On the morning of February 1, 1968, a Viet Cong agent, a small man in a plaid shirt, was seized by South Vietnamese Marines in central Saigon. Soon, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, approached the man, drew his pistol and, without a word, fired a single round into the man's head. The man in the plaid shirt collapsed, his life and soul pouring onto the dirty Saigon street.
This death was not memorable because of the prominence of either the killer or the killed. It didn't change the tide of battle. Rather, it is memorable because Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams and NBC cameraman Vo Suu captured the event. Within hours, the photo and the film had been seen by millions of people around the globe; millions of people had witnessed the last moment of life for the man in the plaid shirt.
The photo and the film have also become part of the mythology that has grown up around the 1968 Tet Offensive and its coverage, a mythology that encapsulates the controversy over the press's role in the Vietnam War. This myth says that Tet was a watershed in public support of the war. It portrays public opinion before the event as supportive of or at least apathetic toward the war and claims that afterward public opinion swung against the war. Those who view Tet this way point to press coverage as one of, if not the, prime catalysts of this shift. They blame the press for distorting the character of the offensive, exaggerating both Viet Cong and North Vietnamese success and American and South Vietnamese desperation. In his memoirs, General William Westmoreland attacked the press for misrepresenting the actual course of events. Robert Elegant, a former correspondent for Newsweek, in 1981 cited Tet as a particularly grievous example of how the press sapped the public's will to pursue the war. Most of these critics ascribe the press's actions to gross incompetence, liberal bias, or outright disloyalty.
But this view fails to understand what shaped the actions and coverage of the war by mainstream American news organizations, most especially coverage of the Tet Offensive. Journalists in Vietnam—especially from the major news organizations—were some of the best the profession had to offer. Just as was the case for young military officers, a tour in Vietnam was considered an essential boost for up-and-coming reporters, many of whom went on to become some of the biggest names in American journalism for the next generation.
This perception of the press also does not recognize the challenges of covering American involvement in Vietnam. Most of the military action in Vietnam involved relatively small units, lasted for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, and took place all across a difficult landscape. Also, military action represented just one aspect of a conflict that involved important political, social, and economic issues crucial to success or failure. At the height of the press presence in Vietnam, some 600 individuals held press credentials, a small number to cover such a widespread and complicated story. The nature of the challenge becomes even starker when one realizes that of those 600 or so people, only about 125 to 150 were actual news-gathering journalists; the remainder were drivers, couriers, and office personnel.
These logistical challenges led to the development by 1965 of a largely cooperative relationship between news organizations and the U.S. government and military on the ground in Vietnam. The press needed steady access to information in order to cover the war; the government and military realized that if they provided the press that information, it could have significant influence on coverage. Thus, news organizations came to depend on official sources to cover a complex and far-flung conflict, and the government and military were able to use the news media to feed that information to the American public.
Finally, those who contend that incompetent or biased coverage shattered the American people's confidence in the war effort fail to see that support had been declining steadily since the commitment of American ground troops in large numbers in the spring and summer of 1965. The changes of opinion associated with Tet in 1968 had long been in the works. Editorial opinion, even of news organizations that had long supported Vietnam policy, was growing openly skeptical by the fall of 1967. Concern in Congress also grew steadily. Senior administration officials also became increasingly doubtful. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had grown so concerned that earlier that year he authorized the secret study that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. Even President Lyndon B. Johnson, who announced his withdrawal from the presidential race on March 31, had been contemplating retirement for some time.
However, the strongest repudiation of the view that the Tet Offensive turned the public against the war comes from the American public itself. From July 1965 to late 1972, the up-or-down measure of public support for the war effort was the question "Do you believe United States involvement in the Vietnam War to have been a mistake?" Well before Tet, in October 1967, for the first time, more Americans answered "yes" than "no" to that question in the wake of a significant increase in American casualties and the imposition of a 10% income tax surcharge to pay for the war.
The scale and audacity of the Tet Offensive startled the American public, just as it did American leaders in Saigon and Washington. Tet also pushed the press's fragile logistical base to the limit, resulting in some confused coverage in the attack's earlier hours, as Peter Braestrup ably described in Big Story. But the public had come to question the government's effort in Vietnam months before. The American people did not need the press or the government to tell them that the cost of the war, in blood and in money, had reached a price that they were increasingly unwilling to pay—that their sons, husbands, and brothers continued to die in a confusing, inconclusive war. In March 1968, the weekly paper in the small town of Brewton, Alabama, turned from its previous support of the war after two young soldiers from the town died during the fighting. "Like hundreds of other communities across the country," the paper's editor said, "the war came too close when it got to Brewton."