The Tet Offensive and Middletown: A Study in Contradiction
Although much controversy still swirls around the 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.
The 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 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, the most recent specialized scholarly account of Tet, James Wirtz' masterful The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War, echoes the views of Oberdorfer and Olson and Roberts. Wirtz proclaims at the outset that