Ken Burns Classroom

The Tet Offensive: A Media Analysis Activity

Ken Burns Film: The Vietnam War

Collections: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 2 class periods


In early 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces initiated the Tet Offensive, targeting cities and military installations all over South Vietnam, including Saigon and the US Embassy. More than half of the 58,000 men and women of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong involved in the offensive were killed, wounded, or captured. None of the South Vietnamese cities or American installations targeted in the attack fell to North Vietnamese or Viet Cong forces.

However, as more and more news reporters filed stories from the front lines, many Americans became convinced that Tet was actually a major political setback for South Vietnamese and American effort. Calls became louder for a negotiated settlement that would allow American troops to leave Vietnam with honor. Continued promises from American leaders that victory was in sight and there was “light at the end of the tunnel” were increasingly questioned or ignored.

In this media analysis activity, students will view selected clips from THE VIETNAM WAR and complete a graphic organizer about information found in the clips. They then will use the information from the clips and the organizer to write editorials/commentaries assessing Tet Offensive news coverage either as fair and balanced or as biased, turning American popular opinion against the war and undermining the US war effort.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Understand the importance of the Tet Offensive to both North and South Vietnam and America’s war effort.
  • Analyze media coverage of a major Vietnam War battle and make conclusions about the impact of that coverage.
  • Recognize the impact of news coverage on American perceptions about the conduct of the US military and the US government in regard to Vietnam.
  • Develop persuasive writing techniques about a particular point of view.

Lesson Procedure

  1. Begin the activity with a class discussion about instances when the media coverage of a story and the government’s message are in disagreement. Ask students if they can think of instances in which press coverage of a story is markedly different than government officials’ statements and view of the issue or event. 
  2. Write the phrase “adversarial press” on the chalkboard. Tell students that in countries that have a free press, the media is not a tool for the government and has a right to publish information that can run counter to the government’s message. This can be interpreted as being adversarial.
  3. Have students brainstorm various cable, broadcast, or online news networks that might have an adversarial relationship with the government. Have them explain how these sources might unintentionally or intentionally present a different point of view from the government’s position.
  4. Have students provide examples of a media source being opposed to the government’s policies. Ask them to point out how this is different from a media source investigating a story and pointing out discrepancies or inconsistencies in the government’s message. 
  5. Next, explain to students that they will be analyzing several video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and completing a graphic organizer with information that will help them write newspaper editorials/commentaries evaluating whether news coverage during the Tet Offensive was fair and accurate. 
  6. Distribute copies of the Media Coverage of the Tet Offensive Graphic Organizer to students and direct them to complete the organizer by viewing the video clips. If time is a concern, viewing clips and completing the graphic organizer can be assigned as a homework activity. 
  7. After students have viewed the video segments and completed the graphic organizer, review some of the questions with them or ask if they need any clarification. Then distribute copies of the student handout Writing Assignment: A Tet Offensive Editorial. You may wish to show samples of editorials written for print, online newspapers, or magazines or ask students to bring in samples. 
  8. Explain to students that editorials are opinion pieces that usually reflect the viewpoint of a newspaper, and not a specific writer. Commentaries are opinion pieces (such as Walter Cronkite’s famous “stalemate” commentary on the “CBS Evening News” after the Tet Offensive) that are signed and express the opinion of the author. Student editorials and commentaries should be written in persuasive language to encourage the reader to support the writer’s point of view. Students should use information from the graphic organizer to provide background and evidence for their writing, and should make sure their writing is free of spelling or grammatical errors. The teacher may wish to have students share their work with others through a class reading or posting in the classroom. 
  9. Debrief: At the conclusion of the activity, lead a debriefing discussion over the following questions:
    • In your view, did the press objectively report the events of the Tet Offensive?
    • In your view, were the government and military truthful to the American people about the Vietnam War and how the war was going?
    • Should the US government have done a better job of public relations in “selling” the achievements of the US military during the Tet Offensive?
    • Do you think the media today has as much influence to shape public opinion as it did in 1968?

Extension Activities

  • Ask students to investigate how the US military managed news coverage during Operation Desert Storm or other military operations such as Operation Enduring Freedom. Was the military more or less likely to allow the press to have a great deal of mobility to travel with the troops and film battle scenes? Why or why not? 
  • Investigate the relationship between the “adversarial press” and US presidents, from Lyndon Johnson to the current administration. Write position papers suggesting that either the press is biased when covering the presidential administrations, or that the press is effectively carrying out its “watchdog” function. 
  • Ask students to write essays for or against increasing censorship in military operations. Is the press being responsible, or should increased controls on the press be allowed? Explain your answer. 
  • Ask students to investigate instances of when presidents tried to stir up public support by criticism of a decline of the “American spirit,” such as President Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech (also known as the “Malaise” speech); or President Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address (the “American Carnage” speech). Have students “advise” President Johnson, recommending whether he should make a similar speech to tell Americans they have “lost their way” and should unite behind him and support the war in Vietnam. Student recommendations should be written in persuasive style.

National Standards for History

10.1A.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the Nixon administration’s involvement in Watergate and examine the role of the media in exposing the scandal. [Formulate historical questions]

10.1A.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the constitutional issues raised by the Watergate affair and evaluate the effects of Watergate on public opinion. [Examine the influence of ideas]

10.1C.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess Nixon’s policy of detente with the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. [Analyze multiple causation]

10.1C.6 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the reformulation of foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

10.2D.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the desegregation of education and assess its role in the creation of private white academies. [Analyze multiple causation]

9.1B.7 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze interconnections between superpower rivalries and the development of new military, nuclear, and space technology. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.1C.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the significance of research and scientific breakthroughs in promoting the U.S. space program. [Examine the influence of ideas]

9.2C.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the Vietnam policy of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations and the shifts of public opinion about the war. [Analyze multiple causation]

9.2C.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the composition of the American forces recruited to fight the war. [Interrogate historical data]

9.2C.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate how Vietnamese and Americans experienced the war and how the war continued to affect postwar politics and culture. [Appreciate historical perspectives]

9.2C.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the provisions of the Paris Peace Accord of 1973 and evaluate the role of the Nixon administration. [Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations]

9.2C.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the constitutional issues involved in the war and explore the legacy of the Vietnam war. [Formulate a position or course of action on an issue]

9.2E.2 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze interconnections between space exploration and developments since the 1950s in scientific research, agricultural productivity, consumer culture, intelligence gathering, and other aspects of contemporary life. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.2F.3 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the influence of television, the Internet, and other forms of electronic communication on the creation and diffusion of cultural and political information worldwide. [Formulate historical questions]

9.3A.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the relationship between post-war Soviet espionage and the emergence of internal security and loyalty programs under Truman and Eisenhower. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.3A.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate Eisenhower’s “Modern Republicanism” in relation to the economy and other domestic issues. [Formulate a position or course of action on an issue]

9.3B.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Examine the role of the media in the election of 1960. [Utilize visual and quantitative data]

9.3B.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the domestic policies of Kennedy’s “New Frontier.” [Hold interpretations of history as tentative]

9.3B.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the legislation and programs enacted during Johnson’s presidency. [Evaluate the implementation of a decision]

9.3B.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the effectiveness of the “Great Society” programs. [Evaluate major debates among historians]

9.4A.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the origins of the postwar civil rights movement and the role of the NAACP in the legal assault on segregation. [Analyze multiple causation]

9.4A.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the Warren Court’s reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education and its significance in advancing civil rights. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.4A.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the leadership and ideology of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement and evaluate their legacies. [Assess the importance of the individual in history]

9.4A.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the role of the legislative and executive branches in advancing the civil rights movement and the effect of shifting the focus from de jure to de facto segregation. [Evaluate the implementation of a decision]

9.4A.6 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the agendas, strategies, and effectiveness of various African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans, as well as the disabled, in the quest for civil rights and equal opportunities. [Explain historical continuity and change]

9.4A.7 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the reasons for and effectiveness of the escalation from civil disobedience to more radical protest in the civil rights movement. [Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances]

9.4B.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the factors contributing to modern feminism and compare the ideas, agendas, and strategies of feminist and counter-feminist organizations. [Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances]

9.4B.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the conflicting perspectives over the Equal Rights Amendment, Title VII, and Roe v. Wade. [Consider multiple perspectives]

National Standards for Civics and Government

I.C.2.5 ( Grades: 9-12 ): explain how constitutions can be vehicles for change and for resolving social issues, e.g., use of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; establishment of the Japanese Constitution after World War II, which provided women the right to vote

III.E.3.5.a ( Grades: 9-12 ): evaluate historical and contemporary political communication using such criteria as logical validity, factual accuracy, emotional appeal, distorted evidence, appeals to bias or prejudice, e.g., speeches such as Lincoln’s “House Divided,” Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”, Chief Joseph’s “I Shall Fight No More Forever,” Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream”

IV.B.1.2 ( Grades: 9-12 ): explain how and why the United States assumed the role of world leader after World War II and what its leadership role is in the world today

IV.B.2.4 ( Grades: 9-12 ): describe the various means used to attain the ends of United States foreign policy, such as diplomacy; economic, military and humanitarian aid; treaties; sanctions; military intervention; covert action

V.B.2.2 ( Grades: 9-12 ): identify the major documentary statements of political rights–the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, the United States Constitution including the Bill of Rights, state constitutions and bills of rights, civil rights legislation, court decisions

About The Authors

Michael Hutchison

Michael Hutchison is the social studies department chair at Lincoln High School. Vincennes, Indiana. He has more than 35 years of classroom teaching experience, and has written lessons for several Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, Empire of the Air, Horatio’s Drive, Unforgivable Blackness, The War, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. He is past president of the Indiana Computer Educators. In 2014, he was named winner of the Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year Award by the Indiana Historical Society.

Handout: Media Coverage of the Tet Offensive Graphic Organizer

Directions: Watch the video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and answer the following questions.

Video Segment: “Attack on the US Embassy”

  1. Why do you think that early television footage of the embassy attack would have concerned many Americans?


Video Segment: “Press Coverage of the Tet Offensive”

  1. Why was President Johnson so upset about press coverage during Tet? What examples of this “unfair coverage” does he give?


  1. How might the statement, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” have influenced public opinion about military goals and the Tet Offensive?


Video Segment: “Execution of a Viet Cong Soldier”

  1. Do you think the execution of the Viet Cong agent should have been televised? Why or why not?


  1. How might the photo of the execution of the Viet Cong agent have affected the American public watching at home?   


  1. How might the execution photo have influenced American public opinion about the South Vietnamese Army and its support for the American war effort?


Video Segment: “The Tet Offensive”

  1. What evidence does the clip give to prove that the Tet Offensive was a defeat for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong?


  1. What factors mentioned in the clip might have convinced some Americans that Tet was a defeat for the US and South Vietnamese forces? Do you think these were genuine concerns, or did many of these factors play on many average Americans’ fears? If so, how?


  1. What was Walter Cronkite’s conclusion about American involvement in Vietnam? How might Cronkite’s status as a nationally known news anchor have influenced the average American viewing his broadcast?


Handout: Writing Assignment: A Tet Offensive Editorial

Directions: Using information from the video segments, analyze the news coverage of the Tet Offensive. Review how the media covered the various battles during the offensive. Consider the follow questions:

  • What impression did the media present about the US war effort?
  • What was the outcome of the offensive for the Viet Cong?
  • What was the outcome for the US and South Vietnamese forces?
  • Why do you think the American public didn’t see the outcome of the Tet Offensive the way the US government did?

Now write an editorial about the news media’s coverage of the Tet Offensive, commenting on whether you feel the coverage was fair and balanced. Make sure you have written your editorial in persuasive fashion in order to convince your reader about your viewpoint. Also, make sure your writing is free of spelling and grammatical errors.