The Tet Offensive was an operation launched by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in late January 1968. Though tactically unsuccessful, the Tet Offensive shattered American optimism about the progress of the Vietnam War. In the second half of 1967 the US military chief in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, made three trips home brief President Lyndon Johnson on the progress of the war. Westmoreland made a series of public and private remarks that suggested hope and optimism about the situation in Vietnam. American troops were adapting to the conditions, Westmoreland said; the enemy was weakened and depleted and his theatre of operations had been restricted. At a gathering of journalists in November 1967, Westmoreland promised that “with 1968, a new phase is starting”. American combat operations would continue but on a more limited basis; meanwhile, the defence of significant areas would be transferred to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). Westmoreland also uttered a phrase that promised what many Americans wanted: an end to the war. “We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view,” Westmoreland said. “I have never been more encouraged”.
Westmoreland’s optimism was based on high ‘body counts’ and a flawed assumption that recent offensives had severely depleted both the NVA and Viet Cong. This was far from the case. At the beginning of 1967, both the NVA and Viet Cong actually had greater numbers than three years before. These increases led to the North Vietnamese Central Committee considering the possibility of a major attack on US and ARVN positions in the South. This was a controversial proposal that exposed divisions within the North Vietnamese government. One moderate faction, led by defence minister Vo Nguyen Giap, said that a major assault was radical and risky departure from Ho Chi Minh’s ‘elephant and tiger’ tactics. A major offensive would not only play into American hands, it would drain the North of much-needed men, munitions and supplies. Giap argued that the Viet Cong should maintain its subversive activities, while the North worked to recover and rebuild economically.
Opposing Giap and his like-minded comrades was a more militant faction of the Lao Dong. They believed the American position was now especially vulnerable, and that a large-scale offensive and heavy casualties might force Washington to buckle and withdraw from South Vietnam. This faction was backed by hardliners in Moscow, which favoured a traditional military offensive. China, in contrast, preferred the North Vietnamese maintain their subversive tactics. After a year of debate, the militant faction won out. Ho Chi Minh had not actively backed a major offensive, however, he gave it his endorsement once a consensus had been reached. Plans for the offensive were discussed and endorsed by the Politburo in July 1967. Its main objective was to instigate a popular uprising in South Vietnam. Hanoi believed that a popular uprising would undermine the Saigon government and lead to its collapse. To achieve this, the military offensive would be accompanied by a wave of propaganda. Viet Cong cadres would be ‘armed’ with posters and leaflets, to be distributed in the cities and villages. One of their first targets was Saigon’s radio station, which would be seized and used to broadcast propaganda. Some Viet Cong would carry audio cassettes of Ho Chi Minh, calling for a “general uprising” in the South. These tapes would be played on captured radio stations and public address systems.
The date chosen for this offensive was Tet, the Vietnamese New Year (late January 1968). To keep the Americans guessing and to heighten the advantage of surprise, false information was circulated and a complex array of decoy attacks were planned. Through mid to late 1967 the Viet Cong attacked several important but scattered targets, hoping to create the impression that they had no plans for a major offensive. On January 21st 1968 they laid siege to the American base and airstrip at Khe Sanh, central Vietnam, to distract American forces and lure reinforcements from the south. On January 27th Hanoi made public announcements that its soldiers would observe a seven-day ceasefire for the Tet holiday. American commanders were not taken in by this ruse and kept their troops on alert. Their South Vietnamese counterparts, however, believed it, allowing more than one-third of ARVN personnel to take leave.
On January 31st, in the middle of the phoney ceasefire, Viet Cong and NVA units began their attack. Approximately 80,000 North Vietnamese launched offensives in 36 provincial capital cities and other major towns. They also attacked dozens of US and ARVN bases, barracks and supply dumps. Every enemy airstrip came under fire from mortars or grenades, and many of them were rendered temporarily useless. In Saigon, the Viet Cong targeted key installations: military headquarters, troop barracks, police stations and newspaper buildings. One team blew their way into the heavily fortified US embassy compound, killing five people before being captured. The Viet Cong also operated in the suburbs of Saigon and other cities. Small teams located the homes of South Vietnamese officials and ARVN officers and carried out summary executions. In many cases, family members were killed alongside political targets. These killings gave rise to one of the most famous images of the war: the execution of Viet Cong officer, Nguyen Van Lem, by Saigon police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan. According to Loan and his men, the condemned man was in charge of a terrorist squad responsible for murdering the families of local policemen.
Tet caught American military commanders by surprise, though they were aware that something was brewing. Intelligence and air surveillance in the final weeks of 1967 had spotted increased communist activity. There had been a significant spike in troop numbers and supply trucks moving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. General Westmoreland and his advisors interpreted this activity as preparation for a communist offensive against the border provinces. The attack on Khe Sanh seemed to support this theory. Still, there is no evidence to suggest that US forces were on alert for a communist assault during Tet. The night before the attacks began, 200 US intelligence officers attended a pool party in Saigon. According to those present, there was no discussion of an imminent offensive.
From a military perspective, the Tet Offensive was an unmitigated failure for the communists. Hanoi’s plan to pin down the Americans at Khe Sanh and create “another Dien Bien Phu” was thwarted by superior US firepower. The radio station in Saigon was captured as planned and held for six hours, however, the insurgents were unable to broadcast their tapes. The South Vietnamese people did not rise up in rebellion against their own government, ARVN soldiers did not mutiny and the Saigon government did not collapse. Almost one-quarter of the 80,000 NVA and Viet Cong deployed in January and February 1968 were killed. Hanoi’s battle plan had greatly underestimated the enemy while asking too much of its own forces across too much of the country.
“Tet was visibly the wrong “end” to the war – if not a breaking point in terms of public support for the war effort. Yet based on enemy dead – up to 60,000 by some American estimates – Tet was declared a smashing defeat of the NLF. This ‘defeat’ was announced by the president at his first post-Tet news conference, seconded by the military high command, and generally accepted by the media. But Tet summed up the puzzle that was Vietnam. Victory somehow meant defeat.”
The impact of the Tet Offensive, however, went beyond its military outcomes. For North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, Tet was a significant propaganda victory. In late 1967, just weeks before Tet, General Westmoreland had assured the American public that the war was going well and the communists were in retreat. According to Westmoreland, 14 years of US aid, investment and military intervention were now paying off. The Tet Offensive exposed Westmoreland’s optimism as unrealistic and misguided. The NVA and Viet Cong were far from being a spent force; they were strong enough to launch an organised nationwide offensive with more than 80,000 men. The Tet Offensive showed that the American mission in Vietnam, if it was to continue, would require several more years, billions more dollars and thousands more American lives.
1. In January 1968 the NVA and Viet Cong launched an offensive against military and civilian targets in South Vietnam. This became known as the Tet Offensive.
2. The Tet Offensive followed a series of optimistic appraisals and statements about the situation in Vietnam by American commanders like General William C. Westmoreland.
3. The Tet Offensive marked a shift in North Vietnamese strategy, from guerrilla warfare to major offensive. This caused some division among North Vietnamese leaders.
4. The offensive was launched on the Tet holiday after a campaign of misinformation and a series of decoy attacks. For the most part, it caught the enemy by surprise.
5. Militarily the Tet Offensive was a costly defeat for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, however, its propaganda value and impact on American attitudes were significant.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Tet offensive”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/tet-offensive/.