THE 1968 TET OFFENSIVE:
A POOR USE OF INTELLIGENCE BY A RICH NATION
Course: M615/Session: 7/8
Instructor: J Dotson
Due Date: 27 May, 2012
The 1968 Tet Offensive was a surprised attack on the United States and Allied forces in a highly coordinated operation between the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong insurgents. The success of this massive ground assault was not attributed to their superior fighting capabilities but rather the US’s ill-interpretation of attack warning signs and inaccurate evaluation of the enemy’s ability to garner support and exploit resources. This paper discusses a series of misstep taken by the US’s failure to recognize the role and value of intelligence leading up to the final moment when the first wave of attacks occurred. Her intelligence apparatus fell into the paradoxical deception of fixating on a false target when in reality the true aim was of multiple targets and these targets were everywhere else but Khe Sanh village. Her misguided perception was further exasperated by underestimating the communists’ resourcefulness. In the after-math, lessons learned from these blunders encouraged US analysts to constantly reassess their logic to best mitigate biases and over indulgence of self-confidence giving equal weight and value when scrutinizing those resources beyond the immediate control.
Contrary to facts and figures, the Tet Offensive was not at all unexpected or a surprise to the Americans as told by history. Evidence mounted in the months leading up to the event then later well documented in the aftermath that clear signs of the massive attacks were imminent. The excerpt below is a detailed battle plan drawn specifically for the Tet operation. It was found on described in a Viet Cong soldier’s notebook that had fallen into the hands of US intelligence two months prior to the massive attack. The passage reads: The central headquarters has ordered the entire army and people of South Vietnam to implement general offensive and general uprising in order to achieve a decisive victory…Use very strong military attacks in coordination with the uprisings of the local population to take over towns and cities. They should move toward liberating the capital city, take power and try to rally enemy brigades and regiments to our side one by one.
This damning evidence was underestimated in value and overlooked by implication on many occasions in the months leading up to the attacks, while others were given overwhelming credence. A case in point, analysts had gone on records to admit they themselves often did not pass on intelligence for further analysis dismissing them as insignificant or irrelevant. The following discussion provides an overview of two major circumstances where the US forces failed to recognize key signs and events as fore-warnings that massive attacks were imminent on Tet in 1968 in and throughout South Vietnam. Intelligence Failure #1: False Fixation on Khe Sanh
The single most important and well known miscalculation of intelligence work during the Vietnam War was the ill-committed and false fixation that Khe Sanh village was going to be the communist’s ultimate target of destruction and humiliation for the US. Analysts were convinced that the communists’ main offensive attack was going to be the large US base in the Khe Sanh valley. Their logic was this. Located in a remote, forest covered area in northern province of South Vietnam and just south of the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), Khe Sanh was unique at the time in that it carried an aura of and shared characteristics similar to major battle Dien Bien Phu city where the French fought and folded to the communist state 16 years earlier. The parallel drawn by the US leadership and its intelligence agencies would become the psychological ground-zero from which false interpretation and perceptions of the Tet Offensive attack would...