TET ’68–Battle Won, Victory Lost
by: john harrison
The largest battle of the Vietnam War, Tet ’68, was also among the two or three biggest infantry battles that American armed forces have ever fought. In spite of all the bad press, we clearly won that battle. Tet ’68 was a bigger battle and a bigger victory in pure military terms even than the justly famous Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
While these numbers are subject to some dispute, it appears that there were about 500,000 Americans involved in both Tet ’68 and the Battle of the Bulge. During Tet ’68 there were about one million total allied soldiers involved and they suffered a total of about 75,000 casualties (KIA, WIA, MIA). At the Bulge there were about 720,000 total allied soldiers involved and they suffered about 90,000 casualties. The German casualties during the Battle of the Bulge have been estimated at 67,000 to 100,000. The corresponding estimates for Tet ’68 are that the VC/NVA casualties totaled at least 115,000 dead, wounded and missing and perhaps as many as 150,000.❋ Most of the VC/NVA casualties were dead.
The differences were that in Vietnam during Tet, the Army, Marines and allies were engaged in almost continuous combat throughout the country for a much longer period of time, and Khe Sahn was a true killing field, leaving stacks of NVA dead.
In addition, while in Bastogne itself at the Battle of the Bulge there not was a rear area, for the majority of units fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, there was a rear area, Even during the height of the battle, there were always American troops that were not directly engaged with the enemy surrounding Bastogne. They were behind other troops in support, or reserve, or were on their way to the front and thus were not yet actively engaged by the enemy.
However, like Bastogne itself, there was no “behind” anywhere in Vietnam during Tet ’68. For example, a battalion of Vietnamese paras in transit at Tan Son Nhut airport were called in to repel an attack on the airport itself before they could leave. The only reserve during Tet ’68 was the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division in Fayetteville, N. C., which was all in the air within hours after the battles started, and engaged on the ground within hours after they landed in Vietnam.
Nevertheless, the issue as they say in the history books was never in doubt during Tet ‘68. Even while the VC/NVA were attacking, allied counter attacks were meeting them, sometimes before they even made it to their lines of departure. It was a fight, a big, hard, ugly at times, fight, but it was never in doubt who would win that fight.
Literally the NVA and particularly the VC never recovered from that battle. Many of the VC that had fought for years were now dead, and that meant that even the Main Force NVA units now blundered about the county because they no longer had knowledgeable local VC guides.
While the Vietnam War is still portrayed as an insurgency, a guerrilla war, the Battle of Tet ’68 was a straight up, conventional, mostly infantry, slugfest. Since, Tet ’68 does not fit the storyline that was told to America at the time and since, i.e., that we lost a guerrilla war to General Vo Nuguen Giap and those fellows in black pajamas, other than dwelling on the brutality of war in cities full of civilians, the actual Allied military victory during Tet ’68 has been almost completely ignored, both in 1968 and since then. Other than the picture of General Loan executing an NVA franc-tireur on a street in Saigon with his revolver, or the one of the great seal of the United States of America lying broken on the embassy grounds, or the street fighting in Hue, the real battles of Tet ’68 and their outcome still have been largely discounted by historians even today.
Moreover, it was not VC guerrillas that ultimately defeated the South Vietnamese government over two years after all of the American troops had left Vietnam. After Tet ’68 the VC were mostly broken or dead laying on a street in Phan Thiet or Hue or Saigon. It was not the NVA units that had been infiltrated in country that did it either. They were lost in the jungle, and literally dared not come out of the jungle even assuming they could find their way, or most likely, they were hiding in sanctuaries in Cambodia or Laos.
Contrary to what most people believe, what finally toppled South Vietnam was a traditional, full-scale, tank-led, conventional, combined-arms invasion from North Vietnam essentially using its entire million man army. Ultimately, this army went right down Route 1, the “street without joy” in Bernard Fall’s felicitous phrase, all the way to Saigon in 1975.
In addition to the wide spread ignorance about the Battle of Tet ’68 it has always been very curious to me that for a while much was made of the fact that in Vietnam the army required a 12 month tour, the Marines required a 13 month tour, but WW II service was for the duration. Few have tried to find out why this was so. Moreover, most Americans are unaware that the war in Europe was over about 11 months after the landings in Normandy at D-Day. During that 11-month period every American division was pulled out of the line for a time and “rested” in a secure area.
The Army had long ago determined that 12 months of combat was about all a sane person could really take and remain sane. Therefore, it limited the tours in Vietnam to 12 months and it used rotation of units to achieve the same end, for the same reason in Europe during World War II. According to some reports, and while some served for a longer period, because of constant rotations of units, the average time in combat for an infantryman in the Pacific during World War II was about 40 days. On the other hand, mostly because of the mobility provided by thousands of helicopters, the average time in combat for an infantryman in Vietnam was about 240 days during his year of service.
Personally, I am not sure which is more stressful, combat or the anticipation of combat. You feel it on the way in to combat, but once the shooting starts you are too busy to notice. However, I doubt that being too busy to notice is a real protection from stress. When it was over I would always be unbelievably tired, others were euphoric, either way and every way in between it was a reaction to stress, experienced but not yet fully felt.
Two statistics will serve to bring this issue into focus: the 101st Airborne Division suffered almost twice as many casualties in the Vietnam War as it did in World War II, and the United States Marine Corps also suffered more casualties in Vietnam than it did in all of World War II. In the case of the 101st Airborne Division, this was in spite of the fact that only about one-third of the Division, the First Brigade, was deployed in Vietnam from July 29, 1965 until the rest of the division came over at the end of 1967. This was a hard fought, a really big war.
This information is readily available, but I have not seen it in the mass media, only sometimes the implied slur that the infantry in Vietnam had it easier because they only served for a year while in World War II they served for the duration. Like the idea that the Vietnam War was fought mainly by draftees while World War II was supposedly fought mainly by volunteers, it is not only wrong, the exact opposite is true. Vietnam was a big, violent, long war fought mainly, about 66%, by volunteers. While World War II was a big violent, fairly short war fought mainly, again about 66%, by draftees.
And, later when the Wall in Berlin fell, and the Cold War was won very few paused to remember as hearty congratulations were passed around that it had been a hot war for a while in Korea, and that it was hotter still, and for much longer in Vietnam.
Also generally unknown, both the Soviet Union (3,000) and China (320,000) had troops stationed in North Vietnam during the war, as did North Korea and Cuba. In addition to these troops, all during the Vietnam War the Soviet Union required its satellites to provide for free much of the war material for North Vietnam’s war effort. Other than some food and a lot of soldiers, there was almost nothing produced in North Vietnam that was actually used in the war by North Vietnam.
There were guns and ammunition from the justly famous Skoda Arms Works in Czechoslovakia. There were field glasses from East Germany’s Steiner and ships from Gdansk, Poland to carry it all to Haiphong, North Vietnam or to Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and then into South Vietnam.
Anyone that has studied economics knows that this support of North Vietnam’s war effort was highly inflationary for the captive nations of eastern Europe. While Moscow may have thought that it was making its “allies” carry some of the economic burden of helping North Vietnam, it was actually helping create the economic conditions in those satellite countries that ultimately led to the downfall of communism.
Given this, it should be no surprise that the beginning of the end for communism started among the shipyard workers of Gdansk, Poland. These workers had made a great deal of money from the Vietnam War that they could not spend in the state controlled economy of communist Poland.
Contrary to general belief, revolutions usually happen when things are getting better, but the improvements are not progressing fast enough for a lot of people. These were the conditions in the captive nations of Eastern Europe when the rumblings of change started, and the result was as predictable in coming as it was unpredictable and surprising that it would succeed essentially without violence.
I think, because we can now see the Cold War as an immense, sustained act of American moral courage and leadership that we should also be able to see that the bloody sacrifices in Vietnam, and Korea were a significant part of that moral leadership and sacrifice. Those two brutal conflicts played a substantial role in the containment policy’s ultimate success in the Cold War.
However as yet, we do not recognize the very real contributions made by American fighting men in these wars. America still does not generally recognize even the valor of those that fought so well for so long in Vietnam, just as it ignores that their significant contribution in this hot war led in part to the successful, ultimately peaceful, end of the Cold War.
While Vietnam may not be our best example of Americans at war in the sense that many of the policies and strategies pursued over the 8 years of the conflict were seriously flawed, e.g. the claiming of progress in war on the basis of “body counts” is squalid, stupid and worse, often misleading, or that allowing the murder of Diem and his brother demeaned the brave soldiers that were fighting the war at the same time it made their job more difficult. There are many other bad examples from the Vietnam War, including the tragedy at My Lai.
Unfortunately, it is these bad examples that received most of the attention then. Therefore, these bad examples often continue to receive most of the attention from historians even today because this is what they see in their research of the war years. Finally as historians continue to dig deeper, this is beginning to change.
The use of “body counts” in an insurgency situation in modern times began with the British in Malaysia. Malaysia is one of the relatively few historical situations in post WWII times in which a major insurgency, using guerrilla tactics which was extensively supported and supplied by an outside force was nonetheless defeated.
The components of success were that the communists in Malaysia were generally limited to the ethnic Chinese minority living in Malaysia and most important the British and Malaysians were able through the use of superb intelligence work to identify the insurgents. Much of this intelligence work was conducted by Metropolitan Police Forces on loan from London and Hong Kong, who not only found out how many communist insurgents there were in Malaysia, but also in many cases they knew who they were.
A large part of the success in Malaysia came from treating the problem as a police/political problem as much as possible. This limited the contact between the civilians and soldiers to only those times where it was absolutely necessary and thus forestalled the unfortunate effect of aggressive, often violent, anti-terrorist military operations which tend to generate more new terrorists than they eliminate. Thus, the use of body count in Malaysia indicated a real diminution in the number of terrorists and was therefore a meaningful number.
When the use of body counts as an indicia of progress was applied to Vietnam such numbers were meaningless, or worse, misleading. Unlike the British in Malaysia who could identify their enemy, except for the NVA who generally fought in uniform, and during Tet ’68 as well as other times when the Viet Cong were caught with their weapons, we were often not absolutely sure that the dead body reported after a firefight was that of an insurgent. We were only certain that it was dead.
The British tried very hard to identify who it was that they had killed in Malaysia. Only if they had reliable information that the body was that of an active terrorist did the British add it to their body count in Malaysia.
Unfortunately where the insurgency is constantly fed new fighters from abroad, like in Vietnam from North Vietnam and today in Iraq and Afghanistan from radical Islamic groups mostly from Saudi Arabia and Iran, an increase in the body count would not necessarily mean that you are winning, rather it could mean that the other side has the people and the will to engage in an increasing amount of direct, violent action. This is simply not a good sign, it is entirely the opposite. But few noticed this reality in the Vietnam War. They just counted the bodies.
Worse, historians that should know better often still repeat the lie that these body counts in Vietnam were inflated. They continue to repeat this base canard even though the North Vietnamese admitted years ago to the essential accuracy of the American body count figures; that is, North Vietnam officially stated that about one million, one hundred thousand VC/NVA were killed during the war. This North Vietnamese figure actually exceeds by a little the numbers reported by MACV during the war. The essential accuracy of the MACV and North Vietnamese casualty figures have also been confirmed by objective research. (See: Rummel, R. J. “Statistics of Vietnamese Democide”)
Thus, the overall casualty statistics for the VC/NVA were originally reported by the military, they were later officially confirmed by government of Vietnam after the war, and by independent scholastic research. Against this, some still say that they “disbelieve” the total casualties reported, but they have no absolutely objective basis for that disbelief. Of course, some still disbelieve that the earth is round.
Similarly, most histories of the Vietnam War, mainly the ones written soon after the war, do not recognize, in fact they simply ignore the many American successes in that war, in particular they ignore the tremendous feat of arms that was the American, allied nations and South Vietnamese response to the Tet ‘68 Offensive. While almost all of the more recent Vietnam War histories now pay at least lip service to the idea that Tet ’68 was a “tactical win” for the Allied forces, there is always a “but” and then a much longer reference to later political changes in America which they attribute to the aftermath of Tet ’68.
However, in 1968 there was no Dien Bien Phu at Khe Sahn. In spite of news reports to the contrary, the VC sappers never got into the American Embassy itself in Saigon, only into the embassy compound where they were all captured or killed early that morning. Only in Hue, Saigon and Phan Thiet did the first waves of the battles last for more that a few days. Moreover, everywhere in Vietnam there were literally piles of enemy dead and stacks of captured enemy weapons that told the real story of the outcome of the Tet ’68 offensive.
The battle of Tet ’68 was a textbook example of American courage, American mobility and the use of firepower and maneuver to absolutely dominate a battlefield that stretched up and down the entire country of South Vietnam. In a word it was: victory. It was a classic military battle of annihilation, a victory of truly historic proportions. Unfortunately it is also a victory that is still almost unknown to the American public.
Although some were wiped out, I do not believe that even a squad of Americans, much less a larger unit, ever surrendered during the Vietnam War, even during Tet ’68 when the communist attacks were at their fiercest. There is no question that during Tet ’68 that the VC/NVA attacks had some local successes, particularly at Hue and in Cholon in Saigon. However, the Americans fought, then they died or they retreated still fighting, and then they counter-attacked.
It is important to remember that while during the Battle of the Bulge some 23,000 Americans were captured by the Germans or were declared missing after the battle, in Vietnam in the entire year of 1968 there were only 158 Americans declared to be captured or missing in action. No Americans nor South Vietnamese Army unit surrendered during the Tet ’68 Offensive. They fought. They fought well and ultimately, they won that battle.
Most of the South Vietnamese Army was a draftee army. Literally, it was a cross section of the sons of the people of South Vietnam. While it often suffered from bad leadership and high desertion rates, during Tet ’68 the South Vietnamese Army fought and often fought hard for their country, particularly their elite Ranger, Marine and Airborne battalions and brigades. Contrary to the expectations of the North Vietnamese Politburo not a single ARVN unit defected to the enemy during Tet ’68. These startling facts are routinely ignored by many histories of the war.
The truth, that the Communists attacks during Tet ’68 were bloodily, speedily, crushed, still has not been generally acknowledged by Western historians of the war. Most Americans still do not know the extent of the American, Allied, Tet ’68 victory. Unfortunately, most Americans probably do not even know that it was our victory.
The picture, you may remember it as well, that stands out in my mind from Tet ’68 is the one of an MP, probably named Paul Healy, throwing a Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol up to Col. George Jacobson, USA, Ret., an Embassy officer, who was hanging out a window at his house in the US Embassy compound so that Jacobson could turn around and use it to kill the VC/NVA that was banging away at his bedroom door. This was the last VC/NVA that had made it into the embassy compound that morning. All of the other VC/NVA that had made it into the Embassy grounds in Saigon were dead or captured the very same morning that they blew their way through the Embassy compound’s walls. It took longer in Cholon, Hue, and Phan Thiet to root them out, but the outcome was the same.
The VC/NVA took their best shot during what they called the “Tet Offensive”, and they lost miserably. They literally achieved none of their objectives. While after the battle the NVA rapidly infiltrated replacements for their losses during Tet ’68, many with “Born in the North, To Die in the South” written on the helmets, the VC simply never recovered from their extraordinarily bloody defeat during Tet ’68. The VC were never able to replace their horrific losses from the battles up and down Vietnam, and all of their units, including even their Main Force units, soon contained far more NVA than Southerners.
As a result of the severe battle losses among both the NVA and VC units General Giap even took the extraordinary step to reassure the surviving VC/NVA that these types of stand-up, slugfest battles with the deadly Americans would never be attempted again. Based on the results of the battle General Giap thought that this was necessary to try to restore his soldiers’ morale which had truly been shattered by American and allied steel during Tet ’68.
However, in spite of all the news coverage it received, when I returned from Vietnam in the fall of 1968 after all of the battles were over, and there had been ample time to asses their results, I was not asked once about our great victory in the Battle of Tet ’68, but I remember being repeatedly asked, how many people I had killed. My answer never varied:
“More of them than they did of me.”
We really kicked their ass. You would have thought that someone would have noticed, that someone would have cared.
❋ For example the Tactical Department, General Staff, NVA, reference: No. 124/Tgi, document No.1103, dated February 14, 1969 reported a total of 123,394 casualties from stages 1 and 2 of the Tet ’68 Offensive.