Josef Goebbels called it the Big Lie, the deliberate misrepresentation of facts and reality in order to achieve a political objective. It’s been part and parcel of the New World Disorder we’ve lived under for the past century, ever since Vladimir Lenin first used a Big Lie to disguise his seizure of power from Russia’s post-czar provisional government in November 1917, by telling the Russian people he was preventing a coup not perpetrating one.
America’s first major encounter with the Big Lie, with all its disastrous consequences, started 50 years ago today, when the American mainstream media — CBS and the other networks, plus the New York Times and the Washington Post — decided to turn the major Communist Tet offensive against U.S. forces and South Vietnam on January 30, 1968, into an American defeat, rather than what it actually was: a major American victory.
We’ve all lived in the disorder and chaos that campaign set in motion ever since.
By the end of 1967, the Communist cause in the Vietnam War was in deep trouble. The build-up of American forces — nearly half a million men were deployed in Vietnam by December — had put the Vietcong on the defensive and led to bloody repulses of the North Vietnamese army (NVA), which had started intervening on the battlefield to ease the pressure on its Vietcong allies.
Hanoi’s decision to launch the Tet offensive was born of desperation. It was an effort to seize the northern provinces of South Vietnam with conventional troops while triggering an urban uprising by the Vietcong that would distract the Americans — and, some still hoped, revive the fading hopes of the Communists. The offensive itself began on January 30, with attacks on American targets in Saigon and other Vietnamese cities, and ended a little more than a month later when Marines crushed the last pockets of resistance in the northern city of Hue.
It not only destroyed the Vietcong as an effective political and military force, it also, together with the siege of Khe Sanh, crippled the NVA, which lost 20 percent of its forces in the South and suffered 33,000 men killed in action, all for no gain. By the end of 1969, over 70 percent of South Vietnam’s population was rated by the U.S. military as under government control, compared with 42 percent at the beginning of 1968.
The American public knew none of this, however. Almost from the moment the first shots were being fired, skeptics of the war effort in the mainstream media, including CBS News icon Walter Cronkite, would use Tet to prove that the war wasn’t being won as the Johnson administration was claiming. They went further, representing the failed attacks on the U.S. embassy in Saigon and other sites as symbols of Communist success.
As the Washington Post’s own Saigon bureau chief Peter Braestrup documented in his book The Big Story, reporters caught in the fighting systematically used it to turn the reality of American victory into an image of American and South Vietnamese defeat (reporting for example that Vietcong had overrun five floors of the U.S. embassy when in fact the VC had never even gotten inside the building). Newsweek’s coverage of the siege of Khe Sanh showed 18 photos (out of a total of 29) of dead or wounded Marines or Marines huddling under cover, never mentioning that the Marines were steadily pushing back the NVA and inflicting heavy casualties.
That campaign of misrepresentation culminated in Walter Cronkite’s half-hour TV special on February 27, when he told his viewers with an appropriately glum face that Tet had proved that America was now “mired in a stalemate” — even as American forces were breaking the siege around Khe Sanh and clearing out the last resistance in Hue.
The misrepresentation by America’s most respected newsman and most trusted media outlets of what had actually happened during Tet stunned the American public and the body politic. Popular support for the war took a heavy hit, as the war’s critics now grabbed center stage. Gallup polls in December 1967 had shown Americans evenly split on whether entering Vietnam was a mistake. The barrage of negative coverage of Tet had nudged the doubters slightly ahead by February 1, 46 to 42 percent. By April, the doubters were ahead by eight points, and support for the war never recovered.
Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy seized on the news that the Vietcong “had seized a section of the Embassy” (which was entirely false) and entered Hue as proof that it was the Communists, not the Americans, who were winning the war. Cronkite’s TV broadcast all but doomed the reelection campaign of President Lyndon Baines Johnson; in April McCarthy won the Wisconsin primary by a stunning ten points and LBJ bowed out of the race. Robert Kennedy seized the opportunity to enter the race on an anti-war platform; less than three months later he was dead by an assassin’s bullet. The Democratic national convention descended into violence and chaos, as the Vietnam war became the key divisive issue in American politics — and a hot-button issue in our culture ever since.
After Tet, American media had assumed a new mission for itself: to shape the nation’s politics by crafting a single coherent narrative, even if it meant omitting certain relevant facts and promoting other false or misleading ones. In March 1969, after Richard Nixon’s election, the executive producer of ABC News told his Saigon bureau: “I think the time has come to shift our focus from the battlefield . . . to themes and stories under the general heading, ‘We are on our way out of Vietnam.’” One of those “stories” would be the massacre at My Lai, which actually took place in the aftermath of Tet but only became “newsworthy” a year later when the media was looking for ways to convince Americans that Nixon’s decision to stay the course in Vietnam was destroying their country’s moral standing — just as they had convinced them a year earlier that America’s major victory was actually a major defeat.
So while many in mainstream news outlets wring their hands today about a widespread lack of trust in media, it’s important on this 50th anniversary to remember the part they played in squandering it.