On this day in 1968, guerrilla forces in South Vietnam mounted a massive offensive against both American forces and the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN). Timed for the Vietnamese holiday of Tet, the attack caught the defenders unready and shocked an American public that had been assured by both its military and President Lyndon B. Johnson that the U.S. was winning in Vietnam. The result of Tet was a military disaster for the Vietcong attackers but a political victory for the communist effort in South Vietnam. The fallout from Tet brought down a President, as LBJ would drop his reelection effort in 1968, and it essentially doomed the American effort in Vietnam. Tet became mythologized as the embodiment of the violence and futility of Vietnam, never more so than in Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket.

To understand Tet, both cause and result, you need to understand the theory of protracted war put forth by Mao Tse-Tung during the Chinese Civil War and the War of Resistance (against the Japanese). Mao was presented with enemies who were much stronger than his forces were, and he had to figure out how to fight and win nonetheless. His strategy was not to allow the enemy to use its strength against him, but to prolong the war until the enemy could be worn down. He wrote of three stages of the war. “The first stage covers the period of the enemy’s strategic offensive and our strategic defensive. The second stage will be the period of the enemy’s strategic consolidation and our preparation for the counter-offensive. The third stage will be the period of our strategic counter-offensive and the enemy’s strategic retreat.” When the enemy was dominant, Mao thought, those waging protracted war should avoid direct conflict, wage guerrilla war, and develop their forces. When the enemy advance had slowed and the situation was more balanced, it was time to turn to mobile warfare and more direct attacks on enemy targets. This would still not be what Mao called “static warfare”, in which both sides were visible to each other. Only in the third stage, when momentum had swung, would Mao’s forces turn to open attack using conventional warfare. Each stage could take varying lengths of time, and forces might move up and down between stages depending on how well they were doing.

What does this have to do with Tet? In essence, Tet was the first and last time that the Vietcong attempted to move into the third stage. Believing the momentum to have shifted in their direction, the communist leadership decided on an all out attack on American and ARVN forces. This was not uncontroversial and there was strong disagreement in the North about the effectiveness of such a plan. But in the end the North Vietnamese and Vietcong leadership agreed on a broad-ranging plan that would use between 80-100,000 Vietcong to attack roughly 30 targets across the South,
Tet-Offensive-Map.jpg.jpegfrom the American military base at Khe Sanh, near the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Vietnam, to the main capital of Saigon, to the old capital of Hue, down into the murky ground of the Mekong Delta. Such a broad range of attacks, the communist leadership believed, would spark a general uprising in South Vietnam.

Such a large operation required a massive supply and organizational effort. Inevitably, hints of the upcoming operation leaked out to both South Vietnamese and American intelligence. Those hints were mostly ignored or downplayed. The American leadership, both military and civilian, did not believe the Vietcong capable of such a massive attack. In addition, President Lyndon Johnson, gearing up for a reelection campaign, wanted good news out of Vietnam, good news with which the military was more than willing to supply him. Finally, both Vietnamese governments, northern and southern, had agreed to a ceasefire to cover the week of the Tet Holiday, the Vietnamese New Year.

Thus, it came as largely a surprise when overnight on January 30-31, large scale attacks in both urban and rural areas of South Vietnam broke out. In Saigon, a VC unit blew a hole in the wall of the American embassy and stormed inside. Frustrated by a stout Marine defense of the building itself, they nonetheless held the courtyard for hours until wiped out. Across South Vietnam, similar scenarios played out. None was more intense than the fight over the city of Hue, where nearly 12,000 North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong occupied the center of the city for several weeks and were only rooted out by ARVN soldiers and U.S. Marines in intense urban fighting. Very quickly, however, the VC discovered that it had two problems. First, the hoped-for national uprising did not occur. Most civilians quite sensibly hid themselves as well as they could. Second, the Viet Cong discovered that attempting to attack, capture, and hold defined locations–that most conventional of warfare–made them sitting ducks for American and ARVN firepower. That firepower was used liberally against the VC and anyone who might be in the way or in the area. By the end of February, the defenders of South Vietnam had essentially regained control of the country. Though the offensive continued into the fall of 1968, it never came close to duplicating the initial successes. The number of both VC and civilian fatalities was extremely high: several hundred thousand civilians and between 50,000 and 100,000 VC/North Vietnamese. American deaths were between 3000-4000.

The shock back in the United States was extensive. Reporting on the offensive reflected both the initial surprise and the dismay at discovering that–despite Johnson’s assertions–the war was not close to being won. Walter Cronkite, the anchorman for CBS, visited Hue city during the fighting and came back convinced that victory was impossible, and said so. The popular reaction echoed Cronkite’s and popular perception of the war shifted to the negative. Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection and in November 1968, Richard Nixon, the GOP candidate with a “secret plan” for peace in Vietnam, won. What had been a devastating military defeat for the North and for the Viet Cong became a political victory. As one of the Northern Vietnamese generals put it later, “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.” The irony, from a military perspective, was the American forces and ARVN had triumphed on the battlefield. What they would discover, however, was that a battlefield triumph was not the same thing as victory.