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If a large group of people are trying to carry out a complex task for the first time, they will probably do it badly. This is doubly true if they have no opportunity to rehearse before doing it for real. PAVN forces began serious shelling of Khe Sanh, near the northwest corner of South Vietnam, on the night of January 20–21, 1968. This was intended to draw American attention out to this remote area, and thus open the way for the Tet Offensive to achieve surprise when Communist forces hit towns and cities in more populated areas of South Vietnam. The attacks were supposed to hit simultaneously in the early hours (shortly after midnight) of January 31. They have often been described as well coordinated. Historian Gerald DeGroot’s recent account is typical of many: “84,000 soldiers attacked at midnight on January 31, hitting thirty-six provincial capitals, sixty-four district capitals, and a number of military bases.”1 Douglas Pike was so impressed as to write that only General Vo Nguyen Giap, “one of the best tactical commanders of the 20th century, . . . meticulous in his planning, . . . could have supervised the elaborate synchronization” of the Tet Offensive.2 In reality, gross failures of synchronization caused the Tet Offensive to begin gradually, over a space of several days. Many authors have noticed significant parts of this problem; fewer have realized how bad it was.3 The order that was sent south said the offensive was to begin during the first night of Tet. Most Communist headquarters in the South interpreted this correctly as meaning the night of January 30–31, the first night by the traditional calendar used in South Vietnam. But North Vietnam was using a modified calendar in 1968, one that made the night of January 29–30 the first night of Tet. The headquarters for Military Region 5 C H A P TER SIX 6 THE TET OFFENSIVE, 1968 THE TET OFFENSIVE, 1968 135 (the coastal provinces of central Vietnam from Quang Nam to Khanh Hoa) and the B-3 Front (the Central Highlands) thought they were being ordered to attack on that night. Someone in Hanoi realized there had been a misunderstanding, and sent a message to Military Region 5 on the afternoon of January 29, saying that the attack was not to be until the night of January 30–31.4 But this message was too late. Danang, Qui Nhon, Tuy Hoa, Nha Trang, Ninh Hoa, Pleiku, Ban Me Thuot, Kontum, and some other locations were hit during the early-morning hours of January 30 (see Map 6.1). The premature attacks seriously compromised the ability of the units that attacked Saigon and many other towns and cities on schedule, during the night of January 30–31, to achieve surprise. There was still less surprise in places where the attacks were not launched until February 1. In II Corps, these included Dalat; in III Corps, they included Phu Cuong, Ba Ria (capitals of Binh Duong and Phuoc Tuy provinces, respectively), Cu Chi, and Xuan Loc. In IV Corps, Go Cong, the capital of Go Cong province, was mortared on January 31 but not hit by ground attack until February 5.5 Bac Lieu, in the Mekong Delta, was finally attacked twelve days late.6 And numerous places that were hit on schedule were not hit by all the scheduled forces. One reason so few Americans were killed in the famous January 31 attack on the US Embassy in Saigon was that of the two units that were supposed to make the attack, only the smaller one ever reached the embassy.7 The main reason for the failures of synchronization was that the operation was carried out on such short notice. Units that were not told until late January that they were supposed to attack on the first night of Tet did not have time to resolve confusion about the meaning of “first night of Tet” and did not always have time to get into position to attack during the first night. The decision to start the offensive during the night of January 30–31 was apparently made on January 15,8 but it was not quickly transmitted to the combat forces, partly because in some areas, the use of radio was forbidden. In theory, COSVN should have had ten days’ notice of the date and time the offensive was to begin, and even in the Mekong Delta, the area farthest from Hanoi...


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