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The Bloody Tet Offensive Marked A Turning Point In Vietnam

Editor Picks | September 16, 2021

The South Vietnamese took the worst of the Tet Offensive. (history)

The Vietnam War bore witness to endless brutality but the Tet Offensive of 1968 probably saw the worst of it. On the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar, the North Vietnamese and their allies, the Viet Cong, attacked over 100 cities and villages with more than 70,000 troops. The bloodshed spilled that day would fill rivers, especially for the Communists. However, despite the massive losses, the North Vietnamese completed their objective of deflating the American war effort and sowing discontent among the South Vietnamese.

When the news of the Tet Offensive broke in America, it was the first time the public began to question the United States’ involvement in the war. This offensive became the turning point in Vietnam.

Marines at Khe Sanh in 1968 (Smithsonian Channel)

Months In the Making

Early in 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong began their planning for the Tet Offensive. As a diversion tactic, General Vo Nguyen Giap ordered the bombardment of the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh. That installation also happened to sit on the main road from northern South Vietnam into Laos. Naturally, President Lyndon B. Johnson and General William Westmoreland ordered troops in the defense of Khe Sanh. Meanwhile, 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong moved into position for the all-out offensive.

Reporters helped changed public sentiment about the war. (rfa.org)

The Tet Offensive Begins

In the dawn of January 30, 1968, enemy forces struck 13 cities across central South Vietnam just as families started their observance of the lunar new year. As if that wasn’t enough, a day later, more cities came under fire throughout South Vietnam. In total more than 120 separate cities, towns, bases, and government buildings fell under heavy fire.

One particularly brazen attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon was actually broadcast on American television, shocking viewers across the country. While those troops attempting to storm the embassy were cut down in the courtyard, the savagery of the fighting greatly disturbed many Americans.

The Battle of Hue saw the hellacious fighting during the Tet Offensive. (businessinsider)

The Battle Of Hue

Perhaps the most ferocious fighting occurred at the Battle of Hue, located on the Perfume River 50 miles south of the border between North and South Vietnam. The struggle there lasted for three weeks after the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong took the city on January 31. During their occupation, those troops committed abhorrent crimes. They went door to door slaughtering civil servants, religious leaders, teachers or anyone connected with American forces or the South Vietnamese government. Troops found more than 2,800 bodies in mass graves and yet another 3,000 remained missing.

To take Hue, Marines fought against the enemy forces in the city’s ancient citadel. Much of that battle was also filmed by numerous TV crews. 150 marines were killed, a small number compared to the enemy but the bloodshed had taken its toll.

The Tet Offensive saw some of the most ferocious fighting of the war.

Tet Offensive Significance

Although from a military perspective the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had lost, they did win a crucial victory: eroding American confidence in the war. Prior to the Tet Offensive Westmoreland and the Johnson administration had begun claiming that the war was almost at an end. When the blood soaked images of the battle appeared on TV, those claims looked foolish. Westmoreland even requested 200,000 new troops which the American public saw as an act of desperation.

As the Anti-war demonstrations grew, President Johnson under tremendous pressure announced on March 31 that bombing would be limited and called for negotiations to end the war. He also declared that he would not run for reelection. Sadly, during the five years of “peace talks” more Americans died than in the previous years of the conflict. The North Vietnamese and Vet Cong sacrificed thousands in their overly ambitious Tet Offensive but they did achieve a strategic victory that ultimately ended the war.

Tags: Tet Offensive | The Vietnam War

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Linda Speckhals

Writer

When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.