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The Tet Offensive
WITH full hindsight, it is apparent that the introduction of American ground combat forces into South Vietnam in 1965 prevented the collapse of South Vietnam. When Lyndon Johnson decided to intervene in force, the ARVN, despite increased American logistical and air power support, were reaching the end of their tether. Whether this situation was due mainly to increased communist infiltration and support from the north or to the growing strength and confidence of the indigenous Viet Cong was, and remains, an essentially moot point. In the light of Hanoi's and Washington's policy objectives, It made little difference. The Hanoi regime's determination to unite Vietnam under its aegis and Washington's determination to sustain an independent, non-communist South Vietnam set the two on a collision course. Any illusions that Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues might have entertained that the conflict could be settled in the short term by direct military means were resolved in the la Drang valley in November of 1965. Similarly, General Westmoreland was confident in the aftermath of the first, bloody confrontation with the PAVN that U.S. ground combat forces had taken the measure of the communist regulars; he set out to find them and bring them to battle and both sides settled down to a war of attrition.
By the autumn of 1967, certain key senior communist And American military leaders had persuaded themselves that the war of attrition was nearing a climax, though they would have disagreed strongly as to why and with what effect. Perhaps affected by the need to present generally optimistic projections to President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara, and no doubt influenced by his own can-do personality, General Westmoreland became convinced that his search and destroy operations had done serious harm to the North Vietnamese regulars and the Viet Cong. In addition, though pacification was not the highest of his priorities, the consolidation in early May of the whole array of civilian programs under the dynamic and upbeat ambassador, Robert Komer, gave Westmoreland a degree of confidence that the guerrilla menace was at least being contained. Nor was Westmoreland's optimism without foundation. His operations had, in fact, inflicted considerable damage on the PAVN and the Viet Cong infrastructure in the south. If that damage was being inflicted at a high cost in American lives - 9,377 American servicemen would be killed in action in South Vietnam during 1967, half as many again as in 1966 - Westmoreland could take comfort in the fact that the body count of slain communist troops had mounted even more sharply. In addition, during the summer President Johnson had yielded to the arguments of the joint chiefs of staff and CINCPAC and had significantly relaxed the constraints on the bombing of targets in North Vietnam. Targets of major importance to the southward flow of communist troops and materiel were hit hard and repeatedly, and by autumn attacks on lines of communications in North Vietnam, including a successful raid on the Paul Doumer bridge across the Red River at Hanoi on 25 October, were creating serious bottlenecks in the North Vietnamese transportation net.
There was, in short, evidence that the comer had either been turned, or was about to be. At the same time, opposition to the war back home was mounting. On 21 October, some 50,000 demonstrators marched on the Pentagon-the largest single demonstration to date an the first one to confront the leadership of the nation's military directly. It was in this context that President Johnson called Westmoreland to Washington in November, to testify before Congress and to make a series of public appearances in support of the administration's policies, and it was also in this context that Westmoreland made his optimistic projections. As he spoke, communist preparations for a major offensive in South Vietnam were well advanced. A militant, 'southern' faction within the North Vietnamese leadership and committed to pursuing the war in the South aggressively had gained the ascendancy during 1967 and had become convinced that the time was ripe for the long-awaited General Offensive and National Uprising. In charge of planning for the offensive was the victor at Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap, who curiously, had favored a more gradual approach to the struggle in the south, an approach emphasizing guerrilla warfare, but who had been overruled in a bitter internal struggle within the party. To sow maximum confusion in the American and ARVN ranks, he timed the offensive to coincide with Tet, the traditional Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year. For the Vietnamese, Tet has a special importance as by far the biggest holiday of the year, a sort of New Year's Eve, Christmas Day and Fourth of July all rolled into one. Traditionally, both sides in the Vietnamese struggle had declared a truce to permit celebration of the Tet holiday; this was to be the case again in 1968. At the same time, Tet also had historical connotations of a more militant nature: the last invading Chinese Army was driven from Vietnam after a surprise attack mounted during Tet by Emperor Nguyen Hue in 1789 caught the garrison of Hanoi in mid-celebration and thus routed it.
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