|Tet: A Brief History
by Tim Wolf
Throughout history there have been many final attempts at ending or winning a
war by the opposing force. These attempts have often come by the end of the
campaign and most are a last ditch effort at a victory that is unattainable.
The Tet Offensive of 1968 is one of these attacks. The war in Vietnam was in a
stalemate with both sides locked and dug in, in the jungles of Vietnam. The
North Vietnamese generals knew that they could win the war and stop the
fighting with one push. This push would consist of three phases and would play
on the fact that American sentiment back in the United States was not strong
and supportive for the Vietnam War or the current administration installed in
Washington. This three phase attack would be part of the final battle that the
Communists in the North needed to finally achieve victory in the war. At home
in the United States, President Johnson was facing growing demand and
responsibility for the way the war was going. Johnson’s approval rating was
rapidly declining, as antiwar sentiment grew and people became restless. Before
the Tet Offensive began the president began a major rush of propaganda to try
and calm the American people down. President Johnson’s actions seemed to be
playing right into the North Vietnamese’s hands and the attack was going to
come sooner or later as the stalemate had to be broken. The people of North
Vietnam had more to lose than the Americans, as the fight for them was more
over nationalism than communism. The Tet Offensive was the final punch in a war
that America barely had chance in. President Johnson had to try everything to
win this war and he knew he had to do it.
The Vietnam War began hypothetically on May 7, 1954 with the surrounding of
French Forces at Dien Ben Phu. After this battle and the signing of the Geneva
Accords, Vietnam was split into two nations, North and South. The U.S.
government in the 1950s and 60s spurred on by their belief in the domino theory
began to pour money and aid into the regime they had established in South
Vietnam. They also signed an economic and military treaty as well which
triggered full blown involvement. This involvement really took off when
military advisors and personnel were sent over and finally with the Gulf of
Tonkin incident rousing the President to deploy forces and start a massive air
campaign in 1965. These events would lead to skirmishes and battles and the
beginning of the stalemate between the North Vietnamese forces, including the
Vietcong, and the American forces.
The war on the American side was being led by a general named William
Westmoreland. His strategies were of attrition and search and destroy missions.
These were supposed to “wear down or grind down the enemy until the enemy lost
its will to fight or the capacity to sustain its military effort” (Berman 20).
This strategy was coming into question as American forces were unable to
successfully employ this strategy as the enemy was able to re-man its forces
quite quickly after engagements. More troops were always the suggestion from
Westmoreland to combat this. As the war started to reach a stalemate by 1968,
President Johnson had continually escalated the war by ordering more troops to
be shipped to Vietnam. By the start of the offensive there were over 500,000
soldiers located in Vietnam. These escalation suggestions kept coming from
General Westmoreland, who sometimes construed the enemy’s numbers both active
and deceased. He constantly talked about a “crossover point” being very near if
he could only get more troops. Johnson agreed with him and usually went along
with the numbers that were given to him in reports and declarations.
General Westmoreland and President Johnson were not the only ones trying to
figure out a solution to Vietnam though. Robert McNamara, the Secretary of
Defense, whose position on the war would change over time, was also on the job.
While Westmoreland believed in a war of attrition, McNamara was more of a
realist and saw that a war of attrition and the constant aerial bombing would
prove futile in the end. The secretary even told President Johnson before the
Tet Offensive began, that the United States could not win the war (Berman 12).
McNamara made trips in 1966 to Vietnam to assess the situation at hand. His
reports back to Johnson were troubling and further reinforced his previous
statements to President Johnson. McNamara found that the troop levels need to
be stabilized and curried off and Operation Rolling Thunder needed to start
being reduced as well. He knew that the aim of the war was not to defeat the
North Vietnamese, but to pacify Vietnam from becoming Communist and hostile.
For this to be prevented though his suggestions he believed had to be followed.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff concurred with McNamara that the war was far from
over but felt that escalation was the only way to get what they wanted to
achieve in the end. To pacify the whole state of Vietnam seems to be impossible
because the Vietnamese people had been fighting their whole lives and this was
more than a fight between capitalism and communism, east versus west. To the
Vietnamese this was a fight for a state to call their own and not be under the
thumb of another nation. Aid and support was given to them by China and the
Soviet Union, but that was all as they wanted from their allies, as they wanted
to fight the war their way because the people of Vietnam were fighting for
nationalism. The South Vietnamese even had to feel some forbearance towards the
North and would probably have sooner helped their Northern brothers instead of
the United States and did in some instances.
President Johnson’s feelings towards the Vietnam issue were usually fueled by
his advisors and general’s reports, as well as different conferences that were
held overseas with various foreign leaders. These reports sometimes would lead
him astray but for the most part would say that the enemies will to fight was
diminishing, even though it was truly not. The President began to doubt
Secretary of Defense McNamara’s and the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s plans of
victory even though Johnson’s plan though was about just as good. His policy of
“no-win” consisted of setting up a stable government in the south, but this was
setting up the impending stalemate that would bring about and set off the Tet
Offensive. Exaggeration of advancement and a nearing of the end of the war were
told by Johnson to an American public that was already on edge. The phrase
“light at the end of the tunnel” was coined here by General Westmoreland even
though it was far from the truth. Bringing Ho and the North Vietnamese to the
bargaining table was the ultimate goal for Washington; all the while President
Johnson was also trying to fight the war on poverty and deal with the civil
rights movement back home. Although this was occurring he refused to further
escalate bombing runs into certain harbors and in land held by the Chinese, to
try and end the war quickly. What the President wanted was a stop to the war
and was willing to end the bombing of North Vietnam if Ho Chi Minh would open
up discussions (Berman 83). This would not be the last time that Johnson would
ask for this and it would not be the last time that he would be rejected by the
leaders of North Vietnam either. President Johnson’s approval rating kept
taking hits each year as the war dragged on and there was not a whole lot that
he could do to stop it.
The American people during the 1960s were an uneasy bunch, with a lot of them
just coming off of World War Two and the Korean War and did not really want to
see or go through another war. Additional forces were added to the war by way
of the draft and this upset a lot of people, with many of them trying to find a
way out of getting drafted. The Vietnam War was also different as there was a
lot of more coverage of the war. It was seen through many different angles,
especially video. The people living in America for the first time, viewed
footage of the fighting that was going on live around the reporter. This is
where the feelings against the war grew and pushed Johnson to the edge. People
began to match up the numbers that they were being told by the government with
what they were seeing on television and reading in the newspapers. Americans
started to lose trust with President Johnson and the government. “While the
reporters covering the war were writing that it had reached a stalemate,
President Johnson and his advisers were still publicly saying that the war
could be won” (Willbanks 6). President Johnson had been lying through his teeth
and the public that had adored and supported him, now knew the truth and wanted
answers as his and the war’s approval were falling rapidly. Bombing escalation
seemed to be the only answer Johnson had, and this could only go so far as he
risked igniting another world war with either China or Russia (Dallek 372).
Johnson was already in hot water with the American people and did not need that
to happen causing the President to be in a bind with no where to go. Peace was
the goal that was sought after and its arrival was needed very quickly. A Great
Society that had been promised to the people was crumbling in plain view and
had critics attacking it from all sides. The Vietnam War was taking money away
from his Great Society program rendering it useless. “The Great Society was the
beautiful woman that was being replaced by the bitch that was the Vietnam War”
according to Johnson. He was slowly being worn down by the Vietnam War. The
final breaking point was the ensuing attack by the Vietminh and the Vietcong
called the Tet Offensive, with this attack beginning in the year 1968 with
nobody seeing it coming at all when it did.
While giving a speech in San Antonio, Johnson again offered to talk to the
North Vietnamese by stopping the bombing if the North Vietnamese would not take
advantage of the stoppage. This became known as the San Antonio formula, but
Johnson’s declaration would prove useless as the planning for Tet was already
far underway at this time and his proposal was shot down by the North. Some
events occurred in conjunction with this before the Tet Offensive began. There
were a few minor and major attacks on American positions. These attacks were
looking to draw the Americans forward and away from the populated cities and
towns as well as shielding the Vietminh and Vietcong troop movements for Tet.
Their plans worked and they continued the likelihood of the impending offensive
by moving against the forward military base named Khe Sanh. Johnson and his
advisors witnessed the attack at Khe Sanh as a kind of precursor to an all out
attack that would eventually come from the North; they just did not know that
it was to come during the Tet holiday. General Earle Wheeler warned the
American public that a communist thrust similar to the Battle of the Bulge
might occur. (Willbanks 27) Johnson was quite certain that this attack was
bound to come, but chose not to take any precautionary measures to save face
with the American people. Not doing anything about this was the wrong way to go
about it. These distractions left the Americans off guard and gave the Vietminh
and Vietcong the initiative for Tet.
Tet would occur during a Vietnamese holy month that was to honor the incoming
New Year and consisted of feasts and fireworks as ancestors were also
worshipped at this same time. The year 1968 was the year of the monkey, with Ho
Chi Minh giving a speech/poem to oppose the American aggressors before the
attacks began. This holiday usually brought about an unwritten cease fire
between the two opposing forces. Tet cease fires had been observed before but
were not this year (Gross 2). At this time more people flocked to the cities to
join in on the occurring celebrations. Vietcong fighters blended in with the
people that were heading into the cities in Southern Vietnam with weapons and
explosives being brought and smuggled in a variety of fashions.
The Tet Offensive that would start to convey added animosity at Johnson, would
begin on January 31, the start of the lunar year for the Vietnamese. Cities and
towns all across Southern Vietnam were struck hard by the Vietcong forces. Some
of the hardest fighting developed around the then beautiful city of Hue, which
would receive major damage. Khe Sanh meanwhile had already taken a beating from
earlier attacks before Tet began and now started to face a total siege during
the time of the Tet Offensive. During all of this Washington dug itself into a
hole by glorifying and making light of the situation unfolding at Khe Sanh to
the public. Khe Sanh so enamored Johnson, he had a replica of the base built in
his office and said that he did not want another Dien Ben Phu to happen, as the
battle was suddenly being compared to, even thought it was far from it.
Attacks from the Vietcong did not cease for weeks with some being successful
for a short period of time but most failed in the end. Knowing that American
support for the war was waning, the North Vietnamese had been hammering away on
this basis throughout the war and Tet was meant to be the breaking point. This
originally was not the intention because the North Vietnamese wanted a military
victory, as a general of North Vietnam later wrote “it had not been our
intention-but it turned out to be a fortunate result” (Willbanks 92). The
offensive itself ended with the lifting of the siege of Khe Sanh and the ending
of the fighting taking place throughout the Southern cities.
There must have been multiple objectives and ideas for the initiation of Tet.
The battles that were fought during Tet were never really meant to be won but
to cause an uprising and to become fuel for a propaganda war, which seems to
symbolize the whole war and its meaning. Media coverage greatly enhanced the
Tet Offensive and its experiences by providing images and footage of the
massacres that were going on. This played right into the North’s hands and
against the Johnson administration that could do nothing but watch. Long
lasting tensions would grow from this between the press and the White House. A
credibility gap that had been forming ever since the war began from
misconstrued numbers and reports give by the president to the public served to
fuel this. During this time the President became unyielding and grasped for an
answer. (Berman 161)
After the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam had made little ground in the tactical
sense but a lot in the psychological. Even though this was, Johnson was still
adamant about holding firm in Vietnam. General Westmoreland figured that the
North was about to throw in the all of its remaining men into the fight and
requested more men. It was proposed to Johnson that he mobilize American
reserve forces to take this measure. Clark Clifford took over as the new
Secretary of Defense after McNamara left in 1968 and headed up a task force
designated to solving the proposal of additional men and the way the war was
being conducted. He found that it would make a difference if these soldiers
were added to the battlefield but that there was no end in sight to this war.
The President now found himself in a quandary that was going to be very hard to
get out of.
In the end after receiving the report, a smaller troop deployment was sent over
than was originally requested. Johnson realized his time to bow out of the
White House was near, when he almost lost the New Hampshire primary. He would
go on to announce that he would not accept the Democratic Party presidential
nomination after this. Creighton Abrams took over for Westmoreland in Vietnam
while Westmoreland was promoted to chief of staff on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Clark Clifford’s task force had now developed a process that would modernize,
pacify and withdraw troops from South Vietnam. This would later be adopted and
coined as Vietnamization by future President Nixon.
Through all of this the Tet Offensive had physically and somewhat mentally laid
waste on Johnson. That reason along with his current approval rating was
responsible for his decision to not run for another term. The war in Vietnam
was doomed from the beginning due in part to strategy and American perception.
The strategy in Vietnam started out as a defensive strategy or enclave.
Westmoreland changed this though as he wanted something more aggressive. The
tactics became search and destroy but in a passive sense. Unlike the previous
wars land or cities were not taken because of fear that one of the supporting
communist nations would intervene. This would lead to some problems as the war
was fought in South Vietnam with no invasion planned against the North. Body
counts were now the portrayal of success but attriting the enemy did not work
in this war like they had in the past. By using body counts the Americans had
nothing to truly bargain with against the North, who were virtually the only
ones who were fighting for a cause. That is why a lot of Americans were not
behind this war. From the draft to the lying told by the reports out of
Washington, the war was affecting all facets of American life. The American
public opinion would not tolerate a long drawn out military campaign with high
casualties. (Berman 181) Johnson in the end was fighting one too many factors
and had lost before he knew it.
Show Footnotes and
Berman, Larry. Lyndon Johnson’s War . New York: WW Norton & Company,
Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-1973 .
New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Gross, John. “Tet Offensive: The Battles of Bien Hoa and Long Binh.” HistoryNet
. 3 December 2007. 28 March 2008.
Willbanks, James. The Tet Offensive: A Concise History
. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
Copyright © 2008 Tim Wolf.
Written by Tim Wolf. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Tim Wolf at:
About the author:
Tim Wolf is student at North Dakota State University studying history. In his free time he enjoys reading, traveling, and cycling.
Published online: 05/04/2008.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.