THE CLASSIC IMAGE THAT IS SYNONYMOUS WITH THE VIETNAM WAR AND EPITOMISES WHAT WENT WRONG
On February 1, 1968--during the Tet Offensive--General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, director of South Vietnam's national police force, executed a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon.
The Tet Offensive saw the North Vietnamese change their tactics in their war against the SVA and America. The Tet Offensive witnessed a huge conventional attack by the North. Every year on the last day of January, the Vietnamese pay tribute to their ancestors. The Tet New Year is a very important day for the Vietnamese and nearly all-normal day-to-day activities stop to allow those who can the opportunity to celebrate the lives of their ancestors.
In January 1968, the NLF had brought forward Tet by two days. On January 31st 70,000 NLF soldiers attacked over 100 targets, including the capital in the South, Saigon.
The Americans had been fighting classic guerrilla tactics since 1965. Though the US had faced a number of conventional attacks in late 1967, most US military thinking was still oriented around the concept of guerrilla warfare. Therefore the Tet Offensive took them by surprise, especially the sheer scale of it.
The US Embassy in Saigon was attacked and a few members of the NLF got into the embassy compound. Five US Marines were killed but the attack was repulsed. The NLF also captured the main radio station in Saigon, which acted as a major shock to US morale. Though the station was only occupied for a few hours, it showed to the US military that they were not just dealing with a ramshackle army of amateurs.
However, in military terms, the US could claim victory in the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese could not afford major losses in terms of manpower. During the Tet Offensive the NLF lost 37,000 soldiers while the US lost 2,500 men. Yet the Tet Offensive was a major blow to US military pride. In late 1967 the US had been told by General Westmoreland that the NLF had taken such heavy losses in open combat that they would be incapable of maintaining any military momentum in 1968. Yet during the Tet Offensive the NLF had entered the US Embassy and occupied the main radio station for three hours before being repulsed.
The impact of the Tet Offensive is difficult to gauge. The NLF and the government in North Vietnam would have played heavily on their successes in Saigon – the very heart of US influence. Yet their losses would have had a major impact of their ability to fight. The impact of the Tet Offensive on America was stark. President Johnson was told by his advisors that the war could not be won and he was advised to negotiate a withdrawal from the region. In late 1968, Johnson announced to the US people that he intended to seek a negotiated peace settlement in Vietnam.