The Legacy of the Tet Offensive
Pushing against a dangerous, ahistorical myth of contemporary American history.


James S. Robbins, who has been a contributor to National Review Online since the September 11 terrorist attack, is author of a new book, This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive. The book, as he describes in an interview with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, is an effort to bury a myth and crush a continuing source of inspiration to America’s enemies.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You call the Tet Offensive a “powerful symbol divorced from its reality” and describe it as a having become “more than a battle; it is a legacy, a legend, a continually replicating story line.” How does history get this out of control?

JAMES S. ROBBINS: Tet was misrepresented from the start, and over time the misrepresentation became an accepted fact in the culture at large. There are some very good reality-based histories of Tet, but most contemporary commentators use the Tet analogy to imply “the end is near” in whatever unconventional war the United States is fighting. Plus, the bad guys know this and will attempt to generate facts on the ground that engage the media’s Tet reflex. When you have something like the Wikileaks document dump being compared to Tet, as Time’s Joe Klein did, you know something is seriously wrong with how people understand what went on back in 1968.

LOPEZ: If you were writing the paragraph in your kids’ social-studies textbook about Tet, how would it read?

ROBBINS: The four most important frequently wrong things to correct are: Tet was not a surprise attack; it was not intended only to be a symbolic strike; it did not turn the American public against the war effort; and it did not drive Johnson to the negotiating table, because he had been futilely calling for peace talks since the war began.

LOPEZ: Could we have really won?

ROBBINS: Absolutely. The Vietnam War was lost by choice. The biggest American mistake was not seeking victory but fighting for a negotiated status quo peace. Johnson said in 1965 that the United States would convince the enemy that “we will not be defeated,” but that just handed the initiative to the Communists. There is a big difference between trying to win and trying not to lose.

LOPEZ: Is it really true that young people supported the war in Vietnam in the summer of 1967, the “Summer of Love”?

ROBBINS: Probably the most astonishing fact I turned up in my research was that young people supported the war effort in greater numbers than older Americans. According to Gallup, in May 1967, at the onset of the “Summer of Love” and “Flower Power,” hawks outnumbered doves on college campuses 49 percent to 35 percent, and among draft-age young men the hawk edge was even greater, 56 percent to 30 percent. You would never know that from the hippie histories of the 1960s that portray most young people as long-haired, dope-smoking draft resisters. But the poll numbers cannot be denied.