The Tet Offensive (January 30, 1968 – September 30, 1968) was a military campaign during the Vietnam War (1959-1975) in which the combined forces of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the North Vietnamese Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) attacked almost every major city and province in South Vietnam. Despite its failure to obtain key South Vietnamese cities, the Tet Offensive was said to have increased the American public’s disenchantment towards their country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Did the Tet Offensive really undermine popular support for the Vietnam War? Can the researcher find evidence how did this happen?
A chronological approach to covering the Tet Offensive will enable the reader to draw the factors behind it, as well as its consequences on the Vietnam War. A general introduction to the Vietnam War will further add clarity to the explanation of the Tet Offensive.
The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War (likewise referred to as the Second Indochina War) was a military conflict in Vietnam wherein the North Vietnamese and the NLF fought against the US armed forces and the South Vietnamese military. In the First Indochina War (1946-1954), the Vietnamese obtained their sovereignty from France through armed struggle, resulting in the temporary division of the country into North and South Vietnam. The Vietnamese Communists who opposed France and sought for the unification of Vietnam under Communist rule inhabited North Vietnam. The non-Communist Vietnamese, on the other hand, controlled South Vietnam.
US military intervention in Vietnam was based on the “domino theory” – should Vietnam fall under Communism, so would all the other countries in Southeast Asia. The anti-Communist South Vietnamese government, therefore, was helped created by the US government as a response to the Communist “threat” in Vietnam. But the repressive policies of the South Vietnamese government led to the foundation of the NLF in 1960. The objectives of the NLF were “(to overthrow) the government of South Vietnam and (to reunify) the country.”
To avert the collapse of the South Vietnamese government, the US began sending troops to Vietnam in 1965. But the North managed to defeat the combined forces of the US and the South – South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975. By 1976, the entire Vietnam officially became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The Vietnam War resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3.2 million Vietnamese, at least 1.5 million Lao and Cambodians who fought alongside the North and almost 58,000 Americans.
France occupied Vietnam, along with Cambodia and Laos, as part of French Indochina from the 1880s until World War II. But in 1940, Japan seized and controlled French Indochina. Viewing the chaos brought about by World War II as an opportunity for their country’s sovereignty, Vietnamese nationalists formed the League of the Independence of Vietnam (Viet Minh) in May 1941. It must be noted that the Viet Minh was a front organization of the Indochinese Communist Party.
The Viet Minh then allied itself with the US and waged a guerilla war against the Japanese. Meanwhile, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), turned Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh into a special OSS agent. After Japan formally surrendered to the Allies on September 2, 1945, Ho declared the independence of Vietnam, which he referred to as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). A week before this declaration, Emperor Bao Dai, the nominal ruler of Vietnam when the country was still under the French, had already abdicated the throne.
But after World War II, the US got itself involved in the Cold War. Consequently, its foreign policy was heavily geared towards the elimination of Communism. With Eastern Europe and China already under Communism, the US felt that it had to gain control of Southeast Asia. As part of its anti-Communism stance, the US branded Ho as an “agent of international Communism” and supported the French in its attempts to regain control over Vietnam.
When France failed to reinvade Vietnam through arms, it resorted to international pressure. From May 8 to July 21, 1954, representatives from France, the United Kingdom, the USSR, China, the US, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia gathered in Geneva, Switzerland to sign the Geneva Accords. The Geneva Accords “provided for a ceasefire throughout Vietnam and a temporary partition of the country at the 17th parallel.” DRV (North Vietnam) will be ruled by Ho, while Emperor Bao Dai will control South Vietnam. In order to continue its interference in Vietnamese state affairs, the US did not become a signatory in the Geneva Accords.
Under coercion from the US, Bao Dai appointed Ngo Dinh Diem as the prime minister of South Vietnam in June 1954. The US likewise established the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1955, which aimed to “protect” South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from Communist subversion or insurrection. The US eventually used SEATO as a justification for its deployment of its soldiers to Vietnam.
By the 1960s, the US and South Vietnam were already engaged in an open war against the North. In 1968 alone, the US was said to have spent $88 million just to continue the war. The Vietnam War became notorious for weapons such as napalm (a jellified gasoline designed to stick and incinerate everything it touches) and Agent Orange (an herbicide that was meant to rid the NLF of their source of food and jungle cover), as well as strategies like the forced resettlement of peasants in hamlets (in order to cut links between them and the NLF).
Despite the superior firepower that it received from the US, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) kept losing to the NLF. Furthermore, Diem was becoming an increasingly unpopular leader in South Vietnam. Although Catholics constituted less than 10% of the entire Vietnamese population, they dominated the South Vietnamese government because Diem was a Catholic himself. He also ordered the arrests of thousands of monks, as well as grade school and high school students, for their participation in antigovernment protests. Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, was involved in corruption – he sold to villagers building materials that the US donated. Diem and Nhu were murdered in a coup on November 1, 1963.
To win the Vietnam War, the US resorted to more aggressive campaigns, such as the invasion of Laos and Cambodia in 1964 and 1969, respectively. The US attacked these two countries due to their emerging Communist regimes that were sympathetic to the NLF. But the atrocities committed by the US military against defenseless Vietnamese civilians fueled public disillusion towards the Vietnam War. The My Lai massacre (1968), for instance, was characterized with the killing of an estimated 500 unarmed civilians (mostly women and children) by elements of the US Army’s Americal Division.
After assuming the American presidency in 1969, Richard Nixon lessened the number of US troops in South Vietnam through the policy of “Vietnamisation.” Under “Vietnamisation,” the US military will still provide the ARVN with weapons but will no longer assist them in fighting the NLF. There were about 350,000 American soldiers in South Vietnam in December 1970. This number was reduced to a mere 40,000 by September 1972. All the remaining US troops in South Vietnam were finally withdrawn in accordance to a January 1973 armistice.
Stripped of US military assistance, the ARVN was easily crushed by the NLF. The South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, fell to the NLF in April 1975. Saigon was then renamed Ho Chi Minh City, symbolizing the materialization of a united Vietnam.
The Tet Offensive
January 1968 marked the third year of US military intervention in Vietnam – with little success. North Vietnamese forces and the NLF constantly gained strength despite the political, economic and military aid that the US government have been providing South Vietnam for a decade and a half. Under the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), the number of US troop commitments in Vietnam steadily increased throughout the mid-1960s. Thus, the outcome of the Tet Offensive was a sharp blow to LBJ’s ostentatious display of American military supremacy in Vietnam.
The attack was carried out on January 30, 1968 – the first day of Tet (the Vietnamese lunar New Year). Communist forces took advantage of the ceasefire that was observed in honor of the occasion and invaded key cities and American military bases throughout South Vietnam. Despite their eventual defeat to American and South Vietnamese troops, the North had decisive victories, which included the siege of the American embassy building in Saigon. Several historians regard the Tet Offensive as “a psychological victory for the Communist forces and a political defeat for the US.”
North Vietnam and the NLF launched the Tet Offensive in order to put an end to the American bombing campaign, as well as to force the US into negotiations which will unite North and South Vietnam. As early as late 1967, the Communists devised a strategy wherein they attacked remote areas to lure American troops away from large cities and towns in South Vietnam. They concentrated their strikes on the Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, just south of the demilitarized zone and near the Laotian border. As a result, more than 50,000 US soldiers were diverted to Khe Sanh at the height of the Tet Offensive. This, in turn, left urban areas in South Vietnam such as Saigon, Da Nang, Hue and Pleiku vulnerable to assaults from the North.
Despite the growing antiwar movement in late 1967, both the White House and the Pentagon publicly claimed that the US was about to attain victory in the Vietnam War. General William Westmoreland, commander of US military operations in Vietnam, even told the US that “the end (of the Vietnam War) was close at hand and that (the Communists were) in retreat.” To actualize this “victory,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff requested that an additional 200,000 soldiers be deployed to Vietnam.
But these assertions were discredited when NLF guerillas managed to take control of the US Embassy in Saigon:
At 2:45 a.m. on January 30, 1968, a cadre of NLF guerillas successfully penetrated the outer wall of the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon. The Embassy lay under siege for six and a half hours. This was the most visible attack and provided powerful imagery for Americans watching news reports at home. (Walton 2004, 46)
Indeed, how the US claim that it is winning the Vietnam War when the Communists successfully broke into the US Embassy in Saigon – one of the supposed US strongholds in Vietnam? As if to further embarrass the US, the NLF likewise took over five of the six largest South Vietnamese cities (including the imperial city of Hue), 36 of the 44 provincial capitals and 64 district capitals. The NLF controlled Hue for almost a month until the US Marines regained the city. The NLF and the North Vietnamese forces had to let go of the other South Vietnamese locations that they had invaded due to the offensive of the US military which consisted of street and house assaults, as well as intensive air bombings.
The Tet Offensive was not without serious casualties. It resulted in the deaths of about 40,000 Vietnamese, 3,500 American and South Vietnamese soldiers combined and 12,500 civilians. Hundreds of thousands more were displaced due to the hostilities.
One of the most atrocious effects of the Tet Offensive was the My Lai massacre. Quang Ngai Province in South Vietnam was one of the bloodiest battlegrounds between the NLF and the US military before and during the Tet Offensive. As US troops considered the Song My village complex in Quang Ngai enemy territory, they also assumed that My Lai, one of the hamlets in the village, was an NLF stronghold.
On the morning of March 16, 1968, 16 soldiers from the 11th Brigade of the Americal Division received orders that they were to attack My Lai and kill all of its residents. Although only women, children and elderly men could be found there, soldiers led by Lieutenant William Calley began raping, mutilating and killing them. Villagers from neighboring hamlets shared the same fate. The slaughter resulted in 357 My Lai inhabitants dead and 150 more killed in nearby hamlets.
To escape accountability for the aforementioned war crime, the Americal Division reported that it was an armed encounter with the NLF. But Ronald Ridenhour, a soldier serving in another unit, heard about the real details of the My Lai massacre on March 29, 1969. He immediately reported what he heard to Congressman and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. The atrocity came to dominate national headlines when journalist Seymour Hersh did an expose on the actual events surrounding it.
Public outrage over the My Lai massacre further pressured Nixon to increase the pullout of US troops from Vietnam. Calley was court-martialed and was sentenced to life imprisonment (he was paroled in 1974). Entire draft boards were forced to resign because of their involvement in the atrocity. But the most enduring legacy of My Lai would probably be the training given to US soldiers that they can and should disobey orders to kill civilians.
Despite the huge death toll associated with it, the Tet Offensive failed to spark a nationwide uprising in favor of the North Vietnamese. However, it became a major influence in shaping both public opinion and US foreign policy. The American media, for instance, often used the Tet Offensive to point out the senselessness of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, the images of the American Embassy under siege and fierce fighting among North Vietnamese, South and American troops exposed the lies of the US government to its own people and to the world.
The Tet Offensive did increase the American public’s disenchantment with the Vietnam War. The US government wasted billions of dollars just to wage war with another country whose only fault was to have an ideology that was different from theirs. Thousands of soldiers were sent to their deaths just for the US to be able to flaunt its military “supremacy” to the world. Worse, innocent Vietnamese civilians were mercilessly slaughtered simply because they were suspected of being Communists.
The Tet Offensive did not just expose the mindlessness of the Vietnam War. It also revealed how the truth is distorted just to keep some individuals and or institutions in power. War crimes are dismissed as “victories” as long as these led to the deaths of “Communists.” A puppet regime is considered “nationalist” because it kowtows to a foreign power. With the right propaganda, the imposition of one country’s interests over another is not hedgemony but “liberation.”
There are no winners in any war – only survivors. And neither are there any losers – only casualties.
“My Lai Massacre.” MSN Encarta.
“Tet Offensive.” MSN Encarta. http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761586781/Tet_Offensive.html.
“Vietnam War.” MSN Encarta. http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761552642/Vietnam_War.html.
“Vietnam.” History Learning Site. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/vietnam.htm.
Walton, Jennifer. “The Tet Offensive: The Turning Point of the Vietnam War.” OAH
Magazine of History 18, no. 5 (2004): 45-51. Database on-line. Available from EBSCO, accession number 15324547.
 “Vietnam War,” MSN Encarta, http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761552642/Vietnam_War.html.
 “Vietnam,” History Learning Site, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/vietnam.htm.
 MSN Encarta, op. cit.
 History Learning Site, op. cit.
 Jennifer Walton, “The Tet Offensive: The Turning Point of the Vietnam War,” OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 5 (2004) [database on-line]; available from EBSCO, accession number 15324547, p. 45 of 51.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 46.
 “My Lai Massacre,” MSN Encarta, http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761588370/My_Lai_Massacre.html.
 Walton, op. cit., 46.