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The Meaning Of Tet
A historian argues that in Vietnam America’s cause was just, its arms effective, and its efforts undermined critics back home—and that this is how things must work in a free society
May 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 3
The significance of this extends beyond historical consonance; between Athens and America runs an unbroken strand of tradition that might be called the Western Way of War. It has a curious strength—curious because this legacy of dissent can at once seemingly weaken and actually empower. It reflects how free societies wage war against those that are not free.
With America’s experience in Vietnam, the tradition’s weaknesses might seem immediately apparent. But inside that lost war are hidden victories, and one of the most impressive is the Tet Offensive.
The American military liked to boast that it had not suffered a single major defeat by enemy forces during the fighting in Vietnam, and the brag is largely valid. Although various episodes of the Tet Offensive of January 1968 would drag on for weeks, the first stage of the fighting in Saigon was essentially over in less than a month. By the end of February, Hué had been freed, and Khe Sanh was relieved in early April. Smaller cities were secure by the end of the first week of the assaults.
Despite the sensational media coverage of the offensive, public opinion polls continued to suggest that a majority of U.S. citizens—perhaps 70 percent—supported involvement throughout Tet. Walter Cronkite may have returned from Vietnam to announce to an audience of millions that our military was mired in stalemate and that “the only rational way out … will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as honorable people,” but most Americans in 1968 were willing to support a war they thought could be won. The military’s problem in Vietnam, at least in the short term, was not an absence of an approving majority back home but the growth of a vocal, influential, and highly sophisticated minority of critics, activists who cared much more deeply about abruptly ending American involvement than did the majority of supporters about maintaining it.
The reverses of Tet hardly lay in defeat; the disaster in the narrow tactical sense was that in the wake of victory the Americans failed to capitalize on the communist disarray but instead halted the bombing and began a radical retrenchment. The great buildup of 1965–67, soon to peak at 543,000 troops on April 4, 1968, would abruptly decline to less than 30,000 soldiers by December 1, 1972—and essentially none after the cease-fire of 1973.
Yet nearly 40,000 Vietcong and NVA regular troops had been killed in a few weeks. More of the enemy were to die during the single year 1968 than all the Americans lost during the entire decade of U.S. involvement. The communist strategy of bringing local cadres into the streets proved an unmitigated disaster for that side. Far from igniting a general insurrection, it only ended in a bloodbath, destroying the Vietcong infrastructure in the South. After Tet, there was no effective military arm of the National Liberation Front left. It had to be rebuilt from scratch. Such were the costs of the North Vietnamese’s misunderstanding of the lethality of American airpower, the discipline of its troops, and the overwhelming superiority of its supply train, factors that on a battlefield could trump for a while longer the disadvantages of surprise, poor generalship, and social unrest back home. But if the North Vietnamese knew they had lost the Tet Offensive, why did most Western observers believe that the enemy had in fact triumphed?
Much of the perception grew out of raised expectations prior to the offensive. The U.S. military, stung by the antiwar movement, had recently assured the public that the war was winding down in an American victory, while at the same time acknowledging that it was no longer enough to defeat the enemy outright on the battlefield. By 1968 pressure at home had made it crucial for the military to achieve at least three other objectives: prove that after four years of intense ground fighting the North Vietnamese were close to capitulation; present hard evidence that the South Vietnamese were at last ready to shoulder the majority of their defense obligations; and give persuasive assurance that America could achieve rapid withdrawal with a minimum of casualties.