During the Buddhist holiday of Tet, over 80,000 Vietcong troops emerged from their tunnels and attacked nearly every major metropolitan center in South Vietnam. Surprise strikes included ones on the American base at Danang and the American embassy in Saigon.
During the weeks that followed, the South Vietnamese army and U.S. ground forces recaptured all of the lost territory, inflicting twice as many casualties on the Vietcong as were suffered by the Americans.
The showdown was a military victory for the United States, but American morale suffered a serious blow.
Doves Outnumber Hawks
When Operation Rolling Thunder began in 1965, only 15 percent of the American public opposed the war effort in Vietnam. As late as January 1968, only a few weeks before Tet, only 28 percent of the American public labeled themselves "doves." But by April 1968, six weeks after the Tet offensive, public support for the war began to evaporate.
The Tet Offensive convinced many Americans that government statements about the war being nearly over were false. After three years of intense bombing, billions of dollars, and 500,000 troops, the VC proved themselves capable of attacking anywhere they chose. The end of the war was nowhere in sight.
Sagging U.S. Troop Morale
Declining public support brought declining troop morale. Many soldiers questioned the wisdom of American involvement. Soldiers indulged in alcohol, marijuana, and even heroin to escape their daily horrors. Incidents of “fragging”—the murder of officers by their own troops—increased in the years that followed Tet. Soldiers who completed their yearlong tour of duty often found hostile receptions upon returning to the States.
The North Vietnamese sensed the crumbling of American resolve. They gambled that the American people would demand troop withdrawals before the military met its objectives.
For the next five years they pretended to negotiate with United States, making proposals they knew would be rejected. A growing majority of Americans saw the war as an effort whose price of victory was way too high.
Source: The Tet Offensive
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