Vietnam, January 1968: The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese initiate the Tet Offensive and are handily defeated by American forces. Nevertheless, their ability to mount attacks is perceived as a military triumph for the Communists.
Today, terrorists and insurgents alike view the Tet Offensive as an inspiration—and to an extent, a blueprint—for how to shock the world and impact U.S. policy, without necessarily achieving any significant objectives. In particular, America’s enemies have come to understand the potential impact of sudden, highly symbolic acts of violence, especially when combined with engagement of the American media and domestic political opposition.
The problem for the United States military and the country’s political leadership is that it’s exceedingly difficult to defeat an enemy that needs only to create a perception of success. In “This Time We Win” (Encounter Books), author James S. Robbins examines the stubbornly persistent analogy that is often drawn between Tet and contemporary conflicts, explaining why the analogies are wrong and why it’s imperative that we dispel the myths of Tet. Along the way, Robbins also describes the role of My Lai, the Saigon Embassy attack, Eddie Adams’ “Saigon Execution” photo, and public opinion on the outcome of the Vietnam War.
In the following Failure Interview, Robbins discusses the Tet Offensive, how it has been perceived, and what the media and politicians can do to stop responding in ways American enemies want and expect.
What was the Tet Offensive?
The Tet Offensive took place on January 31, 1968, which was the kickoff of the Tet holidays—the Vietnamese New Year. The attacks—by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces—were on a hundred cities across the country, intended to bring about a popular uprising in the South Vietnamese people in support of the Communist cause, and bring about a downfall of the government and the expulsion of U.S. troops.
How did the Communists portray the outcome of Tet?
They claimed it as a victory. At first they said that the people were rebelling and that the South Vietnamese army was defecting—things like that. But after a few weeks they couldn’t deny reality anymore, so they had to claim victory another way, by saying that they had proven a point.
At the time it occurred, why was Tet portrayed as a military defeat?
It was a defeat based on perspective. The Johnson Administration had been promoting a line that things were getting better, that the enemy was in retreat, and that we were winning. All of that was true. But when the Viet Cong [in particular] attacked South Vietnamese cities, and people saw insurgents running around with guns in cities that had been considered safe, newscasters and politicians began to question whether the Johnson Administration had been lying or deceiving them or hiding the strength of the enemy. Again, this was all a matter of perception. In fact, it [Tet] was a very bad attack plan for the enemy. Guerrillas don’t do well in city fights and the outcome was the destruction of most of their forces. But it gave some people the idea that we must not be doing well in the war, and that perhaps we were losing.
What effect did failure to share intelligence about the impending attacks have in terms of domestic impact? It seems the American public was caught off guard.
Yes, in fact, President Johnson later said it was his greatest mistake—not letting people know that we knew the offensive was coming. U.S. forces had prepared for it, and there were even press reports alluding to the fact that attacks were coming. The government kept a lot of what it knew under wraps because it wanted to surprise the enemy. So the American people—and many journalists at home who didn’t have good sources—were taken by surprise because they weren’t paying attention.
Let’s talk about the embassy attack. Why did it make the Viet Cong look more powerful than the American people had been led to believe?
Well, because the embassy was a symbol of the U.S. presence in South Vietnam. It became the dominant news story of the beginning of the attack, even though it wasn’t important from the enemy’s point of view. But because it was seen as symbolic, journalists loved the story.
Also, a debate broke out over whether the enemy had penetrated the building—or just the grounds. And because no one in the press corps trusted the Johnson Administration, this nonsensical debate erupted for a few days about whether they were in the building or not. It reinforced the notion that maybe the president was hiding something or maybe the enemy was stronger than we thought.
What role did Walter Cronkite play in terms of the American public turning against the war?
I think his role was highly exaggerated. If you look at opinion polls, in the wake of Tet, over 60 percent of Americans were calling for an escalation of the war—to finish the job. Only about 25 percent were calling for a pullout, and that number had declined since before Tet. So Cronkite turning against the war clearly did not bring the public with him. But apparently, Lyndon Johnson thought that the public was with Cronkite, and famously said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” That’s not true, but he thought it was true, and he made decisions based on that. That led to an attempt at a negotiated peace, and Johnson not running for president in 1968. That’s when people started to give up on the war effort. Because if the president wasn’t going to lead anymore, why should they care?
How does Tet continue to shape perception of American conflicts?
The insurgents, terrorists, and other enemies we face today are inspired by Tet, because in the Tet narrative they see that weak enemies can bring about changes in public opinion that bring about changes in policy. And that’s the only way that they can defeat us. So they try to attack the public will, or the will of policymakers. They want to emulate the same kind of drama, the same kind of news reports, and they consciously talk about Vietnam—and Tet—as the model.
And that makes it more difficult for the United States to defeat this kind of enemy?
It makes it extremely difficult because many people in the press are hard-wired to compare any little thing that goes wrong to Tet. But Tet was a major military action involving tens of thousands of enemy troops. Nowadays you get a guy strapping on a suicide vest and commentators say it’s like Tet. In scale and impact there’s no comparison, but if people keep repeating it [the analogy], then in terms of perception it becomes like Tet.
Indeed the Tet analogy is drawn over and over again. What can be done to prevent that?
First you have to break down the analogy and show why it’s wrong. That’s the purpose of “This Time We Win.” The second thing is to make people aware that they are playing into the hands of the terrorists. Whenever these analogies are made—people saying, “This is just like Vietnam”—we are doing exactly what the terrorists want. Members of the media should think clearly about whether the analogy is true—whether the story line they are trying to adopt makes sense—before making these statements. Nine times out of ten, the commentator or journalist is getting the analogy wrong.
Saigon Execution: The real story behind Eddie Adams' iconic Vietnam War photo
The Hue Massacre: The world remembers My Lai, why not Hue?
Also by James S. Robbins:
Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point