By late 1967, the US command in Vietnam was issuing very optimistic statements about weakening of the Communist forces and the likelihood that the war would be won. However, these statements were based to a considerable extent on wishful thinking. In its eagerness to make the situation look hopeful, the US command was underestimating the actual size of the Communist forces.
In past years, a tradition had grown up of declaring a truce for a few days during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, to allow people on both sides to celebrate this very important holiday with their families. During Tet of 1968, which came at the end of January, the Communists announced a truce but then launched a stunning offensive, attacking almost every major city in South Vietnam. One Communist unit got inside the walls of the US Embassy in Saigon and remained for several hours before being killed. US forces had made some preparations for the possibility of an attack, but not enough. Most ARVN units were caught totally by surprise.
The Communist forces appear to have been trying to win the war at a single blow. They hoped that the ARVN would disintegrate in panic and confusion, and that the civilian population would join in a mass uprising against the government. They did not achieve either of these goals, although the ARVN may have come rather close to collapsing.
The result of the Communists' failure to achieve their objectives was that they lost a large part of their forces. Tens of thousands of the best NLF guerrillas had gone into the cities. When the population did not rise up to support them, and the ARVN did not collapse, a large proportion of these men were killed. This weakened the NLF organization in the countryside very drastically, and it never completely recovered. The Communist apparatus in the South became much more dependent on North Vietnamese support than it had been up to this point.
The Tet Offensive was militarily a defeat for the Communists; it had weakened them very substantially. However, in public relations it was a Communist victory. There were several reasons for this.
1) The most important was the way the optimistic statements US spokesmen had been making about Communist weakness contrasted with the strength the Communists had shown in this battle. US spokesmen had been saying for months that the Communist forces were weakening. The Tet Offensive made it obvious that the Communist forces were far stronger than US spokesmen had admitted. When the same spokesmen said after the Tet Offensive that the Communists had been badly weakened, they were telling the truth for a change, but they had a lot of trouble persuading anyone to believe them. When General Westmoreland, the US commander in Vietnam, asked for 200,000 more American soldiers to be sent to Vietnam, this made people even less willing to believe that the Tet Offensive had been a brilliant American victory.
2) The Tet Offensive made the brutality of the war very visible to Americans. The US Air Force had been bombing South Vietnamese villages for years; during Tet the Air Force was bombing South Vietnamese cities. The ARVN had been killing prisoners for years; during Tet the American television viewing public actually got to watch a prisoner, with his hands bound behind his back, being shot through the head by a South Vietnamese general. The Communists also committed atrocities, of course; the Communists appear to have killed several thousand civilians in the city of Hue during the period they held parts of that city. That, however, did not happen within sight of American television cameras.
3) Tet, although militarily it was a clear American victory, had not been a cheap victory. The total number of US soldiers reported killed in Vietnam during the year 1968 was about 14,000, the highest number for any year of the war.
4) The US and ARVN forces shifted their activities toward the cities for a while as a result of the Communist attacks on those cities. Therefore, the weakening of the Communist forces in the countryside was not immediately apparent.
For all of these reasons, the Tet Offensive made the US news media, and the US public, much less enthusiastic about the war than they had been previously. General Westmoreland did not get the 200,000 additional troops he had requested, and in less than two years the US began withdrawing substantial numbers of troops. Negotiations began between the US and the Communists, and for most of the time the negotiations were going on, the US imposed limits on its bombing of North Vietnam. One might reasonably say that in the long run the Tet Offensive was a victory for the Communists, because of the way it reduced the American will to fight.
Next section: The Negotiations
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Copyright © 1998 Edwin E. Moïse. Revised November 6, 1998.