The Meaning Of Tet


Press conferences in Saigon, known as the “Five O’clock Follies,” may have been acrimonious, but they were less vehement than the near-physical altercations that took place between Themistocles and his fellow admirals on the eve of Salamis, or the near-open war between the Spanish and Italian allies hours before their battle against the Ottoman Turks at Lepanto. The media may have destroyed the reputation of General Westmoreland, but no more so than the gossipy Athenian assembly did that of the hero Themistocles, who was exiled and died abroad. The criticism of the Vietnam War ruined Lyndon Johnson, but the storm of dissent in the Peloponnesian War led to Pericles’ being fined—and eventually worn out, sick, and dead before the third year of the 27-year conflict was over.

Down the years, it has remained a truism of the Western tradition that a Greek at Salamis, a Roman at Cannae, a Venetian at Lepanto, an Englishman at Rorke’s Drift in South Africa, and Americans at Midway and Khe Sanh all could speak as they pleased and that this was not true of the Persians, Carthaginians, Ottomans, Zulus, Japanese, and Vietnamese who fought them.

Vietnamese often turned to American academics, religious figures, and intellectuals in attempts to nullify the American power which their own army could not. “60 Minutes” and The New York Times could do what Pravda and the Daily World could not: convince the American people that the war was unwinnable and unjust. To the North Vietnamese, the loud-speaking, confusing, and fractious Americans—William F. Buckleys and Jane Fondas alike—were not so much evil or good as insidious.


WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE OF THIS FINAL TENET OF Western military practice, this strange 2,500-year-old habit of subjecting military operations to constant and often self-destructive political audit and public scrutiny? Can anything good come of a Western citizenry that dictates when, where, and how its soldiers are to fight, even as it permits its writers, artists, and journalists freely and sometimes wildly to criticize the conduct of their own troops? Surely in the case of the reporting on the Tet Offensive and the Vietnam War, whose vehemence and absurdity make it a pivotal case study of the wisdom of allowing dissent and open attacks on the military, cannot the argument be made that the public license lost a war that America could have won?

The freedom to speak out, the titillating headline, the flashy exposé, in the end are more likely to win than lose wars.

If the conduct of an unbridled media and constant public scrutiny of even the most minute military operations harmed the American effort in Vietnam, it is equally true that the institutions and process of that self-recrimination helped correct serious flaws in American tactics and strategy. The bombing of December 1972, for example, far from being ineffective and indiscriminate, brought the communists back to the peace table through its destruction of just a few key installations in North Vietnam. Nixon’s so-called Linebacker II campaign was far more lethal to the Hanoi war machine than the much-criticized indiscriminate Rolling Thunder campaign years earlier. More important still, Tet was not a single battle, nor Vietnam in and of itself an isolated war. Both occurred on the worldwide canvas of the Cold War, a much larger global struggle of values and cultures. In this context, the license of the West, while it was detrimental to the soldiers who were asked to repel the Tet Offensive, had the long-term effect of bulwarking, rather than forfeiting, American credibility. To defeat the West, it is often necessary not merely to repel its armies but to extinguish its singular monopoly over the dissemination of information, to annihilate not merely its soldiers but its emissaries of free expression.

The supposedly astute communists of North Vietnam never understood this more insidious component of Western military practice. They were confused about America in Vietnam, condemning its administration but careful to avoid blanket criticism of its people; damning its military but praising its intelligentsia; ecstatic over the general reporting of the news but baffled and hurt when a story emerged about the nature of their own thuggish regime; smug in American television’s broadcast of the “liberation” of Saigon but furious at the later coverage of the boat people. If they were gladdened that the Washington Post could say worse things about its own military than it did about communists, and if they were curious why an American movie star could pose in Hanoi on an artillery battery rather than put on a patriotic play at Carnegie Hall—and still come home without a prison sentence— they were furious when asked about the nature of the 1976 “free” elections and irked at the few brave reporters who finally told the world of the communist holocaust in Cambodia.