|By ARTHUR HERMAN
February 6, 2008
WALL STREET JOURNAL
The "infamous" picture of Walter Cronkite standing on a street in Hue City and
reporting how the war was lost, is a staged picture. He put on the helmet and flack
vest for the picture and his report and then took them off.
Media misreporting of TET passed into our collective memory. That picture gave antiwar activism an
unwarranted credibility that persists today in Congress, and in the media reaction to the war in Iraq. The
TET experience provides a narrative model for those who wish to see all US Military successes -- such as
the Petraeus surge -- minimized and glossed over.
In truth, the war in Vietnam was lost on the propaganda front, in great measure due to the press's
pervasive misreporting of the clear US Victory at TET as a defeat. Forty years is long past time to set the
historical record straight.
The summer of 1965, the communists were mauled in one battle after another, despite massive Hanoi
support for the southern insurgency with soldiers and arms. By 1967 the VC had lost control over areas
like the Mekong Delta -- ironically, the very place where reporters David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan
had first diagnosed a Vietnam "quagmire" that never existed.
The TET offensive was Hanoi's desperate throw of the dice to seize South Vietnam's northern provinces
using conventional armies, while simultaneously triggering a popular uprising in support of the Viet
Cong. Both failed. Americans and South Vietnamese soon put down the attacks, which began under cover
of a cease-fire to celebrate the TET lunar new year. By March 2, when US Marines crushed the last North
Vietnamese pockets of resistance in the northern city of Hue, the VC had lost 80,000-100,000 killed or
wounded without capturing a single province.
TET was a particularly crushing defeat for the VC. It had not only failed to trigger any uprising but also
cost them "our best people" as former Viet Cong doctor Duong Quyunh Hoa later admitted to reporter
Stanley Karnow. Yet the very fact of the US Military victory -- "The North Vietnamese" noted National
Security official William Bundy at the time, "fought to the last Viet Cong" -- was spun otherwise by most
of the US press.
As the Washington Post's Saigon bureau chief Peter Braestrup documented in his 1977 book, "The Big
Story" the desperate fury of the communist attacks including on Saigon, where most reporters lived and
worked, caught the press by surprise. (Not the military: It had been expecting an attack and had been
on full alert since Jan. 24.) It also put many reporters in physical danger for the first time. Braestrup, a
former Marine, calculated that only 40 of 354 print and TV journalists covering the war at the time had
seen any real fighting. Their own panic deeply colored their reportage, suggesting that the communist
assault had flung Vietnam into chaos. Their editors at home, like CBS's Walter Cronkite, seized on the
distorted reporting to discredit the military's version of events. The Viet Cong insurgency was in its
death throes, just as US Military officials assured the American people at the time. Yet the press version
painted a different picture.
To quote Braestrup, "the media tended to leave the shock and confusion of early February, as then
perceived, fixed as the final impression of TET" and of Vietnam generally. "Drama was perpetuated at
the expense of information" and "the negative trend" of media reporting "added to the distortion of the
real situation on the ground in Vietnam"
The North Vietnamese were delighted. On the heels of their devastating defeat, Hanoi increasingly
shifted its propaganda efforts toward the media and the antiwar movement. Causing American (not
South Vietnamese) casualties, even at heavy cost, became a battlefield objective in order to reinforce
the American media's narrative of a failing policy in Vietnam.
Yet thanks to the success of TET, the numbers of Americans dying in Vietnam steadily declined -- from
almost 15,000 in 1968 to 9,414 in 1969 and 4,221 in 1970 -- by which time the Viet Cong had ceased to
exist as a viable fighting force. One Vietnamese province after another witnessed new peace and
stability. By the end of 1969 over 70% of South Vietnam's population was under government control,
compared to 42% at the beginning of 1968. In 1970 and 1971, American ambassador Ellsworth Bunker
estimated that 90% of Vietnamese lived in zones under government control.
However, all this went unnoticed because misreporting about TET had left the image of Vietnam as a
botched counterinsurgency -- an image nearly half a decade out of date. The failure of the North's next
massive invasion over Easter 1972, which cost the North Vietnamese army another 100,000 men and half
their tanks and artillery, finally forced it to sign the peace accords in Paris and formally to recognize the
Republic of South Vietnam. By August 1972 there were no US Combat forces left in Vietnam, precisely
because, contrary to the overwhelming mass of press reports, American policy there had been a success.
To Congress and the public, however, the war had been nothing but a debacle. And by withdrawing
American troops, President Nixon gave up any U.S. political or military leverage on Vietnam's future.
With U.S. military might out of the equation, the North quickly cheated on the Paris accords. When its
re-equipped army launched a massive attack in 1975, Congress refused to redeem Nixon's pledges of
military support for the South. Instead, President Gerald Ford bowed to what the media had convinced
the American public was inevitable: the fall of Vietnam.
The collapse of South Vietnam's neighbor, Cambodia, soon followed. Southeast Asia entered the era of
the "killing fields," exterminating in a brief few years an estimated two million people -- 30% of the
Cambodian population. American military policy has borne the scars of Vietnam ever since.
It had all been preventable -- but for the lies of TET.
Mr. Herman is the author of "Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged
Our Age"; to be published by Bantam Dell in April.