The Tet Offensive, 1968

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Key objectives
To be able to explain:

  • The key events of the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Hue (1968)
  • Why it was a military victory and a public relations disaster for the US
  • The political, strategic and tactical consequences of Tet

Key concepts, institutions and personalities


  • Hanoi launched the Tet Offensive a day before the Tet holiday of the 31st January, 1968, during a temporary ceasefire and when ARVN troops were on leave.
  • Le Duan believed that a major assault on 36 provincial capitals and five major cities, including the US embassy in Saigon, would lead to a mass uprising from the people of South Vietnam against their hated government and the desertion of large numbers of ARVN soldiers to the Communist side.
  • In fact, both assumptions turned out to be wrong and the abandonment of classic guerrilla tactics that had been so successful until then – e.g. focusing attacks on on specific targets rather than across many centers at the same time – in fact handed an advantage to the conventionally trained US and ARVN troops who could pick off the enemy piecemeal.
  • The American military became more optimistic during its defeat of Tet. It had defeated the Tet Offensive and inflicted significant losses on the North and the Vietcong.
  • Yet the tactical failure of North Vietnam and NLF turned out to be a strategic victory for the same because it challenged American assumptions and expectations about the war and in part because it occurred during a presidential election year.
  • American assumptions about the war were already being challenged by 1967. Why was America – the most powerful military force on the planet – unable to defeat a small nation? What was American achieving by being in Vietnam in the first place?
  • In April 1967, in the midst of the protests and criticism in the press, General Westmoreland had addressed a joint assembly of congress in which he said: ‘In evaluating the enemy strategy,” he said, “it is evident to me that he believes our Achilles heel is our resolve. … Your continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission. … Backed at home by resolve, confidence, patience, determination, and continued support, we will prevail in Vietnam over the communist aggressor!” His upbeat assessment of American progress in Vietnam included the view that the NLF and PAVN forces were about to reach ‘crossover point’ when it could no longer replace the soldiers lost in combat. Westmoreland predicted that the defeat of the NLF was in sight.
  • Television reports of the attack on the US embassy, of the siege of Khe Sanh, of the battle for Hue, challenged the assumption that America was winning the war. US casualty rates peaked during February 1968 to more than 500 per week. If anything, the North Vietnamese and NLF appeared to be capable of attacking American troops at will and even after 3 years the American strategy appeared no closer to success than it had been in 1965.
  • Meanwhile much of the uncensored press coverage, especially the photograph of Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s execution of Bảy Lop (which earned Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams the 1969 Pulitzer prize for Spot News Photography), challenged the assumption that America was doing good in South Vietnam.

Siege of Khe Sanh January 21st – April 8th 1968

  • There are different views of what was going at Khe Sanh. One view is that General Giap intended the battle to be a re-run of Dien Bien Phu. The geography was much he same, a hilltop fort with near the Laotian frontier, surrounded by old coffee plantations and jungle that favored guerrilla warfare. Giap also used the 304th division of the PAVN – the same that had triumphed at Diem Bien Phu to launch the strike.
  • Another view is that Khe Sanh was simply designed to distract and draw American troops away from provincial capitals, Hue and Saigon in the south.
  • On 21st January – Contingents of PAVN troops attacked Khe Sanh – 9 days before the Tet Offensive – with probes against small Marine units on the surrounding hilltops.
  • As a prelude to a ground assault, they unleashed a massive mortar, artillery, and rocket barrage on the American positions. Low cloud and fog impeded close US air support, allowing the PAVN to capture the road between Khe Sanh and its sister base, Lang Vei.
  • Even as the Tet offensive began on 30th and 31st January, Khe Sanh remined quiet until 5th February when the a ground assault on Hill 861 that had to be repelled by hand to hand combat.
  • By the late afternoon, PAVN troops had broken through the perimeter of the camp. The Special Forces camp at nearby Lang Vei had been destroyed with great loss.
  • The US sought to end the siege by a massive air strike (close air support – CAS) codenamed Operation Niagra, the aerial assault involved thousands of sorties by B-52 bombers flying from bases in Guam and Thailand and by fighter bombers based in South Vietnam.
  • Bell UH-1 ‘Huey’ Helicopters were vital in the resupply of Khe Sanh – pilots braving both dangerous weather and enemy fire.
  • They dropped more than 110,000 tons of explosives and napalm onto PAVN positions around Khe Sanh. The bombing was perilously close to the American soldiers themselves, but succeeded in destroying large amounts of PAVN weaponry and supplies.
  • On February 29th, the Giap’s forces made a final effort to storm the Khe Sanh, but were beaten back by ARVN forces
  • The siege continued until early April when the Americans launched Operation Pegasus to take back Route 9 between the Coast and Khe Sanh.
  • The siege was brought to an end when Army and Marine engineers built a forward base with a landing strip just north of Ca Lu off Route 9, a feat achieved in just 11 days.
  • The siege of Khe Sanh ended after 77 days, on 8th April 1968, but the fighting in the area continued as US troops tried to expand their zone of control in the area and eliminate communist units remaining in the region. Going into the jungle in small patrols the US| forces ended up incurring far higher casualties that during the Siege itself.
  • The fighting finally ended when on the July 5th the US abandoned the base rather than risk another siege. A few days later a North Vietnamese flag was raised over the base.

The Battle of Huế, 30th January – 3rd March 1968

  • The battle of Huế was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war, involving a combined total of 18 American and ARVN battalions fighting and eventually defeating 10 PAVN and NLF battalions. On February 10th, Walter Cronkite visited Huế and broadcast the following statement: ‘To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.’
  • After watching his report, the President, Lyndon Johnson, is purported to have said: s purported to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

  • According to Wikipedia, the Battle of Huế resulted in American/ARVN victory only in the narrowest sense of the term, in that they had evicted the PAVN/VC from the city at heavy cost but failed to annihilate them. ‘The PAVN/VC failed to hold the city or spark a General Uprising, but they had undermined confidence in the Thiệu/Kỳ Government and prospects of victory. Unplanned by the North Vietnamese, their greatest success was the shock and negative impact of the battle and the entire Tet Offensive on U.S. public opinion.’
  • The Battle of Huế is the context for the second half of Stanley Kubrick’s film, Full Metal Jacket, based on Gustav Hasford’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Short Timers.
  • Throughout the battle, the US command consistently underestimated the size of PAVN/NLF forces and the forces necessary to engage them. American/ARVN tactics suffered from a lack of co-ordination, with ARVN, Marines and 1st Cavalry divisions fighting largely separate uncoordinated battles, lacking a central command structure with competing demands for air support, already restricted by poor weather.
  • The battle resulted in 452 ARVN and 216 American deaths. Estimates of PAVN deaths varied enormously depending on the source, from 1000 to 5000. Journalist Mark Bowden estimates the numbers killed by ARVN after the battle at 1000-2000.
  • What the press did not focus on the mass graves created by the PAVN/NLF, which contained 2800 bodies, after they were instructed by the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) of South Vietnam to take revenge on collaborators and spies
  • .

The Battle of Saigon

  • The Vietcong launched 35 battalions at Saigon. Sapper Battalions and the local forces attacked the Presidential Palace, the National Radio Station, the U.S. Embassy, and other principal targets.
  • One of the most famous images of the war was a photograph taken by Eddie Adams on 1st February 1968 during the Battle of Saigon of General Brigadier Loan executing Bay Lop – an image that was largely misunderstood by those who saw it because context was not supplied. For many it was taken as confirmation that America and its allies were being corrupted by the war. In fact Loan had been told by a subordinate that the suspect had killed his six godchildren and a police major who was Loan’s aide-de-camp and one of his closest friends, including the major’s family as well.
  • General Westmoreland later wrote, “The photograph and film shocked the world, an isolated incident of cruelty in a broadly cruel war, but a psychological blow against the South Vietnamese nonetheless”.
  • The other great shock of the battle of Saigon was the fact that NLF troops had managed to breach the perimeter of the US Embassy, though they never got inside the main building.

The aftermath

  • In total, about 85,000–100,000 North Vietnamese troops had participated in the initial onslaught and in the follow-up phases. Overall, during the “Border Battles” of 1967 and the nine-month winter-spring campaign, an estimated 50,000 Northern and Vietcong troops were killed in action. The heavy losses inflicted on Viet Cong units struck into the heart of the infrastructure that had been built up for over a decade. Westmoreland saw the post-Tet situation as an opportunity for an American offensive and demanded more troops.
  • But America reached its own ‘crossover point’ when The New York Times ran a story on March 10th under the headline ‘Westmoreland asks for 206,000 more men, sparking debate in the administration’, which galvanized anti-war view that America was no closer to a resolution of the war than it had been in 1965 when escalation began.
  • Secretary of State Dean Rusk was called before the Foreign Relations Committee and questioned for 11 hours.
  • On March 22nd, Johnson approved only a small increase in troop numbers and announced that Westmoreland would be recalled to the United States to become chief of staff of the army. He was replaced by General Creighton Abrams who oversaw American withdrawal over the following months and years.
  • Admiral Grant Sharp believed that biased reporting of the Tet offensive convinced the American public and the government that the war was being lost and the only option was to withdraw from Vietnam: ‘Hanoi… had lost on the battlefield, but… won a solid psychological victory in the United States.’
  • March 31st in a televised address, President Johnson announced an end to the bombing in North Vietnam and after discussing America’s sense of purpose in the world and the divisiveness of issues at home and abroad, ended by announcing that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination of his party for another term as president. The decision unleashed a nomination struggle between critics of the war like Eugene McCarthy and the Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, who eventually won the Democratic nomination only to be defeated by the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon in the November presidential election. Nixon ran on the platform that he had a plan to get America out of Vietnam.


  Lyndon B Johson’s announcement on March 31st 1968

Did the Tet Offensive change American opinion on the War? Gabriel Kolko (The Anatomy ofa war, 1986) argues that Tet was exactly what Hoanoi wanted – a psychological victory against the Americans. Peter Braestrup of the New York Times claimed that:

    for the first time in modern history the outcome of the war was determined, not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all on the TV screen.

David Schmitz, The Tet Offensive: politics, war and public opinion (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), argues that it was not the impact of Tet on the public that was significant, but rather the impact of Tet on senior officials in the Johnson administration. On March 25 1968, Johnson invited the ‘Wise Men’ –
14 informal advisers – who had given such wholehearted support for the continuation of the war effort in November 1967. Now most advocated some kind of retreat. One of them said the US could not ‘succeed in the time was have left’ in Vietnam. That time was ‘limited by reactions in this country.’ Having lost the battle for hearts and minds in Vietnam, Johnson was now losing that battle at home as well.

The following video provides a full account of events and repercussions

Warning – the following video contains graphic material that may be upsetting.

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