In one of the most recent specialized scholarly accounts of Tet, James Wirtz's masterful The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War, echoes the views of Oberdorfer and Olson and Roberts. Wirtz proclaims at the outset that:
The Tet offensive was the decisive battle of the Vietnam war because of its profound impact on American attitudes about involvement in Southeast Asia.
Of course the conclusions in the above statement are totally erroneous. It would have been accurate to say that the left wing elements in American society especially in the academic community and in the liberal enclaves of the East and West coast and the media thought the Tet offensive was a decisive battle. Nobody in Vietnam thought it was decisive except the North Vietnamese Generals who were upset with its planning and execution and relieved the Viet Cong of further decision making in military matters from then on.
But one thing was right. It was an intelligence failure for sure. It was a large intelligence failure. Equivalent to the Germans not knowing we were attacking at Normandy.
Why were we so blind. Why were we asleep at the wheel. I went to the General’’s briefings every morning. I knew what they knew. The momma san who shined my boots knew more about VC movements than the Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. But it didn’t make any difference anyway. It was all over two years before the Tet offensive of 1968.
The war was about drugs, sex and rock and roll. The combatants were Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taipei, Australia and Hawaii. The major combatants were Vietnam, Thailand and Taipei.
But before we get into the specifics of Operation Moose and the turning point of the Vietnam war it would help to know a little about the real Vietnam and the real Saigon.
Like Thailand to so many people who don’t know it, you may find what I am about to write hard to believe.
The French were still there in the 1950’s and trying to control the Southern half of the country. The Americans were also there.
Even though the Americans provided the French with 80% of their supplies for their war against North Vietnam the Americans were also at war with the French.
The French had an interesting approach to controlling the Communists. They were empowering different religious and ethnic and criminal minorities in hopes they would unite to combat the Viet Minh. It worked in a way but then they had the minorities to deal with who slaughtered French citizens every once in a while.
The stakes are familiar ones to those familiar with SEA. Drugs, sex and gambling. The Hall of Mirrors brothel in Saigon employed 1200 ladies and the Police Chief was at its opening ceremonies. The police chief was also the leader of the Saigon crime syndicate. The robbers had turned into cops. The Grand Monde casino was said to be the most profitable in Asia in 1955 and paid $2,600 per day in protection money to the Saigon mob which was a lot of money in 1955. Of course the centerpiece of Saigon wealth was opiates.
One might think this French vs. American war was a clandestine spy kind of war. Nope. Soldiers completely disregarded civilians and leveled whole neighborhoods with artillery, mortars, and heavy machine guns. Between April 28 and May 3, 1955. More troops were involved in this battle than in the Tet offensive of 1968 and the fighting was almost as destructive. In the six days of fighting five hundred people were killed, two thousand wounded, and twenty thousand left homeless. In the end French intelligence agents threw hand grenades into the homes of any Americans they could find and the American CIA reciprocated. The Americans had more hand grenades and the French left. They did not get kicked out of Vietnam by the Vietnamese. The CIA kicked the French out of Vietnam.
Eighty years of French colonialism had intermingled vice with the basic structure of the Vietnamese economy by using them as taxable sources of government revenue.
Not wanting to lose the money but wanting to stay in step with the new American Bible belt morality plus communist egalitarian thinking that was tickling the fancy of the post world war two dilatants and dictators alike. During the late 1940s the French simply transferred vice from the legitimate economy to the underworld. By exploiting the rackets for the French, the Binh Xuyen (The Mob or River Pirates) had developed the only effective method ever devised for countering urban guerrilla warfare in Saigon. Their formula was a combination of crime and counterinsurgency: control over the municipal police allowed systematic exploitation of the vice trade; the rackets generated large sums of ready cash; and money bought an effective network of spies, informants, and assassins.
In 1952 Viet Minh cadres reported that their activities in Saigon had come to a virtual standstill because the bandits had either bought off or killed most of their effective organizers.
When the Diem (American backed) administration was faced with large-scale insurgency in 1958 it reverted to the Binh Xuyen formula, and government clandestine services revived the opium trade with Laos to finance counterinsurgency operations. Faced with similar problems in 1965. Premier Ky's (American backed) adviser, General Loan, would use the same methods.
Note. What the above means for my readers who may not have much historical background is. The British Empire and the other colonial powers had controlled and exploited and administered the third world countries of the world with a mixture of Opium, religion and bayonets for 200 years. The moralists in the West and the downtrodden in the rest of the world were a bit peeved. That is the ones who weren’t zonked out of their minds on drugs.
A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since the French had left in the 1950’s but in 1966 Saigon had remained the same. Lady drinks were $1.35 each. Long time was $10.00. There were over 250 beer bars and Go Go clubs. Estimates range from 50,000 to 150,000 women involved in the sex trade. The drugs and sex were purchased by 71,000 GI’s stationed in Saigon and an equal if not greater amount of civilian workers and GI’s on in country R&R.
We called them the Viet Cong the French called them the Viet Minh. They were reporting to Hanoi in the early 1960’s the same thing they had reported for 20 years. They were not making any headway because the mob was either killing or buying off their best agents and organizers.
The mob was the only efficient anti gorilla/terrorist movement ever established in SEA. History may also show this to be the case in Thailand if they ever succeed in cleaning up crime and stopping corruption. Be careful when wishing Thailand and others free from corruption. It is a delicate balance.
Shanghai’s whores and mob bosses had moved to Hong Kong and Taipei. The Corsicans had moved to Bangkok. Australia and Hawaii were getting to look more like Asian cities every day. Drug problems were increasing.
The war was convoluted and sinister but the stakes were immense.
General William Westmoreland, in 1966 finally announced operation MOOSE. Move Out of Saigon Expeditiously. Vietnam had lost. Troop strength would be drastically reduced in Saigon. The largest military base in the history of the world would be built 18 miles away at Long Binh and sealed off to the pleasures of Saigon. Saigon was off limits to GI’s.
The girls from the Workers Union marched in the streets but to no avail. North Vietnam had won. Of course so had all of the cities that were to become the major R&R sites for the rest of the war. And so had the sniveling moralists in the bible belt who felt soldiers should not have drugs, sex and rock and roll and the momma who felt that death and deprivation was enough fun for her wartime sonny boy. This was also assisted by the rising tide of feminism in the Army and the media. Better morality and equality than victory. Better a puritan moral code and your husband or son coming home in a body bag.
Saigon had lost its ability to control the VC – money. The big money was gone. It was gone to Thailand and Taiwan.
The girls had come to Saigon from the small villages in the agricultural areas. They sent money home the same way it is sent home from Pattaya today.
The police in Saigon traded information for money and protection. The status quo was maintained until Operation MOOSE.
After the Gi’s left Saigon the bar girls sent home less money. Drug addictions became the profit of unlikely sources such as other Asian armies from other Asian countries stationed in Vietnam.
Thailand, Taipei and Hong Kong got the economic shot in the arm that propelled them into the forefront of Asian economic world.
The South Vietnam government cut off from intelligence and gray market money began its decent into chaos. Sorry bout that.
It wasn’t a bad war for me. It could have been a great war without Operation MOOSE. With the increase in troop numbers from 1966 to 1969 Saigon would have become a safe city. The bar girls would have increased in the same or greater number as the troops.
The local country side would have run out of ladies and they would have begun importing them on the Ho Chi Minh trail from Hanoi. The dollars would have started flowing up country and the North Vietnamese peasants gotten enough money to afford booze and women and drugs. Maybe even some rock and roll bands.
The whole thing should have ended much differently. Air America could have been dropping employment applications for Saigon bars over Hanoi and the Ho Chi Minh trail instead of inserting hill tribe people and Thai mercenaries into Laos.
It was into this barren sexless atmosphere that they plopped my ass down on that fateful day in 1968.
I wasn’t out to change the world. I was not intent on winning a war. Some people came to Vietnam to kill. Some came to make money. Some came for power and promotion. I was only trying to get away from Beverly.