Journalism in Action: Beverly Deepe Keever and Her Career

Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Tết Offensive

by Sam Mellema

The Tết Offensive is often considered one of, if not the, greatest turning point of the Vietnam War. Beginning on January 31, 1968, the Tết Offensive is named for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or Tết Nguyên Đán (Viet: “Festival of the First Morning of the First Day”), on which the operation began. Tết was, and is, a very important holiday for the Vietnamese, roughly equivalent in its importance to society to Christmas in the west. In fact, for the 13 odd years the Vietnam War had been waging for up to this point, both sides had always maintained a ceasefire on this holiday. The South Vietnamese government was so confident in the traditional ceasefire being upheld that it loosened restrictions on fireworks, which had been banned in Saigon out of fear in the previous year of either disguising enemy attacks or being used as weapons in and of themselves. Many Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) officers were on leave, assured by North Vietnam’s claim the previous October that they would uphold a weeklong truce in honor of Tết.

As we now know, the North Vietnamese had no intention of doing so. Hanoi wished to exploit the chaotic political situation in South Vietnam since the overthrow and assassination of Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm in 1963 and feared that the recent (relative) stabilization and moves towards democracy by Nguyễn Cao Kỳ and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu (for more information, see Politics in South Vietnam) could remove this weakness and turn South Vietnam into a stable, strong country, no longer dependent on foreign aid and intervention. They also saw the domestic unrest that was rampant in South Vietnam since the Buddhist Crisis as a sign of civilian distain for the South Vietnamese government, and by extension their willingness to embrace reunification with the North under the ideologies of Hồ Chí Minh and Marx. As such, the North Vietnamese Politburo, alongside the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (AKA the Việt Cộng) began to plan for a mass offensive, with the hopes that it would inspire those who despised the government in Saigon to rise up in turn.

While some Communist forces preemptively launched their attacks in the late hours of January 30th, the bulk of the forces launched attacks as planned just after midnight on January 31st, 1968. The offensive was the largest in the war up to that point and saw fighting across the entirety of Vietnam. Việt Cộng forces penetrated the defenses of the Anti-Communist forces so deeply that they launched an attack on the recently inaugurated American Embassy in Saigon, and while the attack was ultimately unsuccessful, the brazenness of the assault by a small team of 19 guerrillas stunned the anti-communists.

In fact, if there is a word to describe the Tết Offensive, it would be “Brazen.” Particular battles that began during the Tết Offensive include the Battle of Huế (pronounced “whey”), which lasted until March 2nd, and the Battle of Khe Sanh, which lasted until June 9th and was extensively covered by Beverely Keever. While the fiercest period of the Offensive was finished by the second week of February, attacks in the vein of Tết continued until September of 1968.

The Tết Offensive saw some of the greatest atrocities of the Vietnam War. After taking control of much of the former Imperial capital of Huế, the communist forces carried out a series of arrests and summary executions against designated “cruel tyrants and reactionary elements” (i.e., civilian civil servants and workers aligned with the South Vietnamese government), alongside many foreigners. While the exact number of those killed is a matter of debate, most scholars, though not the current Vietnamese Government, estimate that anywhere from around 3,000 to 6,000 people, including many women and children, were victims of communist killings during the Battle of Huế. The escalation of violence was met by reprisals by the anti-communist forces.

In the immediate aftermath of the Tết Offensive, both the Politburo in Hanoi and the Johnson Cabinet in D.C. considered the campaign to have been a catastrophic failure for their respective sides. On the communist side, the general uprisings and people’s revolution that the party expected to accompany the attacks largely failed to materialize. While there where a few uprisings in the remote countryside, they did not have a noticeable effect. Over 45,000 communist soldiers, both North Vietnamese and Việt Cộng, died during the Tết Offensive, compared to around 2,800 South Vietnamese and 1,500 American deaths. Meanwhile, the Americans were also very displeased. For years before the Tết Offensive, the American military had been projecting a position of utmost confidence and strength to the public. This was, however, not just a fabricated lie, but something they (to an extent) believed at the highest levels of command. The sheer number of troops that were involved in the conventional assaults undertaken by the North Vietnamese and Việt Cộng, as well as the penetration of areas thought secure by various rag-tag teams of guerrillas, stunned the Pentagon. While there were some rumblings of potential actions by the communists on or near Tết, few, if any, believed they were capable of an offensive so massive.

The American public were similarly stunned. General William Westmoreland, the commanding American officer in Vietnam during the Tết Offensive, had been especially prolific in professing a “light at the end of the tunnel” optimism to the press, claiming that all that remained to oppose both the South Vietnamese government and the American presence were scattered bands of ill-equipped and ill-trained Việt Cộng, hiding in their labyrinthine tunnels under the vast jungles of the Annamite Range and the Central Highlands, or among the infinite mangroves of the Mekong Delta. The Tết Offensive shattered that carefully crafted perception of the war and fueled the already sizable opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam. By the time that Tết next rolled around, President Lyndon B. Johnson had announced his decision to not seek re-election, and anti-Vietnam protestors clashed with police outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Opposition to the Vietnam War would only grow from there and would eventually lead to the “Vietnamization” of the war in an effort to reduce the American presence– and from there, the fall of Saigon.

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