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.