How The U.S. Lost Viet Nam: The October Surprise

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A Brief History

On October 31, 1968, in a political move intended to help Hubert Humphrey win the Presidential election, President Lyndon Johnson made an announcement that became known as “The October Surprise,” in which he stated that all bombardment of North Viet Nam would be halted.  The reason publicly given for this halt was that North Viet Nam had supposedly shown good faith in negotiations toward ending the Viet Nam War.

Since then, the term “October Surprise” has been used to describe news events that have been deliberately created to influence the outcome of elections, in particular the U.S. presidency.

Digging Deeper

Johnson should have realized by that time that communists did nothing in “good faith;” the January 1968 Tet Offensive, for example, should already have illustrated that point; and his announcement became just another of the many blunders he committed in prosecuting this war. 

In the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong violated a holiday cease fire at the time of the Chinese New Year and launched a massive offensive all over South Viet Nam.  Though the U.S. military crushed that offensive and caused horrific losses of men and equipment to the communists, the American people were shocked and rattled by the enormous nature of the enemy offensive, especially after being told by the Johnson Administration that victory was just around the corner.  It obviously was not, and the American people were eager to get out of Viet Nam.

North Viet Nam established a pattern of pretending to negotiate honestly when they were getting plastered by U.S. airpower, and then using the respite of a bombing halt to resupply, repair damaged infrastructure, regroup and then finally go back in the offensive.

President Nixon also found out the hard way that this was the modus operandi of the North Vietnamese.   As a political ploy to help himself get re-elected in 1972,  he also used the pretense that the U.S. and North Viet Nam were on the verge of “Peace with Honor.”  When the bad faith of the North Vietnamese became apparent, Nixon ordered the bombing of North Viet Nam and the mining of Haiphong Harbor in a massive operation known as “Linebacker II.”  The U.S. military suffered heavy losses of planes and men but inflicted heavier damage on the North Vietnamese.  North Viet Nam was on the ropes and almost out of anti-aircraft missiles, but they used their usual trick of pretending to negotiate, and the bombing was again halted when carrying on with it would have been most effective for the U.S.

While facing the fallout of the Watergate Scandal, an embattled Nixon quickly agreed to a fake “peace” treaty that would end U.S. involvement in the war.  When the U.S. pulled out of South Viet Nam for good in 1975, the North Vietnamese quickly overran the South.

The moral of the story is that when you are fighting someone and you get the upper hand, do not ease up, finish them off!  If you have ever watched a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) cage fight or a horror movie, you will see that people (or armies) show stunning resilience if you fail to take them down off when you can.  Another moral of the story is running a war as part of an election campaign is a bad idea.

Question for students (and subscribers): Can you think of other examples of these lessons?  Please feel free to share them with us in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Arnold, James.  Tet Offensive 1968: Turning point in Vietnam (Campaign).  Osprey Publishing, 1990.

Berman, Larry.  Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam.  W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Robbins, James S.  This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.  Encounter Books, 2012.

Schmitz, David F.  Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War: The End of the American Century (Vietnam: America in the War Years).  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.