The Tet Offensive, launched by communist North Vietnamese forces on 31 January 1968, was a series of attacks meant to weaken the morale of South Vietnam and its allies, ultimately leading to a communist victory. The attacks were meant to take place simultaneously throughout the country, targeting major cities and military installations. Among the most notable of these attacks were the three battles that took place in Khe Sanh, Hue, and Saigon. These battles are remembered as some of the fiercest encounters of the entire war, with U.S. and South Vietnamese troops fighting hand-to-hand against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces.


The Communist forces of North Vietnam and the NLF launched the Tet Offensive with the aim of triggering a popular uprising and overthrowing the South Vietnamese government. The strategists of the Communist forces believed that if they launched a coordinated attack on multiple targets across South Vietnam, they would provoke mass defections among the South Vietnamese army and create chaos and political instability. They also believed that by attacking during the lunar new year of Tet, they could take advantage of the absence of many South Vietnamese troops who were visiting their families. In Stanley Karnow's Pulitzer Prize winning landmark work Vietnam: A History, he writes "Why, then, did the North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces submit to such horrendous losses at Khesanh? Nearly every Communist officer to whom I posed the quesiton offered roughly the same answer. The battles at Khesanh and elsewhere in the hinterlands before and during the Tet Offensive were intended to draw Americans away from South Vietnam's population centers, thereby leaving them naked to assault. (Karnow 1984, 554)

Another factor that motivated the Communist forces to launch the Tet Offensive was their assessment that they were losing the war and that the US was considering withdrawing from Vietnam. They believed that if they could deal a decisive blow to the US and South Vietnamese forces, they could force them to abandon their support for the South Vietnamese government and recognize the Communist-led NLF as the legitimate representatives of the Vietnamese people.

Battle of Khe Sanh

The Battle of Khe Sanh was the first of these three battles to take place. Khe Sanh was a U.S. Marine Corps base located just a few miles from the North Vietnamese border and the Laotian border, which made it a strategically important target for the NVA. The North Vietnamese forces launched a massive attack on January 21, ten days before the larger Tet Offensive, seeking to overrun the base and destroy the American forces stationed there.

The Marines at Khe Sanh were cut off from the outside world and had to be resupplied through air drops, which made their defense all the more difficult. The NVA launched several ground assaults on the base but were eventually repelled thanks to the assistance of U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps close air support. The siege of Khe Sanh lasted for 77 days, with 6,000 Marines defending the base against an estimated 20,000 North Vietnamese troops. The true purpose of the North Vietnamese attack on Khe Sanh continues to be a matter of debate. Some argue that the NVA intended to divert U.S. attention away from the Tet Offensive, while others contend that the Tet Offensive was meant to relieve pressure on Khe Sanh. Whatever the case may be, the defense of Khe Sanh was seen as critical by U.S. commanders at the time, including Gen Westmoreland.

The Battle of Hue

The Battle of Hue followed soon after the Battle of Khe Sanh and was one of the most intense urban battles of the entire Vietnam War. Hue was a major South Vietnamese city, an ancient provincial capital, and a center of culture and heritage. The NVA launched a surprise attack on Hue on the first day of Tet, overrunning much of the city and occupying the Citadel, the palace of the 19th Century Vietnamese emperors.

12144408492?profile=RESIZE_400xDuring the Tet Offensive, the Marines played a vital role in the defense of South Vietnam, and were a key force in the defense of Hue City, which was the epicenter of the conflict. The battle for Hue City was one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the war and was fought between the North Vietnamese Army and the South Vietnamese Army and their American allies. The Marines were first deployed to Hue City on 31 January 1968, to defend the key port city from the advancing North Vietnamese forces. The Marines were led by General Frederick C. Weyand, who was given the task of retaking the city from the NVA. The USMC had a strength of around 5,000 Marines and supporting personnel, including the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, which had been deployed to help the Marines in their efforts.

U.S. and South Vietnamese forces worked together to retake the city. The Marines were tasked with retaking the southern portion of Hue, while the ARVN was responsible for the northern portion. The Marines fought their way through the city, engaging in prolonged urban warfare against the NVA and Viet Cong forces. The southern portion of the city was recaptured by February 14, and the Marines assisted the ARVN in the assault on the Citadel, which fell on February 24.

The Marines' first task was to retake the Citadel, which was the ancient fortress that overlooked Hue City. The Citadel was the key to controlling the whole city, and the Marines knew that if they could retake it, they could turn the tide of the battle. The Citadel was fortified by the NVA, and the Marines faced heavy resistance as they fought their way through the streets and alleys of the city to reach it. Mark Bowden, in Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, in detailing the difficulty for marines fighting at the Citadel, writes "During World War II, when the city was occupied by Japan, its army had honeycombed the wide expanse at the top of the walls with foxholes, trenches, and tunnels." (Bowden 2017, 399) The battle for the Citadel lasted for several days and was one of the most intense and brutal battles of the war. The Marines were outnumbered and outgunned, but through their superior training and equipment, they were able to overcome the NVA's defenses and capture the Citadel. The Marines suffered heavy casualties during the battle, with nearly 150 Marines killed and over 600 wounded. The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong also suffered heavy losses, with estimates of their dead ranging from several thousand to more than 10,000.

After capturing the Citadel, the Marines moved on to retake the rest of the city. They faced determined resistance from the NVA, who had dug in and fortified their positions throughout the city. The Marines fought street by street, house by house, and room by room, never giving up ground to the enemy. They used every weapon at their disposal, including tanks, artillery, and air strikes, to drive the NVA out of Hue City.

After several weeks of intense fighting, the Marines finally secured the city on 25 February 1968. The battle for Hue City was one of the defining moments of the Vietnam War, and the Marines' heroic efforts helped to turn the tide of the conflict. The Marine Corps's actions during the Tet Offensive demonstrated their ability to fight and win under the toughest conditions. The Battle of Hue was a military victory for U.S. forces, but it came at a great cost. Communist forces had killed many civilians while they occupied the city, and the physical damage to Hue was devastating.

The Battle for Saigon

12144409072?profile=RESIZE_400xThe final battle of the Tet Offensive was the attack on Saigon. This was the most symbolic of the three battles, with the communist forces seeking to strike at the heart of South Vietnam's government and military establishment. Although the attack on Saigon received a great deal of media attention, it was ultimately less successful than the attacks on Khe Sanh and Hue. The battle marked a significant turning point in the Vietnam War. The Vietcong meticulously planned the attack on the six main targets in the capital city, including 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.

John Laurence, a reporter for CBS from 1965 to 1970, writes in his memoir The Cat From Hue: A Vietnam War Story, of the battle that had finally come to Saigon "With the Tet offensive, Saigon--like Hue--ws at the heart of the war, an urban battlefield." He adds "Citizens were stunned by the scale and boldness of the Tet Offensive: the ground assault on the U.S. embassy, the attack on the presidential palace, the long fight for Cholon and the Phu Tho racetrack, other encounters. The magnitude of the offensive was beyond most people's imagination and still held them, weeks later, in stunned disbelief." (Laurence 2008, 474-475)

In an effort to maintain an element of surprise, the Vietcong launched 35 battalions at Saigon during the Tết holiday, when the sound of firecrackers exploding masked the gunfire. The VC Sapper Battalions and local forces relentlessly attacked the Presidential Palace, the National Radio Station, the U.S. Embassy, and other principal targets, fiercely engaging in close combat while utilizing their expertise in navigation, terrain and stealth.

Notably, the VC 5th Division initiated an assault on the military bases at Long Binh and Biên Hòa Air Base. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese 7th Division stormed the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and the ARVN 5th Division post located at Lai Khê which resulted in a fierce week-long battle that ultimately drove the NVA back, although both sides sustained significant losses. The U.S. 25th Infantry Division base at Củ Chi Base Camp also faced the wrath of the VC 9th Division, with fierce battles and encounters occurring in the frontal trenches. The Vietcong surprised the U.S. military with coordinated attacks that utilized unconventional tactics and made effective use of the urban landscape to sustain the fight for weeks.

Ultimately, despite the Vietcong's significant gains and thrilling displays of military prowess, they were unable to hold the ground captured in Saigon. The ARVN forces, along with US Marines and paratroopers, fiercely fought back for weeks, recapturing any lost ground. The Battle for Saigon, although ultimately a military victory for the US and ARVN troops, marked a pivotal shift in public sentiment, as many Americans began to recognize that victory may not be possible in Vietnam.

Impact at home in America

12144409501?profile=RESIZE_400xThe Tet Offensive was a significant turning point in the Vietnam War. It revealed the Communist forces' ability to launch a coordinated and large-scale offensive against South Vietnamese and US forces. It also undermined the belief held by the US government that it was winning the war. Moreover, the Tet Offensive had a significant impact on the US public, who were shocked by the scale and ferocity of the attacks. Many Americans were disillusioned by the war and began to question the government's handling of the conflict. The Tet Offensive also prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to reconsider his policy towards Vietnam and announce that he would not seek re-election. The Tet offensive "provided the death warrant to the Johnson presidency." (Woods Eisenberg 2023, 398) The impact of the Tet Offensive on the American public and politics overshadowed the military success of the US and South Vietnamese forces in repelling the attacks.



Bowden, Mark. Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.

Hammel, Eric. Khe Sanh: Siege in the Clouds. Havertown: Casemate, 2018.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1984.

Laurence, John. The Cat From Hue: A Vietnam War Story. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008.

Woods Eisenberg, Carolyn. Fire and Rain: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Wars in Southeast Asia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2023


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