The Tet Offensive
The Tet Offensive has become enshrined as THE turning point of the American war in Vietnam. Secondary school textbooks, whether written for students at the most introductory level or designed for AP students, argue that the Tet Offensive was the turning point of the war. Most American history textbooks use the actual phrase “turning point” in reference to the Tet Offensive and put the term in bold letters or use this phrase as a sub-chapter heading. The textbooks also argue that the war after Tet was characterized by little more than a tapering off of American involvement.
The aftermath of “Tet” did indeed contribute to a shock to the American political system and new thinking about the war effort. In framing the Tet Offensive in this way, however, the texts ignore key changes in military and political prosecution of the war, critically important facts and significant ideas related to the war. Such omissions distort the story of Vietnam in such a way as to make it difficult for students to understand the relationship of the Vietnam experience to the history of American involvement in the rest of the world, both before the Vietnam War and in events since.
The Tet Offensive was indeed significant in the story of Vietnam. In an attempt to bring the war to a swift conclusion and to foment a general uprising in the south, the Viet Cong (actually the “NLF,” National Liberation Front, known to the U.S. as the “VC”) and the North Vietnamese Army organized a series of surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam during the celebration of the Vietnamese New Year (Tet) in late January, 1968. The extent and the fury of these attacks initially took the US military and their South Vietnamese allies off guard, belying the argument being made to the American public that there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” that the war was soon to be won.
Footage of the U.S. embassy staff in retreat on the very embassy grounds and photographs of executions on the streets (see Primary Source “South Vietnamese Officer Executes a Viet Cong Prisoner” Photograph ) contributed to a sense that Tet signaled a final failure of the American strategy. Appropriately, all the textbooks discuss this sense of psychological defeat as well as the significant political fallout, most especially Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election.
Textbooks typically discuss the argument currently accepted by most historians that Tet represented a military defeat for the Viet Cong. Yet the textbooks also lead the reader to the conclusion that Tet led the U.S. to turn from one way of war, the U.S. attempt to “win,” to another, the U.S. decision leave.
None of the secondary school textbooks discuss the Vietnam War itself during the remaining 10 months of 1968, and few discuss the war at all in 1969 or early 1970. All begin with a new chapter after the U.S. election of 1968.
In the American Anthem (Holt/Rienhart Winston), the main idea of the next chapter is “President Nixon eventually ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam.” The post–Tet chapter in U.S. History (Prentice Hall) is entitled “The War’s End and Impact.” In the American Journey (McGraw Hill), the main idea in the post 1968 section is that “Nixon took steps to bring American forces home and end the war in Vietnam.” All of the books focus on Nixon’s call for “Peace with Honor” and his policy of “Vietnamization,” a policy designed to decrease U.S. troop numbers while increasing the number of soldiers in the South Vietnamese military.
In the overall narrative of Vietnam, the U.S. involvement is characterized by a steady build-up before Tet, the turning point of Tet and then a winding down after Tet. Richard Nixon becomes merely the caretaker of this attenuated effort, and it thus appears to the reader as if nothing much happened in Vietnam after Tet. Not only is such a narrative overly simplistic, it ignores critically important events, ideas, and historical changes that need to be taught as central aspects of the Vietnam War.
After Tet, American soldiers still fought in Vietnam for a full five years. This is longer than the duration of any other war in U.S. history except the American Revolution and, not coincidentally, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just under half the deaths suffered by U.S. forces in the entire Vietnam War were suffered after Tet, meaning they were suffered after the narrative suggests the war was winding down (see Primary Source Combat Area Casualties ).
Interestingly, one textbook, The Americans (McDougall) includes a chart that shows that more ordnance was dropped on the enemy by U.S. forces in the time period AFTER Tet than in all of World War II on both fronts. Ironically, this chart is included in the post-1968 section under the title “The End of the War and its Legacy.” If all that happened in the April 1968-1973 period was to end the war in Vietnam, why would so many bombs have been dropped? If Nixon’s only real policy was “Vietnamization,” why would so many U.S. troops have been killed? And if everything after Tet was merely the conclusion of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, why would so many significant historical events have happened in this time period?
Clearly, although Tet was important, the traditional narrative that it was only the beginning of the end is too simplistic. The story of Tet and its part in the greater narrative is instead one of “confusion, controversy and indeterminacy.”
For example, many of the textbooks argue or at least imply that Tet led to the peace movement and the peace movement, starting in April 1968, led to the end of the war. U.S. History (Prentice Hall) begins its post-Tet chapter (“The War’s End and it’s Impact”) under the picture of a peace march, leaving the impression of a clear connection.
Yet those in charge of the military after 1968 (Richard Nixon and the military leaders on the ground) had a very different view. Nixon believed that “Tet so thinned the NLF presence in the countryside as to provide a basis for successful pacification managed by American advisors" (see Primary Source Memorandum for the President from Henry Kissinger: “Possible Responses to Enemy Activity in South Vietnam” ). According to historian Lewis Sorley, the American military leadership believed that “the fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won in 1970.” Something quite different was happening than a full-scale retreat from the war caused by a Tet-induced peace movement.
That "something" was a military policy initiated after Tet in 1968 that was wholeheartedly endorsed by Richard Nixon: the policy of “pacification.” According to Ronald Spector in After Tet, “developments in South Vietnam (in the April-December 1968 period) were far more important in shaping the course of the war for the next five years than anything done in Washington during February and March" (see Primary Source Agenda and Testimony of William Colby ).
During this time period, the U.S. helped to fashion “Operation Phoenix,” a counterinsurgency program to be carried out by the South Vietnamese armed forces with the training, support, and advice of the U.S. military. This program called for the “neutralization” of NLF forces in the countryside and often resulted in the kidnapping, imprisonment, and assassination of suspected insurgents. “Operation Phoenix” and its attendant political work in the countryside served as the lynchpin of U.S. policy from 1968-1973 (see Primary Source Quang Nam Province: Phoenix/Phung Hoang Briefing ).
None of the textbooks mention pacification or Operation Phoenix, an omission that needs to be remedied. Combined with use of American technological force in the form of strategic bombing and the mining of harbors, this policy of counterinsurgency was designed to force the North Vietnamese to bargain and result in a new kind of American victory.
Historians and policy analysts debate the effectiveness of this policy, but there is no question that Nixon and the military leadership believed in it. Tet did not cause the war to wind down. It did change the method of warfare, moving away from Westmoreland’s tactics of “search and destroy” towards a late 20th-century version of counterinsurgency.
It is important to move beyond the traditional and overly simplistic narrative of Vietnam that includes Tet as the turning point towards a “winding down” of the war. All of the textbooks mention My Lai and the invasion of Cambodia in their sections after Tet, but how are students to understand these events if they are in a section about retreat from the war? Why would the U.S. escalate the scope and brutality of the war if it was merely ending?
There is more to the story, and it is the story of pacification and counterinsurgency. And this story is critical in the larger story of U.S. history. It connects to a long story of U.S. interaction with the rest of the world, from involvement in the Filipino-American war to the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Vietnam as a story is always subsumed into a story of the 1960s rather than standing alone as an example of U.S. involvement in the rest of the world. WWI and WWII are not presented in the textbooks this way…why is Vietnam? Tet might have indeed been a turning point, but in a much different and more complex way than presented in the textbooks. And this more complicated, engaging, and frightening story needs to be taught if students today are going to understand more completely the wars they themselves might be asked to fight.