The Tet Offensive, launched in early 1968 by the Viet Cong, marked a significant escalation in the scale and the intensity of the Vietnam War. Although it was defeated in a strict military sense, the Tet Offensive shook the resolve of the Americans and their allies in Vietnam, and fuelled anti-war sentiment in America and the rest of the world.
In 1967 factions within the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese leadership began to call for a change of direction in the war's conduct. General Vo Nguyen Giap, who had formerly advocated waging a largely guerrilla war, came to believe a "quick victory " might now be possible. Planning therefore began for a major offensive in South Vietnam that would provoke a "general uprising. " Against the corrupt and unpopular South Vietnamese Government. Abandoning conventional military wisdom, Viet Cong forces were not heavily concentrated for the offensive. The aim, instead, was to mount as many different attacks in as many locations as possible. And in a departure from traditional guerrilla tactics, the main targets were in population centres rather than the countryside.
The offensive, during which more than 100 towns and cities were attacked, began during the early hours of 31 January 1968. The first assaults achieved almost complete surprise, not least because they occurred over the Chinese New Year or Tet holiday period, which, according to recent tradition, was a time of truce. In many places the Viet Cong were astonishingly successful; in the former capital, Hue, they took control of a large part of the city. The most spectacular Viet Cong successes were, however, in the South Vietnamese capital Saigon, where a number of government buildings were attacked. An elite Viet Cong squad even managed to fight its way into the grounds of the American embassy.
Although most of the attacks were quickly defeated, in Hue and at the American provincial base at Khe Sahn Tet signalled the beginning of protracted battles. Yet there was no "general uprising " in South Vietnam. The "quick victory " had turned into a disastrous defeat and recriminations within the communist leadership soon followed. With the Viet Cong decimated, General Giap lost much of his authority, ultimately being retained merely in the figurehead role of Minister of Defence. Only much later would the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese realise what they had actually achieved.
The Tet Offensive shocked the Americans and their allies, especially because it occurred at a time when they thought they were winning the war. Graphic footage of fighting in Saigon and Hue was broadcast into American households and around the world. The bitterness and desperation conveyed in these images deeply affected many people – even those who had until then broadly supported American involvement in Vietnam. The initial Viet Cong successes, the ferocity of the fighting, and heavy American and South Vietnamese casualties ultimately left a far greater impression on worldwide public opinion than the offensive's final defeat.
After the Tet Offensive American politicians and military leaders doubted whether a military victory would be possible, and began to think of other ways of ending the conflict. In this sense Tet marks the turning point in the Vietnam War. But perhaps the offensive's most enduring significance lay in how widely it revealed the horrors of the Vietnam War, and indeed war in general.