Urbin Report

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Remembering Tet

First, by way of Mr. Reynolds, the lies of Tet:

Media misreporting of Tet passed into our collective memory. That picture gave antiwar activism an unwarranted credibility that persists today in Congress, and in the media reaction to the war in Iraq. The Tet experience provides a narrative model for those who wish to see all U.S. military successes -- such as the Petraeus surge -- minimized and glossed over.

In truth, the war in Vietnam was lost on the propaganda front, in great measure due to the press's pervasive misreporting of the clear U.S. victory at Tet as a defeat. Forty years is long past time to set the historical record straight.

The Tet offensive came at the end of a long string of communist setbacks. By 1967 their insurgent army in the South, the Viet Cong, had proved increasingly ineffective, both as a military and political force. Once American combat troops began arriving in the summer of 1965, the communists were mauled in one battle after another, despite massive Hanoi support for the southern insurgency with soldiers and arms. By 1967 the VC had lost control over areas like the Mekong Delta -- ironically, the very place where reporters David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan had first diagnosed a Vietnam "quagmire" that never existed.
...
Tet was a particularly crushing defeat for the VC. It had not only failed to trigger any uprising but also cost them "our best people," as former Viet Cong doctor Duong Quyunh Hoa later admitted to reporter Stanley Karnow. Yet the very fact of the U.S. military victory -- "The North Vietnamese," noted National Security official William Bundy at the time, "fought to the last Viet Cong" -- was spun otherwise by most of the U.S. press.

As the Washington Post's Saigon bureau chief Peter Braestrup documented in his 1977 book, "The Big Story," the desperate fury of the communist attacks including on Saigon, where most reporters lived and worked, caught the press by surprise. (Not the military: It had been expecting an attack and had been on full alert since Jan. 24.) It also put many reporters in physical danger for the first time. Braestrup, a former Marine, calculated that only 40 of 354 print and TV journalists covering the war at the time had seen any real fighting. Their own panic deeply colored their reportage, suggesting that the communist assault had flung Vietnam into chaos.


Then by way of Ed Driscoll comes David Warren's article:
My friend, Uwe Siemon-Netto, a German Lutheran pastor and also life-long journalist, was there as a reporter. Entering Hué as the smoke was clearing: "I made my way to university apartments to obtain news about friends of mine, German professors at the medical school. I learned that their names had been on lists containing some 1,800 Hué residents singled out for liquidation.

"Six weeks later the bodies of doctors Alois Altekoester, Raimund Discher, Horst-Guenther Krainick, and Krainick's wife, Elisabeth, were found in shallow graves they had been made to dig for themselves.

"Then, enormous mass graves of women and children were found. Most had been clubbed to death, some buried alive; you could tell from the beautifully manicured hands of women who had tried to claw out of their burial place.

"As we stood at one such site, Washington Post correspondent Peter Braestrup asked an American TV cameraman, 'Why don't you film this?' He answered, 'I am not here to spread anti-communist propaganda'."

The Tet Offensive ended not only in a huge allied victory in the field -- some 45,000 of the Communist soldiers had been killed, and their infrastructure destroyed. It was victory after an event that showed sceptical South Vietnamese, and should have shown the world, the nature of the enemy our allies were fighting.

Walter Cronkite, the famous news anchor of CBS, led the American media reaction. After a very brief visit to Saigon, in which he got himself filmed wearing flak jackets, he returned to the United States, declaring before his huge prime time audience:

"It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honourable people who have lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

The media turned a tremendous victory into a tremendous defeat. Yet seven more years would pass until an America, which had by then abandoned Vietnam, and a Congress, which had cut off military supplies to the South Vietnamese, watched the helicopters removing America's last faithful servants from a roof in Saigon's old embassy compound.