In the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese and the United States were fighting a war of attrition—a war that the U. S. should have theoretically won handily. Yet, theories often overlook the vital human essences of emotion and will. To break the United States’ will to fight, the North Vietnamese had to do something ambitious and terrifying. Most importantly, it needed to be something with good optics that would be broadcast on air and in print. The North Vietnamese and their allies in the south accomplished this in their Tet Offensive of 1968, perhaps the single most important step that the communists took to eventually break the American spirit.
The Tet Offensive was massive in scope. On January 30, 1968, simultaneous attacks were made on villages, cities and capitals all the way from the Demilitarized Zone in the north, to the southernmost region of South Vietnam. In total, around 36 provincial capitals were struck, along with 46 district capitals, 50 small villages, and 5 of the most major cities of South Vietnam. The surprise attack achieved confusion and chaos, and optically, the Tet Offensive made civilians in the United States believe that the Vietnam War was out of control.
In actuality, that psychological effect was the only lasting gain made by the North Vietnamese in the Tet Offensive. Though the Tet Offensive was chaotic and provided great press for the communists, the attack was hardly a practical success. The North Vietnamese bungled their coordination during the Tet Offensive—some groups attacked too early, and other were slow to ride the momentum of success. The disorganization of the offensive allowed the U.S. and the South Vietnamese forces to deflect most of the attack in only a few days. The Tet Offensive was a charge of desperation carried out by a force clinging to a dwindling tether of hope. Nevertheless, that desperate charge was vital for the North Vietnamese.
Even though the ground forces of the United States and South Vietnam recovered quickly from the Tet Offensive, the heart of the U.S.—the civilians at home—was irreparably demoralized by the attack. The Tet Offensive fueled the growing public protests against the war and pressure continued to rise until the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1973.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations Since 1871 by Robert A. Doughty and Ira D. Gruber et al. Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1996.