Twenty years ago, during the night of Jan. 30-31, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong armies attacked virtually every major village and city of South Vietnam in a general offensive that was aimed at toppling the non-communist government of President Nguyen Van Thieu.
U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence had expected some sort of winter offensive confined largely to insecure rural areas. But they failed to appreciate both the magnitude of the effort that would be made to bring the war to the cities and the timing of the attacks. What became known as the Tet offensive occurred during a cease-fire that both sides had called to observe the Vietnamese holiday that is the equivalent of our Christmas and New Year celebrations.
In comparison to other battles that have decisively shaped history, the Tet offensive was not a big event.
From 50,000 to 80,000 communist soldiers were involved, of which perhaps as many as half were killed. Total American and South Vietnamese casualties were a tenth of this number. The fighting took place between many small units that slugged it out from door to door in most cities; it did not involve vast armadas, brilliant tacticians or the dramatic arrival of reinforcements over impossible distances. And, unlike the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II, this sneak attack weakened rather than strengthened the American will to fight.
Despite the fact that the communists were defeated militarily and that the South Vietnamese people failed to rally to their aid, the offensive symbolized the hopelessness of the American cause in Vietnam and made a mockery of U.S. government claims that the 500,000-man American troop presence had brought security to the countryside. Politicians in Congress--as well as professional military officers in the Pentagon--concluded that, short of an American invasion of North Vietnam, the war in the south was unwinnable.
For with the Tet offensive the Vietnamese communists demonstrated that they were committed to victory at any price while the Americans were not.
This lesson is highly relevant to U.S. foreign policy today. We are involved in a number of so-called low-intensity conflicts in the Third World. In some cases (Nicaragua and Afghanistan, for example) we are helping guerrillas to overthrow a government; in other instances (the Philippines, for example), we are helping governments defeat insurgents. Even when the rationale for these involvements is highly controversial, the State and Defense departments and the CIA have learned how to maintain a presence and to keep money and weapons flowing.
But involvement is not at all the same thing as commitment, and our communist adversaries know it. Through deceit, covert action and political legerdemain the President may keep the United States involved in unpopular wars and conflicts for a long time, as has happened in the case of Nicaragua. But such involvement is still perceived by our adversaries as temporary and indicative of our waning will to oppose them. All they have to do is outlast us.
U.S. withdrawal from such situations might be hastened by a strategy of fighting and negotiating simultaneously. This was what the communists in Vietnam tried to do with the Tet offensive, but it is hard to know still if they succeeded. Despite the psychological effect of the Tet offensive, America remained involved in the Vietnam War for five more years. But in the end the communists got what they wanted.
The Tet offensive is thus an important reminder that victory in many of the Third World conflicts in which the Reagan Administration has involved the United States requires a strong base of domestic support for the commitment in the first place.
Had this support existed, Congress and the media would have reacted to what the offensive revealed about the Viet Cong: They lacked popular support inside South Vietnam, their tactics failed and their regular military units and guerrilla forces could be beaten.