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.

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The reaction to the Tet Offensive provided new strength to the war protestors and led Democrats to challenge the president's leadership within his own party. It convinced Johnson that military victory in Vietnam was not attainable and forced a re-evaluation of American strategy. The president, frustrated with his inability to reach a solution in Vietnam, announced on March 31, 1968, that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination of his party for re-election. The Tet Offensive had effectively driven the sitting president from office. Thus, the offensive proved to be the turning point of the war that set into motion the events that would lead to Richard Nixon's election, the long and bloody U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia, and ultimately to the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

How a defeat at the tactical level in 1968 could be turned into a victory at the strategic level that changed the entire course of the war is worthy of reconsideration. There are several reasons for the outcome of the Tet Offensive. The Johnson administration, letting political expediency overcome realistic intelligence assessments, built a set of expectations about American progress in the war that could not stand close scrutiny. That scrutiny came in a dramatic fashion when the Tet Offensive exploded on the TV screens of America. The impact of these images beamed back from Saigon, Hue, Khe Sanh, and the other Tet battlefields was so powerful because they effectively put the lie to the reassurances that had come from the White House and MACV headquarters in Saigon.

The irony is that there were numerous indications that the Communists were planning something big. Had these indications been heeded and acted upon, it is very likely that the Communists would have failed to achieve the stunning surprise that was so devastating. However, these indications flew in the face of what Westmoreland and his military intelligence analysts believed about enemy capabilities. Falling prey to their own pronouncements about the success against the Communist forces, they did not think that the Communists had the capability to launch such a massive campaign. Having convinced themselves that the tactical situation was better than it was, Westmoreland and the military leadership failed to anticipate the offensive because they were blinded by the inability to overcome their preconceived notions about enemy strength; they were in effect, "drinking their own bath water." When the offensive came, it was so sudden and unexpected that it achieved almost total surprise. The political ramifications of that surprise widened the credibility gap and further shook the confidence of the American people in their president and his war effort.

The Tet Offensive demonstrates a vital aspect of warfare that is just as applicable today as it was in 1968. Despite the fact that the Communists were defeated during the fighting, it was the political component of the offensive that had such a huge impact on the ultimate outcome of the war. Today's military leaders will be wise to have learned the lessons of the Tet Offensive. They must never underestimate the enemy and must be judicious in their pronouncements about progress in order not to build impossible or unrealistic expectations for success. They must also avoid being blinded by their own preconceived notions in the intelligence arena, while at the same time being very careful never to forget that all warfare has a political component that has potential far-reaching ramifications beyond the battlefield.

James H. Willbanks is director of the Department of Military History, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He is a Vietnam veteran and author of The Tet Offensive: A Concise History (Columbia University Press, 2007), Abandoning Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 2004), a study of Richard Nixon's Vietnamization policy and its aftermath, and the forthcoming Vietnam War Almanac to be published by Facts on File.