A New Year and a New War - The Tet Offensive 1968
January 14, 2008
By the close of 1967 the Viet Nam War had raged for several years, but there was a feeling that the war had turned a corner toward a resolution. The Viet Cong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had been quiet, and the Vietnamese looked forward to the upcoming Aca,!A"TetAca,!A? holidays. Aca,!A"TetAca,!A? is a traditional Vietnamese holiday that celebrates the beginning of the lunar new year and incorporates festivities similar to our Christmas and New Year. During the Viet Nam War it was customary to observe a cease-fire during the holiday, and the new year of 1968 was no different. Both sides seemed inclined to follow this observance. While intelligence indicated the NVA and VC might take advantage of the cease-fire, there was nothing to verify that this would happen.
The Tet observation began on January 30, 1968, but after midnight the country began to erupt in gunfire. At 0300 hours (3:00 AM) on January 31, the NVA and VC launched simultaneous attacks on military bases, provincial capitals, district towns, and the national capital at Saigon. The offensive was the largest military operation yet undertaken by either side up to that point in the war. In Saigon an assault team breached the US embassyAca,!a,,cs security, caused damage to the building, and killed a number of US soldiers before the attackers were killed and the compound secured. Television footage of this attack received widespread attention in the US, and early reports indicated the US and South Vietnamese forces had been surprised and defeated.
The initial attacks did take the Allied forces by surprise, but most were quickly contained and repulsed; actually, the NVA and VC forces suffered huge casualties. The one exception was at the city of Hue, where intense fighting lasted for more than a month and the old city was devastated before the NVA and VC forces were destroyed.
Although the offensive was a disaster for the Communist forces, it had a profound effect on the American administration and shocked the American public, who had been led to believe that the Communists were not capable of carrying out such a large offensive due to previous losses and defeats. Public opinion had been turning against the war in Viet Nam, and the Tet offensive only increased the disenchantment that was evident in growing numbers of American people over the war and how it was being prosecuted. This disenchantment reached even to the highest office, and in March of 1968 President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection.
Tet ushered in a year of change not only in Viet Nam but also in the United States. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy lay only a few months away, and the country would be shaken by conflict within its own borders. While the war would continue for another seven years, support by the American people declined after January 31, 1968. From that point the problem was not so much how to win the war but how to disengage from it.