The surprise assaults included parts of Saigon, the southern capital, as well as U. Shaking off the surprise of such a coordinated and widespread offensive, U. Within weeks, most of the Communist fighters had been decimated or driven into the countryside, although a bloody fight would continue for a month in the dynastic city of Hue.
Military leaders saw the rout as a turning point in the conflict, with the chance to strike a fatal blow to a weakened enemy to achieve victory. The Tet Offensive was a turning point in the Vietnam War, but one that irreparably poisoned American public opinion on U.
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Five years later, American troops had completely withdrawn, and in North Vietnamese forces stormed into Saigon and reunited north and south. Marshall Chair of Military History at U.
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Defense and military officials painted a picture of a weakened enemy nearing collapse. William Westmoreland, commander of U. The campaign was perhaps too convincing, given what the North Vietnamese unleashed in January , a fulsome attack that underscored how far the North was from defeat. The U. Communist fighters chose six strategic targets in downtown Saigon, among them the U.
Embassy, the presidential palace and the national radio station. While the number of insurgents were too few to hold their targets for very long, the media images gave Americans a glimpse of an atrocious new breed of violence.
In Saigon on Feb. American counterattacks in the Chinese district of Cholon in Saigon are believed to have killed hundreds of civilians. Scenes of terrified refugees pouring from the district were beamed around the world. Far to the north, just 30 miles below the demilitarized zone dividing north and south, the city of Hue was overrun by almost 8, North Vietnamese troops. The enemy had dug into a massive complex called the Citadel, which was surrounded by a moat and stone ramparts, some as thick as 40 feet. For the reasons just stated, when the Communists launched the Tet Offensive, they achieved almost total surprise.
It could have been worse—due to a failure in coordination, a number of enemy attacks were launched prematurely in the Central Highlands and the adjacent coastal plains, during the early morning hours of 30 Jan—this was due to the fact that they were using a different lunar calendar than the main force, which was off by 24 hours. These premature attacks provided at least some warning for U. In the early morning hours of 31 January, the combined forces of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, a total of over 84, troops, struck with a fury that was breathtaking in both its scope and suddenness.
Some of the bitterest fighting was in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. Far to the north, VC and North Vietnamese soldiers overran and occupied Hue, the ancient imperial capital. Marines and ARVN soldiers had to be sent in to retake the city in almost a month of bitter house-to-house fighting.
The attacks of the Tet Offensive that raged up and down the length and breadth of South Vietnam were unprecedented in their magnitude and ferocity and the reports streaming in from Saigon portrayed the bitter fighting in near real-time on the evening news on the three TV networks. In truth, the Tet Offensive, as it unfolded during the next weeks and months, turned out to be a disaster for the Communists, at least at the tactical level. While the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong enjoyed initial successes with their surprise attacks, allied forces quickly overcame their initial shock and responded rapidly and forcefully, driving back the enemy in most areas.
What Was the Tet Offensive?
The first surge of the initial phase of the offensive was over by the end of February and most of these battles were over in a few days. There were, however, a few notable exceptions—fighting continued to rage in the Chinese section of Saigon, at Hue, and also at Khe Sanh—battles in which the allies eventually prevailed as well.
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In the end, allied forces used superior mobility and firepower to rout the enemy troops, who failed to hold any of their military objectives. Additionally, the South Vietnamese troops, rather than fold, as the North Vietnamese had expected, acquitted themselves reasonably well. As for the much anticipated general uprising of the South Vietnamese populace, it never materialized. During the bitter fighting that extended into the fall, the Communists sustained staggering casualties.
Conservative estimates put their losses at more than 40, killed in action with an additional 7, captured.
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By September, when the subsequent phases of the offensive had run their course, the Viet Cong, who had borne the brunt of the heaviest fighting in the cities, had been dealt a significant blow from which they never really recovered; the major fighting for the rest of the war would be done by the North Vietnamese Army from late until the end of the war.
The casualty figures during Tet for the allied forces were much lower, but they were still high. Total U. These casualty figures continued to mount as subsequent phases of the offensive extended into the fall. By the end of the year, U. Allied losses combined with the sheer scope and ferocity of the offensive and the vivid images of the savage fighting on the nightly TV news stunned the American people, who were astonished that the enemy was capable of such an effort.
Their president and the senior US general in Vietnam had told them only two months before that the enemy was on its last legs and that the war was near an end. The intense and disturbing scenes depicted on the nightly TV news told a different story—a situation which added greatly to the growing credibility gap between the people and the administration. The Tet Offensive also had a major impact on Lyndon Johnson, who was visibly shaken by the turn of events. Although General Westmoreland rightfully claimed a great victory in the heavy fighting that continued into the fall of , Johnson, like the American people, was stunned by the ability of the Communists to launch such wide-spread attacks.
He had met with them in mid and they recommended that he stay the course in Vietnam. However, when he convened the group in March , they almost unanimously recommended that he find a way to disengage from the war in Vietnam. Stunned by this reversal, Johnson charged Clark Clifford, who had replaced Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense, to conduct a study to determine the way ahead in Vietnam. The civilians in the Pentagon recommended that allied efforts focus on population security and that the South Vietnamese be forced to assume more responsibility for the fighting while the US pursued a negotiated settlement.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, not surprisingly, took exception to this approach and recommended that Westmoreland be given the troops that he had asked for and be permitted to pursue enemy forces into Laos and Cambodia. In the New Hampshire democratic primary, Johnson barely defeated challenger Senator Eugene McCarthy, winning by only votes—a situation which convinced Robert Kennedy to enter the presidential race as an antiwar candidate.
Beset politically by challengers within his own party and seemingly still in shock from the spectacular Tet attacks, on 31 March, Johnson went on national television to address the nation. He then stunned the audience by announcing that he would not run for re-election—The Tet Offensive had claimed its most important victim—the sitting president of the United States. Eventually, Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the democratic nomination. The following November, Richard Nixon won the presidential election and began the long U.
In summary, The Tet Offensive of was a turning point in the war in Vietnam. Westmoreland and other senior officials were blinded to the indications that a countrywide offensive was imminent because these indications did not conform to their preconceived notions about enemy capabilities and allied progress in the war.