75. Circular Telegram From the Department of State to All Posts1

115081. Subject: Initial Appraisal Viet Cong Tet Offensive.

Note: Over the last several days Sitreps have been provided to keep you abreast of the developing situation in South Viet-Nam in the wake of the communists’ Tet offensive. The following represents a preliminary appraisal of the current situation, which you may draw upon on background as appropriate in your conversations with senior officials of the government to which you are accredited as well as colleagues within the diplomatic corps. It may also be used with reputable correspondents.
North Vietnamese and VC forces have succeeded in dealing a major blow against the urban population of South Viet-Nam in the offensive launched Jan 30. Though there is some intelligence which indicates that this initial strike will be followed up by one or more additional concerted efforts, this phase of the offensive seems to be drawing to a close. There is still fighting going on in the suburbs of Saigon, in a section of Hue, and in Dalat, but aside from these areas the attacking forces have been driven from the towns and the Government of Viet-Nam is proceeding to restore order and re-establish security and services in the urban centers. The enemy has also massed regular North Vietnamese divisions near the DMZ and the Khe Sanh campaign is expected soon in that area.
The Tet offensive was ordered by Hanoi and the operation was in the planning stage for weeks and probably months before the initial attack. Our forces have captured a copy of the general order for the offensive which begins with the words: “The Tet greeting of Chairman Ho is actually a combat order for our entire army and population.” In the midst of their announced holiday truce they mounted an attack on province capitals and district towns throughout the length and breadth of South Viet-Nam. Thirty-eight of the forty-four province capitals were attacked either by artillery or ground troops in force. About sixty district towns were also struck. It now appears that Hanoi committed a tremendous proportion of its resources in the south and took very [Page 212] heavy casualties. Our estimates are that more than 60,000 NVA/VC troops, mostly main and local force, were utilized. A great many of the attacks were suicidal in character. However, on the basis of preliminary interrogation reports of those captured, many of the cadre involved were apparently led to believe that their efforts would be followed up by subsequent VC attacks. Many of those captured have stated that they were not provided with withdrawal plans (in past communist operations withdrawal plans have been an essential feature). In their briefings, communist cadre were also led to believe that the people would respond to their calls for anti-GVN uprisings and would welcome them as liberators. Such a reaction was not forthcoming and in the testimony of POWs, this was apparently a source of surprise and disappointment.
We know from captured documents and interrogations, as well as from Hanoi and Liberation Radio broadcasts, that the communists expected to achieve the following goals:
Full control of many of the cities. (Instead they retain only a small portion of Hue, part of Dalat, and a few hundred are still holding out in the Chinese suburbs of Saigon.)
They expected major defections from ARVN and they have even claimed that entire units had defected. Conclusive reports from our advisers make clear that there were no significant defections and it has been clearly established that one of the units identified by Hanoi as defecting, the ARVN 45th regiment, fought very well against the communists and remains firmly on the side of the GVN.
They expected the elected, newly installed GVN to collapse in the face of their offensive. In contrast its executive branch has moved quickly to establish a Recovery Task Force which is mobilizing the Government’s resources to provide relief for the many refugees created by these attacks, re-establish services, and organize the task of rebuilding the destroyed areas.
There are a number of hopeful and potentially favorable elements in the present situation:
Despite the fact that it was caught by surprise and several effectives were on holiday leave, the ARVN performed commendably and indeed bore the brunt of the attack. (As of Feb 12 over 2,100 ARVN troops had been killed and almost 8,000 had been wounded. This contrasts with American dead of approximately 1,000 with an additional 5,000 wounded.) ARVN performance has been attested to by newsmen on the scene. (E.g., CBS broadcast of February 9 from Saigon: “Now that more and more reports are in, the record would seem to show that face to face against the Viet Cong in the battle for the cities the South Vietnamese armed forces performed almost universally well, and this could be the most significant development of this phase of the war. The South Vietnamese armed forces [Page 213] have long been a question mark. There was a period in this war about three years ago when entire battalions would disappear in the face of attack. Nothing like this happened in the past week and a half.”)
Key groups and leaders, including those within the National Assembly and in opposition political circles, have issued statements denouncing the Viet Cong for their deceitful attack and urging the people to rally in opposition to the VC. Such statements have come from intellectuals (a group of university professors, journalists and writers issued a strong statement on February 11), labor groups (the president of the largest trade union federation in SVN), a former chief of state and unsuccessful presidential candidate, religious leaders (the Director of the Institute for the Propagation of the Buddhist Faith). In addition to these public statements, there have been numerous private assurances of support for the GVN in present emergency from many other political figures including declared oppositionists.
Reports almost universally testify to a widespread sense of outrage over the VC violation of Tet. (N.B. Tet is the most important and most sacred of Vietnamese holidays and normally runs for four days. It is a time when families are reunited, usually in the home village or hamlet, gifts are exchanged and religious ceremonies are held in honor of ancestors. Weeks before Tet, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong had publicly declared that they intended to observe a seven-day truce in connection with this holiday. The GVN and allied forces had, on their part, announced a thirty-six-hour truce, but there was no indication that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong intended to shorten their truce as a consequence. Up to the time the attacks took place, Hanoi and Liberation Radio had still not indicated any intention to depart from their seven-day truce.) This sense of outrage at the violation of Tet and the many atrocities committed by the communists during their attacks—e.g., the systematic massacre of entire families could now result in a galvanizing of popular will.
There are also less hopeful elements:
The initial success of the attacks on the urban centers could well produce a loss of confidence in the ability of the GVN, the ARVN, and the allied forces to protect the people from the VC.
The urban population has been exposed for the first time to heavy property destruction and loss of life. Latest figures as of February 12 indicate that refugee count may exceed 500,000, including 217,000 in Saigon and environs. Civilian casualties have been estimated by Chief of State Thieu as being in the neighborhood of 3,000 killed.
The pacification program, to which so much importance has been attached, has been temporarily disrupted. To get it back on the track both the GVN and U.S. forces must act quickly and effectively.
Over the next few months the true impact of the Tet offensive can be calculated. The initial advantage must be conceded to the NVA/VC forces. They have succeeded in invading the previously-inviolable cities and exposing the urban population to the brutal facts of war for the first time. They have created havoc and suffering and have imposed a heavy new burden on the already overstrained manpower and material resources of the GVN. Obviously, the ultimate success or failure of their urban effort will depend on how well the GVN addresses itself to these new problems. So far it has reacted well. President Thieu and other key members of his administration have shown leadership and a willingness to come to grips with the situation. This effort must, however, be sustained. The populace undoubtedly will be watching GVN leadership.
The other side of the coin is just how much the NVA/VC forces spent on the urban offensive. They sustained heavy casualties: over 30,000 dead and almost 6,000 taken prisoner. (Because of their magnitude Vietnamese and American officials in Saigon have checked their figures carefully against such other factors as captured weapons, and are convinced of their essential accuracy.) From interrogations and from their propaganda broadcasts it seems clear that they expected to realize much from this offensive. The fact that they failed to take control of any major town, except for brief periods of time, and their inability to generate any popular support for their effort may prove to be of prime significance. It should be noted that they were willing to announce the formation of an “Alliance of National and Peace Forces” as a propaganda weapon coincident with this offensive. This paper organization was meant to attract intellectuals, merchants, industrialists and politicians and its creation carried with it the tacit admission that the NLF was not the single voice of the South Vietnamese people. This obviously important concession would seem a heavy propaganda price in view of the fact that there was no significant popular rising in response to the urban offensive.
The Tet offensive was deliberately ordered by Hanoi at a time when they knew we were actively taking soundings to determine whether the Trinh statement of December 282 represented a sincere intention on their part to enter into meaningful talks and had, in connection with these soundings, imposed restrictions on air activity in the vicinity of Hanoi or Haiphong. Thus, the Tet offensive, taken in conjunction with the communist buildup at Khe Sanh and the harsh denunciation of the San Antonio formula by radio Hanoi, and by Trinh himself [Page 215] on Feb 8, does not augur well for the early commencement of meaningful peace talks. This does not however mean that Hanoi and the supporters of the DRV will not attempt to mount an increasingly shrill propaganda concerto in favor of early negotiations on their terms. Our position on talks remains clear: the San Antonio formula.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Limdis. Drafted by John Burke of the Vietnam Working Group, cleared by Habib and EA Public Affairs Adviser Oscar Armstrong, and approved by Bundy. Sent to all European posts, all East Asian and Pacific posts, Hong Kong, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Pakistan, Ceylon, Tunisia, Iran, India, Morocco, and USUN, and pouched to all other posts.
  2. See Document 1.