31 January 1968: The Tết Offensive Begins

On 31 January 1968, General Võ Nguyên Giáp launched a series of coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam, choosing Vietnam’s most important holiday, Tết Nguyên Đán, as the date. The surprise attacks were planned to break the stalemate in the war against the US and South Vietnamese troops. Giáp believed that the attacks would cause the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to collapse and foment discontent and rebellion among the South Vietnamese population. Furthermore, Giáp believed the alliance between South Vietnam and the United States was unstable and hoped the offensive would drive the final wedge between them and convince American leaders to give up their support for the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).

The first attack on 31 January, and considered the beginning of the Tết Offensive, involved a 14-man Việt Cộng platoon that infiltrated the US Embassy in Saigon. They managed to breach the Embassy’s inner courtyard before being killed. This audacious attack, and its initial success, stunned American and international observers, who saw images of the carnage broadcast on television as it occurred. Mot shockingly, images spread of the execution of a Việt Cộng guerrilla captured after the raid.

Although the initial attacks stunned both the US and South Vietnamese armies, causing them to temporarily lose control of several cities, they quickly regrouped, beat back the attacks and inflicted heavy casualties on the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces. During the Battle of Huế, intense fighting lasted for a month, resulting in the destruction of the city. During their occupation, PAVN forces executed thousands of people in the Massacre of Huế.

Around the US combat base at Khe Sanh, fighting continued for two more months. The offensive was initially considered as a military defeat for North Vietnam by America. But as General Westmoreland reported that defeating the Việt Cộng would necessitate 200,000 more American soldiers and require the activation of the reserves, even loyal supporters of the war effort began to see that a change in strategy was needed. It had a profound effect on the US government and shocked the US public, which had been led to believe by its political and military leaders that the North Vietnamese were being defeated and incapable of launching such an ambitious military operation such as the Tết Offensive. American public support for the war soon declined and the US sought negotiations to end the war through the first meeting between US and North Vietnamese delegates and, on the 10 May 1968, the Paris negotiations that were eventually signed as the Paris Peace Accords on 27 January 1973.

Though Giáp had succeeded in surprisins US and ARVN forces at the start of the Tết Offensive, his forces were spread too thinly. US and ARVN forces managed to successfully counter most of the attacks and inflict heavy losses on the PAVN, National Liberation Front (NLF) and People’s Liberation Armed Forces of Vietnam (PLAF) aggressors.

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