In late January 1968, during the Tet lunar new year holiday, a bold offensive was launched by forces of the North Vietnamese army and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. Audacious and unprecedented, the Tet Offensive saw coordinated attacks on scores of sites throughout South Vietnam.
According to conventional wisdom, American journalists' sensational Tet coverage abruptly, and permanently, turned public opinion against the war. But that's not quite right, according to professor Chester Pach. "Tet was not the first time when the war was brought home vividly," says the Ohio University historian. Also, he notes, public enthusiasm for the war already was waning. "Tet did not bring about a rapid loss of support. It only intensified that development."
On Thursday, Feb. 7, Pach will speak at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. His 7 p.m. talk, The Tet Offensive on Television: War, TV News, the President, and Politics in 1968, commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Tet offensive. Pach has written extensively on television and the Vietnam War, and he is finishing a book called The First Television War: TV News, the White House, and Vietnam.
President Lyndon Johnson pilloried media coverage of the Vietnam War, and especially television coverage, says Pach. "The reporting was controversial," he says. "Johnson maintained it was sensational and distorted, and it misrepresented what was happening in South Vietnam, and made Americans think the war was going worse than it was."
But, says Pach, "I try to show that the reporting was much more accurate and informative than Johnson or other critics thought." Any media coverage has limitations, Pach says, but "what the reporting showed was that the U.S. was not making any kind of sustained progress in the war."
There are echoes of Vietnam in today's Iraq war coverage. Then, as now, complaints came that reporters focused too much on bad news. "But it turns out," says Pach, "that if you look at the coverage, there's variety. On the same evening, the same newscast, there's a report that talks about the heroism of Marines in Hue, but also someone saying that what the U.S. government tells us isn't working."
Even so, the media landscape has changed, notes Pach. "Forty years ago, there were three networks," he says. "There were no round-the-clock news channels. But also what's different are the rules of coverage. Vietnam was a dangerous war for many journalists. Quite a few died. But it was never as consistently dangerous as the current war has been for journalists."
Another difference in Iraq: strict guidelines govern the reporters embedded with units fighting in Iraq. "In Vietnam, it was open coverage," says Pach. "We saw a lot more."
Why has the belief persisted that TV coverage of Tet, specifically, turned Americans against the war? "It's very easy, when things go badly, to seek simple explanations and maybe even scapegoats," says Pach. "How was it possible that this undeveloped nation could somehow resist or defeat the strongest military power?"
But for proof of Pach's claim, just look at the calendar. "The war didn't end until five years later," he notes. "It's not as if Tet brought about some irresistible imperative to end the war. The last troops did not come home till '73, so it's hard to make the argument that, whatever people saw on TV in 1968, that they insisted, 'Get the war over with now.'"