By the end of 1967, North Vietnam faced a serious problem. The tide of war had turned against the North since the U.S. began major combat operations in 1965. With U.S. support, South Vietnam strengthened while the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) weakened. Northern leaders worried that the U.S. might invade the north, so they organized the Tet Offensive as a way to move the conflict from the battlefield to the negotiation table.
The Communists planned widespread surprise attacks in the South to take place during the nationwide Tet holiday. The North Vietnamese hoped to accomplish three goals: cripple South Vietnam’s morale, destroy their will to fight, and incite the people to rise up against their government. At the same time, they wanted to weaken American trust in the South Vietnamese government and discredit U.S. claims of progress. They knew that this could boost the anti-war movement in America.
The plan called for Viet Cong guerilla forces to do the fighting, except in the Northern provinces, where the NVA would go on the attack. In the rest of South Vietnam, the NVA stayed on the sidelines, ready to join the fighting if needed.
The enemy began preparing men and supplies in the fall of 1967, but there were few warnings. On January 21, 1968, the siege of Khe Sanh commenced. General William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, doubled U.S. strength around Saigon. Most of his attention, however, was on Khe Sanh and the nationwide preparations for the coming Tet holiday.
On January 31, the Viet Cong attacked all over South Vietnam. Thirty-six out of forty-four provincial capitals came under attack, along with hundreds of other smaller towns and villages.
Once the surprise wore off, most attacks were crushed in a few days. Many Soldiers reported that the fighting during those few days was some of the most violent and shocking combat of the war. Soldiers who never expected to be in combat, including cooks, radiomen, and clerk, fought desperate battles in areas initially deemed safe.
The situation became increasingly serious in the north where the Viet Cong and NVA attacked roads, waterways, and bridges threatening critical supply lines. The U.S. 1st Cavalry Division was cut off and had to be supplied by air for several weeks. The attacks in this area lasted well into March.
The worst fighting was in Hue, the ancient former capital of Vietnam. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces took on the enemy in the only lengthy urban battle of the war. Hue had a tradition of anti-Americanism, and the North Vietnamese believed the city was ripe for a revolution. They launched a major effort to capture Hue. House-to-house fighting caused enormous destruction and took more than three weeks to recapture the city.
As a military operation, the Tet Offensive failed. The South Vietnamese forces fought well despite high casualties and desertions. Communist atrocities in Hue added additional anger and resentment from South Vietnamese citizens. In turn, they supported new anti-communist efforts by the government. More importantly, the Viet Cong suffered a major military defeat, losing thousands of experienced fighters and political organizers. The Tet Offensive left the Viet Cong seriously weakened as a political and military force.
At home, Americans saw a different picture. Dramatic images of the Viet Cong storming the American Embassy in the heart of Saigon and fighting in Hue made the Army’s claims of progress hard to believe. The anti-war movement grew as mainstream Americans began questioning the conduct of the war. North Vietnam suffered a military defeat but won a political and diplomatic victory by shifting American public opinion against the war.
Chapter 11. American Military History, Volume 2. “The U.S. Army in Vietnam From Tet to The Final Withdrawal, 1968–1975.” U.S. Army Center of Military History. http://www.history.army.mil/books/AMH-V1/ch15.htm.