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When War Seems Unwinnable: Why Tet Matters

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/vietnam.jpgExecution of Vietcong suspect by Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan in 1967. (Associated Press)

By the close of 1967, a half-million U.S. troops were in Vietnam, and Americans at home, viewing the war on television in their living rooms, had become inured to familiar images. Sweating in the fierce tropical heat and humidity, platoons of “grunts” were disgorged from hovering helicopters and cut through thick jungles or crossed flooded rice fields to faraway villages, occasionally stumbling onto mines or booby traps, or drawing fire from concealed snipers. Artillery shelled distant targets from lonely bases while jet aircraft recklessly bombed the boondocks, billows of flame and smoke rising in their wake.

The human agony was manifest in scenes of the wounded and dying on both sides — the napalmed children, and the ordeal of innocent civilians caught up in the combat. Despite their private qualms, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his spokesman voiced rosy phrases like “We’ve turned the corner” and “We can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

But their optimism was shattered on Jan. 31, 1968, the eve of Tet, the Asian new year. At least 70,000 Vietcong guerrillas abruptly poured out of the hinterlands and attacked more than a hundred South Vietnamese cities and towns, including Saigon, where a squad brazenly crashed into the American embassy compound.

Despite their private qualms, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his spokesman voiced rosy phrases like “We’ve turned the corner” and “We can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I had been covering the escalating turmoil on and off since 1959. Reluctant to risk my skin by plunging into the pandemonium, I cautiously watched the unfolding spectacle from the top floor of my hotel, the “Carvelle.”

Eddie Adams, an Associated Press photographer, and Vo Suu, a local NBC cameraman, were pluckier. Cruising around in a Jeep in pursuit of action, they ran into Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the leathery police chief, as he raised his revolver and, without hesitation, summarily pumped bullets into the head of a trembling Vietcong suspect. The hideous picture, broadcast by the networks or featured on newspaper front pages everywhere the next morning, vividly illustrates to this day one of the horrors of the conflict.

Analyzed in hindsight, the offensive has been misinterpreted. It did not, as popularly believed, stimulate American resistance to the war. The U.S. public, motivated by the mounting casualties, a tax surcharge and the lack of apparent progress, began to have reservations about the commitment in October 1967. The prevailing attitude in the United States, however, was hawkish rather than dovish — as epitomized in the crude bumper sticker maxim, “Either win or get out.”

Nor did the Communists galvanize the effort to sway American opinion. Their goal was to instigate an uprising in South Vietnam by dramatizing to its population the vulnerability of the U.S. forces. They fumbled completely and, like many of my colleagues, I miscalculated the extent of their setback and the ghastly losses they suffered. Henceforth, the decimated Vietcong brigades would be replaced by North Vietnamese regulars, and their battles with the Americans increasingly conventional.

Nonetheless, the impact of the events at home was devastating. Johnson’s poll rating dropped precipitously, and he came within an ace of being defeated by Eugene McCarthy, the peace candidate, in the New Hampshire primary in March. Opposition to the war mushroomed into a vehicle for disgruntled elements as disparate as the civil-rights movement in the South and the free-speech advocates in colleges across the nation. Aggravating the chaos were the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Richard M. Nixon emerged from oblivion to promise that, if sent to the White House, he would “honorably” terminate the Vietnam involvement. Troubled by the strife and heart paroxysms, Johnson recused himself from the elections in November. But he selfishly crippled Vice President Hubert H. Humphey’s prospects by repudiating his speech criticizing the Asian engagement as hopeless.

I sensed that the war would drag on when I was chatting with a Communist delegate at a diplomatic conclave in Paris, in the spring of 1968. Chiding me for using the word “negotiations” to describe the sessions, he asserted, “To suggest that we are negotiating implies our eagerness to compromise, which we will never do. These are just talks.”

The same theme was repeated to me in a conversation in Hanoi in 1991 with Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary Communist commander, as we sipped tea in the parlor of his modest bungalow. I asked him how long he had been prepared to continue fighting. He replied in fluent French, “Ten, 20, 50 years, regardless of the cost, until victory.”

His response confirmed for me what I had earlier observed on the ground. We were challenged by an adversary ready to make limitless sacrifices to achieve its objective. Thus it was an unwinnable war. Perplexed by that conspicuous reality, Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander, and his officers would comment as they scrutinized the mounds of twisted Vietcong corpses, “Life means nothing to Orientals.” The obviously racist remark obfuscated their ignorance of the fact that 40,000 Union and Confederate soldiers, devoted to their respective causes, died within hours at Antietam in 1862.

The attempts by President George W. Bush and his staff to find parallels between Vietnam and Iraq have been chimerical. Directed by the central committee in Hanoi, our enemies in Vietnam comprised a homogeneous bloc whose purpose was to consolidate the partitioned country under their control. The “domino theory,” which maintained that their success would spark a sweep of Communist takeovers from Asian to the Middle East, was sheer nonsense.

In Iraq, by contrast, we face a complicated diversity of ethic and religious sects, each striving to promote its own agenda. Even if they could be curbed, we would be jeopardized by global terrorism, whose tentacles reach from Indonesia and the Philippines to North Africa into Europe and American itself. So Iraq is a sideshow compared to that danger. And little we learned in Vietnam can avert it.

Stanley Karnow, the author of “Vietnam: A History,” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1991.

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