The Tet Offensive

Tet Offensive

An M-113 armored personnel carrier oversees the evacuation of South Vietnamese villagers during the Tet Offensive.

General William Westmoreland

General William Westmoreland

The Tet Offensive occurred on January 30, 1968 in South Vietnam.  It was a combined effort by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to attack key locations in the South, including the United States embassy.  The Offensive would ignore the hard targets of American military bases in South Vietnam and would instead pursue attacks against urban centers in the South like Hue and even Saigon itself.

The Tet Offensive was so named after the Vietnamese New Year of Tet, during which it occurred.  The holiday meant that South Vietnamese soldiers were not at their posts when the attacks began.  The United States forces had caught wind of an attack, but they had suspected that it would be against their bases in the South.  Instead the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces defied expectations and assaulted the cities in the south.  The citites had been identified as the crucial targets for the attacks because they were the gap in the Americans' armor.

Warfare up to this point in Vietnam had taken place in the jungles and in the rural villages.  People fled to the cities to escape the fighting and death in the jungles.  The Tet Offensive would show everyone in South Vietnam that nowhere was safe.  this would spark a refugee crisis after the attacks had concluded, and would place doubt on whether the Americans could be relied on.  United States forces had withdrawn to their bases shortly before the Offensive began, expecting the attacks.  The Viet Cong could spin this to South Vietnamese citizens as the Americans leaving the innocent to be slaughtered because they did not truly care for them.  This tied neatly in with another goal of the Tet Offensive, a general revolution in the cities by civilians against the government and the Americans. 

The invading forces would round up known U.S. collaborators and execute them on the streets during the Offensive.  They did this to intimidate everyone from working with the Americans.  the Communist forces even set up revolutionary governments in the cities they took over, though these governments did not last very long.

Indeed the Tet Offensive actually cost the Viet Cong and NVA significantly in terms of manpower.  over 45,000 Communist troops were killed during the assault.  The United States would claim the Tet Offensive as a victory on paper, but on paper is where victory mattered the least at this point in time.

American citizens would witness General William Westmoreland deliver a speech to media crews in the ruins of the U.S. embassy in Saigon about how the United States was winning the war.  They did not buy it.

The Offensive succeeded wildly because of the chaos it sewed in the United States, thanks to the media.  The United States press witnessed the chaos and carnage of the Offensive firsthand and relayed it back to the public in graphic detail.  News organizations realized that the government was lying to them after General Westmoreland stood in the ruins of the US embassy and claimed an American victory.  It became clear that the government was not interested in telling the people the truth, so the media realized that burden of informing the people truthfully fell to it. 

The articles published by The New York Times and other outlets were actively pursuing an anti-war agenda by this point in the war.  The coming election was a chance for real change in American policies regarding the war.

Newspapers wrote biting indictments of the leaders who appeared to be telling bald-faced lies straight to the American public.  Though some more government-friendly organizations still held on to the official reports as proof the United States was still winning the war, opinion had shifted dramatically, and media hurried to capitalize.