88. Memorandum From the Ambassador’s Special Assistant (Lansdale) to the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker)1


  • Evaluation of Tet Offensive

As desired by you, the Senior Liaison Office submits herein its spot evaluation of the enemy’s Tet offensive. It contains both my personal opinion and also the opinions of the members of my staff (David Hudson, Calvin Mehlert and Charles Sweet). It’s our first total attempt at sorting out and considering the lump sum of what we’ve seen in the Saigon-Cholon area, what we’ve read in reports, and what we’ve heard from a wide variety of Vietnamese and other contacts. Here, then, is our evaluation:

In Brief

The enemy adopted the meanest attribute of the “Year of the Monkey,” that of vicious trickery, to change the nature of the war in Viet Nam at the start of the lunar year. It will mark how the war is waged from now on. The high cost of the enemy was not vital to him. It could be made vital, if there were retribution from an aroused Vietnamese population who were led with more spark and spunk than the present Neville Chamberlain style of Vietnamese leadership. As it is, the enemy has the initiative in this war a month after Tet. Today, too many Vietnamese civilians and soldiers have a sinking feeling in their guts that the enemy is going to outwit us with this initiative. It will take some tough political and psychological judo on top of military muscle to throw down the enemy. There are initial thoughts about this at the end of the paper.


As a starting point, it would be useful to keep in mind the look of things in the enemy’s “target area” before the attack. The enemy’s [Page 252] immediate target was urban/suburban South Viet Nam, where the bulk of the people supporting the GVN live. On the eve of Tet, this target area presented a picture with many encouraging overtones. Although it also had less pleasing undertones, such as the threat of a full-scale invasion from the North and the debilitating effect of official GVN corruption, these had been identified as problems and pertinent solutions were being tackled.

There was a fledgling Constitutional Government, elected by the people, learning to behave as an administrative-executive-legislative team; it had plans for progress and reform after Tet. There were more than a million and a quarter men under arms, including some 700,000 Vietnamese backed up by U.S. and Allied forces; RVNAF in many places had pushed out actively into the countryside after the smaller enemy, killing him at a high ratio, fighting him further and further away from cities and towns. There was an energetic, nation-wide “pacification” campaign to win back the countryside, with a heavy infusion of U.S. managerial techniques and with Americans to oversee the use of these techniques at every Vietnamese echelon. There was a stirring among the Vietnamese political elements towards the broadening of alliances, towards getting better roots among the people, as moves towards the founding of new political parties. The people of the population centers had a new feeling of more security; there was more safety from the terror of the enemy and there was more money to buy food and gifts for the family celebrations of Tet.

At Tet

The enemy moved into this target area at Tet, with effective new military weapons, with a hard core of dedicated fighting men who evidently had top generals and political cadre amongst them to share in the dangers, and with a beguiling exposition of political aims. The symbols of moral and political/administrative strength on our side were singled out for denigration or destruction. Thus, the U.S. Embassy, the Presidential Palace, the JGS compound, the Hue Citadel, most provincial headquarters, and police stations were attacked with great vigor; churches, temples, and pagodas were occupied; leaders among the people were sought out for quick murder or kidnapping. Enemy troops fought hard, notably so. Enemy troops behaved as good comrades towards the people, again notably so. Their new weapons were effective against our armor, once again notably so. With all of this, there was attractive political talk of the war soon ending, of the Americans making a deal and leaving Viet Nam to the Vietnamese, of the forming of a new government by the people.

The enemy who came into the cities and fought openly has been crushed militarily, with great loss of life to him, to our military, and to [Page 253] civilians, along with much destruction of public and private property. The physical wounds of the enemy’s Tet offensive are being healed through a relief and recovery program which could ease the memory of them to a large extent within this year. The psychological wounds of the enemy’s Tet offensive are different, deeper, more dangerous. If too little is done too late, the psychological wounds can fester and be fatal for us. The Tet offensive demonstrated that the enemy is still waging “people’s war.” He got in among the majority of the people on our side this time. Although he failed in his proclaimed objective of getting the people to rise up against the GVN and the Americans, the enemy has shaken the faith of the people in the ultimate success of our side. An enemy as skilled as this one in the manipulation of mass opinions can be expected to keep up the attack at a point he can recognize as being vulnerable.

One psychological fuse was lit during Tet that might bring a delayed explosion. It deserves attention. Both Vietnamese and American combat forces fought the enemy right out in plain view of hundreds of thousands of articulate city dwellers, the “home folks,” instead of far off in the remote countryside or jungle. The Vietnamese home folks not only saw the brutal face of war up close, they also saw RVNAF in a harsh comparison with both Americans and the enemy. The comparison could become invidious, since RVNAF did not always show up well. From some of the emotional outbursts of civilian and military “young Turks” since then, it can be deduced that there is some feeling of shame among them. If reaction to this shame or “loss of face” is improperly channeled, it could turn into a virulent type of anti-Americanism as people acknowledge the obvious fact that the country would have been lost to the enemy if it weren’t for American actions. The “young Turks” must be given a good way of “gaining face” again, fast.

Enemy Objectives

When attempting to assess results of the enemy Tet offensive, we should ask what objectives the Communist leaders sought to attain. They told their combatants that people in urban areas would rise up against the government, that ARVN units would defect, and that “revolutionary” committees would be able to take over the administration in many cities. They also told their shock forces that reinforcements would arrive after the first period of battle.

The people and ARVN failed to respond to the Communist appeal, reinforcements failed to appear, and the cities remain under GVN control. Furthermore, the enemy took serious losses. On the surface, it would appear the Communists failed and that, on balance, their offensive resulted in a stronger position for the GVN.

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However, it is likely that the Communists, while hoping to attain the larger goals, knew that the chance for success was uncertain, and had other, longer-range, goals in mind, such as:

  • —striking fear into the hearts of the urban population by demonstrating the inability of the government to provide adequate security.
  • —terrorizing and demoralizing government civil and military personnel, and their families, the bulk of whom live in urban areas.
  • —exacerbating existing tensions among top GVN leaders by confronting them with a major crisis, which caused them to view one another in frustration, anxiety, and fear.
  • —straining American/Vietnamese relations for the same reasons as above, and for others, i.e., seeking to portray the images that U.S. firepower destroyed the Vietnamese cities; that Americans in Viet Nam still live affluently while their Vietnamese allies are without homes, food, etc.
  • —increasing pressure on the U.S. at home and abroad to withdraw, by seeking to demonstrate the hopelessness of victory and the immorality of our cause (for example, the image of U.S. firepower destroying friendly Vietnamese cities).
  • —forcing the government to abandon its efforts to expand its areas of authority in the countryside (i.e., the RD program) by compelling it to concentrate on urban defense and recovery; or, alternatively, forcing the government to spread its resources so thinly that it is unable to do anything effective anywhere.

Enemy Gains

The urban population, at least in Saigon-Cholon, is still somewhat fearful, unsure of the ability of the GVN to face repeated armed challenges in the cities. (For example, on the night of February 24, more than three weeks after the opening of the Tet offensive, VC were reported calling at the homes of people on Ly Nam De Street, District 5, asking for food. The people had no alternative but to provide food since there was no police protection on the streets after dark. Many people in Cholon believe stories that the VC have been cutting off the hands of persons who work for Americans.)

The excessive burden of the demands created by the offensive has further weakened the GVN executive branch which was already plagued by diffusion of power and internal political conflicts. The full powers required for handling the emergency were not invested in the Central Relief Committee nor were they effectively assumed by the President, causing considerable tension within the GVN as a result of its inability to act decisively in a critical period.

Destruction resulting from U.S./GVN bombing and artillery firepower has created some deep resentment against the U.S. and Vietnamese governments, particularly in the refugee camps where Viet Cong agitators are at work. Viet Cong atrocities have created mostly [Page 255] fear but not wide-spread antagonism, except in families which suffered personal losses. Viet Cong propaganda still seems to have more credibility with the people, on this point, than does the information campaign on our side. This can still be reversed, but time is running out.

The Viet Cong have sown the seeds of suspicion and distrust. The rumor of U.S./Viet Cong collusion in the attack is still alive, still talked about among the people. The allegations of Communist infiltration into private organizations, and collaboration by certain individuals with the Viet Cong, have also generated suspicions and have led the government to be overly cautious and at times suppressive in their dealings with private individuals and associations. (The arrest of CVT labor leaders at the moment they were generating an anti-Communist drive hurt our side, helped the enemy cause.)

Public criticism of U.S. policy in Viet Nam has intensified in the U.S. and elsewhere abroad.

GVN resources have necessarily been spread more thinly. In many areas of the countryside, RD teams and RVNAF units have been drawn back into more urban locations, inviting VC takeover of areas formerly under GVN control.

GVN Response

The government’s response, beyond defending and restoring security in the urban areas, centered on the formation of the People’s Relief Committee headed by Vice President Ky. This Committee performed commendably in coordinating and expediting the emergency welfare relief measures of the involved GVN and U.S. agencies, including such action as:

the re-supplying of Saigon and the shipping of emergency relief goods to the provinces;
the distribution of rice and food to the refugees and public and the re-opening of rice retail shops with strict government price controls;
the protection and repair of public utilities, allowing services to continue throughout the emergency;
the resettling and registering of the 150,000 Saigon refugees;
the intensification of the government’s psychological operation by giving each refugee camp a radio and television, improving the news coverage on radio, and assisting 15 daily newspapers to begin publication;
the soliciting of funds, supplies, blood and labor from Vietnamese private organizations and individuals and third countries;
the gradual lifting of restrictions and extension of the blue (secure) areas in Saigon;
the collection and burning of garbage; and
the deployment of inspection teams to the provinces and establishment of a system for culling all pertinent data for Saigon and provinces.

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Additionally, the imaginative action of assigning 2,500 RD cadre from Vung Tau to work in Saigon, the noteworthy performances of the Ministry of Health and the City Sanitation and Fire Departments throughout the entire emergency; and the visits of GVN officials to stricken areas brought definite political/psychological gains to the government.

Both Houses in the National Assembly became actively engaged in the relief effort. Initially, each House sent representatives to attend the meetings of the Central Relief Committee. Senators and Lower House Deputies also inspected refugee camps and damaged areas in Saigon and the provinces; Lower House Deputies unable to return to Saigon assisted the provincial officials in the initial relief efforts. Both Houses have issued communiques supporting the government’s emergency relief efforts and have requested assistance for the victims from national legislatures of other countries.

Despite these positive actions, the GVN so far has been unable to capitalize on the opportunity the Tet offensive presented and emerge in a stronger position. Perhaps the principal reason for this is the excessive diffusion of executive and political power which is largely the result of the continuing rivalry between the Thieu and Ky camps. As a result, there has been no clear central point of executive and political leadership during the emergency. Because of this key executive decisions have been delayed or not made, particularly those involving joint civil/military considerations (for example, the curfew), and a trend has developed toward creation of two rival political Fronts.

Popular Response

The enemy’s biggest “calculated risk” in the Tet offensive was on how the people in the GVN centers would respond to him. True, the enemy asked for public uprising against the GVN and the Americans, which he failed to create. This was a tactical loss to him. The enemy’s strategy still will aim for creating an eventual surge of popular support for his cause against ours in the urban/suburban population centers of Viet Nam. The enemy undoubtedly has this aspect of his Tet offensive under intense study right now.

The Communists must make sure that the people’s reactions to their Tet violence do not crystallize into a purposeful hatred directed in an effective way against them. The enemy made this mistake against the Catholics and the Hoa Hao years ago. He risked doing it again with other large groups of Vietnamese, by his Tet attack. However, he seems to be getting away with it, although the final psychological effects are still not firm. The emotional flag-raising at the recaptured Citadel in Hue, witnessed by so many thousands of teary-eyed residents, may well spark the nation-wide tide against him that the enemy fears. [Page 257] However, there was no similar polarizing event in which the people could participate in Saigon or other centers. The Hue ceremony could remain an isolated incident instead of becoming the focal rallying point (such as “Remember the Alamo,” “Remember the Maine,” “Remember Pearl Harbor”).

The initial response of the Saigon-Cholon-Gia Dinh population to the Tet offensive was disbelief—some even thought a coup was in process. As the critical nature of the situation became clear, concern for personal safety prevailed. The people soon started to wonder why their government could not protect them; stories of American and Viet Cong collusion in the offensive were widely spread and believed. As fear grew, there was a reluctance on the part of refugees and even volunteers from private associations to become too closely associated with the government although this feeling has now been reduced. On balance, although the people have appreciated the government’s efforts to help them, there has also been a tendency out of fear for the urban population to assume a more moral neutral stance.

Political personalities, ARVN officers, civil servants, Northern Catholics, and other strongly anti-Communist groups also reacted initially with fear, for they would lose the most in a Viet Cong takeover; also, for the first time, the war was brought to their doorsteps. As the shock wore off, however, many of the elements came to believe that this may be the last opportunity for “all nationalists to unite and save the nation.”

At the moment, many of the people in the capital—and possibly the same is true elsewhere—feel isolated into just their own family groups. Each family is an “island,” separated apart from neighbors, the community, the government. In case of another enemy attack, individuals will feel highly vulnerable, their main recourse to comfort or safety being only within the immediate family. Much of this has been caused by the attitude and behavior of the police. Although the securing of Saigon-Cholon owes a big debt to the energy and resourcefulness of General Loan, he also portrayed the image of an emotionally unstable, suspicious, vindictive, and willful person. This image has rubbed off on the forces he commands, further tarnishing their reputation for corrupt venality and saving their own hides in time of trouble. Unless this image is changed, unless there is created some bond of trust and understanding between police and people, we will be leaving a grievous chink in our armor for the enemy to exploit.

Challenge—Our Thoughts

The enemy’s Tet offensive demonstrated once again the ability of Communist leaders to make a hard strategic decision, marshal their resources in an extremely disciplined way, and deal us a hard blow. At [Page 258] present our strategy is less clear and our resources are not being used in as concerted and disciplined a fashion as the enemy’s at least in the political sphere.

If we are to achieve our goal of having a strong, popularly-supported constitutional government and armed forces in South Viet Nam, we must make some hard political decisions now and carry them out with teamwork, skill and discipline of our own.

Specifically, I believe we must do the following:

Help Nguyen van Thieu rapidly become a strong President, under the Constitution. This action has two closely-related facets: helping him develop his own capabilities as the elected leader of his country; and helping him acquire full powers delegated to the President under the Constitution. At present, he has far too little authority over the key elements of the executive branch, i.e., the cabinet, province chiefs, the police and the armed forces. Rapid emergence of Thieu as a strong President with full authority is the first, and absolutely essential step, toward creation of a GVN that works, that can really get things done, which is not the case today. Under a strong President, firm chains of command could be established in both the civil service and armed forces. Until this is achieved, however, the GVN can only muddle along in seeking to carry out critical programs, since the governmental mechanism for effective execution does not exist. We can no longer tolerate a two-headed, Siamese-twin central government with four separate “governments” between it and the people. Thieu and Ky, and their entourages, for many reasons, can never really work together to the extent required, and we should not delude ourselves that they can.
To assist Thieu, as discussed above, far more concerted U.S. political action is needed. As an immediate step, a small political working group should be established under your personal direction, composed of Arch Calhoun, Lew Lapham, a personal representative of General Westmoreland (such as Colonel John Hayes), General Forsythe and myself.
While helping Thieu consolidate presidential power under the Constitution, other critical actions should be taken to create a political base which would complement and reinforce establishment of a strong executive/administrative base. Immediate actions to create a political base include:
Real enforcement of the order recently issued by General Cao van Vien that looting by RVNAF personnel will result in summary court-martial, and execution, if warranted. This order should include, if it does not already, squarely placing responsibility for troop conduct on unit commanders. Another general order should be issued, [Page 259] and backed up, stating that every officer and soldier has two duties of equal importance—to destroy the enemy, and to defend and help the people—and that any misconduct toward the people will result in severe punishment. (This is a critical political action because the armed forces, along with the police and RD cadre, remain the principal link between the government and the people.)
Acts of political leadership, starting with Thieu, but also by all nationalist leaders, within and without the government, which will create out of the emotions aroused by the Tet offensive, a new spirit of unity, sacrifice, pride and hope among Vietnamese nationalists. Full support by Thieu for the “People’s Congress,” as a single, united popular Front for emergency purposes, is one such leadership act critically needed now.
Create psychological polarity to focus the people’s emotions against the enemy as a beast who must be stopped. This can be done through a concerted campaign built around the battle-cry of “Remember Hue!”. This requires a continuing revelation of information about what the enemy did to unarmed civilians and to cherished national heritages in Hue, through media that will spread these stories to the widest extent possible, over and over again. One such medium is the Vietnamese ballad; a song is needed, to be sung throughout the country, carried there by VIS, RD cadre, and student choral groups. “Remember Hue!” can be the theme of an address to the nation by President Thieu, of manifestos and speeches by patriots in the new “Fronts.” “Remember Hue!” can be included in general orders of RVNAF, used by troops in counter-offensive operations. “Remember Hue!” can be imprinted with postal cancellation marks on all mail in Viet Nam. We must beat the Communists to the punch, before they use “Remember Hue!” first.
Help put a stop to indiscriminate expressions of Sinophobia among the Vietnamese in urban centers, particularly Saigon-Cholon. You and the rest of us in the U.S. Mission can make a point of this when talking with Vietnamese leaders. President Thieu can be urged to meet with responsible and respected leaders of the Chinese-ancestry “congregations” in Cholon, to learn what has happened to them and what they have contributed to our common cause, to get a fix on enemy activities among those of Chinese blood, and to exchange pledges of mutual teamwork in the face of national peril. Viet Nam Press can do a feature news item on the favorable actions by the Sino-Vietnamese of Cholon; there have been heroic acts, heavy donations of money, goods, and services in this crisis. We in the U.S. Mission could see that this item is picked up by the world press, that it becomes known to police and other GVN officials where we have an advisory effort. This would give fresh heart to those in Viet Nam’s [Page 260] most crucial commercial circles, to get the nation’s economy moving again.
Devise a feasible means of mobilizing the entire Vietnamese people into the war effort, in an organized way that will make good sense to them and gain their willing support. While this is especially needed by “young Turk” civilians and soldiers to channelize their energies and emotions into constructive channels, many others in the population are in need of having a practical, known way in which they can help against the enemy. The mobilization means and the duties assigned (which include self-defense) have a highly political import. GVN organizations, such as the Ministries of Interior, Youth, and RD, and the newly-formed “Fronts” have concepts on mobilizing the people against the enemy. The U.S. Mission needs to crystallize its own policy on this matter, to gain maximum effect of U.S. support. It is urged that this subject be given early study by the small, political working group described above.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 8 E (1), 7/67–3/68, Lansdale Memos to Rostow. Secret. In an attached covering memorandum transmitting this memorandum to Rostow, February 29, Lansdale wrote: “Ellsworth Bunker asked each of us in the Mission Council to assess the period of the Tet offensive for him. Since he undoubtedly will want to compile a balanced account, based on the wide variety of assessments he gets, I don’t want to prejudice his report in Washington. Thus, I enclose my personal assessment on an ‘eyes only’ basis to give you a personal insight into how this all looked to my little group, with the reminder that others will be broadening the view.” A MACV analysis of the Tet offensive and recommendations for action are in an untitled report dated March 15. (Ibid., William C. Westmoreland Papers, #30 History File, 1–31 Mar 68 [1])