The accepted turning point where public perception of the war went from positive to negative is after the Tet Offensive. The Tet Offensive was the January, 1968 campaign launched by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Vietcong of South Vietnam against the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam. The offensive took the forces in South Vietnam by surprise because there had been a negotiated cease-fire to celebrate Tet (the Vietnamese New Year). The coordinated attack overwhelmed the forces, and transitioned the war into one that was un-winnable. No other event in history demonstrates the power of the media as the Tet Offensive. Even though the counter-attack was subsequently won by the U.S. and the South Vietnamese forces, the “press reported that it merely proved the government was not in control of the war. The universal theme of the media coverage was that the United States had suffered a disastrous defeat” (Bushey, 9).
The aftermath of the Tet Offensive was the inevitable withdraw from Southeast Asia, because public support for the war would never rise to the levels it had been at prior; withdraw, however, would take another 7 years. The way that the war was covered by the media also changed dramatically after Tet. One of the most lasting effects was that war was “no longer depicted as rational; instead, emphasis was placed on repetition, recurrence, and relentlessness” (Bushey, 10). Likewise, winning was no longer seen as the main objective in Vietnam; rather, the goal became to withdraw with honor. Well-known CBS Evening News host Walter Cronkite says in reaction to the attack that it is becoming “increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victims, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could” (The Sixties).
Anti-war sentiment became so wide-spread that it became a hot-button issue in the 1968 presidential nomination. Influenced by the public reaction to the Tet Offensive and possibly Cronkite’s decree that the war was un-winnable, Johnson announces to that nation that a “house divided against itself, is a house that cannot stand… Therefore, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your President” (Wicker). President Richard Nixon ran in the 1968 presidential race under the promise that a gradual withdraw from Vietnam would come if he were president; a promise which he eventually kept.
The question still remains – did the media loose the war for the United States? That question is one which involves too much speculation to be truly answered. However, the impact that the media did have on the public perception of the war is quite clear. In the early years of the war, the national belief in a shared goal (to end communism) kept the American people in favor of intervention in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was not in the primetime news, nor was it on the front page newspapers; this, of course, was only temporary. When the war truly began to escalate, the American people could not get away from seeing graphic images (often unexplained) on television. The major losses and catastrophic damage suffered as a result of the Tet Offensive left little room for hope in the minds of most Americans. Public support for the war suffered dramatically and would never recover. The legacy of the media’s influence on the Vietnam War is a legacy that has many stories to tell, from many different perspectives, but thanks to the television, the vast majority of Americans were able to make up their own minds based on the evidence and often imagery shown to them.
“1968.” The Sixties. CNN. July 2014. Television.
Bushey, Morgan. Media Coverage of Vietnam. N.p.: n.p., Nov. 2000. PDF.
Hallin, Daniel C. The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.
Smith, Ian. “South Vietnam, 11 June 1963. Newstatesman.com. N.P. April 2010. Web. 2 Aug 2014
Wicker, Tom. “Johnson Says He Won’t Run.” Nytimes.com. N.p., 2010. Web. 2 Aug. 2014.