The Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive

Introduction

The Tet Offensive was a remarkable point in American and Vietnamese history. It represented a large military campaign with several severe attacks organized by the Viet Cong against the representatives of the South Vietnamese government and the United States.1 Research on the impact of the Tet Offensive and its outcomes for the Vietnam population and the citizens of the United States was developed.

The main reason for such interest is the change of public opinion to the current American president and an overall attitude towards the work of media.2 The following psychological effect and concerns about the inability to control the war events challenged the government and military leaders. This paper aims to describe the events of 1968 and investigate the role of media in depicting the Vietnam War.

The Tet Offensive had a significant impact on participants of the Vietnam War, which lasted more than 20 years and included more than 20 countries, but the outcomes for the United States and its foreign and domestic policies were the most crucial ones because the information provided by media changed public opinion and called into question the majority of statements made by the presidential administration.

The Core Features of the Tet Offensive

The Vietnam War covered the territory of South and North Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, as well as some part of the South China Sea and Thailand. More than 20 countries were involved in the military activities that lasted between the end of 1955 and the beginning of 1973. This war was known as one of the greatest military conflicts that began as a civil war on the South and reached the land of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was divided into three main phases: the one before the interruption of the United States, the arrival of American combat sources, and the beginning of peace agreements between the warring parties.

Background

The nature of the war between the South and the North was dramatically transformed after the US government made the official decision to join the war.3 Combat strength was enlarged with North Vietnam supported by China, Soviet Union, and Cuba (military support) and South Vietnam protected by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Taiwan (military support). South countries could not allow the growth communism, and Johnson defended the presence of America because “most of the non-Communist nations of Asia cannot, by themselves and alone, resist the growing might and the grasping ambition of Asian Communism”.4

However, in the middle of the war, Johnson’s presidency was weakened, and not many people wanted to join the war voluntarily. The President underlined the importance of “the search for peace” even though “North Vietnam rushed their preparations for a savage assault on the people, the government, and the allies of South Vietnam”.5 The situation was changed at the beginning of 1968 when several South Vietnamese cities were suddenly attacked, and the Tet Offensive began.

North Vietnam developed a campaign according to which attacks occurred in more than 100 cities of North Vietnam. At that moment, the citizens believed in the power of a temporary truce and made final preparations to celebrate the Tet holiday that was one of the sacred days in Vietnamese culture, the lunar New Year.6

The Viet Cong was one of the major figures in the war. This political organization had strong guerrilla and ordinary army forces that were divided into full-time (main and local force units operated at national and regional levels) and part-time forces (village, combat, and self-defense guerrillas served to control the situation at different regions).7 The United States did not find it necessary to develop traditional warfare tactics because of the chosen location of the forces and the impossibility to control the events chosen by North Vietnam.

American Opinion

Being present in Vietnam for three years, the American government failed to offer enough evidence and explanations of Americans’ participation in the war. The United States armed forces did not make considerable progress after their direct intervention. Such a situation was explained by unstable public opinion about the role of American in the war and the necessity to participate in it, using many people. For example, Senator Aiken as the representative of the Foreign Relations Committee did not support the decision of the President to join the war, saying that “the expansion of the war in Southeast Asia was inevitable.

I felt that it shouldn’t occur, but the discussion wasn’t mine… I hope the present action will prove to be correct”.8 The speech of the President, in its turn, inspired many soldiers, as well as terrified a number of citizens. He said that “many men – on both sides of the struggle – will be lost… Armies on both sides will take new casualties. And the war will go on. There is no need for this to be so.”9 It seemed that the government was not ready to formulate its own opinion.

Phases and Outcomes

However, it is necessary to admit that the Tet Offensive occurred not because of poor preparation of the American forces or wrongly motivated South Vietnamese soldiers. Those attacks were properly planned by the Northern leaders and used the factor of surprise, neglecting all traditions and historical achievements. The first attack was dated January 21, 1968, when General Vo Nguyen Giap organized a diversionary attack against the American military that was located at Khe Sanh.10 Still, the attack did not last long, and this provocation was not defined as a significant event that did not deserve attention in the press. American attention was not drawn, and this diversion was forgotten soon without even considering it as a possible check of how Americans could resist attacks, and what decisions could be made.

The result of that lack of attention was terrible for South Vietnam because, in less than one week, the actual offensive began. About 84,000 forces reached the major cities of South Vietnam, including Saigon, just the day before the lunar New Year.11 First battles that began January 30, 1968, were described as the bloodiest ones. The experience of people who survived those events terrified even today:

A half dozen Marines sprawled atop a mud-crusted tank. One man’s arm and eye are bandaged. Blood coats another’s leg. In the foreground, a third man lays atop a wooden door his comrades used as a makeshift stretcher. His shirt has been ripped off because, in the center of his chest, is a bullet hole.12

In several cities, the American troops were able to repel the attacks of Communists quickly, and some situations were terrifying. In Saigon, the US embassy was occupied and captured during the next two weeks. The city of Huế was bombed and then occupied by two battalions of North Vietnam on January 31, 1968. The second wave of the Tet Offensive occurred February 1968 when the Communist forces were removed from Huế, and several leaders were arrested and shot on the streets of Saigon.13

Regardless of the fact that the victory was achieved by the South Vietnamese and American troops at the end of the offensive, and many North Vietnamese soldiers were killed and captured, that event was known as “the victory that led to defeat” because “the shock and dimensions of the attacks created a powerful image – which would never quite be reverse – of loss and endless war.”14 28 March 1968 was declared as the official end of the Tet Offensive, Phase One. Phases Two and Three occurred in the same year in May and August, but the events at the beginning of the year remained those that changed history.

Impact of the Tet Offensive on the United States

As it has already been stated in this paper, as well as in many different primary and secondary sources, the Tet Offensive was a major turning event in the history of the United States, in general, and the Vietnam War, in particular. During the first wave of the attacks, by February 13, approximately 1100 American deaths in action were reported as a result of the fury of the offensive.15

The American public who was able to follow the events of the attacks from television images and articles in the press was not satisfied with the results and the inability to keep the given promises. The Johnson administration began losing its powers, and it was necessary to stabilize the situation by promoting effective domestic and foreign policies. In the middle of 1968, it was expected to achieve improvements with neighbors and military partners, as well as to motivate people in order to have army volunteers.

Domestic Policies

One of the major concerns that many American citizens developed after the events of January 1968 was the presence of signs that the North Vietnamese leaders could be prepared for new offensives. American troops had to deal with the outcomes of the attacks that happened several days before. The number of human death and the unpreparedness to reflect the attacks with a minimum of losses called into question the importance of the participation of the United States in the Vietnam War. Public concerns were based on the fact that Americans were not ready to pay such a high price in order another nation could protect its rights and promote a safe future.

The conditions under which the war and the aftermath of the Tet Offensive were described in the press also disturbed people. They wanted to know that their sacrifices could at least improve the lives of other people. However, the results were disappointing, and many American soldiers were accused of the deaths of innocent Vietnamese people. For example, one responsible Vietnamese official was afraid to be officially identified because of the existing propaganda that “the enemy might make of the case, ruled out the possibility that the American soldiers might have killed the villagers because they had previously shown hostility to the Americans”.16

Therefore, ordinary citizens did not believe they had enough information to create an appropriate understanding of what happened on the field and why new soldiers had to leave their families. Multiple anti-war protests, the intentions to stop the activities of the President, and mutual public complaints resulted in the need for new domestic policies. However, the President could hardly deal with the level of his responsibility for the deaths of thousands of Americans in addition to an urgent need of creating new policies and laws for the population.

At the same time, there were the people who found it normal to support the war and involve as many citizens as possible in the military events. For example, Walter Cronkite, a famous war-time journalist, truly believed that all the information he had from the government was true, and people deserved a chance to know about everything.17 Although his opinion was dramatically changed when he made a decision to visit Saigon and observe all the events with his own eyes, his first impressions and relationships with the government had a positive effect on the developments of domestic policies.

The Tet Offensive was a serious event that not only weakened domestic support that the Johnson administration received during the last several years. An economic crisis was also observed in the country when the dollar began losing its value, and the war-related costs could not be reduced.18 Domestic policies had to be changed because welfare reforms were obligatory, as well as social programs for the vulnerable and poor populations of the United States.

Foreign Policies

There are many attitudes towards the US preparedness and the possibility to predict the Tet Offensive of North Vietnam. The most common aftermath of the Tet Offensive was the inability to understand why the United States found it necessary to join the war that did not touch its religious beliefs or geographical boundaries. The public did not also understand why so many young men had to go to the war and give their lives.

The task of the President was to control communism and never allow its spread far than North Vietnam. As soon as South Vietnam stopped resisting this ideology, according to the domino theory, the same form of governance could be established in other Asian countries. As a result, communism domination could challenge the security of the United States and feed “the appetite of aggression”.19 Therefore, it was expected to change something, and the first decision was to use American media as the main informer of citizens and allies.

A new mission was established to prove public that new methods and approaches could change the direction of the war and deal with its recent unpredictable losses. The idea “to shape the nation’s politics by crafting a single coherent narrative, even if it meant omitting certain relevant facts and promoting other false or misleading ones” was offered.20 Foreign relations were called into question, and the President could make a final decision if it was necessary to stabilize American public concerns or focus on foreign policies according to which additional help and support could be obtained.

Psychological Impact

The first phase of the Tet Offensive that began at the end of January 1968 had the strongest psychological impact on the citizens of Saigon and Huế, as well as Americans who had to resist the attacks and who had just to observe the results of those massive killings. The emotions of those who survived the attacks terrified modern people. Many of them were ready to make their final “transition from life to death” and wanted “to die like men and Marines and don’t embarrass ourselves, our families or the Marine Corps”.21 Such power of will and the intentions to protect people and the land inspired future soldiers. Those sacrifices showed that the readiness and dedication of ordinary men prevailed over the possibilities and intentions of the President, his administration, and other governmental bodies.

The Role of Television and Other Forms of Media

Television and other forms of media were the main sources of information for the US population during the Vietnam War. The way of how journalists and the government tried to describe the events was not judged or evaluated for many years. However, when the truth was discovered, the decision to re-evaluate media effects on people and the worth of images in regard to public opinion was made so people could know if the press did distort the truth about the events that happened during the Tet holiday in Vietnam.

Media and Public Opinion

There are many attitudes towards how the media contributed to the formulation of public opinion during the Vietnam War. Among the existing variety of controversy, some people believe that the media played a significant role in the war and the defeat of the United States. Although negative reporting on the events that happened in Vietnam promoted a support and new partnerships, such exchange of information was also a reliable source for enemies.

Cronkite was one of the newsmen who visited Vietnam and was provided with all the necessary information about the current state of military forces and resources. “The U.S. military and the CIA rolled out the red carpet for the CBS newsman in Da Nang. They let him shoot assault rifles, fly planes, detonate mines, and throw grenades.”22 On the one hand, the public was satisfied with the possibility to look at the war they participated from the inside. On the other hand, ordinary people could hardly understand how dangerous and provocative such experience was for the war period. Therefore, the decision to re-evaluate the role of the media on Americans, and the US policies were made.

Truth in the Press

The ways of how the truth was revealed to the public varied for American citizens and presidential administration. According to Huebner,23 President Johnson believed that the press described his actions in a negative and biased way, focusing on bad things and deaths. Some researchers thought that journalists used only bloodless and uncritical facts, especially to describe the events of the Tet Offensive and the reasons why the United States joined the war.

Until 1967, trust in the government was high, and Americans wanted to support the President in his intentions to fight against communism and its potential outcomes for their nation.24 With time, new doubts appeared because people did not see the required progress and benefits of the US participation in the war. It was necessary to find out if the government presented true facts to the country. Unfortunately, the quality of information was hard to check unless people started sharing their original thoughts and direct experiences. The only truth that mattered was the fact that war continued taking lives, and real photos and words of soldiers played a role in understanding the war and the decisions of the government.

Television Images

Television is a media source that is available to people and may be used to cover the events of the Vietnam War. Compared to the press, television did not play a leading part in the domino effect of American public opinion. The majority of facts were positively discussed and described via television images. In addition, in his research, Culbert concluded that television witnessed the cases of violence where “two wrongs do not make a right” and underlined that “assertion is no proper device for denying the impact of television images during the Tet Offensive”.25

Some people were not prepared to the information they could hear and observe, and some people did not want to believe in violence that was present in the lives of their relatives, friends, or just neighbors who lived around. Another peculiar feature of television is that it opened eyes even to those who considered themselves as being properly aware and educated about domestic and foreign policies of the United States and the conditions of the wartime. Television images were hard to fabricate, and violence became an integral part of American life after the Tet Offensive.

Conclusion

The effect of Tet attacks on Americans and public opinion about the war could be ignored in history. Those events dramatically changed an understanding of the war and the role of media. It became not enough to read some stories in newspapers or listen to properly prepared speeches of the government. Television images and newspaper photos were used to create an opinion and explain the outcomes of American participation in the Vietnam War.

On the one hand, press coverage of the Tet Offensive demonstrated bravery and a high level of responsibility of soldiers, as well as their beliefs in a better future without communism. On the other hand, journalists as no one else could dramatically introduce cruelty of the war, loneliness of soldiers, and hopelessness because of death that was coming. The war in Vietnam was not characterized by one particular attitude, and the press, television, and other forms of media proved all these complexities being a part of the Tet Offensive in domestic and foreign policies.

Bibliography

Achenbach, Joel. “Did the New Media, Led by Walter Cronkite, Lose the War in Vietnam?The Washington Post, 2018. Web.

Adams, Eddie. “South Vietnamese Forces Escort Suspected Viet Cong Officer Nguyen van Lem (also Known as Bay Lop) on a Saigon Street Feb. 1, 1968.” Pictures from History. Web.

Brinkley, Douglas. “The Sage of Black Rock.” American Heritage 62, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2012): 64-71.

Cox, John Woodrow. “A Vietnam War Photographer Captured the Bloody Tet Offensive. Fifty Years Later, the Bears Witness Again.The Washington Post, 2018. Web.

Culbert, David. “Television’s Visual Impact on Decision-Making in the USA, 1968: The Tet Offensive and Chicago’s Democratic National Convention.” Journal of Contemporary History 33, no. 3 (July 1998): 419-449.

Herman, Arthur. “The Tet Offensive Revisited: Media’s Big Lie.National Review, 2018. Web.

Huebner, Andrew. “Rethinking American Press Coverage of the Vietnam War, 1965-68.” Journalism History 31, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 1-6.

Hunt, Richard A. Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Johnson, Lyndon B. “Remarks on Decision not to Seek Re-Election.UVA Miller Center, 1968, speech. Web.

Johnson’s Defense of the U.S. Presence in Vietnam (1965).Pearson Myhistorylab, 2009. Web.

Kamm, Henry. “Vietnamese Say G.I.’s Slew 567 in Town.The New York Times, 1968. Web.

Kenworthy, Edwin Wentworth. “Congress Backs President on Southeast Asia Moves; Khanh Sets State of Siege.The New York Times, 1964. Web.

Schmitz, David F. The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinions. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

Wirtz, James J. The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War. New York: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Footnotes

  1. David F. Schmitz, The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinions. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 5.
  2. Richard A. Hunt, Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds. (New York: Routledge, 2018), 209.
  3. Hunt, Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds, 31.
  4. “Johnson’s Defense of the U.S. Presence in Vietnam (1965),” Pearson Myhistorylab, 2009. Web.
  5. Lyndon B. Johnson, “Remarks on Decision not to Seek Re-Election,” UVA Miller Center, 1968. Web.
  6. Schmitz, The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinions, 83.
  7. Hunt, Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds, 7.
  8. Edwin Wentworth Kenworthy, “Congress Backs President on Southeast Asia Moves; Khanh Sets State of Siege,” The New York Times, 1964. Web.
  9. Johnson, “Remarks on Decision not to Seek Re-Election.”
  10. James J. Wirtz, The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War. (New York: Cornell University Press, 1991), 73.
  11. Hunt, Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds, 7.
  12. John Woodrow Cox, “A Vietnam War Photographer Captured the Bloody Tet Offensive. Fifty Years Later, the Bears Witness Again,” The Washington Post. Web.
  13. Eddie Adams, “South Vietnamese Forces Escort Suspected Viet Cong Officer Nguyen van Lem (also Known as Bay Lop) on a Saigon Street. 1968,” Pictures from History. Web.
  14. Cox, “A Vietnam War Photographer Captured the Bloody Tet Offensive.”
  15. Wirtz, The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War, 1.
  16. Henry Kamm, “Vietnamese Say G.I.’s Slew 567 in Town,” The New York Times, 1968. Web.
  17. Joel Achenbach, “Did the New Media, Led by Walter Cronkite, Lose the War in Vietnam?”, The Washington Post, 2018. Web.
  18. Schmitz, The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinions, 135.
  19. “Johnson’s Defense of the U.S. Presence in Vietnam (1965),” Pearson Myhistorylab, 2009. Web.
  20. Arthur Herman, “The Tet Offensive Revisited: Media’s Big Lie,” National Review, 2018. Web.
  21. Cox, “A Vietnam War Photographer Captured the Bloody Tet Offensive.”
  22. Douglas Brinkley, “The Sage of Black Rock,” American Heritage 62, no. 1 (2012), 65.
  23. Andrew Huebner, “Rethinking American Press Coverage of the Vietnam War, 1965-68,” Journalism History 31, no. 3 (Fall 2005), 150.
  24. Brinkley, “The Sage of Black Rock,” 66.
  25. David Culbert, “Television’s Visual Impact on Decision-Making in the USA, 1968: The Tet Offensive and Chicago’s Democratic National Convention,” Journal of Contemporary History 33, no. 3 (1998), 430.