Theodore's World: The Lies Of The Tet Offensive

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February 08, 2008

The Lies Of The Tet Offensive

The Lies of Tet

Wallstreet Journal

February 6, 2008; Page A19

On January 30, 1968, more than a quarter million North Vietnamese soldiers and 100,000 Viet Cong irregulars launched a massive attack on South Vietnam. But the public didn't hear about who had won this most decisive battle of the Vietnam War, the so-called Tet offensive, until much too late.

Media misreporting of Tet passed into our collective memory. That picture gave antiwar activism an unwarranted credibility that persists today in Congress, and in the media reaction to the war in Iraq. The Tet experience provides a narrative model for those who wish to see all U.S. military successes -- such as the Petraeus surge -- minimized and glossed over.

In truth, the war in Vietnam was lost on the propaganda front, in great measure due to the press's pervasive misreporting of the clear U.S. victory at Tet as a defeat. Forty years is long past time to set the historical record straight.

The Tet offensive came at the end of a long string of communist setbacks. By 1967 their insurgent army in the South, the Viet Cong, had proved increasingly ineffective, both as a military and political force. Once American combat troops began arriving in the summer of 1965, the communists were mauled in one battle after another, despite massive Hanoi support for the southern insurgency with soldiers and arms. By 1967 the VC had lost control over areas like the Mekong Delta -- ironically, the very place where reporters David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan had first diagnosed a Vietnam "quagmire" that never existed.

The Tet offensive was Hanoi's desperate throw of the dice to seize South Vietnam's northern provinces using conventional armies, while simultaneously triggering a popular uprising in support of the Viet Cong. Both failed. Americans and South Vietnamese soon put down the attacks, which began under cover of a cease-fire to celebrate the Tet lunar new year. By March 2, when U.S. Marines crushed the last North Vietnamese pockets of resistance in the northern city of Hue, the VC had lost 80,000-100,000 killed or wounded without capturing a single province.

Tet was a particularly crushing defeat for the VC. It had not only failed to trigger any uprising but also cost them "our best people," as former Viet Cong doctor Duong Quyunh Hoa later admitted to reporter Stanley Karnow. Yet the very fact of the U.S. military victory -- "The North Vietnamese," noted National Security official William Bundy at the time, "fought to the last Viet Cong" -- was spun otherwise by most of the U.S. press.

As the Washington Post's Saigon bureau chief Peter Braestrup documented in his 1977 book, "The Big Story," the desperate fury of the communist attacks including on Saigon, where most reporters lived and worked, caught the press by surprise. (Not the military: It had been expecting an attack and had been on full alert since Jan. 24.) It also put many reporters in physical danger for the first time. Braestrup, a former Marine, calculated that only 40 of 354 print and TV journalists covering the war at the time had seen any real fighting. Their own panic deeply colored their reportage, suggesting that the communist assault had flung Vietnam into chaos.

Their editors at home, like CBS's Walter Cronkite, seized on the distorted reporting to discredit the military's version of events. The Viet Cong insurgency was in its death throes, just as U.S. military officials assured the American people at the time. Yet the press version painted a different picture.

To quote Braestrup, "the media tended to leave the shock and confusion of early February, as then perceived, fixed as the final impression of Tet" and of Vietnam generally. "Drama was perpetuated at the expense of information," and "the negative trend" of media reporting "added to the distortion of the real situation on the ground in Vietnam."

The North Vietnamese were delighted. On the heels of their devastating defeat, Hanoi increasingly shifted its propaganda efforts toward the media and the antiwar movement. Causing American (not South Vietnamese) casualties, even at heavy cost, became a battlefield objective in order to reinforce the American media's narrative of a failing policy in Vietnam.

Yet thanks to the success of Tet, the numbers of Americans dying in Vietnam steadily declined -- from almost 15,000 in 1968 to 9,414 in 1969 and 4,221 in 1970 -- by which time the Viet Cong had ceased to exist as a viable fighting force. One Vietnamese province after another witnessed new peace and stability. By the end of 1969 over 70% of South Vietnam's population was under government control, compared to 42% at the beginning of 1968. In 1970 and 1971, American ambassador Ellsworth Bunker estimated that 90% of Vietnamese lived in zones under government control.

However, all this went unnoticed because misreporting about Tet had left the image of Vietnam as a botched counterinsurgency -- an image nearly half a decade out of date. The failure of the North's next massive invasion over Easter 1972, which cost the North Vietnamese army another 100,000 men and half their tanks and artillery, finally forced it to sign the peace accords in Paris and formally to recognize the Republic of South Vietnam. By August 1972 there were no U.S. combat forces left in Vietnam, precisely because, contrary to the overwhelming mass of press reports, American policy there had been a success.

To Congress and the public, however, the war had been nothing but a debacle. And by withdrawing American troops, President Nixon gave up any U.S. political or military leverage on Vietnam's future. With U.S. military might out of the equation, the North quickly cheated on the Paris accords. When its re-equipped army launched a massive attack in 1975, Congress refused to redeem Nixon's pledges of military support for the South. Instead, President Gerald Ford bowed to what the media had convinced the American public was inevitable: the fall of Vietnam.

The collapse of South Vietnam's neighbor, Cambodia, soon followed. Southeast Asia entered the era of the "killing fields," exterminating in a brief few years an estimated two million people -- 30% of the Cambodian population. American military policy has borne the scars of Vietnam ever since.

It had all been preventable -- but for the lies of Tet.

Mr. Herman is the author of "Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age," to be published by Bantam Dell in April.

Wild Thing's comment........
I will never forgive Chronkite and others for their LIES about Tet. He most certainly sold out our troops and our country with his lies. Chief Cheer Leader in the media for the anti-American crowd was Walter Cronkite.

..... Thank you Cuchieddie for sending this to me.

Posted by Wild Thing at February 8, 2008 04:47 AM


I served with H Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. I lost a lot of good friends and had a lot maimed in that offensive. They were the first Marine Company to breech the walls of the "City of Hue".

This all hurts me and leaves me with a very bitter taste in my mouth.

Posted by: Steve at February 8, 2008 07:53 AM

Thank you Cuchieddie and Chrissie. As a class of '68-'69 student, doing post graduate studies at the university of Quang Tri I undertook a few day classes at Hue plus some night classes and was a regular student in the classrooms all along I Corps,II Corps from Khe Sanh to Pleiku. Nothing I saw there compared to the enemy we had at home. Even my arrival in country was announced by bullhorn across the DMZ in perfect english, which knew our unit number and who we were assigned to, a bit unnerving, like my Marine bretheren we were told our base camp was a mere 8 miles beyond ARTY range it didn't matter, they could reach us anyway. B52 strikes were tipped off in advance, they knew where the New Jersey was most of the time too, how could they know. ROE's, ABC and CBS were the best allies the NVA had, LBJ mcromanaged the war, Pierre Salinger was press secretary (secret? ary)and Walter Cronkite led the propaganda machine and tipped off the enemy in press releases.
I echo what Steve said.
Thank you Steve, God bless you and all those fellow Marines, Hue was indeed a hell hole that few know about.

Posted by: Jack at February 8, 2008 12:17 PM

I served with an US Army advisory team deep in the Mekong Delta. We killed more VC in a three week period of the 68 Tet Offensive, than we killed total in the preceeding 17 months. We basically wiped out the VC cadre and rendered them ineffective as a fighting force. They never recovered.

Not only did the communists fail to defeat us militarily, they also failed at what I believe was their primary objective. They totally failed to rally the populace. The South Vietnamese people rallied to us and in many cases actively supported us and the South Vietnamese troops. One of the main tenets of Marxist guerilla warfare is to rally the general populace to the guerilla's side. This was a bitter failure for the Viet Cong and NVA.

I came home just two months after the Tet Offensive began, thinking we had just won the war. Instead I find that the media had declared it a defeat for us, LBJ called off the bombing of the North and also gave his "I quit" speech and declined to run for reelection.

Thank you MSM and Walter Cronkite you self serving bastard. Thank you LBJ, you cowardly piece of wastage. And thank you US Congress, you magnet of ignorance and criminal activity. Things are very much the same in 2008.

Posted by: TomR at February 8, 2008 12:25 PM

Walter Cronkite and the MSM are finally getting their long overdue and well deserved comeuppance. They are the old world monopoly media exposed by the many Internet voices showing them for the yellow journalism political hacks and rags that they are.

Old world Walter Cronkite and the MSM's legacy will be -- Who gives a s**t?

Posted by: Les at February 8, 2008 06:28 PM

Steve, thank you with all my heart, and your fellow soldiers will never be forgotten.

This article surprised me because so many have twisted what happened and this one at least gave it a much better write up Tet. Thank goodness it sure took long enough.

Posted by: Wild Thing at February 8, 2008 07:11 PM

Jack, thank you, this post was a hard one to decide to do. I didn't want to stir anything up but at the same time it was good to see someone not forgetting and writing about it better then any other I had ever seen. When cuchieddie sent it to me he felt the same way.

I agree with you about those that worked so hard for the enemy. I pray there is a special place in hell for them.

Posted by: Wild Thing at February 8, 2008 07:25 PM

Tom, thank you, yes and those of us back here were very upset (that word doesn't even fit how angry so many of ous were) too when we kept hearing the lies and we knew men that were in Nam and what the truth truly was.

Posted by: Wild Thing at February 8, 2008 07:29 PM

Les exactly finally after all these years and even this article is only a small way of getting back at Cronkite and the other liars.

Posted by: Wild Thing at February 8, 2008 07:30 PM

I wasn't there in 68 but we did our share of the hill fights around Khe Sanh in 67. I came home in July 67, and still had friends there when TET began in 68.

After the siege of Khe Sanh started, the MSM had written the Marines off, as facing Americas own Dien Bien Phu. Who the hell do they think they were talking about. They had us defeated before the battle was even half over. The lousy bastards. That was the first time I realized that half this country wasn't behind us.

What they didn't reckon with was the fact that the French were NOT there any more but it was the United States Marines and there was not enough NVA in the South to run the Marines off that combat base.

Posted by: Mark at February 8, 2008 09:56 PM

I was in Vietnam 1965-66 and 1969-70. USMC. The tears are rolling down my checks as I type this. I am so happy to See this. I have sent this to my two youngest sons. One in the US Navy (8years) and one in the USMARINES (6 years). Yes lifers. and I am damn proud of them. S/F GG Young Sgt of Marines 1964-71.

Posted by: Guy Gordon Young at February 11, 2008 07:10 PM

Sgt Guy Young, thank you so much for serving our country. Welcome Home!!!!

I am so honored that you saw this post and commented.

Posted by: Wild Thing at February 11, 2008 11:34 PM