The Tet offensive of 1968 was a turning point for the Vietnam war and is a model for what may happen during the late Summer of 2007. As General William C. Westmoreland reported to President Lyndon B. Johnson and, as Johnson communicated to the Australian cabinet during a visit ‘down under,’ the U.S. forces and our South Vietnamese allies had made important strides during 1967. Looking ahead, Walt W. Rostow and others predicted a “Battle of the Bulge” attack which would be aimed at the U.S. national will to continue a protracted conflict.
We now know that the inner circles of power in Hanoi, capital of North Vietnam, had debated what would be the purpose of the attacks: one faction led by General Giap argued that the goal should be a military victory across the country; another group stressed the importance of the simultaneous attacks as a psychological blow. When orders were disseminated to troops in the South (or heading south) the adopted strategy was to win a military victory. The Accuracy in Media television program, Television’s Vietnam: The Impact of Media (1986; re-released in 2007 with an update) shows that Tet brought a painful surprise for the North. The Tet offensive was a total disaster as a military offensive: by March, it was clear that the Viet Cong (pajama-clad troops in the south) had been destroyed and that the apparent setbacks at Khe Sanh and Hue had played out as American victories with tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops killed.
When Accuracy in Media released its film in 1986, the thesis that Tet was a military disaster for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, but—at the same time—a psychological victory for them, was considered controversial, even though the documentary was supported by years of research by Peter Braestrup and James Banerian. (Since 1986, the major television networks have produced documentaries confirming the validity of this once paradoxical thesis.) The American military and Vietnamese allies fought well and prevailed on the ground in Vietnam while the American press announced disaster, incompetence, and debacle to readers and viewers back in the United States. The visual aspects of the Tet offensive in Saigon and Khe Sanh were particular favorites which signaled the end of the “lying” about successes in Vietnam and the unmasking of leaders such as General Westmoreland and LBJ. (Some 14 years later, CBS returned to this message about “lying” in a documentary entitled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception in which Mike Wallace “proved” that Tet should not have been a surprise and that previous reports of progress were clearly fabrications by a sycophantic general unwilling to deliver bad news to his commander-in-chief.
How does this relate to a forthcoming “Tet offensive”?
Under General David Petraeus, our President ordered a “troop surge” to begin in the Spring of 2007, with the troop levels coming up to the desired higher level by early August. Democratic spokesmen in the House and Senate cried foul when the strategy was offered, but approved Petraeus to take command of forces in Iraq—followed by reluctance to fund the strategy of the new leader whom they had approved by an 81-0 vote. President Bush, although he has consistently refused to set calendar deadlines for success, has stressed throughout the debate that the General would be brought back in September to render an evaluation of the surge and to sort out the options for future military, diplomatic, and economic commitments. Rather than suspend judgment, the Senate spent a “sleepover” evening during July, signaling to Americans and those beyond that the will to win was as flexible as the much-advertised sleep-number mattress.
Future historians may identify that long night of July 18th as the first victory for al Qaeda in the Tet offensive of 2007. To extend the analogy, some time in August, this could be followed by a high-profile offensive, whether aimed at troops or civilians, with the mainstream media treating it as evidence that the surge has failed.
The Accuracy in Media documentary about Tet, 1968 was entitled Television’s Vietnam: The Impact of Media and the following lessons were drawn from the research into the fatal misreporting from Vietnam. First, if there is smoke in the picture, it will be run on television—with the goal of keeping viewers riveted; second, symbols of American political and military power, when attacked, will be covered endlessly and the most dire predictions offered—too often on the basis of speculation rather than fact; third, American military successes will be ignored, but apparent errors and putative massacres will become the subject of impassioned opinion pieces. Later discoveries that the stories were wrong or distorted will not lead to corrective pieces because “perceptions are reality.” And then there was the famous “Cronkite moment” on February 18 when the most trusted man in America threw in the towel in an editorial which landed squarely in the Oval Office. Most historians like to cite the response of LBJ: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
Thus, when the first Tet offensive reached America’s television audiences, newsman Walter Cronkite declared that the war was over. Perhaps the 2007 Tet-like offensive will receive the combined analysis of Harry Reid—who has already announced that the war has been lost—and some other comparable network figure. Katie Couric may see this story as a booster to help improve the low CBS News ratings and her reports could be reinforced by a prosecutorial interview of Petraeus by her erstwhile NBC colleague from the Today Show, Matt Lauer.
The 1968 offensive came within the context of a Democratic primary and so will the 2007 rerun. Candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama will be asked to opine. Given the playbook they have been using, all three presidential candidates will have to conclude that “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was misguided from the beginning and that the explosions, smoke, and dramatic television pictures “prove” that George W. Bush led us into another quagmire, another Vietnam.
General Petraeus will return to Washington during September with a cautiously optimistic report about progress of the counterinsurgency strategy applied during the military surge and he will be received with disbelief and outrage. The second Tet offensive, at this point, will have been another victory for those who use our free media to gain the political objectives that must go with military offensives. Although we will have been winning the war on the ground—again—we will lose the war in America’s living rooms—again.
Back in the 19th century, Karl Marx observed that history really does repeat itself, but the second time as farce. There is no better description of what is likely to happen in September, 2007 if America does not brace itself and show both a will to win and the ability to read through sensationalist media reports and policy analyses of candidates aspiring to high office.
Please let us not wrest defeat from the jaws of victory! Watch Television’s Vietnam: The Impact of Media and help your fellow citizens to avoid the media farce now being penciled into the nation’s television schedule.