Tet’s 30th anniversary presents a good opportunity to cut through the bodyguard of lies that distort that battle’s real significance. Tet’s 30th anniversary presents a good opportunity to cut through the bodyguard of lies that distort that battle’s real significance.
If the Vietnam War had a defining moment, it had to be the Tet Offensive of 1968. For today’s high school and college students, all of that war is ancient history, and even for those who lived through it, most of its battles have faded. But not Tet. Like Pearl Harbor or the Cuban missile crisis, it sticks in our collective memory. Unfortunately, however, much of what we “know” about Tet is actually part of the bodyguard of lies that has distorted its true meaning, leaving many veterans feeling guilty by association for the loss of the war.
The most enduring untruth about Tet is that it was the turning point of the war. In fact, as University of Rochester Professor John E. Mueller documented in War, Presidents and Public Opinion (Wiley), the American public actually turned against the war in October 1967, three months before Tet. When U.S. troops first went ashore in Vietnam in 1965, 61 percent of the American people approved and only 24 percent were opposed. A plurality continued to support the war, albeit in decreasing numbers, for the next 31 months, until October 1967, when for the first time more Americans opposed the distant war (46 percent) than approved of it (44 percent).
The decline was not due to the efforts of the anti-war movement, which, polls showed, was the most despised group in American society. American pragmatism was the cause of the decline. “Either win the damn thing or get the hell out,” was the public mood. After all the reassurance from the politicians and generals that all was well, Tet was the icing on the cake, proof positive that we did not know what we were doing. The perspicacity of the American people was confirmed by Clark Clifford when he took over as secretary of defense after Tet and found that three years into the ground war the Joint Chiefs of Staff still had no plan for victory.
That shortcoming is usually ascribed to ineptitude, but in this issue, Stephen B. Young claims that President Lyndon B. Johnson, following the lead of his predecessors, never subscribed to the goal of traditional victory and, in fact, had instructed his ambassador to Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker, to work toward an eventual U.S. disengagement without losing the war (see story, P. 20). That, says Young, was achieved in the wake of the 1973 Paris Accords, but was then sabotaged by Congress and by the fecklessness of the Ford administration.
Competing myths about Tet claim that it was a defeat for the United States, countered by equally strident claims that it was a military victory. Those opposing views can be reconciled through the use of a military template, for military analysis looks at battlefield events on three distinct but interlocking levels.
First is the tactical or battlefield level. Second is the operational or theater-of-war level. Third is the strategic or political-military level. Victory at one level does not necessarily guarantee victory at a higher level. You may indeed win the battle but lose the war. This was brought home to me in Hanoi a week before the fall of Saigon. “You know you never beat us on the battlefield!” I said to my NVA counterpart. He thought about that a moment, then replied, “That may be so. But it’s also irrelevant.”
At the tactical and operational levels, Tet was an enormous victory for the United States and for the South Vietnamese government, especially when it came to winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people, the stated goal of our counterinsurgency warfare efforts. In his classic work Tet! (Da Capo), Washington Post war correspondent Don Oberdorfer made that clear. “There had been no General Uprising and nothing resembling the beginning of one,” he wrote. “Among the Vietnamese people, the battles had created doubts about Communist military power. The Liberation Army had attacked in the middle of the Tet truce when the South Vietnamese Army was on leave, and even so it had been able to achieve only temporary inroads. If the Communists were unable to take the cities with a surprise attack in such circumstances, they would probably be unable to do better at any other time.” It was the end of the Viet Cong guerrillas. By 1970, 70 percent of enemy forces in the field were NVA regulars.
But at the strategic level it was another matter entirely, as Peter Braestrup, another Washington Post war correspondent whose Big Story is reviewed in this issue, pointed out. Lyndon Johnson was “psychologically defeated” by Tet. Veterans need to stop blaming themselves, for if the commander-in-chief is defeated, the nation is defeated, no matter how well military forces in the field may have performed.
Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., Editor, Vietnam Magazine