Life and Death in the Central Highlands
An American Sergeant in the Vietnam War, 1968â"1970
By James T. Gillam
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2010 James T. Gillam
All rights reserved.
The Tet Offensive: Making Space for the Draft Class of 1968
THE TET OFFENSIVE
In every war, there are critical offensives and battles that redirect the course of the conflict. The Tet Mau Than, or Tet Offensive was one of those kinds of events during the Vietnam War. I learned a lot about Tet in January of 1991. At that time, I was back in Vietnam as a guest of the Vietnamese Ministry of Education. I was part of a delegation of Fulbright Scholars who were invited to attend seminars in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi on postcolonial Vietnamese history. An important part of that history is what the Vietnamese call the Second Indochina War. We call it the Vietnam War. So, as expected, there was a significant focus on the Tet Offensive and its effect on the war.
Retired Gen. Tran Van Tra was the lead seminarian for our sessions on Tet, and I had the opportunity to meet him the evening before the seminar at his home. He sent his eldest daughter with a car to pick up me and Professor Keith Taylor, a faculty member at Princeton University, for dinner. Taylor and Tran knew each other personally during the war, and each man had tried to kill the other. In 1989, Tran visited Princeton on a speaking engagement and spent a week in Professor Taylor's home. The general matched Professor Taylor's hospitality with an open invitation to his home if Taylor ever came back to Vietnam. Taylor and I were two of the combat veterans among our delegation and we got on well. So, he invited me to go with him for dinner with the general. That evening, General Tran and I only spent a little time talking about the war. The most memorable thing he said to me about Tet was that its basic purpose was "to break your will to war." Then, the conversation shifted and Tran and I did what old men often do. We bragged about our children. We both have three: a son and two daughters for each of us.
The next day, our entire group met at the Ministry of Education and the history lesson began. Tran was especially qualified for the task of seminar leader. He was not only one of the planners of the offensive, he also commanded the troops who carried it out. In a concise briefing, translated into French and English, Tran set out for us the strategic, political, and diplomatic objectives of Tet. He said that he and the Politburo of the Party Central Committee in Hanoi had three goals that combined strategy and politics when they planned the Tet Mao Than. The first objective was to attack and destroy the bulk of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops, cripple the South Vietnamese government at all levels, and incite a popular uprising to replace Saigon's administration. It was for this reason that Tran and most Vietnamese call the event the Tet Mau Than, which means "General Offensive and Uprising of the Tet Holiday."
Tran and the Politburo also planned to destroy major portions of American forces and their materiel to prevent them from fulfilling their political and military support for Saigon. Finally, they planned to force America to accept defeat in South Vietnam, and end all aggression against North Vietnam. In a near repetition of his statement the night before, he summed up this objective by saying emphatically, "we were determined to break America's will to war."
Next, Tran set us straight about the duration of Tet. Most Americans who know anything at all about the Tet Offensive work from the misperception that it began at the start of the Lunar New Year celebration on January 31, 1968, and ended with the defeat of the combined North Vietnamese Army (NVA)-Viet Cong contingent that held the ancient city of Hue on February 24, 1968. That period, according to Tran, was only the first of three phases of the offensive. The next one ran from May 4 to June 18. The third phase was from August 17 to September 23.
Phase two of Tet was a focused attack on the ARVN command structure in and around Saigon. Tran's forces scored some big hits. Nine field-grade officers (colonels and generals) were killed, and Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, who achieved instant fame for his on-camera execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, was wounded in both legs. Tet's third phase shifted the first phase's attacks against large bases and cities to heavy fighting against maneuver-size units of battalions and brigades in the area Tran called the Bulwark B2 area. That was the region north and west of Saigon. In that six-week period, Tran's forces destroyed twelve American mechanized infantry battalions, one battalion of ARVN troops, and most of several companies. They also took control of over 200 villages and hamlets with a population of about 1.5 million people.
After a midmorning break, General Tran began a summary of the consequences of Tet from the Vietnamese perspective. The opinions he offered that day in Ho Chi Minh City have also appeared elsewhere by him in print, and I think he has remained remarkably consistent in all those versions. His shortest written version appeared in an essay he wrote for the edited volume called The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American Perspectives. In those pages, Tran said there were two primary political consequences of Tet. The first was the replacement of Gen. William Westmoreland, the MACV Commander, with Gen. Creighton Abrams. The second was Lyndon Johnson's virtual resignation from the presidency on March 31, 1968.
Tran also talked to us about what he felt were important strategic and diplomatic consequences of Tet, and he has written about them, too. In his opinion, the biggest strategic change was the shift of American efforts from "search-and-destroy" missions to "clear-and-hold" missions. The former type is an aggressive attempt to locate an enemy and his materiel and destroy both. Then, the units move on to do the same thing in another area of operations. In clear-and- hold missions, the idea is to destroy the enemy in a limited area, then remain in that area. The change, he said, was consistent with a policy of "Vietnamizing" the responsibility for the war and "de-escalation" of America's role. Finally, Tran pointed out that Lyndon Johnson's decision to speed up talks at the Paris Peace Conference was also an important diplomatic consequence of Tet and another clear signal that America had lost its "will to war."
As an American historian I find myself in agreement with many of General Tran's opinions about the Tet Offensive, especially its political, diplomatic, and strategic consequences. The differences I see in our evaluation I think, are the result of nationality, culture, and of course, personal circumstances when the Tet Offensive happened. Tran was a long-serving warrior in a national war of liberation. I was a college student observing the war through the lenses of the American news media and college debates. Years later, I did begin what I hope has been an organized and scholarly study of Tet and its effects, but still, a critical difference remains between Tran's view and mine. He lived the experience and I did not.
When General Tran started the Tet Offensive, I was a junior political science major at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Like most Americans, my experience of Tet was limited to the daily dinner-time ritual of scanning the major print media, and watching either the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC, or Walter Cronkite's CBS Evening News report. What struck us then, and even years later, was the astounding surge in casualties. The year after I talked with General Tran, Ronald Spector, a Vietnam Veteran and historian, published a monograph called After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam. Spector's book quantified General Tran's claim of success in causing American casualties and put them into a stunning historical context. Spector's figures are here, with some analysis, as a reminder of the cost in blood that Americans paid that year.
In the first week of the offensive, 203 Americans were killed, and that was the lowest number of deaths for the six months covered in the report. The death rate peaked in the second week of May 1968 when 616 Americans died, and on four occasions, there were weeks when more than 500 Americans died. After reviewing six months of casualty reports compiled by the White House Situation Room for President Johnson, Spector wrote that "From January to July 1968 the overall rate of men killed in action in Vietnam would reach an all time high and would exceed the rate for the Korean War and the Mediterranean and Pacific theaters during World War II."
The Situation Room also recorded two categories of wounded: those who were not hospitalized and those who were. Men in the former category could have had minor wounds or, they could not be taken to a hospital. During the time I spent in Vietnam, I experienced this situation often due to the triple canopy jungle or the lack of transportation. Also, a commander could decide to keep what were called walking wounded in the field if he was short handed. After I got to Vietnam, I was one of the walking wounded on several occasions. I was struck by grenade shrapnel twice and shot twice. Sending me to a hospital was never mentioned.
The intense media coverage of the Tet Offensive allowed Americans to see the war as it happened. We also watched historic political events caused by the war. We read about and saw the attack on the American Embassy in Saigon; we saw Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker's evacuation from his official residence by heavily armed soldiers. We were daily observers of the dramatic battle for control of the Marine base at Khe Sahn, and, of course, we argued interminably about whether Khe Sahn was another Dienbienphu.
The day after the attack on the American Embassy, American Tet watchers also saw what was, up to that time, the most memorable and controversial incident of the war. A Viet Cong, the last of his unit, was captured and delivered with bound hands to Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, commander of the South Vietnamese Police. General Loan shot the man in the head with a .357 Magnum revolver. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams recorded the killing, and a Vietnamese cameraman working for NBC videotaped the incident. The execution was shown on the evening newscasts across the nation, and the photo was used as the front cover on the next edition of Newsweek magazine. Walter Cronkite, the leading news anchor of the era, had moved his nightly anchor spot from the CBS studio in New York to Saigon. That day, at the end of his broadcast, Cronkite responded to the murder witnessed by most of America. He said, "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds ... The bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." Lyndon Johnson, who was watching the show, said, "If I have lost Walter Cronkite, I have lost Mr. Average Citizen."
The massive casualty count, the daily observance of the war in real time, and the political reactions to the war led President Lyndon Johnson to important strategic and political decisions. Gen. William Westmoreland, the MACV Commander in Vietnam, had requested an additional 206,000 troops. Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, speaking for a presidential advisory committee, recommended against the increase, and President Johnson agreed with him. Clifford's rationale appeared later in an essay for Foreign Affairs magazine. He wrote that "a further substantial increase in American forces could only increase the devastation and the Americanization of the war, and thus leave us even further from our goal of ... peace."
Clifford's committee recommendation was made public by the press on March 24, 1968. It was part of Charles Mohr's New York Times article called "Departure of Westmoreland May Spur Shift in Strategy." Mohr's piece also told the American people that President Johnson had recalled Westmoreland to Washington for reassignment to the Pentagon where he would serve as Chief of Staff of the Army.
If there were doubts that kicking Westmoreland upstairs from the command of MACV to the Pentagon was a sign of strategic change, they were cleared away decisively by President Johnson's historic speech on the evening of March 31, 1968. I watched that too, on the television in the lounge of Gamerstsfelder Hall, the dormitory where I lived. That dormitory, like many others that spring, was often the scene of heated debates about the war, Tet, and the draft. That last topic — the draft — was a really hot one for me because I was on academic probation and in danger of losing my category 2-S deferment from the draft. That meant I was potential "draft bait" and "cannon fodder" for the war machine.
As we sat around waiting for the broadcast, there was also much discussion of the news in the 6:00 p.m. Huntley-Brinkley Report that Marine Capt. Charles Robb, Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law, was landing on Okinawa, en route to Vietnam that day. Many of us, especially those of us in academic trouble, felt that if the president's in-laws were being thrown into the fight, anyone without a precious 2-S deferment for student status really had no chance of avoiding the draft, and eventual combat in Vietnam.
At 9:00 p.m. sharp, a haggard and depressed-looking President Johnson appeared at his desk in the Oval Office. He announced three important policy changes. First, he said there was to be an immediate, unilaterally initiated halt of the bombing campaign against targets in North Vietnam. The only exceptions were to be in cases where enemy troop concentrations directly threatened our men in forward positions. It was the president's hope that this concession would expedite negotiations in Paris to end the war. Johnson went on to say that he had named Averell Harriman, a diplomat of long standing, to be his personal representative in Paris. It was Johnson's last announcement, though, that was a real shocker for viewers in the dorm, and the rest of America, too. Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek or accept the nomination for another term as president. In effect, a sitting president of the United States had announced his virtual resignation.
I didn't know it then, in March 1968, but the plan of Tran Van Tra to "break the American will to war" had just been realized. Twenty-three years later, when Tran and I discussed the war in his home, I finally got it. On March 31, 1968, Tran's Tet Offensive had achieved two of its most important objectives. Tran's stated goals were to end America's willingness to fight, speed the negotiations at the Paris Peace Talks, cause a popular uprising against the South Vietnamese government by attacking it at home, and bring the war to the cities and other areas that had been considered relatively safe during the war. It had also set in motion the series of events that drew me into the Army and eventually to Vietnam.
CONCLUSION: VACANCIES TO BE FILLED
Judging from the reports filed by American units, the American ambassador's office, and MACV, the Tet Mau Than spent itself in the Central Highlands by the end of July 1968. It did continue, however, in other parts of Vietnam, particularly the region adjacent to Saigon, until late September. Yet, the tactical and even the strategic stages were both set in the Central Highlands for most of the next year. More importantly for me, the personnel picture was set. Most of the 14,589 men who would die in the Tet Offensive in 1968 were already in their body bags, and the Draft Boards across America had begun steps to fill those vacancies. Of the Draft Class of 1968, 475,200 would become the Vietnam Class of 1969. I was a member of both classes.
Training the Draft Class of 1968
MOVING TOWARD THE DRAFT CLASS OF 1968
In the winter and spring when the Tet Offensive unfolded, I was closing a very poor performance as a student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. My poor performance was caused in part by a personal dilemma that reached all the way from Vietnam and struck me in Athens, Ohio. In December 1967, my brother Edward was serving in Vietnam with the 3rd Marine Division, and his name appeared in the obituary list of the Marine Corps monthly magazine, Leatherneck. He was walking point when he was swept away crossing a river. His company commander never went to look for him. He wandered in the jungle, alone, unarmed, and delirious from malaria and dysentery. A week later, a unit from the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) found him and delivered him to the hospital ship USS Repose. It was February 1968 before we found out he was alive.
In March 1968, Ed arrived at the Naval Health Clinic at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago. He had gone to Vietnam as a wiry 165-pound Marine with the stamina of a horse. I barely recognized him as the man I had shared a bedroom with for most of my life. He weighed 116 pounds and was bedridden. He had malaria and amoebic dysentery from the river water he had swallowed. At the time, I was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). ROTC gave me a small scholarship and expected me to enter the Army as a lieutenant when I graduated from college. Initially, I accepted those conditions because I was certain to be drafted, and I felt being an officer rather than an enlisted man would be better. But my brother's experience soured me on all things military, and I resigned from ROTC at the end of the semester. (Continues...)
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