During a visit last year to Vietnam, I made the trek to Khe Sanh, one of the key battles during the Tet Offensive, which happened 50 years ago.

For most of the journey, I bristled at the Vietnamese guide and propagandist, who maintained Tet was a major victory for the Communist forces. I finally had enough and offered some facts to her and the tourists on the bus.

DaTech3.jpgSimply put, the coverage of the 1968 North Vietnamese attack is a startling example of how the U.S. media got it wrong. The media presented Tet as a major loss for the Americans when it actually was a massive defeat for North Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese government launched the offensive during Tet, the celebration of the Vietnamese New Year. The attacks began on January 30 on targets in Saigon and other Vietnamese cities, and ended a little more than a month later when Marines crushed the last resistance in the northern city of Hue.

As The Washington Post’s Saigon bureau chief Peter Braestrup documented in his book The Big Story, reporters systematically used Tet to turn the reality of a U.S. victory into an image of American and South Vietnamese defeat.

For example, journalists reported that that Vietcong had overrun five floors of the U.S. embassy when the VC never got inside the building. Newsweek’s coverage of the siege of Khe Sanh showed 18 photos out of a total of 29 of dead or wounded Marines or Marines huddling under cover, never mentioning that the Marines inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.

That campaign of misrepresentation culminated in Walter Cronkite’s half-hour TV special on February 27, 1968, when he told his viewers that Tet had proved that America was “mired in a stalemate.”

Here are some important facts that got lost in the journalistic shuffle. The North Vietnamese Army lost 20 percent of its forces in the South and suffered 33,000 men killed in action for no military gain.

In his excellent book on the battle of Hue, Mark Bowden describes miscalculations on the part of the U.S. command but also the cynicism of the North Vietnamese command that was trying to win a public relations battle rather than a military victory. The Communists told many of their supporters that the goal was to launch a revolution when the government knew many would die. Simply put, the North Vietnam leadership was willing to lose thousands of soldiers to turn the PR tide.

The strategy worked as the international media misinterpreted what happened on the ground. Public support for the war dropped significantly after the misinformation about the Tet offensive.

As The New Republic put it recently: “The American public knew none of this, however. The misrepresentation by America’s most respected newsman and most trusted media outlets of what had actually happened during Tet stunned the American public and the body politic. Popular support for the war took a heavy hit, as the war’s critics now grabbed center stage….

“After Tet, American media had assumed a new mission for itself: to shape the nation’s politics by crafting a single coherent narrative, even if it meant omitting certain relevant facts and promoting other false or misleading ones. standing — just as they had convinced them a year earlier that America’s major victory was actually a major defeat.”

Sound familiar?

Vietnam acknowledged Ho Chi Minh’s birthday in an oddly low-key way during my visit even in his boyhood home in Hue.

The media myths surrounding the Vietnam War continue to shape U.S. policy in Asia and throughout the world.

As I recently wandered through Vietnam, particularly the area near the DMZ, or the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Vietnam, I couldn’t help but think how media narratives had changed the course of the war and Vietnam’s history. Here are some important facts that must be understood.

First, the 1968 Tet Offensive was a huge military defeat for the Communists.

Second, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite had little to do with the decisions to wind down U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Third, the “napalm girl”—a memorable photograph during the war–had nothing to do with U.S. forces.

Finally, after more than 40 years of Communist rule, the people of Vietnam are not better off.

Vietnam veteran James Willbanks, a noted military historian, provides an interesting analysis of the Tet Offensive, particularly in Hue, the former royal capital of Vietnam.

Tet, the lunar New Year began on Jan. 31, 1968, when Communist forces attacked multiple locales, including Hue, which was geographically situated in South Vietnam but close to the border with North Vietnam. By the time the battle of Hue ended a month later, more than 40 percent of the buildings were damaged and more than 100,000 people were homeless. More important, the North Vietnamese had lost the battle but had executed nearly 3,000 people with ties to the South Vietnamese government. For more background, see http://www.historynet.com/tet-what-really-happened-at-hue.htm

All told, the Tet Offensive was a massive failure for the Communists. The change from guerrilla tactics to frontal assaults against the U.S. and South Vietnamese military, resulted in only minimal gains. Moreover, the Communists lost nearly a quarter of its battle-ready troops.

What happened, however, was an onslaught of news reports and photos that showed, among other things, the U.S. embassy in Saigon under assault. It made little difference that the Marines had successfully fought back, and the U.S. military recaptured all the territory and more.

The Communists were described as despondent because of the failure of Tet. But the PR started to roll in that the Communists had effectively taken the battle to the Americans and the South Vietnamese Army. Then the so-called “Cronkite moment” happened. CBS anchor Cronkite said during a news broadcast on February 27, 1968, that “we have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.” He added, “We are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory.”

As my friend and colleague, W. Joseph Campbell, notes in his excellent book, “Getting It Wrong,” Cronkite had little influence on Johnson’s thinking. “In the days and weeks after the Cronkite program, Johnson was adamant in defending his Vietnam policy. On multiple occasions during that time, the president in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment and sought to rally support for the war effort. At a time when Cronkite’s views should have been most potent, the president remained openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war.” For more, see https://mediamythalert.wordpress.com/2017/02/23/after-cronkite-moment-lbj-doubled-down-on-viet-policy/

But the Communists had won the PR battle–often based on media myths–as Americans turned against the war, and LBJ’s confidantes followed the public’s view.

Campbell also makes short shrift of the claim that the U.S. military was responsible for the “napalm girl” attack. Associated Press photographer Nick Ut took one of the most memorable photographs of the Vietnam War — the image of a 9-year-old girl screaming in terror as she fled from a misdirected napalm attack. The AP said the famous photo, taken June 8, 1972, “communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.”

The famous “napalm girl” photo did not involve the U.S. military.

But the plane was from the South Vietnam military and flown by a South Vietnamese pilot.

By referring to “American planes” in an article, The New York Times insinuated that U.S. forces were responsible for the napalm attack that preceded Ut’s photograph, Campbell writes. He tried to get DaTimes to correct the information but got nowhere. For more, see https://mediamythalert.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/40-years-on-the-napalm-girl-photo-and-its-associated-errors/

Some excellent reporting occurred during the Vietnam War, but what seems to stick in the American psyche about Tet, Cronkite and the napalm photo are mostly wrong—media myths like many we see today.

Finally, Vietnam is a mess. When your currency is valued at 22,000 dong to the dollar, you’ve got problems. People openly complain about the lack of full-time jobs except in the government. In 2011, Nguyen Phu Trong was appointed secretary general of the Communist Party. He served as the party’s chief ideologue before. That doesn’t bode well for solving the problems of the country.

A personal note: As the only American on board a trip to the DMZ, I tried to counter the propaganda of the guide, a committed Communist, about the information she was providing. But the other members of the tour–Brits, Canadians, French and Vietnamese–had already embraced the myths even though most of them were in their 20s and 30s.

Moreover, I had a wonderful time seeing the historic sites of Hue and Hoi An, a lovely town south of Danang, in central Vietnam. I met many courteous and friendly people during my visit. The attitude toward me as an American was mostly curiosity and certainly not condemnation. I stopped by a Catholic church—the religion that remains that of an estimated 20 percent of the population–and the members greeted me with enthusiasm. I wish the people, not the government, well.

While I was leaving the station after Saturday’s Show I noticed a group of people across the street from the station:

As I got closer it appeared they were flying South Vietnamese flags

Sure enough it was a mix of Hmong

and other vets:

There was a wreath laying

and Signs thanking the US for fighting

To our friends on the left Vietnam was a useless quagmire, but to these people who had to flee their homeland know what we were fighting for and what it meant.

I spoke to Peter Don who was leading the event

He knows what freedom means because he lost it, may we remember that lesson

Today while we celebrate a day of glory for our military it is not inappropriate to remember some other people who fought with us many years ago.

At the Worcester City hall Saturday afternoon a group of vets and Vietnamese Americans held a ceremony to mark the 36th anniversary of the fall of Saigon

We should not forget that Vietnam is still under communist rule:

I talked to a Worcester Cop that day who was born in Vietnam after it fell, he talked about the place, the lack of freedoms and the whole 10 yards. A lot of people in Vietnam paid a high price when we stopped aiding the South Vietnam.

I also talked to a pair of people who attended:

America is lucky to have such people here, they have made us better.

We should not forget them or the people still in Vietnam who are not yet free:

A job left unfinished