The Tet Offensive (January - April, 1968)

During the days and weeks before the Vietnamese New Year, Tet, there were worrying reports that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were planning to stage some form of attacks during the traditional Tet ceasefire. However, no one expected these attacks to be as numerous or intensive as they turned out to be.

In the early hours of January 31st, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong troops attacked almost every major town and city in South Vietnam. Most important American bases and airfields were also hit. Earlier attacks had lead many to believe that the main thrust had already passed, and the Tet attacks caught nearly everyone by surprise. Large sections of Saigon and Hue were occupied by the North Vietnamese, and the remote American base at Khe Sanh came under siege.

In Saigon, NVA and Viet Cong teams staged assaults on the Presidential Palace, the government-operated radio station, the headquarters of the South Vietnamese Army, the Tan Son Nhut airbase, and the American Embassy. At the Embassy, nineteen Viet Cong commandos blasted a hole through the outer wall and then attempted to blow the Embassy's main doors open with rockets. This failed, and the team was eventually pinned down and killed in the Embassy courtyard by Marine guards and 101st Airborne reinforcements. The security of the Embassy staff was never in serious danger, but the battle there became emblematic of the entire Tet Offensive.

Elsewhere in Saigon, the suburb of Cholon became a North Vietnamese base of operations which would take a month to clear out. The state radio station was occupied and eventually blown up. The NVA's seven hundred man assault on the Tan Son Nhut airbase almost succeeded, forcing the staff of General Westmoreland (the American Commander in Vietnam) to scrounge up weapons and join in the defense of the base. By the time the city was once again fully under South Vietnamese control, twelve hundred North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers had been killed, along with as many as fifteen thousand civilians.

In Hue, an ancient city near the Demilitarized Zone that separated North and South Vietnam, the carnage and destruction were much, much worse. Ten NVA battalions overran the entire city, with the exception of a South Vietnamese Army headquarters and an American garrison. The main goal of the attack was the capture of the Citadel, an ancient stone fortress that covered several square miles. The Viet Cong flag was raised atop the Citadel around dawn on the 31st of January. There it would remain until February 23rd.

Elsewhere in Hue, teams of Viet Cong rounded up thousands of government officials, sympathizers and Catholics. Many of these "enemies of the state" were shot or buried alive in mass graves. Others simply vanished.

American Marines and South Vietnamese soldiers began the slow process of retaking the city. Bitter street-by-street fighting slowed the advance, and heavy shelling and air bombardment was necessary to clear North Vietnamese positions. Large portions of Hue were reduced to rubble. Similar stories were seen in many of the cities that came under attack during Tet. Of the provincial capital of Ben Tre, one American officer commented "It became necessary to destroy it in order to save it." The fighting in Hue ended on February 25th, 1968, with a total of 119 American and 363 South Vietnamese soldiers dead. The North Vietnamese lost aproximately 8000 troops, and 6000 civilians also died in the carnage.

The remote American base at Khe Sanh began to come under attack in the weeks leading up to Tet. Two divisions of North Vietnamese troops massed around the base, and artillery began to pound the base incessantly. The first artillery barrage succeeded in damaging the runway and a few aircraft, and destroying the main ammunition bunker. Reinforcement and resupply of Khe Sanh had to be achieved by air, as the North Vietnamese had cut Route 9, the only road to the isolated base. The situation was degrading rapidly.

It was clear that the North Vietnamese Commander, Vo Nguyen Giap, was hoping for a repeat of the Dien Bien Phu, where French colonial forces had been defeated in 1954, leading to the eventual creation of an independent, communist North Vietnam. A repetition of such a victory would be a serious propaganda victory for the North Vietnamese, and the U.S. government made the decision to defend Khe Sanh at all costs. Air strikes broke up wave after wave of North Vietnamese attackers, with napalm, bombs and artillery sometimes being targeted within meters of the base perimeter.

The siege of Khe Sanh would last until April 6th, two and a half months later, when the base was finally relieved by South Vietnamese and American troops. Giap's dreams of another Dien Bien Phu proved fruitless, but the Tet Offensive would constitute a great propaganda victory for the North all the same. It proved, in the minds of much of the American people, and in their government, that the war was essentially unwinnable, and led to a gradual withdrawal of American forces from the region.

Over 4300 American and South Vietnamese soldiers were killed in action during the Tet Offensive. 16000 were wounded and over 1000 were missing in action. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong casualties numbered approximately 45000, with an additional 7000 taken prisoner. Large swaths of South Vietnamese cities were reduced to rubble, and the land around Khe Sahn was so heavily bombed that for years nothing grew there. The most intensive campaign of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive would eventually prove to be the decisive victory that Vo Nguyen Giap was looking for. Almost all American ground forces were withdrawn from the region by the middle of 1971, and South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese Army in 1975. This futile war had cost the United States $141 billion and had resulted in the deaths of almost 60 000 American servicemen.

     The Tet offensive was extremely detrimental to morale in the battlefield and at home. This was because up till that point the American public had been duped into believing that we were wearing down Viet Cong troops, when in reality more and more troops were joining the communist ranks every day. The South Vietnamese also became more anti-U.S. after Tet because many South Vietnamese lost their homes and had to live in dingy refugee camps. After seeing the gruesomeness of Tet on TV, the public turned against it.

An important side effect, maybe even the purpose of the Tet Offensive was the quasi-complete knockout of the Viet Cong as a combatant and political factor. After Tet, it was pretty much a NVA-only war on the communist side.

The Tet Offensive was a complicated milestone on the road to the Communist victory in Vietnam, and not all of the popular myths about it are true. For instance, it's true that it proved deeply shocking to the U.S. public and sapped political will for continuing the conflict, but it's incorrect to state that this was the whole purpose of the offensive in the first place. It's not at all clear that the Vietnamese Communists understood American society, or at least its present state, so clearly; in fact, they proved rather deficient even in understanding their southern cousins, because the stated objective of the offensive was to spark a general uprising against the Saigon regime, which failed to materialize. Measured by its own objectives, the Tet Offensive was a crushing failure, but it still contributed to the American defeat in unexpected ways.

The facts of the offensive have been ably summarized above. It was a co-ordinated attack by tens of thousands of Viet Cong and soldiers from North Vietnam on every major urban centre in South Vietnam. The attack was born out of a mixture of desperation and illusions about the situation as it existed in the South. Hanoi was in a state of turmoil in the months before the offensive, with a growing number of top political figures calling for some sort of negotiated end to the war and squaring off against hawks who wanted to press a military solution (so Commies aren't so unlike us, after all). Citing the devastating casualty rate being inflicted on the Viet Cong by the U.S. and southerners, the doves thought it was time to back down, whereas the hawks weighed the gravity of the situation and concluded that things are always darkest before the dawn (still sounding familiar), and that it was time for one last push.

The hawks eventually won out, handily assisted by the arrest of scores of dovish military officers, officials and intellectuals, including most of the staff of the famous defence minister, Vo Nguyen Giap, of whose ingenious strategy the Tet Offensive is often taken to be a part but who in fact was a leading moderate and opposed to the offensive. The proponents believed that one final push to humiliate the South Vietnamese military and government would inspire the people of South Vietnam to rise up in a general revolution and overthrow the regime, presumably booting the Americans out in the process. Hanoi was seduced by its own jaundiced portrayal of the Saigon regime as having no legitimacy whatsoever and ruling entirely by fear and coercion, to which the obvious answer was to show that the emperor had no clothes and let the oppressed masses do the rest. Unfortunately for them, the general uprising never occurred and they were left with a staggering military defeat.

For that is what it was. The Communists lost some ten times the dead that the South and the Americans did during the offensive, and they only succeeded in holding one major objective - the ancient capital city of Hue - for any length of time. During their brief reign there, they tortured and executed thousands of civilians who were associated with the Americans, the Saigon regime, or what they considered to be unsavoury social classes. The stories that emanated from Hue certainly gave South Vietnamese pause for thought about what life under their northern friends might be like, and assisted in the unprecedented mobilization of South Vietnamese society to the war effort in the aftermath of Tet. The necessity for American and southern forces to move to defend the cities also allowed the Communists to cement their grip on the countryside to an unprecedented degree.

But this didn't last. The Communist forces that had attacked the urban areas had made a critical miscalculation by abandoning the mode of warfare of the guerilla and engaging in conventional battle; it certainly speaks volumes about the physical bravery of the Viet Cong, and a little of their death cult ("Born in the north to die in the south" was a typical Viet Cong tattoo). But now their forces were scattered and fragmented, and their gains in the countryside were quickly completely reversed and their infrastructure dismantled.

By the end of 1968, the Viet Cong had no safe zones or territory to call their own across the whole of South Vietnam, and their ability to recruit in the South was sharply degraded, such that their ranks had to increasingly be filled by northerners. Some western historians even think that the neutralization of the Viet Cong was a Machiavellian ploy on the part of a faction of northern Communists who had come to realize that the guerilla forces could never triumph on their own and were increasingly an uncontrollable distraction from the conventional victory that would eventually win the war. After Tet, the scale of the guerilla conflict in South Vietnam was vastly reduced, and it is not to misperceive history to say that the Americans and South Vietnamese won it and the Viet Cong lost it.

But, like so many apparent victories in Vietnam, this proved to be a hollow one. Tet had the much-documented impact on U.S. will, contributed to the election of Richard Nixon with his "secret plan" to end the war, and provoked a broader mobilization of military resources in South Vietnam that allowed Nixon to implement his policy of withdrawing U.S. troops and a "Vietnamization" of the conflict. North Vietnam's leaders quickly caught on to how their campaign could be portrayed as having been a "victory" because of the psychological blows it dealt to the U.S., but they still had eight years to wait until finally conquering the South, their willingness to wait no doubt augmented by the discrediting of the hawkish faction following the military catastrophe of Tet.

When the North's victory finally came, it was through a conventional armoured assault against an inferior South Vietnamese force which had been relying for too long for the Americans to do its heavy lifting; the Americans, alas, were now gone, and not even their war planes returned to help out their old allies. Tet helped the North reach this point, but not in so direct or premeditated a way as has sometimes been supposed. The final victory was down as much to the old certainties of luck and conventional combat as the less sure ones of planning and guerilla combat. As a North Vietnamese colonel once responded to an American who reminded him that the latter had never been defeated on the battlefield: "That is true, but it is also irrelevant".

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