The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Background Essay

Title: Westmoreland and Taylor meet with press during Vietnam War
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By 1967, the war in Vietnam had become a bloody stalemate. In June of that year, a public opinion poll revealed that for the first time, more Americans opposed the war than supported it. At the same time, President Lyndon Johnson's popularity had dropped to below 40%. Faced with this situation, the beleaguered president initiated a "success campaign" to convince the American people that U.S. forces were making headway in the war. As part of that campaign, Johnson brought General William Westmoreland, commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, home in late 1967 to make the administration's case before Congress and the American people. Stepping off the plane in Washington, an optimistic Westmoreland told reporters, "I have never been more encouraged in the four years that I have been in Vietnam. We are making real progress." Later, in a speech before the National Press Club, Westmoreland announced that "we have reached a point where the end becomes to come into view." For the time being, Westmoreland's pronouncement helped calm a restive American public.

Title: Vo Nguyen Giap
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However, as Westmoreland made his assurances in the United States, the Communists were finalizing preparations for a massive offensive that would prove to be the turning point in the long war. By mid-1967, the leadership in Hanoi had decided that something had to be done to regain the initiative in the south. After a contentious debate among the military and political leadership about how to proceed, the decision was made to launch a general offensive to break the stalemate. The new campaign was designed to provoke a general uprising among the people in the south, shatter the South Vietnamese armed forces, and convince the United States that the war was unwinnable. The offensive would be launched in early 1968 during Tet, Vietnam's most important holiday, which marks the start of the lunar new year and when most of the South Vietnamese soldiers would be visiting family members away from their units. General Vo Nguyen Giap, although not originally a supporter of the decision to launch the offensive, was given responsibility for planning the campaign. The plan he devised called for simultaneous attacks on American bases and South Vietnamese cities and towns. Priority targets would be previously untouched urban centers, such as Saigon, Da Nang, and Hue.

During the fall of 1967, as part of his deception plan, Giap's forces attacked allied positions in the remote regions along South Vietnam's borders with Cambodia and Laos to draw U.S. forces away from the urban areas that would be struck during the offensive. Concurrent with this phase, a massive propaganda campaign was launched in the south to set the conditions for a popular uprising by the South Vietnamese population once the offensive was launched. The next phase of Giap's deception began January 21, 1968, when 20,000 North Vietnamese troops surrounded and attacked the Marine base at Khe Sanh. With this move, Giap hoped to further divert American attention away from the urban areas as his forces moved to their attack positions. General Westmoreland, convinced that Khe Sanh would be the target of the enemy offensive, quickly reinforced the Marines there and mounted a major aerial campaign against the attackers.

Title: Lyndon B. Johnson in White House situation room
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With Westmoreland and the White House focused on Khe Sanh, Communist forces made last minute preparations for the main offensive, which was set to commence early on January 31. However, despite Hanoi's careful preparations, there was confusion over the timing of the attack and the offensive was launched prematurely on the 30th when commanders in Viet Cong (VC) Region 5 launched attacks against Da Nang, Pleiku, Nha Trang, and nine other cities in central South Vietnam. These attacks provided advance warning for American and South Vietnamese defenders, who went on alert and moved to blocking positions in key areas.

In the early morning hours of January 31, the remaining VC and North Vietnamese forces launched a massive countrywide attack on the cities and towns of South Vietnam. During the initial 48 hours of the offensive, more than 80,000 Communists troops mounted near simultaneous assaults on 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 5 of 6 major cities, 64 district capitals, and more than 50 hamlets. Even with the warning provided by the premature attacks, the allies were not prepared for the scope and ferocity of the offensive.

Title: Girl and child amid the ruins of Saigon, Vietnam
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Saigon, which had not seen much combat before 1968, was attacked from several different directions, with 11 battalions comprising more than 4,000 troops focusing on key targets in the city's urban center while additional forces targeted the surrounding allied units and installations. The heaviest fighting in Saigon was in the Cholon district, but the most spectacular attack in the city was launched against the U.S. Embassy, located only a few blocks from the Presidential Palace. A VC squad of 19 sappers blew a hole in the embassy wall and pored into the embassy grounds. During the six-hour battle that ensued, the VC were all killed or captured, and the security of the embassy was reestablished. Although the attack on the embassy had failed, this small VC squad had demonstrated in dramatic fashion that there was absolutely no place in Vietnam that was secure from attack.

Some of the fiercest fighting of the offensive took place in the battle to recapture the old imperial city of Hue. On January 31, a force of 7,500 VC and North Vietnamese soldiers seized the city, which contained the Citadel, an ancient fortress. The Marines and South Vietnamese forces counterattacked to retake the city. The bloody house-to-house fighting lasted for 25 days, resulting in heavy casualties for both sides and leaving most of the city in ruins.

Even though the Tet Offensive took the Americans and South Vietnamese by surprise, U.S. and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops recovered quickly. With the exception of Hue, Cho Lon, and a few other places, the Communist forces were driven back in just a few days of intense fighting, and even where the fighting lasted longer, the allies prevailed in the end. At Khe Sanh, the Marines held against the North Vietnamese onslaught, inflicting heavy casualties on the attackers.

By the end of March, the initial phase of the offensive was over. There had been no spontaneous revolt by the South Vietnamese. The Communists had failed to capture or hold on to any of the major objectives they had attacked. During the heavy fighting, the North Vietnamese Army and VC had suffered more than 40,000 killed and 5,800 captured. By any measurement, the VC and North Vietnamese Army had sustained a major defeat, one from which the VC would never fully recover.

Despite the clear outcome of the offensive on the battlefield, the media coverage of the intense fighting and destruction had a tremendous impact on the president, Congress, and the American people, ultimately prompting a reevaluation of the nation's commitment in Vietnam. The American people were stunned that the Communists could launch such a widespread offensive when only a few months before the White House and Westmoreland had assured them that U.S. forces were "turning the corner." Pictures of the close-quarter fighting that appeared on television screens and in newspapers clashed with the administration's optimistic reports, widening the credibility gap, and shaking the confidence of the American people in their government and its efforts in Southeast Asia.

The president, beset by the antiwar movement and challenged politically within his own party, was told by Clark Clifford, his newly appointed secretary of defense, that there was "no end in sight." On March 31, still reeling from the impact of the offensive, a demoralized Johnson went on national television and announced a unilateral halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, calling for negotiations to end the war. Then he stunned the nation by saying that he would not run for reelection.

In military terms, the Tet Offensive had been a disaster for the Communists, but it illustrated only too clearly that the enemy appeared to have an inexhaustible supply of men and women willing to fight for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government. In the end, the Tet Offensive achieved a psychological victory at the strategic level, hounded a president from office, and proved to be the turning point of the war after which the problem was not how to win the war, but how to disengage.

James H. Willbanks

James H. Willbanks
Dr. James H. Willbanks is director of the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is a retired Army officer with 23 years service in the Infantry, including a combat tour as an adviser with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He holds a BA from Texas A&M University, and an MA and  PhD in history from the University of Kansas. Willbanks is the author of Abandoning Vietnam (2004), The Battle of An Loc (2005), and The Tet OffensiveA Concise History (2007).


Further Reading
Braestrup, Peter. Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet in Vietnam and Washington. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983; Gilbert, Marc Jason and William Head, eds. The Tet Offensive. Westport: Praeger, 1996; Hammel, Eric. Fire in the Streets: The Battle for Hue, Tet 1968. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1991; Nolan, Keith W. The Battle for Saigon: Tet 1968. New York: Pocket Books, 1996; Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001; Pisor, Robert. The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982; Willbanks, James H. The Tet Offensive—A Concise History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007; Wirtz, James J. The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.
 

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