The Road to Tet

Vietnam ’67. Historians, veterans and journalists recall 1967 in Vietnam, a year that changed the war and changed America.

In popular memory, America’s war in Vietnam begins sometime in the Kennedy administration. But its roots go much deeper, to the end of World War II and the revolution of Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh against French colonial rule.

As part of its broader — in this case misguided — Cold War policy of containing communism, the United States supported France’s war against the Communist-led Viet Minh, paying close to 80 percent of the cost by 1953. The war ended in 1954, with Vietnam divided at the 17th parallel, pending elections to be held in two years.

After the war, the Eisenhower administration backed the refusal of the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, to hold the elections, sparking a new insurgency by former Viet Minh, later known as the National Liberation Front (and to its enemies, the Viet Cong). In time, the insurgency gained Communist North Vietnam’s support with men and supplies.

That war expanded significantly between 1959 and 1963, and so did America’s involvement. Determined to unify the country under its control, North Vietnam increased infiltration into the South, and the N.L.F. insurgents stepped up their military operations. John F. Kennedy was leery of a larger role in Vietnam but was also determined not to “lose” South Vietnam. He expanded the number of “advisers” to more than 16,000 and secretly authorized their participation in combat. When Diem’s oppression of Buddhists provoked an uprising in 1963, Kennedy gave the green light for a military coup.

But if Kennedy had hoped a new regime would bring stability to the region, he was wrong. Changes in leadership in both countries that year brought a major escalation. In North Vietnam, The ascension of Le Duan, a militant leader originally from the south, to the key position of Communist Party secretary led to a decision to go for broke. Seeking to exploit the rampant instability in Saigon before the United States could intervene, North Vietnam increased aid to the N.L.F. and even sent in its own troops to topple the South Vietnamese government.

Instead of backing down, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, saw America’s credibility — and his own — on the line in Vietnam. But he would only go so far. Fearing that escalation could spark a larger war and threaten his cherished Great Society programs, Johnson sought, in his own words, to do “enough but not too much,” hoping that carefully calibrated bombing in the North and the commitment of combat troops in the South would persuade Hanoi to negotiate a peaceful two-state solution.

Both efforts achieved their immediate goals: American troops brought a modicum of political stability to South Vietnam, and Johnson’s bombing campaign wrought havoc in the North. But while American ground forces mounted search-and-destroy operations and inflicted heavy losses, an elusive and resilient enemy avoided contact when necessary and retreated into its sanctuaries. By early 1967, the war had become a bloody stalemate.

For the major combatants, that year would be a time of important decisions and rising internal dissent. Undaunted by previous failures, the relentlessly aggressive Le Duan pressed that spring for another end-the-war offensive. His bold plan called for a series of attacks in remote parts of South Vietnam to draw American forces away from the cities. These would be followed by massive, coordinated N.L.F. assaults in the urban areas to provoke popular uprisings that would shake South Vietnam to its foundations and break the will of the United States.

Le Duan’s plan provoked heated opposition. Rivals, including the legendary Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and the venerable Ho Chi Minh, urged a more cautious, protracted war strategy that would permit some economic development in the North without abandoning the South. To suppress the dissent, Le Duan and his allies throughout 1967 imposed a veritable police state, whipping up a paranoid frenzy about alleged spies to purge those who threatened their plans — and their power. Authorities rounded up and jailed hundreds of dissidents, including even members of the Politburo. Ho and Giap left the country for months. The final plan for what would be the Tet offensive gained approval in early 1968, just before it was launched.

Anti-war demonstrators at the Pentagon in October 1967. Associated Press

In Washington, frustration over the war likewise spurred talk of escalation. Restive with the limits imposed on troop levels and air and ground operations, President Johnson’s military advisers, with support from key civilians, in the early spring urged an escalation of bombing against North Vietnam; mining its major seaports; mobilizing the reserves, which added 200,000 troops; taking out enemy sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia; and even mounting an amphibious “hook” across the demilitarized zone to force North Vietnam to pull troops out of the South.

Long disillusioned with the war and increasingly doubtful it could be won, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara countered with proposals to stop the bombing altogether or limit it to the area just north of the DMZ. He recommended a ceiling on ground troops and a less costly ground strategy. He even hinted at the unthinkable: seeking a way out of Vietnam.

Determined to win, but without the level of escalation that might provoke a larger, even nuclear war, a beleaguered president resolved the debate in a manner that had become his custom. He rejected both McNamara and the military’s proposals. He tossed the military some crumbs in the form of an expanded bombing target list and 55,000 additional ground troops, but refused to mine the North’s harbors, call up the reserves or approve the amphibious assault.

Johnson’s decisions reduced the risk of an expanded war. But more of the same in Vietnam virtually ensured continued stalemate — and surging public discontent. The war came home with a vengeance in 1967.

The president had gone to war in Vietnam in 1965 with broad but very shallow popular support. By the summer of 1967, the United States had 448,800 troops in Vietnam, draft calls exceeded 30,000 a month and 13,000 Americans had been killed. In August, Johnson reluctantly admitted the need for a 10 percent surtax to fund the war.

Polls taken shortly after indicated that for the first time a majority of Americans believed the nation had erred in intervening in Vietnam. A substantial majority also concluded that despite the rising costs there had been no discernible progress. By October, public approval of Johnson’s handling of the war had plummeted to 28 percent.

By this time, the nation was as divided over Vietnam as anything since its Civil War, a century before. Hawks grew impatient with Johnson’s half-measures. In August, hawkish senators sought to use hearings on the air war to increase public support for a major escalation. McNamara’s impassioned testimony that the bombing could not achieve American goals so riled the Joint Chiefs of Staff that they reportedly contemplated resigning en masse. “Win or get out,” Representative L. Mendel Rivers, a South Carolina Democrat, instructed the commander in chief.

The antiwar movement was growing almost in proportion to the war itself, and in 1967 it surged to the forefront of American life. It attracted highly visible new adherents like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Throughout the year, the movement conducted large and widespread demonstrations. The more radical elements shifted from protest to resistance and tried to undercut the war by undermining the selective service system.

The capstone event came in October with a massive gathering in Washington, followed by the march of an estimated 20,000 protesters on the Pentagon — famously documented by Norman Mailer in his book “Armies of the Night.” The affair was mostly peaceful, and in some ways zany, but the attempt of some protesters to enter the building and their forcible removal by the soldiers from the 82nd Airborne sparked violence.

By late 1967, the war had become the most visible symbol of a malaise that seemed to grip the nation as a whole. Noisy street demonstrations, rioting in Detroit and Newark and a spiraling national crime rate suggested that violence abroad had created violence at home. Anxiety about the war did not produce a consensus about what to do. “I want to get out, but I don’t want to give up,” a respondent told the pollster Samuel Lubell. But the public mood — tired, angry and frustrated — posed perhaps a more serious threat to the administration than the antiwar movement itself.

Fearing that the war might be lost at home, Johnson in the late summer of 1967 took steps to shore up public support. He ordered the C.I.A. (in violation of its charter) to conduct surveillance of antiwar leaders to confirm his belief that they were being manipulated by Communist governments. Law enforcement agencies examined the tax files of leading doves and indicted some of those who counseled draft resistance. The F.B.I. also recruited informants inside peace organizations, wiretapped phones, broke into homes and offices and infiltrated various groups.

The White House also put together an ostensibly private organization of distinguished citizens (with close ties to the government) to mobilize the “silent center” in American politics. To counter the perception of a stalemated war, the president mounted an intensive, multifaceted campaign to prove that the United States was winning in South Vietnam. In November, he brought home his commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, to reassure an anxious public. “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view,” the general dutifully proclaimed. He further hinted that troop withdrawals might begin within two years.

The progress campaign brought short-term results. Polls showed dramatic increases in approval of Johnson’s handling of the war; his popularity rating surged by 11 points in December alone. It also set the nation up for disillusionment when a supposedly reeling enemy mounted a massive offensive in 1968.

The ground fighting in South Vietnam intensified in the late fall. Following Le Duan’s plan, North Vietnamese and N.L.F. troops attacked the towns of Loc Ninh and Song Be near Saigon and Dak To in the Central Highlands. As per the script drafted in Hanoi, Westmoreland sent large detachments of troops to those areas, inflicted heavy casualties and drove enemy forces back into their sanctuaries. But not without cost: At Dak To especially, the United States suffered major casualties. Westmoreland and Washington were pleased with the enemy’s new willingness to fight, but baffled by its larger intentions.

At year’s end, some of Johnson’s more dovish advisers again pleaded for adjustments in strategy. “Time is the crucial element,” Undersecretary of State Nicholas deB. Katzenbach warned, perhaps with Dak To in mind. In Aesopian words, he asked whether the “tortoise of progress in Vietnam” could “stay ahead of the hare of dissent at home.”

A soon-to-depart McNamara and the so-called Wise Men, prominent establishment figures who occasionally offered Johnson foreign policy advice, proposed shoring up the home front by putting a ceiling on ground troops, adjusting strategy to reduce American casualties and shifting the burden of fighting to the South Vietnamese — the seeds of the later Vietnamization policy. His poll numbers up, Johnson agreed only to review ground operations at some unspecified date.

Publicly, he vowed to win. “We are not going to yield,” he insisted. “We are not going to shimmy. We are going to wind up with a peace with honor which all Americans seek.” At a dinner for the prime minister of Singapore, he affirmed, “Mr. Prime Minister, you have a phrase in your part of the world that puts our determination very well. You call it ‘riding the tiger.’ You rode the tiger. We shall!”

Even as he spoke, North Vietnam’s Politburo, with Ho Chi Minh abstaining, voted to send the plan for the Tet offensive to the executive committee for final approval.

George C. Herring, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Kentucky, is the author of America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975.

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