The Story of the Tet Offensive

tags: LBJ, Vietnam War, war, Tet Offensive

Robert Buzzanco is a scholar of twentieth-century US history and diplomatic history at the University of Houston.

At the end of January, the media will commemorate the fifty-year anniversary of one of the Vietnam War’s most pivotal moments: the Tet Offensive.

On January 30, 1968, the combined forces of the Viet Cong, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces in the South, and the People’s Army of Vietnam from the North attacked virtually every important military and political center in the Republic of Vietnam, even invading the US embassy. Within sixty days, President Lyndon Johnson would reject the military’s request for a troop surge, begin de-escalating the war, and withdraw from the 1968 presidential campaign. Even then, observers saw Tet as a turning point in the Vietnam era, and it has maintained near-mythic status ever since.

The consensus view still holds that Tet was a significant American military victory, derailed by political factors at home — especially in the media. Walter Cronkite came to symbolize this domestic opposition after he famously implored Johnson to negotiate a way out of the war during a February 27 Special Report.

While the Vietnamese did suffer huge losses in 1968 (particularly in the so-called Tet II and Tet III offensives later that year), the January 30 attack exposed grave American vulnerabilities, reinforcing the view that the military could not expect future success. People with more influence than Cronkite had been saying that for years.

For some time, senior officials had expressed their misgivings about the war. They pointed out that the government in South Vietnam lacked broad public support, that their enemy was more integrated into the local population, and that American soldiers were not well suited for fighting in Vietnam. As early as 1965, US Commander General William Westmoreland warned that sending in ground troops would “at best buy time”: the military would need more and more reinforcements “until, like the French, we would be occupying an essentially hostile foreign country.”

Read entire article at Jacobin

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