By David K. Shipler
Fifty years ago this week, Americans who had believed their leaders’ optimistic lies were stunned by the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s lightning assault on scores of South Vietnamese towns and cities. An enemy squad even managed to enter the US Embassy compound in Saigon, giving Hanoi and its Vietcong surrogates a propaganda victory—but not the military victory they had sought. Their forces took heavy casualties as the Americans and South Vietnamese pounded them back.
Furthermore, the expectations of the North Vietnamese commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, were not fulfilled. As he later revealed, he had predicted that the South Vietnamese army would collapse, the civilian population would rise up in rebellion, and the United States would scale back sharply.
Yet the American public was not struck by the collision between Hanoi’s goals and the results on the ground. Rather, what pushed much of the country to the threshold of disillusionment and outrage was the collision between American officials’ rosy assessments and the North’s capacity to mount countrywide attacks. Just weeks before the Tet Offensive, the US commander, General William Westmoreland, declared boldly, “We have reached an important point, when the end begins to come into view.” Then the disastrous reality came into view—the prospect of a grinding stalemate at best. It was a psychological turning point in the war.
That threshold of outrage has risen in recent decades; it now takes a higher dose of deception and corruption to generate sufficient disgust to produce change. President Trump’s chronic lying—he uttered some 2,000 blatant falsehoods and misleading claims during his first year in office—cost him nothing during his campaign. Nor did his boast on tape about grabbing women “by the pussy.” His obvious racism—commending some “fine people” who marched with white supremacists in Charlottesville, and preferring immigration from Norway instead of “shithole” countries in Africa—has not crushed his support among Republicans in Congress or his core of voters.