Fifty years ago, if the US had been in command of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese military, short of telling them to surrender, the US could not have ordered a more disastrous course than what was ordered by Hanoi. Over strenuous opposition within the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese People’s Army, hardliners in the Hanoi regime won out over moderates and ordered a surprise nation-wide offensive throughout South Vietnam that would lead to popular uprisings and the toppling of the Vietnamese government. Now many North Vietnamese and Viet Cong officers realized this was military madness, but waves of arrest of North Vietnamese officers in 1967 broke the back of the military resistance to this plan.
Timed to occur during the truce for the celebration of Tet in Vietnam at the end of January 1968, the offensive met with bloody defeat. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese incurred, between January and September of 1968, 100,000 casualties, of which about half were fatalities. The offensive played into the American strengths of heavy fire power, complete command of the air and rapid troop movements. The ARVN units stood and fought and there were no popular uprisings. The Viet Cong was finished as a strategically important factor in the War, with the remainder of the War being largely a conventional conflict.
The Tet Offensive was a clear military victory for the US and its allies. How a military victory of such a magnitude was transformed into a political defeat will be the subject of another post.
“[The Tet Offensive] failed because we underestimated our enemies and overestimated ourselves. We set goals which we realistically could not achieve.”
Tran Van Tra, NVA General, writing in 1978