The Tet Offensive of 1968 was so named as 'Tet' is the Vietnamese New Year, upon which the surprise attacks took place. When the North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops assaulted targets throughout the Republic of Vietnam at the end of January 1968, they expected to trigger an uprising of the South Vietnamese people against their government. Despite some spectacular early successes, the attacks failed. A large amount of the South Vietnamese did not embrace the cause; thousands of sappers, assault troops, and cadres met their deaths before overwhelming allied counterattacks; and the insurgent infrastructure was so decimated at the end of the fighting that no large enemy offensives could be mounted for four years.
The assault included air attacks as well, with North Vietnamese MiG-17s hitting American bases with bombs and rockets. Despite having the advantage of surprise, the attacks did little damage, and eight MiGs were lost to American defenses.
The operation was a military failure for North. The Vietcong lost half their army and had to pull out of the battle, leaving only the North Vietnamese army, and left enough casualties that General Giap later recounted in memoirs that NVA nearly considered requesting surrender. Yet, thanks in large part to willful misreporting by Walter Cronkite (see Liberal bias in media), it was a public relations victory. Despite the North's enormous, overwhelming losses, the result was that the American public became convinced that the North was unbeatable. Cronkite's misreporting on Tet was also suspected to be one of the reasons why Lyndon B. Johnson ultimately ended up not pursuing reelection. Ironically, it was also because of the earlier bias from the Western press, in particular The New York Times, that caused the NVA to undergo the Tet Offensive in the first place, being filled with overconfidence that they would cause the entire South Vietnamese to embrace Communism and go against Capitalism and Saigon.
In Crossroads of Modern Warfare, Drew Middleton writes, “The North Vietnamese regulars and the Viet Cong guerrillas were defeated utterly on the battlefield. Granted the American superiority at that time, there is at least the probability that North Vietnam forces could have been destroyed.”
British journalist Robert Elegant, a highly acclaimed British reporter on Vietnam stated, “For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and television screens – never before Vietnam had the collective policy of the media sought, by graphic and unremitting distortion, the victory of the enemies of the correspondents own side."
Donald Bishop wrote:
- Nonetheless, the Tet offensive was a turning point in the war, and the North Vietnamese were successful in altering the course of the war far beyond the accomplishments of their army. The American people were shocked that the Vietcong/ North Vietnamese Army (VC/NV A) possessed the strength to make the widespread strikes. In the public clamor that followed, President Lyndon Johnson announced a bombing halt and withdrew from the 1968 Presidential race. The policy of Vietnamization was launched, and many Americans concluded that the war was too costly to pursue.
Despite this, however, the majority of Americans still supported the war effort, with a Harris poll conducted in 1969, a year after Tet, revealing that only fewer than ten percent wanted to pull out of South Vietnam if it meant a Communist victory. In addition, the landslide re-election of Richard Nixon in 1972 is attributed to his policy of peace with honor.
James Q. Wilson wrote:
- In January 1968, ... Communist forces during the Tet holiday launched a major attack on South Vietnamese cities. According to virtually every competent observer, these forces met a sharp defeat, but American press accounts described Tet instead as a major communist victory. Washington Post reporter Peter Braestrup later published a book in which he explained the failure of the press to report the Tet offensive accurately. His summary: "Rarely has contemporary crisis-journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality."
- Even as the facts became clearer, the press did not correct its false report that the North Vietnamese had won. When NBC News producer Robert Northshield was asked at the end of 1968 whether the network should put on a news show indicating that American and South Vietnamese troops had won, he rejected the idea, because Tet was already "established in the public's mind as a defeat, and therefore it was an American defeat."
- MiG-17 Units of the Vietnam War, by Istvan Toperczer, Osprey Publishing, 2000
- [The] Tet Offensive was launched, and despite attacks on some 155 cities, villages and hamlets across South Vietnam, the communists got hammered. It is generally accepted, based on admissions from the North Vietnamese communists since the end of the war, that more than half of all communist forces were killed in action in this period, not including the numbers wounded or captured.
- The Press and the TET Offensive