Tet Offensive marked the end of illusions and the hope of victory in Vietnam

The end of illusions and the hope of victory in Vietnam

For years the American brass had dreamed of finding a way to draw Viet Cong guerrillas and the North Vietnamese regulars into big head-on fights, where overwhelming U.S. firepower could decimate their ranks and force the Communists into peace talks on U.S. terms.

The generals got what they wanted in late January 1968. As Vietnamese north and south began to celebrate their lunar New Year, or Tet, tens of thousands of Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars launched their biggest offensive of the war, striking military and civilian targets — the capital Saigon, 36 provincial capitals, 64 district headquarters — from the Mekong Delta in the south to the Demilitarized Zone in the north.

The two-month offensive was the first phase of a multistage Communist escalation of violence across South Vietnam that made 1968 the deadliest year of the conflict for the Americans.

U.S. Marines cross the Perfume River in a landing craft for an assault on the ancient imperial capital of Hue, keeping a close eye on any enemy activity on the river's shoreline. John Olson/Stars and Stripes BUY PHOTO

The Tet Offensive transformed the Vietnam War – and America itself.

By nearly every military metric, Tet and a series of “mini-Tets” that followed were huge defeats for the Communists. They failed to hold any of their major objectives. They failed to trigger a popular uprising against U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government.

Their underground network of civilian cadres and Viet Cong irregulars was nearly destroyed, weakening Communist control in many southern areas and forcing the North Vietnamese to assume a greater burden in the fighting.

Nevertheless, Tet proved to be a decisive strategic victory for the Communists, paving the way for their final victory seven years later. Tet ripped away the façade of optimism carefully crafted by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration and destroyed Americans’ confidence in their government – never fully restored to this day.

It destroyed Johnson’s presidency, opening the door for his successor, President Richard Nixon, who himself resigned years later in the Watergate scandal.

Tet forced the U.S. political establishment to confront basic questions it had avoided throughout the country’s long descent into war – how long will it take to win in Vietnam, how much will it cost and is victory worth the price?

Over time the answer became “no.”


Three weeks before Tet, the U.S. military press office in Saigon briefed reporters on the contents of a Viet Cong notebook found by U.S. intelligence months earlier: “The central headquarters has ordered the entire army and people of South Vietnam to implement a general offensive” with “very strong attacks” to “flood the lowlands” and “rally (South Vietnamese) brigades and regiments to our side one by one.”

The brass didn’t believe it. The notebook had been found near the DMZ, where the Communists were massing for a major assault on the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh.

The top U.S. commander, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, believed the notebook was planted by the Communists to trick the U.S. into diverting resources and attention from Khe Sanh. In fact, the Communist plan was the reverse – attack isolated rural positions to draw U.S. forces away from major population centers.

The Communist plan unfolded soon after midnight Jan. 30 when Viet Cong guerrillas backed by North Vietnamese soldiers struck six provincial capitals in northern and central South Vietnam with rockets, mortars and ground assaults.

Guided by local cadres, the Communists focused on South Vietnamese army headquarters and the provincial radio stations. However, the early assaults were poorly coordinated. By sunrise nearly all the attacks had been beaten back.

"I saw the possibility of destroying the enemy’s will to continue the war."

U.S. military intelligence warned the top command to expect similar attacks across the country over the next 48 hours, and all American and South Vietnamese units were placed on full alert.

However, the warning came after many South Vietnamese soldiers had been given leave for the Tet holiday, and their units were not at full strength.

As predicted the Communists launched a massive attack at 3 a.m. Jan. 31, striking Saigon, nearby Cholon, American bases at Phi Bai and Chu Lai in the north, the old imperial capital of Hue as well as other major towns and bases in the central and south of the country.

More assaults followed the next day. In all about 84,000 Communists – southern Viet Cong guerrillas and well-equipped North Vietnamese regulars – joined the fight. Within hours, the whole country was aflame.

Faced with an unprecedented enemy offensive, Westmoreland sought to convey an image of calm and confidence. Months before, the general had toured the United States on a presidential-directed “charm offensive” to convince a skeptical American public that the U.S. was gaining the upper hand in South Vietnam and that victory was in sight.

Despite a public face of calm, aides have said Westmoreland was shocked that the Communists had been able to mount such an operation in secret. Some have described Westmoreland as “dispirited and deeply shaken.” He clung to the belief that Khe Sanh was the real target, even as fighting was raging in Saigon.

Initially, most of the attention was focused on Saigon, home to the South Vietnamese government, the U.S. Military Assistance Command-Vietnam, or MACV, the American Embassy and the large American media corps.

The Communists focused on six major targets, including the South Vietnamese General Staff at Tan Son Nhut Air Base; the presidential palace; the U.S. Embassy; South Vietnamese naval headquarters; and the main government radio-TV station.

The plan was for small teams to seize those locations and hold out until reinforcements arrived or until the South Vietnamese people rose up against the Americans and the South Vietnamese leadership.

Events didn’t go according to plan.

Attackers seized the national broadcast center, where they intended to air a tape of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh calling for a popular uprising. But South Vietnamese workers cut the cable from the studio to the broadcast tower. Communist attackers held out for six hours until they ran out of ammunition, then blew up the station and themselves.

At the U.S. Embassy, a 19-member team blasted a hole in the compound wall and raced inside the four-acre grounds. Marine guards kept them out of the main building, but attackers held out on the grounds for hours until American reinforcements arrived.

All the attackers were killed or captured and five Americans died before the grounds were secured – but not before photos and video of the embassy fighting were transmitted to a stunned American public unprepared for scenes of chaos.

Elsewhere, small teams of guerrillas roamed the city looking for South Vietnamese military officers, police, government employees and their families – many of whom were shot on the spot.

On Feb. 1, the chief of the South Vietnamese National Police captured one of the team – a Viet Cong officer – in civilian clothes and shot him in front of an American news photographer and cameraman. Their graphic images captured the VC officer’s grimacing face at the very moment of death.

Years later, the photographer, Eddie Adams of The Associated Press, said he sympathized with the killing because the VC officer was part of an assassination squad. But the stunning photo, which won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography, elicited a different reaction in the United States, where it came to be known as “the picture that lost the war” because of its negative effect on American public opinion.

Some of the fiercest fighting raged in the densely packed, ramshackle Chinese suburb of Cholon, where the Communists established a command center at a racetrack. House-to-house fighting was so intense that the area was declared a free-fire zone until South Vietnamese Rangers defeated the last Communist holdouts March 7.

As U.S. and South Vietnamese forces contained the fighting in the Saigon area, the spotlight shifted to Hue, the former royal capital that had been under attack since Day 2 of the offensive.

Communist forces had overrun most of the city, defended by South Vietnamese troops, before MACV in Saigon grasped the severity of the situation. U.S. Marines from the 1st Marine Division and South Vietnamese soldiers were dispatched into the city while the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division sealed off routes used by the Communists to reinforce and resupply their forces there.

Inside Hue, Marines fought house-to-house in the bloodiest urban combat faced by the Americans since the Battle of Seoul in the Korean War. The city was not recaptured until Feb. 25. Troops found mass graves of up to 2,800 South Vietnamese civilians – men, women and children – who had been massacred by the Communists.


With the recapture of Hue, the worst of the Tet Offensive was over, although serious fighting raged over much of the country through the spring and summer. In the north, the U.S. broke the siege of the Marines at Khe Sanh when three brigades of the 1st Cavalry Division reached the outpost April 8.

In the United States, however, the effects of Tet were roiling the American political establishment and the population at large. The American public, told for years that the war was on track, were unprepared for the intense media coverage, including TV scenes of Americans slaughtered in a distant, poorly understood war.

In mid-February, CBS News Anchorman Walter Cronkite visited Vietnam and returned with a grim report that he delivered on the most widely watched news show in America. “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victims, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and do the best they could,” Cronkite said.

A U.S. Marine radios as his two comrades watch out for the enemy as Dong Ba gate and tower, part of the eastern outer walls surrounding the Citadel tower in Hue loom over them. John Olson/Stars and Stripes BUY PHOTO

The Wall Street Journal warned in a Feb. 23 editorial that “we think the American people should be getting ready to accept, if they haven’t already, the prospect the whole Vietnam effort may be doomed…”

The U.S. military saw the situation differently. MACV estimated that the Communists had suffered severe casualties — by some estimates up to 17,000 dead and about 20,000 wounded in the initial phase alone.

With the Communists on their heels, Westmoreland believed it was time for a major counterstrike, with attacks on sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia and across the DMZ into North Vietnam.

He asked for more than 100,000 reinforcements to pursue his plan.

“If I could execute those moves fairly rapidly following the heavy losses the enemy had incurred in the Tet Offensive, I saw the possibility of destroying the enemy’s will to continue the war,” Westmoreland wrote in his 1976 memoirs.

But Johnson and his inner circle would have none of it.

They feared that meeting Westmoreland’s request would have forced a huge increase in the unpopular draft and bankrupted the Treasury if the U.S. were to maintain its Cold War commitments elsewhere, including Europe.

The American public, Johnson believed, would not stand for it.

“The American people were never involved,” Barry Zorthian, an ex-Marine and former chief U.S. spokesman in Vietnam, told National Public Radio. “They were told to go about their normal, prosperous lives while we were fighting this nasty little war in Southeast Asia. Suddenly you turn around and we’ve got a half million out there and more on the way. No limit to it.”

In early March, anti-war Sen. Eugene McCarthy nearly tied Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. Four days later, a far more popular candidate, Sen. Robert Kennedy, entered the race. And two World War II icons, Gen. Omar Bradley and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, told Johnson the war was lost.

On March 31, Johnson went on national television to announce a near halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, an offer to the North for negotiations — and that he would not seek the Democratic nomination for president.

Gone was the hope of victory. But the war — and the dying — would drag on for years.

By ROBERT H. REID | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 12, 2017