Vietnam War - Tet Offensive
Having lured General Westmoreland's forces into the hinterland at Khe Sanh in Quang Tri Province,
in January 1968,
the PVA and NLF broke the truce that had traditionally accompanied the Tết (Lunar New Year) holiday. They
launched the surprise Tet Offensive in the hope of sparking a national uprising.
Over 100 cities were attacked, with assaults on General Westmoreland's
headquarters and the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
Although the U.S. and South Vietnamese were initially taken aback by the
scale of the urban offensive, they responded quickly and effectively, decimating
the ranks of the NLF. In the former capital city of Huế, the combined NLF and NVA troops
captured the Imperial Citadel and much of the city, which led to the Battle of
Hue. Throughout the offensive, the American forces employed massive
firepower; in Hue where the battle was the fiercest, that firepower left 80% of
the city in ruins. During the
interim between the capture of the Citadel and end of the "Battle of Hue", the
communist insurgent occupying forces massacred several thousand unarmed Hue
civilians (estimates vary up to a high of 6000). After the war, North Vietnamese
officials acknowledged that the Tet Offensive had, indeed, caused grave damage
to NLF forces. But the offensive had another, unintended consequence.
General Westmoreland had become the public face of the war. He was featured
on the cover of Time magazine three times and was named 1965's Man of the
described him as "the sinewy personification of the American fighting man...
(who) directed the historic buildup, drew up the battle plans, and infused
the... men under him with his own idealistic view of U.S. aims and
In November 1967 Westmoreland spearheaded a public relations drive for the
Johnson administration to bolster flagging public support. In a speech
before the National Press Club he said that a
point in the war had been reached "where the end comes into view."
Thus, the public
was shocked and confused when Westmoreland's predictions were trumped by
American media, which had been largely supportive of U.S. efforts, rounded on
the Johnson administration for what had become an increasing credibility gap.
Despite its military failure, the Tet Offensive became a political victory and
ended the career of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who declined to run for
re-election. Johnson's approval rating slumped from 48 to 36 percent.
As James Witz noted, Tet "contradicted the claims of progress... made by the
Johnson administration and the military." The Tet
Offensive was the turning point in America's involvement in the Vietnam War. It
had a profound impact on domestic support for the conflict. The offensive
constituted an intelligence failure on the scale of Pearl
Harbor. Journalist Peter Arnett quoted an
unnamed officer, saying of Ben Tre (laid to rubble by US firepower)
that "it became
necessary to destroy the village in order to save it" (though the authenticity
of this quote is disputed). According to one
source, this phrase was said by Maj. Booris of 9th Infantry Division.
Westmoreland became Chief of Staff of the Army in March, just as all
resistance was finally subdued. The move was technically a promotion. However,
his position had become untenable because of the offensive and because his
request for 200,000 additional troops had been leaked to the media. Westmoreland
was succeeded by his deputy Creighton Abrams, a commander less inclined to
public media pronouncements.
On 10 May 1968, despite low expectations, peace talks began between the U.S. and the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Negotiations stagnated for five months, until
Johnson gave orders to halt the bombing of North Vietnam. The Democratic candidate, Vice
Humphrey, was running against Republican former vice
president Richard Nixon.
Through an intermediary, Anna Chennault, Nixon advised Saigon to refuse
to participate in the talks until after elections, claiming that he would give
them a better deal once elected. Thieu obliged, leaving almost no progress made
by the time Johnson left office.
As historian Robert Dallek writes, "Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the war in
Vietnam divided Americans into warring camps... cost 30,000 American lives by
the time he left office, (and) destroyed Johnson's presidency..." His refusal to
send more U.S. troops to Vietnam was seen as Johnson's admission that the war
It can be seen that the refusal was a tacit admission that the war could not be
won by escalation, at least not at a cost acceptable to the American people.
As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara noted, "the dangerous illusion of
victory by the United States was therefore dead