U.S. troops had been in Vietnam for three years before the Tet Offensive, and most of the fighting they had encountered were small skirmishes involving guerilla tactics. Although the U.S. had more aircraft, better weapons, and hundreds of thousands of trained soldiers, they were stuck in a stalemate against the Communist forces in North Vietnam and the guerilla forces in South Vietnam (known as the Viet Cong).
The United States was discovering that traditional warfare tactics did not necessarily work well in the jungle against the guerilla warfare tactics they were facing.
January 21, 1968
In early 1968, General Vo Nguyen Giap, the man in charge of North Vietnam’s army, believed it was time for the North Vietnamese to make a major surprise attack on South Vietnam. After coordinating with the Viet Cong and moving troops and supplies into position, the Communists made a diversionary attack against the American base at Khe Sanh on January 21, 1968.
January 30, 1968
On January 30, 1968, the real Tet Offensive began. Early in the morning, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong forces attacked both towns and cities in South Vietnam, breaking the ceasefire that had been called for the Vietnamese holiday of Tet (the lunar new year).
The Communists attacked around 100 major cities and towns in South Vietnam.
The size and ferocity of the attack surprised both the Americans and the South Vietnamese, but they fought back. The Communists, who had hoped for an uprising from the populous in support of their actions, met heavy resistance instead.
In some towns and cities, the Communists were repelled quickly, within hours.
In others, it took weeks of fighting. In Saigon, the Communists succeeded in occupying the U.S. embassy, once thought impregnable, for eight hours before they were overtaken by U.S. soldiers. It took about two weeks for U.S. troops and South Vietnamese forces to regain control of Saigon; it took them nearly a month to retake the city of Hue.
In military terms, the United States was the victor of the Tet Offensive for the Communists did not succeed in maintaining control over any part of South Vietnam. The Communist forces also suffered very heavy losses (an estimated 45,000 killed). However, the Tet Offensive showed another side of the war to Americans, one which they did not like. The coordination, strength, and surprise instigated by the Communists led the U.S. to realize that their foe was much stronger than they had expected.
Faced with unhappy American public and depressing news from his military leaders, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to end the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.