Tet Offensive - a turning point
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
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."