Lessons Learned: The Tet Offensive

Uploaded by cfr on 31.01.2012

Is it possible to win a battle and lose the war? I’m Jim Lindsay, and this is Lessons
Learned. Our topic today is the Tet Offensive, which began in late January 1968, and changed
the direction of the Vietnam War.
U.S. and South Vietnamese troops were hoping for a break from the fighting during that
final week of January 1968. It was Tet, the beginning of the lunar new year—a time of
great celebrations in Vietnam. In previous years, both sides had observed a cease-fire
to allow the country to celebrate its national holiday.
But unbeknownst to the Americans and the South Vietnamese, the Vietcong, the communist guerillas
operating in South Vietnam, had infiltrated towns and cities across the country. As the
festivities for Tet began, they struck with ferocity—hitting targets like the Saigon
international airport, the presidential palace, and even the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
After the initial surprise wore off, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces responded with
devastating effectiveness, repulsing the attackers and inflicting huge losses. The Vietcong were
broken as a military force for the remainder of the war.
But while the United States military scored a victory on the battlefield at Tet, the effect
at home was quite different. The fighting at Tet helped turn American public opinion
against the war, and persuaded Lyndon Johnson not to run for reelection.
The discrepancy between what happened in Vietnam and what happened at home has generated a
slew of books and articles arguing that news media’s coverage of the Tet Offensive turned
the American public against the Vietnam War.
To be sure, journalists got a lot of the facts wrong early on in the Tet Offensive. Most
famously, journalists reported that the Vietcong had invaded the U.S. embassy when, in fact,
they’d only managed to get onto the embassy’s grounds. Many Americans were horrified to
see a photo of a South Vietnamese Army general summarily executing a Vietcong prisoner on
the streets of Saigon.
But the talk of how journalists covered the Tet Offensive misses the broader point: context
matters. Even before Tet the American public had begun to sour on the Vietnam War. Polls
done in the middle of the summer of 1967 showed that a majority of Americans had concluded
that the decision to become involved in Vietnam had been a mistake. The Johnson administration
responded to these poll numbers by launching a public relations campaign to build support
for the war. That included bringing home the commanding U.S. general from Vietnam who told
the American public that an important point had been reached, “where the end begins
to come into view.”
>> General William C. Westmoreland: I am absolutely certain that, whereas in 1965, the enemy was
winning. Today, he is certainly losing.
>> Jim Lindsay: Tet shattered the claim that the United States was making progress in South
Vietnam. Americans begin talking about a “credibility gap” because the Johnson administration
had violated a cardinal rule of American politics: Never over-promise and under-deliver.
Preparing the public for setbacks and reversals is critical to succeeding with any foreign
policy that requires a sustained political commitment. That lesson is worth keeping in
mind as talk about a potential military strike against Iran or intervening militarily in
Syria. The American public will bear great burdens, but it wants to know what the costs
are before the fighting begins.
I invite you to join me in continuing the conversation at my blog, The Water’s Edge.
You can find it at www.cfr.org.
Remember, historical events like the Tet Offensive provide powerful lessons and insights into
the challenges we face today; or as Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner wrote:
“The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”