The Tet Offensive and its Consequences, 1968 Presidential Election

The Communist Tet Offensive on January 31, 1968 (the Vietnamese lunar new year) was a turning point in America’s involvement in Vietnam. American military leaders had been telling President Johnson, political leaders and the American public that their strategies were working and that “we were winning the war.” But, on Tet, Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnam regular soldiers attacked more than 100 cities and villages in South Vietnam that the U.S. thought had been secured, including the American embassy and the presidential palace in the capital of Saigon and the ancient imperial city of Hue. (Tuchman, The March of Folly, pp. 348-349; Charles J. Puch, Jr., Vietnam on the Nightly News, p. 107.)

“For America, Tet was a military victory and a psychological defeat.” (Anderson, p. 184.) Although the offensive was ultimately unsuccessful, the ability of the Communist forces to stage such a broad-based attack demonstrated that the American military’s position was questionable. (Puch, Id.) “The fact that [North Vietnam] lost the battle was nothing new—it had lost all the battles of the war since the Americans had arrived with their tremendous firepower; but the fact that, after three years of exposure to that firepower, it could still launch an offensive on the scale of Tet was new. It shed a light backward on American policy so far….” (Hillstrom, p. 141, quoting Jonathan Schell, The Real War.)

Tet was “…widely regarded as a rebuke of official assurances of impending victory.” (Hillstrom, p. 89.) The military leaders lost credibility with the American people, and so did President Johnson: “The emperor had no clothes.” (Anderson, pp. 185-186) ABC news analyst Joseph C. Harsch told the public that Tet was at odds with what the government had led the people to expect. (Puch, p. 110.) CBS Nightly News anchor, Walter Cronkite, having visited Vietnam to observe the effects of the Tet Offensive, broadcast a critical analysis of the Vietnam situation on his news show. President Johnson is said to have stated “That’s it; if I have lost Cronkite, I have lost Middle America.” (Puch, Id. pp. 109-110; Reader’s Digest, p. 458; TFC, Vol.7, pp. 223-224; Tuchman, pp. 351-352.)

Domestic morale was negatively affected by the Tet Offensive. After the Tet Offensive, a Gallup poll showed only 26 percent of the population approved of Johnson’s handling of the war (a drop from 39 percent a few months earlier) and a full 50 percent disapproved. (Id.; Anderson, p. 185.) Anti-war protests intensified. Joining the anti-war demonstrations by this time were members of Vietnam Veterans against the War, many of whom were in wheelchairs or on crutches. The sight of these men on television throwing away the medals they had won during the war did much to cause people to move over to the anti-war cause.

In “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation, written and performed by Tom Paxton (1965), (, the folksinger points out the “we are winning” and other misrepresentations made by political and military leaders and some of the ironic situations faced by American troops.

I got a letter from L. B. J.
It said this is your lucky day.
It’s time to put your khaki trousers on.
Though it may seem very queer
We’ve got no jobs to give you here
So we are sending you to Viet Nam

Lyndon Johnson told the nation,
“Have no fear of escalation.
I am trying everyone to please.
Though it isn’t really war,
We’re sending fifty thousand more,
To help save Vietnam from Vietnamese.”

I jumped off the old troop ship,
And sank in mud up to my hips.
I cussed until the captain called me down.
Never mind how hard it’s raining,
Think of all the ground we’re gaining,
Just don’t take one step outside of town.


Every night the local gentry,
Sneak out past the sleeping sentry.
They go to join the old VC.
In their nightly little dramas,
They put on their black pajamas,
And come lobbing mortar shells at me.


We go round in helicopters,
Like a bunch of big grasshoppers,
Searching for the Viet Cong in vain.
They left a note that they had gone.
They had to get down to Saigon,
Their government positions to maintain.


Well here I sit in this rice paddy,
Wondering about Big Daddy,
And I know that Lyndon loves me so.
Yet how sadly I remember,
Way back yonder in November,
When he said I’d never have to go.


Two months after the Tet Offensive, in March 1968, President Johnson stopped the bombing of North Vietnam and called for peace talks. He also announced that he would not seek re-election in that year’s presidential election. Even though the opposing sides met soon after Johnson’s call for peace talks, it took them almost 12 months to commence substantive peace discussions because they were arguing about procedural matters, such as the size and shape of the conference table. (Reader’s Digest, p. 458; TFC, Vol. 7, pp. 223-224.)

With President Johnson having taken himself out of consideration for the presidential nomination, the race to be the Democratic Party’s nominee was wide-open. Eugene McCarthy, senator from Minnesota, Robert Kennedy, senator from New York, and Hubert Humphrey, vice-president under Johnson and former senator from Minnesota, were the three leading Democratic candidates. McCarthy and Kennedy were peace candidates; Humphrey was the establishment candidate. (TFC, Id.)

“Gene McCarthy for President / If You Love Your Country, written and performed by Peter, Paul and Mary (1968) was the campaign song for Eugene McCarthy. (

Chorus: If you love your country and the things for which it stands
Vote for Gene McCarthy and bring peace to this our land.

It robs us of the honor that our country’s known before,
When we would not pursue a peace, and end an unjust war,
We are all responsible for what’s done in this war
Democracy means that we can decide, that’s what your vote is for!
Our cities crumbled by a bomb dropped on a foreign land
And politicians stand and watch while the flames of hate are fanned
But the dream has not yet died, my friends, the times can still be changed,
With courage we can right the wrongs and end our nation’s shame!


Now that he’s said what’s in our hearts, alone he took a stand
He’s echoed by more timid men who ask to lead our land
No one is too young to help, no effort is too small
everyone must care this time, we all must heed the call!


Following the October 1967 Pentagon demonstration, “the Mobe” began discussion and planning for demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, to be held in Chicago, the city of Mayor Richard Daley. Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis were the key Mobe organizers for the Chicago demonstrations, and would later be indicted for conspiracy and inciting a riot as members of the Chicago Seven.

The Chicago demonstrations drew only 10,000 participants because it was widely anticipated that Mayor Daley would deploy police to prevent marches to the site of the Convention. Indeed, Daley had 23,000 police and National Guardsmen ready to deal with “agitators.” (Jennings and Brewster, p. 416.) Law enforcement strung barbed wire fencing to keep the protestors from significant locations where they were likely to gather, for example, the headquarters of the leading candidates and the hall where the convention was held. (Id.) Armored personnel carriers and military jeeps roamed the streets. (Id.)

Demonstrators reacted to the presence of the police with verbal and physical abuse. Not unexpectedly police responded with force leaving college students a bloody mess. Some observers believed that the protesters were motivated by a desire to provoke a reaction that could be filmed for television news. The demonstrators chanted “The whole world is watching,” which became emblematic of the whole convention situation. (Id.) The chaos in the streets spilled over to inside the convention hall. Hawks and Doves tried to out-shout each other’s speakers. One of the speakers at the convention referred to “Gestapo tactics” in the streets. (Id.)