The Tet Offensive

US #1802 was issued on Veteran’s Day in 1979.

On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched a surprise attack on South Vietnam during the Tet (New Year) holiday truce.

The North Vietnamese began planning their General Offensive and Uprising in April 1967.  They believed that the government in Saigon was so unpopular in the South that an attack on major cities there would lead the citizens to revolt, guaranteeing a swift victory and an end to calls for peace talks.  Throughout the second half of 1967, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers moved 81,000 tons of supplies and 200,000 troops across the border.

US #3188g from the Celebrate the Century: 1960s sheet.

That October, they decided the Tet holiday would be the day to launch their attack, as the Americans and South Vietnamese (ARVN) would be observing the agreed-upon truce.  In December, they launched a “diplomatic offensive,” claiming that Hanoi would consider negotiations if America halted their bombing campaign in North Vietnam.  This was only a ruse to confuse the allies.

Though the Americans did not know what the North Vietnamese had planned, or when it would take place, they did see the signs.  They noticed a large military buildup and were puzzled by the large battles that broke out in remote regions.  In fact, these battles were part of the North Vietnamese plan to draw American troops away from the cities, their actual targets.

Item #4584112 – Australia coin honoring the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

One of their greatest diversions was the attack on the military base at Khe Sanh on January 21.  American MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) commander William Westmoreland saw the attack as a plot to overrun the base and take over the two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam.  To prevent this, he sent half his men – 250,000 soldiers – to aid in the defense of Khe Sanh.  Meanwhile, Frederick Weyand had noticed a large buildup of North Vietnamese around Saigon and requested some of those men be brought back to defend the capital city.  Westmoreland called back 15 battalions to aid in the city’s defense, a move that may have helped save Saigon.

The Tet Offensive officially commenced shortly after midnight on January 30, 1968.  The first target was Nha Trang, the headquarters of the US I Field Force.  This was followed by attacks in the other provincial capitals: Ban Me Thuot, Kon Tum, Hội An, Tuy Hòa, Da Nang, Qui Nhơn, and Pleiku.  In each of these attacks, they launched mortar and rocket barrages followed quickly by massive ground assaults.  Though the Americans and South Vietnamese were caught off-guard, they drove their attackers from nearly all these locations by sunrise.  MACV Chief of Intelligence Phillip B. Davidson alerted Westmoreland that he believed these attacks would continue across the country throughout the night and morning.  Westmoreland then put all US and ARVN troops on maximum alert to brace for what was to come.

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The next wave of attacks came at 3 a.m. on January 31.  They attacked Saigon, Cholon, and Gia Dinh in the Capital Military District as well as 13 other cities and US bases.  Saigon was the main target of the attacks.  Though fighting continued in Saigon and other cities, the North Vietnamese launched a second wave of attacks on ten more cities on February 1st.  In fact, over the course of the offensive, they attacked over 100 towns and cities, as well as every major allied airfield.  In most cases, the North Vietnamese were driven out of town within two or three days.  Fighting went on for much longer in at least five cities.  During this time, none of the South Vietnamese troops deserted or defected to join the North Vietnamese, showing commitment to their cause.

US #4988a were issued to honor Medal of Honor recipients from the Vietnam War.

Huế was among the targets on January 31.  The North Vietnamese captured the city that day and the Americans and ARVN spent nearly a month in street-to-street fighting to take it back.  By March they had retaken control but at extreme cost.  Most of the historic city was destroyed and thousands of civilians were dead or left homeless.

US #4988a – Vietnam Medal of Honor First Day Cover.

The first phase of the Tet Offensive was considered over by March 28, though fighting at Khe Sanh continued into April.  The North Vietnamese launched two more attacks called Mini-Tets on May 4 and August 17.  The offensive officially ended on September 23.  The Tet Offensive was largely considered a failure for the North Vietnamese.  They did not meet any of their objectives and nearly depleted their Viet Cong Army.

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  1. Very interesting I enjoyed learning that the Tet offensive was a failure and that none of the NVA switched sides.

  2. Returned from Vietnam in the middle of the night, before the long flight home. Most people just ignored me, but with a stopover at Denver a good man bought be a drink at the old Dever airport. I fell asleep on the way home and when I was awakened by the fight attendant (stewardess back then), the whole plane was empty. Then I stepped back into the world. I was ignored, and that was just fine.

  3. Total and complete failure for the North BUT you could never tell that by
    the ABC, NBC and CBS networks (This was long before Cable News). They
    touted that the North had completely routed the US troops and the Embassy
    in Saigon had fallen. By the Middle of February the News networks had
    to face that they had misreported BUT put in a disclaimer that the war could
    not be won. The Media turned a Communist defeat into a sort of a victory
    for the North.

    1. That isn’t what the media said at all. What they said was that after years of the official reports saying that the enemy, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnam army were nearing defeat was not true. The Tet Offensive demonstrated that the enemy was far from defeat ant the American participation in the war had no forgeable end.

      1. You are incorrct. Conrad. The media (all 3 TV networks at that time) reported day after day after day, that the TET offensive was an utter and complete defeat for the ARVN and for the American forces – which it was not. But, you would never have known it from watching it on TV. I know, because I watchers about every minute of it.

        1. I was watching it as well, and I am correct. The Pentagon Papers bore out the overly optimistic reports about American progress in the war. The ability of the Viet Cong and the ARVIN to carry out such a wide scale offensive though ultimately a defeat, demonstrated that the optimistic reports out of Vietnam were not a true picture of what was the actual situation.

  4. The article notes that 250,000 were diverted to the defense of Khe Sanh, This not correct. There were only 500,000 troops in Vietnam at the peak and the majority were support troops. Ground troops are a smaller percentage. While a lot of air resources were used in defense, the number of ground troops did not markedly increase after the 26th Marines Regiment (6000+ men) and ARVN troops were added prior to the expected attack. The next event was after Tet when the 1st Air Calvary fought their way to the area to relieve the isolated Marines. It did not help that the majority of the ARVN troops were on leave. The Army abandoned the base later in the year.

    The attack was supposed to start on Jan 31 but due to a difference in understanding the start of the lunar new year, some units attacked on 1/30 and others started on 1/31.

    The major loser of the battle was the US military credibility.

    1. This is correct. Although the communist forces lost the campaign, the greater damage was the loss of American military and political credibility. This was the turning point of our participation in the war. It was all down hill after Tet. The communists lost militarily, but wound up with a huge political win…

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