Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017. xi, 276 pp. ISBN 9780700625024.
This book deals with the effort of the U.S. government to present a very optimistic picture of progress in the Vietnam War during 1967, the way this left the United States unprepared for the magnitude of the Communists' Tet Offensive in 1968, and the way these events have been remembered and interpreted (often very inaccurately) up to the present.
Table of Contents:
Abbreviations Used in the Text (ix)
Introduction: The Problem (1)
Chapter 1. Escalating the Vietnam War, 1964–1967 (9)
Chapter 2. The Order of Battle (19)
The Self-Defense Militia (22)
Evolution of the OB Summary (25)
Sam Adams (33)
Spring 1967 at MACV (37)
Two Kinds of Intelligence Officers (46)
Choosing the Metrics: The Gain and Loss Methodology (48)
A Stalemated War? (53)
Chapter 3. The Special National Intelligence Estimate (58)
Negotiating the SNIE (59)
The SNIE: Final Version (66)
The Role of the Pentagon (72)
Arguments in Defense of the MACV Estimates (73)
Publicizing the SNIE (88)
Distracting the Media (90)
Chapter 4. The Optimism Campaign (94)
The Short-Term Focus in Public Relations (103)
What Did Westmoreland Believe? (104)
Two kinds of Journalists (106)
Chapter 5. Preparing for the Offensive (109)
Le Duan's Optimism (111)
Expanding Communist Forces (115)
The OB and the Size of the Tet Attack Force (124)
The Warning (129)
Chapter 6. The Tet Offensive, 1968 (134)
The Rand Interviews (140)
Continuing the Offensive (144)
The Shock in Washington (152)
Chapter 7. The Myths of Tet (156)
Communist Losses (158)
American Losses (164)
The Order of Battle after Tet (166)
Exaggerating the Changes in US Strategy (169)
The Effects of Tet on Pacification (171)
MACV's Optimism Continues (174)
Reconciling the Figures (175)
Chapter 8. The Mythical Myth: Supposed Media Portrayals of Tet (178)
The Cronkite Broadcast (182)
The Attack on the US Embassy (185)
The Giap Variant (187)
Chapter 9. The War Continues (190)
The Wheeler Mission (197)
Chapter 10. Aftermath, Lessons, and Questions (207)
Estimates Going Forward (207)
Tet in Retrospect (209)
Abbreviations Used in the Notes (213)
Map 1.1: South Vietnam: Corps Tactical Zones (8)
Map 6.1: The Tet Offensive: Premature and Delayed Attacks (136)
Map 6.2: The Attack on Saigon: Key Locations (138)
Figure 2.1. Combat Forces, May 1966 to September 1968, Current and Retroactive Figures (31)
Figure 2.2. Administrative Services, May 1966 to September 1968, Current and Retroactive Figures (31)
Figure 2.3. Guerrilla Strength, May 1966 to September 1968, Current and Retroactive Figures (32)
Figure 4.1. Americans killed by hostile action, by month, 1966-1967 (101)
Figure 5.1. Military Forces, May 1966 to September 1968, Current and Retroactive Figures (116)
Figure 6.1. Americans killed by hostile action, weeks ending on specified dates (146)
Figure 6.2. Americans killed by hostile action, by month, 1967-1969 (150)
Figure 6.3. RVN personnel killed by hostile action, by month, 1967-1969 (151)
Table 2.1: MACV Figures for Communist Strength, Old Categories, January 1966 to September 1967 (27)
Table 3.1: Strength figures in Office of National Estimates draft NIE, June 14, 1967 (60)
Table 3.2: Order of Battle presented by Gains Hawkins to the SNIE Conference, August 9, 1967 (63)
Table 3.3: MACV OB Summaries, May 31 and September 30, 1967 (71)
Table 5.1: Current and Retroactive MACV Estimates for PAVN Regular Combat Strength (117)
Table 7.1: Communist strength in January 1968: Contemporary and Retroactive MACV Figures (177)
Table 8.1: Gallup Polls on How the War Would End (185)
p. 47: I referred to "Master Sergeant Howard Daniel." He did not yet have that rank in 1967, so I should have called him "Sergeant First Class Howard Daniel."
p. 113: I wrote "Bloody fighting began on October 27 at Loc Ninh..." This was not quite correct. The Communist offensive in northern III Corps began on October 27, 1967, but at Song Be, east of Loc Ninh. Fighting actually in the vicinity of Loc Ninh did not begin until October 29.
p. 250, note 36, second to last line: The word "Lost" has been dropped out of a book title that should have been given as Tiger Hound: How We Won the War and Lost the Country.
Are the Myths Still Being Repeated?
My book discusses a variety of myths that are widespread in the literature of the Vietnam War. But which of them are still being actively circulated? I thought it would be worth noting which of them have appeared in works that have come out since I finished writing my book.
The one that has been most conspicuous is that the United States reacted to the Tet Offensive by abandoning its effort to win the war. In fact President Johnson responded to the Tet Offensive by escalating his use both of ground troops and of air power. He continued pushing hard militarily, trying to win the war, until he left office in January 1969.
"It would require twenty-four days of terrible fighting to take the city back. The Battle of Hue would be the bloodiest of the Vietnam War, and a turning point not just in that conflict, but in American history. When it was over, debate concerning the war in the United States was never again about winning, only about how to leave." Mark Bowden, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), unnumbered page just before p. 1. The same statement appeared again, in almost the same words, on p. 519.
"The Viet Cong were depleted as a fighting force. But from tactical defeat came strategic victory. America's will had been broken." John A Farrell, Richard Nixon: The Life (New York: Doubleday, 2017), p. 320.
North Vietnamese tenacity "let Hanoi outlast America's will to fight a costly war for nebulous ends, and then launch a major attack, the Tet Offensive, that broke Washington's flagging commitment to a faraway struggle." Max Brands, The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022), p. 88.
Philip Brady, who had been working for USAID in Vietnam at the time of the Tet Offensive, said that Tet "broke the will of the United States to fight that war" in the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick 2017 documentary "The Vietnam War," episode 6, "Things Fall Apart (January-July 1968)."
"Johnson's major mistake was to de-escalate in 1968 following the Tet Offensive. Having authorized half a million American troops to be sent to Vietnam, the commander-in-chief abandoned the effort just when his enemy was desperate to break the stalemate, went for broke, and suffered massive losses." Tuong Vu, Vietnam's Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 294. Pierre Asselin quoted this passage, and endorsed it, in his book Vietnam's American War: A History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 164.
"Johnson's refusal to send any more reinforcements, coupled with his announced intention to reduce bombing of the North while launching peace talks, represented a turning point in the war. There would be no more hopes of an American military victory. The only question now was the terms and pace of withdrawal." Max Boot, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam (New York: Liveright, 2018), p. 521.
"The North Vietnamese finally broke Johnson's will to fight with the unexpected and brazen Tet Offensive in 1968." Michael J. Green, By More than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), p. 298.
"By 1968, Johnson [decided] to abandon his policies to continue to wage war against the North.... during the first three months of 1968 ... LBJ had to confront the TET crisis and lost his nerve. Thereby, the 'Reluctant Commander-in-Chief' retreated from the war he had chosen to wage and abandoned the nearly 500,000 American soldiers then on the field of battle." Harry Rothmann, Colonel, US Army (Retired), Warriors and Fools: How America's Leaders Lost the Vietnam War and Why It Still Matters. RCI Publications, 2018. (Amazon.com gives the impression this excerpt is from p. 170, but it is hard to be sure.)
I have seen two books that repeat the myth that the Tet Offensive was a well-coordinated wave of simultaneous attacks, throughout South Vietnam:
Doug Stanton, The Odyssey of Echo Company (New York: Scribner, 2017:
"On a single night, January 31, 1968, as many as 100,000 soldiers in the North Vietnamese Army attack thirty-six cities throughout South Vietnam" (front flap of dust jacket).
"In those first predawn hours of the Tet Offensive, about 100,000 North Vietnamese regular army soldiers attacked thirty-six cities throughout South Vietnam" (p.87).
"On the night of January 29-30, 1968 . . . every VC/NVA radio in the country went silent. . . . Three hours later, one hundred thousand VC and NVA troops launched the massive and seemingly coordinated offensive against over one hundred cities, towns, and major military bases throughout South Vietnam." John D. Caldwell, Anatomy of Victory: Why the United States Triumphed in World War II, Fought to a Stalemate in Korea, Lost in Vietnam, and Failed in Iraq (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), pp. 277-78.
I have seen one example of the myth that the American media over-reacted to the Tet Offensive, treating it as a much worse disaster than it actually was.
"Tet was decisively lost in the living-rooms of America: television-news icon Walter Cronkite declared the war lost." Harland K. Ullman, Anatomy of Failure: Why American Loses Every War It Starts (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2017), p. 51.
I have seen exaggerations to varying degrees of the losses suffered by the Viet Cong, particularly the infrastructure, in the Tet Offensive:
"The guerrilla infrastructure developed over so many years was wiped out. After Tet 1968, the war was run entirely by North Vietnam." Brigadier General (ret.) David T. Zabecki, "Tet Offensive, Overall Strategy," in James H. Willbanks, ed., The Vietnam War: A Topical Exploration and Primary Source Collection (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2018), p. 283.
Stephen Biddle wrote that the Tet Offensive "essentially destroyed the Vietcong as a meaningful military organization." Biddle treated the Tet Offensive as having ended no later than April 1968. Stephen Biddle, Nonstate Warfare: The Military Methods of Guerillas, Warlords, and Militias (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021), p. 267.
"The [Tet] offensive was defeated at every point. The Viet Cong lost 80 percent of its infrastructure and was destroyed as an effective fighting force." John T. Correll, "Calling the Shots in Hanoi," Air Force Magazine, May 1, 2020.
"Never again would the Viet Cong be a powerful military force. Within two months, by the end of March, they were essentially wiped out." Stephen Coonts and Barrett Tillman, Dragon's Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam (New York: Da Capo/Hachette, 2019), p. 182.
"Between early 1967 and March 1969, the Viet Cong was virtually destroyed." Donald Stoker, Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and US Strategy from the Korean War to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2019), p. 151. This is not as unrealistic as the many statements cited in my book (and in the quotes immediately above) suggesting that the Viet Cong had been virtually destroyed well before the middle of 1968, but it is still an exaggeration.
I have seen one serious understatement of the losses suffered by US and RVN forces during the Tet Offensive broadly defined (counting all three waves of the Communists' 1968 general offensive):
"The three-phase campaign, lasting until September 1968, cost the United States and South Vietnamese some 10,500 killed and missing as well as untold thousands of South Vietnamese civilians." (Stephen Coonts and Barrett Tillman, Dragon's Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam [New York: Da Capo/Hachette, 2019], p. 181.) The actual number of US and RVN military personnel killed, not counting the missing, was well over 20,000.
I have seen one spectacular statement of the myth that the dispute between MACV and CIA analyst Sam Adams over estimates of enemy strength was essentially based on differences in the categories of enemy personnel counted:
"Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was able to estimate the number of regular troops in the North Vietnamese armed forces . . . A young Harvard-educated analyst working alone at the CIA took a different view. Sam Adams counted guerrilla-militia forces as well as the regular troops infiltrated from the North. At the end of 1966, the US armed forces chief gave enemy strength as 270,000, but Adams made it 600,000." Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, A Question of Standing: The History of the CIA (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2022), pp. 83-84. In late 1966 MACV was actually counting all the categories of enemy personnel that Sam Adams was counting. Guerrilla-militia indeed made up a larger proportion of the MACV estimate than North Vietnamese regular troops did.
c.v. for Edwin E. Moïse
Bibliography of the Vietnam War
Revised July 29, 2023.