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Published:April 8th, 2014 13:12 EST
Was LBJ So Shocked By the Tet Offensive, that He Gave Away His Presidency?

Was LBJ So Shocked By the Tet Offensive, that He Gave Away His Presidency?

By John G. Kays

"To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy`s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. 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." Walter Cronkite - CBS Evening News - February 27, 1968.

Vietnam War with Walter Cronkite, naturally produced by CBS, was originally published on 3 videocassettes (funny to hear Mr. Cronkite say what will be covered on this videocassette chapter) in early July of 1985. This is an amazing production; the total time adds up to 12 hours, but it draws from CBS`s sizable archive of coverage on The War, which in ernest, raged for around a decade (1965-1975), although this package also covers the French occupation, as well as the Kennedy years. On March 1st, 2008 Vietnam War was issued as a triple DVD set (not so historic, but nonetheless a good marker for you).

Ironically, I didn`t notice this valuable archive collection of CBS until last Friday (April 4, 2014), when I was browsing my local, neighborhood branch library, looking for a good documentary to take home and view. I`m the sort of person who tends to collect anything I can find on Vietnam, since I grew up with The War as part of my learning experience, searching for who we were or even who I was. I`ll say no more than that, but from time to time I still enjoy breaking it all down again, wondering what I was doing, or what I was thinking, at the time these traumatic events unfolded. Take the Tet Offensive, for example.

I had been reading Robert Caro`s The Path To Power, as well as Lyndon Johnson And The American Dream, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, with special emphasis on her chapter on Vietnam. When I coupled these two books with the newly discovered video, I suddenly recalled that Obama and the other Presidents were coming to Austin, and specifically to the LBJ Library this week, (in order) to commemorate some of LBJ`s achievements, falling under the umbrella of his Great Society programs (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the first one that comes to mind). Okay, so I found myself returning to the question of what had brought LBJ down, what caused him to throw in the towel and not seek re-election in 1968?

The best answer I could come up with, and I realize, this is only a partial reason, is the comprehensive invasion of South Vietnam by the Viet Cong and the NVA in late January of 1968 (took him out); well, as you know, this is the Tet Offensive. Tet is covered on DVD 2, Chapter 2; I watched this chapter several times (it runs about an hour) and took some good notes. To supplement my (re)-learning, I read over Wikipedia`s entry for Tet; also, I looked at an entry for Walter Cronkite and scanned parts of the entry for LBJ (FYI, his resignation speech is posted on YouTube). The first thing I noticed, was it felt good again to amongst old friends, such as Uncle Walt, John Lawrence, Dan Rather, and many more great old school reporters, who brought The War directly into our living rooms.

Tet has mainly 3 parts to it; there`s the Battle for Saigon (the U.S. Embassy attack falls within this category), next, there`s the Battle for Hue (Diamond in the Rough), then there`s the siege at Khe Sangh, which ultimately ends up looking more like a diversionary tactic used by the Communists. You can certainly learn a lot by reading about Tet, but maybe you can learn even more by watching this priceless CBS footage, where the reporters are talking to soldiers, as the battle is raging and bullets fly by. The segments on Hue were the most moving to me; I hated to see so many wonderful old structures get blown to pieces like they did. This made me realize that the sets in Full Metal Jacket were fairly accurate; the footage has scenes resembling the movie. Remarkable!

So was it Tet that destroyed LBJ? Without getting into an endless maze of peripheral detail, the answer is yes! As Doris Kearns Goodwin explains, Vietnam ruined Johnson`s hopes of making his Great Society programs the signature expression of his presidency (although they were, in the final analysis, just that). As Cronkite candidly points out, after Tet, LBJ tanked in the polls by 10%. The Communists had succeeded in over-running Saigon (it was partially secured) and only with a great deal of struggle, were we able to push them out of Hue. Cronkite himself said the War was un-winnable; journalists don`t have that kind of clout today. LBJ took that as a signal to get out of Dodge; oh, lest I forget, RFK had joined in the race too.