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Tet Offensive halted

Tet Offensive halted

On February 24, 1968, the Tet Offensive ends as U.S. Although scattered fighting continued across South Vietnam for another week, the battle for Hue was the last major engagement of the offensive, which saw communist attacks on all of South Vietnam’s major cities. In the aftermath of Tet, public opinion in the United States decisively turned against the Vietnam War.

As 1968 began–the third year of U.S. ground-troop fighting in Vietnam–U.S. military leadership was still confident that a favorable peace agreement would soon be forced on the North Vietnamese and their allies in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong. Despite growing calls at home for an immediate U.S. withdrawal, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration planned to keep the pressure on the communists through increased bombing and other attrition strategies. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. operations in Vietnam, claimed to see clearly “the light at the end of the tunnel,” and Johnson hoped that soon the shell-shocked communists would stumble out of the jungle to the bargaining table.

However, on January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched their massive Tet Offensive all across South Vietnam. It was the first day of Tet—Vietnam’s lunar new year and most important holiday—and many South Vietnamese soldiers, expecting an unofficial truce, had gone home. The Viet Cong were known for guerrilla tactics and had never launched an offensive on this scale; consequently, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were caught completely by surprise.

In the first day of the offensive, tens of thousands of Viet Cong soldiers, supported by North Vietnamese forces, overran the five largest cities of South Vietnam, scores of smaller cities and towns, and a number of U.S. and South Vietnamese bases. The Viet Cong struck at Saigon—South Vietnam’s capital—and even attacked, and for several hours held, the U.S. embassy there. The action was caught by U.S. television news crews, which also recorded the brutal impromptu street execution of a Viet Cong rebel by a South Vietnamese military official.

As the U.S. and South Vietnamese fought to regain control of Saigon, the cities of Hue, Dalat, Kontum, and Quangtri fell to the communists. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces recaptured most of these cities within a few days, but Hue was fiercely contested by the communist soldiers occupying it. After 26 days of costly house-to-house fighting, the South Vietnamese flag was raised again above Hue on February 24, and the Tet Offensive came to an end. During the communist occupation of Hue, numerous South Vietnamese government officials and civilians were massacred, and many civilians died in U.S. bombing attacks that preceded the liberation of the city.

In many respects, the Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the communists: They suffered 10 times more casualties than their enemy and failed to control any of the areas captured in the opening days of the offensive. They had hoped that the offensive would ignite a popular uprising against South Vietnam’s government and the presence of U.S. troops. This did not occur. In addition, the Viet Cong, which had come out into the open for the first time in the war, were all but wiped out. However, because the Tet Offensive crushed U.S. hopes for an imminent end to the conflict, it dealt a fatal blow to the U.S. military mission in Vietnam.

In Tet’s aftermath, President Johnson came under fire on all sides for his Vietnam policy. General Westmoreland requested 200,000 more troops to overwhelm the communists, and a national uproar ensued after this request was disclosed, forcing Johnson to recall Westmoreland to Washington. On March 31, Johnson announced that the United States would begin de-escalation in Vietnam, halt the bombing of North Vietnam, and seek a peace agreement to end the conflict. In the same speech, he also announced that he would not seek reelection to the presidency, citing what he perceived to be his responsibility in creating the national division over Vietnam.

READ MORE: How the Vietnam War Ratcheted Up Under 5 U.S. Presidents


We ask who won the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War

In the late evening hours of January 30, 1968, the Vietnamese New Year began. This annual celebratory event, known as Tet, signaled the coming of more than just a new year and a new beginning for the people of Vietnam. As soldiers descended on U.S. encampments, bombs and gunfire rained down upon the American Embassy, and countless members of the military were taken prisoner or gunned down, the Tet Offensive signaled a changing tide in the Vietnam War upon that very evening.

Today, the Tet Offensive of early 1968 is known as one of the largest military efforts of the Vietnam War, a successful surprise attack conducted by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam. The Vietnam War was an incredibly contentious time in both American and Vietnamese histories, and the Tet Offensive adds only further complications to the stories and moments of the war.

Viet Cong troops pose with new AK-47 assault rifles and American field radios.

Still today, there is debate as to which army truly won the attack, and which side took control once the surprise wore off. So, who is to take the title of the victor in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive? Did the North Vietnamese exact the damage and destruction they hoped? Or do the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces lay claim to the victory?

Although the Tet Offensive began with the start of the Vietnamese New Year, the military effort lasted well beyond a single evening. That first blow, that first series of sudden and unexpected attacks, launched attacks that kicked off a massive military operation planned by the North Vietnamese forces.

A number of North Vietnamese targets during the Tet Offensive.

The detrimental effects were immediate: as the operation kicked into its full scale on the morning on January 31, the U.S. and South Vietnamese were unable to establish a widespread defense, and the People’s Army of (North) Vietnam (ARVN) launched 80,000 troops into over 100 towns. Stunned by the unexpected attacks, the non-communist forces immediately lost control of several important locales and cities.

The element of surprise was truly used to great advantage in the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese attacked with zero expectations, and zero warning, awarding them the freedom to inflict great damage and significant terror before their enemies could respond. Within just a few hours, the Vietcong forces laid siege to countless Southern strongholds – all of which were weakly defended at the time.

U.S. Marines advance past an M48 Patton tank during the battle for Huế.

However, this New Year’s strike was not as effective as it appeared though the initial attack lasted six hours, it ultimately proved inconsequential in terms of military advantage in the larger scope of the Vietnam War.

Instead, ARVN and the leaders of North Vietnam discovered that their sneaky and strong surprise attack spelled something of a disaster in the later months.

Quảng Trị residents fleeing the Battle of Quang Tri (1968).

Though the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies were temporarily stunned into immobility and inaction, their defeat was not as imminent as many believe. In fact, the losses were brief – within days, the two allies had regrouped and responded to the surprise attack. Soon thereafter, the Americans and the South Vietnamese retook control of the cities lost. The forces developed a defensive strategy quickly, fighting back against ARVN and inflicting many casualties upon their opponent.

Over the course of the two months that followed, which are considered part of the Tet Offensive operation, the North Vietnamese were stripped of all that they gained in the first hours of January 30. By the Offensive’s end, the North Vietnamese were expelled from the strongholds in the South, left holding none of the landmarks and locales they initially invaded.

U.S. Marines move through the ruins of the hamlet of Dai Do after several days of intense fighting.

Not all accounts of the Tet Offensive were positive, however. Although the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces retook control of all that was attacked by the North, those listening and watching reports from oceans away did not know that these forces saw success – they did not hear how, though losses occurred, the militaries were quick to regain it all.

Instead, media outlets in America reported success only of the North Vietnamese forces, relaying scenes of burned encampments, destruction in cities, and an embassy in ruins. As a result, public opinion in the U.S. believed that all was lost in Vietnam.

It was that perception, that harmful presentation of the Tet Offensive, that ultimately led the American leadership to withdraw its forces and leave South Vietnam to fall on its own.

As American historian James J. Wirtz remarks of the Tet Offensive, this moment in the Vietnam War was “an earth-shattering, mind-shattering event that changed the course of the war.”

Though the North Vietnamese forces had high hopes for their surprise New Year’s attack, they did not manage to achieve the incredible victory they initially sought – the battlefield remained unchanged, and the Communist forces were quickly halted in their efforts. However, they did make gains in one particular area: the will of the U.S. and its people.

When the North Vietnamese began planning their attack, their goal was to force the American military to change its strategy, to de-escalate their war efforts and give up hope. And, because the Tet Offensive did make those at home in America believe that there truly was no end to the losses in Vietnam, the strategy proved effective.

ARVN Rangers defending Saigon in 1968 Battle of Saigon.

By the war’s end, the Tet Offensive secured a lasting place in international history: it was the biggest military operation throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War, responsible for attacking hundreds of cities, many of which were crucial capitals.

Yet still today, four long decades after the last troops pulled out of Vietnam and left the southern half of the nation to its own devices, the world is still divided: who truly can be considered the victor of the Tet Offensive?

Civilians sort through the ruins of their homes in Cholon, the heavily damaged Chinese section of Saigon.


The First Tet Offensive of 1789

In January 1789 the Vietnamese defeated a Chinese army and drove it from Vietnam. What might be called the first Tet Offensive is regarded as the greatest military achievement in modern Vietnamese history. Just as the 1904 Japanese strike on Port Arthur foreshadowed their 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, this 1789 offensive should have been a lesson for the United States that Tet had not always been observed peacefully in Vietnam.

Strangely, the 1789 victory goes largely unmentioned in Western histories of Vietnam. For example, Joseph Buttinger in The Smaller Dragon: A Political History of Vietnam devotes less than a sentence to the offensive, and Stanley Karnow in Vietnam, A History does not mention it at all.

In the mid-18th century Vietnam was divided in two, approximately along what became the DMZ of the 16th parallel during the Vietnam War. The Trinh lords ruled the north and the Nguyen family held sway in the south. Each family hated the other and ruled in the name of the powerless Le king at Thang Long (present-day Hanoi).

Widespread corruption throughout Vietnam led to increased demands on the population for tribute and also to peasant uprisings, the most important being the Tay Son Rebellion against the Nguyen in the south. That rebellion was led by three brothers, named (coincidentally) Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Lu and Nguyen Hue, from the village of Tay Son in present-day Binh Dinh province. The Tay Son, as the brothers and their followers came to be known, advocated seizing property from the rich and distributing it to the poor. They also attracted support from powerful Chinese merchants who opposed restrictive trade practices. The rebellion thus began with peasants and merchants opposing mandarins and large landowners.

The Tay Son built an army in the An Khe Highlands in western Binh Dinh province. The area was strategically important, and there they drew support from disaffected minorities. The brothers were also aided by the fact that the youngest of them, Nguyen Hue, turned out to be a military genius.

In mid-1773, after two years of careful preparations, a Tay Son army of some 10,000 men took the field against the Nguyen. Soon the Tay Son had seized the fort of Qui Nhon they next took the provinces of Quang Ngai and Quang Nam, and by the end of the year they seemed poised to overthrow the ruling Nguyen family altogether. At this point, however, in 1775, a Trinh army moved south in the name of the Le dynasty and took Phu Xuan (present-day Hue). The Trinh defeated the Tay Son in battle and announced they would stay in the south to put down the rebellion. The Tay Son managed to survive only by reaching accommodation with the Trinh, until the latter tired of their southern involvement and withdrew into the north.

The Tay Son were then again free to concentrate on the Nguyen, although it took the rebels 10 more years to defeat them. In 1776 they attacked the Nguyen stronghold of Gia Dinh province and took Sai Con (later Saigon and present-day Ho Chi Minh City). Only one Nguyen prince, Nguyen Anh, escaped he and a few supporters fled into the swamps of the western Mekong Delta. Having now defeated the Nguyen, in 1778 Nguyen Nhac proclaimed himself king, with his capital at Do Ban in Binh Dinh province.

Later Nguyen Anh mounted a counterattack, recapturing Gia Dinh and Binh Thuan provinces. In 1783, Tay Son troops led by Nguyen Hue again defeated Nguyen Anh and forced him into refuge on Phu Quoc Island, whereupon a desperate Nguyen Anh called in the Siamese. In 1784, Siam (present-day Thailand) sent between 20,000 and 50,000 men and 300 ships into the western Mekong Delta. Harsh Siamese occupation policies, however, caused many Vietnamese to rally to the Tay Son.

On January 19, 1785, Nguyen Hue lured the Siamese into an ambush on the My Tho River in the Rach Gam-Xoai Mut area of present-day Tien Giang province in the Mekong Delta and defeated them. According to Vietnamese sources, only 2,000 Siamese escaped. The remaining Nguyen family members then fled to Siam. The Battle of Rach Gam-Xoai Mut near My Tho City, Dinh Tuong province, was one of the most important in Vietnamese history because it halted Siamese expansion into southern Vietnam and greatly benefited Nguyen Hue, who then emerged as a national hero. The Trinh in the north were unable to capitalize on this situation because of trouble in their own domain. Bad harvests beginning in 1776 led to disorder, and there was a secessionist struggle. Trinh Sam, head of the family, died in 1786, and his two sons, Trinh Khai and Trinh Can, fought one another for the throne. Eventually Trinh Khai took control in the north, but his youth and physical weakness combined to produce governmental paralysis, undoubtedly to the liking of army leaders who had helped install him in power.

Nguyen Hue now took advantage of the situation to try to reunite Vietnam. He marched an army north under the guise of rescuing the Le kings from Trinh control and won considerable popular support by promising food for the peasants. In a brilliant May-June 1786 campaign Nguyen Hue captured first Phu Xuan, then Quang Tri and Quang Binh provinces. By July, Tay Son troops had reached the Red River Delta and defeated the Trinh. King Le Hien Tong reached accommodation with Nguyen Hue by ceding some territory and giving him his daughter Ngoc Han in marriage. Le Hien Tong died in 1787, and his grandson, Le Chieu Thong, succeeded him.

While Nguyen Hue was restoring the Le dynasty in the north, his brothers controlled the rest of the country. Nguyen Hue dominated the area north of the Pass of Clouds (between present-day Hue and Da Nang) from Thanh Hoa his brother Nguyen Nhac held the center, with his capital at Qui Nhon and Nguyen Lu controlled the south, from Gia Dinh near Saigon.

Nguyen Anh was again active in the south, in Gia Dinh province, and Nguyen Hue returned there to assist his brothers in putting him down. Nguyen Hue sent the royal elephants south with the Le treasury and then sailed for Phu Xuan. He left behind his lieutenant, Nguyen Huu Chinh, who had deserted the king and joined the Tay Son cause, to defend Thang Long.

Nguyen Huu Chinh, however, took advantage of Nguyen Hue’s absence to advance his own interests. He and King Le Chieu Thong attempted to gain power for themselves, fortifying the north against Nguyen Hue. The Tay Son commander, then at Phu Xuan, sent one of his generals, Vu Van Nham, north with an army to attack Thang Long. In subsequent fighting Nguyen Huu Chinh was killed and the Le king fled north. Having secured the capital, General Vu Van Nham then took power himself, ruling as king. It had occurred to Nguyen Hue that Vu Van Nham might do this, so he sent two other generals, Ngo Van So and Phan Van Lan, after him. They defeated Vu Van Nham and executed him. Nguyen Hue then invited the Le king to return, but he refused.

In the midst of these developments, Nguyen Hue was again forced to shift his attention to the south to deal with Nguyen Anh. Before leaving the north, however, Nguyen Hue ordered the Le palace razed. After sending the royal treasury south by ship, he left behind a garrison of 3,000 men in Thang Long.

King Le Chieu Thong, meanwhile, was in Bac Giang in far northern Vietnam, but he sent his mother and son to China to ask for assistance from the emperor in reclaiming his throne. Sun Shi-yi, the viceroy in Canton and governor of Kwang-tung (Guang dong) and Kwang-si (Guang xi) provinces, supported military intervention in Vietnam. He believed it would be an easy matter for China to establish a protectorate over an area weakened by a protracted civil war. Chinese Emperor Quian-long (Kien Lung, 1736-1796) agreed, but his public pronouncements stressed that the Le had always recognized Chinese hegemony in sending tribute. He said that China was intervening merely to restore the Le to power.

In November 1788, a Chinese expeditionary force commanded by Sun Shi-yi and assisted by General Xu Shi-heng crossed the frontier at Cao Bang, Tuyen Quang and Lang Son. These columns then converged on Thang Long. The Chinese force, estimated at up to 200,000 men, advanced smoothly into Vietnam, and the Chinese troops gave no cause for Vietnamese hostility en route to the capital. In fact, Chinese and Le edicts stating that the intervention was merely to put down the Tay Son usurpers attracted some Vietnamese support. At the same time, the Chinese demonstrated that they were in Vietnam to stay along the route to Thang Long they established some 70 military storehouses.

At the news of the Chinese invasion, many of the Tay Son troops manning the northern outposts fled. The Chinese easily won a series of small battles in early and mid-December. Faced with overwhelming force, Ngo Thi Nham, a Tay Son adviser, argued for retreat. He pointed out the overwhelming Chinese numbers and that the Tay Son troops were dispirited. He said that northerners were deserting, and that ‘to attack with troops such as these would be like hunting a tiger with a band of goats.’ He also added that defense of the capital would be difficult because the people there were not committed: ‘the danger would then be from within…and no general…could win under those conditions. It would be like putting a lamprey in a basket of crabs.’ Ngo Van So, Nguyen Hue’s commander in the north, agreed, and Ngo Thi Nham then ordered ships loaded with provisions sent south to Thanh Hoa and dispatched the remainder of the Tay Son troops overland to fortify a line from the Tam Diep Mountains to the sea.

Meanwhile, the Chinese took Thang Long. After throwing a pontoon bridge across the Red River, on December 17 they entered the city with little resistance. For this success, the Chinese emperor made Sun Shi-yi a count and gave him the title ‘Valiant Tactician.’ Xu Shi-heng became a baron, and other Chinese officers were also given titles of nobility or advanced in rank.

Sun Shi-yi planned to renew the offensive against the Tay Son after the lunar new year celebrations meanwhile, he would remain in Thang Long. He positioned his troops in three principal locations. The main force was in open fields along the two banks of the Red River, connected by pontoon bridges. South of the capital the Chinese held a series of defensive positions centered on Ngoc Hoi, in the suburbs of Thang Long. The third part of the army was to the southwest, at Khuong Thuong. King Le Chieu Thong’s small Vietnamese force remained in the capital.

The Chinese were overconfident. Because they had thus far experienced little resistance, they believed the Tay Son were militarily negligible, and that it would be easy for them to bring all Vietnam under their control. Resources were scarce in the north, however, and it would be difficult to sustain a large force there. The Chinese governor of Kwang-si province reported to the emperor that it would take at least 100,000 men just to man the supply lines to Thang Long.

Events now worked to undermine China’s position. For one thing, the Chinese treated Vietnam as if it were captured territory. Although the Chinese recognized Le Chieu Thong as king of An Nam, he had to issue his pronouncements in the name of the Chinese emperor and personally report every day to Sun Shi-yi. Le Chieu Thong also carried out reprisals against Vietnamese officials who had rallied to the Tay Son, and seemed oblivious to the poor treatment his people were receiving from the Chinese. Even his supporters were upset, agreeing that ‘from the first Vietnamese king, there has never been such a coward.’

Meanwhile, typhoons and disastrous harvests, especially in 1788, led northerners to believe that the king had lost his ‘Mandate of Heaven,’ and they began to distance themselves from him. Vietnamese in the north especially suffered because they had to feed the Chinese from their own meager food supplies. Thus the psychological climate in the north came to favor the Tay Son.

While this was transpiring, Nguyen Hue had been busy with military preparations at Phu Xuan (Hue). At the time he had some 6,000 men in his army. Spies in the north had kept him well informed of Chinese intentions, but he faced a difficult decision. Nguyen Anh was again causing problems in the south, and Nguyen Hue had to determine which was the greater threat. Although he ultimately decided that the Chinese were the bigger problem, Nguyen Hue sent a trusted general south to deal with Nguyen Anh should he try to take advantage of the situation. On December 22, 1788, Nguyen Hue erected an altar on a hill south of Phu Xuan and proclaimed himself king, in effect abolishing on his own the Le dynasty. He then took the name of Quang Trung.

Four days later, Quang Trung was in Nghe An recruiting. This province, with its high birthrate and low rice production, has traditionally been recognized as one of the best places in Vietnam from which to recruit capable soldiers. Many men agreed to join the army, which reportedly grew to 100,000 men with several hundred elephants. To instill confidence, all new recruits were placed under Quang Trung’s direct command.

In an effort to widen his appeal, Quang Trung played on nationalism, declaring:

The Qing have invaded our country… In the universe each earth, each star has its particular place the North [China] and the South [Vietnam] each have their own government. The men of the North are not of our race, they will not think our way or be nice to us. Since the Han dynasty, they have invaded us many times, massacring and pillaging our people. We could not stand that. Today, the Qing have invaded us again hoping to reestablish Chinese prefectures, forgetting what happened to the Song, to the Yuan, and to the Ming. That is why we must raise an army to chase them out. You, men of conscience and courage, join us in this great enterprise.

At the same time Quang Trung sought to deceive his opponents. He sent a letter to Sun Shi-yi falsely declaring that the Tay Son wished to surrender. This led the Chinese to become even more over-confident and neglect military preparations.

On January 15, 1789, Quang Trung put his forces in motion and, at Mount Tam Diep, joined up with forces under Ngo Van So. Although he had earlier accused Ngo Van So of having retreated before the enemy, Quang Trung now said:

In the art of war, when an army is defeated the general deserves death. However, you were right when you decided to give way to the enemy when they were at their best in order to reinforce our troops and to withdraw to hold strategic positions. That kept our men in high spirits and made the enemy more arrogant. It was a cunning operation… This time I personally command our troops. I have made my plan. In 10 days we will drive them back to China and it will all be over. But as their country is 10 times larger than ours, they will be very ashamed of their loss and will certainly take revenge. There will be endless fighting between the two countries, which will wreak havoc on our people. Therefore after this war I would like Ngo Thi Nham to write to them in his elegant manner to stop war completely. In 10 years’ time, when we have constructed a rich and strong state, we won’t have to fear them anymore.

Quang Trung learned from his spies that the Chinese planned to begin their offensive southward out of Thang Long on the sixth day of the new year in an attack on Phu Xuan. He planned a spoiling attack and ordered his soldiers to celebrate Tet early, promising that they would be able to properly celebrate later in Thang Long. On January 25, the last day of the year, the Tay Son left Tam Diep to take the offensive.

Nearly half the Chinese army was near the capital. Sun Shi-yi’s remaining troops were deployed on a north-south line along the major road connecting Thang Long to the approaches to the Tam Diep Mountains. The route was protected by the natural defenses of the Red River and three other waterways-the Nhuc, Thanh Quyet and Gian Thuy rivers. The line was flanked to the west and to the east from Thang Long by posts at Son Tay and at Hai Duong. This forced the Tay Son to attack the main Chinese line at some distance from the capital and reduce successively the most important forts. Sun Shi-yi believed that, in the unlikely event of a Tay Son attack, this disposition would give Chinese reserves time to intervene. It also ensured that the Chinese could maintain contact between all three major elements of their forces and protect their lines of communication back into southern China. But it emphasized offensive, rather than defensive, operations.

Sun Shi-yi was not initially concerned about a Tay Son attack. When it became obvious that the Tay Son troops were about to go on the offensive, he belatedly sent troops to reinforce key posts and his best general to command the defensive line to the south. In the process of strengthening the forts, the Chinese arranged them so as to wear out the attackers each fort closer to the capital was stronger than the last.

Quang Trung’s troops moved north rapidly in five columns to converge on Thang Long. Quang Trung commanded the main force of infantry, horsemen and elephants transporting the army’s heavy artillery. It would strike Ngoc Hoi, the principal Chinese position south of the capital and headquarters of the Chinese general commanding the south.

To force the Chinese to disperse, Quang Trung sent part of his fleet, commanded by General Nguyen Van Tuyet, to the port of Hai Phong. It was to destroy the small Le force there, then attack the Chinese east of the Red River and support the main force in its drive on Thang Long. Another part of the fleet sailed north to the border provinces of Yen The and Lang Giang to harass Chinese lines of communication north.

The fourth group of Tay Son, commanded by General Bao, had horsemen and elephants as well as infantry. It would take a different route from the main body but would join it in the assault on Ngoc Hoi.

The fifth Tay Son column, led by General Long and including horsemen and elephants, was to make a quick and sudden attack on Thang Long to dispirit the Chinese. It was to destroy Chinese forces southwest of the capital, then move east to Sun Shi-yi’s headquarters and attack Chinese troops withdrawing from other directions.

In the middle of the night on January 25, Quang Trung’s force took the outpost at Son Nam in Nam Dinh province defended by the Le king’s followers, who had been celebrating the new year. It then rapidly seized one after another of the forts defending access to the capital. On the third day of Tet, January 28, the Tay Son surrounded the important post of Ha Hoi, some 20 kilometers southwest of the capital. Caught off guard, the Chinese defenders there surrendered with their arms and supplies.

On January 29 Tay Son forces reached Ngoc Hoi, 14 kilometers south of the capital and the last Chinese fort before Thang Long. The strongest Chinese defensive position, it was manned by 30,000 well-trained troops and protected by trenches, minefields, pit traps and bamboo stakes.

Quang Trung waited a day for Long’s column to join up from the southwest. At dawn the next day the Tay Son struck from two directions. Elephants led the attack and easily defeated the Chinese horsemen. The Chinese then withdrew into the fort, which was attacked by elite Tay Son commandos formed in groups of 20 men, who protected themselves by holding over their heads wooden planks covered with straw soaked in water. The attacking troops immediately came under heavy Chinese cannon and arrow fire. The Tay Son infantry employed small incendiary rockets called hoa ho.

Mounted on an elephant, Quang Trung directed operations. Vietnamese historians tell us that his armor was ‘black from the powder smoke.’ As soon as the assault force reached the walls and ramparts, the troops threw down their shields and fought hand to hand. After intense fighting, the Tay Son emerged victorious, and large numbers of Chinese, including general officers, died.

The other Tay Son columns were also successful. General Long’s force defeated the Chinese at Khuong Thuong, and their commander committed suicide. General Bao’s troops at Dam Muc also ambushed Chinese troops retreating from Ngoc Hoi to Thang Long. The Vietnamese killed thousands of the northern invaders. The Chinese defensive line south of the capital was completely shattered. The Dong Da post, now within the city of Ha Noi, was taken after a day of fierce fighting. The Chinese commander there hanged himself.

Sun Shi-yi learned of the defeats at Ngoc Hoi and Khuong Thuong in the middle of the night of January 29, about the same time the Tay Son entered the capital’s suburbs. With fires visible in the distance, Sun Shi-yi did not bother to put on his armor or saddle his horse but mounted it bareback and fled over the Red River, followed by others on horseback. The Chinese infantry soon joined the flight, but the bridge they tried to use in their escape became overburdened and collapsed under their weight. According to Vietnamese accounts, the Red River was filled with thousands of Chinese bodies. King Le Chieu Thong also fled along with his family and found refuge in China, ending the 300-year-long Le dynasty in Vietnam.

on the afternoon of the fifth day of the new year Quang Trung’s troops entered Thang Long. As their commander had promised, they celebrated Tet there on the seventh day of the new year. Quang Trung then sent out orders to his generals to pursue the Chinese, hoping to capture Sun Shi-yi. His intention was to frighten the Chinese so much that they would give up their dream of conquering Vietnam. He promised, however, to treat humanely all those who surrendered, and thousands of Chinese troops did so.

Modern-day Vietnamese know this campaign by a variety of names-the Victory of Ngoc Hoi-Dong Da, the Emperor Quang Trung’s Victory over the Manchu, or the Victory of Spring 1789. Today it is still celebrated in Vietnam as the country’s greatest military achievement.

Quang Trung profited from Chinese errors. Instead of continuing his offensive to destroy the Tay Son, Sun Shi-yi had halted. Confident of his superior numbers, he had underestimated his adversary and relaxed discipline. But Quang Trung had carefully prepared his campaign. As historian Le Thanh Khoi noted, in the course of a 40-day campaign, Quang Trung had devoted 35 days to preparations and only five to actual battle. His lieutenant’s wise decision to retreat from the north had freed up sufficient troops. Another key was the attitude of the civilian population, which rallied to the Tay Son in their march north, providing food, material support and tens of thousands of soldiers. This gave Quang Trung the resources needed to take the offensive. He also managed to preserve military secrecy until the time of his attack. Being on the offensive also helped offset his 2-to-1 numerical inferiority. And his attack on the eve of Tet was a particularly brilliant stroke because it caught the Chinese off guard, when they were getting ready to celebrate the lunar new year.

Once launched, Quang Trung’s offensive went forward without pause over five days. Attacks were usually launched at night, to create maximum confusion for the enemy. Days, meanwhile, were spent on preparations. Quang Trung reportedly organized his forces into three-man teams, two of whom would carry the third in a hammock. They would then change places periodically to minimize march time. The rapid and simultaneous nature of the attacks prevented the Chinese from bringing up reserves, added to their confusion and kept them from shifting their resources.

Quang Trung’s offensive covered nearly 80 kilometers and took six forts-a rate of 16 kilometers and more than one fort a day. Counting the retreat from Thang Long, his troops covered 600 kilometers in only 40 days. Considering the state of Vietnamese roads at the time, this was an astonishing achievement. The offensive, concentration of force, excellent training, effective use of combined arms and rapid mobility gave the Tay Son victory. Numbers were not as important as morale the attackers were clearly motivated by the strong desire to free their country from foreign domination.

Quang Trung can be regarded as one of the greatest of Vietnamese leaders, a commander who won two of the most important military victories in Vietnamese history. He reunited the realm, repelled the Siamese and saved his country from Chinese domination. Contemporary Western missionaries in Vietnam compared him to Alexander the Great. But Quang Trung was more than a military hero he was also one of Vietnam’s greatest kings. If anything, Quang Trung’s reputation has grown since 1975-he is regarded as a king raised from the people. Ironically, during his own time many Vietnamese regarded Quang Trung as a usurper because he did not come from a noble family. Evidently they preferred a bad king from a good family to an effective king from a poor family.

Recognizing the need for peace and accommodation with China, Quang Trung immediately sought normalization of trade relations with the Chinese after the battle and pledged fealty to their emperor. He further requested permission to travel to Beijing, a trip he made in 1790. Meanwhile, in December 1789 an imperial emissary presented him with ritual confirmation as king of An Nam.

Quang Trung showed himself willing to work with capable individuals, regardless of their past loyalties. This helped attract the best men to his service. He reorganized the army and carried out fiscal reforms. He redistributed unused lands, mainly to the peasants. He promoted crafts and trade, and pushed for reforms in education, stating that ‘to build a country, nothing is more important than educating the people.’

Quang Trung also believed in the importance of studying history he had his tutors lecture to him on Vietnamese history and culture six times a month. He wanted to open trade with the West, and Western missionaries of his day noted that they were able to carry out their religious activities with more freedom than before.

Quang Trung was the first Vietnamese leader to add science to the Mandarinate examinations. He also introduced a Vietnamese currency and insisted that Nom, the demotic writing system combining Chinese characters with Vietnamese, be used in court documents.

Unfortunately, Quang Trung’s reign was brief-he died of an unknown illness in March or April 1792. Many Vietnamese believe that had he lived a decade longer their history would have been different. Quang Trung’s son, Quang Toan, ascended the throne, but he was then only 10 years old. Within a decade Nguyen Anh, the surviving Nguyen lord, came to power and proclaimed himself king as Gia Long, establishing the Nguyen dynasty.

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40 Graphic Images of the Vietnam War Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, launched on January 30, 1968, by forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People&rsquos Army of Vietnam against the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the United States Armed Forces, and their allies. It was a campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian command and control centers throughout South Vietnam. The attacks began on the holiday Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.

The offensive saw more than 80,000 North Vietnamese troops attacking more than 100 towns and cities, including 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of six autonomous cities, and 72 of 246 district towns. The Tet Offensive was the largest military operation conducted by either side up to that point in the war.

The surprise of the attacks caused the US and South Vietnamese armies to temporarily lose control of several cities. They were able to quickly regroup, counter attack, and inflict heavy casualties on North Vietnamese forces.

During the Battle of Hue, the fighting lasted over a month and the city was destroyed. During the occupation, the North Vietnamese forces executed thousands of people in the Massacre of Hue. Around the US combat base at Khe Sanh fighting continued for two more months.

Although the offensive was a military defeat for North Vietnam, it had a profound effect on the US government and shocked to Amerian public, which had been led to believe that The North Vietnamese were being defeated and were incapable of launching such a large scale attack. The Johnson administration was no longer capable of convincing anybody that Vietnam War was a major defeat for the communists.

1968 became the deadliest year of the war for US forces with 16,592 soldiers killed. On February 23 the U.S. Selective Service System announced a new draft call for 48,000 men, the second largest of the war.

Walter Cronkite stated during a news broadcast on February 27, &ldquoWe have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds&rdquo and added that, &ldquowe are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory.&rdquo

A wounded soldier is dragged to safety near the citadel&rsquos outer wall during the fighting at Hue. History A market in the Cholon District of Saigon is covered in smoke and debris after the Tet Offensive, which included simultaneous attacks on more than 100 South Vietnamese cities and towns. History An estimated 5,000 Communist soldiers were killed by American air and artillery strikes during the Battle of Hue. History Approximately 150 U.S. Marines were killed along with 400 South Vietnamese troops at the Battle of Hue. History Military policemen capture a Viet Cong guerrilla after the surprise attack on the U.S. embassy and South Vietnamese government buildings in Saigon. History On January 31, 1968, approximately 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces began a series of attacks on the U.S. and South Vietnamese. history On the first day of the attacks, a Buddhist monk flees the damage and destruction behind him. History The attacks began on the lunar new year holiday, Tet, and became known as the Tet Offensive. history U.S. forces posted at the outer wall of a citadel in the ancient city of Hue, the scene of the fiercest fighting of the Tet Offensive. History VIETNAM. Hue. Civilian casualties. Many took refuge in the university. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. Hue. The grounds of Hue university became a graveyard. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths US. Marines. South Marines. Jan/Feb. 1968. During the Vietnamese New Year celebrations of the TET, the city of HUE, an ancient Mandarin walled city which stood on the banks of the perfumed river and near to the demilitarized zone, a force of 5000 VIETCONG and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) regulars took siege of the citadel. The Americans sent in the Fifth Marine Regiment to dislodge them. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. During the Vietnamese New Year celebrations of the Tet, the city of Hue an ancient Mandarin walled city which stood on the banks of the perfumed river and near to the demilitarized zone, a force of 5000 Vietcong and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) regulars took siege of the citadel. The American sent in the Fifth Marine Commando force to dislodge them. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. Hue. US Marines inside the Citadel rescue the body of a dead Marine during the Tet Offensive. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths The battle for the Cities. U.S. Marines. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. Hue. Refugees flee across a damaged bridge. Marines intended to carry their counterattack from the southern side, right into the citadel of the city. Despite many guards, the Vietcong were able to swim underwater and blow up the bridge, using skin-diving equipment from the Marines. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. This operation by the 1st Cavalry Division to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail failed like all the others but the U.S. military was shaken to find such sophisticated weapons stockpiled in the valley. Officers still talked of winning the war, of seeing &ldquothe light at the end of the tunnel.&rdquo As it happened there was a light, that of a fast-approaching express train. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. The battle for Saigon. U.S. policy in Vietnam was based on the premise that peasants driven into the towns and cities by the carpet-bombing of the countryside would be safe. Furthermore, removed from their traditional value system they could be prepared for the imposition of consumerism. This &ldquorestructuring&rdquo of society suffered a setback when, in 1968, death rained down on the urban enclaves. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths VIETNAM. The battle for Saigon. Refugees under fire. Confused urban warfare was such that Americans were shooting their staunchest supporters. 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths


Tet Offensive

On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched a surprise attack on South Vietnam during the Tet (New Year) holiday truce.

The North Vietnamese began planning their General Offensive and Uprising in April 1967. They believed that the government in Saigon was so unpopular in the South that an attack on major cities there would lead the citizens to revolt, guaranteeing a swift victory and an end to calls for peace talks. Throughout the second half of 1967, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers moved 81,000 tons of supplies and 200,000 troops across the border.

U.S. #3188g from the Celebrate the Century: 1960s sheet.

That October, they decided the Tet holiday would be the day to launch their attack, as the Americans and South Vietnamese (ARVN) would be observing the agreed-upon truce. In December, they launched a “diplomatic offensive,” claiming that Hanoi would consider negotiations if America halted their bombing campaign in North Vietnam. This was only a ruse to confuse the allies.

Though the Americans did not know what the North Vietnamese had planned, or when it would take place, they did see the signs. They noticed a large military buildup and were puzzled by the large battles that broke out in remote regions. In fact, these battles were part of the North Vietnamese plan to draw American troops away from the cities, their actual targets.

Item #4584112 – Australia coin honoring the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

One of their greatest diversions was the attack on the military base at Khe Sanh on January 21. American MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) commander William Westmoreland saw the attack as a plot to overrun the base and take over the two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam. To prevent this, he sent half his men – 250,000 soldiers – to aid in the defense of Khe Sanh. Meanwhile, Frederick Weyand had noticed a large buildup of North Vietnamese around Saigon and requested some of those men be brought back to defend the capital city. Westmoreland called back 15 battalions to aid in the city’s defense, a move that may have helped save Saigon.

The Tet Offensive officially commenced shortly after midnight on January 30, 1968. The first target was Nha Trang, the headquarters of the US I Field Force. This was followed by attacks in the other provincial capitals: Ban Me Thuot, Kon Tum, Hội An, Tuy Hòa, Da Nang, Qui Nhơn, and Pleiku. In each of these attacks, they launched mortar and rocket barrages followed quickly by massive ground assaults. Though the Americans and South Vietnamese were caught off-guard, they drove their attackers from nearly all these locations by sunrise. MACV Chief of Intelligence Phillip B. Davidson alerted Westmoreland that he believed these attacks would continue across the country throughout the night and morning. Westmoreland then put all US and ARVN troops on maximum alert to brace for what was to come.

Item #M4512 – Once-forbidden North Vietnam stamps.

The next wave of attacks came at 3 a.m. on January 31. They attacked Saigon, Cholon, and Gia Dinh in the Capital Military District as well as 13 other cities and US bases. Saigon was the main target of the attacks. Though fighting continued in Saigon and other cities, the North Vietnamese launched a second wave of attacks on ten more cities on February 1st. In fact, over the course of the offensive, they attacked over 100 towns and cities, as well as every major allied airfield. In most cases, the North Vietnamese were driven out of town within two or three days. Fighting went on for much longer in at least five cities. During this time, none of the South Vietnamese troops deserted or defected to join the North Vietnamese, showing commitment to their cause.

U.S. #4988a were issued to honor Medal of Honor recipients from the Vietnam War.

Huế was among the targets on January 31. The North Vietnamese captured the city that day and the Americans and ARVN spent nearly a month in street-to-street fighting to take it back. By March they had retaken control but at extreme cost. Most of the historic city was destroyed and thousands of civilians were dead or left homeless.

U.S. #4988a – Vietnam Medal of Honor First Day Cover.

The first phase of the Tet Offensive was considered over by March 28, though fighting at Khe Sanh continued into April. The North Vietnamese launched two more attacks called Mini-Tets on May 4 and August 17. The offensive officially ended on September 23. The Tet Offensive was largely considered a failure for the North Vietnamese. They did not to meet any of their objectives and nearly depleted their Viet Cong Army.


The Immense Tet Offensive – One Of The Biggest Campaigns In The Vietnam War

In the late evening hours of January 30, 1968, the Vietnamese New Year began. This annual celebratory event, known as Tet, signaled the coming of more than just a new year and a new beginning for the people of Vietnam. As soldiers descended on U.S. encampments, bombs and gunfire rained down upon the American Embassy, and countless members of the military were taken prisoner or gunned down, the Tet Offensive signaled a changing tide in the Vietnam War upon that very evening.

Today, the Tet Offensive of early 1968 is known as one of the largest military efforts of the Vietnam War, a successful surprise attack conducted by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam. The Vietnam War was an incredibly contentious time in both American and Vietnamese histories, and the Tet Offensive adds only further complications to the stories and moments of the war.

Still today, there is debate as to which army truly won the attack, and which side took control once the surprise wore off. So, who is to take the title of the victor in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive? Did the North Vietnamese exact the damage and destruction they hoped? Or do the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces lay claim to the victory?

Although the Tet Offensive began with the start of the Vietnamese New Year, the military effort lasted well beyond a single evening. That first blow, that first series of sudden and unexpected attacks, launched attacks that kicked off a massive military operation planned by the North Vietnamese forces.

A number of North Vietnamese targets during the Tet Offensive.

The detrimental effects were immediate: as the operation kicked into its full scale on the morning on January 31, the U.S. and South Vietnamese were unable to establish a widespread defense, and the People’s Army of (North) Vietnam (NVA) launched 80,000 troops into over 100 towns. Stunned by the unexpected attacks, the non-communist forces immediately lost control of several important locales and cities.

The element of surprise was truly used to great advantage in the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese attacked with zero expectations, and zero warning, awarding them the freedom to inflict great damage and significant terror before their enemies could respond. Within just a few hours, the Vietcong forces laid siege to countless Southern strongholds – all of which were weakly defended at the time.

U.S. Marines advance past an M48 Patton tank during the battle for Huế.

However, this New Year’s strike was not as effective as it appeared though the initial attack lasted six hours, it ultimately proved inconsequential in terms of military advantage in the larger scope of the Vietnam War.

Instead, ARVN and the leaders of North Vietnam discovered that their sneaky and strong surprise attack spelled something of a disaster in the later months.

Quảng Trị residents fleeing the Battle of Quang Tri (1968).

Though the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies were temporarily stunned into immobility and inaction, their defeat was not as imminent as many believe. In fact, the losses were brief – within days, the two allies had regrouped and responded to the surprise attack. Soon thereafter, the Americans and the South Vietnamese retook control of the cities lost. The forces developed a defensive strategy quickly, fighting back against ARVN and inflicting many casualties upon their opponent.

Over the course of the two months that followed, which are considered part of the Tet Offensive operation, the North Vietnamese were stripped of all that they gained in the first hours of January 30. By the Offensive’s end, the North Vietnamese were expelled from the strongholds in the South, left holding none of the landmarks and locales they initially invaded.

U.S. Marines move through the ruins of the hamlet of Dai Do after several days of intense fighting.

Not all accounts of the Tet Offensive were positive, however. Although the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces retook control of all that was attacked by the North, those listening and watching reports from oceans away did not know that these forces saw success – they did not hear how, though losses occurred, the militaries were quick to regain it all.

Instead, media outlets in America reported success only of the North Vietnamese forces, relaying scenes of burned encampments, destruction in cities, and an embassy in ruins. As a result, public opinion in the U.S. believed that all was lost in Vietnam.

It was that perception, that harmful presentation of the Tet Offensive, that ultimately led the American leadership to withdraw its forces and leave South Vietnam to fall on its own.

Tet Offensive in Vietnam

As American historian James J. Wirtz remarks of the Tet Offensive, this moment in the Vietnam War was “an earth-shattering, mind-shattering event that changed the course of the war.”

Though the North Vietnamese forces had high hopes for their surprise New Year’s attack, they did not manage to achieve the incredible victory they initially sought – the battlefield remained unchanged, and the Communist forces were quickly halted in their efforts. However, they did make gains in one particular area: the will of the U.S. and its people.

When the North Vietnamese began planning their attack, their goal was to force the American military to change its strategy, to de-escalate their war efforts and give up hope. And, because the Tet Offensive did make those at home in America believe that there truly was no end to the losses in Vietnam, the strategy proved effective.

ARVN Rangers defending Saigon in 1968 Battle of Saigon.

By the war’s end, the Tet Offensive secured a lasting place in international history: it was the biggest military operation throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War, responsible for attacking hundreds of cities, many of which were crucial capitals.

Yet still today, four long decades after the last troops pulled out of Vietnam and left the southern half of the nation to its own devices, the world is still divided: who truly can be considered the victor of the Tet Offensive?

Civilians sort through the ruins of their homes in Cholon, the heavily damaged Chinese section of Saigon.


In late January 1968 the VC launched the Tet Offensive attacking U.S. and South Vietnamese positions across South Vietnam.

Saigon was the main focal point of the offensive, but a total takeover of the capital was not intended or feasible. They rather had six main targets in the city which 35 battalions of VC were to attack and capture: the ARVN Joint General Staff compound near Tan Son Nhat International Airport, the Independence Palace, the U.S. embassy, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the Long Binh Naval Headquarters and the National Radio Station. Because it was Tết (the Vietnamese New Year), the sound of firecrackers exploding masked that of gunfire, giving an element of surprise to the Vietcong attacks.

The Vietcong launched 35 battalions at Saigon. Sapper Battalions and the local forces attacked the Presidential Palace, the National Radio Station, the U.S. Embassy, and other principal targets.

The VC 5th Division launched an attack on the military bases at Long Binh and Biên Hòa Air Base. The North Vietnamese 7th Division launched an attack on the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and the ARVN 5th Division at Lai Khê. The VC 9th Division attacked the U.S. 25th Infantry Division base at Củ Chi Base Camp.

The fighting in Saigon produced one of the Vietnam War's most famous images, photographer Eddie Adams' image of the summary execution of a VC prisoner on February 1, 1968. Nguyễn Văn Lém was captured by South Vietnamese national police, who identified him as the captain of a VC assassination and revenge platoon, and accused him of murdering the families of police officers. He was brought before Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the chief of the National Police, who briefly questioned him. Loan then drew his sidearm and shot the prisoner. Nguyễn's motives may have been personal he had been told by a subordinate that the suspect had killed his six godchildren and a police major who was Loan's aide-de-camp and one of his closest friends, including the major's family as well.

Present at the shooting were Adams and an NBC television news crew. The photograph appeared on front pages around the world and won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography, [1] a World Press Photo award [2] as well as seven other awards. The NBC film was played on the Huntley-Brinkley Report and elsewhere, in some cases the silent film embellished with the sound effect of a gunshot. General Westmoreland later wrote, "The photograph and film shocked the world, an isolated incident of cruelty in a broadly cruel war, but a psychological blow against the South Vietnamese nonetheless".

By early February, the Communist high command realized that none of their military objectives were being met, and they halted any further attacks on fortified positions. Sporadic fighting continued in Saigon until March 8. Some sections of the city were left badly damaged by the combat and U.S. retaliatory air and artillery strikes in particular. The Chinese district of Cholon suffered especially, with perhaps hundreds of civilians killed in the American counterattacks.

As cited in the Spector book on page xvi, "From January to July 1968 the overall rate of men killed in action in Vietnam would reach an all time high and would exceed the rate for the Korean War and the Mediterranean and Pacific theaters during World War II. This was truly the bloodiest phase of the Vietnam War as well as the most neglected one."

The Vietcong attacked targets in and around Saigon with much success during the May Offensive from 5 to 30 May 1968.


From the Bulge to Tet

The frozen, bitterly cold forest in Europe during a major World War II offensive and the steamy South Vietnamese capital city at the height of the Vietnam War were thousands of miles and thousands of days apart. But for one remarkable U.S. Army officer, the two sites of two famous battles—the 1944 Ardennes Offensive and the 1968 Tet Offensive—were significant milestones in his military career. He played a key role in both pivotal battles, two major offensives that historians often compare because of the surprise nature of the attacks by the German army in 1944 and the Viet Cong in 1968.

In 1944 Albin F. Irzyk was a young major who commanded a tank battalion in the 4th Armored Division and helped spearhead the relief of Bastogne during the huge fight commonly called the Battle of the Bulge. In 1968 he was in the epicenter of the battle for Saigon during Tet, when his command held the line for several crucial hours on the morning of Jan. 31, 1968. His organization, Headquarters Area Command (HAC), is credited with saving Saigon until U.S. combat forces could arrive from outside the city.

When the Tet Offensive erupted in Saigon, Irzyk had an understandable sense of déjà vu: “I said, ‘Oh, no. Not again.’”

This time, however, instead of commanding a battalion of M4 Sherman tanks crewed by combat-hardened soldiers, Irzyk’s forces were support troops. The 2,000-plus members of HAC did have a couple of aces in the hole, however: the 716th Military Police Battalion and a hastily assembled reaction force of cooks, clerks, bakers and hotel managers.

“What was unusual about Tet as opposed to the Battle of the Bulge was that [in the Bulge] you had all combat troops deployed,” Irzyk said. “In Saigon, except for the MPs, the guys I had fired their weapons in basic training, but never again.”

In 1944, Irzyk recalled, his division was in France and the weather that November was “horrible, horrible” thanks to rain, mud and cold. His 8th Tank Battalion and the rest of the 4th Armored Division were expecting to stage an assault on the Siegfried Line—Germany’s western defenses— but the terrible weather made cross-country travel virtually impossible.

They’d gotten to within a few miles of the German border when, in early December 1944, the division was pulled back. Irzyk said his battalion was assigned to a little village, where they “went full speed ahead on maintenance and weapons cleaning.”

The weather continued to deteriorate. It was the worst in a 100 years, he said it seemed impossible for it to get any colder. But the atrocious conditions provided perfect cover for the massive German assault that erupted in Belgium in the early hours of December 16. The Germans attacked a thinly manned American sector in the Ardennes Forest, causing havoc and punching toward the Meuse River. The ultimate German objective was to capture the strategic port city of Antwerp, and hopefully compel the Western Allies to sue for peace. This would free the Germans to concentrate on the Soviet juggernaut approaching from the east.

It was a forlorn hope at best for the Germans. Still, they managed to assemble a huge attacking force by stripping troops from the Eastern Front, where they had fought the oncoming meat grinder of the Red Army, and augmenting them with boys and old men. As the German attacks continued, the battlefield took on the shape of a bulge, inevitably leading to its nickname. The town of Bastogne, a road hub, soon became a key focal point of the battle. If the Germans could take Bastogne, their path to the Meuse would be much easier. Without it, their desperate attack—and the road to Antwerp—became even more of an uphill struggle.

Irzyk and his tankers were going full-bore on their refitting and maintenance when the German offensive began. On the morning of December 19 that all changed. The 4th Armored Division was ordered to relieve Bastogne, and its units moved out, with Irzyk’s 8th Tank Battalion spearheading the relief effort.

Irzyk’s battalion made it as far as Chaumont, near Bastogne, when it became involved in an armored brawl with the Germans. The heavy fighting and combat losses halted his unit, but other elements of the division finally linked up with the American defenders of Bastogne the day after Christmas.

It was “incomprehensible that what happened [during the Battle of the Bulge] happened,” Irzyk said. The Germans amassed a tremendous force, which “took them weeks and weeks.” But despite the size and scope of the German effort, there were “no leaks…it was a total surprise.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, Irzyk found himself in the middle of another enemy surprise attack. On the eve of Tet, he was in his headquarters when he received a telephone call from General William C. Westmoreland, the top commander in South Vietnam. “I have strong indications that sappers may be operating in town tonight,” Westmoreland reported. “Accordingly, I want your command at maximum alert.”

Irzyk swung into action. He held a meeting with all his key people, including the 716th MP Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Gordon Rowe. The MPs were ordered to put on flak jackets and take other steps to prepare for possible trouble. Meanwhile, HAC’s own quick-reaction forces, drawn from the command’s various support elements, were positioned in key spots throughout the metropolitan area.

Irzyk recalled that the crowds during the Tet Lunar New Year celebration made it almost impossible to get through the city and home from his office on the eve of the offensive. But by the time the fighting in Saigon began in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 1968, the streets had cleared. “I rushed to my headquarters,” Irzyk said. “There was not a light showing [in the city].”

Those first hours saw the MPs and HAC troops in the fight of their lives at locations throughout the capital city, including the U.S. Embassy, Phu Tho Racetrack and many other hotspots. But Saigon held until the first American combat troops arrived. Then, for days afterward, Irzyk’s command was instrumental in keeping the city functioning.

Despite the similarities between Tet and the Battle of the Bulge, Irzyk said there were some differences. In the Bulge, massive military formations fought massive military formations. But in Saigon during Tet, American MPs and support personnel performed in unfamiliar combat roles. And for the most part, he said, “their enemy was sneaky guys coming around in ones and twos.”

On a personal level, another difference for Irzyk was his near brush with death during the 1944 battle at Chaumont. His Sherman tank somehow survived a hit from a mammoth 128mm round fired by a German Tiger tank-hunter. While that round should have smashed the Sherman’s turret, instead it simply pushed his tank forward. He said it felt like being hit by a “giant hand.”

Irzyk, whose WWII decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars and multiple Purple Hearts, experienced no similar close calls during Tet. But he did have one miraculous escape later in his Vietnam tour, as an assistant commander of the 4th Infantry Division.

His helicopter was flying over triple-canopy jungle, in the mountains of II Corps, when it lost its engine. The pilots “did a fantastic job,” he said, and auto-rotated to the ground. Somehow they found the only open spot for miles around. Passengers and crew, understandably shaken up, got out and formed a security circle until rescue helicopters arrived.

Just like at the long-ago battle at Chaumont, “That day the Man Upstairs was with me again,” said the brigadier general. Now 96, Irzyk is the author of several books, including an account of his Tet experience, Unsung Heroes, Saving Saigon.

Don Hirst served two tours in Vietnam as an Army enlisted man, in 1964-65 and 1967-68. He was the Headquarters Area Command photographer during Tet, and shot photos at the U.S. Embassy that received worldwide exposure. He covered the war for Overseas Weekly from 1968 to 1972 and was an editor at Army Times for 11 years. In 1985 he launched Salute magazine and was its executive editor for 20 years.

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.


5 thoughts on &ldquo Thomas D. Beaumont, Most Decorated Veteran from the Vietnam TET Offensive, Blog of Shame &rdquo

Why is it seemingly always the clerks?

[…] folks at Military Phonies send us their work on this Thomas Beaumont fellow. He claims to be the most decorated soldier of […]

Damn, another vet crapping all over honorable service. Enjoy all of the internet fame coming your way, THOMAS D. BEAUMONT!

THOMAS D. BEAUMONT! is still posting it up on Facebook…

January 17 (2017) at 9:33pm
To Senator McCain & Tom McCanna,

You think I’m going to be distracted cause a couple of vets were disturbed that I said I’d earned a Purple Heart? I did earn it, I was offered it, but I turned it down! Even though that injury complicated my entire life. And, you know my two hip replacements and right foot reconstructed was residual of that accident in Nam, and exasperated by my crash. I’ve suffered mentally and physically for 49 years.

Army Board of Review denied my appeal for Purple Heart # 1 because in 1995 no Purple Hearts inflicted by non hostile actions in a war zone were allowed. I should have been grandfathered in. It happened in 1968! And, I also earned Purple Heart # 2 when I crashed being meduvacued, and Army Board of Review determined they would deny that too, because there was no record of my being in any crash. But I was, and you found that 32 page report the Army declared did not exist.

I do not know what motivates you to screw me, but it’s obvious McCain resents my exposing him, and what HE failed to do!

I remember your saying , “Tom, you got 100 % PnT Disability based on facts and tens of testimonials, but you have no idea how many vets deserve help I can’t help!” Is that when you decided I’d been helped enough? Is that when you determined you’d lie to me when you said, ” accept VA’S proposal, and I’ll appeal monies they are taking illegally from your backpay, twice?”

I will keep posting this on McCain’s posts til you do exactly as you promised!”

Thousands of vets have not gotten full confirmations and due of their service injuries in many wars!

I served! I did not go to Canada as thousands did. I was denied medical attention once I returned. I got spit on simply because I served in Nam, and followed orders. I am no hero! I was in some wrong places at the paramount of wrong times. Many WERE hero’s!

I am not satisfied with a quadruple Bronze Star and individual Vietnamese medal for Bravery during TET of 1968. I am of the 1 % who served so 99% did not have to! There is nothing phony about ME!

The Army, the VA, and McCain are still screwing many many vets! Including me. And they are doing so deliberately!

Shame on you McCain! Shame on you Tom McCanna! Shame on the VA and the Do’s ( decision officers )! Vets deserve better. To all those other vets that served anywhere, THANK YOU for YOUR SERVICE! It will never be appreciated enough!


The Tet Offensive, 52 Years On

It is hard to believe that 52 years have passed since the start of the Tet Offensive. For those of us who were there, it seems like only yesterday that we were first alerted in the early morning hours— the middle of the night, actually—of January 31, 1968. Something big was happening. Most of the generals and senior commanders probably had a feel for just how big it was, but for those of us down in the line units it was just a matter of “saddle up and move out.”

The saga of the Tet Offensive actually started in early July 1967, when a top-ranking North Vietnamese Army (NVA) general died in a military hospital in Hanoi. For many years it was reported that Senior General Nguyen Chi Thanh had been killed by an American B-52 strike while at his command post somewhere in South Vietnam. More recent evidence suggests that he died from far more natural causes. Regardless of the cause, however, the timing of his death had a profound impact on the North Vietnamese decision-making process that led to the 1968 Tet Offensive and, by extension, led the course of the war to its dismal conclusion.

Thanh was the top North Vietnamese military commander in the South. Aside from Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, he was the only other man to hold four-star rank in the NVA. He was also a major political power—for 17 years he had been a member of North Vietnam’s ruling Politburo. In addition, he had been a longtime opponent of Giap’s policy of meeting America’s military might head-on. But now his voice was forever stilled. Immediately after Thanh’s state funeral on July 7, the Politburo met to consider Giap’s bold plan to bring the war to a speedy and successful conclusion.

The war had not been going well for the Communists. Thanh’s Viet Cong (VC) and NVA troops in the South had been losing in every encounter with the Americans since taking a bloody pounding in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. Thanh considered it madness to try to compete with superior U.S. firepower and mobility. He wanted to scale back operations and conduct a protracted guerrilla struggle, slowly grinding down the American will to continue. But General Giap, the victor of Dien Bien Phu 13 years earlier, wanted to stage another masterstroke to bring America quickly to its knees. With Thanh now dead, there was no other voice of dissent in the Politburo.

The key to Giap’s plan was the concept of the “General Offensive,” borrowed from Chinese Communist doctrine. Following the General Offensive, in a one-two punch, would come the “General Uprising,” wherein the people of the South would rally to the Communist cause and bring down the Saigon government. The General Uprising was a distinctly Vietnamese element of revolutionary dogma.

The success of Giap’s plan depended on three key assumptions: 1. that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would not fight and would collapse under the initial impact 2. that the people of the South would follow through with the General Uprising and 3. that when faced with an overwhelming shock action, the American will to continue the fight would crack.

The timing of the General Offensive was set for Tet 1968, the Lunar New Year that began the Year of the Monkey. Tet is far and away the most important holiday of the Vietnamese year. It is almost impossible for a Westerner to understand its significance. It’s like Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July and your birthday, all rolled into one.

Giap’s buildup and staging of the Tet Offensive was a masterpiece of deception. General instructions were sent to units in the field, but the exact timing and specific unit objectives of the attacks were withheld until the last moment. Starting in the fall of 1967, Giap staged a series of bloody but seemingly pointless battles in the border regions and in the north of the country near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). On October 29, the 273rd VC Regiment attacked the district capital of Loc Ninh, in the “Fishhook” region northwest of Saigon. On November 23, the 4th NVA Regiment launched a major attack on Dak To. In early January 1968, several NVA divisions began to converge on the isolated U.S. Marine outpost at Khe Sanh, near the DMZ.

All of these actions were part of Giap’s “peripheral campaign,” designed to draw U.S. units out of the urban areas and toward the borders. For the most part they were carried out by NVA troops, while VC units moved into their Tet jump-off positions, built up their supplies and rehearsed their battle drills. In the case of the 273rd VC Regiment’s attack at Loc Ninh, captured enemy documents later revealed that the purpose of that battle had been to give the Viet Cong experience in conventional attack formations. The Communist military leadership used the 1967 Christmas cease-fire to good advantage. Senior commanders used the truce to reconnoiter their assigned objectives. Thus the stage was set to launch Giap’s great gamble in the early days of 1968.

Tet did achieve surprise at the strategic level, although at the tactical level American intelligence had recognized that there would be attacks during the holiday season. Lieutenant General Fred Weyand, the commander of U.S. II Field Forces and himself a former intelligence officer in World War II, had concluded that something was probably going to happen on a larger rather than smaller scale. He convinced General William Westmoreland to let him redeploy 13 of his maneuver battalions closer to Saigon in mid-January. As a result, U.S. forces were not caught completely flatfooted when the attack came. Throughout most of the country, the battle was over in a matter of days, but in places such as Saigon’s Cholon district, Hue and Khe Sanh, the protracted fighting dragged on for weeks. By the time it was all over, Giap had been proved dead wrong in two of his three key assumptions. The people of the South did not rally to the Communist cause. The General Uprising never took place—even in Hue, where Communist forces held an entire city for the longest time. Nor did the ARVN fold. It may have buckled in a few areas, but by and large it fought, and fought amazingly well.

If there was a single big loser in the Tet Offensive, it was the Viet Cong. The guerrillas of the South led the main attacks, and they suffered the heaviest casualties. The guerrilla infrastructure, so carefully developed over many years, had been decimated with a single throw of the dice. From that point on, the Second Indochina War was entirely run by the North. The VC were never again a significant force on the battlefield. When South Vietnam finally fell in April 1975, it was at the hands of four NVA corps.

And yet, Giap was quite correct in his third assumption—about the will of his enemy. The rest of the world, and the American people in particular, were stunned by the apparent strength of the Communist attacks. The subsequent overwhelming battlefield victory achieved by American and South Vietnamese units could not reverse the image of disaster and defeat that became so firmly entrenched in the public mind. With one hand, the United Earle G. Wheeler put together a plan requiring an additional 206,000 American troops to exploit the enemy’s debacle, but someone in the Johnson White House leaked the plan to the press. The story broke on March 10, 1968. The American public concluded that the extra troops were needed to recover from a massive defeat, with accusations that it had been lied to by the government. It was a psychological turning point. Less than three weeks later, President Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. As the American military historian Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall summed up later, the 1968 Tet Offensive was “a potential major victory turned into a disastrous retreat through mistaken estimates, loss of nerve, bad advice, failure in leadership, and a tidal wave of defeatism.”

But Tet should have not have been the shocking surprise it was. Military history is full of examples of last-ditch gambles to reverse a losing war. There were at least three major examples of such desperate surprise attacks in the first half of the 20th century alone.

In March 1918, the Germans launched their massive Operation Michael, also known as the Kaiser’s Battle, an attempt to knock the British out of the war before freshly arriving American forces could tip the strategic balance against Germany. Like Tet, the German attack was not a total surprise to the Allies, but its size and intensity were. Operation Michael achieved one of the biggest tactical successes of World War I, but it was a strategic failure. It failed to shatter the will and confidence of the Allies, and Germany still lost the war.

The Germans tried the same thing again in December 1944. This time the Battle of the Bulge was an almost total surprise, but it turned out to be both a tactical and a strategic failure, and Germany once more lost the war. American forces were again surprised in late October 1950, when it appeared that all North Korean resistance had crumbled between the 38th Parallel and the Yalu River. But from October 14 to November 1, Chinese Communist Forces managed to put some 180,000 troops south of the river. When they counterattacked the U.S. Eighth Army, the surprise was almost total. This time the attack was both a tactical and a strategic success, and the Korean Peninsula remains divided to this day.

Taken together, these four examples of desperate, last-ditch-gamble surprise attacks represent all four possible combinations of tactical and strategic success and failure. Just as Operation Michael showed that tactical success did not lead automatically to strategic success, Tet showed that tactical failure did not necessarily lead to strategic failure. The clear lesson here is that the final verdict of victory or defeat in such situations is more often than not decided in the mind of the side being attacked. As Napoleon noted, “In war the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” This is a lesson we should keep in mind for the future.

Most of us who fought in Tet 52 years ago as very young men find ourselves now poised on the verge of senior citizenship. Those of our comrades who were five to 10 years older back then are now old men, about the same age the World War I veterans would have been when we were kids in the 1950s. Our senior leaders, those who were Korea and World War II veterans, are now positively ancient—those fortunate enough to still be with us.

Thus, this 52th anniversary marks an important milestone, and a fitting occasion to offer a retrospective on the battle that became the turning point of the Vietnam War. In our Tet 52th Anniversary Special Issue of Vietnam Magazine we depart from our usual format to offer our readers an in-depth analysis of Tet, along with eyewitness accounts from men who were on the ground. Professor (Lt. Col., ret.) Jim Willbanks, author of a critically acclaimed history of Tet, offers new insights into the intelligence failure of Tet, not only on the Allied side, but on the Communist side as well. We also reprise an insightful article by Vietnam’s founding editor, the late Colonel Harry Summers, written for the 25th anniversary of Tet. An eyewitness account of the VC assault on the U.S. Embassy from former ABC reporter Don North meanwhile examines the heavy psychological impact that the failed strike had on the public’s perception of Tet.

There was really nothing new about the Tet Offensive. If there is one constant in the history of warfare it is the nasty surprise. There have been many “Tet Offensives” throughout the course of military history, and we are very likely to see something similar again.

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.


Watch the video: Battle of Saigon 1968 Vietnam War (December 2021).