Today is the publication date of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, by James Robbins. Jim is an editorial writer for the Washington Times on defense policy. He also teaches International Relations at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He is a former Special Assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and a frequent commentator on national security issues for The Wall Street Journal, National Review and other publications.
I vividly remember following news of the Tet offensive in 1968 and subsequently fell for virtually every element of the myth of Tet that Robbins exposes in this lucid, important book. The book thus rings a bell with me, as I suspect it will for many readers of this site. Robbins argues that the myth of Tet has lived on to do much damage. As soon as I read the book in galley proof, I invited Jim to write something that would allow us to draw it to the attention of our readers. He writes:
The 1968 Tet Offensive is remembered as a surprise attack by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces on symbolic targets in South Vietnam that turned American public opinion against the war and drove President Lyndon Johnson to the bargaining table. It is heralded as the turning point in the Vietnam War that ultimately led to the American withdrawal and victory of the communist forces.
For over forty years the myth of Tet has inspired America’s adversaries as a model for achieving low-cost strategic victories, and has provided American commentators with a shorthand means of conjuring the specter of inevitable U.S. defeat. Whenever terrorists or insurgents lash out in dramatic fashion, regardless of how swiftly they are crushed, the Tet analogy is sure to follow. Whether it was the fighting in Fallujah, scattered Taliban attacks in Kabul, or Wikileaks’ publication of 91,000 classified documents on the Afghan War, the American pundits’ Tet reflex hands the enemy a roadmap to a low-cost route to victory.
Tet provides a ready story line to journalists and terrorists alike; but the problem is that it is not true.
The Tet Offensive Was Not a Surprise Attack
When the main Tet attacks kicked off on January 31, 1968, the Tet Offensive was quickly dubbed a “surprise” by the home front press who dogged the Johnson administration with questions about “intelligence failure.” But Tet was not a surprise. Documents captured the previous November outlined the overall scheme of the attack, and the enemy plan had been briefed to journalists at the U.S. Embassy the first week in January. Three weeks before Tet kicked off, Army Lieutenant General Frederick C. Weyand, who commanded the forces around Saigon, received permission from MACV Commander General William Westmoreland to deploy his troops to meet the expected enemy action. The South Vietnamese government shortened the traditional Tet holiday furlough, and U.S. forces across Vietnam readied for the coming battle.
Even the press understood something was about to happen. “For months any journalist with decent sources was expecting something big at Tet,” wrote Don North of ABC News. General Weyand gave off-the-record briefings detailing his preparations for the attacks. Three days before the Tet Offensive began the Washington Post noted that “the Communists appear to be preparing for a major push in their winter-spring offensive.” And due to a command and control error that launched a number of enemy attacks a day early, all U.S. forces were already on alert status by the time the main thrust arrived. If anyone should have been surprised it was the Viet Cong.
The Communists Wanted to Win Not “Send a Message”
The Tet Offensive involved attacks on over 100 cities and towns by up to 84,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars. That fact alone makes comparisons to the odd multiple car-bomb attack or firefight at an obscure outpost seem misplaced. But the Tet analogy is usually applied on the symbolic level, where the scope of the attacks are irrelevant.
The most potent symbol of Tet was the failed assault by 19 Viet Cong sappers on the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon. While fighting raged across the country, the embassy attack was given a disproportionate amount of press coverage. It seemed as though the enemy had mounted a suicide strike at a symbol of American power to send a message that the VC could hit the U.S. even in its most secure sanctuaries.
But just because the embassy attack turned out to be suicidal did not mean it was a suicide mission. The VC strike force was ordered to seize and hold the embassy until reinforcements arrived from the expected South Vietnamese revolt. This was a microcosm of the overall communist plan, known as the General Offensive/General Uprising. The strategists in Hanoi, beguiled by American press reports, believed that their tripwire attacks would foment a mass, spontaneous revolution of the South Vietnamese people against the “corrupt” Saigon regime and the American “imperialist occupiers.” But when the people refused to rally to the communist cause, the VC attackers were left exposed, outnumbered and outgunned. Rather than achieving total victory they suffered a humiliating, historic defeat.
The communists never intended any of their Tet attacks to be purely symbolic. But because their plan was so severely flawed and had no chance of succeeding, a snap analysis by the CIA concluded that the enemy must have been trying simply to “send a message.” This analysis was inserted into talking points used by President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara, and the press obligingly picked up the story line. By unilaterally redefining enemy objectives down to that which they actually achieved, the United States gave the communists credit for a strategic impact they never sought.
Tet Did Not Turn the American Public Against the Vietnam War
The public response to Tet is the least understood, most misrepresented aspect of the offensive. According to Gallup, in the week after Tet began 54% of Americans disapproved of Johnson’s conduct of the war, a seven percent increase since early January 1968, but still six points below the 60% disapproval he had charted five months earlier.
Proponents of the Tet myth read disapproval of Johnson’s policies as indicating sentiment for peace, but this is not the case. The same Gallup poll that showed public disaffection with Johnson’s limited war approach to Vietnam indicated that only 24% of Americans identified themselves as anti-war “doves,” a number which had declined 11% since December, with 4% of the drop coming after Tet kicked off. But in the same poll 60% of Americans declared themselves pro-war “hawks,” whose numbers had increased eight percent since December and four percent since the Tet Offensive began. And by the end of February the number of “doves” in the country was two percent lower than the number of Americans who thought the U.S. should “win a military victory in Vietnam using atom bombs.”
So rather than engendering a sense of futility and swelling the ranks of the peace movement, the Tet Offensive made Americans more bellicose. The communists had deliberately violated a truce to mount a large-scale attack which had been decisively thwarted. The time was ripe for a massive counter-stroke that would destroy what remained of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces and end the war in allied victory.
LBJ Wanted Negotiations All Along
The turning point in the Tet myth is the “Walter Cronkite Moment,” when the veteran newscaster took an editorial stand against the war and called for a negotiated peace. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson allegedly said, “I’ve lost middle America.” The power that has been attributed to that moment has become legendary–the honest newsman as a bellwether of a nation, inducing despair in a President who understands that he had finally reached the end of the road.
Middle America had not actually rallied to Cronkite’s defeatist posture, but Johnson did not need to be driven the peace table. He had always sought a negotiated end to the conflict in Vietnam. Between 1964 and 1968 the United States proffered 70 separate peace initiatives attempting to draw the communists into negotiations. Hanoi had rejected every one. When the president called for talks on March 31, 1968 it was just the latest offer. The difference was that this time the communists were so weakened after their failure during Tet that they saw negotiations as their best chance of survival. The North Vietnamese were the ones who had been driven to negotiate; Johnson had been waiting at the table from the start.
In late 1968, Jack Fern, an NBC field producer, suggested that the network produce a program “showing that Tet had indeed been a decisive victory for America.” Senior producer Robert Northshield vetoed the idea, explaining that Tet was “established in the public’s mind as a defeat, and therefore it was an American defeat.” But as former South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States said, “history is written by the victors but eventually the truth comes out.”