Remembering the Vietnam War: The 50th Anniversary of the Tet Offensive, January 30, 1968

As 1967 came to a close, U.S. forces and their South Vietnamese allies seemed to be marching towards victory in the Vietnam War. American intervention,  marked by such desperate initial battles as Ia Drang in 1965, had averted a communist takeover of South Vietnam.  From that point U.S. forces built up steadily, secured base areas, and increasingly assisted the South Vietnamese Army.  In 1967 the Americans and South Vietnamese assumed the offensive, and inflicted significant defeats on communist forces  unwise enough to stand and fight. “Kill ratios” averaged 10 to one when  battles actually occurred.

Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the American commander, sought a “crossover point” where the enemy would begin losing more than they could replace. His staff estimated that in 1967 the communists in South Vietnam lost more than a quarter of their manpower, leaving their troop strength at 220,000 by the end of the year. Meanwhile, U.S. forces had risen to nearly half a million with support from  about 650,000 South Vietnamese regulars and militia, and 40,000 Allied troops from other nations.  The Allies considered South Vietnam’s cities generally secure,  along with more than two-thirds of its rural population.

Westmoreland and other U.S. government leaders assured the American public that the war was succeeding. With U.S. forces shielding the South from North Vietnamese intervention, Allied forces would grind down the remaining communist forces in South Vietnam. The American public craved such reassurance, since more than 16,000 Americans had died in Vietnam already. The loss of these service members  and the billions of dollars already spent  wore heavily on a nation also facing cultural and social upheaval at home.  Most thought that only victory could justify such sacrifices. American military and civilian leaders  communicated or reinforced the optimistic message that the United States would soon prevail.

 North Vietnamese leaders, on the other hand, concluded that South Vietnam itself was unstable, and believed that mass defections and insurrections were likely in the face of a major communist offensive. They and their Viet Cong (South  Vietnamese communist) allies infiltrated arms, ammunition, soldiers and units into Saigon and other cities. The North Vietnamese also besieged the outpost of Khe Sanh near the Demilitarized Zone,  leading Westmoreland to reinforce the northern provinces and thin U.S. forces in the rest of the country to do so.

As 1968 began  most South Vietnamese units were preoccupied with preparations for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Traditionally, hostilities temporarily ceased around Tet. This would not be the case in 1968.  

Despite careful preparations, the communist  offensive began  haphazardly. Hanoi directed a one-day postponement to the start of the offensive, but  some troops did not get the word. Communist forces prematurely attacked Da Nang and several other cities on January 30, 1968. The Allies contained these attacks, and quickly understood that they were not isolated. Westmoreland, already wary from other indicators, moved thirteen combat battalions closer to Saigon. Even so, the Allies were unprepared for the scale and extent of what came next.

On January 31 massed communist forces attacked across the breadth of South Vietnam, from areas near the Demilitarized Zone to the far south of the country. A detachment assaulted the American Embassy in Saigon amidst gripping television coverage. U.S. rear echelon and administrative personnel hastily armed themselves and defended their positions. Reaction forces raced to assist in repelling attacks and securing critical installations. Even though confusion reigned, the embattled U.S. forces defeated the enemy who came against them.

Far from collapsing, the South Vietnamese Army generally held their own. In most towns and cities government forces, assisted by American firepower, maintained control or regained it in a matter of days. Helicopters provided tactical mobility and rushed reinforcements to beleaguered outposts. Artillery and aircraft successfully repulsed exposed enemy forces. Once major Allied installations were secured, the Allies moved out to recover ground that had been lost in the countryside as well.

More than 45,000 communists died in the Tet Offensive and the several “mini-Tets” that followed. Half as many were wounded or missing. South Vietnam’s indigenous communists, the Viet Cong, suffered particularly heavy casualties. Their guerrilla role had to be taken over by North Vietnamese regulars, who were less familiar with local circumstances and people. The communists suspended major offensive operations, and  committed to armistice negotiations in Paris.

Despite significant Allied successes  and  striking communist defeats on the battlefield, the American public —led to believe that the war was almost won—viewed the Tet Offensive as disheartening. There seemed to be no end in sight, and no limits to the North Vietnamese willingness to take losses and continue fighting. Denied general mobilization of the National Guard and Reserves, the Pentagon requested 200,000 more troops. Bloodshed and destruction dominated the news. Public support for the war  waned.

Westmoreland was soon replaced in South Vietnam by Gen. Creighton Abrams. The war was re-envisioned as a prolonged and taxing grind. American troops were to be gradually withdrawn from the  most serious fighting, and replaced by ever-larger and better equipped South Vietnamese forces in a process called “Vietnamization.” Only time could tell how well it would work.

Recommended Reading

MacGarrigle, George L., Combat Operations: Taking the Offensive, October 1966 to October 1967 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1998)

Oberdorfer, Don, Tet! The Turning Point in Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)

Stewart, Richard W., American Military History: The United States Army in a Global Era, 1917-2003 (Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2005)

Villard, Eric B. Combat Operations: Staying the Course, October 1967-September 1968 (Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2018)