Tet Offensive – A Turning Point
by John Omicinski
Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON – Thirty years ago this week, events in Southeast Asia changed the U.S. presidency, the press, the public and the Pentagon in ways still reverberating.
On Jan. 30-31, 1968, North Vietnamese troops and their Viet Cong guerrilla allies in South Vietnam mounted a coordinated series of shock attacks on more than 30 supposedly safe cities – including the South’s capital, Saigon.
The Tet Offensive became a watershed news story, changing not only military realities but American politics, journalism and culture. It also came at the beginning of 1968 which, as it turned out, would be overloaded with tragic events.
Dr. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Riots hit many American cities. After demonstrators overwhelmed their Chicago nominating convention, Democrats under Vice President Hubert Humphrey were badly split and narrowly lost the presidency to Richard Nixon.
“There’s no doubt Tet was one of the biggest events in contemporary American history,” said Don Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post reporter whose 1971 book “Tet!” remains a central study of those era-changing weeks. “Within two months, the American body politic turned around on the war. And they were significantly influenced by events they saw on television.”
North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh’s attackers timed the wave of assaults to catch U.S. and South Vietnamese troops off guard during the big Asian holiday, called Tet. Nonetheless, they suffered more than 58,000 deaths and suffered serious military setbacks in succeeding weeks.
U.S. troops lost 3,895 in the next 12 weeks, but the American press portrayed Tet as a severe loss for American and South Vietnamese troops. That happened partly because Gen. William Westmoreland and U.S. officials said, before Tet, that U.S. efforts had “turned a corner” in Vietnam.
Tet produced a famous quote from a still-unnamed (and perhaps non-existent) U.S. officer: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” And it produced the My Lai massacre, when some U.S. troops went haywire and executed unarmed Vietnamese villagers.
Perhaps most famously, it produced Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of South Vietnam’s national police chief, Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executing a Viet Cong officer on the streets of Saigon with a pistol shot to his head.
In graphic television footage and newspaper photos, Americans saw images of Viet Cong guerrillas breaching the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon and two Marines dragging a wounded and bloodied buddy from fighting in Hue.
News film from the battlefields was by 1968 transmitted from Tokyo via satellite. Often, the unedited film went straight onto the airwaves for the evening news in jumbled, unexplained minutes that gave the war an even more chaotic look. Within days of the Tet attacks, American campuses were in an uproar. Within weeks, many average Americans suddenly turned against the war.
And within two months, after dove Eugene McCarthy made a strong showing in the March 12 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, President Johnson shocked the nation by taking himself out of the 1968 race.
Johnson’s withdrawal came as a complete surprise and shock to a nation still reeling from the unexpected events in Vietnam.
Regarded as a watershed, too, was press icon Walter Cronkite’s Feb. 27, 1968, broadcast saying the war was “mired in stalemate” and the “only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as honorable people . . . “
Cronkite’s shift into the opposition camp – followed in short order by the editors and opinion-makers at Time and Life magazines – made it acceptable and almost fashionable for journalists to oppose the war.
“For the first time in modern history,” wrote Robert Elegant of the Los Angeles Times, “the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen.”