The Vietnam War

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How did the Tet Offensive impact American politics and the Vietnam War's course?

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The Tet offensive, a large scale attack on South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese, began at the end of January 1968 and initially took the US and South Vietnam by surprise. 

Although US military intelligence had clear warning signs that the North Vietnamese were going to launch a massive offensive, they nevertheless were caught off guard, and American troops initially suffered high casualties. The lack of US preparedness and the death toll helped convince many Americans that the war was being mismanaged and that the average soldier was paying the price. It didn't help when a new draft call was issued on February 23 for 48,000 additional men. 

The Tet offensive is often considered the turning point after which a large enough number of Americans opposed the war to create serious problems for the Johnson administration. A majority of the public still supported the war, but a large enough minority, including trusted figures like Walter Cronkite, disagreed with escalating the combat. Domestic turmoil made it difficult for the administration to forge ahead with a major new offensive.

As a result of plunging poll numbers, Johnson decided not to seek reelection in 1968, and Robert Kennedy decided to enter the race for the Democratic nomination. 1968 was a wild year in American politics, and the US's handling of the Vietnam war contributed to the combustible situation. After the Tet offensive, the American government gave up the idea of winning the war with a total victory over North Vietnam and began working towards scaling back the US military presence. 

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The Tet Offensive changed American politics and the course of the Vietnam War by making more Americans be unalterably opposed to the war.

In the years leading up to the Tet Offensive, the US government had continually reassured the public that the war was being won.  It had claimed that the enemy was just about to collapse.  The Tet Offensive seemed to show that this was a lie.  It clearly showed that the enemy could launch an offensive that would be both widespread and coordinated.  If the enemy could do this, it seemed, it clearly was not about to fall apart. 

Even though the Tet Offensive ended up being a military loss for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, it was a strategic win.  It substantially decreased American public support for the war.  Seeing this, President Johnson announced that he would not run for another term in office.  The fallout from this helped ensure that Richard Nixon would be elected as the next president.  In these ways, the Tet Offensive’s impact on American politics also impacted the course of the war.  It ensured that the US would seek an end to the war.

Thus, the Tet Offensive hastened the end of the war by turning American public opinion against it.

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How did the Tet Offensive affect the course of the Vietnam War?

The Tet Offensive, named for the Vietnamese New Year on which the North Vietnamese Army and its Viet Cong guerrilla allies launched a surprise large-scale series of terrorist attacks against the government of South Vietnam and the United States military and diplomatic presence, marked the beginning of the end of the U.S. role in Southeast Asia.  Until that January 30, 1968 offensive, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson and his military commander in South Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, had been able to argue persuasively to the American public that the United States and its South Vietnamese allies were prevailing over their communist enemies.  The Tet Offensive, while an overwhelming military victory for the U.S. and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) -- the Viet Cong and its once-formidable infrastructure was largely eliminated as a major problem and the North Vietnamese Army suffered serious losses in battles like that at the ancient city of Khe San -- the public perceptions back home in America were that the United States suffered a major setback during the surprise attack, the exact opposite of what actually transpired.  Walter Cronkite, the widely-respected anchorman for CBS News, declared on his nightly broadcast that the Tet Offensive represented a huge setback and that the Johnson Administration's projections of victory were fallacious.  Cronkite's reputation for integrity carried great weight with the public, and public perceptions of the war in Vietnam were turned decidedly against the U.S. role there.  

In short, the Tet Offensive marked the end of much of the American public's support for the war in Vietnam despite the resounding defeat during that offensive suffered by the communists.  The perceptions were more powerful than the facts, and subsequent revelations (mainly by the leaking of the Pentagon's own in-house history of the war, The Pentagon Papers, to the media by Daniel Ellsberg) that Johnson and others in his administration had been less than truthful in describing the situation in Southeast Asia eliminated support for his administration, causing him to retire from politics rather than run for reelection.  Support among many Americans for the war effort would never be regained.

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How did the Tet Offensive affect the course of the Vietnam War?

The Tet Offensive is generally seen as one of the most important single events in the war.  It affected the course of the war by badly degrading the will of the American people to fight that war.

In 1968, the US had been involved in the war for over a decade.  It had been heavily involved, with hundreds of thousands of personnel in South Vietnam, for about three years.  Americans were becoming restless.  The Johnson administration tried very hard to reassure the American public that all was well.  They argued that the enemy was on its last legs and that the war would be over soon.  When the communists launched the Tet Offensive, they destroyed the credibility of the Johnson administration.  Even though their offensive failed in military terms, it was strategically very successful.  It showed that they were not really all that close to being defeated.  That made it clear that the government had not been truthful with its people.  The American people lost faith in their government and started to push for an end to the war.

In this way, the Tet Offensive played a very important role in changing the course of the war.

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What impact did the Tet Offensive have on the United States during the Vietnam War?

The Tet Offensive impacted the United States in the Vietnam War by convincing many Americans that the war was not going to be won and that their government had been lying to them.

By the time of the Tet Offensive in early 1968, the US had been fully engaged in the Vietnam War for more than two years, beginning with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964.  There had been a hope that the US’s takeover of the war at that point would lead to victory.  During those 2 years, the US government constantly reassured Americans that the US was winning the war.  By early 1968, the government had been telling the American public that the war was practically over.  The government was saying the enemy was on its last legs.

When the Tet Offensive occurred, this was shown to be untrue.  It became clear that the enemy was at least strong enough to mount a broad attack on multiple targets.  Even though the enemy did not manage to take and hold any of their targets, they still showed they could attack.

When this happened, Americans came to have grave doubts in their government and in the idea that the war could be won.  This led to President Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection and to the election of Richard Nixon, who promised to end the war.

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How did the Tet Offensive alter the course of the Vietnam War?

The Tet Offensive, in many ways, failed to achieve the ends for which it was designed by the North Vietnamese. Indeed, the North Vietnamese sustained heavy casualties, and the attacks on South Vietnam did not ultimately stir up the level of anti-American feeling the North Vietnamese had hoped for. Originally, they had conceived of the offensive as a means of breaking up the alliance between the Americans and the South Vietnamese by demoralizing the South Vietnamese and forcing the Americans to leave. This did not happen.

Despite these apparent failures, however, the Tet Offensive did deliver a strategic blow on the part of the North Vietnamese in a way that would change the course of the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War had never been a popular war in the US. However, news had been spread at home that the war would soon be over and that the North Vietnamese could be readily defeated if only the US hung on for long enough. Television footage showing the massive scale of the fighting between the US and the North Vietnamese, however, eroded public support for the war still further: the imagery was often extremely graphic. What successes the Vietcong did have, furthermore, were particularly demoralizing for the American people, who watched as the Vietcong attacked the American Embassy in Saigon.

Generally, the North Vietnamese, who lost ten times as many soldiers as the US and South Vietnamese combined, suffered worst in the fighting, as they simply were not militarily strong enough to achieve the success they had aimed for. Their failure to inflict huge South Vietnamese losses, furthermore, meant that the South Vietnamese did not move to dissolve their alliance with the US. However, the great success of the Tet Offensive lay in the fact that it made clear to those at home in the US that the Vietnam War was not "almost over." Indeed, after the offensive, US Commander William Westmoreland put in a request for over 200,000 new men in order to launch a counterattack. This was a significant number, which could be interpreted at home as evidence of fear. It also suggested that Westmoreland was by no means certain the war could be easily won.

The Tet Offensive by no means meant the end of war in Vietnam. However, it encouraged Lyndon B Johnson to begin de-escalating American participation in the region, minimizing the extent of bombing in response to public outrage and growing dissent among American politicians. Johnson announced that there would be no more bombing about the 20th parallel. The war at this point moved from being simply divisive, to one that was more generally unpopular than popular. The Tet Offensive brought American public attention to what was really going on in Vietnam, and the reality turned them away from it decisively.

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