The Warning That Left Something to Chance: Intelligence at Tet
Two meanings of the word "chance" are relevant to our present purpose. One is chance as a random factor--for this subject the accidental conjunction of chance occurrences that could have furnished warning of a large- scale nationwide North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (VC) offensive in Vietnam at Tet in 1968. The second relevant meaning is chance as risk. I believe the reasons for the continuing controversy over whether there was a "surprise" at Tet have much to do with these forms of chance.
"Surprise" is a loaded word in the intelligence business, and is but slightly less pejorative when applied as historical interpretation. Thus, whether the attack at Tet represented a surprise--and intelligence failure-- has ever after remained a fervid question, often lurking in the wings of Vietnam discussions, provoking numerous arguments, even forming part of a court case, when the Tet intelligence question became enmeshed in the larger dispute over whether falsification occurred in compilation of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and VC order of battle.
The extremes of the Tet intelligence controversy are represented by senior army officers themselves; there is no need for looking under rugs for perverse, so-called revisionist historians purportedly trying to overturn some conventional wisdom. At one extreme is General David R. Palmer, who in a text used at West Point held that Tet had been an intelligence failure comparable to Pearl Harbor.1 At the opposite end of the spectrum are the officers who held command and intelligence posts in Vietnam in January 1968, arguing that Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) knew all about the Tet Offensive. For the moment we can take as representative of this view a statement before a congressional investigating committee on December 3, 1975, by General Daniel O. Graham, who at Tet had been a