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  • James Houser

January 30, 1968 - The Tet Offensive

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

When I wrote this, I had relied mainly on earlier - mainly American-based - sources about the Vietnam War. I was quite mistaken. The Tet Offensive was not the brainchild of Vo Nguyen Giap after all, but rather a policy pushed by General Secretary Le Duan of North Vietnam's Communist Party (Giap outright opposed the strategy), and the jury is still out on much of its ultimate impact. There is much about the Vietnam War, especially from the Vietnam side, that we are still learning. I allow this post to stand as I originally wrote it, as a warning to others to read more sources than just the easy ones. All mistakes are my own.

January 30, 1968. A signal goes out across Southeast Asia - "Crack the sky, shake the Earth." It is a signal to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers that the greatest battle of their long war against the West is about to begin. It is the initiation of the Tet Offensive.

Tet is the Vietnamese New Year. After over 20 years of war, first against the French and then against the Americans as well as their South Vietnamese allies, the North Vietnamese were preparing what they believed might be the final offensive to drive out the Western powers and reunify Vietnam. Since 1964, American forces had been in open ground combat against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army - the VC and NVA.

The years in between, 1964-1968, were the defining years of America's Vietnam. The maxim "never get involved in a land war in Asia" had been ignored full bore. While American generals fretted over enemy body counts, saturation bombing, and the image of success, the overuse of firepower and the corruption of the South Vietnamese government eroded the support of the local population. American troop morale plummeted from pointless combat, social injustice, and disastrous incompetence and irrelevance on the part of senior leadership.

All the while, American politicians and generals told the people at home that the war was being won. It was the widespread impression of most Americans that the enemy were on their last legs; that one more year or one more great push would defeat the Communists in Vietnam and turn the tide of what looked like an inexorable Red surge across Asia. Up until 1968, Americans supported the Vietnam War, but in the last couple of years that support had begun to slip. As the Johnson administration overpromised victory and failed to deliver, the gap only grew.

(The following two paragraphs are full of inaccuracies, all of which are my fault.)

As for the North Vietnamese - it is easy to give sole credit for American difficulties in Vietnam to the blundering of generals and politicians. The high command of the NVA, however, had a long-term strategy in mind and had its Commander Vo Nguyen Giap to thank for that. Giap knew that it was obviously impossible to beat the U.S. military in a stand-up fight. He had no intention of doing so. Instead, he wished to erode the will and commitment of the American people to the war.

Giap set the Tet Offensive in motion with this in mind, even if that was not his major objective. Tet was intended to take over South Vietnam by storm, to encourage the people to rise up, support the VC and NVA, and spark a general uprising to throw out both the foreign occupier and their stooges. Even if they didn't achieve this goal, the attack would send a message that could not be ignored.

Map of the Tet Offensive

On January 30, the VC and NVA launched the Tet Offensive. 80,000 strong, they struck cities, embassies, villages, military bases, and various points all across the nation. The Americans and the South Vietnamese were taken aback by the suddenness and ferocity of the attack; they had believed their enemy was almost destroyed. As Viet Cong poured through the streets of Saigon, even penetrating the walls of the American embassy, and overran Hue City in the north, the cameras were rolling.

MPs guarding the US Embassy in Saigon, January 31

Back in the United States, the citizens of the republic were shocked by what they saw. The news media and reporters caught firefights in the streets of the capital, the execution of prisoners of war, the damage from American bombing, and long trains of refugees. American support for the war took a nosedive and never recovered. 1968 proved to be the most deadly year in Vietnam so far, with over 14,000 American soldiers killed.

Marines in Hue, 1968

On paper, the Tet Offensive was a fiasco for the North Vietnamese. Even though they were surprised, Allied forces recovered and inflicted crippling losses on the Viet Cong and the NVA. They lost almost 75,000 men, and the network of VC cells that had taken years to build across South Vietnam were almost ruined. They had taken no major city, even if they made American forces pay a steep price to retake Hue - the worst urban fighting American troops would see until Fallujah in 2004.

Marines carrying a casualty in Hue, February 4

Morally, though, Tet was the turning point of the war. The American public was now firmly against the war, the South Vietnamese government had lost all credibility with its people, and Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency was ruined. A few weeks later, he lost the New Hampshire primary - and as a sitting President, this was ruinous. When he announced that he was no longer running in 1968, the American political scene was thrown into chaos. 1968 was the watershed year for many things far beyond Vietnam.

For the Tet Offensive, see James H. Willibanks, The Tet Offensive: A Concise History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008). For Vietnam in general, a very good overview is George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 4th Ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002).

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