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 »

Terrorizing the Vietcong: The Rand Corporation and the U.S. Air Campaign in South Vietnam

One of the first uses of U.S. airpower in South Vietnam involved its deployment as a terror weapon against the Vietcong. Terror had long been an instrument of U.S. military policy. During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Force regularly targeted German and Japanese civilians. In just one bombing raid at Tokyo in March 1945, American planes, loaded with incendiary bombs, killed an estimated one hundred thousand civilians. By the end of World War II, U.S. aircraft had devastated nearly every major urban area in Japan. Striking civilian targets was, and remains, by definition terrorism. But American civilian and military leaders, including presidents Roosevelt and Truman, believed killing civilians weakened enemy morale and hastened the end of the Second World War. Surveys conducted by the U.S. government after the war proved otherwise. Bombing civilians had had the reverse effect, it convinced the German and Japanese people of American barbarity and stiffened their will to resist, possibly prolonging the conflicts in Europe and Asia. Continue Reading »

“Not A Word of Warning From Anyone:” The Tet Offensive, the Vietcong, and South Vietnam’s Peasantry

Millions of South Vietnamese peasants assisted the Vietcong in its preparations for the Tet Offensive.  Sympathetic villagers provided the guerrillas with intelligence on Allied troop movements, gave the Vietcong food and money, and hid the infiltrators in their rural homes. Refugees, many of whom lived on the edges of American bases or on the fringes of South Vietnam’s major cities, allowed the Vietcong to use their shantytowns and slums as jumping-off points for Communist attacks on Allied military targets.  South Vietnamese Tet travellers furnished the infiltrators with a degree of civilian cover, making it impossible for the South Vietnamese police to weed out the guerrillas from the general population.

Only hours before the launch of the offensive, Vietcong units succeeded in bypassing hundreds of Allied foot patrols then taking place across rural South Vietnam; the guerrillas even breached the tight security cordons, with their manned watchtowers, pillboxes, and check points, that stood alongside the roads leading into South Vietnam’s towns and cities.  None of these Vietcong movements could have been accomplished without the assistance, or acquiescence, of large numbers of South Vietnamese peasants. Continue Reading »

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