Vietnam War: The Role of Intelligence Essay

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Vietnam War: The Role of Intelligence


The 1968 Tet Offensive was a surprised attack on the United States and Allied forces in a highly coordinated operation between the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong insurgents. The success of this massive ground assault was not attributed to their superior fighting capabilities but rather the US’s ill-interpretation of attack warning signs and inaccurate evaluation of the enemy’s ability to garner support and exploit resources. This paper discusses a series of misstep taken by the US’s failure to recognize the role and value of intelligence leading up to the final moment when the first wave of attacks occurred.

Her intelligence apparatus fell into the paradoxical deception of fixating on a false target when in reality the true aim was of multiple targets and these targets were everywhere else but Khe Sanh village. Her misguided perception was further exasperated by underestimating the communists’ resourcefulness. In the after-math, lessons learned from these blunders encouraged US analysts to constantly reassess their logic to best mitigate biases and over indulgence of self-confidence giving equal weight and value when scrutinizing those resources beyond the immediate control.


Contrary to facts and figures, the Tet Offensive was not at all unexpected or a surprise to the Americans as told by history. Evidence mounted in the months leading up to the event then later well documented in the aftermath that clear signs of the massive attacks were imminent. The excerpt below is a detailed battle plan drawn specifically for the Tet operation. It was found on described in a Viet Cong soldier’s notebook that had fallen into the hands of US intelligence two months prior to the massive attack. The passage reads: The central headquarters has ordered the entire army and people of South Vietnam to implement general offensive and general uprising in order to achieve a decisive victory…Use very strong military attacks in coordination with the uprisings of the local population to take over towns and cities. They should move toward liberating the capital city, take power and try to rally enemy brigades and regiments to our side one by one.

This damning evidence was underestimated in value and overlooked by implication on many occasions in the months leading up to the attacks, while others were given overwhelming credence. A case in point, analysts had gone on records to admit they themselves often did not pass on intelligence for further analysis dismissing them as insignificant or irrelevant. The following discussion provides an overview of two major circumstances where the US forces failed to recognize key signs and events as fore-warnings that massive attacks were imminent on Tet in 1968 in and throughout South Vietnam. Intelligence Failure #1: False Fixation on Khe Sanh

The single most important and well known miscalculation of intelligence work during the Vietnam War was the ill-committed and false fixation that Khe Sanh village was going to be the communist’s ultimate target of destruction and humiliation for the US. Analysts were convinced that the communists’ main offensive attack was going to be the large US base in the Khe Sanh valley. Their logic was this. Located in a remote, forest covered area in northern province of South Vietnam and just south of the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), Khe Sanh was unique at the time in that it carried an aura of and shared characteristics similar to major battle Dien Bien Phu city where the French fought and folded to the communist state 16 years earlier. The parallel drawn by the US leadership and its intelligence agencies would become the psychological ground-zero from which false interpretation and perceptions of the Tet Offensive attack would be based-on.

Rather than assessing each sign or clue as individual pieces of intelligence with its own merit, they merely enhanced the analysts’ biases. The massing of four divisions of North Vietnamese regular army troops of over 40,000 in strength, on the surrounding valley only supported what Westmoreland and his analysts already knew, in other words, Khe Sanh was to be a do-it-again of Dien Bien Phu scenario. Any data contrary to this firmed slant were either dismissed or deemed as derailment to the fixation on Khe Sanh. In the time leading to Tet attacks, US intelligence consistently received news, data and talks amongst the enemy that there would be an uprising in towns, cities and valleys throughout South Vietnam. Westmoreland and US Intelligence reasoned that these were erroneous intelligence aimed to deflect and divert from the Khe Sanh target.

They had it backward. The communist leaders all along used Khe Sanh to draw US attention, troops and resources away from true targets where preparations were under way prior to the attacks and also to reduce resistance as there would be less US and allied forces during the attacks. The communist passive deception strategy and plan worked. General Westmorland was so convinced of the attack on Khe Sanh that he issued a warning to disregard activities elsewhere because they were only diversion to the real target., Skirmishes did take place at Khe San but such only to serve as the real diversion to the multi-frontal invasions and uprising throughout South Vietnam. After the NVA/VCs’ initial push from the northern part of South Vietnam news of the Tet Offensive spread, marking a deep scare in the pages of history as one of the most catastrophic intelligence failures of the US Intelligence Community.

Intelligence Failure #2: Underestimated the Communists’ Resourcefulness The deception of Khe Sanh could not have happened without the appropriate resources and organized systems of support. The North Vietnamese communists leveraged the lessons learned from the past with the limited assets from the present and generated the master plan to deceive the US and Allied forces. The experiences of having fought off foreigners in the past decades have taught the Vietnamese nation above all else in times of war, is to be resourceful. Noted in the Pentagon Papers, Study Number 5, dated October 12, 1972, the documents offers the following statement to describe the North Vietnamese political government, “North Vietnam’s adaptability and resourcefulness had been greatly underestimated.”

Even with such awareness, the US analysts still overlooked this key factor for exploitation, exposing an intelligence failure of the Tet Offensive. The communist leaders recognized that they could not win by way of the traditional warfare. Matching the US blow for blow would be futile. They had to look for something else. That something else was to seek support from three sources; the Viet Cong insurgents, China and Soviet Union, and its own political apparatus. The subversive assets of Vietminh in the north and Viet Cong in the south were used as an extension to the army, boots-on-the-ground. These communist insurgents formed the backbones that provide and maintain the military infrastructure behind enemy’s [US] line. “Thousands of agents and sleepers existed throughout the South Vietnam’s government, armed forces, and security/intelligence organizations.

The dramatic extent of that advantage was not revealed until the fall of Saigon in 1975, when events disclosed how thoroughly the enemy had penetrated the society of South Vietnam—including some American offices.”6 North Vietnamese government reached out to the neighboring states and fellow communists for logistical support. China and Soviet Union kept a steady flow of armaments and supplies during the offensive. “Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces were equipped with new AK-47 assault rifles and B-40 rocket launchers. The support was not limited to just guns and grenades. Soviet Union also sent 4,000 advisors along with the weapons to North Vietnam as trainers, planners, and to even manning missile batteries. The third alternative asset that the communist regime integrated into the overall Tet strategy was the use of its own political apparatus.

In a secret meeting with President Johnson, the North Vietnamese carried on an insincere conversation with the intention to announce publicly of something else other than what was discussed in private. The diplomatic exchange was designed “to deceive US decision makers but also to drive a wedge in the alliance at a time when allied solidarity was of crucial importance.” In all cases described above, the US analysts missed the opportunity to exploit each deception individually and the relationship they shared to pave the way for the offensive. Where the intelligence failed to recognize the communists’ craftiness to integrate these resources into the Tet campaign may be a reflection of the analysts’ intelligence arrogance. In the minds of most US senior leaders, the North is nothing “but a small agricultural country with no real industrial base and only modest requirements for continuing the war.”

Lessons Learned

The Tet attacks provide ample references and models from which the US intelligence community and the likes of think-tanks can look-to for lessons learned. Two were quickly realized in the aftermath. The deception of Khe Sanh played largely on the prejudices of the US intelligence analysts. Colonel Hughes-Wilson made this point in the Military Intelligence Blunders and Cover-Ups, “General Giap’s principal active deception measure to mask his true offensive had worked brilliantly. Blinded by personal own prejudices, the Americans had been inexorably drawn to the feint attack…” Sold to the US and Allies that Khe Sanh would be the target of an all-out attack, dubbed as “The Great Task”, the enemy employed a multi-faceted deception approach in a well organized and elaborated plan designed to deceive the US analysts. Khe Sanh was absolutely isolated in the minds of US analysts by their humanistic sensors. Having heard directly from senior leadership, analysts were told that Khe Sanh would be the big target. Ford, 2008, offered this proof with regard to the suspected prime target, “General Westmoreland assumed that this force [NVA 320th and 325th Delta Divisions] would be used for the ‘final phase.”

Adding to the analysts’ visual sensory, documents from the field reported that thousands of NVAs had amassed in and around the Khe Sanh valley. These pieces of information led analysts to make the connection and satisfy their sense of logic almost to the point of certainty that the final attack was in fact Khe Sanh. The second lesson US intelligence learned was that they discounted the significance of how the communists exploited the alternative assets. For example, meetings with US officials were merely opportunities to disseminate half-truth and bent information designed to skew Washington’s perception. Colonel Hughes-Wilson wrote, “These diplomatic and overt political gestures were part of what the North Vietnamese termed “passive” deception, designed to conceal their real intentions.”

To increase the army size, the North Vietnamese government enlisted a substantial population of sympathizers in the south to instigate and infiltrate throughout the South Vietnamese government and its operations. And there were no shortages of logistical support as the Soviet Union and China maintained a continuous stream of supplies and armaments to their combatants. Opposite to the enemy’s highly coordinated methodology, the US analysis machine worked independently to very little collaborative efforts, again, Colonel Hughes-Wilson observed, “Below the over centralized National Command Authority was a massive of competing intelligence organizations that made any real central control of intelligence a C3 (Command, control, and Communications) nightmare.”

The author identified and listed ten agencies that only collect intelligence, suggesting there were more performing other functions. These agencies were not only organized but they did not share what each knows or distribute what information each has. Hence, intelligence products and knowledge were amassed because of redundancy, confused because of inconsistent and conflicting data, and irrelevant because of individual agency biases.


The 1968 Tet Offensive was a surprise on the US and Allied forces but not by the superior capability of the enemy but by the failure of the US’s interpretations and misinterpretations of available intelligence. Analysts fell into the paradox of deception and underestimated the communists’ ability to exploit and organize their resources. Convinced that the communist would focus their attacks on Khe Sanh and that activities everywhere else were only to serve as distraction, they missed the true targets, the opposite to what they had anticipated.

The North Vietnamese not only proved that they were resourceful but they were able to conduct major offensive attacks into the South Vietnam, despite warning signs were signaled that attacks would be elsewhere. Through the years, evaluation of the Tet attacks changed many times over as new lights shined on different aspects and elements to help explain how and why the most advance intelligence organization in the world, given the lessons learned from Pearl Harbor, missed the fore-telling signs of Tet attacks. The answer was simple to understand but difficult to accept because the evidences spoke contrary to the analysts’ preconception.


Committee On Foreign Relations. Bombing As A Policy Tool In Vietnam:
Effectiveness. A Staff Study Based on The Pentagon Papers. Study No. 5 (May 12, 1972). http://www.history. (accessed May 11, 2012). Ford, Ronnie E. Tet 1968: Understanding the Surprise. London: Frank Cass & Co, 1995. Ford, Harold, P. Why CIA Analysts Were So Doubtful About Vietnam. (June 27, 2008). (accessed May 10, 2012). Finley, James, P. Nobody Likes To Be Surprised: Intelligence Failures. (January, 1994). (accessed May 11, 2012). Hayward, Steven. The Tet Offensive. (April, 2004). dialogue/hayward-tet.html (accessed May 10, 2012).

Hughes-Wilson, John. Military Intelligence Blunders and Cover-Ups. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1995. Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! Garden City. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971: 92-111. Palmer, Bruce Jr. “US Intelligence and Vietnam.” Studies in Intelligence Vol. 28, Special Ed. 1984: 16-24. Sheehan, N., Kenworthy, E. W., Butterfield, F., Smith, H. The Pentagon Papers. New York. Quadrangle Books, Inc., 1991. Wirtz, James J. The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War. Ithaca and London. Cornell University Press, 1991.

[ 1 ]. An excerpted from Steven Hayward’s book, The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Leberal Order, 1964-1980. He then writes this article, The Tet Offensive, as having the book for the backdrop and as principle reference. [ 2 ]. Ronnie. E. Ford, Tet 1968. Understanding the Surprise. (London: Frank Cass & Co, 1995), 9-16. [ 3 ]. Ibid, pp. 11, 17.

[ 4 ]. James P. Finley, Nobody Likes To Be Surprised: Intelligence Failures, [ 5 ]. Colonel John Hughes-Wilson, Military Intelligence Blunders and Cover-Ups (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers,

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