In January 1968 during the Vietnamese festivities of the Tet, the communist forces launched a series of attacks on key cities and towns throughout South Vietnam. It has been argued that this is the turning point in the war however, this point of view may have been overplayed and other factors should be taken into account to explain the changes in the war after this date if there were any.
The Tet offensive had a psychological effect on popular public opinion in America and made people realise that the war was not being easily won. This was particularly highlighted by the televising of the Vietcong attack on the American embassy in Saigon. This symbolised the potential vulnerability of America’s position in Vietnam. As a consequence President Johnson’s approval rating plummeted as Americans lost faith in Johnson’s ability to win the war. This change in public opinion was to have a significant effect on both Johnson’s view on the war and his successor Nixon. For example, Nixon was not able to implement his policy of the invasion of Cambodia as the strong domestic opposition to the war prevented any widening of US force in Indo-China.
The Tet Offensive made Johnson realise that it was unlikely that the war would be concluded quickly and that all previous military activity had failed to defeat the communists. Therefore, he initiated Peace Talks from May 1968. This shows that the Tet changed the attitude to the war and now America was trying to achieve a negotiated peace rather than a military victory.
Another effect of the Tet was to force Johnson not to stand for re-election, which in turn allowed Nixon to win by standing for election with the policy of ‘Peace with honour’. He had also taken this stance because of his shock reaction to the Tet. This meant that the way that the war was being fought changed as it was now being fought to pull out of Vietnam with honour instead of forcing a military defeat on the communists. Nixon aimed to achieve this by Vietnamisation, his ‘mad bomber’ theory and the use of dï¿½tente with USSR and China.
The Tet had a dramatic effect on General Westmoreland who was Commander in Chief of Armed Forces as psychologically it provoked him into wanting to use nuclear weapons against the North. This was met with huge disapproval from The White House and Westmoreland was subsequently relieved of his command. This change in military leadership led to new direction and strategies.
We should now consider the proposition that the Tet Offensive highlighted issues in the conflict that already existed and therefore should not be seen as a turning point. The opposition to the war had already begun in 1964 with protests in American colleges. This had increased over the years and although the Tet gained media attention it is likely that public opposition would have continued to increase anyway, due to the issues of the Draft, bodybags and national expense. It is questionable how much effect public opinion had on the conduct of the war as the majority of the population were not against the war, this is what Nixon called the ‘silent majority’. Aggressive military action continued after the Tet with more soldiers being killed after 1968 than the years before so although Nixon is pursuing ‘peace with honour’ he continues to use similar tactics to those promoted by LBJ for example the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972. This shows that the Tet was not a turning point in the tactics used in the war.
The Tet Offensive cannot be seen as a turning point as there was little military impact as the VC and NVA had huge losses and they didn’t achieve their aims so it was not an important or decisive battle. In fact, the communist losses took years to recover from so rather than the Tet being a military defeat and turning point for the US it left them in a theoretically stronger position.
After MacNamara’s breakdown Clark Clifford was appointed Secretary of Defence and this change in personnel signalled a change in American attitude in Vietnam as Clifford didn’t believe in the domino theory. This change would have come about regardless of the Tet as Nixon also adopted this view that communism was not a monolithic threat to the free world and saw victory in Vietnam more as a point of US pride than strategic importance.
The outcome of the war was mostly affected by Nixon’s realisation that it would be impossible to continue fighting much longer. He realised that the US people and congress would no longer support and bankroll a war that it was unlikely the US military could win. He therefore tried to negotiate peace terms, which would allow US to pull out without losing face. This attitude had already been decided before the Tet therefore although it was a shock to America it had little effect on the outcome of the war.