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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
Tet, a clear American victory, paradoxically dashed those pretensions. As long as the North Vietnamese were willing to suffer thousands of dead for a chance to kill Americans, time was on the communists’ side. As long as the Soviets and the Chinese supplied good weaponry, as long as the Vietcong could pose to influential American journalists, academics, and pacifists as liberationists and patriots, and as long as the American military tried to fight a conventional war under absurdly confined rules of engagement and over corpses counted rather than ground taken and held, the North Vietnamese would recruit ample fresh manpower on the promise of a free nation to come—and always add some Americans to the terrible arithmetic of relative body counts. The American political establishment may have believed that Vietnam was a proxy war in an ongoing global struggle already 25 years old against communist tyranny, but the American people grew to doubt the need to give up their treasure and their sons so far away when Chinese and Russian troops were unlikely to reach U.S. shores through Vietnam.
The record keeping of the U.S. military in Vietnam was notoriously inexact in assessing enemy dead, but it was mostly accurate in reporting American fatalities. Thus, most observers believed that Tet cost somewhere between one and two thousand American dead. The public cared little that its soldiers were killing the enemy at unheard-of ratios of 30 and 40 for each GI lost. American generals never fully grasped, or never successfully transmitted to the political leadership in Washington, the simple fact that the number of enemy killed meant little in and of itself if the land of South Vietnam was not secured and held and the antagonist North Vietnam not invaded, humiliated, or rendered impotent.
Polls suggested that a majority of Americans—perhaps 70 percent—supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam throughout Tet.
The American objectives, both local and geopolitical, were clear from the start: the security of an independent Vietnamese state in the South and with it an end to general communist aggression in Southeast Asia. But the methods of achieving those seemingly moral goals were far less apparent. Ideally, it was believed in the early 1960s, the Americans would train a sophisticated army of resistance, in which a grateful Vietnamese populace, delighting in its newly democratic government, would willingly enlist to save the country from communism.
Yet already by 1965 the communists had proved tougher, the South Vietnamese weaker, and the American people more skeptical than initially imagined. Somewhere between late 1965 and 1966, President Johnson undertook a strategy of steady escalation without changing the ground rules under which previously small American contingents had operated. He showed no awareness that such a tremendous commitment—more than half a million troops, 1.2 million bombs a year, thousands of enemy killed each month, 300 to 400 dead Americans per week—raised the geopolitical and domestic stakes among both friends and enemies. Failure to win with such a big force could only invite further Soviet or Chinese adventurism in the wake of perceived American weakness, increase domestic unrest, and highlight the incompetence of the South Vietnamese government. Once empires commit such resources to military adventures, time becomes an enemy rather than an ally, as the inability to achieve immediate success sends ripples of doubt—fatal to any hegemon—beyond the battlefield to lap at uneasy allies and citizens at home.
But, for nearly a decade, the Americans went on to fight a conventional war in unconventional terrain without the presence of clearly demarcated battle lines or even a home front. Since the overall strategy was the promise to stop communism’s spread in Asia while at all costs avoiding even indirect or accidental confrontations with either the Soviets or the Chinese, a number of paradoxes arose that thwarted planners every time a change in American strategy was debated. Generally, the policy that coalesced was a reluctance to mine harbors—which was not allowed until 1972—or to strike at key government installations in Hanoi and Haiphong for fear of killing communist foreign suppliers and consultants. There was an absolute prohibition on invading North Vietnam. Airpower and artillery strikes, along with fortified defensive bases, were emphasized, rather than ambitious guerrilla offensives and sustained counterinsurgency efforts to rid the cities and villages of Vietcong.
The irony was that in their misguided efforts to confine the war to such murky and poorly thought-out parameters, American leaders ensured that the killing would go on for nearly a decade. In the topsy-turvy world of Vietnam, indiscriminate bombing of jungles would be seen as acceptable military practice, when far more humane precision attacks on factories and dockyards in Hanoi would not be. As a result, thousands of American lives would be sacrificed in defeat. Visitors to Hanoi after the war were startled that the city seemed to have suffered little damage—despite assertions from antiwar activists that the American military had killed thousands in the streets and had nearly leveled the capital.