Magazine December 20, 2010, Issue

The Tet Myth

This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, by James S. Robbins (Encounter, 360 pp., $25.95)

Will Rogers was right: It’s not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, but the things we know that “just ain’t so.” In this remarkable new book, James Robbins shows how accurately this observation applies to the Vietnam War in general, and to the 1968 Tet offensive in particular. The book is a worthy successor to the definitive study of the press’s failures during Tet, Big Story, by my late friend Peter Braestrup.

Tet is the cornerstone of the Vietnam-defeat narrative, which, as Robbins observes, has provided American commentators with a shorthand means of conjuring the specter of inevitable U.S. failure in wars against weaker unconventional enemies. Whenever terrorists or insurgents lash out in dramatic fashion, regardless of how swiftly they are crushed, the Tet analogy is sure to follow. Writes Robbins: “Tet is kept alive by the pervasive use of analogy in public discourse, not as an analytical framework to better understand or conceptualize events but as a form of shorthand used to brand those events for media consumption. Such analogies are exercises in perception management, whether or not they have anything to do with the course and conduct of the insurgency or terrorist threat in question.”

The conventional narrative concerning Tet is that the offensive was a surprise attack by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces on symbolic targets in South Vietnam. The dramatic effect of the Tet offensive, the narrative continues, turned American public opinion against the war and convinced Pres. Lyndon Johnson that he had to bargain with Hanoi. Tet is thus seen as the turning point in the Vietnam War, leading ultimately to the American withdrawal and Communist victory.

Robbins demolishes the various pillars of this narrative. To begin with, the NVA/VC attack at the end of January 1968 was not a surprise to U.S. military planners: Robbins observes that the Americans and South Vietnamese had gleaned the overall scheme of the coming attack from documents captured the previous November. In fact, journalists at the U.S. embassy had been briefed about the enemy plan some three weeks before the offensive began.

Also three weeks before the attack, Lt. Gen. Frederick C. Weyand, commanding U.S. forces around Saigon, received permission from Gen. William Westmoreland, the overall commander for Vietnam, to deploy his troops to meet the expected assault. The South Vietnamese government shortened the traditional Tet holiday furlough, and U.S. forces across Vietnam readied for the battle. And due to a Communist command-and-control error that launched a number of attacks a day early, all U.S. forces were already on alert status by the time the main thrust arrived.

As Don North of ABC News wrote, “For months any journalist with decent sources was expecting something big at Tet.” Three days before the Tet attacks began, the Washington Post noted that “the Communists appear to be preparing for a major push in their winter-spring offensive.” In the weeks before the offensive, General Weyand gave off-the-record briefings detailing his preparations for the attacks. Yet when the main Tet attacks kicked off on January 31, the press dubbed them a “surprise” and hounded the Johnson administration over alleged “intelligence failures.”

One of the most enduring elements of the Tet narrative is that the Communists wished only to “send a message.” Robbins shows that, on the contrary, they wanted to win. After all, the Communist plan for the Tet offensive called for attacks on over 100 cities and towns by an NVA/VC force of 84,000. Robbins contends that the strategists in Hanoi, influenced by American press reports, believed that their attacks would foment a mass, spontaneous revolution of the South Vietnamese people against the “corrupt” Saigon regime and the American “imperialist occupiers.” But the people refused to rally to the Communist cause, leaving the VC attackers exposed, outnumbered, and outgunned. Rather than achieving total victory, the Communists suffered a humiliating defeat.

Ironically, the source of the claim that Tet was an attempt by the Communists to “send a message” was the CIA. Its analysts concluded that something so badly planned and executed could not have been intended to achieve victory. This “send a message” analysis was inserted into talking points used by President Johnson and defense secretary Robert McNamara, and the press obligingly picked up the story line. By unilaterally redefining enemy objectives down to that which they actually achieved, the U.S. gave the Communists a major propaganda victory.

Robbins also demonstrates that Tet did not turn the American people against the war. As he remarks, the public response to Tet is the least understood, most misrepresented aspect of the offensive. According to Gallup, in the week after Tet began, 54 percent of Americans disapproved of Johnson’s conduct of the war, a seven-point increase since early January 1968, but still six points below the 60 percent disapproval he had charted five months earlier.

Proponents of the conventional Tet narrative have interpreted disapproval of Johnson’s policies as coinciding with a “peace” sentiment, but this is wrong too. Robbins notes that the same Gallup poll that showed public disaffection with Johnson’s limited-war approach to Vietnam indicated that only 23 percent of Americans identified themselves as anti-war “doves,” a number that had declined twelve points since December, with five points of the drop occurring after Tet kicked off. In the same poll, 60 percent of Americans declared themselves pro-war “hawks” — up eight points since December and four points since the Tet offensive began. By the end of February, the percentage of “doves” in the country was two points lower than the percentage of Americans who thought the U.S. should “win a military victory in Vietnam using atom bombs.”

Instead of causing Americans to lose hope and join the ranks of the peace movement, the Communists’ large-scale, truce-violating attack — one that had been, moreover, decisively defeated — actually made the American public more hawkish. Had the Johnson administration correctly interpreted the outcome of Tet and launched a massive counter-stroke, the U.S. might well have destroyed what remained of the VC and NVA forces in the South.

But while the American public had not lost hope, the Johnson administration had. Nonetheless, Robbins shows that it was not Tet that drove Johnson to the negotiating table — because the president had desired a negotiated end to the conflict in Vietnam all along. Between 1964 and 1968, the U.S. attempted to draw the Communists into negotiations some 70 times. Hanoi rejected every offer. There was nothing new on the American side about the offer of talks on Mar. 31, 1968, but there was on the Communist side: So weakened were the Communists after the failure of their Tet offensive that they saw negotiations as their best chance of survival. It was Tet, not Johnson, that drove Hanoi to the negotiating table. Robbins reports:

In late 1968, Jack Fern, an NBC field producer, suggested that the network produce a program “showing that Tet had indeed been a decisive victory for America.” Senior producer Robert Northshield vetoed the idea, explaining that Tet was “established in the public’s mind as a defeat, and therefore it was an American defeat.”

The narrative was born.

Attacking an accepted narrative is always difficult, because the narrative’s proponents tend to dig in and defend it to the last ditch. Ask Mark Moyar or Bob Sorley, both of whom have written persuasive revisionist accounts of the Vietnam War, and who for that reason have been subjected to vicious attacks by those who are heavily invested in the conventional account. But like both Moyar and Sorley, Robbins puts some persuasive witnesses on the stand in support of his argument: the Communists themselves.

Correcting the conventional Tet narrative is important to the integrity of historical inquiry, but there is another, eminently practical reason to call it into question. As Robbins remarks, the Tet narrative has inspired America’s adversaries as a model for achieving low-cost strategic victories, providing a ready story line to journalists and terrorists alike. Demonstrating that the conventional narrative is wrong is necessary to undermine the belief of our adversaries that they need not actually prevail on the battlefield, but only make a high-visibility effort to affect American public opinion, which they take to be the Achilles’ heel of U.S. power.

– Mr. Owens, a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam, is professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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