The Tet Offensive and Middletown: A Study in Contradiction
Anthony O. Edmonds, History Department, Ball State University
Although much controversy still swirls around the 1968 Tet offensive, most observers seem to agree on one broad proposition: Tet was probably instrumental in causing a major reassessment of U.S. policy, given the official perception that the offensive had caused a shift in public opinion. In other words, Tet helped push the American public toward a deepening pessimism about the war and America's role in it; this pessimism, then, was instrumental in causing an alteration in U.S. policy.
Journalist Don Oberdorfer, in his early and still valuable account of the offensive, argues that Tet "was a pivotal event, one of the great turning points of our day."1 He emphasizes one Tet's "powerful impact on American public attitudes and governmental decision-making" and concludes that "the American people and most of their leaders reached the conclusion that the Vietnam War would require greater effort over a far longer period of time than it was worth."2
Writing two decades later, James Olson and Randy Roberts make the same point in their superb textbook, Where the Domino Fell: "Tet was an overwhelming strategic victory for the Communists.... Americans were no longer in the mood for more talk about victories."3 For Olson and Roberts, Art Buchwald's column entitled "We Have the Enemy on the Run, Says General Custer" aptly symbolizes the public's Tet-induced pessimism about the war.4
Finally, one of the most recent specialized scholarly accounts of Tet, James Wirtz's masterful The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War, echoes the views of Oberdorfer and Olson and Roberts. Wirtz proclaims at the outset that:
Tet, finally, "contradicted the claims of progress... made by the Johnson administration and the military."6
I wanted to test this proposition in a local context--that of Muncie, Indiana. I chose Muncie for two reasons. First, I live and teach there. And second, Muncie has a long history of being singled out as a microcosm worth studying. From the Lynds' pioneering Middletown works of the 1920s and 1930s through a recent Chicago Tribune feature on politics in Muncie, this medium-sized city of 80,000 souls has been under the microscope for eight decades. It is "the nation's most studied city" and therefore has a kind of cachet as a starting point for local history.7
Did the Tet offensive tend to make Munsonians pessimistic about the war? Did they call for a change in policy downsizing America's commitment? Unfortunately, no public opinion poll data exists specifically for Muncie during Tet. Thus, I will rely on two traditional types of sources in this exercise: two local daily newspapers as well as the local university paper and a series of interviews about the war with local citizens. By carefully examining the front pages and editorial pages of papers and listening to the oral histories, we might have at least a tentative sense of public attitudes and public discourse.
Based strictly on quantitative evidence, Tet must have had some impact on Munsonians. During February 1968, ninety-six front page articles on the Vietnam war (the majority of them on Tet or related issues) appeared in Muncie's daily newspapers, the morning Muncie Star and the afternoon Muncie Evening Press. Moreover, twenty-one of the articles were "banner headline," lead articles.8 In addition, twenty-four letters to the editor, twenty-two columns by national pundits, twelve editorials, and ten political cartoons related to Tet and the war appeared on the editorial pages of the two local papers during February. Even the Ball State News weighed in with four front page articles, three letters to the editor, three editorials, two cartoons, and one "outside pundit" column in its abbreviated February run.9
Certainly, much of the considerable attention devoted to the Tet offensive did seem to indicate a degree of pessimism among the letter-writers, editorialists, cartoonists, and columnists. At one end of the spectrum, some readers became convinced that those who protested against the war, the draft, and American hypocrisy might well have a valid point. Ball State student Mary Mayfield, for example, used Tet to launch a spirited defense of all who condemned the war. They were rightly protesting "the loss of innocent lives in Vietnam [and] the unfairness of United States draft laws (and of the draft itself)...."10 James Keating indeed saw the elimination of most draft deferments as potentially more dangerous than the war itself: "Artists will use their hands for combat rather than advancing culture...," he complained. "This... draft ruling wears away the fabric of American strength."11
Other letter writers argued that South Vietnamese and American hypocrisy undercut the United States' attempt to occupy the moral high ground. Carl van Buskirk (a "registered Republican") wrote that he could "not support a government [Saigon] who arrested members of the opposition party," while Ball State professor David Scruton contended that the enemy's actions, no matter how "bestial" during Tet, could in no "way serve as a moral justification for what we may do if our acts are unwise, intemperate, or inconsistent with our national ideology...."12
More common, however, were sentiments of bewilderment, disappointment, and concern over the real possibility of a protracted war and stalemate. Partly, this feeling derived from a sense that events beyond American control were closing in. The North Koreans had captured the Pueblo a week prior to Tet; the trade deficit was growing; Charles DeGaulle was increasingly a thorn in America's side. One cartoon in the Press, for example, poignantly showed a bewildered and wounded LBJ in an arm sling named "Viet Nam" and a foot cast labeled "Korea." He stood in front of George Washington at Valley Force, complaining, "...Talk about a Rough Winter."13
But many observers were not so sympathetic towards the President. More representative of this sense of pessimism and loss are three other editorial cartoons suggesting administrative mendacity and false optimism. One in the Star showed Johnson in a track suit, running furiously in place with bullets knocking his hat from his head. It was titled: "We're Advancing on All Fronts."14 Johnson here is clearly misleading his public. A Bill Mauldin cartoon in the Ball State News echoed this sentiment from a grunt's point of view. As rockets fall around two soldiers in a foxhole, one says to the other, "Maybe They Have Had Enough and Are Being Inscrutable about It."15 Finally, a cartoon in the Press made disillusionment manifest. A sandaled foot named "Viet Cong Offensive" steps on eyeglasses labeled "Official U.S. Optimism." Title: "Rose Colored Glasses."16
Several nationally syndicated columnists published in Muncie papers also expressed this sense of disillusionment engendered by Tet. Not that they urged unilateral withdrawal or a negotiated settlement on enemy terms; rather, we get a sense of futility, stalemate, and an uncertain future. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, with great prescience, suggested only two days after the initial communist attack that the battle might end in a "stalemate" with the United states faced with the need for "an agonizing reappraisal" of its policy.17 Bruce Boissat expanded this view when he noted that America's "bargaining position" was "seriously weakened" because of the offensive,18 while Michael Padev took a slightly different tack, viewing Tet from the point of view of U.S. credibility: "The Communist attacks... have politically defeated the basic purpose of American policy in Vietnam--to show the South Vietnamese people that they would be safe from Communist aggression and terror."19 If South Vietnam could trust the U.S. less, its own reconstruction tasks were almost insurmountable after Tet. According to Evans and Novak, "...Saigon now has to perform the near miracle of physical reconstruction, internal reform, and pacification.... [There] is scarcely reason for general optimism about Saigon capitalizing on its last chance." 20
If this was a barely tenable final opportunity, then columnist Henry Taylor perhaps best summarized why many pundits seemed so pessimistic. He wrote of an old Chinese proverb: "Well, a full 4,000 years ago a Chinese general observed: 'In shallow water the dragon is eaten by the minnows.'"21 And it was surely clear after Tet who the respective dragon and minnows were.
Sometimes, local editorial writers joined this chorus of doubters. An editorial in the Star, for example, noted the government's "official" line "that the Communists have suffered such heavy losses in the offensive" that they clearly experienced a military defeat. "But," concluded the editorial, "what if" this version "is wrong?"22 Peggy Howard, editor of the Ball State News, certainly felt that the official story omitted a key fact: "In spite of claims that the enemy has lost a great number of troops," she wrote, "this has been a great psychological victory for North Vietnam."23
Part of this "victory" for the enemy involved a sense of powerlessness on the part of U.S. strategists. An editorial in the Star argued that "the recent offensive... by the Communists... has demonstrated that they still call the shots...."24 Indeed, they were able to control the tempo of the war in part because of cooperation from the South Vietnamese. An editorial in the Press, for example, noted that, although there was no massive "popular revolution among the South Vietnamese" during Tet, the Viet Cong would not have been able "to infiltrate men and weapons into so many South Vietnamese cities... [without] some aid from the populace" of the South.25
A powerful editorial in the Star on 11 February, about halfway through the offensive, best summarized this sense of pessimism and foreboding. Entitled "1984," the piece painted a nightmare scenario in which 2,500,000 American troops fight another Tet in that Orwellian year. There were, of course, "light casualties" for U.S. troops and "heavy" ones for the Viet Cong. The American forces would have done even better had ARVN forces not been "in recreation areas celebrating the New Year."26
For some Munsonians who read and wrote to the local press, Tet did seem to engender that sense of gloom posited by conventional wisdom. But for many others, the dominant response was one of guarded optimism. The massive communist losses, if combined with renewed determination to commit fully to winning the war, provided an opportunity for victory.
Columnist Roscoe Drummond argued that the Tet offensive actually played to America's military strength. Hanoi "abandoned... guerrilla tactics and embraced direct conflict with U.S. and South Vietnamese forces." In spite of some initial surprise created by the assault, Drummond argued that the enemy had not "been able to hold their gains and have suffered punitive losses of men." Tet then became "a turning point in the war" favorable to the American side.27 H.O.V., writing to the Press, echoed Drummond's point: "The Viet Cong... have paid and will pay [for Tet] with huge losses."28 Finally, a major editorial in the Press made clear the sense of U.S. victory and communist defeat:
Of course, the key assumption in this clarion call was that the U.S. would increase its "military efforts." And manifestly, a substantial body of local opinion supported the option of more force, not less. For example, the same Star editorial which bemoaned the fact that communists "still call the shots" in Vietnam claimed that the U.S. could "prevent" an enemy victory if it really "tried to win."30 Indeed, American success in recapturing Hue provided a model for future strategy. According to a Star editorial, "We used all-out force" to dislodge the enemy from Hue. Therefore, "isn't it ridiculous to refrain from using full firepower against the enemy and his supply route through Laos?"31 In fact, as early as 2 February, only a few days after the initial Tet assaults, when Saigon was still in chaos and Hue under firm enemy control, the Star offered its own blueprint for military victory in the wake of Tet. It called for "a declaration of war against North Vietnam; the closing of Haiphong Harbor; invading North Vietnam; destroying all targets of consequence; warning China and Russia that... any attempt to supply [North Vietnam] with arms will be answered militarily."32 There was no pessimistic talk of stalemate here.
If anything, letters to the local press were more militant than columnists and editorial writers. Mrs. B.E.F., for example, wanted to throw the United Nations off American "soil" because it continued "to condone the murder of our boys in Vietnam...."33 In a considerably weirder vein, John C. Roberts wrote that the U.S. was "terrorized" by "small" communist countries "because we have lost God out of our national life," a loss which resulted in America's being possessed by "evil spirits." Presumably a forceful domestic exorcism would lead to spiritual uplift and the kicking of some Commie butt.34
The "evil spirits" killing U.S. troops in Vietnam also deserved a dose of exorcism, apocalyptically Kurtz-like, in the eyes of some locals. P.J.P. wrote bitterly that the U.S. had been too "lenient" towards North Vietnam. We needed to "give them some of their own medicine," specifically, "kill women and children."35 Two letters went so far as to call up the nuclear option. P.H. said that Tet showed America as "weak." We could still win if we weren't afraid of "provoking a nuclear confrontation."36 Like-minded Leonard Sherry pulled out all the plugs:
In light of such contradictory evidence, it would be ludicrous to argue that there was a Muncie consensus on the Tet offensive. Based on the best evidence possible, it seems apparent that confusion, ambiguity and contradiction marked Muncie's response to this most crucial event of the war. While some cried doom, gloom, and stalemate, others saw a window of opportunity to apply maximum force for maximum results. The conventional wisdom that there was a national cri de couer, a sense of pessimism over the obvious psychological victory of the enemy during Tet may well be true. But this modest local study does not prove the case.
A brief epilogue: Although Munsonians appeared to notice Tet and be concerned about it, Tet was certainly not the major focus of local life. I read more than twenty interviews dealing with the Vietnam war as remembered by local citizens. None of these even mentioned the Tet offensive.38 Certainly, by the last two weeks in February, the local press was much more concerned with local issues than international crises like the Tet offensive. A cartoon in the Evening Press of 21 February clearly illustrated the point. World problems like Vietnam stand outside a locked door labeled "Indiana." A sign hangs from the door: "Hoosier Hysteria: Do Not Disturb."39 Something as insignificant as the major "battle" in America's longest war could hardly compete with high school basketball in the heart of the heart of the country.
1 Don Oberdorfer, Tet! Reprint edition of the original 1971 volume (New York: Da Capo Press) 1984: 329.
2 Ibid.: ix, 331.
3 James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam: 1945-50 (New York: St. Martin's Press) 1991: 186.
4 Ibid.: 187.
5 James J. Wirtz, The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press) 1991: 1-2.
6 Ibid.: 2.
7 Muncie Star (11 Aug 1982): 2. Quoted in Anthony O. Edmonds, "'Middletown': A Community Reacts to Social Science," Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of the Social Sciences, 3rd series, Vol. XIX (1984): 87.
8 I fully realize that newspaper editorials, columns, and letters to the editor provide only tentative evidence of public views. Given the lack of public polling data, however, they at least give us the best approximate indication available.
9 Only thirteen issues of the Ball State News appeared in February because of the exam period and spring break.
10 "Letter," Muncie Evening Press (2 Feb 1968): 4.
11 "Letter," Press (23 Feb 1968): 4.
12 "Letter," Star (29 Feb 1968): 4; "Letter," Star (28 Feb 1968): 4; "Letter," Star (28 Feb 1968): 4.
13 Press (22 Feb 1968): 4.
14 Star (20 Feb 1968): 4.
15 Ball State News (15 Feb 1968): 2.
16 Press (8 Feb 1968): 4.
17 Ibid., (1 Feb 1968): 4.
18 Ibid., (17 Feb 1968): 4.
19 Star (11 Feb 1968): 4.
20 Press (13 Feb 1968): 4.
21 Star (9 Feb 1968): 4.
22 Ibid., (17 Feb 1968): 4.
23 Ibid., (17 Feb 1968): 4.
24 Star (17 Feb 1968): 4.
25 Press (13 Feb 19068): 4.
26 Star (11 Feb 1968): 4A.
27 Ibid. (24 Feb 1968): 4.
28 "Letter," Press (28 Feb 1968): 4.
29 Ibid., (17 Feb 1968): 4.
30 Star (17 Feb 1968): 4.
31 Ibid. (21 Feb 1968): 4.
32 Ibid. (2 Feb 1968): 4.
33 "Letter," Ibid. (13 Feb 1968): 4.
34 "Letter," Ibid., (2 Feb 1968): 4.
35 "Letter," Ibid. (2 Feb 1968): 7.
36 "Letter," Press (8 Feb 1968): 4.
37 "Letter," Star (25 Feb 1968): 4.
38 Vietnam Collection, Center for Middletown Studies, Ball State University, Muncie, IN.
39 Press (21 Feb 1968): 4.
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