Historical facts that get lost in the historical narrative

In a very good piece from the Politico, How Obama Manipulates the News, Jack Shafer recounts how Obama and his flunky foreign advisor Ben Rhodes manipulated the news media into helping him dupe Amercia into the dangerous Iran deal. The Ben Rhodes story is nothing less than stunning and something that needs to be studied by anyone interested in keeping America safe. I’ll have lots more to say about that soon.

For now I want to draw attention to one little flaw in Mr. Shafer’s story. I’m not being critical of Mr. Shafer and I don’t blame him for his mistake. It’s a mistake that nearly everyone makes because it’s become the accepted narrative history of the American experience in the Viet Nam War.

Mr. Shafer builds his story of Obama’s manipulation by first explaining that previous presidents have also tried to manipulate and deceive the public. He recounts the facts of several previous presidents and how they did it. When he gets to Lyndon Johnson, here is what he says:

The Johnson administration formed a media blitz called the “Progress Campaign” in the summer of 1967, Greenberg writes, with the goal of proving “that the United States was on the verge of achieving its objectives” in Vietnam. (It wasn’t. A few months later the Tet Offensive confirmed that.)

Do you see the mistake in that? Even though it can be said the Tet Offensive coincided with the turning point in the Viet Nam War, the point at which the American public turned against the war, it was not the Tet Offensive itself that was the cause. The Tet Offensive was a military victory for the American and South Viet Nam forces, and a defeat for the North Vietnamese. The turning of Americans against the war was caused by something else entirely.

As recounted in Steven Hayward’s The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980:

The Tet offensive was a military failure—for the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam failed to take any major South Vietnamese city except for Hue, from which they were ejected within a month—but not until after massacring over 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians, an episode only lightly reported by the media. Except for Khe Sanh, Hue, and one or two other locations, the enemy offensive was spent within a few days. By the end of February Hanoi was ordering a general retreat, which ironically happened to coincide with the moment of maximum pessimism in Washington. Out of a total attack force of 84,000 troops, nearly 50,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were killed in Tet. These losses decimated the Viet Cong, destroying their command structure and morale among troops. Viet Cong offensive capabilities suffered and dwindled for the next three years; much of the rest of the war was fought by North Vietnamese regular army troops. Viet Cong defections increased dramatically in the aftermath of Tet. The U.S. suffered 1,100 dead; the South Vietnamese lost 2,300. Indeed it can be argued that General Giap botched the attack; having achieved tactical surprise, the attack was dispersed too widely, with not enough troops in any one location to score decisively.

The Tet offensive failed in part because one of the central premises—that South Vietnam’s population would spontaneously revolt—was wrong. In fact, the lack of an uprising exposed the hollowness of North Vietnamese propaganda claims.

So if the Tet Offensive was a military defeat for the North Vietnamese and a victory for the Americans and the South Vietnamese, why did it turn the American public against the war?

But Tet did provoke an uprising—among U.S elites, including the inner circle around President Johnson. Because of the prior political and public relations handling of the war at home, Tet demolished the illusion of control and progress.

Saigon-Execution-Murder-of-a-Vietcong-by-Saigon-Police-Chief-1968-smallWithin one day after the Tet Offensive two things happened. First, a now-famous Eddie Adams photograph was pasted all over American newspapers of a high ranking South Vietmanese officer shooting a captured Viet Cong officer in the head. This was followed by some of the worst journalistic malpractice in the history of news reporting. Former Los Angeles Times and Newsweek correspondent Robert Elegant, who covered Vietnam for ten years, wrote that “For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield, but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen.” By 1968 much of the media was disposed to cover the war in the most negative light possible.

Steven Hayward:

Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett filed a story from the Mekong Delta town of Ben Tre, where hard fighting had inflicted severe damage and high civilian casualties. The third paragraph of Arnett’s report quoted an unnamed U.S Major: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Arnett’s sensational quotation was only the beginning of the bad press the Tet offensive unleashed. “Rarely,” wrote Peter Braestrup in his two-volume analysis of the press coverage of Tet (Big Story), “has contemporary crisis journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality. . . To have portrayed such a setback for one side as a defeat for the other—in a major crisis abroad—cannot be counted as a triumph for American journalism.”

America was on the way to winning the war in Vietnam. It did not lose the war in Vietnam. It lost the war with American journalism. President Johnson’s Progress Campaign was not an attempt to deceive or manipulate the public back home in America. It may have been the only time the Johnson Administration was actually being forthwright.

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