Press at War: The Tet Offensive as a turning point in Vietnam

Posted by on Jul 8th, 2013 | 1 Comment
<Vietnam. Walter Cronkite and a CBS Camera crew use a jeep for a dolly during an interview with the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, during the Battle of Hue City.

Divisive enough to result in the deaths of young protesters on the home front, the Vietnam War challenged the United States in unprecedented ways. Influenced in no small part by emerging visual media such as color television, public opinion would mirror the news industry’s changing attitude towards what it came to perceive as an unwinnable war. How did the press — which had cooperated with the government during the century’s previous wars — become its adversary during Vietnam? Over the course of the conflict, the press came to mistrust the information they were receiving from the military and the government. The culmination of this “credibility gap” — and the turning point in this tenuous relationship between press and administration — came in early 1968, when the North Vietnamese Army unleashed a massive and sudden counterattack on over 30 cities and posts held by the American military.

The Vietnam War occupies a unique place in the history of American journalism. George Esper, an Associated Press journalist who served as AP Bureau Chief in Saigon, famously asserted that “there was no censorship” of the press in Vietnam. ((Christopher Daly, Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), accessed 3 November 2012, muse.jhu.edu)) A far cry from the World War II Office of Censorship, which would strike through entire paragraphs of copy in the interest of keeping up morale, the U.S. government could assert no formal censorship in this undeclared foreign war. ((Daly, Covering America, 11)) Instead, they imposed general guidelines to prevent reporters from revealing details that might threaten the safety of American troops. ((ibid, 10)) Since the government had not issued rigid guidelines, the early Saigon press corps was left to try and navigate the strange, unclassifiable conflict that was unfolding around them in as truthful a manner as they could. President John F. Kennedy, and later President Lyndon B. Johnson, were left to play a public relations game and “sell the war” to the American public. ((ibid, 11)) This often included withholding information that might turn the country against the war; for example, until 1967, the American military did not release a total count of killed and missing U.S. troops. ((ibid))

Vietnam. Walter Cronkite of CBS interviewing Professor Mai of the University of Hue. Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. U.S. Marine Corps. 20 February 1968. General Photograph File of the U.S. Marine Corps, compiled 1927 – 1981, documenting the period 1775 – 1981. National Archives.

Although reporters generally maintained good relationships with individual soldiers, their relationship with U.S. officials steadily deteriorated throughout the mid-1960’s, as the press corps continually found their stories challenged and their motives attacked. ((ibid, 16))

By 1965, the American embassy began holding daily “press conferences” each afternoon at 5 PM in order to “sell” the war in the military’s favor. ((ibid, 20)) These quickly became known as the Five O’Clock Follies, since it was plain to the reporters in attendance that these reports were little more than hearsay and propaganda. Of the briefings, David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter stationed in Vietnam, remarked, “It was a known fact of Saigon life that as the information went up from company to battalion to division and to Saigon the statistics changed, Vietcong casualties tended to rise dramatically.” ((ibid, 21)) Despite the administration’s firm insistence that the war was going well, the United States military was rapidly losing the trust of the press, resulting in a “credibility gap” between their portrayed success and the actual events of the war as reporters observed them. ((ibid)) Correspondent Richard Harwood of the Washington Post noted that this term had come into widespread use by 1967, when a “substantial majority” of correspondents stationed in Vietnam had allowed their reporting to reflect their pessimism about the way the Vietnam War was going. ((ibid))

In the fall of 1967, President Johnson and his administration became aware of growing public discontent with the war, which had now dragged on for nearly four years. To win back the public’s approval, Johnson recalled General Westmoreland, the United States Army General from 1964-1968, to the States. Westmoreland would give a series of press conferences to reassure the public that although they had little to show for it, the United States was winning the Vietnam War. In November 1967, Westmoreland told reporters that “the enemy…is certainly losing. We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.” ((Clark Dougan and Stephen Weiss, The Vietnam Experience: Nineteen Sixty-Eight (Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1984), 66)) Johnson, too, propagated positivity: on January 1, 1968, he said, “We feel that the enemy knows that he can no longer win a military victory in South Vietnam.” ((Laura Roselle, Media and the Politics of Failure: Great Powers, Communication Strategies, and Military Defeats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 40)) A few weeks later, in his State of the Union address, he told the American people that “the enemy had been defeated in battle after battle,” reassuring the country that “our patience and our perseverance will match our power. Aggression will never prevail.” ((ibid, 40-1))

“President Lyndon B. Johnson listens to tape sent by Captain Charles Robb from Vietnam, 07/31/1968″, Jack E. Kightlinger, Photographer (ARC Identifier: 192617); Collection LBJ-WHPO: White House Photo Office Collection, 11/22/1963 – 01/20/1969; Lyndon Baines Johnson Library; National Archives and Records Administration. In this White House photo taken by Jack Kightlinger on July 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson listens to a tape recording from his son-in-law Capt. Charles Robb, who was a Marine Corps company commander in Vietnam.

Outwardly, Johnson appeared convinced of America’s resolve, but as early as 1965 he had privately expressed misgivings that the war was unwinnable. Audio tapes of White House conversations between Johnson and his mentor, Richard Russell, reveal their apprehension about escalating aggression in Vietnam.

“I guess we’ve got no choice,” Johnson told Russell, “but it scares the death out of me.”  He added, “There ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit.” ((ibid, 27))

Russell agreed: “We’re going to wind up with the people mad as hell with us that we are saving by being in there. It’s just awful…it’s the worst mess I ever saw in my life.” ((ibid))

The Tet Offensive would soon demonstrate to the American people the extent to which they had been deceived.

Vietnam War, 1968 by USIA. Likely taken in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. Terrified women and children flee under the direction of South Vietnamese troops. In the foreground, one of the dead still holds an RPG launcher. National Archives

Just before dawn on January 30, 1968, the ARVN and the Viet Cong launched a series of simultaneous attacks on every major city, town, military installation, government building, supply depot, and transportation station in Vietnam. ((James Landers, The Weekly War: Newsmagazines and Vietnam (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 186)) While some attacks lasted only a few days, others dragged on for weeks. While the military and the administration knew that the Communists were preparing for a major assault with what Westmoreland called “a very unusual sense of urgency,” neither party could have predicted timing or the extent of the attack. ((Kathleen J. Turner, Lyndon Johnson’s Dual War: Vietnam and the Press (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 219)) The attack came in the midst of a ceasefire that had been declared in honor of Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year. ((Jennifer Walton, “The Tet Offensive: The Turning Point of the Vietnam War,” OAH Magazine of History 18 (2004): 45)) Fighting was concentrated in the cities Hue and Saigon, the latter of which received the most press attention because of the high concentration of journalists stationed there. Most reporters had spent the majority of their time in Vietnam unsuccessfully seeking out combat to cover; during the Offensive, they were right in the thick of it. ((Landers, The Weekly War, 186)) Journalists so rarely covered actual combat that a popular phrase circulated amongst camera crews: “the wily VC got away again.” ((Turner, Lyndon Johnson’s Dual War, 217)) Now, the fighting was inescapably close, and this proximity ensured extensive and dramatic news coverage. ((ibid)) For many reporters — and thus, for many of the American people back home — this was their first up-close-and-personal view of the enemy. ((ibid, 218))

The sudden and widespread attack was a far greater blow to the government’s credibility than to the American and South Vietnamese forces. As many as 40,000 Vietnamese may have died, while U.S. and South Vietnamese casualties totaled around 3,500. ((Walton, “The Tet Offensive,” 46)) Ultimately, Communist forces had miscalculated how their attacks would affect the morale of the South Vietnamese people. Instead of sparking an uprising, the Americans and the South Vietnamese recaptured every city and town. But the effect on the United States’ morale was immediate and devastating, aided by the color television coverage of the Tet Offensive. For the first time, according to Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer, the American people were “experiencing the worst of the bloodshed through the new technology of television.” ((Turner, Lyndon Johnson’s Dual War, 219)) Television networks showed gunfights and reporters running for cover at the American embassy. ((Roselle, Media and the Politics of Failure, 41)) The dramatic effect of bright red blood on green uniforms shocked  Americans who tuned into major television networks each night to track the war’s progression.

Print journalists also adopted an increasingly negative attitude towards the war. Resulting news reports “depicted an opponent not only willing to continue the battle but also capable of inflicting major losses on both South Vietnamese and American troops, contrary to the image of an enemy whose spirit and military machine were almost broken by bombing raids and the American might.” ((Turner, Lyndon Johnson’s Dual War, 218)) Time magazine declared that “undeniably, [the enemy] now has the initiative throughout South Viet Nam.” ((Landers, The Weekly War, 189)) Another article in Time criticized the officials and generals, such as Westmoreland, who had deliberately manipulated statistics. ((ibid)) So great was the extent of this disillusionment that a Congressman who had previously supported the war remarked, “What happened? I thought we were supposed to be winning this war.” ((William M. Hammond, Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 112))

Coverage of the Tet Offensive was so bewildering that it would take time for reporters to realize that it was technically a military victory for the United States. But the damage had been done: Americans back home could plainly see that no U.S.-occupied territory in Vietnam was truly secure. ((Daly, Covering America, 5)) U.S. News & World Report wrote that “the present circumstances — the mood of the people, the fear in the cities, the setbacks in the countryside — all show how far the war is from being won anyplace in Vietnam. They also show the tremendous aftermath of a Communist offensive that was, technically, a military failure.” ((Landers, The Weekly War, 191)) A month after the Tet Offensive, pessimism had pervaded the news media. ((Hammond, Reporting Vietnam, 121))

The final nail in the coffin for the Johnson administration was a CBS special report produced by Walter Cronkite, one of the most beloved newsmen in the country, who traveled to Vietnam to try and clear up what exactly had happened during the Tet Offensive. Airing on February 27, 1968, the program Who, What, When, and Why ended with Cronkite’s point-blank expression of his personal opinion on the war. “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate… To say we are mired in a stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory, conclusion. It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” ((Daly, Covering America, 6)) After seeing Cronkite’s broadcast, Johnson famously remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” ((ibid)) A month later, he announced his decision not to run for reelection in the 1968 presidential election. The Democratic Party was divided on the issue of the Vietnam War, but most members no longer supported Johnson, who could see no way to unite the part long enough to win the election. ((Lewis L. Gould, 1968: The Election that Changed America (Chicago: Rowan & Littlefield, 2010), 47))

The Tet Offensive revealed to the American press that their suspicions and tenuous relationship with the government and the military had not been unfounded. It also revealed the full extent of the propaganda employed by the Johnson administration to keep public opinion in favor of the war. Perhaps no incident of the Vietnam War better illustrates that a perceived failure by the military may be just as potent as a “real” tactical or strategic failure. ((Roselle, Media and the Politics of Failure, 47)) As Newsweek concluded in its analysis of the war just a month after the Tet Offensive, “It now appears that the U.S. must accept the fact that it will never be able to achieve decisive military superiority in Vietnam.” ((Landers, The Weekly War, 191))  There would be seven more years of fighting before the United States government reached the same conclusion.

Almost 400 men, women and children massacred by the Viet Cong during “Tet 1968″ were mourned at a common-grave burial on October 14. This young widow, carrying a photograph of her missing husband, mourns at the mass funeral service. Hue, 1968., 1958 – 1974. U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. (ca. 1953 – ca. 1978). U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

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