This year marks the 50th anniversary of 'probably the most defining event of the Vietnam War ... [in] the defining year of the Vietnam War'. (1) By early 1968, the United States had committed half a million personnel to sustaining an independent, non-communist South Vietnam in the face of a domestic insurgency backed by Ho Chi Minh's communist regime in Hanoi. In a contest framed in Cold War terms, the intervention from 1965 of American combat forces (with support from allies like Australia and New Zealand) had brought the conflict to a stalemate. Seeking to break that stalemate in their favour, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces boldly attacked more than 100 cities and towns across South Vietnam on 30 January 1968.
The Americans had been anticipating a major attack but they failed to gauge its precise timing, geographical extent and sheer ferocity. Initially taken aback, the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies then mobilised their superior firepower to strike back even more ferociously. The Tet offensive ended in military defeat for the communist side, with over 45,000 deaths. The local Viet Cong were crippled as an effective combat force and North Vietnamese regulars did most of the fighting thereafter. Moreover, the offensive singularly failed to achieve its objective of a popular uprising against the American-backed regime in Saigon.
Although a decisive tactical defeat for the communist forces, the Tet offensive was a strategic setback for the Americans and South Vietnamese. The symbolism was devastating for their cause --particularly because of two specific incidents televised around the world. The first featured the bloody and confused aftermath of the penetration of the American embassy compound in Saigon by a few Viet Cong commandos. While brief, this breach in security of the citadel of American power in Vietnam appeared to shatter Washington's optimistic claims to be winning the war. The Tet offensive also produced the horrifying picture of a Saigon police chief, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head. Though prompted by brutal Viet Cong killings of his own friends and family, Loan's decision to carry out a summary execution before the international media cast the South Vietnamese allies of the United States in the worst possible light. The image threw into question the whole morality of supporting the Saigon regime.
The political impact of the Tet offensive in the United States was...