Who lost Vietnam?

As usual in wartime, when the going gets tough, the tough start looking for a scapegoat and it is usually the press. Today as Iraq slides from bad to worse, the administration's apologists are already starting the post-mortem on who lost it. It will have been the press, they are already starting to say, just as the press “lost” Vietnam 32 years ago.

More important, they say, it is negative press and the hangover from Vietnam that is tying America’s busy policy hands itching to attack Syria and Iran today. Now, as things get worse, there is a rising tide of criticism of the press, much of it emanating from the pages of the Neocon journal, The Weekly Standard.

But there is more. Here is the prominent conservative ideologue James Q. Wilson writing on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal: “The mainstream media's adversarial stance, both here and abroad, means that whenever a foreign enemy challenges us, he will know that his objective will be to win the battle not on some faraway bit of land but among the people who determine what we read and watch. We won the Second World War in Europe and Japan, but we lost in Vietnam and are in danger of losing in Iraq and Lebanon in the newspapers, magazines and television programs we enjoy.”

In Wilson’s view, echoed by many others grasping for a reason to explain why America’s misadventure has gone so badly wrong in Iraq, the problem is not sectarian civil war, bad US planning nor the fact of an ill-conceived invasion of a sovereign country in the first place. Traitors in the media are to blame for public anger over a war gone wrong. “People who oppose the entire war on terror run much of the national press, and they go to great lengths to make waging it difficult,” he writes. They did it in Vietnam and they are doing it again in Iraq, Wilson believes.

But apparently if the press hadn't reported it, the story would never have leaked out that 58,226 American soldiers died from combat and non-combat injuries in Vietnam, with another 153,300 wounded over 13 years of combat of varying intensity. America’s client military, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, lost another 230,000 dead plus 300,000 wounded. On the other side, an estimated 1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong combatants died – nearly four times as many as allied casualties, with an estimated 45,000 North Vietnamese dying in the terrible weeks alone of the Tet offensive of 1968 against more than 1,500 American dead and nearly 800 wounded.

While the Tet offensive exacted an enormous toll on the North Vietnamese military -- presumably a disastrous tactical error by the military architect Gen.Vo Nguyen Giap -- the fact that Tet occurred was devastating on the US. Scenes of vicious fighting were beamed into American living rooms in the world’s first television war, with tanks and armored personnel carriers coming out of the old imperial capital of Hue piled high with the bodies of dead Marines.

The body count of American servicemen would ultimately reach 216 dead in a battle that raged for three weeks. The battle for Saigon itself, in which Viet Cong got all the way onto the grounds of the US Embassy itself, appeared to be a dramatic acknowledgement of the US's inability to prevail – especially since the commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, just a few weeks before had told Congress the war was basically won.

Westmoreland himself would later write that "The war still could have been brought to a favorable end following the defeat of the enemy's Tet Offensive. But this was not to be. Press and television had created an aura, not of victory, but defeat."

In particular Peter Braestrup, a former Marine and reporter for the Washington Post, in a book called The Big Story published in 1977, would later argue that press coverage of the Tet Offensive was badly wrong. Denis Warner, in Certain Victory: How Hanoi Won the War, went further, writing that "This is the only war lost in the columns of The New York Times. They created an image of South Vietnam that was as distant from the truth as not even to be a good caricature. There were those who invented, distorted, and lied."

James Q Wilson agrees. He argues that liberal reporters and editors have wrested control of the media away from tycoons like William Randolph Hearst, whose “yellow press” beat the drums savagely —this was a good thing, Wilson believes — during the Spanish American War and the invasion of the Philippines.

The fact is that for years, through the bloodiest fighting, the American people had listened to the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tell them that “there’s light at the end of the tunnel” only to have the body count continue to climb. And, despite the common wisdom that the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese had been finished as an effective fighting force in February of 1968, 21,202 of the 58,000 dead American soldiers were killed after 1969, according to the US Department of Defense.

Ignoring the lessons of history is dangerous. Vietnam won the Vietnam War. The press didn’t lose it. They won it because they were willing to take terrible casualties and continue fighting. Despite the tactical debacle at Tet, which some historians say delayed the North Vietnamese Army’s return to the field of battle for three or four years, they regrouped and returned. And had they suffered another massive defeat, they probably would have returned again. The Vietnamese were willing to continue to fight for their country as they had been doing since World War II when Japan drove the French out.

The revisionists also seem to believe that had it been allowed to survive, South Vietnam’s government would have somehow been transformed as those in Korea, Taiwan and Thailand have been in the post-World War II period. But Vietnam’s leadership was enormously corrupt and addicted to internecine feuding while the country was coming apart as a succession of weak governments came and went, with each successive change of government reported to an increasingly frustrated American public. It included a military that was selling artillery shells to its enemy and generals who set up entire ghost battalions so they could collect the pay of soldiers who didn’t exist.

The US Army itself had begun to disintegrate in a seemingly unending war. According to US Department of Defense figures, in 1969, 87 officers and noncommissioned officers were “fragged” killed or injured by their own soldiers, usually for being too enthusiastic about going out into harm’s way. In 1970, that rose to more than 450 before falling to around 350 in 1971, then falling again to about 50 in 1972.

In the United States, Walter Cronkite, then the dean of American broadcasters, may have been telling viewers from Hue that the war was a disaster, an event looked upon by the revisionists as the single most disastrous act of press betrayal. But those same viewers were seeing first-hand the coffins coming home at a rate as high as 200 or 300 a week. At the same time, their decaying cities were on fire behind them as rioting African-Americans demanded to be let into the American dream from which they had been excluded for 200 years.

S Rajaratnam, the combative onetime foreign minister of Singapore who died last year, used to charge repeatedly that the US "cut and ran" in Vietnam. That is nonsense, especially coming from a country that never lifted a finger to help protect itself from what was perceived to be a Communist threat.

The United States lost in Vietnam. It didn’t cut and run. Its resolve lasted for a decade — at that point the longest war in the country’s history — and it finally withdrew not because it was betrayed by its press but because the price had become too high for a democracy to pay for a dubious cause, far from its shores. It would be a wise lesson to remember for the neoconservatives who charge the press with treachery.

John Berthelsen, Asia Sentinel editor, was a correspondent for Newsweek Magazine in Vietnam in the 1960s.