Small Wars Journal

Did Fake News Lose the Vietnam War?

Did Fake News Lose the Vietnam War? by William J. Luti – Wall Street Journal

Seemingly out of nowhere, a shock wave hit South Vietnam on Jan. 30, 1968. In a coordinated assault unprecedented in ferocity and scale, more than 100,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers stormed out of their sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. They went on to attack more than 100 towns and cities across South Vietnam.

The following 77 days changed the course of the Vietnam War. The American people were bombarded with a nightly stream of devastating television and daily print reporting. Yet what they saw was so at odds with the reality on the ground that many Vietnam veterans believe truth itself was under attack.

The Tet Offensive had ambitious objectives: cause a mass uprising against the government, collapse the South Vietnamese Army, and inflict mass casualties on U.S. forces. The men in the Hanoi Politburo—knowing the war’s real center of gravity was in Washington —hoped the attack ultimately would sap the American people’s will to fight.

A key component of this strategy was terror. Thousands of South Vietnamese government officials, schoolteachers, doctors, missionaries and ordinary civilians—especially in Hue City—were rounded up and executed in an act of butchery not often seen on the battlefield.

Despite their ferocity, by most objective military standards, the communists achieved none of their goals. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces held fast, regrouped and fought back. By late March they had achieved a decisive victory over the communist forces. Hanoi wouldn’t be able to mount another full-scale invasion of South Vietnam until the 1972 Easter offensive…

Read on.



Wed, 01/31/2018 - 11:14am

This article both perpetuates a couple of misperceptions, and adds another key one. Far from being aimed at a "real center of gravity in Washington", the majority contingent in Hanoi really did believe a series of coordinated attacks would cause a mass uprising against the government and defeat the RVNA, at which point the U.S. would quit and go home. The idea that North Vietnamese leadership had some sort of magical insight into U.S. society, and crafted Tet primarily to "speak" to the U.S. home front is myth.

The key mistake in this article is hubris: the writer assumes the news media had (and has) some omnipotent, unbiased view of the world, and if reporting turns out to have some errors, it's "fake news". In that case, most news is "fake news". Reporting reflects available information believed factual. Story selection and editing reflects the viewpoint of the editorial leadership. And reporters are people, after all. Walter Cronkite came back from Hue shocked at the atrocities and destruction, but that in part reflected his experience as a war correspondent during WWII, none of which involved fighting in cities, let alone against the Communists. The atrocities in Hue and many other areas were not part of some insightful strategy or unusual savagery, but a textbook Communist purge: kill or "re-educate" any potential nuclei of intellectual, political, or military resistance. Any veteran of Warsaw or Berlin would have recognized it.

I don't have a subscription to the WSJ that originally was part of Tet's bad coverage,
Part of the problem was liberals in the DNC felt lied to by their own President. LBJ kept telling the public, victory was near, we were almost at the end of the tunnel etc. That became known as a credibility gap. General Westmoreland echoed those sentiments and after declaring Tet the victory that it was for the South Vietnamese, we still talk about it as an American victory. This is the optimum result you can expect when liberals wage war. They misinform the public or inform the public with constant doses of over optimism exaggerate progress are self opposed to their own leaders making policy and then when the circumstances, always possible in war, contradict the narrative or go to hell, they start pulling plugs.
I do not believe General Westmoreland understood that after declaring this the triumph it was for our forces, he then asked for a marked increase for more troops to finish it. American were beyond understanding why he would need more troops. This is a result of LBJs liberal politics and some miscalculations and political exaggerations the military compliantly went along with.
It is the Democrats that often demand a time table for withdrawal, troop caps etc. President Obama, when a Senator, declared Iraq was another Vietnam seems only to have learned the political mistakes and then in the Presidency repeated them self-fulfilling his own false comparisons of the war. Leading me to conclude they are making decisions and informing the public based on an ideological index for an agenda.
The result? The NVA drove straight down the Highway, South Vietnam did not succumb to VC guerrillas, and seized Saigon and the Islamic State drove straight across the border and nearly did the same thing to Baghdad.


Wed, 01/31/2018 - 11:35am

In reply to by Bill C.

You've discovered Clausewitz! The basic trinity: policy (government), passion (population), and chance and probability (military). But a center of gravity has to be something you can reach and affect, and in 1968, the NVA strategy was more prosaic than attacking opinion in Washington or on American streets. The unrest in America at the time was very multi-faceted, and I'll opine that the war was a significant, but minority influence.

Bill C.

Tue, 01/30/2018 - 12:27pm

The third paragraph from our article above:


The Tet Offensive had ambitious objectives: cause a mass uprising against the government, collapse the South Vietnamese Army, and inflict mass casualties on U.S. forces. The men in the Hanoi Politburo — knowing the war’s real center of gravity was in Washington — hoped the attack ultimately would sap the American people’s will to fight.


Herein, to ask:

a. Was the war's "real center of gravity" in Washington? Or

b. Was the war's "real center of gravity" the American people's will to fight?

(Herein, the real, indisputable news [the duration of the war, the number of Americans and Vietnamese killed, wounded, etc., the degree with which the Americans and/or South Vietnamese "controlled" -- or not -- various areas of South Vietnam, the lack of a "light at the end of the tunnel," etc.]; this -- rather than "fake news" -- deciding these matters?)