Lunar New Year Holiday Called Tet
On January 31, 1968, some 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched the Tet Offensive (named for the lunar new year holiday called Tet), a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam. General Vo Nguyen Giap, leader of the Communist People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), planned the offensive in an attempt both to foment rebellion among the South Vietnamese population and encourage the United States to scale back its support of the Saigon regime. Though U.S. and South Vietnamese forces managed to hold off the Communist attacks, news coverage of the offensive (including the lengthy Battle of Hue) shocked and dismayed the American public and further eroded support for the war effort. Despite heavy casualties, North Vietnam achieved a strategic victory with the Tet Offensive, as the attacks marked a turning point in the Vietnam War and the beginning of the slow, painful American withdrawal from the region.
Nonetheless, in the early phases of foreign direct involvement in the war, American public opinion was strongly supportive of intervention. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, however, also received ample support and new recruits from all over Vietnam. Late in January of 1968, the South Vietnamese troops and their foreign allies looked forward to a traditional seven-day ceasefire for the Tet holiday. About half of the South's 350,000 regular forces were on holiday leave, celebrating with their families; the 400,000-plus foreign troops were relaxing in barracks.
At the policy level, the American brass and the Johnson administration had convinced themselves that the communists were incapable of mounting a coordinated attack on southern cities. The North Vietnamese, however, believed that such a show of strength would convince the population of South Vietnam to rise up en masse to overthrow their corrupt military leaders and reunify the country under communist rule.
As the celebration of the lunar new year, Tet was the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar. In previous years, the holiday had been the occasion for an informal truce in South Vietnam's long-running conflict with North Vietnam and their Communist southern allies, derisively known as Viet Cong. In early 1968, however, the North Vietnamese military commander General Vo Nguyen Giap chose January 31 as the occasion for a coordinated offensive of surprise attacks aimed at breaking the stalemate in Vietnam. Giap believed that the attacks would cause Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces to collapse and foment discontent and rebellion among the South Vietnamese population, leading them to rise up against the regime in Saigon. Futhermore, Giap believed the alliance between South Vietnam and the United States was unstable; he hoped the offensive would drive the final wedge between them and convince American leaders to give up their defense of South Vietnam.
On the early morning of January 30, 1968, Viet Cong forces attacked 13 cities in central South Vietnam, just as many families began their observances of the lunar new year. Twenty-four hours later, PAVN and Viet Cong forces struck a number of other targets throughout South Vietnam, including cities, towns, government buildings and U.S. or ARVN military bases throughout South Vietnam, in a total of more than a hundred attacks. In a particularly bold attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon, a Viet Cong platoon got inside the complex's courtyard before U.S. forces destroyed it. The attack's audacity, and its initial success, stunned U.S. and international observers, who saw images of the carnage broadcast on television as it occurred.
The Viet Cong, with support from the North Vietnamese Army, began a series of attacks that would strike more than 100 southern cities between January 30 and February 3, 1968. In each case, the communists unleashed a barrage of mortars and rockets, using weapons brought south via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and followed with a ground forces invasion.
Nha Trang, Ban Me Thout, Kontum, Da Nang, Qui Nhon and Hoi An were the first targets struck. To the (rather inexplicable) surprise of the South Vietnamese leaders and their foreign allies, the communists' major target was the southern capital at Saigon. A simultaneous propoganda drive urged South Vietnamese troops to change their allegiance. Meanwhile, emergency orders to return to duty from holiday leave went unheeded by many southerners and foreigners alike.
Realizing that they did not have the forces necessary to take and hold the entire city of Saigon, the Viet Cong surrounded the city and then focused on six key areas. They deployed 35 battalions, and attacked the Presidential Palace, the South Vietnamese Army's headquarters, the Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the National Radio Station, the Long Binh Naval Headquarters building and the US Embassy.
Bloody house-to-house fighting engulfed the city, continuing off and on until early March. The US flew airstrikes against its ally's capital, killing hundreds of civilians. Combat continued for more than a month in the streets of Saigon. Unable to hold their positions, though, the communist troops withdrew on March 8, 1968.
Though Giap had succeeded in achieving surprise, his forces were spread too thin in the ambitious offensive, and U.S. and ARVN forces managed to successfully counter most of the attacks and inflict heavy Viet Cong losses. Particularly intense fighting took place in the city of Hue, located on the Perfume River some 50 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DZ) between North and South Vietnam. The Battle of Hue would rage for more than three weeks after PAVN and Viet Cong forces burst into the city on January 31, easily overwhelming the government forces there and taking control of the city's ancient citadel.
Early in their occupation of Hue, Viet Cong soldiers conducted house-to-house searches, arresting civil servants, religious leaders, teachers and other civilians connected with American forces or with the South Vietnamese regime. They executed these so-called counterrevolutionaries and buried their bodies in mass graves. U.S. and ARVN forces discovered evidence of the massacre after they regained control of the city on February 26. In addition to more than 2,800 bodies, another 3,000 residents were missing, and the occupying forces had destroyed many of the once-grand city's temples, palaces and other monuments.
The toughest fighting in Hue occurred at the citadel, which the Communists struggled fiercely to hold against superior U.S. firepower. In scenes of carnage recorded on film by numerous television crews on the scene, nearly 150 U.S. Marines were killed in the Battle of Hue, along with some 400 South Vietnamese troops. On the Communist side, an estimated 5,000 soldiers were killed, most of them hit by American air and artillery strikes.
Unable to sustain their heavy losses, the surviving communist troops fell back from all of the southern cities during March and April of 1968. This strategic retreat did not signal an end to the general offensive, however. The so-called "Phase II" and "Phase III" attacks of May and August, 1968 represented a continuation of the Tet Offensive.
Militarily, Tet was a fiasco for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. They lost an estimated 45,000 soldiers killed and many more wounded or missing in the initial phase alone, and approximately 30,000 more in Phases I and II.
South Vietnam lost almost 5,000 soldiers killed, 16,000 wounded and around 1,000 missing in the first phase. Its allies lost over 4,000 troops killed and about 20,000 wounded or missing. In addition, 14,000 South Vietnamese civilians died in the fighting, and approximately 24,000 were wounded.
Despite its heavy casualty toll, and its failure to inspire widespread rebellion among the South Vietnamese, the Tet Offensive proved to be a strategic success for the DRV. Before Tet, Westmoreland and other representatives of the Johnson administration had been claiming that the end of the war was in sight; now, it was clear a long struggle still lay ahead. Westmoreland requested more than 200,000 new troops in order to mount an effective counteroffensive, an escalation that many Americans saw as an act of desperation. As antiwar sentiment mounted on the home front, some of Johnson's advisers that had supported past military buildup in Vietnam (including soon-to-be Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford) now argued for scaling back U.S. involvement.
On March 31, the beleaguered President Johnson declared that he was limiting the bombing of North Vietnam to the area below the 20th parallel (thus sparing 90 percent of Communist territory) and calling for negotiations to end the war. At the same time, he announced that he would not be running for reelection that November. Though peace talks would drag on for another five years–during which more American soldiers were killed than in the previous years of the conflict–Johnson's decision to halt escalation after the Tet Offensive marked a crucial turning point in American participation in the Vietnam War.
Despite their much heavier losses, however, the North and Viet Cong gained a significant strategic victory in the Tet Offensive. Desertion rates from the South Vietnamese army went up to 150% of their pre-Tet rate. However, South Vietnam's urban population was angered by the Tet attack, and once-apathetic city dwellers rallied to support the government in Saigon.
In the US images of the bloody fighting and of crimes such as National police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan's summary execution of a suspected Viet Cong officer, helped turn public opinion against the war. American president Lyndon Johnson grew so unpopular that in March of 1968, he announced that he would not run for a second term in office. His successor, Richard M. Nixon, initiated a program of "Vietnamization," meaning that the US withdrew its ground forces over the next several years and turned over responsibility for South Vietnam's defense to its own army.
In a very real sense, despite their military victory, the Tet Offensive signaled the beginning of the end for South Vietnam. On April 30, 1975, the war came to an end when the North Vietnamese "liberated" Saigon.
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