The Tet Offensive

By Marc Jason Gilbert; William Head | Go to book overview
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vastly different from that of the United States. Unable to accept the Vietnamese, whether as hosts, opponents, or uncommitted middle, as nothing more than round eyes with a fondness for rice and nunc mam, senior U.S. officials engaged in never-ending exercises of mirror imaging.

Yet another limitation was that of U.S. military doctrine which, as repeatedly shown by the intelligence and other components of the system, was massively irrelevant to the realities that emerged on the ground in Vietnam. As a consequence, American strategic and operational implementation modalities served both to transform the character of the war and to invite a second, hostile intervenor, North Vietnam, into the conflict. While all governments' foreign policy are affected by inducements and constraints placed upon them by domestic political imperatives and by the dictates of various institutions that are exogenous and often injurious of the policy goals at stake, the U.S. government demonstrated less skill than its opponents in Hanoi in subordinating these to the requirements of successful politico-military struggle. Linking all of these is cognitive dissonance: an ability to see only what one wishes to see or to justify the dismissal of information or perspectives that run counter to one's desires.

This phenomenon was rampant throughout the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and reached a high point in the fall of 1967 when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, having again reviewed all of the evaluations regarding the war and its intellectual architecture came to the conclusion that the U.S. course of action for three and a half years had been wrong and needed to be severely modified. This assessment could not have come at a worse time for the Johnson administration, which had been engaged in a prolonged full-court press of public relations in an attempt to calm and reassure an increasingly restive American citizenry that the United States was achieving its goals in South Vietnam and would not have to stay the course much longer. Given this context, it is no surprise that indications of a Viet Cong urban spectacular were not welcome.

There was no intelligence failure involved in the Tet Urban Offensives or in the siege of Khe Sanh. Rather, the failure was one of strategic conceptualization, which in turn was the product of the polluted policy process. The willful absence of an appropriate intellectual matrix for that process, exacerbated by the dearth of comprehensive evaluation systems that properly integrated the products of the intelligence community with the internal assessment mechanisms of the military services and the foreign policy bureaucracies, assured that decision makers and military commanders would assume the role of patsy.

It should be noted that slightly over 425 primary source documents from a variety of archives and holdings, most declassified since 1990, were used directly in the preparation of this article. Due to space and sensitivity limitations, only brief


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The Tet Offensive


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