Just after midnight on January 30, 1968, some 84,000 Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese Army soldiers launched a coordinated attack on all of the provincial capital cities of South Vietnam. This surprise attack took place during the Lunar New Year or Tet holiday, which had been a time of ceasefire in previous years of the Vietnam War.
Although the Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese Army (NLF) reinforcements, it proved a public relations masterstroke. Although the Vietnam Conflict would drag on for another seven years, Tet 1968 represented a true turning point in the war.
Lead up to Tet:
The war between North and South Vietnam had already been raging for 13 years in 1968, although ground combat forces from the United States, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and other SEATO allies had joined the fight only in 1965. While the military and political leadership of the US publically expressed complete confidence in a swift victory for the anti-communist forces, the South Vietnamese army faced rampant desertion and low morale.
Nonetheless, in the early phases of foreign direct involvement in the war, American public opinion was strongly supportive of intervention. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, however, also received ample support and new recruits from all over Vietnam.
Late in January of 1968, the South Vietnamese troops and their foreign allies looked forward to a traditional seven-day ceasefire for the Tet holiday. About half of the South's 350,000 regular forces were on holiday leave, celebrating with their families; the 400,000-plus foreign troops were relaxing in barracks. More than 200 American officers enjoyed themselves at a pool party the night of January 30.
At the policy level, the American brass and the Johnson administration had convinced themselves that the communists were incapable of mounting a coordinated attack on southern cities. The North Vietnamese, however, believed that such a show of strength would convince the population of South Vietnam to rise up en masse to overthrow their corrupt military leaders and reunify the country under communist rule.
The Viet Cong, with support from the North Vietnamese Army, began a series of attacks that would strike more than 100 southern cities between January 30 and February 3, 1968. In each case, the communists unleashed a barrage of mortars and rockets, using weapons brought south via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and followed with a ground forces invasion.
Nha Trang, Ban Me Thout, Kontum, Da Nang, Qui Nhon and Hoi An were the first targets struck. To the (rather inexplicable) surprise of the South Vietnamese leaders and their foreign allies, the communists' major target was the southern capital at Saigon. A simultaneous propoganda drive urged South Vietnamese troops to change their allegiance. Meanwhile, emergency orders to return to duty from holiday leave went unheeded by many southerners and foreigners alike.
First Battle of Saigon:
Realizing that they did not have the forces necessary to take and hold the entire city of Saigon, the Viet Cong surrounded the city and then focused on six key areas. They deployed 35 battalions, and attacked the Presidential Palace, the South Vietnamese Army's headquarters, the Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the National Radio Station, the Long Binh Naval Headquarters building and the US Embassy.
Bloody house-to-house fighting engulfed the city, continuing off and on until early March. The US flew airstrikes against its ally's capital, killing hundreds of civilians.
Combat continued for more than a month in the streets of Saigon. Unable to hold their positions, though, the communist troops withdrew on March 8, 1968.
Battle for Hue:
Hue endured vicious urban combat until the communists finally withdrew on March 3, 1968. The South and its allies lost 668 killed and 3,700 wounded; the communists suffered between 2,400 and 8,000 killed and an unknown number wounded.
Although the Americans had wanted to avoid bombing the city, due to its historic importance, in the end almost all of Hue was destroyed in the fighting and more than 6,000 civilians were killed. Almost 5,000 of the civilian casualties were found in mass graves. Both the North and South Vietnamese forces accused one another of executing them, and in fact, both sides may have been guilty of carrying out such atrocities in Hue.
Communists Fall Back:
Unable to sustain their heavy losses, the surviving communist troops fell back from all of the southern cities during March and April of 1968. This strategic retreat did not signal an end to the general offensive, however. The so-called "Phase II" and "Phase III" attacks of May and August, 1968 represented a continuation of the Tet Offensive.
Militarily, Tet was a fiasco for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. They lost an estimated 45,000 soldiers killed and many more wounded or missing in the initial phase alone, and approximately 30,000 more in Phases I and II.
South Vietnam lost almost 5,000 soldiers killed, 16,000 wounded and around 1,000 missing in the first phase. Its SEATO allies lost over 4,000 troops killed and about 20,000 wounded or missing. In addition, 14,000 South Vietnamese civilians died in the fighting, and approximately 24,000 were wounded.
Aftermath of Tet:
Despite their much heavier losses, however, the North and Viet Cong gained a significant strategic victory in the Tet Offensive. Desertion rates from the South Vietnamese army went up to 150% of their pre-Tet rate. However, South Vietnam's urban population was angered by the Tet attack, and once-apathetic city dwellers rallied to support the government in Saigon.
In the US and other SEATO allies, images of the bloody fighting and of crimes such as National police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan's summary execution of a suspected Viet Cong officer, helped turn public opinion against the war. American president Lyndon Johnson grew so unpopular that in March of 1968, he announced that he would not run for a second term in office. His successor, Richard M. Nixon, initiated a program of "Vietnamization," meaning that the US withdrew its ground forces over the next several years and turned over responsibility for South Vietnam's defense to its own army.
In a very real sense, despite their military victory, the Tet Offensive signaled the beginning of the end for South Vietnam. On April 30, 1975, the war came to an end when the North Vietnamese "liberated" Saigon.
For more information, see this article on the Tet Offensive by Jennifer Rosenberg, About.com's Guide to 20th Century History.