Episode 88: The Second Indochina War, Part 15



If you can read this, it’s time to download/listen to another episode in the History of Southeast Asia Podcast!  Last time, we came to the Tet Offensive, which many consider the climax of the Second Indochina War.  However, we still have a long way to go before the Vietnam story is finished.  Today’s episode covers events in the rest of 1968, in Vietnam and the United States.




This episode is dedicated to Louis E. and Louis C., for donating to the podcast.  Thanks to both of you for keeping the lights on, at a time when so many people can’t go out to work.  Both of your names have been added to the podcast’s new Hall of Fame page, of course.  And since Louis C. donated last year, he has now qualified for the coveted water buffalo icon!  Both of you are among those who can keep your heads when most other people are losing theirs.  May both of you also be among the few who can prosper in these troubled times.

Episode 88: The Second Indochina War, Part 15

or, Should the Americans Stay or Should They Go?


Greetings, dear listeners!  Actually, the correct question about American involvement in this episode is, “Should they win or should they quit?”  Anyway, if you are listening in the spring of 2020, around the time I recorded this episode, you are probably staying home most of the time, to avoid the Corona virus, while outside it seems that the world has gone crazy.  For example, if you walk into a bank, now you’re expected to wear a mask.  Who’d have thought that would happen?

Are you looking for something to do that won’t infect you with the virus, or violate the new rules on “social distancing?”  Then you’ve come to the right place!  Podcasts are still a safe form of information, entertainment, or just a good way to pass the time.  Now I have heard that listenership to podcasts is down, and I’m not sure why; maybe people who are used to listening to them elsewhere have forgotten about them while at home.  And some podcasters have cut back on the amount of recording they are doing, due to the need to make money or simply stay alive in this troubled time.  Well don’t worry listeners, the History of Southeast Asia Podcast is alive and well!  Because I wasn’t working a day job when the trouble started, this podcast is as active as ever.

Unless this is the first time you have listened to this show, you know that for several episodes we have been covering the wars that occurred in Indochina during the mid-twentieth century.  “Indochina” is the name usually given to the part of Southeast Asia that France conquered in the nineteenth century, when several Western nations went overseas to build colonial empires for themselves.  Today Indochina is three countries: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.  The First Indochina War, which we covered in Episodes 64 through 68, finished with the expulsion of the French and independence for all three countries, but it also led to Vietnam’s division, into communist North Vietnam and anti-communist South Vietnam.  Because of that, most of the fighting which came after 1954 took place in Vietnam; here in the United States we call it the Vietnam War.

In the previous episode, we reached the Tet Offensive in early 1968.  Many consider this the climax of the war; although the Americans and their South Vietnamese partners won the battles, scenes of death and destruction from those battles also convinced the American people that they could not win the war.  Now Americans would look for a way to quit their involvement in the war, preferably through a negotiated settlement with North Vietnam.

After the climax of a story comes the denouement, and the denouement for this story is not a short one.  Americans will remain active in Vietnam for almost five more years, and the war will continue for two years after that.  And the number of American servicemen in Vietnam will increase, before it starts to decrease.  Here are the previous episodes in this podcast’s Second Indochina War series, in case you missed any:

Episodes 71 through 73 covered Vietnam from 1954 to 1963, telling how the war got started there.

Then we went to one of the countries next door, Laos.  Episodes 74 and 75 covered the war breaking out in that country, up until 1964.

For Episodes 76 and 77 we took a break from the narrative, covering special topics instead.  After that we returned to the war in Laos for Episodes 78 and 79.  That brought the Laotian narrative up to the year 1974, so the only thing left to talk about concerning the war in Laos is to tell how it ended.  I’m saving that for an episode where we cover how the war ended in all of Indochina.

Next, we went back to Vietnam, where it was time for the Americans to get involved completely.  We did that with Episodes 80 through 84, had another special episode with 85, and then continued the story with Episodes 86 and 87.  That brought us up to April 1968.

Now if you haven’t listened to all of the episodes I just mentioned, you know what your assignment is.  Go download or listen to those episodes, from wherever you got this one, and then come back here.  As for those of you who are ready to move on in the narrative, move on out!



For the United States, 1968 was one of the most turbulent years in its history.  To start with, there had been racial unrest for the past few years, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4 sparked a new round of riots in more than 100 American cities.  And protests against the Vietnam War grew more frequent, and got worse every year; now the idea among Americans that the Tet Offensive had been a defeat added fuel to the fire.

In New York City, students at Columbia University had been protesting the University’s plan to build a new gymnasium since late March.  The gym was to be built at the edge of the community of Harlem, on land that had been recreational space for Harlem’s residents.  Since this was public land, the university promised this would be a gym for everyone, but when the building plans were revealed, the only part of the gym that would be open to the public was the basement, and the public had to go through a back door to get to it; the rest of the gym was only for students and faculty.  Harlem residents, who didn’t want the gym in the first place, considered this both an insult and an act of segregation; they called the back door the “gym crow door,” with “Jim” spelled G-Y-M.

At first the protests were on the site where the gym would be built, Morningside Park, and the protesters came from the Student Afro-American Society, or SAS, a black student organization.  Soon they were joined by the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, an anti-war group made up mostly of white students.  Then on April 23, when the New York Police Department drove them away from the gym’s proposed site, 150 SAS and SDS students moved to the center of campus, and rushed into Hamilton Hall, the building holding Columbia’s administrative offices and some classrooms.  They took over the building and took Henry Coleman, the acting dean, as a hostage, holding him for one day before letting him leave unharmed.

Over the next few days, a total of five buildings were occupied.  Some students held counterprotests, calling for university life to return to normal.  There was also a fallout between the two groups leading the protests; the SDS was more interested in opposing the war than advocating civil rights, and soon the SAS ordered the SDS to leave Hamilton Hall.  Attempts to negotiate and mediate followed, with the administration agreeing to suspend work on the gym, but it refused amnesty for the protesters.  Then on April 30, police moved in and cleared the buildings, arresting 712 students. More than 100 students, four faculty members and a dozen police were injured by the time it was over.  Students called a strike, and the campus shut down for the rest of the semester.  The project to build the gym was also canceled, so you can say the SAS won eventually.

Meanwhile in the rest of the United States, hundreds of thousands of Americans took part in demonstrations in seventeen cities on April 27, because that day happened to be a Saturday.  Most of the demonstrations were against the war, and some were against racism as well.  The largest demonstration was in New York City, where more than 100,000 people marched in four separate parades to protest the war.  By contrast, a May Day parade, held in another part of the city on the same day, was intended to show support for America and the troops, but it only attracted a crowd of 2,700.  The other cities with demonstrations included Albany, NY, Austin, TX, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cleveland, Boston, Seattle, and Portland, OR.

We saw in the previous episode that on the last day of March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for president again.  By the end of May, the Democratic presidential campaign had turned into a race between three candidates, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Minnesota Senator Eugene J. McCarthy.  Kennedy and McCarthy were against the war, while Humphrey either called for continuing the war or beginning peace talks; in other words, Humphrey wanted to continue whatever Johnson was doing.  On June 4, Kennedy won the primary elections in California and South Dakota, while McCarthy won in New Jersey; this meant Kennedy was now the candidate most likely to get the nomination.  But then the next day, he was shot and mortally wounded in Los Angeles.  With Kennedy gone, his supporters either switched to McCarthy, or went to a new candidate, South Dakota Senator George McGovern.  The Democratic Convention for 1968 was probably the most violent in American history.  15,000 protesters came to Chicago to disrupt the convention; opposing them were 12,000 police, 6,000 Army troops, 6,000 National Guardsmen, and 1,000 intelligence agents.  Revulsion against the protesters prompted the convention delegates to nominate the Democratic candidate the protesters liked the least, Humphrey.

To complete the election picture for 1968, the Republicans also nominated their most recent vice president, Richard M. Nixon.  He consistently promised to end the war under his watch if elected, but many old-timers remembered he had been fiercely anti-communist in the 1940s and 1950s, and now they feared he would get violent if peace talks did not go the way he wanted.  But the most conservative candidate running was not Nixon; it was Alabama Governor George Wallace.  Wallace entered the race as a third party candidate, and while he was mainly interested in domestic issues, he showed he wanted to wage the war aggressively, by picking a fighting general, Curtis LeMay, for his vice presidential candidate.  However, Wallace also promised to get out of the war immediately, if he could not find a way to win after 90 days in office.


Now let’s get back to what was happening in Vietnam.  The North Vietnamese wanted to infiltrate the South by blazing a trail straight across the Demilitarized Zone, but as we saw in the last two episodes, several bases manned by US Marines on the south side of the DMZ blocked their way.  In late April they tried to take out Dong Ha, the base which held the 3rd Marine Division headquarters, meaning it was the most important base in the area.  Near Dong Ha was an abandoned village named Dai Do, so the resulting battle is called either Dai Do or Dong Ha.  Leading the communists were two regiments from North Vietnam’s elite 320th Division, a force numbering between 6,000 and 10,000 men; some 600 guerrillas came with them as well.  ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army, had two battalions of the 2nd Regiment, 1st Infantry Division patrolling around the mouth of the Cua Viet River, but it failed to catch the enemy sneaking past them, nor did they catch the enemy building bunkers around Dai Do.  The North and South Vietnamese had their first clash on April 29, about four and a half miles north of Dong Ha.  The next day, a North Vietnamese unit at the junction of the Bo Dieu and Cua Viet Rivers fired on a US Navy patrol boat, forcing it to return to Dong Ha.

The nearest American unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Marines, was sent to investigate.  This unit had been nicknamed the “Magnificent Bastards” for the previous battles they participated in, and because they were now understrength, a platoon from the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion, which included two T-48 medium tanks, was sent with them.  A platoon from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, was sent separately, as well an Army unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 21st Infantry, and some boats from a Navy assault group.  This meant the American force had a strength of 250 men, and they were going against an enemy force 24 to 40 times larger.

At Dai Do and Dong Huan, another abandoned village, the Marines ran into heavy enemy fire.  The leader of the “Magnificent Bastards,” Lieutenant Colonel William “Wild Bill” Weise, launched an attack to clear the area.  But Weise soon found out he was heavily outnumbered, and the Marines were forced to fall back to defensive positions north of the Cua Viet River.  Still, he had stopped the enemy advance, and it was the North Vietnamese turn to retreat when the Army battalion arrived and occupied Nhi Ha, a village to the northeast.  On May 3, the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Marines joined the battle, only to find out the North Vietnamese had fled.

The battle of Dai Do counts as a victory, because if the “Magnificent Bastards” and their partners had failed to stop their opponents, the North Vietnamese would have gone on to take Dong Ha and maybe even Quang Tri, thereby undermining all Allied defenses along the DMZ.  However, the cost was high.  The Marines suffered 81 casualties and another 297 seriously wounded; among the wounded was Colonel Weise, who received a Navy Cross for his leadership under fire.  The Army battalion at Nhi Ha sustained 29 deaths and 130 wounded.  But the enemy suffered even greater losses; they left 1,568 bodies on the battlefield.

I mentioned in the previous episode that North Vietnam gave up its plan to invade South Vietnam with a conventional force in 1968, because of the heavy losses it and the Viet Cong suffered in the Tet Offensive.  However, they also dropped the idea because they could not break through the defenses along the DMZ.  They could still infiltrate the South by sending troops and supply trucks down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but that road was unsuitable for tanks.  The North Vietnamese Army  will wait four years, until 1972, before trying again; by then most of the Americans will be gone.  And (spoiler alert!) it will actually take seven years, until 1975, for the conventional invasion to succeed.

Another major battle, the battle of Kham Duc, took place a few days later, and about 120 miles to the south.  During the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese 2nd Division had tried unsuccessfully to take Da Nang, and after it was driven off, it moved southwest, into Quang Nam Province.  The Americans knew where the 2nd Division was, but they did not know its intentions.  This prompted the American commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, to upgrade the defenses at Kham Duc, a Special Forces camp located ten miles from the border of Laos.  An isolated base, Kham Duc had been established in 1963 to monitor North Vietnamese infiltration.  260 South Vietnamese troops were flown in, as well as 125 engineers to lengthen the runway on the air strip, clear underbrush that the enemy could hide in, and build a perimeter defense.  Unlike Khe Sanh, the remote base attacked in the previous episode, Kham Duc looked like an easy target, because it was surrounded by jungle-covered high ground and it lacked supporting artillery.  The North Vietnamese were so confident they could take the base that they brought along a film crew, to record the “devastating defeat of American forces at Kham Duc”; such a victory would put them in a position of strength before the peace talks began.  A Viet Cong battalion, from the VC 1st Regiment, also took part in the assault on Kham Duc.

Near Kham Duc was an outpost named Ngok Tavak, defended by a multinational crew of Americans, South Vietnamese, and hill tribesmen or Montagnards.  Three Australian officers led this garrison, and the commander among them was Captain John White.  In early May, an artillery platoon of 43 Marines, with a Navy hospital corpsman and two 105 mm howitzers, were sent to strengthen Ngok Tavak.  This prompted the North Vietnamese to attack Ngok Tavak first, with a mortar bombardment before dawn on May 10. 

Captain White had made one Montagnard unit camp outside the perimeter, because it contained Viet Cong agents and he did not trust it.  Now when the battle began, this unit came to the entrance, called out, quote, “Don’t shoot, friendly,” unquote, and then they threw explosive-filled satchels, killing several Marines inside the garrison and knocking the howitzers out of commission.  Next, North Vietnamese with flamethrowers surged forward and lit a vehicle on fire.  An AC-47 helicopter gunship saved the day when it arrived overhead and fired its three multi-barrel machine guns on the attackers. The North Vietnamese tried to use tear gas, but the wind blew it back onto their own positions.  Half the attackers then withdrew, turning their attention to Kham Duc, leaving only the Viet Cong force to deal with Ngok Tavak’s remaining defenders.

Marine helicopters brought reinforcements from Kham Duc, but rocket-propelled grenades hit two of them on the landing zone, ruining both the helicopters and the landing zone.  White had 70 wounded that his men could not carry out on foot, so he called for a medevac helicopter to pick them up.  5th Special Forces headquarters ordered White to hold out for more reinforcements, but he knew that was impossible.  The outpost was surrounded, and water and ammunition were running short.  Therefore White called for napalm strikes on the pathway of the main attack and broke out with his surviving troops—83 Montagnards, three Australians, five Special Forces and 14 Marines—running along the burning pathway.  Marine helicopters picked up the escapees and took them to Kham Duc that evening.  The attack on Ngok Tavak killed 16 Americans and wounded 23.  Among the Montagnards, 30 were killed or wounded and 64 were missing, including those who deserted.

By the end of May 10, the US Air Force had flown in 628 more men and two howitzers to Kham Duc, which was now encircled by the North Vietnamese division.  The North Vietnamese in turn managed to score a direct hit on one of the howitzers, killing two and wounding 35.  More reinforcements were sent in on May 11, but at the same time, the top American generals in Vietnam took a look at the situation, and they recommended to General Westmoreland that the camp at Kham Duc be “relocated,” because of its poor defensive position.  At first the generals decided to undertake a three-day evacuation, starting on May 12, but when the enemy captured all seven outposts surrounding the base, orders were changed to a one-day evacuation.

Most of the airlifting would be done with the big cargo carrier among helicopters, the CH-47 Chinook.  However, one Chinook was shot down when it was just above the runway, and though the crew escaped, this burning wreck had to be cleared off the runway before any planes could land or take off.  Moments after the runway was cleared, a C-130 cargo plane landed under heavy fire, which shot out one tire and damaged the wing fuel tanks.  The pilot, Lt. Colonel Daryl Cole, was airlifting in supplies; he had not heard that the mission had been changed to an evacuation, and now a horde of hysterical Vietnamese civilians, the families of the Montagnard soldiers, swarmed aboard.  The C-130 could not take off, thanks to the combined weight of the cargo and passengers and the damage it had suffered.  After the families were removed, and two hours of repair work was done on the plane, it was able to take off again; this time the only passengers were three members of the Air Force Combat Control Team, whose radio equipment had been destroyed.  However, when this plane reached Cam Ranh Bay, the Combat Control Team was ordered to return to Kham Duc to manage the evacuation of everyone else.  By the time they arrived, the evacuation was all but done.  The pilot of the C-123 plane that was supposed to evacuate the three men did not see them, and had to leave before his plane came under enemy fire, but as he took off, a crew member spotted the Combat Control Team on the ground, so they alerted the next C-123 coming in.  Although the camp was now being over-run by the North Vietnamese, and two C-130s had already been shot down, the pilot of this C-123, Lt. Colonel Joe M. Jackson, landed on the air strip under intense fire, gathered all three controllers, and took off.  For this rescue, Jackson would be awarded the Medal of Honor.


While the battle of Kham Duc was happening, Hanoi announced that it was ready to talk with the Americans.  Negotiations began in Paris on May 13.  The American team was led by William Averell Harriman, a statesman with an impressive resume; among other things, he had been a governor of New York, a former ambassador, a former Secretary of Commerce, and most recently the Under-secretary of State for Political Affairs.  For the other side, the chief negotiator was Xuan Thuy, who had been North Vietnam’s foreign minister from 1963 to 1965.  When he attended the Geneva conference on Laos in 1961 and 62, an American diplomat described him as, quote, "a top-drawer negotiator, a dreadful fellow to face across the table day after day."  Unquote.

Unfortunately, the initial talks got nowhere.  The United States insisted that all North Vietnamese troops be withdrawn from South Vietnam, while Hanoi declared it had no troops below the 17th Parallel.  Hanoi also insisted that, before serious negotiations could begin, the United States would have to halt all bombing raids over Vietnam, and it called for a coalition government in South Vietnam, which would make the Viet Cong partners of the Saigon regime.  Because of the stubbornness on both sides, it would take nearly five years for the peace talks to produce an agreement.  Most of the time, all sides simply restated their positions and refused to make any concessions.  For a while in 1968 the negotiators even argued over whether the table they used for their meetings would be rectangular, which would represent two sides, or round, which would make everyone look equal; in the end they went with a round table.

Meanwhile, President Johnson decided it was time to put a new general in charge of the war.  Westmoreland’s pursuit of a war of attrition increased the body count all around, but now he had been in command for four years and looked no closer to winning than when he started.  Looking back with hindsight, it appears clear to me that Johnson and Westmoreland should have known better.  We saw in Episode 68 that the last French commander in Vietnam, General Henri Navarre, tried to win with a war of attrition, and that led to the disaster at Dienbienphu.  Anyway, Johnson recalled Westmoreland to Washington in June, promoting him to Chief of Staff of the Army.  To take his place in Vietnam, Johnson made Westmoreland’s deputy, General Creighton W. Abrams, the new commander. 

Whereas Westmoreland was a “fuss and feathers” general, who was immaculately groomed and always spoke with optimism when he made a public appearance, Abrams was not inclined to hold press conferences; when he did, he was gruff and sometimes disheveled.  He inspired the troops with his competence, plain talk and combat record.  During World War II, he was a tank commander under George Patton, and a hero of the Battle of the Bulge; he received two Distinguished Service Crosses, America’s second-highest award for valor, and Patton called him the best tank commander in the US Army.  For those reasons, the tank used by the US Army today, the M-1 Abrams, is named after him.  The troops serving under Abrams considered him a soldier’s soldier.  And while Westmoreland was fond of search-and-destroy missions, which got the troops out quickly after the fighting was done, Abrams believed it was more important to secure populated areas and win over the hearts of the civilians.  Thus, he would be the ideal general to have when the Americans began to turn over the whole war effort to ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

The first important operation to take place under Abrams was the Phoenix Program, which began on July 1.  The Vietnamese name for it was Phung Hoang, meaning “All Seeing Bird.”  Formulated and paid for by the US Central Intelligence Agency, this was a program where American, South Vietnamese and Australian forces would work together to destroy the Viet Cong infrastructure across South Vietnam, using infiltration, torture, capture, counter-terrorism, interrogation, and assassination.  Previously, the South Vietnamese government had set up several intelligence agencies to locate and root out Viet Cong agents, and they ended up competing with each other for power and money.  The American solution to this problem was to centralize all anti-Viet Cong activities that weren’t being carried out by the armed forces under one program, and to put a department of MACV, the US military command in Vietnam, in charge of the program.  This department was called Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, CORDS for short.  The head of CORDS, Robert Komer, did more than anyone else to get the Phoenix Program approved by his superiors, including President Johnson, but it was most active and successful under William E. Colby, the CIA executive who replaced Komer in 1968.  According to its own figures, in 1969 alone the Phoenix Program “neutralized” 19,534 Viet Cong members; 6,187 of them were killed, while the rest were either captured or persuaded to switch sides.

South Vietnamese paramilitary forces in the Phoenix Program were organized into special police units called Provincial Reconnaissance Units, or PRUs.  Created, trained, equipped, and managed by the CIA, the PRUs worked in secret, so all kinds of stories were made up about them, and while the PRUs were declared counter-terror units, we may never know what they really did.

Unfortunately, Americans involved in the Phoenix Program described it as being like agencies in the South Vietnamese government and army; full of inefficiency, corruption, and abuse.  South Vietnamese officials resisted working together, stole much of the US aid assigned to the program, and were so easy to bribe that 70 percent of the Viet Cong suspects captured were able to buy their freedom.  Even worse, the program assigned monthly quotas to villages, and village officials would meet those quotas by announcing that anyone killed in a local skirmish was a Viet Cong member.  Sometimes they would round up innocent peasants, with the intention of declaring them all Viet Cong and turning them over to the police, but then released those who could pay them off.  And other times they would torture suspected peasants, when the only evidence against them came from jealous neighbors.

In the United States, the Phoenix Program generated huge controversy when reports leaked out of alleged assassinations of suspected Viet Cong operatives, by South Vietnamese trained by the US.  Antiwar activists, who got part of their information from North Vietnamese propaganda, denounced the Phoenix Program as “mass murder.”  This eventually led to Congressional hearings in 1971, and the termination of the program in the same year.  When he testified before Congress about this, Colby stated, quote, "The Phoenix program was not a program of assassination.  The Phoenix program was a part of the overall pacification program."  Unquote.  Colby declared that 20,587 Viet Cong had been killed, quote, "mostly in combat situations…by regular or paramilitary forces."  Unquote.  No more than 14 percent of the Viet Cong victims had been killed by PRUs.

In fact, despite its shortcomings and excesses, the Phoenix Program turned out to be one of the most successful things the Americans tried in Vietnam.  After the war, communist leaders admitted that it had eliminated around sixty thousand authentic Viet Cong members.  Madame Nguyen Thi Dinh, a veteran Viet Cong leader, told Time-Life correspondent Stanley Karnow in an interview that the Phoenix Program had been, quote, “very dangerous,” unquote, and added, quote, “We never feared a division of troops, but the infiltration of a couple of guys into our ranks created tremendous difficulties for us.”  Unquote.  A deputy commander of the Viet Cong, General Tran Do, described the Phoenix Program as, quote, "extremely destructive."  Unquote.  Colonel Bui Tin, a North Vietnamese officer we will hear from again at the end of the war, called it a “devious and cruel” operation that cost, quote, “the lives of thousands of our cadres.”  Unquote.  The former VC minister of justice wrote in his memoirs, quote: "In some locations… Phoenix was dangerously effective.  In Hau Nghia Province, for example, …the [VCI] infrastructure was virtually eliminated."  End quote.

Finally, Nguyen Co Thach, a senior North Vietnamese diplomat during the war, and a foreign minister after the war, stated, quote, "We had many weaknesses in the South because of Phoenix.  In some provinces, 95 percent of the communist cadre had been assassinated or compromised by the Phoenix operation."  Unquote.  He further stated that Phoenix had, quote, "wiped out many of our bases."  Unquote.  That action alone caused many North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to flee across the border, to their secret bases in Cambodia.  Afterwards, the Viet Cong was no longer able to operate effectively.  When North Vietnam launched the Easter Offensive in 1972, and the Ho Chi Minh Campaign in 1975, the Viet Cong were only minor participants.


To keep the South Vietnamese government informed of what was happening at the peace talks, President Johnson met once more with President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, in Honolulu, Hawaii on July 19, 1968.  In October the US and South Vietnamese navies launched Operation Sealord, the largest combined naval operation of the war.  Here more than 1,200 American and South Vietnamese Navy gunboats and warships targeted North Vietnamese supply lines, along the coast of Cambodia and in the Mekong River delta.  They also successfully disrupted communist supply camps in the delta and along other waterways during the two-year operation.

Because the peace talks were deadlocked, Johnson came under pressure to make a concession to the North Vietnamese, because real progress towards peace would help Hubert Humphrey win the presidential election in November.  On October 31, Johnson gave in; he announced a complete halt to the US bombing of North Vietnam, thereby ending the bombing campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder.  During the three and a half years that Operation Rolling Thunder went on, US planes had dropped a million tons of bombs on North Vietnam, the equivalent of 800 tons per day, with little actual success in halting the flow of soldiers and supplies into the South or in damaging North Vietnamese morale.  In fact, the opposite happened as the North Vietnamese patriotically rallied around their Communist leaders during the onslaught.  Bombing campaigns almost never break morale.  The only case I can think of where one did was during the Kosovo phase of the Yugoslav Civil War, when US planes bombed Serbia for ten weeks in 1999.  Anyway, by the time Operation Rolling Thunder ended, many towns south of Hanoi had been leveled, with a US estimate of 52,000 civilian deaths.  In return, using sophisticated, Soviet-made air defense equipment, the North Vietnamese managed to shoot down 922 US fighters and bombers.

The concession did not work as planned.  On Election Day, Republican Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey, to become the next president.  I will finish today’s narrative with a disclaimer.  Most of my sources claim that Nixon won by pulling a trick with the peace talks, the first of a series of “October surprises” that Republicans and Democrats have accused each other of doing since then.  Supposedly Nixon did it with the help of Anna Chennault, one of his supporters and the widow of General Claire Chennault, the leader of the Flying Tigers squadron during World War II.  I mentioned General Chennault in Episode 64, when Ho Chi Minh had a meeting with him.  Anna was a personal friend of South Vietnamese President Thieu, and so the story goes, she passed him secret messages from Nixon, urging him to stay out of the peace talks because if he did so, Nixon would give him a better deal after he became president.  Thus, Thieu did not participate in the talks, and Nixon went to the White House.

Later on, at least by the time of the Watergate scandal, Nixon would look like the type of scoundrel who would undermine a peace agreement to get elected, but the truth of the matter is that in 1968, there was no peace agreement to scuttle.  Nobody at this date – not Johnson, Humphrey, Nixon, Thieu, or the North Vietnamese leaders, would have accepted a peace agreement, unless it was completely on their terms.  Thieu had no intention of participating if the Viet Cong were going to be there, and the North Vietnamese Communist Party Boss, Le Duan, only would have accepted an agreement that called for a complete withdrawal of American forces and a dismantling of the Saigon government.  Of course the Americans in charge at this point would not accept an agreement like that, since the purpose of American involvement in Vietnam for nearly twenty years had been to support a non-communist government in Saigon.

Lien-Hang Nguyen, a professor at the University of Kentucky, and author of the book Hanoi’s War,is an expert on North Vietnam’s foreign ministry records, and in a 2015 interview, she stated that Le Duan, quote, “wasn’t ready to negotiate seriously until the summer of 1972,” unquote.  It took the defeat of the Easter Offensive to convince him that North Vietnam could not win, as long as the Americans were around.  Still, he gained an advantage by demanding unacceptable terms in 1968.  When Nixon took office, he would find himself stuck with a bombing halt hindering his war effort, and peace talks that had no chance of success.

Okay, that brings us to the end of 1968.  Lately I have ended each year of the Second Indochina War with a series of numbers to tell you how the war was going.  For 1968, the year ended with 495,000 American troops – almost half a million! – in Vietnam.  This was the most expensive year in the war for the Americans; they spent $77.4 billion, which is worth $569 billion in 2020 dollars – almost half of what was spent on the entire war.  1968 was also the bloodiest year for the Americans and their allies.  More than 1,000 Americans were killed each month, for a year-end total of 14,000 – almost half of the 30,000 American deaths suffered to date.  The South Vietnamese suffered nearly twice as many losses; 27,915 ARVN soldiers were killed.  For the other side, it was estimated that around two hundred thousand communists were killed, roughly five of them for every American and South Vietnamese soldier lost.

An estimated 150,000 soldiers from North Vietnam infiltrated the South via the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1968.  Although the US conducted up to 200 air strikes against the trail each day, up to 10,000 North Vietnamese trucks were driving on it at any given time.  And we saw with Operation Sealord that North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies were now sneaking in by way of Cambodia, too, but I couldn’t find any figures on how much got to the Viet Cong that way.


I think you will agree with me when I say this about 1968:  “That was certainly a busy year, wasn’t it?”  Not only did it take two whole episodes to cover wartime events in 1968, there were plenty of other events unrelated to the war, from the Olympics in Grenoble, France and Mexico City, to Apollo 8, the first manned flight to the moon.  Twenty years later, Time Magazine printed a special issue all about memories from 1968, entitled “The Year That Shaped a Generation.”  So join me next time when we move on to 1969 and see a new administration take over the American side of the war.  What will they do that is different?  We will say goodbye to one of the key players on the North Vietnamese side as well, though that won’t affect them as much as the change in presidents will affect the United States.

Did you hear any ads while listening to this episode?  Of course you didn’t, because this podcast is completely listener-supported!  Nor do I require you to pay in order to listen to some of the episodes, as a few other podcasters have done.  If you are enjoying these episodes, especially if you are stuck at home and looking for things to do, please consider supporting the show.  The easiest way to do it is by making a secure donation through Paypal.  Go to the Blubrry.com page for any episode of this podcast, and click on the gold button that says “Donate.”  For the pages of the episodes recorded in 2020, there are also links to the Podcast’s Hall of Fame page and to my Patreon page, next to the gold button.  Those who donate will get their first name or initial added to the Hall of Fame page, and like I said at the beginning of the episode, if you donate in more than one year, you will get the coveted Water Buffalo icon placed next to your name!

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<Insert The Prisoner Dialog>

And while you’ve got free time on your hands, write a review of the podcast if you haven’t already, on one of the websites or apps that offers it.  Also check out the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page, for the additional content I post there.  This week, for example, I shared a news story about a village in Indonesia where young people are dressing up at ghosts, to scare people back indoors during the Corona virus lockdown.  And finally, keep spreading the word about the podcast; do it online if you aren’t going out now.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 87: The Second Indochina War, Part 14


Today is April Fool’s Day and a new podcast episode is available for your listening pleasure.  That’s no joke!  This episode covers what many people consider the climax of the Second Indochina War — the Tet Offensive.  Here the Americans won all the battles, but they may have lost the war here as well.  Also covered are the battle of Khe Sanh, and the beginning of the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.



This episode is dedicated to Deren T., for generously donating to the podcast.  This podcast is entirely listener-supported; it has not had a sponsor in more than a year.  Thank you for sticking with us in these difficult times, and that’s no joke, even though today is April Fool’s Day!  May you and your family come out of the Corona virus pandemic stronger than you were previously.

Episode 87: The Second Indochina War, Part 14

or, The Tet Offensive

Greetings, dear listeners!  If you have listened to the other episodes about the First and Second Indochina Wars, I hoped you noticed the overall trends, from the end of World War II to the point where the previous episode broke off, at the end of 1967.  American involvement started during the First Indochina War, when US President Harry Truman decided the United States would pay for the French war effort.  Though the United States spent $3 billion, the French lost.  Then the ink was barely dry on the cease-fire agreement ending the First Indochina War when the Second Indochina War, alias the Vietnam War in the United States and the American War in Vietnam, broke out.  Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, responded the same way as Truman, by giving military and financial aid to the faction fighting communism in Vietnam, which now was the South Vietnamese government.  However, that didn’t get results, so the next president, John F. Kennedy, sent military advisors to go with the military aid, and then the commitment to winning the war increased every year, as more money, equipment and advisors were sent.  This didn’t work either, and the South Vietnamese army and government seemed unable, and even not very willing, to defend themselves.

By 1965 the next US president, Lyndon B. Johnson, saw this as a case of “If want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.”  Therefore he committed ground troops to the action.  Again, the new commitment did not change the course of the war, though more and more soldiers were sent every year, and American leaders, both in Washington and in South Vietnam, declared that the Americans and South Vietnamese were winning.  Likewise, the introduction of bombing missions, over North Vietnam and Laos, proved equally ineffective.  By the end of 1967 there were nearly half a million American servicemen in Vietnam, and victory was no closer than before.  It is at this point that today’s narrative begins.

At this point I need to ask the listeners, have you listened to the rest of the episodes about the Second Indochina War?  If not, you need to go to where you got this episode, and listen to the rest of the story. Here are the episodes in the series:

For the part of the war in Vietnam, Episodes 71, 72, 73, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, and 86.

And for the part of the war in Laos, Episodes 74, 75, 78, and 79.  Now go get ‘em!

Oh, are you still here?  Then you must be ready for today’s narrative.  Let’s go!



On the first day of 1968, a radio broadcast from Hanoi featured Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party, reading a poem that called on his people to march to the ultimate victory, when North and South Vietnam would be reunited.  Because of this broadcast, and because other messages sent from Hanoi to Viet Cong units had been intercepted, the Americans and South Vietnamese knew that North Vietnam was planning a major action in the near future, but they did not know any of the details.  The American military commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, thought the action would happen sometime in January, and that the North Vietnamese goal was to capture Khe Sanh, the American base in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, near the borders of both North Vietnam and Laos.  We saw the first battle for Khe Sanh in the previous episode, the so-called “Hill Fights”; now between 20,000 and 30,000 North Vietnamese troops gathered in the area, to go against 5,000 US Marines at Khe Sanh.  The Americans knew the North Vietnamese were there; Operation Niagara I, a series of air reconnaissance missions, was launched in January 1968 to locate where the enemy forces were concentrated; extra supplies and artillery rounds were sent to Khe Sanh as well.  Westmoreland also guessed correctly that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would stage attacks in other parts of South Vietnam around the same time, but he incorrectly dismissed these as diversions, intended to draw American attention away from Khe Sanh.

One of the generals under Westmoreland was Frederick Weyand, who had served in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II.  Weyand had disagreed with parts of Westmoreland’s strategy in the past.  Now Weyand’s troops were stationed along the Cambodian border, and because he also expected attacks in places besides Khe Sanh, he requested that his troops be pulled back to the area around Saigon; Westmoreland reluctantly granted the request.  That decision would help a lot, when the troops were needed to defend Saigon during the upcoming offensive; Weyand later earned the nickname “the Savior of Saigon” for moving the troops.  As it turned out, Westmoreland got the enemy strategy backward; the attack on Khe Sanh would be a distraction from the attack on Saigon, not the other way around.

The battle for Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968, as the North Vietnamese troops around the outpost isolated it, beginning a 77-day siege.  This attracted enormous media attention back in America.  Observers on both sides compared Khe Sanh with the battle of Dien Bien Phu, where in 1954, Vietnamese communists besieged and captured that French outpost, thereby persuading the French to abandon Vietnam completely.  If you don’t remember Dien Bien Phu, go listen to Episode 68 of this podcast for the details.

In Washington the US president, Lyndon Johnson, anxiously told the Joint Chiefs Chairman,  General Earle Wheeler, quote, "I don’t want any damn Dinbinfoo."  Unquote.  Johnson sent Marine reinforcements to Khe Sanh, with special orders to hold the base, while declaring, quote, "…the eyes of the nation and the eyes of the entire world, the eyes of all of history itself, are on that little brave band of defenders who hold the pass at Khe Sanh…"  Unquote.  Then Johnson demanded a guarantee "signed in blood" from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the Marines would succeed.

The aerial portion of Khe Sanh’s defense was called Operation Niagara II.  It got that name because it dropped a “waterfall of bombs” on the enemy.  In all about 2,000 aircraft were used, of which as many as 800 could be in the air at one time.  The airplanes ranged from B-52 bombers to A-1 Skyraiders, one-man fighters; lots of helicopters saw action here, too.  At the peak of the battle, North Vietnamese soldiers were hit around the clock every 90 minutes by groups of three B-52s apiece, which dropped more than 110,000 tons of bombs during the siege.  This would be one of the most concentrated applications of aerial firepower in the history of warfare.  As for artillery, official records report that the Americans fired 142,081 rounds at the North Vietnamese, with some estimating that as many as 200,000 rounds were fired.  Together the Marines and the Air Force destroyed nearly every living thing within one kilometer of the base.  Here is how one American Air Force pilot described the destruction, in the book The Limits of Intervention, by Townsend Hoopes.

(Read quote)

Podcast footnote:  In the previous episode I told you what the North Vietnamese strategy was, for late 1967 and 1968.  Here it is again, to refresh your memory.  It was thought up by the Communist Party boss in Hanoi, Le Duan, and though Vo Nguyen Giap, the military commander, opposed it, he tried his best to carry it out.  The first phase of the plan was to launch a series of attacks against remote outposts, to lure American and South Vietnamese troops away from South Vietnam’s cities, especially Saigon.  These were the so-called “Border Battles,” of which Khe Sanh was the latest one.  The second phase of the plan, what would come to be known as the Tet Offensive, was an attack against the cities themselves by Viet Cong forces aided by North Vietnamese troops, in the hope of “liberating” as many villages, hamlets and towns as possible, which would ignite a "general uprising" to overthrow the government of South Vietnam.  Finally, for the third phase, North Vietnamese troops and tanks would invade South Vietnam, joining the Viet Cong for the final victory.  End footnote.


In Vietnam, the most important day of the year is New’s Years Day, which they call Tet.  Tet is short for Têt Nguyên Ðán, which means "Feast of the First Morning of the First Day."  Like Chinese New Year, it falls on the first day of the year, according to the Chinese lunar calendar.  Because lunar calendars have 354 days, rather than 365 days, the date wanders around on the Gregorian calendar used by most Western nations, but it always takes place sometime in January or February.  For example, in this year, 2020, Tet fell on January 20, and next year it will fall on February 12.

Podcast Footnote: I told you in previous episodes that I used to live in Orlando, Florida, which has a good-sized Vietnamese community.  They own all the shops in one neighborhood on the north side of Orlando, and my wife and I used to go there to get special ingredients for her cooking.  After we moved away, the Vietnamese purchased an additional shopping center on the west side, of which the largest store used to be a Publix supermarket.  The owners of those shops are hardworking folks, who are open almost every day of the year; even if you go there on Christmas Day, you are likely to find them open.  The one holiday the shops are certain to be closed for is Tet.  End footnote.

In 1967 both sides agreed to a truce so they could observe Tet, and they kept it for four days.  Because that had worked out well, they agreed to a Tet truce for 1968 as well.  This time, Tet was scheduled to begin on January 31.  Thus, on January 30, most South Vietnamese soldiers went home for the holiday, while North Vietnamese soldiers below the Demilitarized Zone celebrated in their camps, giving each other gifts and candy.  They celebrated a day early because they would launch a massive attack on the next day, catching their enemies completely off guard.

At 3 AM on the morning of January 31, 1968, 84,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops struck at more than 120 cities, towns, hamlets and bases in South Vietnam.  The targets included 36 of South Vietnam’s 44 provincial capitals.  Most surprising of all was the attack on Saigon, a city supposedly safe from the communists.  Here North Vietnamese units entered Cho Lon, the Chinese neighborhood of Saigon, while the Viet Cong attacked the presidential palace, Tan Son Nhut Airport, the Phu Tho racetrack, and the headquarters of ARVN, the South Vietnamese army.  Seventeen Viet Cong commandos even broke into the US Embassy compound, before American soldiers arrived and killed them.  Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker was asleep at his residence a few blocks away, and when he woke up he was rushed to the home of a subordinate, where he would be safer.  Allen Wendt, a junior economic specialist who was in charge during the night shift, escaped by locking himself in the fortified code room.

There also was a battle for the main radio station in Saigon, where the Viet Cong rammed a car full of dynamite through the gate and then wiped out the platoon guarding the station, catching most of the guards while they were sleeping.  The invaders brought a tape-recorded speech from Ho Chi Minh, which they planned to broadcast, but it never went on the air; the transmitter was located fourteen miles from the station, and the attack triggered a signal at the transmitter that cut off the station.  Then, until the radio station was recovered, South Vietnamese technicians at the transmitter played what music they had:  Viennese waltzes, Beatles hits, and South Vietnamese marching songs.

Around the capital city, 35 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong battalions battled 50 battalions of American and Allied troops.  General Weyand launched a counter-attack at Tan Son Nhut on February 1, that broke the Viet Cong in the neighborhood and saved both the headquarters of ARVN  and MACV, the American military command, from possible capture.

By February 1, the Americans and their allies had prevailed in the rest of Saigon.  There were just a few enemy soldiers left to be rooted out.  The last of them were killed or captured at the Phu Tho racetrack, three weeks later; since Phu Tho was a venue for sporting events, it provided plenty of hiding places.

Naturally, General Westmoreland, President Johnson, and other American commanders declared this a victory.  However, TV crews had filmed the fighting in the US Embassy, as well as bloody scenes from other areas showing American soldiers under fire, dead and wounded.  Their footage was quickly relayed back to the states for broadcast on the evening news programs, giving Americans at home a front row seat to the assaults against their fathers, sons and brothers, ten thousand miles away.

Podcast footnote:  I remember my family got our first color TV in 1968.  Because color TV sets were now becoming common in American homes, viewers saw the Vietnam carnage “in living color,” as we said in those days.  1968 was definitely a busy year, and we saw a lot of its other key events in color as well, from the presidential election to the flight of Apollo 8 around the moon.  End footnote.


For Americans, one of the most gruesome scenes of the war also happened on February 1.  A South Vietnamese general, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, was walking the streets of Saigon, looking for ways to strengthen the city’s defenses.  We first saw Loan in Episode 83, as one of the leaders who put down the Buddhist revolt in 1966.  Now he was the national chief of police.  Near a pagoda, a patrol brought a prisoner to him; this was Nguyen Van Lem, a Viet Cong fighter who was trying to hide by wearing civilian clothing, but was captured anyway.  Loan drew a revolver, and waved away bystanders in the line of fire.  Then he held the pistol to the prisoner’s head, and shot him, in full view of Eddie Addams, an Associated Press photographer, and Vo Suu, an NBC news cameraman.  Adams clicked the shutter of his camera right when Loan pulled the trigger, and that photo, which became the most famous photo taken during the war, appeared on the front page of most American newspapers the next morning.  Vo Suu filmed a video of the execution with his camera, and it appeared on the NBC news.  Võ Suu reported that after the shooting Loan went to a reporter and said, quote, ”These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me.”  Unquote.

The general impression one gets from looking at the picture taken by Adams is that Loan was a cold-blooded killer.  There is more to the story, though.  When he was captured, Lem was accused of  cutting the throats of a South Vietnamese colonel, Nguyen Tuan, his wife, their six children and the colonel’s 80-year-old mother.  And Loan claimed in a later interview that he shot Lem because the prisoner was not wearing a uniform, so the rules of the Geneva Convention about treating captured enemy soldiers did not apply to Lem.

At the end of the war, Loan escaped to the United States.  Settling in Virginia, he opened a restaurant called Les Trois Continents, which served French and Vietnamese food, plus hamburgers and pizza.  The restaurant stopped earning a profit when the public found out who the owner really was.  Loan died in 1998, and Eddie Adams said this about him.  Quote:  "The guy was a hero.  America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him."  Unquote.

And here is what Adams wrote about Loan for Time Magazine.  Quote:

“The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.  Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.  People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation.  They are only half-truths.  What the photograph didn’t say was, "What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?"  End quote.

Finally, here is another relevant quote.  It comes from Don Oberdorfer’s 1971 book Tet!; The Turning Point in the Vietnam War.  Quote:

"It says something about this war that the great picture of the Tet Offensive was Eddie Adam’s photograph of a South Vietnamese general shooting a man with his arms tied behind his back, that the most memorable quotation was Peter Arnett’s damning epigram from Ben Tre, ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’ and that the only Pulitzer Prize specifically awarded for reporting an event of the Tet [sic] offensive was given two years later to Seymour M. Hersh, who never set foot in Vietnam, for exposing the U.S. Army massacre of more than a hundred civilians at My Lai."

End quote.

Two of the references in the last quote need explaining.  You have probably heard of Peter Arnett, because of his controversial coverage of the more recent wars in Iraq, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, while working for CNN and NBC respectively.  Well, at the beginning of his career in the 1960s, he was an Associated Press reporter stationed in Vietnam.  Ben Tre was the capital of a province in the Mekong delta, and like Saigon, Ben Tre came under attack during the Tet Offensive.  In that battle, 328 Viet Cong were killed, but to drive them out, Allied commanders ordered the bombing and shelling of the town, so 528 civilians were killed as well, and more than 5,000 homes were destroyed.  In his report of the battle, Arnett quoted a US major as saying, quote, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” unquote, but he never gave the officer’s name, so we can’t verify if the officer really said it.  Arnett’s quote rapidly spread through the rest of the American media, and was altered into the famous phrase, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”  In this form, the quote became a popular slogan for the anti-war movement.

As for the My Lai massacre, I will have to talk about that another time.  In fact, it deserves its own episode.  A year and a half ago, I listened to another podcast that devoted two episodes to My Lai, each more than two hours long.


While the media concentrated its attention on Saigon, the fiercest battle of the Tet Offensive took place in Hue.  Veteran listeners will remember that Hue had been the capital of a united Vietnam from 1802 to 1884; go to Episodes 25 and 26 to hear what I said about Vietnam in those years.  With a population of 140,000, Hue was the third largest city in South Vietnam, and though it was only about 62 miles from the Demilitarized Zone, this historical city had escaped serious damage from the war – until 1968.  Nevertheless, the communists wanted it; capturing Hue would be a great psychological victory for them.

On January 31, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops stormed the city together; their numbers would eventually grow to 12,000.  Some of them were infiltrators who had joined the Tet holiday crowds; the invaders quickly pushed aside the small ARVN garrisons and occupied the massive old fortress, called simply “the Citadel.”  The only areas they did not capture were the ARVN headquarters, located in the Citadel, and the headquarters of MACV, the American military command, which was in the part of the city south of the Perfume River.  Then they rounded up between 4,000 and 6,000 “enemies of the people”: mostly South Vietnamese government officials, captured South Vietnamese officers, Catholic priests, doctors, teachers and foreigners.  The bodies of 3,000 were later found in mass graves, and the fate of the rest is unknown; they simply disappeared.  Although Western reporters came to Hue after the fighting started, few had anything to say about the executions, and some denied they even happened.

To take back Hue, the Allies committed 11 ARVN battalions, 4 US Army battalions, and 3 US Marine battalions, with the US Air Force backing them up.  This led to the kind of battle conventional armed forces try to avoid, if possible – an urban battle.  They recovered the city slowly, advancing house by house, street by street, aided by American air and artillery strikes.  For the Citadel, there was twenty-six days of nonstop fighting, tank attacks, reinforcements, and more air strikes; by the time it was over, the Citadel had been almost completely destroyed.  And because the Viet Cong were a guerrilla army, the Americans and South Vietnamese did not always recognize the enemy when they were seen – until the enemy shot at them.  An elite South Vietnamese unit, the Black Panther Company, was given the honor of taking back the imperial palace.

The last enemy troops were expelled from Hue by March 2.  Allied losses were 142 Marines killed, 857 Marines wounded, 74 US Army soldiers killed and 507 wounded, and 384 South Vietnamese killed and 1,830 wounded.  The number of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong killed was reported at 5,113.  If you just go by the numbers, it was a great victory for the Americans and South Vietnamese; for every soldier they lost, they killed 8.5 enemy fighters.  But those who saw the media’s coverage of the battle saw a different story.  News stories showed pictures of American soldiers who were filthy, exhausted, wounded, or dead, with hollow-eyed refugees and a city laid waste.  As one reporter put it, quote, "All that was left of Hue was ruins divided by a river."  Unquote.  This coverage undermined efforts by American officials to convince the public that the enemy was demoralized and near collapse, and that the end of the Vietnam War was within sight.



Now let’s go back to the battle that started before the Tet Offensive began, at Khe Sanh.  As it turned out, the American and South Vietnamese forces stationed in and near Khe Sanh enjoyed a much stronger position than the French had at Dien Bien Phu, mainly because of the massive bombing of the surrounding hills.  Moreover, the French only had eight artillery batteries to defend Dien Bien Phu, based directly on the site, while the Americans not only had plenty of mortars and howitzers at Khe Sanh, but also long-range guns that could blast enemy positions from beyond Khe Sanh’s defense perimeter.  So far the operation to defend Khe Sanh had been called Operation Scotland I.  At the end of March, General Westmoreland replaced it with Operation Pegasus, a joint Army, Marine and ARVN ground advance.  This reopened the road to the base, Route 9.  Another Operation, known as the Super Gaggle, ended the resupply crisis by blanketing North Vietnamese positions with massive firepower, tear gas and smoke screens, while helicopters swooped down to drop supplies onto the hill outposts.

Podcast footnote:  We saw in previous episodes that Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese military commander, had learned the lessons of being a general by making mistakes that cost thousands of his own soldiers’ lives.  When Giap heard the first casualty reports from Khe Sanh, the numbers shocked him so much that he personally flew to the front in late January, so he could see the situation for himself.  While there, he almost became one of those casualties – a flight of 36 B-52s dropped 1,000 tons of bombs near his field headquarters.  Giap hadn’t been able to keep his visit secret.  The Americans suspected, after intercepting communist radio traffic, that a V.I.C., a very important communist, was in the area, so Westmoreland ordered a larger than usual air strike in an attempt to get him.  End footnote.

On April 8, North Vietnamese troops withdrew from the area, ending the eleven-week siege of Khe Sanh.  At the base itself, the Americans had suffered 274 killed and 2,541 wounded.  For Operations Scotland I and Pegasus, there were 730 dead, 2,641 wounded, and 7 missing.  ARVN casualties were 229 killed, 436 wounded.  Because this area was on the border of Laos, some royal Laotian troops were involved here, too, but I couldn’t find any casualty figures for them.  Likewise, my sources do not agree on the number of North Vietnamese casualties.  While 1,602 enemy bodies were counted, US officials estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 North Vietnamese were killed in action, while a secret MACV report estimated 5,550 were killed.  The North Vietnamese in turn reported 1,436 wounded before mid-March, and 2,469 killed from January 20 to July 20.  Why did they mention casualties until July, if the battle ended in April?  There was still activity in the area.  In the middle of April, Operation Scotland II was launched, a search-and-destroy mission to get those North Vietnamese who might still be in the vicinity.  It lasted until the end of February 1969; over the course of that operation, 435 Americans and 3,304 North Vietnamese were killed.  Put all of these numbers together, and they mean that for the Americans, Khe Sanh was the bloodiest battle of the whole war.

President Johnson praised the American troops, saying, quote, "…they vividly demonstrated to the enemy the utter futility of his attempts to win a military victory in the South."  Unquote.  However, the perception that Khe Sanh was a victory was shattered in early July as American forces abandoned the base, destroying anything that they could not take with them.  What the North Vietnamese could not destroy in months of fighting, the Americans now destroyed in a matter of hours.  The Marines stationed at Khe Sanh were furious and almost revolted when they heard their new orders; as long as they held the base, they felt their buddies had not died in vain.  Afterwards, to many Americans Khe Sanh would be a symbol of the pointless sacrifice and muddled tactics that would eventually doom US war efforts in Vietnam.  The abandonment also meant that General Westmoreland’s claims that Khe Sanh was indispensable to the US war effort were false.  A North Vietnamese official would label the closing of Khe Sanh air base as America’s "gravest defeat" so far.

For the North Vietnamese, the Tet Offensive was both a military and political failure.  By February 2, all of their attacks had ended, except for those against Saigon, Hue and Khe Sanh.  All of the land captured on the first day of the offensive was recovered.  Even worse, not a single ARVN unit deserted or defected to the other side, and there was no "general uprising" among South Vietnamese peasants against the Saigon government.  After all, most South Vietnamese did not want to live under communism; many of them were refugees who had fled the North when Vietnam was divided in 1954.  After the war, many communist veterans would confess that their worst memories of the war came from the Tet Offensive.

There were three more attacks on Saigon, from February 18 to 19, May 5 to 12, and May 25 to June 18.  Although each was smaller than the Tet attack, they succeeded in leveling half the city.  Late April and May also saw smaller attacks near Da Nang, and in Binh Dinh and Kontum provinces.  Together these attacks are called Mini-Tet, and this time the goal was not to overthrow the Saigon government or gain territory; just create as much chaos as possible.  Because the North Vietnamese Army was now the main force involved on the communist side, rather than the Viet Cong, Mini-Tet was much bloodier than the initial phase of the Tet Offensive.  US casualties across South Vietnam for the month of May 1968 were 2,169 killed, making this the deadliest month of the entire Vietnam War for US forces.  The South Vietnamese also had heavy losses, at 2,054 killed.  Eventually the communists were driven away again and Saigon was secure once more.

While American and South Vietnamese casualties had been heavy, communist casualties were appalling.  Of the 84,000 communists that took part in the Tet Offensive and Mini-Tet, 58,000 were killed, wounded or captured.  Every unit that took part was decimated; some companies only had two or three men left.  The Viet Cong could only count 45,000 fighters left, and during the remaining years of the war, they never recovered to the strength they had before 1968.  As a result, the North Vietnamese Army took over most of the fighting.  Henceforth the war would be more of a conventional conflict than a guerrilla one.  And the third phase of the offensive which Hanoi had been planning, an invasion of South Vietnam with conventional forces, was canceled for the time being.  That wouldn’t happen until 1972.


Tet’s only success for the communists was an unexpected one; it broke the will of the American people and Congress to continue the war indefinitely.  American support for the war had been steadily slipping in 1967, because of mounting casualties, rising taxes to pay for the war, and the feeling that there was no end to it in sight.  After Tet, the general American attitude was that it was a mistake to get involved in Vietnam in the first place, but now that they were there, they should win – or get out.  One of those disillusioned Americans was CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite, the so-called “most trusted man in America."  Cronkite visited Vietnam in February 1968, and came back convinced that the war was unwinnable.  On February 27, Cronkite gave a special report on TV, called "Report from Vietnam:  Who, What, When, Where, Why?"  He finished it with this editorial from his executive producer, Ernest Leiser.  This is a long quote, so bear with me.  Quote:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.  They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations.  It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that – negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms.  For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.  This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle.  And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.  To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.  To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism.  To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.  On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations.  But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

End quote.

As the first phase of the Tet Offensive wound down, General Westmoreland requested more soldiers again, this time asking for 206,000.  General Wheeler passed on this request to President Johnson.  Because the number of soldiers available at home was depleted, this would mean calling more than a hundred thousand from the reserves, meaning another draft.  Meanwhile in Washington, Johnson appointed Clark Clifford, a well-known Washington lawyer and an old friend of his, as the new Secretary of Defense.  The first thing Clifford did was conduct an intensive study of the entire situation in Vietnam.  He discovered there was no concept or overall plan anywhere in Washington to win the war, so he reported to Johnson that the United States should not escalate the war anymore.  Quote:  "The time has come to decide where we go from here."  Unquote.

General Westmoreland’s latest request for troops was kept secret until March 10, when The New York Times revealed it with a headline that declared in all caps, quote:


End quote.  I’m not surprised that the Times would do that.  The story gave no details besides what was in the headlines, but the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, denied it anyway.  Nevertheless, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called Rusk to testify, and he was grilled for two days on live TV about the troop request and the overall effectiveness of Johnson’s war strategy.  After all, if both the president and the commanding general called the Tet Offensive a victory, why were so many troops needed?  Johnson sent General Wheeler to meet secretly with Westmoreland in the Philippines on March 23, and here Wheeler gave the president’s answer.  Instead of 206,000 more troops, Westmoreland would only get 13,500.  General Wheeler also instructed Westmoreland to urge the South Vietnamese to expand their own war effort.  For example, the Saigon government had only recently begun to draft eighteen-year-olds for military service, while Americans of the same age had been fighting in Vietnam for nearly three years.


One of the last victims of the Tet Offensive was Johnson’s presidency.  In November 1967 an open opponent of the war effort, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, announced he would run against Johnson as a Democratic candidate for president, and Democrats who wanted to get out of Vietnam began to rally around him.  Then when Johnson heard about Walter Cronkite’s report on Vietnam, he supposedly said, quote, "If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America."  Unquote.  March 12, 1968 saw the first round of voting in the 1968 presidential election, the New Hampshire primary.  With Johnson running for re-election as the incumbent, he should have won easily, but the result was a squeaker; out of 50,000 votes cast, Johnson finished only 300 votes ahead of McCarthy.  This indicated that political support for Johnson was a lot weaker than it had been in the past.  Around the same time, public opinion polls revealed Johnson’s overall approval rating had slipped to 36 percent, while approval of his Vietnam war policy had slipped to 26 percent.  Other polls indicated that Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a brother of the former president, was more popular than Johnson, so on March 16, Kennedy announced he was running for president, too.  Like McCarthy, RFK campaigned on an anti-war platform.  As an advisor to his brother, he had been one of those who helped form President John F. Kennedy’s Vietnam policy, but now he repented of that, saying, quote, "past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation."  Unquote.  Johnson’s advisors began to tell him he was not likely to win if he ran against both McCarthy and Kennedy.

In this time of stress, Johnson turned to the group of advisors he trusted the most.  These were fourteen elder statesmen from the East Coast establishment who together were simply called the “Wise Men.”  Among them were Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, Truman’s United Nations envoy, Arthur Goldberg, the former ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, and three retired generals:  the hero of D-Day, Omar Bradley, Matthew Ridgeway, and Maxwell Taylor.

Clark Clifford convened the “Wise Men” first, for a dinner at the State Department on March 25.  Here he had three experts on Vietnam give a blunt assessment of the situation.  Their conclusion was that because the Saigon government was corrupt and unpopular, and because ARVN was incompetent when left by itself, it would take five, maybe ten years, to achieve real progress.  Everyone listening was shocked – they knew the American people would not want to wage a war for that long.  The next day, the "Wise Men" gathered at the White House for lunch with the President.  Led by Dean Acheson, the man who had persuaded Truman to finance the French armed forces during the First Indochina War, they now called for a US withdrawal from Vietnam, with only four of those present dissenting from that opinion.

Johnson was scheduled to give a televised speech about Vietnam on the night of March 31.  In it, he urged that peace talks begin at once, declaring, quote, "We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations."  Unquote.  He also announced an end to the bombing of North Vietnam above the 20th Parallel, meaning that Hanoi and Haiphong were no longer targets; the US Air Force would only continue to bomb places less than 210 miles from the Demilitarized Zone.  Most of the speech was written by the president’s speechwriters, but the last words were written by Johnson himself, and those stunned the world.  Johnson ended the speech by announcing that he was ending his campaign for re-election as president.  Quote:

<Insert LBJ quote.>

End Quote.

Deteriorating health, as well as declining popularity, had moved him to make this decision.  Although he would remain in office until his second term ended in January 1969, after his abdication speech he was what observers of American politics call a “lame duck.”  Soon the war in Vietnam would become someone else’s war.


And with that, we’ve run out of time for today.  In fact, we went a few minutes over, compared with how long these episodes usually run.  I don’t need to tell you that we are living in an extraordinary year.  Recently I saw someone mention on Facebook that for the first time in history, we can save the world by sitting on our couches and watching TV – so don’t mess this up!  Heck, both my daughter and her husband are now working from home, thanks to today’s distance technology.  Myself, I plan to keep on recording for the time being.

Like many other folks, my income has dropped since the Corona virus scare hit my community, so if you are getting anything out of this podcast and can afford to give it your financial support, please do so.  This podcast depends on your financial support to keep running, and to justify all the work I put into it.  One way you can support it is by making a secure donation through Paypal.  Go to the Blubrry.com page for any episode of this podcast, and click on the gold button that says “Donate.”  I think of the button as being like the tip jar in a bar or restaurant, for a musician or a specialty chef.  Next to the button, you will also find a link to the Podcast’s Hall of Fame page.  Those who donate will get their first name or initial added to the Hall of Fame page, and if you donate in more than one year, you will get the coveted Walter the Water Buffalo icon placed next to your name!

If you think the podcast is worth more than a one-time donation, you can also become a patron of it.  Recently I set up a Patreon page for that, where you can pledge to give $1, $3, $5, or $10 at the beginning of each month.  Follow the links to it on the Blubrry.com pages for the latest episodes, or put this URL in your browser:  https://www.patreon.com/HistoryofSoutheastAsia .  Patreon is spelled P-A-T-R-E-O-N, and “History of Southeast Asia” is all one word.  Whether you donate through Paypal or Patreon, thank you in advance for your support.

In the past, I requested that you write a review of the podcast, if you listen to it on a website or app which allows reviews.  And I said to “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page if you are a Facebook user.  If you are now stuck at home with free time on your hands, and haven’t done those things already, now is the time to get them done.

<Larry quote>

Thanks, Larry!  I also asked you in the past to tell your family, friends, and even your enemies about the show.  With so many of us under lockdown, you probably will have to hold off on that for now, but rest assured, there will be life after the Corona virus pandemic.  Just ask someone who has recovered from it already, like the wife of the Canadian prime minister.


That’s all for now.  You probably see the events of this episode as the climax of the Vietnam War.  Together the Tet Offensive and the battle of Khe Sanh displayed the incompetence of the Allied high command, the bravery and discipline of American soldiers, especially the Marines, the astonishing technological superiority of the Air Force, the sacrifices the communists endured in order to do better at a later date, and the complete hysteria of much of the Western media, which concentrated its attention on how much the Americans and their allies were suffering, while often ignoring the destruction they inflicted on the other side.  Perhaps the best summary of how Tet was both a victory and a defeat comes from the former South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, Bui Diem.  This quote comes from the 1996 book, The Tet Offensive, by Marc Gilbert and William Head.  Quote:

<Read Bui Diem quote>

End quote.

Join me next time as we cover the events occurring over the rest of 1968, and maybe we’ll get started on the events of 1969 as well. 

I said in the previous episode that listening to podcasts is one of the safest things you can do with the current virus scare.  And I hope you won’t stop listening because you used a mobile device, but now you’re not mobile, you’re cooped up at home!  This podcast sounds just as good from a computer as it does from a cell phone, tablet or MP3 player.  Maybe even better, because you can now listen with large speaders plugged in.  For those of you who just started listening because you are avoiding the Corona virus, we’re glad you joined us, and hope you will be back again.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!