Tet offensive:

a turning point in the Vietnam war

The American intervention in Vietnam began in 1963 withe direct aim of stopping the South falling into 'communist' hands. In August of that year, Lyndon Johnson, who had taken over the American presidency in the wake of the assasination of John F. Kennedy, ordered the first air strikes on the North.

Six months later the 'Rolling Thunder' air campaign began. In this campaign alone more bombs were dropped on North Vietnam alone than were used in the whole of the Second World War. In the following five years the two Vietnams received the equivalent of 22 tons of explosives for every square mile of territory, or 300lb for every man, women and child. 7 million tons of bombs and defoliants were dropped in total and 2.6 million Vietnamese were killed.

The American deployment jumped from 23,300 in 1963 to 184,000 in 1966 and reached a peak of 542,000 in January 1969 under Richard Nixon's presidency.

The Tet offensive is seen as the great turning point: from then on the war, costing £30 billion a year, was widely acknowledged as unwinnable by the Americans. It was only a matter of time before mighty US imperialism was humiliatingly forced to withdraw.

On the night of 31st January 1968, 70,000 North Vietnamese soldiers launched the Tet offensive - it proved to be one of the greatest campaigns in military history.

by Steve Forrest

Vietcong guerrilla fighters violated the temporary truce they had pledged to observe around the lunar new year celebrations, and surged into more than one hundred towns and cities, including Saigon.

Shifting the war for the first time from its rural base into the new arena of South Vietnam's supposedly impregnable urban areas, it was a campaign of 'enormous breadth, speed and scope.' It shook US imperialism to its roots and had a dramatic and lasting effect on US public opinion.

It was a campaign that had been in preparation since a study carried out by General Giap in September 1967 had concluded that the war had reached a 'stalemate' situation and that something needed to be done. Out of this report arose the plans for the Tet offensive. Vietcong leaders had carried out a vigorous propaganda campaign in order to prepare their forces. Ho Chi Minh urged the troops on to 'ever greater feats of battle' in 1968.

Giap had set the campaign's minimum and maximum objectives. As a mimimum the Tet outbreak would force the halting of the ariel bpombardment of North Vietnam and force the Americans into negotiations. As a maximum the offensive could drive the Americans out of Vietnam all together opening up the path to liberation and unification.

Although not meeting its major objectives the Tet offensive did have a lasting effect on the course of the war. It was a turning point. According to US secreatary of state, Henry Kissinger, 'Henceforth, no matter how effective our action, the prevalent strategy could no longer achieve its objectives within a period or within force levels politically acceptable to the American people.'

Vietcong soldiers stormed the highland towns of Banmethout, Kontum and Pleiku, they then simultaneously invaded 13 of the 16 provincial capitals of the heavily populated Mekong Delta.

In an attack that took the Americans off guard a small group of commandos seized the US embassy in Saigon. The embassy was an ultra modern building in the heart of Saigon and with the stars and stripes flying above it represented the very embodiment of US imperialism.

Through contacts and spies the Vietcong had managed to store arms, ammunition and explosives in a secret location in preparation for the attack. Then on the night of 31st January at 3am 19 Vietcong commandos literally arrived by taxi, then quickly blew their way through the wall and into the compound, automatic weapons blazing. Within five minutes, and four dead GIs, they were in control.

The attack stunned US President Lyndon Johnson and proved to be a catalyst in the attitudes of the American people towards the war. For the first time in a major war, television played a crucial role. Splashed across the screens of fifty million Americans. 'Dead bodies lay amid the rubble and rattle of automatic gunfire as dazed American soldiers and civilians ran back and forth, trying to flush out the assailants. Americans at home saw the carnage wrought by the offensive.' (Stanley Karnow)

Attacks were also launched at the HQs of both the US and South Vietnamese armies, as well as the massive US army base at Bienhoa, north of Saigon airport. The 14 commandos who had attacked the main Saigon radio station were trapped inside for 18 hours before blowing up the entire building with themselves inside.

The dimension and sweep of the offensive amazed US army generals, prompting one to comment that tracking the assault pattern on a map resembled a 'pinball machine, lighting up with each raid.'

US public opinion was probably most affected by the infamous incident at Mylai, where American soldiers massacred one hundred peasants, women and children among them.

Myron Harrington, commander of the US marines that eventually retook the city observed on fist entering, 'My first impression was of desolation, utter desolation. There were burnt out tanks and up-turned automobiles still smouldering. Bodies lay everywhere, most of them civilians. The smoke and stench blended, like in some kind of horror movie - except that it lacked weird music. You felt that something could happen at any minute, that they would jump out and start shooting from everyside. Right away I realised we weren't going to a little picnic.'

By early March there had been enormous casualties on both sides. The US and South Vietnamese had lost 6,000 men while the North Vietnamese lost a staggering 50,000 and in the process had seen the destruction of their organisation's command structure in the south.

General Westmoreland, supreme commander of US forces, perceived incorrectly that the Tet offensive paralleled the Battle of the Bulge in World War Two where the Germans staged a desperate bid to go for broke before meeting a rapid and inevitable defeat.

However as General Giap pointed out after the war, 'For us, you know, there is no such thing as a single strategy. Ours is always a synthesis, simultaneously military, political and diplomatic - which is why quite clearly, the Tet offensive had multiple objectives.'

One of the major objectives had been to drive a wedge between the Americans and the South Vietnamese. The embassy attack was aimed at showing up the vulnerability of the American forces. The Vietcong had hoped that their liberation of towns and cities would lead to an uprising against the Americans, they believed that the South's weary soldiers, dislocated peasantry, fractious youth and widely discontented layers of South Vietnamese society were ready to join the struggle. However this only occurred on a sporadic basis.

One of the most awesome battles in the offensive took place in Khesanh. Khesanh was a 'rolling region as lovely as Tuscany,' but it was also the home of a small US army base. Westmoreland believed that Giap's troops were converging on Khesanh as part of the policy to seize control of the northern provinces. He also likened it to the 1954 battle of Dienbienphu, when the North Vietnamese attacked the French in a bid to enhance their bargaining power at the then Geneva peace conference.

The analogy with Dienbienphu was preposterous - the US was in a far stronger position than the French were in '54. In 'Operation Niagra' the Americans had unleashed their B52 bombers ariel firepower - the greatest in military history. The Vietcong suffered huge losses, as many as 10,000 dead, while only 500 US marines were killed.

Westmoreland and most of the US high command were convinced that the Vietcong were desperately trying to re-enact Dienbienphu. But it was actually a brilliant piece of strategy to draw the Americans away from the big population centres and leave them open to assault.

Not only were the Americans caught off guard by Khesanh, but also by the rapidity and surprise of the whole offensive itself. Years later a West Point textbook describe the US intelligence failure to see what was happening on a par with Pearl Harbor.

A 1968 CIA report concluded: 'The intensity, coordination and timing of the attacks were not fully anticipated,' adding, 'another major unexpected point' was the ability of the Vietcong to hit so many targets simultaneously.

Tet was the final nail in the coffin for the administration of Lyndon Johnson. In 1963, when he came to power in the wake of the assasination John Kennedy, his approval rating was over 80%. But by 1967 it was down to 40%. 'But then came Tet - and his ratings plummeted - as if Vietnam were a burning fuse that had suddenly ignited an explosion of dissent.' (Stanley Karnow)

By the beginning of March his popularity dropped towards 30%. More dramatically, endorsement for his handling of the war stood at only 26%. His credibility was gone.

Then came the humiliation of the New Hampshire Democratic primary, where he polled only 300 votes more than Eugene McCarthy, an unknown standing on an anti-war ticket. This was unprecedented for an incumbent President, who would usually go for re-election unhindered. The result electrified the nation and intensified the anti-war protest.

On March 31st, Johnson announced 'I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.' He also announced that air strikes would be confined to below the twelfth parallel and authorised the opening of negotiations with the North Vietnamese. However, troop levels remained at about 500,000 and the war would drag on for another five years. More American soldiers would die after Tet than before, and the United States itself would be 'torn apart by the worst internal upheavals in a century.'


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