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At the beginning of 1968, both Communist and anti-Communist forces in Vietnam announced plans for a brief cease-fire to allow celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, which is more important in Vietnam than any single holiday is in the United States. But on January 30 and 31, instead of a cease-fire, there was a wave of attacks by Communist forces that came to be called the “Tet Offensive.” American and South Vietnamese forces were prepared for the attacks in some areas but caught by surprise in others. Among the places where they were caught by surprise were two of the most important cities: Saigon, the current capital of South Vietnam, and Hue, the former imperial capital. It was an all-out attack aimed at total victory. The Communists were hoping to seize Saigon and other cities and towns, spark an uprising by the urban populations, and win the war with a single blow. Even staff personnel from the complex the Americans called the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) were thrown into the fight for Saigon. As they began their march toward the city, they burned their headquarters huts.1 Once they had taken Saigon, they would not need headquarters facilities in the jungle. Most authors now agree that the Tet Offensive was militarily a defeat for the Communist forces, since they failed to take the cities and suffered very heavy casualties in the attempt. Yet it was politically a victory for them because it undermined support for the war in the United States. Thus stated, the conventional wisdom is well founded. But as soon as one goes beyond that very brief summary, one finds that the issues are hotly debated and that much of what has been written is astonishingly inaccurate. INTRODUCTION: THE PROBLEM 2 INTRODUCTION Most authors who discuss the Tet Offensive make at least one of the following points, and some make many of them: UÊÊ/ iʜvvi˜ÃˆÛiʏ>՘V i`ÊLÞÊÌ iÊ œ““Õ˜ˆÃÌÃÊ>ÌÊÌ iÊi˜`ʜvÊ>˜Õ>ÀÞÊ 1968 was a well-coordinated wave of simultaneous attacks throughout South Vietnam. UÊÊÌÊÜ>ÃÊ>ÊÀi>̈ÛiÞÊLÀˆivÊi«ˆÃœ`i°Ê/ iÊ œ““Õ˜ˆÃÌÊvœÀViÃÊÜiÀiÊ>LiÊ to raise the intensity of combat to extraordinary levels but not to sustain such intensity for long. UÊÊ/ iÊ/iÌÊ"vvi˜ÃˆÛiÊÜ>ÃʘœÌʍÕÃÌÊ>Ê`ivi>ÌÊvœÀÊÌ iÊ œ““Õ˜ˆÃÌÊvœÀViÃÊ but an utter disaster that left them militarily crippled. UÊʘʫ>À̈VՏ>À]ÊÌ iÊ6ˆiÌÊ œ˜}pÌ iÊ-œÕÌ Ê6ˆi̘>“iÃiÊ œ““Õ˜ˆÃÌÊ forces—were essentially destroyed in the offensive. From this point onward, northerners—troops of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), often referred to by Americans as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA)—were the only serious military force on the Communist side in the war. UÊÊ/ iÊ œ““Õ˜ˆÃÌÊ«œˆÌˆV>Ê>˜`Ê>`“ˆ˜ˆÃÌÀ>̈ÛiʜÀ}>˜ˆâ>̈œ˜Ãʈ˜Ê South Vietnam that the Americans often called the “Infrastructure” were largely destroyed in the Tet Offensive. UÊÊ/ iʘՓLiÀʜvÊ“iÀˆV>˜ÃÊÜ œÊ`ˆi`ʈ˜ÊÌ iÊ«ÀœViÃÃʜvʈ˜yˆV̈˜}Ê this huge defeat on the Communists was 2,000 or less. UÊÊ/ iÊ“iÀˆV>˜Ê“i`ˆ>ʘœÌʜ˜ÞÊv>ˆi`Ê̜ʘœÌˆViÊ>˜Ê“iÀˆV>˜Ê military victory but portrayed it as its opposite—an American military defeat. UÊÊ/ iÊ1˜ˆÌi`Ê-Ì>ÌiÃÊ`ˆ`ʘœÌÊÌ>ŽiÊ>`Û>˜Ì>}iʜvÊÌ iÊÜ>ÞÊÌ iÊ Communist forces had been drastically weakened but instead reacted to the Tet Offensive by reducing military pressure on the Communists, especially by cutting back on American bombing. Every one of these points is a myth. The Communist attacks were not simultaneous or well coordinated. The defeat the Communists suffered, while serious, was not so devastating, either to the Viet Cong military forces or to the Infrastructure, as is often claimed. The cost in American casualties was much higher than is often reported, and it stayed high for a very long time; the period of unusually intense combat that began THE PROBLEM 3 at Tet lasted not for a few days or weeks but for many months. The American media, even faced with a reality much more distressing than the cheap and overwhelming American victory portrayed in the myths, did not overreact and conclude that the United States had been militarily defeated. And the United States responded to the Tet Offensive not by slackening its military pressure on the Communists but by escalating both its use of ground troops and its use of aerial bombing. The duration of the period of heavy fighting is especially important because of what it reveals about the level of Communist strength in South Vietnam. In late 1967 and early 1968, General William Westmoreland, and intelligence officers under...


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