BOOK REVIEW: The truth about Tet

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By James S. Robbins
Encounter Books, $25.95, 364 pages

Commonly held misconceptions about the Tet Offensive, a series of attacks by Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnamese holiday of that name in 1968, have credited it as a pivotal victory for the communists in the Vietnam War. But was it indeed a win for the enemy?

Conventional wisdom holds that Tet was the turning point in public perception of this war, as its purposefulness to our geopolitical interests was called into question. That might well be so, but a public presumption that Tet was a triumph for the enemy is mightily challenged in “This Time We Win,” a groundbreaking new book by James S. Robbins.

Mr. Robbins, editorial writer on foreign affairs at The Washington Times, painstakingly retraces the bloody clashes and their aftermath, shredding the notion that the offensive was a victory, other than Pyrrhic, for the VC and its allies, the regulars in PAVN (the People’s Army of [North] Vietnam). Using the enemy’s postwar documents, Mr. Robbins maintains that Tet weakened it to the point of near collapse, severely wounding the insurgents’ infrastructure.

That is not how it was portrayed in American media.

In reality, Tet was a desperate push to foment revolt among the South Vietnamese to kick out those American “lackeys,” Mr. Robbins asserts. Ironically, that failed strategy became a rallying point for anti-war sentiment on the U.S. home front. Tet rekindled enemy hopes for a crack in American resolve, leading to the United States’ abandoning its “imperialistic aims” and South Vietnamese allies.

A depleted force of VC, wracked by desertions from disastrous asymmetrical warfare, was reeling after Tet. A dispirited PAVN, far from home, with supply lines stretched, was losing men faster than replacements could be sent down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Attacks were aimed at taking, if not holding, key defense posts in the South, including, notably, a takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. There, a ragtag attack was thwarted in the courtyard by U.S. Marine Corps guards and Army military police. Death was dealt to all attackers. Yet one report had the embassy “breached.”

Mr. Robbins recites case after case of such off-the-mark reporting: Tet was not, as depicted, a surprise attack. There was no “intelligence failure.” Battle plans had been captured. High-level PAVN defectors and VC turncoats put even defenders on alert. Such readiness set the stage for horrific blood losses to attackers, counted in waves in futile frontal attacks that failed utterly. (Of an estimated 84,000 attackers, more than half - 45,000 - perished in Tet, according to postwar records.)

Truong Nhu Tang, VC war minister, called Tet a “staggering loss.” It was a “major irony,” he wrote, that such a defeat “was transformed by our propaganda into a brilliant victory.”

Tet was a boxcar-odds gamble, Mr. Robbins concludes, a resounding tactical and strategic defeat for the VC and North Vietnam, itself jarred by air attacks that pinpointed targets with, some say, only pinprick success. Lyndon B. Johnson’s concept of “limited war” and “gradualism” backfired, giving the enemy breathing room. No all-out bombing of the North took place until late in the war, ordered by Richard M. Nixon, mainly to free our prisoners of war. (Mission accomplished, finally.)

In the war-torn South, unsustainable losses caused doubters in Hanoi to suggest tossing in the towel. They were for negotiating with the “lackeys,” perhaps to win by other means, over time, by guerrilla actions, but no set-piece battles. Dead set against this option was hawkish Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, architect of the war, who had the ear of iconic Chairman Ho Chi Minh, veteran of the French defeat in his homeland.

Few knew a “peace faction” in Hanoi wanted to quit. Settlement terms were discussed openly, even in the closed North Vietnamese government press. But the hawks in Hanoi’s Politburo won: Tet was launched, perhaps significantly, on Ho Chi Minh’s 77th birthday - a blood-soaked gift for the aging chairman?

Mr. Robbins argues convincingly, as did Mark Moyar in “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965,” that media created, perhaps inadvertently, a wrongful perception of Tet. “Charlie,” as then-young GIs called the elusive VC, and his North Vietnamese comrades accomplished in Tet, by losing badly, what they could not do on the battlefield - stirred brewing American anti-war passions. Until then, polls showed widespread if not deep support for “LBJ’s war” - if not for his overly optimistic generals and his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, the headstrong ex-auto executive.

Americans’ lack of resolve became our Achilles’ heel, Mr. Robbins concludes, for losing a war actually won, and won repeatedly, on the battlefield. The “peace movement” stoked by dour war assessments (“unwinnable,” was it?) likely prolonged the conflict, a view held by Mr. Robbins and other Vietnam War scholars. Significantly, more than half of U.S. combat deaths occurred after Tet of 1968, when victory, it seemed, was at hand.

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