Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

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The Tet Offensive

An image shot during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, 1968

This time of year in Vietnam is Tet, the lunar new year.

Normally a time of celebration, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army used the event in 1968 — about three years after the Vietnam War really began to ramp up — to launch simultaneous attacks throughout South Vietnam.

As a military offensive, it failed. As a psychological and political tactic to weaken U.S. support for the Vietnam War, it worked spectacularly well.

From the BBC: (a ‘this day in history’ feature)

Americans alarmed by ‘Tet Offensive’

The American command in Vietnam has reported over 5,000 people dead after two days intensive fighting.

South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu has been forced to declare martial law as communist forces, under General Vo Nguyen Giap, have kept up sustained assaults on several fronts – from Saigon in the south to Hue in the north.

Authorities in the North Vietnamese capital Hanoi, described it as, “a more powerful and more continuous offensive” than ever before.

White House intelligence in Washington anticipated attacks over the Tet holiday to celebrate the lunar new year, but they were surprised by their intensity.

Sporadic fighting is still being reported in Saigon but the main hostilities – which began at 1800 local time two days ago – are reported to have ceased.


According to US figures, 4,959 Vietcong have been killed and 1,862 captured while 232 American and 300 South Vietnamese troops have been killed with 929 and 747, respectively, wounded.

Last night, a 19-man Vietcong suicide squad blew a four foot hole in the wall of the US Embassy in Saigon and the nearby British Embassy sustained minor damage.

Vietcong forces have also attacked the Vietnam general staff headquarters, Navy headquarters, two police stations and the Philippine Ambassador’s residence as well as blowing up the radio station in Saigon.

Communications are in chaos and commercial flights from the airport have been cancelled.

North Vietnamese – Vietminh – troops have reinforced their siege of Khe Sanh, near the demilitarised zone.

The BBC article didn’t mention the battle for the ancient imperial city of Hue. Director Stanley Kubrick used a Hue-like setting for the final act of his 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.

Here’s some info on General Giap, taken from John Colvin’s Giap: Volcano Under Snow, reposted at Vets with a Mission:

Four-star General Vo Nguyen Giap led Vietnam’s armies from their inception, in the 1940s, up to the moment of their triumphant entrance into Saigon in 1975.

Possessing one of the finest military minds of this century, his strategy for vanquishing superior opponents was not to simply outmaneuver them in the field but to undermine their resolve by inflicting demoralizing political defeats with his bold tactics.

This was evidenced as early as 1944, when Giap sent his minuscule force against French outpost in Indochina. The moment he chose to attack was Christmas Eve. More devastatingly, in 1954 at a place called Dien Bien Phu, Giap lured the overconfident French into a turning point battle and won a stunning victory with brilliant deployments. Always he showed a great talent for approaching his enemy’s strengths as if they were exploitable weaknesses.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1968, the General launched a major surprise offensive against American and South Vietnamese forces on the eve of the lunar New Year celebrations. Province capitals throughout the country were seized, garrisons simultaneously attacked and, perhaps most shockingly, in Saigon the U.S. Embassy was invaded. The cost in North Vietnamese casualties was tremendous but the gambit produced a pivotal media disaster for the White House and the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Giap’s strategy toppled the American commander in chief. It turned the tide of the war and sealed the General’s fame as the dominant military genius of the 20th Century’s second half.

I remember a quote from Giap saying that he was willing to sacrifice 10,000 of his men to kill one American.* Remember, kill ratios and body counts were considered measures of success in this conflict.

* Between 1959 and 1975, more than 58,000 U.S. military personnel died in the Vietnam conflict.

Total Vietnamese casualties are estimated at 5.1 million, with civilians comprising four million of that total. The U.S. estimated that 900,000 NVA and VC fighters were killed by its troops and allied forces.

The NVA and VC suffered 45,000 dead and had another 7,000 taken prisoner during Tet.

From Vets with a Mission:

If Tet wasn’t a full-scale shock to the American public, it was at the very least, an awakening. The enemy that (U.S. President Lyndon Baines) Johnson and the generals had described as moribund had shown itself to be very alive and, as yet, unbeaten. America and its ARVN ally had suffered over 4,300 killed in action, some 16,000 wounded and over 1,000 missing in action. The fact that the enemy suffered far more and had lost a major gamble mattered little, because the war looked like a never ending conflict without any definite, realistic objective. The scenes of desolation in Saigon, Hue, and other cities looked to be war without purpose or end. Perhaps the most quoted US officer of the time was the one who explained the destruction of about one-third of the provincial capital of Ben Tre with unintended black humor: “It became necessary to destroy it,” he said, “in order to save it”. For many, this oft-quoted statement was not just a classic example of Pentagon double-think but also a symbol of the war’s futility. (Gen. William) Westmoreland (top commander in Vietnam) became the parody “General Waste-mor-land” of the anti-war movement.

Tet kicked off what would become a very bad year in the United States:

  • Johnson announced he wouldn’t stand for re-election
  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was assassinated
  • Martin Luther King was assassinated
  • Troop deployments in Vietnam peak at 550,000
  • The riots at the Democratic National Convention
  • Richard M. Nixon is elected president

Nixon’s contribution to the Vietnam War was the process of Vietnamization, or the replacement of U.S. combat troops by the troops of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN).

This was part of Nixon’s “peace with honour” strategy. U.S. soldiers left South Vietnam to its own devices as part of the Paris Peace Accord signed in January 1973, with a ceasefire declared on Jan. 15. The last U.S. troops left on March 29 of that year. While the U.S. had the right to resume bombing if North Vietnam violated the terms, it really didn’t ever do much to help its former South Vietnamese clients.

On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops rolled into Saigon, defeating the Republic of South Vietnam, unifying the country and thus truly ending the Vietnam War.

Fri, February 1 2008 » * Big Picture Stuff, Main Page