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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
Yet within that general critique of American policy, there often arose a hysteria—the predictable license of a free, affluent Western society, which has bothered critics of democracy from Plato to Hegel—that shrouded truth and left mythology in its wake. The result is that today it is all but impossible to know whether an independent, noncommunist South Vietnam might have been viable either after the American victory in Tet or during the punishing bombing of the North in 1972 had the facts concerning the progress of the war or the sordid history and conduct of the North Vietnamese communists been accurately and soberly reported to the American people. Despite the media coverage, however, we can speculate that far fewer Vietnamese would have died had the communists not conquered the entire country in 1975.
Nor did American bombing and herbicides render barren the Vietnamese landscape. During the year of Tet, new strains of American rice were planted on 100,000 acres. By 1969 rice production had reached 5.5 million metric tons, more than any year since World War II. By 1971 such miracle strains had resulted in a rice crop of some 6.1 million metric tons, the highest recorded in the history of South Vietnam. By 1972, under American pressure, the South Vietnamese government was at last granting title of over two million acres to nearly 400,000 farmers—at a time when there was essentially no private property in the North, where in the 1950s thousands had been branded as capitalists and either exiled or killed, often for owning as little as two acres. What ruined the Vietnamese rural economy was Vietcong infiltration of the countryside and collectivization of farmland, confirmed after 1975, when, during the peace, farm production of all kinds collapsed. By the late 1970s, Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in the world, near starvation in an area of Asia surrounded by the affluence of Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea.
Although the South Vietnamese were corrupt and sometimes brutal, they never engaged in wholesale massacre on the scale of the North. Well before the killings at Hué, the communists had compiled a ugly record of executions and persecution that was forgotten or went ignored by critics of the war. There never was any intent on the part of the North Vietnamese to participate honestly in a national election of 1956 that would have allowed all Vietnamese to vote freely and without coercion; in 1976 such “free” elections resulted in communists’ winning 99 percent of the vote. When the country was originally partitioned, in 1954, 9 out of 10 refugees headed south rather than north, the total number of refugees voting with their feet eventually reaching almost a million. Well over 10,000 Vietnamese were executed during the communist land collectivization of the early 1950s; indeed, the figure may have approached 100,000—a prelude to the Cambodian holocaust to come.
In the critique of U.S. policy there often arose a hysteria—the predictable license of a free society that has bothered critics since Plato.
But not all criticism of the American war was confined to America: Hundreds of U.S. citizens visited Hanoi to aid the North Vietnamese. Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda broadcast propaganda hostile to U.S. troops in the field. In the midst of war, prominent liberals, such as Martin Luther King, denounced the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam on national television. David Dellinger, who questioned American POWs in Hanoi, called their torture the Prisoner of War Hoax, claiming that the Nixon administration had fabricated such reports. “The only verified torture associated with the American prisoners held by the North Vietnamese,” declared Dellinger, “is the torture of prisoners’ families by the State Department, Pentagon, and the White House.”
The media likewise created an entire mythology around the American GI and the returning Vietnam veteran. Far from being driven insane by the experience, suffering from PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), or reduced to an alcohol or drug stupor, veterans adjusted about as well as past war returnees and showed no higher incidence of mental illness than the general population. Drug use was no higher among the troops in Vietnam than among men the same age back home. Ninety-one percent of those who served in Vietnam later stated that they were glad to have done so, and 97 percent were granted honorable discharges. Nor did Hispanics and African-Americans die in Vietnam disproportionately to their numbers in the general population; Thomas Thayer’s exhaustive statistical study concluded that “blacks did not bear an unfair burden in the Vietnam war in terms of combat deaths despite allegations to the contrary. … The typical American killed in combat was a white, regular, enlisted man serving in an army or marine corps unit. He was 21 years old or younger.” Eighty-six percent of all dead were listed as Caucasian.