March 25, 2016

1968. The Tet Betrayal

Crisis in the Far East
"Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House," February 9, 1968 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC News

February 18, 1968

Official Washington has been just as worried as the rest of the nation that the United States might be confronted with a two-front land war in the Far East. Since last month's hijacking of the USS Pueblo, the possibility of renewed fighting in Korea has caused some sleepless nights in this national capital.

It now seems pretty clear that the North Korean capture of the Pueblo and her eighty-three man crew fits into a larger strategic pattern which the Communist regimes of Pyongyang and Hanoi are employing.

It would appear to be what the think tanks call a "scenario"—a carefully contrived series of diplomatic, military, propaganda, and psychological warfare moves all designed to achieve victory.

For example, ever since the South Korean government sent some 48,000 troops to fight alongside the US forces in South Vietnam, the North Korean Communists have gradually increased their infiltration into the Southern Republic. Their harassment along the 17th parallel truce line has also intensified. The Korean Communists climaxed these provocations last month by sending a suicide squad of more than thirty commandos to assassinate South Korean President Chung-hee Park in the capital of Seoul. It now appears that the would-be assassination was timed to coincide with the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo.

As you know, the Pyongyang Communists failed in their assassination plot. They did succeed, however, in grabbing off the Pueblo—a crisis that is still hanging fire.

While all this was going on in Korea, Ho Chi Minh and his Hanoi Communists were playing a more subtle diplomatic game.

Last week, Washington finally released a six month old top secret that, since last August, the United States has directly and indirectly been in secret contact with Hanoi, trying to arrange a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam as a step toward general deescalation and negotiations for a settlement of the conflict. In fact, since early January, the US actually restricted its Navy and Air Force bombers from military targets close to Hanoi and Haiphong—notifying the Communist leaders there of this voluntary restraint as evidence of American sincerity and desire for peace talks.

As late as three weeks ago, an unnamed foreign diplomat was in Hanoi acting as a special envoy for President Johnson. But while these talks were going on, the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies demonstrated their attitude toward Washington's peace efforts by launching the countrywide guerrilla attack on South Vietnam's cities and towns during the Buddhist New Year's holiday.

Although no one in Washington or Saigon has yet to admit it, the fact that that the go-between diplomatic talks in Hanoi and elsewhere coincided with Communist pledges of a ceasefire and temporary truce during the Tet holidays must have affected the state of alert in the Allied garrisons in the South. The Saigon generals gave holiday leave to many of their troops. Thus the shock and surprise attained by the guerrilla offensive. The statement now emerging at the White House and the State Department is evidence of the official outrage and disappointment at such chicanery.

Part of the reason for this bitterness is that, for the past six months, President Johnson, Secretary of State Rusk, Defense Secretary McNamara, and other government leaders have taken personal and political lambasting from their critics, both hawks and doves. On the one hand, they have been condemned as barbarians and murderers by the antiwar extremists for not seeking the road to peace, which they were secretly doing at the time. On the other hand, they were blasted by the hawks and super-patriots for not wiping Hanoi and Haiphong off the map, but in the interest of getting peace negotiations underway, the administration could not conduct any escalation. Thus did President Johnson find himself in a domestic political whipsaw.

When the Viet Cong launched its offensive there was speculation—much of it drawn from captured Communist documents—that the attacks were both military and diplomatic in purpose; that the Viet Cong was seeking a propaganda victory to be used in efforts to better the Communist position at the negotiating table.

If this was part of the Hanoi government's "scenario," it might be said that the military part of it was more successful than the political. For it was true that a pair of North Vietnamese diplomats did show up in Rome and attempted to use the Italian government as a go-between to force their terms as a condition for negotiation with the United States.

Hanoi's new diplomacy also extended to Paris and got UN Secretary General U Thant into the act. Thant was in London after a diplomatic swing which took him to India and Moscow for talks with Premier Indira Gandhi, Russian leaders Brezhnev and Kosygin, and with Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

It became obvious that the Vietnamese Communists were trying to cash in on the bloodshed and brutality of the Viet Cong attacks, using their own aggression as an international lever on the United States to demand that the US stop the bombing and perhaps make a behind-the-scenes deal with the National Liberation Front.

Despite its chagrin at such whipsaw tactics, the State Department studied all of the Hanoi proposals carefully. There was no sign of reciprocity in the Communist diplomatic campaign—no softening of the arrogance in their demands, and no mention of President Johnson's "San Antonio formula" for negotiations, which included assurance that the Vietnamese Communists would not take advantage of a bombing halt to prepare new military assaults against the South.

Last Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that 10,500 additional combat troops were being grounded at General Westmoreland's request. The Defense Department described this sped up reinforcement as a kind of military "insurance" for the area. It will raise the total of US ground forces in the South to more than 510,000 men. Whether the present limit of 525,000 men will be raised is a matter for the future.

Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Rusk decided that the United States had shown enough official patience with the diplomatic hypocrisy of the Vietnam Communists. Overseas intelligence sources had been reporting that Hanoi was spreading reports that the United States and the National Liberation Front were very close to the peace table and that a diplomatic deal was in the making.

Rusk set the record straight in an extraordinary statement. Hanoi has repeatedly refused to reduce the scale of violence in Southeast Asia, he declared, not only in Vietnam but also in Cambodia and Laos. In fact, Hanoi is stepping up its infiltration in all three countries.

Rusk charged that the Communists had made the Demilitarized Zone a thing of contempt. And concerning the recent US bombing limitations in the North, he said that the Communists took advantage of American goodwill to build up their military forces in the South.

"Ceasefire periods have been marked by hundreds of cynical violations by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces," Rusk asserted, "And on a massive scale during the recent Tet holiday."

"In recent weeks," Rusk said, "Hanoi knew that discussions of a peaceful settlement were being seriously explored; that they also knew there was a reduction of bombing attacks on North Vietnam, specifically in the Hanoi-Haiphong areas during these explorations."

"Their reply," Rusk pointed out, "was a major offensive through South Vietnam to bring the war to the civilian population in most of the cities of that country." He added: "Their preparations for a major offensive in the northern provinces of South Vietnam continue unabated."

Rusk said that Hanoi's alleged interest in political talks must be weighed against its military actions, and he added: "All of the proposals made by the United States for peace in Southeast Asia continue to be valid...but we are not interested in propaganda gestures whose purpose is to mislead and confuse...The US will be interested in a serious move toward peace when Hanoi comes to the conclusion that is is ready to move in that direction."

In conclusion the Secretary added pointedly: "Hanoi knows how to get in touch with us."

This tough statement by the Secretary of States and the sped up reinforcements to General Westmoreland are presumably the only part of the US response to the Vietnam Communists—and to their North Korean allies who hijacked the USS Pueblo.

If the combined "scenarios" of Pyongyang and Hanoi were to force a crisis of confidence in the United States, the capture of the Pueblo and the Viet Cong guerrilla offensive have failed.

On the contrary, Washington did not push the panic button during either crisis in Communist Korea or North Vietnam, and for this, President Johnson has gained stature both at home and overseas.

But there are officials here in Washington and other major capitals around the world who know that the American people can be pushed just so far. After that, tear up all the scenarios.