Paul R. Pillar
Vietnam Military Intervention, East Asia
Fifty years ago this Tuesday, communist forces launched the assaults across South Vietnam known as the Tet Offensive. The offensive marked an inflection point in the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson denied a request the following month from his military commander in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, for 206,000 more U.S. troops on top of the more than half a million that already were there after years of escalation. Johnson turned to diplomacy in a search for a peace settlement and announced he would not run for re-election. The following year he turned over power to his successor, Richard Nixon, who presided over four more years of war and a gradual de-escalation until a peace agreement was signed in January 1973.
Multiple American generations have come of age since the Tet Offensive. Those generations can get only a partial, history-book sense of the extraordinary public and political mood within the United States back then, in which the Vietnam War played a huge part. Some things that shaped that mood do not have counterparts today. One of the biggest was conscription, which brought the costs of war more directly and painfully into far more American households than does any warfare today and made the times especially intense on college campuses, with their populations of draft-age males. Another was the Cold War, which provided the framework for seeing the expedition in Vietnam as a necessary counter to an advance of world communism. There also was an interplay between the war and comparably contentious domestic issues of the day, and between a counterculture and an establishment, that made 1968 an especially turbulent year in several respects.
Some observations about the Tet Offensive, however, have applicability to issues of today, especially those involving overseas military expeditions.
By most strictly military measures, the offensive was a defeat for the communists and a victory for the United States and its allies. Communist forces were unable to hold the cities that they had brazenly attacked, and those forces sustained huge casualties. But the military outcome was not what mattered most, either in the immediate aftermath of the offensive or ultimately. The political, perceptual, and emotional outcomes were what mattered, and they led the history books to view Tet not as a U.S. victory but as a big setback.