One of the most unpopular wars in U.S. history, the Vietnam War lasted from 1955 to 1975. The Tet Offensive was a coordinated attack launched by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces on the lunar new year holiday (also known as Tet) in 1968. They hoped to surprise American forces by choosing this specific date and to force the Americans into negotiations to end the war by attacking major cities. The attack occurred in three phases; during the first two, the Viet Cong directly attacked urban cities, where the U.S. forces were known to be placed. However, by the last phase, the U.S. and its allies managed to take back the territory lost, keeping them Viet Cong on the defense. The Tet Offensive saw the lost of thousands of lives from both sides, and became the turning point of the war — the beginning of the end.
Now, the nature of public response and opinion showcased the clear divide between the administration & the people, the talkers & the fighters, the warhawks & the antiwar movement. The Tet Offensive only served to deepen this divide, with the media playing a major role in instigating criticism of the Johnson administration. The controversy that arose largely came from the perception of the war itself — the administration saw it as a clear victory; the public, a total disaster. Despite the U.S. reclaiming all of its territory, it may have been because of the raw reporting & images transmitted to the public (as the attacks were on major cities, where many reporters stayed) that piqued public support of the anti-war movement. But most importantly, it was the White House’s recent announcement that “victory was in sight” and the administration’s launch of the “success campaign” to convince the media and public that we were winning in Vietnam that allowed the Tet Offensive to become a symbol of the inconclusiveness, futileness and drawn-out war.
Interestingly enough, 200 U.S. colonels went to party in downtown Saigon the night of the attack, despite receiving information of the attacks almost 3 months earlier. The U.S. failed to recognize the flow of intelligence, thinking that the body count was largely in their favor & never once expecting the uprising of over 80,000 troops. That one of the main factors of the U.S.’s failure in Vietnam was largely due to entrenched beliefs, incompetence and the rejection of intel counter to their beliefs is unbelievable; the continual insistence that we were winning, even more so. As the credibility gap grew larger & larger, it finally collapsed at Tet. Still, the role that the media played at Tet — providing momentum for the anti-war movement and forcing Johnson to begin plans for withdrawal — was significant & forced the administration and U.S. army to recognize that public support & expectations were a huge part of strategic thinking.