Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Tet Offensive-Lunar New Year-The Year of the Monkey-Vietnam 1968


1968- Chinese Year of the Monkey

At 3:00 in the morning on January 31, 1968 after having announced a 7-day ceasefire to celebrate the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, the North Vietnamese People's Army (PAVN-People's Army of North Vietnam) and the Viet Cong launched ferocious and coordinated attacks on 100 cities throughout South Vietnam catching both the ARVN and US forces completely off-guard.

Some historians on both sides have recorded that the offensive began "in the early hours" of January 31 while others say it began on the morning of January 30. Like everything else about the War in Vietnam-very little agrees. Numbers rarely, if ever, jibe, and viewpoints, naturally, are different. Americans say they "won" these battles from a military standpoint. Many agree. The North Vietnamese say they "won" from a political and psychological perspective. Many agree. So, let us begin our retrospective in agreement of those memories. 

Even today, 48 years on, however- some American veterans lament  that they could have "won" the war had the politicians kept their noses out of it. They say they were "close to winning". But the Tet Offensive cost both sides tremendous losses of life, enormous catastrophic injuries and the devastation of a land by the atrocious bombings of US B52 bombers laden with enough explosives to exceed all that was dropped during the entire length of World War II. Two factors that played into the pressure on US forces were that the leaders back home were painting a picture of success while the military leadership had their focus on one spot-Khe Sanh, where heavy fighting had been taking place for a month. 

The White House and Department of Defense had it wrong. The MACV Commander Westmoreland took the enemy's bait by throwing all he had into Khe Sanh. This was to be the diversion away from what was about to occur.

The men on the ground were left wide open. But through sheer survival instinct and the help of relentless air support, they pushed back the NLF, VC and North Vietnamese forces.

The surprise attacks, although eventually repelled, would force public opinion of the war over the cliff and expose the weaknesses and vulnerablities of the world's most powerful military.

Consequently-winning truly became a matter of opinion.

Out From the Jungles, Into the Cities

Up until now, the war had mainly taken place in the jungles and swamps, villages and farms where the NLF (National Liberation Front) guerrillas had their main support bases. Seizing the element of surprise- coming out of the jungles and launching the attacks on the eve of the Lunar New Year- NLF forces attacked heavily populated cities in the South that had a significant American military presence. Because Vietnamese travel to their homes for the holiday, guerrillas arrived in cities such as Hue and Saigon in small groups of twos and threes undetected. Disguised as peasants, refugees, and ARVN soldiers on holiday leave they slipped into their positions. Caches of weapons had been staged well ahead of the attacks, often smuggled in secretively:
"Taxis carried chrysanthemums into Saigon for the Tet market. Hidden underneath them were AK-47s. The people supported the revolution. They helped us-we were able to penetrate the security in the city. We changed our clothes and carried fake identity documents. The people of Saigon hid us in their homes." a 
But did they? Or was it exhaustion from war that made them compliant?

Tet had traditionally been a time of truce, even during the war years, but in 1968 the duration of the celebrations had not been established. Although it was reported that US troops were on full alert and due to US policy that the security of major cities was under the protection of the ARVN, there were still only a few hundred American troops on duty in Saigon the night before the attack began.

Two US Military Police aid a wounded fellow MP during fighting in the US Embassy compound in Saigon, January 31, 1968, at the beginning of the Tet Offensive. A Viet Cong suicide squad seized control of part of the compound and held it for about 6 hours before they were killed or captured. [AP Photo/Hong Seong-Chan]#

While the embassy compound was under assault so were the Presidential Palace, the government radio station, the headquarters of the ARVN chiefs of staff and even General Westmoreland's own compound at Tan Son Nhut airbase. 

The offensive proved to be a bold yet failed cause. In its mission to wrest control of major population centers from the US, ARVN, and their allies, the NLF had hoped, maybe assumed, that the local populations would rise up against the foreigners, join the NLF and win back their country. However, by the time of Tet, at least in the view of many historians, the South Vietnamese had lost their desire for revolution. After decades of war, decades of lack, death, devastation, illness and degradation- the Vietnamese people were numb. They were incapable of joining the "enemy". They were simply not able to join the Americans. Tet brought the war to a stalemate. Couple that with the known corruption within the GVN leadership and the horrors had truly caused their own default.

Even the Buddhists who, at one time, had rallied against the GVN (Government of Vietnam) were silent. Their leader, the unreservedly anti-American Tri Quang, sheltered silently and escaped with his life when the Americans pulverized the An Quang pagoda where the NLF had set up a post.

A large section of rubble is all that remained in this one block square area of Saigon on February 5, 1968, after fierce Tet Offensive fighting. Rockets and grenades combined with fires laid waste to the area. An Quang Pagoda, location of Viet Cong headquarters during the fighting, is at the top of the photo. [AP Photo/Johner]#  

In those early morning hours of January 31, 1968- NLF troops-an estimated 84,000 of them, had attacked almost every important American base and every town and city of South Vietnam. One after the other, cities in the Delta- My Tho, Can Tho, Vinh Long, Rach Gia, and Ben Tre were on the defensive as ARVN fought to protect their headquarters. Then in II Corps it would be: Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, Tuy Hoa and the American's big base at Cam Ranh Bay. Dalat, a resort town frequented by Vietnamese generals and home to the ARVN military academy came under ferocious attack. But, finally, in I Corps, when the North Vietnamese regulars joined the NLF there was the fiercest fighting. Enemy mortars and rockets rained down on Danang and shut down the air base. An air base from which most tactical airstrikes were launched. Then Phu Bai and Chu Lai and down the coast to the ROK (Republic of South Korea) bases. In Quang Ngai city and other places, they opened jails and released thousands of prisoners.

In the old provinical capital of Hue, NLF troops joined by North Vietnamese regulars easily mowed down the ARVN defense forces and marched right into the city occupying the university, the central market and all other important military and civilian entities.

Walter Cronkite's Summation of the effects of The Tet Offensive

Coming Up...More on the TO

Glossary: NLF (National Liberation Front), VC (Viet Cong-Communists), GVN (Government of Vietnam/South), ARVN 
(Army of the Republic of Vietnam/South), PAVN (People's Army of Vietnam/North), Tet (Chinese/Vietnamese New Year). *Most Vietnamese are ethnic Chinese.

a Tong Viet Duong, guerrilla fighter with the NLF in Saigon. From:


  1. Thank you very much for this.... There are things that I do not know and want to know.... and I appreciate that you are willing to "spell" it out for each of us.... Again Thank you

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  3. Thank you for a very interesting article. One thing I would like to tell you. I was there at Nha Trang and we came under attack between 0030 and 0100 and things didn't let up until about 0600 it was then that we could come out of the bunkers and look around and see the hell that had happened during the night. Wow what a mess. All bases came out ok, but the town was a big mess. Lots of buildings with big holes blown in them and bullet holes that made the walls look swish cheese. The rest of 30 Jan was spent doing the clean up and many other things that had to be done. Again a very well written article. I really did enjoy reading it. Tom Nam 67 68