The Tet offensive was certainly the decisive campaign of the war, but lost in these set of battles was the real underlying reason why the grossly underestimated NLF and North Vietnamese army could actually succeed in this undermanned set of attacks. I think the real success of this campaign was not the effectiveness and the planning of the NLF and NV army, but the lack of preparation of the US forces. The NLF and NV army have received too much credit on this suicide mission. The credit should actually be on the blundering groundwork of the US and how they did not realize, from Vietnamese history, the vicious repercussions of backing the strong people of Vietnam into a corner.
Ignorance is perhaps the single most effective way to lose a war (perhaps demonstrated in our own revolutionary war). A quick glance into the history of Vietnam and one would know that this enemy is not to be taken lightly. They have faced amazing odds and great opposition throughout their history, defeating countries like China (on multiple occasions), France, and numerous other Indonesian countries. War is etched in many, if not most of the pages in Vietnam?s history.
In early 1968, General Westmoreland perceived the end of the war to be arriving soon, and the US walking out the victor. He stated that, ?The friendly picture gives rise to optimism for increased successes in 1968? (Gettleman 1995, 339). That was perhaps the summation of why the US lost the Vietnam War. One might question, however, if the US really just ignored the Vietnamese or the Tet offensive was a superior operation with flawless execution. The execution was far from flawless. The NLF-NV army had to be well equipped to make this attack effective. Supplies for 84,000 troops could not be moved into major cities without notice. On quite a few occasions munitions and rations were found in cargo containers. These hints of an operation were ignored by the US. General Westmoreland thought that the opposing army was almost completely wiped out and could not mount an offensive of that magnitude. While he perceived the opposing army to be fleeing north and proceeded to attack closer and closer to the North Vietnamese boarder; the Vietnamese were actually moving south in preparation for the offensive (Gettleman 1995, 343).
The citizens of Vietnam also played a role in the success of the Tet Offensive. The US was not kind toward the Vietnamese (even the southerners). In fear of North Vietnamese agents in the South populace the US troops were very cruel to the citizens and even burnt many of their villages. The US also moved many of the rural populace into urban areas, over crowding the cities and providing a greater mask for the NLF-NV army to establish themselves in these regions. Also, with the Tet holiday around the corner many of the people who were not being forced into the cities were coming to visit family. It was not only the over population, however, that made it easier for the NLF-NV army to move into the cities. The US constantly mistreating the Vietnamese populace created resentment in the people and probably fashioned many more individuals who helped the communist army infiltrate into the municipality. Most of the people?s attention, however, was not on the war (which they were so accustomed to), but on the coming holiday. Even the police were affected by the holiday. They captured a few of the enemy?s crates, but failed to detect (at least according to General Westmoreland) ?the magnitude of the enemy?s effort? (Gettleman 1995, 346).
Though the US and General Westmoreland?s ignorance could be perhaps a major reason for the success of the Tet offensive it is not the only one. There are many more minor reasons that culminated into a greater explanation then the US blunder. The day of the Tet offensive HALF the ARVN army was on leave for the holiday. This many troops being absent from the protective forces in the cities made the capture of these urban centers much easier than trying to take them on any other day of the year. Also, one must consider the geography of Vietnam. The two hundred mile boarder gave easy access for armies and munitions to be moved efficiently into the countryside. While General Westmoreland perceived that he controlled the enemy?s major base near Saigon, along the Cambodian boarder the enemy was establishing many more bases and collecting tons of munitions which he was moving easily into South Vietnam along this massive boarder (Gettleman 1995, 345). Because of this Cambodia became a major factor in the war. Although, they were neutral and did not interfere for the most part, allowing North Vietnamese usage of the now famous Ho Chi Minh trail was perhaps one of the greatest assets in the war. It made a small ten to twenty mile boarder of the North to the South a two hundred mile open field for Ho Chi Minh to use in his attack.
The true sense of the Tet campaign is much greater than the body count and the end result. This campaign was a psychological lift for the strong moral of the NLF-NV army and total devastation for the already defeated moral of the US and allied troops. The fact that a small group of 84,000 troops could actually capture (if even for a short time) many of the major urban areas is certainly a defeat for the 1.5 million personal of the combined US and allied forces. It seems that the report of General Westmoreland in the Gettleman book is evidence enough of this psychological devastation. Filled with ifs, buts, lies, excuses, and a general morbid outlook, the report is that of a defeated man looking to point his decrepit finger at any possible excuses that could stop negative attention to himself. Perhaps history is doing the finger pointing towards the General, but his continued underestimation and lack of knowledge of an enemy he is fighting first hand (or commanding people that are) is his own fault. It seems comical, in his report, the estimation of the dead and injured. General Westmoreland claims that 45,000 out of the 84,000 troops of the enemy were killed. The US military normally estimated that for every soldier killed in Vietnam 3.5 were wounded. Simple algebra could tell us that he claims the Vietnamese had over 170,000 casualties out of an attacking force that consisted of 84,000 troops (Gettleman 1995, 348). The lies do continue. General Westmoreland also states that during the capture of the Imperial city the enemy ?singled out and executed over 1,000 government officials, school teachers, and others of known government loyalty? (Gettleman 1995, 348). This claim of cruelty would later be proved false. There are continued falsehoods, like claims of regaining territory which for the most part were never recovered and continued misrepresentation of the communists as complete savages and cannibals only out for blood.
The Tet offensive could possibly be called the most significant offensive of the Vietnam War, but it was largely the events around that offensive that made it actually an effective campaign. There are so many different reasons why this campaign actually succeeded it seems that every possible negative outcome that could have happened did. I don?t think the actual reason for the Allied loss in Vietnam was the Tet offensive itself. I believe it was the culmination of the reasons explained above that made the US not only lose that battle, but lose the war itself. Its seems that Vietnam was a lesson to all countries (especially US and France) that what you do not know can in fact kill you or the innocent veterans that risked their lives for a cause that most did not believe in.