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Tet Offensive By 1967, President Johnson stated that a crossover point had been reached – he believed that the USA was gaining the upper hand in the War. This meant American troops were supposedly killing the enemy faster than it could be replaced. However, this was not strictly true. The Vietcong controlled a third of villages in South Vietnam. Every year on the last day of January, the Vietnamese celebrate the lunar New Year and pay tribute to their dead ancestors. In 1968, an unofficial truce had been declared. However, unknown to the Americans, the VC had secretly celebrated the Tet festival two days early. They were planning a massive surprise attack on the US. The 31st January would be the day that the USA was least expecting an attack. By 1968 the USA were losing support at home and their morale was low. The VC had steadily grown stronger and now had access to better weapons supplied from Russia and China. The VC believed that now was the time for a surprise attack to finish off the Americans. They hoped that the local South Vietnamese population would rise up to support them and throw out the Americans.
On the evening of 31st January, 1968, 70,000 VC launched a surprise attack on more than a hundred cities and towns in South Vietnam. These were carefully co-ordinated to take place at exactly the same time for maximum impact - a complete change of tactics. The VC was no longer fighting a secret guerrilla war of hit and run. They were now fighting in the open and directly taking on the USA.
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The VC attacks did initially catch the US off guard. They had not previously openly attacked city centre targets. The most high profile of these was the South Vietnamese capital Saigon. Here the VC briefly captured the US embassy and the main radio station. Open street fighting was taking place in city locations for the first time.
Although initially caught off guard the USA soon regained its composure. With the help of the ARVN they fought back and within 48 hours the VC had largely been repelled. Fighting went on for a further month but the US eventually regained control. The local population had not risen up in support of the VC as they had hoped. The VC had suffered heavy losses – an estimated 30,000 were killed.
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Superficially the USA had won a clear victory. The first time the VC had emerged to fight on mass, and in the open, they had been easily defeated.
But the Tet Offensive only proved to be another media defeat for the USA. American had been told they were winning the war – but now were shocked by images such as this. This showed the war in Vietnam in a different light. Walter Cronkite was in Vietnam to cover the aftermath of the Tet offensive. News reports and images were soon flooding back to the USA of American soldiers surrounded on the streets of Saigon and fighting for their lives. The US public realised that if the VC were now strong enough to fight in the open, then they would eventually win. The words of eye witness reporters such as Cronkite only confirmed this fear.
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Public opinion in the USA and around the world was already beginning to turn against the USA before the Tet offensive, now it completely turned against them. American military generals were claiming victory and asking for another 200,000 soldiers to be sent out to ‘finish off the job’. But the general public and the politicians were now firmly against the War. The Tet offensive proved the NLF had inexhaustible supplies of men and women to fight. President Johnson was advised by his Secretary of Defence (foreign minister) that the USA could not win the Vietnam war and recommended a negotiated withdrawal. Ironically at the time when the USA was having its greatest military success in Vietnam. The mood completely turned against them. President Lyndon Johnson was a casualty. He assessed the situation, reduced air raids and decided not to seek re-election as US president. The NLF still controlled nearly 4,000 of the 12,500 villages in South Vietnam. The next step was to ‘liberate’ South Vietnam cities, or least show the US such strength that the US would give up and leave. It took 3 weeks and 11,000 US troops to clear Saigon of the Communist forces. Nearly 9,000 US & South Vietnamese soldiers died; around 60,000 Communists died. The NLF were disappointed the South didn’t rise up to support them and took 4 years to recover. However, many Americans were convinced that they were now losing the war and unlikely to win it. Crucially, US TV crews had captured images of the NLF taking temporary control of the US embassy.
Domestic protest, coupled with failure to make progress against the NLF led many influential advisers to recommend an exit.