IT was 50 years ago today that the Tet Offensive began in South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam (NVA) and the insurgents within South Vietnam, the Viet Cong, launched a series of co-ordinated attacks on South Vietnamese positions including the capital city Saigon, where the US Embassy was a target.

The South Vietnamese military and their “advisers” in the US forces – there were almost 500,000 Americans in Vietnam at the time – were taken almost completely by surprise due to a colossal failure of intelligence.

The NVA had been spotted moving men and supplies to the borders of South Vietnam for days earlier, but no-one in command realised that they were doing so to go to the assistance of the Viet Cong, the Communist insurgents across South Vietnam, and not to aid the besiegers of the US base at Khe Sanh, a battle that had begun on January 21. It would be a very costly mistake, as most historians say the Tet Offensive was the beginning of the end of American involvement in Vietnam, where the US forces had been sent to aid the anti-Communist South Vietnamese government oppose the forces of the North Vietnam government previously led by Ho Chi Minh.

In November, 1967, the American military leader General William Westmoreland showed just how wrong the US high command was about the state of the war.

He said: “I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing. We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.”

He was right about the latter statement but not for the reason he thought.


THE Politburo in Hanoi had decided to mount what they called the General Offensive General Uprising. Ho Chi Minh by that point was no longer the active leader that he had been and would indeed die a year later. His successor as leader, Le Duan, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, had bested his opponents within the party who wanted a peaceful settlement and the offensive was given the go-ahead.

It takes its name from Tet, the Vietnamese New Year holiday, which that year was celebrated on January 30 and 31, and which was supposed to be the biggest festival of the year. Instead it became a signal for the Viet Cong to rise up across Vietnam, backed by North Vietnamese forces.

Some of the Viet Cong got the message wrong and attacked early on January 30, but the main attacks came that night and the following day.

Many of the eventual 24,000 South Vietnamese and American casualties were killed in just the first few hours of the offensive as the communist forces overran bases and entire towns in an attempt to win a quick victory that would inspire the general populace of South Vietnam to rise up against their government. This was a mistake on the part of the Hanoi Politburo – the South Vietnamese people were not then inclined to be ruled by the communists, and the South Vietnamese Army and the US forces started to resist the offensive with superior numbers and far better equipment including helicopters.

The battle of Hue, the former imperial capital in the north of the country, for example, would last for weeks. During that time the casualty rate for one American company reached around 60 per cent killed or wounded, similar to the D-Day landings at Normandy during the Second World War. The recapture of Hue on February 24 marked the end of the offensive.


THE country was almost completely in shock due to having been told they were winning the war. Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive proved they were not and the sight of Americans dying on the front line proved a turning point in the nation’s view of the war.

One of the most famous pictures of the entire Vietnam war was taken on February 1 at the start of the offensive. In a Saigon street, the South Vietnamese police chief Lt Col Nguyen Ngoc Loan, shot Viet Cong prisoner Nguyen Van Lem aka Bay Lop. Loan had just been told that his best friend, another police officer, had been killed, and his six children – including Loan’s godchildren – had been murdered in cold blood by Lop, but the picture came to symbolise the South Vietnamese government and many Americans questioned why their boys were dying over “there”.


MILITARILY the South Vietnamese and the US forces won the day eventually, but only after horrendous casualties on both sides – 1968 would later be marked as the bloodiest year of the entire war.

Politically, the communists won, because not for the first time, the US Government had been shown to lie about their progress in Vietnam.

Veteran television presenter Walter Cronkite, the man who told America that President John F Kennedy was dead, went to cover the end of the offensive and said it was time for the US to end the war.

“The only rational way out then,” Cronkite said to a huge television audience, “will be to negotiate not as victims but as an honourable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.”

President Lyndon B Johnson responded: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

A month after the Tet Offensive ended, Johnson addressed the nation on TV. He said he would press for peace, stop the bombing in North Vietnam and would not seek another term as president.

Under his successor Richard Nixon, America eventually got that peace in 1975 but the North Vietnamese communists got the whole of Vietnam and Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. The united Vietnam is still officially a socialist republic, but has embraced reforms so that it is now one of the fastest growing economies anywhere.

Fifty years on, not many commemorations of the Tet Offensive are taking place.