Reflections on Tet ’68: The Power of Media

Happy TET everyone! It’s almost become a tradition here to conjure up remembrances of Tet ’68 every year. This is a post I originally posted over two years ago and I thought I’d let it fly one more time. Have a great new year!  (By the way, no self-respecting Vietnamese would ever call it Chinese New Year. Just so you know.)

Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, conjures up a lot of meaningful images for me after living there for 10 years.  Kumquat trees, banh chung (traditional New Year cake made of sticky rice, mung bean, pork, etc…), fireworks, jolly visitors arriving at all hours, red envelopes of money for the kids. Someone has said Tet for the Vietnamese is like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all rolled into one. Whether true or not, it’s the undeniable yearly celebration for the peoples from the Red River Delta.

But for a previous generation of Americans, Tet brings back memories of a very different kind. Mention Tet, and many people will know it by the ‘Tet Offensive’ of 1968.

American found itself embroiled in a quagmire of a war by the turn of the New Year in 1968. The Johnson administration had tried its best to manage the war in the media, consistently re-enforcing the narrative that the Americans were winning against the tenacious North Vietnamese Communists led by the ardent followers of the aging national hero Ho Chi Minh. The proof of the American advantage were the casualty totals given by the defense department which showed, correctly, that the Viet Cong consistently were taking more casualties than the Americans; the logical conclusion of this data was that America was winning the war, right?

As it turns out, those daily statistics fed to the media meant absolutely nothing. As North Vietnamese General Nguyen Vo Giap said, “We can lose a thousand men for every American that is lost; at that rate, we will win.”

And so on the eve of the 1968 Tet holiday, the Viet Cong pulled off a stunning and completely unexpected attack on nearly 50 South Vietnamese cities and American strongholds – all in one night.

The words of the U.S. government fell hollow. The war was not being won. The war was not even close to being finished. It was a depressing reminder that we were caught in a war which many Americans were having a hard time remembering why we were fighting it. The ‘Tet Offensive’ was a decisive turning point, not on the battlefield, but in the minds of the American public.

The fact is, the US military, though blind-sided, reacted brilliantly, clearly winning every decisive battle of the offensive.

But that mattered little. The American public saw the pictures, heard the reports from the networks, and realized that the war was far from over. Johnson’s popularity numbers fell even more. There was little hope in sight.

That set off one of the most volatile years in American history. President Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek another term as President. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots ripped apart American cities.

It all started with the Tet Offensive.

Vietnamese New Year & Tet ’68

Happy Vietnamese New Year Everyone!

I enjoyed many Tet holidays in Vietnam visiting neighbors, being stuffed with delicacies by eager grandmothers who wouldn’t be satisfied until I would hold my stomach in agony and beg her not to put more on my plate. (She should anyways.)  Tet is a wonderful time for family and friends to commune and feast while the trials and troubles a a year’s hard work are long forgotten.  It’s a three day non-stop filling of the celebration of Vietnamese life.  It’s a time to remember the past, enjoy the present, and drink for the future.

But for a different generation of Americans, the word “TET” means but one thing – a horrible reminder of the pain of war from 1968.

The Tet Offensive in 1968 changed the Vietnam War, but it didn’t do so in the way you might expect.  Leading up to the Viet Cong attacks on the first day of their New Year, the American people had been led to believe from their government that great progress was being made in freeing South Vietnam from the Communist instigators who had been reeking havoc in the delta and central regions of the country for nearly a decade.  But the Tet Offensive proved once and for all that the reassuring words from Washington via the press corp were hollow at best and possibly down right deceitful.

On the first night of Tet 1968,  the Viet Cong pulled off nearly fifty coordinated and simultaneous attacks which caught the Americans and the South Vietnamese armies off guard.  From the former Imperial city of Hue, to the central highlands where American missionaries were killed, to the fortified city of Saigon itself, these attacks reverberated loudly throughout the country, the world, and especially the American media which drilled home this point to the American people – we were not winning the Vietnam War.

It mattered little that American firepower pushed back every single one of these advances.  That’s right.  America won them all, but the Viet Cong delivered a devastating punch and a massive dose of reality to the American people.   From that point on, cynicism crept in and led to one of the most turmoil filled years in American history, from President LBJ deciding not run for president again, to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to the urban riots, the Tet offensive set the stage for them all.

This shows me that above all else, we need government that is checked by an independent news media, driven by principles and not ideological conviction – something today that is certainly hard to find.