|Battle of Hamo Village During the Tet Offensive. US Marines and ARVN troops defend a position against enemy attack. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
The Tet Offensive was a military campaign during the Vietnam War that was launched on January 30, 1968 by forces of the Viet Congand North Vietnam against South Vietnam, the United States, and their allies. It was a campaign of surprise attacks that were launched against military and civilian command and control centers throughout South Vietnam, during a period when no attacks were supposed to take place.
The operations are referred to as the Tet Offensive because there was a prior agreement to “cease fire” during the Tet Lunar New Year celebrations. Both North and South Vietnam announced on national radio broadcasts that there would be a two-day cease-fire during the holiday. Nonetheless, the Communists launched an attack that began during the early morning hours of 30 January 1968, the first day of Tet. In Vietnamese, the offensive is commonly called Tết Mậu Thân (Tet, year of the monkey). Military planners called it the “General Offensive and Uprising” (Cuộc Tổng tiến công và nổi dậy).
The Communists launched a wave of attacks on the morning of 30 January in the I and II Corps Tactical Zones of South Vietnam. This early attack did not lead to widespread defensive measures. When the main communist operation began the next morning the offensive was countrywide and well coordinated, eventually more than 80,000 Communist 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 southern capital. The offensive was the largest military operation conducted by either side up to that point in the war.
The initial attacks stunned the US and South Vietnamese armies and took them by surprise, but most were quickly contained and beaten back, inflicting massive casualties on communist forces. During the Battle of Huế intense fighting lasted for a month resulting in the destruction of the city by US forces while the Communists executed thousands of residents in the Massacre at Huế. Around the US combat base at Khe Sanh fighting continued for two more months. Although the offensive was a military defeat for the communists, it had a profound effect on the US government and shocked the US 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 term “Tet offensive” usually refers to the January–February 1968 offensive, but it can also include the so-called “mini-Tet” offensives that took place in May and August.
Whether by accident or design, the first wave of attacks began shortly after midnight on 30 January as all five provincial capitals in II Corps and Da Nang, in I Corps, were attacked. Nha Trang, headquarters of the U.S. I Field Force, was the first to be hit, followed shortly by Ban Me Thuot, Kontum, Hoi An, Tuy Hoa, Da Nang, Qui Nhon, and Pleiku. During all of these operations, the communists followed a similar pattern: mortar or rocket attacks were closely followed by massed ground assaults conducted by battalion-strength elements of the Viet Cong, sometimes supported by North Vietnamese regulars. These forces would join with local cadres who served as guides to lead the regulars to the most senior South Vietnamese headquarters and the radio station. The operations, however, were not well coordinated at the local level. By daylight, almost all communist forces had been driven from their objectives. General Phillip B. Davidson, the new MACV chief of intelligence, notified Westmoreland that “This is going to happen in the rest of the country tonight and tomorrow morning.” All U.S. forces were placed on maximum alert and similar orders were issued to all ARVN units. The allies, however, still responded without any real sense of urgency. Orders cancelling leaves either came too late or were disregarded.
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 communist 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 communists 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, others were cowardly or incompetent. During this crucial crisis, however, no South Vietnamese unit broke or defected to the communists.
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?”