Lessons from Ancient History

Remembering the Tet Offensive, 50 years later

By Dave Skinner

For most of us, the 50th anniversary of anything is ancient history. That I now can remember events of 50 years ago like yesterday is quite a shock.

I’m referring to 1968’s Tet Offensive, regarded as the “turning point” in the Vietnam War, when America “lost” the war. No, we won, then threw away that victory.

Ancient history shows that North Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi felt American efforts had doomed the Viet Cong (VC) insurgency in South Vietnam, despite the South’s incompetent and corrupt government. New strategy was needed. How was determined by a bitter Poliburo power struggle that ran along Chinese/Soviet and extremist/realist lines, won by hardliners led by Le Duan.

The hardliners sent, for the first time, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regular troops to fight in the South alongside southern Viet Cong “main force” fighters in a “conventional” versus guerrilla fashion.

Seeking outright victory through a smashing jungle blitzkrieg, 80,000 Communist troops blatantly violated the traditional Lunar New Year (Tet) truce, making over 100 simultaneous surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam.

But some units blew the surprise by attacking a day early. Against a countrywide alert, with allied troops madly scrambling to return from leave, with local VC guides failing to meet their guests, at 3 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1968, the “official” attacks began, spawning utter catastrophe for the Communists.

Most, including upon the brand-new U.S. embassy in Saigon, failed the first or second day. Worse, from the start, Hanoi’s Politburo deluded themselves that “the people” and Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) “puppet army” would switch sides. Nuts …

At least 9,500 allied troops died in Tet-related fighting, plus at least 14,000 civilians. But 45,000 Communist troops died (plus thousands more wounded) while failing to achieve a single military objective.

The only exception was Hue, pre-partition Vietnam’s former imperial capital, famed also for its historic walled-fortress old-city Citadel. About 8,000 Viet Cong swarmed most of the Citadel the first night – capturing not only the city, but critically, thousands of civilian hostages. After 26 vicious days, allied forces, mainly U.S. Marines and some ARVN, killed off most of the Viet Cong and took the city’s rubble back as the decimated stragglers ran.

Of the civilians the VC cruelly kept captive inside Hue, 5,800 were killed, including roughly 2,800 who were systematically rounded up, executed and buried in mass graves by the Viet Cong – pure atrocity. The Hue Massacre was not just a warning to the world about the consequences of Communist victory, but proof that America’s fight in Vietnam was a just cause.

Yet North Vietnam won? How? Well, there are two things stateside Americans remember about Tet. I can’t forget the horrifying Pulitzer Prize-winning photo (and TV film) of a cuffed Viet Cong captive head-shot in a Saigon street. But does anyone remember ever seeing any equally graphic Hue Massacre images in the news?

Next, like millions, two days after the South Vietnamese flag had again been raised on Hue’s Citadel, my parents and I watched CBS’s special Vietnam Report anchored by Walter Cronkite.

That show is famous for Cronkite’s ending monologue, on “stalemate” and a need to negotiate out of same. Cronkite set my parents to bickering. Mom said the war was lost, while Dad, with orders for Vietnam, disagreed. Of course, I wanted to know: “What’s a stalemate?” “It’s bedtime, kid. Go to your room.”

Stalemate or not (Tet wasn’t), Uncle Walter blew it. Maybe if Uncle Walter had stuck around Hue long enough to report firsthand on those mass graves, his news, and subsequent ancient history, might have been different.

For example, America stayed the course in Korea, where in 1968 things were getting ugly – i.e., the USS Pueblo. But today, formerly corrupt, backward South Korea is a First World democracy, not a province of the Hermit Kingdom.

How about corrupt and backward Iraq?

So yeah, Lyndon Johnson failed, but credit is also due to a news media that, just like today, insisted on emphasizing narrative over reality. We all were left to wait for ancient history to learn the truth: Turning away from a just cause is always wrong.

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