Fifty years ago, North Vietnamese Communist attacks on South Vietnam’s towns and cities, launched at the end of January 1968, were a tragedy for South Vietnam.
The Tet Offensive that raged in the early part of that year, planned and ordered exclusively by Hanoi’s Communist leadership to crush its nationalist rivals, threw Hanoi’s South Vietnamese followers, the Viet Cong, mostly to their deaths in frontal assaults that gave them no means of retreat.
In two weeks of fighting, the Communists lost 33,000 killed. With Viet Cong ranks decimated, Hanoi sent south some 141,000 of its regular soldiers. By the end of 1968, the Communists had lost a combined 181,149 southern Viet Cong and invading North Vietnamese regulars.
By 1973, when Hanoi signed a peace agreement promising independence and freedom to the South Vietnamese, its Viet Cong partisans had been reduced to only 25,000 soldiers.
South Vietnam, by contrast, had 748,000 combat troops along with some 1 million citizens in lightly armed self-defense units. Saigon controlled 90 percent of South Vietnam’s population, 85 percent of which lived in secure communities.
So why was 1968’s Tet Offensive so tragic for the South Vietnamese?
Tet turned Americans against the Vietnamese defending their nationalist values through a government in Saigon, just as non-Communist Germans had a state in West Germany and nationalist Koreans had a state in South Korea.
In 1975, when Hanoi violated the Paris Peace Accords with a massive, illegal invasion of South Vietnam, the U.S. abandoned its allies. The Democratic Congress cut military aid, and the Republican Ford Administration did not send B-52 bombers to stop Hanoi’s divisions while they were out in the open on the march south.
Because of Tet 1968, many Americans had by then long since concluded that the Vietnam War could never be won and so conclusive defeat and unilateral withdrawal should be accepted.
Just three months before Tet, Gen. William Westmoreland, U.S. commander in Vietnam, had reported to Congress that the war was being won under the attrition and bombing tactics authored by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The simple fact, demonstrated in Tet, that Hanoi could still mount attacks all across Vietnam came as an inexplicable shock to Americans, especially because of the way the attacks were reported by American journalists.
Then, in a reasonable military recommendation but one lacking sound political sensibility, Westmoreland asked President Lyndon Johnson to deploy 200,000 more American combat troops to Vietnam.
The plan was to hit the Communists relentlessly now that they had lost so many soldiers and were overextended and exposed.
But American opinion leaders panicked. If we were really winning the war, how could so many more troops be needed for the fight?
Johnson only narrowly won the New Hampshire primary that winter. Robert Kennedy jumped into the race. The Democrats had begun the process of turning on the war and becoming the antiwar party, determined to leave the South Vietnamese to whatever fate came their way.
Soon after the offensive, Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, reported to Johnson that “[g]iven the fact that the enemy has suffered massive military defeat, the question arises whether he has secured in spite of it a psychological victory; whether people’s trust in the invincibility of the Allied forces has been shattered; whether their confidence in the ability of the [Saigon government] to provide security has been shaken; or whether on the other hand the VC’s perfidy … have aroused people’s indignation and resentment.”
Importantly, he noted that: “A highly encouraging development also was the very commendable performance of ARVN [South Vietnamese] forces.”
The underlying betrayal of the Vietnamese Nationalists was in not having their guts and determination noticed by American reporters.
Attacked during a holiday when half of South Vietnam’s soldiers and police were at home on leave, those unlucky enough to have drawn duty roster were quite outnumbered by Communist units sneaking into the cities and towns. But no South Vietnamese unit broke and ran. No popular mass movement of Nationalists to surrender and call for Communist rule arose.
To the contrary, South Vietnamese rallied to the anti-Communist cause. Daily some 1,200 young men volunteered for military service.
Indeed, after Tet, under a new village development and pacification program the South Vietnamese defeated the Viet Cong. American forces withdrew on schedule. Hanoi’s massive 1972 invasion with its regular army was defeated with American air support, forcing Hanoi into serious negotiations and a peace treaty.
That Americans abandoned the Vietnamese nationalists after they had come so far in their war for independence was shameless and a tragedy.
Why did the American elite get the truth about the Tet offensive so wrong?
Peter Braestrup, in his two-volume study of major network and press coverage of Tet, “Big Story,” reported that an NBC executive said: “It’s not a Vietnamese war; it’s an American war in Asia, and that’s the only story the American audience is interested in.”
Ethnocentric emphasis by U.S. reporters concentrated their coverage on American GIs, leaving the South Vietnamese faceless and unknown.
After his careful analysis, Braestrup concluded: “It might have been better, for newsmen and U.S. officials alike, to wait for the evidence. Once more, however, the media’s penchant for self-projection and instant analysis carried the day, and the resulting reporting turned out to be grossly misleading.”
When a senior officer described positive battlefield developments around Saigon to legendary CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, in Vietnam for a brief tour, Cronkite replied: “That may all be true, General, but I’ve decided the war can’t be won, and that’s what I am going to report.”
When Cronkite so informed his viewers, Lyndon Johnson ruefully said: “I’ve just lost middle America.”
Stephen B. Young, author of “The Theory and Practice of Associative Power — CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972,” served in Vietnam with MACV/CORDS from 1968 to 1971.