The Tet Offensive
On this day, a week and a half after the beginning of the siege of Khe Sahn, roughly 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers staged a shocking (to the U.S.) and deadly (to both sides, but mostly the communists) attack on over 100 cities and towns in the South in what was the largest military operation in the war to that point. It occurred during the Tet holiday when both sides had agreed to a ceasefire. One of the North’s main goals was to instigate an uprising against the government and the Americans among the population in the South, a plan which backfired.
The communists succeeded in breaching the compound walls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon before being routed. Fighting continued at Khe Sahn in the northern reaches of South Vietnam for a couple more months (see previous post). General Westmoreland continued to believe for the first couple weeks of the Tet Offensive that it was just a tactic by the North to distract the Americans from what he believed was the real target: Khe Sahn and the northern provinces near the DMZ.
But nowhere was the fighting more intense and the results more tragic than in the ancient Imperial City of Hue, where fighting continued for 25 days before the communists were driven out by U.S. and ARVN forces. Initially, the government of the South prohibited the U.S. from using heavy artillery near the ancient walled Citadel within Hue, but eventually it couldn’t be avoided and most of the city was destroyed. After Hue was recaptured, it was learned that the communists had massacred thousands of Vietnamese residents of the city that they deemed enemies of the North. These included civil servants, teachers, police, and religious figures. The last of the mass graves wasn’t uncovered until 1970, and to this day the communist government of Vietnam does not acknowledge the full extent of what happened.
For the U.S., Tet was a military victory, but one with disastrous results at home. The military was unprepared for what seemed a preposterous move by the communists, and American citizens more than ever began to doubt U.S. military leadership as well as that in Washington, D.C.
The photo below is a view looking down into the entrance of the Imperial Citadel at Hue taken during my visit in 2002. Months later, I was looking through an issue of National Geographic from February 1967 that my grandfather had given me in the mid-1980’s with a feature story on Hue. I was astonished to come across a photo of two young women taken at the same exact spot one year before the Tet Offensive. I can’t help but wonder if the two women survived the next year.