The Tet Offensive was unquestionably the biggest occurrence of the Vietnam War. While the military success of the Viet Cong in mounting a sustained revolt in cities across South Vietnam was virtually non-existent, the psychological impact it had on the American public was quite simply phenomenal. This effect was partially due to the reporting of the war by the media. To completely understand the impacts of Tet, we must first understand the goals of Tet. The execution of Tet was a failure on the battlefield; however, it proved to be an astounding success on college campuses across America.
The main objectives of the Tet Offensive of 1968 were to mount numerous uprisings in cities that were supposedly secure. The cities focused on in Tet were Saigon, Hue, and Danang. The idea originally came about around 1966. The reason being was that General Westmoreland’s continuous pressure constantly harried the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong (Ford 33). The US armed forces were depriving their Vietnamese aggressors of what they needed most, time to plan.
Around this time General Nguyen Chi Thanh was being reprimanded for his failures in using large-scale unit operations against the devastating firepower of US forces. Basically, if Thanh continued the war under these circumstances he would have no army to continue the revolution. The decision from Hanoi was that their only hope was to use a Protracted War Strategy and outlast the Americans (Ford 33). In 1967 Thanh died and was replaced by General Giap. This gave the decision makers in Hanoi a solution to their problem of adopting a sound strategy.
It wasn’t hard to make a decision, they decided on fighting a long and drawn out guerilla war. Hanoi also expanded the debate to consider the views of others (Ford 34). Psychology was a factor in this war, the leaders in North Vietnam made sure of it. They realized that Vietnam was a political war for America. In fact, it was not uncommon for the North Vietnamese leaders to tune in to American broadcasts to see how the media handled the war. On January 30th, 1968 the Tet Offensive came into being. Nineteen Vietnamese sappers blew a hole in the eight-foot wall surrounding the US embassy in Saigon.
Initially the dozen military police and Marine Corps guards were taken by surprise, by dawn the wall was secure and all nineteen sappers were dead. But, because of confusion and haste, the first reports made it seem that the foe had succeeded, not failed, in seizing his objective: the embassy chancery (Braestrup 75). Many reporters were too willing or eager to believe the worst stories.
Fueling the turn in support of the war was the 13-hour time lag between Vietnam and New York City and Washington, D. C. This made it very difficult for the network news producers to report on the situation. There was no available footage, and news anchors sometimes had to read the reports coming off of the wire services. The only media sources that were not under pressure for deadlines were weekly magazines, although they did not submit all their stories until the last possible moment. The combined effects of confusion and reporting of unverified news led to many Americans thinking that Vietnam was now impossible to win.
Tet contradicted every claim of progress made by President Johnson. Needless to say the morale of society at home was in a state of decay. The damage done by the media with their shoot from the hip, first draft is the last draft style was enough to counter any possibility of regaining the trust of the American people after Tet. When footage was transmitted back to the states it did not paint a pretty picture. It did show the savages of war. Americans were not ready to see their sons die on the 7 o’clock news broadcast.
Vietnam was a war unlike any other war the United States had been involved in before. There wasn’t a clear face for the enemy to have as opposed to World War II in which you could be shown a picture of Hitler, Mussolini, or to lesser extents Hirohito and realize that is the bad guy. There was also no real distinction between civilians and soldiers. A majority of the fighting during the war took place away from urban areas, in small villages and hamlets were the residents were sometimes Viet Cong guerillas.
The only real way to pick out the enemy combatants in Vietnam was to look for their weapon. Even so, the usual non-combatants (women and children) were quite frequently combatants or in worse cases weapons. It was not unusual for the children to be booby-trapped and approach a group of soldiers to kill them. The manner in which this war was fought was not good. Not only were the armed forces fighting the war with one armed tied behind their back, but also they often had a hard time knowing who was the enemy. The fight was never brought to the enemy.
The only action that took place in North Vietnam was bombing, and even then it was the bombing of targets picked for political reasons, not strategic reasons. It is reasonable to think that if the Marine Corps, Navy, Army, and Air Force were given free reign to fight the war in the manner they saw fit the outcome would be quite the opposite of what actually happened. This is also a source of doubt for the American citizen. Most adults living in the United States knew how the war was being fought, or more appropriately how the war wasn’t being fought.
This was not a case where body politic of US made the decision early on to win and win big. Another attribute which led wasn’t helping the situation was the American intelligence community. Instead of figuring out what it will take to win the war many became embroiled in a debate over how long it would take for the Communists to lose (Ford 149). There were numerous signals that lead up to the initiation of the Tet offensive. Most of these signals meant nothing independently, only when they were all taken into account was the intelligence community able to make anything of them.
In the months prior to the offensive the Viet Cong asked all those loyal to the VC to enlist in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and request billets in headquarters or supply depots (Wirtz 148). They were also asked to ascertain the size and strength of local units and have a means to transmit the information (Wirtz 148). Also, the CIA noticed that the VC was taking more interest in urban operations (Wirtz 148). It was also noted that there was an ominous buildup in the Western Highlands, this area is just west of Hue and Danang (Wirtz 145).
Hue was one of the cities that was hardest hit during Tet. A majority of the city was destroyed. Tet deepened the chasm of pessimism into which Americans where falling. The aftermath of the Tet Offensive took a number of weeks for the armed forces to clean up. The offensive made it possible to put two major cities under siege. By the time it was over the cities of Hue and Khe Sanh were pretty well destroyed. While the Tet Offensive by no means constituted a military victory for the Viet Cong it was a great psychological victory over the American public.
The decline of events in 1968 was enough to keep President Johnson from seeking re-election. It isn’t difficult to understand why the Tet Offensive of 1968 changed many American’s opinion of the war. The offensive took the US by surprise. There were signs that it was coming but these signs were not given the proper attention that they required. The media in Vietnam was in disarray when the offensive first broke out and when they finally came back into their normal functions the damage had been done by misreporting and the chaos and confusion that swept the country.