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Tet Offensive Surprises Americans

Tet Offensive Surprises Americans


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Vietnam Book Review: The Tet Offensive- A Concise History

Vietnam veteran and military historian James H. Willbanks’s The Tet Offensive: A Concise History will stand with Don Oberdorfer’s Tet! and Peter Braestrup’s Big Story as classics on a controversial episode in America’s longest war. In a 122-page overview, Willbanks sets the scene for the Tet Offensive, putting it in its political, strategic and historical context. The author’s analysis of how the forces that converged from late January 1968 through the following summer changed the course of the Vietnam War reflect his superb understanding of Clausewitzian dynamics, showing how armed conflict can achieve political purposes at every level, from the strategic down through the operational to the tactical levels. From the White House to military and political decisions made in Hanoi, to the battle for Khe Sanh and the Marines re-taking Hue, Willbanks brings his critical insights to bear on the events of Tet. Readers get a taste of action but also view the Tet Offensive within its larger strategic context.

Both scholars and veterans will appreciate the first 122 pages, broken into 85 pages of historical overview and 33 pages devoted to major issues and interpretations, such as the degree of surprise involved, whether General Vo Nguyen Giap ever intended to take Khe Sanh, the Hue massacre and the role of the media in shaping U.S. opinion. The author presents various interpretations and then draws his own concise and reasoned conclusions.

Willbanks offers a number of new insights. For instance, he states that the Marines at Khe Sanh were not technically under siege. They held the high ground and were not “trapped” within the base perimeter, since they regularly patrolled into enemy-held territory to gather intelligence and conduct ambushes. The impression given by the media was that Khe Sanh was in constant danger of being overrun. The reality was that the enemy paid an enormous price due to U.S. firepower and air power. Furthermore, Willbanks asserts that at the strategic level, the decimation of North Vietnamese forces around Khe Sanh may have kept Giap from redeploying his forces to hold Hue in late February and March. Imagine the clout the Communist negotiators in Paris would have had if, going into the peace talks, they had held the imperial capital of Hue. Khe Sanh, perhaps a masterpiece of strategic deception on Giap’s part, may also be interpreted as a case of operational overextension.

Students and scholars will appreciate the useful chronology running from the initiation of Operation Cedar Falls, a combined U.S. Army–ARVN operation in the Iron Triangle in January 1967, to the end of 1968 and the ultimate political outcome deposing the Johnson administration and bringing Richard Nixon to office. Willbanks also includes a number of critical documents like Hanoi’s November 1967 “Directive on Forthcoming Offensives and Uprisings” and a verbatim transcript of Walter Cronkite’s “mired in a stalemate” soliloquy delivered at the conclusion of the CBS Evening News on February 27, 1968—an event that President Lyndon B. Johnson later said told him he had “lost Middle America.” The author then shows polling data indicating that from 1968 on, 27 percent of adult Americans got their news from television. Therefore, Willbanks maintains, Cronkite’s turn against the war more reflected than shaped public opinion.

The Tet Offensive: A Concise History is essential reading for students and scholars of the war, and provides a thoughtful reexamination for anyone with an interest in the turning point of our nation’s longest war.

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.


In such cases, regardless of how the war is fought, the political object cannot be reached because there is no possible path of war, an insurmountable incommensurability.

With this in mind, it is possible to consider how a political object might not be within this space it might be isolated as a goal not attainable through war. The aim is either too far-fetched or the logical space does not include the possibility to conceptualize the political object. In such cases, regardless of how the war is fought, the political object cannot be reached because there is no possible path of war, an insurmountable incommensurability.[10] This irreconcilable difference is the foundation for the American interpretation problem about the war in Vietnam and thus the Tet Offensive, which derived from failures in American policy and action, but also proactive Vietnamese resistance and conceptual superiority.

The American Narrative

The American cause of war was fixed within a certain paradigmatic belief structure that prevented the American policy makers as well as the American military from truly understanding their enemy. In David Schmitz’s book The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinion, he writes, “the Truman Doctrine and the rhetoric of a bipolar world created an ideological inflexibility in Washington that prevented any questioning of policy or new approaches.”[11] The Cold War cemented this “ideological inflexibility,” and continued to reinforce the public’s rationale behind their fear of Communism.[12] In fact, America helped evoke more passionate communist tendencies abroad by supporting a democratic regime in name only, unintentionally encouraging the Vietnamese to embrace the communist ideology as a radical alternative. After Vietnam’s independence from the French in 1954, America supported the reliably anti-communist government of Ngo Dihn Diem.[13] Diem gathered support not because he was democratic, but sufficiently anti-communist and responsible for governing the newly sovereign Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Due to the questionable nature of the vote and Diem’s totalitarian traits, his popularity with the masses began to fizzle (with the exception being the extremely small Catholic minority, of which he was a member). Rather than support the populist Ho Chi Minh, who was communist, America continued to support the ever increasingly unpopular Diem simply because he was democratic. The American democratic paradigm simply could not permit a communist, even a popular one, to lead a free country.

Ngô Đình Diệm, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, arrives at Washington National Airport in 1957. Diệm is shown shaking hands with US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (DoD Photo/Wikimedia)

Despite American claims about supporting self-determination, it had to be within the American logical political space. America, with its “exceptionalism” and ideological superiority, knows the power and benefit of capital-D Democracy such that if one were to choose captial-C Communism it could not be a real choice, because freedom and communism are fundamentally incompatible. Communism, in Marx’s idealized conception, requires the elimination of the capitalistic American way of life. It follows then that the existence of Communism must remain a fear, because inherent in its ideological conception is the eventual foreshadowing destruction of capitalistic societies. Schmitz identifies that “policy makers viewed and understood Vietnam primarily as a part of the Cold War and not as a real and distinct place with a history and people who were acting on their own local needs and desires.”[14] Such a spectre haunted America’s policy, and since the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the presidential finger had, metaphorically, been on the button ready to fire. Nuclear annihilation was at the forefront of the public discourse. The enemy was Communism embodied by the Soviet Union and China, both of whom were meddling in Vietnam. According to the Americans, the newly minted RVN democracy must now be defended from the advances of Communism. Hans J. Morgenthau explains the American logic, “the Saigon Government is ‘free’ and the Vietcong are ‘Communist.’ By containing Vietnamese Communism, we assume that we are really containing the Communism of China,” and protecting the RVN to be our beacon of democratic light in possible domino field of Southeast Asia.[15]

Election poster used by the Australian Liberal Party in 1966. (War Room)

The American rationale was to maintain the global balance of power and specifically attempt containment of Communist ideology through the exportation of American exceptionalism and the idea of the democratic peace. The key tenets of American foreign policy were as Schmitz argues to “uphold the policy of containment, deter aggression, and demonstrate American credibility and resolve without engaging in a direct conflict with the communist superpowers, the USSR and China, that could escalate into a global conflict.”[16] Using the theoretical framework in place and the foreign policy aims, it is possible to apply these actual American thoughts and see how the fear of Communist ideology drove the balance of power and containment actions. From the American perspective, the only reason a state becomes Communist is because of virus-like influences of the surrounding states again it is taken as a given that no one would consciously choose Communism when there is the possibility of Democracy. America saw that once Vietnam (as the RVN) became free, its noble democratic aims were threatened by not only China’s influence, but also the Soviet Union’s. America fought to keep the RVN a free and democratic society in the proximity of many hostile Communist governments. Schmitz quotes that during the Vietnam War the editors of Life mention, “our Vietnam policy is a moral policy,” but Schmitz refutes and correctly explains “U.S. policy and actions violated America’s professed ideals and values.”[17] Although, Schmitz reminds us “the war in Vietnam was cast as the central confrontation in the Cold War with the forces of international communism,” it does not justify the fidelity to the fear ideology that America maintains.[18] America backed a corrupt dictator, but the fear of Communism was so great it blinded America from evaluating the morality of their choice America just maintained ideological consistency.


The Tet Offensive: A Bloody and Dramatic Campaign

In the late evening hours of January 30, 1968, the Vietnamese New Year began. This annual celebratory event, known as Tet, signaled the coming of more than just a new year and a new beginning for the people of Vietnam. As soldiers descended on U.S. encampments, bombs and gunfire rained down upon the American Embassy, and countless members of the military were taken prisoner or gunned down, the Tet Offensive signaled a changing tide in the Vietnam War upon that very evening.

Today, the Tet Offensive of early 1968 is known as one of the largest military efforts of the Vietnam War, a successful surprise attack conducted by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam. The Vietnam War was an incredibly contentious time in both American and Vietnamese histories, and the Tet Offensive adds only further complications to the stories and moments of the war.

Viet Cong troops pose with new AK-47 assault rifles and American field radios.

Still today, there is debate as to which army truly won the attack, and which side took control once the surprise wore off. So, who is to take the title of the victor in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive? Did the North Vietnamese exact the damage and destruction they hoped? Or do the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces lay claim to the victory?

Although the Tet Offensive began with the start of the Vietnamese New Year, the military effort lasted well beyond a single evening. That first blow, that first series of sudden and unexpected attacks, launched attacks that kicked off a massive military operation planned by the North Vietnamese forces.

A number of North Vietnamese targets during the Tet Offensive.

The detrimental effects were immediate: as the operation kicked into its full scale on the morning on January 31, the U.S. and South Vietnamese were unable to establish a widespread defense, and the People’s Army of (North) Vietnam (ARVN) launched 80,000 troops into over 100 towns. Stunned by the unexpected attacks, the non-communist forces immediately lost control of several important locales and cities.

The element of surprise was truly used to great advantage in the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese attacked with zero expectations, and zero warning, awarding them the freedom to inflict great damage and significant terror before their enemies could respond. Within just a few hours, the Vietcong forces laid siege to countless Southern strongholds – all of which were weakly defended at the time.

U.S. Marines advance past an M48 Patton tank during the battle for Huế.

However, this New Year’s strike was not as effective as it appeared though the initial attack lasted six hours, it ultimately proved inconsequential in terms of military advantage in the larger scope of the Vietnam War.

Instead, ARVN and the leaders of North Vietnam discovered that their sneaky and strong surprise attack spelled something of a disaster in the later months.

Quảng Trị residents fleeing the Battle of Quang Tri (1968).

Though the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies were temporarily stunned into immobility and inaction, their defeat was not as imminent as many believe. In fact, the losses were brief – within days, the two allies had regrouped and responded to the surprise attack. Soon thereafter, the Americans and the South Vietnamese retook control of the cities lost. The forces developed a defensive strategy quickly, fighting back against ARVN and inflicting many casualties upon their opponent.

Over the course of the two months that followed, which are considered part of the Tet Offensive operation, the North Vietnamese were stripped of all that they gained in the first hours of January 30. By the Offensive’s end, the North Vietnamese were expelled from the strongholds in the South, left holding none of the landmarks and locales they initially invaded.

U.S. Marines move through the ruins of the hamlet of Dai Do after several days of intense fighting.

Not all accounts of the Tet Offensive were positive, however. Although the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces retook control of all that was attacked by the North, those listening and watching reports from oceans away did not know that these forces saw success – they did not hear how, though losses occurred, the militaries were quick to regain it all.

Instead, media outlets in America reported success only of the North Vietnamese forces, relaying scenes of burned encampments, destruction in cities, and an embassy in ruins. As a result, public opinion in the U.S. believed that all was lost in Vietnam.

It was that perception, that harmful presentation of the Tet Offensive, that ultimately led the American leadership to withdraw its forces and leave South Vietnam to fall on its own.

As American historian James J. Wirtz remarks of the Tet Offensive, this moment in the Vietnam War was “an earth-shattering, mind-shattering event that changed the course of the war.”

Though the North Vietnamese forces had high hopes for their surprise New Year’s attack, they did not manage to achieve the incredible victory they initially sought – the battlefield remained unchanged, and the Communist forces were quickly halted in their efforts. However, they did make gains in one particular area: the will of the U.S. and its people.

When the North Vietnamese began planning their attack, their goal was to force the American military to change its strategy, to de-escalate their war efforts and give up hope. And, because the Tet Offensive did make those at home in America believe that there truly was no end to the losses in Vietnam, the strategy proved effective.

ARVN Rangers defending Saigon in 1968 Battle of Saigon.

By the war’s end, the Tet Offensive secured a lasting place in international history: it was the biggest military operation throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War, responsible for attacking hundreds of cities, many of which were crucial capitals.

Yet still today, four long decades after the last troops pulled out of Vietnam and left the southern half of the nation to its own devices, the world is still divided: who truly can be considered the victor of the Tet Offensive?

Civilians sort through the ruins of their homes in Cholon, the heavily damaged Chinese section of Saigon.


The Immense Tet Offensive – One Of The Biggest Campaigns In The Vietnam War

In the late evening hours of January 30, 1968, the Vietnamese New Year began. This annual celebratory event, known as Tet, signaled the coming of more than just a new year and a new beginning for the people of Vietnam. As soldiers descended on U.S. encampments, bombs and gunfire rained down upon the American Embassy, and countless members of the military were taken prisoner or gunned down, the Tet Offensive signaled a changing tide in the Vietnam War upon that very evening.

Today, the Tet Offensive of early 1968 is known as one of the largest military efforts of the Vietnam War, a successful surprise attack conducted by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam. The Vietnam War was an incredibly contentious time in both American and Vietnamese histories, and the Tet Offensive adds only further complications to the stories and moments of the war.

Viet Cong troops pose with new AK-47 assault rifles and American field radios.

Still today, there is debate as to which army truly won the attack, and which side took control once the surprise wore off. So, who is to take the title of the victor in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive? Did the North Vietnamese exact the damage and destruction they hoped? Or do the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces lay claim to the victory?

Although the Tet Offensive began with the start of the Vietnamese New Year, the military effort lasted well beyond a single evening. That first blow, that first series of sudden and unexpected attacks, launched attacks that kicked off a massive military operation planned by the North Vietnamese forces.

A number of North Vietnamese targets during the Tet Offensive.

The detrimental effects were immediate: as the operation kicked into its full scale on the morning on January 31, the U.S. and South Vietnamese were unable to establish a widespread defense, and the People’s Army of (North) Vietnam (NVA) launched 80,000 troops into over 100 towns. Stunned by the unexpected attacks, the non-communist forces immediately lost control of several important locales and cities.

The element of surprise was truly used to great advantage in the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese attacked with zero expectations, and zero warning, awarding them the freedom to inflict great damage and significant terror before their enemies could respond. Within just a few hours, the Vietcong forces laid siege to countless Southern strongholds – all of which were weakly defended at the time.

U.S. Marines advance past an M48 Patton tank during the battle for Huế.

However, this New Year’s strike was not as effective as it appeared though the initial attack lasted six hours, it ultimately proved inconsequential in terms of military advantage in the larger scope of the Vietnam War.

Instead, ARVN and the leaders of North Vietnam discovered that their sneaky and strong surprise attack spelled something of a disaster in the later months.

Quảng Trị residents fleeing the Battle of Quang Tri (1968).

Though the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies were temporarily stunned into immobility and inaction, their defeat was not as imminent as many believe. In fact, the losses were brief – within days, the two allies had regrouped and responded to the surprise attack. Soon thereafter, the Americans and the South Vietnamese retook control of the cities lost. The forces developed a defensive strategy quickly, fighting back against ARVN and inflicting many casualties upon their opponent.

Over the course of the two months that followed, which are considered part of the Tet Offensive operation, the North Vietnamese were stripped of all that they gained in the first hours of January 30. By the Offensive’s end, the North Vietnamese were expelled from the strongholds in the South, left holding none of the landmarks and locales they initially invaded.

U.S. Marines move through the ruins of the hamlet of Dai Do after several days of intense fighting.

Not all accounts of the Tet Offensive were positive, however. Although the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces retook control of all that was attacked by the North, those listening and watching reports from oceans away did not know that these forces saw success – they did not hear how, though losses occurred, the militaries were quick to regain it all.

Instead, media outlets in America reported success only of the North Vietnamese forces, relaying scenes of burned encampments, destruction in cities, and an embassy in ruins. As a result, public opinion in the U.S. believed that all was lost in Vietnam.

It was that perception, that harmful presentation of the Tet Offensive, that ultimately led the American leadership to withdraw its forces and leave South Vietnam to fall on its own.

As American historian James J. Wirtz remarks of the Tet Offensive, this moment in the Vietnam War was “an earth-shattering, mind-shattering event that changed the course of the war.”

Though the North Vietnamese forces had high hopes for their surprise New Year’s attack, they did not manage to achieve the incredible victory they initially sought – the battlefield remained unchanged, and the Communist forces were quickly halted in their efforts. However, they did make gains in one particular area: the will of the U.S. and its people.

When the North Vietnamese began planning their attack, their goal was to force the American military to change its strategy, to de-escalate their war efforts and give up hope. And, because the Tet Offensive did make those at home in America believe that there truly was no end to the losses in Vietnam, the strategy proved effective.

ARVN Rangers defending Saigon in 1968 Battle of Saigon.

By the war’s end, the Tet Offensive secured a lasting place in international history: it was the biggest military operation throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War, responsible for attacking hundreds of cities, many of which were crucial capitals.

Yet still today, four long decades after the last troops pulled out of Vietnam and left the southern half of the nation to its own devices, the world is still divided: who truly can be considered the victor of the Tet Offensive?

Civilians sort through the ruins of their homes in Cholon, the heavily damaged Chinese section of Saigon.


Saigon

US soldiers seen through a hole in the perimeter wall after the attack on the US Embassy during the Tet Offensive, in Saigon, early 1968. Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

Most shocking, 19 VC commandos breached the US Embassy, engaging US troops in a six-hour long firefight before being killed or captured.

But things fell apart for the VC and NVA in Saigon. US and ARVN forces inflicted massive casualties, and operators at the radio station prevented the call for an uprising from going out.

By early February, the attackers were on the defensive, and the fighting was over by early March.

Keeping low to avoid enemy fire, US Marines push one of their wounded out of range during fighting in the old section of Hue, February 1968. Bettmann/Getty Images

As ARVN and American soldiers were regaining ground across the country, in Huế, near the northern border, the bloodiest battle of the offensive was only getting started.

Huế, the old imperial capital, was a major cultural, religious, and educational center. It was divided by the Perfume River: to the north was the walled-off old city within the 200-year-old citadel, and in the south was the city's new section.

On January 31, over 5,000 NVA and VC stormed the western walls, quickly taking all but two areas: the Mang Ca garrison in the northeast corner of the citadel, controlled by the ARVN 1st Division, and the MACV compound held by US Marines on the southeast corner in the new city.

Bloody and bandaged troops on a tank used as a makeshift ambulance during fighting in Hue, February 15, 1968. John Olson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

The Americans were originally denied permission to use tanks or airstrikes, but the bans were lifted after it became clear how entrenched communist forces were.

By February 10, the Marines had killed 1,000 combatants and secured the new city at a cost of 358 casualties. They then linked up with the ARVN and pushed into the citadel, where the process started again.

Only after the communist forces' supply lines had been cut were the Marines and the ARVN able to secure the citadel. By February 25, the remaining NVA and VC had retreated, and the city was fully secured on March 2.


The Tet Offensive

On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched a surprise attack on South Vietnam during the Tet (New Year) holiday truce.

The North Vietnamese began planning their General Offensive and Uprising in April 1967. They believed that the government in Saigon was so unpopular in the South that an attack on major cities there would lead the citizens to revolt, guaranteeing a swift victory and an end to calls for peace talks. Throughout the second half of 1967, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers moved 81,000 tons of supplies and 200,000 troops across the border.

US #3188g from the Celebrate the Century: 1960s sheet.

That October, they decided the Tet holiday would be the day to launch their attack, as the Americans and South Vietnamese (ARVN) would be observing the agreed-upon truce. In December, they launched a “diplomatic offensive,” claiming that Hanoi would consider negotiations if America halted their bombing campaign in North Vietnam. This was only a ruse to confuse the allies.

Though the Americans did not know what the North Vietnamese had planned, or when it would take place, they did see the signs. They noticed a large military buildup and were puzzled by the large battles that broke out in remote regions. In fact, these battles were part of the North Vietnamese plan to draw American troops away from the cities, their actual targets.

Item #4584112 – Australia coin honoring the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

One of their greatest diversions was the attack on the military base at Khe Sanh on January 21. American MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) commander William Westmoreland saw the attack as a plot to overrun the base and take over the two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam. To prevent this, he sent half his men – 250,000 soldiers – to aid in the defense of Khe Sanh. Meanwhile, Frederick Weyand had noticed a large buildup of North Vietnamese around Saigon and requested some of those men be brought back to defend the capital city. Westmoreland called back 15 battalions to aid in the city’s defense, a move that may have helped save Saigon.

The Tet Offensive officially commenced shortly after midnight on January 30, 1968. The first target was Nha Trang, the headquarters of the US I Field Force. This was followed by attacks in the other provincial capitals: Ban Me Thuot, Kon Tum, Hội An, Tuy Hòa, Da Nang, Qui Nhơn, and Pleiku. In each of these attacks, they launched mortar and rocket barrages followed quickly by massive ground assaults. Though the Americans and South Vietnamese were caught off-guard, they drove their attackers from nearly all these locations by sunrise. MACV Chief of Intelligence Phillip B. Davidson alerted Westmoreland that he believed these attacks would continue across the country throughout the night and morning. Westmoreland then put all US and ARVN troops on maximum alert to brace for what was to come.

The next wave of attacks came at 3 a.m. on January 31. They attacked Saigon, Cholon, and Gia Dinh in the Capital Military District as well as 13 other cities and US bases. Saigon was the main target of the attacks. Though fighting continued in Saigon and other cities, the North Vietnamese launched a second wave of attacks on ten more cities on February 1st. In fact, over the course of the offensive, they attacked over 100 towns and cities, as well as every major allied airfield. In most cases, the North Vietnamese were driven out of town within two or three days. Fighting went on for much longer in at least five cities. During this time, none of the South Vietnamese troops deserted or defected to join the North Vietnamese, showing commitment to their cause.

US #4988a were issued to honor Medal of Honor recipients from the Vietnam War.

Huế was among the targets on January 31. The North Vietnamese captured the city that day and the Americans and ARVN spent nearly a month in street-to-street fighting to take it back. By March they had retaken control but at extreme cost. Most of the historic city was destroyed and thousands of civilians were dead or left homeless.

US #4988a – Vietnam Medal of Honor First Day Cover.

The first phase of the Tet Offensive was considered over by March 28, though fighting at Khe Sanh continued into April. The North Vietnamese launched two more attacks called Mini-Tets on May 4 and August 17. The offensive officially ended on September 23. The Tet Offensive was largely considered a failure for the North Vietnamese. They did not meet any of their objectives and nearly depleted their Viet Cong Army.


53 years ago, a vicious, unexpected attack showed Americans what kind of war they were really fighting in Vietnam

Shortly after midnight on January 30, 1968, cities in South Vietnam came under simultaneous attack by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers and Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas.

Many of the attacks were beaten back relatively quickly, some within hours, but the following days revealed that the fighting was not isolated.

Over 100 locations, including 36 of South Vietnam's 44 provincial capitals, six of its largest cities, and dozens of towns, hamlets, and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and US bases faced a massive and well-coordinated attack.

The NVA and VC had launched their Tet Offensive, a brutal assault by some 84,000 soldiers and guerrillas across South Vietnam. They were told to "crack the sky" and "shake the earth" and that the offensive would be "the greatest battle ever fought in the history of our country."

What ensued would change the course of the Vietnam War.


The Immense Tet Offensive – One Of The Biggest Campaigns In The Vietnam War

In the late evening hours of January 30, 1968, the Vietnamese New Year began. This annual celebratory event, known as Tet, signaled the coming of more than just a new year and a new beginning for the people of Vietnam. As soldiers descended on U.S. encampments, bombs and gunfire rained down upon the American Embassy, and countless members of the military were taken prisoner or gunned down, the Tet Offensive signaled a changing tide in the Vietnam War upon that very evening.

Today, the Tet Offensive of early 1968 is known as one of the largest military efforts of the Vietnam War, a successful surprise attack conducted by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam. The Vietnam War was an incredibly contentious time in both American and Vietnamese histories, and the Tet Offensive adds only further complications to the stories and moments of the war.

Still today, there is debate as to which army truly won the attack, and which side took control once the surprise wore off. So, who is to take the title of the victor in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive? Did the North Vietnamese exact the damage and destruction they hoped? Or do the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces lay claim to the victory?

Although the Tet Offensive began with the start of the Vietnamese New Year, the military effort lasted well beyond a single evening. That first blow, that first series of sudden and unexpected attacks, launched attacks that kicked off a massive military operation planned by the North Vietnamese forces.

A number of North Vietnamese targets during the Tet Offensive.

The detrimental effects were immediate: as the operation kicked into its full scale on the morning on January 31, the U.S. and South Vietnamese were unable to establish a widespread defense, and the People’s Army of (North) Vietnam (NVA) launched 80,000 troops into over 100 towns. Stunned by the unexpected attacks, the non-communist forces immediately lost control of several important locales and cities.

The element of surprise was truly used to great advantage in the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese attacked with zero expectations, and zero warning, awarding them the freedom to inflict great damage and significant terror before their enemies could respond. Within just a few hours, the Vietcong forces laid siege to countless Southern strongholds – all of which were weakly defended at the time.

U.S. Marines advance past an M48 Patton tank during the battle for Huế.

However, this New Year’s strike was not as effective as it appeared though the initial attack lasted six hours, it ultimately proved inconsequential in terms of military advantage in the larger scope of the Vietnam War.

Instead, ARVN and the leaders of North Vietnam discovered that their sneaky and strong surprise attack spelled something of a disaster in the later months.

Quảng Trị residents fleeing the Battle of Quang Tri (1968).

Though the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies were temporarily stunned into immobility and inaction, their defeat was not as imminent as many believe. In fact, the losses were brief – within days, the two allies had regrouped and responded to the surprise attack. Soon thereafter, the Americans and the South Vietnamese retook control of the cities lost. The forces developed a defensive strategy quickly, fighting back against ARVN and inflicting many casualties upon their opponent.

Over the course of the two months that followed, which are considered part of the Tet Offensive operation, the North Vietnamese were stripped of all that they gained in the first hours of January 30. By the Offensive’s end, the North Vietnamese were expelled from the strongholds in the South, left holding none of the landmarks and locales they initially invaded.

U.S. Marines move through the ruins of the hamlet of Dai Do after several days of intense fighting.

Not all accounts of the Tet Offensive were positive, however. Although the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces retook control of all that was attacked by the North, those listening and watching reports from oceans away did not know that these forces saw success – they did not hear how, though losses occurred, the militaries were quick to regain it all.

Instead, media outlets in America reported success only of the North Vietnamese forces, relaying scenes of burned encampments, destruction in cities, and an embassy in ruins. As a result, public opinion in the U.S. believed that all was lost in Vietnam.

It was that perception, that harmful presentation of the Tet Offensive, that ultimately led the American leadership to withdraw its forces and leave South Vietnam to fall on its own.

Tet Offensive in Vietnam

As American historian James J. Wirtz remarks of the Tet Offensive, this moment in the Vietnam War was “an earth-shattering, mind-shattering event that changed the course of the war.”

Though the North Vietnamese forces had high hopes for their surprise New Year’s attack, they did not manage to achieve the incredible victory they initially sought – the battlefield remained unchanged, and the Communist forces were quickly halted in their efforts. However, they did make gains in one particular area: the will of the U.S. and its people.

When the North Vietnamese began planning their attack, their goal was to force the American military to change its strategy, to de-escalate their war efforts and give up hope. And, because the Tet Offensive did make those at home in America believe that there truly was no end to the losses in Vietnam, the strategy proved effective.

ARVN Rangers defending Saigon in 1968 Battle of Saigon.

By the war’s end, the Tet Offensive secured a lasting place in international history: it was the biggest military operation throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War, responsible for attacking hundreds of cities, many of which were crucial capitals.

Yet still today, four long decades after the last troops pulled out of Vietnam and left the southern half of the nation to its own devices, the world is still divided: who truly can be considered the victor of the Tet Offensive?

Civilians sort through the ruins of their homes in Cholon, the heavily damaged Chinese section of Saigon.


Aftermath

Two 750-pound bombs hit in the Cholon area of Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Tim Page/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images


The Tet offensive was devastating.

Eighty percent of Huế was destroyed, and over 2,000 civilians there, labeled as threats to the revolution, were executed by VC death squads. Thousands of civilians were also killed in the fighting. US and South Vietnamese forces suffered over 12,000 casualties, including more than 2,600 deaths.

The offensive was also a disaster for North Vietnam. Of about 84,000 combatants, up to 58,000 are believed to have been killed, wounded, or captured. The VC was particularly hard hit, losing so many guerrillas that it was effectively wiped out as a viable fighting force.

In addition, they achieved none of their objectives. There was no general uprising, no South Vietnamese units defected, and they were unable to hold any of the cities or towns they seized.

Two dead Viet Cong soldiers on the grounds of the US Embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive, January 31, 1968.

PhotoQuest/Getty Images


But Tet was a strategic victory for the North.

Every day, media outlets broadcast graphic images of death and destruction directly into American homes. Particularly horrifying were images of the summary execution of a VC death squad captain by a South Vietnamese general.

Moreover, the fact that the NVA and VC had conducted such a large-scale attack as Johnson and Westmoreland promised victory was near led many Americans to see the war as unwinnable.

Political opinion turned against the war, and the US mission shifted to strengthening South Vietnam’s military so it could fight alone, enabling the US to withdraw, which it did in 1973. But South Vietnamese forces were quickly overwhelmed, and Saigon fell in 1975.


Watch the video: The Tet Offensive 1968 (May 2022).