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Fake News Bungles Vietnam's Tet Offensive 50 Years Ago

Fake News Bungles Vietnam's Tet Offensive 50 Years Ago
Remains of Americans killed during the 1968 Tet offensive carried by South Vietnamese honor guard at Hue, Aug. 14, 1974. (AP)

Tuesday, 30 January 2018 08:24 AM Current | Bio | Archive

As President Trump rails against “fake news,” Jan. 30 marks 50th anniversary of one of the most egregious examples of fake news in modern history: the Tet Offensive.

The coverage of Tet by the U.S. media was widely judged a misinterpretation of what was obvious to those on the ground: a decisive U.S. victory over the communist North Vietnamese.

The results were sensational. American public opinion shifted dramatically against the war and, as a result, President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek re-election.

The Vietnam War would be resolved by a negotiated settlement in which the U.S. ended its involvement in the conflict. This paved the way for South Vietnam to fall into communist hands in 1975, where it remains to this day.

Launched by North Vietnam on the Vietnamese New Year known as Tet, the "great offensive" and "general uprising," as it was known, involved widespread attacks throughout South Vietnam and included urban warfare. Important to the success of the strike, crafted by North Vietnam’s brilliant Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, was an expected uprising by people within South Vietnam that would lead to an overthrow of its pro-U.S. government.

“Giap’s troops spent nearly four months before the offensive coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail [into the South], bringing supplies and infiltrating into assembly areas,” said retired U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Ron Christmas, then a 28-year-old captain commanding Hotel Company (2nd Marine Battalion, 5th Division) south of the ancient city of Hue.

“We were caught off guard,” Christmas told Newsmax. “Half of the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] troops were on leave for the Tet New Year holiday and the U.S. and other allied forces were observing a truce.”

With the element of surprise on their side, Giap’s forces struck hard. 36 of 44 provincial capitals were attacked, along with five of the nation’s cities and more than 20 U.S. Air Force airfields. Hue fell to the North Vietnamese and — in a scene that stunned American television viewers — the U.S. Embassy compound fell to the enemy.

Within days, however, the U.S. and their ARVN comrades rebounded and roared back. In most of the captured territory, the invaders were surrounded, captured, or killed. The recapture of Hue would be a much tougher fight and it took 32 days to completely drive the North Vietnamese from the city. At the conclusion of the offensive, an estimated 37,000 North Vietnamese lay dead.

Giap, who had sculpted the defeat of the Japanese in the former Indochina in 1945 and the ouster of the French colonialists at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, made one serious miscalculation about Tet: Khoi nghai, the expected national uprising in the South to join the North Vietnamese forces never occurred.

“Many South Vietnamese were not totally convinced that they should become part of a communist state controlled by Hanoi,” wrote Giap’s biographer Peter MacDonald.

Capt. Christmas was seriously wounded during the battle, as were many Marines during the battle of Hue, and evacuated before its conclusion. He feels strongly that we clearly dealt a devastating tactical defeat to the enemy but lost the psychological fight.

“Confidence at home was eroded, and we were unwilling to follow up on our defeat of the enemy by pushing our forces into North Vietnam to finish the job,” he said.

“In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective,” retired North Vietnamese Gen. Tran Do said years later, “As for making an impact on the United States, it had not been our intention — but it turned out to be a fortunate result.”

Barely two months after Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, had told the National Press Club, the U.S. was winning in Vietnam and “the end is coming into view.” But in seeing the U.S. Embassy under siege and Hue and other cities captured — even as most were quickly liberated — American television audiences grew suspicious of what their government was telling them.

Perhaps most devastating to the war effort was the post-Tet interpretation of pundits and commentators. In a commentary on CBS-TV in February, anchorman Walter Cronkite concluded: “To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Upon watching the popular Cronkite, President Johnson is said to have remarked: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.” From there, the CBS anchorman stepped up his anti-war commentaries. Opposition to the U.S. effort in Vietnam mushroomed, Johnson chose not to seek re-election, and calls for a negotiated settlement that would get U.S. troops home rapidly displaced sentiment for a military victory against North Vietnam.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1977, Washington Post war correspondent Peter Braestrup wrote a two-volume study entitled "Big Story." Its conclusion was that press coverage of the Tet Offensive was slanted and inaccurate and a key to the eventual North Vietnamese triumph.

“No question that the Tet Offensive achieved its psychological impact in part because of the power of television, a new factor in warfare,” Max Boot, best-selling author and Jeane Kirkpatrick senior fellow on national security at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Newsmax. “The rise of social media and 24-hour cable news makes it even easier for insurgents to communicate with the homefront and try to influence it even if they can't achieve victory on the battlefield.”

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.


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As President Trump rails against “fake news,” Jan. 30 marks 50th anniversary of one of the most egregious examples of fake news in modern history: the Tet Offensive.
vietnam, tet, north vietnamese, walter cronkite
Tuesday, 30 January 2018 08:24 AM
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