The operations are referred to as the Tet Offensive because they began during the early morning hours of 31 January, the day of the most important Vietnamese holiday, Tết Nguyên Đán, which celebrates the first day of the year on a traditional lunar calendar. Both North and South Vietnam announced on national radio broadcasts that there would be a three-day cease-fire in honor of Tết, also called "Spring Festival." In Vietnamese, the offensive is officially called Cuộc Tổng tiến công và nổi dậy năm 1968 ("The General Offensive and Uprising 1968"). The common name is (Xuân) Mậu Thân ("[Spring] Year of the Monkey"). North Vietnamese leaders believed they could not sustain the heavy losses inflicted by the Americans indefinitely and had to win the war with an all-out military effort. In addition, Ho Chi Minh was nearing death, and they needed a victory before that time came.* So, the Vietcong decided to launch a major offensive beginning with a wave of attacks began on the morning of 30 January in the I and II Corps Tactical Zones. This early attack did not, however, cause undue alarm or lead to widespread allied defensive measures. When the main communist operation began the next morning, the offensive was countrywide in scope and well coordinated, with more than 80,000 Vietcong troops striking more than 100 towns and cities, including 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of the six autonomous cities, 72 of 245 district towns, and the national capital. The offensive was the largest military operation yet conducted by either side up to that point in the war.
The initial Vietcong attacks stunned allied forces and took them by surprise, but most were quickly contained and beaten back, inflicting massive casualties on the communists. The exceptions were the fighting that erupted in the old imperial capital of Huế, where intense fighting lasted for a month, and the continuing struggle around the U.S. combat base at Khe Sanh, where fighting continued for two more months. Although the offensive was a military disaster for Vietcong forces, it had a profound effect on the American administration and shocked the American public, which had been led to believe by its political and military leaders that the communists were, due to previous defeats, incapable of launching such a massive effort.
The majority of Western historians have concluded that the offensive ended in June, which easily located it within framework of U.S. political and military decisions that altered the American commitment to the war. In fact, it continued, through two more distinct phases. The second phase began on 5 May and continued until the end of the month. The third began on 17 August and only ended on 23 September.
Provided with an enemy intelligence windfall accrued during Operations Cedar Falls and Junction City, the CIA members of the group believed that the number of communist guerrillas, irregulars, and cadre within the South could be as high as 430,000. The MACV Combined Intelligence Center, on the other hand, maintained that the number could be no more than 300,000. Westmoreland was deeply concerned about the possible perceptions of the American public to such an increased estimate, since Vietcong troop strength was routinely provided to reporters during press briefings. According to MACV's chief intelligence, General Joseph McChristian, the new figures "would create a political bombshell," since they were proof positive that the communists "had the capability and the will to continue a protracted war of attrition."
In May, MACV attempted to obtain a compromise from the CIA by maintaining that Vietcong militias did not constitute a fighting force but were essentially low level fifth columnists used for information collection. The agency responded that such a notion was ridiculous, since the militias were directly responsible for half of the casualties inflicted on U.S. forces. With both groups in deadlock, George Carver, CIA deputy director for Vietnamese affairs, was asked to mediate the dispute. In September, Carver devised a compromise: The CIA would drop its insistence on including the irregulars in the final tally of forces and add a prose addendum to the estimate that would explain the agency's position. George Allen, Carver's deputy, laid responsibility for the agency's capitulation at the feet of Richard Helms, the director of the CIA. He believed that "it was a political problem...[Helms] didn't want the agency...contravening the policy interest of the administration.
Westmoreland was even more emphatic in his assertions. At an address at the National Press Club on 21 November he reported that, as of the end of 1967, the Vietcong was "unable to mount a major offensive...I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing...We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view." By the end of the year the administration's approval rating had indeed crept up by eight percent, but an early January Gallup poll indicated that forty-seven percent of the American public still disapproved of the President's handling of the war. The American public, "more confused than convinced, more doubtful than despairing...adopted a 'wait and see' attitude." During a discussion with an interviewer from Time magazine, Westmoreland defied the communists to launch an attack: "I hope they try something, because we are looking for a fight."
The decision signaled the end of a bitter, decade-long debate within the Party leadership between first two, and then three factions. The moderates believed that the economic viability of North Vietnam should come before support of a massive and conventional southern war and who generally followed the Soviet line of peaceful coexistence by reunifying Vietnam through political means. Heading this faction were party theoritician Trường Chinh and Minister of Defense Võ Nguyên Giáp. The militants, on the other hand, tended to follow the foreign policy line of the Peoples Republic of China and stridently called for the reunification of the nation by military means and that no negotiations should be undertaken with the Americans. This group was led by the "brothers Le" - Party First Secretary Lê Duẩn and Lê Ðức Thọ. From the early to mid-1960s, the militants had dictated the direction of the war in South Vietnam. General Nguyễn Chí Thanh the head of COSVN, communist headquarters for the South, was another prominent militant. Strangely, the followers of the Chinese line centered their strategy against the allies on large-scale, main force actions rather than the protracted guerrilla war espoused by Mao Zedong. Under Thanh's command, the North Vietnamese had matched the American military escalation in the South tit-for-tat.
By 1966-1967, however, after the infliction of massive casualties by the allies, stalemate on the battlefield, and destruction of the northern economy by U.S. air power, there was a dawning realization that, if current trends continued, Hanoi would eventually lack the resources necessary to affect the military situation in the South. As a result, there were more strident calls by the moderates for negotiations and a revision of strategy. They felt that a return to guerrilla tactics was more appropriate since the U.S. could not be defeated conventionally. They also complained that the policy of rejecting negotiations was in error. The Americans could only be worn down in a war of wills during a period of "fighting while talking." During 1967 things had become so bad on the battlefield that Lê Duẩn ordered Thanh to incorporate aspects of protracted guerrilla warfare into his strategy.
During the same period, a counterattack was launched by a new, third grouping (the centrists) led by President Hồ Chí Minh, Lê Ðức Thọ, and Foreign Minister Nguyễn Duy Trinh, who called for negotiations. From October 1966 through April 1967, a very public debate over military strategy took place in print and via radio between Thanh and his rival for military power, Giáp. Giáp had advocated a defensive, primarily guerrilla strategy against the U.S. and South Vietnam. Thanh's position was that Giáp and his adherents were centered on their experiences during the First Indochina War and that they were too "conservative and captive to old methods and past experience... mechanically repeating the past."
The arguments over domestic and military strategy also carried a foreign policy element as well, because North Vietnam was totally dependent on outside military and economic aid. The vast majority of its military equipment was provided by either the Soviet Union or the China. Beijing advocated that North Vietnam conduct a protracted war on the Maoist model, fearing that a conventional conflict might draw them in as it had in Korea. They also resisted the idea of negotiating with the allies. Moscow, on the other hand, advocated negotiations, but simultaneously armed Hanoi's forces to conduct a conventional war on the Soviet model. North Vietnamese foreign policy, therefore consisted of maintaining a critical balance between war policy, internal and external policies, domestic adversaries, and foreign allies with "self-serving agendas. To "break the will of their domestic opponents and reaffirm their autonomy vis-à-vis their foreign allies" hundreds of pro-Soviet, party moderates, military officers, and intelligentsia were arrested on 27 July 1967, during what came to be called the Revisionist Anti-Party Affair. All of the arrests were based on the individual's stance on the Politburo's choice of tactics and strategy for the proposed General Offensive. This move cemented the position of the militants as Hanoi's strategy: The rejection of negotiations, the abandonment of protracted warfare, and the focus on the offensive in the towns and cities of South Vietnam. More arrests followed in November and December.
After cementing their position during the Party crackdown, the militants sped up planning for a major conventional offensive to break the military deadlock. They concluded that the Saigon government and the U.S. presence were so unpopular with the population of the South that a broad-based attack would spark a spontaneous uprising of the population, which, if the offensive was successful, would enable the communists to sweep to a quick, decisive victory. Their basis for this conclusion included: a belief that the South Vietnamese military was no longer combat effective; the results of the fall 1967 South Vietnamese presidential election (in which the Nguyễn Văn Thiệu/Nguyễn Cao Kỳ ticket had only received 24 percent of the popular vote); the Buddhist Uprisings of 1963 and 1966; well-publicized anti-war demonstrations in Saigon; and continuous criticism of the Thieu government in the southern press. Launching such an offensive would also finally put an end to what have been described as "dovish calls for talks, criticism of military strategy, Chinese diatribes of Soviet perfidy, and Soviet pressure to negotiate - all of which needed to be silenced."
In October, the Politburo decided on the Tet holiday as the launch date and met again in December to reaffirm its decision and formalize it at the 14th Plenary session of the Party Central Committee in January 1968. The resultant Resolution 14 was a major blow to domestic opposition and "foreign obstruction." Concessions had been made to the center group, however, by agreeing that negotiations were possible, but the document essentially centered on the creation of "a spontaneous uprising in order to win a decisive victory in the shortest time possible.
Contrary to Western belief, General Giáp did not plan the offensive himself. Thanh's original plan was elaborated on by a party committee headed by Thanh's deputy, Phạm Hùng, and then modified by Giáp. The Defense Minister may have been convinced to toe the line by the arrest and imprisonment of most of the members of his staff during the Revisionist Anti-Party Affair. Although Giáp went to work "reluctantly, under duress," he may have found the task easier due to the fact that he was faced with a fait accompli. Since the Politburo had already approved the offensive, all he had to do was make it work. He combined guerrilla operations into what was basically a conventional military offensive and shifted the burden of sparking the popular uprising to the Vietcong. If it worked, all would be well and good. If it failed, it would be a failure only for the Party militants. For the moderates and centrists it offered the prospect of negotiations and a possible end to the American bombing of the North. Only in the eyes of the militants, therefore, did the offensive become a "go for broke" effort. Others in the Politburo were willing to settle for a much less ambitious "victory.
The operation would involve a preliminary phase during which diversionary attacks would be launched in the border areas of South Vietnam to draw American attention and forces away from the cities. The General Offensive, General Uprising would then proceed by launching simultaneous actions in most of the urban areas of South Vietnam and attacks on major allied bases, with particular emphasis focused on the cities of Saigon and Hue. Concurrently, a substantial threat would to be made against the U.S. combat base at Khe Sanh. The Khe Sanh actions would draw North Vietnamese forces away from the offensive into the cities, but Giáp considered them necessary in order to protect his supply lines and divert American attention. Attacks on other U.S. forces were of secondary, or even tertiary importance, since Giáp considered his main objective to be weakening or destroying the South Vietnamese military and government through popular revolt. The offensive, therefore was aimed at influencingconvincing the South Vietnamese public, not that of the U.S. There is conflicting evidence as to whether, or to what extent, the offensive was intended to influence either the March primaries or the November presidential election in the U.S.
According to General Trần Văn Trà, the new military head of COSVN, the offensive was to have three distinct phases: Phase I, scheduled to begin on 31 January, was to be a country-wide assault on the cities conducted primarily by Vietcong forces. Concurrently, a propaganda offensive to induce ARVN troops to desert and the South Vietnamese population to rise up against the government would be launched. If outright victory was not achieved, the battle might still lead to the creation of a coalition government and the withdrawal of the Americans. If the general offensive failed to achieve these purposes, followup operations would be conducted to wear down the enemy and lead to a negotiated settlement; Phase II was scheduled to begin on 5 May; and Phase III on 17 August.
Preparations for the offensive were already underway. The logistical build-up began in mid-year, and by January 1968, 81,000 tons of supplies and 200,000 troops, including seven complete infantry regiments and 20 independent battalions made the trip south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This logistical effort also involved the re-arming the Vietcong with new AK-47 assault rifles and B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, which granted them superior firepower over their less well-armed ARVN opponents. To pave the way and to confuse the allies as to its intentions, Hanoi launched a diplomatic offensive. Foreign Minister Trinh announced on 30 December that Hanoi would rather than could open negotiations if the U.S. unconditionally ended Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. This announcement provoked a flurry of diplomatic activity (which amounted to nothing) during the last weeks of the year.
South Vietnamese and U.S. military intelligence estimated that North Vietnamese in South Vietnam during January 1968 totaled 323,000 men, including 130,000 North Vietnamese regulars, 160,000 Vietcong and members of the infrastructure, and 33,000 service and support troops. They were organized into nine divisions composed of 35 infantry and 20 artillery or anti-aircraft artillery regiments, which were, in turn, composed of 230 infantry and six sapper battalions.
Despite all the warning signs, however, the allies were still surprised by the scale and scope of the offensive. According to ARVN Colonel Hoang Ngoc Lung the answer lay with the allied intelligence methodology itself, which tended to estimate the Vietcong's probable course of action based upon their capabilities, not their intentions. Since, in the allied estimation, the Vietcong hardly had the capability to launch such an ambitious enterprise: "There was little possibility that the enemy could initiate a general offensive, regardless of his intentions. The answer could also be partially explained by the lack of coordination and cooperation between competing intelligence branches, both South Vietnamese and American. The situation from the U.S. perspective was best summed up by an MACV intelligence analyst: "If we'd gotten the whole battle plan, it wouldn't have been believed. It wouldn't have been credible to us.
From spring through the fall of 1967, the U.S. command in Saigon was perplexed by a series of actions initiated by the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong in the border regions. On 24 April a U.S. Marine Corps patrol prematurely triggered a North Vietnamese offensive aimed at taking the airstrip and combat base at Khe Sanh, the western anchor of the Marine's defensive positions in Quang Tri Province. By the time the action there had ended in May, 940 North Vietnamese troops and 155 Marines had been killed. For 49 days during early September and lasting into October, the North Vietnamese began shelling the U.S. Marine outpost of Con Thien, just south of the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. The intense shelling (100-150 rounds per day) prompted Westmoreland to launch Operation Neutralize, an intense aerial bombardment campaign of 4,000 sorties into and just north of the demarcation line.
On 27 October, an ARVN battalion at Song Be, the capital of Phuoc Long Province, came under attack by an entire North Vietnamese regiment. Two days later, another North Vietnamese Regiment attacked a U.S. Special Forces border outpost at Loc Ninh, in Binh Long Province. This attack sparked a ten-day battle that drew in elements of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and the ARVN 18th Division and left 800 North Vietnamese troops dead at its conclusion. The most severe of what came to be known as "the Border Battles" erupted during October and November around Dak To, another border outpost in Kontum Province. The clashes there between the four regiments of the 1st North Vietnamese Division, the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade, and ARVN infantry and Airborne elements, lasted for 22 days. By the time the fighting was over, between 1,200 and 1,600 North Vietnamese and 262 U.S. troops had lost their lives. MACV intelligence was confused by the possible motives of the North Vietnamese in prompting such large-scale actions in remote regions where U.S. firepower and aerial might could be applied indiscriminately. Tactically and strategically, these operations made no sense. What the Vietcong had done was carry out the first stage of their plan: to fix the attention of the U.S. command on the borders and draw the bulk of U.S. forces away from the heavily populated coastal lowlands and cities.
Westmoreland was more concerned with the situation at Khe Sanh, where, on 21 January, a force estimated at between 20,000-40,000 North Vietnamese troops had besieged the U.S. Marine garrison. MACV was convinced that the communists planned to stage an attack and overrun the base as a prelude to an all-out effort to seize the two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam. To deter any such possibility, he deployed 250,000 men, including half of MACV's U.S. maneuver battalions, to the I Corps Tactical Zone.
This course of events disturbed Lieutenant General Frederick C. Weyand, commander of U.S. forces in II Corps, which included the Capital Military District. Weyand, a former intelligence officer, was suspicious of the pattern of communist activities in his area of responsibility and notified Westmoreland of his concerns on 10 January. Westmoreland agreed with his estimate and ordered 15 U.S. battalions to redeploy from positions near the Cambodian border back to the outskirts of Saigon. When the offensive did begin, a total of 27 allied maneuver battalions defended the city and the surrounding area. This redeployment may have been one of the most critical tactical decisions of the war.
In the days immediately preceding the offensive, the preparedness of allied forces was relatively relaxed. North Vietnam had announced in October that it would observe a seven-day truce from 27 January to 3 February in honor of the Tet holiday, and the South Vietnamese military made plans to allow recreational leave for approximately one-half of its forces. General Westmoreland, who had already cancelled the truce in I Corps, requested that its ally cancel the upcoming cease-fire, but President Thieu (who had already reduced the cease-fire to 36 hours), refused to do so, claiming that it would damage troop morale and only benefit communist propagandists.
On 28 January 11 Vietcong cadre were captured in the city of Qui Nhon while in possession of two pre-recorded audio tapes whose message appealed to the populace in "already occupied Saigon, Hue, and Da Nang." The following afternoon, General Cao Van Vien, chief of the ARVN General Staff, ordered his four corps commanders to place their troops on alert. Yet, there was still a lack of a sense of urgency on the part of the allies. If Westmoreland had a grasp of the potential for danger, he did not communicate it very well to others. On the evening of 30 January 200 U.S. colonels, all of whom served on the MACV intelligence staff, attended a pool party at the officer's quarters in Saigon. According to James Meecham, an analyst at the Combined Intelligence Center who attended the party: "I had no conception Tet was coming, absolutely zero... Of the 200-odd colonels present, not one I talked to knew Tet was coming, without exception."
The general also failed to communicate his concerns adequately to Washington. Although he had warned the President between 25 and 30 January that "widespread" Vietcong attacks were in the offing, his admonitions had tended to be so oblique or so hedged with official optimism that even the administration was unprepared. No one - in either Washington or Vietnam - was expecting what happened.
At 03:00 on the morning of 31 January communist forces assailed Saigon, Cholon, and Gia Dinh in the Capital Military District; Quảng Trị (again), Huế, Quang Tin, Tam Kỳ, and Quảng Ngãi as well as U.S. bases at Phú Bài and Chu Lai in I Corps; Phan Thiết, Tuy Hòa, and U.S. installations at Bong Son and An Khê in II Corps; and Cần Thơ and Vinh Long in IV Corps. The following day, Biên Hòa, Long Thanh, Bình Dương in III Corps and Kien Hoa, Dinh Tuong, Go Cong, Kien Giang, Vinh Binh, Bến Tre, and Kien Tuong in IV Corps were assaulted. The last attack of the initial operation was launched against Bac Lieu in IV Corps on 10 February. A total of approximately 84,000 Vietcong troops participated in the attacks while thousands of others stood by to act as reinforcements or as blocking forces. Communist forces also mortared or rocketed every major allied airfield and attacked 64 district capitals and scores of smaller towns.
In most cases the defense against the General Offensive, General Uprising was a South Vietnamese affair. Local militia or ARVN forces, supported by the National Police, usually drove the attackers out within two or three days, sometimes within hours; but heavy fighting continued several days longer in Kontum, Buôn Ma Thuột, Phan Thiết, Cần Thơ, and Bến Tre. The outcome in each instance was usually dictated by the ability of local commanders - some were outstanding, some were cowardly and/or incompetent. During this crucial crisis, however, no South Vietnamese unit broke or defected to the Vietcong.
According to Westmoreland, he responded to the news of the attacks with optimism, both in media presentations and in his reports to Washington. According to closer observers, however, the general was "stunned that the communists had been able to coordinate so many attacks in such secrecy" and he was "dispirited and deeply shaken." According to Clark Clifford, at the time of the initial attacks, the reaction of the U.S. military leadership "approached panic". Although Westmoreland's appraisal of the military situation was correct, he made himself look foolish by continuously maintaining his belief that Khe Sanh was the real objective of the communists and that 155 attacks by 84,000 troops was a diversion (a position he maintained until at least 12 February). Washington Post reporter Peter Braestrup summed up the feelings of his colleagues by asking "How could any effort against Saigon, especially downtown Saigon, be a diversion?
The defense of the Capital Military Zone was primarily a South Vietnamese responsibility and it was initially defended by eight ARVN infantry battalions and the local police force. By 3 February they had been reinforced by five ARVN Ranger Battalions, five Marine Corps, and five ARVN Airborne Battalions. U.S. Army units participating in the defense included the 716th Military Police Battalion, seven infantry battalions (one mechanized), and six artillery battalions.
Faulty intelligence and poor local coordination hampered the communist attacks from the outset. At the Armored Command and Artillery Command headquarters on the northern edge of the city, for example, the communists planned to utilize captured tanks and artillery pieces to further support the offensive. To their dismay, they found that the tanks had been moved to another base two months earlier and that the breech blocks of the artillery pieces had been removed, rendering them useless. One of the most important Vietcong targets was the National Radio Station. Vietcong troops had brought along a tape recording of Hồ announcing the liberation of Saigon and calling for a "General Uprising" against the Thiệu government. The building was seized and held for six hours but the occupiers were unable to broadcast due to the cutting off of the audio lines from the main studio at the tower (which was situated at a different location) as soon as the station was seized. The U.S. Embassy in Saigon, a massive six-floor building situated within a four acre compound, had only been completed in September. At 02:45 it was attacked by a 19-man sapper team that blew a hole in the eight-foot high surrounding wall and charged through. With their officer killed in the initial attack and their attempt to gain access to the building having failed, however, the sappers simply milled around in the chancery grounds until they were all eliminated by reinforcements. By 09:20 the embassy and its grounds were secured.
Throughout the city, small squads of Vietcong fanned out to attack various officers and enlisted men's billets, homes of ARVN officers, and district police stations. Provided with "blacklists" of military officers and civil servants, they began to round up and execute any that could be found. Brutality begat brutality. On 1 February General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, chief of the National Police Force, publicly executed a Vietcong officer captured in civilian clothing in front of a photographer and film cameraman. What was not explained in the wake of the distribution of the captured images was that the suspect had just taken part in the murder of one of Loan's most trusted officers and his entire family.
Outside the city proper, two Vietcong battalions attacked the U.S. logistical and headquarters complex at Long Binh. Biên Hòa Air Base was struck by a battalion, while the adjacent ARVN III Corps headquarters was the objective of another. Tan Son Nhut Air Base, in the northwestern part of the city, was attacked by three battalions. Fortunately for the allies, a combat-ready battalion of ARVN paratroopers, awaiting transport to Da Nang, went instead directly into action and halted the attack. A total of 35 communist battalions, many of whose troops were undercover cadres who had lived and worked within the capital or its environs for years, had been committed to the Saigon objectives. By dawn, most of the attacks within the city center had been eliminated, but severe fighting between Vietcong and allied forces erupted in the Chinatown neighborhood of Cholon around the Phu Tho racetrack, which was being utilized as a Vietcong staging area and command and control center. Bitter and destructive house-to-house fighting erupted in the area and, on 4 February, the residents were ordered to leave their homes and the area was declared a free fire zone. Fighting in the city came to a close only after a fierce battle between ARVN Rangers and Vietcong forces on 7 March.
Except at Huế and mopping-up operations in and around Saigon, the first surge of the offensive was over by the second week of February. The U.S. estimated that during the first phase (30 January - 8 April), approximately 45,000 communist soldiers were killed and an unknown number were wounded. For years this figure was held as excessive, but it was confirmed by Stanley Karnow in Hanoi in 1981. Westmoreland claimed that during the same period 32,000 communist troops were killed and another 5,800 captured. The South Vietnamese suffered 2,788 killed, 8,299 wounded, and 587 missing in action. U.S. and other allied forces suffered 1,536 killed, 7,764 wounded, and 11 missing.
At 03:40 on the foggy morning of 31 January, allied defensive positions north of the Perfume River in the city of Hue were mortared and rocketed and then attacked by two battalions of the 6th North Vietnamese Regiment. Their target were the ARVN 1st Division headquarters located in the Citadel, a three-square mile complex of palaces, parks, and residences that were surrounded by a moat and a massive earth and masonry fortress built in 1802. The undermanned ARVN defenders, led by General Ngo Quang Truong, managed to hold their position, but the majority of the Citadel fell to the communists. On the south bank of the river, the 4th North Vietnamese Regiment attempted to seize the local MACV headquarters, but was held at bay by a makeshift force of approximately 200 Americans. The rest of the city was overrun by communist forces which initially totaled approximately 7,500 men. Both sides then rushed to reinforce and resupply their forces. Lasting 26 days, the battle of Huế became one of the longest and bloodiest single battles of the Vietnam War.
During the first days of the North Vietnamese occupation, allied intelligence vastly underestimated the number of communist troops and little appreciated the effort that was going to be necessary to evict them. General Westmoreland informed the Joint Chiefs that "the enemy has approximately three companies in the Hue Citadel and the marines have sent a battalion into the area to clear them out. Since there were no U.S. formations stationed in Hue, relief forces had to move up from Phu Bai, eight kilometers to the southeast. In a misty drizzle, U.S. Marines of the 1st Marine Division and soldiers of the 1st ARVN Division and Marine Corps cleared the city street by street and house by house, a deadly and destructive form of urban combat that the U.S. military had not engaged in since the Battle of Seoul during the Korean War, and for which its men were not trained. Due to the historical and cultural significance of the city, American forces did not immediately apply air and artillery strikes as widely as it had in other cities.
Outside Hue, elements of the U.S. 1st Air Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division fought to seal communist access and cut off their lines of supply and reinforcement. By this point in the battle 16 to 18 communist battalions (8,000-11,000 men) were taking part in the fighting for the city itself or the approaches to the former imperial capital. Two of the North Vietnamese regiments had made a forced march from the vicinity of Khe Sanh to Hue in order to participate. During most of February, the allies gradually fought their way towards the Citadel, which was only taken after four days of intense struggle. The city was not declared recaptured by U.S. and ARVN forces until 24 February, when members of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, 1st ARVN Division raised the South Vietnamese flag over the Palace of Perfect Peace.
During the intense action, the allies estimated that North Vietnamese forces had between 2,500 and 5,000 killed and 89 captured in the city and in the surrounding area. 216 U.S. Marines and soldiers had been killed during the fighting and 1,609 were wounded. 421 ARVN troops were killed, another 2,123 were wounded, and 31 were missing. More than 5,800 civilians had lost their lives during the battle and 116,000 were left homeless out of an original population of 140,000. In the aftermath of the recapture of the city, the discovery of several mass graves (the last of which were uncovered in 1970) of South Vietnamese citizens of Hue sparked a controversy that has not diminished with time. The victims had either been clubbed or shot to death or simply been buried alive. The official allied explanation was that during their initial occupation of the city, the communists had quickly begun to systematically round up (under the guise of re-education) and then execute as many as 2,800 South Vietnamese civilians that they believed to be potentially hostile to communist control. Those taken into custody included South Vietnamese military personnel, present and former government officials, local civil servants, teachers, policemen, and religious figures. Historian Gunther Lewy claimed that a captured Vietcong document stated that the communists had "eliminated 1,892 administrative personnel, 38 policemen, 790 tyrants. This thesis achieved wide credence at the time, but anti-war activists in the press were reluctant to report the atrocities, suggesting it was anti-communist propaganda. The Massacre at Huế came under increasing press scrutiny later, when leftist press reports exposed that South Vietnamese "revenge squads" had also been at work in the aftermath of the battle, searching out and executing citizens that had supported the communist occupation. The North Vietnamese later further muddied the waters by stating that their forces had indeed rounded up "reactionary" captives for transport to the North, but that local commanders, under battlefield exigencies, had executed them for expediency's sake. General Truong, commander of the 1st ARVN Division and hero of the battle, believed that the captives had been executed by the communists in order to protect the identities of members of the local Vietcong infrastructure, whose covers had been blown. The fate of those citizens of Hue discovered in the mass graves will probably never be known with certainty, but it was probably the result of a combination of all of the above circumstances.
Westmoreland (and the American media, which covered the action extensively) often made inevitable comparisons between the actions at Khe Sanh and the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, where a French base had been besieged and ultimately overrun by Viet Minh forces under the command of General Giáp during the First Indochina War. Westmoreland, who knew of Nguyen Chi Thanh's penchant for large-scale operations (but not of his death) believed that this was going to be an attempt to replicate that victory. He intended to stage his own "Dien Bien Phu in reverse.
Khe Sanh and its 6,000 U.S. Marine Corps, Army, and ARVN defenders was surrounded by two to three North Vietnamese divisions, totaling approximately 20,000 men. Throughout the siege, which lasted until 8 April, the allies were subjected to heavy mortar, rocket, and artillery bombardment, combined with sporadic small-scale infantry attacks on outlying positions. With the exception of the overrunning of the U.S. Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, however, there was never a major ground assault on the base and the battle became largely a duel between American and North Vietnamese artillerists, combined with massive air strikes conducted by U.S. aircraft. American air support included massive bombing strikes by B-52s. By the end of the siege, U.S Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy aircraft had dropped 39,179 tons of ordnance in the defense of the base.. The overland supply route to the base had been cut off, and airborne resupply by cargo aircraft became extremely dangerous due to heavy North Vietnamese antiaircraft fire. Thanks to innovative high-speed "Super Gaggles," which utilized fighter-bombers in combination with large numbers of supply helicopters, and the Air Force's utilization of C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft employing the innovative LAPES delivery method, aerial resupply was never halted.
When the Tet Offensive began, feelings ran high at MACV that the base was in for a serious attack. In I Corps, the Tet truce had been cancelled in apprehension of just such an occurrence. It just never happened. The offensive passed Khe Sanh by and the intermittent battle continued there as usual. Westmorland's fixation upon the base continued even as the battle raged around him in Saigon. On 1 February, as the offensive reached its height, he wrote a memo for his staff (but never delivered) claiming that "The enemy is attempting to confuse the issue...I suspect he is also trying to draw everyone's attention from the area of greatest threat, the northern part of I Corps. Let me caution everyone not to be confused.
In the end, a major allied relief expedition (Operation Pegasus) reached Khe Sanh on 8 April, but North Vietnamese forces were already withdrawing from the area. Both sides claimed that the battle had served its intended purpose. The U.S. estimated that 8,000 North Vietnamese troops had been killed and considerably more wounded, against 730 American lives lost and another 2,642 wounded.
To further enhance their political posture at the Paris talks, which opened on 13 May, the North Vietnamese opened the second phase of the General Offensive in late April. U.S. intelligence sources estimated between February and May the North Vietnamese had dispatched 50,000 men down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to replace losses incurred during the earlier fighting. Some of the most prolonged and vicious combat of the war opened on 29 April and lasted until 30 May when the 8,000 men of the 320th North Vietnamese Division, backed by artillery from across the DMZ, threatened the U.S. logistical base at Dong Ha, in northwestern Quảng Trị Province. In what became known as the Battle of Dai Do, the North Vietnamese clashed savagely with U.S. Marine, Army, and ARVN forces before withdrawing. The North Vietnamese lost an estimated 2,100 men after inflicting casualties on the allies of 290 killed and 946 wounded. During the early morning hours of 4 May, communist units initiated the second phase of the offensive (known by the South Vietnamese and Americans as "Mini-Tet") by striking 119 targets throughout South Vietnam, including Saigon. This time, however, allied intelligence was better prepared, stripping away the element of surprise. Most of the communist forces were intercepted by allied screening elements before they reached their targets. 13 Vietcong battalions, however, managed to slip through the cordon and once again plunged the capital into chaos. Severe fighting occurred at Phu Lam, (where it took two days to root out the 267th Vietcong Local Force Battalion), around the Y-Bridge, and at Tan Son Nhut. By 12 May, however, it was all over. Vietcong forces withdrew from the area leaving behind over 3,000 dead.
The fighting had no sooner died down around Saigon than U.S. forces in Quang Tin Province suffered what was, without doubt, the most serious American defeat of the war. On 10 May two regiments of the 2nd North Vietnamese Division attacked Kham Duc, the last Special Forces border surveillance camp in I Corps. 1,800 U.S. and South Vietnamese troops were isolated and under intense attack when MACV made the decision to avoid a situation reminiscent of that at Khe Sanh. Kham Duc was evacuated by air while under fire, and abandoned to the North Vietnamese.
The communists returned to Saigon on 25 May and launched a second wave of attacks on the city. The fighting during this phase differed from Tet Mau Than and "Mini-Tet" in that no U.S. installations were attacked. During this series of actions, Vietcong forces occupied six pagodas in the mistaken belief that they would be immune from artillery and air attack. The fiercest fighting once again took place in Cholon. One notable event occurred on 18 June when 152 members of the Vietcong’s Quyet Thang Regiment surrendered to ARVN forces, the largest communist surrender of the war.The actions also brought more death and suffering to the city's inhabitants. 87,000 more had been made homeless while more than 500 were killed and another 4,500 were wounded. During the second phase (5 May - 30 May) U.S. casualties amounted to 1,161 killed and 3,954 wounded. 143 South Vietnamese servicemen were killed and another 643 were wounded.
Phase III of the offensive began on 17 August and involved attacks in I, II, and III Corps. Significantly, during this series of actions only North Vietnamese forces participated. The main offensive was preceded by attacks on the border towns of Tay Ninh, An Loc, and Loc Ninh, which were initiated in order to draw defensive forces from the cities. A thrust against Da Nang was preempted by the U.S. Marines on 16 August. Continuing their border-clearing operations, three North Vietnamese regiments asserted heavy pressure on the U.S. Special Forces camp at Bu Prang, in Quang Duc Province, five kilometers from the Cambodian border. The fighting lasted for two days before the North Vietnamese broke it off and the fighting resulted in 776 North Vietnamese, 114 South Vietnamese, and two Americans killed.
Saigon was struck again during this phase, but the attacks were less sustained and once again easily repulsed. As far as MACV was concerned, the August offensive "was a dismal failure." In five weeks of fighting and after the loss of 20,000 troops, not a single objective had been attained during this "final and decisive phase." Yet, as historian Ronald Spector has pointed out "the communist failures were not final or decisive either." During the same period 700 U.S. troops were killed in action.
The horrendous casualties and suffering endured by communist units during these sustained operations was beginning to tell. The fact that there were no apparent military gains made that could possibly justify all the blood and effort just exacerbated the situation. During the first half of 1969, more than 20,000 communist troops rallied to allied forces, a threefold increase over the 1968 figure. On 5 April 1969, COSVN issued Directive 55 to all of its subordinate units: "Never again and under no circumstances are we going to risk our entire military force for just such an offensive. On the contrary, we should endeavor to preserve our military potential for future campaigns."
The keys to the failure of Tet are not difficult to discern. Hanoi had underestimated the strategic mobility of the allied forces, which allowed them to redeploy at will to threatened areas; their battle plan was too complex and difficult to coordinate, which was amply demonstrated by the 30 January attacks; their violation of the principle of mass, attacking everywhere instead of concentrating their forces on a few specific targets, allowed their forces to be defeated piecemeal; the launching of massed attacks headlong into the teeth of vastly superior firepower; and last, but not least, the incorrect assumptions upon which the entire campaign was based. According to General Tran Van Tra: "We did not correctly evaluate the specific balance of forces between ourselves and the enemy, did not fully realize that the enemy still had considerable capabilities, and that our capabilities were limited, and set requirements that were beyond our actual strength.
The communist effort to regain control of the countryside was somewhat more successful. According to the U.S. State Department the Vietcong "made pacification virtually inoperative. In the Mekong Delta the Vietcong was stronger now than ever and in other regions the countryside belongs to the VC." General Wheeler reported that the offensive had brought counterinsurgency programs to a halt and "that to a large extent, the V.C. now controlled the countryside."Unfortunately for the Vietcong, this state of affairs did not last. Heavy casualties and the backlash of the South Vietnamese and Americans resulted in more territorial losses and heavy casualties.
The horrendous losses inflicted on Vietcong units struck into the heart of the irreplaceable infrastructure that had been built up for over a decade. From this point forward, Hanoi was forced to fill one-third of the Vietcong's ranks with North Vietnamese troops. However, this change had little effect on the war, since North Vietnam had little difficulty making up the casualties inflicted by the offensive. Some Western historians have come to believe that one insidious ulterior motive for the campaign was the elimination of competing southern members of the Party, thereby allowing the northerners more control once the war was won.
It was not until after the conclusion of the first phase of the offensive that Hanoi realized that its sacrifices might not have been in vain. General Tran Do, North Vietnamese commander at the battle of Hue, gave some insight into how defeat was translated into victory:
"In all honesty, we didn't achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans and their puppets, and this was a big gain for us. As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention - but it turned out to be a fortunate result".Hanoi had in no way anticipated the political and psychological effect the offensive would have on the leadership and population of the U.S. When the northern leadership saw how the U.S. was reacting to the offensive, they began to propagandize their "victory". The opening of negotiations and the diplomatic struggle, the option feared by the Party militants prior to the offensive, quickly came to occupy a position equal to that of the military struggle.
On 5 May Trường Chinh rose to address a congress of Party members and proceeded to castigate the Party militants and their bid for quick victory. His "faction-bashing" tirade sparked a serious debate within the party leadership which lasted for four months. As the leader of the "main force war" and "quick victory" faction, Lê Duẩn also came under severe criticism. In August, Chinh's report on the situation was accepted in toto, published, and broadcast via Radio Hanoi. He had single-handedly shifted the nation's war strategy and restored himself to prominence as the Party's ideological conscience. Meanwhile, the Vietcong proclaimed itself the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam, and took part in future peace negotiations under this title. It would be a long seven years until victory.
The human and material cost to South Vietnam was staggering. The number of civilian dead was estimated by the government at 14,300 with an additional 24,000 wounded. 630,000 new refugees had been generated, joining the nearly 800,000 others already displaced by the war. By the end of 1968, one of every twelve South Vietnamese was living in a refugee camp. More than 70,000 homes had been destroyed in the fighting and perhaps 30,000 more were heavily damaged and the nation's infrastructure had been virtually destroyed. The South Vietnamese military, although it had performed better than the Americans had expected, suffered from lowered morale, with desertion rates rising from 10.5 per thousand before Tet to 16.5 per thousand by July.
In the wake of the offensive, however, fresh determination was exhibited by the Thieu government. On 1 February the President declared a state of martial law and, on 15 June, the National Assembly passed his request for a general mobilization of the population and the induction of 200,000 draftees into the armed forces by the end of the year (a decree that had failed to pass only five months previously due to strong political opposition). This increase would bring South Vietnam's troop strength to more than 900,000 men. Military mobilization, anti-corruption campaigns, demonstrations of political unity, and administrative reforms were quickly carried out. Thiệu also established a National Recovery Committee to oversee food distribution, resettlement, and housing construction for the new refugees. Both the government and the Americans were encouraged by a new determination that was exhibited among the ordinary citizens of the Republic. Many urban dwellers were indignant that the Vietcong had launched their attacks during Tet and it drove many who had been previously apathetic into active support of the government. Journalists, political figures, and religious leaders alike - even the militant Buddhists - professed confidence in the government's plans.
Thiệu saw an opportunity to consolidate his personal power and he took it. His only real political rival was Vice President Ky, the former Air Force commander, who had been outmaneuvered by Thiệu in the presidential election of 1967. In the aftermath of Tet, Ky supporters in the military and the administration were quickly removed from power, arrested, or exiled. A crack-down on the South Vietnamese press also ensued and there was a worrysome return of former President Ngô Đình Diệm's Can Lao Party members to high positions in the government and military. By the summer of 1968, the President had earned a less exalted sobriquet among the South Vietnamese population, who had begun to call him "the little dictator."
Thieu had also become very suspicious of his American allies, unwilling to believe (as did many South Vietnamese) that the U.S. had been caught by surprise by the offensive. "Now that it's all over," he queried a visiting Washington official, "you really knew it was coming didn't you?" Lyndon Johnson's unilateral decision on 31 March to curtail the bombing of North Vietnam only confirmed what Thiệu already feared - the Americans were going to abandon South Vietnam to the communists. For Thiệu, the bombing halt and the beginning of negotiations with the North brought not the hope of an end to the war, but "an abiding fear of peace." He was only mollified after an 18 July meeting with Johnson in Honolulu, where the American president affirmed that Saigon would be a full partner in all negotiations and that the U.S. would not "support the imposition of a coalition government, or any other form of government, on the people of South Vietnam."
The shocks that reverberated from the battlefield continued to widen: On 18 February 1968 MACV posted the highest U.S. casualty figures for a single week during the entire war - 543 killed, 2,547 wounded. On 23 February 1968 the U.S. Selective Service System announced a new draft call for 48,000 men, the second highest of the war. On 28 February 1968 Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense who had overseen the escalation of the war in 1964-1965, but who had eventually turned against it, stepped down from office.
Johnson dispatched Wheeler to Saigon on 20 February to determine military requirements in response to the offensive. Both Wheeler and Westmoreland were elated that in only eight days McNamara would be replaced by the hawkish Clark Clifford and that the military might finally obtain permission to widen the war. Wheeler's written report of the trip, however, contained no mention of any new contingencies, strategies, or the building up the strategic reserve. It was couched in grave language that suggested that the 206,756-man request it proposed was a matter of vital military necessity. Westmoreland wrote in his memoir that Wheeler had deliberately concealed the truth of the matter in order to force the issue of the strategic reserve upon the President. On 27 February Johnson and McNamara discussed the proposed troop increase. To fulfill it would require an increase in overall military strength of about 400,000 men and the expenditure of an additional $10 billion during fiscal 1969 and another $15 billion in 1970. These monetary concerns were pressing. Throughout the fall of 1967 and the spring of 1968, the U.S. was struggling with "one of the most severe monetary crises" of the period. Without a new tax bill and budgetary cuts, the nation would face even higher inflation "and the possible collapse of the monetary system". Johnson's friend Clark Clifford was concerned about what the American public would think of the escalation: "How do we avoid creating the feeling that we are pounding troops down a rathole?"
According to the Pentagon Papers, "A fork in the road had been reached and the alternatives stood out in stark reality." To meet Wheeler's request would mean a total U.S. military commitment to South Vietnam. "To deny it, or to attempt to cut it to a size which could be sustained by the thinly stretched active forces, would just as surely signify that an upper limit to the U.S. military commitment in South Vietnam had been reached.
On 1 March Clifford had succeeded McNamara as Secretary of Defense. During the month, Clifford, who had entered office as a staunch supporter of the Vietnam commitment and who had opposed McNamara's de-escalatory views, turned against the war. According to Clifford: "The simple truth was that the military failed to sustain a respectable argument for their position." Between the results of Tet and the meetings of the group that bore his name, he became convinced that deescalation was the only solution for the United States. He was convinced that the troop increase would lead only to a more violent stalemate and sought out others in the administration to assist him in convincing the President to reverse the escalation, to cap force levels at 550,000 men, to seek negotiations with Hanoi, and turn responsibility for the fighting over to the South Vietnamese. Clifford quietly sought allies and was assisted in his effort by the so-called "8:30 Group" - Nitze, Warnke, Phil G. Goulding (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs), George Elsey, and Air Force Colonel Robert E. Pursely. On 27 February Secretary of State Dean Rusk had proposed that a partial bombing halt be implemented in North Vietnam and that an offer to negotiate be extended to Hanoi. On 4 March Rusk reiterated the proposal, explaining that, during the rainy season in the North, bombing was less effective and that no military sacrifice would thus occur. This was purely a political ploy, however, since the North Vietnamese would probably again refuse to negotiate, casting the onus on them and "thus freeing our hand after a short period...putting the monkey firmly upon Hanoi's back for what was to follow."
While this was being deliberated, the troop request was leaked to the press and published in the The New York Times on 10 March. The article also revealed that the request had begun a serious debate within the administration. According to it, many high-level officials believed that the U.S. troop increase would be matched by the communists and would simply maintain a stalemate at a higher level of violence. It went on to state that officials were saying in private that "widespread and deep changes in attitudes, a sense that a watershed has been reached." A great deal has been said by historians concerning how the news media made Tet the "turning point" in the public's perception of the war. Popular CBS anchor Walter Cronkite stated during a news broadcast on February 27, "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds" and added that, "we are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory. Far from suffering a loss of morale, however, the majority of Americans had rallied to the side of the president. A Gallup poll in January 1968 revealed that 56 percent polled considered themselves hawks on the war and 27 percent doves, with 17 percent offering no opinion. By early February, at the height of the first phase of the offensive, 61 percent declared themselves hawks, 23 percent doves, and 16 percent held no opinion. Johnson, however, made few comments to the press during or immediately after the offensive, leaving an impression of indecision on the public. It was this lack of communication that caused a rising disapproval rating for his conduct of the war. By the end of February, his approval rating had fallen from 63 percent to 47 percent. By the end of March the percentage of Americans that expressed confidence in U.S. military policies in Southeast Asia had fallen from 74 to 54 percent.
By 22 March President Johnson had informed Wheeler to "forget the 100,000" men. The President and his staff were refining a lesser version of the troop increase - a planned call-up of 62,000 reservists, 13,000 of whom would be sent to Vietnam. Three days later, at Clifford's suggestion, Johnson called a conclave of the "Wise Men". With few exceptions, all of the members of the group had formerly been accounted as hawks on the war. The group was joined by Rusk, Wheeler, Bundy, Rostow, and Clifford. The final assessment of the majority stupefied the group. According to Clifford, "few of them were thinking solely of Vietnam anymore". All but four members called for disengagement from the war, leaving the President "deeply shaken. According to the Pentagon Papers, the advice of the group was decisive in convincing Johnson to reduce the bombing of North Vietnam.
Lyndon Johnson was depressed and despondent at the course of recent events. The New York Times article had been released just two days before the United States Democratic Party's New Hampshire Primary, where the President suffered an unexpected setback in the election, finishing barely ahead of Senator Eugene McCarthy. Soon afterward, Senator Robert F. Kennedy announced he would join the contest for the Democratic nomination, further emphasizing the plummeting support for Johnson's administration in the wake of Tet.
The President was to make a televised address to the nation on Vietnam policy on 31 March and was deliberating on both the troop request and his response to the military situation. By 28 March Clifford was working hard to convince him to tone down his hard-line speech, maintaining force levels at their present size, and instituting Rusk's bombing/negotiating proposal. To Clifford's surprise, both Rusk and Rostow (both of whom had previously been opposed to any form of deescalation) offered no opposition to Clifford's suggestions. On 31 March President Johnson announced the unilateral (although still partial) bombing halt during his television address. He then stunned the nation by declining to run for a second term in office. To Washington's surprise, on 3 April Hanoi announced that it would conduct negotiations, which were scheduled to begin on 13 May in Paris.
On 9 June President Johnson replaced Westmoreland as commander of MACV with General Creighton W. Abrams. Although the decision had been made in December 1967 and Westmoreland was made Army Chief of Staff, many saw his relief as punishment for the entire Tet debacle. Abrams' new strategy was quickly demonstrated by the closure of the "strategic" Khe Sanh base and the ending of multi-division "search and destroy" operations. Also gone were discussions of victory over North Vietnam. Abrams' new "One War" policy centered the American effort on the takeover of the fighting by the South Vietnamese (through Vietnamization), the pacification of the countryside, and the destruction of communist logistics. The new administration of President Richard M. Nixon would oversee the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the continuation of negotiations.
The 1987 film Full Metal Jacket's scenes taking place in Vietnam are centered around the Tet Offensive's first month. The film shows fighting in both Da Nang and Hue while the overrunning of the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the Siege of Khe Sanh are referenced by Joker's (Matthew Modine) commanding officer.