Launched on January 30, 1968, the Tet Offensive was one of the largest and bloodiest military campaigns in Vietnam’s 30-year war. Though Tet was a military loss for Communist fighters based in North Vietnam, it’s considered a political turning point because the campaign tore through the narrative advanced in the media by U.S. officials that Washington was winning the war. Fifty years on the Tet Offensive resonates in an age in which trust in the media and governments is faltering.
“Tet shaped the world within which we live today: In an era when Americans still don’t fully trust government officials to tell them the truth about situations overseas, and don’t have confidence that leaders, for all their bluster, will do the right thing,” wrote Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer in the Atlantic.
What was the Tet Offensive?
In the long, violent history of the Vietnam War, 1968 is considered the bloodiest year. In the early morning of January 30, Communist forces from North Vietnam launched a series of coordinated attacks in South Vietnam. The offensive came to be called the Tet Offensive because it began on the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, known as Tết holiday.
- More than 80,000 Communist-backed troops, including Viet Cong fighters, attacked more than 100 locations in South Vietnam in the first 24 hours of the offensive.
- U.S. and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) military bases throughout South Vietnam were attacked.
- The U.S. Embassy in Saigon was targeted. A Viet Cong platoon managed to get into the complex’s courtyard but was then destroyed by U.S. troops.
- It was the largest military operation from either side at that point in the war.
- By April, the Communists had failed to achieve any of their prime objectives and suffered 32,000 soldiers killed and 5,800 captured. Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese casualties totaled more than 58,000 by the end of the year (U.S. News & World Report).
- By mid-February, Allied casualties were placed at 3,470 dead, one-third of them Americans, and 12,062 wounded, almost half of them Americans (The New York Times).
- The offensive ended on September 23, 1968.
Graphic news coverage of Tet carnage shocked the American public. This resulted in a surge of anti-war sentiment. Though Tet was a military failure for the Communist party, it was a strategic win as it marked the beginning of a slow American withdrawal from the war.
- Before Tet, the war was generally supported by the major U.S. television networks, and President Lyndon Johnson regularly claimed victory was in sight. But as reporters and news organizations began to change their views on the war, including the Wall Street Journal, NBC, and Time, so did the U.S. public. After Tet, media coverage of the war became more negative. The government told one story while TV networks and major news outlets told another.
- Walter Cronkite, a legendary American broadcast journalist and anchorman for the CBS Evening News, visited the city of Hue, site of the longest battle of Tet. He returned to the United States to say the war could not be won. “If you had to choose the most important event of the Vietnam War it certainly would be the Tet Offensive; it changed how people looked at the war and doing so it changed the war itself,” said Cronkite on a CBS broadcast on February 27, 1968 (CBS News). Watching Cronkite, President Johnson said to his press secretary, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
- Many Americans began to believe in a “credibility gap” – a term widely used during the war to describe public skepticism – between what the government claimed and the reality of the war.
How Tet resonates today
What to make of Tet fifty years on?
“Tet is an important reminder that for liberals and conservatives sometimes a little distrust is a good thing,” wrote Zelizer. “Particularly at a time when we have a president [Trump] who traffics heavily in falsehoods, Tet showed that blind confidence in leaders can easily lead down dangerous paths.”
American public relations and marketing consultancy firm Edelman’s most recent Edelman Trust Barometer reveals “trust is in crisis around the world.” Public trust is particularly shaky in business, government, NGOs, and media, the latter of which has been damaged by “fake news” scandals. Tet resonates today as a reminder of our era of misinformation.
- Writing for the Wall Street Journal, William J. Luti, a special assistant to President George W. Bush, explores whether so-called “fake news” caused the United States to “lose the war” in Vietnam.
- The Associated Press has made available four stories documenting the offensive, written in January and February 1968 by AP journalists Peter Arnett, Edwin Q. White, and John Lengel.
- Writing for the conservative-leaning National Review, historian Arthur Herman revisits media’s role in the Tet Offensive.
- Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part, 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War is an immersive account, and includes an episode devoted to the Tet Offensive.