The Vietnam War is one of the most crucial events in world history during the 20th century. It is true that the conflict in Vietnam may seem insignificant compared to the World Wars, as the numbers of casualties in the former are remarkably less than the latter. The World Wars also had more parties involved in the conflict and had a wider territorial reach. However, the significance of the Vietnam War is not measured by the number of people who lost their lives in the war or the expanse of geography it has covered. The significance of the Vietnam War lies on its influence in the world at large. One of the countries affected was the United States. The Vietnam War had an impact in the United States through the Tet Offensive. The impact of the Tet Offensive in the United States was psychological and political in nature. Most importantly, it had a bigger impact in military strategy. The Tet Offensive had strongly influenced changes in U.S. war and military policy. This is the reason why the Tet Offensive is important in U.S. military history.
To truly comprehend the importance of the Tet Offensive in U.S. military history, it is necessary to analyze the status of the United States in historical context. Prior to the Second World War, there were six nations considered as superpowers (Painter, 1999). These were France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, the Soviet Union and the United States. After the war, only the Soviet Union and the United States remained as the world’s most powerful countries. The two nations became rivals and became involved in what was known as the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet countries were antagonistic towards each other in terms of ideology and diplomacy (Wiest, 2003). Despite this, both countries were not involved in an open war. The United States focused its efforts in preventing the dominance of communism throughout the world through the method of containment. In addition, the United States decided to uphold a limited war policy in an attempt to prevent warfare between the superpowers. It must be noted that the Vietnam War occurred in the midst of the Cold War. The involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War was a manifestation of their limited war policy. It was a war the United States had to fight in its campaign against communism (Wiest, 2003).
The participation of the United States in the Vietnam War was necessitated by their efforts to contain communism. Prior to the interference of the United States in Vietnam, the Vietnamese have been under French control and fought a war to gain their independence (Wiest, 2003). After the war, the Geneva Accords established the division between North and South Vietnam; however, the country would be unified with a 1956 election. The north was controlled by Communists while the south was dominated by non-Communists (Atwood, 2008). The United States was not pleased with dominance of communism in the north so it tried to keep the south free from it. As part of their containment efforts, the United States sought to create and assist an independent government in South Vietnam (Wiest, 2003).
The United States made Ngo Dinh Diem the leader of South Vietnam (Wiest, 2003). With the support from the United States, Diem assumed control of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). A U.S. Military Group prepared the ARVN to defend South Vietnam while money from American taxpayers was used to finance the army. Unfortunately, Diem’s administration proved to be ineffective in governance. It was extremely corrupt and dictatorial in nature. Despite the abundance of American assistance, the Vietnamese in the countryside remained poor because the aid did not reach the people. Diem’s suppressive policies eventually caused an uprising in the South (Wiest, 2003).
As part of the U.S. containment efforts, Diem did his part to eliminate communists in South Vietnam (Wiest, 2003). His troops chased after Viet Minh and persecuted them. In 1958, no more communist forces remained in the South. Meanwhile, Hanoi sent the communists who moved to the north as insurgents to the south. These communists composed the People’s Liberation Armed Force, also known as Viet Cong. Hence, Diem and the ARVN were confronted with troops which were not a communist group, but rather a guerilla contingent from the South. Ho Chih Minh, the Communist leader, initially wanted to remove Diem from power without involving the United States in the battle. However, the United States did not want to withdraw support from South Vietnam (Wiest, 2003). This eventually paved the way for the Vietnam War to occur.
The Tet Offensive was the military strategy of the communist forces during the Vietnam War which was executed during the holiday of Tet, which was the lunar New Year festival (Arnold, 1990). The offensive was designed by the Defense Minister of North Vietnam, General Vo Nguyen Giap. On January 31, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces simultaneously assaulted various areas of South Vietnam (Wirtz, 1991). The communists bombed cities, towns, military bases and government installations throughout South Vietnam (Oberdorfer, 2001). The aggressive Tet Offensive proved to be military hindrance to the United States and its allies (Wirtz, 1991). Despite this, the communists were still defeated. For the communists, the offensive was a risk they had to take in an attempt to undermine the military might of their opponent. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese thought that the Tet Offensive would cause an uprising of the southern community against the administration and increase their manpower by adding hundreds of people to the communist war effort. However, the offensive did not result in the revolt they had hoped for. This left the communists without the necessary resources to push through with their intricate plans, and the U.S. military and their allies had no difficulty in capturing their scattered units. Even if the Tet Offensive did not succeed as the communists would have planned, its result was something that they wanted (Wirtz, 1991).
The communists had one goal in executing the Tet Offensive. Through the offensive, they sought to cause the removal of the American troops from South Vietnam to force negotiations that would lead to the establishment of communist government in the south (Arnold, 1990). The objective was political, and the communists sought to achieve this through political, military and diplomatic means. The political means included acquiring assistance from the South Vietnamese while weakening their government. The military method involved meeting the U.S. troops and their allies in battle and causing significant damage. Lastly, the diplomatic means consisted of provoking opposition to the U.S. involvement in the war not only in the United States but also throughout the world (Arnold, 1990). The communists may not have succeeded through the political and military means, but the Tet Offensive fulfilled its single goal through its success in the military means.
At first, it would seem that the Tet Offensive is not related to U.S. Military history. After all, the Tet Offensive was the strategy of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese against South Vietnam (Mintz, 2007). How could a Vietnamese military strategy be significant or at least influential in U.S. Military history? The answer to this question lies in the outcome of the said strategy. First, the relevance of the Tet Offensive in U.S. military history is evident in the reassessment of war policy. The Tet Offensive was instrumental in shaping public opinion against the U.S. war effort, which eventually led to the reassessment. While there was war in Vietnam in 1967, there was social discontent in the United States (Arnold, 1990). The year was marked with war opposition from the public; protests varied from peaceful gatherings to riotous demonstrations. Because the anti-war efforts were spread out in over 150 cities, the military had to be deployed in various locations. The efforts made to maintain security during demonstrations depleted the resources of the military. In October 1967, demonstrations forced the deployment of thousands of Army and Marine forces in Washington, DC. Because of this, U.S. military began to believe that a nationwide revolt was possible. The situation in the United States made the North Vietnamese focus on the relationship between the occurrences of the war and public opinions of the Americans (Arnold, 1990). They took this relationship in consideration when they planned the Tet Offensive.
As public opposition to the war grew, President Lyndon Johnson attempted to assure the public that the Vietnam War was ending (Arnold, 1990). He initiated a properly planned propaganda to change public opinion in the latter part of 1967. He made the Americans believe that the communists were near defeat. In the process, he aimed to obtain approval for the limited war policy. Johnson’s inaccurate depiction of the war did not contribute to a possible victory of the U.S. troops in Vietnam. In addition, his claims conveyed that there would not be any surprise attacks in the battlefield (Arnold, 1990). The Tet Offensive proved that Johnson was clearly wrong in his assumptions.
The Tet Offensive was the ultimate surprise attack that the Johnson administration did not anticipate. The attack may have been executed in end of January, but its strength had only begun to subside on February 13 (Wirtz, 1991). By that date, the U.S. military had 1,100 casualties. The number of people killed by the offensive astounded both the American public and the Johnson administration. After the Tet Offensive had been executed, the U.S. government concluded in its investigation that while they were given a warning, they did not expect the time of execution, fury and the organization of the offensive. The intelligence officers of both the United States and South Vietnam were not able to grasp the nature of the attack. The Tet Offensive was most notable for the shock it created, as this shock convinced the American public and politicians that the participation of the United States in the Vietnam War must be stopped (Wirtz, 1991).
It is important to note the significance of the Tet Offensive in influencing public opinion. The Tet Offensive stunned that American citizenry because they were earlier convinced by their president that success in Vietnam was attainable (Oberdorfer, 2001). However, the shocking offensive proved that Johnson was wrong. The offensive highlighted the disparity between the American public and the government; the offensive proved that the progress which the administration and the military reported to the electorate was remarkable different from the real developments in the battlefield. It was the Tet Offensive which started what was eventually known as the “Vietnam syndrome,” which was defined by Wirtz (1991) as “a period of public disillusionment with military intervention, defense spending, and an active anticommunist approach to foreign affairs” (p. 2). The Tet Offensive largely reduced the credibility of Johnson; due to the offensive, the American people became convinced that the decisions of the Johnson administration during the war were unjustified (Oberdorfer, 2001; Wirtz, 1991). As a result, the Tet Offensive diminished the desire of the American public to push through with the Vietnam War (Wirtz, 1991). They became convinced that U.S. participation only caused an increase in casualties. It also altered the perception of the American public in the interference of the United States in Southeast Asia (Oberdorfer, 2001). It was the change in public opinion which was instrumental in changing U.S. military policy.
The Tet Offensive is important in U.S. military history because it caused many changes regarding U.S. military policy. The aftermath of the offensive forced the U.S. government to reconsider their military policy (Oberdorfer, 2001). This led to the revocation of the said policy, which established new boundaries on the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. The change in military policy paved the way for the removal of American troops in Vietnam. In fact, it was the Tet Offensive itself which proved to be the determinant of the United States to either intensify the war or withdraw from it (Wirtz, 1991). The outcome of the attack forced the United States to pull out from the war. In addition, the change in U.S. military policy reflected the diminished fervor of the United States to interfere in the problems of the Third World nations. The dramatic change in U.S. military policy is what made the Tet Offensive extremely relevant to U.S. military history.
The Tet Offensive is also important to U.S. Military history because it showed the United States its limitations in terms of its military policy and capacity (Wiest, 2003). For instance, the Vietnam War was an event which allowed the United States to test their limited war policy. The Tet Offensive showed that this Cold War policy was faulty. While its war policy was created in inconsideration to the anti-communist sentiment during the Cold War, it failed to recognize the political situation of Vietnam (Schmitz, 2005). The failure of the U.S. limited war policy would eventually resound in the other conflicts the United States is involved in, such as the Gulf War and the tension in Afghanistan (Wiest, 2003). Hence, the Tet Offensive is important in U.S. Military history because it showed the deficient nature of an existing military policy.
The Tet Offensive is also relevant in U.S. Military history because it showed the limitations of the U.S. military’s capacity in relation to the nature of the conflict. If the Vietnam War is to be carefully assessed, one would see that the parties involved in the conflict were not compatible in terms of fighting style. To begin with, the U.S. military had remarkable advantage over their communist opponents (Wirtz, 1991). They had the abundant resources and technologically advanced equipment to guarantee victory in war. The U.S. military also had the firepower, mobility and necessary training which were absent in the Vietnamese enemy forces. However, the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive proved to the United States that these were not enough to win the war. For instance, the nature of the battlefields was different. The U.S. military were trained to fight in the Western European plains (Wiest, 2003). In the Vietnam War, the U.S. military was forced to fight in a Third World country against guerilla forces.
As proven by the Tet Offensive, the technique of guerilla warfare was remarkably different from what the U.S. military was used to from their former enemies. In general, the strategy of the communists in their attack was based on the guerilla war method of Mao Tse-tung (Arnold, 1990). However, they modified their plan of attack for the Tet Offensive for their specific purpose. The guerilla strategy of the Communists was very organized; for the Tet Offensive, they executed occasional attacks of both small and medium scales on several chosen targets. These strikes were done to increase the distress of the U.S. military and their South Vietnamese allies. In addition, the Communists’ method of warfare included the use of tunnels, which were utilized during the Tet Offensive. Tunnels were very crucial in the North Vietnamese war effort in terms of strategy. The tunnels were initially used for the purpose of concealment. However, these began to have a greater function. According to the Communist creed, the tunnels allow the villages to serve as fortresses in the war. The same doctrine states that while the U.S. military was stronger and equipped with better weapons, they will still fail in their war effort because the Communists will execute their surprise assault from the tunnels (Arnold, 1990).
While the U.S. military seemed superior to their Communist enemies in terms of equipment, they were inferior in terms of strategy. The U.S. military were not prepared to undermine the Tet Offensive because they did not have a strategy of their own (Arnold, 1990). Prior to the offensive, American military strategists had a conference in Honolulu to formulate a plan for South Vietnam. However, the conference was concluded without a strategy to win the war (Arnold, 1990).
Without a war strategy at hand, the U.S. military did the best they could with their resources. The Tet Offensive had displayed the immense willpower of the communists, and the American troops were forced to fight back with what was readily available to them: firepower (Arnold, 1990). General William C. Westmoreland stated in an interview that the plan of the U.S. military was to move away from populated territories and utilize their firepower to battle the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. In the end, this plan proved to be no plan at all. Brigadier General Edwin Simmons argued that they had no goal in fighting in the war. They were simply reacting to the actions of their enemies. According to him, they were disorganized and had no single purpose in the fight (Arnold, 1990).
Despite the lack of a concrete strategy, the U.S. military responded aggressive against the Tet Offensive. General Westmoreland started an aggressive campaign (Arnold, 1990). The U.S. military resorted to bombing and did succeed in winning the battles. However, this military strategy was not effective in winning the conflict in general (Wiest, 2003). For instance, Westmoreland had created a plan for the U.S. troops and its allies, but they could not locate the enemy because of the underground tunnels (Arnold, 1990). This was how the Tet Offensive was executed. While the U.S. troops may seem powerful because of their military might, the Tet Offensive had clearly demonstrated that this might is useless with a conflict of this nature. The guerilla fighting style of the Communists reminded the U.S. military of their limitations.
The Tet Offensive also proved to be relevant in U.S. Military history because it exposed a flawed war policy against a conflict which was domestic in nature. The situation in Vietnam was essentially a political problem between the north and the south (Wiest, 2003). The problem was internal, so the United States was really not in a position to intervene with the Vietnamese conflict. The U.S. Military responded to the Tet Offensive through air and electronic warfare, but it still did not help the United States to defeat the Communist rebels. This was because the technology that was utilized did not help resolve the political issue. The Tet Offensive has shown that the involvement of the U.S. military in the Vietnam War had an insignificant influence to the determination and ability of the North Vietnamese forces and Viet Cong to pursue the unification of the country (Wirtz, 1991). After the offensive, the U.S. military had learned to acknowledge their limitations (Wiest, 2003). They knew that military might is ineffective in addressing internal political disputes. The Tet Offensive proved to be crucial in U.S. Military history because it was instrumental in altering the attitude of the military towards internal political conflict. During the Gulf War, the commanders decided to stop the battle to prevent involvement in a political conflict. Military leaders in Afghanistan also learned to distance themselves from the political turmoil that exists there (Wiest, 2003).
The Tet Offensive of the Vietnamese is truly significant in U.S. military history. It is important to note that it is not the offensive itself that was important; it was the effect that made it significant. The outcome of the attack was the aspect of the Tet Offensive which helped shaped U.S. military history. If the Tet Offensive was not executed, the history would surely be different. For example, the Tet Offensive primarily caused change in the military policy by influencing public opinion. If the offensive did not take place, the Johnson administration would not be discredited in its claims in the Vietnam War. The American public would continue to believe that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was successful and the troops would have not withdrawn from the battlefields. Therefore, the changes in military policy would not have occurred because the American public as well as the government will think that there was nothing wrong in the first place. The Tet Offensive had to happen to create the necessary changes. If the Tet Offensive was not planned, the United States would have probably continued its flawed limited war policy and prolonged its intervention in the disputes of the Third World countries.
Indeed, the Tet Offensive is relevant to U.S. military history. It is relevant because it resulted in sweeping changes in military policy and the realization of the limitations of the U.S. military. Because of the Tet Offensive, the U.S. government was proven to be mistaken in their claims regarding the developments in the Vietnam War. This resulted in the change of public opinion towards the war, which eventually caused alterations in the existing war policies. In addition, the Tet Offensive changed military policy by demonstrating to the U.S. troops their limitations in terms of fighting strategy and interference in domestic political conflicts. Hence, the Tet Offensive is crucial in the history of the U.S. military.
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