The Tet Offensive was a major assault by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong
against South Vietnam and the U.S. forces situated there. It was not only a psychological
advance for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, but also gave the United States a
notion that the war wasn’t going to be an easy win, and the chances of winning the war
were, in fact, very slim.
The war initially was an attempt to limit the spread of communism throughout
Asia. Similar to Korea, Vietnam was in a civil war divided by political ideologies. (2) The
Domino Effect is the idea that when one nation falls to communism, other nations around
it in time will fall (2). Under the fear of this happening in Vietnam, the United States
joined forces with the South Vietnamese to fight the spread of communism (5). Though
most of South Vietnam was indeed against the spread of communism, there were some
who sympathized with the North, known as the Northern Liberation Front, or Viet Cong
(VC). The VC hid amongst the other South Vietnamese civilians, and used guerilla tactics
to fight for communism. (5)
The Tet Offensive was an all out attack by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA)
and the VC during the Tet cease-fire (6). The cease-fire was a peaceful and hospitable
agreement made between the U.S. and the NVA to stop all assaults during Tet, the annual
Vietnamese festival for celebrating the lunar New Year. On the first day of the festival,
January 31, 1968, NVA and VC launched a series of attacks on major cities and military
bases located in South Vietnam. (6)
Strategically, the assault was a failure (5). The communist attackers had failed to
permanently capture any of their targets, and overall, had lost more men than the
democratic defenders (6). However, the deviousness and planning involved in the
offensive was so great that the overall psychological effect had gained an advantage for
North Vietnam and the VC (5).
The Vietnam War was the most reported conflict in history (3). TV cameramen
from all over the nation flew to Vietnam to document the sights and stories, so that
viewers at home would have a feel for the war they were paying for. Sometimes the
media’s output had a negative effect on the war effort, showing graphic senseless violence.
(3) They also proved wrong the claims laid by General Westermoreland of the U.S. Army
that the war would be a swift victory for democracy (2). Coverage of the Tet Offensive
was no exception.
Live coverage of the VC attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon gave the American
public a different view on the war (7). Now, not only had attacks been made on the Army
of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and U.S. forces, but fire had also been directed at
American diplomatic soil. An even more negative impact came from the public execution
of a VC suspect. Without trial, he was sentenced to death, and within minutes was shot in
the head by an ARVN regular from point-blank range in the streets of Saigon. (6) The
release of this footage, as well as other footage that revealed unjust treatment of
Vietnamese, gave the antiwar effort more strength (4).
Eventually, the media’s coverage was a severe blow to the war effort. In a live
CBS broadcast in 1968, Walter Cronkite gave his own personal opinion of the war. “It
seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a
stalemate.” (3) Though he never actually said it “on the record,” the American public
viewed the statement as labeling the war un-winnable (6).
Because of the shift in public opinion, Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the
United States, decided not to run for Democratic Party nomination in the upcoming
election (3). He felt that he was certain to lose. After viewing Cronkite’s broadcast, he
turned to his press secretary and said, “If I’ve lost Walter, I’ve lost Mr. Average Citizen.”
As for the U.S. forces and the ARVN, the attack had torn a psychological hole in
them. There was an incredible amount of fear and paranoia felt throughout the ranks, and
the fighting made many soldiers realize that they weren’t prepared to take on the NVA or
VC in the long run. (5)
Though most of the battles of the Tet Offensive were short, and the cities taken by
the NVA and VC were retaken quickly, there was one that dragged on, and used a
significant amount of man-power to retake. Hue, Vietnam’s third-largest city, was where
the greatest amount of fighting took place in retaliation to the offensive. (6)
The first major problem was that there was little help available for the few ARVN
troops posted in the city (7). Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong, commander of the
1st ARVN Division, had sent most of his troops elsewhere. (6) Secondly, the city was
divided by the Perfume River. On the north side was the Citadel, a three square-mile
section of the city surrounded by twenty foot walls. Inside was the Imperial Palace and
headquarters for the ARVN 1st Division and the Tactical Area of Responsibility for U.S.
Marine forces. On the south side was a Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV)
HQ. There were only two ways to get from one side to the other: a rail-bridge and a
vehicular bridge. (6)
The first military objective of retaking Hue from the communists was to take the
south side of the Perfume River, and retake the MACV building. After retreating on the
vehicular bridge to the Citadel, NVA and VC forces destroyed the bridge, making air-drop
the only way to retake the city. (1) ARVN 1st Division, 1st company was the only ARVN
force present. They started moving in the Northeast section of the Citadel. USMC 2nd
Division, 5th Company dropped in the southeast section. Neither was prepared for urban
fighting, since all of their previous engagements had been in a jungle environment. (7)
A month of fighting had passed before the Citadel was taken. Progressing into the
city meant clearing out every building room by room. (6) Snipers were positioned to
prevent U.S. infantry movement throughout the streets, and NVA rocket-launchers and
mortars stationed throughout the city prevented tank support coming from north of the
city from reaching the U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. There were days when the
Marines wouldn’t make it farther than ten feet from where they had started. (7)
In the end, the NVA and VC suffered about ten times the casualties as the Marines
and ARVN. (6) But the long period of fighting had broken the U.S. and ARVN men, and
as Tom Mitchell, a corporal in the 5th Marines said about the duration of the fighting, “It
was an insult.” (7)
Besides arduous fighting, the democratic armies had to deal with the threat of the
VC guerillas laced throughout South Vietnam. Sometimes they would plan solo suicide
attacks, and in other cases an entire town would open fire on the ARVN or U.S. forces.
Before Tet, the VC had never planned a major assault (1). Therefore, the true potential of
the VC had never been truly realized. After Tet, however, many U.S. troops were scared
to death of every new town or village that they entered. Only a month after all of the
“mop-up operations” of retaking the cities were completed, the My Lai Massacre took
A village under suspicion of being VC, was mostly populated by old men, women
and children. On March 16, 1968, Company C of the 1st Division Marine Infantry, swept
through the town before diverting off to Binh Tay. (6) Under the orders of Lieutenant
William Calley three hundred of the townspeople, as well as their livestock, were shot and
killed. The village was burned to the ground. (5) Once in Bihn Tay, they performed the
same acts of brutal murder . Just recently, there have also been reports of U.S. Senator
Bob Kerrey being responsible for a similar execution of thirteen civilians in Thanh Pong on
February 25, 1969.
As shown by incidences like these, the real victims of the war were shown to be
Vietnamese civilians. They were exploited for their resources, and abused by both sides.
Earl Martin was a volunteer civilian worker for the Mennonite Central Committee
and Church World. He spent his time giving aid to the Vietnamese farmers who were
forced to leave the countryside and seek refuge in towns and cities. On January 31, 1968
he was stationed in Quang Ngai, one of the major attack points of the assault. (4)
From what he saw, prior to Tet, the South Vietnamese civilians had more
contempt towards the U.S. than towards the North Vietnamese. “They didn’t like
Americans too much. They didn’t think we had any right to be there. It wasn’t our war.”
The Tet Offensive changed those feelings for the civilians with whom he came into
contact. In Quang Ngai, the VC had taken over the local high-school. This was situated
on the main road of the village, and the blockade they set up prevented access to the
hospital from the residential areas. “We got word that at the civilian hospital many people
were desperately needing help and they were short on medical people to help. A lot of
them were shot in the fray. They wondered whether we might help out. But that meant
driving our Land Rover across town which might mean driving past guerrillas soldiers
who were dug in. Would they shoot at any American they saw, even though we were not
in the military?” (4)
After hours of arguing with the VC guerrillas, Martin and the volunteers he was
with managed to make their way to the hospital. Most of the wounded had died already,
so they helped carry the corpses to the morgue. They had arrived too late.(4)
After the town was retaken, Martin noticed a new attitude towards the war. The
civilians had a new sense of trust in the Americans, and much more contempt for the VC
and NVA. (4) The offensive had shown the world that the North didn’t care too much
about preventing civilian casualties. Soon however, the same reputation was given to the
U.S. Their raids on towns and villages earned them just as much contempt as the North.
The United States made some changes after the offensive, changes that showed
they weren’t willing to take risks that might lead to further fighting. President Johnson
replaced General Westermoreland as Military Assistance Commander with his deputy,
General Creighton W. Abrams. (5)
As for support functions, a major mistake on the part of the U.S. was removing all
women in uniform from South Vietnam after the offensive took place (5). The male
commanders felt it was too dangerous for them be in the vicinity of the fighting. (5) The
women, who were mostly volunteers, felt that they were being labeled as weak, and not
able to hold together in times of pressure. “Actually, women often held up better than
some of the men under stressful conditions.” (5, pg. 404)
The slogan “Hey L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today?” put a dent in
President Johnson’s attack plans. (2) He realized that antiwar sentiments were too high,
and gathered a group of statesmen and soldiers whom he trusted, and whose opinions he
valued. They were known as the “wise men.” They had been the original designers of the
post-W.W.II fight against communism, and the shapers of the Domino Theory. (2) On
March 26, 1968 the group met with the President for lunch and gave Johnson counsel to
move towards peace, and cut back on military attacks (2). After that he halted all
bombing north of the 20th parallel. This was an attempt at influencing the NVA to come
to a peace agreement (3).
Without moral support, no war can be won. The United States had lost support
both at home, and in South Vietnam. Coupled with the being bogged down militarily, lack
of support was the main key in the U.S. failure to win the war. At the start of the war,
antiwar feelings were low. Tet saw the birth of a new wave of antiwar feelings. No one
wanted to be a part of Vietnam; not even the commander in chief of the armed forces.
Term Paper: Bibliography
1. Seinman, Ron. The Soldier’s Story. New York, New York. TV Books, L.L.C.
This book has detailed accounts of battles told by the soldiers themselves. There
are several different stories about the Tet Offensive, and each soldier tells his own
memories of what happened.
2. Morrison, Wilbur H. The Elephant and the Tiger. Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
Combined Books, Inc. 1990.
This book goes through the war in stages, beginning with the struggle between
communism and capitalism, and moving through the entire conflict to the end of the
Vietnam War. The book tells where the Tet Offensive stands in terms of the length of the
war, as well as how it impacted the situation.
3. Hemphill, Robert. Platoon: Bravo Company. Fredricksburg, Virginia. Sergeant
Kirkland’s Museum and Historical Society, Inc. 1998
This book is written by the commanding officer of Bravo Company. It goes
through the happenings of a platoon through the Vietnam War, and describes the events
on the first night of Tet, and carries the topic for the two weeks that followed.
4. Pimlott, John. Vietnam: the Decisive Battles. New York, New York. Macmillan
Publishing Company. 1990
This book goes through the planning, and execution of the Tet Offensive, and
describes in detail the effects of the attack, and how it was “decisive.”
5. Knopf, Alfred. Walter Cronkite: a Reporter’s Life. New York, New York.
Randomhouse, Inc. 1996.
Since Cronkite was one of the most influential political commentators during the
sixties, his opinion was valued highly. This book gives an overview of how his opinion
toward the war changed after the Tet Offensive, and how that changed the feelings of the
6. Martin, Earl. Personal Interview. 21, March 2001
Martin was a civilian relief volunteer during the war. He gave me an account of
the change in moral of the volunteers and the civilians under pressure after the Tet
Offensive had taken place.