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.

The Communists knew the Americans would respond to the Tet attacks with airpower.  This is why just prior to the start of the offensive, and during the offensive’s first few days, they tried to knock out the U.S. air assets at Soc Trang, Saigon, Bien Hoa, Pleiku, An Khe, Cam Ranh, Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, Tuy Hoa, Chu Lai, Danang, Phu Bai, and Quang Tri. But the Americans either repulsed these attacks or sent the majority of their fighter-bombers and armed helicopters airborne before they could be destroyed on the ground.[1]

Since the bulk of U.S. air assets remained operational at the start of Tet, American aircrews were able to quickly respond to the Vietcong and North Vietnamese attacks on South Vietnam’s towns and cities.  On January 30, the first day of the Communist offensive in II Corps, Westmoreland boasted, “During the course of the day we had a maximum air effort, which was reported to be extremely effective.”[2] The “maximum air effort” continued throughout February, when the U.S. flew a record number of airstrikes against urban targets in South Vietnam.  The Communists neither expected the magnitude of the American aerial response nor the willingness of the Americans to strike civilian areas with such reckless abandon.  As a result, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese suffered appalling losses during Tet.

In Saigon, Vietcong-occupied slum areas took a battering from U.S. jets and helicopter gunships. The Americans laid waste to whole neighborhoods in Cholon and District 3. U.S. bombs blew some slum areas so thoroughly to pieces that from the air the devastated neighborhoods resembled the black skid marks visible on an airport runway.[3]

After the North Vietnamese marched into Tan Hiep, located two miles east of Bien Hoa Airbase, the Americans responded as they did at Saigon, they ripped the place apart in a hail of rockets and bombs. In order to kill the North Vietnamese troops in the hamlet, the Americans destroyed the hamlet, making refugees of its Catholic residents.  Those same residents had long been loyal to the Saigon regime. An American military officer explained that the U.S. had to bomb Tan Hiep to avoid taking casualties in house-to-house fighting.

When the bombing of Tan Hiep ended, seventy-five North Vietnamese soldiers lay splayed out on the ground. Intermingled with the dead Communist troops were mangled dogs, shot up water buffaloes, and blackened pigs, all caught in the open when the napalm canisters and iron bombs descended to the earth from under the wings of U.S. jets. Sheets of twisted tin roofing and smoldering timbers marked the location of burnt buildings. Viewing the scene, a U.S. military officer remarked, “I guess this is about as close to complete desolation as you can find.”[4]

At the beginning of Tet, an estimated 1,200 Vietcong entered the Delta town of My Tho, where they occupied residential neighborhoods and portions of the commercial district. Despite the fact that My Tho had long been a GVN stronghold and thousands of loyal South Vietnamese lived there, The Americans clobbered the Communist occupied areas with airstrikes and artillery. Once known for its beautiful palm-lined streets and French architecture, the American bombardment left My Tho in a shambles. Half of the town’s buildings were destroyed or damaged.  The streets were strewn with rubble and the town’s tall palm trees were shredded by shrapnel and machine gun fire.  My Tho’s surviving civilian population was stunned by the ferociousness of the aerial and artillery bombardment.[5]

The town of Ben Tre lay less than ten miles south of My Tho.  It suffered the same fate as its northern neighbor.  U.S. and South Vietnamese air and artillery crews obliterated half of Ben Tre in their drive to recapture the town. An estimated 1,000 civilians died in the whirlwind of violence tearing through the streets. How many of those dead had been loyal to the GVN and the United States will never be known.  American pacification personnel stationed in the city expressed shock and anger at what they considered the U.S. military’s callousness, arguing that the bombing served neither American nor GVN interests.[6]

On March 5, the Vietcong attacked Quang Long (Ca Mau) for the second time since the start of Tet. The U.S. and South Vietnamese response to this second assault was swift and utterly barbaric. The Vietcong entered the town at 2:25 a.m. By 4:00 p.m. that same afternoon, the Americans declared the city free of Communist troops. In a matter of hours, the Allies destroyed 1,000 homes – or half of the town’s total.

There was nothing nuanced or tactically sophisticated about Allied operations like the one at Quang Long.  They were the tactical equivalent of a bludgeon from the sky. That they cleared out the Vietcong is indisputable, but they also wounded, killed, and displaced a disproportionate number of civilians. On March 5, at Quang Long, half the city’s population, about 4,000 people, were displaced, wounded, or killed, in an effort to dislodge one Vietcong battalion. It was questionable just what the U.S. and GVN gained militarily and politically by harming or killing so many civilians to destroy one enemy battalion.

American military officials justified the bombing and shelling of urban areas such as My Tho, Ben Tre, and Quang Long as a military necessity. The U.S. did not have the infantry troops to dislodge the Vietcong and North Vietnamese in house-to-house fighting. Plus, U.S. military and political leaders worried about the domestic political fallout from the high casualties certain to result from urban combat. With domestic support for the war at an all-time low, Army and Marine commanders understood that they had to keep their own casualties at a minimum; airstrikes did just that – at the cost of South Vietnamese civilian lives. A U.S. military officer, referring to airstrikes against urban areas said, “…[it’s] a more economical use of your resources than going in and making infantrymen dig these guys out hand-to-hand.”[7] Another American officer summarized the primary reason the U.S. relied so heavily on airpower during Tet. “We could not permit them to believe that they could seize populated areas and escape our firepower.”[8]

By mid-March 1968, the fighting had destroyed approximately 74,000 houses across South Vietnam.  That number did not include the houses levelled in the fighting at Hue.  During mini-Tet in May, another 20,000 houses were destroyed in Saigon alone.  By June, the number of South Vietnamese houses destroyed since the start of Tet easily topped one hundred thousand; and an estimated 1.2 million South Vietnamese had been made refugees.[9]

The extensive destruction accompanying the U.S. counterattacks produced its critics. In a New York Times op-ed piece published on February 20, 1968, correspondent Tom Wicker wrote, “…the sad and terrible truth of the decision to blow up South Vietnam’s cities in order to defend them is that neither Washington nor Saigon has anything to rely upon but firepower. With that, they can destroy South Vietnam, but they can never save it from communism or anything else.”[10] Members of the U.S. Agency for International Development serving in South Vietnam argued that the misapplication of American firepower was both immoral and militarily and politically counterproductive. One AID official expressed deep pessimism over American prospects in South Vietnam after Tet, “You can’t be very encouraged anymore when you see 500-pound bombs drop in the Hue citadel. You can’t be very encouraged when you see what happened at Bentre….”[11]

Despite the public criticisms, the Johnson administration and MACV refused to curtail the bombing of the South’s urban centers. In order to defend the barbaric practice, the U.S. military presented several bizarre justifications. One U.S. officer, referring to the destruction of Ben Tre, told reporter Peter Arnett, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Although the veracity of this statement remains in doubt, its words, even if Arnett’s own, summed up the U.S. military’s attitude.[12]

Other military officers explained that the Vietcong gave the United States no choice but to bomb them and their civilian supporters. This explanation implied that the Vietcong were to blame for the devastation caused by Allied airstrikes and artillery. An American military advisor remarked, “What the Vietcong did was occupy hamlets we pacified just for the purpose of having the Allies move in and bomb them out…By their presence, the hamlets were destroyed.”[13] Westmoreland had no qualms about placing responsibility for the destruction on the shoulders of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese.  He declared, “The enemy has caused heavy damage to sections of Saigon, My Tho, and other cities and towns in his [italics added] rampage of destruction….”[14] Vietcong troops did destroy civilian dwellings, but the Vietcong did not possess the weaponry to destroy more than a tiny fraction of the total number of civilian structures destroyed in the first half of 1968.

Surprisingly, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and General Westmoreland believed the South Vietnamese would blame the Vietcong for the destruction of their homes and for the high number of civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes and artillery barrages. But the South Vietnamese did no such thing. By mid-1968, many South Vietnamese felt palpable anger toward both the Saigon regime and the United States.  Edward Lansdale thought Tet fostered a sea change in the attitudes of the South Vietnamese toward the Allies. He observed, “Destruction resulting from U.S./G.V.N. bombing and artillery firepower has created some deep resentment against the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments, particularly in the refuge camps where Vietcong agitators are at work.”[15]  The Central Intelligence Agency agreed with Lansdale when it wrote, “…there is…increased hostility toward the government and the ARVN for failing to provide protection against the Viet Cong, for looting, and for widespread destruction from airstrikes and artillery. And the U.S. is also blamed for destruction of urban areas.”[16]

The United States eventually drove the Communists out of South Vietnam’s towns and cities, but tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians (both GVN loyalists and Vietcong sympathizers) were either killed or wounded in the process and well over a million others became homeless. Not surprisingly, the prodigious application of firepower alienated large numbers of South Vietnamese from the U.S. and GVN.  These were the same people whose loyalty the GVN needed if it was ever going to defeat the Communist insurgency, stop a future North Vietnamese offensive, and build a politically stable nation-state. In the end, the United States succeeded in beating back the Tet Offensive, and later mini-Tet, but in doing so it contributed to its ultimate defeat in South Vietnam.[17]

[1] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 91, Notes of Meeting, February 28, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 268;  New York Times, “Viet Cong Attack 7 Cities; Allies Call Off Tet Truce,” Tom Buckley, January 30, 1968; New York Times, “Foe Begins Truce But Allies Report Attack on a Post,” Associated Press, January 27, 1968.

[2] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 34, Westmoreland to Sharp and Wheeler, January 30, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 77.

[3] New York Times, “Streets of Saigon Shelled in Drive to Rout Vietcong,” Charles Mohr, February 6, 1968.

[4] New York Times, “A Priest Mourns for his Devastated Hamlet,” Joseph B. Treaster, February 29, 1968.

[5] New York Times, “Civilian Toll High in Mekong Delta,” February 6, 1968.

[6] New York Times, “In Saigon, More Frustration,”March 31, 1968; New York Times, “Ruined Ben Tre, After 45 Days, Still Awaits Saigon Aid….” March 15, 1968.

[7] New York Times, “Streets of Saigon Shelled in Drive to Route Vietcong,” Charles Mohr, February 6, 1968.

[8] New York Times, “In the Nation: Firepower vs. South Vietnam,” February 20, 1968.

[9] New York Times, “Allies Trying to Curb Rise in Refugees,” May 29, 1968; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 124, Bunker to President Johnson, March 14, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 376.

[10] New York Times, “In the Nation: Firepower vs. South Vietnam,” February 20, 1968.

[11] New York Times, “In Saigon, More Frustration,” March 31, 1968.

[12] New York Times, “Major Describes Move, February 8, 1968.

[13] New York Times, “A Pacification Drive Setback in Key Area,” Bernard Weinraub, February 21, 1968.

[14] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 50, “Telegram, Westmoreland to Sharp, February 3, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 115.

[15] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 88, Memorandum Edward Lansdale to Ellsworth Bunker, February 27, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 254.

[16] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 263, Special National Intelligence Estimate, SNIE 53-68, June 6, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 763.

[17] New York Times, “A Pacification Drive Setback in Key Area,” Bernard Weinraub, February 21, 1968; New York Times, “Ruined Ben Tre, After 45 Days, Still Awaits Saigon’s Aid,” March 15, 1968.

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