Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part IV: The Search and Destroy Strategy Comes Under Fire

In November 1967, a number of prominent public figures questioned the American ground strategy in South Vietnam. These individuals voiced their concerns to President Johnson on November 2, during the second day of meetings at the White House of a group collectively known as the Wisemen, who included current and former government officials.

One of the Wisemen, former U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, told President Johnson that the primary reason for declining domestic support for the war was the high number of U.S. casualties. If casualties could be brought down, the home front could be steadied. With the recent defeat of Lt. Col. Terry Allen’s Jr.’s battalion in Binh Duong Province possibly on his mind, Lodge said, “An exclusive military victory is not conceivable to me.” He then went on to say that instead of Westmoreland’s current concept of operations, the U.S. should pursue a “…split up and keep off balance…” strategy. He argued that such a strategy, “…utilizes the smaller units and means less casualties…[and] also diminishes the number of refugees.””  In other words, abandoning the big unit war would not only stabilize the homefront, it would, by reducing collateral damage and refugee numbers, enhance South Vietnam’s increasingly fragile social stability.[1] Continue Reading »

Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part III: Dak To

The series of battles that took place in the vicinity of Dak To in November 1967 followed a familiar Communist military pattern. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese initiated the majority of the battles or were found by Allied forces only when they wanted to be found. Communist units fought in close proximity to their base areas and sources of resupply and reinforcement in Cambodia and Laos.  And the Americans frequently discovered the enemy in difficult terrain, under jungle canopy, and dug-in behind fortifications. Continue Reading »

Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part II: Junction City

The second major U.S. search and destroy operation of 1967 took place in War Zone C, a 144-square-mile patch of jungle and swamp in Tay Ninh Province. On maps, War Zone C resembled an upturned pyramid, with its tip pointed directly at Saigon and its wide base flush up against the border between South Vietnam and Cambodia. Route 22 traced the war zone’s western border and Route 4 skirted its eastern edge. The town of Katum sat along Route 4 in War Zone C’s northeast corner. To the west, Tay Ninh City straddled Route 22.

General William C. Westmoreland’s goals for Operation Junction City were similar to those for Cedar Falls. He wanted U.S. forces to find and destroy enemy main forces (including the 10,000-man strong Vietcong 9th Division); obliterate Communist base camps and supply depots; destroy the Vietcong’s Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), which directed all Communist military activity south of the DMZ; and prevent the use of War Zone C as a transshipment site for men and foodstuffs moving from the rice-rich Mekong Delta to the Central Highlands.[1] Continue Reading »

Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part I: Cedar Falls

On January 8, 1967, Allied military forces began one of the largest search and destroy operations of the Vietnam War. Operation Cedar Falls involved a sweep by American and South Vietnamese troops through the sixty square miles of trees, thick undergrowth, and abandoned rubber plantations in the Iron Triangle and Thanh Dien Forest. Continue Reading »

A Maximum Air Effort: The American Response to the Tet Offensive

The United States reacted to the Tet Offensive with a speed and viciousness that surprised even the hardened revolutionaries on the Politburo in Hanoi. In February and March 1968, the American expeditionary force behaved like a cornered, desperate beast, striking out blindly at the Asian masses closing in from all sides.  During those two months, South Vietnam took on the appearance of a Jackson Pollock painting – it resembled a swirling, chaotic, psychedelic display of color and light as the Americans wildly splashed the yellows, oranges, and reds of napalm and the browns, greys, and blacks of exploding bombs and artillery shells across the canvas of what was South Vietnam. In the end, the frenzied madness of the U.S. response shattered any hope that the U.S. and Saigon government could ever win the loyalty of the majority of South Vietnamese. Continue Reading »

To Hold the Line: LBJ, Tet, and the Decision to Continue the War

The Tet Offensive revealed a number of hard truths about the American effort in South Vietnam.  Specifically, the Tet attacks indicated that the United States military, after three years of major combat operations, had failed to sufficiently attrite the Vietcong and its North Vietnamese ally.  Tet also demonstrated that the majority of South Vietnam’s peasants remained either hostile or apathetic toward the Saigon regime.  In addition, the countrywide Communist offensive exposed several glaring weaknesses within the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and Government, including low troop morale, a high desertion rate, and poor leadership.  In the wake of the Tet Offensive, the United States was no closer to defeating the Vietcong insurgency than it had been in 1965. A Department of Defense (DoD) study of Tet and its aftermath stated, “…our control of the countryside and the defense of the urban areas is now essentially at pre-August 1965 levels.”[1] For three long years, the United States had been fighting in South Vietnam only to lose. Continue Reading »

The Tet Offensive Did Not Destroy the Vietcong

From 1968 until his death in 2005, General William C. Westmoreland maintained that the Tet Offensive had been a major Communist defeat. He based his argument on the enemy’s purported high personnel losses during the offensive. According to Westmoreland, the U.S. won at Tet because it killed tens of thousands of Vietcong and North Vietnamese. If the war had been strictly a war of attrition divorced from any political context, and the number of dead on each side determined the victor from the vanquished, Westmoreland’s argument would have held some merit.

But the Vietnam War was if anything complex. It was far more than a contest over who racked up the highest body count. It contained elements of a political and economic struggle between a privileged urban minority and an oppressed rural majority. It was also a sectarian conflict between Buddhists on one hand and Catholics on the other.  The war also pitted Communist Internationalists against Capitalist Internationalists and Communist Nationalists against Liberal-Democratic Nationalists. Interjected into the struggles amongst the Vietnamese was the larger great power rivalry between the United States, the Soviet Union and Communist China. And yet, even if the war had been exclusively a war of attrition, Westmoreland’s claims of victory at Tet would have still been untrue. There were two reasons for this. First, Westmoreland miscalculated the number of Communist military dead. And second, the Communists rapidly replaced their Tet losses. Continue Reading »

The Real Reason Westmoreland Asked for Reinforcements During the Tet Offensive

“…the country would have been lost to the enemy if it weren’t for American actions.”[1] Edward Lansdale, referring to the Communist Tet Offensive

During the Tet Offensive, few individuals outside of the upper echelons of the U.S. government knew just how close the Government of South Vietnam (GVN) and the South Vietnamese Armed Forces (RVNAF) came to total collapse. The reason for the public’s ignorance of the actual situation prevailing in South Vietnam had a lot to do with the misinformation fed to the media by top U.S. officials, especially U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker and General William C. Westmoreland.

Ellsworth Bunker stated in an interview on February 19, 1968, that the South Vietnamese government and military “turned in an excellent performance in the recent fighting.” He then made the absurd claim that “…the Vietcong had also pulled into the cities from the countryside, weakening their positions in the hamlets and villages.”[2] Bunker’s disassembling made sense from a military standpoint. He could not come out and acknowledge that America’s South Vietnamese ally was actually on the ropes and perilously close to defeat. If he had done so, his words may have encouraged the enemy to launch a second-Tet-sized offensive that would deliver the coup de grace to the GVN and RVNAF. Nevertheless, Bunker’s statement had another important consequence, it deceived the U.S. public and members of Congress about the true state of affairs in South Vietnam. In trumpeting the “excellent performance” of the RVNAF and GVN, Bunker created the impression that the United States, working with an apparently strong South Vietnamese partner, could still achieve its political and military objectives in South Vietnam. Continue Reading »

The Tet Offensive and the Popular Uprising

During the Tet Offensive, popular uprisings occurred across South Vietnam.  A Communist POW, when asked later whether he considered Tet a Communist victory remarked, “Of course it was a success. We attacked Saigon and several other cities…People in some areas did revolt to overthrow their local government.”[1] Another Communist POW, who fought during Tet recounted, “When we returned to our unit’s station area, the cadre said that the people had had a general uprising in many big cities, but they were suppressed by enemy airplanes.”[2] Continue Reading »

Tet and the Popular Uprising at Hue

When the Tet Offensive erupted, American and international media attention focused on the spectacular Vietcong attacks in Saigon. On January 31, millions of American television viewers watched as U.S. military police attempted to root out and kill the Vietcong still holed up in the U.S. embassy grounds. The viewing public also saw in vivid techno-color Vietcong sappers, who had barricaded themselves inside the Saigon radio station, detonate a massive explosive charge, killing themselves and destroying the communications facility. In the most memorable incident of the entire Tet Offensive, photographer Eddie Adams and a NBC camera crew captured on film the moment Chief of the South Vietnamese National Police General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed Vietcong prisoner Nguyen Van Lem with a single pistol shot to the head. Notwithstanding the visual impact of those television images, and their influence on public perceptions of the war, the militarily significant attacks, and the ones that indicated that the Vietcong had successfully orchestrated a series of popular uprisings, occurred elsewhere. Continue Reading »

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