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The Meaning Of Tet

June 2024
22min read

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

MORE THAN 2,000 YEARS AGO, THUCYDIDES wrote in his history The Peloponnesian War a passage about the Athenian campaign in Sicily that summarizes not only the conflict between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 B.C. but the war between the United States and Vietnam from A.D. 1965 to 1973. “The expedition to Sicily was not so much a mistake in judgment, considering the enemy they went against, as much as a case of mismanagement on the part of the planners, who did not afterwards take the necessary measures to support these first troops they sent out. Instead, they turned to personal rivalries over the leadership of the people, and consequently not only conducted the war in the field half-heartedly, but also brought civil discord for the first time to the home front. … And yet they did not fail until they at last turned on each other and fell into private quarrels that brought their ruin.”

The significance of this extends beyond historical consonance; between Athens and America runs an unbroken strand of tradition that might be called the Western Way of War. It has a curious strength—curious because this legacy of dissent can at once seemingly weaken and actually empower. It reflects how free societies wage war against those that are not free.

With America’s experience in Vietnam, the tradition’s weaknesses might seem immediately apparent. But inside that lost war are hidden victories, and one of the most impressive is the Tet Offensive.

The American military liked to boast that it had not suffered a single major defeat by enemy forces during the fighting in Vietnam, and the brag is largely valid. Although various episodes of the Tet Offensive of January 1968 would drag on for weeks, the first stage of the fighting in Saigon was essentially over in less than a month. By the end of February, Hué had been freed, and Khe Sanh was relieved in early April. Smaller cities were secure by the end of the first week of the assaults.

Despite the sensational media coverage of the offensive, public opinion polls continued to suggest that a majority of U.S. citizens—perhaps 70 percent—supported involvement throughout Tet. Walter Cronkite may have returned from Vietnam to announce to an audience of millions that our military was mired in stalemate and that “the only rational way out … will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as honorable people,” but most Americans in 1968 were willing to support a war they thought could be won. The military’s problem in Vietnam, at least in the short term, was not an absence of an approving majority back home but the growth of a vocal, influential, and highly sophisticated minority of critics, activists who cared much more deeply about abruptly ending American involvement than did the majority of supporters about maintaining it.

The reverses of Tet hardly lay in defeat; the disaster in the narrow tactical sense was that in the wake of victory the Americans failed to capitalize on the communist disarray but instead halted the bombing and began a radical retrenchment. The great buildup of 1965–67, soon to peak at 543,000 troops on April 4, 1968, would abruptly decline to less than 30,000 soldiers by December 1, 1972—and essentially none after the cease-fire of 1973.

Yet nearly 40,000 Vietcong and NVA regular troops had been killed in a few weeks. More of the enemy were to die during the single year 1968 than all the Americans lost during the entire decade of U.S. involvement. The communist strategy of bringing local cadres into the streets proved an unmitigated disaster for that side. Far from igniting a general insurrection, it only ended in a bloodbath, destroying the Vietcong infrastructure in the South. After Tet, there was no effective military arm of the National Liberation Front left. It had to be rebuilt from scratch. Such were the costs of the North Vietnamese’s misunderstanding of the lethality of American airpower, the discipline of its troops, and the overwhelming superiority of its supply train, factors that on a battlefield could trump for a while longer the disadvantages of surprise, poor generalship, and social unrest back home. But if the North Vietnamese knew they had lost the Tet Offensive, why did most Western observers believe that the enemy had in fact triumphed?

Much of the perception grew out of raised expectations prior to the offensive. The U.S. military, stung by the antiwar movement, had recently assured the public that the war was winding down in an American victory, while at the same time acknowledging that it was no longer enough to defeat the enemy outright on the battlefield. By 1968 pressure at home had made it crucial for the military to achieve at least three other objectives: prove that after four years of intense ground fighting the North Vietnamese were close to capitulation; present hard evidence that the South Vietnamese were at last ready to shoulder the majority of their defense obligations; and give persuasive assurance that America could achieve rapid withdrawal with a minimum of casualties.

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.

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.

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.

NEARLY EVERYTHING THE WESTERN PRESS REPORTED about Tet was just as misleading as the North Vietnamese claims of a great military victory and the American military’s assurance that the communist offensive had no political consequences that might lead to a change in U.S. policy. While the South Vietnamese government was hardly Jeffersonian, it was not true that either the National Liberation Front or the North Vietnamese enjoyed massive popular support among the South Vietnamese. Almost no one joined in their general uprising of January 1968.

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.

If there are generalizations to be made, it seems largely a question of class. The vast majority of those who fought in Vietnam as frontline combat troops—two-thirds of whom were volunteers, not draftees—were lower-class whites from Southern and rural states. These were young men of a socioeconomic cosmos vastly different from the largely middle- and upper-class journalists who misrepresented them, the antiwar activists and academics who castigated them, or the generals of the military high command who led them so poorly. Class was the third rail that antiwar activists did not want to touch. Perhaps that unease explains why popular films like The Deer Hunter (which the war correspondent Peter Arnett called “fascist trash”), the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Fortunate Son”), and the early songs of Bruce Springsteen (“Shut Out the Light,” “Born in the U.S.A.”)—which all dealt with either ethnic or lower-class attitudes toward the inequities in the conduct of the war—were either ignored or disparaged by the elitist critics of Vietnam.


THE AMERICANS’ WAR LASTED ANOTHER FIVE YEARS after Tet and would eventually cost us $150 billion in 1973 and 58,000 lives. The withdrawal of U.S. ground troops and air support, during 1973, assured the eventual defeat of South Vietnam. Soviet and Chinese support escalated once the threat of American bombing had ceased. Immediately after the negotiated peace accords of 1973, the North Vietnamese sent four times more military supplies into the South than they had during the war year of 1972. Saigon fell to the communists on April 30, 1975. Yet the North Vietnamese had paid a terrible price for victory: at least a million combat dead and perhaps as many missing and wounded. In the end, the communists lost four times as many war dead as did the South Vietnamese army.

Charges were leveled that a decade of American bombing might have inadvertently killed 50,000 civilians. If true, this is a terrible and tragic consequence of the war, and it reflects poorly on the Air Force’s often indiscriminate bombing of rural trails, jungles, and hamlets to stop the flow of supplies. But as a percentage of the total North Vietnamese population, that grim figure still represents a far smaller civilian toll than that which Germany or Japan suffered during World War II and a fraction of the 400,000 civilians killed by indiscriminate communist shelling and rocketing of cities, as well as terrorist attacks.

The communist victory brought greater death and dislocation to the Vietnamese than had the war, albeit more often slowly by starvation, incarceration, and exodus rather than by outright mass murder. The Japanese and French occupations had led to moderate exoduses from Vietnam in the past, but nothing in the history of the country was comparable to the mass flight from South Vietnam after the communist take-over. Exact numbers are in dispute, but most scholars accept that well over one million left by boat, and hundreds of thousands of others crossed by land into neighboring Thailand and even China. America alone eventually took in 750,000 Vietnamese and Southeast Asians, other Western countries another million. Those who died in leaky boats or in storms numbered between 50,000 and 100,000; to leave, most bribed communist officials—only to be robbed on the high seas by the Vietnamese navy.

In the first two years after the fall of Saigon, there were almost twice as many total civilian fatalities in Southeast Asia —from the Cambodian holocaust, horrendous conditions in concentration camps, and failed escapes by refugees—as all those incurred during 10 years of major American involvement.

The Vietnam experience is the worst scenario imaginable in a free society at war—a test of America’s very institution of free criticism, in which many of the dissidents were ignorant, their tools of communication instantaneous and enormously powerful, and their sympathies more with the enemy than with their own soldiers. Yet the allowing of such a critique did not undermine the power of the United States in the long run. The loss of Vietnam to communism was not a harbinger of things to come, given the apparently inevitable march of democratic capitalism during the 1980s and 1990s, a tide that finally even washed away Vietnam’s former patron, the Soviet Union, and eroded orthodoxy in communist China. Today, 179 of the 192 autonomous countries in the world have some sort of genuine legislature, with elected representatives. Vietnam, like Castro’s Cuba, was, and is, on the wrong side of history.


Determinists will argue that Vietnam, sooner or later, will be free and that the American war was mostly a peripheral theater of needless American losses that did not affect the major containment of Soviet communism or the inevitable global onslaught of democratic consumer capitalism. On the other hand, supporters of the war might counter that the fighting in Vietnam did weaken communism and helped protect the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore—and that the final American defeat ensured that thousands of Southeast Asians were killed or doomed to suffer in poverty and tyranny until the supposedly inevitable wave of Western-style freedom reaches them in the twenty-first century.

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.

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.


This strange propensity for self-critique, civilian audit, and popular criticism of military operations—itself part of the larger Western tradition of personal freedom, consensual government, and individualism—thus poses a paradox. The encourage ment of open assessment and the acknowledgment of error within the military eventually bring forth superior planning and a more flexible response to adversity. The knowledge that military conduct is to be questioned by soldiers themselves, to be audited and scrutinized by those outside the armed forces altogether, and to be interpreted, editorialized, and often mischaracterized by reporters to the public can ensure accountability and provide for a wide exchange of views.

At the same time, this freedom to distort often can hamper the military operations of the moment, as Thucydides himself saw and Plato feared in The Republic —and as was the case with the Tet Offensive. Frankness and hysteria, in place of reasoned and positive assessment, may have prolonged America’s agony in Vietnam and lost battles in the field, but they surely didn’t endanger the war against communism. Had America been as closed a society as was Vietnam, then it might well have won the battle but lost the war, much like the Soviet Union, which imploded after its involvement in Afghanistan, a military intervention similar to America’s in Vietnam in terms of tactical ineptitude, political denseness, and strategic imbecility, but a world apart in the Russians’ denial of free criticism, public debate, and uncensored reporting about their error.

How odd that the institutions that can thwart the daily battle progress of Western arms can also ensure the ultimate triumph of its cause. If the Western commitment to self-critique contributed to the American defeat in Vietnam, then it also was paramount in the explosion of Western global influence in the decades after the war, even as the Vietnamese army fought for a regime increasingly despised at home, shunned abroad, and bankrupt economically and morally.

In the next few decades, it shall come to pass that Vietnam will resemble the West far more than the West Vietnam. The freedom to speak out, the titillating headline, the flashy exposé, and the idea that a man in tie and suit, not one sporting sunglasses, epaulets, and a revolver, is the Commander in Chief, are in the end more likely to win than lose wars, on and off the battlefield. Thucydides, who deplored the Athenian stupidity surrounding the Sicilian expedition and had hardly a good word to say for the Athenian assembly and its unchecked rhetoricians, nevertheless was impressed by the Athenians’ amazing propensity to correct past blunders and to persevere against adversity. If we began this article with that historian’s sharp criticism of Athenian fickleness and absence of support for its own expedition, we should end by noting Thucydides’ other, less well-known observation concerning such an open culture’s conduct of war. It turned out that the Syracusans fought as well as they did against Athens, Thucydides believed, because they too were a free society and “democratic just as the Athenians.” He concluded that free societies are the most resilient in war: “The Syracusans proved this point well. For precisely because they were the most similar in character to the Athenians, they made war upon them so successfully.”

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