The Tet Offensive was a battle, often described as the “turning point” in the Vietnam War, which had deep implications on the future of both Vietnam and America. A little history helps to show the significance of the Tet Offensive as a psychological power play. Tet is a celebration, or holiday, observed by the Vietnamese during the turn of the lunar year. Out of respect for this observance, the custom, somewhat of an unwritten agreement, was to cease hostilities during the celebration period.
North Vietnamese troops along with guerrilla fighters launched the Tet Offensive, a “shock and awe” style attack that forever changed the way the American people would look at the war. Not only were U.S. and South Vietnamese forces stunned by the attack being instigated during the Tet celebration, but the press and folks at home in America were also shocked and disheartened. Over two dozen cities that were supposed to be safe havens by this point were attacked, including Saigon.
This news was especially chilling because the popular American sentiment at the time was that the North Vietnamese were all but beaten. In addition, raw film footage from the Tet Offensive was coming in from Tokyo and hitting the airwaves unedited. The nightly news in America was filled with horrific images and reporters didn’t have the experience to explain it. It looked nightmarish to the average person, especially without benefit of analysis, and quickly turned many in America against the war.
Many critics consider the press to have run with this new-found power. In fairness, many of those in the media probably believed they were doing a good thing by shaming the public into condemning the war. Unfortunately, not being experienced military analysts, many had no idea what a sudden retreat or withdrawal would entail. Still, the graphic images and sounds of the Tet Offensive were played nightly, and reporters and anchors even began adding their own opinions. Being an anti-war member of the press came into style in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.
The Tet Offensive was not the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong victory it appeared to be, at least not militarily. In fact, most experts agree that they never intended to hold the cities that were taken, but to create a shocking display made up of small disasters that would appear to be a major defeat. It worked, especially with the aid of the American press in painting it just as the North Vietnamese may have hoped it would appear.
While the North lost tens of thousands of troops compared to less than 3,000 American troops during the Tet Offensive, it was a propaganda victory for the Communists. Militarily, many considered them to have been beaten, but the psychological power play worked in their favor, with the help of America’s own news media.
Peter Braestrup, a former officer in the U.S. Marines, as well as a war correspondent for the Washington Post wrote a book called The Big Story,which provides detailed information on the media's role in outcome of the Tet Offensive. He collected all audio, visual, photo, and written reports of the events by the largest media organizations at the time and used both his military and media experience to analyze them in creating the book.