Vietnam in the Aftermath of the Tet Offensive

In the aftermath of Hanoi's Tet Offensive of February 1968 and the so-called "Mini-Tet" offensives of May and August, both sides consolidated their positions and reinforced troop deployments. People’s Army of Vietnam and Viet Cong regular main forces were withdrawn to remote bases in South Vietnam and to sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. These units were reinforced by moving men, weapons, and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia and, where appropriate, into the South. By September, the number of front-line combatants fielded by Communist forces was estimated at 250,000, while the number of active U.S. forces in Vietnam had increased to 538,000.

The Accelerated Pacification Campaign

The Tet Offensive caused the United States to accelerate ongoing efforts to prepare South Vietnam for the day when U.S. troops would no longer be present. Peace talks in Paris between the United States and North Vietnam had entered a serious phase in late October 1968. This new development added urgency to those efforts, because the possibility of a quick agreement could not be ruled out. This possibility made it imperative that the South Vietnamese government become as strong as possible as soon as possible. Concern that a sudden agreement in Paris could mandate a freeze in place of forces on both sides of the conflict led Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) commander General Creighton Abrams and his deputy for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), Robert W. Komer, to persuade South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to undertake a multi-faceted campaign designed to reclaim as much territory with as many inhabitants as possible.

The initiative was called the Accelerated Pacification Campaign, where the term pacification referenced programs of combined political/military nature intended to secure the countryside, replacing clandestine Communist governing apparatus in rural villages with effective South Vietnamese administrations. Through socioeconomic development and reform, a prosperous and united nation would be built. Launched on November 1, 1968, the Accelerated Pacification Campaign had the ambitious goal of converting about 1,100 hamlets that were either ruled by the Viet Cong or in a contested status to at least a minimal form of government control by January 31, 1969.

The role of the U.S. Army in the pacification effort was vital yet indirect. Army units would conduct large-scale sweeps and small-scale patrols near areas undergoing pacification to prevent the enemy from interfering. At times they worked with South Vietnamese officials to identify and eliminate Communist operatives living among the people, at other times they conducted combined operations with South Vietnamese forces or provided direct training for them. In sparsely populated regions, U.S. units conducted "spoiling attacks" on enemy bases and supply lines, preventing attacks near populated areas. From a purely statistical viewpoint, the campaign was a great success. Allied forces had occupied all 1,100 of the targeted hamlets. Still, each village represented unique circumstances. Often, the clandestine Communist apparatus remained intact to a degree, even after a village had officially been declared under control. It was also common for those living in newly pacified communities to demonstrate nothing more than apathy and a desire to be left alone by all sides.

Stymieing the 1969 Tet Offensive

South Vietnam was divided militarily and administratively into four Military Regions or Corps Tactical Zones, one for each of the four corps of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The III Corps Tactical Zone was home to Saigon, the country’s capital, and to nearly 40 percent of the country’s population, making it the political and administrative heartland of South Vietnam. The distance from the city to the border with Cambodia was only sixty kilometers, and Cambodia's government permitted the North Vietnamese to use its territory as a staging ground. In the wake of the 1968 Tet Offensive, Saigon’s significance and vulnerability led General Abrams to garrison the zone strongly.

The United States took advantage of the lull in fighting during the Accelerated Pacification Campaign to redeploy the 1st Cavalry Division to the III Corps Tactical Zone. Their mission was to interdict Communist infiltration routes from Cambodia and make it impossible for the four major enemy formations based there to mass a quantity of troops and supplies sufficient to threaten Saigon. To support the 1st Cavalry Division’s frequent heliborne raids and ground patrols, a line of helicopter landing zones and artillery fire support bases was built near the Cambodian border. Some proved vulnerable to enemy power concentrated across the border, and by year’s end the defensive line had been moved back to locations deeper inside South Vietnam. By means of this active screen, the 1st Cavalry Division enabled allied units in the more populated areas near Saigon to vigorously prosecute the Accelerated Pacification Campaign.

General Abrams’ belief that the enemy would launch a major offensive in 1969 around the time of the Tet holidays, just as he had done in 1968, drove the intensity of U.S. activity across South Vietnam. In November 1968, outgoing President Lyndon Johnson had unilaterally suspended U.S. bombing of targets in North Vietnam, with the hope of inducing the Communists to begin to negotiate seriously. The North Vietnamese took advantage of the bombing suspension by improving infiltration routes to the South and by building a petroleum pipeline in the Demilitarized Zone that separated between the two Vietnamese nations. Troops and materiel flowed into South Vietnam during the following months. These developments reinforced Abrams’ suspicion that a new Tet offensive was planned. The General was moved to launch spoiling actions throughout the winter, in order to prevent a major offensive. During the first six weeks of 1969, an aggressive schedule of preemptive actions resulted in the capture of large quantities of North Vietnamese weaponry.

In the end, the 1969 Tet offensive was a massive failure. The number of Communist fatalities soared from 27,400 in the final quarter of 1968 to nearly 45,000 in the first quarter of 1969 — with few gains to show for their sacrifice. The success of the spoiling actions led General Abrams to make them a centerpiece of post-Tet U.S. Army operations in Vietnam.

The Concept of “Vietnamization”

In his Address to the Nation on Vietnam on May 14, 1969, President Nixon told the American people, We have ruled out attempting to impose a purely military solution on the battlefield. We have also ruled out either a one-sided withdrawal from Vietnam, or the acceptance in Paris of terms that would amount to a disguised American defeat. His plan involved a phased withdrawal from South Vietnam of all U.S. and North Vietnamese combatants. To get the process started, Nixon offered to take the first step by withdrawing some U.S. forces before North Vietnam agreed to remove any of its troops. Recall that in late 1968, President Johnson unilaterally stopped the bombing campaign, also as an inducement to the North Vietnamese to cooperate at the negotiating table..

The Vietnamization policy was designed to improve and strengthen South Vietnam's armed forces to the point where they only needed minimal support from the U.S. American units would be withdrawn only inasmuch as ARVN proved itself capable of picking up the slack. In addition to the military initiative, South Vietnam be transformed into a more viable and democratic state by way of political, social, and economic reforms. Such reforms, however, could not be realized unless the enemy’s clandestine presence among the civilian population was significantly degraded. This truth, combined with popular demand in the U.S. for fewer casualties in Vietnam, compelled prioritization of security, pacification support, and training missions over civil development. Major allied offensive operations would continue, although they would become increasingly difficult as the U.S. withdrew its military forces. The process of withdrawal was to start immediately.

U.S. Military Leaders Object to a Rapid Withdrawal

Note that the Vietnamization policy was not designed to make South Vietnam entirely self-sufficient. In fact, MACV commander Creighton Abrams and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Earle G. Wheeler both believed that Vietnamization would fail if that was made the objective. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu agreed. Vietnamization’s success therefore depended on either U.S. negotiators in Paris succeeding in convincing North Vietnam to withdraw most of its military forces from South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, or on the United States maintaining a continued if reduced military presence in Vietnam. In the absence of both, senior U.S. military leaders believed that South Vietnam's future prospects were dim.

In July, General Abrams submitted a proposal calling for the retention of 275,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam after the completion of a withdrawal phase lasting about two years. This “residual force”, resembling the United States contingent force retained in Korea years after the 1953 armistice, would be backed by generous allotments of aircraft, helicopters, engineers, and logisticians. Whether the American people or Administration leaders would permit such a massive commitment was questionable. That the request was made anyway gave strong indication of the presence of a belief among American military leadership that South Vietnam would require substantial U.S. support for the indefinite future.

Summer–Fall 1969: A Time for North Vietnam to Exercise Restraint

The United States and North Vietnam both changed tactics in 1969 in order to lessen their losses, although their motivations were different. The rate of losses incurred by Communist forces in the terrible defeats of the 1968 Tet Offensive could not be sustained, if they hoped to eventually prevail. Moreover, the U.S. had begun to withdraw from the conflict. The Communists could afford to wait for the day where they took on South Vietnam one-on-one. U.S. negotiators in Paris were demanding that North Vietnam remove their forces from South Vietnam in return for the U.S. withdrawal, but the Communists refused to give serious consideration to the idea. With the U.S. withdrawal already underway, North Vietnam could afford to hold back while taking advantage of the withdrawal phase to rebuild. Communist pressure was maintained by way of guerrilla warfare, terrorism, bombardment from a distance, and through raids conducted by specially trained sappers. Such tactics minimized North Vietnamese losses while inflicting nonstop casualties on the Americans, leveraging growing U.S. public disenchantment with the conflict to inflict political damage.