With the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which shocked the US military and the nation, a new corps of critics is once again raising allegations that the press, which had been given absolute freedom to hitchhike aboard military transport to any battle in the country, had “lost the war.” They didn’t.
Two critics in particular are Arthur Herman of the thinktank Hudson Institute, writing in the conservative magazine National Review, and William J. Luti, a retired naval officer and one-time special assistant to President George W. Bush for defense policy and strategy, writing in the Wall Street Journal.
The narrative plays into the hands of US President Donald Trump, who since he started his campaign for the presidency in 2016 has consistently accused the US press of writing “fake news” when critical mention of his activities appears in the media. It is a convenient and, to his followers, a convincing storyline. If it could be extended back to Jan. 30, 1968, in the middle of Saigon, so much the better.
On that night, the first night of the Lunar New Year, the North Vietnamese Army and their indigenous allies launched the largest military campaign of the war, hurling more than 80,000 troops at 100 provincial capitals, towns and villages and Saigon itself, driving to the center of the city and actually penetrating the grounds of the US Embassy. As then-Reuters correspondent James Pringle reported in these pages on Jan. 29, he was awakened at 3 am in his quarters above the Reuters office a few hundred meters from the embassy by flying bullets.
At the time of the Tet attack, MACV – the Military Assistance Command Vietnam – had been lulled into complacency by months of relative military inactivity throughout the country except for the Marine outpost at Khe Sanh, where US officials believed they were in a set-piece battle with the NVA that, if won, would spell the end of major combat in the country. There were 550,000 US troops in the country at the time, the result of a massive buildup ordered by then-President Lyndon Johnson.
It was Westmoreland and others who used the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” to describe growing hope that the war could be won. Unfortunately, it was a phrase uttered earlier, in 1953, by General Henri Navarre, on assumption of command the French forces in Vietnam prior to the defeat at Dien Bien Phu that ended French colonialism in Indochina for good.
The initial Tet attacks stunned the US forces, who lost temporary control of several cities and resulted in a bloodbath in the middle of Saigon, in full view of the television cameras. That was followed by more than a month of fighting, particularly in the old imperial capital of Hue, that brought US television icon Walter Cronkite – “the most trusted man in the country” – to Vietnam. In an hour-long telecast, he pronounced the war unwinnable.
The press made mistakes in the middle of utter chaos. There is little doubt of it, reporting that Vietcong had got into the Embassy itself, for instance. But in the first fighting, the press were as stunned as the US military, especially when several of their comrades, including John Cantwell of Time Magazine and Ron Laramy and Bruce Piggott of Reuters and Michael Birch of the Australian Associated Press, were murdered in cold blood by Vietcong on a street in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon.
US and Vietnamese troops regrouped in the following days to beat back the attacks and inflict heavy casualties on both the Vietcong and NVA, basically rendering them incapable of launching another ambitious such series of attacks for months afterward.
From a military standpoint, the MACV forces carried the day and the battle. The assertion by Herman, Luti and others going back to the war itself was that the US press inflicted such an enormous shock on the American people that they turned so completely against the war that the military would find it impossible to carry on.
Reporting by Cronkite and others, beamed into millions of American homes on the 6 o’clock news, did carry a tremendous shock. There is no doubt of it, and there is no doubt that other correspondents, following the grunts into Hue and other cities, painted a hellish picture.
But the press did not lose the war, and to accuse them of it is insulting and offensive. As they had since US troops landed in November 1961 aboard the jeep carrier Cord, an extraordinarily brave corps of reporters defied the military and the state department to report on reality. From the start, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan and Charles Mohr of the New York Times, Francois Sully of Newsweek, Peter Arnett of Associated Press and others too numerous to mention repeatedly, year after year, and at times in defiance of their own editors, went out to where the action was to report what was really going on. And time after time, they proved that the American people were being lied to.
And they had been lied to for at least seven years if not longer. The USS Turner Joy and the USS Maddox were never fired upon by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which provided the excuse in 1964 for the US Congress to authorize the deployment of military forces – the start of the war. Vietnamese generals famously were selling ordinance to Vietcong in the delta and fielding “ghost” battalions in order to collect nonexistent troops’ wages.
At the time of Tet, the US had already lost thousands of troops killed and thousands more wounded. During and after Tet, casualties rose as high as 500 dead a week. Ultimately, the enemy offensive alone cost 4,124 US dead and 4,954 ARVN dead. It cost the US 19,295 wounded and 604 missing in action – after Westmoreland was telling the American public the war was basically over – and then, after the offensive, asked for 206,000 more troops.
It is true that it cost the Vietnamese enemy more than 75,000 casualties and rendered them basically inoperable. But to ask for 10 more army divisions in a country that at that point was embroiled in seven years of war was more than a war-weary US wanted to put up with.
It has to be remembered that a long series of American cities were on fire or had been burned – Watts in Los Angeles, Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Washington, DC itself as American blacks, enraged by decades of injustice and racial de facto segregation, set their neighborhoods on fire in despair, accompanied by belief that minorities were dying in combat in disproportion to their numbers – which they were until the Pentagon made sure that would no longer happen.
The military draft overwhelmingly fell on the poor, with anybody with the wherewithal to stay in college or persuade a doctor to provide a medical deferment staying back. Those included the current President, Donald Trump, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and most of the hawks who would later make up the US defense establishment. Many of the privileged simply were declared unfit to serve by doctors at induction centers because they would have been so unwilling to serve.
In the military itself, discipline was breaking down. “Fraggings” in which grunts killed officers who pushed them too hard occurred. The infamous My Lai Massacre, in which somewhere between 347 and 504 civilians were gunned down by US soldiers, took place on March 16, two months after Tet. It wasn’t made public until 1969. But it was emblematic of the breakdown in both discipline and training of the US Army.
In the United States, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and later both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther Kong were murdered as the war dragged on for another six years after Tet. America’s leaders were falling to the chaos.
To say that negative reportage was responsible for the loss of Vietnam is a false narrative. Stories were written, correspondents went on television with reports at times that were more negative than perhaps they should have been. But in fact, according to a study of 1,800 articles and 24 weeks worth of coverage by six US major newspapers -- including the New York Times -- by Clarence R. Wyatt, “patterns emerge which challenge both popular images of the American press during the Vietnam War. First, at least as represented by these six papers during...three battles, the press was not as independent as is commonly believed. In all three engagements examined, the government and military were able to control to a very significant degree the flow of information from the source and the reporters' access to combat areas, making the press dependent on official sources. In covering these three battles, the six papers relied mainly on official information and reported that information with only occasional qualification.”
The war was lost by the US military, by years of falsely optimistic reports by MACV that came back to bite them, by a deeply corrupt ARVN and government leaders – President Nguyen Van Thieu would ultimately leave with a planeload of gold when Vietnam fell in 1975 – and by an American public fed up with watching their children come home in body bags.
In Vietnam, at least 63 journalists died in combat or accidents related to combat. To say they lost the war does them a deep disservice and provides the President with a false narrative to cudgel another generation of men and women attempting to do their jobs in print and on the air as truthfully and honorably as they can.
John Berthelsen is the editor of Asia Sentinel. He was a correspondent for Newsweek Magazine during the war.