II Field Force Vietnam, who fought the battle for Saigon during Tet 1968, and Lieutenant General Creighton Abrams, the Deputy COMUSMACV, who was sent north to command the effort to recapture Hue. Unlike General Wheeler, an Army bureaucrat who had never heard a shot fired in anger, all were front-line combat veterans of World War II and Westmoreland and Weyand were also combat veterans of Korea. All would subsequently serve as Army Chief of Staff after their assignment in Vietnam.

Of the three, by far the most controversial was General Westmoreland, who many blamed unfairly for our loss of the war. As recently as 1998 he was being castigated for his actions during the Tet Offensive. Earlier that year Bright Shining Lie, an HBO movie based on the life of John Paul Vann, severely distorted General Westmorelands' actions during the 1968 Tet Offensive and accused him of attempting to thwart General Weyand's efforts to defend against that attack.

But in his critique of that movie, Weyand himself called that characterization "shameful." The pre-Tet briefing by Westmoreland as depicted "is totally fictitious," says Weyand. "He certainly did not order me to move my units north immediately prior to Tet [and] was in total agreement in bringing my units back around Saigon. To my knowledge he never denied me anything I asked of him. The film version continues to malign a brave and courageous man who understood the war in all its complexities. . . . Considering his overall responsibilities, Westy looked at the war from a different perspective than I did with my attention focused almost entirely on the II Field Force area. [i.e., III and IV Corps and the Capital Military Region]. He had two wars to fight-the terroristic Viet Cong on the one hand and the North Vietnamese conventional forces on the other."16

It was Westmoreland's concentration on that "other war" that drew him the most flak. Critics are still arguing about the Tet Offensive's center of gravity. Were the border clashes that preceded Tet an attempt by the enemy to fake U.S. forces away from the population centers and increase their vulnerability to attack, as many critics still claim, or were the attacks on the cities themselves a diversion, with the real prizes being the two northern provinces of South Vietnam, Quang Tri and Thua Tien? Westmoreland addressed that question in an article in a February 1993 issue of Vietnam.

"I believed then, and I continue to believe," he wrote, "that the 'General Uprising' was in reality a feint, a secondary attack. Like any secondary attack, if it had succeeded, so much the better, and the enemy would have reinforced it for all that it was worth. But the General Uprising did not succeed. The main effort continued to be directed elsewhere, and that was to the two northern provinces of South Vietnam. Some have claimed that the enemy instigated a series of border fights, Khe Sanh in particular, to draw my forces away from the cities. I believe the opposite was true. The attack on the cities, and the earlier attacks at Loc Ninh in III Corps in October 1967 and Dak To in II Corps in November 1967 were designed strategically to divert our attention away from the vulnerable northern provinces of I Corps."

"I knew that if the enemy was willing to accept the catastrophic losses that would surely ensue, he might well get into the towns and cities, since no impenetrable breastworks surrounded them. I also knew it would be impossible for the enemy to hold them. If that was to be his main attack, it was doomed to certain defeat from the start."

" The most logical course for the enemy, it seemed to me, was to make a strong effort to overrun the two northern provinces while at the same time launching lesser attacks throughout the country to try to tie down American forces that might be moved to reinforce northern South Vietnam, the most vulnerable part of the country. Although the enemy could cause trouble in other areas, it was only in the north that I saw a possibility of other than temporary enemy success."

"As I anticipated, the enemy's main attack was centered on the two northern provinces of South Vietnam. There the two major battles of the Tet Offensive developed, at the old imperial capital at Hue in Thua Tien province and at the Marine base at Khe Sanh in Quang Tri province. . . . Unlike the fighting further south, the enemy reinforced its initial success by committing the NVA 5th and 324B Divisions into the ensuing battle. A further indication that the northern provinces were the focus of the enemy's main attack was the formation in Hue of a revolutionary government."

At the tactical and operational levels of war, Westmoreland had correctly gauged the enemy's intentions and had successfully frustrated them. But, as discussed earlier, at the strategic level in Washington, chaos reigned. "On March 31, 1968," Westmoreland noted, "just as the enemy's offensive petered out, President Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection, which was interpreted by many as a loss in national will. . . . Despite the valiant sacrifices of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, we had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."17

Fortunately for General Westmoreland, his MACV headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in the suburbs of Saigon remained secure throughout the entire attack, as did the headquarters of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) Joint General Staff which was also located here. But it was a near thing. "On January 10, 1968," he wrote, "Lt. General Fred C. Weyand, the commander of [the corps-level] II Field Force, concluded that the enemy in III Corps zone was attempting to shift away from his border sanctuaries toward the population centers, including Saigon. Weyand thought I should cancel the preemptive border attacks in his area of responsibility that had been planned for the dry season. His information reinforced doubts that had been rising in my own mind, and I ordered the projected attacks cancelled so that American troops would be better able to react to enemy moves."18 That decision was one of the most critical of the Vietnam War.

The penetration of the walls of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon by a VC sapper squad at the outset of the Tet Offensive was militarily insignificant, but it send shock waves across the United States. If the U.S. and South Vietnamese military headquarters at Tan Son Nhut had been overrun, it would have been catastrophic. The enemy planned to do just that, as they launched 35 battalions from their 5th, 7th, and 9th VC Divisions against the Saigon defenses, with the nerve center at Tan Son Nhut Air Base as their major prize.

If the original campaign plan had been carried out, Weyand would have had only 14 U.S. infantry, armor, and cavalry maneuver battalions within what Washington Post war correspondent Don Oberdorfer called the "Saigon circle," a 45 kilometer or 29 mile circle anchored on Saigon containing three-quarters of the people of III Corps tactical zone and nearly all of the important military and government headquarters. His other 39 maneuver battalions would have been deployed to the border regions. But thanks to his earlier suspicions, and with General Westmoreland's approval, General Weyand had 27 battalions within the Saigon circle ready to meet the attack.

At 0300 on 31 January 1968 the enemy attack began with the explosion of the ammunition dump next to Weyand's II Field Force headquarters at Long Binh north of Saigon. Between 0300 and 0500, Oberdorfer reported, Weyand "ordered nearly 5,000 mechanized and airborne troops into battle. . . . Mostly to defend United States installations at Long Binh, Bien Hoa Air Base and Tan Son Nhut Air Base."19 The most critical of those battles, perhaps the most critical of the Vietnam War, was the repulse of the enemy attack on Tan Son Nhut. The enemy main assault came from the west. Two VC battalions had infiltrated the city and staged at the Vinatexco cotton mill just outside the air base perimeter. Their initial attack was delayed by Air Force Security Police and two South Vietnamese airborne companies, but they were not strong enough to halt the advance.

At dawn, however, the enemy force was struck on the flank by the 25th Infantry Division's C Troop, 3d Squadron, 4th Cavalry, which on General Weyand's orders had moved overland from its base camp at Cu Chi, some 25 miles to the northwest. They had been guided into their attack position by flares dropped from his helicopter by their squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Glenn Otis.

"Armored vehicles fighting infantry in the open can do frightful damage," noted Professor Eric M. Bergerud in his history of the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam, "and C Troop did. But they were in over their heads. Their opponents were armed to the teeth with antitank weapons and they greatly outnumbered the Americans. After fierce fighting, C Troop was nearly destroyed." With his A Troop pinned down by an NVA unit, Otis ordered his B Troop to reinforce C Troop. They attacked on line and broke the back of the enemy attack. "We can see in retrospect," Bergerud writes, "that the first day's actions, repeated by other U.S. and South Vietnamese units around Saigon, doomed the [enemy's] attack on the capital."20

"Except at Hue and Khe Sanh," said General Westmoreland, "most of the combat that could be considered part of the Tet Offensive was over by February 11, a fortnight after it began. All towns and cities south of the two northern provinces had been cleared. While sporadic fighting continued around Saigon, survival of the South Vietnamese capital was no longer in question."21 For that, Westmoreland had General Fred Weyand, "the savior of Saigon," to thank. A modest man, Weyand rejects that title. "The orders may have come from my headquarters," he said 25 years later, "but the 'saving of Saigon' was done by the men who laid their lives on the line and fought the battles."22

As was discussed earlier, General Westmoreland believed the Tet Offensive's main attack would come at Khe Sanh and Hue in the two northern provinces of I Corps, then under the control of the corp-level III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) commanded by Marine Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, Jr. Shortly after the Tet Offensive began, Westmoreland dispatched his deputy, General Creighton Abrams, to establish a forward MACV headquarters in I Corps and take overall command of the battle. Establishing his headquarters at Phu Bai near Hue, Abrams directed the redeployment of the some 45,000 Army reinforcements, including the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and elements of the 101st Airborne Division.

According to his biographer, "Abrams was direct in the steps he took to get on with the war. He brought in 8-inch artillery, the only weapon that could penetrate the thick walls of the old Citadel in the heart of Hue, the last position held by tenacious enemy forces. And he issued some very strong and very specific instructions to Cushman at III MAF. "I recognize the efforts being made by all concerned to reduce the siege of Hue," he said. "However I consider the measures taken so far to be inadequate and not in consonance with the urgency of the problem, or the resources you command."

"Then he spelled out what he wanted done: give the forces fighting within the city exclusive priority for fires of the 8-inch guns, priority of air support, and of necessary gunship and aerial rocket artillery support-even at the expense of other areas. . . . As any experienced field commander would immediately recognize, that kind of detailed instruction revealed a very high degree of dissatisfaction with the way Cushman had been running the operation."23

The subsequent battles at Hue and Khe Sanh were primarily Marine Corps affairs, and I will leave the discussion of those battles, as well as the defense of General Cushman and III MAF in the capable hands of the Marine Corps Historical Center's Dr. Jack Shulimson, whose U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Defining Year 1968 has just been released. Suffice it to say here that by 25 February, the enemy had been cleared from Hue and the offensive in I Corps ended. MACV Forward was disbanded on 10 March and Abrams returned to Saigon, leaving the Army forces there under a new headquarters, "Provisional Corps Vietnam" (later XXIV Corps) subordinate to III MAF.


These three generals would have a major impact on the Army for almost the next decade. On 1 July 1968, General Abrams would replace General Westmoreland as COMUSMACV and Westmoreland would return to Washington to become Army Chief of Staff. In June 1972, General Weyand would replace General Abrams as COMUSMACV and Abrams in turn would return to Washington to replace Westmoreland as Army Chief of Staff. After the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973 under the terms of the Paris "Peace" Accords, General Weyand would also return to Washington to become Army Vice Chief of Staff, replacing General Abrams as Army Chief of Staff after Abrams' tragic death in office in September 1974.

During their tours, they would be instrumental not only in pulling the Army up by its bootstraps as it withdrew from Vietnam, but also of ensuring no "stab-in-the-back" syndrome developed after the war. General Westmoreland in particular took the heat from the Army officer corps for "losing the war in Vietnam." While that was manifestly unfair, he did his nation a great service by deflecting that animosity from the politicians and the American people, thus avoiding the tragedy that plagued Weimar Germany after World War I and France after the withdrawal from Algeria.

Indeed, it can be argued in retrospect that General Westmoreland won his war. Sent out in 1964 to wage a counterinsurgency campaign against the Viet Cong guerrillas, he accomplished that mission, albeit through the enemy's own miscalculations. When the VC emerged from cover to spark a supposed "General Uprising," they suffered devastating losses from which they never recovered. When Westmoreland left Vietnam in July 1968, the Viet Cong were a spent force. For the remaining seven years, the war would be waged primarily by North Vietnamese regulars.

When the North Vietnamese entered Saigon on 30 April 1975, noted the late William Colby, the former head of the pacification program in Vietnam and former Director of the CIA, "an NBC camera crew caught one of the most significant pictures of the event. It filmed a huge North Vietnamese tank with its monstrous cannon as it broke open the gates of the Presidential Palace. The people's war was over, not by the work of a barefoot guerrilla but by the most conventional of military forces. . . . The ultimate irony was that the soldier's war, which the United States had insisted on fighting during the 1960s with massive military force was finally won by the enemy."24


1 By the Easter Offensive of 1972, NVA regulars accounted for about 90% of the day-to-day combat. See Douglas Pike, PAVN: People's Army of Vietnam (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1986), 49.

2 After supporting the war for some 31 months, American public opinion turned against the war in October 1967. While 44% still supported the U.S. involvement, 46% of those polled believed sending troops there had been a mistake. See John E. Mueller, War, Presidents and Public Opinion (New York: Wiley, 1973).

3 See Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994), 471.

4 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 104-105.

5 M.A. Farber, "McNamara Discusses War at CBS Libel Trial," New York Times, December 7, 1984.

6 Vo Nguyen Giap, quoted in Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking, 1983), 536.

7 See Bruce Palmer, The Twenty-Five Year War (New York: Touchstone Books, 1984), 45-46.

8 Ibid., 45.

9 Herbert Schandler, The Unmaking of the President: Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 101.

10 Ibid., 106.

11 Ibid., 111.

12 Ibid., 119.

13 Ibid., 115-116.

14 Ibid., 120.

15 Dave Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet: US-Vietnam in Perspective (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1978), 206.

16 FAX, General Fred Weyand, 2 June 1998.

17 General William C. Westmoreland, "Perspectives: What Did the North Vietnamese hope to gain with their 1968 Tet Offensive? Were they after the cities, or more?" Vietnam, Feb 1993, 62-70.

18 Ibid., 64.

19 Don Oberdorfer, Tet! (New York: DaCapo Press, 1984), 138-40.

20 For a detailed account of the Tan Son Nhut battle, see Eric M. Bergerud, Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning: The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993),


21 Westmoreland, op cite, 68.

22 Letter to the author, 22 Aug 1992. See also Harry Summers, "Personality: The Viet Cong counted on surprise for their seizure of Saigon, but General Fred C. Weyand saw them coming," Vietnam, Feb 1993, 8, 71-74.

23 Lewis Sorley, Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 213-18. See also Brigadier General Zeb B. Bradford, USA (Ret.), "With Creighton Abrams During Tet," Vietnam, Feb 1998, 42-49.

24 William Colby, Lost Victory (Chicago: Contemporary Books), 354-55.

Creating a Main Line of Resistance Tet and the Genisis of Operation Sea Lords
Dr. Leslie J. Cullen
Texas Tech University

As the year 1968 dawned over the Republic of Vietnam, the headquarters of United States Naval Forces, Vietnam (NAVFORFV) occupied a small complex of buildings in downtown Saigon. Centered on a rambling two-story nineteenth century French colonial villa, the compound housed Rear Admiral Kenneth L. Veth, Commander United States Naval Forces, Vietnam (COMNAVFORV), and his staff.

Though technically located in a combat zone, pre-1968 Saigon was infamous for its carnival-like atmosphere. Observers often wondered if there was truly a war on. American GIs on brief R&R tours wandered the numerous go-go clubs and saloons in search of readily available thrills, and jostled in the crowded streets with throngs of Vietnamese civilians on bicycles, in pedicabs, and in automobiles. The snarled traffic could be amusing when it was not dangerous. Viet Cong rocket attacks and bombings occasionally shattered the illusion of peace, as did the ubiquitous presence of heavily armed South Vietnamese soldiers. Distant rumbles of artillery often punctuated the street sounds, especially at night. Journalists, officers, and visiting VIPs could observe the war from the comfort and relative safety of the Caravelle Hotel bar veranda, sipping cocktails and looking across the Saigon River where tracers from the miniguns of AC-47 gunships arced out of the twilight into the swamps of the Rung Sat Special Zone.

On the night of January 31, 1968, when the Viet Cong launched the opening salvo of the 1968 Tet Offensive, American facilities in and around the South Vietnamese capital numbered among the primary targets. The sudden ferocity of the attacks caught Americans stationed in Saigon-including the NAVFORV staff-off guard. Admiral Veth remembers, "The first thing we knew about it was when we were all waked up (sic) in the middle of the night, and all hell broke loose in the way of gunfire and explosions." Veth and his staff gathered what weapons they could find in the compound-two machine guns, several side arms, and a box of fragmentation grenades-and clambered atop the roof of the villa. For the rest of the night and into the early morning that small group of naval officers watched tracers, rockets, and flares etch the Saigon skyline and listened to their radio as disjointed reports of Viet Cong attacks came from around the city.1

The totality of the enemy effort became clear in the week that followed, and the initial panic within South Vietnam itself gave way to domestic turmoil and political repercussions in the United States. For the American military, the 1968 Tet Offensive produced mixed results. The enemy seriously overestimated the impact the offensive would have on the South Vietnamese government and people, and this miscalculation resulted in severe casualties and an undeniable battlefield victory for the United States and South Vietnam. Of more importance, however, Tet has entered the annals of American military history as one its greatest intelligence disasters.2

After official assertions concerning Saigon's safety and the supposedly successful interdiction of Viet Cong supply and communications networks in the areas south and east of the city, Tet came as a nasty surprise. The counterinsurgency efforts, it seems, had not accomplished their planners' goals. Despite that salient fact, many in the United States Military Assistance Command (MACV) returned to confident predictions of looming success. Captain Earl Rectanus, who in 1968 served as NAVFORV staff intelligence officer, noted that the MACV and NAVFORV staffs were playing a public relations game instead of determining how the Viet Cong had amassed such a capability: ". . . we were going through all of this PR, is really what it was, and everybody was working to try to get evidence, back-up, to tell Washington that it really wasn't the disaster the media had been playing it up to be."3

In a combined atmosphere of military victory and official denial of Tet's implications, the United States Navy in Vietnam continued its standing strategy of using its in-country assets to patrol the coastal zones and major rivers. Those assets included Task Force 115, commonly known as the Market Time patrol force, which operated a dozen radar picket destroyer escorts (DERs), thirty-one cutters (WPBs), five high-endurance cutters (WHECs), eighty-four aluminum-hulled Swift boats (PCFs), and a large number of coastal junks and smaller craft. This small armada-working in conjunction with patrol aircraft-carried out an ongoing coastal surveillance effort along South Vietnam's 1,400-mile coastline. Market Time, in its three-year existence, had virtually choked off all seaborne infiltration by steel-hulled trawlers into the Republic of Vietnam.

Task Force 116, also known as Operation Game Warden, used scores of river patrol boats (PBRs) divided into five River Patrol Groups to deny the Viet Cong access to the main rivers and canals in the teeming Mekong Delta in III and IV Corps. In September 1968, TF 116 PBRs boarded and inspected more than 11,000 sampans and other small craft in the Delta.4 Despite this enormous and ongoing effort, Tet demonstrated that waterborne infiltration into southern South Vietnam-via canals and interior rivers-continued.

The final task force-the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF)-used a variety of river patrol and assault craft to support sweep and clear operations in the Delta by the 2nd Brigade of the United States Army's 9th Infantry Division. The combined action of these task forces limited North Vietnamese and Viet Cong access to South Vietnam's waterways, all of which were then and still are vital lines of transportation and communication.5

The Navy's ongoing operations, despite their positive results, did not stop the enemy from infiltrating sufficient personnel and materiel to mount the 1968 Tet Offensive. MACV intelligence officers noted however, that even if the patrolling hindered the insurgency, the Navy's efforts were unable to interdict it entirely. The enemy adapted to American patrolling methods and altered schedules of movement and location accordingly. Chased from the Mekong and Bassac Rivers, infiltrators reverted to the lesser rivers and canals that laced the entire southern third of South Vietnam. Many of these waterways ran close to the Cambodian frontier, across which men and logistics moved with relative ease.

Interestingly, the Navy had known for four years that the enemy possessed such a capability. In early 1964, before American forces became actively engaged in South Vietnam, Captain Phil Bucklew, at the behest of then-CINCPAC, Admiral Harry D. Felt, took part in an exploratory mission to determine what could be done to counter waterborne infiltration. Bucklew and his staff traveled the Delta extensively, interviewing dozens of Vietnamese military personnel and their American advisors. At the Cambodian border, Bucklew personally witnessed the Viet Cong openly moving supplies by sampan inside "neutral" Cambodia. In his report to CINCPAC, Bucklew described the totality of the infiltration effort, criticized the South Vietnamese response as inefficient and woefully inadequate, and suggested that halting the Viet Cong would require a coastal blockade augmented by extensive patrolling of the internal rivers. The report went on to recommend that the Navy establish "a viable means of controlling the rivers by implementing barricades, curfews, checkpoints, and patrols" (emphasis added).6

Granted, Market Time, Game Warden, and the Mobile Riverine Force had done this in part, but the effort did not fully realize Bucklew's intentions. The navy had yet-as of early 1968-to heed his observation that blockading and patrolling alone would not suffice. An active effort at interdiction in the lesser rivers and along the Cambodian frontier-not just along the Mekong and Bassac-was crucial to defeating the insurgency.

The Navy disregarded Bucklew's ultimate conclusion because it lacked the intelligence gathering capacity to determine that seaborne infiltration of South Vietnam-as countered by Market Time-paled in importance to materiel the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong infiltrated from Cambodia along internal waterways. Once the Navy launched Market Time, it stubbornly refused to consider the implications of Bucklew's study. The irony is compounded when one considers that the very effectiveness of Market Time caused the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to do precisely what Bucklew predicted they would do-use the waterways along the Cambodian frontier to move logistics in a region where countermeasures were virtually nonexistent. Hence, the enemy was able to conclude successfully the build-up necessary to launch the attacks of early 1968. "It took," concluded historian Clarence Wunderlin, "the traumatic jolt delivered during the Tet Offensive to awaken naval planners to their strategic flaws."The Navy suffered from a gap of conception described by Marc Bloch as the tendency of finding it "useful to ask oneself questions, but very dangerous to answer them."8

In the end, it took more than the jolt of Tet to cause the Navy to alter its modus operandi in the Mekong Delta; it took a change of command. Despite the realization of what the enemy had accomplished by doing an end run around the Navy's patrolling systems, Veth clung stubbornly to the fixed pre-Tet strategy. He said, ". . . there was some agitation to go up a lot of the canals with our riverine boats and, let's say, harass the countryside, but for the most part we avoided that, again, because the chance of being ambushed by the enemy was so great and there wasn't much to be accomplished. . . . There just wasn't much to be gained by going up a lot of the little canals and streams that ran into the major rivers."9 Veth's passive strategy and his unimaginative attitude regarding the possibilities of a wider application of in-country naval power irritated General William C. Westmoreland's successor as COMUSMACV, the hard-charging, irascible General Creighton Abrams.10

Vice Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., Veth's own successor, was also a hard-charger. His superiors recognized the 1942 Annapolis graduate and World War II veteran's leadership attributes very early in his career. At age forty-seven Zumwalt became the youngest three-star admiral in the Navy's history, and immediately thereafter-in mid-September 1968-he arrived in Saigon to follow Veth as COMNAVFORV.

Zumwalt began his tenure in Vietnam with an extensive seven-day tour of his new command; from the major installations to the smallest advisory post on the rivers; from the Mekong Delta to the DMZ; the admiral's observations helped him to develop a thumbnail sketch that he did not like. Zumwalt-who was certainly aware of the Bucklew Report and its implications-concluded that the Navy's effort in Vietnam, despite the fine performance of individual units and personnel, suffered from underutilization of its in-country assets and from a lack of guidance and strategic vision at the top. Captain Howard J. Kerr-then an aide to Zumwalt-took the tour with the admiral and recalled of it: ". . . we came away from those days with a clear understanding that the staff in Saigon was cut off from the forces in the field. Their relationship was one of telephone calls and messages. . . . It was just a sleepy, large, moribund staff which had fallen into a pattern of reading message traffic."11 Zumwalt decided that the aggressive leadership of the task force commanders and the initiative and effort of the 38,000 officers and men under his command could be put to greater use. The admiral and his staff began searching for a new strategy; a strategy that would take into account the Tet-hardened conclusions of the Bucklew Report; a strategy that would change the focus of the navy's previous efforts from mere patrolling to a more forward and active drive to interdict the enemy's lines of supply and communication and destroy his base camps in the Delta. The genesis of what became Operation Sea Lords arose from this decision.

Sea Lords-which stood for Southeast Asia Lake Ocean River Delta Strategy and embodied the totality of Zumwalt's and NAVFORV's vision-encompassed all three preexisting task forces that heretofore had been operating independently of one another and brought them together in a strategy unified in its conception and execution. Since the Tet Offensive demonstrated that the previous strategy did not effectively hinder enemy infiltration, Zumwalt and his staff decided to combine and refocus the Navy's in-country assets. Market Time continued as before, but the PCFs now moved up the major rivers, freeing the Game Warden PBRs to move further inland and establish a system of named barriers. These barriers extended from Saigon north and west to the Parrot's Beak region of the Cambodian border, and along a series of canals extending from the Mekong and Bassac Rivers west and south to the Cambodian border and the Gulf of Thailand.12 The barriers consisted of mobile bases aboard Tank Landing Ships (LSTs) and more fixed facilities called Advanced Tactical Support Bases (ATSBs), which the Navy located at intervals along the interior waterways. Each LST or ATSB served as a support facility for PBRs and the heavier craft of the Mobile Riverine Force as they patrolled deeper than ever before into the interior of III and IV Corps.13

Sea Lords contained a second component complementing the forward and aggressive barrier strategy: denial of sanctuary to the enemy in remote regions previously defaulted to him. As we have seen, under Admiral Veth the Navy generally avoided the distant and inaccessible reaches of III and IV Corps, specifically the infamous Rung Sat Special Zone southeast of Saigon and the Ca Mau Peninsula at the southern extremity of the Republic of Vietnam. The NAVFORV staff developed a unique plan for each.

In the Rung Sat, stepped up river patrolling, ground sweeps, and harassment and interdiction fire kept the Viet Cong off balance in what had formerly been a sanctuary. The Navy instituted a cooperative plan with other Free World Forces-including the Australians, South Koreans, South Vietnamese, and Thais-for operating in the area and conducting coordinated operations. The frequency of Viet Cong attacks on commercial shipping using the Long Tau ship channel to the port of Saigon fell dramatically. The result, wrote NAVFORV staff historian Richard Schreadly, became "a model for what could be made of a seemingly hopeless situation, given leadership, singleness of purpose, and a spark of imagination."14

In the Ca Mau Peninsula-regarded by American advisors as one of the most eerie and inhospitable places in South Vietnam-the Navy launched a unique and innovative operation-Sea Float. A floating base anchored in the Cua Lon River, Sea Float served as a platform from which the Navy carried out interdiction patrols, SEAL team operations, and civic action efforts. As a result of this audacious placement of an American presence in a region long defaulted to the Viet Cong, Vietnamese civilians made refugees during the 1968 Tet Offensive returned to their homes in the Nam Can District adjacent to the base, and American observers witnessed a sharp rise in regional economic activity. "Sea Float's effect," Zumwalt concluded, "was that it greatly accelerated pacification."15

Because Sea Lords-with its post-Tet emphases on interdiction, denial of sanctuary, and pacification-unified the American naval effort, it is unquestionably one of the better strategies to emerge from the American military experience in Vietnam. Given the political limitations Washington placed on the theater of operations, it was as near total-geographically-as Zumwalt and his staff could make it with the available resources. Statistically, Navy records indicate the level to which Sea Lords operations interfered with Viet Cong logistics. A July 1969 NAVFORV study indicated that the barrier operations to date generated 900 firefights resulting in more than 1,600 enemy killed. Naval forces captured more than 160 tons of weapons, and in Zumwalt's opinion this statistic was worth far more than the omnipresent "body count."16 If interdiction was the key, the admiral reasoned, then numbers and types of weapons seized outweighed dead Vietnamese, however high their numbers. "We were not there specifically to see how many Viet Cong we could kill," recalled Lieutenant Commander Robert Powers. "We were there . . . to stop their bringing supplies in that were disrupting the countryside, and . . . to deny their influence."17 Powers' statement-and NAVFORV's approach-reflect one of the central aspects of the American experience in Vietnam. In a limited war of shifting goals, what constitutes success?

Success and failure can be subjective concepts. Many observers regard much if not all of what the United States did in Vietnam as unsuccessful because of the ultimate negative outcome of the entire conflict. To do so in the case of Operation Sea Lords would be inaccurate. Taking into consideration changing American policy in the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive, General Abrams-and Admiral Zumwalt under him-could consider little more than how to stabilize a fluid situation long enough to allow the struggling South Vietnamese to improve their political and military structures and consolidate a defensible position. In that light, Sea Lords-despite its inability to eradicate waterborne infiltration through the Mekong Delta, made an enormous difference. It interrupted Viet Cong and North Vietnamese logistics networks. It cost the enemy in personnel, materiel, and in Zumwalt's estimation, the key factor of time. Sea Lords, in its imaginative and forward application of naval power, repeatedly disrupted enemy timetables and forced the communists to alter or delay their plans. Compared to the period prior to Tet 1968, the results of Sea Lords and its subordinate operations speak for themselves.


1 John T. Mason Interview with Rear Admiral Kenneth L. Veth, USN (Ret.) August 10, 1977 (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Oral History Series), pp. 405-06.

2 Glenn Helm, "Surprised at Tet," Pull Together; Newsletter of the Naval Historical Foundation and the Naval Historical Center, Spring/Summer 1997, pp. 1-5.

Paul Stillwell Interview with Vice Admiral Earl F. Rectanus, USN (Ret.), November 19, 1982 (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Oral History Series), p. 17.

Richard L. Schreadly, "Sea Lords", United States Naval Institute Proceedings, 96:8 (August 1970), p. 23.

The secondary literature on United States Navy operations in South Vietnam is broad, but for specific operations see Victor Croizat's The Brown Water Navy: The River and Coastal War in Indochina and Vietnam(Poole, UK: Blandford Press, 1984); Thomas J. Cutler's Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1988); Edward J. Marolda, By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia (Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1994), and R.L. Schreadly's From the Rivers to the Sea: The United States Navy in Vietnam (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1992). For a study of the Coast Guard's contributions to Operation Market Time, see Alex Larzelere's The Coast Guard at War; Vietnam, 1965-1975 (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1996) and Dennis L. Noble's "Cutters and Sampans," United States Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1984, pp. 47-53.

Quoted in Thomas Cutler, Brown Water, Black Berets, pp. 72-76.

Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr., "The Paradox of Power: Infiltration, Coastal Surveillance, and the United States Navy in Vietnam, 1965-68," The Journal of Military History, 53, July 1989, pp. 275-289.

Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft (New York: Vintage, 1953), p. 17.

John T. Mason Interview with Rear Admiral Kenneth L. Veth, USN (Ret.), August 10, 1977, p. 388.

10 In fairness to Veth, his unassertive approach to the war indicates more than the simple disdain in which General Abrams held him. There was a larger attitude within the Navy that the in-country war in South Vietnam paled in significance to the "real" war-the air war against North Vietnam flown from the aircraft carriers of the Seventh Fleet. For that reason, South Vietnam gained a reputation at best as a detour from a successful career track, or at worst, a "dumping ground" for inferior officers. The Navy's tendency to give less than ideal follow-on assignments to officers coming out of NavForV had the dual effect of reinforcing this negative perception and removing any incentive for highly motivated officers to volunteer for a tour in Vietnam. In the wider Navy, preoccupied as it was with the Soviet threat-and with Operation Rolling Thunder-the brown water war in Vietnam placed a distant third on anyone's list of priorities.

11 Paul Stillwell Interview with Captain Howard J. Kerr, USN, September 22, 1982 (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Oral History Series), pp. 26-27.

12 The barriers included Operation Giant Slingshot, Operation Search Turn, Operation Tran Hung Dao, Operation Barrier Reef, and Operation Double Shift.

13 For contemporary descriptions of barrier operations and their support facilities, see Robert C. Powers, "Beans and Bullets for SEALORDS," United States Naval Institute Proceedings 96: 12 (December 1970), pp. 95-97; and R. L. Schreadly, "Nothing to Report: A Day on the Vam Co Tay," United States Naval Institute Proceedings 96: 12 (December 1970), pp. 23-27.

14 R. L. Schreadly, "The River War in Vietnam, 1950-1970," United States Naval Institute Proceedings 97, Naval Review Issue, May 1971, p. 205. For the official USN view of the Rung Sat, see "Rung Sat Special Zone Intelligence Study," ComNavForV Miscellaneous (8), Box 597, Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center, Washington DC.

15 Author Interview with Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt. Jr., USN (Ret.), April 18, 1997, Lubbock, Texas.

16 Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam/Chief Naval Advisory Group Newsletter #9, 1 July 1969, ComNavForV/ChNavAdvGrp Newsletter File, Box #585, Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center, Washington DC.

17 Etta Belle Kitchen Interview with Captain Robert F. Powers, USN, October 30, 1982 (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Oral History Series), p. 80.

The Impact of Tet on the U.S. Air Force
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.

Speakers Biographies

Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr., U.S. Army (Ret.) is a highly respected authority on the Vietnam War. He speaks from first hand experience. Colonel Summers is a veteran of infantry combat in Korea and Vietnam, for which he earned the Combat Infantryman Badge, a Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts. He holds bachelors and masters degrees in military arts and sciences and has taught strategy and tactics at the Army War College and the Army Command and General Staff College. Colonel Summers is the military correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, and a television commentator. His first book, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, was a seminal work that stimulated study of the conflict. He has since published almanacs on the Korean and Vietnam wars, and an analysis of the Persian Gulf War. He has remained close to our Vietnam veterans as the Editor of Vietnam Magazine.

Leslie J. Cullen is a new scholar who has already distinguished himself. In 1992 he earned a B.A., summa cum laude, in 1994 an M.S., and in 1998 a Ph.D., all in History and from Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas. He received a U.S. Military Academy/Reserve Officers Training Corps Military History Fellowship in 1996 and won awards as an Outstanding Graduate Student and an Outstanding Teaching Assistant from Texas Tech, where he is now on the faculty. Dr. Cullen's doctoral dissertation is on Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr, the Chief of Naval Operations from 1970-1974, and Commander Naval Forces, Vietnam during the pivotal years from 1968 to1970.

Bernard C. Nalty is a veteran of our Colloquium on Contemporary History program. He presented a paper at our 1991 conference on "Command and Control of Air Operations in Vietnam." Mr. Nalty has had a long and productive career as a government historian, having served 40 years, from 1954 to 1994, in the historical offices of the U.S. Marine Corps, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Air Force. He has published numerous articles and books, including in the latter category Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military and a volume on Marine combat operations in World War II. He was general editor of a two-volume history of the Air Force and has also authored Air Power and the Fight for Khe Sanh.


Note: The views or opinions expressed or implied are those of the speakers alone and not those of the Department of the Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.


Published: Tue May 26 13:46:05 EDT 2020