January-February, 1968: Tet Offensive Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnam army opened a new phase of the war by launching surprise attacks on most major cities and towns of South Vietnam. The campaign began at the start of Tet, the Vietnamese celebration of the new year in the lunar calendar. The United States had nearly 500,000 troops stationed in Vietnam, and the army of South Vietnam was not entirely reliable. The Viet Cong guerrilla forces included about 200,000 fighters, and the North Vietnam army had some 100,000 troops in the south. The Americans enjoyed an overwhelming superiority in military technology and air power.

On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnam army opened a new phase of the war by launching surprise attacks on most major cities and towns of South Vietnam. The campaign began at the start of Tet, the Vietnamese celebration of the new year in the lunar calendar. The United States had nearly 500,000 troops stationed in Vietnam, and the army of South Vietnam was not entirely reliable. The Viet Cong guerrilla forces included about 200,000 fighters, and the North Vietnam army had some 100,000 troops in the south. The Americans enjoyed an overwhelming superiority in military technology and air power.

The leadership of North Vietnam began to prepare for the Tet Offensive in July, 1967. Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap’s goal was to win the war quickly in one master stroke. Influenced by Chinese communist theory, Giap’s doctrine of a “general offensive” assumed that a coordinated attack would be followed by a “general uprising” of the Vietnamese people. To surprise the enemy, the timing and objectives of the offensive were withheld from field commanders until the last possible moment.

The Offensive Begins

In the fall of 1967, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces began diverting U.S. forces from urban centers by initiating a series of random but bloody attacks in isolated border garrisons. In November, 1967, the 101st Airborne Division captured a communist document suggesting a general offensive, but U.S. intelligence analysts dismissed it as unrealistic. During the Christmas, 1967, cease-fire, the communists started moving their forces into position. Beginning on January 21, 1968, they attacked the marine outpost in Khe Sanh near the demilitarized zone, successfully deceiving most U.S. leaders into expecting a concentrated attack on Khe Sanh. However, one commander, Lieutenant General Frederick Weyand, expecting a possible attack around Saigon, convinced General William Westmoreland to increase the combat battalions in the region from fourteen to twenty-seven.

The massive offensive was actually scheduled to start on January 31. Confused by the new lunar calendar of North Vietnam, however, commanders in the center of South Vietnam began their campaigns twenty-four hours too early, attacking Da Nang, Pleiku, and nine other central cities. As a result, U.S. forces went on alert, minimizing the element of surprise.

On January 31, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces attacked 36 of the provincial capitals, 64 of the 245 district capitals, and 5 of the 6 autonomous cities. Initially, the attackers were able to occupy several cities, including much of Saigon. A Viet Cong suicide squad even managed to penetrate the U.S. Embassy compound before they were finally killed by Marine guards. Most cities were retaken within a few days, although the Saigon region was not cleared of Viet Cong guerrillas until March 7.

The communists’ greatest success was in the imperial city of Hue. After the North Vietnamese conquered Hue, they executed an estimated 3,000 residents accused of collaboration with the enemy. The U.S. military subjected the city, including its huge citadel, to sustained bombardment. An estimated 10,000 soldiers and civilians died in the battle for Hue. By February 25, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had regained control of the city.

U.S. Marines hold a position overlooking a street in Hue during the Tet Offensive in February, 1968. (AP/Wide World Photos)

By the end of the Tet Offensive, more than 58,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops were dead, with the Americans suffering 3,895 deaths and the South Vietnamese army losing 4,957. Also, some 14,300 South Vietnamese non-combatants died in the fighting.

Significance

The Vietnamese communists suffered a military defeat, and the Viet Cong was destroyed as an effective organization. The Tet Offensive, nevertheless, convinced the majority of the American public that the war in Vietnam could not be won easily or quickly–a perception that greatly encouraged the antiwar movement. Shortly thereafter, President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to agree to General Westmoreland’s request for an additional 200,000 soldiers, and on March 31, Johnson announced a halt to the bombing combined with efforts to negotiate a peace settlement.

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