The Corner

Lessons from Tet

Gen. Petraeus’s letter to his troops was candid and circumspect, as well as being well-written, detailing successes as well as the dogged political stasis in Iraq–a Grant-like synopsis of things the was they are. The White House should not get involved with it, or try to spin it one way or another. But simply let the facts speak for themselves, and let others analyze them if they must.

In April, July, and November of 1967 Gen. Westmoreland, back in the states for various reasons and desirous of ever more troops,  gave a series of appraisals of Vietnam. Reading them now does not suggest that in themselves the reports were misleading–confident, but far from assuring that victory was right around the corner.  (After all, he wanted more soldiers so it was not in his interest to claim imminent victory). In fact, his prediction of Vietnamization proved prescient.

 But the Johnson administration almost immediately try to prod him for more, and then in near-suicidal fashion, LBJ began formulating what Westmoreland had outlined into something far more like rapid and inevitable victory, which the general had not quite said.

The result was that just three months later, the North Vietnamese attacked, were soundly defeated during Tet, yet  scored a brilliant political victory–not just because of things subsequent revisionism months later after My Lai, but due also to the same politicians, who in the glare of media outrage at the great/terrible news cycle, began to blame Westmoreland for past so-called “light at the end of the tunnel” unreal memos and predictions (that they had themselves sexed up).

The result was that the Gen. had no credibility, and was left hanging when sensational film came back of the embassy attack. And so he proved unable to explain that in fact U.S. forces by May 1968 had crushed the communist offensive in a series of victories.

Had the Johnson administration not prodded Westmoreland, but simply referred inquiries to the statements made, and emphasized the magnitude of the challenge, and the stark choices ahead, with ample warning of ups and downs, the public might have been able to sift through the defeatist coverage and see that the NVA had suffered a terrible victory.

No need to mention the rest.

As a side note, it  will be critical to see what al Qaeda in Iraq and/or bin Laden tries to do while Gen. Petraeus is testifying and we begin year seven after 9/11:  Militarily we can handle it, but politically not if we  upgrade unreasonably the general’s letter today or his report to come.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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