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Tet Offensive (1968)

Military offensive by the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, North Vietnamese Army) and the Viet Cong (VC) that proved to be a critical turning point of the American war in Vietnam. Beginning early on 30 January 1968, the Vietnamese new year (Tet) truce was broken when Viet Cong forces attacked 13 cities in the central region of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam). By the end of the day on 31 January, the communists had attacked 5 of 6 cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, and 64 of 245 district capitals. In one of the boldest attacks, a VC platoon managed to penetrate the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon for several hours. Although U.S. troops repelled the incursion, this bold challenge to American power in the heart of Saigon gained wide publicity, especially in the U.S. press.

In heavy fighting over the next several days, all the attacks throughout South Vietnam were countered by U.S. and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnamese Army) forces. The communist attackers incurred heavy casualties. The most bitter and prolonged fighting occurred in the city of Hue, where the communists made a major investment of forces, and in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. In these locations fighting raged for weeks, and in Hue much of the city was destroyed.

Militarily, the Tet Offensive failed to achieve Hanoi's military objectives. PAVN commander General Vo Nguyen Giap, although not completely in agreement with the decision to launch the offensive, believed that the plan might break the bloody stalemate between his troops and the large American expeditionary force. By launching a general offensive of simultaneous attacks throughout South Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) hoped that the ARVN would collapse and that South Vietnamese civilians would join the VC in a general uprising against Saigon. With its puppet government overthrown, the North Vietnamese government reasoned, the United States would be unable to continue the war. Initially, the scheme worked well. In several well-conceived diversions by Giap's troops, including the siege of the Khe Sanh Marine base, he lured several U.S. units to outlying areas. Meanwhile, he secretly supplied VC units and moved them into position for attacks on the cities and towns.

One of the myths of the Tet Offensive is that it caught U.S. and ARVN forces by surprise. The U.S. command anticipated the offensive but not its timing and intensity. U.S. commanders did not think that the communists would alienate the South Vietnamese population by attacking during Tet, nor did they anticipate that the communists would mount an offensive with all their available forces. As the offensive unfolded, however, the ARVN fought surprisingly well, no uprising occurred, and the PAVN and VC suffered perhaps 45,000 casualties, half of the force engaged. The VC units were so decimated that troops from North Vietnam had to take over most of the combat operations for the remainder of the war.

The offensive compounded problems for the South Vietnamese government, as it dramatically increased the number of refugees. It also proved to be both a strategic and public relations success for the South Vietnamese government, because the magnitude of the attack led Washington to begin a reassessment of costs and objectives in the war. Spokesmen for President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, including the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, had claimed right before Tet that the end of the war was in sight, but the offensive led many to challenge that claim. Westmoreland saw in the Tet Offensive an opportunity and requested 206,000 additional troops to mount a decisive counteroffensive. When news of his request appeared in the New York Times, however, many Americans interpreted it as an act of desperation and began demanding an end to the escalation. President Johnson, stunned by the ferocity and scope of the offensive and counseled by a number of his advisors against a widening of the war, denied Westmoreland's request.

In a nationally televised address on 31 March 1968, Johnson announced to a stunned nation that he was limiting the bombing of North Vietnam, calling for negotiations, and bowing out of the 1968 presidential election. The Tet Offensive did not end the American war, but it dramatically contradicted the Johnson administration's optimistic claims that the war was all but won. It also helped contribute to Richard M. Nixon's close victory in the November 1968 election. Although the fighting in Vietnam continued for another four years, the Tet Offensive marked a watershed in America's involvement in the war as well as in the tenor of American politics.

James H. Willbanks

Further Reading
Braestup, Peter. Big Story. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1977.; Gilbert, Marc Jason, and William Head, eds. The Tet Offensive. Westport, CT, and London: Praeger, 1996.; Hoang Ngoc Lung. General Offensives of 1968–69. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1981.; Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! The Turning Point in the Vietnam War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.; Schmitz, David F. The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinion. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

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