How Did the Tet Offensive Impact American Morale?

Despite initial setbacks, the US defeated the Tet Offensive. But did it cause President Johnson to lose the war on the home front?

Feb 29, 2024By Ryan Stalker, BA in History & Political Science
tet offensive impact american morale

 

As incessant shelling destroyed the old Imperial City of Hue and as the blood of American soldiers still stained the ground of the US Embassy in the South Vietnamese Capital of Saigon, Walter Cronkite, the lead anchor of CBS News, sat at his desk in New York City.

 

He had traveled to South Vietnam to gauge the situation. He concluded his special report by offering his opinion—that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable.

 

But was his report the final nail in the coffin for US public support, as it’s often portrayed to be?

 

The Background: How Popular Was the US War in Vietnam? 

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Officers of the OSS with Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh in 1945. Source: The World

 

American involvement in Vietnamese affairs began long before the first boots hit the beach at Da Nang in 1965. Two decades earlier, operatives from the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to the modern CIA) supported the Viet Minh against the Japanese occupation throughout 1945.

 

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A year after French dreams of colonization were dashed in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed advisors to train the South Vietnamese military to act as a bulwark against communist North Vietnam.

 

A decade later, the first American troops arrived to bolster the flagging Republic of Vietnam. Around the same time, Operation Rolling Thunder—a three-year-long bombing offensive against North Vietnam, began.

 

The commander of American Forces in South Vietnam was Lt. General William Westmoreland, a grizzled and decorated combat veteran of World War II and the Korean War. The General had a simple strategy to win the war: his men would “go out and kill as many of the enemy” as they could. There was no indication that this was the case, with many—including David Halberstam, a top reporter for The New York Times—arguing that the US was fighting “the birth rate of a nation.”

 

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General William Westmoreland, commander of American forces in South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. Source: ThoughtCo

 

The American people refused to listen to these naysayers, giving Westmoreland time to win the war, to defend South Vietnam from the aggression of the North. Despite repeated assurances that victory was near, the war continued for years. Public support wavered. Gallup polls indicated that, by December 1967, 45% of Americans believed that the US had made a “mistake” by sending troops to Vietnam. This is almost double the 25% who thought the war in Vietnam was a “mistake” in 1965.

 

But Westmoreland was adamant, telling the press on November 21, 1967, that he was:

 

“Absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing. We are making progress. We know you want an honorable and early transition to the fourth and last phase. So do your sons, and so do I. It lies within our grasp—the enemy’s hopes are bankrupt.”

 

The North Vietnamese were on the ropes. They were running out of men and weapons. The end remained near. This was a lie, but it was a lie most Americans wanted to believe.

 

Lyndon Johnson: The Close-Minded President 

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President Lyndon Baines Johnson by Elizabeth Shoumatoff, 1968. The president believed Westmoreland’s optimistic reports about Vietnam. Source: The White House Historical Association

 

Many civilian and military officials knew Westmoreland—and his boss, President Johnson—were lying not only to the public but also to Congress.

 

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, initially a supporter of the war in Vietnam, was beginning to become disillusioned by mid-1967. Unable to stop President Johnson from expanding American involvement, he resigned in 1968.

 

Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge thought the war was an unwinnable stalemate. His replacement—the “hawk” Ellsworth Bunker—had his reservations, though he obeyed his boss.

 

And it wasn’t just civilian officials who began to doubt the war in Vietnam could be won—at least not by Westmoreland’s strategy of “kill ratios” and “body counts.” Generals Harold K. Johnson, Fred Weyland, and Bruce Palmer Jr.—all future Chief of Staffs of the United States Army—thought Westmoreland’s strategy was doomed to fail.

 

As Weyland—commanding a corps in Vietnam—told the press:

 

“I’ve beat up on the same VC division three times in a row, and they just go back across the border into their sanctuaries, refit, re-supply, fill up with new people and come back. We’re getting nowhere.”

 

He was correct—CIA intelligence suggested that aid to North Vietnam from the USSR (and, to a lesser extent, The People’s Republic of China) kept increasing despite rampant US bombing, more boots on the ground, and ever higher “body counts” on both sides.

 

But Johnson—either unwilling or politically unable to admit Westmoreland was wrong—kept up the façade. He vigorously defended his administration’s policy toward Vietnam.

 

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A hamlet in South Vietnam being torched by US forces in February 1967. Source: The Intercept

 

When a CBS Evening News report in August 1965 covered the burning of a hamlet by US forces, Frank Stanton, the network executive, received a call from an enraged president the following morning:

 

“Frank, you trying to fuck me?”

 

As the war continued and the years rolled on, Johnson decided a more concerted effort was required to combat the “misinformation” the press was sharing about the war in Vietnam. His national security advisor—Walt Rostow—formed the Vietnam Information Group. This “group” met once a week. Its purpose? “To consider how American successes in Vietnam could be publicized.”

 

Many military leaders publicly supported their Commander-in-Chief’s fantasy. General Johnson—despite personally believing Westmoreland’s strategy was destined to fail—told the US News & World Report that he did “not believe that [the North Vietnamese] have the capacity of regular, planned reinforcement” in the fall of 1967.

 

This image would suffer irreparable damage in the New Year.

 

The Tet Offensive: A Tactical Triumph 

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A platoon of US Marines resting during the Battle of Hue. Source: GBH News

 

The offensive planned by Hanoi was nothing if not ambitious. Planning to exploit the Lunar New Year to launch a sudden strike on over one hundred civilian and military targets around South Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and his generals expected the rapid collapse of South Vietnam as the masses joined their uprising and cast off the yoke of Western imperialism.

 

Tens of thousands of fighters from both the North and South—the Viet Cong—moved into position, joining the throngs of travelers traversing the countryside to the cities. Fighting began on January 30. Despite catching South Vietnamese and American forces off guard—fighting traditionally waned during Tet—the offensive was quickly and conclusively crushed.

 

Tens of thousands of communist fighters were killed. There was no popular rising; indeed, communist forces did little to win the support of the people. In the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue, thousands of civilians were summarily executed by roving bands of communist guerillas before American and South Vietnamese forces regained control after weeks of bitter combat.

 

But Westmoreland’s and Johnson’s carefully choreographed picture of the war in Vietnam had been eviscerated.

 

The Aftermath of Tet: The Credibility Gap 

tet offensive general saigon execution
Major General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the commander of South Vietnam’s Police, summarily executing a Viet Cong Captain during fighting in Saigon on February 1, 1968. Source: All That’s Interesting

 

Although Westmoreland and Johnson won on the streets of Saigon, Hue, and dozens of other cities, they quickly lost the battle against their own people.

 

The American people were quickly confronted with a deluge of images from South Vietnam. The scale of the offense astonished the public. If the enemy did not “have the capacity of regular, planned reinforcement” and were “bankrupt,” then where did all these fighters come from?

 

How could they have breached the US Embassy in Saigon?

 

Indeed, as the first reports of the offensive trickled into the headquarters of CBS News, Walter Cronkite—one of America’s leading newsmen—exclaimed, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war!”

 

Cronkite, along with many of the most influential and prominent journalists of the day, had never traveled to South Vietnam. They simply chose to believe Johnson and Westmoreland’s version of events rather than the reports of their colleagues who were on the ground.

 

But no longer. Images of American forces fighting it out in the streets of Saigon were everywhere. Viet Cong sappers had breached the American Embassy. Intense urban combat waged across the country as harrowing images dominated the front pages of all newspapers.

 

Cronkite decided to travel to South Vietnam himself.

 

A Trip and a Broadcast 

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Walter Cronkite and his crew in Hue in February 1968. Source: Modern War Institute

 

There are contradictory reports of Cronkite’s time in South Vietnam. Some historians say he drew his conclusion from the bloody street fighting in Hue. Others argue that he had made up his mind before he left.

 

Whichever—if either—of these versions of events is true is impossible to know. What is known, however, is that Cronkite left Hue on a helicopter carrying 12 marines in body bags. After a brief stay in Saigon, he returned to the States. During the 10 p.m. news on February 27, 1978, Cronkite devoted the entire segment to covering the war in Vietnam.

 

The presentation itself is forgettable. Cronkite’s conclusion, however, has echoed through history.

 

As the segment neared its end, Cronkite decided to do something unthinkable at the time—he would share his own opinion.

 

“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. This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.”

 

The impact of Cronkite’s monologue has been seen as the pivotal shift in the Vietnam War, the moment President Johnson despondently acknowledged that “if [he had] lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

 

But the reality is far more complex. Was Cronkite’s report really the turning point of the Vietnam War?

 

Contemporary Generalizations: War & Public Opinion

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An anti-war protestor at the Pentagon on October 21, 1967. Source: The Washington Post

 

Luckily, research from Gallup can help shine some light on the matter. From 1965 to 1973, Gallup asked Americans the following question: “In view of the developments since we entered the fighting in Vietnam, do you think the US made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?”

 

If Cronkite’s report—or the Tet Offensive itself—was the turning point of the Vietnam War, then there should be a significant uptick in those who answered “yes,” the US made a mistake by sending troops to Vietnam.

 

However, there is not.

 

gallup polling data vietnam war
American public opinion regarding US involvement in the Vietnam War. Source: Gallup Vault

 

In fact, between Cronkite’s report on February 27 and the next round of polling done in early April, the change is negligible. Indeed, while the overall trend is upward, it is a gradual process that takes several years before peaking in mid-1971.

 

The first significant change did not occur until August 1968, when the data indicated that 53% of Americans believed the war in Vietnam was a mistake.

 

So, then, where does the Cronkite myth come from? Contemporary historical memory.

 

Reality is nuanced and often dizzyingly complex. It is far easier to pick one event, person, or action to symbolize a nebulous realignment in the public consciousness across a wide temporal gap.

 

Rather than viewing Cronkite’s report as the seminal moment in the Vietnam War, it should be seen as a single example of a larger trend of dissatisfaction with the Johnson Administration’s police in Vietnam.

 

Johnson’s warped vision was now public—and everyone, not just Cronkite, was showing the brutal reality of the Quagmire that was Vietnam. The president was right, he had lost the support of his people. But not due to Walter Cronkite. He lost their support because the American people realized he had lied to them.

 

Freedom of the Press & Military Operations Since Vietnam

grenada press censorship anti war
American forces disembark during the invasion of Grenada on October 25, 1983. Source: The Boston Globe

 

The US military—and political elites—have learned from Johnson’s failure. When US forces invaded the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada in October 1983, the press was wholly barred from accompanying the troops for the first two and a half days of combat operations.

 

The press couldn’t report what they couldn’t see, and the public couldn’t be outraged by what they didn’t know. The military blocked reporters from accompanying the troops during the Invasion of Panama in 1989.

 

And then came 2003, when Colin Powell went before the UN Security Council on behalf of President Bush and declared that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction.” WMDs would never be found—but the invasion the President desired had gone ahead, nonetheless.

 

And it is through this lens of public misinformation that Cronkite’s semi-mythical report shows its importance. It may not have been the “turning point” of the Vietnam War, but it was a moment when journalists rejected the false narrative of the government to inform their fellow citizens of the truth.

Author Image

By Ryan StalkerBA in History & Political ScienceRyan is a contributing writer who’s never lost his passion for history. Especially interested in the intersection of conflict and identity, Ryan has also worked as a scriptwriter for various political, history, and true crime YouTube channels. He holds BAs in History and Political Science from Oakland University. In his spare time, Ryan enjoys playing video games, reading mythology, and watching all the documentaries he can get his hands on.