The Meaning Of Tet

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AND WHAT OF THE OPPOSING IDEOLOGIES THAT DROVE the combatants during this long war? Whatever the inequalities of the draft, American soldiers always had a voice, and with eventual changes in the voting age, by war’s end GIs 18 years and older could make their views felt in national elections; most had always expressed freely to journalists their opinions about the conditions of their own service. This was not true of the their counterparts; yet, paradoxically, it was the promise of freedom that drove on many Vietnamese. The Vietnamese peasant was assured a war of “liberation” rather than one of indigenous Vietnamese heritage. But since the communists fought continuously against the Japanese, French, and Americans for some 30 years, they never had occasion to govern in peace and thus never had to fulfill the promises they offered.

It was not by assurances of no free elections, no private property, and no free speech to come that the Vietcong and North Vietnamese had galvanized their army, but by the very Western notions of creating a “republic” of elected officials and a free press. The result was that Vietnamese soldiers in service to communism (itself a nineteenth-century European offshoot of Western utopian thinking that went back to Plato) fought as nationalists against foreigners in the mistaken hope of just that Western ideal of personal freedom and national autonomy. It is an unnoted irony of the entire Vietnamese War that those who resisted the Americans did so by falsely incorporating the promises of America. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was the official name of communist North Vietnam, did not draw its nomenclature from the traditions of Southeast Asia or the perversions of Stalinism, but from the democratic rhetoric of Greece and Rome. Yet there was never to be either a democracy or a republic in Vietnam.

DESPITE RECENT ARGUMENTS TO THE CONTRARY, THE media in themselves did not lose the Vietnam War. Ultimately, the American military command itself did, despite brave soldiers, fine equipment, and plentiful supplies. The top echelon lost the conflict because it accommodated itself without imagination to the conditions of political audit and scrutiny that made it difficult to win. Conservatives and principled liberals were correct in their assessment of the absurdity of the prevailing American strategy, the former demanding that Americans fight to win any war they undertake, the latter insisting that America could not fight to win, given the political situation, and so should not fight. Ultimately, once the nation understood the conditions under which the war had to be fought, and the cost required to fight it that way, it determined it was not in their interest to pay it. The military could have won the war it wanted to fight, but it did not know how to fight the war it was asked to win—a war that was nevertheless winnable with daring and ingenuity. So instead, it bombed incessantly and unwisely—70 tons for every square mile in Vietnam, 500 pounds of explosives for every man, woman, and child in the country—without ever learning why hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were fighting on behalf of a murderous communist dictatorship that would soon enslave their country and ruin its economy.

In the end, the Western tradition of free speech and self-critique did not ruin America despite the ruination of its cause in Vietnam. The communists won the war and lost the peace, America’s model of democracy and capitalism going on to win adherents as never before, its reformist military emerging from the ordeal stronger rather than weaker.

It is an unnoted irony of the Vietnamese War that those who resisted the Americans did so by echoing the promises of America.

The record of Vietnam—books, motion pictures, official documents—remains nearly exclusively a Western phenomenon. Antiwar activists criticized this monopoly of information even as they themselves published and lectured in a free society and thus contributed to it. The communist version of the war, when it did appear in print or video, was received with skepticism. The American government and its critics were at times duplicitous, but rarely at the same time on the same issue. In that marketplace of conflicting accounts, most observers sensed that freedom was the guarantor of the truth and so did not look for veracity in North Vietnamese, Chinese, or Russian accounts. The American experience in the Vietnam War—whether noble or shameful—is nevertheless almost entirely a Western story.

While the manner of civilian audit, dissent, and self-critique during the Vietnam War was different from Western past practice, it was still hardly new in spirit. Jane Fonda dallied with her nation’s enemies precisely as did the Athenian rightists who fawned over Sparta in the closing months of the Peloponnesian War. Plato in a near-treasonous outburst called the great victory at Salamis a mistake that had made the Athenians worse as a people.