Tet Offensive
31st January 1968

Origin and Events:

The 1968 Tet Offensive was arguably the most important and significant series of attacks and battles during the Vietnam War. Launched in early 1968 by the Viet Cong, it marked a significant escalation in the scale and intensity of the War. Prior to the Offensive factions within the Viet Cong and N. Vietnamese government, under Vo Nguyen Giap’s influence saw the need for a swift, dramatic and unexpected movement, believing “A quick victory”, might be possible.

General Giap was one of the finest military minds of the 20th century. He repeatedly showed his skills as a military leader in a number of battles during the first Indochina war against French Imperialism, such as during the battle of Dien Bien Phu. In the second Indochina war Giap strongly advocated guerrilla warfare and other military tactics that would be unexpected, unanticipated and foreign to their American and South Vietnamese enemies.

The Tet offensive came as a surprise to South Vietnam and their American allies being launched during the ‘peaceful’ time of Tet. The Tet period celebrates the turning of the Lunar Year and therefore was assumed to be a time of temporary peace and cease-fire. In 1967 the NLF announced a three day ceasefire for Christmas, three days for New Year and seven days for Tet. The NLF and NVA chose the Tet period as their time to attack for two reasons. It would give the communists the element of surprise and it was on the anniversary of the 1978 Battle of Tet when the Vietnamese successfully drove the Chinese out of Hanoi.

The assault began in the early hours of 30th January. Giap, with memories of strategy and victory at Dien Bien Phu in his mind planned a series of coordinated attacks. The US suspected that the communists could have an assault planned. However, the U.S were convinced that the US Marine’s firebase at Khe Sanh was the focal point of all attacks. This was due to a number of attacks aimed at Khe Sanh throughout 1967. The US was correct, ten days prior to the commencment of the Offensive on 20th of January 1968 the NVA lauched a major attack on Khe Sanh which continued throughout and beyond the actual Offensive. This meant that the majority of US forces were sent to defend Khe Sanh. Being the Viet Cong’s intention, the idea being that by sending troops to Khe Sanh they would be stretched to defend other major cites as battles erupted in the South. By dividing American forces, they would weaken them enough to overrun them. Preparations for the Offensive had taken nearly eight months, in Saigon 4000 Viet Cong had moved into the capital in the preceding weeks disguised as farmers and peasants.

On the morning of the 30th of January between 70 000 and 80 000 Viet Cong began to launch attacks against the nine largest cities and thirty provincial capitals in South Vietnam. On January 31, the full-scale offensive began. In Saigon, suicide squads attacked the Independence Palace (the residence of the president), the radio station, the ARVN's joint General Staff Compound, Tan Son Nhut airfield, and the United States embassy, causing considerable damage and throwing the city into turmoil. Fighting continued in the streets of Saigon until 10th of February when the surviving Viet Cong retreated. The longest battle in Hue lasted until the 25th of February.

One of the most signifcent attacks during the Offensive was in Saigon when a group of ninteen Viet Cong blew a hole in the concrete outer wall of the American Embassy. Six and a half hours later, all ninteen were dead along side seven Mariens. This was significant as televised images of the takeover were shown around the world. The Tet Offensive was not a military success for the Viet Cong and Ho Chi Minh and resulted in the death of many Viet Cong, ARVN and American Soldiers. Although at the time it was a devastating defeat for North Vietnam, it was only much later they would realise what they had actually achieved.

Outcome and Impact:

The Tet Offensive shocked America and their allies, especially as it occurred during a time they believed themselves to be winning the war. It was this event that was the catalyst for Americans to begin questioning their troops place in Vietnam. Graphic footage of the fighting in Saigon and Hue was broadcasted directly to households around the world. Even those who had previously supported the war, were deeply affected by these images. The bitterness, desperation and pain conveyed disturbed many.

Initial Viet Cong success and ferocity along with heavy American and South Vietnamese casualties, brought home the ‘horror’ of the war and the effect is was having on young lives. Filming and televising of the offensive, including the above mentioned embassy fiasco and execution of Viet Cong offenders caused outrage and protest in America. Westmoreland an American General during the war claimed that the press and media coverage turned a decisive communist defeat into a psychological victory for the North Vietnamese. After the Offensive American politicians and military leaders doubted whether a military victory would be possible and began to consider other way of ending the conflict. In this sense it marked a turning point for the Vietnam war and in effect, collapsed support for an expansion of the war and destroyed any credibility of the US Army in claiming success and stability in the South. However, its most enduring signifcance lay in how widely and obviously it revealed the uneccessary death and destruction in Vietnam. As well as the catalyst it provided for protests and anti-war movements to reach the next level. Overall it conveyed the a message to American citizens that US superiority was not a reality.
Relevance to Apocalypse Now: The Tet Offensive was the first major event televised during the war and the images that occupied television sets around the world, brought home the 'horror', death and destruction it caused. If it were not for these televised images very few people would have understood the extent to which those in Vietnam were suffering. The Tet Offensive would in some way whether he was aware of it or not have influenced Coppola. The Tet Offensives relevance to Apocalypse Now is that it showed for the first time graphically the atrocities of war. Images on which Coppola built and manipulated to create a film that even further confirmed the 'horror' of the Vietnam war and the effect it had on those involved.


War Without End (second edition), James Harpur, Longman Australia Pty limited, first published - 1990, second edition published - 1995, Melbourne Australia.

Australian Government Department of Veterens Affairs, last updated 2010. http://vietnam-war.commemoration.gov.au/tet-offensive/