Hau Nghia Part 3: Tom Brokaw

Out of Blind Xenophobia

Glowing reports of the success of the war of attrition did not fool Robert Komer, a Johnson aide who the President assigned to first monitor and then direct the pacification effort. Komer, a staunch supporter of the war, immediately warned that the overall effect of up-tempo conventional U. S. military operations would be to obliterate the pacification program and increase anti-American attitudes. He was virtually alone in this belief. As noted above, even Lodge, who had once championed pacification, knew a bandwagon when he saw one and advised the President that a war of attrition and pacification operations could go hand in hand. This optimism remained even after Westmoreland's war turned 4 million South Vietnamese into refugees and fatally undermined the social and economic fabric of the country.

After the war, Komer observed that, while the counterinsurgency-pacification effort suffered a slow death in 1966, it was resurrected after the Tet Offensive in 1968. America and its Vietnamese ally had little choice but to do so. The magnitude of Westmoreland's error of misreading the enemy's operational flexibility was revealed at the onset of that offensive. In 1965, he claimed that at Ia Drang the enemy had begun to abandon protracted war. This statement was conveniently forgotten at Tet, when he announced, as if for the first time, that the enemy had finally abandoned protracted war in favor of the "third stage" main force operations. In fact, he was chiefly facing concentrations of guerrillas acting without the reserves and logistics of main force units. The infuriatingly flexible enemy had temporarily shelved protracted war in favor of a general offensive/general uprising associated with "third phase' operations, but employed concentrations of guerrillas, rather than abandoning them in favor of regular units as was typical of Maoist strategy as perceived by MACV. Westmoreland tried to translate the heavy casualties his forces inflicted upon such troops as proof of the correctness of his strategic posture and he was, in fact, correct in believing that, after Tet, the burden of the war would fall on regular North Vietnamese units. The enemy's performance at Tet, however, rendered these new conditions irrelevant. The Tet Offensive may have had catastrophic costs for the NLF, but its effort constituted the ultimate proof of the effectiveness of political and military dau tranh.

The meaning and impact of Tet was hotly debated in Hanoi, with mea culpas from the Le Duan--Troung Chinh clique that favored its most disastrous element--the push for a general uprising--and with the expression of deep regret from Vo Nguyen Giap, who planned it reluctantly under duress from the Le Duan-dominated Politburo. This debate, however, has obscured the actual plans and purposes of the offensive. According to Tran Van Tra, the Tet Offensive harnessed the energies of all forces at all levels and had two objectives, one political and the other military. The political objective, fully achieved, was aimed at breaking the mutually painful deadlock of the war of attrition and pushing the already wavering Washington war-making elite into doing what Robert McNamara had by then already recommended: admit its failure to win a quick military victory and seek a negotiated settlement. The military objective, aimed at unmanning rather than overwhelming U.S. forces, was designed to support the political objective, with the added benefit that movement toward the desired negotiated settlement might be accelerated or even obviated by a successful general uprising. Thousands of guerrillas died and the general uprising failed, but the offensive's purpose was realized: with the demoralization of the enemy's leadership and the opening of negotiations to end the war. Today, Tran Van Tra remains amazed that Tet is considered in America as a "military failure" that was, at best, a freak political success. He bridles at the "blind xenophobia" inherent in the revisionists' who claim that Washington was "forced to withdraw due to internal conflicts and psychological panic" unrelated to any intentional act of the Vietnamese people. He admonishes the "smug" devotees of these argument to remember that, while the offensive was, indeed, a political victory, "there is never an easy `political victory' won by the grace of Heaven or through an enemy's mercy without first having to shed blood and scatter bones on the battlefield, particularly in a big war such as ours."

Too Little, Too Late?

The imperatives arising from the need to reassess the war effort in light of the Tet Offensive permitted Westmoreland's successor, General Creighton Abrams, to try to return the Army's focus to rural security in support of political and economic reforms, an approach then being touted by analyst Francis West. The Tet Offensive also permitted Komer to both free CORDS from MACV control and attempt to finally implement PROVN's recommendations. PROVN's Lt. Colonel Donald Marshall was brought back to Vietnam to assist in this effort. More important, the Tet debacle seemed to finally galvanize the South Vietnamese government into devoting more resources to their own Revolutionary Development Program and to accepting the American-sponsored managerial and economic reforms, including, ultimately, Thieu's Land to the Tiller program.

End Part 3
Hau Nghia Pt 3 Tom Brokaw

Copyright © Marc Gilbert and James Wells 1995. All rights reserved.