The Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive2018-11-28T09:55:30+00:00

The Tet Offensive for APUSH

Tet Offensive APUSH

About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.

In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.

The Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive was a coordinated attack on American and South Vietnamese troops in early 1968 by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops. The attack had profound political and psychological repercussions on the American domestic front.  The Tet Offensive led to declining public support for the war, and President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek a second term as president.

The Tet Offensive led to declining public support for the war, and President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek a second term as president.

The U.S. Checks Revolting Colonies… Ironic

The groundwork for the Vietnam War began as nationalistic movements throughout the world attempted to throw off the chains of colonialism.

The groundwork for the Vietnam War began shortly after the conclusion of World War II, as nationalistic movements throughout the world attempted to throw off the chains of colonialism. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, these nationalistic revolutions posed a particular problem for U.S. foreign policy.  With the world divided into an Eastern bloc dominated by the Soviet Union and its communist philosophy, and a Western bloc dominated by the United States and its capitalistic philosophy, every nationalistic revolution became a battleground for ideological supremacy.  The problem for the United States was that many of the nationalistic revolutions were being waged against the colonialism of the most loyal U.S. allies, (particularly Great Britain and France) whose continued oversight would keep them in the Western camp.  As nationalistic leaders looked for political support, they found a willing advocate in the Soviet Union.

As nationalistic leaders looked for political support, they found a willing advocate in the Soviet Union.

Ending French Rule

Such was the case in French Indochina, (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) where Ho Chi Minh’s forces (Vietminh) wanted to end French colonial rule.  The United States supported France with money and supplies, though not through troop commitments. In 1954, French control was overthrown and the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with U.S backed Ngo Dinh Diem leading the State of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and Ho Chi Minh leading the Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).  Elections to reunite the country were slated for 1956.  Clinging to the Cold War policy of “containment”, the United States operated under the “domino theory,” concluding that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to Communism, the others would likely give way in quick succession. Confident Diem would lose to Ho Chi Minh, the United States decided not to support reunification election and Vietnam remained divided at the 17th parallel.

Clinging to the Cold War policy of “containment”, the United States operated under the “domino theory,” concluding that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to Communism, the others would likely give way in quick succession.

The War Gets… Complicated

In its divided state, Communist sympathizers within South Vietnam known as the National Liberation Front (or Viet Cong), attempted to destabilize the Diem government through military action.  Despite the unpopularity and corruption of the Diem regime, Eisenhower’s government continued to offer support by sending more than one billion dollars in aid, and between 750 and 1500 military advisors to help train the South Vietnamese army from 1955 to 1961.  When Kennedy became president in 1961, Eisenhower’s policy of financial aid continued and the number of American “advisors” in South Vietnam increased to more than 15,000 by the end of 1963.  As internal support for Diem declined and Communism continued to infiltrate South Vietnam, the United States began to communicate support of a regime change.  In November 1963 Diem was assassinated, yet the new government did little to improve Vietnam’s situation.

Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and initially continued the policy of limited involvement in Vietnam.

Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and initially continued the policy of limited involvement in Vietnam.  The Viet Cong, however, assisted by North Vietnamese troops, made significant gains in South Vietnam.  Lyndon Johnson, a firm believer in the domino theory, did not want to be viewed by history as the president who let the first domino fall and lost Southeast Asia to Communism.  With the election of 1964 looming, Johnson did not want to appear to be “soft” on Communism.  So, Johnson ordered covert actions against North Vietnam.

With the election of 1964 looming, Johnson did not want to appear to be “soft” on Communism.  So, Johnson ordered covert actions against North Vietnam.

Time to Get Serious

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution granted Johnson a blank check to pursue escalation of the conflict in Vietnam without a Congressional declaration of war

In August 1964, the Johnson administration claimed North Vietnamese gunboats had attacked American naval vessels (which were most likely engaged in covert activities) in international waters and asked Congress for the authority to protect American troops.  What emerged was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution – essentially granting Johnson a blank check to pursue escalation of the conflict in Vietnam without a Congressional declaration of war (Johnson referred to it as “Grandma’s nightshirt”, because, “it covered everything.”).  In 1965, Johnson began bombing North Vietnam under Operation Rolling Thunder, with the hope of brokering a deal with the Hanoi government.  When this failed, more than 180,000 combat troops were sent to Vietnam by the end of the year.

Between 1965 and early 1968, the United States committed 500,000 troops to Vietnam, believing that the attrition rate on the Communist military would force a negotiated settlement.  The U.S also moved thousands of rural Vietnamese peasants to fortified relocation camps to prevent them from assisting the Viet Cong, motivated either through sympathy or intimidation.  Subsequently, villages were destroyed to prevent the Viet Cong from using them as operation bases.  As one U.S. general said, “it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”  As the war dragged on, opposition to the war, which had been minimal as late as 1965, began to grow – particularly on college campuses.  By 1967, there was significant, though minority, opposition to the war.

“It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”

As the war dragged on, opposition to the war, which had been minimal as late as 1965, began to grow

The Tet Offensive

Against this backdrop came the Tet Offensive in late January 1968.  Tet (the Asian New Year) was an unofficial truce between opposing sides.  However, the Viet Cong, assisted by North Vietnamese troops, launched a coordinated and comprehensive attack on American and South Vietnamese forces in more than 100 cities and towns. The attacks came as a complete surprise and allowed the Viet Cong to recapture much of the territorial gains the U.S. and South Vietnam had made in the past three years.

The attacks came as a complete surprise and allowed the Viet Cong to recapture much of the territorial gains the U.S. and South Vietnam had made in the past three years.

Quickly, U.S. forces mobilized and routed the Viet Cong, inflicting massive casualties on up to 45,000 North Vietnamese troops.  From a military standpoint, the Tet Offensive was a total failure for the Viet Cong and weakened its ability to launch subsequent large-scale offensives.  Its primary purpose had been to provoke a major rebellion of the South Vietnamese people against their government and American occupation, an objective that failed to materialize.  Nevertheless, the Tet Offensive had a tremendous psychological impact on the American public.

The Public Gets Weary

The initial success of the Tet Offensive revealed an increased suspicion that the United States was bogged down in an unwinnable war and that government officials had misled the American public.

Between 1965 and 1968, the American public had been assured by the Johnson Administration that serious progress was being made against the Viet Cong and that the war would quickly end with an American victory. The initial success of the Tet Offensive revealed an increased suspicion that the United States was bogged down in an unwinnable war and that government officials had misled the American public. Between January and March of 1968, the percentage of Americans who considered themselves “hawks” (favoring a military solution to the war) fell from 62 percent to 41 percent, while those who considered themselves “doves” (favoring a negotiated settlement or unilateral withdrawal) almost doubled, from 22 percent to 42 percent.

The Tet Offensive also had serious political ramifications for the 1968 presidential election.

The Tet Offensive also had serious political ramifications for the 1968 presidential election. Senator Eugene McCarthy emerged as an anti-war Democratic candidate determined to challenge Lyndon Johnson’s bid for reelection.  In the New Hampshire Democratic primary, McCarthy narrowly lost to the sitting president, despite the fact that his campaign was conducted largely by political amateurs.  On March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced he would not seek or accept re-nomination for president.  He also announced an end to the bombing of North Vietnam to help reach a negotiated settlement to the end of the war.  Certainly factors beyond the Tet Offensive led to this decision, notably the inability to afford both a war and the Great Society social programs, but the growing anti-war sentiment fostered by the Tet Offensive was certainly a significant component.

On March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced he would not seek or accept re-nomination for president.

To whatever degree the Tet Offensive contributed to Johnson’s decision, it also threw the Democratic party in disarray.  A range of candidates with different stands on Vietnam upset the Democratic National Convention of 1968 and ultimately contributed to Republican Richard Nixon’s election.  And despite the Tet Offensive’s increasing American opposition to a continued U.S. presence in Vietnam, it would be another five years before U.S. troops would withdraw.

Conclusion

Despite being a significant military failure for the Viet Cong, the Tet Offensive nevertheless bolstered their persistence.  The subsequent psychological impact on the American public demonstrated that continued confrontation might well lead to the end of the United States’ will to fight.  In the end, it did.

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