The 1968 Tet Offensive

 Part Three: Aftermath  

In the late morning hours of 31 January 1968, dead Viet Cong sappers were still being carted away from the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon as COMUSMACV held an impromptu news conference nearby. The attacks of the last two days, General Westmoreland announced almost nonchalantly, were merely a diversion intended to draw attention away from the real objective—Khe Sanh and the rest of I Corps. The enemy had foolishly “exposed himself by virtue of this strategy” and as a result “suffered great casualties.” The clutch of reporters on the embassy lawn that day stood almost dumbstruck with disbelief. Everything their eyes took in emphatically contradicted what their ears had just heard. MACV’s relationship with the news media, never good to begin with, had by this time soured to the point of virtual hostility. If the U.S. was winning the war, as both Westmoreland and Washington had preached over the past year, it sure as hell didn't look that way now. Within hours, the folks back home would be able to judge for themselves as dramatic footage of death and destruction was beamed into their living rooms.

Fifty years later it’s clear that at least in the short run the General Offensive-General Uprising had cost the Vietnamese communists dearly. None of their objectives had been achieved, and casualties were horrendous. But American newspaper readers and television viewers were getting an entirely different picture—and millions of them would be voting in November. The Tet offensive quickly stretched the Johnson administration’s “credibility gap” into a yawning chasm as the president and his advisors groped for a way out of what was rapidly becoming a political crisis. Were the VC as badly hurt as Westmoreland claimed? Was Khe Sanh in fact the real target? What about the South Vietnamese? At rock bottom, was the war even winnable, or was the whole thing a boundless quagmire which would continue to suck in men and money with no guarantee of results? The search for answers sparked an unprecedented reappraisal of U.S. policy which, in the end, brought about a fundamental shift in the direction of the war.

The Fork in the Road

COMUSMACV, while acknowledging that a potent enemy threat remained, continued to cast the outcome of the Tet offensive in a favorable light. LBJ, who had put Westmoreland there in the first place, could hardly afford to do otherwise. The President queried his advisors. Did Westmoreland have what he needed? Could he take care of the situation with what he had? “Everything he wants,” said Johnson, “let's get it to him.” Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Earle Wheeler, pointing to Khe Sanh, cautioned that “the fighting will be very heavy, and the losses may be high.” Westmoreland reported that he could probably hold, but would “welcome reinforcements at any time they can be made available.” "Bus" Wheeler had another notion. Pursuing an ill-conceived agenda of his own, he all but insisted that Westmoreland restate his reinforcement needs as “a firm request.”  Yielding to Wheeler’s cajoling and back-channel prodding, COMUSMACV dutifully messaged that the NVA could seize parts of northern I Corps “unless I can get reinforcements, which I desperately need.” An obviously annoyed LBJ demanded to know what was behind this sudden and dramatic reversal of fortune. SecDef-in-waiting Clark Clifford raised even more pointed questions. The answers were unconvincing. Wheeler, accompanied by several White House advisors, was ordered to Saigon for a face-to-face review with "Westy".  

As Earle Wheeler winged his way across the Pacific, veteran CBS newsman Walter Cronkite was in Hue, interviewing battle weary Marines as the month-long fight to retake the imperial city began to wind down. What he saw and heard confirmed his doubts. In his nightly broadcast of 27 February, the most trusted man in America somberly intoned that “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” As Cronkite prepared to speak, a flabbergasted White House staff was digesting Wheeler’s hot-off-the-wire trip report, the gist of which was that an additional 206,000 troops would be required to stabilize South Vietnam and enable Westmoreland to maintain or expand the current pace of operations. The double whammy of Walter Cronkite’s newscast and the astonishing overnight swing from confidence and optimism to near panic by COMUSMACV and the Joint Chiefs rocked the Johnson administration to its very core. As the authors of The Pentagon Papers put it, “A fork in the road had been reached. Now the alternatives stood out in stark reality.” Fulfilment of the Wheeler/Westmoreland request would mean an all-out national commitment; a call-up of the reserves, more deficit spending, larger draft calls, and more planeloads of flag-draped caskets. Rejection would just as surely signal—to Vietnamese North and South, and to the Pentagon—that America had reached its limit.

Trouble on the Home Front, and a Fateful Decision

Over the next three weeks Washington civilians and the JCS and its staffers, shuffling reams of memos and teletype messages, argued for and against various courses of action. The deliberations were intended to be secret, but the inevitable leaks prompted a new wave of probing by the news media. In the interim, LBJ narrowly edged dark-horse candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, an event widely viewed as a referendum on the president and his administration’s handling of the war. Four days later, Bobby Kennedy announced his own candidacy. In Vietnam that day, an infantry company from the Americal Division was engaged in a search and destroy operation near a hamlet called My Lai. 

LBJ remained bellicose, evidently determined not to go down in history as the president who lost Vietnam. But Johnson had his own misgivings. On 22 March he announced that Gen. Westmoreland would be relieved as COMUSMACV; “kicked upstairs”, so many believed, to become Army Chief of Staff. Matters came to a head a few days later as the “Wise Men,” some of the country’s most seasoned Cold Warriors, civilian and military, convened over a period of two days to listen to briefings and ponder what to tell the president. Opinion was divided, but most favored a halt to further escalation of the war and the seeking of a negotiated settlement. Ultimately, the decision rested with the Commander-in-Chief. On 31 March 1968 Lyndon Baines Johnson announced to the nation and the world that he would not seek, and would not accept, his party’s nomination as president. The U.S. would cease the bombing of North Vietnam above the 20th parallel, although the area immediately north of the DMZ would remain subject to interdiction as before. Peace negotiations would begin as soon as the communists would agree to them, at a site to be determined. 

There would be new faces in the U.S. command hierarchy as well, although the changes would not officially take place until July. Westmoreland’s replacement as COMUSMACV would be his long serving deputy, General Creighton W. Abrams, Jr. In a scheduled end-of-tour rotation, Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., would succeed Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp as CINCPAC. “Bus” Wheeler’s term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was extended for another year. MACV would get a final increase of about 13,500 troops, but there would be no more. Four days after LBJ’s broadcast, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot dead in Memphis. The last remaining regular army units in the States stood by anxiously as riots broke out and a Tet-like pall settled over burning cities across the country. In June, Bobby Kennedy would be the next to fall to an assassin's bullet. In South Vietnam, the day-to-day grind of the war would go on pretty much as it had for the past three years. There would be no "summer of love" in 1968.

Battling Back 

Although Saigon and Hue would remain bloody exceptions, within a week or so of the 30-31 January attacks the VC had been expunged from other areas they had temporarily occupied. The enemy had been badly hurt but by no means destroyed. A new seven-day body count record was reported for the week ending 17 February. But these dead were Americans—543 of them. Standoff mortar and rocket attacks against allied bases continued or even increased. During the last two weeks of the month, Tan Son Nhut was hit on six nights, taking over a hundred rounds in all. Eight EC-47s were damaged in a 17/18 February attack. Four were repaired almost immediately. About 10 days were required to return three others to service, but 43-16055 would be out of action for nearly four months due to non-availability of replacement parts for the damaged "X” system.  Another aircraft was damaged on 27/28 February, this one requiring 8 days to repair. Fortunately, Tan Son Nhut personnel losses were light (none for the 360th TEWS or 6994th) but for the month about 150 GIs on the base were wounded. Pleiku and Nha Trang were each hit once but damage was minimal to either airplanes or people. 

By early 1968 the  EC-47 fleet  programed two years earlier was largely in place. Forty-eight aircraft would soon be on strength, twelve of them with “Z” consoles installed. Another dozen airframes were wired to accept the consoles as they became available. Installation of the KY-8 secure voice system made encryption of fix data on “one time” pads unnecessary, thus significantly reducing the time required to pass ARDF intelligence to the DSU.1 But in addition to those aircraft out of service due to enemy attacks, at any given time several others were undergoing mandatory Inspection and Repair as Necessary (IRAN) in Taiwan, a process that consumed about 50 days. 

While the primary EC-47 mission remained close tactical support of ground operations, waterborne targets were occasionally located in which case the fix data was relayed to the U.S. Navy. On 29 February, a Det. 1/361st TEWS crew returning to Nha Trang picked up signals coming from the South China Sea. The transmissions turned out to be from four unidentified trawlers. ARDF fixes were made on three of the targets, the results of which were passed to the Navy’s MARKET TIME coastal surveillance task force. In what the follow-up report termed “one of the most significant victories of the Vietnamese campaign” one of the trawlers was sunk in a maritime fire fight when intercepted in South Vietnamese waters. The other two were driven aground at various points along the coast. One of these elected to fight it out but was destroyed by American return fire; the other was blown up by its crew when capture appeared imminent. The fourth, sailing far out of ARDF range to the south, high-tailed it out of the area but was visually tracked by USN patrol aircraft until it approached the Communist Chinese coastline.2

During and after the Tet offensive, ARDF support continued for both ongoing and newly initiated operations. EC-47 crews from Nha Trang flew over nine hundred sorties in support of the long-running MACARTHUR operation in the Central Highlands, which had begun the previous October and included the Dak To battles. Another 192 sorties went to Operation WHEELER/WALLOWA, the Americal Division’s campaign in Southern I Corps. Additional support in I CTZ went to the 1st Marine Division’s Operation HOUSTON. Along the coastal plains of II CTZ, ARDF provided the timely intelligence behind operations such as the First Air Cav’s PERSHING, the ever busy 173d’s operations WALKER and COCHISE which, along with the 101st Airborne’s MCLAIN, were launched in an effort to hit the enemy before he could recoup his Tet losses. From January through March, the Nha Trang teams flew 918 missions, nailing a total of 6,489 fixes. During the same period, Pleiku based Det. 2/362nd crews logged more than 8,800 hours in 1,166 ARDF missions, most of them around the DMZ.

Whose Intelligence Failed?

General Fred Weyand's eleventh-hour troop realignments notwithstanding, the magnitude and intensity of the Tet offensive—and the true targets of the attacks—plainly caught both Saigon and Washington off guard. Westmoreland himself admitted that “It did not occur to us that the enemy would undertake suicidal attacks in the face of our power. But he did just that.” How could an enemy supposedly sliding towards defeat pull off such a stunning surprise? The task of finding answers went to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), which immediately passed the buck to the Director of Central Intelligence. The interim PFIAB report, forwarded on 7 April, determined that the early warnings, such as they were, represented “no small achievement for the US intelligence apparatus in Vietnam.” The report concluded, however, that the  intelligence indicators “were not sufficient to predict the exact timing of the attack.”3

A separate CIA analysis explored another "massive intelligence failure,” this one on the part of the enemy. The North Vietnamese, slaves to their own communist dogma and mislead by unrealistic reports from VC cadre in the south, made a near-fatal miscalculation in the crucial “general uprising” half of their game plan. However ambivalent—even hostile—the South Vietnamese may have been towards the Saigon regime, when the attacks came the masses stayed on the sidelines. No thought had been given to that contingency. Guides failed to show up, supporting units became lost, rendezvous were missed. As a result thousands of Viet Cong, having taken their initial objectives, died waiting to be embraced by reinforcements and the revolutionary upheaval that never came. The complexity of the operation required a degree of coordination that was simply too much for the attacking forces to manage on short notice.

The cryptologic post mortem conducted by the U.S. intelligence community found that “considerable numbers of enemy messages were read” prior to the attacks which “indicated a sense of urgency, along with an emphasis on thorough planning and secrecy not previously seen in such communications.” A CIA monograph published in 1998 contains unusually fulsome praise for perhaps it’s foremost rival: “The National Security Agency stood alone in issuing the kinds of warnings the US Intelligence Community was designed to provide.” Even so, the study notes, “SIGINT was unable to provide advance warning of the true nature, size, and targets of the coming offensive.” When interviewed by a CHECO historian about pre-attack intelligence, a 6994th Security Squadron representative simply stated that “Our intelligence was aware that an attack would come, but had not been able to define the precise nature of the attack.” A CIA analyst who had helped prepare a more definitive report that went unheeded by its Washington recipients, wryly concluded that “It would have taken an attack order signed by Ho Chi Minh, some Chinese generals and maybe a couple of Russians to have gotten their attention.” But the admission of an anonymous military intelligence officer probably gets as close to the truth as anything can: “If we had gotten the whole battle plan, it would not have been believed. It would not have been credible to us.”

     1. The incoming message of course had to be decrypted by the DSU, which added to the delay.
     2. Click here to view the February, 1968, Market Time report.
     3. Click here to view the final PFIAB report “Evaluation of the Quality of U.S. Intelligence Bearing on the TET Offensive, January 1968.”

 Article by Joe Martin
12 October 2018

NEXT: Khe Sanh and Mini-Tet