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Tim Wolf Articles
Tet Offensive

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Tet: A Brief History
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.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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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.
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