While the American people had been told repeatedly that there was a light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam, the deployment of some 525,000 troops had brought the United States no closer to achieving its limited political goals, and there would soon be a call for major new increases in troop deployments. In effect, the United States faced a stalemate in Vietnam because the enemy controlled the strategic initiative. During the early morning hours of 31 January 1968, the Vietnamese New Year, known as Tet, approximately 80,000 North Vietnamese regulars and NLF guerrillas attacked more than one hundred cities in South Vietnam. The military goal was to spark a popular uprising and, as captured documents revealed, “move forward to achieve final victory.” This final victory was not achieved, but psychological and political gains were made. The front page of the 1 February New York Times showed a picture of the U.S. embassy in Saigon under assault. Guerrillas had blasted their way into the embassy and held part of the embassy grounds for nearly six hours. All nineteen guerrillas were killed, as were four MPs, a marine guard, and a South Vietnamese embassy employee.
The enemy sustained major losses at Tet, from which it would take years to recover. But Tet also demonstrated the enemy’s great skill in planning, coordination, and courage. North Vietnamese regulars and NLF forces had successfully infiltrated previously secure population centers and discredited Saigon’s claims of security from attack.
On 27 February, Johnson received JCS chairman Earle Wheeler’s report on military requirements in South Vietnam. The document contained a request for 206,000 additional troops. To some, this was proof of the bankruptcy of the army’s strategy in Vietnam. Despite the large enemy losses during Tet, the United States was no closer to achieving its goal in Vietnam than it had been in 1965. There appeared to be no breaking point in the enemy’s will to continue the struggle indefinitely. The new reinforcements would bring the total American military commitment to three-quarters of a million troops. It was becoming increasingly evident that no amount of military power would bring North Vietnam to the conference table for negotiations.
That same evening CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite told the nation that the war was destined to remain deadlocked:
We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds…. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.