Tet 10

After the war, in an angry tirade against the press, General Westmoreland alleged that voluminous,’ lurid and distorted newspaper and particularly television reports of the Tet attacks had transformed a devastating Communist military defeat in Vietnam into a “psychological victory” for the enemy. Peter Braestrup, who covered Vietnam as a correspon¬dent for the Washington Post, contended in his book Big Story that “crisis journalism” had rarely “veered so widely from reality” as it did in de-scribing and interpreting events during that period. But public opinion surveys conducted at the time made it plain that, whatever the quality of the reporting from Vietnam, the momentous Tet episode scarcely al¬tered American attitudes toward the war.
American opinion toward the conflict was far more complicated than it appeared to be on graphs and charts. Public “support” for the war had been slipping steadily for two years prior to Tet—a trend influenced by the mounting casualties, rising taxes and, especially, the feeling that there was no end in view. For a brief moment after the Tet offensive began, Americans rallied behind the flag in a predictable display of patriotic fervor. But their mood of despair quickly returned as the fighting dragged on, and their endorsement of the conflict resumed its downward spiral.
What this slide in “support” specifically meant was that, by late 1967, a plurality of Americans had concluded that the United States had “made a mistake” in committing combat troops to Vietnam. This sentiment was often analyzed wrongly, however. A common as¬sumption was that “antiwar” signified “pro-peace.” But that was not always the case. On the contrary, most Americans were dispirited because they felt that President Johnson was not prosecuting the war dynamically enough. Their attitude, summed up succinctly, seemed to say: “It was an error for us to have gotten involved in Vietnam in the first place. But now that we’re there, let’s win—or get out.”
A survey conducted in November 1967, for example, indicated that while 44 percent of Americans favored a complete or gradual with¬drawal from Vietnam, 55 percent wanted a tougher policy—and they included a handful who advocated the use of nuclear weapons. In February 1968, while the Tet offensive was raging, 53 percent favored stronger military operations, even at the risk of a clash with the Soviet Union or China, compared to only 24 percent who preferred to see the war wound down. Interestingly, much the same sentiment pre¬vailed after the war: a study carried out in 1980 found that 65 percent of Americans believed that “the trouble in Vietnam was that our troops were asked to fight a war that we could never win.”
But the spectacular offensive in Vietnam trapped Lyndon Johnson at a crucial juncture. His popularity had been dwindling for years— partly because of the war, but also because the electorate’s faith in his economic and social programs had faded. When he entered office in late 1963, eight out of ten Americans had favored his policies. By 1967, in contrast, only four out of ten citizens gave him a positive score. Then came Tet, and his ratings plummeted—as if Vietnam were a burning fuse that had suddenly ignited an explosion of dissent.
During the six weeks following the initial Communist attacks, pub¬lic approval of his overall performance dropped from 48 percent to 36 percent—and, more dramatically, endorsement for his handling of the war fell from 40 percent to 26 percent. The country’s trust in his authority had evaporated. His credibility—the key to a president’s capacity to govern—was gone.
More important, perhaps, Johnson was being abandoned by the vocal elements of the population—business executives, media com¬mentators, educators, clergymen and other “elites,” whose voices resonated more forcefully in Washington than did those of Middle America. These “opinion leaders,” as the pollsters termed them, had already begun to express misgivings about the war, sometimes cau¬tiously. But now large numbers of them were reaching the conclusion that the futile conflict, which threatened to divide and torment the nation domestically as well as dissipate its global assets, was no longer worth the effort. Closer to the corridors of power, they had been slower than the public to lose faith in the president. As they evolved, however, their influence was to weigh heavily on bureaucrats, poli¬ticians and Johnson himself. To Johnson and his aides, the precise texture of the growing opposition was not easily discernible—nor did it matter. They were traumatized by evidence that the administration had become isolated in an election year. Looking back in his memoirs, published in 1991, Clark Clifford wrote that it was “hard to imagine the atmosphere in Washington” during that period.
The pressure grew so intense that at times I felt that the government itself might come apart at the seams. Leadership was fraying at its very center, something very rare in a nation with as stable a gov¬ernmental structure as ours. In later years, almost every one of the men who lived through the crisis claimed that while he had reacted calmly to events, his colleagues had panicked or lost their nerve. This is obviously not what happened. In fact, every one, both mil¬itary and civilian, was profoundly affected by the Tet offensive, and there was, for a brief time, something approaching a sense of events spiralling out of control.
The Tet offensive stunned Johnson. Having swallowed most of the reports claiming that the Communists had been defanged, he had never imagined that they could attack the U.S. embassy in Saigon or assault the cities of South Vietnam. But he concealed his emotions. On the morning of January 31, after a fitful night of checking the torrent of messages from Saigon, his first reaction, typically, was to orchestrate a public relations drive designed to promote optimism. He ordered Westmoreland to hold daily briefings for U.S. correspondents in Viet¬nam in order to “reassure the public here that you have the situation under control,” and he told the White House press corps that the Communist operation had been a “complete failure.” He also in¬structed Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Walt Rostow and other prominent aides to thump the same theme in newspaper and television interviews during the ensuing weeks.

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