General Offensive-General Uprising

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For more information, see: Vietnamese Communist grand strategy.

While confirmation will wait for access to some tightly held North Vietnamese records and interviews to be made available, it appears that North Vietnamese strategy, from roughly 1963 onwards to 1968, was intended to win the war with the General Offensive-General Uprising (Vietnamese: Tet Mau Than or Tong Kong Kich/Tong Kong Ngia (TCK/TCN, General Offensive/Uprising)) [1] The TCK/TCN draws from the three phases of Mao's protracted war model, but adds some uniquely Vietnamese theoretical aspects. While it was not the way in which the war ended seven years later, it is worth understanding, because, if it was indeed the strategy, it brings together a number of actions that seemed to have no unifying principle.

Again, it must be stressed this was uniquely Vietnamese. It modified classic Maoist concepts, but also went against Mao's views in the 1960s, as well as post-Stalinist Soviet views expressed by Nikita Khrushchev including the doctrine of supporting wars of national liberation. The latter were proxies that did fit into the Western containment policy.

Even within the highest North Vietnamese decision making levels, there were conceptual differences. Many of the thoughts seem to originate from Vo Nguyen Giap, with both agreement and disagreement from Truong Chinh. After some of the failures, while both men stayed in power, their authority became much less than that of Le Duan.

The basic Maoist model

Mao conceived of three main phases:[2]

  1. Organization of the covert guerrilla force, with individual and small attacks, often using the tactic of terrorism
  2. Operations by medium-sized military forces in raids and ambushes, without any attempt to hold ground. These forces could be part-time and melt into the population, or operate from geographic sanctuaries
  3. Conventional military confrontation with the intent of capturing and holding ground

Military sociology of Asian Communist armies

In the Korean War, Western intelligence agencies observed that quite low-ranking soldiers often were aware of detailed plans for upcoming offensives, details that are tightly held on a need-to-know basis to staff and commanders in Western armies. The idea of sharing such information seems to be implicit to some of the theories of revolutionary warfare, variously to break down class distinction and make the leadership (i.e., political officers, cadre, commissars) more legitimate to the troops. It should be noted that this pattern is specific to Asian communists; there was as much or more operational security in the Soviet bloc as in the West.

Early conceptual discussion

Nguyen Chi Thanh, writing in the the Party theoretical journal Hoc Tap, [3] called for the need to have simultaneous revolutions in production, technology and ideology. In that context, he called for avoiding excessive dependence on external aid, and increasing self-sufficiency, which may have indicated a desire to be independent of Chinese and Soviet pressure.

In December 1963, the Politburo apparently decided that it was possible to strike for victory in 1965. Theoretician Truong Chinh stated the conflict as less the classic, protracted war of Maoist doctrine, and the destabilization of doctrine under Khrushchev, than a decision that it was possible to accelerate. "on the one hand we must thoroughly understand the guideline for a protracted struggle, but on the other hand we must seize the opportunities to win victories in a not too long a period of time...There is no contradiction in the concept of a protracted war and the concept of taking opportunities to gain victories in a short time." This may reemphasize Thanh's comments above against external dependency.

Protracted war theory, however, does not urge rapid conclusion. Palmer suggests that there might be at least two reasons beyond a simple speedup:[4]

  • The Politburo wanted to prevent Southern Communist dominance in an eventual victory, so by introducing Northern troops, they could take away that opportunity
  • They thought they would be defeated if they did not take decisive action

They may also have believed the long-trumpeted U.S. maxim of never getting involved in a land war in Asia, and that the U.S. was too concerned with Chinese intervention to use airpower outside South Vietnam.

1966 as the first target for victory

It is unclear whether there was a serious goal of victory in 1966, with a somewhat narrower model than targeted 1968. One possibility is that while decisions were made in 1963 to take effect in 1966, the unexpected large-scale introduction of U.S. ground troops caused the schedule to be revised.

Once the elections were over, North Vietnam developed a new plan to move from the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia, in central Vietnam (i.e., ARVN II Corps tactical zone), with a goal of driving through to the seacoast over Highway 19, splitting South Vietnam in half. For this large operation, the PAVN created its first division headquarters, under then-brigadier general Chu Huy Man.

This goal at first seemed straightforward, but was reevaluated when major U.S. ground units entered the area, first the United States Marine Corps at Danang, and then the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), the "First Cav". In particular, the PAVN were not sure of the best tactics to use against the air assault capability of the 1st Cav, so BG Man revised a plan to bring to try to fight the helicopter-mobile forces on terms favorable to the North Vietnamese. They fully expected to incur heavy casualties, but it would be worth it if they could learn to counter the new U.S. techniques, inflict significant casualties on the U.S. Army, and, if very lucky, still cut II CTZ in half. That planned movement was very similar to the successful PAVN maneuver in 1975. The revised plan first was evidenced in the Battle of the Ia Drang, which had three major subphases, and a followup at the Battle of Bong Son

By late 1966, however, North Vietnam began a buildup in the northwest area of the theater, in Laos, the southernmost part of the DRV, the DMZ, and in the northern part of the RVN.

Nguyen Chi Thanh, writing in the the Party theoretical journal Hoc Tap, cautioned, in October 1963, against the classic error of fighting the last war. [5] He stressed the need to find new and special way to fight the Americans.

Revised focus on 1968

Questions continue on the real intent of the Battle of Khe Sanh and Tet Offensive, and the extent to which they related to one another, or were part of a larger plan. Douglas Pike believed the TCK/TCN [6] was to have three main parts:

  • October-November 1967: "concentrated" fighting methods, with raids against small to medium military bases such as Con Thien or Loc Ninh, essentially as large raids: "not a decisive battle but a punitive one"
  • January-March 1968: "independent" fighting methods, often small, such as the squads that hit the U.S. Embassy. The operational message was that there were no safe areas.
  • Something identified in their message against a large target, a "psychological backbreaker" against a target like Khe Sanh, Hue, Kontum, or Saigon.

Pike used Dien Bien Phu as an analogy for the third phase, although Dien Bien Phu wa an isolated, not urban, target. Losing elite troops during the Tet offensive never let them develop the "second wave" or "third phase" "We don't ever know what the second wave was; we have never been able to find out because probably only a couple of dozen people knew it." The description of the three fighting methods is consistent with the work of Nguyen Chi Thanh, who commanded forces in the south but died, of natural causes, in 1967; Thanh may very well have been among those couple of dozen. He described it as consistent with the dau tranh theory espoused by Vo Nguyen Giap but opposed by the politically oriented Truong Chinh. Pike said he could almost hear Truong Chinh saying, "You see, it's what I mean. You're not going to win militarily on the ground in the South. You've just proven what we've said; the way to win is in Washington." Alternatively, Giap, in September 1967, had written what might well have been a political dau tranh argument: the U.S. was faced with two unacceptable alternatives: invading the North or continue a stalemate. Invasion of "a member country of the Socialist camp" would enlarge the war, which Giap said would cause the "U. S. imperialists...incalculable serious consequences." As for reinforcements, "Even if they increase their troops by another 50,000, 100,000 or more, they cannot extricate themselves from their comprehensive stalemate in the southern part of our country." [7]

The answer may be somewhere inbetween: Giap indeed wanted to draw American forces away from the coastal urban areas, but tried too hard for a victory at Khe Sanh. [8]

Death of probable operational commander

Nguyen Chi Thanh, also known as Truong Son was a senior general[9] in the People's Army of Viet Nam, who commanded all Communist forces in South Vietnam. He was also a member of the Politburo, and his political writings are more under the Truong Son name.

He planned and was to have directed the Tet Offensive, but died before the operation. Some reports say he died of natural causes in a Hanoi hospital, while others say he was killed by a B-52 strike. Some of the reports say he died of cancer while others say a sudden heart disease, and certain of the latter suggest the heart disease was due to bomb fragments from chest wounds incurred in the South.

Tet Offensive

For more information, see: Tet Offensive.

This section, while it does discuss some relatively current intelligence, deals only with the part of the material that supports the strategic theory. Other aspects, which dealt with exactly where and how attacks might take place, remain in the articles on the specific battles.

North Vietnamese planners expected popular uprising (khnoi nghai), but this almost completely failed to occur. Many South Vietnamese demonstrated stronger support for the ARVN. [10] However, the Tet Offensive had a devastating impact on Johnson's political position in the U.S., and in that sense was a strategic victory for the Communists. [11]

Reports from the Saigon station may have been strong warnings, but two assessments, from Bob Layton, on 21 November and 8 December 1967) based on human-source intelligence from prisoner interrogations and documents. They suggested that the PAVN was planning some type of decisive defeat for Allied forces in 1968. In conflict with the attention being given to Battle of Khe Sanh, these indicators pointed to urban terrorism coupled by military attacks on cities. There was a strong Communist belief that the GVN was so unpopular that an urban attack could irreparably damage confidence in the ARVN. These assessments also pointed to increasing international pressure on the Johnson administration to end the war.

A more detailed analysis, on December 8, described a distinct change in Communist thinking, away from the protracted war attritional model to something more decisive. It cited documentation of "an all-out military and political offensive during the 1967-68 winter-spring campaign [the period beginning around Tet] designed to gain decisive victory...large-scale continuous coordinated attacks by main force units, primarily in mountainous areas close to border sanctuaries"--a strategy subsequently reflected in the enemy's major attacks on Khe Sanh--and "widespread guerrilla attacks on large US/GVN units in rural and heavily populated areas." The PAVN saw the urban population as the center of gravity, not attrition to U.S. troops or the defeat of ARVN forces.

The plan was seen (emphasis added) "a serious effort to inflict unacceptable military and political losses on the Allies regardless of VC casualties during a US election year, in the hope that the US will be forced to yield to resulting domestic and international pressure and withdraw from South Vietnam." Even if the results did not force a settlement, the Communists would be in a "better position to continue a long-range struggle with a reduced force." He continued: "If the VC/NVN view the situation in this light, it is probably to their advantage to use their current apparatus to the fullest extent in hopes of fundamentally reversing current trends before attrition renders such an attempt impossible."

"In sum," the study's final sentence read, "the one conclusion that can be drawn from all of this is that the war is probably nearing a turning point and that the outcome of the 1967-68 winter-spring campaign will in all likelihood determine the future direction of the war."[12]

A 19 December report added more indicators that the NVA was preparing an all-out effort, although the Saigon analysts recognized the CIA Headquarters position that all of this exhortation might be an effort to bolster PAVN/VC morale. [13]

These field reports conflicted with a major Headquarters analysis of December 8, from the jointly by the Office of Current Intelligence, the Office of Economic Research, Office of National Estimates (O/NE), and Special Assistant to the DCI for Vietnam Affairs (SAVA). [14]

Restructuring after partial failure in 1968


  1. Hanyok, Robert J. (2002), Chapter 7 - A Springtime of Trumpets: SIGINT and the Tet Offensive, Spartans in Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945-1975, Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, p. 310
  2. Mao Tse-tung (1967), On Protracted War, Foreign Languages Press, pp. 175-176
  3. Nguyen Chi Thanh (October 1963), "Let Us Improve Our Proletarian Stand and Ideology, and Unite and Struggle for New Successes", Hoc Tap
  4. Palmer, Dave R. (1978), Summons of the Trumpet, Presidio Press, pp. 63-65
  5. Oberdorfer, Don (1971), Tet! The story of a battle and its historic aftermath, Doubleday, p. 44
  6. Douglas Pike (June 4, 1981), Oral History interview by Ted Gittinger, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, pp. I-1 to I-3
  7. The Marines in Vietnam, 1954-1973: An Anthology and Annotated Bibliography (Second Printing, 1985 ed.), History and Museums Division, United States Marine Corps, 1974, p. 97
  8. Marc Jason Gilbert and William Head, ed. (1996), The Tet Offensive, Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.
  9. The highest general officer rank, comparable to Marshal or General of the Army
  10. Adams, Sam (1994), War of Numbers: An Intelligence Memoir, Steerforth Press
  11. Willbanks, James H. (2006), The Tet Offensive: A Concise History
  12. Saigon telepouch FVSA 24242, 8 December 1967. CIA files, Job No. 80R01580R, DCI/ER Subject Files, Box 15, Folder 3, cited in Ford Episode 3
  13. Saigon telepouch SAIG 5624 (IN 69402), 19 December 1967. CIA files, Job No. 80B01721R, O/D/NFAC, Box 2, "Substantive Policy Files, DDI Vietnam Files, Folder 5. cited in Ford Episode 3
  14. CIA Memorandum, "A Review of the Situation in Vietnam," 8 December 1967, prepared jointly by the Office of Current Intelligence, the Office of Economic Research, O/NE, and SAVA. CIA files, Job No. 78T02095R, O/DDI, Box 1, Folder 1.cited in Ford Episode 3