A Mini-Tet Offensive ?

Article excerpt

Byline: Arnaud de Borchgrave, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Any seasoned reporter covering the Tet offensive in Vietnam 36 years ago is well over 60 and presumably retired or teaching journalism at one of America's 4,200 colleges and universities. Before plunging into an orgy of erroneous and invidious historical parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, a reminder about what led to the U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia is timely.

Iraq will only be another Vietnam if the home front collapses, as it did following the Tet offensive that began on the eve of the Chinese New Year, Jan. 31, 1968. The surprise attack was designed to overwhelm some 70 cities and towns, and 30 other strategic objectives simultaneously. By breaking a previously agreed truce for Tet festivities, master strategist Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap in Hanoi calculated South Vietnamese troops would be caught with defenses down.

After the first few hours of panic, the South Vietnamese troops reacted fiercely. They did the bulk of the fighting and took some 6,000 casualties. Viet Cong units not only did not reach a single one of their objectives - except when they arrived by taxi at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, blew their way through the wall into the compound and guns blazing made it into the lobby before they were wiped out by U.S. Marines. But they lost some 50,000 killed and at least as many wounded.

Gen. Giap had thrown some 70,000 troops into a strategic gamble that was also designed to overwhelm 13 of the 16 provincial capitals and trigger a popular uprising. But Tet was an unmitigated military disaster for Hanoi and its Viet Cong troops in South Vietnam. Yet that was not the way it was reported in U.S. and other media around the world.

It was television's first war. And some 50 million Americans at home saw the carnage of dead bodies in the rubble, and dazed Americans running around.

As the late veteran war reporter Peter Braestrup documented in "Big Story" - a massive, two-volume study of how Tet was covered by American reporters - the Viet Cong offensive was depicted as a military disaster for the United States. By the time the facts emerged a week or two later from Rand Corp. interrogations of prisoners and defectors, the damage had been done. Conventional media wisdom had been set in concrete. U.S. public opinion perceptions changed accordingly.

Rand made copies of these POW interrogations available. But few reporters seemed interested. In fact, the room where they were on display was almost always empty. Many Vietnamese civilians who were fence-sitters or leaning toward the Viet Cong, especially in the region around Hue City, joined government ranks after they witnessed Viet Cong atrocities.

Several mass graves were found with some 4,000 unarmed civil servants and other civilians, stabbed or with skulls smashed by clubs. The number of communist defectors, known as "chieu hoi," increased fourfold. And the "popular uprising" anticipated by Giap, failed to materialize. The Tet offensive also neutralized much of the clandestine communist infrastructure.

As South Vietnamese troops fought Viet Cong remnants in Cholon, the predominantly Chinese twin city of Saigon, reporters, sipping drinks in the rooftop bar of the Caravelle Hotel, watched the fireworks 2 miles away. America's most trusted newsman, CBS' Walter Cronkite, appeared for a standup piece with distant fires as a backdrop.

Donning helmet, Mr. Cronkite declared the war lost. It was this now famous television news piece that persuaded President Lyndon Johnson six weeks later, on March 31, not to run for re-election. His ratings had plummeted from 80 percent when he assumed the presidency upon John F. Kennedy's death to 30 percent after Tet. Approval of his handling of the war dropped to 20 percent, his credibility shot to pieces.

Until Tet, a majority of Americans agreed with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson that failure was not an option. …