The Tet Offensive and the Popular Uprising

Popular uprisings occurred across South Vietnam during the first hours and days of the Tet Offensive.

A Communist soldier who had fought during Tet remembered, “Of course it [Tet] was a success. We attacked Saigon and several other cities…People in some areas did revolt to overthrow their local government.”[1] Another Communist participant in the Tet attacks 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]

On the morning of January 31, 1968, a series of popular uprisings occurred in Quang Tin Province near Chu Lai. The Rand Corporation’s Francis “Bing” West recalled what happened, “…an army outpost on Hill 76 radioed that thousands of villagers celebrating Tet were streaming from their hamlets toward the [Ly Tin] district headquarters…2,000 people pressed against the compound gates…Word came that at each of the six CAPs [Combined Action Platoon sites] similar crowds were surging in….”[3] A North Vietnamese cadre captured at Ly Tin stated that the Communists had intended on using the masses of people to physically occupy the district headquarters. Once the compound fell, the Communists planned on establishing their own government, ruling the district from the former GVN headquarters.[4] West remembered that the Communist seizure of Ly Tin failed after ARVN soldiers threatened to kill all of the unarmed civilians involved in the uprising.

On the eve of Tet, a similar, but smaller, popular uprising took place at Nha Trang, but it too fizzled out after South Vietnamese military commanders threatened to shoot the demonstrators.[5]

At Phan Ri, near Phan Thiet on the south-central coast, a North Vietnamese soldier recounted what happened in the first days of the offensive, “…The puppet troops were completely taken by surprise. We met with no significant resistance. After securing the city we gathered the people and spoke to them. It was high time, I said, to overthrow the government and seize power. I appealed to them to join the revolutionary forces…But we only held the city for one night…The enemy outnumbered us twenty to one and were strongly supported by aircraft and tanks. When they launched their counterattack the next morning half of our forces were decimated on the spot.”[6]

The popular uprising at Phan Ri, like those that occurred elsewhere, fell apart once the Vietcong’s unarmed civilian supporters realized they risked being slaughtered under a hail of Allied bombs, rockets, and shells.

At the beginning of Tet, the Communists succeeded in entering and occupying portions of nearly every major town and city in South Vietnam. General William C. Westmoreland wrote that at the start of the Tet Offensive the Communists not only carried out attacks against Saigon, they also struck at “…36 of the 44 provincial capitals, 5 of the 6 autonomous cities, 64 of 242 district capitals, and 50 hamlets.”[7]

In the highlands and along the coastal plain, the Communists moved into neighborhoods in Tan Canh, Kontum, Pleiku, Ban Me Thuot, Quang Tri, Hue, Danang, Qui Nhon, and Nha Trang. They also sent forces into the Mekong Delta’s towns and cities. American adviser Tobias Wolff recollected, “My Tho was in enemy hands and most of our division under attack. We also found out that the same thing was happening everywhere else. All the towns of the Delta, My Tho, Ben Tre, Soc Trang, Can Tho, Ca Mau, Vinh Long, all of them – were full of VC.”[8]

The Vietcong were able to enter those cities because of mass popular support. Major Philip Canella was in Ben Tre when the insurgents attacked that Delta town. “The Viet Cong had people all over this town…Christ, they were everywhere…They had apparently infiltrated into most of the town; they were probably living with the people. It was Tet and there were plenty of strangers in town.”[9] Canella’s account supports the argument that widespread popular support enabled the Vietcong to strike at Ben Tre.

A captured Vietcong cadre, later interviewed by an American interrogator, believed that the people of Ben Tre had provided support to the Vietcong. Nevertheless, he did not believe a popular uprising had occurred in the town. This cadre observed, “The people did show sympathy with us. The Front [NLF] was able to control Ben Tre for five days…when we came to My Tho, the people were very glad to see us. They fed us and showed us U.S./GVN locations to attack…[However] we did not have a general uprising in My Tho because the people still lacked faith in the Front.”[10] A major reason for the absence of a full-fledged popular uprising at Ben Tre had to do with the American response to the Vietcong seizure of the town. Soon after Ben Tre fell to the guerrillas, the Americans began an intense bombardment. Before the bombardment ended, the Americans destroyed half the town and killed an estimated 1,000 civilians.

John Balaban, based at Can Tho with International Volunteer Services, expressed astonishment that the Vietcong, whom he had long associated with the war in the countryside, had made their way into that important Delta center. He stated, “The Viet Cong were in the city. For the first time, they were fighting American and South Vietnamese units right in Can Tho.”[11]

It wasn’t just the peasantry that supported the Vietcong and North Vietnamese during the offensive. In a post-Tet analysis, the Department of Defense’s Office of Systems Analysis concluded that the Communists had probably relied on a sizable portion of South Vietnam’s urban residents to carry out the offensive. Systems Analysis wrote, “…it is possible that the recent offensive was facilitated by a newly friendly or apathetic urban environment, and a broad, low-level cooperative organization that had not existed on the same scale before.”[12]

Westmoreland, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and National Security Adviser Walt Rostow all argued at the time, and later, that Tet marked a major Communist reversal because the Vietcong did not incite a general or popular uprising. Westmoreland asserted, “Perhaps the greatest blow to the enemy’s hopes and plans was the fact that there was no evidence of significant participation by the population in support of the enemy. In other words, the general uprising did not occur”[13]

Scarcely five days after the initial Tet attacks and weeks before a thorough picture of the confusing situation in South Vietnam could be better understood and evaluated, Dean Rusk claimed that, “…they [the Communists] expected and hoped to find a significant percentage of the urban populace ready to join their cause…However…their expectations do not appear to have materialized.”[14] Bunker took Rusk’s inaccurate analysis of the offensive one step further. He alleged, “…the peasants and farmers in rural areas [are] without any political views or ideological beliefs….”[15] Bunker’s patronizing statement implied that the South Vietnamese peasantry, if they supported the Vietcong, did not know what the hell they were doing. In Bunker’s mind, the peasantry was an un-amalgamated, apathetic mass forced to do the Vietcong’s bidding. The statements by Westmoreland, Rusk, and Bunker discounted all of the ways that the peasantry, and a segment of the South’s urban population, supported the Vietcong and North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive.

North Vietnamese General Nguyen Giap’s pre-positioning of nearly 45,000 men for the initial wave of Tet attacks, without the Allies’ knowledge, remains one of the greatest feats in modern military history. Giap could not have achieved such a high degree of shock and awe at Tet without the active support and knowledge of large numbers of civilian supporters. That only 45,000 troops took part in the first attacks raises an important question. How did 45,000 Communist soldiers put 975,000 Allied troops on the defensive? The total Allied force had been reduced from 1.2 million because of the absence of approximately 325,000 South Vietnamese troops on leave. A common military theory at the time (it is no longer applicable because of modern, laser-guided weapons) argued that an attacking force needed a 10 to 1 numerical advantage in order to seize a defended position. However, during Tet, the defending Allies had a nearly 22 to 1 advantage over the attackers. The only possible explanation for initial Communist success was this: Communist troops had hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians directly assisting them.

During the First Indochina War, a single Vietminh division of 10,000 men, while in combat, required the logistical support of up to 50,000 civilians. Not surprisingly, after the conclusion of combat operations, a Vietminh division’s logistical requirements fell off, necessitating the employment of far fewer civilian personnel.[16] In 1967, Rand Corporation investigators discovered that in the Mekong Delta provinces, where the Vietcong controlled a significant segment of the rural population, “There appears to be a high ratio of available civilian laborers to Viet Cong troops….” Rand learned that, “…the Delta could provide around sixteen laborers per Viet Cong soldier….”[17] Of course,Vietcong combat units did not need that many support personnel. Nonetheless, the existence of such a large pool of available manpower for logistical support must have been very reassuring to Vietcong commanders. Rand’s researchers determined that each Vietcong soldier in the delta required support from between .25 and 4.9 civilians, depending upon circumstances. The intensity, duration, and geographical extent of combat operations influenced the Vietcong’s logistical personnel requirements. For example, during a lull in combat, the Vietcong’s logistical personnel requirements were at the low end of Rand’s figures. But a major military campaign would require the employment of nearly five civilians for every soldier. The latter figure was consistent with the Vietminh’s logistical personnel requirements in the First Indochina War.

Because the Tet Offensive marked an intense period of sustained combat for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, Communist units required a high level of civilian logistical support, probably between four and five civilian supporters for each soldier committed to battle. And since the Communists’ initial attacking force contained between 30,000 and 45,000 soldiers, it is likely that somewhere between 147,000 and 220,500 civilians supported those troops.

At the end of the Tet Offensive, MACV claimed that 85,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese had taken part in all of the Tet attacks. Once again, using Rand’s statistics, it’s conceivable that a high of 416,500 civilians provided direct assistance to the attacking forces. If the Vietcong tapped all of its available manpower in the delta, or sixteen civilians for every fighter, the total number of civilians directly supporting the Vietcong and North Vietnamese during Tet would have been substantially higher, at least three times higher in the region south of Saigon. What all of this means is that during the Tet Offensive hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians rose up and directly assisted the Vietcong and North Vietnamese in their attacks against the Allies. By any objective standard, that widespread civilian support represented a popular uprising.

Although Westmoreland, Rusk, Rostow, and President Johnson, were never honest enough with themselves and the American public to admit that a popular uprising took place at Tet, others believed that the South Vietnamese had participated in such a mass politico-military effort. Governor George Romney of Michigan, who was seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, saw the Tet Offensive as proof that, “The people of South Vietnam are supporting the enemy.”[18] Robert Kennedy believed the same thing. In a speech in early February, RFK remarked, “For years we have been told that the measure of our success and progress in Vietnam was increasing security and control for the population. Now we have seen that none of the population is secure and no area is under sure control…We support a government without supporters. Without the efforts of American arms that government would not last a day.”[19]

National Security Council staffer William J. Jorden believed that at Tet the Communists achieved something resembling a popular uprising. Jorden stated, “If the VC and North Vietnamese can move probably 30,000 men into place for attacks in all parts of the country without detection, something is wrong with the GVN’s intelligence network. It would have taken weeks to stockpile the weapons and ammunition used in these attacks. Thousands of Vietnamese must have been used in this process. Many thousands of others must have been aware of movements through or near their villages, and of unusual activity in their neighborhoods in the cities. Yet, I have seen no clear evidence that any of these movements were reported….”[20]

With an estimated 416,500 civilians directly aiding the Tet attackers, (per Rand’s calculations), and many more if the Communists employed all of their available civilian manpower, and with hundreds of thousands, or possibly millions, of South Vietnamese providing the Vietcong and North Vietnamese other forms of support, such as safe haven, intelligence on Allied troop movements, and food, the argument can be made that Tet constituted a general, or popular, uprising against the United States and its South Vietnamese ally.


[1] Konrad Kellen, “Conversations with Enemy Soldiers in Late 1968/Early 1969: A Study of Motivation and Morale,” (Santa Monica: CA: Rand Corporation, September 1970), 71.

[2] Ibid., 73.

[3] Francis J. West, “The Enclave: Some U.S. Military Efforts in Ly Tin District, Quang Tin Province, 1966-1968,” (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, December 1969), 65.

[4] Ibid., 65.

[5] Don Oberdorfer, Tet: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War, (1971, Reprint, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 122.

[6] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003), 193.

[7] Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin, eds., Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War, (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 345.

[8] Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War, (New York: Vintage, 1995), 133.

[9] Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 368.

[10] Kellen, “Conversations with Enemy Soldiers,” 71.

[11] John Balaban, Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Vietnam, (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2002), 94.

[12] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 34.

[13] Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 349.

[14] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 52, Telegram Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Embassy, Saigon, February 4, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 121.

[15] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 235, Telegram from the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State, May 16, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 675.

[16] Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, (New York: Random House, 2012), 239, 322.

[17] L.P. Holliday and R.M. Gurfield, Viet Cong Logistics, (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, 1968), 86-88.

[18] Oberdorfer, Tet, 175.

[19] New York Times, “Excerpts from Text of Kennedy Speech,” February 9, 1968.

[20] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 49, Memorandum William J. Jorden to W.W. Rostow, February 3, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 111-112.

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