Militarily, the war had not been going well for the Viet Cong (VC) and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), who were unable to compete with U.S. military firepower and mobility. Thanh had been in favor of scaling back operations in South Vietnam and conducting an even more protracted war to wear the Americans down. DRV Defense Minister General Vo Nguyen Giap, however, favored trying to end the war in one master stroke. In essence, he wanted to repeat his triumph over the French at Dienbienphu. With Thanh now dead, there was no other major opponent on the Politburo to Giap's plan. (However, according to Colonel Bui Tin, a former member of the PAVN general staff, the plan for the master stroke actually was proposed by Thanh in January 1967.)
Giap's plan borrowed from Chinese communist doctrine and was based on the concept of the "General Offensive." Following the General Offensive—in something of a one-two punch—would come the "General Uprising," during which the people of South Vietnam would rally to the communist cause and overthrow the Saigon government. The General Uprising was a distinctly Vietnamese element of revolutionary dogma.
The success of Giap's plan depended on three key assumptions: The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would not fight and would in fact collapse under the impact of the General Offensive, the people of South Vietnam would follow through with the General Uprising, and U.S. will to continue would crack in the face of the overwhelming shock.
The General Offensive was set for Tet 1968, the beginning of the Lunar New Year and the most important holiday in the Vietnamese year. The plans, however, were a tightly held secret, and the exact timing and objectives of the attack were withheld from field commanders until the last possible moment. Giap's buildup and staging for the Tet Offensive was a masterpiece of deception. Starting in the fall of 1967, VC and PAVN forces staged a series of bloody but seemingly pointless battles in the border regions and the northern part of South Vietnam near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
The battles at Loc Ninh and Dak To were part of Giap's "peripheral campaign" designed to draw U.S. combat units out of the urban areas and toward the borders. The operations also were designed to give communist forces experience in larger-scale conventional attack formations. In January 1968 several PAVN divisions began to converge on the isolated U.S. Marine outpost at Khe Sanh in northern I Corps, near the DMZ. Khe Sanh was a classic deception, and Giap depended on the Americans misreading history and seeing another Dienbienphu in the making. It worked. From January 21, 1968 until the point when the countrywide attacks erupted at Tet, the attention of most of the U.S. military and the national command structure was riveted on Khe Sanh. The battle became an obsession for President Lyndon Johnson, who had a scale terrain model of the Marine base built for the White House situation room.
Meanwhile, the Communists used the Christmas 1967 ceasefire to move their forces into position, while senior commanders gathered reconnaissance on their assigned objectives. In November 1967 troops of the 101st Airborne Division had captured a communist document calling for the General Offensive/General Uprising, but U.S. intelligence analysts dismissed it as mere propaganda. Such a bold stroke seemed too fantastic, because U.S. intelligence did not believe the Communists had the capability to attempt it.
One senior U.S. commander was not thrown off by the peripheral campaign. Lieutenant General Frederick C. Weyand, commander of U.S. II Field Forces headquartered in Long Binh some 15 miles east of Saigon, did not like the pattern of increased communist radio traffic around the capital, combined with a strangely low number of contacts made by his units in the border regions. On January 10, 1968 Weyand convinced General William Westmoreland to let him pull more U.S. combat battalions back in around Saigon. As a result, there were 27 battalions (instead of the planned 14) in the Saigon area when the attack came. Weyand's foresight would be critical for the Allies.
The countrywide communist attacks were set to commence on January 31, but the secrecy of Giap's buildup cost him in terms of coordination. At 12:15 A.M. on the morning of January 30 Da Nang, Pleiku, Nha Trang, and nine other cities in the center of South Vietnam came under attack. Commanders in Viet Cong Region 5 had started 24 hours too early. This was apparently because they were following the lunar calendar in effect in South Vietnam rather than a new lunar calendar proclaimed by the DRV leadership for all of Vietnam.
As a result of this premature attack, the Tet holiday ceasefire was canceled, ARVN troops were called back to their units, and U.S. forces went on alert and moved to blocking positions in key areas. Giap had lost the element of surprise.
At 0130 in the morning on January 31 the presidential palace in Saigon was attacked. By 3:40 A.M. the city of Hue was under attack and the Tet Offensive was in full swing. Before the day was over, 5 of 6 autonomous cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, and 64 of 245 district capitals were under attack.
With the exception of Khe Sanh, the ancient capital of Hue, and the area around Saigon, the fighting was over in a few days. Hue was retaken on February 25, and the area around Saigon was finally cleared on March 7. By March 20 PAVN units around Khe Sanh began to melt away in the face of overwhelming American firepower.
Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a tactical disaster for the Communists. By the end of March 1968 they had not achieved a single one of their objectives. More than 58,000 VC and PAVN troops died in the offensive, with the Americans suffering 3,895 dead and the ARVN losing 4,954. Non-U.S. Allies lost 214. More than 14,300 South Vietnamese civilians also died.
Giap had achieved great surprise, but he was unable to exploit it; he had violated the principle of mass. By attacking everywhere he had superior strength nowhere. Across the country the attack had been launched piecemeal, and it was repulsed piecemeal. Giap also had been wrong in two of his three key assumptions. The people of South Vietnam did not rally to the communist cause, and the General Uprising never took place—even in Hue, where communist forces held the city for the longest time. Nor did the ARVN fold. It required significant stiffening in certain areas, but on the whole it fought and fought well.
The biggest loser in the Tet Offensive was the Viet Cong. Although a large portion of the PAVN conducted the feint at Khe Sanh, VC guerrilla forces had led the major attacks in the South, and they suffered the heaviest casualties. The guerrilla infrastructure developed over so many years was wiped out. After Tet 1968 the war was run entirely by the North. The VC were never again a significant force on the battlefield. When Saigon fell in 1975, it was to four PAVN corps.
Giap, however, had been absolutely correct on his third major assumption. His primary enemy did not have the will. With one hand the United States delivered the Communists a crushing tactical defeat—and then proceeded to give them a strategic victory with the other. Thus, the Tet Offensive is one of the most paradoxical of history's decisive battles.
The Americans and the South Vietnamese government and military had been caught by surprise by both the timing and the intensity of the communist offensive but had still won overwhelmingly. Communist forces, and especially the VC, were badly hurt. As a follow-up, U.S. military planners immediately began to formulate plans to finish off the communist forces in the South. Westmoreland and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Earle Wheeler were preparing to request an additional 206,000 troops to finish the job, when a disgruntled staff member in the Johnson White House leaked the plan to the press. The story broke in The New York Times on March 10, 1968. With the fresh images of the besieged U.S. Embassy in Saigon still in their minds, the press and the public immediately concluded that extra troops were needed to recover from a massive defeat.
The Tet Offensive was the psychological turning point of the war. U.S. military historian Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall probably summed up the Tet Offensive best: "a potential major victory turned into a disastrous defeat through mistaken estimates, loss of nerve, and a tidal wave of defeatism." David T. Zabecki
Braestrup, Peter. Big Story. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1977.; Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! New York: Doubleday, 1971.; Palmer, Bruce, Jr. The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.; Palmer, Dave. Summons of the Trumpet. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1978.; Summers, Harry G. On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context. Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, 1981; Zabecki, David T. "Battle for Saigon." Vietnam (Summer 1989): 19–25.
David T. Zabecki