Just after midnight on January 30, 1968, while Tet celebrations were still going on, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces began a major offensive against several sites in South Vietnam. An estimated 80,000 troops invaded approximately 100 towns and cities in a coordinated surprise attack, aimed at striking a blow against the allies and sparking an uprising of the population. The invasion had been preceded by a series of diversionary attacks against military targets near the borders, designed to draw U.S. and South Vietnamese troops away from the cities – the most notable of the border battles was at Khe Sanh.
Within two weeks, virtually all invading troops had been killed, captured, or had withdrawn. Approximately half of the original 80,000 troops were dead (3,895 Americans and 4,954 South Vietnamese were killed). Not only did the uprising fail to materialize, the American military showed a remarkable ability to reinforce and replenish its troops during the battle. By all military standards, the Tet offensive was a massive defeat for the North Vietnamese.
But the attacks showed the American public and President Johnson that the communist forces were stronger than had been previously claimed, and by 1968 the public was beginning to grow weary of the conflict. Media reports claimed that the war was destined to end in a stalemate (read Walter Cronkite’s famous “stalemate” broadcast), and eventually what had been an American/South Vietnamese victory was turned into the perception that the North Vietnamese had actually handed the allies a defeat.
The war would never be the same. Goals eventually shifted from winning to finding a way out. Richard Nixon campaigned and was elected to office with the promise to end the war.
After the American military left in 1973, South Vietnam was left to fight alone (despite assurances from the U.S. that we would return if threatened by the North Vietnamese Army). The war ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975.
As James H. Willbanks of the Department of Military History at the General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth wrote, “The Tet Offensive demonstrates a vital aspect of warfare that is just as applicable today as it was in 1968. Despite the fact that the Communists were defeated during the fighting, it was the political component of the offensive that had such a huge impact on the ultimate outcome of the war. Today’s military leaders will be wise to have learned the lessons of the Tet Offensive. They must never underestimate the enemy and must be judicious in their pronouncements about progress in order not to build impossible or unrealistic expectations for success. They must also avoid being blinded by their own preconceived notions in the intelligence arena, while at the same time being very careful never to forget that all warfare has a political component that has potential far-reaching ramifications beyond the battlefield.” (from “Shock and Awe of Tet Offensive Shattered U.S. Illusions“)
Those who were there, the brave troops who fought and won the Tet Offensive, are our heroes of the week.