This is the third blog in a series about the Vietnam War and focuses on the consequences of the Communist Tét Offensive in the spring of 1968. It is also the fiftieth anniversary of the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN)/VC attack that changed the war and influenced the political climate back in the States. Tét is the celebration of the Lunar New Year in Vietnam. Usually Tét is a festive occasion where families go to visit friends to wish them good luck in the coming year. The Vietnamese holiday is linked to other lunar new year celebrations in other Buddhist countries in east Asia. Heretofore, there had been informal cease fire during the Tét holiday, but in 1968 General William Westmoreland warned his bosses in Washington he expected an attack from the Communists somewhere around the Tét holiday. There had been a built up of VC and PAVN forces around the American and South Vietnam Army (ARVN) base at Khe San in the Central Highlands and around cities throughout the south.
While the battle raged at Khe San, the VC troops blasted a hole in the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon early on the morning of January 31 and continued their attack with rockets and other weapons before being killed. All across South Vietnam VC and PAVN troops were attacking cities and other targets. At Khe San 6,000 Marines were surrounded by 20,000 enemy pounding them with mortars and artillery they had been smuggling into the south via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Because the Marines at Khe San were surrounded on the ground, supplies had to flown in. Eventually, enemy fire got so bad the planes couldn’t land or take off and the cargoes were dropped. American fighters dropped bombs and napalm on the North Vietnamese very close to the American perimeter. For the first time in the war, PAVN were using armor in their attack at Khe San. (1)
The Communists were attacking major cities and provincial capitals all across South Vietnam to try to get the population to rise up support them and overthrow the government in Saigon. In the outlying cities and capitals assassination teams were killing local officials in their homes. The North Vietnamese were losing the individual battles, but that was that was not their aim. Where they were winning was back in the States. Americans at home were questioning why their young men were dying fighting a war in a country where the enemy was indistinguishable from allies, and the people in general didn’t seem care about the sacrifices American troops were making to help them. (2)
The vast majority of television news coverage in the United States during the Tét offensive brought graphic images of war into American homes. The Vietnam War was the first American conflict covered by television and the military didn’t censor broadcasts. Not only that, neither was censorship applied to soldiers’ correspondence back home. So Americans were getting close-up images of the war in a way that had not been available to past generations. The Tét offensive lasted through the spring of 1968. In one week in February, Americans suffered 543 killed and over 2500 men wounded, highest total for any week so far in the war. (3)
At the end of March, President Johnson addressed the American people on the status of war. Johnson repeated an offer made in 1967 at San Antonio to stop the bombing in North Vietnam “We are reducing—substantially reducing—the present level of hostilities. And we are doing so unilaterally, and at once. Tonight, I have ordered our aircraft and naval vessels to make no attacks on North Vietnam, except in the area north of the demilitarized zone where the continuing enemy buildup directly threatens allied forward positions and where the movements of their troops and supplies are clearly related to that threat. The area in which we are stopping our attacks includes almost 90 percent of North Vietnam’s population, and most of its territory. Thus there will be no attacks around the principal populated areas, or in the food-producing areas of North Vietnam. Even this very limited bombing of the North could come to an early end—if our restraint is matched by restraint in Hanoi.” (4) At the end of his speech, he announced he would not seek re-election nor he would accept the nomination if it would offered to him by the Democratic Party.
In 1968, Johnson had much more to deal with on the domestic front than just the war in Vietnam. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, setting off urban riots in most major cities. Bobby Kennedy was the second Kennedy brother murdered, killed in Los Angeles in June while campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. Outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, demonstrators protesting the war in Vietnam clashed with police in a riot covered by the major TV networks. Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie won the Democratic nomination to face Republicans Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. A third party, The American Independent Party headed by Government George Wallace of Alabama and his vice-presidential candidate General Curtis LeMay (Ret.), drew most of its support from the deep south, where whites were upset by the Voting Rights of 1964.
While the parties were making decisions on who were going be their nominees for president, President Johnson was masterminding negotiations with the North Vietnamese to stop the fighting. The North Vietnamese’s response to his March 31 speech was at first negative. But with the help of some third parties, both sides agreed to meet in Paris and the talks got underway early in May. In October, the U.S. delegation announced an unilateral stop of bombing of North Vietnam with the expectation that the Communists would quit shelling cities in the south and reduce the number of soldiers and amount of equipment being imported from the North. (5) With the presidential election getting closer and Nixon leading in polls, President Johnson discovered the Republicans had someone talking to the South Vietnamese President Thieu, persuading him not join the talks because he could get a better deal from the Republicans when Nixon took office in 1969. (6) When the representatives from South Vietnam joined the talks, they refused to sit at the same table as the Vietcong. The negotiations came to sudden halt, depriving the Johnson administration’s last chance at peace before they left office in January 1968. (7)
(1) CIA, President’s Daily Brief, 02/17/1968.
(2)Karnow, pp. 526-526.
(3)Langguth, pp. 480.
(4)United States, Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Vol. VI, Vietnam, Jan-Aug, ’68, Document 169.
(5)Herring, pp. 213-14.
(6) Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume VII, Vietnam, September 1968–January 1969, Document 181.
(7)Herring, pp. 215-16.
For further reading:
Asprey, Robert B. War in the Shadows: the Guerrilla in History, 1975. 2 volumes
David M. Barrett, Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and His Vietnam Advisers, 1993.
Mark Bowden, Huế: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, 2017.
James C. Bradford, Editor, Atlas of American Military History, 2003.
Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the American in Vietnam, 1972.
David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, 1972.
Robert J. Hanyok, Spartans in Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945-1975, 2002.
George C. Herring. America’s Longest War: the United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 1979.
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: a History, 1983.
Langguth, A. J., Our Vietnam: the War 1954-1975, 2000.
For further viewing: Vietnam in HD, Episode 4, Tét Warning: Some scenes of combat in this video are graphic in nature. Viewer discretion is advised.