The Myths of Tet

The Most Misunderstood Event of the Vietnam War

Edwin Moïse

Late in 1967, American officials and military officers pushed an optimistic view of the Vietnam War. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) said that the war was being won, and that Communist strength in South Vietnam was declining. Then came the Tet Offensive of 1968. In its broadest and simplest outline, the conventional wisdom about the offensive—that it was a military defeat for the Communists but a political victory for them, because it undermined support for the war in the United States—is correct. But much that has been written about the Tet Offensive has been misleading. Edwin Moïse shows that the Communist campaign shocked the American public not because the American media exaggerated its success, but because it was a bigger campaign—larger in scale, much longer in duration, and resulting in more American casualties—than most authors have acknowledged.

MACV, led by General William Westmoreland, issued regular estimates of enemy strength in South Vietnam. During 1967, intelligence officers at MACV were increasingly required to issue low estimates to show that the war was being won. Their underestimation of enemy strength was most extreme in January 1968, just before the Tet Offensive. The weak Communist force depicted in MACV estimates would not have been capable of sustaining heavy combat month after month like they did in 1968.

“Edwin Moïse reminds us anew in The Myths of Tet why he is so highly regarded as a scholar of the Vietnam War. Moïse gathers together the primary arguments and disputes that have raged over the 1968 Tet Offensive, teases out the evidence about each, and confronts all of them directly. His arguments are powerful and this book is a must read for everyone interested in the Vietnam War.”

—John Prados, author of Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975

“The product of prodigious research using both American and Vietnamese sources, Professor Moïse’s book clearly and in extraordinary detail exposes some of the most widely-accepted myths about what was arguably the seminal event of the Vietnam War—the 1968 Tet Offensive. This balanced and voluminously-sourced volume provides convincing evidence that the communist Tet Offensive was neither the superbly coordinated strategic surprise that some have claimed, nor was it the total and abject defeat of the Viet Cong that is so often described by others. Professor Moïse’s book describes how and why wildly over-optimistic assessments of the situation by leaders on both sides, American and North Vietnamese, often in the face of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, led to chaos, confusion, and the loss of so many lives on both sides.”

—Merle Pribbenow, translator of Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the Peoples Army of Vietnam, 1954–1975

Moïse also explores the errors of the Communists, using Vietnamese sources. The first wave of Communist attacks, at the end of January 1968, showed gross failures of coordination. Communist policy throughout 1968 and into 1969 was wildly overoptimistic, setting impossible goals for their forces.

While acknowledging the journalists and historians who have correctly reported various parts of the story, Moïse points out widespread misunderstandings in regard to the strength of Communist forces in Vietnam, the disputes among American intelligence agencies over estimates of enemy strength, the actual pattern of combat in 1968, the effects of Tet on American policy, and the American media’s coverage of all these issues.

About the Author

Edwin E. Moïse, professor of history at Clemson University, is the author of Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, the Historical Dictionary of the Vietnam War, and other works.