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TET: Who Won?

A North Vietnamese battlefield defeat that led to victory, the Tet Offensive still triggers debate nearly four decades later

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In this context, the Tet attacks came as a particular shock. James J. Wirtz, a historian at the Naval War College who has closely studied the 1968 offensive, declared at the Bethesda conference that Tet was "an earth-shattering, mind-shattering event that changed the course of the war." Though the Politburo in Hanoi achieved neither the decisive victory on the battlefields nor the uprising by the Vietnamese people they had hoped for, they were able, as North Vietnamese Communist Party chief Le Duan had forecast in a letter to his southern fighters, to "shake the aggressive will of U.S. imperialism, compel it to change its strategy and de-escalate the war."

My friend and former Washington Post colleague, the late Peter Braestrup, blamed misreporting by the American press for the impact of Tet on the American public, citing "a portrait of defeat for the allies" that emerged from journalistic accounts. Many high-level military officials shared Braestrup's view, stimulating efforts by the post-Vietnam Pentagon to restrict press coverage of military operations.

I disagree. Unquestionably, there was misreporting of Tet, especially in the confusing and uncertain days following the attacks. In retrospect, some of my own reporting was too pessimistic, partly because I was misled by a CIA official who was trying to claim control of the delta for his agency.

But press reports were not the fundamental cause of the loss of domestic support for the war. In my view, the story of the Vietnam War can be summed up in an observation made by North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong, Ho Chi Minh's close aide and successor, to French war historian Bernard Fall in 1962, three years before the massive U.S. intervention and nearly six years before Tet: "Americans do not like long, inconclusive wars—and this is going to be a long, inconclusive war. Thus we are sure to win in the end." The North Vietnamese and their southern comrades were willing to fight to the death against the United States and the government it had installed, just as they did against the colonial French, who had tired of fighting and sued for peace. And this time, China, which had pushed the Vietnamese Communists to partition their country into North and South to end the first Indochina War in 1954, was fully on their side, as was the Soviet Union.

Despite the heavy Communist losses, Tet dramatically reinforced the view that there was no end in sight. When LBJ continued to insist, after Tet, that the war effort was still on track, his message was undercut by a leak of General Westmoreland's request for 206,000 more U.S. troops. This news, just two days before the March 12 presidential election primary in New Hampshire, further eroded Johnson's already dwindling credibility. Not long after his poor showing in New Hampshire, the president announced that he would not seek a second full term. And, he said, he had stopped the bombing of most of North Vietnam in a bid for peace talks. Richard Nixon, Johnson's successor, won the election by promising "peace with honor." Once in office, Nixon was able to sustain support for the war only by withdrawing increments of American troops every few months, and then negotiating a peace agreement that required full U.S. withdrawal. Seven years after the ill-fated Vietnamese sappers attacked the U.S. Embassy on Tet, the last Americans, and some of their Vietnamese allies, departed Saigon by helicopter from the building's roof on April 30, 1975.

 

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