Professional Readings Archives

Reading #158

Tet Offensive from Karnow's "Vietnam - a History"

  • By: Mr. Stanley Karnow /
  • Published: February 2, 2018
  • Read More
  • Access: Open
  • Type: Public
  • Friday, February 2, 2018


Fifty years ago this week, Americans turned on their evening television news to watch the Army in Vietnam seemingly caught off-guard by an enemy offensive of unprecedented size and scale. Striking during the lunar holiday of Tet, and breaking their own cease-fire agreement, a combined seventy-thousand Communist fighters from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army attacked over a hundred cities and towns near-simultaneously, ranging from the ancient city of Hue to the American embassy in Saigon. In the months before the Tet Offensive, both sides misread the other’s intentions and resolve, and both sides saw the battlefield as they wanted to see it. As we develop the concepts and capabilities that will be the foundation for our Army in the future, we all must take care to discern the Operational Environment for what it is and will be – and not a selective view of partial data that fits an individually preferred version.

This week’s reading is from the second half of Stanley Karnow’s chapter on the Tet offensive in his comprehensive history of the war, "Vietnam: A History (1).” This book is widely available, including at our own TRADOC library. While I encourage everyone to read the whole chapter to get a better understanding of the fighting, this week we’ll focus on Mr. Karnow’s assessment of the flawed assumptions on each side before the offensive and draw implications for our efforts as we make decisions that will influence the future Army.

The Americans in 1967, led by General William Westmoreland, had sought to bring Communist forces in South Vietnam to a conventional battle, where American firepower could leverage its dominance to full effect. Communist deception efforts sought to directly reinforce the American strategy, incentivizing the Americans to divert assets from cities to the northern countryside. A series of attacks against American outposts at Dakto and Conthien reinforced the view amongst the Army leadership that the strategy was working, and the culminating proof was in the battle of Khesanh, where American firepower was used with devastating results, inflicting casualties in the thousands. From the Communist view, these casualties had a purpose as they “…were intended to draw the Americans away from South Vietnam’s population centers, thereby leaving them naked to assault.” And in Mr. Karnow’s opinion “Westmoreland fell for the enemy ruse” when he moved troops to the north, just as the Communists wished (2). The Americans wanted to fight pitched battles, wanted to bring their advantage in firepower to bear, so when the Communists appeared to be doing just that – the American view was confirmed and they reacted accordingly.

On their part, the Communist forces expected large-scale popular uprisings against the South Vietnamese and their American backers once the Tet Offensive had begun, and were surprised when these did not occur. "Communist cadres conducted a vigorous propaganda program designed to persuade the North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces that their goal was within grasp. They advised the troops in a series of directives and meetings that the…restive southern population would join in the struggle to crush the American “aggressors” and topple the “tyrannical” Saigon administration (3)."

The Communists planned for a herculean effort, knowing they would incur heavy losses. The offensive would have never been initiated had not a widespread belief in its prospects for success permeated the ranks. General Tran Do, a veteran North Vietnamese officer, after the war told Mr. Karnow “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the south. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans and their puppets, and that was a big gain for us. As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention – but it turned out to be a fortunate result (4).” For the Communists, their perception of the Operational Environment had proven inaccurate over the course of the offensive, but their ability to adapt enabled them to exploit the political effects.

As we develop the capabilities that will ensure our Army remains the dominant land force into the future, we must understand the Operational Environment we will operate in and the missions we may be asked to undertake. The TRADOC G2 develops, delivers, and validates the Operational Environment for concepts and capability development as well as training, leader development, experimentation, and testing. We use this projected OE in the Army’s Campaign of Learning to determine and validate future capability requirements. As capability developers, we must take care that we are not inadvertently creating a tailored version of the OE, one that supports our conscious and unconscious biases. Rather we must constantly challenge our assumptions and seek to revalidate our conclusions to ensure the capabilities we develop are what our Soldiers will need.

You can find this book, and other reference material at the TRADOC library at:


  1. Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin, 1997.
  2. Karnow, pp554-5.
  3. Karnow, pp547-8.
  4. Karnow, p558.

The following Army Warfighting Challenges are directly related to this week's topic:
#1 Develop Situational Understanding:

How to develop and sustain a high degree of situational understanding while operating in complex environments against determined, adaptive enemy organizations.

#2 Shape the Security Environment:

How the Army influences the security environment and engages key actors and local/regional forces in order to consolidate gains and achieve sustainable security outcomes in support of Geographic Combatant Commands and Joint requirements.

#4 Adapt the Institutional Army and Innovate:

How to improve the rate of innovation to drive capability development and deliver DOTMLPF-P solutions to the warfighter at a pace that meets operational demand within the existing constraints of the acquisition and budgeting processes.

#10 Develop Agile and Adaptive Leaders:

How to develop agile, adaptive, and innovative leaders who thrive in conditions of uncertainty and chaos and are capable of visualizing, describing, directing, and leading and assessing operations in complex environments and against adaptive enemies.

#19 Exercise Mission Command:

How to understand, visualize, describe, and direct operations consistent with the philosophy of mission command to seize the initiative over the enemy and accomplish the mission across the range of military operations.

#20 Develop Capable Formations:

How to design Army formations capable of rapidly deploying and conducting operations for ample duration and in sufficient scale to accomplish the mission.

Continuous feedback, collaboration, and teamwork are keys to the success of the Campaign of Learning and driving innovation in the Army. Please use the Army Warfighting Challenges as the framework to contribute your ideas and recommendations with respect to this topic to improve our ability to innovate as we develop the current and future force.

The Army Warfighting Challenges (AWFC) framework may be accessed here:

For previous weekly readings go to: ARCIC Professional Readings

  1. Army Operating Concept, TRADOC Pam 525-3-1, 30 October 2014
  2. Multi-Domain Battle

All the best,