Forty years ago today the North Vietnamese and Vietcong launched the general offensive/general uprising, known to history as the Tet Offensive after the Vietnamese new year’s holiday during which it began. It was a last-ditch attempt at a quick win in a war the Communists knew they were losing. They thought that a series of attacks in South Vietnam’s urban centers would spark a civil uprising against the regime in Saigon, and the people would join them at the barricades. But within days it was clear the offensive had failed, and the general uprising was not forthcoming. By the end of the operation the NVA and VC had lost upwards of 45,000 killed, inflicting less than 4,500 losses on U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Yet Tet was a great embarrassment to the United States, and many saw it as a defeat.
There has been resurgent interest in Tet in recent years, given the war in Iraq and the propensity to debate policy by way of analogy. We periodically see articles anticipating, predicting, even proclaiming another Tet, either as a cautionary tale or because some would like to see history repeat.
Tet is commonly viewed as a watershed event in the war, the critical turning point when the American public, frustrated over having been misled about the progress of the conflict, finally abandoned Johnson. The president summed it up himself after watching Walter Cronkite’s report from the battered city of Hue declaring the war unwinnable. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” he said, “I’ve lost Middle America.” Other influential voices in the media joined in the chorus. Political opportunists — the “hawks who turned dove in mid-flight” to use John P. Roche’s memorable phrase — piled on. A month later a disheartened Johnson suspended bombing over 90 percent of North Vietnam and declared his intention not to seek his party’s nomination, as a means of showing Hanoi he sincerely wanted peace. Thus a decisive military victory was turned into a political defeat.
Most of that story line is true, but Tet was not the point at which Johnson lost Middle America. In fact the public had abandoned LBJ over a year earlier. According to Gallup the crossover point where more Americans opposed Johnson’s handling of the war than supported it was December 1966. By August of 1967 he could only muster a 27-percent approval rating as a war leader. This number rose somewhat before Tet — up to 39 percent in January 1968 — but the “collapse” recorded in the Gallup poll the week after the battle was only four points.
Americans grew discouraged with Johnson because his administration was not trying to win. Defense Secretary McNamara was pursuing an esoteric limited-war strategy intended to bring about a negotiated settlement that enshrined the status quo. But Americans understand war as a “win or lose” proposition, preferably “win.” We had not sacrificed over 16,000 Americans by the beginning of 1968 to achieve a draw. And a hard-line Leninist like Ho Chi Minh viewed negotiations as simply a good time to reload.
But disapproval of Johnson’s handling of the war did not mean opposition to the war effort per se. At the low point of LBJ’s public support, only 32 percent of the American people wanted to withdraw from South Vietnam; 50 percent wanted to escalate, to seek not a tie but a win.
Most Americans wanted Johnson to be tougher. This was true even among the youth. According to Gallup, in May 1967 Hawks outnumbered Doves on college campuses 49 percent to 35 percent. But wait, wasn’t 1967 the Summer of Love, Flower Power, Abby Hoffman, and the Yippies trying to levitate the Pentagon? Yes, but that stuff played better in the media than the kinds of things the young Hawks were into. You don’t win any prizes for photos of kids studying and getting haircuts.
The immediate impact of Tet was to make America even more bellicose. Gallup data showed that the percentage of self-described Hawks in the general population rose from 52 percent in December 1967 to 60 percent in the immediate wake of the battle. The corresponding percentage of Doves dropped from 35 percent to 24 percent. A contemporaneous Harris survey also showed strong support for a vigorous response to the communist attack.
The problem was not Middle America, it was Lyndon Johnson. Instead of responding to the communists’ desperation attack with renewed vigor — instead of taking advantage of a severely weakened enemy by imposing terms through massive conventional retaliation — Johnson essentially folded. Westmoreland’s request for reinforcements was denied, the bombing campaign in the North was radically scaled back, and Hanoi was so stunned by the turn of events it thought Johnson was attempting some kind of trick.
The North Vietnamese claim that they had meant to target the American political system all along. A 40th-anniversary article claims that the Communists sought to influence not only the 1968 election but 1964 and 1972 as well. (Considering that two of those were incumbent landslides they did very poorly.) But General Vo Nguyen Giap, who commanded the North Vietnamese forces during Tet, recently called the “flawed” offensive “yet another costly lesson paid for in blood and bone.” They may have won but definitely not in the way they intended.
Ironically the notion that Tet was intended as a symbolic attack originated with our own policymakers. This idea was in Johnson administration talking points from day one. Since it was self-evidently absurd that the Communists were hoping to win — because, really, how could they? — they had to be aiming for something else. Johnson was mirror-imaging; U.S. combat actions were intended to “send a message,” so we assumed the enemy’s were too. Thus by downgrading Communist objectives to something attainable, Johnson helped them attain it. High-profile but hopeless attacks, such as that on the U.S. embassy in Saigon, set the wheels in motion, and press coverage did the rest.
The legacy of Tet from the point of view of our adversaries is that it is possible to defeat the United States by targeting its political will. But they cannot hope to achieve this when our country has strong leadership. When crises erupt people will rally behind a forceful leader. This is the relevance of Tet in this election year. From the standpoint of national security, it is critical to elect a president with the dynamism, charisma, and ineffable personal qualities that make a great leader. It is not something found in bulging briefing books or clever talking points. It resides in the content of one’s character. As a voter, you know it in your gut. This one won’t let us down. This one will fight. This one will win.
– James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University, and author of a forthcoming book on the Tet Offensive.