Seth  Mandel

The Truth about Vietnam: Correcting the Record on Tet

There are many ways to measure victory.

By all accounts–battle readiness, casualties, the realization of objectives and/or the thwarting of the enemy’s goals–the Tet Offensive was a success for the U.S.-led allied troops and a crushing defeat for the North Vietnamese.

Yet the battle was written into the history books as the opposite, and the prevailing narrative has caused everyone from Osama bin Laden to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to worship at the alter of Tet, seeking to replicate its perceived ends through various related means. And the media and supposed “experts” only encourage the perpetuation of the myth.

“Since it’s generally accepted–but wrong–that Tet drove the American people against the Vietnam war, you have a class of commentators, and people in government too, who keep anticipating this kind of event–some grand event that will suddenly mark a sea change in the support of any military effort overseas, at which point people just turn against it,” says James S. Robbins, author of the new book This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.

Robbins, senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at the Washington Times, lays out a thorough corrective in the book, beginning with one reason the press accounts of the notorious battle of the Vietnam War differed so greatly from the facts on the ground: the offensive was a surprise to the media–but only to the media.

“It was intended as a surprise attack but in fact our guys had a very good idea of what was about to happen,” Robbins said in an interview with Big Peace.

Another myth of the Tet Offensive was that it was intended purely as a symbolic attack. But as Robbins documents in the book, the North Vietnamese were looking to win.

Instead, Robbins says, “they were crushed. So in fact the problem there was that the Johnson administration itself downgraded the expectations of the enemy to sort of the symbolic realm and out of the military realm, and that was a self-inflicted wound. Because once the press picked that storyline, then it made it look like the enemy actually achieved what they wanted.”

To most, the Vietnam War is of the past. And while those who created the persistent storyline may prefer to keep it that way, Robbins points out that the mainstream understanding of Tet wasn’t just damaging at the time; it continues to buttress our terrorist enemies. That’s because the symbolic victory the press and the Johnson administration handed the North Vietnamese is something to which any terrorist group can aspire.

Another brick in the foundation of the Tet myth is that the battle lost President Johnson the public support he needed to fully prosecute the war.

“According to opinion polls at the time taken directly after Tet and a few weeks after Tet, the American people wanted to escalate the war,” Robbins says. “They understand that the enemy had suffered a terrible defeat, so there was an opportunity if we had taken concerted action to actually win this thing.”

In fact, a majority of those polled after Tet considered themselves “hawks,” Robbins found. He adds that in the summer of 1967, hawks outnumbered doves on college campuses. “The notion that young people were long-haired dope smoking draft resisters in 1967-68 is not true. The ‘Forrest Gump’ view of history is wrong.”

One of Tet’s flaws, Robbins says, was that the North Vietnamese believed that if they attacked countrywide in the south with their tripwire forces, the south would rise up in revolt against Saigon and join the communists.

“And the reason they believed that was because they were reading the New York Times,” Robbins says.

The war in Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, brought out countless comparisons to Tet. Unless the narrative changes, this is going to be a regular feature of war reporting in the U.S., according to Robbins. And that’s not the only modern parallel.

“The revelations that are out … from Woodward’s book on how decision-making works in the Obama White House is chillingly reminiscent of the way decision-making worked in the Johnson White House,” Robbins says.

To Robbins, the Vietnam narrative must be reclaimed from the “ruling class of hippies and leftists, who went from protests to the U.S. Senate in some cases” and those who “went from dope-smoking teach-ins to teaching from tenured positions on college campuses.”

“They set the agenda, they were the ones who put all this in place,” Robbins says. “And it’s really about time for all this to be untangled and Vietnam to be looked at objectively. Because what they have put in place, in terms of the lessons and the history and the morality of the war, it’s all very damaging to our national security right now.”

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