The war in Iraq is often compared to Vietnam by critics. They see a direct parallel in Iraq to America’s experience in Vietnam. But there is a similarity that they do not realize, argues Arthur Herman in the February 6th issue of The Wall Street Journal. In Vietnam, as in Iraq, the defeatist reporting of the mainstream media ignored the tangible tactical successes, and ultimately had a direct and primary influence on the outcome of the conflict in question. The media sees what it wants to see, and believes what it wants to believe, and those biases shape policy and perception back in America.
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.
The readers of the Journal were split on their assessment of Herman’s argument.
As a former Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam in 1968-69, the two bloodiest years of the war on both sides, I applaud Arthur Herman (“The Lies of Tet,” op-ed, Feb. 6) for his timely reminder that “Vietnam-era media bias continues to shape our political debate.” As Mr. Herman has written, “The Viet Cong insurgency was in its death throes,. . .” a view corroborated by Col. Bui Tin. Col. Tin who served on the North Vietnamese Army general staff and who received the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, confirmed Tet was an American military victory.
In “Following Ho Chi Minh: Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel,” Mr. Tin wrote that “Our losses were staggering and a complete surprise. [His long-time mentor and hero of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Gen. Vo Nguyen] Giap later told me that Tet had been a military defeat, though we had gained the political advantages when [President Lyndon] Johnson agreed to negotiate and did not run for reelection.”
Mr. Tin continued: “Our forces in the South were nearly wiped out by all the fighting in 1968. It took us until 1971 to re-establish our presence but we had to use North Vietnamese troops as local guerrillas. If the American forces had not begun to withdraw under Nixon in 1969, they could have punished us severely. . . . We suffered badly in 1969 and 1970 as it was.”
With respect to strategy, Mr. Tin concluded that “If Johnson had granted [Gen. William] Westmoreland’s requests to enter Laos and block the Ho Chi Minh trail, Hanoi could not have won the war.”
Arthur Herman’s opinion about the media lies of Tet, tells a worse lie when he only tells a half-truth, that the media distorted the results of the 1968 Tet Offensive leading to America’s defeat. The untold other half-truth is that the Vietnam war was never winnable due to a combination of American incompetence in conducting the war, and a South Vietnamese failure to build a stable, effective government in Saigon.
But the truth is that political and military incompetence and wishful thinking, or dreaming about creating democracy, need to be looked at more closely. In Iraq, Gen. Petraeus has turned the tide on incompetency, but it might be too late, while a Baghdad democracy looks precarious.
Vietnam Combat War Veteran
Mr. Herman rehearses once again the argument that the American war in Vietnam could have been won, and its grisly aftermath prevented, by more honest reporting and less encouragement by the press of the antiwar movement. This is a myth, one kept alive for decades both by the right (who want someone to blame) and the left (who want to believe that for one brief shining moment they had the power to change history), undeterred by the actual facts of that strange and bloody year.
The brute fact is, we don’t control what happens. What “could have” happened in Vietnam 40 years ago is what did happen, and it is time — it is long past time — for this ugly, pointless debate to come to an end.
I was a member of an armor unit near Saigon during that time. You had to see the low walls of enemy dead stacked like cordwood outside that ring of armor to understand our bewilderment when we read that we had been defeated. I think that anyone who was not actually a participant in Tet never understood what our soldiers accomplished and how quickly they regained the initiative. Certainly no account of that success has ever before appeared in the mainstream press. My thanks.
Col. Michael D. Mahler
Mr. Herman’s comments revisit the age old excuse of any failed enterprise — the fault lies elsewhere.
The real lesson, which Mr. Herman completely misses, is that a military victory in a foreign country in the midst of an internal struggle for power just will not succeed. Ever.
Here is a simple way of looking at those past events. Vietnam is now a tourist destination for people throughout the world, including Americans, and is developing extensive trading associations with U.S. companies. Our former enemy is now a trading partner. Tell me what those lives were lost for — and what alternative result would have been better had we “won” and determined Vietnam’s future on our terms.
Michael Stout, M.D.