How the Tet Offensive Undermined American Faith in Government
Fifty years ago, the January 1968 battle laid bare the way U.S. leaders had misled the public about the war in Vietnam.
When Americans wince upon hearing presidents make proclamations about foreign policy, the legacy of the 1968 Tet Offensive looms large.
On January 30, at the start of the sacred Vietnamese holiday of Tet, which celebrated the start of the new lunar year, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong launched a massive military offensive that proved the battle raging in Southeast Asia was far from over, and that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration had grossly oversold American progress to the public. Although U.S. troops ultimately ended the offensive successfully, and the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong suffered brutal loses, these bloody weeks triggered a series of events that continue to undermine Americans’ confidence in their government.
The Tet offensive came after several months of the North Vietnamese modifying their strategy. Rather than a battle of attrition, the leadership planned to launch a massive assault that aimed to undermine the morale of the South Vietnamese as well as the American public. Since December, the North Vietnamese had been conducting a series of attacks meant to send U.S. forces in the wrong direction. Johnson and his military advisors fell for the trick. The president and General William Westmoreland had focused on potential attacks against a U.S. Marine base in Khe Sanh. Johnson kept asking military leaders if they were prepared to defend the base and he kept promising congressional Democrats and Republicans that he had received their assurances everything would be fine.
Meanwhile, Johnson had conducted a massive public relations blitz in the end of 1967 to convince the public that the war was nearing a conclusion and that the United States was winning. The Progress Campaign, as it was sometimes called, deployed large volumes of data to convince the media that the communists were losing on the battlefield and that their numbers were diminishing.
Westmoreland told Meet the Press on November 19, 1967 that the U.S could win the war within two years and then proclaimed at the National Press Club on November 21 that “the end begins to come into view.” In November 1967, according to the Harris poll, confidence in the president’s Vietnam policies rose by 11 points (from 23 to 34 percent). In his State of the Union Address on January 17, Johnson sounded downright optimistic, even though he acknowledged that the U.S. faced major challenges overseas and that victory in Vietnam would take some time. As he asked Congress to pass a tax surcharge to help pay for the escalating costs of the war, while continuing to fund the Great Society, the president declared that the enemy was testing the “will” of the nation to “meet the trials that these times impose.”
In resolute fashion, Johnson went on to promise that “America will persevere. Our patience and our perseverance will match our power. Aggression will never prevail.” Max Frankel of The New York Times reported, “Whereas a year ago he promised ‘more cost, more loss and more agony’ in the war, this year he emphasized the positive, what he called the ‘marks of progress,’ and dwelt less on the whole issue of the war than in the previous two speeches.”
Then the situation took a bad turn a few weeks later. The crisis of Tet began in the early morning of January 30, the start of the year of the Monkey. In Saigon, NLF fighters attacked the American embassy. A 20-year-old soldier, Chuck Searcy, recalled waking up after an evening of drinking and movies, that when the sirens went off he assumed it was a drill and they would be able to go back to sleep. “But then a captain came around the perimeter in a jeep with a loudspeaker announcing that this was not a practice alert ... It was the moment when the war became a reality for us, because up to then, Saigon had been considered a very safe area and quite secure and basically an area that would never be attacked.” The fighting continued until 9:15 the next morning. Nineteen enemy soldiers would lose their lives in the battle for the embassy; five Americans were killed. This was just one of many onslaughts that took place as the communists conducted their offensive in five major cities, 36 provincial capitals and smaller hamlets across the country.
Desperate to stop the public fallout, on January 31, Johnson ordered Westmoreland to hold daily press briefings to “convey to the American public your confidence in our capability to blunt these enemy moves, and to reassure the public here that you have the situation under control.” Johnson warned legislators that the anti-war protests in the U.S. were being triggered by allies of the communists. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara privately told Johnson, “I think it shows two things, Mr. President. First, that they have more power than some credit them with ... My guess is that we will inflict very heavy losses on them, both in terms of personnel and materiel and this will set them back some, but after they absorb the losses, they will remain a substantial force.”
After the initial shock and awe, U.S. troops mounted a fierce and effective counter-attack, one of the most successful military operations of the war. When it was all over in late February, the communists suffered over 40,000 deaths, including some of their most skilled troops. The fighting ended when the U.S. and South Vietnamese recaptured the city of Hue.
Yet the military victory turned into a political disaster for the administration. Johnson tried to stop the political bleeding from the realization that the Vietnam War was not ending any time soon.
The Tet Offensive showed that Johnson and Westmoreland were lying about having “reached an important point where the end begins to come into view,” as Westmoreland famously had said.
The media coverage of Tet provided reporters with unprecedented access to the images of the conflict as the battles moved into the cities, and they delivered. One of the most famous images from the period was that of a South Vietnamese brigadier general Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the chief of the national police, putting a bullet in the head of Nguyen Van Lem, a captain in the Vietcong. The photograph, taken by Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams on February 1, confirmed the brutality of this conflict to many Americans. Life magazine’s cover on February 16 featured a photograph of two North Vietnamese soldiers with Chinese AK-47 automatic rifles, guarding Hue, with an article by Catherine Leroy called, “The Enemy Lets Me Take His Picture.”
The images on television were just as bad. The coverage shifted from smoke and helicopters to soldiers fighting to recapture ground in a brutal war. “There, on color screens,” one observer noted, “dead bodies lay amidst the rubble and the rattle of automatic gunfire as dazed American soldiers and civilians ran back and forth trying to flush out the assailants.” Walter Cronkite famously signed off his broadcast challenging the president and joining journalists who had increasingly been saying that the government was not telling the full truth. “Who won and lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout but neither did we ... For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience in Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.” ABC anchor Frank McGee followed up a few days later telling viewers “The war is being lost” while his colleague Frank Reynolds said it put the president’s credibility “under fire.”
Inside the White House, the historian Robert Dallek found that Johnson’s advisors were shaken. Following one meeting of foreign policy advisors, Joseph Califano reported that they were “beyond pessimistic.” The new secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, recalled that “It is hard to imagine or recreate the atmosphere in the sixty days after Tet. The pressure grew so intense that at times I felt the government might come apart at its seams. Leadership was fraying at its very center—something very rare in a nation with so stable a government structure.” Clifford said that in early March he made his “overwhelming priority” as Secretary “to extricate our nation from an endless war.”
“The element of hope has been taken away by the Tet Offensive,” noted Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “People don’t think there is likely to be an end.” Newsweek ran a cover story on February 19, with Westmoreland on the cover, entitled “Man on the Spot.”
By the time that Tet ended, Johnson was left with a massive credibility gap that overshadowed everything he had done on domestic policy. By March, when anti-war Democrat Senator Eugene McCarthy performed unexpectedly well in the New Hampshire primary, the polls had really turned on the president and the war. An initial spike in public support from Tet in February, with a notable increase in hawkish sentiment about Vietnam, turned hard against the administration in March. 49 percent of Americans thought the war was a mistake; only 41 percent thought it was the right decision. Only 35 percent believed that it would end within the next two years. His overall approval ratings for handling the war fell to a meager 26 percent. On the last day of the month, with his support plummeting, Johnson shocked the nation by going on television to announce that he would not run for reelection.
When rumors circulated that Westmoreland had asked for 206,000 more troops in response to Tet, Americans were outraged and the apparent blindness of the people in power. The Democratic Convention in 1968 was a disaster, as liberal Democrats and the anti-war movement opened up a civil war. Ironically, the person to reap the most benefits from the war was Richard Nixon, the next president of the United States, who lied and deceived the public about Vietnam in ways that even Johnson could not have imagined.
Besides the damage that Tet imposed on Johnson, the surprise attack and the revelation that the administration had vastly oversold the prospects for success were a severe blow to public confidence in American government leaders to tell the truth and to do the right thing.
The right also took its own lessons from Tet and other parts of the increasingly critical wartime coverage, namely that the media could not be trusted. As reporters focused on Tet as evidence of failure, hawkish Democrats and Republicans were quick to note, rightly so, that the U.S. counter-offensive had been successful. Johnson felt this way and tried to hammer away on the point that the media was misrepresenting what happened. For decades, coverage of Tet would remain to conservatives a symbol of why the “liberal establishment” could not be trusted to give the public a realistic assessment of national security issues.
For much of the nation, however, the specifics of Tet were beside the points. The real story was the context of the disastrous policies in Vietnam that cost thousands of American lives every month, undermined the nation’s moral authority in the Cold War, and didn’t seem to be working. As the historian Fred Logevall has argued, Tet is not the sole culprit behind the shattered faith from Vietnam, as opposition to the war and the realization of government falsehood had been growing for several years. But Tet still packed an extraordinarily powerful punch on a nation primed to be disillusioned. Based on what they were seeing in the winter of 1968, the communists in North Vietnam remained strong and determined, and promises that the war was ending were simply not true.
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.
Tet is an important reminder that for liberals and conservatives sometimes a little distrust is a good thing. Particularly at a time when we have a president who traffics heavily in falsehoods, Tet showed that blind confidence in leaders can easily lead down dangerous paths.