The Tet Offensive and the Vietnam War


By Patrick N. AllittEmory University

On January 31, 1968, the American commander on the ground in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, had claimed that he could see his way clear to a resolution of the war. Yet, a few weeks later in the Tet offensive in the Vietnamese New Year, even the American embassy in Saigon was under direct attack. Suddenly, guerilla forces rose up in the cities; they were already controlling the countryside.

A salute by a US soldier.
The Vietnam War had lasting consequences for American military policy. (Image: Bumble Dee/Shutterstock)

We now know that the Tet offensive was a military defeat for the north, and for the Viet Cong. It destroyed their infrastructure in the cities, but it was an enormous propaganda victory for them. It showed that American policy wasn’t making the progress that the politicians and the generals had kept implying. It contributed to a growing crisis of credibility that took a very, very long time to disperse—the idea that the government might routinely be lying to you about what’s really going on. Let us take a look at the events in American politics which worsened the Vietnam crisis.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

1968: The Chaotic Year

The election campaign of 1968 witnessed scenes of massive disruption over the war issue. The Democratic candidates split over whether to support a war policy at all. Once Johnson had decided not to run for reelection, his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, became the presumptive Democratic candidate. Out of loyalty to Johnson, though, he continued to advocate fighting the war to a successful conclusion, whereas Eugene McCarthy, who also had entered the race, favored the quickest possible disengagement from the war.

A black and white photograph of Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King was killed in 1968. (Image: w:Yoichi Okamoto/Public domain)

Late in the primary campaigns, Robert Kennedy, the former Attorney General under President Kennedy, also entered the race. He was assassinated in Los Angeles just after winning the primary. This was also the year in which Martin Luther King was killed.

At the Democratic convention itself in Chicago, there were fights between demonstrators and the police. “Mad” Daly’s tough, no-nonsense cops outside the convention were beating up the demonstrators, and some of the delegates inside wanted to suspend the convention.

Richard Nixon and the War

Humphrey was chosen as the Democratic candidate, but in a weakened state because the Democratic Party was so divided over what to do about the war. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon was able to stage a comeback, and nailed down the Republican nomination in Miami in the same year. He claimed that he was going to bring with him the “silent majority,” that is, people who weren’t outspoken in these very passionate days, but did believe strongly in fighting the war to an honorable conclusion.

Peace talks began in Paris, but Ho Chi Minh was able to use them to delay the actual conclusion of peace. He knew that as dedicated as Nixon was to peace with honor, he certainly would not withdraw at all costs, but only under circumstances that looked favorable to American prestige in the Cold War.

Nixon’s decision to widen the war into Cambodia in 1970 set off another great wave of campus demonstrations. The National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio opened fire and killed four of the student onlookers.

President Nixon announcing the Cambodian incursion to Americans.
President Nixon decided to widen the Vietnam War into Cambodia in 1970. (Image: Jack E. Kightlinger/Public domain)

The Outcome of the Vietnam War

Americans didn’t finally disengage from the war until 1973, although they were ratcheting down their scale of involvement rapidly after 1970. American prisoners of war returned home, although there are people who allege that some prisoners are still being held in Vietnam, and that men missing in action have never been accounted for. The Watergate crisis of 1972 through 1974, and the unpopularity of the war, prevented the Americans from ever returning to Vietnam, even when the North Vietnamese army launched a conventional offensive against the south, and finally overran it in 1975.

The brutal repression in the south by the Communist victors after they had won led many Americans to re-think their whole approach to the war. The desperate escape of the Vietnamese people trying to get away from the Communist regime after 1975 showed that the Communist people were absolutely ruthless in enforcing their regime by force on the conquered south.

The Justification of America’s Role in Vietnam

American neo-conservatives, notably Michael Novak and Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine, argued that the Americans’ role had been justified after all, not least on human rights grounds. The human rights violations after the war were so severe. This is what Norman Podhoretz wrote in 1976:

Vietnam was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. When we were losing, we said we were winning, and in the desperate effort to win, we applied military force in ways that were at once brutal and inhibited, and it inspired widespread repugnance at home. But… it was not wrong in the purposes for which it was fought.

In other words, on the big question of anti-Communism, it was as necessary as ever.

The American Military Policy After the War

The military introduced the Vietnam syndrome, the idea that the army needs to be very cautious before committing itself in a foreign venture. It must restrict the media’s access to the theater of war so that the kinds of scenes on American TV of the 1960s don’t recur. Before going into war, the politicians must be sure that they’ve got the “axe it” strategy—the ability to get out of a war quickly and decisively. They’ve concluded since Vietnam that war is going to be popular only if it’s short.

Since then, the military has devoted an enormous amount of attention to keeping American casualties low, so high-tech weaponry has become a higher priority than ever. All these factors certainly operated in the Gulf War in the early 1990s, which was quick and very closely managed—fought to a decisive conclusion, with very low American casualties.

Common Questions about the Tet Offensive and the Vietnam War

Q: How was the Tet offensive a propaganda victory for North Vietnam?

The Tet offensive showed that American policy wasn’t making the progress that the politicians and the generals had kept implying.

Q: What happened at Kent State University in Ohio?

During campus demonstrations at Kent State University in Ohio, the National Guardsmen opened fire and killed four of the student onlookers.

Q: What was the split amongst the Democratic candidates during the election campaign of 1968?

The Democratic candidates split over whether to support the Vietnam war policy or not.

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1968: Vietnam War, Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Riots in America
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