The Tet Offensive (1968)
The Tet Offensive (1968)
In late 1967 and early 1968, after three years of bloody war, the U.S. government repeatedly told the American public that the U.S. military was on the verge of victory in Vietnam. But on January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong guerrillas (small groups of fighters who launch surprise attacks) launched the Tet Offensive. This massive surprise attack hit targets all across South Vietnam, astonishing U.S. forces and shocking the American people.
U.S. and South Vietnamese troops eventually pushed back the Communist assault, delivering heavy casualties to NVA and Viet Cong units in the process. But the huge size of the offensive convinced many Americans that the Johnson administration could not be trusted to tell the truth about the war. As William Turley writes in The Second Indochina War, "The official optimism of years past suddenly seemed proof of incompetence or deception." Indeed, Tet convinced large segments of the U.S. population that the war might only be won by sacrificing thousands more lives to the conflict.
Tired and disillusioned after Tet, Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973; president 1963–1969) decided not to seek a second term as president in the upcoming November 1968 elections. He also took steps to begin peace negotiations with North Vietnam. But the war continued, and the debate over Vietnam reached an angry level that sometimes seemed to threaten American society. The explosive situation in U.S. cities and towns became even worse with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), and Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968) within the space of a few months. Their deaths, along with the continued bloodshed in Vietnam, made 1968 a tremendously difficult year for the United States and its people.
Defending Khe Sanh
The year-long plunge in American support for the war began in mid-January. At this time, the North Vietnamese Army launched a major attack against Khe Sanh, a U.S. Marine outpost in the far northwestern corner of South Vietnam. This remote stronghold was an important part of the U.S. defenses against Communist forces based in the jungles of nearby Laos.
U.S. General William Westmoreland (1914–) first learned that Khe Sanh might be targeted for a Communist assault in December 1967. He received intelligence reports indicating that large numbers of NVA troops were moving into the area. These movements reminded him that the Communists had chased the French out of Vietnam a decade earlier by capturing an outpost—Dien Bien Phu—that was in many ways similar to Khe Sanh. The U.S. base was located in the same region of South Vietnam as Dien Bien Phu. It also was similar to Dien Bien Phu in that it was far away from other friendly bases and could only receive supplies by air. Westmoreland's concern that the Communists might try to duplicate their Dien Bien Phu victory convinced him to send reinforcements to the remote marine stronghold.
By mid-January, an estimated 40,000 NVA troops had surrounded Khe Sanh. They launched their attack on January 21, hitting the base with a heavy rain of rifle fire and artillery and rocket attacks. When the assault was pushed back, the North Vietnamese force settled in for a long siege of the outpost (a siege is a military strategy in which an army attempts to capture a city or military base by surrounding and blockading it).
The Tet Offensive
The developing siege at Khe Sanh concerned American policymakers and military leaders. Nonetheless, most of them remained publicly optimistic about the war effort. In fact, President Lyndon Johnson, General Westmoreland, and many other U.S. officials continued to express confidence that the Vietnam War was finally turning in favor of the United States. Encouraged by battlefield statistics and intelligence reports, they stated that the Communists did not have the strength to carry on the fight much longer.
In late January, the United States agreed to a temporary truce with North Vietnam so that Vietnamese people in both the North and South could celebrate the Tet holiday. Tet, which begins each January 30, is the Vietnamese New Year. Celebrated with festivals, feasts, and family gift-exchanges, Tet is regarded as the most important holiday in Vietnamese culture.
Early in the morning of January 31, however, North Vietnam broke the cease-fire agreement in spectacular fashion. More than 80,000 Viet Cong and NVA troops mounted simultaneous assaults on more than 100 cities, towns, and hamlets across the South. The leading planner of the strategy, North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap (1911–), hoped that this surprise offensive would spark a popular uprising against the South Vietnam government and sweep Communist leader Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) to power.
News of the invasion stunned the American public. Over the next several days, televised images of the war flickered in living rooms all across the country. By this time, American viewers had grown familiar with the grim newspaper reports and television footage of the war. But the Tet Offensive gave the American people some particularly dark glimpses into the bloody struggle taking place halfway around the world.
On February 3, for example, the NBC Evening News showed shocking footage of South Vietnamese police commander General Nguyen Ngoc Loan as he executed a captured Viet Cong fighter on a Saigon street. On another occasion, a U.S. military officer gave reporters a tour of Ben Tre, a small town that American helicopter gun ships had demolished in their efforts to reclaim it from the Viet Cong. "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it," the officer said.
These and other images convinced countless Americans that the war effort in Vietnam had gone seriously wrong. "The six o'clock news had become the living-room war," writes Michael Maclear in the The Ten Thousand Day War. "The faces on the 'box' [television] did not just haunt from 9000 miles away: they were the boys from next door, and sometimes one's own son. The faces, so youthful, trustful, scarred, scared or brave, peered from every newspaper and every magazine."
Struggle for the South
In the first few days of the Tet Offensive, Viet Cong and NVA units stormed military installations, government buildings, and other strategic targets all across the South. In the capital city of Saigon, for example, Communist forces attacked military bases, the presidential palace, the airport, and the government radio station. They even seized temporary control of the American embassy in Saigon. But these victories in Saigon and elsewhere failed to generate a popular revolt. The South Vietnamese people remained on the sidelines, unwilling to join the Communists.
As a result, momentum quickly shifted all across the South. American and South Vietnamese forces launched a massive counterattack that drove the Communists back. Within a matter of days, Viet Cong and NVA units were forcedto retreat from nearly all of their positions. A week or so after the Tet Offensive began, the only major city still in Communist hands was Hue, Vietnam's most beautiful city.
North Vietnamese troops seized control of Hue on January 31, the first day of Tet. Upon entering the city, the Communists rounded up thousands of citizens that they considered enemies of their cause. Their targets included government officials, military officers, Roman Catholic priests, policemen, and teachers. The invaders then executed these people in brutal fashion—some were bludgeoned to death or buried alive—and buried them in mass graves. It is believed that a total of about 3,000 people were murdered by the NVA in this sweep.
The battle for Hue
For the next ten days or so, the NVA terrorized the residents of Hue. Meanwhile, U.S. military leaders gathered reinforcements to recapture the city. On February 10, a combined force of U.S. Marines, U.S. Army Cavalry (helicopter units), and South Vietnamese troops launched a counterassault to reclaim Hue. But the Communists mounted a stubborn defense of the city. As the two armies clashed, Hue's streets quickly turned into a gory battlefield.
Over the next two weeks, the fight for control of Hue became one of the most vicious and bloody struggles of the entire Vietnam War. The fierce Communist resistance forced the marine-led American units to take control of the city one street at a time. Braving heavy sniper fire and facing battle-hardened NVA units, the marines slowly advanced through the city, suffering heavy casualties in the process. According to some estimates, one marine was killed or wounded for every three feet of ground gained during the first week of fighting.
As the savage battle continued, Hue itself suffered enormous damage. North Vietnamese rockets and American bombs destroyed entire neighborhoods. The streets became choked with rubble and the dead bodies of soldiers and civilians (people not involved in the military, including women and children). Even its lovely Imperial Palace—an ancient section of the city also known as the Citadel—was reduced to ruins in the fighting. "The battling turned the once beautiful city into a nightmare," reported Time magazine.
The Communists finally retreated from Hue on February 24. But the bloodshed did not end there. South Vietnamese troops rushed into the devastated city, where they reportedly murdered hundreds of civilians they believed were sympathetic to the NVA. All in all, an estimated 10,000 people were killed in the battle for Hue, including approximately 5,000 Communist fighters. Casualties on the American side included 1,580 U.S. casualties (526 killed, 1,364 wounded) and 2,214 South Vietnamese casualties (384 killed, 1,830 wounded). In addition, more than three-quarters of the population of Hue was left homeless by the struggle. "The mind reels at the carnage [destruction], cost, and ruthlessness of it all," said one veteran war journalist.
Tet: American victory or defeat?
In the days and weeks following the failed Communist offensive, a great debate arose in America over Tet. Many military leaders and other supporters of American involvement in Vietnam claimed that the attack had resulted in a major defeat for North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies. After all, the Communists failed to hold any of the cities or towns they had targeted in the invasion. Moreover, the joint American-South Vietnamese response to the invasion had resulted in a punishing counterattack that produced extremely heavy casualties. In fact, an estimated 45,000 NVA and Viet Cong troops were killed during Tet, and another 6,000 were captured.
The Tet campaign also crippled the deadly Viet Cong network that had caused so much trouble in the South in previous years. Indeed, Viet Cong activity declined dramatically from 1968 onward, for the simple reason that many VC units had been destroyed. "The Viet Cong lost the best of a generation of resistance fighters, and after Tet increasing numbers of North Vietnamese had to be sent south to fill the ranks," confirmed Don Oberdorfer in Tet!
Finally, the Tet Offensive failed to spark a general rebellion among the South Vietnamese people. Their refusal to join the Communists not only helped U.S. forces beat back the enemy invasion, but also cast a shadow on North Vietnam's claims that it had the support of the average South Vietnamese citizen. "Because the people of the cities did not rise up against the foreigners [Americans] and puppets [leaders in Saigon] at Tet—indeed they gave little support to the attack force—the Communist claim to moral and political authority in South Vietnam suffered a serious blow," states Oberdorfer.
But while the Tet Offensive produced a decisive military victory for the United States and South Vietnam, it destroyed support for the war on the American homefront. In the weeks before Tet, Johnson and other U.S. officials had repeatedly told the war-weary American public that victory was near. As Oberdorfer notes in The Bad War: An Oral History, President Johnson kept telling people that "'We're about to win. Just wait a little while longer. Your patience will be rewarded.' And at that point the Tet Offensive absolutely shattered the waning [decreasing] patience and confidence of the American people."
Indeed, the size and strength of the Communist invasion made it clear that North Vietnam remained a dangerous and determined enemy. Disillusioned and angry, many Americans decided that victory over the North was still years away, and that it could only be attained by sacrificing thousands of American lives and billions of American dollars. They agreed with television journalist Walter Cronkite (1916–), who declared at the height of Tet that "it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." With victory appearing unlikely and antiwar protests causing problems at home, millions of Americans became convinced that the United States should end its involvement in the war. In this way, Tet became a major turning point in how the Vietnam War was viewed and how it was conducted.
Today, many people believe that America's policymakers and military leadership lied about the situation in Vietnam in late 1967 and early 1968 in order to shore up slipping public support for the war. Others believe that these leaders simply underestimated the strength and resolve of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. For their part, many U.S. officials claim that they honestly thought that American forces were on the path to victory in the weeks prior to Tet. "We were not engaging in deception," insisted U.S. General Robert Komer in The Bad War. "We genuinely believed at the end of 1967 that we were getting on top . . . . This wasn't public relations, this was n't Lyndon Johnson telling us to put a face on it [be falsely optimistic]. We genuinely thought we were making it [drawing close to victory]. And then boom, forty towns get attacked, and [the American people] didn't believe us anymore."
The siege of Khe Sanh
As the Tet Offensive sent shock waves through South Vietnam and America, the siege of Khe Sanh continued. Each day, the NVA troops surrounding Khe Sanh slammed the base with heavy fire. The trapped marines returned fire as best they could from their heavy fortifications. The primary U.S. weapon in the defense of Khe Sanh, however, was an air bombing campaign known as Operation Niagara. This unrelenting aerial assault dropped an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 tons of bombs and large amounts of napalm (a gasoline-based chemical that burns up trees and other vegetation) on the area around Khe Sanh. Operation Niagara killed an estimated 10,000 NVA troops and transformed the jungle hillsides around the outpost into a barren desert.
Despite the heavy bombardment from American planes, the North Vietnamese maintained their siege. They blasted the base with rocket attacks and positioned snipers all through the hills overlooking the base. At the same time, the NVA dug a system of deep trenches that brought them ever closer to the marines. At night, the marines defending Khe Sanh could hear the Communists digging as they advanced. Meanwhile, heavy NVA artillery and fierce monsoons (heavy tropical rainstorms) sometimes forced the United States to use parachute drops to resupply the battered base.
As the weeks dragged on, conditions inside Khe Sanh deteriorated sharply. Trapped inside sagging trenches and sandbag fortifications by enemy sniper fire, the marines learned to sleep with blankets over their heads to protect their faces from the huge rats that prowled the base. When they awoke, it was to the sound of incoming rockets and bomb-dropping war planes.
Finally, after seventy-seven days, General Giap withdrew his NVA forces from the area surrounding Khe Sanh. This mid-April withdrawal brought one of the most famous struggles of the entire war to a strangely quiet close. Initially, the U.S. military expressed great satisfaction about its successful defense of the region. "The amount of firepower put on that piece of real estate exceeded anything that has ever been seen before in history by any foe," said Westmoreland. "The enemy was hurt, his back was broken, by airpower." The marines voluntarily abandoned Khe Sanh only a few months later, setting fire to the base as they left so that it could not be used by the Communists.
Clifford evaluates the war effort
The Tet Offensive forced the Johnson administration to reassess U.S. progress in Vietnam. On March 1, 1968, West-moreland requested approval for another 206,000 American troops to be transferred to Vietnam. In the past, Johnson had approved such requests. But in the wake of Tet, the president asked Clark Clifford (1906–), who had recently replaced Robert McNamara (1916–) as secretary of defense, to study the request.
Clifford had supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam over the previous few years. But as he talked with U.S. military leaders and analysts, he changed his mind. "Clifford was astounded to discover that U.S. military leaders had no clear plan to win the war," writes Tom Wells in The War Within. "He became convinced U.S. military victory was impossible."
Clifford later admitted that his feelings about the war changed dramatically in the weeks following Tet. His review convinced him that "the military course we were pursuing was not only endless, but hopeless" (Clifford, Foreign Affairs). "A further substantial increase in American forces could only increase the devastation and the Americanization [South Vietnamese reliance on American military power] of the war, and thus leave us even further from our goal of a peace that would permit the people of South Vietnam to fashion their own political and economic institutions."
Clifford decided that approval of Westmoreland's request for more soldiers would continue a pattern of sending "more troops, more guns, more planes, more ships . . . without accomplishing our purpose." He also thought that sending new troops would trigger another outburst of turmoil and protest across America. "I was more conscious each day of domestic unrest in our own country," he admitted in Counsel to the President. "Draft-card burnings, marches in the streets, problems on school campuses, bitterness and divisiveness [angry disagreement between groups] were rampant."
Johnson and the Wise Men
After finishing his review, Clifford counseled Johnson not to grant Westmoreland's request. Clifford's recommendation surprised the president. Johnson called a meeting of his closest advisors—commonly known as the "Wise Men"—to see if they felt any differently. But one by one, they reluctantly agreed with Clifford's view that the United States should stop increasing its military presence in Vietnam and look for a way to withdraw from the war. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1893–1971) offered a particularly grim perspective on the war. A former supporter of Johnson's war policies, he bluntly stated that an American victory in Vietnam would take at least five more years and require huge new infusions of soldiers and money. The Wise Men agreed that the American public would never allow the war to continue under those circumstances.
The gloomy opinions of the Wise Men stunned and angered Johnson, who worried that Vietnam was destroying his presidency. After all the sacrifices that America had made over the previous few years in Vietnam, Johnson desperately wanted to believe that the United States could still win the war with one final push. But as he listened to his advisors and watched antiwar demonstrations unfold across the country, he began to feel like his dreams of victory were doomed.
Meanwhile, the New York Times learned about West-moreland's request for additional troops and reported it in its March 12 editions. This news sparked a new wave of outrage against the Johnson administration. If the Tet Offensive had been such a disaster for the Communists, asked critics, why did the military need tens of thousands of new troops in Vietnam?
Johnson makes a surprise announcement
As criticism of the Johnson administration's policies in Vietnam continued to increase, the president received a political blow in New Hampshire. On March 12, Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916–) came within a few votes of upsetting Johnson in New Hampshire's primary (a primary is a state election that political parties use to choose their candidate for the presidency). The results of the New Hampshire vote—the first primary in the national race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency—showed that the controversy over Vietnam had greatly weakened Johnson's political position. Four days later, Robert F. Kennedy—the brother of former President John F. Kennedy—announced his intention to challenge Johnson for the Democratic nomination. A harsh critic of Johnson's Vietnam policies who vowed to end the war if elected, Kennedy was widely viewed as a serious challenger for the Democratic nomination.
In the final days of March, Johnson reacted to recent developments in Vietnam and the United States with a series of announcements. First, he announced that Westmoreland, who had commanded the U.S. war effort in Vietnam for the past four years, had been transferred to Washington to serve as chief of staff to the U.S. Army (Westmoreland was replaced in Vietnam by Creighton Abrams). Johnson also decided to send only 13,000 additional troops to Vietnam, far fewer than the U.S. military had requested after Tet.
Finally, on March 31, Johnson addressed the nation on television. During this historic speech, he announced a major cutback in the bombing of North Vietnam. He also called for negotiations with the North to end the Vietnam War. Johnson then concluded his speech with the shocking news that "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
"By the end of March 1968, Lyndon Johnson was a weary man," explains Clark Dougan and Stephen Weiss in The American Experience in Vietnam. "The war in Vietnam had taken a heavy toll on him. It had cost him his credibility, and it had eroded his political authority to the point where he could no longer govern effectively. All that remained to be salvaged was what mattered most to him—the respect of his 'fellow Americans.' By withdrawing from the presidential race, Johnson hoped to underscore the sincerity of his desire for peace. More than that, he sought to restore unity to a nation divided by a war he had chosen to fight."
King and Kennedy assassinated
The months immediately following Johnson's surprise announcement were very difficult ones for the American people. On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. His violent death outraged blacks across the country and triggered a flurry of riots in American cities. By the time the riots ended, 39 people had been killed and another 2,500 injured.
King's death proved to be only the first in a series of blows that rocked the United States. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. News of Kennedy's murder triggered another wave of national grief and mourning. A few weeks later, an ugly and vicious clash broke out between antiwar demonstrators and Chicago police outside the Democratic Convention Center, where Vice President Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978) received the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Finally, the war continued to rage in Vietnam, even after peace negotiations opened between U.S. and North Vietnamese representatives in May. These events—combined with deep internal divisions over the war, civil rights, and other domestic issues—led many Americans to believe that the entire country was spinning out of control.
Nixon wins the presidency
The 1968 presidential campaign pitted Humphrey against Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) and Alabama Governor George Wallace (1919–1998), a former Democrat who ran as the nominee of the American Independent Party because of his opposition to Democratic efforts to end segregation. Humphrey campaigned for the presidency on a platform of peace. But many voters associated him with Johnson, and the vice president was unable to convince the American public that he would handle the war differently. On October 31, one week before the presidential election, Johnson announced a complete bombing halt in North Vietnam. But this decision failed to lift Humphrey to victory. Instead, Nixon narrowly defeated him for the White House.
"Americans had voted for what they perceived as a solid law and order Republican candidate who also promised peace in Vietnam," writes Elizabeth Becker in America's Vietnam War: A Narrative History. "After a year that had brought the Tet Offensive, two assassinations, inner-city riots following the King murder, and the Chicago convention, the public wanted an end to the war and to the strife at home." As Nixon prepared to take office, Americans all across the country hoped that he would be able to guide the nation out of Vietnam and heal the divisions that had wracked so many communities.
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Becker, Elizabeth. America's Vietnam War: A Narrative History. New York: Clarion Books, 1992.
Braestrup Peter. Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977.
Caute, David. The Year of the Barricades: A Journey Through 1968. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Clifford, Clark M. Counsel to the President: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1991.
Clifford, Clark M. "A Vietnam Reappraisal" in Foreign Affairs, July 1969.
Dougan, Clark, and Stephen Weiss. The American Experience in Vietnam. Boston: Boston Publishing, 1988.
Dougan, Clark, and Stephen Weiss. The Vietnam Experience: Nineteen Sixty-Eight. Boston: Boston Publishing, 1985.
Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam, 1987.
Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.
Herring, George C. LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Johnson, Lyndon B. The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency,1963–1969. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
Maclear, Michael. The Ten Thousand Day War: Vietnam, 1945–1975. New York: Avon Books, 1981.
Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! New York: Doubleday, 1971.
Prados, John, and Ray Stubbe. Valley of Decision: The Siege of Khe Sanh. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Spector, Ronald H. After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam. New York: Free Press, 1993.
Turley, William S. The Second Indochina War: A Short Political and MilitaryHistory, 1954–1975. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986.
Wells, Tom. The War Within: America's Battle over Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Westmoreland, William. A Soldier Reports. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
Words to Know
ARVN The South Vietnamese army, officially known as the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. The ARVN fought on the same side as U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.
Communism A political system in which the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, this system is designed to create an equal society with no social classes. However, Communist governments in practice often limit personal freedom and individual rights.
North Vietnam The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War (1946–54), divided the nation of Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but was usually called North Vietnam.
NVA The North Vietnamese Army, which assisted the Viet Cong guerilla fighters in trying to conquer South Vietnam. These forces opposed the United States in the Vietnam War.
Offensive A sudden, aggressive attack by one side during a war.
South Vietnam Created under the Geneva Accords of 1954, the southern section of Vietnam was known as the Republic of South Vietnam. It was led by a U.S. supported government.
Viet Cong Vietnamese Communist guerilla fighters who worked with the North Vietnamese Army to conquer South Vietnam.
People to Know
Clark Clifford (1906–) U.S. secretary of defense under President Lyndon Johnson, 1968–1969.
Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) Vietnamese Communist leader who led Viet Minh forces in opposing French rule and became the first president of North Vietnam in 1954. He also led the North during the Vietnam War until his death.
Hubert H. Humphrey (1911–1978) Vice president of the United States during the Johnson administration, 1964–1968. Became the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968 after Johnson decided not to run for re-election but lost to Richard M. Nixon.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) After serving as vice president under John Kennedy, he became the 36th president of the United States after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Johnson sent U.S. combat troops to Vietnam. Opposition to his policies convinced him not to seek re-election in 1968.
Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968) Attorney general under his brother President John Kennedy's administration and until 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson's administration. After being elected U.S. senator from New York, Kennedy became a leading critic of Johnson's policies during the Vietnam War. Became a Democratic candidate for president in 1968, but was assassinated during his campaign.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) African American leader of the civil rights movement who opposed the Vietnam War. Worked to link the civil rights and antiwar movements before he was assassinated in 1968.
Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) Elected as the 37th president of the United States in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. Resigned from office during the Watergate scandal in 1974.
William Westmoreland (1914–) Commander of American military forces in Vietnam, 1964–1968.
The Phoenix Program
The Phoenix Program was one of the most controversial "pacification" operations of the Vietnam War. Pacification was the term used for a wide range of efforts to keep Vietnam's rural population loyal to the South Vietnamese government. Launched in mid-1968, the Phoenix Program was intended to "neutralize"—kill or capture—Viet Cong (VC) agents operating in remote villages throughout the South.
The Phoenix Program, called Phung Hoang by South Vietnam, was a joint effort of U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence agents. Under the program, American and South Vietnamese officials worked together to gather information about suspected Viet Cong agents who lived in rural communities. These suspects were then arrested and questioned about their roles in local VC activities. U.S. and South Vietnamese military officials hoped that by removing the Viet Cong threat from the countryside, they could turn the South's peasant population into an asset in the war.
Several problems arose during the first few months that the Phoenix Program went into effect. Many South Vietnamese officials involved in the operation performed poorly. Some refused to cooperate with other officials because of petty power struggles, while others accepted bribes to let suspected VC go free. Other members of the Phoenix operation tortured or murdered suspected Viet Cong guerrillas, despite the objections of American advisors. Worst of all, some innocent villagers were swept up in the operation. These men and women were jailed and tortured solely on the word of officials or neighbors who disliked them for one reason or another. When news of such incidents reached the United States, the American antiwar movement seized on the Phoenix operation as another example of the war's cruel and mindless bloodshed.
Nonetheless, many historians believe that the program did strike a punishing blow against Viet Cong operations in the South. U.S. officials claimed that the program resulted in the "neutralization" of more than 81,000 suspected Viet Cong by 1972. Sadly, some of these people were innocent of charges. After the war, Communist leaders admitted that the program had a devastating impact on their roster of VC agents in the South. They indicated that Phoenix crippled many of their secret networks and made it more difficult for them to maintain control over rural villages.
The Phoenix Program, coupled with the heavy Viet Cong losses during the Tet Offensive, forced the North to rely on its regular army to carry on the war. The Phoenix Program slowly faded away as the VC became less of a threat to rural communities. "Despite the combination of shortcomings and success, the Phoenix program was simply left behind by the changing nature of the war," writes Dale Andradé in Ashes to Ashes: The Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War. "By 1970 Hanoi [the North Vietnamese government] had dropped the facade [mask] of internal insurrection [rebellion] and concentrated on building toward a conventional invasion of the South."
The Hills of Khe Sanh
In his book Dispatches, American journalist Michael Herr relates his experiences as a reporter in Vietnam. His book provides a firsthand account of the siege of Khe Sanh. The following excerpt from Dispatches describes how the countryside around Khe Sanh was destroyed during the siege. It also discusses the emotional toll that the siege took on the U.S. marines stationed there:
Often you'd hear Marines talking about how beautiful those hills must have been, but that spring they were not beautiful. Once they had been the royal hunting grounds of the Annamese emperors [ancient rulers of Vietnam]. Tigers, deer and flying squirrels had lived in them. I used to imagine what a royal hunt must have been like, but I could only see it as an Oriental children's story . . . . And even now you could hear Marines comparing these hills with the hills around their homes, talking about what a pleasure it would be to hunt in them for anything other than men.
But mostly, I think, the Marines hated those hills; not from time to time, the way many of us hated them, but constantly, like a curse . . . . So when we decimated [destroyed] them, broke them, burned parts of them so that nothing would ever live on them again, it must have given a lot of Marines a good feeling, an intimation [sense] of power. They had humped those hills until their legs were in an agony, they'd been ambushed in them and blown apart on their trails, trapped on their barren ridges, lain under fire clutching the foliage that grew on them, wept alone in fear and exhaustion and shame just knowing the kind of terror that night always brought to them, and now, in April, something like revenge had been achieved.
We never announced a scorched-earth policy [a military policy of destroying all land and buildings]; we never announced any policy at all, apart from finding and destroying the enemy, and we proceeded in the most obvious way. We used what was at hand, dropping the greatest volume of explosives in the history of warfare over all the terrain within the thirty-mile sector which fanned out from Khe Sanh. Employing saturation-bombing techniques, we delivered more than 110,000 tons of bombs to those hills during the eleven-week containment of Khe Sanh. The smaller foothills were often quite literally turned inside out, the steeper of them were made faceless and drawless, and the bigger hills were left with scars and craters of [tremendous] proportions . . . .