Vietnam War: The Tet Offensive

1968

US Marine during Tet Offensive, 1968
US Marines fighting during the Tet Offensive. Photograph Courtesy of the US Department of Defense

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The Tet Offensive - Planning:

In 1967, the North Vietnamese leadership vigorously debated how to move forward with the war. While some in the government, including Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, advocated taking a defensive approach and opening negotiations, others called for pursuing a conventional military path to reunify the country. Having sustained heavy losses and with their economy suffering under the American bombing campaign, the decision was made to launch a large-scale offensive against US and South Vietnamese forces.

This approach was justified by the belief that South Vietnamese troops were no longer combat effective and that the American presence in the country was highly unpopular. The leadership believed that the latter issue would incite a mass uprising across South Vietnam once the offensive began. Dubbed the General Offensive, General Uprising, the operation was scheduled for the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday in January 1968.       

The preliminary phase called for diversionary attacks along the border areas to pull American troops away from the cities. Included among these was to be a major effort against the US Marine base at Khe Sanh in northwest South Vietnam. These done, larger assaults would commence and Viet Cong insurgents would mount strikes against population centers and American bases.  The ultimate goal of the offensive was the destruction of the South Vietnamese government and military through a popular revolt as well as the eventual withdrawal of American forces.

As such, a massive propaganda offensive would be conducted in conjunction with the military operations. Build up for the offensive commenced in mid-1967 and ultimately saw seven regiments and twenty battalions move south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In addition, the Viet Cong was rearmed with AK-47 assault rifles and RPG-2 grenade launchers.

The Tet Offensive - The Fighting:

On January 21, 1968, an intense barrage of artillery hit Khe Sanh. This presaged a siege and battle that would last for seventy-seven days and would see 6,000 Marines hold off 20,000 North Vietnamese. Responding to the fighting, General William Westmoreland, commanding US and ARVN forces, directed reinforcements north as he was concerned the North Vietnamese intended to overrun the northern provinces of the I Corps Tactical Zone (Map). On the recommendation of III Corps commander Lieutenant General Frederick Weyand, he also redeployed additional forces to the area around Saigon. This decision proved critical in the fighting that later ensured.

Following the plan which hoped to see American forces drawn north to the fighting at Khe Sanh, Viet Cong units broke the traditional Tet cease-fire on January 30, 1968, by launching major attacks against most cities in South Vietnam. These were generally beaten back and no ARVN units broke or defected. For the next two months, US and ARVN forces, overseen by Westmoreland, successfully beat back the Viet Cong assault, with particularly heavy combat in the cities of Hue and Saigon. In the latter, Viet Cong forces succeeded in breaching the wall of the US Embassy before being eliminated.

Once the fighting had ended, the Viet Cong had been permanently crippled and ceased to be an effective fighting force (Map).

On April 1, US forces began Operation Pegasus to relieve the Marines at Khe Sanh. This saw elements of the 1st and 3rd Marine Regiments strike up Route 9 towards Khe Sanh, while the 1st Air Cavalry Division moved by helicopter to capture key terrain features along the line of advance. After largely opening the road to Khe Sanh (Route 9) with this mix of air mobile and ground forces, the first major battle occurred on April 6, when a day-long engagement was fought with a PAVN blocking force. Pressing on, fighting largely concluded with a three-day fight near Khe Sanh village before US troops linked up with the besieged Marines on April 8.

Results of the Tet Offensive

While the Tet Offensive proved to be a military victory for the US and ARVN, it was a political and media disaster.

Public support began to erode as Americans started to question the handling of the conflict. Others doubted Westmoreland’s ability to command, leading to his replacement in June 1968, by General Creighton Abrams. President Johnson’s popularity plummeted and he withdrew as a candidate for reelection. Ultimately, it was the media’s reaction and stressing of a widening “credibility gap” that did the most damage to the Johnson Administration’s efforts. Noted reporters, such as Walter Cronkite, began to openly criticize Johnson and the military leadership, as well as called for negotiated end to the war. Though he had low expectations, Johnson conceded and opened peace talks with North Vietnam in May 1968.

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