Fifty Years After the Tet Offensive: Lessons From the Vietnam War
Panelists discuss the fiftieth anniversary of the Tet Offensive, launched in late January 1968, and the lessons learned or forgotten from the Vietnam War for the United States today.
LINDSAY: Good afternoon, everyone. I want to welcome you to today’s meeting, “Fifty Years After the Tet Offensive: Lessons from the Vietnam War.” This meeting is part of the Council’s Lessons from History Series, which is made possible through the very generous support of David Rubenstein.
I am Jim Lindsay, director of studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. It is my great honor and pleasure to preside here today and to introduce our three panelists.
Now, all of our panelists are experts on Vietnam and the Tet Offensive. They all have written widely and well on matters related to the Vietnam War, and you all have their complete bios. So I’m going to keep their introductions short, and I’m just going to mention one book and one prize—(laughter)—for each of our panelists. And I’ll start from my extreme geographic left, which is only in geography.
Francis FitzGerald is a journalist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam.
Sitting in the center of the panel is Lien-Hang Nguyen, who is the Dorothy Borg Associate Professor in the History of the United States and East Asia at Columbia University. She is the author of Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam, which was awarded the Stuart L. Bernath Book Prize by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.
And closest to me is Fredrik Logevall, who is the Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.
So please join me in welcoming our panelists. (Applause.)
OK. So we have a big topic. We’re going to talk about Tet, which is held up as a pivotal moment in the Vietnam War by many—not necessarily by all. We’ll get into that question later, but I think in order to understand Tet, it probably helps to understand the events that led up to Tet.
So maybe if I could begin with you, Fred—if you could just sort of lay out for us sort of the context of the U.S. military strategy in Vietnam pre-Tet. First U.S. combat troops go to Vietnam March of 1965—
LINDSAY: —by the Johnson administration.
By the start of 1968, somewhere on the order of just south of 500,000 U.S. troops in country—not something anyone expected back in 1965. What was sort of the status of the war before the Tet Offensive?
LOGEVALL: I would, just on what people expected in March of ’65, one of the things that is extraordinary, Jim, is that in fact Johnson’s—Lyndon Johnson’s military—top military advisors said to him, in effect, we’re looking half a million troops, Mr. President. If you decide to Americanize this war, that’s what we’re looking at.
So in that sense, people did expect that you would see that kind of a troop commitment from the United States which, as you pointed out, is precisely what happened. I think the idea was—the hope certainly was—I won’t say it was the expectation—the hope was that the troop commitment combined with the air war would stabilize the military situation, little by little the performance of the South Vietnamese government would improve, and you would in fact—you would turn the war effort around with this Americanization in ’65.
To some extent that happened. In that sense the Americanization of the war performed the function it was supposed to perform. The problem was—and Hang can certainly speak to this—is that the North Vietnamese matched every American escalation with one of their own, and so you have a—this kind of a thing going on in which the war is escalated by both sides, it becomes a stalemate, and so that by the time you get into late 1967—more to the point here for us today—that’s the reality facing American strategists.
And if I focus just on the American side, I think one of the remarkable things for me is the extent of pessimism in both the senior civilian leadership in Washington and also among many military strategists, so that even though William Westmoreland infamously says in November, when he returns—he says we’ve reached an important moment when the end begins to come into view, suggesting there’s light at the end of the tunnel, we’re almost there. It’s not, in fact, what I think most American intelligence analysis says or what, in fact, with the doors closed, most political senior civilian officials would say.
LINDSAY: Certainly not what Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara thought.
LINDSAY: So—well, let’s talk a little bit about the political scene, Frankie, both in the United States and in South Vietnam because there was a reason why General William Westmoreland came back to the United States and went up and gave this talk to the National Press Club in November of 1967, and also significant developments in South Vietnam at the time, in September of 1967, you had an election which would lead to Generals Thieu and Ky becoming president and vice president, though they only won about 35 percent of the vote in that election.
So if you can sort of lay out for us the political conditions.
FITZGERALD: Well, Westmoreland came back and made all these statements because Johnson asked him to. He believed that the American public needed to hear something positive, and that was the best way for him to do it. Whether, you know—I don’t think he asked the truth of the situation; he asked Westmoreland to put a bright light on, you know, make it optimistic. And so that happened. And it was unfortunate because a few months later, most Americans decided that it was completely wrong, I mean, after Tet began.
And in the South, the—not only were there the greatest number of American troops thus far, but the ARVN had been beefed up along the way, as well, so they thought they were pretty good. But just before Tet—first of all, the ARVN went off for their Tet holidays. Secondly, the North Vietnamese created this great diversion in Khe Sanh, this mountain stronghold near the DMZ. And Westmoreland was convinced that the North Vietnamese wanted yet another Dien Bien Phu. And so he kept on reinforcing Khe Sanh, and Khe Sanh became the center of the news. I mean, almost every journalist was up there, you know.
And instead they simply went around Khe Sanh. And the attack, which began on January 30th, went to, first of all, Saigon and the American Embassy compound, with parts of 11 NLF divisions or units, and five out of six cities. I think it was 64 provincial capitals and 46 district capitals, plus American and ARVN bases around the country
So it was kind of an overwhelming thing that happened. It could have been slightly better coordinated, but, I mean, as a total it was just absolutely amazing, at least to the American public. You know, Westmoreland kept saying, oh, oh, we expected it. But, of course, he didn’t. Only—it was only Lieutenant General Frederick Weyand who was able to sort of bolster the defenses of Saigon by bringing some of the troops back from the Cambodian border. If that hadn’t happened, it would have been much worse in Saigon. And—but as far as I know, he was the only one who took such—
LINDSAY: Actually, one of the major tactical decisions just before the offensive began, because what happened in Saigon might have gone very differently if those reinforcements hadn’t gotten back.
Hang, maybe we could sort of talk a little bit about the approach that the North Vietnamese took, because obviously in 1963 there’s an important meeting. They decide that they’re going to wage sort of a general war in the South. My sense is there had been a division in the politburo about doing that. But then, in 1967, they make the decision to go after Tet. And that also causes some great rifts in the politburo. What was sort of the thinking of the North Vietnamese leadership why Tet?
NGUYEN: That’s exactly right. And that’s where I began my discussion, which was late 1963. If you really want to understand the origins of the Tet strategy and the Tet deliberation, one has to begin late 1963 when General Secretary Le Duan lays out his outline for the strategy, called the General Offensive and General Uprising—General Offensive, General Uprising Strategy.
And under that sort of planning, what he had hoped was if the Vietnamese communist forces could amass enough strength to attack all the cities and towns across South Vietnam, one that was powerful enough to incite the people to rise up, then this would be the path to victory. This would topple the Saigon regime and end the war before the Americans could intervene.
The only thing that stood in his way was, of course, the decision made by LBJ in the summer of 1965 to commit 100,000 troops, American troops, to South Vietnam. So, in a sense, they stole Hanoi’s victory from the jaws of defeat, or stole that for Saigon, however that saying goes.
And so it would be two years later that communist forces could finally implement this General Offensive, General Uprising strategy in 1968. But in the meantime, from ’65 to 1967, there was intense military debates in Hanoi about what was the appropriate military strategy to adopt to counteract American presence in South Vietnam and American military intervention.
And what I found in the course of my research was that Le Duan and his right-hand man, Le Duc Tho, were on one side of the debate and that they had wanted to basically go all-out and attack the cities and towns pretty much as early as 1966, when they saw the uprisings in Da Nang and Hue, and to a certain extent in Saigon, in the summer of ’66, at that time. And they thought, you know, moment was ripe, just like the end of ’63; we should strike, and we should strike hard.
But on the other side, there were voices calling for caution. That included Ho Chi Minh and General Giap. And they ended up being on the losing side of these military debates over 1967 and their deputies really suffered from that. They were arrested, many of whom were actually involved in the military planning for the Tet Offensive.
Now, all of this comes together because this sort of accounts for why the Tet Offensive wasn’t implemented in a perfect way. Of course, you know, sort of in war nothing could ever be perfect. But there were so many mistakes made that it almost cost the North Vietnamese war effort that sort of crucial element of surprise that, you know, sort of had that punch—that although it didn’t foment a general insurrection, it did pack a powerful enough punch to deliver a major political and psychological blow to the United States in a crucial election year.
I want to kind of hook onto what Frankie had mentioned about Khe Sanh. We now have the evidence about this deception plan that had been basically distributed throughout 1967 that tricked Westmoreland into committing to the defense of that base in Khe Sanh that the Vietnamese communist forces under their general staff had put out these plans that looked like they were going to lay siege to Khe Sanh throughout 1968, and that that looked like, you know, what they wanted to do, again, was at Dien Bien Phu because they were planning through this sort of deception plan to launch negotiations once Khe Sanh fell. And, of course, that was to really tie down the United States and have them focus on Khe Sanh when really the main target were the cities and towns across South Vietnam.
And what happened there in terms of the mistakes, I mean, it’s incredible, as a historian, looking back. The first one—the first step in August of 1967, when they decided to change the time zone in the DRV so that they were one hour ahead of South Vietnam in a leap year meant that the launch date was going to be off, and so they didn’t factor that in.
The second major mistake that they made was that, you know, by the time they gave South Vietnamese party military headquarters enough time to know that the cities and towns were actually going to be the main site, that wasn’t until the fall of 1967. And even then the actual D-Day—it’s called, you know—(speaks in Vietnamese)—was decided in late December/early January—late December 1967, early January 1968—at the Fourteenth Plenum, which took place 50 miles outside of Hanoi.
All of this was to protect the element of secrecy, but it was so secret that it didn’t reach especially the district headquarters in the deep south. (Laughter.) And so that 24-hour lag between—so what happened on January 30th, Giao Thua, which is the—you know, the sort of—the moment in which the old comes in with the new when you welcome in the new year, which was supposed to be the D-Day, of course, you only saw the cities and towns across the uppermost provinces in the north and Da Nang and the Central Highlands be attacked and a full 24-hours later that was when Saigon and Hue was attacked. So, you know, they almost lost the element of surprise.
LINDSAY: And I take the point that there were a lot of mistakes made along the way that may have made the offensive more successful than it was. But the fact was it did catch the Americans by surprise. This caught the South Vietnamese by surprise. Originally, it had, what, a week-long truce and then it had been shrunk down to 36 hours.
But I guess I’m curious, Fred, is there a consensus as to why American military or the South Vietnamese military didn’t realize that the attack was underway? Does it involve movement of very large numbers of men and materiel down along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to be prepositioned?
LOGEVALL: Well, I think, as has been said, I think that Khe Sanh and the anticipation on the part of many senior American commanders led them to think that something was going to happen that, in the end, didn’t happen or—
LINDSAY: So confirmation bias?
LOGEVALL: There’s a certain confirmation bias. There’s a certain willingness to believe or desire to believe that surely the North Vietnamese aren’t going to pull off something this ambitious, this bold, involving this many units, both Viet Cong and NVA units, or a certain disinclination to believe.
At the same time, I’ve—you know, I think that there’s a—there’s a growing sense that American intelligence analysts had a pretty good sense that something big was underway. So I wouldn’t want to—I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the degree to which this was something that had been completely unforeseen. I think, at the very top levels in the White House and with Westmoreland and some senior subordinates, no question surprise at precisely what occurred.
FITZGERALD: Could I asked a detailed question about what you said? Which was, the—in the Burns-Novick film you learn that Ho Chi Minh and General Giap were sent abroad for, quote, “medical treatment” during this period. Is that the case?
NGUYEN: It was. This was tied to those two years where the party couldn’t decide on the correct strategy to implement to win the war or to combat American intervention. By 1967, those debates became so ugly, and there were so many different sort of viewpoints about what was the best strategy to take for this pivotal 1968 military year, Ho Chi Minh and General Giap did not believe that Vietnamese Communist forces had the ability to attack the cities and towns and hold them, to incite this general insurrection. They in fact—
LOGEVALL: Which they were right about.
NGUYEN: They were right about. To actually—the counseled to build up to the cities and towns.
LINDSAY: Well, let me ask you about that question, because they had a strategy that was predicated on the notion that when they struck the people would rise up. But frankly, the people in South Vietnam didn’t rise up. Why not?
FITZGERALD: Too dangerous.
LINDSAY: In what sense?
FITZGERALD: Well, I mean, no matter which side won, you were going to get a tremendous lot of violence. And you couldn’t be sure. And you had—you had no armaments to speak of compared to, you know, the military. And the American response was very violent, and mostly air power. And it did a great deal of destruction. Ben Tre we know—
LINDSAY: That’s where the famous statement, “we had to destroy the town in order to save it.”
FITZGERALD: Right. And that went on in a lot of places. And goodness knows, way after three weeks or more of fighting, was almost completely leveled.
NGUYEN: I want to address that a little bit, mainly because there was possibly a moment—again, a counterfactual. And historians love and hate counterfactuals. (Laughs.) That, you know, Le Duan had reason to believe that possibly the South Vietnamese cities and towns were tinderboxes ready to explode, because of what happened in the summer of 1966, with the resistance struggle, in which the Buddhist political movement joined forces with I Corps, and were about to, you know, break off from Saigon. That was a missed opportunity. Hanoi didn’t have the forces to be able to help this resistance struggle in the summer of 1966.
And Le Duan would continually—I mean, he would always constantly remind his military and party planners, like, this was our moment. This was late 1963, akin to the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu, and JFK. Had we struck then, who knows what would have happened? And they spent ’66-’67 planning for this. And the site that they really focused on Hue. Hue was the only city that was probably ready to hold the cities and towns. But they were not ready to basically erect a new government. They weren’t given enough time to do that. And so, you know, that was one of the reasons why they did have this belief that something could have happened had the forces struck earlier.
LINDSAY: But it didn’t seem to have happened, even in Hue.
NGUYEN: No. And the reason for this is, this is very similar to what happened on the American side. You had so many high-level officers on the ground saying: We can’t do this. Party center is telling us to attack the cities and towns and hold them for an indefinite period, and erect a new government. We can’t do that. But we can’t tell them we can’t do that. So similar to, you know, MACV intelligence, CIA, and order—
LINDSAY: MACV being Military Assistance—
NGUYEN: Assistance Command Vietnam, sorry. Saying that there were only a certain number of Vietnamese Communist units operating in the South, which were way below the limit of—the numbers that they were giving forward. This is because this is what Westmoreland wanted to hear. Same thing happening on the—
LINDSAY: OK, you wanted to jump in there, Fred?
LOGEVALL: Well, I just—it seems to me that what Hanoi is doing is exaggerating the degree to which there is ideological commitment on the part of the mass of the South Vietnamese people, which there wasn’t. I think relatively few southern Vietnamese were in fact communists. Most of them, I think, wanted to be left alone. The problem for the Americans, Jim, is that American analysts, commanders, decisionmakers, assumed that therefore it meant that the mass of the South Vietnamese people supported the government, which I think is also false. And this is one of the problems that the Americans, I think, could never figure out in Vietnam is how do we get the mass of the South Vietnamese people to back the Saigon government. It didn’t work, in my judgment probably couldn’t have worked. But that’s, it seems to me, where—and I’m painting with a broad brush, but which is where most Vietnamese were in the South. Hanoi didn’t get that. Neither did the Americans.
LINDSAY: Let’s talk—
FITZGERALD: Well, I’d like to amend that slightly.
LINDSAY: Thirty seconds.
FITZGERALD: In my view, the northern provinces—I mean, that is I Corps—was really part of North Vietnam in many ways, and they had reacted to the French war in the same way that the North did. And furthermore, they remained almost completely in the hands of the NLF throughout the war. I mean, at the end of it, the capital of Dong Nai was taken over by farmers with pitchforks. And the delta was different, and I think that—and also II Corps. But there’s a—there was a very—there’s a distinction between the two parts.
LINDSAY: OK. Let’s talk about—
NGUYEN: Quickly, could I just add one—30 seconds? (Laughs.)
LINDSAY: No, let’s—I want to move on so—I want to get to the aftermath, OK? So the offensive takes place. It’s beaten back, and beaten back fairly quickly, fairly bloodily, except in Hue, which takes four weeks before the city is retaken. Now, Tet is, of course, held up by many people as the pivotal moment in the war, that it changed everything. So I guess my question is, did it?
LOGEVALL: I’m skeptical of this, actually. My own view is that we have exaggerated the—exaggerated the importance of Tet. So if we—if we, again, employ a counterfactual, if we assume that Tet didn’t happen, my view is that we still have the broad trends in the war playing out as they did.
I think it’s important to remember a few things. One, that even prior to Tet, as I suggested earlier, there is a growing sense of gloom and pessimism at the highest levels of the American government. That would have continued, it seems to me, even in the absence of Tet.
And we should remember that after Tet, both Hanoi and the United States waged the war ferociously. I think we can remember that in 1967, 10,000 Americans died in Vietnam. In 1969, 10,000 Americans died in Vietnam. And Lyndon Johnson drives a hard bargain in the negotiations that begin.
So, on some level, I think we need to be careful about—there’s a recent book out that I reviewed which says that Tet and Hue—
LINDSAY: This is Mark Bowden’s book?
LOGEVALL: I wasn’t going to say that. (Laughter.)
LINDSAY: Well, people in the audience—it’s a book he reviewed.
LOGEVALL: No, but it’s a book that I reviewed favorably and I admire in many ways. But the suggestion is that Hue and Tet changed—completely changed the terms of the debate in the United States, and this is where I’m skeptical.
I will say this, very quickly. Walter Cronkite in this extraordinary moment that you all know—February 27th, 1968, and if you haven’t seen it you should YouTube this telecast—but Cronkite, most trusted man in America, says: “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out is to negotiate, not as victors but as” a people—“as an honorable people who lived up to their commitment to defend democracy and did the best they could.” That—and maybe now I’m contradicting myself, because he’s making that, obviously—that statement—in the—in the midst, in a sense, of this Tet Offensive. But that suggests that if you—and as Johnson said, at least this is allegedly what he said: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” That suggests that we are at an important moment. I just think that some version of that Cronkite statement we would have had at some point, even in the absence of Tet.
LINDSAY: Frankie, you want to jump in here?
FITZGERALD: Well, I think that Tet was an important sort of spark moment. You know, I think that most Americans either regarded authorities as the authorities, and so when Westmoreland comes and says everything is going fine they tend to believe it, or else they simply are not paying any attention. Granted, there was a big peace movement at the time, but that only affected a certain number of people. And I really think that the scenes of Tet on TV really got people’s attention in the United States. And it didn’t change the military situation—well, actually it did because the American response was enormous. And, in fact, a couple of years later it looked as though the whole country was sort of pacified, as they say, or, you know, that the NLF had disappeared and the North Vietnamese were holding back.
But I think, as far as the American public was concerned, that this was—showed the way—showed that it couldn’t work. And, of course, Johnson resigned. Johnson refused to run again in March. They started negotiating. They stopped the bombing of the North for a while. There were the elections that year, in which both parties ran on peace platforms, whether they meant it or not.
LINDSAY: Hang, can I just turn the question around and ask you about how the North reacted to Tet? Because, as you point out, there was a division in the politburo about what to do, with the minority losing side saying this would be, in a sense, a bridge too far; we won’t win and there won’t be an uprising. And they were right.
Yet, sort of in the retelling of the story in the Tet offensive, it’s often held up as this was a master stroke on the part of Hanoi because they may have lost on the battlefield but they engineered a strategic victory because they were able to change the public debate in the United States.
Were they seeking to change the public debate in the United States?
NGUYEN: Secondary aim.
NGUYEN: That was a secondary aim. I’ll really quickly talk, because this is, like, my—two minutes.
NGUYEN: I just want to piggyback up with my esteemed colleagues. I agree with Fred that, you know, it didn’t change much, though. If you look at, you know, OK, LBJ didn’t get the 206,000 or he didn’t give the 206,000 troops; requested them.
LOGEVALL: (Difficult ?), yeah.
NGUYEN: He did give 30,000. So the war was actually deadlier for American forces in the 12 months after LBJ announced his decision not to seek reelection. So from April of 1967 until April 1969, more Americans died.
LOGEVALL: Two thirds of the Americans who died in Vietnam died—
NGUYEN: Died during that—yeah. So it did not mean that there was this sort of de-escalation, in a certain set. However, I agree with Frankie in saying that even though Hanoi wanted to topple the Saigon regime, they got a bigger prize, which was they brought down LBJ to a certain extent in his decision not to seek reelection. They got rid of the Democratic stronghold over the White House, to their detriment, of course, because Nixon was going to be much worse at prosecuting the war.
Now, what I was really going to quickly say was so secondary aim was to strike a political, psychological blow to the United States in a crucial electoral year—election year. First aim was to foment the general insurrection, to overthrow Saigon.
The third aim, which I haven’t been able to prove but I wonder, maybe also explains that staggering of the attacks, is maybe they wanted to make RVN a rump state. If they could cut South Vietnam in half, the central highlands, because they believed that the upper provinces into the central highlands was much easier to take. That could have actually been a tertiary aim.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1969 that they admitted that their—that the Tet offensive failed in all of that.
LINDSAY: OK. At this point I would like to bring the rest of the room into the conversation. I want to remind everybody that this meeting is on the record and ask people to wait for the microphone, to stand when you receive the microphone, speak directly into the microphone, and tell us your name and affiliation and ask a question.
So who would like to ask a question? Up here in the front.
Q: Hi. My name is Peter Osnos, Public Affairs Books.
The—in the Vietnam series, to me the most striking moment was in 1966, when Bob McNamara was talking to Lyndon Johnson on the phone and he says, you know, Ho Chi Minh has been pushed aside. The real boss there now is this guy Le Duan. And he spells the name L-E D-U-A-N, as though Johnson had never heard it before. Is that really conceivable that the president of the United States did not know the name of the leader of the communist party in North Vietnam, the first secretary of the communist party of North Vietnam, in 1966, that we were at war without knowing who we were at war with?
LOGEVALL: Certainly Lyndon Johnson had heard Le Duan’s name. He had been discussed in meetings prior to that point. And I agree with you; in the film that’s a striking moment.
I also think—and Hang can speak with greater authority to this—that there was a general—even if that’s specifically not the case, generally speaking an underestimation of a long time of Le Duan’s importance. Hang and I disagree a little bit about the degree to which Le Duan is dominant at which point in the 1960s. Certainly by the time you’re describing there’s no question that Le Duan is the—is the single-most important decisionmaker. But I think—I don’t know whether you would agree—I think American strategists, even intelligence analysts, were slow in recognizing the degree to which, yes there’s Ho, yes there’s Giap, but Le Duan. I mean, it just—they were slow on this.
NGUYEN: I agree, they were slow on this. And I found intelligence estimates just in the same that I think, you know, the CIA, sometimes their numbers were correct—definitely more so than MACV. But in the same way that when I look at sort of intelligence reports later on, at any given point they’re putting any number of the 11-member Politburo up for this person’s really in charge, this person’s really in charge at any given time. And I think, you know, sort of one takeaway that we can take from this is even if they had that information, would LBJ have acted on it? Would he have tried to sort of take advantage of any splits in the Politburo? I would still say no because American victory didn’t rest on exploiting the enemy’s weaknesses or divisions. It all rested in American military strength.
LINDSAY: Hang, could you just give the audience, the people in the room, just a little bio on Le Duan? Because his sort of trajectory of coming to power is, I think, unusual.
NGUYEN: Yeah. So he was four years younger than General Giap. And he the way I describe him is he sort of lacked Ho Chi Minh’s grandfatherly demeanor. He didn’t have Giap’s military reputational prowess. And he didn’t have Premier Pham Van Dong’s diplomatic sort of, you know, sort of know-how. And so he was really just this very bland party figure. But he possessed this organizational brilliance that all of his predecessors didn’t have. Dinh didn’t have, Ho Chi Minh, General Giap.
LOGEVALL: Southerner, too.
NGUYEN: And he was—he was a southerner, yeah.
LINDSAY: That’s significant. Why is that—
NGUYEN: Why? Because, I argue, that he basically received his revolutionary chops through operating in the South in this period in the 1940s and 1950s, when it was extremely hard for the party center in Hanoi to exert full control over that region. And this was really his—you know, where he made his early career. And then once he was called up to Hanoi, decided this would be his platform, his campaign, and one that was in line with the party, that it would be military liberation of the South. So all of this is very important to understand who Le Duan was. And the distain of General Giap and Ho Chi Minh is also tied to his early career. Again, he was four years younger than General Giap. Wanted to be named defense minister after World War II. Failed, and was sent to this terrible region in which people were being killed off and it was hard to exert party control.
Q: Jeff Laurenti.
I wonder if you could discuss with us what the impact was, first within North Vietnamese political circles, governing circles, and then to the extent that people were getting feedback from their relatives who had gone into the South to fight the war, of the astounding losses that they took? The loss of life in this Tet Offensive, and with very little in the way of square millimeters gained to show for it, might presumably have led to some doubting about our capacity to continue the war, or for the maximum goals that we had been. What was the division within political circles? Was there any kind of ripple at popular circles? And then going to what Fred’s observation was about Lyndon Johnson later that year driving a hard bargain on starting formal negotiations. Was there a window by the end of ’68 for a compromise agreement that would have put a different kind of government in place in Saigon, rather than what we ended up with four years later, which was a truce that allows the American to leave, and then the boys can start fighting again.
LINDSAY: Who wants to go first?
LOGEVALL: I’ll just—I’ll just take that second one first. And others may—the two of you may want to chime in on it as well. Yes, he did drive a hard bargain in the talks. He agreed to start them. He was always—he was always reluctant to negotiate. I still think—I still think he hoped to be drafted, by the way, for the nomination. And I think he did favor Nixon in the campaign, secretly, because he—I think he thought that Nixon would be more likely to prosecute the war, which of course he was.
Yes, I think there was an opportunity for—in fact, you could argue there was an agreement on the table in the dying months of 1968, and of course it has been very controversially argued—I think correctly argued—that the Nixon campaign and Richard Nixon helped to thwart that potential deal between the United States and Hanoi in late ’68. That deal, however, I suspect—to go to the subtext of your question—probably still would have been a kind of decent interval deal ultimately. So I’m not—I’m still thinking that it’s a kind of face-saver for the United States, but of course it does make the war significantly shorter than it otherwise would have been, saves untold lives, but I think it’s probably still going to end up with Vietnam under a communist government ruled from Hanoi.
FITZGERALD: It seems to me, though, that if they had accepted one of the earlier proposals of a coalition government, coalition would never have lasted, you know. Those two sides would just—were not parallel, in the first place, but they wouldn’t work with each other for very long.
But it seems to me that it would have given time for those who wanted to leave South Vietnam to leave, and before those who wanted out of the whole business to sort of get out of it so that you wouldn’t have had these terrible reprisals afterwards.
LOGEVALL: And moreover—no, I agree with you, Frankie, and I would also say that if I’m correct about the gloomy realism at the top levels of the American government, which I think are—I think that realism is there from ’63, even under Kennedy, onward—then that’s a preferable alternative on any basis than to have a large-scale war that you don’t even think in all likelihood can be won.
LINDSAY: Hang, do you want to jump in here?
NGUYEN: So one of the things that happened in 1967 that went hand in hand with making sure that the general offense and general uprising strategy would be implemented was the total sort of domestic repression campaign under what was known as the Anti-Party Affair. So after that—basically, after the year of these three waves of arrests, Le Duan was able to clamp down on any dissention in his ranks, within the party and the North Vietnamese populace, so that when it became clear that the—his Tet Offensive strategy failed, he didn’t have to deal with the blowback, he didn’t have to deal with the—what basically should have been the sort of mutiny or uprising within Hanoi to say we need a new war leadership. That didn’t happen because he was able to sideline Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, arrest their deputies, send a sign, a signal to anyone who was going to question his leadership.
The other thing that I was going to say, why it took so long in summer of 1969, is any good sort of communist leader wants to always—to maintain the initiative. To go on the defensive posture is sort a signal of saying we’re—we lost, but it took, it finally did happen, and that was summer of 1969 when COSVN implemented their resolution to say we are going to adopt a strategy of—defensive posture on the ground militarily.
In terms of South Vietnam, again, one of the ironic, bitter lessons in history is, though he wanted to undermine and topple that regime, it actually shored up Nguyen Van Thieu’s power in the south, so much so that he could resist negotiations. And so negotiations, at least under his watch, he was going to sabotage at every turn.
Another thing that’s important about Le Duan, in addition to his southern roots, is that he also was able to sideline his opponents in the Politburo by bringing out the sort of do not engage in premature negotiations until you have—you possess a position of strength on the ground so you have the military advantage; that’s when you engage in negotiations. If you do it beforehand, if you do it when it’s clear that we lost the Tet Offensive and ’68 was a disaster, then you will get worse terms than we did in 1954.
So both Vietnamese sides didn’t want to negotiate. That means there was no chance in 1968—Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, I think, wouldn’t matter.
Q: Jeff Shafer.
As somebody who was there in the 1st Infantry Division at this time, I learned something—explained why I had 24 hours to sober up from my Tet celebration—(laughter)—before we got hit where I was.
It seems to me the fundamental lesson here was—and I drew it—that a(n) overwhelming U.S. military success—the North Vietnamese achieved none of their objectives, we inflicted casualties and everything else—didn’t do a damn thing to turn around the tide of something that we ultimately lost. We have since gone out and made the same mistake in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what is wrong with the lesson learning process in the—in the five-sided building?
LINDSAY: Well, let me ask first, is should we be thinking of Afghanistan and Iraq in the same terms as Vietnam? Are they comparable?
FITZGERALD: I think so. I do. It’s not that they’re the same on the ground by any means. North—I mean, Vietnam was a real country. And Iraq—I mean, and Afghanistan are not. But one similarity is that in Afghanistan you have the possibility of retreat to Pakistan. So you have—you can’t—it’s just not—yeah, no, it’s—
LINDSAY: This is sort of the sanctuary idea, that if your insurgency can go somewhere to be resupplied it has a great advantage.
FITZGERALD: That’s one thing. The other thing is, from our perspective, I mean, we’ve just done the same thing all over again, it seems to me. And that is to say, you try and fight with only Afghani troops—or Iraqi ones, but it’s most obvious in Afghanistan—that doesn’t work very well. So you add American troops. And then you feel that you have to bring them home, because you can’t leave them, 100,000 troops, there forever. And people want them home.
LOGEVALL: Or—sorry, Frankie, to interrupt. Or you feel that you have to justify the lives that have been lost. And in a sense, therefore have to actually continue the commitment. I mean, the other thing I would just say very quickly is that I think you’re absolutely correct. And I think it suggests to me that the great similarity in these conflicts—which I think, again, American officials, they understood this. That’s the remarkable thing. With the doors closed, they got that you’ve got to win these things politically if you’re going to win them at all. And there was simply no real prospect that this was going to happen with this or any conceivable Saigon government. And that was—and that, seems to me, is also true with Karzai and with governments in both Iraq and Afghanistan. If you’re not going to be able to get a host government to do its part in its own defense, to get if not, you know, universal support—which no government can get—at least broad support, it ain’t going to happen.
LINDSAY: All the way over there.
Q: Hi. Gordon Goldstein. For the purpose of this discussion I’ll self-identify as an occasional co-author with my friend and colleague Fred Logevall.
As I listen to this discussion, and it’s been terrific, one gets the sense that the historical import of Tet is somewhat indeterminate. And we are trying to craft a discussion about the lessons. Is there really a lesson to Tet? Or is it more easily understood as an indeterminate episode in the broader narrative of the war?
FITZGERALD: I think I’d like to respond. I think Tet should be viewed as a tactical issue. Did it—did it—what did it do immediately? What did it do to the American public immediately? What did it do to the forces on the ground immediately? But that essentially it was simply a part of a whole American war in Vietnam. And as many have pointed out, this strategy didn’t change. I mean, the military was absolutely convinced beforehand that the North Vietnamese couldn’t do anything like this ever. And since they were able to kill an awful lot of North Vietnamese at that time, they became convinced all over again. And so the arc of the—arc of the war was not changed by Tet, it’s just—it was changed merely because it put a sort of a blinding light on a certain moment and made a real tactical shift.
NGUYEN: So I would say there’s sort of three lessons I would take away from the Tet Offensive. And the first is that, basically, what you had happened on both sides in terms of Hanoi and Washington was a sort of willful—what I would just say is like willful indulgence in fantasy. On Washington’s side, it was the enemy is so weak they’re on the ropes. We can win and we are going to win. It looks like we’re going to win. 1968, this will—this is going to bear out.
On the same side—on Hanoi’s side, it was, we have the power. We have the strength. We can hold the cities and towns. A general insurrection will come about. It was all fantasy.
The second takeaway is that, again, oh, maybe this is the floor theme, if there was one—although it wasn’t—was that even though general insurrection did not come about in South Vietnam, it did come about in many ways, you could argue, in the streets and campuses across the United States. Columbia, my own, shut down for months. You know, the social protest movements taking place in Paris and London and Berlin—you know, Rome, Mexico City, Tokyo.
Now, the Tet Offensive wasn’t all about the Tet Offensive, but the Tet Offensive served as a major catalyst for the social protest movements that took place worldwide. That was not what Hanoi had wanted to do but that was a much bigger—again, a much bigger prize than just having toppling Saigon or fomenting a general insurrection in the south.
The third takeaway, though, is that that was only temporary because the powers that be squashed down on the revolution of 1968. And so the other takeaway is that, in fact, Tet Offensive ensured that the Vietnam War would not be important for the (long duration ?) in U.S. foreign policy that—moving forward, because what it did was it shored up Southeast Asia. It ensured that it would not fall. They weren’t going to fall like dominoes and in fact would move much more into Washington’s orbit.
In addition to Southeast Asia, this is when you have the Sino-Soviet split moving from a split to Sino-Soviet war—battles, and that also ensured that Vietnam—whatever had happened in Vietnam would not matter because it would lead to rapprochement with China and détente with the Soviet Union, and because this tied in directly with Hanoi’s relations with Beijing and Moscow, all of this was sort of set in motion, this squaring of the Sino-Soviet-Vietnamese triangle in 1968.
LINDSAY: But I—so wait. So the shoring up that you referred to in the rest of Southeast Asia you’re suggesting is a function of Tet?
NGUYEN: Yes. I think if you look at the governments in Indonesia, in Singapore, in Malaysia, in Thailand, you know, the other Southeast Asian countries, they began to fear communist subversions within their country much more on a grander scale and were, you know, petrified about the U.S. leaving the region, but were also prepared—
LINDSAY: But they had those—but they had those fears in ’65, ’66, and ’67.
NGUYEN: That’s something—
FITZGERALD: The Indonesian coup and massacre was ’66.
NGUYEN: No, that’s definitely true. So I guess this is the—this is the great thing about being editor of a series is that there is—(laughs)—a forthcoming history, sort of Southeast Asia after Vietnam and after Tet, which shows the sort of inner workings of all these governments moving even much more to the right than we can understand.
LOGEVALL: The one thing I just would say is that Gordon didn’t self-identify as the author of a book that I think pertains very much to the discussion we’re having—if you haven’t read it, “Lessons in Disaster.” Marvelous book that focuses on McGeorge Bundy’s key role and, of course, the angst and the sort of—the difficulties that Bundy and the NSC staff had in dealing with some of the things we’re talking about today. That’s my plight.
LINDSAY: Nicely done. Elizabeth.
Q: Thank you. Elizabeth Becker, author and journalist.
This is a relevant discussion not just to know the history but today still the United States government, the Pentagon, does not officially admit that we lost and, more importantly, I mean, covering this, is that that is one of the rationales for not acknowledging defeat or responsibility for the damage and I would like Hang in particular to answer how Hanoi responds to this. We’ve all been there. We know some of the discussion. But it seems unusual that we—USAID has done a little bit as charity, but we have never ever faced the destruction and our responsibility.
NGUYEN: It really is the—are the non-state actors who’ve moved and done the most in terms of clearing land mines, really sort of facilitating the healing that began in the 1990s between the two countries. But you’re right. I mean, this is one of the—one of the biggest—I mean, I don’t even know what to describe it. I mean, the biggest—it shouldn’t be the case. It should not be the non-state actors and these NGOs have to be at the forefront of making up for what happened, you know, these crimes committed by the government.
And so I agree with you. Some of this is also tied to what happens after Vietnam and then leading to the third Indochina war, of course, and the sort of decision in the Carter administration to put forward a China-first strategy and not—and one that would be definitely anti-Soviet Union, that Vietnam was tied up into this.
And so that moment at which there could have been and there should have been a much earlier effort at healing wounds and making up for what had happened during the war didn’t occur in the late 1970s. And that is a result of basically, again, Cold War politics, the Sino-Soviet split, and the geostrategic situation in the 1970s.
LINDSAY: OK, we have time for one last question. Before I take it, I want to remind everyone that this meeting has been on the record.
Sir, you have the last question.
Q: Alfred Youngwood, retired lawyer.
Are you suggesting that going to Vietnam was the right thing because it stopped the dominos?
LINDSAY: I think that might be directed to you, Hang.
NGUYEN: To me. No. (Laughs.) No, not at all. I go back to my esteemed colleague to say that, you know, it really wasn’t a war America could win and shouldn’t have fought in the first place. It was one that was, you know—it wouldn’t have been decided militarily on the ground. It was one that had to be decided at the political level. And in that sense, America really didn’t have—should not have been involved in the sort of civil conflict that had already been there previous to American intervention.
So not at all. That was a byproduct halfway into this devastating wear.
LOGEVALL: But it’s—it’s a logical question, Hang, I think, in light of the previous discussion, because if the suggestion is that the war, and in particular Tet, shored up the rest of Southeast Asia, if it bought time—this is an argument called the buying-time thesis that has been articulated—
LOGEVALL: —for many years—if it bought time for these other countries to, in fact, prosper—first to survive and then to prosper—you could make the argument, you know what, it was worth it. Yes, 58,000 Americans died. Yes, between 2 (million) and 3 million Vietnamese were killed; immense destruction in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. But, by golly, it did this.
I don’t—this is the reason I was skeptical a moment ago. I don’t buy this. If you’ll—the buying-time thesis I do not buy. (Laughter.) But I think that’s—so, you know, I don’t want to speak for this author in your series, but that’s a kind of logical outgrowth from that argument, no?
NGUYEN: Well, I mean, I think this is where we have to sort of, again, use our historian tools and do cause and effect. The sort of shoring up of Southeast Asia—why ASEAN would then move to Zhat Phan (ph) and really become much more of a Southeast Asian regional alliance—there were so many steps that, you know, sort of had to take place, given, again, the Sino-Soviet split, what happened in the battles on the Ussuri River, outside of Vietnam. We would have to take away those events too.
That’s why counterfactuals are a bit difficult in my sense. I mean, the regional alliance could have prevailed, could have happened for reasons that had to do with relations between Malaysia and Indonesia, and nothing to do with sort of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. I really hate counterfactuals. But my students love them. They’re useful. (Laughter.) But I don’t buy—
LOGEVALL: I think they have great utility.
NGUYEN: Yeah. (Laughs.)
LOGEVALL: (Inaudible)—that discussion.
LINDSAY: Frankie, did you want to jump in on this question?
FITZGERALD: I hate counterfactuals myself. (Laughter.)
LOGEVALL: We use them all the time.
FITZGERALD: Because journalists—(inaudible)—too literally.
LOGEVALL: You can’t avoid them.
FITZGERALD: Yeah, it’s true. But I’d rather not. (Laughs.)
LINDSAY: OK, fair enough.
Fred, I think you actually get a chance to answer Gordon’s question about lessons from Hue, from the Tet Offensive, so—
LOGEVALL: Well, so, as I suggested earlier, in a sense I’m not sure that there are lessons that I would draw from Tet per se. I suggested a while ago that, in fact, the trendlines, it seems to me, are there before they are thereafter. The war does not end until 1973. And, yes, it’s true, as we’ve pointed out, that in a sense one could say that Tet caused Lyndon Johnson, on March 31st, 1968, to say I do not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president. That’s huge.
But in a way it’s not so huge, partly because of the way he conducts the negotiations in the summer, where he’s a hawk among hawks—his desire, I think, to be drafted for the nomination in the end anyway—and then what we see under Nixon. And in likewise it seems to me that Hanoi comes out of it battered and bruised, no question, but still ultimately committed in the same way that it was to prevailing, winning this thing, having a reunified Vietnam under communist rule. I think Saigon is a political mess, pardon the expression, or at least has deep political problems before Tet, after.
So I don’t know, Gordon, that I would see particular lessons that are all that salient for us here.
LINDSAY: On that note, I’m going to bring our conversation to a close. Please join me—(applause)—in thanking our experts.