The Tet Offensive (Vietnamese: Sự kiện Tết Mậu Thân 1968, or Tổng tiến công và nổi dậy Tết Mậu Thân) was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, launched on January 30, 1968, by forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam against the forces of the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the United States Armed Forces, and their allies. It was a campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian command and control centers throughout South Vietnam. The name of the offensive comes from the Tết holiday, the Vietnamese New Year, when the first major attacks took place.
The North Vietnamese launched a wave of attacks in the late night hours 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 North Vietnamese operation began the next morning, the offensive was countrywide and well coordinated; eventually more than 80,000 North Vietnamese troops struck 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.
Though initial attacks stunned both the US and South Vietnamese armies, causing them to temporarily lose control of several cities, they quickly regrouped, beat back the attacks, and inflicted heavy casualties on North Vietnamese forces. During the Battle of Huế, intense fighting lasted for a month, resulting in the destruction of the city. During their occupation, the North Vietnamese executed thousands of people 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 North Vietnam, 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 North Vietnamese were being defeated and incapable of launching such an ambitious military operation; American public support for the war soon declined and the U.S. sought negotiations to end the war.
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.
During the fall of 1967, the question of whether the U.S. strategy of attrition was working in South Vietnam weighed heavily on the minds of the American public and the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) believed that if a “crossover point” could be reached by which the number of communist troops killed or captured during military operations exceeded those recruited or replaced, the Americans would win the war. There was a discrepancy, however, between MACV and the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) order of battle estimates concerning the strength of Viet Cong guerrilla forces within South Vietnam. In September, members of the MACV intelligence services and the CIA met to prepare a Special National Intelligence Estimate that would be used by the administration to gauge U.S. success in the conflict.
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 Viet Cong 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 communist troop strength was routinely provided to reporters during press briefings. According to MACV’s chief of intelligence, General Joseph A. McChristian, the new figures “would create a political bombshell”, since they were positive proof that the North Vietnamese “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 Viet Cong 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 the groups deadlocked, 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.”
Planning in Hanoi for a winter-spring offensive during 1968 had begun in early 1967 and continued until early the following year. According to American sources, there has been an extreme reluctance among Vietnamese historians to discuss the decision-making process that led to the General Offensive General Uprising, even decades after the event. In official Vietnamese literature, the decision to launch the Tet Offensive was usually presented as the result of a perceived U.S. failure to win the war quickly, the failure of the American bombing campaign against North Vietnam, and the anti-war sentiment that pervaded the population of the U.S. The decision to launch the general offensive, however, was much more complicated.
General Offensive and Uprising
The operational plan for the General Offensive and Uprising had its origin as the “COSVN proposal” at Thanh’s southern headquarters in April 1967 and had then been relayed to Hanoi the following month. The general was then ordered to the capital to explain his concept in person to the Military Central Commission. At a meeting in July, Thanh briefed the plan to the Politburo.On the evening of 6 July, after receiving permission to begin preparations for the offensive, Thanh attended a party and died of a heart attack after drinking too much.
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 North Vietnamese 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 September 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 crises of 1963 and 1966; well-publicized anti-war demonstrations in Saigon; and continuous criticism of the Thiệu 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.”
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 commence with simultaneous actions on major allied bases and most urban areas, and with particular emphasis on the cities of Saigon and Huế. Concurrently, a substantial threat would have 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 influencing 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.
Suspicions and diversions
Signs of impending communist action were noticed among the allied intelligence collection apparatus in Saigon. During the late summer and fall of 1967 both South Vietnamese and U.S. intelligence agencies collected clues that indicated a significant shift in communist strategic planning. By mid-December, mounting evidence convinced many in Washington and Saigon that something big was underway. During the last three months of the year intelligence agencies had observed signs of a major North Vietnamese military buildup. In addition to captured documents (a copy of Resolution 13, for example, was captured by early October), observations of enemy logistical operations were also quite clear: in October, the number of trucks observed heading south through Laos on the Hồ Chí Minh Trail jumped from the previous monthly average of 480 to 1,116. By November this total reached 3,823 and, in December, 6,315. On 20 December, Westmoreland cabled Washington that he expected the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese “to undertake an intensified countrywide effort, perhaps a maximum effort, over a relatively short period of time.”
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 enemy’s probable course of action based upon their capabilities, not their intentions. Since, in the allied estimation, the communists 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 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.”
On 27 October, an ARVN battalion at Sông Bé, the capital of Phước 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 Lộc Ninh, in Bình 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.
Westmoreland was more concerned with the situation at Khe Sanh, where, on 21 January, a force estimated at 20,000–40,000 North Vietnamese troops had besieged the U.S. Marine garrison. MACV was convinced that the North Vietnamese 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 Weyand, commander of U.S. forces in III 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.
Before the offensive
By the beginning of January 1968, the U.S had deployed 331,098 Army personnel and 78,013 Marines in nine divisions, an armoured cavalry regiment, and two separate brigades to South Vietnam. They were joined there by the 1st Australian Task Force, a Royal Thai Army regiment, two South Korean infantry divisions, and a Republic of Korea Marine Corps brigade. South Vietnamese strength totaled 350,000 regulars in the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. They were in turn supported by the 151,000-man South Vietnamese Regional Forces and 149,000-man South Vietnamese Popular Forces, which were the equivalent of regional and local militias.
In the days immediately preceding the offensive, the preparedness of allied forces was relatively relaxed. Hanoi had announced in October that it would observe a seven-day truce from 27 January to 3 February for the Tet holiday, and the South Vietnamese military made plans to allow recreational leave for approximately 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 Thiệu (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, eleven Viet Cong cadres were captured in the city of Qui Nhơn while in possession of two pre-recorded audio tapes whose message appealed to the populace in “already occupied Saigon, Huế, and Da Nang”. The following afternoon, General Cao Văn Viên, chief of the Vietnamese Joint 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. officers—all of whom served on the MACV intelligence staff—attended a pool party at their 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 officers 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” communist 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.
“Crack the Sky, Shake the Earth”— Message to North Vietnamese forces who were informed that they were “about to inaugurate the greatest battle in the history of our country”.
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 Mê Thuột, Kon Tum, Hội An, Tuy Hòa, Da Nang, Qui Nhơn, and Pleiku. During all of these operations, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese 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 31 January North Vietnamese forces assailed Saigon, Cholon, and Gia Định in the Capital Military District; Quảng Trị (again), Huế, Quảng Tín, 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 Vĩnh Long in IV Corps. The following day, Biên Hòa, Long Thanh, Bình Dương in III Corps and Kien Hoa, Dinh Tuong, Gò Công, Kiên Giang, Vĩnh Bình, Bến Tre, and Kien Tuong in IV Corps were assaulted. The last attack of the initial operation was launched against Bạc Liêu in IV Corps on 10 February. A total of approximately 84,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops participated in the attacks while thousands of others stood by to act as reinforcements or as blocking forces.Viet Cong and North Vietnamese 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 Kon Tum, 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.
Although Saigon was the focal point of the offensive, the communists did not seek a total takeover of the city.Rather, they had six primary targets to strike in the downtown area: the headquarters of the ARVN General Staff at Tan Son Nhut Air Base; the Independence Palace, the US Embassy in Saigon, the Republic of Vietnam Navy Headquarters, and the National Radio Station. These objectives were all assaulted by a small number of militants of the local C-10 Sapper Battalion.Elsewhere in the city or its outskirts, ten Viet Cong Local Force Battalions attacked the central police station and the Artillery Command and the Armored Command headquarters (both at Gò Vấp). The plan called for all these initial forces to capture and hold their positions for 48 hours, by which time reinforcements were to have arrived to relieve them.
At 03:40 on the foggy morning of 31 January, allied defensive positions north of the Perfume River in the city of Huế were mortared and rocketed and then attacked by two battalions of the 6th PAVN Regiment. Their target was the ARVN 1st Division headquarters located in the Citadel, a three-square mile complex of palaces, parks, and residences, which were surrounded by a moat and a massive earth and masonry fortress built at the beginning of the 19th century by Emperor Gia Long. The undermanned ARVN defenders, led by General Ngô Quang Trưởng, managed to hold their position, but the majority of the Citadel fell to the PAVN. On the south bank of the river, the 4th PAVN 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 PAVN forces which initially totaled approximately 7,500 men. Both sides then rushed to reinforce and resupply their forces. Lasting 25 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, U.S. intelligence vastly underestimated the number of PAVN 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 Huế Citadel and the marines have sent a battalion into the area to clear them out.” A later assessment ultimately noted three Marine and 11 Vietnamese battalions engaged at least 8 NVA/VC battalions of the 6th NVA Regiment, not including the large number of forces outside the city.
Since there were no U.S. formations stationed in Huế, 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 neither side were trained. Because of poor weather conditions, logistics problems and the historical and cultural significance of the city, American forces did not immediately apply air and artillery strikes as widely as they had in other cities.
Viet Cong forces around Hue included six main-force battalions, while two PAVN regiments operated in the area. As the battle unfolded three more PAVN regiments redeployed from Khe Sanh arrived as reinforcements. The North Vietnamese plan of attack on Hue involved intensive preparation and reconnaissance. Over 190 targets, including every government and military installation on both sides of the river would be hit on January 31 by a force of five thousand. Other forces would block American and ARVN reinforcement routes, mainly Highway 1. Over half of the ARVN 1st Division was on holiday leave and PAVN commanders believed the population of Hue would join the fight as a part of the General Uprising.
Outside Huế, elements of the U.S. 1st Air Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division fought to seal PAVN access and cut off their lines of supply and reinforcement. By this point in the battle 16 to 18 PAVN 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 Huế in order to participate. During most of February, the allies gradually fought their way towards the Citadel, which was only taken after twenty-five days of intense struggle. The city was not declared recaptured by U.S. and ARVN forces until 25 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 1,042 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 140,000.40-50% of Huế was destroyed by the end of the battle.
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 Huế sparked a controversy that has not diminished with time. The victims had either been clubbed or shot to death or simply buried alive. The official allied explanation was that during their initial occupation of the city, the PAVN 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 Viet Cong document stated that the communists had “eliminated 1,892 administrative personnel, 38 policemen, 790 tyrants.” The North Vietnamese officer, Bùi Tín, 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 Ngô Quang Trưởng, commander of the 1st ARVN Division, believed that the captives had been executed by the communists in order to protect the identities of members of the local Viet Cong infrastructure, whose covers had been blown. The exact circumstances leading to the deaths of those citizens of Huế discovered in the mass graves may never be known exactly, but most of the victims were killed as a result of PAVN and NLF executions, considering evidence from captured documents and witness testimonies among other things.
Sourc: Wikipedia, Thegreatwar