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Even in the early hours of the offensive, American and ARVN commanders in the field began to sense that an enormous victory was at hand. With their backs to the wall, the ARVN were finally able to reap the benefits of newer American equipment and better training and they fought with skill and determination. For years, U.S. and ARVN forces had tried to flush the Viet Cong out into open battle where superior fire power would tell, and now the communists had done it for them. Losses among local cadres needed to lead the assault teams and guide them to their objectives were severe. The National Uprising never got off the ground and the Viet Cong were effectively finished as a fighting force. At higher levels of command, the message took longer to sink in. With an unprecedented number of posts and garrisons under heavy attack, it was difficult to believe that victory was at hand; if nothing else, the enemy had convincingly shown that he possessed far deeper reserves of both troops and determination than American analysts had suspected.


Moreover, allied as well as communist casualties increased and the message was grim for a U.S. command structure that was highly sensitive to American losses. In Hue, where a handful of Marines hung on by their toenails during the first critical hours to prevent the entire city from being overrun, the struggle had only just begun. General Westmoreland, while proclaiming the repulse of the communist offensive to be a victory, was soon asking Johnson for an additional 206,000 troops; for man Americans, this was the last straw. The mixed signals which the President's actions conveyed, combined with an increasing cynicism among media reporters and the inability of the Johnson Administration to explain clearly just what it was in Vietnam that demanded the sacrifice of thousands of American lives, continued to undermine public support for the war. There is no evidence to support the notion that Giap deliberately sacrificed his assault columns to gain favorable American media coverage, but the effect was the same anyway.


In the final analysis, the nerve of America's leaders cracked while Marxist-Leninist revolutionary integrity held. Even before Westmoreland undermined his claims of victory by requesting additional troops, the communist leadership was circulating a brutally frank assessment of the offensive's failure. They had, the assessment admitted, badl misestimated the mood of the people in the South. Far from rising in support of the offensive, they had turned their backs on the communists and in many areas had actually inclined toward the government. The despised ARVN puppet soldiers had not broken; rather they had fought back with determination and skill. Finally, the degree of surprise necessary for military success had not been achieved. Serious losses had been incurred in men and materiel, and casualties among southern cadres were particularly serious. The reaction of the communist leadership to this harsh but accurate assessment was swift and effective: where attacking forces had been repelled, they would disengage quickly to minimize losses; where success had been achieved, notably in Hue, the attackers would dig in and force the Americans and puppet soldiers to pay the highest possible price in blood for every position retaken.


That, in fact, is exactly what happened. As the ARVN consolidated their hold in the provincial capitals and towns of the south, the struggle for Hue ground on through February with Marines and ARVN troopers fighting their way into the inner city house by house, block by block. At home, Americans, already shocked by the sight of VietCong bodies in the embassy courtyard, were treated to footage of tanks, pulling back through the streets of Hue, loaded with dead and wounded Marines. Militarily, the U.S. and ARVN forces went from victory to victory. By 25 February, the last communist positions in Hue had been overrun. The North Vietnamese pulled back from Khe Sanh in March after suffering heavy losses. Throughout South Vietnam, local officials and commanders gained confidence as it became apparent that the Viet Cong were effectively finished as a fighting force. In America, terminal disillusionment had set in.





Page 40 (America in Vietnam)