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.
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."
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.”
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:
206,000 MORE MEN, STIRRING
DEBATE IN ADMINISTRATION
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.>
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!
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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>
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!