Shock and Awe of Tet Offensive Shattered U.S. Illusions

Though a crushing defeat for the Communists, the Tet Offensive turned the tide in Vietnam and America.


By James. H. Willbanks

This week, we mark the 41st anniversary of the 1968 Tet Offensive, generally recognized as the watershed event of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The outcome of the offensive ultimately led to a major shift in American strategy from trying to defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army to finding a way to disengage from the conflict. That being said, it is easy 41 years later to forget that the Tet Offensive was a crushing defeat for the Communist forces. It was simply the audacity and ferocity of the attack that caught American leaders so off guard and so shocked American TV viewers that the course of the war changed in an instant, ending the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson in the process.

The preliminary phase of the offensive actually began with the attack on the Marine base at Khe Sanh on January 21. Ten days later, in the early morning hours of January 31, during the traditional Tet holiday truce, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched a massive countrywide attack on the cities and towns of South Vietnam. More than 80,000 Communist troops mounted a coordinated assault on five of six autonomous cities, including Saigon and Hue, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 64 of 245 district capitals, and more than 50 hamlets.

The timing, magnitude, and violence of the attacks achieved maximum surprise and caught the South Vietnamese and American forces almost totally off guard. In one of the most spectacular actions, Viet Cong sappers attacked the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. A 19-man suicide squad seized the courtyard of the U.S. Embassy and held it for six hours until an assault force of U.S. paratroopers landed by helicopter on the building's roof and routed them. Although the attackers were all killed or captured, the television news footage of the battle on the embassy grounds shocked viewers back home in the United States.

Nearly a thousand Viet Cong were believed to have infiltrated Saigon and it took a week of intense fighting by an estimated 11,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese troops to dislodge them. Further to the north, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops seized the old imperial capital at Hue. It took almost a month of savage house-to-house fighting by U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese troops to retake the city.

The scope of the offensive stunned the White House, the media, and the American people. Adding to the impact of the surprise attacks was the fact that they followed in the wake of repeated reassurances from both the military and the Johnson administration that progress was being made in the war and that the end was in sight. Walter Cronkite, the CBS Evening News anchorman and perhaps the most trusted journalist in the nation, spoke for many Americans when he declared upon return from the battlefield at Hue that the bloody war in Vietnam was destined to "end in a stalemate."

Despite Cronkite's consternation, the allies had quickly recovered from the initial surprise of the Communist attacks and reacted in a strong manner. With the exception of the fighting that continued in Hue, parts of Saigon, and Khe Sanh, the opening phase of the offensive was crushed. By the end of March, the Communists had not achieved any of their objectives and had lost 32,000 soldiers and had 5,800 captured in the process. The general uprising among the South Vietnamese people for which the Communists had hoped never materialized. However, the bitter fighting took a heavy toll on allied forces; U.S. losses were 3,895 dead and the South Vietnamese suffered 4,954 killed in action.

The offensive, which extended in later phases into the early fall months of 1968, was a costly military defeat for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, whose casualties, by some estimates, would total more than 58,000 by year's end. However, the early reporting of a smashing Communist victory went largely uncorrected in the media, and this contributed to a great psychological victory for the Communists at the political level.

The boldness of the Communist offensive, the sensationalist reports from the media, and the heavy U.S. casualties incurred during the fighting, coupled with the disillusionment over earlier, overly optimistic reports of progress in the war by administration officials, including Gen. William C. Westmoreland, senior U.S. commander in Vietnam, accelerated the growing disenchantment with President Johnson's conduct of the war.