Politics & Policy

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.

#ad#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.

#page#LOPEZ: What do you mean by “Lyndon Johnson had not lost Middle America. Middle America lost Lyndon Johnson”?

ROBBINS: In the wake of Tet, the majority of the American people wanted to escalate the war. They understood that the Communists had been decisively defeated on the battlefield and the time was ripe for forcing an end to the conflict. But President Johnson was paralyzed by indecision and received conflicting suggestions from his advisers. Johnson delayed making a decision until the moment for concerted action passed, and then basically gave up.

#ad#LOPEZ: What was President Johnson thinking?

ROBBINS: He honestly believed that he could reach a peace agreement with the Communists that would guarantee a free South Vietnam. Unfortunately, LBJ simply did not understand the Communist worldview. Johnson wanted a deal, but Ho Chi Minh wanted to win.

LOPEZ: How was the famous Walter Cronkite moment a “legend”? He did, in fact, blurt out, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning this war.”

ROBBINS: The legend is not that he turned against the war effort, but that he was a bellwether for American public opinion. At the same time Walter Cronkite was turning into a dove, the American people were becoming more hawkish. According to Gallup, the percentage self-identifying as hawks climbed from 52 percent in December 1967 to 56 percent in early January 1968 to 60 percent in the week after the start of Tet. The respective percentage of doves dropped from 35 percent to 28 percent to 23 percent. Three weeks later, the hawks still had a better than two-to-one edge. And slightly more people wanted to settle the issue with nuclear weapons than wanted to pull out. Cronkite may have set the agenda among the political class but not in the country generally. Besides, at this time Huntley and Brinkley had higher ratings.

LOPEZ: How did “the quest for the moment” become “absurd” during the Iraq war?

ROBBINS: During the Iraq war, whenever someone voiced skepticism about the course of the conflict who hadn’t done so previously, commentators rushed to invoke Walter Cronkite, as though the myth could be replicated. Probably the most absurd use was in 2006, when NBC News decided to declare the Iraq insurgency a “civil war” and Keith Olbermann made a big deal about that as a “Walter Cronkite moment.” Good thing no one took him seriously.

LOPEZ: How powerful has the media been vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan?

ROBBINS: If the mainstream media had as much influence as some of its critics say, we probably would have lost both those wars already. Fortunately, since Vietnam, the media cannot lead public opinion the way it did, and even back then its power was overrated. Tet is a case in point: The press went one way and the public went another. The high-water mark for network-TV-news ratings was 1969; the decline began long before the CNN revolution. And today there are a multitude of news and information outlets offering diverse viewpoints and performing a watchdog function that the traditional Big Three networks did not have to contend with.

LOPEZ: How did Tet lower the standards for victory?

ROBBINS: It made it easier for insurgents to generate strategic effects in the media, because after Tet they do not have to actually win but only seem to — or, often, simply do something that creates headlines. The “symbolic attack” has a very real impact in wars of perception. This is a very difficult thing to deal with, and it is a decided advantage for America’s enemies.

#page#LOPEZ: What was the Hue Massacre?

ROBBINS: Hue was the only city in South Vietnam over which the Communists gained substantial control. During their three weeks in power in Hue, they massacred thousands of “enemies of the people,” often in the most gruesome ways imaginable. Mass graves turned up for years afterward. It was one of the greatest such wartime atrocities in history. But the American press coverage was minimal, and Communist apologists in this country tried either to minimize the scope of the massacre or deny it ever happened.

#ad#LOPEZ: Did Iraq have any Hues?

ROBBINS: Wherever radical Islamists are active, innocent people are slaughtered. The main difference is scale. If there had been as many al-Qaeda insurgents in Iraq as there were Viet Cong in South Vietnam, it would have been a charnel house.

LOPEZ: Does Tet truly still inspire terrorists? Or did Osama bin Laden use it because he knew it was an open wound?

ROBBINS: The American defeat in Vietnam is a standing inspiration to terrorists; they have said as much. Tet is the model for gaining victories in the press that they cannot achieve on the battlefield. They have analyzed this in detail. Osama bin Laden wrote to Mullah Omar that “media war” may account for “90 percent of the total preparation for battles.”

LOPEZ: Is this one of the greatest injustices of history, that we allow this myth to live?

ROBBINS: Let’s not allow it, let’s get rid of it. That’s the purpose of the book.

LOPEZ: When did you decide you were going to write this book? Did you feel an obligation to truth and to those who served in Vietnam?

ROBBINS: Yes, definitely. Vietnam vets gave me the title. When I spoke to vets about my work on the Tet Offensive, they often said, “Do we win this time?” Absolutely, this time we win.

LOPEZ: The way we received the soldiers upon returning from Vietnam is a source of national shame. Have we recovered? Can we recover? Have we learned?

ROBBINS: I think the outstandingly positive public response to the troops engaged in the war on terrorism has buoyed the Vietnam generation. In general, people show great respect for those who wear or have worn the uniform, and that includes Vietnam vets. Maybe there is an element of guilt in that for the shameful way the troops who returned from Vietnam were treated. We have definitely learned, especially those of us who have always supported the troops. If you were to spit on someone in uniform these days, there would be hell to pay.

LOPEZ: Are there lessons President Obama needs to learn from Tet?

ROBBINS: Ignore the press and the defeatists. Know your enemy, keep clear goals in mind, and never give up.

LOPEZ: What did you find most revealing in your research?

ROBBINS: My research reconfirmed what I had previously believed, that the war could have been won, and fairly swiftly, if it had been fought without so many self-imposed limitations. The U.S. gave the Communists tremendous advantages — safe havens in Cambodia and Laos, making North Vietnam off-limits to ground operations, restricted targeting in the bombing campaign. It made achieving victory that much more difficult. Imagine what would have happened if Hanoi had been treated to something like “shock and awe.” As Ronald Reagan said in 1965, “It’s silly talking about how many years we will have to stay in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas.” Even with the restrictions, we were winning, but the war could have been settled much more quickly and favorably if Johnson had listened to his military commanders.

LOPEZ: Who was the unsung hero of the Vietnam War?

ROBBINS: Considering how unsung the heroes of that war are in general it is hard to say. It was a noble effort, doggedly fought, and thrown away by politicians.

LOPEZ: Who could have made sure we won?

ROBBINS: Only President Johnson could have used Tet to force total defeat on North Vietnam, but he was not the man for the job.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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