This Time We Win

Revisiting the Tet Offensive.

This Time We Win

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.

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