Defeatist Reporting on Tet and on Iraq Colors Policy

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.”

Chuck Mansfield
Mineola, N.Y.

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.

Dave Gallo
Vietnam Combat War Veteran
San Francisco

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.

Peter Johnston
New York

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
Bozeman, Mont.

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.
Columbia, S.C.

13 Responses to Defeatist Reporting on Tet and on Iraq Colors Policy

  1. [...] Anxiety Insights wrote an interesting post today on Defeatist Reporting on Tet and on Iraq Colors PolicyHere’s a quick excerptThe war in Iraq is often compared to Vietnam by critics. They see a direct parallel in Iraq to America’s experience in Vietnam. [...]

  2. Richard says:

    Interesting isn’t it? The left still cling to the myth of the “good defeat”.
    If democracy had prevailed over Communist tyranny in South Vietnam, we might have a South Vietnam, akin to South Korea.
    Then the world would indeed be different.

  3. Mark M says:

    RL,

    I believe that Arthur Herman does not describe accurately the relationship between reporting of the Vietnam war and the military and political outcome(s). I recommend Bill Hammond’s analysis of the Vietnam experience. I know Bill. He’s a careful historian.

    I copied the following short description of Bill’s analysis from Amazon:

    William M. Hammond, _Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War_ (1999).

    From Publishers Weekly
    Chess lovers will relish every move and countermove in this exhaustive unearthing of the machinations between the military and the press during the Vietnam War. Hammond, senior historian with the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History, depicts the tension between the armed services and the media as a game of strategy, with the Pentagon trying to impose order on a bevy of reporters, only to find that the journalists got the scoop anyway. The author points out that the military’s efforts to control the way the war was perceived were determined at times not by the public’s need to know but by the political fortunes of the president and presiding military officer. Drawing on a thorough examination of military documents and newspaper and broadcast reports, Hammond explains how the press allowed the military to bring back tear gas for use in the war; how various news organizations contradicted themselves and one another in describing the war’s unfolding; and how much of the American public came to feel that the war was a hopeless effort. The book would have been stronger had the author done more to personalize the reporters. From the Baltimore Sun’s daring John Carroll to the AP’s resourceful Peter Arnett (who even today finds himself embroiled in controversy), the reporters are left faceless for the most part, because in the battle between Pentagon and Fourth Estate, Hammond focuses mostly on institutions, not individuals. Still, the author has turned his academic search into a highly readable account of one-upsmanship and high-stakes jockeying. Illustrations not seen by PW.
    Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

    Washington Post Book World
    “Hammond succeeds in puncturing much of the mythology about the media–and doing so in a readable and thorough fashion.”

    Mark M

  4. N00man says:

    Professor Landes, I’m not sure what the point of this post is. Are you really peddling this stab-in-the-back vietnam revisionism? Do you really think we could have propped up the corrupt and feeble pseudo-democracy of the Republic of Vietnam just because we killed a whole lot more of theirs during Tet 68 than they killed of ours?

    As to comment number two, counterfactual arguments don’t hold much water; they are, in fact, the meat and drink of conspiracy theorists.

    If Iraq falls apart despite the efforts of the surge, devolving into several hostile states that include several fundamentalist republics, there will be those who blame the New York Times editorial page and CNN.

    “. . . a military victory in a foreign country in the midst of an internal struggle for power just will not succeed. ”

    This isn’t defeatism. It’s realism.

  5. [...] Defeatist Reporting on Tet and on Iraq Colors Policy 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… in America. On January 30, 1968, more than a quarter million North Vietnamese soldiers and 100,000 Viet…. 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 [...]

  6. Michael B says:

    It wasn’t a “pseudo” democracy, it was a nascent hope of a democracy, to be sure, one that was additionally being attacked from most every quarter, certainly so the North, for example the original “Ho Chi Minh trail” was simply a numbered trail, only later named after “Uncle Ho,” and a trail used to infiltrate with terrorists and various ideological “persuaders” during the mid to late 50′s and early 60′s and beyond, which fact was one of the reasons Kennedy initiated a more concerted involvement in the first place.

    It’s nearly a useless argument, not because of the substantive issues, plots, counter-plots, intrigues, etc. involved, but because everyone is so entrenched. The very fact it’s still debated on so many false grounds is strongly indicative in and of itself.

    I could recommend fifteen to twenty volumes, such as Lind’s “Vietnam, the Necessary War” or Moyar’s “Triumph Forsaken” but they’re available for anyone who more genuinely cares to do the research. A solid and probative on-line essay of some length is particularly revealing, Peter Rollins’ essay on Sheehan’s Bright Shining Lie.

    And of course the memory hole strategies among the status quo are also revealing. No talk of the one million “boat people,” itself a banal euphemism (dysphemism?), 125,000 to 250,000 of which died at sea; no talk of the approximately 50,000 Vietnamese executed by Uncle Ho and his henchmen during his “land reform” (another euphemism) of the early to mid-50′s; no talk of Uncle Ho’s service to Stalin and Mao during his ideological formative and maturing period (instead, he’s still portrayed as a simple, humble “nationalist,” still another euphemism); no talk of the 65,000 or more summarily executed in the immediate wake of April 1975; no talk of the 250,000 varioiusly killed in Stalinist styled gulags and Maoist styled “reeducation” camps (aren’t euphemisms lovely?); no talk of the 300,000 to 500,000 who starved to death in the wake of ’75; no talk as well of the 400,000 to 500,000 South Vietnamese civilians killed by the North during the 1955 to 1975 period.

    There are no absolutely authoritative numbers, but all the numbers cited are attributable to various and documented sources:

    + Robert F Turner’s “Vietnamese Communism: Origins/Development”

    + Al Santoli’s “To Bear any Burdan” (e.g., Doan Van Toai and Nguyen Tuong Lai in Santoli’s volume suggest the total massacred in the immediate wake of was as many as 200,000, hence the estimates noted above are by no means the higher number of those variously researched and reported)

    + Moyar’s “Triumph Forsaken”

    + Michael Lind’s “Vietnam, the Necessary War”

    + Lewis Sorley’s “A Better War”

    + a 2001 investigation by the Orange County Register (e.g., which came up with a number of 165,000 killed as a result of 1,000,000 being placed in those gulags/reeducation camps)

    That doesn’t mean that more honest debates are still not possible, but it is more than merely suggestive of the fact that most debates don’t occur on a level playing field, to be over-kind about it.

    Your “realism,” Nooman, arrogates and presumes a great deal, much as it elides some inconvenient facts and “numbers” as well.

  7. N00man says:

    Michael,
    I wouldn’t dare suggest that the conquest of South Vietnam by “Uncle Ho” (was that his local honorific?) wasn’t calamitous. I’m skeptical of the claim that the US press was responsible.

    I’ll look into the books; thank you for the recommendation.

  8. fp says:

    I am willing to accept that there is some angle of justification for both Vietnam and Iraq, small as it may be. The problems were that (a) america does not know and understand the enemy well (b) it uses military methods not very effective with guerilla (c) it expects quick and overwhelming victory and when that’s not possible, it wants out, regardless of consequences.

    in the context of today’s enemies this is a losing proposition.

    fp
    http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/

  9. Michael B says:

    Nooman,

    I wasn’t suggesting you thought it (Uncle Ho & Co.’s conquest) was benign, I was more simply, if pointedly, noting the memory hole basis of so many of the positions and arguments. It strikes me that the pointed quality is warranted given the too standard and too readily accepted status quo positions. Likewise, I wasn’t suggesting the press corp was singularly complicit, but they were a factor and imo a decided factor, very possibly decisive in at least some sense, and not merely Cronkite/Tet. Sheehan, Halberstam and a relatively small number of others, largely those who formed the earliest members of the U.S. press corp, were particularly critical according to most everything I’ve read. Cronkite/Tet was important at a critical juncture, but he came in the wake of Halberstam, Sheehan and those others and was influenced by that earlier milieu. (v. Mark Moyar on Halberstam.)

    That (the press corp’s complicity), admittedly, is difficult at best to prove in a positive or absolute sense. But it’s no less difficult to prove its opposite (or, imo, to even imagine it), i.e. a benign, dispassionate, disinterested and “objective” press corp. Halberstam, especially, had much to say about Diem during the early years and this was an era when the NYT and WaPo reigned supreme both in terms of public opinion and perceptions and in terms of Washington’s attentiveness to the NYT and other outlets. Moreso than today, it was a simpler era, so I’ve heard.

    “Uncle Ho” is still the honorific used in Vietnam proper, though the state controls so much (e.g., continuous radio broadcasts of state policy, ideological propaganda), at least so the last time I read up on it several years ago, the honorific may well be state policy, or virtually so. I don’t know that though. (Also, as is often the case, Wiki is interesting for the hagiographic quality of Ho’s bio. I suspect that hagiographic quality, at wiki and elsewhere, is closely guarded by enthusiasts, ideologues and editors. The gloss at wiki covering Ho’s Soviet and Chinese period amuses a great deal.)

    Finally, I’m not suggesting it’s all clear cut, there were in fact machinations, plots, counter-plots, “fubars,” counter-fubars, etc. (Ellen Hammer’s “A Death in November,” a careful review of Diem’s assassination and something of a page-turner, is revealing on several levels.)

    At any rate, I’ve been told I’m too polemical at times and while I can’t imagine where that notion comes from, I didn’t intend any of it too pointedly or too “enthusiastically.”

  10. David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the – Web Reconnaissance for 02/15/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  11. fp says:

    the MSM flies with the wind, just like the american public. they go with winners and pound on the loser. everything else is commentary.

  12. Dave Rice says:

    Duh…..Jesus it pretty obvious isn’t it? My question would be simply..Where in the hell is the collective effort from the so called…”I support the troops” crowd? It’s garbage. These friggen frauds make millions with their radio, TV, book and various speeking gigs and all they consistantly do is give lip service to the troops and the american “conservative” idiot who quite franky seems the dumb nascar redneck we hear so much about.
    Limbaugh, Hannity, Oreilly, Coulter, Malkin and the rest are as bad if not worse than the truly unamerican horrendous MSM.
    And to argue the media and the antis didn’t or don’t sway action and policy it quite simply stoopid. Any clear thinking human being can see just how bad the American thought process is…Just look at the new prez.

  13. Stan says:

    Body counts do not determine much in a war. What matters is the ability of a governmnet to control an area or a population.
    If Tet was such a great victory for American forces that just got portrayed wrong in the press, then, we should have been able to pull out of Vietnam, leaving the South Vietnamese government in control.
    The reason we had to pull out, is that years after TET, there
    was still no end in sight. We had to stay seemingly forever to prop up the South.
    The same is true in Iraq. When the surge was suggested, the idea was we would be able to reduce our forces afterward. Suddenly the criteria for success has changed to that of irrelevant body count.

    Stan

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