Tet, Impact of
TET, IMPACT OF
The United States dispatched combat troops and large amounts of war materiel to South Vietnam in March 1965 to fight the Communists of North Vietnam. The Vietnam War ended with the Communist takeover of the entire country. The role of the American news media in reporting the events of the war has been examined by scholars ever since. The manner in which the media reported the Tet Offensive of January to August 1968 has been of particular interest, as some argue that the media contributed to defeat in the war and helped unseat an American president.
Antiwar sentiments were first expressed in "teachins" held at the University of Michigan in March 1965, and other student bodies soon followed suit. Many parents of draft-age students also opposed the war. By late 1967, the United States had over 500,000 military personnel in South Vietnam and the immediate vicinity. Many Americans who questioned the war took a keen interest in the media's accounts of the action. Journalists reporting for the television networks (NBC, CBS, ABC), the New York Times, Newsweek, and other segments of the U.S. news media presented a view of the war some found at odds with what the government said was happening. However, despite the burgeoning antiwar movement, Americans at that stage of the war generally backed the government's handling of it.
In fall 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson spearheaded "Operation Success," a public relations campaign designed to convince the public that America's combined military and rural pacification efforts were winning the "hearts and minds" of the South Vietnamese people. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated there was a "light at the end of the tunnel," that the war was in fact being won. The media initially supported this outlook by consistently composing stories of American successes with titles such as "Hard-Charging U.S. Marines Swept Up Hill 881 Today." The Tet Offensive in early 1968 marked a change in the media's approach to reporting on the war.
On January 31, 1968, in the late evening, about 84,000 People's Army of Vietnam soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas attacked South Vietnamese government offices in Saigon, thirty-four provincial capitals, and seventy-one district seats. This surprise action became known as the Tet Offensive, as it occurred during Tet, the Vietnamese new year. Tet, however, was no military victory for the Viet Cong. In fact, it was a massive defeat for the Communists, as their North Vietnamese cadres were decimated by counterattacks by the United States and its South Vietnamese allies. As a result, the Communists drastically reduced their guerrilla activities and stepped up the movement of regular troops from the north. Despite being a defeat for the Communists, Tet forever altered the American news media's perception of the war, a sea change that may have also changed how the public viewed the conflict.
he began publicly to doubt the feasibility of winning. Upon reading a teletype summary of the original attacks, he was reported to have exclaimed, "What the hell is going on? I thought that we were winning the war!" On the CBS radio show Dimension on February 6, Cronkite voiced the opinion that Johnson was "a prisoner of his own policy and a captive of his advisers." He went on to ask, "can we, as a nation, face up to the prospect of an overwhelmingly costly and bitter Asian war?"
Americans at home were bombarded with other messages from the media suggesting that Tet was in fact evidence the Communists had enough strength and military expertise to defeat the United States. The New York Times asserted on February 1 that Tet showed the road to a "clear-cut military victory … will be longer and cost-lier" than the Johnson administration was willing to admit. The newspaper urged the administration to seek a negotiated end to the war. Newsweek stated on March 11 that Tet exposed the "utter inadequacy" of the government's war policies.
General William S. Westmoreland, Johnson's commander in Vietnam, argued in a 1981 article that the media turned the public against the war. He joined other observers before him who had claimed that negative press coverage of Tet forced Johnson to abandon his pursuit of victory in favor of a negotiated peace. No definitive evidence can be marshaled to support this conclusion. Yet it is a fact that Johnson's popularity plummeted. In the 1968 presidential primary in New Hampshire, Johnson won by only a razor-thin edge over antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy. Shortly thereafter, he decided not to seek renomination.
Tet, as reported and portrayed by the U.S. media, energized the antiwar movement, undermined the credibility of the Johnson administration, and encouraged political opposition to the president's renomination. One lesson drawn from Tet is that American support of war policies can easily change depending on society's trust in its government's word. The media coverage of Tet shows the great power of the press to influence public perceptions and political opinion toward the government.
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Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 190–197. New York: Knopf, 1986.
Oberdorfer, Don. Tet! The Turning Point in the Vietnam War. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Turley, William S. The Second Indochina War: A Short Political and Military History, 194–197. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986.