Tet Offensive

Anyone who has been to the Far East knows that the Lunar New Year is a time to pause the usual working schedule and spend time with family. That is the essence of the Vietnamese Tet Holiday, but not in 1968! This was the year of the Tet Offensive.

Tet Offensive Tet Offensive

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    Tet Offensive Vietnam War Definition

    The Tet Offensive was the first substantial North Vietnamese attack on South Vietnamese and United States forces. It spanned over 100 cities in South Vietnam. Until this point, Viet Cong forces had focused on ambushes and guerilla warfare in the jungle of the South to unsettle their enemy. The US bombing in Operation Rolling Thunder came as a (relatively ineffective) reply to this unconventional tactic. This marked a departure from the theatres of war in World War II and Korea.

    Guerilla warfare

    A new type of warfare used by the North Vietnamese. They made up for their inferior technology by fighting in small groups and using the element of surprise against traditional army units.

    Viet Cong

    The communist guerilla forces which fought in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War on behalf of the North Vietnamese.

    The coordinated attacks caught President Johnson off-guard as they occurred during a ceasefire. They demonstrated just what a mountain the United States had to climb to declare victory in South-East Asia.

    The Tet Offensive US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) map of major Tet Offensive targets StudySmarterFig. 1 US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) map of primary Tet Offensive targets in South Vietnam.

    Tet Offensive Date

    The date of this offensive has particular significance. It started in the early morning of the Lunar New Year at the end of January 1968. In previous years of fighting, Tet, the foremost holiday of the Vietnamese calendar, signalled an informal ceasefire between the South Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. Tet was an embedded, centuries-old tradition that transcended the divide between the North and South.

    Maximising their chances of victory, the North Vietnamese and the Hanoi Politburo wielded the significance of this celebration to their advantage.

    Politburo

    The policymakers of a one-party communist state.

    Causes of the Tet Offensive

    It is easy to suggest that the Tet Offensive was an operation in response to the Rolling Thunder campaign of the Americans. However, several other factors contributed to it, the first of which was brewing long before the sustained United States bombings of Vietnam had begun.

    CauseExplanation
    A very communist revolutionMany of the principles of the Tet Offensive stemmed from communist revolutionary theory. The North Vietnamese General Secretary Le Duan was a fervent admirer of Chinese leader Chairman Mao and viewed the thawing of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union with contempt.Le Duan had long held the idealised revolutionary vision of a General Uprising/ Offensive 'which emphasised the role of the peasantry, the establishment of rural bases, the encirclement of cities by villages, and protracted armed struggle.'1When the commander of the North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam, Nguyen Chi Thanh, proposed action in 1967, Duan embraced the plan, despite the misgivings of military juggernaut Vo Nguyen Giap.
    Resources and back-upLodged cosily between the Soviet Union and China, North Vietnam had the geographical advantage of two major communist allies. They also had resources and weaponry in continuous supply.Their symbolic figurehead, Ho Chi Minh, spent part of 1967 in China to receive medical attention for his ailing health. On 5th October, a trade agreement was signed. Other prominent politicians, Le Duan and Vo Nguyen Giap, attended the 50th Anniversary of the October Revolution in the Soviet Union, supporting Premier Leonid Brezhnev. The combination of resources and security encouraged the North Vietnamese.
    Element of surprise Masters of deception, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese spies gathered on the outskirts of South Vietnamese cities, preparing for the Tet Offensive. Many dressed as farmers and hid their weapons amidst their crops or rice fields. Some women hid their guns under traditional Vietnamese long dresses, and some men dressed as women. They integrated into villages, fed information to Hanoi, and waited patiently for their moment.

    Communist spies cultivated a false narrative among the South Vietnamese population, which misled the American command to believe that the decisive battle would be at the US military base at Khe Sanh near the DMZ.

    Propaganda surrounded Khe Sanh

    Supreme US commander William Westmoreland was convinced that Khe Sanh would be the main theatre of the offensive, believing that the Vietcong would seek to emulate Dien Bien Phu and the total victory of the Viet Minh in 1954. This previously resulted in the total defeat of the French and the end of their monopoly in Indochina. However, as a precaution, troops were placed near Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital.

    An erratic and increasingly worried President Lyndon Johnson followed the shelling, which began on 21st January, with consistent updates at the White House. He proclaimed that the base could not fall. When Tet arrived, the South Vietnamese forces had gone home. In contrast, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong celebrated early and were ready.

    The Offensive

    As Tet dawned, 84,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese sprang their offensive across South Vietnam, attacking provincial cities, military bases, and the six most prominent cities in the country. As Westmoreland and other US forces slept, he believed that there were fireworks for Tet.

    The most ambitious strand of Hanoi's plan came with their assault on Saigon. As the Viet Cong reached the airport, they hoped to meet trucks that would swiftly take them to the presidential palace. These never arrived, and ARVN (South Vietnamese) and United States forces repelled them.

    The Tet Offensive North Vietnam General Secretary Le Duan StudySmarter Fig. 2 North Vietnam General Secretary Le Duan.

    Furthermore, the Viet Cong failed to intercept the radio, so they could not call for an uprising from the South Vietnamese public, leaving the crux of Le Duan's plan in tatters. They did manage to hold the US Embassy for a few hours, killing five Americans in the process.

    Another bloody battlefield of the Tet Offensive was the imperial city and former capital, Hue. The North Vietnamese forces made much more progress than in Saigon, holding most of the city. In a house-by-house street battle that lasted for 26 days, AVRN and US forces eventually regained the territory. It was a picture of pure rubble, with 6000 civilians dead, only dissected by the Perfume River.

    Tet Offensive Effects

    The effects of such an offensive reverberated for each side for the rest of the conflict. Let's look at some implications for each side.

    ImplicationNorth VietnamUnited States
    Political The Tet Offensive showed North Vietnamese leaders that their communist ideology would not work in every scenario. They had been unable to create a South Vietnamese uprising against the US, as Duan had predicted.US President Johnson had spent the end of 1967 stating that the war would soon be over. With the images of the Tet Offensive beamed across the country, there was a feeling that he had pulled the wool over everyone's eyes. It would be the beginning of the end for his premiership.
    Media/propaganda responseThe Tet Offensive, along with the civil unrest back home, proved a propaganda victory. It began to sour the relationship between the US, their South Vietnamese allies, and, more pertinently, the public back home.The most poignant of the Tet Offensive images was the footage of a Viet Cong soldier being shot by a South Vietnamese general. It begged the question, 'were the US on the right side?'
    Status of the conflictThe Viet Cong was encouraged by their first significant attack, leading to more fighting. Le Duan initiated a 'mini Tet' in May 1968 throughout the country, including Saigon. This became the bloodiest month of the entire Vietnam War, surpassing the initial offensive.Walter Cronkite, the influential news reporter, summarised the shock that the Tet Offensive created in the US media. He famously remarked, live on air, 'to say we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.'2

    On the surface, it was a defeat for the communist North, which had failed in its objective of total victory. However, it proved just as damaging for the US.

    The Tet Offensive AVRN forces in Saigon during the Tet Offensive StudySmarterFig. 3 AVRN forces in Saigon during the Tet Offensive.

    Tet Offensive Aftermath

    Questioning the role of the United States in Vietnam resulted directly from Tet and did little to aid a turbulent year for the nation. The assassinations of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King and Johnson's supposed successor Robert Kennedy were compounded by more anti-war protests. By the following year, successive President Richard Nixon sought to pursue a policy known as 'Vietnamisation', whereby South Vietnam would fight for its existence more independently.

    The Tet Offensive has a lasting legacy, particularly for less developed nations fighting superpowers like the United States. Historian James S. Robbins comments on the revolutionary nature of the Viet Cong's methods:

    The difference between Tet and any contemporary insurgent action is that today's insurgents know what the North Vietnamese did not - they do not have to win battles to achieve strategic victories.3

    We can say, therefore, that Tet was unique; the United States may have won the battle, but it helped the North Vietnamese eventually win the war. Hanoi had proved to themselves and the United States the importance of public perception during warfare, especially in a world where everything was now spoon-fed to the population via a TV set.

    Tet Offensive - Key takeaways

    • During the Lunar New Year at the end of January 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched the Tet Offensive against South Vietnamese and United States forces.
    • They systematically attacked over 100 cities in South Vietnam, including Hue and the capital Saigon.
    • The US and AVRN forces managed to repel them, but the Tet Offensive was a propaganda victory for the North.
    • Back home, it contributed to the unrest in 1968 and the loss of the presidency for Lyndon Johnson.
    • Tet was a seminal moment for underdeveloped countries. It proved that they did not need to win in traditional warfare to be victorious in the modern world, and control of the narrative was just as important.

    References

    1. Liên-Hang T. Nguyen, 'The War Politburo: North Vietnam's Diplomatic and Political Road to the Têt Offensive', Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1-2 (February/August 2006), pp. 4-58.
    2. Jennifer Walton, 'The Tet Offensive: The Turning Point of the Vietnam War', OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 18, No. 5, Vietnam (Oct 2004), pp. 45-51.
    3. James S. Robbins, 'AN OLD, OLD STORY: Misreading Tet, Again', World Affairs, Vol. 173, No. 3 (Sep/Oct 2010), pp. 49-58.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Tet Offensive

    What was the Tet Offensive?

    The Tet Offensive was a general offensive by the North Vietnamese army against South Vietnamese and American forces.

    When was the Tet Offensive?

    The Tet Offensive took place at the end of January 1968.

    Where did the Tet Offensive take place?

    The Tet Offensive occurred all across South Vietnam.

    What was the result of the Tet Offensive?

    The Offensive failed for the North Vietnamese, but it also shocked Americans, who now saw that the war was unwinnable.

    Why was it called the Tet Offensive?

    Tet is the name of the Lunar New Year in Vietnam, which was deliberately chosen as the date for the offensive.

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