The Tet offensive was launched on January 30, 1968, the eve of Tet, Vietnam's most important holiday. It was a massive attack launched simultaneously at many different fronts all over South Vietnam, including Saigon and all the major towns and cities and 39 of the 44 provincial capitals of South Vietnam. Before the attack it appeared—based on body counts anyway—that the Viet Cong were getting their butts kicked and there was talk of an imminent American victory. Americans and South Vietnamese enjoying the holiday were caught completely by surprise. Viet Cong fought with South Vietnamese troops on the lawn of the presidential place. Saigon's main radio station was captured. The Viet Cong took over the former imperial capital of Hue. Even the U.S. Embassy in Saigon was penetrated. It may have been captured were it not for the heroic efforts of the U.S. Marines in charge of guarding it.
The Americans and South Vietnamese counter-attacked with massive fire power and turned back the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). They were able reclaim all the territory that had been captured and killed thousands on the enemy but in the process also killed large numbers of civilians. Ben Tre, a town in the Mekong Delta, became symbolic of the operation as the place Americans officers said, "We have been ordered to destroy it in order to save it."
The Tet offensive was one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. The Americans claimed the Viet Cong lost half their attacking force (that turned to be an exaggeration but many North Vietnamese units sustained losses of 40 percent or more). When it was over The Tet Offensive killed about 1,000 U.S. soldiers and 2,000 South Vietnamese troops and perhaps over 10,000 civilians. By some estimates North Vietnamese losses were more than 10 times higher, at around 37,000 deaths. In addition, some 500 American and 10, 000 North Vietnamese troops had died at the battle of Khe Sanh the preceding week. North Vietnamese soldiers were as much to blame for civilian deaths as American fire power. In some cases they carried out assassination campaigns against teachers, students and officials under the cover of the offensive.
The Tet Offensive marked a decisive turning point in the war. Over 80,000 Viet Cong and members of the North Vietnamese army participated in the attack and more than 100 cities and towns were hit. Cameras caught the action in the courtyard of the U.S. Embassy in central Saigon, where five Marines were killed. U.S. forces had long been wanted to engage North Vietnamese forces but were caught utterly surprised – a major failure of US military intelligence. The event shocked the American people. They had been told that North Vietnam was close to defeat; then how was it that North Vietnam, especially after sustaining such large losses in 1967, could muster so many men and women into battle.
In military terms The Tet Offensive was a victory for the U.S. forces. However, it showed that the North Vietnamese appeared to have an inexhaustible supply of men and women willing to fight for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government. It also convinced millions of Americans watching reports on TV that the war couldn't be won. By the time it was over, the American strategy in Vietnam switched from pursuing victory on the battlefield to finding a way out. "We were beaten that day," one North Vietnamese leader said. "But after that, the Americans started negotiating."
Political Optimism in the U.S. before the Tet Offensive
Don Oberdorfer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "As the Communists prepared their attacks, the White House was setting itself up for a political disaster with a misguided "success offensive," claiming that victory was in sight. From the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, President Johnson declared that the war would continue "not many more nights." Most tellingly, Gen. William Westmoreland, the handsome, square-jawed commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, said before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.: "With 1968, a new phase is now starting. We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view." [Source: Don Oberdorfer, Smithsonian magazine, November 2004]
James H. Willbanks wrote in the New York Times, "In the latter months of 1967, after more than two years of bitter fighting in Vietnam, many Americans believed that the war had degenerated into a bloody stalemate. Gen. William Westmoreland, the senior commander, did not see it that way; by his primary metric — the body count — American and allied forces were making significant headway. Under criticism by the growing antiwar movement at home, President Lyndon Johnson decided to make General Westmoreland’s optimism the focal point of an information campaign to convince the American people that we were winning the war. [Source: James H. Willbanks, New York Times, March 5, 2008 ]
"In mid-November 1967, he brought the general home to make the case. Upon arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, General Westmoreland told waiting reporters that he was "very, very encouraged" by recent events. At an appearance on "Meet the Press" two days later, he said American troops would be able to begin withdrawing "within two years or less." During an address at the National Press Club, he claimed that "we have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view." He consistently gave an upbeat account of how things were going in the war, clearly believing that a corner had been turned. Even as Westmoreland spoke, however, the Communists in Vietnam were preparing a countrywide offensive designed to "liberate" South Vietnam, which was set to begin at the start of Tet, the lunar new year.
Preparation by the Viet Cong for the Tet Offensive
Don Oberdorfer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "We did not know then—and only learned with publication in 1988 of historical documents in Hanoi—that the North Vietnamese Politburo had decided as early as June 1967 to aim for a decisive battlefield victory in 1968, a U.S. presidential election year. The following month the Politburo approved a plan for simultaneous surprise attacks on Saigon and other urban areas of the South. In October 1967, according to the official history published in Hanoi, the Politburo decided that the attacks would begin during the Tet holiday, then only three months away. [Source: Don Oberdorfer, Smithsonian magazine, November 2004]
"Although the Communists tried to keep the offensive a secret, such an audacious project—67,000 troops attacking more than 100 targets—was bound to leak out. In mid-November, U.S. forces captured an early version of the attack plan, which declared that on an unspecified date, "troops should flood the lowlands" including Saigon and other urban areas in coordination with uprisings of the local population. The U.S. Embassy in Saigon actually distributed a translation of the Vietnamese document 25 days before the embassy was attacked; it was widely discounted. On the copy I picked out of a bin at the embassy press office, I expressed my own skepticism in longhand: "moonshine." Though the U.S. military command had ordered American forces on "maximum alert" on the eve of the holiday, many officers did not take the threat seriously. In fact, the very night the Tet attacks began, some 200 U.S. colonels, all assigned to the intelligence branch of the U.S. command, went to a party in downtown Saigon.
A.J. Langguth wrote in the Los Angeles Times, " Preliminary planning for the assault had begun four years earlier, in 1964. Members of the Politburo in Hanoi had been divided over the tactic, however. As they debated, Viet Cong in the South, led by a political officer named Tran Bach Dang, secretly started to smuggle arms and ammunition into Saigon. At one point, Dang estimated that his forces had stockpiled weaponry at 400 houses throughout the city. During the many months of planning, Dang lived openly among his enemies in a house in a fashionable sector of Saigon. His next-door neighbor was U. S. Deputy Ambassador William Porter. A committed communist intellectual, Dang had a personal motive in plotting a major offensive: For most of 1967, his wife, Nguyen Thi Chon, another National Liberation Front official, had been imprisoned and tortured by the Saigon police, with the connivance of the CIA. [Source: A.J. Langguth, Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2001, Langguth is a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and author of "Our Vietnam."]
North Vietnamese Espionage Work Before the Tet Offensive
In an article about the North Vietnam double agent Pham Xuan An, Thomas A. Bass wrote in The New Yorker, " Planning for the offensive had begun two years earlier, when the head of An’s intelligence network, a colonel known by his nom de guerre, Tu Cang, moved from the jungle into Saigon. Tu Cang was a famous cowboy, a hearty, affable man, who packed a pair of K-54 pistols and could plug a target at fifty meters with either his left or his right hand. A former honor student at the French lycée in Saigon, Tu Cang had lived underground in the Cu Chi tunnels for so many years that by the time he reëntered Saigon he had forgotten how to open a car door. An replaced Tu Cang’s jungle sandals with new shoes and bought him a suit of clothes. Soon the two men were driving around town in An’s little Renault 4CV like old friends. [Source: Thomas A. Bass, The New Yorker, May 23, 2005 ////]
"Pretending to be chatting about dogs and cockfights, they were sighting targets for the Tet Offensive. Tu Cang proposed attacking the Treasury to get some money. An told him the Treasury was the wrong target—"They only hand out salaries there." An said a better target was the courthouse, where lots of gold was stored as evidence in the trials of South Vietnam’s legion of burglars and smugglers. He advised Tu Cang to bring an acetylene torch. Tu Cang isolated twenty targets in Saigon, including the Presidential Palace and the United States Embassy. He personally led the attack on the palace, where fifteen of the seventeen members in his team were killed outright. He himself barely escaped to a nearby safe house, and he hid with his two pistols held to his head, vowing to kill himself rather than be captured. The following day, he and An were driving around the city again, this time counting the bodies of the Viet Cong soldiers who had died in the attack. ////
"Later that spring, in what was called the mini-Tet offensive, the Viet Cong began shelling Saigon indiscriminately, blowing up buildings and killing scores of civilians. An sent a note into the field. "I told them to stop the shelling. It had no military objective and was alienating people." "What happened next?" I ask. "The shelling stopped." ////
General Vo Nguyen Giap and Tet Offensive From the Perspective of North Vietnam
Robert Templer wrote in The Guardian, "On 30 January 1968, tens of thousands of communist troops launched the Tet offensive, striking across South Vietnam during what was supposed to have been a truce to mark the lunar new year holiday. In Hanoi, the leadership had expected the South Vietnamese to rise up and overthrow the government but instead the VC suffered a huge military defeat. Their troops and command structures were nearly wiped out when the US forces regained control. [Source: Robert Templer, The Guardian, October 4, 2013 /=]
"The offensive was a severe military setback for the North, but they did win a psychological victory. Dramatic news coverage of the offensive in the US damaged claims in Washington that an end to the war was in sight. Support for the conflict and for President Lyndon B Johnson slumped. Once again, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap had suffered enormous losses but had still managed to declare victory. "After the Tet offensive, the Americans moved from the attack to the defence," he said. "And defence is always the beginning of defeat." That defeat would take another seven years of fighting, less time than Giap had expected. The South Vietnamese army collapsed precipitously as the North Vietnamese pushed down the coast. Saigon fell on 30 April 1975. /=\
Joseph R. Gregory wrote in the New York Times, "For the Communists, things went wrong from the start. Some Viet Cong units attacked prematurely, without the backing of regular troops as planned. Suicide squads, like one that penetrated the United States Embassy in Saigon, were quickly wiped out. Despite some successes — the North Vietnamese entered the city of Hue and held it for three weeks — the offensive was a military disaster. The hoped-for uprisings never took place, and some 40,000 Communist fighters were killed or wounded. The Viet Cong never regained the strength it had before Tet. But the fierceness of the assault illustrated Hanoi’s determination to win and shook the American public and leadership. [Source: Joseph R. Gregory, New York Times, October 4, 2013]
"The Tet offensive had been directed primarily at the people of South Vietnam," General Giap said later, "but as it turned out, it affected the people of the United States more. Until Tet, they thought they could win the war, but now they knew that they could not." He told the journalist Stanley Karnow in 1990, "We wanted to show the Americans that we were not exhausted, that we could attack their arsenals, communications, elite units, even their headquarters, the brains behind the war." He added, "We wanted to project the war into the homes of America’s families, because we knew that most of them had nothing against us."
Events Before the Tet Offensive
A few weeks before the Tet Offensive, Gen. Bruce Palmer, the Deputy Commander in Vietnam, declared on the NBC's Today show, "The Viet Cong have been defeated from Danang all the way down in the populated areas." Vice President Hubert Humphrey said, "We are going on the offensive. Territory is being gained. We are making steady progress."
In mid-1967 the costs of the war mounted daily with no military victory in sight for either side. Against this background, the party leadership in Hanoi decided that the time was ripe for a general offensive in the rural areas combined with a popular uprising in the cities. The primary goals of this combined major offensive and uprising were to destabilize the Saigon regime and to force the United States to opt for a negotiated settlement. In October 1967, the first stage of the offensive began with a series of small attacks in remote and border areas designed to draw the ARVN and United States forces away from the cities. The rate of infiltration of troops from the North rose to 20,000 per month by late 1967, and the United States command in Saigon predicted a major Communist offensive early the following year. The DMZ area was expected to bear the brunt of the attack. Accordingly, United States troops were sent to strengthen northern border posts, and the security of the Saigon area was transferred to ARVN forces. Despite warnings of the impending offensive, in late January more than one-half of the ARVN forces were on leave because of the approaching Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday. [Source: Library of Congress]
See Khe Sanh Under Famous Battles.
Beginning of the Tet Offensive
Don Oberdorfer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "Shortly before 3 a.m. on January 31, 1968, a squad of Viet Cong guerrillas blasted a hole in the outer wall of the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon, gunned down two American military policemen who tried to stop them, and laid siege to the lightly defended headquarters building where the flag of the United States was officially planted in South Vietnam. The resulting six-hour battle was militarily inconsequential. [Source: Don Oberdorfer, Smithsonian magazine, November 2004]
The full-scale offensive began, with simultaneous attacks by the communists on five major cities, thirty-six provincial capitals, sixty-four district capitals, and numerous villages. In Saigon, suicide squads attacked the Independence Palace (the residence of the president), the radio station, the ARVN's joint General Staff Compound, Tan Son Nhut airfield, and the United States embassy, causing considerable damage and throwing the city into turmoil. Most of the attack forces throughout the country collapsed within a few days, often under the pressure of United States bombing and artillery attacks, which extensively damaged the urban areas. Hue, which had been seized by an estimated 12,000 Communist troops who had previously infiltrated the city, remained in communist hands until late February. A reported 2,000 to 3,000 officials, police, and others were executed in Hue during that time as counterrevolutionaries. *
Leader of a Viet Cong Cell in Saigon
Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Nguyen Kim Bach "is one of the last living members of the secret F100 Viet Cong cell that planned and helped carry out Saigon's part in the January 1968 Tet offensive, using the noodle shop as their base. Nguyen's role began in 1965, when he married the eldest daughter of the noodle shop's owner, Ngo Toai. Ngo had brought his noodle recipe from the North more than a decade earlier. He had a street stall for years, eventually saving enough money to open the restaurant. It didn't take long for Nguyen to realize there was more than noodle-pulling going on in the cafe, which was popular with both Vietnamese and American troops. Encouraged by his father-in-law, Nguyen soon joined the F100 cell, which was responsible for ferrying weapons from northern strongholds to 13 basement caches around Saigon. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 04, 2010]
One of the basements, a few miles from the noodle shop, was in a building bought by a North Vietnamese agent named Tran Van Lai. He bought the building on Vo Van Tan Street and four others in 1965. Tran posed as a rich contractor and spent a year renovating the house, adding secret escape routes through the roof, sewers and adjoining buildings. A dark-haired beauty posed as his mistress to bolster his cover. The 5-by-30-foot, concrete-lined basement hid 800 pounds of B-40 antitank weapons, AK-47 assault rifles, grenades, dynamite and C-4 explosive. Upstairs, a Sharp Multiband Deluxe radio the size of a small suitcase allowed Tran to communicate with Hanoi and with the Cuchi tunnels, a vast network of underground passageways that served as supply routes and hiding places for Viet Cong fighters.
Nguyen and other F100 members helped transport the weapons to Tran and others on carts pulled by buffalo. The arms and explosives were hidden beneath fruit, potted plants and straw mats and secreted in the carved-out base of a traditional Vietnamese bed. Most were moved during holiday rushes to avoid suspicion. The open peasant carts, unlike trucks, were rarely searched. "We never lost a shipment," Nguyen said proudly. "When we started in 1965, we didn't know the exact date of the offensive but figured it would take a few years," Nguyen said. "Secrecy was so tight, we rarely met.... Most communication was by secret message."
Leader of a Viet Cong Cell in Saigon and the Tet Offensive
Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Finally, in late January 1968, the unit got word that the long-awaited offensive would begin in three days. Nguyen and his father-in-law closed the noodle shop, stocked up on food and held strategy sessions in a second-floor back room. Over the three days, more than 100 Viet Cong fighters passed through the noodle shop, some picking up their orders and moving on, others hiding in the attic, where space was so tight that the men slept sitting up. They barely moved and never talked, sustained by steaming bowls of soup. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 04, 2010]
At 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 30, they got orders to attack designated targets, including the U.S. Embassy and Independence Palace, the seat of the South's government, early the next morning. Fighters fanned out across the city. Shocked South Vietnamese and U.S. troops managed to rebuff the Viet Cong. A few days later, police arrived at the noodle shop and arrested 13 people, including Nguyen, his wife and his in-laws.
When the captured North Vietnamese agents were frog-marched to police headquarters, enraged South Vietnamese officers summarily shot the first two. Nguyen was third in line, a pistol at his temple, smoke curling from its barrel, when the order came to stop shooting. This would seem to have been the luckiest moment of his life. "It was the unluckiest," he said. "The torture that followed was so unspeakable. I wished I'd joined them," he said, referring to his executed comrades.
The family managed to pull together $3,000 for bribes that secured the release of Nguyen's wife and mother-in-law, he said. But he and Ngo endured two months of daily torture. Small pins were hammered under each fingernail, Nguyen said, until they came out the other side. Then they were pulled out, slowly and in a twisting motion. Nguyen was hung from the ceiling by his handcuffed arms. His heels were battered with baseball bats. Most unbearable, however, was the water torture. "It starts as a drip," he said. "But by the 100th time it feels like a hammer blow to your head."
But when police went to the building on Vo Van Tan Street to arrest Tran, his ingenious renovations paid off. As authorities fired at the green iron gate — the bullet marks are still visible — he fled via one of his escape routes. Ngo and Nguyen were released in 1973 under a general amnesty, part of the Paris Peace Accords. Ngo returned to his cafe in Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) and continued serving noodles to Vietnamese and, later, American customers until his death in 1994.
Fighting During the Tet Offensive
James H. Willbanks wrote in New York Times, "In the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 1968, Communist forces struck suddenly and with a fury breathtaking in scope. More than 80,000 soldiers from the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong guerrilla force launched nearly simultaneous attacks against major cities, towns and military installations from the Demilitarized Zone south to the Mekong Delta. They seized and occupied Hue, the ancient imperial capital, and sent 11 battalions into Saigon to strike six targets, including the United States Embassy. [Source: James H. Willbanks, New York Times, March 5, 2008 :::]
Although the North Vietnamese managed to retain control of some of the rural areas, the communists were forced out of all of the towns and cities, except Hue, within a few weeks. Willbanks wrote: "With a few notable exceptions — at Hue, Khe Sanh and Cholon — most of the fighting of the opening phase of the offensive was over in a few days as the American and South Vietnamese forces overcame the initial surprise and responded with superior firepower. The citizen uprising that the Communists had been counting on failed to materialize. The Communists suffered horrendous casualties; some estimates ranged as high as 40,000 killed. Their losses continued to grow as subsequent fighting extended into the fall months. By the time the offensive had run its course, the Viet Cong had been crippled; the major fighting for the rest of the war would be done by the North Vietnamese Army." :::
Fighting Outside Saigon During the Tet Offensive
Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, was stationed outside Saigon at the time the Tet Offensive began. He later said: "We were securing the rubber plantation not too far from Long Binh, the old Michelin rubber plantation [just northeast of Saigon]. And so my units were the first one into Long Binh as that ammo dump was — was being blown. And of course, they were getting — the VC were getting into MACV headquarters, and as you know, part of the objective there was to take Westmoreland hostage. And nobody knew what was going on. Something — something was happening. It was pretty big, but (snaps fingers) we were pulled up out of the Michelin — we left — we left ponchos. We left everything right on the ground. And we grabbed guns and were on those APCs and down that road. [Source: Time, January 16, 2013 =^=]
"And I was the third track in the Long — got into the Long Binh ammo dump. And as we were getting into the ammo dump, it started to blow. I have a picture in my office — sometime you’ll have to stop by and see it — that was sent to me a couple of years ago by a guy I did not know and still have not met, but he was in my — he was in another company, Alpha Company that was right behind Bravo Company on the tracks going in. And he took this picture on his Kodak camera, and it looks like a nuclear mushroom cloud that morning when the ammo dump went up. =^= "There were two tracks in front of me that hit — that hit — hit this. Essentially as vaporized as you can be in one of those. We were the third track in. And we got the blowback on it. And the force was so bad that it essentially picked the track up a little bit and turned us around and took us right into a ditch. Some of us were burned a little bit, but nobody was seriously hurt… After Tet, I was acting company sergeant for about two weeks until we could get some senior NCOs in. Our — one of our captains, I remember him very well. He was right next to me. We were in a cemetery one morning, and a sniper shot him right between the eyes, and he was right next to me. We had a pretty high mortality rate for officers during that time. =^=
Battle at Hue During the Tet Offensive
The Viet Cong captured Hue on January 31, 1968 d and raised the North Vietnamese flag for 24 days over the citadel before it was retaken by American and South Vietnamese troops. The Viet Cong resisted the U.S. counter-offensive longer here than they did anywhere else during the Tet Offensive. It took U.S. Marines nearly four weeks of block to block fighting to drive them out. "For 25 days, rockets, bombs, napalm, howitzer shells and mortar rounds were directed at the wall Citadel of Hue by American and South Vietnamese forces," David Alexander wrote in Smithsonian magazine. "The fighting had begun after two Vietnamese battalions had caught defenders unprepared, sliced into the core of the Citadel and set up a command post in the columned hall."
Over 10,000 people were killed in Hue alone during the action. The vast majority of those killed were civilians. By the time the battle was over in March 1968, the United States had 147 dead and 857 wounded, the South Vietnam Army had 384 dead and 1,800 wounded and the North Vietnam Army had 5,113 dead.
James H. Willbanks wrote on HistoryNet.com, "As the Communist struggled to maintain control of Hue, the longest, bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive, fierce house-to-house fighting left some 116,000 civilians homeless. In the months after the battle, nearly 2,800 civilian bodies were discovered in 18 hastily concealed mass graves. [Source: James H. Willbanks , HistoryNet.com, January 25, 2011, Vietnam veteran James Willbanks is the director of the Department of Military History, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and is the author of several books, including The Tet Offensive: A Concise History and Abandoning Vietnam]
"In "Dispatches," Michael Herr describes the "damp gloom," and the "cold and dark" that hung over Hue as American troops fought house-to-house after the Tet offensive was launched. Dead bodies bobbed in the moat of the old imperial city and littered all its approaches, Mr. Herr wrote. When the battle for Hue was over, "70 percent of Vietnam's one lovely city was destroyed, and if the landscape seemed desolate, imagine how the figures in that landscape looked." According to Mr. Herr's book, the Americans suffered "roughly one casualty for every meter taken." [Source: Jane Perlez - The New York Times - February 16, 2004]
Books: “The Tet Offensive: A Concise History and Abandoning Vietnam” by James Willbanks
The Tet battle at Hue featured Stanley Kubrik's “Full Metal Jacket” .
Beginning of the Tet Offensive Attack at Hue
James H. Willbanks wrote on HistoryNet.com, "As the Communist struggled to maintain control of Hue, the longest, bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive, fierce house-to-house fighting left some 116,000 civilians homeless. In the months after the battle, nearly 2,800 civilian bodies were discovered in 18 hastily concealed mass graves. As the Communist struggled to maintain control of Hue, the longest, bloodiest battle of the Tet Offensive, fierce house-to-house fighting left some 116,000 civilians homeless. In the months after the battle, nearly 2,800 civilian bodies were discovered in 18 hastily concealed mass graves. [Source: James H. Willbanks , HistoryNet.com, January 25, 2011 ]
"As dawn broke on the holiday morning of January 31, 1968, nearly everyone in the old walled city of Hue could see it. The gold-starred, blue-and-red National Liberation Front banner was flying atop the historic 120-foot-high Citadel flag tower. When the residents of the elegant former capital city had gone to bed just hours earlier on the eve of Tet, they were filled with anticipation for the festivities and celebrations to come. But now, a shroud of fear and foreboding descended upon them as they found themselves swept up in war. Seemingly in a flash, the Communists were now in charge of Hue.
"Of course, months of meticulous planning and training had made this moment possible. The Communists had carefully selected the time for the attack. Because of Tet, they knew the city's defenders would be at reduced strength, and the typically bad weather of the northeast monsoon season would hamper any allied aerial re-supply operations and impede close air support. In the days leading up to Tet, hundreds of Viet Cong (VC) had already infiltrated the city by mingling with the throngs of pilgrims pouring into Hue for the holiday. They easily moved their weapons and ammunition into the bustling city, concealed in the vehicles, wagons and trucks carrying the influx of goods, food and wares intended for the days-long festivities. Like clockwork, in the dark, quiet morning hours of January 31, the stealth soldiers unpacked their weapons, donned their uniforms and headed to their designated positions across Hue in preparation for linking up with crack People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and VC assault troops closing in on the city. Infiltrators assembled at the Citadel gates ready to lead their comrades to strike key targets.
"At 3:40 a.m., a rocket and mortar barrage from the mountains to the west signaled the assault troops to launch their attack. By daybreak, the lightning strike was over and the invaders began to unleash a harsh new reality over the stunned city. As PAVN and VC troops roamed freely to consolidate their gains, political officers set about rounding up South Vietnamese and foreigners unfortunate enough to be on their "special lists." Marching up and down the Citadel's narrow streets, the cadre called out the names on their lists over loudspeakers, ordering them to report to a local school. Those not reporting voluntarily would be hunted down."
James H. Willbanks wrote on HistoryNet.com, "One of the most venerated places in Vietnam, Hue's population of 140,000 in 1968 made it South Vietnam's third largest city. In reality, Hue is two cities divided by the Song Huong, or River of Perfume, with two-thirds of the city's population living north of the river within the walls of the old city, known as the Citadel. Once the home of the Annamese emperors who had ruled the central portion of present-day Vietnam, the three-square-mile Citadel is surrounded by walls rising to 30 feet and up to 40 feet thick, which form a square about a mile and a half long on each side. The three walls not bordering the Perfume River are encircled by a zigzag moat that is 90 feet wide at many points and up to 12 feet deep. [Source: James H. Willbanks , HistoryNet.com, January 25, 2011 ]
"Inside the Citadel are block after block of row houses, apartment buildings, villas, shops, parks and an all-weather airstrip. Tucked within the old walled city is yet another fortified enclave, the Imperial Palace, where the emperors held court until the French took control of Vietnam in 1883. Situated at the south end of the Citadel, the palace is essentially a square with 20-foot-high, 2,300-foot-long walls. As an observer once put it, the Citadel was a "camera-toting tourist's dream," but in February 1968 it would prove to be "a rifle-toting infantryman's nightmare."
"South of the Perfume River and linked to the Citadel by the Nguyen Hoang Bridge is the modern part of Hue, which had about half the footprint of the Citadel and in which resided about a third of the city's population in 1968. Here was the city's hospital, the provincial prison, the Catholic cathedral, the U.S. Consulate, Hue University and the newer residential districts.
"As Vietnam's traditional cultural and intellectual center, Hue had been treated almost as an open city by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese and thus was spared much of the war's death and destruction. The only military presence in the city was the fortified Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 1st Infantry Division headquarters at the northwest corner of the Citadel. The only combat element in the city was the division's reconnaissance company, the elite Hac Bao Company, known as the "Black Panthers." The rest of the division's subordinate units were arrayed outside the city. Maintaining security inside Hue was primarily the responsibility of the National Police.
American and North Vietnamese Forces in Hue During the Tet Offensive
James H. Willbanks wrote on HistoryNet.com, "The only U.S. military presence in Hue on January 31 was the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) compound located about a block and a half south of the Nguyen Hoang Bridge on the eastern edge of the modern sector. The compound housed about 200 U.S. Army, Marine Corps and Australian officers and men who served as advisers to the 1st ARVN Division. The nearest U.S. combat forces were at the Phu Bai Marine base eight miles south down Route 1, home of Task Force X-Ray, a forward headquarters of the 1st Marine Division that was made up of two Marine regimental headquarters and three Marine battalions. [Source: James H. Willbanks , HistoryNet.com, January 25, 2011 ]
"Communist forces in the Hue region numbered 8,000, a total of 10 battalions, including two PAVN regiments of three battalions and one battalion each. These were highly trained North Vietnamese regular units. Six Viet Cong main force battalions, including the 12th and Hue City Sapper Battalions, joined the PAVN units.
While very adept at fighting in jungles and rice paddies, the PAVN and VC troops required additional training for fighting in urban areas. While the soldiers trained for the battle ahead, VC intelligence officers prepared a list of "cruel tyrants and reactionary elements" to be rounded up in Hue during the early hours of the attack. On this list were most of the South Vietnamese government officials, military officers and politicians, as well as American civilians and other foreigners. After capturing these individuals, they were to be evacuated to the jungle outside the city where they would be held to account for their crimes against the Vietnamese people."
Attack by North Vietnamese Forces at Hue During the Tet Offensive
James H. Willbanks wrote on HistoryNet.com, "The PAVN 6th Regiment, with two battalions of infantry and the 12th VC Sapper Battalion, launched the main attack from the southwest, linking up with the VC infiltrators, and speeding across the Perfume River into the Citadel toward the ARVN 1st Division headquarters. The 800th and 802nd battalions of the 6th Regiment rapidly overran most of the Citadel, but Brig. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, 1st ARVN Division commander, and his staff held the attackers at bay at the division compound. [Source: James H. Willbanks , HistoryNet.com, January 25, 2011 ]
"Meanwhile, the ARVN reconnaissance company managed to hold its position at the eastern end of the airfield until it was ordered to withdraw to the division headquarters to help thicken defenses there. Though the PAVN 802nd Battalion breached the ARVN defenses on several occasions during the pre-dawn hours, its troops were hurled back each time, leaving the 1st Division compound in South Vietnamese hands. By daylight however, the PAVN 6th Regiment held most of the Citadel, including the Imperial Palace.
"South of the Perfume River, the situation was little better for the Americans. The PAVN 804th Battalion twice assaulted the MACV compound, but was repelled each time by rapidly assembled defenders armed with individual weapons. The North Vietnamese troops then stormed the compound gates, where a group of Marines manning a bunker held off them for a brief period before being taken out with several B-40 rockets. This action slowed the PAVN attack and gave the Americans and Australians time to organize their defenses. After failing to take the compound in an intense firefight, the Communists tried to reduce it with mortars and automatic weapons from overlooking buildings. The defenders went to ground and called for reinforcements.
"While the battle raged around the MACV compound, two Viet Cong battalions took over the Thua Thien Province headquarters, the police station and other government buildings south of the river. At the same time, the PAVN 810th Battalion took up blocking positions on the city's southern edge to prevent reinforcement from that direction. By dawn, all of the city south of the Perfume River, with the exception of the MACV compound, was controlled by the North Vietnamese 4th Regiment. Thus in very short order, the Communists had seized control of virtually all of Hue.
"With only a tenuous hold on his own headquarters compound in the Citadel, General Truong ordered his 3rd Regiment, reinforced with two airborne battalions and an armored cavalry troop, to fight their way into the Citadel from their positions northwest of the city. These forces encountered intense resistance, but by late afternoon reached Truong's headquarters. As Truong consolidated his forces, another call for reinforcements went out from the surrounded Americans and Australians in the MACV compound. Responding to III Marine Amphibious Force orders, but not fully aware of the enemy situation in Hue, Brig. Gen. Foster C. "Frosty" LaHue, commander of Task Force X-Ray, dispatched Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (1/1), to move up Route 1 from Phu Bai to relieve the 200 surrounded MACV advisers.
Counter-Attack by American Forces at Hue During the Tet Offensive
James H. Willbanks wrote on HistoryNet.com, "After entering the city, the Marines were pinned down just short of the adviser compound. More Marines from Phu Bai, Golf Company, 2/5, joined up with the original force and together they fought their way to the compound, sustaining 10 killed in the fight. After the link up, the Marines were ordered to cross the river and break through to the ARVN 1st Division headquarters in the Citadel. As they crossed the Nguyen Hoang Bridge, the Marines were driven back by a hail of enemy fire, suffering heavy casualties in the process. [Source: James H. Willbanks , HistoryNet.com, January 25, 2011 ]
"With the 1st ARVN Division fully occupied in the Citadel and the U.S. Marines engaged south of the river, ARVN I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam and Lt. Gen. Robert Cushman, III Marine Expeditionary Force commander, met to discuss how to retake Hue. They decided that ARVN forces would be responsible for clearing the Communist fighters from the Citadel and the rest of Hue north of the river, while Task Force X-Ray would assume responsibility for the southern part of the city. General LaHue, now fully realizing what his Marines were up against, dispatched Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, 1st Marine Regiment commander, to assume overall control of U.S. forces. The Marines launched a bitter building-by-building, room-to-room battle to eject the Communist forces. Untrained in urban warfare, the Marines had to work out the tactics and techniques on the spot, and their progress was methodical and costly. Ground gained was measured in inches, and every alley, street corner, window and garden was paid for in blood. Both sides suffered heavy casualties.
"On February 5, H Company, 2/5 Marines, took the Thua Thien Province headquarters, which had served as the command post of the PAVN 4th Regiment, causing the integrity of the North Vietnamese defenses south of the river to begin to falter. Hard fighting continued over the next week, but by February 14, most of the city south of the river was in American hands. Mopping up would take another 12 days as rockets and mortar rounds continued to fall and snipers harassed Marine patrols. The battle for the new city had been costly for the Marines, who sustained 38 dead and 320 wounded. It had been even more costly for the Communists; the bodies of more than 1,000 VC and NVA soldiers were strewn about the city south of the river. Meanwhile, the battle north of the river had continued to rage. Although additional ARVN forces were inserted, by February 4 their advance had effectively stalled among the houses, alleys and narrow streets along the Citadel wall to the northwest and southwest. The Communists, who had burrowed deeply into the walls and tightly packed buildings, were still in possession of the Imperial Palace and most of the surrounding area and seemed to be getting stronger as reinforcements made their way into the city.
"His troops stalled, a frustrated and embarrassed General Truong was forced to appeal to III MAF for help. On February 10, General Cushman directed General LaHue to move a Marine battalion into the Citadel. On February 12, elements of 1/5 Marines made their way across the river on landing craft and entered the Citadel through a breach in the northeast wall. At the same time, two Vietnamese Marine battalions moved into the southwest corner of the Citadel. This buildup of allied forces put intense pressure on the Communist forces, but they stood their ground. Attacking along the south wall, the Marines took heavy casualties, as the fighting proved even more savage than in the southern part of the city. Backed by airstrikes, naval gunfire and artillery support, the Marines inched ahead, but the enemy fought back desperately. The battle seesawed back and forth until February 17, when the 1/5 Marines had secured its objective, after losing 47 killed and 240 wounded.
"Fighting continued for days, but finally, at dawn on February 24, ARVN soldiers pulled down the Viet Cong banner that had flown from the Citadel flag tower for 25 days and hoisted the South Vietnamese flag. On March 2, the longest sustained infantry battle the war had seen to that point was officially declared over. The relief of Hue cost the ARVN 384 killed, 1,800 wounded and 30 missing in action. The U.S. Marines suffered 147 dead and 857 wounded, and the Army lost 74 dead and 507 wounded. Allied claims of Communists killed in the city topped 5,000, and an estimated 3,000 more were killed in the surrounding area in battles with elements of the 1st Cavalry and the 101st Airborne divisions. The epic battle for Hue left much of the ancient city a pile of rubble as 40 percent of its buildings were destroyed, leaving some 116,000 civilians homeless. Among the population, 5,800 civilians were reported killed or missing.
North Vietnamese Kill Teachers and Officials at Hue
Under the cover of the Tet Offensive, Communist murdered hundreds of teachers, students and local officials in Hue in a bid to get rid of the middle class. During the 25 day occupation, 2,800 South Vietnamese teachers, Catholic clergymen, civil servants and local officials were rounded up by the North Vietnamese and executed in the largest political massacre of the war. One elderly man later told the New York Times, "I remember the sounds of people being shot during Tet. The Communist troops said they were ‘bad people.’ There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands. I hid outside the citadel for two weeks." The graves of 5,000 citizens was later fond outside the city.
Another man told the New York Times, "I ran away with six children at three in the morning when I saw the Communist troops...The fighting around my house was terrible." Another said he was woken up by soldiers with AK-47 assault rifles, demanding to see his father "They said they saw a motorcycle in front of my house and they called him a capitalist. They ordered him to go with them. He asked if they could wait a minute while he go his identity card. He sneaked out the back door and hid...They threatened to blow up the house. My grandmother said, ‘Go ahead.’ Then they left."
James H. Willbanks wrote on HistoryNet.com, "Viet Cong intelligence officers prepared a list of 'cruel tyrants and reactionary elements' to be rounded up in Hue during the early hours of the attack. As PAVN and VC troops roamed freely to consolidate their gains, political officers set about rounding up South Vietnamese and foreigners unfortunate enough to be on their "special lists." Marching up and down the Citadel's narrow streets, the cadre called out the names on their lists over loudspeakers, ordering them to report to a local school. Those not reporting voluntarily would be hunted down. What became of those rounded up would not be readily apparent until long after the battle ended. Even then, as with so much in Vietnam, the facts surrounding their fate would be the subject of often angry and anguished debate among Americans, mirroring the chasm of distrust cleaved by the war and shaded by ideological rigidity, a debate that endures four decades later. [Source: James H. Willbanks , HistoryNet.com, January 25, 2011 ]
"In 1971, journalist Don Oberdorfer's book Tet! revealed vivid eyewitness descriptions of what unfolded when the VC took control of the city. Stephen Miller, a 28-year-old American Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Information Service, was in the home of Vietnamese friends when he was taken away by the VC. They led him to a field behind a Catholic seminary, bound his arms and then executed him. German doctors Raimund Discher, Alois Alteköster, and Horst-Günther Krainick and his wife, all of whom taught at the local medical school, thought they would be safe as foreign aid workers, but the VC came and took them away. Their bodies were later found dumped in a shallow grave in a nearby field. Similarly, two French priests, Fathers Urbain and Guy, were seen led away. Urbain's body was later found, bound hand and foot, where he had been buried alive. Guy's body, with a bullet in the back of his head, was found in the same grave with Urbain and 18 others. Witnesses reported seeing Vietnamese priest Buu Dong, who had ministered to both sides and even had a photograph of Ho Chi Minh hanging in his room, being taken away. His body was found 22 months later in a shallow grave along with the remains of 300 other victims.
"Making the Viet Cong list of "reactionaries" for working as a part-time janitor at the government information office, Pham Van Tuong was hiding with his family when the VC came for him. When he emerged with his 3-year-old daughter, 5-year-old son and two nephews, the Viet Cong immediately gunned them all down, leaving the bodies in the street for the rest of the family to see. On the fifth day of the occupation, the Viet Cong went to Phu Cam Cathedral, where they had gathered some 400 men and boys. Some had been on the enemy's list, some were of military age and some just looked prosperous. They were seen being led away to the south by the VC cadres. It was apparently this group whose remains were later found in the Da Mai Creek bed.
"Omar Eby's book A House in Hue, published in 1968, relates the account of a group of Mennonite aid workers who were trapped in their house during the Communist occupation of the city. The Mennonites told Eby that they saw several Americans, one an agriculturist from the U.S. Agency for International Development, being led away by VC cadre with their arms tied behind their backs. They too were later found executed. Several writers, including Gunther Lewy in his America in Vietnam, published in 1980, and Peter Macdonald, author of the 1993 book Giap, cite a captured enemy document stating that during the occupation of the city the Communists "eliminated 1,892 administrative personnel, 38 policemen, 790 tyrants."
"Truong Nhu Tang, author of A Viet Cong Memoir, published in 1985, tells of a conversation about Hue he had with one of his Viet Cong comrades that acknowledges that atrocities occurred, but his account differs in terms of motivation for the killings. He wrote that a close friend told him that "Discipline in Hue had been seriously inadequate….Fanatic young soldiers had indiscriminately shot people, and angry local citizens who supported the revolution had on various occasions taken justice into their own hands….It had simply been one of those terrible spontaneous tragedies that inevitably accompany war."
Uncovering Evidence of the Massacre of Teachers and Officials at Hue
James H. Willbanks wrote on HistoryNet.com, "The fate of many of the missing took time to emerge, but in the months after the battle grisly discoveries were filling in the blanks as some 1,200 civilian bodies were discovered in 18 hastily concealed mass graves. During the first seven months of 1969, a second major group of graves was found. Then, in September, three Communist defectors told 101st Airborne Division intelligence officers that they had witnessed the killing of several hundred people at Da Mai Creek, about 10 miles south of Hue, in February 1968. A search revealed the remains of about 300 people in the creek bed. Finally, in November, a fourth major discovery of bodies was made in the Phu Thu Salt Flats, near the fishing village of Luong Vien, 10 miles east of Hue. All total, nearly 2,800 bodies were recovered from these mass graves. [Source: James H. Willbanks , HistoryNet.com, January 25, 2011 ]
"Initially, the mass graves were not widely reported on in the American media. The press tended not to believe the early reports, since they came from sources they considered discredited. Instead, most reporters tended to concentrate on the bloody fighting and the destruction of the city. As the graves were discovered, however, investigations were launched to get at the facts of the killings. In a report published in 1970, The Viet Cong Strategy of Terror, the U.S. Information Agency analyst Douglas Pike wrote that at least half of the bodies unearthed in Hue revealed clear evidence of "atrocity killings: to include hands wired behind backs, rags stuffed in mouths, bodies contorted but without wounds (indicating burial alive)." Pike concluded that the killings were done by local VC cadres and were the result of "a decision rational and justifiable in the Communist mind."
"Not everyone agrees that a massacre occurred at Hue, or at least one as described by Pike, Oberdorfer and others. In an article in the June 24, 1974, issue of Indochina Chronicle titled "The 1968 'Hue Massacre,'" political scientist D. Gareth Porter called the massacre one of the "enduring myths of the Second Indochina War." He asserted that Douglas Pike was a "media manipulator par excellence," working in collusion with the ARVN 10th Political Warfare Battalion to manufacture the story of the massacre at the direction of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. While acknowledging that some executions occurred, Porter contended that the killings were not part of any overall plan. Additionally, he claimed that Pike overestimated the number of those killed by the VC cadres and that "thousands" of civilians killed in Hue "were in fact victims of American air power and of the ground fighting that raged in the hamlets, rather than NLF [National Liberation Front] execution." Moreover, Porter claimed that teams of Saigon government assassins fanned out across the city with their own list of targets, eliminating NLF sympathizers. His conclusion: "The official story of an indiscriminate slaughter of those who were considered to be unsympathetic to the NLF is a complete fabrication."
Massacre of Teachers and Officials at Hue, A Foretaste of the Future?
James H. Willbanks wrote on HistoryNet.com, "Regardless of the actual circumstances of the civilian deaths, U.S. and South Vietnamese authorities trumpeted the killings as an object lesson in Communist immorality and a foretaste of atrocities ahead. The passage of time did not quell the controversy. In her 1991 book The Vietnam Wars, historian Marilyn B. Young disputes the "official" figures of executions at Hue. While acknowledging that there were executions, she cites freelance journalist Len Ackland, who was at Hue, who estimated the number to be somewhere between 300 and 400. Attempting "to understand" what happened at Hue, Young explained that the task of the NLF was to destroy the government administration of the city, establishing in its place a "revolutionary administration." How that justifies the execution of any civilians, regardless of the number, is unclear. [Source: James H. Willbanks , HistoryNet.com, January 25, 2011 ]
"In his 2002 memoir, From Enemy to Friend, former NVA Colonel Bui Tin shared his insights into the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Present at the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu and once a guard for Ho Chi Minh, Tin served as a frontline commander who, on April 25, 1975, rode a tank onto the Presidential Palace grounds in Saigon to accept the South Vietnamese surrender. About Hue, Tin acknowledged that some executions of civilians did occur. However, he contended that under the intensity of the American bombardment, the discipline of the troops broke down. The "units from the north" had been "told that Hue was the stronghold of feudalism, a bed of reactionaries, the breeding ground of Can Lao Party loyalists who remained true to the memory of former South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem and of Nguyen Van Thieu's Democracy Party." Tin explained that more than 10,000 prisoners were taken at Hue, with the most important of them sent north. When the Marines launched their counterattack to retake the city, the Communist troops were instructed to move the prisoners with the retreating troops. According to Tin, in the "panic of retreat," some of the company and battalion commanders shot their prisoners "to ensure the safety of the retreat."
"Official Vietnamese military histories cast additional light on Hue. The translation of the official Vietnamese campaign study of the Tet Offensive in the Thua Thien–Hue area acknowledges that Viet Cong cadre "hunted down and captured tyrants and Republic of Vietnam military and government personnel" and that "many nests of tyrants and reactionaries…were killed." Hundreds of others "who owed blood debts were executed." Yet another official history, The Tri-Thien-Hue Battlefield During the Victorious Resistance War Against the Americans to Save the Nation, acknowledged widespread killings but maintained they were done at the hands of civilians who armed themselves and "rose up in a flood-tide, killing enemy thugs, eliminating traitors, and hunting down the enemy.…The people captured and punished many reactionaries, enemy thugs, and enemy secret agents."
"Regardless of the actual circumstances of the civilian deaths in Hue, U.S. and South Vietnamese authorities trumpeted the killings as an object lesson in Communist immorality and a foretaste of the atrocities ahead—should the Communists triumph in South Vietnam. We may never know what really happened at Hue, but it is clear that mass executions did occur and that reports of the massacre there had a significant impact on South Vietnamese and American attitudes for many years after the Tet Offensive. The perception that a bloodbath like the one that occurred at Hue would follow any takeover by the North Vietnamese cast a long shadow and significantly contributed to the abject panic that seized South Vietnam when the North Vietnamese launched their final offensive in 1975—and this panic resulted in the disintegration and defeat of the South Vietnamese armed forces, the fall of Saigon and, ultimately, the demise of the Republic of Vietnam as a sovereign nation.
Impact of the Tet Offensive
Tet marked the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese achieved little militarily, lost thousands of their best soldiers, and failed to create a popular uprising against the Americans as they hoped but they were successful in their main objective: to deal a psychological blow to the Americans. Giap later told Newsweek, "The Tet Offensive was key to our victory. the attack was meant to get the Americans to the negotiating table. Ho was also ways fighting with goal of negotiating an American withdrawal."
James H. Willbanks wrote in the New York Times, "To dampen antiwar sentiment, Johnson and Westmoreland encouraged what turned out to be false expectations about our prospects in Vietnam, and this colored Americans’ perception of the Tet offensive, stretching the president’s credibility gap to the breaking point. A tactical victory became a strategic defeat and led to the virtual abdication of President Johnson. General Tran Do of North Vietnam acknowledged that the offensive failed to achieve its objectives, but noted that the public reaction in the United States was "a fortunate result." [Source: James H. Willbanks, New York Times, March 5, 2008]
A.J. Langguth wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "From the day that Tet exploded across the South Vietnamese landscape, participants and observers have debated its effectiveness. Critics sometimes claim that it was a failure, and they have a point. Optimistic Politburo members expected their offensive to set off a general uprising among the people. The South Vietnamese population--happy to be freed from the yoke of the American puppet masters, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky--would rush into the streets to welcome their communist liberators. It didn't happen that way. War-weary and terrified, the 4 million residents of Saigon huddled behind their doors and refused the repeated communist demands that they come out. President Lyndon B. Johnson pronounced the communists' assault a complete failure. George Aiken, Republican senator from Vermont, expressed the average American's reaction: "If this is a failure, I hope the Viet Cong never have a major success." [Source: A.J. Langguth, Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2001,Langguth is a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and author of "Our Vietnam"\^/]
"But, in fact, the North Vietnamese had scored just such a success. The communists had always fought a political war to complement military action on the ground, and their units included political cadres to remind their troops why they were fighting. Hanoi also knew that the North had support around the world from onlookers appalled by a great power attempting to pulverize an impoverished land of peasant farmers. Tet made those critics of American policy even more vocal about ending the stalemate.Even President Johnson's "wise men," the former government officials he occasionally called to Washington for consultation, were affected by Tet. In November 1967, they had urged him to hold steady in Vietnam. After Tet, on March 25, 1968, the same men were telling him that "we can no longer do the job we set out to do ." \^/
Don Oberdorfer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "In the theater of public opinion in the United States, however, the attacks were a great success for the North Vietnamese. Brought into the living rooms of Americans by new communications satellites over the Pacific, scenes of the carnage, particularly at the embassy, severely damaged national confidence in the war policies of President Lyndon Johnson, who was already under fire from a frustrated citizenry in a presidential election year. The dramatic developments set in train during Tet led eventually to the withdrawal of American forces and the collapse of South Vietnam. [Source: Don Oberdorfer, Smithsonian magazine, November 2004 |=|]
"In this context, the Tet attacks came as a particular shock. James J. Wirtz, a historian at the Naval War College who has closely studied the 1968 offensive, declared at the Bethesda conference that Tet was "an earth-shattering, mind-shattering event that changed the course of the war." Though the Politburo in Hanoi achieved neither the decisive victory on the battlefields nor the uprising by the Vietnamese people they had hoped for, they were able, as North Vietnamese Communist Party chief Le Duan had forecast in a letter to his southern fighters, to "shake the aggressive will of U.S. imperialism, compel it to change its strategy and de-escalate the war." |=|
"Despite the heavy Communist losses, Tet dramatically reinforced the view that there was no end in sight. When LBJ continued to insist, after Tet, that the war effort was still on track, his message was undercut by a leak of General Westmoreland's request for 206,000 more U.S. troops. This news, just two days before the March 12 presidential election primary in New Hampshire, further eroded Johnson's already dwindling credibility. Not long after his poor showing in New Hampshire, the president announced that he would not seek a second full term. And, he said, he had stopped the bombing of most of North Vietnam in a bid for peace talks. Richard Nixon, Johnson's successor, won the election by promising "peace with honor." Once in office, Nixon was able to sustain support for the war only by withdrawing increments of American troops every few months, and then negotiating a peace agreement that required full U.S. withdrawal. Seven years after the ill-fated Vietnamese sappers attacked the U.S. Embassy on Tet, the last Americans, and some of their Vietnamese allies, departed Saigon by helicopter from the building's roof on April 30, 1975. |=|
Westmoreland and the Impact of the Tet Offensive
In a speech in New York City in April 1967, Gen. Westmoreland said, "The end is not in sight," and he added, "In effect, we are fighting a war of attrition." Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, "Then he flew to Washington to ask for still more reinforcements to bring United States forces up to 550,500, the "minimal essential force," or 670,000, the "optimum." The request shocked Johnson, who asked, "Where does it all end?" Mr. McNamara asked how long it would take to win. As General Westmoreland recalled his answer, it was "With the optimum force, about three years; with the minimum force, at least five." No decision had been made when the Communists launched an offensive during the Tet lunar new year festival on Jan. 31, 1968. They blasted into more than 100 cities and towns, occupied Hue for 25 days, and even fought their way into the grounds of the American Embassy in Saigon. Washington's optimism about progress shattered. Clark M. Clifford, whom Johnson had put in charge of examining the troop requests and who later succeeded Mr. McNamara as secretary of defense, "had turned dove and defeatist," General Westmoreland later wrote, and the president had lost his stomach for the battle. [Source: Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace, New York Times, July 20, 2005 ==]
"Johnson announced he would not run again for office in 1968, and told the general he was appointing him Army chief of staff. He should ignore press speculation that he had been "kicked upstairs," the president told him, but it was true. The men met in the White House in the midst of riots that had started after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and afterward flew over the embattled capital while fires were still burning. "It looked considerably more distressing than Saigon during the Tet offensive," General Westmoreland observed. ==
In an interview with CNN in 1998, Gen. Westmoreland said: We saw the Tet Offensive coming and we were prepared for it. And the enemy took tremendous casualties there; and we felt that the magnitude of those casualties would result in the enemy coming up with some sort of diplomatic solution. But that never took place.... The American public were caught by surprise. We were making military progress at the time -- which [is] a statement of fact. And when the Tet Offensive took place, the American people were not prepared for that, and I assume some significant responsibility for that. and I've made this statement many times. If I would have to do it over again, I would have made known the forthcoming Tet Offensive. At that time, I didn't want the enemy to know that I knew what was going to happen. I did know. I made a mistake in not making that known to the American public, because they were caught by surprise and that was a very much of a negative factor.
Tet Offensive Weakens Support for the Viet Cong in South Vietnam Villages
Mark Moyar wrote: "The VC's humiliating defeat during the Tet Offensive seriously damaged VC prestige, and hurt the VC's relations with the villagers in other ways. The shadow government demanded major sacrifices of the villagers and told them that its armed forces, in concert with urban uprisings, would topple the GVN. When the uprisings did not occur and the Allies crushed the Communist attackers, many hamlet dwellers lost faith in them. A district- level Communist defector explained, "Before the Tet events, the VC said that they only needed seven days to achieve the revolution. They needed the support of the population; they collected very heavy contributions arguing that they needed the contributions to bring about peace and prosperity; but after the anticipated seven days they said that this was only a first stage, the first wave. When the second stage came on the 7th of May (1968) they said there was then an almost complete destruction of the enemy, to step up to the third stage which would be in August, 1968, and which was also to be the final stage; but, as a matter of fact, there has been no final stage at all.... These facts have accounted for the cadres' and the general population's losing confidence in the success of the revolution by the Front." [Source: Mark Moyar, Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1997 ++]
The Communists also offended numerous peasants by launching the assaults during the sacred Tet holiday. In his monthly report for February 1968, the senior American adviser in Tay Ninh province wrote, "The change in the attitude of the people during the past month has been dramatic. Many segments that earlier could be described as neutralist or, at best, lacking in full support to the government have now moved into the government camp. The basic cause of this change has been the viciousness of the Viet Cong attack throughout the nation combined with the unsuccessful Viet Cong actions within the province. The fact that the Viet Cong violated the Tet holidays, violated the 'sanctuary' of the area around the Cao Dai temple, and suffered defeats every time they met the GVN/FWMF forces within the province have all contributed to this change in attitude." ++
"The decline of the Viet Cong shadow government, which accelerated in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, caused more and more problems for the Communist political cause as time went on. The expulsion of the VC political cadres from their areas of operation in the mid- and late 1960s and their declining ability to visit the hamlets, combined with the stronger GVN presence in the hamlets, altered the political landscape tremendously. This change decreased not only the shadow government's ability to take things from the people, but also the willingness of the people to hand those things over. When the members of the shadow government no longer lived in or came very often to the hamlets, they did not have time to help the villagers. They had no more land to give out, and memories of their land distribution were fading. They lacked the power to keep GVN personnel out of the hamlets, and they could not propagandize the people as often as their enemies could. A VC teacher arrested in January 1967 explained, "In the beginning, the villagers liked and appreciated the Front cadres much more than they did later on. After a while, [e]specially recently, since the war in our area has intensified, the people drifted further and further away from the cadres, and vice-versa.... The cadres had their own life to take care of-- since they too were not immune from the bombs and shells-- so the cadres had to neglect their duties towards the villagers.... The villagers, being forgotten, became indifferent to the cadres, and the cadres, being concerned with their own survival, no longer had time for the villagers." ++
"Because the number of South Vietnamese Communists dwindled to a small fraction of previous strength by 1970 and these people visited the hamlets less often, the VC no longer could rely so much on fostering local support through cadres and soldiers native to a locality. The North Vietnamese were taking a much more prominent role in the Communist war effort than before, and the Southern villagers disliked them. Brig. Gen. Stuart Herrington, at the time a junior officer and an adviser to the Vietnamese in Hau Nghia province, recalled, "In Tan My village, the Viet Cong appointed a new village secretary and charged him with responsibility for rebuilding the village organization. The new man was given a squad of North Vietnamese soldiers to perform the security tasks normally done by village guerrillas-- a measure that underscored the depth of the revolution's problem in Tan My. The new village secretary was not a Tan My native, and the use of northern troops in the village was bound to alienate the people." ++
The Tet offensive emphasized to the Johnson administration that victory in Vietnam would require a greater commitment of men and resources than the American people were willing to invest. On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced that he would not seek his party's nomination for another term of office, declared a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam (except for a narrow strip above the DMZ), and urged Hanoi to agree to peace talks. In the meantime, with U.S. troop strength at 525,000, a request by Westmoreland for an additional 200,000 troops was refused by a presidential commission headed by the new United States secretary of defense, Clark Clifford. [Source: Library of Congress *]
James H. Willbanks wrote in the New York Times, "The Americans had won a tactical victory. But the sheer scope and ferocity of the offensive and the vivid images of the fighting on the nightly television news convinced many Americans that the Johnson administration had lied to them, and the president’s credibility plummeted. Perhaps more important, the offensive shook the administration’s own confidence and led to a re-evaluation of American strategy. On March 31, 1968, Johnson went on national television to announce a partial suspension of the bombing campaign against North Vietnam and call for negotiations. He then stunned the audience by announcing that he would not run for re-election. The following year, President Richard Nixon began the long American withdrawal from Vietnam, paving the way for the triumph of the Communist forces in 1975.[Source: James H. Willbanks, New York Times, March 5, 2008]
Following the Tet Offensive, the communists attempted to maintain their momentum through a series of attacks directed mainly at cities in the delta. Near the DMZ, some 15,000 PAVN and PLAF troops were also thrown into a three-month attack on the United States base at Khe Sanh. A second assault on Saigon, complete with rocket attacks, was launched in May. Through these and other attacks in the spring and summer of 1968, the Communists kept up pressure on the battlefield in order to strengthen their position in a projected a series of four-party peace talks scheduled to begin in January 1969 (that called for representatives of the United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and the National Liberation Front to meet in Paris. In June 1969, the NLF and its allied organizations formed the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG), recognized by Hanoi as the legal government of South Vietnam. At that time, communist losses dating from the Tet Offensive numbered 75,000, and morale was faltering, even among the party leadership. *
After Tet was a bad time for American soldiers. Thousands died while the U.S. and North Vietnamese governments took their time hammering out a peace agreement.
Legacy of the Tet Offensive
Don Oberdorfer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "Tet was a historical anomaly: a battlefield defeat that ultimately yielded victory. This remarkable result accounts for Tet's resonance whenever U.S. military forces meet even temporary reverses. In the 12 months after Baghdad fell in April 2003, for example, more than 200 stories in major English-language newspapers referred to the Tet Offensive. And faced with a flare-up of attacks in Iraq this past June, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a radio interviewer that he had no doubt the insurgents had "read about Tet and the fact that if they make a big enough splash, even though they get a lot of people killed and we pound them, they end up winning psychologically." Nearly four decades after the battle, Tet still provokes sharp debate. Why did the attack come as such a surprise? Did the American press misreport a U.S. victory as a defeat? [Source: Don Oberdorfer, Smithsonian magazine, November 2004]
Former GI Tobias Wolff wrote in Time magazine: "The scale of the offensive surprised us, and brought to a boil all the bitterness we felt toward the Vietnamese people—how could such as massive operation have been carried out without their knowledge and complicity? "After the first shock passed, we opened the gates of hell on that country, we didn't spend much time making distinctions between enemies and friends," Tobias wrote. "Entire towns were destroyed by our jets and artillery. Most of the dead were civilians. In this way we taught the people—and taught ourselves, once and for all—that we didn't love and wouldn't protect them, and that we were prepared to kill them all to protect ourselves."
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.
Last updated May 2014