By Daniel Lee
Fifty years ago, American Marines were wrapping up their bloody battle to retake the historic Vietnamese capital of Hue, occupied by communist forces in the Tet Offensive weeks before.
Graphic images from the struggle went on display in January at the Newseum, in Washington DC, in an exhibit titled, “The Marines and Tet: The Battle That Changed the Vietnam War.” The title of the exhibit, which runs through July 8, is borrowed from iconic newsman Walter Cronkite. Coverage of Tet, he said, “changed how people looked at the war, and in doing so, it changed the war itself.”
Tet turned out to be a terrible communist defeat. But at the time, America saw only carnage presented by American media. One startling photo in the Newseum exhibit shows dead and injured Marines stacked for evacuation on an American tank, one soldier tilted up painfully on his side for a sucking chest wound, the scene all ragged uniforms and soiled medical dressings and redolent of defeat.
There was also the nightmarishly graphic street execution of a Viet Cong fighter in Saigon, and bloody photos of dead guerillas in the U.S. embassy. I remember seeing these in full-color in Time magazine, scarlet blood staining the green lawn of the embassy courtyard. It convinced an already war-weary American public that this war just couldn’t be won.
They were helped to that pessimistic conclusion by Cronkite. “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,” he regretfully intoned. “To say that we are mired in a bloody stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.”