Last night I watched on DVD part six, “Things Fall Apart,” of the Burns-Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, that will be shown on PBS tonight. It centers on the Tết Offensive.
The documentary views the offensive the same way I do, that it was a military defeat but a psychological victory. To my knowledge, the North Vietnamese lost every battle begun during the offensive and suffered enormous casualties. They failed to achieve their goals of sparking a general uprising against the Saigon government, and the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (the military forces of South Vietnam) did not disintegrate under pressure, as the North hoped.
But the North’s forces accomplished something of great value to them: they caused the American public to doubt that the U.S. would ever win the war. That led to greater and greater opposition to the war, the principal factor that finally led to the American defeat in 1975.
The North Vietnamese were determined to win no matter what the cost. As Ho Chi Minh said years before, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”
The American people had no such dedication. Indeed, they wanted the U.S. to withdraw from the war. We pulled back our forces in 1973, ended out air support for the South Vietnamese shortly thereafter, and finally reduced our financial support to the South to such a low level that defeat was inevitable. The Chinese and the Soviet Union, on the other hand, maintained their backing of North Vietnam. The fall of Saigon in 1975 surprised no one but the Americans.