Fighting was intense, but U.S. forces managed to kill or capture the bulk of the Viet Cong raiders within several weeks. The toughest combat occurred in the city of Hue, which the NVA actually conquered for a few weeks before U.S. troops took it back. Fighting occurred as far south as Saigon, taking over the streets. Amid the chaos, an Associated Press photographer captured South Vietnam’s chief of police, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executing a Viet Cong captain in the streets of Saigon—a brutal image that shocked the American public and became a symbol of the Vietnam quagmire.
Although the Tet Offensive was quashed relatively quickly, it was an enormous political defeat for the U.S. Army and for Johnson because it proved, despite Johnson’s pronouncements, that the war was far from over. The attack not only turned millions of Americans against the war but also split the Democratic Party and the entire U.S. government into antiwar and pro-war factions. In February 1968, Johnson’s own secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, resigned.
In March, when General Westmoreland and the leaders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff requested 200,000 more soldiers be sent to Vietnam, the American public and policy makers alike were dumbfounded. Westmoreland’s request in turn prompted many foreign policy officials, including former secretary of state Dean Acheson, to denounce the army’s strategy of victory by attrition. Johnson ultimately denied Westmoreland the additional troops.
One of the great ironies of the war was the fact that the Tet Offensive was actually a resounding tactical victory for the United States. The NVA gained no territory for more than a brief period, while 40,000 Vietnamese Communist troops died compared to about 3,000 Americans and South Vietnamese combined. The Tet Offensive thus severely damaged Ho Chi Minh’s armies. Nonetheless, the cost in terms of U.S. public opinion would far outweigh the military victory.
In February 1968, American journalist Walter Cronkite famously commented on the CBS Evening News that the United States was mired in a stalemate and that the war probably could not be won. Indeed, the American public, which had long been reassured that the U.S. military was making progress, felt betrayed after the Tet Offensive. Over 500,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Vietnam, and nearly 30,000 had been killed, all in the name of a vaguely defined war that seemed suddenly unwinnable. No longer willing or able to straddle the widening credibility gap, Johnson announced at the end of March that he would not run for reelection in the 1968 election.
The Tet Offensive also took a significant toll on morale among U.S. troops. With the apparent military victory of the offensive undermined by eroding support at home and a seeming lack of military goals or ideas, American soldiers became increasingly upset and disillusioned by the war. Drug abuse among American soldiers was growing rampant, and even cases of “fragging,” in which soldiers killed their own superior officers in order to avoid being sent on missions, began to appear.