Echoes of the Vietnam War

EP21: The Tet Offensive

Release Date: January 31, 2022

On January 30, 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops launched an offensive that is widely considered a pivotal moment in the war. Vietnam War specialist Dr. Erik Villard sheds a historian’s light on the Tet Offensive.

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Echoes of the Vietnam War


(HOST): [00:00:00] On January 30th, 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops launched a five week offensive that today is widely considered to have been a pivotal moment in the war. To mark the 54th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, I spoke with Dr. Erik Villard, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History and author of the book Staying the Course, which examines U.S. combat operations in Vietnam from October 1967 to September 1968. Dr. Villard is a Vietnam War specialist, and in our conversation, I learned some new things about the Tet Offensive and I learned why some of the things I thought I knew are historically just wrong. In our conversation, Dr. Villard de-mythologizes the Tet Offensive and helps me understand how this event still echoes in American life even after 54 years. From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of the Wall. This is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Croan, bringing you stories of service, sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict. Nearly 50 years later. This is episode twenty one, the Tet Offensive.

(ERIK): [00:01:34] Yeah, I’m always excited to talk about the Tet Offensive, I think it’s one of the most significant military and political and social events of the second half of the 20th century in the United States. So glad to be here.

(HOST): [00:01:48] Yeah, why should people know about it and what and why is it significant?

(ERIK): [00:01:52] Ok? In short, the Tet Offensive refers to a Viet Cong and North Vietnamese offensive that was launched during the Tet holiday of 1968. In many Asian cultures, it’s the most important holiday. So traditionally, you know, people take off work, go home, spend time with their families. And that was part of the reason the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong chose this time is so many South Vietnamese soldiers would be home on leave. For the last few years before 1968 both sides had had observed several day truce period. And this is why, in some parts of South Vietnam, up to half of the South Vietnamese troops went on leave the point of the Tet Offensive. And this is the thing that people need to keep in mind is it was designed to be a knockout blow against the South Vietnamese government. By early 1968 is about three years into the American phase of the war. You know, we had our troop strength was was heading towards half a million. And the war in many respects had kind of become a stalemate. And so the leaders in Hanoi particularly Lê Duẩn, and he was the one who came up with this idea. You know, we need to start pushing for a victory because if they didn’t, they were concerned that, you know, the Americans would eventually wear them down.

(ERIK): [00:03:19] So what do you do? Go for a knockout blow. Hit the South Vietnamese government where it hurts, you know, hit their headquarters, hit their officers, hit their command control facilities, you know, hit the government buildings. And if we do that, you do it quickly, then we can then establish a coalition government. It’s still controlled by the Communists, but it appears to be a broad coalition of nationalists and then basically say to the Americans, All right, thank you very much, but we can handle it from here. You can go home. That was the point of the Tet Offensive. It was designed to be this knockout blow, and that’s why they invaded more than 300 cities. You know, this is three years into a war, into the war, American casualties, you know, we’re heading towards thirty thousand killed already. There’s a lot of war weariness, but there had been progress in ’68. I mean, things had been getting better. President Johnson was making that pitch, you know, in late ’67, there was an election coming up. Wanted to show that things were heading in the right direction when this happens. Of course, it comes as a shock to many people at home that you could have 80000 communists suddenly emerge from the countryside in cities like Saigon and Hue are on fire

(HOST): [00:04:43] As a military tactic. How successful was it overall?

(ERIK): [00:04:48] There’s different ways to look at it. I think it’s it’s absolutely fair to say it was. A sort of remarkable accomplishment, given the size of the offensive and the scope of it, the fact that they and I say they, you know, the Communist managed to keep it relatively secret from the allies before it began.

(HOST): [00:05:14] Was this the first time that there had been significant fighting in the streets of those major cities?

(ERIK): [00:05:19] Yes, there had been, you know, a steady trickle of what you might guess would call it terrorist attacks in cities like Saigon and Hue the occasional mortar attack, those sorts of things, but no major ground attack on this scale before. Couple of the regional capitals, the provincial capitals or district capitals Hue on the periphery, you know, had been attacked in some cases overrun before. But those are the ones in a way up at the border with Cambodia and Laos and very hard to defend these big cities. You know, Saigon had over two million people in its greater area and that’s, you know, out of a country of 16 million. Uh, in Hue’s one hundred thousand plus Da Nang is even bigger. So those cities really had not seen this kind of ground fighting before, and the Communists had not tried casualties at the end of this five week offensive out of the original attacking force of 80 some thousand and then they fed in another 40 or so during the coming weeks. So out of all that? Estimates are upwards of 40 thousand were killed, (a third) capacitate, I mean, that’s like a third. Mm hmm. I mean, it’s astronomical.

(HOST): [00:06:37] Yeah. Yeah. Well, aside from the numbers, right? And that’s staggering to think, you know, a third of your forces are wiped out in this effort. But if you just look at what the objective was as you described it, (right) If the objective was to destabilize or collapse the South Vietnamese government it it didn’t work.

(ERIK): [00:06:57] It did not.

(HOST): [00:06:57] (It did not work.) So militarily, you know, one could describe it as a failure. And yet the dominoes that followed, particularly stateside, didn’t necessarily reflect that as a a great moment for us in the war.

(ERIK): [00:07:11] Right. And this is I think this is probably the central point of debate about the Tet Offensive. Was it a turning point? Was it a catastrophic military defeat for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese? Or was it in fact a great political victory for them because of the way it was portrayed in the American media and things like that? The attacks that take place were supposed to coincide with what they call a general uprising. You know, so theoretically, hundreds of thousands of people would come out and support the Viet Cong, and that never happened. So on the surface of it, if you’re doing a balance sheet, yes, the communists took horrendous losses. The general uprising did not take place. The south beating government did not fall. You know, it was hard pressed in certain locations, but it actually comes out, not right away, but later it comes out stronger. So in all those ways, yes. But why is it that I think your average American thinks of Tet as the turning point? You know, there’s there’s there’s different ways to address that. One that I think comes to mind people might know is the story of Walter Cronkite. For the new youngins who don’t know Walter Cronkite, he was a longtime CBS News anchor and journalist, and he goes to Vietnam during the Tet Offensive to do reporting on the ground, saying he particularly goes to City of Hue. And the battle of Hue lasted for over four weeks, which was unusual in most cases, the offensive was over in a couple of days. But the Communist got into Hue, which is a big walled citadel and hung on for until the end of February. Pretty much so, he goes there some of the toughest fighting in the war. Talks with senior commanders and comes back and then does this short editorial on television. Twenty seven February 1968. He gives this relatively brief summation of where he thinks things stand.

(CRONKITE NEWS FOOTAGE): [00:09:25] For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.

(ERIK): [00:09:51] In the years since then, a lot of folks have pointed to that moment and said, Ah, you know, here’s a moment where you know, the media in this case, Walter Cronkite, you know, CBS News had a decisive impact. On our policy, on our direction in the war and how we perceive the Tet offensive. Again, in popular memory, I think a lot of people have come to believe that what Walter Cronkite said was that Tet was a defeat, that we couldn’t win the war, that, you know, we just need to get out and that’s not actually what he said. The crux of his argument is, having seen all that I’ve seen having followed this war. I can come to the conclusion that we are in a stalemate. There is no likely scenario that I can imagine where the United States will be defeated militarily. That’s, you know, that’s not going to happen. But at the same time says I can also not see a path forward where we can win the war decisively, you know, sort of World War Two style away at a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost. And so he says, you know,

(HOST): [00:11:02] As a reasonable cost in terms of all resources,

(ERIK): [00:11:05] Lives, lives, money, destruction, prestige and all those things. So he said, you know, this war will have to come to some kind of negotiated conclusion because otherwise it would just go on forever. And he was right. I mean, he was absolutely right. The leaders in Hanoi were never going to give up.

(HOST): [00:11:27] I want to come back to the Walter Cronkite commentary because I think he was not just the CBS news anchor, he was the news anchor at the time. I can’t even tell you who the news anchors were at the other two major broadcasting corporations. So part of that narrative is that that commentary from Walter Cronkite marked a turning point in popular support for the war. How much of that popular narrative do you think from a historical perspective, do we have right? And what are some of the key things we have wrong?

(ERIK): [00:12:02] On the whole, it’s wrong. You know, popular support for the war had been declining ever since the United States sent in conventional troops. You know, March of sixty five, it had been on a, you know, sort of gradual downslope. And when the Tet Offensive begins, there’s actually a surge in public support. It’s sort of a rally around the flag effect that usually happens. So again, that actually spikes up in February and the downward trend. You know, only begins to happen towards the end of the month. But again, not in a precipitous way. And when President Johnson makes the announcement, you know, beginning in March that he’s not going to seek reelection, that he’s going to devote all of his energy to seeking a peace again. His ratings go up again. And it’s not until the summer or late summer of 68 that the numbers really begin to kind of drop a drop off a cliff. So the general feeling really the truth of that is support was not strong at that point, but during that period, it actually goes up. Of those people who didn’t support the war and keep in mind some of them, it’s not that they wanted to leave if they wanted to fight it harder. You know, they wanted to just carpet bomb North Vietnam or use nuclear weapons or whatever. So, you know, you have to kind of dig in there. But as far as any sort of public opinion turning point, it’s it’s not really the case. Having said that? I think it’s also true that now that someone with a stature of Walter Cronkite. Had said that openly. I think there’s there’s a fair argument to be made that in some sense he he did kind of mainstream.

(ERIK): [00:14:01] You know, the kind of middle America debate about the war. You know, it wasn’t just the hippies and the kids trying to avoid the draft, you know, marching in the streets. It was kind of more of a national conversation, like, what are we doing here? What do we expect? How long will it take? It broadens the debate because this is going. People need to understand. Walter Cronkite was no lefty Pinko, OK? He got his start as a war correspondent in World War II. He landed with American troops in North Africa in 1942. He flew in a B-17 bombing raid in February ’43 before they had adequate fire fighter cover over Germany. In fact, firing a machine that at a German aircraft that was attacking. Almost as dangerous as that, he landed in a glider during Operation Market Garden. In Holland, in 1944, just landing in a glider is dangerous enough. It was a terrifying experience. He was in the Battle of the Bulge. I mean, this is a guy who understood the military. Incidentally, it was during the Battle of the Bulge that he he gets to know and becomes friends with a young tanker named Creighton Abrams. One of the guys who broke through the Bastogne siege and then, of course, Creighton Abrams in early 1968, is a second in command under Wes Maryln. So when Cronkite goes over there in February, that’s when he sits down with Abrams. He’s been there for almost a year now or nine months. (Mm hmm.) And says, you know, Abe, what’s going on here? So in that sense, I think, yes, I mean it. It allowed a conversation. A bigger conversation happened, but it wasn’t like the turning point.

(HOST): [00:15:56] Stick around for the second half of my conversation with Dr. Erik Villard after a short break. The 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is on November 7th of this year. On November 7th of last year, we began a virtual reading of every name on the wall. Each day at three p.m. Eastern, we read the names of all the wall honorees who died on that date in alphabetical order. This is in addition to the live in person reading of the names that will be held in Washington, D.C., beginning on November 7th. You can visit That’s R-O-T-N for reading of the names for more information about the daily virtual reading and about the in person event. We know it isn’t easy for everybody to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., So VMV created the wall that heals and exact replica of the wall at three quarter scale that travels to communities all across America. The wall that heals and the mobile education center that travels with it will be in 29 cities this year to see the tour schedule and to learn how you can bring the wall that heals to your town. Visit Do you have loved ones who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service? Would you like to honor them at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial? We’re still accepting applications for the 2022 In Memory honor roll through March 29th.

(HOST): [00:17:37] Oh, and we also have an In Memory Facebook group with nearly 12000 members. So be sure to join that if you want to feel part of a community of people who’ve experienced a loss similar to yours. You’ll find the in memory honor roll application and a link to the Facebook group by going to and clicking on in memory. And finally, if you’d like to be a part of VVMF’s enduring legacy, consider making a gift to our new legacy endowment unless we act now. The service and sacrifice of Vietnam veterans may be forgotten when their generation is gone. For 40 years, VVF has led the way to help heal our nation. Remember those who gave all and honor, all who served? The legacy endowment will ensure that we can continue honoring Vietnam veterans for the next 40 years and beyond. We’re launching the Legacy Endowment with a $500000 matching gift campaign. The Legacy Challenge, through November each new outright gift or gift established through a will will be matched up to 50 percent with a maximum of $50000 matched per gift. All qualifying gifts established or newly identified before November 12th are eligible for the match. Learn more at

(ERIK): [00:19:07] There’s been a lot of studies about the influence of the media, I think in a way that’s kind of one of the enduring debates about the Vietnam War. You know, some people have come to the conclusion that, you know, the media undercut the American military and national foreign policy position by selectively or deceptively or whatever in reporting. And Tet has usually sort of held up as the crowning moment of that. I disagree. Other knowledgeable people disagree. There is a journalist named Don Oberdorfer. Who went on a few years later to write sort of the first in many ways, still one of the great books on the Tet Offensive. But speaking in 1978, this is what he said. He said if Tet had been reported only in newspaper stories and radio dispatches, I doubt that the offensive would have had the effect that it did. And I think that’s important because. A takeaway point of all this isn’t that the media put their thumb in the sky. I don’t I don’t believe it did. I read all the contemporary reporting. I’ve seen all of the coverage, but. When you are seeing nightly images of burning cities and, you know, American bodies and you know, Vietnamese bodies in the streets and the sort of the apparent chaos.

(ERIK): [00:20:40] That has a powerful effect Oberdorfer believes that Tet was and I’m quoting here the first to life big event in which television played a catalytic role in changing people’s thinking and behavior on matters of national and international policy. I think he’s right, I think the Tet Offensive was the first time where. Because of television. There was this sort of national fixation on this story, this evolving story, which had an impact, you know, that still reverberates now. We live in an era where, like the O.J. Simpson chase, right? You’re watching it live. Everyone is, you know, or Twitter, you know, you up to the moment. We’re used to those kinds of big event stories now, right where people just got kind of hooked on this drama. I think. Tet was really the first time that happened. Even now, sort of the enduring images are snapshots, you know, like. The famous Eddie Adams photo, General Loan, executing that Viet cong prisoner in Saigon. You know, those are the enduring images. (Yeah.)

(HOST): [00:21:56] And then you add to those images, the numbers, right? Like when you’re standing it, when you’re standing at the Wall and you look at the amount the real estate of that wall, that is that is 1968, (right)

(ERIK): [00:22:08] And you know, that was that was the. The 31st of January really was was the highest single casualty rate killed in action of the entire war of upwards of, you know, two hundred and seventy or, you know, somewhere in that neighborhood on a single day. So yeah,

(HOST): [00:22:29] You got this combination of moving images in your living room and, you know, staggering numbers of in terms of American losses.

(ERIK): [00:22:36] Yeah. And I think even up to that point, a lot of folks. It’s my impression not having talked with a lot of people like my parents lived through it. They weren’t following it obsessively day by day. I mean, you know, it was a story like with a lot of other stories and occasionally something dramatic might sort of rise up. But, you know, by and large, people were kind of getting on with their lives. (Yeah.) Suddenly, here you have again, this sort of, you know, in capitalized big event that just sort of saturates. You know, the information sphere. And you kind of can’t get away from it. And then so you kind of have to deal with it and talk about it.

(HOST): [00:23:22] I think I sidetracked you. You were on your way to making what I thought was a really interesting point, which is how the media coverage of Tet became sort of the grandfather for how media coverage still works and that dynamic between the media and the military.

(ERIK): [00:23:40] Right. And I think, you know, I don’t think it’s fully appreciated that so much of of these things, you know, are driven by advances in technology, right? You know, by nineteen sixty eight. Um, you know, I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but but I think you know most. First off, obviously the vast majority of American homes have a TV. And by sixty eight is also color television, right? Sixty two is mostly black and white. Sixty eight. You know, got color television. By 68, you also have a a rudimentary satellite network where people in Vietnam can actually send back images and video, you know, through these links without having to send an actual canister. So the turnaround time is faster. Now we live in an era where social media is the 800 pound gorilla. And again, I don’t think we’ve fully come to understand all of its effects, but if you’re looking at the last 10 years of American history, I think it’s fair to say that it has had a huge effect. So part of it isn’t a matter of, you know, bias per say, it’s just it’s when you have an evolving information environment and new things come along. Sometimes you’re not. You’re not aware of how powerful those things are until a big event happens. (Mm hmm.) And suddenly everyone is on their phone, you know, watching Twitter, you know? So I think in a way, this is, you know, this is a moment we’re, you know, sort of color television and you could say, shows its real influence.

(HOST): [00:25:28] Yeah. For the first time, it’s it’s vivid, it’s immediate. And it’s in your living room every night. (Yeah, yeah.) You were talking about the Eddie Adams photo, right? For people who aren’t familiar with that, can you talk a little bit about the photo and then the mythology around the photo?

(ERIK): [00:25:46] Photo shows a helmet-less South Vietnamese officer wearing a flak jacket. Killing a Vietcong prisoner who’s, you know, wearing a flannel vest, short pants, and he’s got his arms tied behind his back, so Eddie Adams photographer captures that moment. The fact is there, actually there were actually at least four or five cameramen around. You know, when this happened, there’s actually there’s actually live footage to I think NBC Howard Tucker did a story the next night where they actually show the film. So it’s become against, you know, iconic image, not just of Tet but of the war. And I think because of the power, because it is such an arresting image, I mean, it sparked discussion controversy right from the beginning, and I think the story that most people know about it now, if they know anything. Probably goes something like this. The back story is allegedly that this Vietcong guy was the guy named (Balop?). It’s an alias, but he’s allegedly the head of the Saigon Commando Force that carried out a lot of these attacks. And he just recently had murdered almost the entire family of a South Vietnamese officer who was Loan’s friend. Loan was, you know, the godfather of these children. So when they apprehended this guy and by some accounts with blood on his pants, you know, and gloating about it. Loan kills him. You know, in retribution, basically that’s that’s the story. I think that has become dominated the narrative, that’s most awful thing because initially it was, Oh my god. Wait a minute, these are our allies. Yeah, it’s. He’s the head of the Southeast Police Force and he’s he’s he’s

(HOST): [00:27:54] Executing people in the streets

(ERIK): [00:27:55] People in the streets, right? So there is. And then so the (unknown) ever became. Oh, but you don’t know the back story. You know this guy, (Balop?), if he was a bad guy, but none of that is true. Well, version virtually. Virtually none of that’s true. Ok, so because this story is obsessed me forever, it was something just doesn’t seem right. You know, having seen the sequence of photos leading up to this, and in that one, it just was like, Oh, hey, there’s something wrong here. So I have, you know, done all this research and I think come up with what I think is a very compelling explanation. It’s quite different and I think in a way, quite interesting. And I should say, I’m actually working with the filmmaker on this. And so there’s a documentary that will come out eventually. But the real story is this this guy was not Balop, Balop was killed the day before in another part of town. We know this because the communists themselves say he was killed at the Navy Yard. I mean, it wasn’t him. Second of all, when things that bug me was, you know, I know the Viet Cong sapper unit. Uh, these guys were more like. Surveillance and intelligence folks, not like your, you know, naked loincloth, sapper with explosives. I mean, they’re more like sort of dime store James bonds.

(HOST): [00:29:18] What does this term sapper come from?

(ERIK): [00:29:20] Sapper is is actually predates the war, but Sapper refers to what you might think of is a sort of specialized combat engineer, a soldier who was trained to infiltrate and destroy objectives using explosives or some other. They’re the ones that sneak in. (Mm hmm.) Plant explosives or clear barbed wire or whatever the point is these sappers in Saigon. A very specific role during Tet. These were the ones who were supposed to, for example, break in to the South Vietnamese presidential palace, infiltrate the national headquarters, the South Command post, you know, all these important government installations and the embassy. But the point is these snappers were not assassins. The Communist Party committee in Saigon did have folks who did that. (Mm hmm.) I mean, they were called the security agents that, you know, T4 security agents were hit men out and out, hit men. And they did. They did assassinate official. No question. They were totally different people, different missions. So I’m

(HOST): [00:30:32] This thing about this guy in the photo and you’re thinking that looking this

(ERIK): [00:30:35] Guy in the photo with the with the with the short pants and, you know, the flannel shirt. And he was carrying just one sort of tiny Soviet pistol like, this is all wrong. All the snappers were dressed like office workers. I’m looking at this guy going, you know what this guy is, he’s he’s a runner, and sure enough, I found an account from a South Vietnamese marine who was there at the time, and there was this pagoda, the Hong Kong Pagoda, that had been surrounded. Apparently, this guy whose real name is Na, comes flying out the side door and tries to jump on a bike. These marines tackle them. You know, tie his hands behind his body and then marching down the street like one block. Loan is standing there in the middle of the road again, no helmet on. They walk up the Loan, just glances up and down, you know, sees what he looks like pulling out his pistol bang. He had no clue who this guy was, but that was the point he was a nobody. What does that all come down to? So what it all comes down to is. You know, the power of the image. Right. It is it’s incredibly powerful image, but you can read into it a lot if you kind of don’t know what you’re looking at.

(HOST): [00:31:56] Wow. If we were to connect the dots between, you know, those kinds of seminal news reports. (Mm hmm.) If we were to connect that to how we look at coverage of our military today. (Mm hmm.) You know, what do you think are the through lines there? What are the echoes of that?

(ERIK): [00:32:15] I think that for a long time after the Vietnam War, there was a real mistrust between the military and the media. So that distrust, I think, endured for a very long time, and Joe Galloway, who you know, we know was a UPR reporter, very famously, you know, with Battle of the Ia Drang. But you know, he was covered most of the war after that. He was deeply, deeply affected by the war. He devoted a lot of his efforts in ways that weren’t always obvious, but a lot of his efforts to repairing that breach because he understood like, like few others, how dangerous that was to our democracy. And here’s a guy again. A Texan plain speaking type of guy had been in the field with soldiers, shared their hardships, understood the military, but also wasn’t some court stenographer. He wasn’t just a shill for any government or any military told it like it was. He wanted to help heal that breach, and so he worked very hard for many years and was instrumental in creating the embedded. Journalists are embedded media program with the military so that, you know, by the time and the Gulf War and particularly the second time around, you know, in 2001 2003, the military was prepared and in some degree, you know, very happy to have the media with them because they understood the importance of getting the story out now.

(ERIK): [00:33:56] There’s always going to be tension, right? The military, you know, has its mission to perform and, you know, media out there is a liability or, you know, you don’t want to get those people killed. And sometimes things go wrong. Right? And it could be embarrassing. But the fact is. You know, I think we have now come to a point where that relationship is is is far, far better than it was after Vietnam, and Joe is a huge part of of making that happen. It’s a very, very dangerous thing to have that divide between the civilian world, I think. So I think. Yeah, one of the big takeaways of the Tet Offensive is it’s not that the media, you know, cut us off at the knees, it’s that the media has an important and sometimes dangerous and sometimes messy role to play in in our foreign wars. And it should always be that way.

(HOST): [00:34:58] Yeah. And I think, you know, another take away, if I if I understand you correctly is is that we should be reluctant to look at one image or one news article or one dispatch and, you know, make make big broad assumptions about it.

(ERIK): [00:35:14] You can’t just barf on everybody with every piece of information you have. You have to try to select the things that are most important and say, this is why it’s important. But that’s not everything that there is.

(HOST): [00:35:36] Dr. Erik Villard is a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History and author of the book Staying the Course, which is available in paperback. If it’s more convenient, you can actually download a free PDF of the book from the internet. Just search for Villard. That’s V as in Victor I-L-L-A-R-D, Villard. Staying the course or find the link in the show notes for this episode at We’ll see in two weeks.

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