Tet à Tête: Vietnamese Exploitation of American Misapprehension

The Vietnam War is an aggregate of two very different wars: the Vietnamese war for independence and the American war to contain Communism.[1] Linguistically, this contradiction is manifest in each country’s labels used to describe the war. America refers to the conflict as the Vietnam War, whereas Vietnam considers it either the American War in Vietnam or the Second Indochina War.[2] From the American point of view, the Vietnam War was fought against the specter of Communism with Vietnam defined explicitly as the enemy. However, the Vietnamese considered the American War in Vietnam to be an American construct, an invasion and battle against their ability and right to define themselves. America, after the French in the First Indochina War, became the second imperialist defeated by the Vietnamese in their quest for independence and self-determination. The Vietnamese saw continuity between the two wars because they were—from their perspective—the same war of independence. The fervent nationalism did not change or dissipate between the First and the Second Indochina War—only the enemy did. These labels of the war are symptomatic of the fundamental and existential incompatibilities of the war America was fighting and the war Vietnam was fighting.

The Vietnamese saw continuity between the two wars because they were—from their perspective—the same war of independence.

This political chasm between America’s war and Vietnam’s war reveals itself in an extraordinary fashion during the Tet Offensive of 1968.[3] The Vietnamese capitalized on the American failure to properly gauge the status of the war as a stalemate, and through the Tet Offensive acutely precipitated a change in the American policy towards the war. In an essay on the intelligence failure during the Tet Offensive, Larry Cable summed up “U.S. surprise and Communist determination during Tet was…a microcosm of America’s overall lack of understanding of Southeast Asia throughout the war.”[4] Like many articulations of the events of the Tet Offensive, Cable fails to acknowledge the active role the Vietnamese played in the outcome. Rather than merely being an American failure, where the sheer passive will of the Vietnamese persisted unobtrusively, the consequences of the Tet Offensive is as much a result of the suggested inadequacies found in the American position as stemming from the deliberate calculations of the Vietnamese, driven by nationalism, to capitalize on this American oversight.

Turning to the authority on the theory of war, Carl von Clausewitz, we find that “to overcome the enemy, or disarm him—call it what you will—must always be the aim of warfare.”[5] The aim “to overcome the enemy” requires some degree of understanding of the enemy’s state of being.[6] One cannot fight an unknown enemy. The degree to which a war can be fought well without any understanding of the enemy’s possible actions and reactions is quite improbable. Further, Clausewitz claims, “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” requiring again the ability, to some degree, to perceive where the enemy metaphysically is and to where the enemy can be moved, that is “compelled.”[7] Clausewitz writes that “the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.”[8] This definition of war delineates a space in which the political object—the goal—exists such that through the process of war it is possible to move from one’s present state to the goal state in that space; equally, one can impede and combat the enemy’s attempt to move along their own war-path. Condensed, the political aims must exist in the possible space where war is a viable means to reach the political object.[9]

In such cases, regardless of how the war is fought, the political object cannot be reached because there is no possible path of war, an insurmountable incommensurability.

With this in mind, it is possible to consider how a political object might not be within this space; it might be isolated as a goal not attainable through war. The aim is either too far-fetched or the logical space does not include the possibility to conceptualize the political object. In such cases, regardless of how the war is fought, the political object cannot be reached because there is no possible path of war, an insurmountable incommensurability.[10] This irreconcilable difference is the foundation for the American interpretation problem about the war in Vietnam and thus the Tet Offensive, which derived from failures in American policy and action, but also proactive Vietnamese resistance and conceptual superiority.

The American Narrative

The American cause of war was fixed within a certain paradigmatic belief structure that prevented the American policy makers as well as the American military from truly understanding their enemy. In David Schmitz’s book The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinion, he writes, “the Truman Doctrine and the rhetoric of a bipolar world created an ideological inflexibility in Washington that prevented any questioning of policy or new approaches.”[11] The Cold War cemented this “ideological inflexibility,” and continued to reinforce the public’s rationale behind their fear of Communism.[12] In fact, America helped evoke more passionate communist tendencies abroad by supporting a democratic regime in name only, unintentionally encouraging the Vietnamese to embrace the communist ideology as a radical alternative. After Vietnam’s independence from the French in 1954, America supported the reliably anti-communist government of Ngo Dihn Diem.[13] Diem gathered support not because he was democratic, but sufficiently anti-communist and responsible for governing the newly sovereign Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Due to the questionable nature of the vote and Diem’s totalitarian traits, his popularity with the masses began to fizzle (with the exception being the extremely small Catholic minority, of which he was a member). Rather than support the populist Ho Chi Minh, who was communist, America continued to support the ever increasingly unpopular Diem simply because he was democratic.  The American democratic paradigm simply could not permit a communist, even a popular one, to lead a free country.  

Ngô Đình Diệm, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, arrives at Washington National Airport in 1957. Diệm is shown shaking hands with US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (DoD Photo/Wikimedia)

Despite American claims about supporting self-determination, it had to be within the American logical political space. America, with its “exceptionalism” and ideological superiority, knows the power and benefit of capital-D Democracy such that if one were to choose captial-C Communism it could not be a real choice, because freedom and communism are fundamentally incompatible. Communism, in Marx’s idealized conception, requires the elimination of the capitalistic American way of life. It follows then that the existence of Communism must remain a fear, because inherent in its ideological conception is the eventual foreshadowing destruction of capitalistic societies. Schmitz identifies that “policy makers viewed and understood Vietnam primarily as a part of the Cold War and not as a real and distinct place with a history and people who were acting on their own local needs and desires.”[14] Such a spectre haunted America’s policy, and since the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the presidential finger had, metaphorically, been on the button ready to fire. Nuclear annihilation was at the forefront of the public discourse. The enemy was Communism embodied by the Soviet Union and China, both of whom were meddling in Vietnam. According to the Americans, the newly minted RVN democracy must now be defended from the advances of Communism. Hans J. Morgenthau explains the American logic, “the Saigon Government is ‘free’ and the Vietcong are ‘Communist.’ By containing Vietnamese Communism, we assume that we are really containing the Communism of China,” and protecting the RVN to be our beacon of democratic light in possible domino field of Southeast Asia.[15]

Election poster used by the Australian Liberal Party in 1966. (War Room)

The American rationale was to maintain the global balance of power and specifically attempt containment of Communist ideology through the exportation of American exceptionalism and the idea of the democratic peace. The key tenets of American foreign policy were as Schmitz argues to “uphold the policy of containment, deter aggression, and demonstrate American credibility and resolve without engaging in a direct conflict with the communist superpowers, the USSR and China, that could escalate into a global conflict.”[16] Using the theoretical framework in place and the foreign policy aims, it is possible to apply these actual American thoughts and see how the fear of Communist ideology drove the balance of power and containment actions. From the American perspective, the only reason a state becomes Communist is because of virus-like influences of the surrounding states; again it is taken as a given that no one would consciously choose Communism when there is the possibility of Democracy. America saw that once Vietnam (as the RVN) became free, its noble democratic aims were threatened by not only China’s influence, but also the Soviet Union’s. America fought to keep the RVN a free and democratic society in the proximity of many hostile Communist governments. Schmitz quotes that during the Vietnam War the editors of Life mention, “our Vietnam policy is a moral policy,” but Schmitz refutes and correctly explains “U.S. policy and actions violated America’s professed ideals and values.”[17] Although, Schmitz reminds us “the war in Vietnam was cast as the central confrontation in the Cold War with the forces of international communism,” it does not justify the fidelity to the fear ideology that America maintains.[18] America backed a corrupt dictator, but the fear of Communism was so great it blinded America from evaluating the morality of their choice; America just maintained ideological consistency.  

...the American war was not in opposition to the war Vietnam was fighting, simply because America did not acknowledge nor even understand the war Vietnam was fighting.

Ironically, the American war was not in opposition to the war Vietnam was fighting, simply because America did not acknowledge nor even understand the war Vietnam was fighting. The possibility that a free and self-determined society would chose to form themselves under the Communist construct was impossible under the American democratic thought template. Larry Cable in his essay on the intelligence breakdown before the Offensive, “the fundamental American error was the failure to understand that the United States was not fighting a monolithic enemy…[they] assumed that the southern guerrillas were northern partisans.”[19] Whether this mistake is a “fundamental” as Cable suggests remains to be seen, but understanding both that Vietnam was not a “monolithic enemy” and that the US thought Vietnam was such an enemy is essential to identify how the two perspectives on the conflict are not looking just from different angles, but at different wars themselves. The way to see the distinction is to place the conflict, the actual physical interaction as transcendent of the individual ideas about the war. The motives behind the American interaction were to fight an enemy was not there, that did not exist. Typically there is there is a commonly understood aim for which it is a contest to reach those aims, or a quest to prevent the other from reaching their aims. Implicit in all these configurations is some recognition and consideration of the enemy’s aims. It does not imply a complete nor even majority understanding of the enemy’s goals, but it does require the possibility to understand the goals. America could not, but Vietnam did.

The Vietnamese Narrative

As it was ideologically implausible for America to understand or to even consider the Vietnamese point of view, we must unpack further the fervent Vietnamese nationalism. The Vietnamese were fighting for their independence. While there were internal struggles and questions as to whether to support the Northern method—to change society first before eliminating the RVN—or the Southern method—to fight first to eliminate the RVN and then renovate society—as former CIA operations officer, Merle L. Pribbenow II, states, “The disagreements were solely about means rather than ends.”[20] Even with the Politburo squabbles, “The leadership of the Vietnamese communist party has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a monolithic decision-making body.”[21] Although the Vietnamese communist party was far from being a “monolithic decision-making body,” America perceived that it was the case. The discrepancy between those who favored the Southern violence and those who favored the Northern method widened coextensive with the widening of Sino-Soviet support. “Those who wanted to concentrate on the socialist development of North Vietnam” sided mostly with the Soviet Union and their “peaceful coexistence” while “those who wanted to wage revolutionary war in South Vietnam” sided with Mao and his protracted war.[22]

“The Tet Offensive was strictly a result of the party leadership’s astute decision to exploit the favorable conditions, both militarily and politically, arising from the enemy’s failing war effort.”

Either way, as Nguyen notes, “The Tet Offensive was strictly a result of the party leadership’s astute decision to exploit the favorable conditions, both militarily and politically, arising from the enemy’s failing war effort.”[23] The Vietnamese were perfectly aware that not only was the Tet Offensive fought within the context of the Cold War, but also within a massive diplomatic competition between China and the Soviet Union. Due to the size and power of America, Vietnam needed help from both China and the Soviet Union even as the Sino-Soviet relationship was slowly deteriorating as their brands of communism continued to diverge.[24] In 1967, a Vietnamese diplomatic party went to speak with China and the Soviet Union, while the idea of the Tet Offensive was still percolating, and their stances were consistent with before: “The Chinese position was that the Vietnamese communists must persist in the military struggle to the very end…[while] Moscow’s recommendation was for a diplomatic solution to the war.”[25] Yet, despite the reliance Vietnam placed on the Soviet Union and China for arms and communist comrade support, Vietnam maintained its own analysis of the American situation and formed its own decisions.

North Vietnamese First Secretary Le Duan and Prime Minister Pham Van Dong in Hanoi in 1969. (History News Network)

When Le Duan, one of the leaders of the Vietnam government and an advocate of the Southern violence method, gained power the vacillation ceased and the Vietnam government became believers in a derivation of Mao’s protracted people’s war. But, Le Duan is quick to note that “the strategic policy of our party differs from the policies of the Soviet Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party.”[26] While Vietnam used parts of the Chinese and the Soviet Union political methods as a guide, the decision to conduct the Tet Offensive was ultimately a Vietnamese decision. Vietnam needed a quick and decisive win to break from the stalemate, and the Politburo voted to break from their current methodical Chinese strategy of protracted war. The Soviets continued to insist Vietnam capitulates to negotiations, to which Vietnam responded by arresting anyone with connections to Moscow. Vietnam sent a message to both its allies that they would decide the strategy and tactics, while the Chinese and the Soviets would continue to supply arms.[27] The communist regimes provided the means, Vietnam directed the ends and ways. Nguyen reiterates, “The ultimate goal was always to promote Vietnamese interests and ambitions” while maintaining “Vietnam’s policy of neutrality of equilibrium in the Sino-Soviet split.”[28] Because Vietnam could not out-power America through conventional methods, the Vietnamese were forced to out-strategize America. The whole-of-country effort was launched on January 30, 1968, a period which also became known as the “General Offensive and General Uprising.” The offensive included a simultaneous attack on over 100 cities and military institutions. It required 84,000 soldiers to fight during the beginning of Tet, a typical Vietnamese religious cease-fire, which caught the US and Army of the RVN by surprise as they were drawn to defend cities and bases leaving “a vacuum in the countryside that the NLF has filled.”[29]

While the Tet Offensive could be characterized as resulting from a cult of the offensive, a more calculated analysis would suggest it was actually “a plan to overcome their current stalemate with a ‘decisive victory’ during the 1967-1968 ‘winter-spring’ campaign.” The Vietnamese leadership “emphasized the threat, saying that communist forces must strike quickly, while the United States was still considering changes in its strategy.”[30] Vietnam was very aware of the American struggle and knew that for their forces to have the greatest effect America had to be wobbling on its own anyway.

Post Tet

One key result of the Tet Offensive was that Vietnam achieved a halt on bombing above the 20th parallel. During one of the many White House meetings Secretary of Defense Clifford argued that “a bombing halt, therefore, were the worst possible courses of action.”[31] Schmitz quotes Giap stating that “the strategy of the Tet Offensive was ‘never purely military.’ It was an integrated military, political, and diplomatic strategy designed to take advantage of what the North saw as the two main weaknesses of their adversaries, the weakness of the Saigon government and public opposition to the war in the United States.”[32] America, which had been claiming success in the war, was met with the stark reality that the war they were successfully fighting in their heads was not the war on the ground. Robert F. Kennedy explains that when the Tet Offensive hit showed “that none of the population is secure and no area is under sure control.”[33]

President Johnson meets with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and other advisors following the Tet Offensive. (History.com)

In “Peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia,” Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed the nation to say that the Vietnamese “attack—during the Tet holidays—failed to achieve its principal objectives,” but this incongruence with the reality precisely explained the problem of the war.[34] In this same speech Johnson tells America that he will not seek reelection, which is a direct result of the Tet Offensive and a possibility that the Vietnamese considered when planning. America did not realize they were living within a completely different mental paradigm, such that the Vietnamese were able to defeat the US without them realizing it—until it was too late. In fact, even though the Tet Offensive is often labeled as the key moment of the war, rarely, if ever, is the victory attributed to the Vietnamese. Instead most attribute the loss to the loss of American public support, which, again, was another calculated Vietnamese aim of the Tet Offensive, and dismissive of the active Vietnamese role. As the editors of the The Tet Offensive write, “From a purely tactical military standpoint the Tet attacks were not successful,” but tactical action is not, nor will it ever be, the only factor necessary to determine the outcome of a war.

Not only did America fail to perceive the strength of Vietnamese nationalism, but they also failed to perceive the difference between the strength and resiliency of the Vietnamese people. Their nationalist sentiments, their reasons for war, were far stronger than the American hodgepodge of justifications ranging from balance of power to containment; those who are fighting a war for independence are much more willing to suffer losses and sacrifice than those fighting for balance of power, especially over there. Typically in a war for independence one cannot lose any more than what they have already loss. Further, the Vietnamese can easily explain and know why they are fighting, they want the make the invaders leave so they can create their own state; the Vietnamese want to be free. On the other hand, the reason why America was fighting was massively diluted, unclear, and confusing (and still is today). This was reiterated when the public support did not have the problem that their home is the battleground, that winning and losing is a matter of their life, their friends’ lives and their children’s lives not just the draftees’ lives overseas. The American War in Vietnam was an existential conflict, the Vietnam War was not.

A market in the Cholon District of Saigon is covered in smoke and debris after the Tet Offensive. (History.com)

The Tet Offensive was a shock and a surprise for the Americans, where despite the high death toll the Americans inflicted on the Vietnamese, the Americans still lost. The Americans did not understand the restrictions and limitations they placed on themselves: the ideology of anti-Communism and exceptionalist pro-Democracy. But the Vietnamese did. Not only did the Vietnamese understand the complex American situation in the Cold War, but also understood the layered ideological bickering between China and the Soviet Union and further employed it to garner arms and support. In the end, despite a few party squabbles, Vietnam called the shots, for the communists and the West alike.

Olivia A. Garard is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, an Editor for The Strategy Bridge, and an associate member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: U.S. Marines taking cover during the Tet Offensive. (History.com)


[1] I will use ‘Vietnam War’ due to conventions, but with the understanding that this nomenclature stems from my predisposed American point of view. Further, I wish to acknowledge the deficiency in my spelling of Vietnamese names, places, and other words. Out of unfortunate historical practice and a lack of full language competence, I will write in the butchered Americanized terms, such as Vietnam rather than Viet Nam—not to mention the dearth of any diacritical marks.

[2] When referring to the American enemy during this conflict, I will use Vietnam to denote Vietnamese not associated with the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). I phrase it this way to mimic how America conceived its enemy as a monolithic whole.  

[3] I want to specifically mention that America’s war is incommensurable with Vietnam’s war, without implying the reverse. Precisely for this reason, Vietnam is able to target a response to the aims and reasons of America’s war and use America’s weaknesses against itself, helping, if not being, the reason why Vietnam effectively wins the Tet Offensive.

[4] Marc Jason Gilbert and William Head, “Introduction,” in The Tet Offensive, ed. Marc Jason Gilbert and William Head (London: Praeger Publishers, 1996), 12.

[5] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 77. I am ignoring the possibility that due to the presence of nuclear weapons on the international stage Clausewitzian theory is ‘dead.’ Moreover, I don’t believe it is.

[6] This is an existential state of being encompassing all military aspects, physical and mental, domestic and foreign politics, and any other affecting parts. Again, it is not necessary nor even close to possible to know all these factors, but some degree of understanding or the potentiality of understanding is necessary.

[7] Clausewitz, On War, 75. Emphasis original.

[8] Ibid., 87. I cite this rather than the typical “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means,” because the other quote lends itself to possibility of the acknowledgment of a certain space in which these goals might be sought, which is less clear in this quote.

[9] If point A is the original state and point B is the political object (the goal state) then there must exist a way to move from A to B utilizing the process of war, a war-path.

[10] I suggest that this incommensurability is more than a political mirroring phenomenon. Rather than just not thinking outside of one’s framework, in this context I intend that there is no possibility to think outside one’s framework. One objection is that all interaction on the international stage is understandable to some degree, but if that is true it fails to account for situations like the American understanding of the Vietnam War. In this case misunderstanding and prejudices, form the logic that explains why such a conflict can occur.

[11] David F. Schmitz, The Tet Offensive: Politics, War and Public Opinion (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 8.

[12] It seems that we can consider a difference between Communism and communism. In some of the texts we have a capital "C," which seems to represent the monolithic true fear the Americans hold, while communism with a lowercase "c" is the implemented political practice. Another objection stems from the fact that the extent to which America reacts to Communism assumes the entity as first described by Marx, but in practice is less pure, less idealistic, and less strong. In these cases, the Communism is less pure because rather than fully dissolving the classes, the Politburo becomes the new ruling class and more of an unequal society.

[13] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005): 178.

[14] Schmitz, Public Opinion, 23.

[15] George Katsiaficas, ed. Vietnam Documents: American and Vietnamese Views of the War (London: M. E. Sharpe Inc., 1992), 209.

[16] Schmitz, Public Opinion, 35.

[17] Ibid., 36 and 49.

[18] Ibid., 32.

[19] Larry Cable, “Don’t Bother Me with the Facts; I’ve Made up My Mind: The Tet Offensive in the Context of Intelligence and U.S. Strategy,” in The Tet Offensive, ed. Marc Jason Gilbert and William Head (London: Praeger Publishers, 1996), 175.

[20] Merle L. Pribbenow II, “General Vo Nguyen Giap and the Mysterious Evolution of the plan for the 1968 Tet Offensive,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer 2008): 6.

[21] Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, “The War Politburo: North Vietnam’s Diplomatic and Political Road to the Tet Offensive,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1-2 (February/August 2006): 9.

[22] Nguyen, “The War Politburo,” 5.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 15.

[25] Cheng Guan Ang, The Vietnam War from the Other Side: The Vietnamese Communists’ Perspective (London: Routledge, 2002): 115.

[26] Pribbenow II, “Giap and the Mysterious,” 21.

[27] Nguyen, “The War Politburo,” 29-30.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Schmitz, Public Opinion, 89-90, 106.

[30] Pribbenow II, “Giap and the Mysterious,” 12.

[31] Schmitz, Public Opinion, 73.

[32] Ibid., 90.

[33] Katsiaficas, ed. Vietnam Documents, 89.

[34] Ibid., 106.