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This Day in History 12/31: The Tet Offensive in Vietnam

Looking at this week’s demonstrations in Egypt, one can only be reminded of today’s event in that far-off land of Vietnam.

On January 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese army, along with its irregular guerrilla force the Viet Cong, or VC, orchestrated a simulataneous attack on numerous American and South Vietnamese installations throughout the country, including the American embassy in Saigon and US military encampments in Hue and Khe Sanh.  The objective was to shock the South Vietnamese people and bring the government to its knees so that the Communist north can swiftly force the Americans to the bargaining table.

Since the attacks occurred during the Vietnamese new year, or Tet, the attacks of January 31, as well as subsequent smaller skirmishes through February, became known as the “Tet Offensive.”

Although the plan was bold–it shocked US and South Vietnamese military leaders to the core–none of the objectives were met.  American forces quickly contained and subdued all VC and NVA attacks, including the attack on the embassy in Saigon.  The sieges in Hue and Khe Sanh would be put down after several months of vicious fighting.

Yet Tet’s full effect would come on the six-o’clock news.

As reporters rotated through Vietnam in the days following Tet, especially in one-on-one interviews with field officers and soldiers deep in “the shit”, as the front was called, many newsmen began to question the overly optimistic reports coming from official channels at the Pentagon.  One of these was veteran CBS anchor Walter Cronkite.  His reports, which would cast a shadow of doubt on the whole Vietnam enterprise, helped re-shape the war in the minds of millions of Americans.

Only in the twentieth century, only through the media can a victory be cast as a defeat–and work.

Attached is some footage of the fighting in Saigon during the Tet offensive, as covered by CBS News.  Have your students note the tone and content of the coverage, including what the reporter chooses to show–and not show.  Ask how that creates “slants” in the news, even when it should be unbiased.

More importantly, reflect on how the media can be a powerful tool in world affairs–just like Twitter and YouTube is showing in places like Iran and Egypt.


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