51 years ago, Vietnamese forces launched the Tet Offensive and changed how America saw the Vietnam War

  • On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong launched a coordinated assault with the North Vietnamese Army that changed the course of the Vietnam War.
  • Although the Tet Offensive was a battlefield failure for the communists, the gruesome images that emerged changed the way American citizens viewed the war.
  • The brutal scenes from the Battle of Hue City to the assault on the US embassy in Saigon were broadcast directly into living rooms in the US, ultimately changing public perception of the war.

Just before the end of January 1968, South Vietnam’s communist guerilla force, the Viet Cong, launched an unprecedented offensive in coordination with the North Vietnamese Army that would change the course of the Vietnam War.

The Tet Offensive saw the VC and the NVA attack all of South Vietnam’s largest towns and cities – bringing a war that had been mostly confined to the countryside into the streets of metropolitan cities.

With a combined force of 85,000 soldiers and guerrillas, the objective was to take over the cities, destroy political and military targets, and provoke a popular uprising all over South Vietnam.

The offensive would be a battlefield failure for the communists; the general uprising they had hoped to provoke didn’t happen, they didn’t hold on to a single town or city that was seized, and the Viet Cong was effectively wiped out as an independent fighting force.

But it would prove to be a political and propaganda victory. American and international news crews had broadcast the shocking images and scenes from the war right into US living rooms. They were a stark contrast to what the public had been told – that the communists were losing and that the war could be over soon.

Public opinion began to change, and attitudes toward the war became negative. Here’s what happened during the Tet Offensive:

Ben Brimelow contributed to an earlier version of this story.

Before January 1968, the war was mostly confined to the countryside. But the communists would take the war right into Vietnam’s major towns and cities.

A map showing the targets of NVA and VC attacks during the Tet Offensive, 1968.
US Army

The NVA and the Viet Cong took advantage of the Tet Lunar New Year, a major holiday in Vietnam that traditionally featuerd a truce and suspension of hostilities.

As a result, the South Vietnamese military, the ARVN, was not prepared for such a huge onslaught. The attacks gave the impression that the communists were far stronger than the American public had been told.

Equipment from the Ho Chi Minh Trail was stored in underground tunnels and bunkers like this one before being smuggled into South Vietnam’s cities.

The NVA and the VC had moved hundreds of tons of weapons, ammunition, and supplies through the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam.

The trail started in North Vietnam, went through Laos and Cambodia, and had numerous entrances all along South Vietnam’s border with Cambodia.

One of the first targets the VC and the NVA attacked was Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.

An attack on the capital city of Saigon was a bold move that proved the VC and the NVA were not “losing” the war.

The VC and the NVA attacked Gen. William Westmoreland’s headquarters, the Presidential Palace, and the American Embassy.

The attack on the US Embassy in particular sent shockwaves across the US.

A VC squad blew a hole in the wall around the embassy compound and poured inside.

The embassy attack was especially significant. It showed that the US, despite having hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the country, was not even able to defend one of the most important American buildings in the heart of the capital city of an allied nation.

The embassy attack was repelled quickly, as Marines and MPs struck back.

The attack at the embassy was controlled within six hours. But the images of VC guerrillas inside the American Embassy already had an effect on the American public.

Elsewhere in Saigon, the fighting continued, especially near the Presidential Palace.

The racetrack, which was seized by the VC in the early hours, was liberated and used as a staging ground and artillery base by US and ARVN forces.

As the offensive commenced, the ancient imperial city of Hue was attacked as well, sparking another brutal urban battle.

Hue was an important symbol in Vietnam. It was the ancient imperial capital and a center for learning, religion, and culture.

The VC and the NVA set out to destroy the South Vietnamese elite in Hue. They rounded up as many as 5,000 people, who disappeared. After the battle, at least 3,000 bodies were found in mass graves. The victims had been shot, beaten, and burned to death, and some were buried alive.

The urban combat of the Tet Offensive was not something that the US or the ARVN had trained for. As a result, battles were long and hard.

The international press was on the ground during the entire offensive, sending uncensored and raw images of the war into the houses of Americans.

The press being on the frontlines of war was still a relatively new concept. Prior wars like World War II and the Korea War did not see journalists have as much access to the frontlines as they did in Vietnam.

Images like this execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by a South Vietnamese general shocked the public.

This Pulitzer Prize-winning image stands out as one of the defining moments of the Tet Offensive. It became a driving force for the anti-war movement in the United States.

But the image itself was more complex. The prisoner, Nguyen Van Lem, led a VC death squad and was captured near a mass grave with 34 civilian bodies in it. Lem had just murdered the family of an ARVN soldier.

The street fighting in Saigon continued into March.

Airstrikes were called in on the cities, causing a massive amount of damage.

Tanks were used to support troops moving down streets and alleys, but they did not perform well in urban combat.

Most people thought that the Cold War would see massive tank battles like those in World War II. Instead, a lot of tanks were used in urban environments.

South Vietnamese soldiers proved essential in the battles for Hue and Saigon.

But they could not root out the enemy without American help.

American soldiers, who were trained to fight in fields and jungles, expected to fight in places like Khe Sanh and other parts of the countryside. Instead, they poured into South Vietnam’s cities.

The battles further proved the value of helicopters to transport reinforcements and wounded soldiers, as seen here.

They also showed that urban combat would be central to the future of warfare.

In Hue, US command had lifted a ban on airstrikes, allowing US Marines to retake the modern half of the city by the beginning of February.

The ban was still in place when the Marines tried to take the ancient Citadel, but it was eventually lifted as well.

The ancient Citadel, previously untouched by war, was severely damaged.

The damage was especially noticeable on the walls and ancient gates, as seen here just a year after the battle.

But the airstrikes proved essential, as the Citadel was finally retaken after months of fighting.

Much of the city itself, however, was destroyed.

This was true of most of Vietnam’s towns and cities, as this image from Saigon shows.