How would you characterize a battlefield fiasco in which the attacking forces were totally defeated, every objective they captured was retaken, and the attackers lost 40,000 of their best troops killed with tens of thousands more wounded? In 1968, the media represented North Vietnam's disastrous Tet Offensive to the American public as a "victory" for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
Hanoi planned the 1968 Tet Offensive to precipitate a general uprising among South Vietnam's presumably disaffected population that would force Saigon to accept a coalition government. Yet, the savagery wreaked by NVA general Vo Nguyen Giap's country-wide attack dismally failed to evoke the expected popular uprising. However, battlefield success is no guarantor of final triumph in war, as the aftermath of the Tet Offensive so starkly demonstrated. Although U.S. and South Vietnamese forces weathered and then overcame Giap's assault, the shock that reverberated through the American public precipitated a downward spiral in popular domestic support for the war that turned the communists' battlefield defeat into a public relations victory that arguably won the war for Hanoi.
No one can—or should—question the veracity of media reporting of the Tet Offensive or the truthfulness of its coverage of the Vietnam War in general, for that matter. With rare exceptions, the reporting was factual and accurate. Contrary to what some may claim, the media did not intentionally lie about what they saw, heard, and reported from Vietnam. Yet, getting the facts right did not ensure that reporters got the story right. Media coverage of the Tet Offensive is likely the most egregious example of reporting the facts of individual combat actions while missing the more important story of the big picture that those combat actions represented. Out of the hundreds of combat actions that occurred during Tet, two in particular garnered excessive media coverage that, in turn, produced an unexpected domestic political impact far beyond the modest scope and size of the forces involved and the relatively small body count in each case: the Viet Cong (VC) sapper attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the Battle of Hue.
The Tet attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon was a minor, unsuccessful assault by a small group of VC sappers that became a sensationalized media icon, hyped as symbolizing the United States' failed strategy in Vietnam. The embassy was added to the VC target list almost as an afterthought, and only 19 enemy soldiers took part. In fact, all VC attackers were eliminated and none actually made it inside the embassy building. Yet, what one U.S. participant characterized as "a piddling platoon action" took place only a short distance from the main quarters for the Western press corps—a proximity that virtually guaranteed extensive media coverage by reporters who were either too shocked or too timid to venture very far afield. When Americans picked up their morning papers a few hours after the last VC sapper was killed, the first inklings they had of the Tet Offensive were inaccurate headlines stating that the U.S. embassy had been "captured." The panicked, often confused news reports—coming on the heels of President Lyndon Johnson's and U.S. Vietnam commander William Westmoreland's claims that America was winning the war—delivered a shock from which the public never recovered.
The battle for Vietnam's ancient imperial capital of Hue, in contrast to the failed, six-hour "piddling" action at the embassy in Saigon, lasted 26 days—the longest sustained infantry combat of the war to that point. A major NVA Tet objective, Hue was quickly captured by NVA regulars supported by VC main force units, thereby precipitating brutal, house-to-house fighting by U.S. forces to retake a city that was essentially a fort. The nearly month-long battle for Hue provided ample opportunity for reporters to illustrate their coverage with gruesome photographs of dead marines, soldiers, and civilians, many showing bodies grotesquely stacked in trucks and hauled away under heavy fire. Although American forces recaptured the city, killing 5,000 North Vietnamese while losing 216 U.S. dead, the lopsided body count tally could never overcome the 26 days of pessimistic reporting and the barrage of bloody, negative images. By February 26, 1968, the American public was, almost literally, "shell shocked" by the intense media coverage.
These two combat actions and how reporters chose to present them, more than any other events reported by the media from Vietnam, exerted a negative and lasting influence on American public opinion and attitude toward the war. Reporters may have gotten their facts right, but they clearly missed Tet's "big picture" story—with ultimately tragic results for the people of South Vietnam. Beyond its influence on public perceptions about the Vietnam War, media reporting also had an unintended and long-lasting secondary impact that is still felt today. Soldiers' experience with how they perceived that the media reported Vietnam left many veterans of the conflict wary and distrustful of reporters. Many, particularly army officers who later reached high rank, became embittered and resolved to keep reporters at arm's length, providing only information that they were required to hand over, and even than often reluctantly and grudgingly. Although the recent program of embedding reporters within military units in combat is a belated attempt to reestablish an atmosphere of trust and openness, it may be too little, too late for military personnel who trace their roots back to the Vietnam generation. They had assumed that their war in Vietnam would be reported by Ernie Pyle; instead, they got Dan Rather.
Colonel, US Army, ret, Jerry D. Morelock, PhD is Editor in Chief of Armchair General magazine. A 1969 West Point graduate, Morelock is a decorated combat veteran of Vietnam who spent 36 years in uniform. His final active duty tour was as the head of the history department at the US Army Command and General Staff College. He was formerly the Executive Director of the Winston Churchill Memorial & Library and is an award-winning historian whose books include Generals of the Ardennes: American Leadership in the Battle of the Bulge.
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