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To what extent has the importance of the Tet Offensive of 1968 been overrated?

The Tet Offensive began on January 30th 1968, consisting of a series of simultaneous communist uprisings across 36 provincial and 64 district capitals of South Vietnam. Tet is an undisputed turning point in the war leading to almost immediate de-escalation of US commitment. The importance of Tet lies in its clear exposure of Johnson’s illegitimate claims of progress and the ineffectiveness of previous escalation in Vietnam. This caused a significant loss of support for the war, giving Johnson no choice but to reduce commitment to Vietnam. However, the de-escalation of commitment after Tet may not have been a result of Tet. There were clear problems with the American war effort before the offensive began which contributed to Johnson’s decision to end escalation of the conflict in March 1968. Tet revealed these problems in the war effort leading up to 1968. The review and change of US policy after the Tet Offensive was not necessarily because of the Tet Offensive, rather, the Offensive came at a time when US policy needed to be reviewed. The importance of Tet was that it emphasised the war could only be perpetuated not won. The view that Tet caused (rather than contributed to) American withdrawal from Vietnam is overrated.

By the end of 1968, public support for the war had declined substantially. A majority of the public had lost faith in the war after Tet which is shown by the plummet of Johnson’s approval ratings[1]. However, this decline in support is unjustified as American reportings of Tet presented a particularly negative and hostile picture of its implications on the war effort so that Americans would feel it was a defeat. This shows that the public outrage after Tet was overrated. Historians disagree on the cause of this decline in support. Ruane, Record and Schulzinger all claim that it was the Tet Offensive that caused the decline in public support for the war. They argue that the widespread loss of public support for the war after Tet gave the administration no choice but to de-escalate US commitment, particularly because 1968 was general election year. Ruane states that Tet exposed the gap of credibility ‘between Johnsons assurances of progress and battlefield reality'. Assuring progress was the method used by the administration to subdue public opposition to the war before 1968. Similarly, Record states that Tet ‘undermined officialdoms inflated claims of the war’s progress’ and therefore revealing the ineffective use of American lives and money. Schulzinger, however, emphasises the effect negative news reporting of Tet had on public opinion; ‘televised scenes of the grisly fighting turned pubic opinion against continuing the war in the same direction’. Schulzinger agrees with Ruane and Record’s interpretation that Tet caused a decline in public support for the war but blames this on the exaggerated news reports of the Offensive. In this instance, Ruane, Schulzinger and Record agree on Tet’s contribution to the decline in public support after Tet, thus presenting Tet’s importance to not be overrated.

However, Schulzinger goes on to say that the public outrage after Tet was based on unreliable reporting which makes it unjustified, ‘initial reports of the North Vietnamese successes were greatly exaggerated’. Karnow and Lawrence support Schulzinger’s view that news reportings were exaggerated. Karnow shows General Westmoreland’s and Peter Braestrup’s (a correspondent for the Washington Post who covered the Tet Offensive) criticism of the distorted journalism on Tet. Furthermore, Karnow’s point supported by [2], where Westmoreland blames the media for the ultimate defeat in Vietnam by misleading the American people and several Washington officials. In addition, the article shows an extract from Peter Braestrup’s statement at the symposium, where he admits to projecting ‘an unsound image of disaster’ and failure ‘to set the...
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