The Vietnam War's Tet Offensive: A Time for Heroes
50 years ago, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army launched an all-out effort at victory in the Vietnam War. The year was 1968 and it was a time that required heroes to repel communist aggression. Through the tremendous sacrifices made by American and South Vietnamese troops, the Tet Offensive resulted in an overwhelming defeat for the VC and the NVA.
Tet is the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar. During the Vietnam War, the celebration of the lunar new year had previously been a period of informal truce between North and South Vietnam. Using the holiday to achieve complete surprise, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army launched a massive offensive in late January 1968. Aiming to destroy the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and to incite an uprising of the South Vietnamese population, the VC and the NVA launched more than 120 attacks across the length and breadth of South Vietnam. Paying close attention to the antiwar elements on the American home front, the communists were desperate to oust the U.S. military from the conflict.
U.S. Marines and ARVN troops in action at Hamo Village during the Tet Offensive. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Tet Offensive featured some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam War. While the sudden and rapid strikes brought some initial success to the VC and the NVA, any gains were soon erased as U.S. and ARVN forces ferociously fought back. Communist losses were staggering as they lost an estimated 40,000 of the 84,000 men who had taken part in the fighting. South Vietnam’s population did not rise up against the Americans and the Viet Cong suffered such heavy losses that they were essentially destroyed as an effective fighting force. Following Tet, the communists were forced onto the defensive and abandoned land that they had controlled for years.
For all of its faults, the ARVN fought well alongside their American allies during the Tet Offensive. According to Andrew Wiest in his book Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN, South Vietnamese forces suffered “two-thirds of the estimated total of twelve thousand allied casualties lost in the campaign.” Militarily, Tet was an unquestionable victory, but as Weist writes, it “ripped the heart out of the American war effort.”
ARVN Rangers defending Saigon. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
How could such an overwhelming victory have sealed the fate of the American military effort in South Vietnam? That is a question that remains highly debated to this day. After being told by U.S. leadership that the end of the war was coming into sight, many in the public saw the Tet Offensive as proving otherwise. As Americans were presented with the images of the bitter fighting around South Vietnam, more and more became dissatisfied with a war that they didn’t understand. With widespread disunity and political chaos around the country, the will of the United States to persevere in the Vietnam War began to implode.
Blame for the situation has been attributed to the media for trying to turn the American public against the war, politicians for hindering the efforts of the U.S. military, and military commanders for not understanding the nature of the conflict. While there is a degree of truth to all of these, it’s important to never lose sight of the heroes of the U.S. military and the ARVN who fought for South Vietnam’s survival during the Tet Offensive and beyond.
U.S. Marines navigating their way through the ruins of the hamlet of Dai Do after days of intense fighting during the Tet Offensive. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Vietnam's Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN by Andrew Wiest.