The Offensive I: The View from Vietnam

The North Vietnamese/NLF offensive of the past weeks exceeded all the most pessimistic (or realistic) expectations of American officials in Washington and Saigon. The military commanders predicted some form of offensive some time this year, but they foresaw neither the time, nor the place, nor the duration of it. Most officials in Saigon thought that two or three NVA divisions would conduct a spectacular but short-lived attack on Kontum City and other ARVN outposts in the central highlands either at Têt or during the summer. The idea that the North Vietnamese would launch a twelve-division offensive with tanks and heavy artillery against three major strategic centers would have seemed to them nearly impossible.

After the Cambodian invasion in 1970 several high US military commanders in Vietnam boasted that the North Vietnamese could no longer bring the war back onto South Vietnamese territory. After the Laos invasion a year later they felt their predictions were confirmed. The US commanders based these predictions not only on conventional intelligence sources—after-action reports, captured documents, aerial surveillance, and so forth—but on the “electronic battlefield,” which includes twenty-first-century devices that can see, hear, count, and smell, seeded along the DMZ and the Ho Chi Minh trail. The sudden appearance of forty or more North Vietnamese tanks and several well-equipped divisions south of the trail suggests that the “electronic battlefield” produces little but static—a most embarrassing predicament for those American specialists who are currently attempting to sell this “battlefield” to other NATO powers.

Of course, the problem may well lie less with the devices themselves than with the system they are plugged into. The junior intelligence officers in the US Military Assistance Command have for a long time doubted such generally accepted conclusions as the statistic that only 15 percent of the North Vietnamese supplies beginning at one end of the trail actually reach the other end of it. In their view about the same proportion of bad—and accurate—news actually passes upward through intelligence channels; but the bearers of this news are constantly told by their superiors, “Oh, but you can’t tell that to COMUS” (COMUS being the Commander, US, General Abrams).

After a decade of direct US involvement in the Vietnam war it might seem merely redundant to point out yet another failure of US military intelligence. But the current situation is somewhat different from any that preceded it. It is, after all, quite understandable for American officers trained at such conventional military schools as Fort Knox and Fort Leavenworth to misjudge the character of a guerrilla war in Asia. It is even understandable that with a half million American troops in Vietnam and several years’ experience there all of them should have failed to anticipate an 80,000 man attack against every major city in the country at Têt in 1968. But it is inexplicable that those same officers should have been caught unaware by a conventional offensive of regular divisions armed with heavy weapons and using the very tactics taught by men similar to…

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