Why Was the Tet Offensive the Turning Point of the Vietnam War?

North Vietnam altered its prior guerrilla strategy in the Tet offensive, targeting large cities and towns.
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The United States entered the war in Vietnam to defend the South Vietnamese government against the Communist revolutionaries in the North. In January 1968, the United States and South Vietnam were convinced an end to the war was in sight. However, North Vietnamese forces launched a surprise offensive attack on Tet, an important national holiday celebrating the lunar new year. The massive escalation of the war marked the beginning of American withdrawal from the conflict.

1 A Daring Attack

In previous years, South and North Vietnam had observed an informal truce during the Tet holiday. Communist forces began their invasion of 13 South Vietnamese cities in the early morning hours of January 31, 1968 -- just as many families were beginning their traditional holiday rituals. The initial attacks benefited from the element of surprise to quickly capture many South Vietnamese cities and American strongholds. North Vietnam counted on the surprise attack leading to an uprising of revolutionary support among the South Vietnamese people.

2 The Battle of Hue

In Hue, the former capital of Vietnam located approximately 50 miles south of the demilitarized zone between North and South, the initially successful Communist occupation resulted in protracted fighting and heavy casualties. American journalists in Hue recorded shockingly graphic television footage that was broadcast worldwide. Early in the occupation, Communist forces went from house to house in the city, rounding up all civilians who had anything to do with the South Vietnamese government or American troops. These people were executed and buried in mass tombs not discovered until after the North Vietnamese were finally expelled from the city on February 25. The battle ended with more than 5,000 Communist soldiers killed, while 150 U.S. marines and 400 South Vietnamese troops perished.

3 Spread Too Thin

Despite initial success, the North Vietnamese attack ultimately was too ambitious to defeat superior American firepower. Part of the element of surprise had been to attack in as many locations as possible, rather than concentrating forces in a single area. As fighting continued and the hoped-for civilian uprising never materialized, the heavy casualties among North Vietnamese forces forced them to withdraw. The offensive wasn't seen as a defeat in the rest of the world, however. The horrific television footage documenting the atrocities of the war led to considerable anti-war sentiment in the United States and elsewhere. The offensive was a psychological victory in Vietnam as well, where American and South Vietnamese forces lost considerable support among the people in the countryside.

4 Support Crumbles

Polls during the month of February showed only 35 percent of Americans approved of President Lyndon B. Johnson's actions in Vietnam. News coverage brought graphic depictions of the horrors of war straight into American living rooms, and even those who had previously supported U.S. involvement began to waver. In March, Johnson announced further U.S. bombing would be limited to an area representing approximately 10 percent of Communist territory. Although peace negotiations would take another five years, the slow process of American withdrawal from the country had begun. Although the war itself would continue for seven years after the Tet offensive, the tide turned in North Vietnam's favor and sowed the seeds for the eventual Communist victory over the exhausted South Vietnamese forces.

Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.