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Tet offensive

More About The 1968 Tet Offensive

For several thousand years, Vietnamese Lunar New Year has been a

traditional celebration that brings the Vietnamese a sense of

happiness, hope and peace. However, in recent years, It also

bring back a bitter memory full of tears. It reminds them the

1968 bloodshed, a bloodiest military campaign of the Vietnam War

the North Communists launched against the South.

The "general offensive and general uprising" of the north marked

the sharp turn of the Vietnam War. Today there have been a great

number of writings about this event. However, it seems that many

key facts in the Communist campaign are still misinterpreted or


In the mid-80, living in Saigon after being released from the

Communist "re-education camp," I read a book published in the

early 1980's in America about the story of the 1968 Tet

Offensive. It said that the North Vietnamese Army supreme command

had imitated one of the greatest heroes of Vietnam, King Quang

Trung, who won the most spectacular victory over the Chinese

aggressors in the 1789 counter-attack - in planning the 1968


The book quoted King Quang Trung's tactic of surprise. He let the

troops celebrate the 1789 Tet Festival one day ahead so that he

could launch the attacks on the first three days of the lunar new

year while the Chinese troops were still feasting and not ready

to organize their defense.

Those who claimed the similarity between the two campaigns

certainly did not know the whole truth, but jumped into

conclusion with wild imagination after learning that the North

Vietnamese attacking units also celebrated Tet "one day ahead"

before the attacks.

In fact, the Tet Offensive broke out on the Tet's Eve - in the

early morning of January 30, 1968 at many cities of Central

Vietnam, such as Da Nang and Qui Nhon, as well as cities in the

central coastal and highland areas, that lied within the

Communist 5th Military Region.. The other cities to the south

that included Saigon, were attacked 24 hours later at the small

hours of January 31. Thus the offensive lost its element of total

surprise that every tactician has to respect.

But It surprised me that some in the American media were still

unaware of such tragic story.

The story started some 5 months previously. On August 8, 1967,

the North Vietnam government approved a lunar calendar

specifically compiled for the 7th time zone that covers all

Vietnam, replacing the traditional lunar calendar that had been

in use in Asia for hundreds of years.

That old calendar was calculated for the 8th time zone that

Beijing falls right in the middle. It was accepted in general by

a few nations such as China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and

somewhat in Japan and Korea, mostly for traditional celebrations

and religious purposes. South Vietnam used this calendar. With

common cultural origin, these countries needed not have their own

calendar, particularly it has not been used for scientific and

administrative activities.

The North Vietnam new lunar calendar differs from the common

calendar about some dates, such as the leap months of certain

year (1984 and 1987) and the Tet's Eve of the three Lunar New

Years: Mau Than (1968), Ky Dau (1969) and At Suu (1985). South

Vietnam celebrated the first day of the Mau Than lunar year on

January 30, 1968, while North Vietnam celebrated it on Jan 29,


It was obviously that the North Vietnamese leaders had ordered

the offensives to be launched on the night of the first day of

Tet to take the objectives by total surprise. By some reason, the

North Vietnamese Army Supreme Command was not aware of the fact

that there were different dates for Tet between North and South

Vietnam. Therefore, most NVA units in the Communist 5th Military

Region - closer to North Vietnam - probably used North Vietnamese

calendar, and conducted their attacks in the night between Jan 29

and 30, while their comrades farther to the south attacked in the

night from Jan 30 to 31.

Many in the intelligence branch of the South Vietnamese Armed

Forces were well aware of the reason why the Communist forces

launched their attacks at two different dates. Information from

sources among NVA prisoners of war and ralliers about the new

calendar of North Vietnam should have been neglected by the

American side. The information was also available in broadcast

from Hanoi Radio.

In military operations, nothing is more important than surprise.

So the Communist forces lost their advantage of surprise on more

than half of the objectives. Had the Vietnamese Communists

conducted their coordinated attacks at the same H-hour, South

Vietnam would have been in much more troubles.

The large scale offensive resulted in drastic human and morale

losses of the Communist forces. However, the offensive caused an

extreme negative effect in the American public opinion and

boosted the more bitter protests against the war.

Until lately, the Ha Noi propaganda and political indoctrination

system has always claimed the Tet offensive their military

victory, and never insisted on their victory over the morale of

the American public.. Obviously, Ha Noi leaders won a priceless

victory at an unintended objective.

In South Vietnam, on the contrary, the offensive created an

unexpected attitude among the people.

After the first few hours of panic, the South Vietnamese armed

forces reacted fiercely. There were hundreds of stories of brave

soldiers and small units who fought their enemies with incredible


A large number of those who were playing fence-sitters especially

in the region around Hue City then took side with the nationalist


Several mass graves were found where thousands unarmed soldiers,

civil servants and civilians were shot, stabbed, or with skulls

mashed by clubs and buried in strings of ropes, even buried

alive. A large number of VC-sympathizers who saw the horrible

graves, undeniable evidence of the Communist barbarian crimes,

changed side.

The most significant indication of such attitude could be

observed from the figures of young volunteers. to join the army.

After the first wave of Communist attacks, a great number of

youth under draft age - below 20 years old - voluntarily enrolled

in the army for combat units, so high that thousands of young

draftees were delayed reporting for boot camps.

On the Communist side, the number of ralliers known as "chieu

hoi" increased about four times. The offensive planners

apparently expected the so-called "people upraising," so most

secret cells were ordered to emerge. When the attacking units

were crushed, cell members had to flee to the green

forests. Thus the Tet offensive helped South Vietnam neutralize

much of the Communist infrastructure before the Phoenix Campaign

got rid of many others.

Unfortunately, such achievements were nullified by the waves of

protests in America. As in any other developing countries, nobody

takes heed of a speech from a Vietnamese official. But the same

thing from an American statesman or even a protester could be

well listened to and trusted. So information from the Western

media produced rumors that the USA was about to sell off South

Vietnam to the Communist blocks.

The rumors were almost absolutely credible to the Vietnamese -

particularly the military servicemen of all ranks - because of

another hearsay that until now have a very powerful impact on the

mind of a great number of the South Vietnamese. There have been

no poll on the subject, but it was estimated that more than half

of the soldiers strongly believed that "it was the Americans who

helped the Communist attack the South Vietnamese cities."

Hundreds of officers from all over South Vietnam asserted that

they "saw" NVA soldiers moving into the cities on US Army trucks,

or American helicopters transporting supplies to NVA units. In

Saigon, most people accepted the allegation that the Americans

deliberately let the Communists infiltrate the capital city

because the American electronic sensor defense system around

Saigon was able to detect things as small as a mouse crossing the

hi-tech fences.

Another hearsay among the South Vietnamese military ran that

"none of the American military units or installation and agencies

- military or civilian - was under Communist first phase of the

offensive (February) except for the US Embassy. And only after

nearly three weeks did the US Marines engaged in the battle of

Hue, in the old Royal Palace" The allegation seemed to be true.

The American combat units, however, were fighting fierce battles

in phase 2 (May 1968) and phase 3 (September 1968).

Similar rumors might have been of no importance if they were in

America.But in Vietnam, they did convince a lot of people. In the

military, they dealt deadly blows on the soldiers' morale. Their

impacts still lingered on until the last days of April 1975.

The truth in the rumors did not matter much. But the fact that a

great numbers of the fighting men strongly believed the rumors

turned them into a deadly psychological weapon which very few or

maybe none has ever properly treated in writings about the

Vietnam War. Most authors studied the war at high echelons, but

neglected the morale of the buck privates and the effect of the

media in the Vietnam War. No military plan even by top

strategists in the White House could succeed if half of the

privates believed that they would be defeated before long. So why

should they go on fighting?

For years, I have been wondering how much the American public was

uninformed about the Vietnam War.

From "My War" (unpublished) by L.T.

Source: Essay UK -

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