This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive. During the Tet holiday ceasefire, Vietnamese Communist forces attacked all of South Vietnam’s towns and cities in order to smash South Vietnamese government forces and incite popular uprisings. Many of the government’s soldiers and policemen were off duty during the holiday, enabling the Communists to infiltrate the towns and cities undetected and strike the first blows. But government forces rallied quickly, and everywhere the population rejected Communist appeals to take part in the uprising. Whereas Communist troops had fled in the past when confronted by superior American or South Vietnamese forces, this time they attempted to hold ground, which made them highly vulnerable to South Vietnamese and American firepower. Within a few days, the Communist forces had been crushed in all but a few places.
Most American media reports from South Vietnam depicted the Tet Offensive as a show of Communist strength, and they downplayed the extent of Communist losses. Tet would subsequently be credited with breaking the will of the United States to continue the Vietnam War by showing victory to be elusive. It is true that some Americans interpreted the offensive as proof that the enemy was stronger than believed and consequently became disillusioned with the war. The Tet Offensive undermined support for Lyndon Johnson to such an extent that he decided, at the end of March 1968, to drop out of the American Presidential race.
The impact of the offensive on the United States as a whole, however, was much smaller. Among the general public, the enemy’s initiation of surprise attack during a holiday truce rekindled memories of Pearl Harbor, resulting in an increase in public support for the war. President Johnson’s hawkish advisers urged him to capitalize on this sentiment by intensifying America’s war effort. Only when Johnson refused to escalate did public opinion wane, and then in a gradual manner consistent with the pattern of declining support that had prevailed before the offensive. Although America’s military presence would not increase significantly after Tet, it would not decrease during the remainder of Johnson’s term, either. The final outcome of the war would depend upon Lyndon Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, and the American Congress.