For several thousand years, Vietnamese Lunar New Year has been a
traditional celebration that brings the Vietnamese a sense of
happiness, hope and peace. However, in recent years, It also
bring back a bitter memory full of tears. It reminds them the
1968 bloodshed, a bloodiest military campaign of the Vietnam War
the North Communists launched against the South.
The “general offensive and general uprising” of the north marked
the sharp turn of the Vietnam War. Today there have been a great
number of writings about this event. However, it seems that many
key facts in the Communist campaign are still misinterpreted or
In the mid-80, living in Saigon after being released from the
Communist “re-education camp,” I read a book published in the
early 1980’s in America about the story of the 1968 Tet
Offensive. It said that the North Vietnamese Army supreme command
had imitated one of the greatest heroes of Vietnam, King Quang
Trung, who won the most spectacular victory over the Chinese
aggressors in the 1789 counter-attack – in planning the 1968
The book quoted King Quang Trung’s tactic of surprise. He let the
troops celebrate the 1789 Tet Festival one day ahead so that he
could launch the attacks on the first three days of the lunar new
year while the Chinese troops were still feasting and not ready
to organize their defense.
Those who claimed the similarity between the two campaigns
certainly did not know the whole truth, but jumped into
conclusion with wild imagination after learning that the North
Vietnamese attacking units also celebrated Tet “one day ahead”
before the attacks.
In fact, the Tet Offensive broke out on the Tet’s Eve – in the
early morning of January 30, 1968 at many cities of Central
Vietnam, such as Da Nang and Qui Nhon, as well as cities in the
central coastal and highland areas, that lied within the
Communist 5th Military Region.. The other cities to the south
that included Saigon, were attacked 24 hours later at the small
hours of January 31. Thus the offensive lost its element of total
surprise that every tactician has to respect.
But It surprised me that some in the American media were still
unaware of such tragic story.
The story started some 5 months previously. On August 8, 1967,
the North Vietnam government approved a lunar calendar
specifically compiled for the 7th time zone that covers all
Vietnam, replacing the traditional lunar calendar that had been
in use in Asia for hundreds of years.
That old calendar was calculated for the 8th time zone that
Beijing falls right in the middle. It was accepted in general by
a few nations such as China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and
somewhat in Japan and Korea, mostly for traditional celebrations
and religious purposes. South Vietnam used this calendar. With
common cultural origin, these countries needed not have their own
calendar, particularly it has not been used for scientific and
The North Vietnam new lunar calendar differs from the common
calendar about some dates, such as the leap months of certain
year (1984 and 1987) and the Tet’s Eve of the three Lunar New
Years: Mau Than (1968), Ky Dau (1969) and At Suu (1985). South
Vietnam celebrated the first day of the Mau Than lunar year on
January 30, 1968, while North Vietnam celebrated it on Jan 29,
It was obviously that the North Vietnamese leaders had ordered
the offensives to be launched on the night of the first day of
Tet to take the objectives by total surprise. By some reason, the
North Vietnamese Army Supreme Command was not aware of the fact
that there were different dates for Tet between North and South
Vietnam. Therefore, most NVA units in the Communist 5th Military
Region – closer to North Vietnam – probably used North Vietnamese
calendar, and conducted their attacks in the night between Jan 29
and 30, while their comrades farther to the south attacked in the
night from Jan 30 to 31.
Many in the intelligence branch of the South Vietnamese Armed
Forces were well aware of the reason why the Communist forces
launched their attacks at two different dates. Information from
sources among NVA prisoners of war and ralliers about the new
calendar of North Vietnam should have been neglected by the
American side. The information was also available in broadcast
from Hanoi Radio.
In military operations, nothing is more important than surprise.
So the Communist forces lost their advantage of surprise on more
than half of the objectives. Had the Vietnamese Communists
conducted their coordinated attacks at the same H-hour, South
Vietnam would have been in much more troubles.
The large scale offensive resulted in drastic human and morale
losses of the Communist forces. However, the offensive caused an
extreme negative effect in the American public opinion and
boosted the more bitter protests against the war.
Until lately, the Ha Noi propaganda and political indoctrination
system has always claimed the Tet offensive their military
victory, and never insisted on their victory over the morale of
the American public.. Obviously, Ha Noi leaders won a priceless
victory at an unintended objective.
In South Vietnam, on the contrary, the offensive created an
unexpected attitude among the people.
After the first few hours of panic, the South Vietnamese armed
forces reacted fiercely. There were hundreds of stories of brave
soldiers and small units who fought their enemies with incredible
A large number of those who were playing fence-sitters especially
in the region around Hue City then took side with the nationalist
Several mass graves were found where thousands unarmed soldiers,
civil servants and civilians were shot, stabbed, or with skulls
mashed by clubs and buried in strings of ropes, even buried
alive. A large number of VC-sympathizers who saw the horrible
graves, undeniable evidence of the Communist barbarian crimes,
The most significant indication of such attitude could be
observed from the figures of young volunteers. to join the army.
After the first wave of Communist attacks, a great number of
youth under draft age – below 20 years old – voluntarily enrolled
in the army for combat units, so high that thousands of young
draftees were delayed reporting for boot camps.
On the Communist side, the number of ralliers known as “chieu
hoi” increased about four times. The offensive planners
apparently expected the so-called “people upraising,” so most
secret cells were ordered to emerge. When the attacking units
were crushed, cell members had to flee to the green
forests. Thus the Tet offensive helped South Vietnam neutralize
much of the Communist infrastructure before the Phoenix Campaign
got rid of many others.
Unfortunately, such achievements were nullified by the waves of
protests in America. As in any other developing countries, nobody
takes heed of a speech from a Vietnamese official. But the same
thing from an American statesman or even a protester could be
well listened to and trusted. So information from the Western
media produced rumors that the USA was about to sell off South
Vietnam to the Communist blocks.
The rumors were almost absolutely credible to the Vietnamese –
particularly the military servicemen of all ranks – because of
another hearsay that until now have a very powerful impact on the
mind of a great number of the South Vietnamese. There have been
no poll on the subject, but it was estimated that more than half
of the soldiers strongly believed that “it was the Americans who
helped the Communist attack the South Vietnamese cities.”
Hundreds of officers from all over South Vietnam asserted that
they “saw” NVA soldiers moving into the cities on US Army trucks,
or American helicopters transporting supplies to NVA units. In
Saigon, most people accepted the allegation that the Americans
deliberately let the Communists infiltrate the capital city
because the American electronic sensor defense system around
Saigon was able to detect things as small as a mouse crossing the
Another hearsay among the South Vietnamese military ran that
“none of the American military units or installation and agencies
– military or civilian – was under Communist first phase of the
offensive (February) except for the US Embassy. And only after
nearly three weeks did the US Marines engaged in the battle of
Hue, in the old Royal Palace” The allegation seemed to be true.
The American combat units, however, were fighting fierce battles
in phase 2 (May 1968) and phase 3 (September 1968).
Similar rumors might have been of no importance if they were in
America.But in Vietnam, they did convince a lot of people. In the
military, they dealt deadly blows on the soldiers’ morale. Their
impacts still lingered on until the last days of April 1975.
The truth in the rumors did not matter much. But the fact that a
great numbers of the fighting men strongly believed the rumors
turned them into a deadly psychological weapon which very few or
maybe none has ever properly treated in writings about the
Vietnam War. Most authors studied the war at high echelons, but
neglected the morale of the buck privates and the effect of the
media in the Vietnam War. No military plan even by top
strategists in the White House could succeed if half of the
privates believed that they would be defeated before long. So why
should they go on fighting?
For years, I have been wondering how much the American public was
uninformed about the Vietnam War.
From “My War” (unpublished) by L.T.