Fifty years ago today North Vietnam began its Tet Offensive turning the Vietnam War from one of guerrilla actions into a surprise offensive against the cities of South Vietnam. In previous years the Viet Cong had announced a partial ceasefire for the Chinese New Year period. In 1968, however, they used the occasion to go on the offensive, even reaching Saigon in a matter of days.
The offensive lasted until February 24, when South Vietnam recaptured what little remained of the city of Hue. While it was held by the Viet Cong, thousands of civilians were executed.
Until then, the US government had led the public to believe that the war had long been about to turn the corner toward victory. Public opinion had begun to turn agains the war, with nearly half the country questioning the war. Opposition was particularly strong among those subjects to the draft.
This opposition was crystallized by the photo you see here, taken on February 1, in which a police chief, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executed a suspected Viet Cong officer on the streets of Saigon. The photograph taken by Eddie Adams was published across the world and resulted in his receiving the Pulitzer Prize the next year.
On February 17 after the close of the offensive, the prominent anchor of the CBS Evening News Walter Cronkite, who was later described as the most trusted man in America, said these lines on his broadcast:
“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds” and added that, “we are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory.”
It was later reported that President Johnson was watching the broadcast and, after hearing Cronkite’s remarks said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Soon events spiraled against Johnson and the war. Although not publicized until later, the My Lai Massacre, in which American troops killed scores of civilians, took place on March 16, the day that Robert Kennedy entered the race for President against the sitting President of his own party. On the last day of March, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection.
Events continued through the traumatic year of 1968, but one place to mark the start of the loss of faith in our government was this day, fifty years ago, with the Tet Offensive. Are we better off for our acquired skepticism, or are we more divided, to the point of polarization over what indeed is truth?
Pontius Pilate asked that question somewhere around two thousand years ago. Sadly, the question remains relevant still today.