January 30, 2013 will mark the 45th anniversary of one of the significant turning points in the War in Vietnam. Public opinion was already deteriorating but this offensive by the Communist Vietnamese, although seen as militarily unsuccessful for the North greatly changed the view and support of the American public as to our continued involvement. The Tết Offensive was reported as a significant turning point in the war. The news media were able to capture this street fighting on tape in addition to the attack on the American Embassy. This new offensive was immediately brought into the homes of American families through reporting by television and the press. The sensationalism of this reporting brought forth a misrepresentation of the actual facts that took place during the Tết Offensive of 1968. The reports led the American people to think that we were losing the war in Vietnam and that the Tết Offensive was a major victory for North Vietnam. This was not the case. The VC suffered such high casualties that they were no longer considered a fighting force and their ranks would have to be replaced by North Vietnamese regulars. The civilian population of South Vietnam was indifferent to both the current regime in South Vietnam and the Viet Cong. The civilian population, for the most part, did not join with the VC during the Tết Offensive.
On January 30, 1968, the Tết 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 Tết (the lunar New Year).
North Vietnamese General Giap was prepared to take a gamble. His divisions had been battered whenever they met the American forces in conventional combat and the VC -- if not exactly on the retreat -- were at least being pushed backwards. Hanoi was perfectly aware of the growing US peace movement and of the deep divisions the war was causing in American society. What Giap needed was a body-blow that would break Washington's will to carry on and at the same time would undermine the growing legitimacy of the Saigon Government once and for all. In one sense, time was not on Giap's side. While Hanoi was sure that the Americans would tire of the war as the French had before them, the longer it took, the stronger the Saigon Government might become. Another year or so of American involvement could seriously damage the NLF and leave the ARVN capable of dealing with its enemies on its own. Giap opted for a quick and decisive victory that would be well in time for the 1968 US Presidential campaign.
There was a prior agreement to "cease fire" during the Tết Lunar New Year celebrations. Both North and South Vietnam announced on national radio broadcasts that there would be a two-day cease-fire during the holiday. Nonetheless, the Communists launched an attack that began during the early morning hours of 30 January 1968, the first day of Tết. The Communists attacked about 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.
The initial attacks stunned the US and South Vietnamese armies and took them by surprise, but most were quickly contained and beaten back, inflicting massive casualties on communist forces. During the Battle of Hue, intense fighting lasted for a month resulting in the destruction of the city by US forces while the Communist executed thousands of residents in the massacre. Around the US combat base at Khe Sahn fighting continued for two more months. The offensive 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 communists were, due to previous defeats, incapable of launching such a massive effort.
The fiercest battle raged the ancient city of Hue, which had been captured by the insurgents and which the US army only recaptured with great difficulty. Hue was also a sacred city to the Vietnamese and the violent suppression of anti-government protests by Buddhist monks had crisis had alienated the population from the Saigon Government. The insurgents therefore found considerable support among the populace. Insurgents supported by some ten NVA battalions infiltrated Hue, the ancient Vietnamese capital, and within a few hours overrun the entire city except for the headquarters of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 3rd Division and the garrison of US advisors. Thousands of political prisoners were set free and thousands of government officials and sympathizers were rounded up and many were shot. Close to 6,000 civilians were killed, mostly by the indiscriminate bombing and shellfire and nearly 120,000 citizens of Hue had been made homeless. Those parts of Hue that escaped relatively undamaged were later wrecked by days of looting by soldiers from the original ARVN garrison, who had played no role in the fighting.
The fight for Hue ended on February 25th at a cost of 119 Americans and 363 ARVN dead. American wounded during the battle for Hue came to just under a thousand, compared to slightly over 1,200 ARVN. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and insurgent dead was about sixteen times that number.
In military terms, the United States was the victor of the Tết 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 Tết 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.
In Hue today, there are memorial services to honor those civilians who were murdered during the 1968 Tết offensive. Families and friends gather to morn, pray and remember. Over 2,000 victims of the red massacre have been found, many of them unidentified. It is estimated that more than 3,000 residents of Hue perished at the hands of the Communists during their occupation of this former Imperial City. Medical examination of the remains revealed that the majority had their heads bashed in with rifle butts, many had been shot after they were trussed up with wire, their hands behind their backs, and some buried alive hurriedly in shallow graves.
The only US memorial to the Tết offensive in Hue is the USS Hue City, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser, is the only ship named after a battle of the Vietnam War. Each year the ship holds a memorial service to honor the Marines who fought at Hue and to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice there. Veterans of the battle from across the country have been invited to attend the memorial service held at the base Ocean Breeze Conference Center.
Today, the Citadel, once home to the Nguyen Dynasty, can be viewed as an example of the city’s continuing transformation. It became the center of heavy fighting in the American-Vietnamese War in 1968 and today represents what many local Vietnamese see as the Westernization of family leisure time, with weekend kite flying, soccer and picnics.
In 2009, I was fortunate to return to Vietnam and to the city of Hue during the Tết celebration.
Tết is an occasion for pilgrims and family reunions. During Tết, Vietnamese visit their relatives and temples, forgetting about the troubles of the past year and hoping for a better upcoming year. They consider Tết to be the first day of spring and the festival is often called Hội xuân or the Spring Festival.
In my eyes, the city has changed but there is still much evidence of that horrific battle in 1968. The Citadel, now flying the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, still shows the scars of the battle. The streets are now filled with new hotels and a bar and pizza restaurant, appropriately named the DMZ Bar. The wooden bridge that I used to cross to visit the Kim Long Orphanage has been replaced with two new metal bridges with constant bicycle, cyclo, taxi, car, truck and foot traffic. The Citadel is a tourist attraction surrounded by the same moat, similar gold carp and the same throne that I viewed on my first visit in 1970. The only difference was that no pictures are now allowed inside the palace area. It matters not, since in 1970, I was able to photograph the area and still have the pictures.
Although Vietnam is a communist nation, only 4 % of its people belong to the communist party. The former capital of the South, Sai Gon, now Ho Chi Mihn City, seems more like a large US city than a socialist city. Many upscale stores line the main streets in District One. Hotels and tourism are extensive; tourist police ensure the safety of its visitors. It is more of a Capitalistic communist country than anything else. Da Nang International airport rivals many of the airports in the United States.
People are allowed to practice religion, own their motor cycles and work in many different types of jobs. From City planners to real estate agents to wine distributors (these are some of the jobs my friends have) the people of Vietnam are experiencing a bit of Western culture and are enjoying it, although at much lesser wages than the US.
So Vietnam, although still seen by many as socialist, has been known to have human rights issues, but has improved since it has opened its doors to the United States. My visit in 2009 surely changed my mind about the war torn country that I left in 1970.