Unwinnable?

On November 20, 2009, in Culture, History, Politics, War, by marc

Peter Braestrup’s Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington has been an interesting read so far.  The first chapter is a detailed description of exactly how many people were staffing press offices in Vietnam prior to 1968, and what their resources were.  In chapter two, we go from facts and figures into the story of Tet itself, and Braestrup makes this preliminary observation about reactions to the crisis:

Big Story by Peter Breastrup

Big Story by Peter Breastrup

…as it turned out, very few of the claims bade by “optimists” or “pessimists” concerning “progress” in Vietnam had much immediate relevance to the radically changed situation that followed the January 30-31 Tet attacks.  Perhaps out of shock, the Johnson Administration was to respond with caution and relative candor to the new situation; however, the press and TV, especially in commentary at home, were to hark back immediately to Johnson’s autumn progress campaign and cry, in effect, “Tet proved that you were all wrong and, thus, that the critics were right.”

This reaction lacked discernment.  The onset of the Tet offensive, per se, did not show that the war was winnable or unwinnable, worthwhile or not, moral or immoral.  By February 1968, one did not need Tet to make a judgement on these issues.  Tet showed that the enemy had scored a major surprise, and its ultimate effect was initially obscure.  It did not prove that either optimists or pessimists were right or wrong on the much-debated 1967 “facts,” except on two points.  First, Westmoreland was wrong in publicly underestimating (in November) the enemy.  Second, the media pessimists were wrong to write off South Vietnamese ability to fight and “muddle through with U.S. help.”  Americans did not know enough about Vietnam, North or South.

In a more fundamental, even ethical, sense, of course, the President was wrong both to launch the rose-colored progress campaign and to persist in it without warning the U.S. public of what he knew; that possible heavy fighting lay ahead… Journalists’ memories skipped back to Westmoreland’s star role in the progress campaign, to his promise that “success” was discernible on the horizon.

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