For the first time in the resistance war, the Vietnamese forces waged a general offensive simultaneously across a large area of the theater focusing on urban areas and the focal points being Saigon-Gia Dinh, Da Nang, Hue, while keeping all aspects of the attack secret until the last minute prior to opening fire. The general offensive also altered the strategic troop arrangements of the enemy in the whole Southern region.

Commando force taking an oath before opening the offensive

The general offensive showed the creativity and wisdom in the art of leadership of the Party in the national liberation war. It serves as a strong symbol of the willpower and indomitable strength of the Vietnamese military and people, leaving invaluable lessons in the history of the struggle for peace, independence, democracy and national reunification of Vietnam.

Timely grasp of opportunity, sound strategic decisions

In the South, the two strategic counter-offensives in the dry seasons of 1965-1966 and 1966-1967 of the US-Saigon administration forces not only achieved no significant results, but also resulted in heavy losses. Failure also occurred to the destructive war against North Vietnam waged by the US Air Force and US Navy in an attempt to stop supplies from the North reaching the South and to deter the Northern forces from carrying out the people’s resistance war. Consequently, the US Government was deeply divided over the war in Vietnam. 1968 was also a time of political sensitivity, as it was the year that the US presidential election took place. The election forced then US President Johnson to take careful steps in making decisions, especially for the war in Vietnam, to have the backing of voters in his run for the election. The situation showed that although the troop strengths of the US and the Saigon administration remained high, the US imperialists were already experiencing a dilemma regarding the war in the Vietnam.

Meanwhile, although there were still some difficulties, the Vietnamese forces were taking the initiative and the favorable and dominating position. The military and political forces in the South fully developed, as the armed forces made great strides, employing unique tactics to wear down much of their enemy’s strength. The Vietnamese forces extended control over more localities, shaped the firm encirclement around a number of bases and towns of the enemy and promoted the political struggle in urban areas.

Considering the balance of forces, the meeting of the Politburo  in December 1967 concluded, “We are having bright prospects and are standing a strategic great chance. The situation now allows us to shift the revolutionary war to a new stage - the stage of offensive and uprising to gain a decisive victory.” The Party Central Committee’s meeting held in January 1968 then defined the strategic goal of the general offensive and uprising as follows: Destroying and disrupting the majority of the Saigon administration’s forces and giving power to the people at all administrative levels; neutralizing a considerable part of the US forces and preventing them from reaching their political and military targets in Vietnam; and on that basis, breaking down the invasion intention of the US and forcing them to admit defeat in the South and end all military activities against the North.

This was a bold, precise and timely decision of the Party, showing the timely grasp of the strategic opportunity, as 1968 was the year with favorable conditions for the Vietnamese forces to launch the general offensive and uprising. If it had been launched after the presidential election, then it would have been hard to force the Johnson administration to change the policy towards the war in Vietnam. More importantly, the Party decided to open the general offensive and uprising on the lunar New Year’s Eve, which was the time of the enemy’s weakness as only half of the Saigon troops were on duty at their units, giving the Vietnamese forces more favorable conditions to attack.

Surprised selection of targets, suitable method of attack

Unlike previous operations in which the Vietnamese forces often targeted remote rural and mountainous areas, during the Tet Offensive, the forces mostly attacked urban areas, especially major cities like Saigon-Gia Dinh, Da Nang, and Hue. The great blows dealt to the “nerve center” of the Saigon administration exposed the enemy’s failure in military and war management.

In Saigon-Gia Dinh, the key objectives were the General Staff, the Independence Palace, the Saigon Radio Station, the US Embassy, the Naval Command, the Capital Military District, the Police General Bureau, and more. Capturing these places would surely make a big impact on the war. Therefore, this was a bold decision that had not been conducted previously since the beginning of the US engagement in the war in Vietnam. In fact, the capture the US Embassy in Saigon by the liberation fighters, even for only a few hours, had powerful emotional consequences all over the world.

Besides the selection of targets that surprised the enemy, the Vietnamese forces also chose a special method of attack. After carefully considering all factors, the Politburo decided to open the Tet Offensive in various forms, with different forces, across various strategic localities, forcing the enemy to stretch out its forces. The attacks targeted six sub-areas with the attacking forces organized in five directions towards Saigon-Gia Dinh. Particularly, 11 commando units organized into three groups attacked urban districts. Many officials and Party members were secretly sent to Saigon to study targets, build up bases, and covertly brought weapons to the city. Nearly 400 revolutionary and political bases and hidden weapon arsenals were formed in the inner city of Saigon.

The Tet Offensive employed a new strategic offensive method with close coordination of forces across the whole theater, bringing about strategic effects and marking the turning point in the war in Vietnam as well as undermining the invasion will of the US forces. The surprise of the Tet Offensive was that waves of fierce attacks were opened across a vast region. The Mau Than General Offensive and Uprising in spring 1968 serves as a typical example of the arts of the revolutionary war in Vietnam.

Elite forces employed to attack key agencies, units of the enemy

The Tet Offensive was conducted when the enemy’s forces remained strong with more than one million combat ready troops. To achieve the strategic target of defeating the invasion intention of the US, the Party decided to use the most elite forces with strong firepower to attack important forces and agencies of the enemy.

As a result, the Saigon-Gia Dinh Military Region was assigned a mission of building up a strong commando force, capable of attacking various important targets simultaneously, where possible. On the night of January 30 and early morning of January 31, 1968, the forces simultaneously conducted the general offensive and uprising in four major cities with the focal point of Saigon-Gia Dinh. Together with commando units, spearhead battalions in sub-areas in Saigon-Gia Dinh crushed enemy’s stations and sentry boxes allowing them to attack the inner city. The targets included the General Staff, Co Loa and Phu Dong military bases, barracks of the enemy’s troops in Districts 5, 10, 11, etc. The militia squads, platoons and companies in coordination with the regular troops in the six sub-areas attacked the system of watch posts and stations of the enemy. The Vietnamese regular divisions and regiments in the outer city prevented the enemy’s troops from supporting its forces in the inner city.

Facing the fierce and surprising attack of the Vietnamese forces, the Saigon and US forces had to send reinforcements  from other regions in an attempt to break the siege, leaving large rural areas undefended. Promptly grasping the opportunity, the liberation armed forces supported local people to rise up against the enemy throughout the rural areas in both delta and mountainous areas, neutralizing a considerable part of the enemy’s forces as well as a considerable amount of military equipment.

Promoting “people’s heart” disposition and closely coordinating forces

In Saigon-Gia Dinh, the “people’s heart” disposition was deployed both intensively and extensively. People from all walks of life including the elderly, youngsters, women, religious followers, actively joined the preparation for the Tet Offensive. The high determination, the ardent patriotism, the hatred for the invaders and the aspiration for national independence, freedom and reunification of the people made up the great power of the people’s war in the Mau Than General Offensive and Uprising in spring 1968.

Prior to the offensive, 19 “political bases” consisting of 325 worker families were built up. The women of Saigon-Gia Dinh participated in many forces such as local armed forces, first aid groups, communication groups, etc. Young people and students stood side by side with the troops of the liberation armed forces during combat. The Youth Union Organizof the city was active in a lot of areas such as Ban Co village, An Quang Pagoda, etc. People from other classes, such as teachers, artists and farmers in the outer city actively supported the armed and political struggling forces of workers, youths, students...

The Tet Offensive showed the great role of the masses. The people of Saigon-Gia Dinh formed a permanent and firm offensive disposition both in front of and behind the back of the enemy’s forces. The widespread uprising of the local people served as a steady foundation for the Vietnamese regular military units to dealt decisive blows.

Many regular military units stood firm, right at the gateway to Saigon thanks to the strong support of the local people, Party organizations and revolutionary bases. This was a very important factor for those units to fulfill their tasks. Without the people’s support, military forces could not have grasped the situation and it would have been hard for them to penetrate the thick defensive line of the enemy to enter the center of the city... Local people also directly participated in fighting, supplying food, protecting and hiding revolutionary troops. This was really a large-scale launch of revolutionary movement among the masses right in the apparent strongholds of the US and Saigon forces.

Half a century has now gone by and the victory of the Mau Than General Offensive and Uprising in Spring 1968 has increasingly proved its important role as a turning point in the resistance war for national salvation of Vietnam. The Tet Offensive is forever a glory in the history of the national building and safeguarding of Vietnam. The special features of the offensive with its invaluable lessons should be further studied and applied to create energy for the current national building and safeguarding campaign.

Written by Lieutenant General Vo Minh Luong (Commander of Military Region 7)

Translated by Huu Duong