Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

Tet: The Beginning of the End

Jan. 31, 1968

Popular history tells us that American troops were caught napping when North Vietnam launched the Tet offensive. Yet while Vietnam celebrated its new year, at least one top U.S. Army officer was practically lying in wait. General Fred Weyand couldn't stop American officials in Saigon from throwing a party on Tet's Eve, replete with Chinese firecrackers and a lawn band. Convinced of an imminent strike, however, Weyand kept his troops close to Saigon, and officers in his camp placed bets on the timing. All wagered that the strike would start between midnight and 5 a.m. on Jan. 31, and officers bet on 15-minute intervals, according to Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie. Saigon came under fire at about 3 a.m.

The U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies won the battle, but it proved an empty victory. The American public perceived the attack as a sign that the war was amounting to endless folly. The U.S. military's request for 206,000 more troops became politically infeasible. Tet played a role in L.B.J.'s decision not to seek re-election. And young Army Major Colin Powell would later incorporate Tet's message into his doctrine that the U.S. should fight a war only with decisive force and vital interests at stake.