TET 1968 Uprising PSYOP

SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)

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There are dozens of books and probably millions of words written on the Viet Cong attempted uprising in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in 1968. I am not going to discuss the uprising in any depth except to give some background. I have already written an article on the Tet holiday in general, and reader can find that using this link

As most historians know, the Viet Cong decided to attempt a general uprising in 1968, hoping that the Vietnamese people in the South would rise up and join them. That did not happen. The people wanted no part of the insurrection and the Viet Cong were beaten so badly that they never became a major fighting force again. However, this did not help Vietnam and the United States in any way, since North Vietnam was then forced to send trained professional troops down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in greater force.

 

From a morale standpoint, the uprising was a major blow to the United States. They had been hearing rosy news for years of constant American victories and enormous body counts of dead Viet Cong and had no idea that the guerrilla movement could plan and wage such an enormous attack. For the first time, many Americans, including TV reporter Walter Cronkite, began to wonder if the war was winnable.

 

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The Viet Cong Tet Offensive – 1968

What motivated me to write this short report on the PSYOP of Tet 1968 was an illustrated book titled The Viet Cong Tet Offensive - 1968, part of a “Series of Combat History” that was written by a number of Republic of Vietnam Army officers and printed by their Printing and Publications Center. It was later translated into English by a group of Americans officers assigned to a Joint Staff Civil Affairs Translation Board. It is about 500 pages in length and tells the entire story of Tet 1968 in five detailed chapters. The last section of the last chapter is titled “Propaganda.” I saw that last chapter and thought that I had some Viet Cong leaflets and some Allied leaflets that mention Tet 1968 and perhaps I might do a short report using the Vietnamese book.

I will not talk about the attacks in any detail; just add some of my Viet Cong leaflets and some of my American-South Vietnamese leaflets that specifically mention Tet 1968 to illustrate the story. I hope to hold this report to about 4,000 words, but my history is that the articles somehow all grow to a minimum of 10,000 words.

About a decade ago I wrote in an article about the casualties of the Vietnam War:

Young men in North Vietnam had a slogan: “Born in the North to die in the South.” They saw their friends marching off, never to return, and knew that if sent South, the odds were very good that they were going to die. During their great “victory” of Tet 1968, 32,000 Guerrillas were killed and another 5,800 captured. The Viet Cong was virtually put out of business in a single prolonged battle. During the course of the War, General Giap said that a total of 500,000 of his troops were killed in the fighting. In April 1995, Hanoi admitted that the actual number was 1.1 million men killed. The United States lost 58,209 men in the war. It would seem to be an American victory, except that South Vietnam did eventually fall so we must say that through patience, propaganda, subterfuge and the support of Russia, China and the Soviet Bloc, North Vietnam was the winner of the war.

Speaking of North Vietnamese General Giap, Colonel Harry Summers, the U.S. author and historian, once decided to provoke General Giap. He said “The North Vietnamese troops had never defeated the Americans on the battlefield.” Many American veterans of the Vietnam War will tell you “We were winning when I left.” General Giap replied: “That is true but it is also irrelevant.” In other words, it was never about the fighting; it was always about the will of the American and North Vietnamese people and governments to fight to the bitter end and win.

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Viet Cong woman with Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG)

The number of actual Viet Cong who died during Tet is still open to question. It started about 30,000 and a few years later rose to 40,000. The New York Times of 31 January 1988 said:

The number of enemy dead had climbed to more than 58,000. More than 14,000 South Vietnamese men, women and children also had died. Of all the battles that together are known as the Tet offensive, the longest, bloodiest and most destructive was fought over Hue, in central Vietnam.

The Viet Cong Tet Offensive introduces us to the uprising. I will edit and paraphrase some comments for brevity:

What did the Communists have to say through their propaganda machinery and both the Hanoi and National Liberation Front (NLF) radios during the Tet general offensive? First, they claimed a formation of so-called “Alliance of National, Democratic and Peaceful forces” in the South. The NLF claimed to be the spokesman of this Alliance, calling for united action to restore Independence, democracy and peace” to the south.

Curiously, the South was at peace already, but terrorized by Guerrilla bands that murdered people that did not follow their political beliefs. This would continue during the uprising when the “peaceful democratic forces” would kill thousands of innocent civilians.

The Viet Cong try to take the American Embassy but Fail

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American military police kneel behind a wall as they fight for control of the U.S. Embassy compound.
In the foreground are two American soldiers who were killed in earlier fighting.
In spite of the dramatic attack on the U.S. Embassy, the Tet Offensive was a tactical defeat for the Viet Cong.

The Vietnam War Almanac

Although the general offensive failed the very first day it was launched, the Communist radios kept claiming victories for more than a week, trying to boost their soldier’s morale. A communique issued by the Communist Command in Saigon reported that their troops within 10 days had occupied the ARVN General Staff Headquarters, The American Embassy, the Tan Son Nhut Airbase, and control of four of Saigon’s districts…10,000 Allied troops including 3,000 Americans had been killed. Tens of thousands had defected. The Saigon Government machinery had collapsed. 200 planes, 600 military vehicles including 200 armored cars had been destroyed. And people were joining the popular self-defense units with weapons captured from the enemy. Tens of thousands of ARVN officers, soldiers and police had joined the people’s ranks. Final victory was in sight.

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A Viet Cong Tet-themed leaflet

The Communists regularly lied and bragged about major victories and thousands of battles won and U.S. aircraft shot down. This is rather typical of their exaggeration and talks about Tet 1968. This Quang Nam Province National Front for Liberation leaflet claims that the Viet Cong:

Annihilated 62,000 enemy troops…24 battalions, 95 companies of US and puppet troops…1000 military vehicles…Tens of hundreds of aircraft…100 vessels…

The leaflet was found by former Sergeant First Class Don Peterson who was in Vietnam during the years 1968-1969. He told me:

I picked this up somewhere between LZ Baldy and LZ Ross. I don't recall the Road number or Highway between the two Landing Zones, but they called it Que Son Valley.

A second communique, issued by the Central Area Command said in part:

From 30 January to 4 April 1968, our forces smashed key military and administrative organs of the enemy in 21 cities. Six sub-area command headquarters and 4 operational commands were destroyed. 16,000 soldiers including 1000 American soldiers were killed, seven battalions including one American battalion was annihilated, 14 vessels and 155 military vehicles were destroyed and 13 planes shot down…400 enemy soldiers surrendered to our side. 6 Key highways were under constant pressure. We destroyed the Rach Mien Bridge and took over the My Thuan ferry.

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Determined to Fight…

The Vietnamese often prepared leaflets in the Vietnamese language for their own civilians or the Army of Viet Nam, what they might call the "Puppet Army of the Americans." This leaflet was found in 1968 in the Mekong Delta. This leaflet depicts an American eagle with the face of President Lyndon B. Johnson pierced by three arrows. The Viet Cong propaganda on the arrows says:

Determined to fight, determined to win.

General Attack; general uprising --- All together. Kill Americans and Thieu

North Vietnam shot down 3,300 airplanes.

“Thieu” of course is the Republic of Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu.

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To: Officers and men…

This Viet Cong leaflet is interesting because it mentions several of the nations that helped the Republic of Vietnam; the South Koreans, Australians and Thai. The front is in English, the back in Vietnamese. It makes the same claims of a massive victory during the Tet offensive and tells the American troops to demand repatriation and let the Vietnamese settle their own problems.

A third communique issued by the Command of the Western Area said in part:

From 31 January to 7 April 1968, simultaneous attacked were launched against six cities. The command headquarters of the IV Corps suffered heavy losses; the command headquarters of the 14th, 16th and 32nd Regiments were destroyed. 6,200 enemy soldiers were captured. 25,000 enemy soldiers and cadre were put out of combat. Eight regular battalions were decimated as were the 43th and 44th Ranger Battalions. Our forces attacked 7 airfields…100 aircraft were shot down…

Ho Chi Minh sends his Troops a Personal Tet Greeting in 1968

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Tet Greeting From Chairman Ho

This New Year will be better than past new years
Victory and good news will sweep the nation
South and North vie with one another in fighting the Americans
Advance - total victory is ours

Spring 1968
Ho Chi Minh

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The Remains of Civilian Dead at Hue

This official propaganda photograph was released by the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Political Warfare Directorate and depicts the Americans and Vietnamese searching for remains of the dead at Da Mai Brook, Hue.

Hue was one of the worst crimes of the Viet Cong during Tet. They apparently killed thousands there while they held the city. A communique from the Commander of the Hue forces said:

From 31 January to 9 February 1968, we overran 53 enemy positions, and captured more than 10,000 soldiers including 1,800 Americans. The 7th Armored Regiment was annihilated as were 6 enemy battalions including 2 riot police battalions. The 1st Infantry Division was decimated with its 1st and 3rd regiments losing three-quarters of its men…118 planes of all kind were shot down, and 250 military vehicles including 60 tanks, 20 artillery pieces were destroyed. 10 war vessels and junks were sunk. 10 arms and ammunition dumps were seized, along with 2,000 weapons of all kinds. Tens of thousands of people welcomed the formation of a revolutionary government. The Americans have suffered heavy casualties and will certainly be defeated.

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The National Liberation Front Military Medal

The Viet Cong continued to issue such communiques, even as their people were pushed back from their temporary gains and crushed. A National Liberation Front news bulletin of 13 February said that the Command of their forces in the South had warmly praised the various units involved in the general offensive, with most of them being awarded the Liberation Military Medal.

The Americans Strike Back

American propaganda was fairly quiet during the general offensive because no one knew exactly how the battle would go. The same thing happened in 1945 when Hitler surprised the Allies with his Ardennes offensive. American PSYOP stopped for a brief while until the tide of battle turned and once it was sure that the Allies had won a victory, the leaflets fell with a vengeance. The same thing happened in 1968. Once it was clear that the Allies had won a great victory and the Viet Cong was on the run, millions of leaflets were prepared to tell the enemy just how bad their defeat had been. There was nobody else that was going to tell them, especially not Hanoi. You will notice that the number of Viet Cong dead differs in each American leaflet. This is because they were printed at different times and each leaflet would mention the most current number as of the day of printing.

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Leaflet 95T

During the Vietnam War American PSYOP had a number of different campaigns, all aimed at specific targets. The Ho Chi Minh Trail campaign had leaflets coded with the letter “T.” Leaflet 95T is the first leaflet dropped over the Trail to tell the soldiers coming South of the great defeat of the General Offensive. The front of the leaflet bears three photos of the fighting and the back a single photo of dead Viet Cong. The text says in part:

THE COMMUNIST TET OFFENSIVE FAILED

The Communist Party’s Tet Offensive in South Vietnam failed to achieve any of its military objectives. The Communist controlled Viet Cong forces attacked Saigon and 43 other towns and cities on the eve or Tet, violating the sacred Tet season. Many people were injured. Homes of innocent people were destroyed. The people did not rise to help their attackers; they did rise to help the forces of South Vietnam. The people of South Vietnam do not want to be liberated; they are already free.

Your Party-controlled government has been telling you that millions of people in the South rose to join the Communist ranks. That never happened. A free people cannot be liberated. During the Communists’ Tet Offensive, the Vietnamese Army and Allies killed more than 65,000 Communist troops and captured another 12,000. You are being sent south to replace them. Most of you will be killed far from home and buried in unmarked graves. Seize the first opportunity to leave your unit and come over to the ranks of the Republic of South Vietnam.

There was also a North Vietnam bombing campaign, usually aimed at convincing the North to talk peace or stop their aggressive tactics in the south. The campaign was known as Rolling Thunder, Field Goal, Fact Sheet, and Frantic Goat as time went on. The same general leaflet as “The Communist Tet Offensive Failed” was dropped on North Vietnam, but now coded just 95 without the “T” that connoted “Trail.” This version of the leaflet had two photos on the front and three on the back and some minor changes in the text. It might have been written earlier than 95T because it mentions 30,000 Viet Cong killed and ends with “Don’t believe your government’s lies. Listen to the Voice of Freedom for the true story.” The “Voice of Freedom” was an Allied propaganda radio station.

The Viet Cong Tet Offensive book says that a dispatch from Hong Kong on 14 February said that Mao Tse Tung was not pleased with the Communist General Offensive in Vietnam. It was not in accordance with his doctrine as it violated the principal rule of guerrilla warfare by attacking the cities. Mao regarded the Viet Cong offensive as a manifestation of adventurism which used to be the subject of Red China’s biggest ideological conflict before the Cultural Revolution.

That comment is odd because at the time of the offensive most political pundits believed that Mao had pushed the Viet Cong to rise up and take over South Vietnam.

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Leaflet 2448

The Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) was one of the main proponents of Allied Propaganda in Vietnam. Leaflet 2448 depicts a major Communist officer who was killed during the Tet Offensive. The text is:

The Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces has completely crushed the Viet Cong's general offensive against the cities.

From 30 January 1968 to 15 February 1968, over 34,000 North Vietnamese Regulars and Viet Cong soldiers paid for their crimes. Among them was Major General Tran Do, who was killed in an action at 46th Street in Cholon in the outskirts of Saigon City.

The death of Tran Do, Tran Van Tra and Nguyen Chi Tranh proved that the Communist aggressive policy to take over South Vietnam has severely failed. It was not their inability or incompetence, but the Communist adventurous acts that cause their deaths.

Why do you still hesitate? Try to find an opportunity to return to the National Community and rejoin your families, as tens of thousands have already done.

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Leaflet 2556

Leaflet 2556 was all about the Tet defeat. I seldom show all-text leaflets but will show this one because of the message. It says in part:

WHAT DID YOUR LEADERS GAIN FROM THE TET OFFENSIVE?

On 31 March 1968 President Johnson said: “Even while the search for peace was going on, North Vietnam rushed their preparations for a savage assault on the people, the Allies and the Government of Vietnam.”

WHAT DID YOU GAIN FROM THE TET OFFENSIVE?

He final figures are in. The elected President of the Republic of Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, has announced that, during the Tet offensive, the North Vietnam Army in the South and the Viet Cong: Suffered 57,293 killed; lost 7,555 captured; and lost 14,918 weapons.

In just two months, the casualties among the NVA and VC forces were the equivalent of half of your total casualties in the year 1967. President Thieu said: “The Communist Tet Offensive can be considered as having completely failed.

Major Michael G. Barger wrote his Master’s Thesis on Psychological Operations Supporting Counterinsurgency: 4th PSYOP Group in Vietnam. He said about Tet 68:

The Tet Offensive, launched on 29 January 1968, was a simultaneous attack on most provincial capitals as well as the national capital intended to touch off the General Uprising that would lead to ultimate victory. Unfortunately for the North Vietnamese Politburo, the offensive failed to spark the hoped-for uprising and it cost the VC and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attackers 14,000 killed in just the first five days of fighting. The total estimated number of casualties for the VC and NVA in the three major offensives of 1968 was 240,000 killed or wounded. Further, atrocities such as those committed in Hue caused Vietnamese public sentiment toward the VC took a sharp decline in affected areas.

The Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) issued policy guidance immediately following the Tet Offensive to take advantage of the changed situation. The policy directs all U.S. elements in Vietnam to emphasize to the Vietnamese population the staggering losses inflicted on the VC/NVA as well as the damage their attacks caused in heavily populated areas such as Pleiku. In PSYOP directed toward the enemy, the policy directed emphasis on the popular rejection of the call for a general uprising, the complete failure of all attacks and the staggering casualties suffered to no purpose.

What I found rather surprising in that looking through the 1968 issues of the PSYOP – POLWAR Newsletter, the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, monthly publication for PSYOP troops, there was absolutely no mention of the Tet General Uprising. The American Command seems to have treated it as if it never happened. Since that was the major action of 1968 it is surprising that it was ignored.

I did find one mention that 500 sets of a photographic exhibit depicting the horrors of the Tet attack have been assembled for Public Affairs use. Each set is comprised of several large display boards and is considered ideal for use with Cultural Team performances, county fairs, MEDCAP etc. It is planned to send one exhibit to each district and province, and 100 sets for U.S. military units.

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Leaflet 6-131-68

The 6th PSYOP Battalion was the first PSYOP Battalion in Vietnam. When there was need for a PSYOP Group the 6th became the 4th PSYOP Group and another 6th battalion was authorized. In 1968 the 6th Battalion printed and disseminated about a half-dozen Tet Offensive leaflets. They are all old, faded and mostly text. So, I will mention the messages on a few of them here just to let the reader see what was being printed by the 6th Battalion.

6-118-18 is all text with the same message on front and back with a fancy design at the bottom. 50,000 copies of the leaflet were printed. Some of the text is:

The crimes of the Viet Cong during this Tet holiday period are unforgivable…The Viet Cong in fact are being defeated. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam, together with Free World military forces has killed over 21,300 Viet Cong since their aggressive acts began on 27 January 1968.

6-129-68 has a much longer text with the same message on front and back so I will just translate a small part of it. 25,000 copies of the leaflet were printed:

The people of the South were remembering their ancestors and welcoming the new spring when you burned and destroyed the land. The consequence of your ruthless attack on the South has been a great loss for you. You have lost 26,000 men who were killed, and 5,000 who were captured.

6-131-68 is all text with the same message on front and back. 50,000 copies of the leaflet were printed. It says in part:

Since the beginning of the Viet Cong offensive, over 26,000 VC and North Vietnamese Army soldiers have been killed by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and its allies throughout the country. Do not let the VC bring bad luck to you. If you have a VC weapon, turn it in to the near government or Allied post.

You will be generously rewarded.

The Viet Cong Tet Offensive tells us that the defeat of the General Offensive was a great disappointment to the people of North Vietnam:

It caused much confusion among the Communist ranks in South Vietnam as they no longer hoped for either a military victory or a quick end to the war. In the face of American military might, they now realized that a victory would not be as easy as their Hanoi leaders had claimed…Communist soldiers from North Vietnam had to endure more suffering…They had been deceived by their leaders whose order was to “go and take over” the South as three-quarters of the land had been occupied by “our comrades in the South.” In short, the Communist general offensive brought about the collapse of the Red soldier’s morale.

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South Vietnamese Army Leaflet DV34AH8268

South Vietnam had their own Political Warfare units and were able to print leaflets for their own people. This leaflet is all text on the front and back and is in regard to the Tet uprising of 1968. This leaflet says in part:

Cadres and Soldiers of the Viet Cong 9th Division

Your friends failed in their plan to take Saigon. During the period 29 January to 9 February 1968, similar plans throughout South Vietnam also ended in complete failure. Almost 26,000 of your friends were killed and 5,000 more were captured. Your friends brought death and undying shame upon themselves when they inflicted pain and death on innocent mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and little children as they are joyfully greeting the sacred traditional Vietnamese Tet holiday.

Your friends mistakenly believed that the people of Saigon would support their plan of destruction and would help your friends to seize all of Saigon…

Before we end this short report we should mention that the U.S. Navy also did psychological operations in Vietnam during Tet 1968. The U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam After-action Monthly Reports tells us much more about what the Navy did:

The United States Navy also performed PSYOP missions using their PBRs. During the month of January 1968 The U.S. Navy made 94 hours of aerial broadcasts, 384 hours of surface broadcasts and distributed 293,334 leaflets. Their psychological operations personnel distributed food to refugees and other needy people, broadcast information in response to psychological operations guidance, issued elementary sanitation instructions, passed on information as to how members of the Viet Cong could defect and attempted to help the people solve minor problems.

This has been a very short look at the Communist and American propaganda regarding the Tet 1968 General Offensive. It is written only to show some of the interesting propaganda leaflets that were prepared during and shortly after that battle. Readers with comments are encouraged to write to the author at sgmbert@hotmail.com..