The Legacy of Tet
by J.R. Dunn (20 Dec 2005)
[former editor of the International Military Encyclopedia]
It was with Tet '68 that the American media first knew
sin. Anyone seeking to understand the character of consistently
negative media coverage of the Global War on Terror must
The Tet offensive of February 1968 is widely regarded as one of
the turning points of the Vietnam War – though not for the
customary military reasons. Tet had its origins in the plans of
North Vietnamese commander Vo Nguyen Giap, a competent general
given to flights of overconfidence. Giap decided to throw all
available assets, both PAVN (People's Army of North Vietnam) and
Viet Cong, against every major target across South Vietnam. He
anticipated a massive revolt by the South Vietnamese populace,
who would overthrow the government, set out the welcome mat for
their communist liberators, and leave U.S. and allied forces
sitting high and dry. The attack was scheduled to begin on the
night of January 30, the beginning of Tet, the Vietnamese New
Year. Tet was normally considered a truce period, when the ARVN
(Army of the Republic of Vietnam) was at its lowest level of
The result of all Giap's efforts was a total rout. The South
Vietnamese, utterly horrified by the prospect of a communist
takeover, sat tight while U.S. and government troops crushed the
attack in a matter of days. The sole holdout was the old imperial
citadel at Hue, which required three weeks to be retaken. The
government stood firm, the ARVN, once recovered from its initial
surprise, did a creditable job.
The Viet Cong, on the other hand, were ruined as a military
force, their rural infrastructure left in tatters. They never
fully recovered, forcing the PAVN to take over the bulk of combat
duties. Giap, his reputation saving him from the usual fate of
failed generals in communist societies, went back to the drawing
board. (Though not very fruitfully-his next scheme was a
"mini-Tet" in April, which ended much the same way.)
But that's not how the U.S. public saw it.
American readers and viewers were presented with a disaster
nearly beyond comprehension, with U.S. forces hanging on by their
fingernails, ARVN troops tossing guns aside and running for
safety, government officials given over to complete panic, Viet
Cong and PAVN forces running wild with no losses to speak of,
while General Giap, the 20th century Napoleon, nodded
in approval at seeing his plan unfold. Tet ended up being a major
success for communist forces after all.
It was the first time in history that the news media overturned a
victory won by forces on the ground.
One observer struck by the dichotomy between what occurred and
how it was reported was a journalist named Peter Braestrup, chief
of the Washington Post's Saigon bureau.
Braestrup had also worked for Time magazine and
The New York Times. In later years he became a
fellow of the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center
and editor of The Wilson Quarterly. Not the CV
of any sort of conservative, and in fact Braestrup was an
establishment liberal of the type that scarcely exists any
But he was also the kind of reporter who treats a story as
personal property. After ten years work, Braestrup produced his
book Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported
and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and
Washington, an analysis of every major news reportconcerning
the Tet Offensive, along with the military, political, and social
results that ensued.
Big Story is sui generis, a book as remarkable as
the event it describes. The book punctured not only the myth of
Tet, but the myth of the news coverage surrounding it, revealing
exactly how the national media acted as a catalyst for the loss
of a war.
Braestrup portrayed a press corps living a privileged,
near-aristocratic existence in Saigon, feeding off of gossip and
rumor, cynical about the country, the government, and prospects
for victory. Most were ignorant of military affairs. None could
speak Vietnamese or had any deep knowledge of the country.
When the attack came, the press corps responded with shock. The
first stories were written in a state of panic, expressing [the]
reporter's own confusion rather than anything occurring in the
quotidian world. As the picture began to coalesce – a
picture that completely contradicted early dispatches –
most of the journalists, out of stubbornness, fear of looking
foolish, any mixture of human frailties, stuck with their
original reports, aided and abetted by editors back home who knew
a great story when they saw one.
Many of the names involved are still well-known today. The
New York Times' Charles Mohr, once a supporter
of the war effort, was among the first to cast doubt on claims of
allied success. The Washington Post's China
expert Stanley Karnow wrote a front-page appreciation of Giap as
a "military genius," followed a few weeks later with another
piece claiming that the offensive had "scored impressive gains."
His Post colleague Ward Just played the
"unidentified official" angle to draw pessimistic conclusions.
Hanson Baldwin, the Times' resident military
expert, consistently overrated North Vietnamese capabilities
while downgrading allied forces. Even Robert Novak (at that time
partnered with Rowland Evans) added his bit of alarmism from
10,000 miles away.
Braestrup was the first to identify Peter Arnett as a serial
prevaricator. Arnett was the source of the story that became
emblematic of the entire offensive: that the Viet Cong had shot
their way into the U.S. Saigon embassy and held it overnight. In
truth, the VC sappers who penetrated embassy grounds were quickly
dispatched before entering any buildings, a fact that went
unmentioned by Arnett and many later histories of the war.
Shortly afterward, Arnett reported a quote from an American major
concerning operations in the town of Ben Tre:
"We had to destroy the town in order to save it."
Nobody, not Arnett, not the reporters who accompanied him, not
his employers at the AP, were ever able to produce this "major,"
which didn't prevent the line from becoming the leading
catchphrase of the anti-war movement. (Braestrup's research
uncovered the fact that the phrase was already in the air –
almost identical words were used by the Times'
James Reston in an editorial appearing the same day as Arnett's
Alternately, all reports calling the disaster narrative into
question were downplayed. A mid-February analysis by
counterinsurgency expert Douglas Pike concluding that communist
forces had overextended themselves and been badly whipped was
either ignored or dumped onto the back pages.
Media coverage[†] of
Tet destroyed public confidence in the war effort.
The anti-war movement, until then little more than a freak show,
exploded in size and influence. Various rebel Democrats began
scheming. The Johnson Administration, already off balance, was
effectively shattered. Within weeks Walter Cronkite, speaking
ex cathedra from his CBS anchor's chair, pronounced
judgment on both the war and the administration, prompting Lyndon
Johnson, with the spinelessness of a lifelong bully, to withdraw
from the 1968 presidential campaign.
Of course, after the offensive was put down and calmer days
returned, the papers and networks examined the reports, uncovered
the facts, disciplined those responsible, issued corrections, and
instituted procedures to assure that such a situation would never
Actually, no. There are errors so vastly wide-ranging that they
can't ever be admitted to, and Tet [reportage] was one of these.
No such actions were ever taken. Quite the contrary – the
type of distortion so evident during Tet became standard
procedure for Vietnam reportage. Within a few months, the battle
of Khe Sanh, a hard-fought undeniable U.S. victory, which
accounted for something on the order of 40,000 North Vietnamese
casualties, was reported as a defeat of American arms.
As the years passed, Giap-worshipper Stanley Karnow achieved fame
as author of the war's standard history. Ward Just became noted
for topical, well-written, and extraordinarily dull political
novels. Arnett pursued a long and varied career until events
caught up with him in the form of the [MACV-SOG] Tailwind
scandal, appropriately involving lies concerning a U.S. operation
Braestrup was reluctant to draw any conclusion as to reasons
behind the media distortion. He did not buy an
ideological explanation, and found claims that media coverage led
to allied defeat to be "highly speculative". As is true of most
historical events, a single explanation is unlikely to be
adequate. A list could start with cynicism, an embrace of the
anti-authoritarian ethos of the period, journalism enduring a
period of decadence (as every human endeavor eventually does),
and continue from there. It scarcely matters at this point.
What does matter is that the Tet style [of reporting] became
accepted practice. Journalism was becoming "professionalized" at
the time, with the press thinking itself an elite, and the
attitudes and procedures surrounding Vietnam reportage were
institutionalized. Virtually every military confrontation since
1968 has been covered from the same adversarial stance that
marked the Tet reports. (And not only wars – [the
hurricane] Katrina coverage was just as distorted, hysterical,
and harmful as any recent war reportage.)
Big Story is not considered suitable for Vietnam
scholarship, and is very rarely referenced or even mentioned.
College students studying the era are rarely if ever exposed to
its contesting of the conventional wisdom. But it remains one of
those rare volumes that actually does a service, by identifying a
malady, giving its origins, and listing it symptoms. It is a book
of value, and will eventually find its place.
Not the least of its virtues is how much light it sheds on events
in Iraq. To read Braestrup is to understand fully why current war
reportage is so relentlessly downbeat. Why stories in the legacy
media are at such variance with sources such as war-blogs or
Iraqi websites. Why reporters appear to take on the role of
advocate for the enemy. Why Cindy Sheehan and Jimmy Massey
– both almost pure media constructs – get the
coverage they do. Why bogus issues involving Guantanamo Bay,
prisoner interrogation, and "torture" receive such attention. Why
Coalition successes go virtually unmentioned. Why the unfolding
of a political miracle, an Arab democracy, has been greeted with
And why the media will never again play a useful role
until the legacy of Tet is eradicated.
[†] : editorial note:
although media coverage most assuredly destroyed
public confidence in the war effort, polling surveys
indicate that the erosion commenced with Tet 1968 but only
achieved preponderance during the Kent State incident (4 May
1970), coincident with the Cambodian incursion (May-June 1970); a
multiplicity of factors, from the draft and Vietnamization to
drug abuse and civil disobedience, exacerbated the American role
in Southeast Asian nation building ... this detail does
not diminish the author's thesis, but broadens
it, implicating the minions of the media as antagonists
(if not protagonists) in this persistent Culture War.
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