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Analysis: A mini-Tet offensive in Iraq?

Analysis: A mini-Tet offensive in Iraq?

Old Apr 6th 2004, 11:40 pm
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Default Analysis: A mini-Tet offensive in Iraq?

Analysis: A mini-Tet offensive in Iraq?
By Arnaud de Borchgrave
UPI Editor at Large

WASHINGTON, April 6 (UPI) -- Any seasoned reporter covering the Tet
offensive in Vietnam 36 years ago is well over 60 and presumably retired or
teaching journalism is one of America's 4,200 colleges and universities.
Before plunging into an orgy of erroneous and invidious historical parallels
between Iraq and Vietnam, a reminder about what led to the U.S. defeat in
Southeast Asia is timely.

Iraq will only be another Vietnam if the home front collapses, as it did
following the Tet offensive, which began on the eve of the Chinese New Year,
Jan. 31, 1968. The surprise attack was designed to overwhelm some 70 cities
and towns, and 30 other strategic objectives simultaneously. By breaking a
previously agreed truce for Tet festivities, master strategist Gen. Vo
Nguyen Giap in Hanoi calculated that South Vietnamese troops would be caught
with defenses down.

After the first few hours of panic, the South Vietnamese troops reacted
fiercely. They did the bulk of the fighting and took some 6,000 casualties.
Vietcong units not only did not reach a single one of their objectives --
except when they arrived by taxi at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, blew their
way through the wall into the compound and guns blazing made it into the
lobby before they were wiped out by U.S. Marines -- but they lost some
50,000 killed and at least that many wounded. Giap had thrown some 70,000
troops into a strategic gamble that was also designed to overwhelm 13 of the
16 provincial capitals and trigger a popular uprising. But Tet was an
unmitigated military disaster for Hanoi and its Vietcong troops in South
Vietnam. Yet that was not the way it was reported in U.S. and other media
around the world. It was television's first war. And some 50 million
Americans at home saw the carnage of dead bodies in the rubble, and dazed
Americans running around.

As the late veteran war reporter Peter Braestrup documented in "Big
Story" -- a massive, two-volume study of how Tet was covered by American
reporters -- the Vietcong offensive was depicted as a military disaster for
the United States. By the time the facts emerged a week or two later from
RAND Corp. interrogations of prisoners and defectors, the damage had been
done. Conventional media wisdom had been set in concrete. Public opinion
perceptions in the United States changed accordingly.

RAND made copies of these POW interrogations available. But few reporters
seemed interested. In fact, the room where they were on display was almost
always empty. Many Vietnamese civilians who were fence sitters or leaning
toward the Vietcong, especially in the region around Hue City, joined
government ranks after they witnessed Vietcong atrocities. Several mass
graves were found with some 4,000 unarmed civil servants and other
civilians, stabbed or with skulls smashed by clubs. The number of communist
defectors, known as "chieu hoi," increased fourfold. And the "popular
uprising" anticipated by Giap, failed to materialize. The Tet offensive also
neutralized much of the clandestine communist infrastructure.

As South Vietnamese troops fought Vietcong remnants in Cholon, the
predominantly Chinese twin city of Saigon, reporters, sipping drinks in the
rooftop bar of the Caravelle Hotel, watched the fireworks 2 miles away.
America's most trusted newsman, CBS' Walter Cronkite, appeared for a standup
piece with distant fires as a backdrop. Donning helmet, Cronkite declared
the war lost. It was this now famous television news piece that persuaded
President Johnson six weeks later, on March 31, not to run. His ratings had
plummeted from 80 percent when he assumed the presidency upon Kennedy's
death to 30 percent after Tet. His handling of the war dropped to 20
percent, his credibility shot to pieces.

Until Tet, a majority of Americans agreed with Presidents Kennedy and
Johnson that failure was not an option. It was Kennedy who changed the
status of U.S. military personnel from advisers to South Vietnamese troops
to full-fledged fighting men. By the time of Kennedy's assassination in Nov.
22, 1963, 16,500 U.S. troops had been committed to the war. Johnson
escalated all the way to 542,000. But defeat became an option when Johnson
decided the war was unwinnable and that he would lose his bid for the
presidency in November 1968. Hanoi thus turned military defeat into a
priceless geopolitical victory.

With the Vietcong wiped out in the Tet offensive, North Vietnamese regulars
moved south down the Ho Chi Minh trails through Laos and Cambodia to
continue the war. Even Giap admitted in his memoirs that news media
reporting of the war and the anti-war demonstrations that ensued in America
surprised him. Instead of negotiating what he called a conditional
surrender, Giap said they would now go the limit because America's resolve
was weakening and the possibility of complete victory was within Hanoi's

Hanoi's Easter offensive in March 1972 was another disaster for the
communists. Some 70,000 North Vietnamese troops were wiped out -- by the
South Vietnamese who did all the fighting. The last American soldier left
Vietnam in March 1973. And the chances of the South Vietnamese army being
able to hack it on its own were reasonably good. With one proviso: Continued
U.S. military assistance with weapons and hardware, including helicopters.
But Congress balked, first by cutting off military assistance to Cambodia,
which enabled Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge communists to take over, which, in turn,
was followed by a similar Congressional rug pulling from under the South
Vietnamese, that led to rapid collapse of morale in Saigon.

The unraveling, with Congress pulling the string, was so rapid that even
Giap was caught by surprise. As he recounts in his memoirs, Hanoi had to
improvise a general offensive -- and then rolled into Saigon two years
before they had reckoned it might become possible.

That is the real lesson for the U.S. commitment to Iraq. Whatever one
thought about the advisability of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the United States
is there with 100,000 troops and a solid commitment to endow Iraq with a
democratic system of government. While failure is not an option for Bush, it
clearly is for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who called Iraq the president's
Vietnam. It is, of course, no such animal. But it could become so if
Congressional resolve dissolves.

Bui Tin, who served on the general staff of the North Vietnamese army,
received South Vietnam's unconditional surrender on April 30, 1975. In an
interview with the Wall Street Journal after his retirement, he made clear
the anti-war movement in the United States, which led to the collapse of
political will in Washington, was "essential to our strategy."

Visits to Hanoi by Jane Fonda and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and
various church ministers "gave us confidence that we should hold on in the
face of battlefield reverses."

America lost the war, concluded Bui Tin, "because of its democracy. Through
dissent and protest it lost the ability to mobilize a will to win." Kennedy
should remember that Vietnam was the war of his brother who saw the conflict
in the larger framework of the Cold War and Nikita Khrushchev's threats
against West Berlin. It would behoove Kennedy to see Iraq in the larger
context of the struggle to bring democracy, not only to Iraq, but the entire
Middle East.


(Arnaud de Borchgrave covered Tet as Newsweek's chief foreign correspondent
and had seven tours in Vietnam between 1951 under the French and 1972.)

Union Against Multi-Culty

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