This Day In History: The Tet Offensive Begins In Vietnam (1968)

American soldiers during the Tet Offensive. Source National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 532441

On this day in 1968, the Tet Offensive began in the Vietnam War. It begin’s on the first day of the Tet holiday truce. The communist Viet Cong supported by units of the regular North Vietnamese army launched a series of attacks on South Vietnamese and American targets.  The communists wanted to bring the war to the urban areas of Vietnam and demonstrate to the world that the Americans were not winning the war. During the offensive, the communists attacked every large city and town in South Vietnam.

The communist had been planning the operation for months. The Viet Cong had sleeper cells in many cities and towns. When Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units attacked cities and towns, usually these sleeper cells would help them. The Tet Offensive caught the Americans and the South Vietnamese off-guard and the communist soon occupied many major urban centers such as Hue. The communists at the same time attacked many army bases. It is believed that during the Offensive that every major US base was attacked. The offensive was a massive intelligence failure and the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies were taken unawares. The communists had been able to achieve complete strategic surprise.

South Vietnamese soldiers in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. source National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 532451

The Viet Cong also infiltrated into Saigon and they even briefly managed to capture the US embassy. American marines and special forces eventually recaptured the embassy and killed all the Viet Cong attackers. The attack on the embassy shocked America. It took several days for the Americans and the South Vietnamese to regain control of Saigon.

Some of the heaviest fighting, took place in the ancient city of Hue. It took almost a month of heavy fighting for the Americans to dislodge the communists from that city.  The Tet Offensive was over by the end of February and the Americans declared a victory. However, America had suffered heavy casualties and much of the fighting had been shown on television. The Tet Offensive was technical a military defeat for the communists. The Tet Offensive was a turning point in the war it because it fuelled growing disenchantment in America with the war.  After the offensive, the anti-war movement in America expanded rapidly. The size of the offensive and its intensity was a surprise to many in the US who had previously believed the official version that their country was winning the war.

The Tet Offensive resulted in a backlash against Johnson and his claims that America was winning the war in Vietnam. This resulted in President Johnson announcing that he would not be running for re-election.

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