By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Here at DoDLive, we like to share military history with you on occasion to keep memories of the past alive so we can learn from them in the future. Well, today I have another little bit of history to pass along. This time, it has to do with the Tet Offensive.
A lot of us younger folks know the Tet Offensive had something to do with the Vietnam War, but that’s about it. Jan. 30 marks the 48th anniversary of the start of that campaign, so what better time than now to learn a little about it, right?
The Tet Offensive was a big deal because it marked the peak of U.S. involvement in the war. Before then, U.S. forces had been on the ground for more than three years, fighting with South Vietnam’s democratic government to try to expel the communist north. After Tet, however, U.S. troops’ numbers – and public support – started to erode.
But how? Why? Well, here’s the gist of it.
The Enemy’s Plan: Division and Collapse
Although the U.S. had better trained troops, more air power and more artillery than the North Vietnamese government, both sides were at a stalemate in early 1968. So the leader of the north, Ho Chi Minh, set about a plan to break that.
On Jan. 30, 1968, in a wave of coordinated surprise attacks, Ho Chi Minh sent 70,000 of his troops and members of the Viet Cong — guerilla allies from the south — to overrun military bases, towns and cities in South Vietnam, including the capital, Saigon. His goal was two-fold:
- To cause South Vietnamese troops to collapse and its communities to turn against Saigon’s leaders.
- To drive a wedge between U.S. and South Vietnamese troops.
Managing the Element of Surprise
How was the enemy able to get the jump on U.S. and South Vietnamese troops? It all had to do with timing.
Tet is a huge holiday in Vietnam marking the start of the Lunar New Year. In the first few years of the Vietnam War, there had been decreased fighting around the holiday, so U.S. troops and its allied forces thought that would continue in 1968.
But enemy leaders saw it as the perfect time to pounce. Not only would the Allies be unprepared, but holiday travelers would provide good cover for the Viet Cong to make their move.
The Battle for Hue
While American and South Vietnamese troops were caught off-guard by the attacks, they were able to quickly retake most territory the enemy captured, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, where the Viet Cong had managed to breach the outer walls.
But the Battle for Hue City was a different story. Enemy invaders quickly overwhelmed the city’s government, took control of its ancient citadel and executed thousands of residents. It took nearly a month for Allied troops to regain control there, and it came at huge costs — hundreds of U.S. troops and thousands of communist soldiers lost their lives.
Hue’s losses were costly off the battlefield, too. While U.S. military leaders claimed we were winning the war, journalists – who were given unprecedented access to military engagements at Hue – painted a different picture. And that changed everything.
Militarily, a U.S. Win; Publicly, an Ugly Turning Point
The Tet Offensive ended in early April 1968 as a military defeat for the communists. The enemy failed to keep any captured territory, the Viet Cong’s southern infrastructure was decimated, the South Vietnamese refused to embrace the north’s ideals, and thousands of enemy fighters died.
At the same time, though, it was a huge loss for the U.S. cause. The shocking images coming out of Vietnam vividly showed the horrors of the war, and many were shocked by the enemy’s resilience. Tet made it clear that a U.S. victory in Vietnam was not imminent, and the American public’s support began to wane.
After Tet, U.S. generals at the heart of the campaign asked to add to the more than 500,000 troops already in Vietnam, hoping to start a counteroffensive. But President Lyndon B. Johnson and other leaders, taking note of growing anti-war sentiment at home, chose to do the opposite. Troop limitations were announced, and there was a halt on bombings. De-escalation began.
Essentially, the Tet Offensive was the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War. It took seven more years of fighting to officially come to a close, but that attack by the north is what started the negotiations.
That’s your little bit of history for this month. Keeping checking back with DoDLive from time to time for more on crucial events from the military’s past!
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