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Mandelbaum, the Tet Offensive and Media Reporting
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The Tet Offensive, an intensive attack orchestrated by the North Vietnamese government to overthrow the South Vietnamese government, was one of the most dramatic events of the Vietnam War. Many considered this event a turning point in the war. Conventional historical records of the war have long maintained that this moment was responsible for the shift in public attitude towards Vietnam. Historians have vigorously examined the Tet Offensive as the primary reason for the U.S. withdrawal. Many have presented theories regarding the impact of Tet reporting. Michael Mandelbaum, the Christian A. Herter professor at Johns Hopkins University, conceived a compelling theory of Tet reporting. Mandelbaum’s theory is that televised reporting of Tet did not alter the mind of the American public; according to him, the public shifted its position due to the immense loss of American life.[1] Mandelbaum believed there was “little empirical evidence” to show how people reacted to the reporting of Tet.[2] Although the media did not diminish public support, it might have exercised an indirect influence that allowed anti-war factions to express their sentiment through protest.[3] Furthermore, Mandelbaum insisted that anti-war protests did not diminish public support for the war.[4] Mandelbaum underestimated the effect of the reporting of Tet. Tet reporting should be regarded as a significant factor that contributed to the disastrous political optics of President Johnson.

American media coverage falsely characterized the Tet Offensive as a military and political catastrophe and attributed the unfavorable image of failure to the Johnson administration. The fact that CBS anchor Walter Cronkite claimed that the Vietnam War was “mired in stalemate” and that the United States should “negotiate as an honorable people” harmed Johnson’s narrative, which projected Tet as a paramount strategic success for the United States.[5] Rejecting this position, Cronkite argued for a peace negotiation between North Vietnam and the United States.[6] Other prevalent news organizations, such as the New York Times, reflected similar views. After Tet, a New York Times article argued that the confidence of the Johnson Administration was “ill-founded.”[7] Furthermore, this reporting highlights what it saw as economic and political failures following Tet, including a diminished Redevelopment Plan and a dysfunctional Saigon government. In addition, the article believed Tet induced significant psychological damage and that the majority of the Vietnamese population grew weary of the Vietnam War. Because of this, the New York Times maintained that the most reasonable solution was to engage in political settlement rather than waste resources battling an unwinnable war.[8] Seemingly, the Johnson administration failed to react to Tet. This political implication of incompetence further cast doubt on President Johnson’s leadership during crises.

Public opinion regarding the Vietnam War shifted due to the media’s portrayal of Tet as a political and military failure. Hence, this reporting perpetuated the unpalatable reputation of the Johnson Administration. The polling data affirmed the overwhelming unwillingness of the American public to engage in the Vietnam War. Polling data shows the percentage of people who thought the U.S. did not make a mistake sending troops to Vietnam. During the Tet Offensive, that percentage dropped from 46% to 37 %, which indicates a dramatic change in public opinion.[9]  By comparison, another research establishes that 34% of people favored escalation in November 1968 (after Tet), whereas 55% favored escalation in November 1967. In one year, the roughly 20% drop in preference for withdrawal could have been due to the disinterestedness of the American public in a prolonged war and the Tet Offensive.[10] Gallup Polls from 1965 to 1968 indicate a gradual decrease in the popularity of Johnson’s Vietnam policy. Approval rating surged when the conflict was most severe, except after the Tet Offensive.[11] Taken together, this data reveals the peculiarity of the Tet Offensive and suggests that it potentially played some measurable role in shifting public opinion. The public polling data also reveals that the younger generation was more supportive of the war after reporting about the Tet Offensive. This finding vindicated the anti-Vietnam War faction as a minority of the younger generation. In 1968, 38% of people under 35 supported escalation, and 33% of people older than 35 preferred escalations. The younger generation (age younger than 35) favored increased war effort compared to the older generations (age older than 35) by a margin of five percent.[12] Furthermore, the unpopularity of the anti-Vietnam War faction rose from their dissenting views, rather than their opposition to the Vietnam War.[13] To conclude, polling data not only illustrated the success of Tet reporting in plummeting support for the Johnson administration but also shattered the myth that the Vietnam War protest was an effective tool in public discourse. Mandelbaum’s theory is reasonable in noticing the ineffectiveness of anti-war protests. However, he overlooked the effect of Tet reporting.

Additionally, the U. S. Congress and Democratic Party realigned themselves with public opinion. The political realignment commenced with the reversal of political rhetoric. During Congressional hearings, congressional members, and eminent elected officials (from both the Republican and Democratic parties) adopted the language of the Tet reporting to critically examine Johnson’s administration’s war policy. Prominent politicians, including Senator Edward Kennedy (from Massachusetts), Richard Nixon (former Vice-President), and George Romney (Governor of Michigan), all criticized the ineffectiveness of Johnson’s war policy using reporting from the media.[14] Moreover, Congress and the Senate even acted to oppose the continuation of the war in Vietnam. After the pessimistic assessment of the press, Johnson conducted clandestine polling. Out of 137 congressmen and 32 senators, 104 were negative on the subject of the war. Twenty-five members were noncommittal, and 18 expressed reservations. Only 22 were outright positive on a commitment to the Vietnam efforts.[15] Senator Pastore of Rhode Island, initially a staunch supporter of the war, eventually turned against it. Pastore’s reaction and the reaction from both houses of Congress indicate the unpopularity of Johnson’s policy.[16] Essentially, Congress repositioned its political rhetoric and policy to concur with the ambivalent public sentiment toward the prolongation of the war. The alteration in public opinion fundamentally curtailed Johnson’s political power. 

In addition, Johnson encountered even more internal political challenges from his Democratic Party. Senator Robert Kennedy zealously opposed Johnson in his vision of foreign policy by echoing and repeating the narrative of the press, which possibly harmed the public image of President Johnson. Robert Kennedy further impugned the integrity of the Johnson administration; he chided the credibility gap, the progress campaign of 1967, and the corruption of the South Vietnamese government.[17] He contended that South Vietnamese troops performed with capable strength, but he rejected the idea that South Vietnamese troops were motivated to battle Communist North Vietnam.[18]Although the media was significant in revising public opinion, it was merely one of the factors that induced widespread disapproval of the Johnson administration. The disintegration of his Democratic Party as well as other domestic issues contributed to his catastrophic political image and political debacle.[19]

President Johnson’s recollection of the Tet reporting further substantiates the political damage this reporting did to the Vietnam War efforts. In his recollection of the Tet reporting, Johnson maintained that the media had been “exaggerated” and “emotional.”  Undoubtedly, President Johnson distrusted the integrity of the press, especially the New York Times. Johnson accused the media of focusing only on the most “depressing” and “lurid” accounts of the Vietnam War.[20] For one, news reports from the New York Times indicated to the American people and politicians that Johnson might send another two hundred thousand men to Vietnam two days before the New Hampshire Primary, which Johnson claimed sabotaged him politically. This report caused concerns for many prominent figures, including a senator who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. President Johnson criticized whistleblowers for their lack of understanding of his decision-making process, and this insinuation of sending more troops further debilitated his political optics.[21]

President Johnson’s last interview with Walter Cronkite further affirmed his ambivalence toward Tet. Before his last interview, Johnson suffered two heart attacks, alcoholism, and chest pains. It is presumed that Johnson’s interview with Cronkite is to establish his legacy. During the interview, he spoke about civil rights and avoided the Vietnam War.[22] Evidently, Johnson did not consider the Vietnam War his legacy. Johnson’s choice to evade and not defend his Vietnam policy revealed the Vietnam War as a political failure (for Johnson personally). Notably, Johnson died at his ranch ten days later after he finished the interview with Cronkite.

In the final analysis, the media served as a secondary factor in shifting public opinion. Other domestic factors, including Johnson neglecting his party organization as well as other domestic issues, challenged the credibility of the Johnson administration. The combination of these factors possibly “drove Johnson out of office” and led to his decision not to run for reelection.[23] Mandelbaum’s assessment presented a narrow argument that is extremely fundamental to prove; public polls and the fact that polls can be used indicate a drastic change of popularity, regardless of their initial reaction to the reporting of the Tet Offensive. Mandelbaum considered Tet reporting as a minor influence, but the shifting of congressional rhetoric along with President Johnson’s narrative further vindicated the significance of Tet reporting. The misunderstanding of Tet fundamentally diminished President Johnson’s political career and tainted his legislative success. Admittedly, Mandelbaum’s analysis of the inability of the anti-Vietnam War movement to alter American public discourse is accurate and legitimate.

Taoxi Xie is a senior at SpringSide Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. He enjoys studying humanities, philosophy, and legal studies. His essay on law and moral justice was selected to the 2022 John Locke Essay Contest shortlist. 

Bibliography

Primary:

"After the Tet Offensive." The New York Times. February 2, 1968. Accessed April 24, 2022.  https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1968/02/08/88925050.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0.

This article from the New York Times, written after the Tet Offensive (February 8, 1968),  further indicated the pessimistic sentiment of the media toward the Vietnam War. The article suggested the possibility of a political and military stalemate had increased dramatically and that the prospects of winning the Vietnam War had become limited. This narrative and tone from this article is similar to Cronkite's news report. This source will further allow me to investigate the narrative of the Tet Offensive and how that shaped public discourse and the political optics of Lyndon Johnson.

Cronkite, Walter. "Report from Vietnam." Television Broadcast, CBS, February 27, 1968. Voices and Vision. Accessed April 24, 2022. http://vandvreader.org/report-from-vietnam-february-27-1968/.

Walter Cronkite, a reputable anchor for CBS Evening News, indicated in his reporting after the Tet Offensive that the Vietnam War was in stalemate. Cronkite's account illustrated the skepticism of the media toward the policies and strategies of the Johnson Administration. Cronkite's announcement contradicts Gen. Westmoreland's belief. The latter suggested that the United States had significant strategic advantages against the Viet Cong. I will utilize this source to analyze how Cronkite's message influenced public opinion and how this influence impacted the political optics of the Johnson Administration.

Johnson, Lyndon B. "By Lyndon B. Johnson: The Tet Offensive." The New York Times. October 24, 1971. Accessed April 24, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/10/24/archives/by-lyndon-b-johnson-the-tet-offensive-installment-viii-by-lyndon-b.html.

Johnson's 1971 article reflected and illustrated his belief that the Tet Offensive was a significant failure for the North Vietnamese government and that the press had spread misinformation regarding the Tet Offensive. The defeatist view of the press and the fact that the article was released before the New Hampshire Primary contributed greatly (in Johnson's mind) to sabotage his presidential bid in 1968. Johnson felt the press did not support his position on Vietnam. Johnson's view on Vietnam fundamentally contrasts with the view of the press. I will use Johnson's perspective of the press to explore the effect of the press on the political optics of Johnson.

Johnson, Lyndon B. The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

President Johnson offered an exclusive account of the Tet Offensive in this reading. Pres. Johnson suggested that the media were competing to provide the most lurid account of the Tet Offensive instead of an accurate one; he again contended that Tet Offensive was a consequential defeat for the North Vietnamese government. His assessment and view are essentially identical to Gen. Westmoreland's. (Both acknowledged the defeat of Viet Cong). I will use Johnson's personal account to illustrate the view of the executive branch on the media and how such an effect influenced the political optics of the Johnson Administration.

Lunch, William L., and Peter W. Sperlich. "American Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam." The Western Political Quarterly 32, no. 1 (1979): 21-44. https://doi.org/10.2307/447561.

This article contains polling datas from the Gallup Poll at critical junctures of the war. The data or graphs generally suggest a drop in public support in escalation after late 1968 (a few months after the Tet Offensive) and withdrawal of public support from the war effort. This data supports the analysis and theory of Braestrup. I will use the polling data to further examine the concrete extent in which the public was inclined to after the reporting of Tet.

"Westmoreland Tells Johnson That Foe Nears Desperation." The New York Times. March 31, 1968. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1968/05/31/79939919.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0.

Gen. Westmoreland (Commander of American Forces in Vietnam) indicated to the press about a month after the Tet Offensive that America is advancing in Vietnam and the Viet Cong troops are weakened. Westmoreland's narrative revealed a discord between the American general public and the military. Moreover, the military held a perspective that the United States would prevail in Vietnam while the American public became gradually annoyed with the war. Westmoreland's belief contradicted the reporting of Cronkite and the New York Times, in which both presses projected a stalemate. I will use Westmoreland's understanding of Tet Offensive to analyze further the discord between the official narrative.

Secondary:

Braestrup, Peter. Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington. Abridged ed. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1994.

Braestrup's studies of the effect of media on the Tet Offensive and Vietnam War is the most prominent literature on this topic. Braestrup's analysis illustrates the consequences of misleading media as well as its detrimental effect on the War and the Johnson Administration. Braestrup's theory indicated a greater significance of the media's contribution to the political optics and the loss of the Vietnam War, compared to the theory of Mandelbaum. Braestrup's methodology and analysis will serve as the bulk of this paper.

Hammond, William M. "The Tet Offensive and the News Media." Army History, no. 70 (2009): 6-16. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26373973.

Hammond's article delved further into the press's coverage of the Tet Offensive on President Johnson. The coverage of media from men such as Cronkite contributed (the extent is difficult to ascertain) the shift of the political support, loss of confidence in his cabinet, and public support toward the Vietnam War. Hammond's article is consistent with the polling data from Gallup Poll, which suggested a similar trend. I will use Hammond's article to analyze mostly the political consequences from such coverage to the Johnson Administration.

Mandelbaum, Michael. "Vietnam: The Television War." Daedalus 111, no. 4 (1982): 157-69. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20024822.

Mandelbaum wrote this article in 1982 to investigate the effect of television on the Vietnam War. Mandelbaum contended the media exercised an indirect influence that allowed the expression of anti-war sentiment to be expressed. Mandelbaum's theory took a relatively more moderate position on the concrete influence of media compared to Braestrup's theory. Mandelbaum's approach to media will serve as a moderate tone that balances the theory of Braestrup.


[1] Michael Mandelbaum, "Vietnam: The Television War," Daedalus 111, no. 4 (1982): 167.

[2] Mandelbaum, "Vietnam: The Television," 161.

[3] Mandelbaum, "Vietnam: The Television," 164.

[4] Mandelbaum, "Vietnam: The Television," 167.

[5] Report from Vietnam, hosted by Walter Cronkite, aired February 2, 1968, on CBS, accessed April 24, 2022, http://vandvreader.org/report-from-vietnam-february-27-1968/.

[6] Report from.

[7] “After the Tet Offensive,” The New York Times, last modified February 2, 1968, accessed April 24, 2022, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1968/02/08/88925050.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0.

[8] “After the Tet Offensive,” The New York Times.

[9] Lunch and Sperlich, “American Public,” 25.

[10] Lunch and Sperlich, “American Public,” 27.

[11] William L. Lunch, and Peter W. Sperlich, “American Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam,” The Western Political Quarterly 32, no. 1 (1979): 26.

[12] Lunch and Sperlich, "American Public," 33.

[13] E. M. Schreiber, "Anti-War Demonstrations and American Public Opinion on the War in Vietnam," The British Journal of Sociology 27, no. 2 (1976): 230.

[14] Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, abridged ed. (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1994), 627-629.

[15] William M. Hammond, "The Tet Offensive and the News Media," Army History, no. 70 (2009): 13.

[16] Hammond, "The Tet Offensive," 13.

[17] Braestrup, Big Story, 642-648.

[18] Braestrup, Big Story, 642-648.

[19] Braestrup, Big Story, 672.

[20] Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), 384.

[21] Johnson, The Vantage, 402-403.

[22] Lyndon B. Johnson, interview, LBJ Ranch, TX, January 12, 1973.

[23] Braestrup, Big Story, 672.

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