The Tet Offensive: America’s Wake-up Call in the Vietnam War
During the Vietnam War both sides traditionally called a cease-fire during Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year. During Tet of 1968, however, the Communists announced a truce but then launched a stunning offensive, attacking almost every major city in South Vietnam. This action caught the U.S. command in Vietnam off-guard. They were convinced the Communist forces had been weakened and were in no shape to launch a large-scale attack—but they underestimated their foe’s strength and determination. This military action was a major turning point in the way many Americans perceived the war; shocked and dismayed by the enemy’s show of strength, public support for the war waned.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the Jan. 31, 1968, issue of the Dallas Morning News (Texas)
In the weeks leading up to Tet, the Communists and members of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) began gathering men and equipment in preparation for the offensive. The purpose was to strike both military and civilian command centers throughout South Vietnam. They hoped that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would disintegrate in panic and confusion, and the civilian population rise up and help topple the Saigon government and President Ngo Dinh Diem, putting an end to the bloody war. In mid-January of 1968 a large force moved near Khe Sanh in the remote northwest corner of South Vietnam. This build-up of troops led U.S. commanders to believe an attack would take place in the northern provinces. Early in the morning of January 21st a barrage of mortars and rockets slammed into the Marine base at Khe Sanh killing 18 Marines and wounding another 40.
On the morning of January 31, over 80,000 combined Communist and Viet Cong forces began their Tet Offensive. Close to 100 major cities and provinces in South Vietnam were simultaneously attacked. Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was heavily hit. A number of Viet Cong stormed the U.S. Embassy and remained inside for several hours before being killed. The fighting in some cities lasted only a few hours, in others it went on for days. In the case of Hue the fighting lasted for nearly a month. After the U.S. and ARVN forces finally recaptured the city they discovered several mass graves containing the bodies of Communist Party “enemies.”
The initial attacks of the Tet Offensive stunned the allies. However, most of the assaults were contained and then beaten back. By the end of the fierce fighting, 37,000 Viet Cong troops had been killed; many more were wounded or captured. Casualties included most of the Viet Cong’s best fighters, political officers, and secret organizers. The fighting created more than 500,000 civilian refugees. The Communists and Viet Cong claimed a political and psychological victory even though strategically the offensive failed to achieve its goals. For the Americans, who lost 2,500 men, the Tet Offensive was a fatal blow to public support for the war.
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