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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
In the context of identifying support for the war, the traditional rubrics Republican and Democrat began to mean little. Even the more rigid binaries hawks and doves often evolved into fascists and communists and ultimately war criminals and traitors—all reminiscent of Thucydides’ gripping portrait of the stasis at Corcyra (427 B.C.) in the third book of his history. Consensual societies, Thucydides relates, when confronted with debilitating wars, steadily rip away the veneer of hard-won culture—civility, moderation, and honesty in expression becoming the predictable first casualties of extremism. All these divides were to be expected in a free society at odds over the conduct and expense of an unpopular war. But what made the issues of protest during Vietnam much different from the long tradition of Western opposition to military operations were three new factors.
Few American military leaders, who allowed free rein to reporters, realized the ramifications of the media revolution.
First, the electronic age ensured that killing would be televised instantaneously. Few American military leaders, who allowed free rein to television reporters and photojournalists, realized the ramifications of this media revolution. Both World War I and II might have ended differently had Europeans watched the charge at the Somme firsthand, or had citizens of the United States seen the carnage at Omaha Beach while reporters editorialized on the air about the insanity of Americans’ charging fixed positions from a stormy sea. The sheer spontaneity of visual images, with the accompanying requirement for split-second editing and commentary, also now put a much higher premium on journalistic integrity and competence—at a time when reporters were in demand and sent to Vietnam without much experience or guidance. Millions might see a GI torch a rural village but be given no commentary on why. The shelling of Hué was broadcast worldwide, creating a crescendo of anti-Americanism, while the mass graves of hundreds of innocents slain by the communists in the same city were not simultaneously seen on American TV screens.
Second, Vietnam was conducted during the greatest period of cultural and political upheaval in American history—civil rights, women’s liberation, rock music, drugs, and the sexual revolution—ensuring that the war would serve as a general catalyst for anti-Establishment activity of all sorts and as a rallying point for a wide variety of dissidents. Photojournalists and television teams adapted to the new media culture in their contrarian approach and thus differed from the old print reporters of past wars. If career soldiers wished for brief assignments in Vietnam to garner combat experience for future promotions, so career journalists might equally find fame by exposing some American military shortcoming.
Third, America in the early 1960s, at a peak of economic prosperity, had achieved a general level of affluence never before witnessed by any civilization. The result was literally millions of dissident Americans—students, intellectuals, journalists—who had the time and freedom to travel and the money to expend energy in protest and general activism.
The American media had it mostly right relatively quickly about Vietnam: The military and the administration in Washington often misled and sometimes lied about the course of the war. American tactics, especially the carpet bombing of jungles and forests, could be ineffectual, inhumane, and counter-productive. Draft exemptions were not equitable. The South Vietnamese government was often dishonest. The rules of engagement were ludicrous. Only 15 percent of some 549,000 troops in Vietnam were true combat soldiers, and when, after a year’s service, those frontline GIs were at last acculturated to the rigors of war, they were abruptly sent home. Officers often saw no more than six months of combat.
Such critical problems needed and got public exposure. The dissent helped bring on a re-examination of the purpose, conduct, and very morality of the undeclared war so far from America’s borders. Military reform, legislation addressing the abuse of presidential power (the War Powers Resolution of 1973), and an evaluation of the wisdom of America’s overseas interventions all followed from the antiwar movement. After 1968, the American military fought smarter, was leaner, and under Gen. Creighton W. Abrams eliminated many of the abuses highlighted by the media. In the end, as with Athens’s disastrous Sicilian expedition, there was a good case to be made that it was not in America’s interest to make so huge an investment of effort so far from home, in a struggle that could not be won outright under the accepted Cold War rules of engagement.