How Press and President Got Psyched Out
Some revisionists continue to believe that the press lost the war in Vietnam. Two journalists have written books that seem to substantiate their thesis. Both base their critique on media coverage of the Tet Offensive. Don Oberdofer’s Tet and Peter Braestrup’s Big Story have become essential texts in the revisionist library. Braestrup’s argument is particularly important – and in some respects mystifying.
On the nights of January 30 and 31, 1968, the Viet Cong and the communist People’s Army of Viet Nam (PAVN) launched a campaign that penetrated virtually every corner of South Vietnam. Between 64,000 and 84,000 guerrillas and regular troops were involved. Shockingly (a loaded word in this discussion) they attacked the cities and towns which the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies had regarded as secure. The communists had controlled the countryside but, up to this moment, their opponents had owned the urban areas. The Tet Offensive shattered the annual holiday that marked the beginning of the lunar new year, a holiday that had been marked for years by a ceasefire respected by both sides in the war. It also shattered the assumption nurtured both by the Americans and the government of South Vietnam (GVN) that, while the communists controlled the countryside, the allies owned the cities and towns.
Braestrup’s research, which brings together press clippings, wire-service copy, television transcripts and interviews with participants, is monumental and, in its way, indispensable. (The book, incidentally, is an old one, first published in 1977 in two fat volumes and since consolidated into a svelte 600-odd-page reprint.) If ever readers wanted proof that reporting is the first draft of history, this would be it: not just first drafts, but second and successive drafts are laid out in detail at once interminable and fascinating.
Braestrup focuses on the things that the correspondents (and he was one of them) got wrong. He picks up on little stuff, minutely critiquing reporters’ dispatches and pointing out errors and misinterpretations, like the color of the uniforms worn by insurgents and whether or not the helicopters landing on the roof of the United States embassy brought fighters in or carried wounded marines out. But he’s really intent on making a larger point, which is that by focusing their attention on minor skirmishes, such as the raid on the embassy, and by concluding that the fact that the raiders penetrated the embassy compound at all, the media missed the Big Story. Which was that the communists suffered a comprehensive defeat.
While the correspondents were rushing madly around the embassy on January 31, he argues, American forces and their South Vietnamese ally were expelling the attackers from one after another of the more than sixty cities and towns that the communists had attempted to occupy. Only in Hue did PAVN troops hold out for more than a week. Only at Khe Sanh, in a battle of minor strategic significance, did Northern forces pose a threat for a couple of months. And communist losses were catastrophic: the Viet Cong lost (as Oberdorfer pointed out) a generation of fighters that spring.
And the media missed it. Worse: they reckoned that the communists had scored a “psychological victory” simply by mounting the attack at all – never mind the result.
Braestrup stops short of arguing that the decisions taken in Washington after Tet, to level off American troop levels, to reduce the weight of the air attack on the North and to pursue peace negotiations can all be laid at the feet of reporters. He holds President Johnson responsible for the failure to press the military advantage gained in Tet. While LBJ dithered, in Braestrup’s estimation, others stepped in to define a military victory as a psychological defeat. But hundreds of pages of evidence demonstrate that the media, at the very least, contributed to a climate of opinion in which American defeat seemed inevitable. This is not a negligible charge.
For more on this, see Territory Lost…