In 1968, the Vietnam War had been raging for 14 years, and it would not officially end until 1975. Americans felt hopeful about the war, and were in good spirits that it was to be won soon because of glowing news reports from overseas. Yet January 30th, 1968 was arguably the biggest turning point for the war, for the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive. In an article by Mike Stoll, he mentions “That night, combined forces of the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam attacked 13 cities and numerous military outposts in central South Vietnam, hoping to inspire an uprising among the South Vietnamese while delivering a decisive blow to U.S. forces” (1). America was shocked and outraged in being deceived by government officials, and this event is when Americans started to collectively be doubtful of their own government. The footage and photographs being aired in their homes at night about the VietCong rising up in massive numbers was not equivalent to what they had been told by their president; people were outraged to say the least. The television coverage of the Tet Offensive is one of the clearest examples of the power of press in American history, and much can be gained from looking back at this seminal point.
Walter Cronkite was the anchorman for CBS news during this time, and was considered the nation’s narrator. His main claim to fame is when he anchored the CBS Evening News, a half hour program in the evenings that families across America loved to listen to. CBS was know to be in-depth and thorough in their journalism, and Walter was considered one of the most trusted men in America because of this and his trustworthy demeanor. After hearing about the devastation caused by the Tet, he decided to go to the war zone and see for himself. On February 27th, 1968, after his return, he uttered the following words on a CBS special that changed the perspective for Americans on the Vietnam War. “Who won and who lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Viet Cong did not win by a knockout but neither did we … it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate… it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then 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.” (Footage below)
Walter Cronkite report from Vietnam (1968
Full transcription of newscast http://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/walter-cronkite-editorial-1968/
Media and the Vietnam War:
It is intriguing to look at the nature of television in America during this time. In an article called Television and the Vietnam War, we see that “the Vietnam War was known as America’s first “television war” because it was the first war for which television was a primary means of providing information to the American public, and because of its prominence in the evening televised news” (2). This was the first time that something like this had happened, and it played a major role in shaping the world. It splashed the war onto American television screens in a way that was harder to ignore than anything that had come before. Raw footage of Americans being gunned down in the streets and the embassy in Saigon being attacked resonated negatively with people, for it was a direct contrast to the upbeat shows like The Doris Day Show that were routinely shown during this time. Some scholars even argue that Walter Cronkite’s news special singlehandedly changed America’s perception of the stalemate that was the Vietnam War. After Cronkite’s story swept America, President Lyndon Johnson, who was seeking re-election in 1968, told Press Secretary George Christian, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” Johnson withdrew from the presidential race on March 31 (Stoll 2). This just goes to show how much of an influence Walter Cronkite was able to make, for he was considered one of the most trustworthy men at the time.
Tet Offensive 1968, US Embassy & Saigon fighting
Remembering the Tet Offensive
Fifty years have passed since 1968, and this year brings a lot of important events back into remembrance, for it was one of the most unpredictable and violent periods in American history. No celebrations or big events were held for the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, for it is not a moment of glory for Americans. It is an event that marks great conflict, and thus significance of the past. America is also very ashamed about this war, and the images of burning homes and killings of the innocent are not commemorated. Memory about the Vietnam War is partial, for as Americans, we mainly see the war from an American perspective. The Vietnamese have a completely different view on the war fifty years later, so it marks a dark part of their history when outsiders came in and created chaos. Many articles were written in remembrance of the day, and several were assessing how it shaped American history. Princeton historian Julian Zelizer stated in his article in the Atlantic, “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” (8). This is a lesson that everyone can learn something from, for it is important to be critical of what authority figures have to say.
Lessons from the Tet Offensive by Paul Pillar, mentions how “American attitudes toward the war, before and after Tet, showed how long a dominant frame of mind driving policy can persist in the face of contrary circumstances, and how it takes a big shock to jolt those attitudes into a different framework” (1).This was a big shock for the US, was the fact that Walter Cronkite and CBS News decided to air war footage. In this sense the memory of the Tet Offensive is processual, for in 1968, it meant that a terrifying war was still raging overseas and loved ones were in danger. Today in 2018, we look back and see a hard lesson learned regarding warfare in the age of media. Television had never had a hand in shaping public opinions about war. The fact that Walter Cronkite thought raw war footage was important to be filmed during this war indicated how imperative it is that the nation viewed it. Technology during this time also still allows for present day people to access the footage today, which allows for the past to be seen in the present, and hopefully allows for history to not repeat itself.
Daily, Policy. “How the Tet Offensive Undermined American Faith in Government.” January 1968 (2018): 1-8. Print. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/how-the-tet-offensive-undermined-american-faith-in-government/550010/
Interest, The National. “Lessons From the Tet Offensive , A Half Century Later.” (1973): n. pag. Print. http://nationalinterest.org/blog/paul-pillar/lessons-the-tet-offensive-half-century-later-24264
Riggins, Jack. “News Media Coverage of the 1968 Attack on the American Embassy In Saigon.” (1968): 1–79. Print. https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/35101/Offensive.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y
Tca, Mike, and Regional News. “Losing Cronkite after the Tet Offensive.” (2018): n. pag. Print.https://search.proquest.com/docview/1992690412?pq-origsite=summon
Vietnamese, South. “Television and the Vietnam War.” (1975): n. pag. Print. https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/abcvw/television_and_the_vietnam_war/0