American officials promised that the Vietnam War was nearly over. They claimed to have the communists on the run. Despite a vocal and increasingly radical anti-war movement, most Americans believed the government. On January 31, 1968, the Viet Cong completely destroyed the American faith in government for the next half century. Although the government claimed victory was in sight, the communists launched a major offensive which belied the Johnson Administration’s rhetoric. They attacked every major city in South Vietnam before being defeated. The communists achieved a dramatic propaganda triumph which destroyed Johnson’s presidency and Americans’ faith in government.
The American government underestimated North Vietnam’s capacity to wage war. The administration’s statements about the war indicated the communists were on their last legs. They promised a swift and victorious end to the war. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese hoped to end the war with one bold stroke.
The communists launched a major offensive to coincide with the Tet holiday. General Giap planned to strike every major military and civilian center in South Vietnam. Planners hoped to spark a popular uprising against the South and the Americans forcing an end to the conflict. In the very least, Giap hoped to influence American public opinion by convincing Americans the war was hopeless.
North and South Vietnam agreed to a cease fire during the Tet holiday. On the early morning of January 31, 1968, the communists broke the cease fire. 80,000 troops attacked over 100 targets across the south including 36 of 44 provincial capitals and the Southern capital. The assault shocked the Americans and their allies. Despite achieving surprise, the communists were pushed back in most areas. Other places experienced protracted fighting.
The Battle of Hue lasted over a month before the Americans achieved victory. At Hue, the Viet Cong massacre of thousands of innocent civilians. Likewise, the Battle of Khe Sanh lasted over two months. Meanwhile, the most important fighting took place in Saigon on live television.
The American government did not censor television reports as in World War II. As a result, Americans witnessed the Tet Offensive in their living rooms. On top of this, many people had color televisions and the blood stood out in many minds. The communist assault and fighting within the American embassy shocked those that believed that an end was in sight. Following the attack, newsman Walter Cronkite told his viewers he did not believe America could win the war. Lyndon Johnson quipped that if lost Cronkite, he lost America.
Despite Cronkite’s opinion, the Americans and South Vietnamese won a major victory. They fought back the attacks across the south, inflicted excessive casualties upon the communists, and there was no general uprising. North Vietnam engaged 500,000 troops and experienced 20% casualties. Meanwhile, American and South Vietnamese casualties were under 5%. It took the north years to recover. On the other hand, the American psyche took decades.
The Tet Offensive created a “credibility gap” between what the people witnessed and government reports. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara resigned from office. He was the first political casualty. President Johnson himself declined to run for re-election after it became clear that he was in major political trouble. Meanwhile, the administration accelerated the draft. Ironically, the American government was perhaps closer to military victory following Tet than during any other time. On the other hand, the Tet Offensive basically ended the conflict. American policy makers had to figure a way to extricate from and save South Vietnam. The war lasted another five years.
The Tet Offensive ended the Johnson Administration and created a general mistrust of government which exists to this day. The government promised that the war was nearly over and the Viet Cong on its last legs. Then, the North Vietnamese launched the largest offensive of the war. Despite the overwhelming military victory, the American people saw an increasing credibility gap.