- Published: Thursday, 04 September 2014 23:05
- Written by Lucian Dronca
For many participants and historians, the Tet Offensive was the pivotal event of the American war in Vietnam. Tet is the Lunar New Year, the most important of Vietnamese holidays. It transcends religions and classes. It is a time of renewal, ancestral worship and family reunions. In other words, it was fairly safe for the communists to assume that unless they were unduly alarmed, Army of the Republic of South Vietnam units would be in a reduced state of readiness during the lunar New Year celebrations. The celebration usually lasts three weeks. The dates of the observance vary, depending on the stage of the moon. In 1968, Tet began on January 30.
A traditional truce which usually had been honored by the belligerents during the Tet holiday was another factor that helped the communists catch the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam in a reduced state of readiness. The South Vietnamese commanders allowed many of their soldiers to go on holiday leave during the Tet truce. Additionally, by 1968, the communists had established a pattern of activity during ceasefires. The North Vietnamese would take advantage of the reduction in the American bombing campaign that often accompanied truces to surge supplies to their forces in the south. It is possible that the communists recognized that they had established this pattern of activity and that the allies might expect them to resupply during the truce rather than launch a major offensive. Not surprisingly, on 19 October 1967, the Vietcong announced that they would observe a seven-day Tet truce from 27 January to 3 February 1968, the longest Tet cease-fire ever proposed by the communists.
As the North Vietnamese prepared for Tet, the Americans collected certain information about a possible attack and did not want any cease-fire, but South Vietnam's President Nguyen Van Thieu argued that the Tet holiday was too important to the Vietnamese people to be canceled. Besides, half his army was already on holiday leave. President Thieu himself departed Saigon to enjoy the lunar holidays in the city of My Tho, in the Mekong Delta area. At the Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon, American MPs of the Army's 716th Battalion were dressed in starched utilities and wore glossy helmets with bright red and white stripes. Parade ready, they were not prepared for battle. It was a lazy time for American troops and their allies. Few operations were being conducted, although Marine reconnaissance teams continued snooping and members of the Marine Security Guard Detachment in Saigon maintained a watchful presence.
Nguyen Van Thieu, president of South Vietnam from 1967 until 1975, when North Vietnam took control of the South (Image by © CORBIS)
Meanwhile, thousands of South Vietnamese troops were traveling to their hometowns to spend the holiday with family, as tradition dictated. In a cautious move, General Westmoreland, commander of the American forces in Vietnam, redeployed several American units in the last days of January. Westmoreland put American forces across South Vietnam on highest alert early in the day on January 30. But the South Vietnamese government inexplicably lifted the ban on fireworks for the Tet holiday. That night, fireworks went off across Saigon and other cities in festive celebrations of the lunar New Year initiating the Year of the Monkey.
The United States, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam each had unique difficulties as the war entered 1968. At the end of 1967, the war had cost the United States over sixteen thousand deaths and over fifty-three thousand wounded since 1960, with the vast majority of those casualties occurring after the American buildup began in 1964-1965. South Vietnam had lost over fifty thousand killed and over eighty thousand wounded since the North Vietnamese military effort began in earnest in 1960. People’s Army of North Vietnam andPeople’s Liberation Armed Forces (also known as the Vietcong, the military wing of the National Liberation Front forces) had lost perhaps as many as 200,000 killed and untold thousands wounded. As pressure mounted in the United States to show progress in the war and in stabilizing the South Vietnamese government, so too did pressure increase in communist North Vietnam to bring a successful close to the conflict.
The U.S. military began aiding and advising Vietnam, a small country in Southeast Asia, in the 1950s. Vietnamese nationalists had battled French colonists for independence for years. In 1954, a treaty provided for the withdrawal of the French and the temporary division of the country into two halves. Communists, led by Ho Chi Minh, ruled North Vietnam. South Vietnam was held by an anti-Communist government led by Ngo Dinh Diem.
By the late 1950s, civil war raged in Vietnam. Diem was a weak, corrupt leader, but because he was strongly anti-Communist, the United States backed him. The Communist nations of the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union supported North Vietnam's Vietcong. At first, the United States only sent advisors to train South Vietnamese soldiers in equipment use and military tactics. Americans also flew surveillance and patrol missions, but they were not directly involved in any fighting.
But soon the American war in Vietnam had evolved from a comparatively small advisory effort in the late 1950s to build up South Vietnamese forces and establish stable government in South Vietnam to a major Americanized war effort involving over 480,000 American forces by 1967. As North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front became more aggressive in their war for unification in 1963-1964, it became more apparent that South Vietnam could not fight on its own.
This was not a total war effort like that the United States had mounted against Germany and Japan in World War II. Because of the world geopolitical situation, this war was a limited war, a conflict that was part of the broader Cold War between the United States and its allies and the Communist sphere dominated by the Soviet Union and China. American Cold War strategy of containment dictated that the United States assist South Vietnamese resistance against North Vietnamese communist aggression. With American prestige at stake, the United States felt compelled to defend smaller, lesser-developed nations against Communist aggression.
U.S. involvement in the war shifted decisively when two U.S. ships secretly involved in a raid in the Tonkin Gulf off North Vietnam engaged the enemy in early August 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson used the "attack" to convince Congress to authorize him to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against" U.S. forces. Beginning in March 1965, hundreds of thousands of U.S. combat troops were sent to fight in Vietnam. Over the next several years, tens of thousands of Americans died, as did countless numbers of Vietnamese.
As for South Vietnam, the coup overthrowing the American-backed leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, in 1963 had resulted in a series of military and civilian governments that had finally settled with the rise of Nguyen Van Thieu as head of state in February 1965, strongly supported by the young and westernized South Vietnamese Air Force General Nguyen Cao Ky. In what amounted to a fraudulent election, Thieu and Ky were elected president and vice president, respectively, in 1967. Corruption reigned in Saigon, with the government, including Thieu and Ky, the worst offender.
In support of South Vietnam, by the end of 1966, the United States military had carried out over a dozen major search-and-destroy operations and many more smaller-scale ones. US air attacks on North Vietnam escalated and expanded into the Hanoi-Haiphong area as well as the demilitarized zone along the 17th Parallel. There were also air attacks in eastern Laos where the Ho Chi Minh Trail was located. US forces were also involved in the fighting on both the eastern and western borders of Cambodia, where the Vietnamese communists were believed to have their sanctuaries. Despite all the firepower and military activities, there was no sign that the Vietnamese communists were capitulating or even considering it. They were not winning either.
The American public had supported three presidents - Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson - who argued that a victory by the Communist North Vietnamese and their Vietcong supporters in the south would threaten all of Southeast Asia.
By late 1967, Johnson had committed 400,000 more men to the war effort. More than 16,000 had been killed; hundreds more were held prisoners. An anti-war movement was growing in size and fervor across the U.S. Some of Johnson's fellow Democrats were urging him to halt the bombing of North Vietnam as an incentive for the Communists to negotiate a settlement. Johnson stood firm, saying the North had to prove it would not take advantage of any lull. He insisted the enemy was all but defeated. He flew to South Vietnam for a surprise Christmas Eve visit with the troops, cheering them with his pronouncement that "the Communists cannot win now." The president, whose popularity was sagging along with the war's, was buoyed by the announcement of further cease-fires for the New Year and then for the Vietnamese lunar New Year celebration (Tet) at the end of January. The Communists appeared eager to go along. The North Vietnam had deceitfully agreed to a cease-fire to celebrate Tet.
The Tet offensive had long‐term conceptual origins in Vietnam's August Revolution of 1945, in which the Communist‐led Viet Minh had instigated popular uprisings in the cities to seize power from a puppet government Japan had installed before its defeat. Two decades later, as American commitment to the anti‐Communist government in Saigon deepened in the early 1960s, the Communists looked to that earlier event for inspiration. Lacking the military power to inflict outright defeat on the American military, the Communists had somehow to destroy American confidence that “limited war” could eventually bring victory for the United States. By sending armed forces directly into the South's cities and fomenting rebellion there, the Communists hoped to pull down the Saigon government or facilitate the rise to power of neutralists who would demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Even if the offensive did not bring immediate victory, the Communists calculated it would allow rural forces to disrupt the pacification program imposed by Americans, destroy the American illusion of success, and induce the United States to enter negotiations in which Hanoi could bargain from a position of strength.
Nonetheless, by mid-1967, North Vietnamese and Vietcong units were feeling the effects of American-led attacks. While they never suffered a decisive defeat, the costs of engaging American forces and their superior firepower were beginning to tell. Since a decision among the top North Vietnamese leadership in 1966 to seek a decisive victory at an opportune point in the war, North Vietnamese leaders had discussed the idea of a general offensive to force the United States to withdraw from Vietnam and thus irreversibly weaken the South Vietnamese government. The problem, however, came in establishing favorable battlefield conditions to initiate such an offensive. The United States had continued its steady escalation of forces in South Vietnam, and although People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong tactics were designed to minimize casualties, American firepower was having an adverse effect. Moreover, as the war settled into a stalemate in 1967, the lack of progress toward victory had an adverse effect on morale, especially among the National Liberation Front’s insurgents infiltrated in the South.
Under such conditions, then, a decisive victory was needed sooner rather than later. The concept of the General Offensive that would in turn cause and gain momentum from a General Uprising among the general population against the South Vietnamese government guided planning for what would become known as the Tet Offensive. Discussions of such an offensive may have begun as early as 1966 and the general idea of an offensive and uprising was authorized for planning in April 1967. The idea seems to have found its earliest support with Le Duan, the Secretary-General of the ruling Lao Dong Party, and General Nguyen Chi Thanh. Le Duan had become highly critical of the lack of progress in the effort to unify North and South Vietnam and urged a more aggressive strategy to take advantage of the weakness of South Vietnamese military forces and the decline in American public support of the war. General Thanh proposed a broad attack on the major urban centers of South Vietnam, cities such as Hue, Da Nang, and of course Saigon, by People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong main-force and guerilla units.
10 May 1968 -- Shown here is an area of Saigon which includes the dock area and Majestic Hotel. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Both Thanh and Le Duan rationalized that such an offensive, while not without high risks, would solidify Communist influence in the countryside; take the fight to the cities to undermine the South Vietnamese government; and cause American public opinion to swing firmly against the war. Influence in the countryside had become a particular concern, not so much because of the success of American pacification programs, but because more people were moving to the cities. Controlling the countryside did not preclude the need to now gain influence in the cities. Thanh reasoned that broad attacks would inflict such large casualties on American forces that the United States would withdraw them. Thanh presented his ideas to the Political Bureau in June 1967.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, perhaps North Vietnam’s best-known general, who had led Ho Chi Minh’s forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and was now Minister of Defense, was skeptical that the United States would simply withdraw and was extremely reluctant to risk People’s Army of North Vietnam main-force units. Attacking the cities would expose People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong forces to American firepower, unlike the strategy of hit-and-run tactics, which allowed forces to melt back into the cover of jungle or to safe havens. Giap’s caution found many adherents within North Vietnam’s political and military leadership, and Thanh’s death of heart attack in July 1967 (after drinking heavily) may have allowed Giap to succeed in getting a less ambitious plan ultimately approved in July 1967.
The plan called for the offensive to begin during the Tet holiday at the end of January 1968. Giap overcame initial misgivings about the timing of the offensive by citing the historical precedent of the successful 1789 Tet attack by Vietnamese patriots against Chinese occupiers in Hanoi. In fact, the idea of General Offensive and General Uprising is borrowed heavily from Maoist Communist theory. According to this concept, a war of liberation or revolution began with Resistance, wherein insurgent forces fought their enemy in the countryside, maintaining the initiative while building strength. Once strength was achieved, the General Offensive would begin the final phase of the war, in which the General Uprising would overthrow the government and install a new government dominated by the insurgent party.
In Vietnam’s unique historical context, the General Uprising held much more resonance than in China. Vietnam had been dominated by China for centuries, then again by France. In both instances, the uprising by the people against foreign occupiers played significant roles in achieving independence. A General Uprising in 1945, according to Vietnamese tradition, began the movement toward declaring independence from France. Thus, North Vietnam was able to play upon tradition and history to move into a new phase of its war to unify Vietnam. The plan itself was called General Offensive–General Uprising—Tong Cong Kich–Ton Khoi Nghia.
Giap’s plan involved multiple phases, beginning with a preparatory phase in September 1967. The initial phase included attacks on outlying regions, even along the border with Cambodia and Laos, to draw American and South Vietnamese forces away from urban centers. This phase would give People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong units time to plan specific missions for the General Offensive and build up forces and weapons caches in staging areas for the assault on the cities and other targets. Gaining experience with new tactics and communications was imperative during this phase. Part of the preparatory phase also included diplomatic initiatives designed to mask preparations for the offensive and divide South Vietnamese and American leadership on the direction of the war. One such initiative was the December 1967 offer from Hanoi to open negotiations in exchange for an unconditional bombing halt.
The next phase would be the mass attacks across South Vietnam on American and South Vietnamese military targets, government centers, including provincial capitals, and the cities, beginning January 31, 1968. Massive propaganda would be included in this phase in the hope of encouraging defections from the South Vietnamese military to PAVN and Vietcong forces. The final phase was contingent upon the success of the Tet holiday attacks. If the General Uprising failed or the South Vietnamese military was not destroyed, for example, weeks, even months, of continuous attacks would wear down American and South Vietnamese forces in pursuit of the original objectives.
The first phase of the Tet Offensive began in the fall of 1967. Because the final plan and authorization was not issued until December 1967 and planning had been secretive, Vietcong units in particular had little time to prepare for highly visible and dangerous missions. Many chains of command had to be reorganized as units were reconfigured to meet whatever operation they were assigned. Operational security was paramount to the success of the initial Tet attacks. Such stress on secrecy, however, had the unintended consequence of leaving many officers and units in the dark as to how their particular mission fit into a broader operation. Moving large amounts of material and thousands of troops along infiltration routes across the demilitarized zone and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail was also a major security hazard. New recruits were needed to fill out under-strength units, which trained hard to make the paradigm shift from guerilla-style tactics to urban warfare methods. Preparing for the offensive was a tremendous and risky undertaking for North-Vietnamese communist forces.
In order to cause American commanders to violate the principle of concentration of forces, the North Vietnamese communists implemented an active deception campaign to mislead the Americans about their intentions and capabilities. General Westmoreland believed these attacks were in part designed to give North Vietnam control of provinces just south of the demilitarized zone, in particular Quang Tri, and in preparation for a decisive engagement at the Marine outpost at Khe Sanh, located just a few miles from the border with Laos and fifteen miles south of the demilitarized zone. Khe San was part of the I Corps Tactical Zone encompassing the northern provinces of South Vietnam. Here the American forces conducted mostly interdiction operations to prevent North Vietnamese infiltration across the demilitarized zone and the border with Laos. To conduct such operations, I Corps Tactical Zone commanders had built, besides Khe Sanh, a string of outposts and fire bases at places like Con Thien, Camp Carroll and the Rockpile, which would play a major role in the upcoming events.
The communists relied on direct military action to divert attention and additional US forces away from the major population centers along the coast. People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong units launched a series of attacks against American units operating along the borders and in the Central Highlands. People’s Army of North Vietnam forces staged major attacks on Con Thien in July and September 1967 while conducting a continuous artillery barrage on that base through the end of October. The Marines at Con Thien withstood the barrages and repelled the attacks. People’s Army of North Vietnam forces stopped their assault at the end of October. By attacking a static fortified position, People’s Army of North Vietnam forces had to expose themselves to American firepower. Mortars, artillery, naval gunfire, and B-52 air strikes pounded the North Vietnamese forces, which suffered very heavy losses. In October, Army of the Republic of South Vietnam units repelled a North Vietnamese attack on a border outpost at Song Be in the III Corps Tactical Zone, while Vietcong and People’s Army of North Vietnam forces staged a joint assault on a South Vietnamese outpost at Loc Ninh, near the Cambodian border. Units from the American 1st Infantry Division were called in to help repel the well-coordinated but very costly assaults. Over the course of five days, People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong forces launched numerous human-wave assaults on fortified positions.
The twenty-two day battle at and around the border post at Dak To, a U.S. Special Forces camp in the Central Highlands border region, severely bloodied both sides for no strategic advantage. American intelligence picked up the movement of People’s Army of North Vietnam units into the region, causing Westmoreland to redeploy, though not permanently, several American and South Vietnamese battalions to repel the attack. Beginning November 17, People’s Army of North Vietnam forces engaged American and South Vietnamese units in a chain of battles that killed an estimated fourteen hundred North Vietnamese troops and wounded hundreds more, while costing the Americans and South Vietnamese near 360 killed and more than a thousand wounded.
These People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong attacks, known collectively as the “Border Battles,” were part of Giap’s plan to lure American and South Vietnamese forces away from the cities. Because of the mobility of these forces, however, few were permanently relocated, leaving most to return to their original posts.The cost to People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong units involved in these assaults was indeed high, as American firepower was able to pound massive exposed concentrations of enemy troops. American intelligence noted that it had been unusual for People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong units to stage such massive attacks, attempt to hold static positions, and take such high casualties. Nevertheless, the departure from standard procedures during the border battles signaled a change in tactics but could be interpreted as well as a relatively subtle effort to inflate US estimates of the importance of these border attacks in communist strategy.
In late November, the American 101st Airborne Division captured a Vietcong document that described a forthcoming communist general offensive. The attack would be delivered throughout the country and would "liberate" Saigon, inducing an uprising of its inhabitants. No one put much stock in this plan, just one among thousands of such documents captured each week. Few could imagine the people of Saigon would take arms against a government they had just elected. As was common at the time, copies of the document were distributed to the Saigon press corps.
By December 1967, North Vietnamese assaults in remote areas and the increase in movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail had signaled to American intelligence analysts that a big communist push was near. The problem was pinpointing when and where the attack or attacks would come. Captured documents indicated major attacks would soon take place at key bases and towns like Pleiku and Ban Me Thuot. Other captured documents were filled with political encouragement for the upcoming decisive battle that would win the war, another key piece of intelligence indicating something major. People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong desertions decreased markedly, and captured North Vietnamese soldiers taunted interrogators by boasting that the war would soon be over.
Vietcong women fighters
By January, Military Assistance Command became convinced that a major assault would take place. Conventional wisdom pointed to an assault by People’s Army of North Vietnam forces across the demilitarized zone and Laotian borders in northern South Vietnam. Few suspected an all-out assault across all of South Vietnam even though there were several indications that just such an assault would take place. Some, including Westmoreland, believed that movement of communist forces in other parts of the country was probably a feint to draw American forces away from the north. Westmoreland thought the American base at Khe Sanh was the place Giap had decided to stage a decisive Dien Bien Phu-like battle.Gen. Westmoreland had read captured enemy documents pinpointing to a general assault on South Vietnam, but shrugged them off, believing they would be "suicidal attacks in the face of our power." Not long time before, he declared: "Victory is within our grasp." To prove it, he offered a mountain of statistics. Almost 2 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Vietnam-about 12 tons for every square mile. Hundreds of "search and destroy" operations had racked up a huge body count, reducing enemy strength, Westmoreland said, to 242,000. Enemy battalions, he declared, were so decimated that 45 percent of them were "combat ineffective."
The self-serving bomb tonnages and body counts came to be believed by the generals running the war as valid demonstrations of "progress," as irrefutable proof that the American attrition strategy was working. Across the length and breadth of Vietnam, reporting units were placed under enormous pressure to count North Vietnamese soldiers who died in battle. Bodies with weapons, without weapons, and to satisfy the insatiable appetite for the body count, the shattered, scattered parts of one body were often counted as two or more dead communist soldiers.
The troops gave Westmoreland what he wanted: numbers. A veritable torrent of tainted enemy casualty reports flowed daily to his headquarters in Saigon. Everything proved to be a self-deceptive effort of the Americans to convince themselves of the success of their operations in Vietnam.
On the other hand, North Vietnamese deception convinced Westmoreland that the main attacks which seemed imminent would occur elsewhere, not in the cities, certainly not in Saigon. In that sense, the Americans were caught by surprise: they failed to interpret the events, movements, captured documents, and other indicators because they viewed these incidents through the wrong lens. Based upon his beliefs, upon what he wanted to happen, and upon the way he and others chose to interpret intelligence, Westmoreland decided that Khe Sanh was the main target while the attacks that took place elsewhere were diversions. Westmoreland and others saw what they wanted to see, rather than what was there. Part of the American reluctance to accept intelligence reports indicating an all-out offensive was due to the fact that Americans believed North Vietnam did not have the capability to carry out such an offensive.
General William Westmoreland - Saigon 1968 - AFVN Radio TV - Photo from Richard Ellis
In the meantime, tens of thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers were using the Ho Chi Minh Trail, carrying tons of supplies to the south. Laborers wheeled bicycles loaded with mortar rounds, rice and small-arms ammunition down the jungle trail. The story was told of one man who was forced to carry six mortar rounds on his back. He walked the Ho Chi Minh Trail for five days and nights, laboring through monsoon rains and up steep mountain paths. Than he delivered the precious cargo to an artillery unit which spent the mortars in seconds. This was but one of thousands of examples of tenacity and sacrifice in support of the Communist forces.
In January 1968, there was a growing Allied awareness that something was up, but no consensus about what it was. A defector at Khe Sanh told U.S. Marines based there that the communists were planning to seize two northern provinces and the city of Hué. The attack was expected to begin at 12:30 a.m. on January 21. But an unusually large number of intelligence reports diverted Allied attention elsewhere in South Vietnam in the first few days of 1968. There were new, broad indications that communist main force units were moving, and some specific targets were mentioned. A scanty strategic picture began to emerge in late January, pieced together from various bits of tactical information about targets, unit plans or communist movements, but there was no overall agreement about North Vietnamese intentions. However, one piece of information proved to be right on the mark and to confirm Westmoreland’s expectations: the Khe Sanh attack unfolded just as the Vietcong defector had predicted.
Beginning as a small outpost to monitor infiltration across the demilitarized zone in 1962, Khe Sanh had become by 1967 a large installation complete with 1,500 ft. steel-planked runway. Aside from the runway, only the treacherous and mostly unpaved Route 9 served as a supply link to the base.
A Marine regiment took over the outpost from Army Special Forces in January 1967. Located on what amounted to a large but low plateau with heavily wooded hills overlooking about half of the area, Khe Sanh was an excellent location from which to launch interdiction patrols near the Laotian border and the demilitarized zone.
The outpost had seen plenty of action since its inception. During late April and early May 1967, People’s Army of North Vietnam units attempted to take a triangular series of hills that surrounded the base from which they could shell Khe Sanh with ease. These hills, 861, 881 North, and 881 South (named so because of their height in meters), had to be retaken by Marine units in vicious fighting. Once secure, the Marines built strong fortified positions atop each of these and other surrounding hills to better defend the main base at Khe Sanh.
Beginning in September, People’s Army of North Vietnam forces began massing again near Khe Sanh; by December perhaps as many as twenty thousand North Vietnamese troops were deployed to the area. American intelligence indicated that elite units from Hanoi were also present and that Giap himself was in command. This and other indicators seemed to confirm Westmoreland’s previous belief that the North Vietnamese were planning a major assault on the post to inflict a Dien Bien Phu-like defeat upon American forces. Rather than evacuate the outpost, Westmoreland reinforced it to 6,000 troops, hoping to lure People’s Army of North Vietnam forces into the open where they could be annihilated by American firepower.
In January 1968, intelligence from Marine patrols and reconnaissance missions from the nearby Army Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei indicated a large North Vietnamese presence in the area on the way to Khe Sanh. Some North Vietnamese deserters alerted the Marines at Khe Sanh that an attack was imminent. Westmoreland ordered contingency plans to relieve the base if it was in danger of being overrun. One plan involved the deployment of over fifty American combat battalions to the north. The other, Operation Niagara, envisaged a massive aerial bombardment of the hills surrounding Khe Sanh once the People’s Army of North Vietnam assault began.
In the pre-dawn darkness of January 21, People’s Army of North Vietnam mortars and rockets began shelling hills 881 South and 861. Fierce fighting ensued, as communist human-wave attacks assaulted Marine posts atop these hills. Khe Sanh itself came under intense fire, including a lucky shell that struck the ammunition dump near the runway. The Marines lost much of their ammunition in the explosion, forcing perilous re-supply from airdrops and touch-and-go landings by C-130 cargo planes and other aircraft. People’s Army of North Vietnam units cut Route 9 to the base the same day. Operation Niagara commenced as Marine patrols and aerial reconnaissance pinpointed North Vietnamese positions for one of the most intensive aerial bombardments in history, which continued, aside from interruptions because of poor weather, through March 31. Marine and Air Force fighter-jets conducted over twenty-four thousand sorties around Khe Sanh against North Vietnamese positions, while Air Force B-52s flew at least 2,700 missions in support. The planes dropped not only bombs but tons of defoliants and the green jungle surrounding Khe Sanh soon became a desert.
BBQ at Khe Sanh, 1968 (Repository: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Collections Department, Port Hueneme, CA 93043)
Fifty thousand U.S. troops eventually fought at or supported the base. Despite superficial similarities between the situation at Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu, where the People’s Army of North Vietnam had overrun a French force in 1954, North Vietnamese commanders knew they could not duplicate that feat in the face of massive American air and ground firepower. However, the battle was worth the effort to them because of the attention and resources it drew from the lowlands. Still, People’s Army of North Vietnam orders were to destroy if possible one or more of the American bases placed alongside the route 9 to facilitate the movement of its regular soldiers into the South.
As the Tet Offensive got underway on January 30–31, the six thousand Marines at Khe Sanh endured bombardment and assault from over twenty thousand People’s Army of North Vietnam forces in the hills surrounding the base. Senior commanders in South Vietnam debated the merit of holding the base, some believing the outpost was untenable and of no strategic value considering the present crisis. Westmoreland, however, maintained that the assault on Khe Sanh was the main thrust of the North Vietnamese offensive. President Johnson agreed, hoping Westmoreland would seize the opportunity to deal the North Vietnamese a mortal blow, thereby buying the president valuable political time for increasing support for the war. At one point, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Wheeler asked Westmoreland if tactical nuclear weapons would be necessary to relieve the garrison. Westmoreland replied that such extreme measures were not likely to be needed, but he did not dismiss the idea entirely.
People’s Army of North Vietnam forces overran the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei on February 7. Much to the shock of the Americans, the communist forces had used least a dozen Soviet-made PT-76 tanks in the assault, which was over in a matter of minutes. The presence of tanks in the area led the Marines at Khe Sanh to believe the North Vietnamese would soon overrun their base as well. On February 10, however, five People’s Army of North Vietnam infantry battalions were redeployed to Hue, which was attacked and temporarily captured as part of the Tet Offensive.
The last major North Vietnamese assault on Khe Sanh came on the night of February 29-March 1 and was repelled with great cost to them. By March 10, it appeared that the North Vietnamese had withdrawn more forces and the intensity of the assaults noticeably decreased. It appears that the failure of the Tet attacks elsewhere had convinced Giap that Khe Sanh was either no longer needed as a diversionary operation or no longer worth the price of overrunning.
Beginning April 1, the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division and Army of the Republic of South Vietnam airborne troops began clearing Route 9 to relieve the Marines at Khe Sanh. Operation Pegasus opened the road completely by April 8, and by April 18 the Marines had been fully relieved. The Army occupied Khe Sanh with little harassment from the few remaining communist units in the area until June, when it was decided that the base held no strategic use and was thus destroyed and abandoned.
North Vietnamese losses were undoubtedly great, but no firm figure can be placed on their killed and wounded. Some estimates range as high as ten to fifteen thousand, while the official body count of the dead yielded only 1,602. Between the seventy-seven day battle, Operation Pegasus, and air operations connected to the Khe Sanh battle, the United States lost over four hundred killed and almost a thousand wounded.
The American public followed the Battle of Khe Sanh in daily newspapers and nightly on television network news. It appeared that the biggest battle of the war was underway. President Johnson had a sand-table map of the base constructed in the situation room of the White House, where he closely followed the battle each day, sometimes picking bombing targets himself. Television news likened the battle to Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which is the type of decisive victory Westmoreland believed Giap hoped to achieve. The analogy was questionable, however, as where the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu had been isolated and difficult to reinforce, the Marines at Khe Sanh enjoyed daily re-supply (although access to fresh water was a logistical problem) and near-constant air cover, and maintained most hilltop positions throughout the battle. Nonetheless, in the American public’s mind, Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu became near synonymous.
It is possible that Khe Sanh was intended to be only a diversion of North Vietnamese forces in order to support the achievement of their main objectives in Tet Offensive. From this point of view, there was no intention on the part of North Vietnamese to overrun Khe Sanh if they were meeting resistance and superior American firepower.
General Vo Nguyen Giap-North Vietnam Minister of Defense
But General Vo Nguyen Giap wanted a decisive victory, at any cost, to force the United States out of the war. He considered that the opportunity for a general offensive and general uprising was within reach. 400 "safe houses" were scattered throughout South Vietnam in which North Vietnamese agents had stored weapons, food and medicine. Troops were moving from the north, the 273d and 165th Regiments neared Loc Ninh and the 88th, 272d and 273d Regiments carrying flamethrowers, grenade launchers, backpack radios, 120-mm mortars and 122-mm rockets and launchers. Weeks in advance of the Tet cease-fire, the communists had smuggled vast quantities of weapons and ammo into urban areas in false bottoms of trucks, or in peasant carts, hidden under farm produce. Dressed in civilian clothes, North Vietnamese troops arrived in small numbers, quickly blending in with the local populace. They were in Saigon, Da Nang, Hue, Kontum, Ban Me Thuot, Phan Tiet, Can Tho, and Ben Tre.
Senior communist officials apparently recognized that a surprise attack could greatly increase the chances of achieving their ambitious Tet objectives. Surprise could serve as a force multiplier which would help even the odds between the communists and their powerful American adversaries. To secure the element of surprise for the urban attacks which opened the second stage of the offensive, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong integrated three deception strategies into an overall plan to mislead the allies.
Immediately following the decision to launch the offensive, the communists apparently adopted a passive deception strategy based on secrecy to hide their initial preparations for the Tet attacks. Since most of the actions taken between July and mid-September 1967 consisted of logistical and operational planning, limiting information on a strict need to know basis was all that was needed to prevent the Americans from becoming suspicious. In August 1967, for example, the Vietcong stepped up their use of female agents to elicit information about allied installations in Saigon, but the agents were not told how the information they gathered would be used. In other words, the agents could still carry out their espionage mission without having to know the details of the impending Tet attacks. Some initiatives, which in hindsight take on tremendous significance, were treated in a matter of fact way by the communists. The North Vietnamese, for instance, announced that they had signed a new “Agreement on China's Economic and Technical Assistance to Vietnam”, with the People's Republic. By handling the agreement in a routine manner, they apparently attempted to reduce its importance in the minds of allied intelligence analysts.
This passive deception strategy, however, was soon replaced by a mix of passive and active strategies intended to complete two tasks. On the one hand, the communists had to insure that US units remained in their usual operating areas near the demilitarized zone, along the border with Cambodia and in the Central Highlands. Since US strategy called for offensive operations in these relatively unpopulated areas, the task of “fixing” US units where they were already operating was not that demanding. The communists, however, also attempted to divert US reserves to these areas and to draw the attention of senior American commanders away from their impending threat against urban areas. On the other hand, the communists had to insure that units, which were primarily responsible for the protection of cities, remained at a normal or reduced state of readiness when the urban attacks unfolded. If either of these tasks remained incomplete on the eve of the Tet attacks, it would reduce the likelihood that Vietcong units would be in a position to aid the cadre who had infiltrated the cities to lead the general uprising. Once alerted, Army of the Republic of South Vietnam units or American reinforcements could defeat assaults launched by the Vietcong against urban areas, preventing the Vietcong from aiding the participants in the general uprising that would follow.
Tet 1968 - Saigon, Vietnam
In the early morning hours of January 31, 1968 over sixty-seven thousand People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong troops, plus several thousand guerilla forces, attacked targets across South Vietnam.This first wave of assaults hoped to inflict as much damage as possible and capture key targets, holding them until reinforcements could arrive. Surprise was crucial, but much of the surprise was lost when some units began their attacks prematurely on January 29 at places such as Pleiku, Qui Nhon, Ban Me Thuot, and Nha Trang. In order to allow its soldiers to enjoy the Tet holiday, the North Vietnamese government announced in late January that Tet would begin on the evening of January 29 rather than January 30, thus perhaps contributing to the confusion for some Vietcong and People’s Army of North Vietnam commanders.
Although Americans and some members of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam units went on high alert on the eve of Tet, in many towns and cities across South Vietnam Tet celebrations went on as normal—that is, until it became apparent that what many thought were fireworks were actually mortars, rockets, and gunfire.
The principal targets were Government of South Vietnam installations and offices including national and military police stations, prisons, radio and common facilities, and administrative complexes, including the provincial headquarters. Well-trained and motivated sapper teams were very effectively utilized and in each of these cities the Vietcong agents were able to occupy and hold key installations for a short period of time.
Tet 1968 - Saigon, Vietnam
The scope of the attacks surprised Westmoreland and the American high command. In the Saigon headquarters, Westmoreland was visibly shaken, unnerved by the scope and intensity of the Tet attacks. U.S. intelligence had detected preparations for attacks on other urban centers, and in a few localities commanders had taken precautionary measures. But analysts did not believe the Communists were capable of achieving, or bold enough to attempt, what the evidence indicated they were planning. With General Westmoreland and Saigon's President Nguyen Van Thieu convinced that Khe Sanh was the Communists' primary target, Communist forces had actually begun attacking outposts around other cities and towns.
A main target proved to be Saigon itself, the capital city of South Vietnam.
Tet 1968 - Saigon, Vietnam
Over four thousand Vietcong men and women organized in eleven assault battalions began their attacks to seize and hold objectives in Saigon city center before reinforcements organized outside the city could arrive and relieve them. In all, at least three divisions were organized for attacks on Saigon and surrounding areas, which included the headquarters of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff, Independence Palace (which housed President Thieu’s office), the National Broadcasting Station, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, and, most symbolically for the United States, the American Embassy, in addition to numerous other targets.
A few minutes after midnight on January 31, 1968, a small commando group of the Vietcong met five blocks from the American Embassy in Saigon. The multi-story building inside a compound surrounded by an eight-foot tall reinforced concrete wall had opened in September 1967 and symbolized American power and influence in Vietnam. It should be no surprise that the Embassy was a target.
Nineteen Vietcong sappers, some of whom had just been recruited from the countryside, were basically conducting a symbolic suicide mission. They cleaned their weapons and received a briefing on what they were to do. At 2.30 a.m., they loaded on the back of a Peugeot truck and into a taxi cab and drove to the intersection of Mac Dinh Chi Street and Thong Nhut Boulevard. From a nearby garage the group made their way unchallenged by South Vietnamese police who saw the two vehicles driving erratically and without lights.
As they rounded the corner, they fired at the two American military policemen manning the Embassy’s gate. The MPs returned fire, and then slammed the steel door of the gate shut. They radioed code word: "Signal 300. The Embassy is under attack.” Marine Sergeant Ronald Harper and Corporal George Zahuranic heard heavy noises outside the Embassy walls and quickly sealed their steel door. The Vietcong fired a B40 rocket which smashed through the building’s door and into the lobby, wounding Zahuranic and slamming Harper to the floor.
On the roof, Sgt. Rudy Soto fired his shotgun until it jammed. Unable to make contact with the other two Marines, he presumed them dead. Captain Robert O'Brien called the other Marines of the security guard detachment, who hurriedly grabbed their weapons and gear, and dashed the five blocks from the Marine House to the Embassy.
Meanwhile, Harper again checked his 12-gauge shotgun, 38-caliber pistol and his Beretta submachine gun. He waited for the Vietcong agents to come through the door.
Meanwhile, ambassador Ellsworth Bunker had been escorted from his residence to a prearranged hiding place for his safety. Despite outnumbering the guards, the Vietcong sappers faltered and took cover on the grounds. Because the gate had been sealed shut, military police outside could not get in. The few sappers that remained outside the wall killed two military police before being killed or captured.
US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker (1894 - 1984) (center in white, hands in pockets) looks at the body of a dead Vietcong soldier on the grounds of the US Embassy
As dawn arrived, an intense battle to retake the Embassy grounds ensued. American commanders had decided to wait for daylight to destroy the remaining sappers, knowing that other Americans were inside the Embassy building and in other buildings in the compound. When an Army helicopter landed, bearing troops from Bien Hoa, the stalemate was broken. Six hours after the attack began, the Vietcong sapper team members had been either killed or captured.
Later in the day, General Westmoreland would arrive to praise the efforts of the Marines and Army MPs.
For American commanders, the attack was more of a nuisance than a major assault, and as they gradually recognized the scope of the Tet attacks the comparatively minor assault on the Embassy compound held little relevance. The attack on the American Embassy was a symbolic gesture on the part of the Vietcong as well. They knew they had little chance of victory. American battalions were less than an hour away. But in front of American television camera crews, the battle was fought. A small band of Vietcong was holding the American Embassy in Saigon at bay.
For the American public and media, and President Johnson, the assault on the Embassy, which by treaty and tradition is American soil, after all the talk of making progress in South Vietnam was a true and deep shock. It seems however that the Communists themselves never fully appreciated the potential psychological impact of the operation. Not until the North Vietnamese realized the impact the Embassy assault was having in the United States did they begin to utilize the attack in their propaganda. Thus a small, ill-conceived, tactically flawed attack against an insignificant military objective, designed to impress the South Vietnamese, proved the decisive action of the war because of its impact on the American public. On the other hand, it demonstrated to the South Vietnamese people that the United States was vulnerable despite its immense power.
Posing as Army of the Republic of South Vietnam troops, another unit of Vietcong forces attacked the Independence Palace at about 1:30 a.m. Not surprisingly, the Palace was one of the most heavily guarded buildings in Saigon. After blasting the staff entrance gate with rockets, the thirty-four Vietcong sappers charged into the compound only to be met with ferocious gunfire from the guards inside. The survivors withdrew to a nearby apartment building and held out for two days. Only two of the thirty-four Vietcong sappers survived.
Similarly there was another attack on the Navy Headquarters, where the objective was to seize nearby docked ships to transport reinforcements from coastal areas to Saigon as part of the General Uprising. This attack met a similar fate, except that all of the Vietcong sappers were killed in a matter of minutes. At the Armored Command and Artillery Command compound in Saigon, Vietcong sappers hoping to capture tanks and artillery found no tanks and no working artillery pieces.
At the Joint General Staff headquarters, Vietcong sappers were supposed to coordinate their assault on Gate 5 with a local force battalion’s attack on Gate 4. The arrival of an American military police patrol jeep disrupted the attack on Gate 5, allowing the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam guards inside the gates to fully secure the entrance. The attack on Gate 5 did not begin until five hours later, at 7:00 a.m. This time, the local force unit breached the defenses and gained entry into the compound. Incredibly, the attackers could have taken control of the headquarters at this point but instead chose to wait for reinforcements, which did not arrive. Army of the Republic of South Vietnam airborne troops and South Vietnamese Marines destroyed the Vietcong local force unit in just a few hours. President Thieu arrived by helicopter to the Joint General Staff headquarters by noon, making it his emergency base of operations.
The attack on the radio station began about 3:00 a.m., when twenty Vietcong men dressed in South Vietnamese riot-police gear arrived at the station, telling the guard that they were reinforcements. When the guard questioned them, he was shot and killed. The men quickly swarmed the radio station, where over the airwaves they were to play recorded messages from Ho Chi Minh encouraging the General Uprising to overthrow the government. Fortunately, the South Vietnamese commander in the area had already cut the station’s power and transmission lines to the radio tower several miles away on a prearranged signal when it was clear something was wrong. A lone Vietcong machine gunner atop a nearby apartment building killed several South Vietnamese troops arriving to retake the station before he was finally silenced.
Quy Nhơn Radio Station-Building after Tet Offensive 1968 - Qui Nhon - Photo by Kbike 1968/69
The Vietcong sappers inside the station nonetheless found themselves surrounded and trapped. They destroyed as much of the broadcasting equipment as they could while defending themselves against South Vietnamese troops assaulting the building. In what would become the common characteristics of most Tet attacks, reinforcements failed to arrive. After a six-hour fight, the Vietcong men in the station were all killed.
Other attacks materialized in the pre-dawn darkness. Several American bachelor officer quarters, were struck, including quarter Number 3, where sixteen American military police were killed. Vietcong units occupied the Phu Tho Racetrack, a horseracing venue located at the junction of several key roads in the Cholon district of Saigon. The racetrack was occupied early in the morning as a location from which to dispatch incoming reinforcements. As the primary attacks failed, remaining Vietcong units congregated in the area surrounding the racetrack, while reinforcements failed to materialize. Vietcong resistance in the area, however, was strong. It took American and South Vietnamese units, including the use of helicopter gunships, all day to secure the area and the facility.
Despite securing the racetrack, Vietcong units mounted several counterattacks to retake the facility while the fighting continued for several more days in Cholon. Densely populated, poor, and packed with tenement housing, Cholon had been a haven for National Liberation Front agents in Saigon for years as well as the center for the Saigon black market. On February 4, people living in Cholon were told to leave the area, which was then declared a free-fire zone, meaning that anyone found in Cholon would be considered enemy. Massive firepower was used to root out the Vietcong agents in Cholon. By the end of the campaign, which took until March 7, Cholon was in ruins and hundreds of civilians had been killed, thousands wounded, and thousands more made homeless.
Civilians sort through the ruins of their homes in Cholon,
the heavily damaged Chinese section of Saigon
Considering that over half of Army of the Republic of South Vietnam troops were on holiday leave and some American units were not on alert, the failure of the first wave of assaults was extraordinary. Air and ground mobility allowed American and South Vietnamese forces to deploy with speed and lethal efficiency. People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong reinforcements failed to get to where they were most needed. The populace did not heed the call for the historic General Uprising and instead largely remained indoors. The South Vietnamese government did not waver and the attacks failed to shatter Army of the Republic of South Vietnam forces. Rather, it was the Vietcong that was arguably shattered, as its units led many of the assaults in the cities and, lacking reinforcement, were pounded by American and South Vietnamese forces.
More militarily serious was that elements of the communist 9th Division had penetrated the perimeter of the large airbase at Tan San Nhut in Saigon. The flight line was not in immediate jeopardy, but a South Vietnamese airborne unit protecting the base had its hands full.
U.S. Air Force Security Police in combat at Tan Son Nhut during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Vietcong troops had breached the perimeter and made it onto the runway. After intense fighting that lasted through the night, the Security Police and U.S. and South Vietnamese Army troops repelled the attack.
Long before sunrise, diesel engines of American tanks and armored personnel carriers roared to life. The 3rd Squadron of the 4th Cavalry rumbled out of the perimeter at Cu Chi onto a darkened road. The unit's lead vehicle reached the highway, picked up speed and rushed headlong toward Tan San Nhut. East of the Saigon River, the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry moved out of its motor parks and headed south toward Saigon. Farther east, the 3rd Squadron of the 5th Cavalry and the 2nd Battalion of the 47th Mechanized Infantry Division, and the 9th U.S. Infantry Division, raced toward Binh Hoa and Long Binh to intercept North Vietnamese 5th Division. To the north, three powerful squadrons of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment thundered south. By 5 a.m. on January 31, more than 500 American armored vehicles were racing at breakneck speed toward South Vietnam's capital. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese had managed to get themselves surrounded, facing well-armed and well-supplied defenders as onrushing American armor units closed in on their rear.
RF-4C Phantom II destroyed during the enemy attack against Tan Son Nhut air base during the Tet Offensive.
The Vietcong battalions posted heavy machine guns in doors and windows overlooking the sprawling air base, and antiaircraft guns on roofs. Using B40 rockets, mortars and heavy automatic weapons, they raked all targets. The 8th South Vietnamese Airborne Battalion was thrown into the battle, but they were outnumbered and outgunned. They fought well, often in hand-to-hand combat, but they were too few. The U. S. Army's 25th Division from nearby Cu Chi, along with tanks and armored personnel carriers, soon joined the battle. Four tanks and five APCs were knocked out before the enemy was dislodged. Two airborne battalions reinforced by a South Vietnamese Marine battalion and tanks were also instrumental in the victory.
Other American convoys, responding to assignments throughout Saigon and Cholon, were ambushed by Vietcong using B40 rockets and claymore mines. But the victories were short-lived as American superiority in firepower and manpower changed the tide of battle.
Saigon was the Communists’ main target. Twenty-two percent of the republic's people, the majority of the country's industry, and its political capital and financial center were all there. Moreover, big Allied logistical centers, military headquarters and two large airfields were within a 20-mile radius of downtown Saigon.
During the Tet Offensive, Vietcong and People’s Army of North Vietnam units staged assaults all across South Vietnam and, other than the spectacular capture of Hue, met costly defeat in every instance. In many cases, defenders were caught in at least partial surprise. North Vietnamese units had orders to hold captured objectives and to stand and fight, and few had contingency plans for any sort of strategic withdrawal or retreat. Thus, American firepower was able to catch concentrations of Vietcong and People’s Army of North Vietnam units in the open, with lethal results.
On 1 February the Vietcong launched as well an attack in Tuy Hoa, capital of Phu Yen Province. On 2 February the it infiltrated two platoons into the Dalat City market place in a vain attempt to rally popular support. The Vietcong attack in Tuy Hoa was rapidly contained. However, in Dalat, because of a multitude of problems-including a lack of unity of government of South Vietnam command-the Vietcong agents were able to increase their military forces and pressure, and it was not until 15 February that the situation was in hand.
Other confrontations unveiled at Ben Cat, Due Hoa, Phu Cuong, Cu Chi and Ba Ria, where the communists struck in few hours. The 3d Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment fought to retake the cities.
The American Army Special Forces camp at Dak To was also attacked. In a series of battles over an area of 190 square miles, Americans fired 170,000 artillery shells while American pilots flew 2,100 fighter-bomber missions.
At Nha Trang, an alert sentry spotted two motorized carts pulling up, carrying uniformed passengers. They proved to be North Vietnamese troops subsequently reinforced by 800 soldiers.
At Ban Me Thuot, 2,000 North Vietnamese troops (33d Regiment and the 301st Vietcong Battalion) waited until the rocket and mortar assault finished before attacking.
At Pleiku, American tanks had been prepositioned, and when North Vietnamese rockets began impacting on the positions, the tanks began to roll. The North Vietnamese were soon beaten back.
At Kontum and Qui Nhon, the enemy attacked, hoping to get the local population to join in the uprising against "the American aggressors and their puppets of the South Vietnamese government." A series of assaults took place near Da Nang, where enemy gunners mortared and rocketed the main air base and nearby Marine helicopter airfield at Marble Mountain. Five aircraft were destroyed and some casualties were suffered, but the communists were pushed back.
Near Hoa Vang, a Marine combined action platoon fought back elements of two battalions of Vietcong. A communist force struck at An Hoa, but they were beaten back by Marine am trackers and South Vietnamese engineers, supported by Marine air and artillery.
As Lt. Gen. Cushman flew over the Da Nang area surveying the various battle sites, he spotted some 200 enemy troops moving southeast of the Da Nang air base. He relayed the information to Major General Donn J. Robertson, who committed two Marine infantry battalions to the action. The Vietcong forces suffered heavy casualties.
Another Vietcong struck took place at the Co Loa artillery base and nearby Camp Phu Dong, capturing a dozen 105-mm howitzers. The South Vietnamese soldiers had the presence of mind to remove the breech blocks, so the artillery pieces were inoperable.
The Tet Offensive continued. On February 3, the Vietcong attacked at Bien Hoa, but they could not penetrate the defenses. On February 6, a Vietcong force attacked Tay Ninh City, but South Vietnamese troops and American helicopters beat the enemy back.
Quang Tri City was attacked by the 812th Regiment and 10th Vietcong Sapper Battalion. At Camp Evans, a North Vietnamese force was caught in the open and annihilated and the 7th Marines held off an assault by the Vietcong 31st Regiment.
In the Mekong River Delta, Vietcong units staged several attacks that involved almost every unit enlisted by American intelligence in its order of battle. The American Mobile Riverine Force (MRF) played a key role in repelling these attacks, most notably at My Tho, where heavy house-to-house fighting placed MRF forces in an unfamiliar combat environment. The river city of Ben Tre was nearly destroyed in the fight to oust Vietcong forces; supposedly an officer told a reporter that “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it,” a phrase which, real or not, became part of the vernacular of the war.
At Ban Me Thuot, some Army of the Republic of South Vietnam commanders failed in the heat of battle. One major general reportedly did not leave his command bunker for over four days, and a colonel at Vinh Long had a complete physical and mental breakdown. One commander allegedly wore civilian clothing under his uniform in order to escape with refugees. Army of the Republic of South Vietnam forces generally performed well in response to the Tet attacks, but some units and commanders cracked under the extreme pressure.
The attacks sputtered out in days, except in Hué, where a force of 7,500 Communist troops held out behind the walls of the old city. By late February, North Vietnamese commanders issued orders to halt any attacks in the cities and instead to retreat back to the countryside. Assaults on static fortified positions were forbidden. Those Vietcong units that could muster the strength returned to pre-Tet ambush and hit-and-run tactics. Hué, however, was the exception. Vietcong units in this city received orders to hold their ground. For American and South Vietnamese forces, retaking Hué became the longest and bloodiest battle of the war.
Hué 1968 Tet Offensive - U.S. Marines take cover behind a tank
Hué was an old imperial city and home of elite preparatory schools and a university, which had educated many of Vietnam’s political and military leaders, including Diem and Giap. It served as the imperial seat of the Annamese emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945. Many considered Hué Vietnam’s most beautiful city. Gardens, pagodas, and beautiful buildings and homes could be found within the walls of the very formidable Citadel, a nineteenth-century fortification which covered over three square miles, including the Ay Loc Airfield, and was surrounded by huge walls and large moats. Located on the north side of Song Hu’ong, or the Perfume River, the Citadel area and the residential district of Gia Hoi was known as the Old City and accounted for two-thirds of the 140,000 people living in Hué in 1968. In the northeast corner of the Citadel, the South Vietnamese 1st Division had its headquarters, which was defended by the elite Hac Bao Company, nicknamed the Black Panthers. Most 1st Division units were deployed in the countryside just outside the city.
On the south side of the river was the New City, built more recently and home to the remaining third of the city’s population. The New City included government buildings, Hué University, the hospital, and the cathedral. In 1968, a small Military Assistance Command advisory headquarters of about two hundred American and Australian personnel was also located in the New City, just south of the six-span Nguyen Hoang Bridge, which served as the Perfume River crossing for Highway 1, the main supply artery from Da Nang to Quang Tri and posts near the demilitarized zone. The nearest major American presence was the Marine base eight miles south at Phu Bai, which was home to Task Force X-Ray of the 1st Marine Division. Commanded by Brigadier General Foster C. LaHue, Task Force X-Ray included two regimental headquarters and three battalions of Marines.
Up to 1968, Hué enjoyed an informal open-city status, as neither side staged significant military operations in and near the city. Many intellectuals, academics, and political conservatives who strongly opposed Communism and Ho Chi Minh resided in the city. For the North Vietnamese and in particular the regional Vietcong, Hué was indeed a strategic but also symbolic target for the Tet Offensive. Capturing and holding Hué would disrupt American and Army of the Republic of South Vietnam operations in the I Corps Tactical Zone, would demonstrate the weakness of the South Vietnamese government, and would give the Communists control of the cultural and intellectual center of Vietnam.
The fighting at Hué would be unlike previous fighting in the Vietnam War, in which rural operations were the norm. Hué, however, was a tight urban environment, with narrow, twisty streets, thousands of alleyways, and dense structures. The battle to come would resemble the fight for Manila in the Philippines during World War II rather than any battle that had taken place in the Vietnam War to that point. American and South Vietnamese units had little training and still less experience fighting in such an environment, while Vietcong and People’s Army of North Vietnam forces lacked experience but had trained in urban warfare tactics in specific preparation for the assault on Hué.
Vietcong forces around Hué included six main-force battalions, while two People’s Army of North Vietnam regiments operated in the area. As the battle unfolded, three more People’s Army of North Vietnam regiments redeployed from Khe Sanh arrived as reinforcements.
03 Feb 1968, Hué - Terrified Vietnamese civilians - Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
The North Vietnamese plan of attack on Hué involved intensive preparation and reconnaissance. Over 190 targets, including every government and military installation on both sides of the river would be hit on January 31, 1968 by a force of five thousand. Other forces would block American and South Vietnamese reinforcement routes, mainly Highway 1. Over half of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam 1st Division was on holiday leave and North Vietnamese commanders believed the population of Hué would join the fight as part of the General Uprising. Additionally, North Vietnamese intelligence agents had drawn up lengthy lists of South Vietnamese government and military officials, intellectuals, foreigners, and reactionaries who had assisted the Americans or spoke out against the Communists, to be arrested and executed. This aspect of the Hué fight would produce one of the worst atrocities of the war.
On January 30, Army of the Republic of South Vietnam 1st Division commander General Ngo Quang Truong learned of the premature Tet attacks in the region and quickly placed his division on full alert. Truong was considered one of the best South Vietnamese commanders by his American colleagues. While the Black Panther Company arranged for the defense of the headquarters compound in the Citadel, Truong deployed his remaining units outside the city, wrongly believing that as Hué was an open city, the North Vietnamese would not attack it directly. In one of the many intelligence failures of the Tet Offensive, an American military listening post at Phu Bai intercepted Communist orders for the attack on Hué, but by the time the intercept made its way up the chain of command for analysis, the attack had already begun. At the Military Assistance Command compound in the New City, the Americans were caught completely by surprise.
As in Saigon, National Liberation Front agents were already inside the city, ready to assist the attacking forces when they arrived. The attack began at about 3:40 a.m. with mortar and rocket barrages on both sides of the river. Vietcong and People’s Army of North Vietnam units poured through the city gates, quickly taking control of government buildings, the police station, and most of the Citadel, except for General Truong’s headquarters. Attacked by rockets and then a delayed infantry assault, the defenders of the Military Assistance Command compound held their ground at great cost. By daylight, other than the Military Assistance Command compound and the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam 1st Division headquarters, People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong forces controlled the city of Hué. They immediately set up revolutionary committees to govern sections of the city. On loudspeakers intelligence agents read aloud the names of reactionaries and intellectuals, hoping neighbors would turn the suspects in to Vietcong authorities. Thousands were arrested and most were never heard from again.
General Truong ordered reinforcements from outside the city to fight their way through Hué to his position in the Citadel, which two airborne battalions and an armored unit managed to do by late afternoon on January 31. The Military Assistance Command compound also called for reinforcements. The situation all across the I Corps Tactical Zone was still confused, however, and the request for help lost its imperative among the numerous other calls for reinforcements. Even when I Corps Tactical Zone commanders ordered reinforcements from Task Force X-Ray to relieve the defenders at the Military Assistance Command compound, no one realized the magnitude of the attack on Hué. Meeting unusually stiff resistance just outside the city, the company was reinforced when a larger reaction force arrived with armor and self-propelled guns. The Marines were able to finally secure the compound late in the afternoon at the cost of ten dead and thirty wounded. The Marines then attempted to cross the Nguyen Hoang Bridge, but were forced back to the south side of the Perfume River.
03 Feb 1968, Hué-US Marines move against Vietcong near Hué - Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
By the night of January 31, the situation at Hué had become clearer. At I Corps Tactical Zone headquarters, American and South Vietnamese commanders agreed to divide responsibilities for retaking Hué. The Marines would assault the New City, while Army of the Republic of South Vietnam forces would retake the Citadel. At first, restrictions limited firepower in the Old City in a vain attempt not to destroy the historic landmark. However, as the fight intensified, these restrictions were lifted to allow artillery and close-air support to root out Vietcong and People’s Army of North Vietnam defenders, thus resulting in the unfortunate destruction of much of Hué historic centre.
Progress was slow. The Marines had to clear out entrenched People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong forces in well-fortified positions, literally building by building, street by street. The fighting was brutally intense and bloody. People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong forces fired upon the Marines from rooftops, apartment buildings, houses, and businesses, from every direction, with rifle, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. Marine tanks had difficulty maneuvering on the tight streets, and the poor weather made close-air support difficult during the first days of the battle. Marines with non-debilitating wounds were patched up and put back in the line. It took two weeks to gain moderate control of the southern part of Hué, and another twelve days to finally secure it.
Wearied troopers of the US 1st Cavalry Division taking a break in action near Hué - mid-March 1968. (UPI)
Meanwhile, the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam attack on the Citadel had stalled by February 4. A People’s Army of North Vietnam counter-attack during the next two days forced South Vietnamese troops to sacrifice much of the precious little ground they had gained. Both sides reinforced but the stalemate continued. On February 10, General Truong had to ask General LaHue for Marine assistance. LaHue sent in a Marine battalion, which assaulted the east wall of the Citadel. It took a week of exhaustive fighting to secure the wall at the cost of forty-seven killed and 240 wounded. On the west side of the Citadel, the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division prevented North Vietnamese reinforcement and re-supply. North Vietnamese forces in the Citadel were now trapped near the old Imperial Palace. On the night of February 23, a South Vietnamese battalion attacked toward the Palace, pushing the now poorly supplied and exhausted North Vietnamese units out of their positions. Over the next few days, remaining People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong units retreated out of the city.
2/2/1968-Hué, South Vietnam: U.S. Marines tend to their wounded during heavy street fighting in Hué after Communist forces invaded the ancient imperial capital and held key positions. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Over the course of the twenty-six-day battle, an estimated five thousand People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong forces had been killed in the battle. Army of the Republic of South Vietnam losses amounted to 384 killed and more than eighteen hundred wounded, while the United States Army suffered seventy-four killed and over five hundred wounded. Among the three Marine regiments involved in the battle, 142 Marines were killed and over 850 wounded. Of all the Tet attacks, the Hué battle may have been the most damaging for the Americans and South Vietnamese. Despite the heroic and costly success in retaking the city from People’s Army of North Vietnam and Vietcong forces, the fact that the communists had taken and occupied such a symbolic city was another shock to commanders as well as to the American public, who watched the progress of the battle daily on television news.
At battle’s end, Hué had been reduced to rubble.
14 April 1968, South Vietnam- Ten weeks after the Tet Offensive fighting, business continues in the streets or bombed-out buildings. This sidewalk black market has for sale everything from canned milk to American cigarettes and liquor. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Forty percent of the city had been destroyed and over 100,000 of Hué’s 140,000 inhabitants were now homeless. Over 5,800 civilians had been killed. As many as three thousand died in the fighting, caught in crossfire or killed by deadly artillery fire. The remaining 2,800 came from the lists, and were detained, convicted and sentenced by kangaroo courts, taken to various locations inside as well as outside the city, then executed. A lucky few were sent to special camps for reeducation. As mass shallow graves began to be discovered in late February, the scope of the atrocity became evident. Many bodies were bound and had a single shot to the back of the skull, while others had apparently been buried alive.
The initial phase of the Tet Offensive ended with the battle for Hué, but despite the severe cost in casualties the North Vietnamese pressed on with subsequent phases of the offensive in May and later in the summer of 1968. People’s Army of North Vietnam replacements filled out or replaced shattered Vietcong units and on May 5 struck 119 targets that included attacks in Saigon. Unlike the January 31 offensive, the May 5 round of attacks was anticipated. American and South Vietnamese units were ready and in many cases preemptively attacked North Vietnamese forces before they could launch their assaults. Hué was spared another massive battle, but the Cholon district in Saigon was again the scene of heavy fighting from May 5 through May 13 and again in late May and early June, and Saigon received enemy rocket attacks almost daily throughout June.
Despite being prepared and quickly repelling the so-called Mini-Tet assaults in May, American forces paid a dear price. Over 550 American troops died in the fighting during the week of May 4 through May 11, contributing to the loss of almost two thousand dead for the month of May, the costliest month for the United States during the entire war. Vietcong attacks in the Mekong River Delta in August and People’s Army of North Vietnam attacks near Saigon in September were both repelled at great cost to communist forces. Afterwards, North Vietnamese commanders terminated the offensive and ordered remaining main-force units to withdraw to sanctuaries, most of which were located in nearby Cambodia and Laos.
South Vietnam-The grounds of the 8th Division in the Cholon area of Saigon takes a hit from two 750 pound bombs during the 1968 mini Tet offensive. Cholon or Chinatown was a market area inhabited by Vietnamese of predominately Chinese origin. (Image by © Tim Page/CORBIS)
Oddly, the communists were less well prepared for the coming ordeal than were the Americans. Hanoi believed the people of South Vietnam would rise up and support Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers, but the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Saigon, who had succeeded in rallying only a handful of Saigon's citizens, had to introduce outsiders, rural local and main-force units.
As it turned out, the Politburo had gravely misjudged the revolutionary temper of the times. Whatever their weaknesses, most Army of the Republic of South Vietnam and territorial forces fought tenaciously in their own defense. In addition, the masses in South Vietnam that Hanoi had hoped would respond to the offensive with a revolutionary uprising remained firmly astride the fence. The allied advantage in firepower quickly turned the tide, and except for Hué, where communist forces held out for three weeks, South Vietnamese forces took only a few days to clear the cities and towns of the overextended Vietcong forces.
The civilian casualties caused by the Tet offensive were 1,144 killed and 1,699 wounded. About 14,000 homes were destroyed and 5000 damaged, creating an initial refugee population of approximately 78,000. However before the Tet offensive terminated a total of 170,000 refugees were generated. Civilian wounded and refugees were handled with minimal losses and suffering, and no major problems involving lack of medical treatment, food or water shortages, or epidemics developed.
The Tet offensive cost the communists some 32,000 men killed and almost 6,000 captured, more than half the forces engaged. Most of the attackers had come from local units and their guerrilla support network, for Hanoi had decided to commit local forces, in most areas, while holding main force units in reserve. The military defeat also gravely weakened the communist administrative and political organization, the so called VCI many of whose members had been reassigned to the local forces participating in the offensive. In addition to the guerrillas and cadres lost in combat, the local organization in some localities was virtually extirpated. In Nha Trang, the city’s entire Communist Party committee surfaced to support the attack on the city, and when the assault failed, all its members were arrested. The VCI suffered similar if not quite such crippling losses also in Pleiku and Quang Tri.
The Tet battles from January through February 1968 cost American, South Vietnamese, Australian, and South Korean forces almost five thousand killed and over sixteen thousand wounded. In a purely military sense, Tet appeared to be a resounding victory for American and South Vietnamese forces, as the Communist gamble to concentrate forces for mass assaults against defensible positions allowed American firepower to lay waste to thousands of the Vietcong’s most experienced forces.
However, the communists did get several important things right: they correctly concluded that the depth of the US commitment to the Vietnam War was a major exploitable weakness in the allied war effort in the South; their assessment that the 1968 US presidential election campaign season would be a critical period in determining the future course of America’s Vietnam strategy was deadly accurate; and their conclusion that only through the use of extraordinary measures would they be able to exploit this “tipping point” moment to turn the situation to their advantage turned out, in the end, to be correct.
Despite their mistakes, ironically, the communists had gained an enormous strategic victory, however inadvertent. They had won a psychological victory. American resolve was waning. An attack on this scale had been unexpected and it flatly contradicted General Westmoreland's November 1967 claim that the communists were incapable of large-scale operations in the populated regions of South Vietnam.
The domestic impact in the United States of the offensive and the cost of defeating it contributed to a radical change in American strategy in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive made the tactical military successes from 1965 through 1967 relatively meaningless. The United States now had to accept that the North Vietnamese could carry on the war indefinitely. The worsening American economic crisis made continuing the war under pre-Tet conditions untenable and increasing the American presence in Vietnam impossible. The shock of the attacks and the economic situation had weakened American political will to achieve victory in Vietnam.
Regardless of whether it was true, the perception was that Tet undermined the American military’s credibility in its claims of progress and the success of the strategy of attrition against the communists in Vietnam. If American forces were winning, many political elites concluded, then they were winning badly. In the absence of any viable alternative offered by the American military, continuing to win badly was no longer an option after Tet. Despite overwhelming superiority in firepower, air power, logistical capabilities, and other resources, there was no guarantee of victory in the near future. Still, the American military remained convinced that Tet was an Allied victory and thus did little to reevaluate its strategy in Vietnam.
Perhaps the greatest impact of the Tet Offensive on the United States was the full realization that military force alone could not solve a political problem. After Tet, the United States reluctantly welcomed negotiations with the North Vietnamese and began the process of turning the war over to the South Vietnamese government and military - a process that came to be called “Vietnamization.” In April 1968, Army of the Republic of South Vietnam units began the gradual take-over of combat operations. However, 1968 turned out to be America's bloodiest in Vietnam, with 14,594 troops killed in action.
To the American public, Tet was a shock. Westmoreland and the Johnson administration had been telling them that there was “light at the end of the tunnel” in November 1967 and that the strategy of attrition was working. How, then, could the North Vietnamese stage such a country-wide assault on so many targets, attack what had been well-defended cities that had previously been untouched by the war, keep thousands of Marines pinned down at Khe Sanh, and actually get inside the American Embassy compound in Saigon? The Johnson administration seemed incapable of explaining the military significance of Tet. The horrific images of combat, destruction, and casualties that appeared on the nightly news seemed to indicate something other than what Westmoreland and Johnson had been telling the public over the previous months.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (right) speaks with President Nguyen van Thieu, Honolulu, Hawaii. July 19, 1968
No one was more shaken by Tet than American president Lyndon Johnson himself. His Cabinet and advisers urged him to reject General Westmoreland’s military request for 200,000 more troops. They were near-unanimous in their judgment that the war was unwinnable. Johnson's reaction became clear in a televised address on March 31, 1968. He told Americans that the Communist offensive had failed, but he was pained by the suffering it caused. As a result, "I am taking the first step to de-escalate the conflict," he announced. "We are reducing - substantially reducing - the present level of hostilities. And we are doing so unilaterally, and at once."
He announced a dramatic cutback in bombing, in hopes of spurring peace talks. Then, acknowledging how deeply his war policy had divided Americans, Johnson dropped his own bomb: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
Meanwhile, the anti-war movement, impatient for results, grew more aggressive. Demonstrations rocked college campuses, as well as the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Two major American political leaders were assassinated before the end of 1968: Senator Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both were powerful critics of the war.
Peace talks finally got under way in Paris in October 1968. The following month, former Vice President Richard Nixon was elected president after promising that he had a secret plan to end the war. His policy was to gradually pull out American troops while building up the South Vietnamese forces.
For the United States, the Vietnam War was a painful and costly military lesson. In the conventional, World War II sense, North Vietnam never won any battles during the long war it eventually won. The U.S. military never really understood either its South Vietnam allies or how determined the North Vietnamese were. They were not prepared for the guerrilla war that was fought there. Perhaps most important, the United States was forced to recognize that no amount of military might could force a change without the support of the people.
A peace agreement was finally reached in January 1973. The last American troops were withdrawn in March. South Vietnam collapsed under a massive North Vietnamese invasion in April 1975. North and South united under a Communist government in the same year but the United States recognized the new country only in 1995.
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