The Digital Journalist
Tet and Iraq: A Corrective
December 2006

by Ron Steinman

I am about to comment on a column from many weeks ago by Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times. It is time I said something, meaning I want to wipe it out of our consciousness before it becomes a part of considered wisdom and takes its wrongful place in popular culture. Because of the Internet, errors and misinterpretations of events have a way of becoming a part of the public perception, and thus probably locked into Wikipedia as gospel. I am talking about the comparison that Thomas Friedman made about what is happening in Iraq with the Tet Offensive. It is a gross misrepresentation of history and reality. It is also poor journalism, and thus demands a correction, especially because when it first appeared not enough people publicly took a stand against its faulty premise. Not enough was written about his point to refute its lack of knowledge and understanding of the Vietnam War. This is about journalism and history. It is about mythology and truth. Often one becomes the other. More often than not, they do not parse.

In his widely read and an equally widely quoted column, Friedman said that the violence spreading across Iraq was akin to the violence that spread across South Vietnam at the start of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, in 1968 and lasted through June of that year. For some reason Friedman did not take into consideration the widespread violence and fighting across South Vietnam with ground forces, and in the North from American bombing, already taking place for years. Thomas Friedman's premise sounded so convincing that even President Bush took up the call, comparing Tet and Iraq in at least one speech. It is disturbing that most reports I read accept what Mr. Friedman wrongly wrote, though there were a number of writers who thought otherwise. Thomas L. Friedman's arguments do not hold up.

Columnists, pundits, talk show hosts and bloggers are struggling to define the war in Iraq. As such, suddenly the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam of 1968 is at the forefront of the latest in wrongheaded collective thinking about today's wasteful struggle in Iraq

To someone who covered Vietnam for years, and who was at the center of the Tet Offensive coverage for NBC News in Saigon, the idea is nonsense. The sectarian violence in Iraq – call it for what it is, civil war – that is overwhelming that fragmented country is nothing near to what the Tet Offensive was. The North Vietnamese, with a well-trained main force army, hoped for a military victory against the South Vietnamese Army and the American military but it never happened.

Here is what the Tet Offensive was, and was not. It was a concentrated, well-planned, exceptionally coordinated attack against as many as 168 military bases, towns, villages, province capitals and Saigon. It took place on the Vietnamese New Year, traditionally a time when the war stopped and many in the military returned home to their families for a brief respite from fighting. The government in Hanoi knew exactly what it was doing when it planned those battles. It believed people in the South would rise up against the American forces and the South Vietnamese government. With the help of the invading force made up mostly of North Vietnam regulars and by the Viet Cong guerrillas living in the South, Hanoi thought the war would end soon after the attacks commenced. It did not. People did not rise up. People did not revolt against either the American forces or their own government in Saigon. People in the South did little to support the invading troops. If they had, the war would have ended as Hanoi hoped.

However, because of the brilliant North Vietnamese strategy, meaning its ability to attack in so many places at the same time, though its loses were very high, as were those for South Vietnam and America, the American spirit, never great, broke and the United States stepped back as much as it could from the fighting. Everyone knows the results. Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for another term, which would have been his second as the duly elected American president. There never has been any suggestion that Hanoi thought LBJ would decide not to run for another term. His move surprised everyone.

Tet was the tipping point that turned many in America against the war. We should not forget that 1968 was an election year. The result was that Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey to become president, partly based on his boast that he had a plan to end the war. The last American troops left the country in March 1973. By that date, as many as half of all American troops killed in Vietnam had then died, bringing the total to more than 58,000.

I believe the Tet Offensive was effectively over some 30 days after it started. The fighting and the killing returned to what we journalists considered normal. Still hundreds of American and South Vietnamese troops and more than equal numbers of Hanoi's forces and the Viet Cong also died every week. Though Hanoi continued to pressure South Vietnam and its American allies through June of 1968, by any historical and military standard, it was not the continuation of the Tet Offensive. Yes, more North Vietnamese Army forces were in South Vietnam and more main force military operations on both sides took place. Some call the period after the initial offensive, mini Tet. That, too, is a misnomer and a misinterpretation of Hanoi’s vision. There is no evidence I know of that Hanoi planned its attacks in South Vietnam beyond those first few days in late January and early February 1968.

Friedman, writing before the recent midterm elections said, "It would be depressing to see the jihadists influence our politics with a Tet-like media/war frenzy." That did not happen. So much about the war was already depressing that outside influences had no effect on the war in Iraq. The government's mismanagement of the war was already beyond salvaging. In the minds of the American people, any hope for success was already lost. Only one comparison between Vietnam and Iraq makes sense. That is the concept of a quagmire. No other comparison is meaningful. Or necessary.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.