Intelligence “coups” are almost invariably the products of days and weeks and months of exhausting work by dozens, scores, and hundreds of people, most of whom have little or no sense of the depth or breadth of the project in which they are involved. Most often there is no “project” per se, just baskets, and reams, and rooms full of odd snippets of information that overworked analysts might or might not connect to form a single, cogent package. And, once connected, there is no way of knowing until after the fact if the right information, or enough of it, has been tied together.
An experienced intelligence specialist knows that an entire enemy plan might fall into his lap maybe once in a lifetime. And if one does, it only sets off alarms, for it is always best to assume that the enemy himself is at the source of the coup, that he has fed your side plausible but bad information as a means of misdirecting your attention and resources. If there is intelligence, then there must be counterintelligence.
In September 1967 the intelligence-gathering team headed by Robert Brewer, the senior U.S. intelligence advisor assigned to the Government of Vietnam’s (GVN’s) Quang Tri Provincial Headquarters, unmasked a Communist secret agent and immediately doubled him back on his superiors. The double agent, who was dubbed X-l, handed Brewer’s team a coup of the first magnitude: a document called Resolution 13. One look set Robert Brewer’s heart aquiver, for he knew that Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Communist supreme leader, had promulgated Resolution 1 in 1919, and that only eleven other such resolutions had been set forth in the nearly fifty intervening years.
Resolution 13 was the product of the Thirteenth Plenum of the North Vietnamese Central Committee. The resolution was an audacious blueprint aimed at attaining a swift victory to a war whose character had taken on the agony of a slow death.
At the time the Thirteenth Plenum was convened, in March or April 1967, the Communists were losing the Second Indochina War, as they called it. Simply put, the reinvigorated Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the growing U.S. combat force in South Vietnam were killing, maiming, or capturing more Viet Cong and NVA fighters each month than the VC could recruit or the NVA could infiltrate from the North. Moreover, the North itself was under costly siege as a result of the U.S. Air Force’s and U.S. Navy’s massively destructive Rolling Thunder bombing program. In the political arena, one of North Vietnam’s two chief sponsors, the Soviet Union, was pushing for a negotiated settlement to the expensive and inconclusive war. And, even more ominous, there were signs that the National Liberation Front (NLF), the South Vietnamese Communist party organization, was actively engaged in prenegotiation talks with the United States.
In spite of the hard evidence indicating an eventual and perhaps imminent Communist collapse in the South, the Thirteenth Plenum concluded that victory was attainable if they continued to use the strategies of the First Indochina War, by which the hated French colonialists had been humiliated and driven out.
An old saying has it that wars are controlled by old men seeking to relive past glories. The truth of this is nowhere more evident than in North Vietnam’s great Tet Offensive of 1968.
Briefly, Hanoi’s Politburo perceived North Vietnam’s independence and Communist existence as being based upon a triple foundation. To these old men, the foundation consisted of a Communist general uprising in August 1945, the victory over 10,000 French Army soldiers at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, and the immediate resultant collapse of French political will to wage war in Indochina.
The evidence now suggests that the aging architects of the Tet Offensive sought to re-create the triple foundation of Communist Vietnamese nationhood. They thought the time was ripe to seize power over the southern portion of partitioned Vietnam by means of a popular insurrection—another general uprising—against the GVN. They felt also that they could achieve a significant and perhaps decisive military victory over U.S. and ARVN forces, thereby destroying or at least impairing their will to continue the war. All was aimed at achieving a military victory that would lead to a decisive political victory.
The Communists dubbed their plan Tong Kong Kich-Tong Khoi Nghia (TCK-TKN)—General Offensive-General Uprising.
TCK-TKN was a long time in reaching fruition, but Phase I was put into action in the summer of 1967 at Con Thien. Con Thien was a U.S. Marine-held hilltop position overlooking the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the putative boundary between the two Vietnams. The so-called Con Thien siege and similar NVA-initiated events through the autumn of 1967—chiefly at Loc Ninh, Song Be, and Dak To—had two purposes: to test the mettle of U.S. and ARVN units and to draw the enemy to the periphery of South Vietnam—away from the major cities and political centers that were to be the objectives of Phase II.
Phase I was a bloody debacle for the NVA and VC; they were repulsed at every turn. Though the Communists learned important tactical lessons and were successful in diverting the enemy’s attention to the periphery, both the NVA and VC lost many irreplaceable combat veterans and hard-to-replace weapons.
Of the lessons learned from Phase I, the most important was that it was imperative to avoid U.S. combat units whenever possible. The strength and mobility of the U.S. units were a threat to the success of TCK-TKN as a whole. Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap, the chief military architect of TCK-TKN, changed the military plan: henceforth, the NVA and VC were to concentrate their attacks on ARVN combat units, which were weaker than American units. The only U.S. installations that were to be engaged directly were senior command-and-control headquarters and key air bases from which American relief forces could be mounted. Giap assumed—accurately, as it turned out—that American senior commanders would rush U.S. combat units to aid their own endangered headquarters rather than relieve GVN political centers, which were the real targets of the general offensive.
On the political side of the plan, the North Vietnamese and their southern Communist allies believed that the people of South Vietnam were ready to rise up against the so-called puppet regime in Saigon. It had long been a delusion of the aging Politburo that the August 1945 Communist coup against the French had been wholeheartedly supported—if not actively advanced—by the majority of Vietnamese and other Indochinese peoples. By mid-1967, the Hanoi government was certain that South Vietnam’s common citizens were prepared to join in the reunification of their nation under the Communist banner. At the very least, the northerners believed, the peoples of South Vietnam so hated the American occupiers and their openly corrupt puppet regime that they would rise up simply to reassert their freedom and independence. Once the NVA and VC and their political cadres had invested the South’s political centers, the Communists thought the majority of the people would turn out to take up arms and build barricades to prevent the return of the capitalist oppressors. The Politburo hoped that large portions of the ARVN rank and file, softened up in advance by anti-GVN and anti-American propaganda, would mutiny and perhaps even rally to the Communists.
Phase II of Resolution 13 called for an assault on the major cities and political centers of the South. Phase III was to be an all-out attack on the Khe Sanh Combat Base, which was to be besieged just prior to the Phase II assault. The operation against isolated Khe Sanh was designed to be a replica of the victory at Dien Bien Phu. In 1954 the French had agreed to negotiate before Dien Bien Phu fell, but the loss of that isolated base so appalled the French public that the political will of the French government collapsed. The Politburo believed that the 1968 Phase II attacks on the cities would convince the American public that the war could not be won; the fall of Khe Sanh would end the Americans’ ability to negotiate realistically over the reunification of Vietnam. This was the strategy that had brought victory in the First Indochina War, arid the Politburo thought it could be made to work again.
In actuality the negotiation phase of TCK-TKN was kicked off in advance of the others. On December 30, 1967, North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh stated publicly that the Communists were ready to negotiate a peace settlement immediately upon the cessation of the American bombing of the North. Trinh’s was the first definite statement out of Hanoi to that effect; previously the Communists had said only that peace talks could begin if the bombing ceased. In the context of TCK-TKN, Trinh’s announcement was the first assault on American political motivation to remain in the war.
Robert Brewer’s double agent, X-l, was not, of course, to be totally trusted. For one thing, his Resolution 13 was much more specific about targets and timetables than most Communist plans that had fallen into U.S. or South Vietnamese hands. Moreover, it was not written in the usual Communist jargon. To test the resolution’s validity, Brewer drew up a long list of indicators that, if they surfaced between September 1967 and January 1968, would validate X-l’s version of Resolution 13.
Throughout December and January the Communists tripped off the indicators on Brewer’s list, one after another. For example, Brewer felt that if the Communists were really going to mount TCK-TKN, they would precede it with reconnaissance by higher-ranking officers than had previously been involved in such missions. Sure enough, several N\A captains were killed near Thrieu Phong District Headquarters. And, on the night of January 1-2, 1968, an NVA regimental commander and four other officers were killed by U.S. Marines in the wire at Khe Sanh. Brewer and his staff felt also that, if the Communists were planning to attack Quang Tri City with the seven battalions indicated in Resolution 13, they would probably use the assembly areas they had used in the past, booby-trapping them in advance to keep ARVN and U.S. Marine patrols out. On schedule, the assembly areas blossomed with booby traps.
As Robert Brewer and scores of other intelligence types throughout South Vietnam were to learn, they did not know the half of it. But they knew something, enough to prepare themselves and such of their countrymen and allies as could be persuaded to listen. For the vast majority of South Vietnam’s 14,000,000 citizens and the 500,000 Western troops based in South Vietnam, TCK-TKN would be delivered in the dark of night, an utterly devastating surprise.