Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets is yet another series, where David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.
Given that intensive planning for the Tet Offensive was in progress in late 1967, where would you expect General Vo Nguyen Giap to have been? Well in fact, he was in Hungary. He went there in September 1967, and was not seen in Hanoi until 5 February 1968, two weeks after the offensive began. This article explains why, and is the first part of a new series about the 1968 Tet Offensive. This major NVA offensive attacked Saigon, Hue, Khe Sanh, and over 100 other cities. This game-changing event shook American confidence, shifted the conflict toward diplomacy, and awoke American opposition to the war.
People’s War Paradigm
The North Vietnamese Communists found themselves in a similar military situation against the Americans as against the French. They faced a superior army, with massive air power, and high technology. General Giap had correctly formulated his strategy against the French, and it worked very well at Dien Bien Phu. To him, a similar strategy must be employed against the Americans.
The “People’s War,” as was originally defined by Mao Tse Tung, was the guiding principle. Against a superior enemy, the war was to be fought in stages. First, guerilla warfare weakens the enemy and disperses his forces, while allowing time to build political and military strength. Secondly, at some equilibrium point, the “People’s Army” fights fight larger battles, mainly ambush scenarios, where they entice the enemy to attack fortified positions, thus inflicting high losses. And finally, when the time was right, with friendly forces strong enough, they mount a major counter-offensive.
General Giap adopted a doctrine of “advance cautiously, and strike surely.” This meant careful planning, patient logistical development, and deliberate, but concealed positioning of troops. They would not strike until everything was ready, and knew for “certain” that an attack would succeed.
Over and over, Giap stated: “The principle which we adhered, contenting ourselves with attacking when success was certain, refusing to give battle likely to incur losses or engage in hazardous actions.” This was his approach at Dien Bien Phu, where Giap rejected Chinese advice for a single massive human wave assault. Instead, he planned and executed a two-month siege.
In 1967, the North Vietnamese were transitioning from a pure guerilla war into the phase two “equilibrium” state of limited major battles, to create ambush opportunities. At this point in time, Giap believed the NVA should continue with the doctrine of “attacking only when success was certain.”
American War Outlook December 1967
At the end of 1967, the American military was pursuing its objectives, and believed that they were being met. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, JCS thought that the NVA was paying a high price for its aggression, and that the trend was favorable to free world forces. Progress was being made, although slow, on military, political, and economic fronts.
MACV was committed to a policy of avoiding a wider war with China, with no invasion plans of North Vietnam or attempts to overthrow its government. However, the JCS felt that US military power was restrained, reducing its effectiveness. The prolonged, graduated basis of operations allowed the NVA to adjust psychologically, economically, and militarily. The enemy still took advantage of sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, and infiltration via the Ho Chi Minh trail was a problem.
General Westmoreland was more optimistic. He thought increased troop levels and logistics would provide a basis for offensive operations. Authorized troop levels increased from 470000 to 525000 at the end of 1967. Westmoreland stated: ” . . . our  operations were primarily holding actions characterized by border surveillance, reconnaissance to locate enemy forces, and spoiling attacks to disrupt the enemy offensive. As a result of our buildup and successes, we were able to plan and initiate a general offensive. We now have gained the ‘tactical’ initiative, and are conducting continuous small and occasional large scale offensive operations to decimate the enemy forces; to destroy enemy base areas and disrupt his infrastructure; to interdict his land and water LOC’s and to convince him, through the vigor of our offensive and accompanying psychological operations, that he faces inevitable defeat.”
Indeed, MACV had reacted to the NVA border battles through most of 1967. The Americans thought this would continue in 1968. Khe Sanh, Dak To, and Tay Ninh Province were the main attack areas of the NVA and VC in 1967.
General Westmoreland made this assessment of NVA/VC capabilities. (Paraphrased)
-The NVA can attack at any time selected targets in I, II, and III CTZ in up to division strength, and in IV CTZ in up to regimental strength, supported by local force and guerrillas.
(1) In I CTZ, the 324B and 341st NVA divisions can attack objectives in the DMZ area (Quang Tri Province) with elements of the supported by one separate regiment. Additionally, the 2d NVA division and two regiments of the 3d NVA division can attack objectives in Quang Tin, Quang Ngai, Thua Tien, and Quang Nam Provinces.
(2) In II CTZ, the the 1st and 10th NVA divisions can attack Western Pleiku, Southern Kontum, or Northern Darlac Provinces. One regiment of the 3d NVA Division can attack in Northern Binh Dinh Province, and in Phu Yen and Northern Khanh Hoa Provinces with elements of the two regiments of the 5th NVA Division.
(3) In III CTZ, the 9th VC and 7th NVA Divisions can attack in Tay Ninh, Binh Long, Binh Duong, or Phuoc Long Provinces, and in Phuoc Tuy and Southern Long Khanh Provinces with elements of the 5th VC Division. He also can sabotage GVN and FW shipping transiting the Rung Sat Special Zone with a Sapper Battalion; harass installations and LOC’s in Gia Ding Province with elements of the 165A VC Regiment. He has the capability of continuing his terror campaign in Saigon/Cholon.
(4) In IV CTZ, he can attack in up to regimental strength in Chuong Thien and Dinh Tuong Provinces, and in up to reinforced battalion strength throughout the rest of the CTZ. Militia and guerrilla forces predominate, and emphasis is on harassing attacks and local actions to consolidate and extend his control.-
This lists nine identified NVA/VC divisions. However, it does not mention any major attacks in cities. In reference to Saigon, it only mentions terror attacks. (Suicide bombings)
MACV also predicted that the NVA would continue to follow Giap’s strategic doctrine. The command believed that in the coming 1968 year, the NVA “would pursue objectives, strategy, and major tactics, as derived from the principles of insurgency warfare. (or ‘Wars of National Liberation’) These are essentially political in nature, and have been described by Mao Tse Tung and Vo Nguyen Giap.”
The enemy preferred strategy, according to MACV was as follows: “Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, whose view has prevailed as seen by our experience, favors a “defensive/offensive” version of strategic mobility consisting of these factors: (1) Developing strong, multi-division forces in dispersed regions accessible to supplies and security. (2) Enticing [enemy] forces into prepared positions where dug-in communist forces may inflict heavy casualties upon them. (3) Conducting concurrent, intensified guerrilla and harassment pressure counter-wide to tie down our forces, destroy small units, attack morale, and extend his control.”
Operation Rolling Thunder had been going on since 1965. This bombing campaign of North Vietnam had many international political ramifications, and its management had evolved into a weekly review of targets by President Johnson. This was referred to as “Target Tuesday.”
On Tuesday afternoons, Secretary of Defense McNamara, Secretary of State Rusk, and Presidential Assistant Walter Rostow gather in the White House second-floor sitting room. They compare notes briefly over drinks. President Johnson walks in with Press Secretary George Christian. These are the “regulars,” the principal cast for “Target Tuesday.” Occasionally, JCS Chief Earle Wheeler joins.
After a bit of chatter over drinks, Johnson signals the move to the dining room. Around the table, the President solicits advice, sampling recommendations, arguments, and thoughts. He asks questions like: Is it time for a bombing pause? What about just a reduction? Laos? Haiphong? Hanoi? Population centers? Restrict bombing to a small area north of the DMZ? (McNamara had long favored this, and was willing to give it a try.)
McNamara has the target list. He gives recommendations based on those of the military Joint Chiefs. But, by no means does he completely agree with their selections. The Joint Chiefs received input from the field commanders, who are under instructions not to recommend targets in certain areas, like Haiphong docks, or the Hanoi air defense command center.
The luncheon meeting goes on until 3:30 pm, and President Johnson has final say on all targets. He adjourns the meeting, and goes for a nap. Bombing targets are set for another week.
The whole bombing issue became very controversial and political, with Congressional oversight. Sometime after his return from Vietnam in late July 1967, Secretary McNamara was informed by Senator Stennis that the Preparedness Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee intended to conduct extensive hearings in August 1967 on the air war against North Vietnam.
At the hearing, McNamara outlined the bombing objectives:
1) The primary objective was to reduce the flow and/or to increase enemy cost of infiltration of men and supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail. 2) Raise morale of the South Vietnamese people, who were under severe military pressure. 3) Send a message to North Vietnam leaders that they will pay a price for continued aggression. 4) Further, this program was always considered a supplement to an effective counter-insurgency campaign in South Vietnam, not a substitute.
McNamara further assured the subcommittee that the objectives were successfully being met. He further rejected their criticism: “Those who criticize our present bombing policy do so, in my opinion, because they believe that air attack against the North can be utilized to achieve quite different objectives. These critics appear to argue that our airpower can win the war in the South either by breaking the will of the North or by cutting off the war-supporting supplies needed in the south. In essence, this approach would seek to use the air attack against the North not as a supplement to, but as a substitute for the arduous ground war that we and our allies are waging in the South.”
The reason that McNamara believed the “will of the North” could not be broken by bombing was that most Vietnamese were agrarian. They were not accustomed to modern conveniences, and did not depend on functioning cities for their welfare. They were disciplined, and no strangers to deprivation and death. Despite war weariness, they would continue to support the Hanoi regime.
Stennis’ subcommittee disagreed with McNamara’s objectives and assurances: “That the air campaign has not achieved its objectives to a greater extent cannot be attributed to inability or impotence of airpower. It attests, rather, to the fragmentation of our air might by overly restrictive controls, limitations, and the doctrine of “gradualism” placed on our aviation forces which prevented them from waging the air campaign in the manner and according to the timetable which was best calculated to achieve maximum results.”
President Johnson had considered a bombing halt, as many world leaders, including the Pope, had requested. Johnson made this public at a speech in San Antonio: “As we have told Hanoi time and time and time again, the heart of the matter is this: The United States is willing to stop all aerial and naval bombardment of North Vietnam when this will lead promptly to productive discussions. We, of course, assume that while discussions proceed, North Vietnam would not take advantage of this bombing cessation or limitation.”
Despite the President’s overture for a halt, McNamara still had many differences with him. He had cautioned against escalation, but on 10 September, North Vietnam’s third port at Cam Pha, a target his testimony had specifically counseled against, was struck for the first time.
The issue came to a head when the Stennis report exposed the bombing policy rift, and forced Johnson to deny any Administration differences at a news conference. McNamara’s year-end resignation was his only recourse, as he found himself far out of line with Administration policy. He resigned at the end of 1967, effective 1 March 1968, and was succeeded by Clark Clifford.
“Target Tuesday” Luncheon
“Crack the Sky, Shake the Earth”
Such was the slogan for the intense, well-coordinated offensive that ultimately shook the resolve of Washington and the Pentagon generals. The North Vietnamese began detailed planning for the Tet Offensive in mid 1967. But, the conception started in April 1967, when the Politburo and Central Military Party Committee met and discussed new policies. They perceived that the military balance was shifting in the Americans’ favor.
They were alarmed because provincial level Viet Cong cadres were being neutralized by the Phoenix Program, or forced to relocate to Cambodia. Fortunately, they obtained a copy of the Phoenix pacification plan in early 1967, and were fully aware of its dangers.
North Vietnamese leadership had changed dramatically since the First Indochina War ended in 1954. Ho Chi Minh was still President, but he was in his late seventies, and became less active. “Uncle” Ho had long assumed the role as “father figure” for the people. General Giap was the Minister of Defense, but he no longer had final authority for military operations. A newer group of leaders had emerged, and were essentially “calling the shots.”
Le Duan had been recalled to the north in April 1957, while serving as the leader of the underground “apparatchik.” He became the Communist Party General Secretary after winning a political struggle with General Giap. They disagreed over the contents of the Fifteenth Conference Resolution. Le Duan advocated a more violent revolution in South Vietnam.
Giap and Le Duan continued to be adversaries, and by the mid-1960s, General Giap’s position in the political and military hierarchy had changed dramatically, and his role in leading the war was weakened. Strategic war decisions were no longer solely his. Instead, they were made by a special Politburo “War Sub-committee” of five members: Le Duan, Vo Nguyen Giap, Le Duc Tho, Nguyen Chi Thanh, and Pham Hung.
General Nguyen Chi Thanh commanded PAVN forces in South Vietnam, (COSVN,) and had supported seeking a “decisive victory” in 1967. But, he was cautious of the coming dry season, and having to defend against possible counterattacks. In the early morning of 6 July 1967, following a farewell party before returning south, he suffered a blood infarction (heart attack,) and died.
Thanh was replaced by General Van Tien Dung on the War Sub-committee. He was Chief of General Staff. General Dung was more receptive to Le Duan’s ideas. He said: “We need to review the entire winter-spring plan from 1967 to 1968. I would like to meet Comrade Le Duan to discuss this issue.”
Pham Hung replaced Thanh as commander of COSVN, but just prior to the offensive General Tran Van Tra was put in command.
General Offensive, General Uprising
In late 1964, “Plan X” was conceived to conduct a general offensive, and uprising with the aim of achieving a decisive victory. It was to be an attack in Saigon with enough power to attack and capture important objectives. Simultaneously, armed combat units and self-defense units would provide support for the general uprising. The plan included using five battalions that would be positioned in areas surrounding the city’s outskirts, and capable of advancing into the city from five directions.
Le Duan was a supporter of this plan. The idea was that with such an assault in Saigon, they could trigger a “general uprising,” which would lead to overthrow of the South Vietnamese government. He recommended preparations for the situation “by attacking and destroying three or four regular puppet divisions on the battlefield during successive waves of forces.”
In January 1967, the Central Committee approved Resolution 13, which called for “high effort … to win a decisive victory in a relatively short time”. A “decisive victory” was considered one that causes heavy losses to US forces, and destroying a large force of ARVN to cause paralysis, and create a “general offensive-general uprising” in cities and rural areas.
The ultimate goal was to make the Republic of Vietnam government collapse, and replace it with a coalition government, which would resolutely negotiate an agreement allowing the US to leave Vietnam without losing face. The timing to force the US into negotiations was considered urgent, given upcoming US elections in 1968.
Le Duan and Van Tien Dung became the predominant advocates of Resolution 13 and in late 1967 began detailed planning for the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Their plan called for major attacks on Saigon and Hue, and 100 other cities. Khe Sanh was added because Giap pointed out that they needed forces in that area to protect the Ho Chi Minh trail.
(Khe Sanh was across the Laotian border from Tchepone, a main transportation center.) The NVA/VC forces would include 323000 troops, organized into nine divisions composed of 35 infantry regiments, which were, in turn, had 230 infantry and sapper battalions. 20 artillery and anti-aircraft regiments would support the initiative.
Giap and many leaders, including Ho Chi Minh, had great reservations about the idea of the offensive, as they believed the conditions were not ready for popular uprisings in the cities. Giap only wanted to attack cities when “success was certain.”
Le Duan countered that argument, and explained that if the attacks in cities failed, communist forces could simply withdraw, regroup, and then try again. Le Duan wrote: “However, if for some reason the revolts in cities are difficult, and we are forced to withdraw our forces, then there is no problem. It will only be an occasion for us to rehearse, and draw lessons to prepare for the future. The forces of comrade Fidel Castro attacked the cities three times to succeed. If we get into cities but then have to withdraw, there is no need to worry, because all the countryside and forests belong to us. Our position and our forces are very strong in those regions.”
The offensive timing was during the Tet sacred holiday season of the Lunar New Year. (Tet is short for “Tet Nguyen Dan,” or “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day.”) This was a time when previous truces had been called, and soldiers allowed to go on leave. Generally, during the holiday, the South Vietnamese Army let its “guard” down.
At the end of October, the Politburo met to review and approve the new plan. Surprisingly, neither Le Duan nor Vo Nguyen Giap nor Ho Chi Minh attended this meeting, and Truong Chinh hosted. All three were “abroad” for “health treatment” during the conference. These were probably excuses, as the argument between Le Duan and Giap was harsh enough to disrupt the meetings. Giap did not publicly oppose the plan, but his absence implied disagreement with it.
1968 Tet Offensive Plan
The US did not expect a major attack in the cities. The bombing program was not perceived by Americans to be enough to “break the will” of the North Vietnamese. President Johnson micromanaged the war. (Target Tuesday) He also did not seek support of the American people, and explain why they should fight Communism in Vietnam. On the Communist side, Le Duan believed a major attack could cause a general uprising of the South Vietnamese people against their government. He was willing to take this gamble. But, he was opposed by Giap, who did not think success was certain enough. Giap and Uncle Ho were no longer politically strong enough, and Le Duan’s plan was approved by the Politburo.
Process of the 1968 Tet Offensive Plan, Merle L. Pribbenow II, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Volume 3, Number 2, Summer 2008
The Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, Senator Gravel Edition
North Vietnam’s 1967 Planning for the 1968 TET Offensive, Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson
The Tet Offensive 1968 Vietnam, CIA – Department of Defense – State Dept Files
General Vo Nguyen Giap