50th Anniversary of Tet Offensive
Updated: Jul 20, 2018
The night of January 30, 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the famed Tet offensive, often seen as the turning point of America’s war in Vietnam. Historians, like America’s favorite documentarian, Ken Burns in his recent ten-episode eighteen-hour PBS TV series “The Vietnam War”, have continued to point out that the end result of the offensive was a “terrible defeat” for the enemy. After weeks of intense fighting, American forces took back South Vietnam’s cities and towns, killing thousands of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regular soldiers.
To those of us who were on the ground in Vietnam the night of January 30, 1968 and the days and weeks after, the Tet offensive felt like another Pearl Harbor. General Westmoreland, the American commanding general in Vietnam, had recently told Congress he could see “the light at the end of the tunnel” in the war. In the central highlands, our patrols were reporting huge influxes of North Vietnamese troops, supplies, and even tanks. It was obvious something big was about to happen. Years later, a number of America’s top military and intelligence leaders revealed that Westmoreland had ordered them to report a maximum of 350,000 enemy troops in South Vietnam, while they knew that there were more than 600,000. The story was finally made public in a landmark CBS TV documentary, and Westmoreland sued. The case came to trial in October of 1984. When the good General saw that 28 of his former officers were standing in line waiting to testify against him, he abruptly dropped his suit. CBS said it had never intended to question the general’s patriotism. It must be noted that Congress never investigated this issue, and no one was ever held accountable. Video of the CBS documentary is glaringly unobtainable. I wish Ken Burns would have seen it.
The Tet offensive was a bloodbath. Enemy forces went into every significant city and town throughout South Vietnam and sought out locals who had cooperated with the American forces. One of our workers, a delightful old man who burned our human waste every day, was held down while his wife and daughter were raped and then shot, all of his children were murdered, and then he was shot in both arms and both legs and left to die. He survived, but would never be able to work again. In an impoverished society like Vietnam, his fate was worse than death. The night of January 30th we were alerted that an enemy human wave attack was imminent, and we would be outnumbered but must slow the approaching army’s progress until our ground and air forces could reorganize and prepare to defend the nearby city of Pleiku. We fixed bayonets and waited, hearing radio reports of enemy incursions throughout the country, and Viet Cong guerrillas inside the American Embassy in Saigon. We could see and hear the battle for Pleiku in the distance, the swarms of helicopters firing scarlet streams of bullets from their mini-guns, and the bombs and rockets exploding in the midst of downtown. Our prayers were answered when the enemy force approaching our base turned left and went over a mountain to attack Pleiku from a flank. Throughout Vietnam, the situation was deadly and desperate for weeks. More Americans were killed on January 31st, 1968 than any other day of the eleven-year war.
The Communists had expected the people of South Vietnam to join their offensive, and that didn’t happen. Over time, their forces were expelled from the cities with very heavy losses, but their movement was not defeated. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, American forces fought to take back island after island until they were knocking upon the door of Japan, where two atomic bombs ended the war abruptly. In Vietnam, the war went on for seven more years after the Tet offensive. Ultimately, like the French before us, the Americans were defeated. It was a dreadful war, and a dreadful time for our country. In Washington, D.C. a somber black stone wall contains 58,315 reasons why we must guard against lies, misrepresentations, corruption, and profiteering in our government, our military, our intelligence services, and our defense contractors and industries. Let us never forget what really happened.
As the year 2018 proceeds, we will be reminded of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the chaos outside of the Democratic convention in Chicago. Especially at this moment, we must never forget what really happened.
Published Roanoke Times Commentary, January 2018