The TET Offensive: Facts & Lessons Learned

In today’s post, I’m going to provide an overview of the TET Offensive. I’ll share 20 cool facts and 7 lessons learned. Enjoy.

The fact is: war sucks! But it is sometimes a required situation. There are many who claim it was not required for United States forces in the mid to late 1960’s when we deployed troops to the country of Vietnam. The objective was to help our South Vietnamese friends keep their democracy. The South’s northern zone had been swept with a communist system integrated from Chinese influence.

If communism spread into South Vietnam, could it start spreading throughout Asia? President John F. Kennedy along with multiple other figures in American authority were quite concerned with this possibility.

The draft was instituted and United States forces were sent to Vietnam. In this writer’s opinion, the U.S. Government never truly committed to defeating the communist threat, but helping the South’s military, they did hold their own… until TET. I recently wrote a post about the mistakes made by the U.S. in Vietnam. You can find it here.

Probably the biggest turning point in the Vietnam War was the TET Offensive. This offensive move by the communist forces resulted in enough blood flow that could probably fill a large lake. Death and destruction created an overwhelming desire for this War to be done. Anti-war protests filled United States streets and airwaves. Did the North Vietnam communists achieve what they desired with the TET Offensive? Let’s find out.

The TET Offensive: 20 Cool Facts

# 1: It was called TET because…

The Tết holiday is the Vietnamese New Year. This is a major holiday for both North and South Vietnamese.

Tết Nguyên Đán, or Tet for short, is Vietnam’s New Year. Tet is one of the most important festivals in Vietnam, and it incorporates the country’s rich culture and storied history.

For the people of Vietnam, Tet is like our New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, and Christmas celebrations all rolled into one extravagant festival.

Tet marks the beginning of spring in Vietnam, as well as the beginning of the new year according to the lunar calendar. ~ Join Cake

# 2: The launch…

The communist North Vietnamese launched the TET Offensive on January 30th, 1968. Planning was done well before.

# 3: The debate…

The communists in North Vietnam did not rashly decide to perform the TET Offensive. For many months, key political figures in the North debated whether they should commit to this all-out attack or if they should negotiate. Some of the political figures involved in the debate were:

  • Trường Chinh

  • Võ Nguyên Giáp

  • Lê Duẩn

  • Lê Đức Thọ

  • Hồ Chí Minh

  • Nguyễn Duy Trinh

# 4: 7 day truce announcement

Leading up to the holiday, Hanoi announced it would observe a 7 day truce for the Tet holiday. While some relaxation was granted, General Westmoreland put no trust in the appearance of a truce. He called no truce to his troops and attempted to have the South Vietnamese Army do the same, but it fell on deaf ears.

# 5: The 3 Phases

The communist North had a 3 phase plan for the TET Offensive.

# 6: Border battles

The lead in of the TET Offensive had Viet Cong attacking seemingly worthless border areas. They hoped by doing so, it would draw U.S. troops away from major cities and towns in a diversionary tactic.

# 7: Intelligence recognized

Military intelligence noticed the communist forces moving massive amounts of equipment. It was believed they were planning a major operation, but the information was not handled correctly.

# 8: Over 100 cities and towns

The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces attacked over 100 cities and towns in a massive offensive operation.

# 9: Largest operation

The TET Offensive was the largest military operation in the Vietnam War.

The Tet Offensive was a catastrophic military failure for the communists. Historians estimate as many as 50,000 communist troops died in the effort to gain control of the southern part of the country. The South Vietnamese and American losses totaled a fraction of that number. ~ National Geographic

# 10: Battle of Hue lasted…

The Battle of Hue was devastating and lasted approximately 1 month. By the end, the city was nearly completely destroyed.

# 11: The Hue Massacre

Originally lost to the communists, Hue was recaptured. After doing so, mass graves were discovered. It is believed upwards of 2,800 South Vietnamese civilians were executed…some thrown in the graves partially alive before suffocating.

# 12: The order of attack was…

  1. Nha Trang

  2. Ban Mê Thuột, Kon Tum, Hội An, Tuy Hòa, Da Nang, Qui Nhơn, and Pleiku

  3. Saigon, Cholon, and Gia Định

  4. and many more cites and towns including Hue, An Khê and Biên Hòa

# 13: Battle of Khe Sanh lasted…

The Khe Sanh area was very important to the U.S. military. When the communists attacked Khe Sanh, it did not end for approximately 3-months.

The attack finally came on January 21, 1968, when PAVN forces began a massive artillery bombardment of Khe Sanh, hitting the base’s main store of ammunition and destroying 90 percent of its artillery and mortar rounds.

President Lyndon B. Johnson agreed with Westmoreland’s argument that the base should be held at all costs, and U.S. and South Vietnamese forces launched Operation Niagara, a major artillery bombardment of suspected locations of North Vietnamese artillery in the hills surrounding Khe Sanh. ~

# 14: General Westmoreland thought all else was diversion.

Many believe that the General was thinking back to when the Vietnamese defeated the French. Even when the communist North was attacking all these cities and towns including Saigon, he assumed it was all a diversion, and Khe Sanh was their primary target. The General was mistaken.

# 15: The primary Saigon targets.

The communists knew that trying to take all of Saigon at once would be nearly impossible. They set their sights on 5 primary targets. They were:

  1. Headquarters of ARVN Staff at Tan Son Nhut Air Base

  2. National Radio Station

  3. Independence Palace

  4. Vietnam Navy Headquarters

  5. The United States Embassy

# 16: Phase 1 figures

During phase 1, it is believed 32,000 communist troops were killed and nearly 6,000 captured. The South Vietnamese reported 2,788 killed, and over 8,000 wounded. The U.S. and allies reported over 1,500 killed, and over 7,500 wounded.

# 17: Phase 2 attacks

In late April, the Northern communist forces began another series of systematic attacks. These were more expected than the 1st Phase, but they were still deadly. The Battle of Dai Do was intense. They also pounded Saigon again along with a few other areas. The communists had many killed, but they did cause some chaos. Kham Duc was given up to the communists. The U.S. suffered over 1,000 deaths.

# 18: Phase 3 attacks

In mid August, the communists again asserted heavy pressure. They again attacked Saigon, but the worst was at Bu Prang against U.S. Special Forces.

The North had huge losses, but in many ways they made their point. There was a statement issued in April of 1969 by the communists that said: Never again and under no circumstances are we going to risk our entire military force for just such an offensive. On the contrary, we should endeavor to preserve our military potential for future campaigns.”

# 19: The communists lost

Or did they? By death count they did, but when the U.S. pulled out, the communists soon took over Vietnam. They won by getting people waging war against the war.

# 20: South Vietnam devastation

Just some key stats:

  • Over 14,000 civilians killed

  • 24,000 civilians wounded

  • Over 1,000,000 refugees. At the end of 1968, 1 of every 12 was a refugee.

  • 70,000+ homes destroyed

Top 7 Lessons Learned

Today, we are going to share the top 7 lessons learned from the TET Offensive. These are helpful lessons that will benefit civilian and military leaders. The lessons are listed in no particular order.

# 1: Do not allow the media free reign.

As much as we all feel the media needs to cover the news and report it accurately, this was not the case in Vietnam. In many ways, the media became as much an enemy to the U.S. as was the North Vietnamese. Reporters were allowed to film and picture everything which was then broadcast to the American public. The enemy also saw this and used the media to their advantage.

The media’s coverage endangered the lives of service people. As a writer, I am firmly pro-freedom of the press, but I also believe there needs to be measures of common sense. Common sense was not used, so the best action is that the U.S. government and military control the forms of media coverage during wars and missions.

# 2: Transparency to the public.

This may seem to contradict #1, but no, it doesn’t. It actually works hand-in-hand with it. If the government would have been more honest with the American public, the TET Offensive would not have created such a fire-storm of anti-Vietnam actions.

President Lyndon Johnson was busy telling the American people that the war would soon be over with an American victory…. It was either a lie, or just plain ignorance. The North Vietnamese being led by General Vo Nguyen Giap were planning the TET Offensive.

If Johnson had told the American public the truth, I believe there would have been more support for our troops.

# 3: Heed intelligence reports.

Whenever there is a war or conflict, the amount of intelligence reports can be overwhelming. I say this because there may have been a good reason that military minds and government officials failed to heed the intelligence reports showing that the North Vietnamese were preparing for a major attack.

While I defend them, I must say that the military, and our government should have learned that they had the reports and didn’t do anything about them.

Did they learn from it? I ask because there were many reports about the Twin Towers, but somehow terrorists still managed to fly jets into them. Intelligence reports need to be examined much closer.

# 4: Guerrilla warfare training.

The Vietcong did not use conventional methods to fight this war. The United States attempted to beat guerrilla warfare with conventional means. It didn’t work.

This is a lesson we should have learned from the Revolutionary War. It was the United States who used guerrilla techniques to defeat the British. The North Vietnamese hid in tunnels, under rocks and in trees. They knew how to ambush in ways that could devastate.

In modern times, terrorists try to use these methods, but the military is trained to fight guerrilla warfare. This is one lesson we learned from.

# 5: Show respect to the natives.

This was a major lesson from Vietnam. When the military treat the natives with disrespect, they soon will think that the other side is better. This happened in Vietnam. Soldiers did not actually know who their enemy was.

I believe the U.S. military has learned from this. I have noticed a different approach in Iraq and Afghanistan.

# 6: Determine assault locations and defend accordingly.

There were many locations during the TET Offensive that should have been protected better. If the Vietcong would have been just slightly stronger, they probably would have taken the embassy in Saigon.

The North’s forces attacked the Presidential Palace, the airport, ARVN Headquarters and the embassy. If these locations would have had the proper defenses, the attacks would have been diminished quickly, but they did not have the proper security in place.

I do believe we have learned a lesson from this, and the areas that are prime for attacks are secured much better.

# 7: Communication with the enemy.

It is much better to use all forms of communication and talks before going to war. I do also think that the United States has used this lesson. If we communicate before escalating to violence, often there are concessions that can be made that will divert death and destruction.


In conclusion, these are 20 cool facts and 7 lessons learned from the TET Offensive. What are your thoughts? I would love to hear from veterans, historians, and Soldiers. Just leave a comment below to let me know what you think. I look forward to hearing from you.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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