The Tet Offensive – A Concise History

“The Tet Offensive of 1968 was the pivotal event of the long Vietnam War. Its outcome and meaning have been the subjects of a debate that has raged for more than thirty years. […] Regardless of their differing interpretations on motivations and outcomes, all agree that the Tet Offensive was a decisive moment that forever changed the nature of the U.S. commitment to the war. […] On January 21, 1968, twenty thousand Communist troops surrounded the Marine base at Khe Sanh and lay siege to it for the next seventy-seven days. Ten days after the initial attack at Khe Sanh, in the early morning hours of January 31, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched a massive countrywide attack on the cities and towns of South Vietnam.[3] More than eighty thousand Communist troops mounted simultaneous assaults on thirty-six of forty-four provincial capitals, five of six major cities, including Saigon and Hue, sixty-four of 242 district capitals, and more than fifty hamlets. The ferocity and scope of the offensive stunned both the American public and President Lyndon B. Johnson. […] Tet convinced the president that military victory in Vietnam was not attainable and forced a reevaluation of American strategy. The Tet Offensive and its aftermath marked the beginning of a protracted American retreat from Vietnam that would not end until five years later. […] The events of the Tet Offensive demonstrate a vital aspect of contemporary wars: military operations are normally but one aspect of the struggle and may not, as can be seen in the case of the events of 1968 in Vietnam, be the most important factor in determining the war’s outcome […] The conflict in Vietnam always had a strong political component in addition to the military engagements that raged on the battlefield […] the Tet Offensive, although usually seen within a military context, had serious political implications, and, in the final analysis, it was in the political arena that the offensive had its greatest impact. This guide is meant to provide information and resources for further study of the 1968 Tet Offensive. It is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the entire war […] [It] focuses on the events leading up to the Tet Offensive, the conduct of the offensive itself, and its aftermath. It also seeks to discuss the various tactical, operational, and strategic interpretations of the offensive and the events that took place in its aftermath.”

Collins’ book covered related stuff in one of his chapters, in that he dealt in some detail with e.g. some of the logistical challenges the US army was confronted with while fighting in Vietnam, and that coverage had made me curious to learn more – so I decided in the end to have a go at this book. Wikipedia has some stuff (see e.g. here), but books are nice and I liked Willbanks’ book, though I must admit I liked Collins’ coverage better; Collins’ coverage is in a sense of a much more technical nature than is Willbanks’, in that the latter talks a lot about e.g. US presidents and senators and how they reacted to military developments and stuff like this. You need to cover that kind of stuff to contextualize and understand what happened, but I don’t like politics and I was seriously considering skipping some of the primary sources included in the book for that reason (I did decide to read them in the end, but some of them I did not read too carefully). The book has an unconventional structure in the sense that many of the roughly 300 pages provide ‘secondary coverage’: Primary sources (intelligence reports, presidential speeches, news items), lists of important terms, concepts and people, as well as many pages of suggestions for further reading. The main body of the book doesn’t actually take very long to read, even though of course it has a lot more details than does the wiki.

I’ve added some observations from the book below.

“On March 8, 1965, elements of the U.S. 9th Marine Expeditionary Force came ashore in Vietnam at Da Nang, initially to provide security for the U.S. air base there. A month later, President Lyndon Johnson authorized the use of U.S. ground troops for offensive combat operations in Vietnam […] With the arrival of the Marines, a massive U.S. buildup ensued; by the end of the year, 184,300 American troops were in Vietnam. This number would rapidly increase until there were more than 485,000 in country by the end of 1967. […] By the middle of 1967, the war in Vietnam had degenerated into a bloody stalemate. U.S. and South Vietnamese operations had inflicted heavy casualties and disrupted Communist operations, but Hanoi continued to infiltrate troops into South Vietnam, and the Viet Cong still controlled the countryside in many areas in the south. […] Facing the Americans, South Vietnamese, and their allies was a formidable combination of PAVN and Viet Cong troops. There were two types of forces within the Viet Cong: main force units that by early 1968 numbered about sixty thousand soldiers organized into regular combat units, and the paramilitary or guerrilla forces. Main force units engaged in full-scale combat and were usually made up of highly motivated, skilled fighters who were adept at ambushes, the use of mortars and rockets, and coordinated attacks on allied defensive positions. The paramilitary forces of the Viet Cong included regional, or territorial, guerrillas and local guerrillas. They provided logistical support, scouts, and guides and engaged in local hit-and-run tactics such as staging ambushes and laying mines. MACV [Military Assistance Command,
Vietnam] estimated in October 1967 that there were nearly 250,000 Viet Cong main force and paramilitary forces operating in South Vietnam […] about half of the 197 main-force enemy battalions in the south were PAVN regulars.[12]”

“Before 1968, both sides in the war had observed Tet cease-fires over the holiday. Therefore, the North Vietnamese reasoned that half the South Vietnamese army and national police would be on leave when Tet began and Saigon would be unprepared for a countrywide attack. […] the plan, using secrecy and surprise, called for a series of simultaneous attacks against American bases and South Vietnamese cities.[22] Giap specifically targeted previously untouched urban centers such as Saigon […] Giap’s plan called for a preparatory phase that would be conducted from September to December 1967. During this period, PAVN forces would launch attacks in the remote outlying regions along South Vietnam’s borders with Cambodia and Laos. The purpose of these operations, which were essentially a grand feint, would be to draw U.S. forces away from the populated areas. This would leave the cities and towns uncovered. […] Although there is some disagreement among American scholars about the phasing of the actual offensive, Tran Van Tra asserted some years after the war that the plan for the offensive called for three distinct phases […] It is clear that to Hanoi and the NLF, the Tet Offensive, which is usually seen to cover a much shorter period by many American historians, was a more prolonged offensive that lasted beyond the action immediately following the Tet holiday […] The Tet Offensive thus really began in 1967 with the preparatory phase that included the diversionary attacks on the outlying areas in South Vietnam. The bitter fighting that resulted would set the stage for the Tet Offensive that began in January 1968 and lasted into the fall of that year.”

“As the fighting mounted at Khe Sanh in the first part of January 1968, the Communists were making final preparations for launching the Tet Offensive. Since Tet typically brought a mutual cease-fire, Hanoi assumed that the South Vietnamese would be relaxed and unprepared for an assault. Taking advantage of the situation, the Communists smuggled men and equipment into and around South Vietnam’s cities and provincial capitals. Weapons arrived in trucks loaded with flowers, vegetables, and fruit destined for the holiday celebrations. “Mourners” carried coffins filled with weapons and ammunition and buried them at pagodas and churches where they could easily be dug up later. Explosives were concealed in baskets of tomatoes and rice. Viet Cong (VC) soldiers in civilian clothes, some even dressed in South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) uniforms, mingled with crowds of South Vietnamese civilians returning to the cities for the Tet celebrations. [Maybe it’s worth interposing a few remarks here in order to provide some context. Willbanks doesn’t mention this, but some of the actions described above walk a very fine line indeed, in that one person’s ‘military deception’ may well be another person’s ‘war crime’; I’m thinking specifically of the ‘dressed in ARVN uniforms’-part. See e.g. this – specifically Article 39,
2: “It is prohibited to make use of the flags or military emblems, insignia or uniforms of adverse Parties while engaging in attacks or to shield, favour, protect or impede military operations.” – and this. War crimes aren’t just massacres and similar stuff (more on that kind of stuff below); after WW2 some people wanted really badly to execute German soldiers who’d done similar stuff to what these people did in Vietnam, and presumably part of the reason why the rules were changed in 49 was that they had been unable to do that. Either way of course in Vietnam they had an approach where they dealt with many thing ‘out of court‘…]
[…] U.S. military intelligence analysts knew that the Communists were planning some kind of spectacular attack but did not believe it would come during Tet or that it would be nationwide.”

“The Tet Offensive began in full force shortly before 3:00 a.m. on January 31. More than eighty thousand Communist troops—a mixture of PAVN regulars and VC main-force guerrillas—began a coordinated attack throughout South Vietnam.[8] The PAVN and Viet Cong targeted more than three-quarters of the provincial capitals and most of the major cities […] The scope of the Tet Offensive was stunning; everywhere there was confusion, shock, dismay, and disbelief on the part of the allies. […] As fighting erupted and increased in intensity in and around the capital city, it seemed as if the rest of South Vietnam was also in danger of falling to the Communists. It soon became clear that the Communists had launched a major countrywide offensive […] Communist troops captured Hue and intense battles raged [many other places] […] They also seized control of scores of district capitals […] The fighting in the [Mekong] delta was intense and resulted in severe damage to the cities and towns where it occurred. […] The U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had to fight city by city to dislodge the Communist troops. Although the Communists had taken the Americans and North Vietnamese by surprise, their attacks were not as well coordinated as they might have been. Overcoming their initial surprise, the allied forces reacted reasonably quickly in most cases, permitting little time for the attacking forces to establish solid defensive positions. ARVN [South Vietnam’s army] fought more effectively than most Americans had expected. Generally, the Communists were unsuccessful in maintaining their positions in the cities for very long, and South Vietnamese and U.S. troops inflicted heavy casualties and took many prisoners. […] Despite heavy fighting at some places, in general, the Communist offensive seemed to run out of steam by the end of the first week in February. In most cases, allied control was regained in less than a week and Communist forces were driven out of most of the cities with a few days, with the exceptions being Cholon in Saigon and Hue”

“The longest and bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive occurred in Hue […] South Vietnam’s third-largest city, with a wartime population of 140,000. Hue was the old imperial capital and served as the cultural and intellectual center of Vietnam. […] [After] [h]aving captured most of the city, the VC cadre instituted a new political regime and established Revolutionary Committees to control the various neighborhoods. While the NVA and VC assault troops roamed the streets freely and consolidated their gains, political officers began rounding up the South Vietnamese and foreigners on the special lists. They marched through the Citadel, reading out the names on the lists through loudspeakers and telling them to report to a local school. Those who did not report were hunted down.[7] Most of the detainees were never seen alive again. […] The ancient capital was almost sacred to the Vietnamese people, particularly so to the Buddhists. The destruction of the city would result in political repercussions that neither the United States nor the government of South Vietnam could afford. […] As a result, limitations were imposed on the use of artillery and close air support to minimize collateral damage. Eventually these restrictions were lifted when it was realized that both artillery and close air support would be necessary to dislodge the enemy from the city. […] The cost of the battle for the people of Hue was catastrophic. During the twenty-five days of intense fighting to retake the city, Hue was reduced to rubble […] Estimates tallied ten thousand houses either totally destroyed or damaged, roughly 40 percent of the city, and 116,000 civilians were made homeless (out of a pre-Tet population of 140,000). […] Aside from this battle damage, the civilian population suffered terrible losses from the fighting: some 5,800 were reported killed or missing. Many of the dead and wounded were trapped in the rubble of their homes and courtyards. The exact extent of the battle’s toll on the civilians in Hue would not become clear for some time. In late February, soldiers moving through the Gia Hoi schoolyard came across freshly turned earth; upon investigation, the soldiers discovered the hastily buried bodies of a number of civilians, most of whom had been bound and shot. This proved only the first instance of such graves, and more bodies would be found over the course of the next several months. In total, South Vietnamese authorities uncovered nearly three thousand corpses in mass graves in the Hue area. Most had been shot, bludgeoned to death, or buried alive, almost all with their hands tied behind their backs. The victims included soldiers, civil servants, merchants, clergymen, schoolteachers, intellectuals, and foreigners.”

“On the morning of January 31, 1968, when the Tet Offensive was launched, General William Westmoreland remained convinced that the enemy’s real goal was the conquest of the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh […] The attacks on Saigon and other cities, he declared, were designed to create “maximum consternation” in Vietnam and were “diversionary” to the main effort still to come at Khe Sanh and the northern part of the country.[1] […] Thus, despite the fact that the fighting continued in Hue, the attention of both the White House and Westmoreland remained fixed on Khe Sanh. […] The fighting during the subsequent phases of Tet was intense. The United States lost 562 dead in the week ending May 11, the highest weekly total of the war; with the loss of nearly 2,000 dead during that month, May 1968 became the bloodiest month of the war for U.S. troops. […] American losses in the war by the end of 1968 stood at 30,610 killed. Of these, 14,589, nearly half the total number, had been killed in the past year.”

“In the wake of Tet, the media took an increasingly unfavorable view of U.S. policy, and the reporting on the situation in South Vietnam during and after Tet had a significant impact on public opinion. […] Westmoreland claimed that the failed Communist efforts during Tet represented the “last gasp” of a losing cause, but few Americans believed him. In November 1967, Westmoreland had reported that American forces were winning the war in Vietnam, but the surprise and ferocity of the Tet attacks strained his credibility to the breaking point. Many Americans could not reconcile Westmoreland’s new claims with what they had seen on their TV screens. After Tet, it was impossible for most Americans to believe Westmoreland’s renewed promise that victory was just around the corner. […] Gallup Poll data suggest that between early February and the middle of March 1968, nearly one person in five switched from “hawk” to “dove” on the war. […] In the end, part of the blame for the ultimate outcome of the Tet Offensive may lie in biased and erroneous reporting, but the earlier bursts of optimism from the highest levels of government that told Americans that the United States was winning in Vietnam did not square well with the stunning surprise of the Communists attacks. All the reports, news photos, and film footage, good or bad, only served to add velocity to a situation made bad by the credibility gap that had begun to develop well before the Communists launched their offensive in 1968. Having gained a victory in countering the Tet Offensive, there was no need to juggle the numbers this time, but the credibility gap had opened up too far. Journalists in Saigon looked for signs of defeat everywhere, and when they looked hard enough they seemed to find them.”

“Following his inauguration in January 1969, Nixon began to implement a new policy in South Vietnam. Called Vietnamization, it included improved training and a vast modernization effort for the South Vietnamese armed forces. Concurrently, Nixon began to withdraw American troops, a process that continued until almost all U.S. ground soldiers had left […] the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, and a cease-fire was initiated soon thereafter. By March of that year, all American military forces had been withdrawn from South Vietnam. […] On April 30, 1975, PAVN tanks crashed through the gates at the presidential palace in Saigon, and the war was over. All of Vietnam fell under Hanoi’s control, and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.”

“The Tet Offensive resulted in huge casualty figures for the Communist forces. Estimates range from a total of 40,000 dead out of 80,000 Communists engaged to as high as more than 72,000 Communists dead, according to U.S. military records.[4] While these numbers are certainly subject to debate, it is clear that the Communists failed to hold on to any of the major objectives that they had attacked and suffered horrendous casualties in the process […] Most historians agree that the National Liberation Front never completely recovered from Tet. The Viet Cong was badly crippled as a fighting force, and the NLF political organization was seriously damaged.[6] […] Militarily, the Viet Cong were never again able to field full main-force battalions (with some exceptions, such as in the Mekong Delta). From this point on in the war, the war became more conventional and was fought mainly by PAVN forces controlled directly from Hanoi. […] The war became increasingly a conventional battle and less an insurgency. […] the dominant themes of the words, and film from Vietnam . . . added up to a portrait of defeat for the allies. Historians, on the contrary, have concluded that the Tet Offensive resulted in a severe military-political setback for Hanoi in the South.”

“The Tet Offensive was never a purely military campaign, and any analysis of the operation must include an assessment of the outcome of its strategic political objectives. Although the allies won most of the Tet battles and inflicted horrendous casualties on the Communist forces, the Tet Offensive “broke like a clap of thunder on an astonished world” and resulted in a stunning strategic victory for the Communists. […] Tet, whether by design or not, was “unique in that the side that lost completely in a tactical sense came away with an overwhelming psychological and hence political victory.” […] The Tet Offensive played a key role in the subsequent events that led to the long, protracted U.S. withdrawal under Richard Nixon. It marked the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. […] in the end, the offensive had such an impact on the White House, media, and the American people that the Communists’ failure to achieve their original goals at the tactical and operational levels proved irrelevant. In the end, they won a great political victory at the strategic level.”



June 16, 2014 - Posted by | Books, History


  1. I have always been immensely interested in military history, because I enjoy studying how real-time strategies (especially the brilliant ones) are made — to me, they are thoroughly entertaining and insightful case studies of human psychology, game theory, bounded rationality, logistical planning, politics, and engineering (in cases where victories are crucially determined by the technologies developed). It also helps that these stories are often very dramatic.

    So, thank you for writing a lot about military history recently, considering the fact that I haven’t had much leisure time to do casual reading these days.

    Comment by Manfred Bühler | June 16, 2014 | Reply

    • “thank you for writing a lot about military history recently”

      I’ve done that? I didn’t realize that, it’s only been a few books, right..? (hmm, maybe I should add another category with ‘military history’ so that I can actually keep track of this kind of stuff as well…)

      Either way you’re welcome, thanks for reading along and thanks for the feedback. I’m always happy to learn about the existence of an interest overlap between me and somebody who’s reading along; I’m not sure how much reader preferences influence the kind of stuff I read about and cover here, but it’s still great to know that other people find things I cover interesting as well.

      Comment by US | June 16, 2014 | Reply

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    Comment by Gerald | April 5, 2015 | Reply

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