Five Biggest Myths of the Tet Offensive
By Joseph Hammond
The Tet offensive, whose 50th anniversary will be marked today, is widely regarded as a turning point of the Vietnam War–but new research reveals that much of what the public believes about the offensive is wrong or incomplete.
Planned to coincide with Vietnamese “Tet” or New Year’s celebrations, the offensive was a coordinated series of surprise attacks by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong against more than 100 cities and military outposts in the South.
Although the Tet offensive is one of the most studied and well-known chapters of the war, it remains shrouded in misinformation and myth. To mark the 50th anniversary of the battle’s most intense two-day period, January 30-31, 1968, the American Media Institute has scoured the archives and spoken with experts to expose five of the biggest myths surrounding the battle.
Myth #1: The Tet offensive was a surprise attack
Reality: U.S. forces had captured Viet Cong documents which revealed the looming offensive months in advance, and a few Viet Cong units launched their attacks ahead of the official start date of the offensive due to miscommunication.
In preparation, South Vietnamese and allied forces had dug-in and the leave of some units had been shortened despite the importance of the New Year.
Nevertheless, the media advanced the idea of a surprise attack, which raised unfair question about the competence of US command while contributing to the accurate perception that that the war was not going as well as General Westmoreland and other top American defense officials were claiming.
“LBJ later said not getting ahead of [the surprise attack] story was one of his biggest mistakes,” says James S. Robbins who has worked as a professor at National Defense University author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive”
Myth #2: The Tet Offensive was a devastating quick strike.
Reality: The communist battle plan was an ambitious operation that involved three phases. The first phase lasted for two-months and the fighting sparked by the third phase did not end until September, 1968.
The offensive began on Jan. 21 with the attack at the Khe Sanh airbase along the border with North Vietnam – though historians still debate whether Khe Sanh offensive was meant as a diversion for the Tet offensive or vice-a-versa. The Tet attacks of Jan. 30-31 were the most ambitious of part of the campaign during which Hanoi hoped that a well-planned offensive would allow them to occupy Vietnam’s cities. In all three phases the communists launched attacks on Saigon.
The Chinese government disapproved of Hanoi’s plans for the offensive for ideological reasons. They saw it as a rejection of Maoist guerrilla warfare strategy in favor of the sort of planned offensives favored by the Soviets.
“They were no longer an effective fighting force after the Tet Offensive,” says Don Duke a retired U.S. Air Force Major. “At Nha Trang AB, where I was stationed, a single company of Army military police and security police from our unit pushed the Viet Cong, who had infiltrated to the center of the Nha Trang City, back into the countryside…For them it was an all out, last gasp effort.”
The myth of the quick strike gained currency, in part, because most of the American reporters were based in Saigon, where the failed storming of the U.S. Embassy on Jan. 31 received a significant amount of coverage.
That said, Tet was a decisive military victory, for the South Vietnamese and United States Phillip Jennings, a Vietnam veteran and author of “Politically Incorrect Guide to the Vietnam War,” observes, “With the exception of Hue, no territory changed hands for more than 30 days. Practically zero South Vietnamese defected to the communist side.”
The casualty figures tell the story. In the first phases which lasted until March 28th 1968, some 3,900 Americans were killed as well as 4,900 South Vietnamese. Some 58,000 members of the Communist forces died during the same period – including many of the best Viet Cong soldiers. The year would be the bloodiest in the war for American forces with 16,899 deaths that year. One American government estimate suggests that as many as 115,000 communist forces died during the offensive by the end of the year or roughly 10% of all communist losses in the war.
“They lost the entire Viet Cong fighting force in thirty days during Tet ’68 and their losses in the  Easter Offensive were even more horrific,” says Jennings.
Both Viet Cong and North Vietnamese leaders believed the offensive would spark the proletariat in the south to rise up in a broad communist revolution—that never happened.
Myth #3: Walter Cronkite felt the war was lost and his historic broadcast regarding the Tet Offensive changed President’s Johnson’s mind on the war.
Reality: On February 27th a few weeks after returning from Vietnam, Cronkite famously delivered an editorial which stated “the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. 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. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic if unsatisfactory conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations.”
Cronkite was America’s most trusted reporter at the time, and his broadcast had come to be seen as a turning point in the war the “Cronkite moment” when the attitude of many Americans toward the war changed irreversibly.
This view was reinforced a decade later by David Halberstam’s influential book on the war, “The Powers That Be.” “It was the first time in American history that a war has been declared over by an anchorman,” he wrote.
Lyndon Johnson was said to have watched the broadcast and exclaimed to his press secretary, George Christian, “If I have lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
However, as a Cronkite biographer Douglas Brinkley has noted, there is little evidence LBJ even saw the broadcast.
What is true is that Cronkite’s editorial reflected the growing disenchantment with the war amongst the editorial boards of many elite media outlets. Historian Robbins told AMI that the Tet Offensive led to a substantial change in reporting on the war.
“Before Tet, 78.6% of editorial comments [in major media outlets] were positive toward the conduct of the war, and 21.4% were negative. After Tet, only 28.8% were positive, and 71.3% were negative. During Tet, they were 100.0% negative.”
Rather than leading the charge, Cronkite may have been influenced after returning to New York by the editorials he was reading in other publications.
“Cronkite handed a propaganda victory to the communists that was probably the greatest gift any enemy force has ever received from their opponent,” said Jennings.
Myth #4: The Tet offensive turned the American people against the war.
A Gallup poll published on February 6th after the start of the offensive showed surging support for the war effort. It found that only 24% of Americans identified themselves as anti-war “doves,” an 11 decline from December 1967. The same also found that 60% of Americans identified themselves as “hawks,” an eight percent increase from December.
“The U.S. public did not turn against the war effort because of Tet or the media coverage of it,” Robbins said. “Polling in the first week of Tet showed that most Americans wanted to escalate the war to finish the job, and this number had steadily increased from before the offensive was launched.”
Indeed, more than a year later, in February 1968, some 26% of Americans were willing to use atomic bombs to win in Vietnam. Even in late 1969 one poll found that only 21% of Americans favored an immediate withdrawal.
Why did the American public’s opinion fail to change?
Perhaps most of the American public instinctively understood the Tet Offensive was a desperate gamble and a disaster for the communists. The suffering that the Vietnamese population was suffering as a result of these attacks was also made clear.
“The erosion to Johnson’s approval on the conduct of the war [after the launch of the Tet offensive] is misinterpreted as opposition to the war per se but was not; it was disapproval of Johnson not doing enough to win,” Robbins said.
Myth #5: In the fallout from the Tet offensive, Nixon sabotaged the Peace Paris peace talks by promising the South Vietnamese better terms if he was elected.
Reality: Nixon allegedly sought to undermine the Johnson Administration’s efforts at the Paris peace talks by assuring the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal under a President Nixon.
Yet, there is little evidence that peace talks would have succeeded but for his effort.
The South Vietnamese, fighting for survival, were unlikely to accept any negotiated settlement after allied forces had defeated the communist forces during the Tet offensive and as well as in the defense of the Khe Sanh airbase. In many ways, the South Vietnamese position was from a military perspective at its strongest point.
The South was also disinclined to agree to peace because of the massacres carried out by the North during the Tet Offensive.
“In Hue, one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war, the communists took out their frustration by unleashing mass executions of civilians,” says Jennings, noting that historians estimate that number at between 2,800 and 6,000.
The fact that the war would go on for a further seven years suggests that whatever Nixon’s political maneuvers there was little change for a negotiated settlement in the fall of 1968.
“When [President Johnson] called for talks on March 31, 1968, it was just the latest offer,” Robbins said. “The difference was that this time the communists were so weakened after their failure during Tet that they saw negotiations as their best chance of survival.”