Tet Offensive Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Viet Cong began a massive series of attacks against South Vietnam during a major Vietnamese holiday. Although the attacks were unsuccessful, their sheer scale surprised the American public, which had been told that North Vietnam was near defeat, and turned public opinion against the war.

Summary of Event

On the night of January 30, 1968, Viet Cong Viet Cong and North Vietnamese military units began a surprise offensive throughout Vietnam. They attacked thirty-nine of South Vietnam’s forty-four provincial capitals, five of its six autonomous cities, and at least 71 of the 245 district towns. A Viet Cong unit even penetrated the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon before its members were killed in a furious gunfight. All over Vietnam, cities that previously had been immune to the war were attacked, occupied, and in some cases nearly destroyed, as U.S. and Vietnamese troops moved in to liberate them. Tet Offensive (1968) Vietnam War (1959-1975);Tet Offensive [kw]Tet Offensive Begins (Jan. 30, 1968) [kw]Offensive Begins, Tet (Jan. 30, 1968) Tet Offensive (1968) Vietnam War (1959-1975);Tet Offensive [g]Southeast Asia;Jan. 30, 1968: Tet Offensive Begins[09660] [g]Vietnam;Jan. 30, 1968: Tet Offensive Begins[09660] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 30, 1968: Tet Offensive Begins[09660] [c]Vietnam War;Jan. 30, 1968: Tet Offensive Begins[09660] Clifford, Clark Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;Vietnam War Rusk, Dean Westmoreland, William Wheeler, Earle Gilmore

The war had been going on since 1946, but there had never been fighting like this. Two months later, on March 31, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the American people on television to announce that in the pursuit of peace, he was ordering a partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, and that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic presidential nomination.

The United States had been supporting the Saigon government of South Vietnam since Vietnam had been divided in 1954. The military situation had been steadily deteriorating during those years, and in July, 1965, President Johnson made a fateful decision: Henceforth, U.S. troops not only would be used in a defensive capacity to protect U.S. airfields but also would go on the offensive. U.S. military units would carry the fight to the enemy in what became known as search-and-destroy missions.

The new policy, strongly backed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and General Earle Gilmore Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was to defeat the enemy. This aggressive policy required more U.S. troops. In June, 1965, there were fewer than 60,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. By the year’s end, that number had grown to 184,300. A year later, it had moved to 385,300; by the end of 1967, nearly a half million U.S. troops were stationed in Vietnam. The war had been Americanized.

This strategy led to increased U.S. casualties, but it did not lead to an end of the war. As U.S. troops continued to die and peace was not in sight, public support for the war began to decline. To stop this trend, President Johnson orchestrated a series of optimistic statements by key civilian and military leaders late in 1967. The American people were assured that progress was being made, that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Meanwhile, the United States continued its strategy of making the price of war so high that the North Vietnamese would have to give up. Search-and-destroy missions and U.S. bombing of North Vietnam continued. However, there was a limit to the military effort the United States would make in Vietnam: Bombing of North Vietnam would stop short of provoking a confrontation with China or Russia. U.S. troops would be limited to a number that would not require total mobilization of the U.S. economy, something the U.S. people would not tolerate. Although a limited war, this was not a small military effort. A half million troops had been sent; 400,000 air attack sorties per year had dropped 1.2 million tons of bombs. The enemy had lost 200,000 killed and the United States 20,000 of its own. That was the situation when Vietnam prepared to celebrate the lunar new year of Tet.

Tet was the most important holiday in Vietnam, a time for rejoicing and traveling to see friends and relatives. It was not a time for war but a time for truce. Yet in Saigon, General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, knew something was going to happen. The enemy had been building up its forces, and captured documents indicated an offensive of some kind. That the offensive came on Tet was a surprise. That it was so large and well coordinated was a shock.

Significance

Precisely what the North Vietnamese sought to gain from the Tet Offensive is not clear. The captured documents indicated that they thought large areas could be seized through popular uprisings against the South Vietnamese government and the defection of whole units of the South Vietnamese army. In addition to these military goals, there were psychological victories to be won. A forceful attack would discourage the United States and show the people of South Vietnam that neither their own government nor the United States could protect them.

Militarily, the North Vietnamese lost. Although they were able to capture several cities and to hold out in the old imperial city of Hue for more than three weeks, in the end they held no city and there was no popular uprising or large-scale defection. In fact, the South Vietnamese rallied to the defense of their country to a far greater extent than they yielded to the enemy forces. Psychologically, however, Tet was a North Vietnamese victory. They had demonstrated that there was no “light at the end of the tunnel.” All the U.S. bombing and search-and-destroy missions had not prevented North Vietnam from attacking virtually any place in South Vietnam. It was not important whether Hanoi had won any military victories in the battles that were fought during the Tet Offensive. What was important to U.S. officials and the American people was that little had been accomplished during two and a half years of major U.S. fighting, and too much remained to be accomplished before peace would be at hand.

Tet reinforced the U.S. public’s dissatisfaction with the war. Perpetuation of the U.S. policy would result in more deaths, greater economic sacrifice at home, destruction of countless South Vietnamese towns, and the extension of human suffering over ever larger areas of Vietnam. Even then, there was no assurance of victory. North Vietnam had promised a long war, and the Tet Offensive showed that the price would be high. The American people gradually concluded they did not want to pay that price.

Within official Washington, the Tet Offensive sparked a major debate. Military leaders concluded that Hanoi had been defeated and urged the president to take advantage of this victory and expand the war. Within the Defense Department, however, a growing number of civilian officials, among them Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, doubted the wisdom of escalation or even continuation of the way the war was being fought. Their analyses showed that no progress had been made since the summer of 1965. They advised the president that the policy of confronting the enemy on the field of battle had failed. It was time to pull back and provide a shield behind which the South Vietnamese army would rebuild with U.S. arms. Thus rebuilt, South Vietnam would fight its own war. Lyndon Johnson rejected escalation and reluctantly accepted this policy of Vietnamization. Peace was still a long way off, but the course of U.S. withdrawal had been charted. Tet Offensive (1968) Vietnam War (1959-1975);Tet Offensive

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blood, Jake. The Tet Effect: Intelligence and the Public Perception of War. New York: Routledge, 2005. Examines the role of U.S. military intelligence in shaping an overly optimistic public perception of the Vietnam War at the end of 1967, thereby creating the situation in which the Tet Offensive could be as shocking to the public as it was. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braestrup, Peter. Big Story. Abridged ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. Examines the reporting of the Tet Offensive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Phillip B. Vietnam at War: The History 1946-1975. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1988. Presents a comprehensive history of the Vietnam War from a military perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Esper, George. The Eyewitness History of the Vietnam War, 1961-1975. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983. A chronological overview of the war with eyewitness accounts and some of the war’s most famous photographs. Includes a chapter on the Tet Offensive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moss, George Donelson. Vietnam: An American Ordeal. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990. One of the most thorough analyses of the Vietnam War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! The Turning Point of the Vietnam War. Reprint. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. A landmark account of the Tet Offensive, essential for anyone studying this portion of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmitz, David F. The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinion. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. Study of the Tet Offensive as the fulcrum at the center of the Vietnam War. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Westmoreland, William C. A Soldier Reports. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. An important account by a general who was in charge of the U.S. military effort in Vietnam.

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