THIS TIME WE WIN: REVISITING THE TET OFFENSIVE
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.
Another casualty, particularly among the military, was trust in media. Before that, a certain respect was engendered by “the press.” After Vietnam reporting, mostly from the safety of Saigon hotel balconies, a distrust, even disgust, among us GIs surrounded our perception of civilian media. It continues today, a sad legacy of the Vietnam War, incited again by coverage from Iraq and now from Afghanistan. Military folks may well ask, “Whose side are they on?”
Led by the avuncular Walter Cronkite, mainstream media in the Republic of Vietnam “defined battle(s) in a way that favor[ed] the enemy, regardless of the facts,” Mr. Robbins writes tellingly. One military man curtly said, “The Viet Cong can’t beat us, but the New York Times and CBS-TV can.” Some criticism can be laid off on media as a straw man, but not all, in this writer’s opinion.
Media bias was found in coverage “through choices of which stories ran and how they were to be edited,” Mr. Robbins writes. Early in Tet, a single defeatist story line emerged in mainstream media: “Disaster in Vietnam!” (Shades of war in Iraq 40 years later?)
Journalists “took every opportunity to belittle the U.S. effort in Vietnam [and] trumpet its failures and shortcomings,” Mr. Robbins writes. A one-sided picture emerged. To “friendly” media, it seemed as if the U.S. military could do no right. (Shades of Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad?)
For a serious student of this war’s brutish realities, Mr. Robbins’ book is a don’t-miss read. He tells a story not wholly revealed, until now, ripping shibboleths about the Vietnam War. Mr. Robbins plays a key role in a new revisionist school of military historians. Because, well, because history relies on facts, on immutable facts, truth unvarnished and not spun, if we are to learn from it. Mr. Robbins takes us a giant step in that direction.
Gary L. Larson is a retired magazine editor and former U.S. Air Force combat correspondent in Southeast Asia (1964-65).