As with previous episodes revolving around historical events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive serve as a metaphor for the various issues individual characters face in “The Collaborators.” Don, Peter and Peggy’s personal and professional battles are all contrasted with the events in Southeast Asia in late January/early February 1968.
By late 1967, the American war effort was losing support at home as the third year of direct U.S. involvement came to a close. Though the “attrition” strategy masterminded by U.S. commander William Westmoreland had inflicted serious casualties on both the Viet Cong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), the “search and destroy” missions carried out by American troops neither addressed the social inequities that created the conditions for the insurgency nor strengthened popular support for the South Vietnamese government. Furthermore, in a war without clear front lines like World War II, the only sign of progress Americans could see was the Pentagon’s report of the “body count” of enemy dead that aired on the network evening news every night. As American casualties mounted this was no longer sufficient to maintain the public’s belief in U.S. military success. Fearing the growing disenchantment in the country, President Johnson and his military commanders launched an “optimism offensive” during the fall of 1967, repeatedly telling the American public that the U.S. military effort had turned the corner and that victory was approaching.
At the same time, the communists planned a massive attack on U.S. forces. In the fall of ‘67, they launched a series of attacks in rural areas to draw American troops away from the cities. In addition, VC and NVA forces attacked the Marine base at Khe Sanh, leading Westmoreland to fear a second “Dien Bien Phu,” the battle that led to the French withdrawal from Vietnam in 1954. Distracted by these feints, American forces were caught off-guard when the enemy began its largest offensive of the war during the traditional cease-fire for the lunar holiday of Tet.
80,000 VC troops attacked 36 of the 64 provincial capitals on January 30, 1968, a massive coordinated attack that flew in the face of the public optimism of the Johnson Administration. As heard in the episode, the guerilla forces even penetrated the US embassy in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, though, as Sylvia Rosen observed, “We got it back.” After months of government pronouncements of military success, Tet shocked the American public and destroyed the remaining credibility of the Johnson Administration. “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war,” exclaimed a surprised Walter Cronkite. Or as Arnold Rosen tells Don, “You know we’re losing the war.”
The communists hoped the urban dwellers of Saigon and the other cities would rise up against their colonial masters, but it turned out no revolution was in the offing. Instead, the U.S. Army repelled the attack as the VC left the cover of the jungle and exposed themselves to superior American firepower. Still, public opinion turned against the war for good. Cronkite traveled to Vietnam to investigate the situation and returned home to tell the American people the conflict was a “stalemate.” Watching the CBS anchor’s editorial from the White House, Johnson mused that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost the country, a tribute to the power of the evening news in the pre-cable, pre-Internet era (though many historians believe the media was only catching up to the disaffection of the public rather than leading it).
After nearly losing the New Hampshire primary to Eugene McCarthy and also facing a challenge from arch-nemesis Robert Kennedy, LBJ told the country on March 31 that he would not seek re-election in the fall. Slowly, the U.S. began to turn the war effort over to the South Vietnamese themselves, a strategy of “Vietnamization” that Richard Nixon gradually implemented after his narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968.