The offensive had long‐term conceptual origins in Vietnam's August Revolution of 1945, in which the Communist‐led Viet Minh had instigated popular uprisings in the cities to seize power from a puppet government Japan had installed before its defeat. Two decades later, as American commitment to the anti‐Communist government in Saigon deepened in the early 1960s, the Communists looked to that earlier event for inspiration. Lacking the military power to inflict outright defeat on the American military, the Communists had somehow to destroy American confidence that “limited war” could eventually bring victory for the United States. By sending armed forces directly into the South's cities and fomenting rebellion there, the Communists hoped to pull down the Saigon government or facilitate the rise to power of neutralists who would demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Even if the offensive did not bring immediate victory, the Communists calculated it would allow rural forces to disrupt the pacification program, destroy the American illusion of success, and induce the United States to enter negotiations in which Hanoi could bargain from a position of strength.
The plan formally approved by the Communist Party political bureau in Hanoi in July 1967 recognized that American, allied, and Saigon forces constituted a much more formidable foe than the shaky regime the August Revolution had toppled in 1945. The offensive therefore actually began in September 1967, with artillery‐supported assaults by the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), supported from the North, on the U.S. combat bases located along route 9 just south of the demilitarized zone, and then with operations in the central highlands, to test American reactions. The tests revealed that the Americans would remain in defensive positions; and although PAVN troops would face devastating firepower, massing for attack on these positions in remote areas could lure significant forces away from population centers.
The American response encouraged the Communists to position up to 40,000 regulars of Divisions 304, 320, 325, and 324B in December 1967 around Khe Sanh, a U.S. Marine outpost near the western end of route 9. The outpost was an attractive target because it lay only fourteen kilometers beyond the terminus of an improved road over which the PAVN could move heavy equipment. Upon detecting the Communist buildup, the American command increased forces defending the base to 6,000 troops, including a battalion of Saigon's Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). After the PAVN opened the attack with a massive artillery barrage on 21 January, the United States shifted 15,000 more troops from the South's 5 northern provinces to route 9. Fifty thousand U.S. troops eventually fought at or supported the base.
Despite superficial similarities between the situation at Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu, where the PAVN had overrun a French force in 1954, PAVN commanders knew they could not duplicate that feat in the face of massive American air and ground firepower. The battle was worth the effort to them because of the attention and resources it drew from the lowlands. Still, their orders were to destroy if possible one or more of the route 9 bases to facilitate the movement of PAVN regulars into the South. Although unable to create a major breach, a PAVN regiment overran the Special Forces/Civil Indigenous Defense Group camp at Lang Vei, eight kilometers west of Khe Sanh, on 7 February. Soviet‐supplied PT‐76 light amphibious tanks of the People's Army made their first appearance of the war at Lang Vei.
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence had detected preparations for attacks on urban centers, and in a few localities commanders had taken precautionary measures. But analysts did not believe the Communists were capable of achieving, or bold enough to attempt, what the evidence indicated they were planning. With General Westmoreland and Saigon's President Nguyen Van Thieu convinced that Khe Sanh was the Communists' primary target, Communist forces had begun attacking outposts around cities and towns. A mixed force of maneuver and guerrilla troops estimated at around 60,000 and composed largely of troops recruited and trained in the South, had then slipped past these outposts to enter 5 municipalities, 36 province capitals, and 64 district capitals.
In the night of 29 January, assault forces attacked government offices in Qui Nhon, Kontum, Pleiku, Darlac, and Nha Trang. Attacks in other cities began over the next two days. In Saigon, the sapper team that blasted into the U.S. Embassy compound captured the headlines, but attacks on Tan Son Nhut airfield, the ARVN general staff compound, government ministries, and the presidential palace involved larger forces and took greater effort to beat back. Tanks and helicopter gunships striking a battalion‐sized unit in Cholon leveled several city blocks. The attacks sputtered out in days, except in Hué, where a force of 7,500 Communist troops held out behind the walls of the old city until 24 February.
Only in scattered places did people join the Communists in demanding the establishment of “revolutionary administrations.” Despite initial disarray, the ARVN and Saigon government rallied rather than disintegrated. Perhaps half of the assault forces died in the attacks or retreat. Although the Communists increased control in rural areas when U.S. and Saigon forces redeployed to route 9 and the cities, they were unable to defend these gains when U.S. and ARVN units returned to the countryside.
The Communists launched follow‐up attacks against the cities in May and August, but the PAVN had taken such heavy casualties along route 9 that it could not move forward to support them, and forces attacking the lowlands suffered further grave depletion. The reasons for these disappointing results remained for years a source of controversy among the Communists themselves, who blamed inadequate PAVN involvement, too little time to organize popular participation, and decisions that left lowland forces too long in exposed positions. PAVN Gen. Tran Van Tra admitted in his memoir, Concluding the Thirty Years War (1982), that the offensive caused a decline in strength from which Communist forces did not recover for two years. With better planning, the Communists believed, the offensive could have brought the war to an end more quickly.
In the aftermath, General Westmoreland saw an opportunity to seize the initiative and requested 206,000 more troops, but for many Americans both the offensive and the request discredited claims that the war could be won soon or at an acceptable cost. Westmoreland's defenders blamed media coverage for turning public opinion against the war, but in fact the press generally accepted the official interpretation of Tet as a major military defeat for the Communists. It was evident nonetheless that the United States could not control the war's scope and duration. President Lyndon B. Johnson sought the advice of dovish civilians, announced he would not seek nomination for another term, declared a bombing halt over most of North Vietnam, and called for peace talks, which opened in May 1968. The offensive thus titled the United States away from expanding involvement and toward eventual withdrawal.
[See also News Media, War, and the Military; Vietnam War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Vietnam War: Changing Interpretations.]
Peter Braestrup , Big Story, 1977.
David Hunt , Remembering the Tet Offensive, Radical America (November 1977–February 1978), pp. 79–96.
Don Oberdorfer , Tet! The Turning Point in the Vietnam War, 1984.
Gabriel Kolko , Anatomy of a War, 1985.
Daniel Hallin , The Uncensored War, 1986.
William S. Turley , The Second Indochina War, 1986.
Philip B. Davidson , Vietnam at War, 1988.
Larry Berman , Lyndon Johnson's War, 1989.
James Wirtz , The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War, 1991.
Ngo Vinh Long , The Tet Offensive and Its Aftermath, in Jayne Werner and David Hunt, eds., The American War in Vietnam, 1993.
Ronnie E. Ford , Tet 1968: Understanding the Surprise, 1995.
William S. Turley
TET OFFENSIVE. In the spring of 1967, the communist Vietcong leadership began planning a nationwide offensive aimed at destroying the South Vietnamese government and forcing the Americans out of the Vietnam War. The communists were concerned about the growing U.S. military presence in Vietnam and their own mounting losses. The Vietcong believed that South Vietnam was ripe for revolution and saw the Saigon government as the weak link in the Allied war effort. The Politburo in Hanoi, in conjunction with leaders of the Vietcong, developed a plan for an all-out attack to take place during the Tet holiday at the end of January 1968. The communists expected that a general offensive, aimed primarily at South Vietnamese military and government installations, would encourage a majority of the citizens to turn against the Saigon government. The combination of military action and popular revolution would sweep away the Saigon regime, put in its place a procommunist slate of leaders, and thus force the United States to withdraw from the war. The communists christened their attack the Tong Cong Kich–Tong Khia Nghia, or TCK–TKN (General Offensive–General Uprising) plan.
The first phase of TCK–TKN began in the fall of 1967 with a series of attacks in western Vietnam near the
borders with Laos and Cambodia. These attacks were designed to draw allied forces away from urban centers in the eastern part of the country, and gave the communists more opportunity to infiltrate troops and stockpile supplies near dozens of key cities and towns. The allied leaders detected signs of an imminent enemy offensive that would likely take place around the Tet holiday but concluded that the thrust would be limited to the three northern provinces of South Vietnam.
In the early morning hours of 30 January 1968, the communists in the mid-northern section of South Vietnam began their offensive one day early, apparently the result of a miscommunication with Hanoi. They attacked nine cities, including Da Nang, Nha Trang, Pleiku, and Kontum, which gave allied forces partial warning before the main offensive began in the early morning hours of the thirty-first. The communists, however, still managed to achieve a large measure of tactical surprise. Approximately 84,000 communist soldiers attacked Saigon and five of the largest urban centers, thirty-six of forty-four
provincial capitals, and at least sixty-four of 242 district capitals. The communists wreaked havoc and caused confusion, but were soon overcome by the weight of American firepower and the surprisingly able resistance of the South Vietnamese army. With the exception of the city of Hué and the marine base at Khe Sanh, two battles that persisted until March, the offensive collapsed within the first week. As many as 45,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese army soldiers perished in the offensive, and the popular uprising failed to materialize. However, the offensive caused significant political turmoil in the United States and strengthened the hand of those who wanted to limit or extinguish the American role in Vietnam.
Davidson, Phillip B. Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1988.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1983.
Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! The Turning Point in the Vietnam War. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.
See alsoVietnam War .
The Tet Offensive marked a major turning point in the Vietnam War (1954–75). It began on the Vietnamese New Year holiday of Tet on January 30, 1968, and lasted three weeks, and involved a combined force of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (Communist civilian soldiers who fought alongside North Vietnamese troops) who attacked major South Vietnamese cities and outlying towns.
Shattered civilian life
Throughout Vietnam, cities that had been immune from the war were attacked and, in many cases, destroyed during the Tet Offensive. The attack was a shock to the South Vietnamese because Tet was the most important holiday in Vietnam. Its atmosphere of goodwill and cheer could be compared to the American Christmas holiday. No one was expecting escalated fighting.
The North Vietnamese did not win the Tet Offensive militarily. They did capture and hold many cities for three weeks, but in the end, they held none permanently. In addition, the uprising and defection of South Vietnamese revolutionaries they were hoping for never happened. Psychologically, however, the Tet campaign was a major victory for the North Vietnamese. Despite heavy American bombing and unceasing search-and-destroy missions, neither American military forces nor their South Vietnamese allies were able to protect any place in South Vietnam. The Tet Offensive proved the determination of the North Vietnamese forces.
Forced new U.S. policy
Back in America, Tet reinforced an already-growing antiwar sentiment. The general public had been assured by President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) that victory in Vietnam was just around the corner; the Tet Offensive proved just the opposite. To continue fighting the war would mean the loss of thousands of more American lives, greater economic sacrifice on the homefront, and the destruction of South Vietnamese homes and innocent lives. The price would be incredibly high, and the Tet Offensive promised as much.
In Washington, the Tet Offensive sparked great debate among military leaders and the Defense Department. The military wanted to take advantage of the Tet Offensive and expand America's presence in Vietnam. Many officials within the Defense Department doubted the wisdom of an escalation of war. They questioned even the continuation of fighting the war using the strategies currently in place. Their analysis showed that no progress had been made since mid-1965, and it seemed clear that either a new approach or end to U.S. involvement was necessary. President Johnson took the advice of the Defense Department and accepted the policy of Vietnamization, which meant pulling back and providing a shield behind which South Vietnam could rebuild its fighting forces with American weapons. From there, the country could fight its own war.