Highlighting History: How ‘Tet’ Began the End of Vietnam

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.

Leathernecks of the 3d Bn., Fourth Marine Regiment salute fallen Marines during Memorial Services held at Khe Sanh. The unit of the 3d Marine Division was joined by soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam during the Memorial Services. Marine Corps photo by SSgt Fred Lowe III

Leathernecks of the 3d Bn., Fourth Marine Regiment salute fallen Marines during Memorial Services held at Khe Sanh. The unit of the 3d Marine Division was joined by soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam during the Memorial Services. Marine Corps photo by SSgt Fred Lowe III

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?

DoD graphic by Regina Ali

DoD graphic by Regina Ali

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.

RF-4C Phantom II destroyed during the enemy attack against Tan Son Nhut during the Tet Offensive. Air Force photo

RF-4C Phantom II destroyed during the enemy attack against Tan Son Nhut during the Tet Offensive. Air Force photo

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.

A Leatherneck from 2nd Bn., Fifth Marines, fires his M-79 grenade launcher from a window in Hue University at a North Vietnamese sniper in a nearby building during the Battle of Hue. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. W. F. Dickman

A Leatherneck from 2nd Bn., Fifth Marines, fires his M-79 grenade launcher from a window in Hue University at a North Vietnamese sniper in a nearby building during the Battle of Hue. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. W. F. Dickman

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.

Leathernecks of "H" Co., 2nd Bn., Fifth Marines were equipped to meet any type of resistance as they combed the streets and alleys of battle-torn Hue, February 1968. Rubble from 25 days of street fighting and rocket and mortar attacks has long since been cleared away. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. W. F. Dickman

Leathernecks of “H” Co., 2nd Bn., Fifth Marines were equipped to meet any type of resistance as they combed the streets and alleys of battle-torn Hue, February 1968. Rubble from 25 days of street fighting and rocket and mortar attacks has long since been cleared away. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. W. F. Dickman

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.

During the Tet Offensive of 1968, military police soldiers escort a captured Viet Cong prisoner on U.S. Embassy grounds. Photo courtesy of Don Hirst, Army photographer

During the Tet Offensive of 1968, military police soldiers escort a captured Viet Cong prisoner on U.S. Embassy grounds. Photo courtesy of Don Hirst, Army photographer

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.

USAF C-130 taking off from the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Khe Sanh, 1968. Air Force photo

USAF C-130 taking off from the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Khe Sanh, 1968. Air Force photo

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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3 Responses to Highlighting History: How ‘Tet’ Began the End of Vietnam

  1. Andrey Min'kov says:

    America needs in Vietnam No. 2. Only one choice for the USnation – War or Death.

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