In late January, 1968 the Viet Cong southern insurgents, supported by North Vietnamese regulars, attacked 36 of 44 provincial capitals inside South Vietnam. Communist forces breached the perimeter of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Base, headquarters for the U.S. command. They also attacked Saigon’s presidential palace while a Viet Cong squad briefly occupied the grounds of the U.S. embassy.
North Vietnam’s Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, architect of the Tet Offensive, sought to spark a general uprising and collapse of the South Vietnamese army leaving the Americans without an ally. A campaign of border attacks, including besieging a 5,000-man U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh in northwestern South Vietnam, diverted attention from the enemy buildup around Saigon and other major cities.
The Tet Offensive proved a tactical defeat for the Communists. There was no general uprising. The South Vietnamese army, on the whole, fought well. Except for fighting to retake the ancient imperial capital at Hue, the Offensive was over in days. By the end of March 1968, more than 58,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops were dead. The United States lost 3,895 killed in action while the South Vietnamese forces suffered 4,954 dead. The utterly decimated Viet Cong never again posed a significant battlefield threat. In April 1975, Saigon fell to four corps of North Vietnamese regulars.
The September 12, 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Tripoli pales by comparison, the deaths of American Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other brave men notwithstanding. Even the mob breaching the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo and anti-American rioting across the Moslem world fall short of the historic proportions of the Tet Offensive. There are, however, useful analytical analogies.
Both events occurred in election years. President Lyndon Johnson set up the political narrative in late 1967 by calling home our man in Saigon, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who then dutifully toed the line that victory was within sight. In the wake of the administration’s overly positive assessments, the Tet Offensive devastated American will. Tet was an enormous intelligence failure driven by political pressures to accentuate the positive and downplay or ignore contrary analyses.
The Benghazi debacle shares Tet’s political DNA. In the aftermath, Fox News broke the news that the attack was a terrorist act and not the result of spontaneous mob action. It took the administration a week to admit the true nature of the Benghazi attacks. The extent to which the attacks on diplomatic posts throughout the Muslim world were coordinated begs attention.
The media figured in both cases, but with different effects. Tet marked a turning point in media coverage of the Vietnam War. In 1968, the American media lined up against the Johnson administration by magnifying the effect of the Tet Offensive. Consider the impact of execution of a Viet Cong by the Saigon police chief Nguyen Loc Loan and the emphasis placed on the brief occupation of the U.S. embassy grounds by a VC squad, a minor skirmish in an otherwise successful and relatively brief battle to regain control of Saigon. It was Walter Cronkite’s post-Tet pronouncement that victory was no longer attainable that fostered the crumbling of Lyndon Johnson’s reelection hopes. In the end, Tet exposed the administration’s flawed strategic policies, something that turned military victory into a strategic defeat marking the turning point in the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Conversely, in September 2012, the media connived to deflect blame from Obama administration policies. For a week, with the exception of Fox News, the media maintained the fiction that the Benghazi attack resulted from mob action; mostly by ignoring it to focus instead on Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s “premature” criticism blaming failed policies of the Obama administration. When the truth of an al Qaeda inspired attack became “self evident,” the media shifted attention to Romney’s remarks made weeks ago concerning the nature of Obama’s core supporters.
The Benghazi attack indicates Al Qaeda is very much alive and dangerous despite the death of Usama bin Laden. Apologies by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton for an obscure internet video added fuel to an explosive anger fulminating from an Islamic psyche unfathomable to American liberals fixated on feel good multicultural mantras alien to the realities of Islamist fanaticism.
The president and secretary of state have endangered US. diplomatic and military personnel as well as Americans traveling and working overseas. In the wake of Tet President Johnson, understanding the ramifications of his failures, declined to seek reelection. President Obama and his media lapdogs continue to fix blame elsewhere.
Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.