The Vietnam War in Retrospect: Four Lectures, Lecture
“The Tet Offensive 1968” and “A Paradigmatic picture of the Offensive”
Source: The Vietnam War in Retrospect: Four Lectures, Washington, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
Author: Martin Herz
A career Foreign Service Officer who was Political Counselor in Saigon, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, and Ambassador to Bulgaria, Martin F. Herz (1917-1983) directed the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University after his retirement. In 1982, he gave a series of four lectures that gathered his personal and first-hand views of the Vietnam war. They are not congruent with much of what has become the conventional wisdom on that conflict.
Those who have recently watched the Ken Burns television series on the Vietnam War will want to integrate Ambassador Herz’s telling points into their own thinking on the war. The photographs which he discussed were those shown on the cover of the May 5, 1975, issue of Newsweek.
I am showing this photograph of a Vietnamese child running away from a burning village because it exemplifies what I have said about the difficulty of reporting and interpreting a war like the Vietnam War through the electronic media. The picture was in some way regarded as paradigmatic—as an outstandingly clear and typical example that can stand for a whole category—in this case as an example of the horrors perpetrated by American napalm bombing. The picture was taken at a place called Trang Band during an enemy offensive when the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops were attacking the town and a South Vietnamese plane by mistake dropped napalm on a pagoda where many people had taken refuge. The result, as far as Western readers and viewers were concerned, was a picture that graphically showed suffering inflicted not by the attackers but by the defenders. Senator George McGovern referred to this photograph in a speech, saying that it was symbolic of the suffering inflicted “in the name of America.”
So the picture of that little girl became etched into the consciousness of the [46/47] American TV viewer and magazine reader and of people all over the world, just as the picture of the burning monk had become etched into the minds of people as illustrative of religious persecution by the Diem regime. Once such pictures have entered people’s consciousness one cannot rectify the impression—-people are no longer interested in hearing that the Buddhist monks of Hue were totally unrepresentative or that the little girl was the victim of a military accident. Visual paradigms have been suggested, and once created in people’s minds they persist. This was a very interesting feature of the reporting of the Vietnam War.
The “Tet” Offensive 1968
I will devote the rest of this lecture to an analysis of the Tet (Vietnamese New Year) offensive of January/March 1968 because it was in many respects the turning point of the war. It was in the aftermath of that offensive that President Johnson announced he would not seek reelection and that he unilaterally stopped the bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to get the North Vietnamese to the conference table. The offensive produced a terrible shock in the American people. It started with a conventional enemy offensive in the central highlands where an American force of Marines was besieged in an encampment near a place called Khe Sanh.
And then in the night on January 30 a force of nineteen VC sappers blew a hole in the wall around the American embassy in Saigon and assaulted the embassy itself. There were tremendous headlines in the U.S., “Viet Cong in the American Embassy.” This event, together with the VC and North Vietnamese attacks on virtually all the cities of South Vietnam, produced an impression that the enemy was everywhere, that his strength and determination must have been underestimated, that the Communists could move wherever they liked in Vietnam despite our massive military presence, and that something therefore was gravely wrong in our entire military posture and the war simply could not be won. The impression of disaster conveyed by the media representatives in Saigon was undoubtedly also a reaction against excessively optimistic statements that had been made by the American military authorities. In a sense the press felt that they had been misled, and some of them may have felt they were now getting even. Never excessively trusting of the generally upbeat American military briefings, they henceforth systematically disbelieved whatever the American military were saying. Did not the eruption of the VC into the very city of Saigon constitute living proof that our military had been out of touch with reality when they had claimed that the enemy was almost beaten?
The nineteen VC who had invaded the grounds of the American embassy never got into the building and all were killed within hours; and as far as the invasion of the city was concerned, the South Vietnamese troops fought surprisingly well and together with American forces inflicted terrible losses on the Communists. Clearly the enemy planners had expected that the VC and North Vietnamese would be greeted as liberators. They must have been shattered when
[47/48] they discovered that the population wanted no part of them and freely gave information about them to the South Vietnamese police and military. Amazingly the Communists had made no plans for retreat or withdrawal anywhere, and so they were decimated.
But all the while the media focussed on the event in the American embassy—it took quite a while before it was clear that the VC had not even gotten into the building—and interpreted the widespread enemy attacks as evidence of Communist strength, instead of understanding it for what it was, a desperate throw of the dice to impress American public opinion and thus influence American policy. Television newscasters termed the war “lost” because the rural areas through which the Communists had passed were now “under Communist control.” Actually it turned out the VC had had to deplete their forces in the countryside in order to break into the cities; and as a result of the Tet offensive the government in the following year vastly extended its control in the countryside, because big stretches of formerly “insecure” areas no longer had any VC or had VC who were so weak that they stopped fighting.
A “Paradigmatic” Picture of the Offensive
Aside from the focus on the daring but completely unsuccessful attempt on the American embassy, which resulted in a mass of news stories and pictures, the most sensational picture of the Tet offensive, which again was taken as paradigmatic, was this one showing the South Vietnamese police general Nguyen Van Loan shooting a VC officer. There is obviously no doubt that this shooting constituted a war crime, and there can be no excuse for it, although there is an explanation. The VC officer’s unit had taken position in an apartment house and from there had taken a terrible toll of Vietnamese police trying to storm the building; and when the building was finally regained and the VC taken away, the officer had sneered that he was now a prisoner of war and therefore entitled to full protection. Technically he was not a prisoner of war because he was wearing civilian clothes, but that doesn’t mean that the South Vietnamese general had any right to kill him.
I stress the importance of this picture because the big story should have been what the Communists were doing to Saigon, transforming it into a battlefield—and how they were being received by the populace. But the image that was left with the American people, and with the world public, was not one of Communist cruelty or of South Vietnamese fighting success, but of the cruelty of our ally. The victims of aggression, and not the attackers, were held up to public scorn. [48/49]
I want you to understand that I have not selected these three pictures—the burning monk, the fleeing child and the shooting of the prisoner—because they happen to illustrate a point that I am making about the war. Not at all. These are the three pictures that for the American TV viewer and the newspaper and magazine reader seemed paradigmatic, standing for important truths about the war, while actually, as you understand by now, they all represented exceptions: Far from being paradigmatic they were entirely untypical of what went on in the war. Here is the cover of Newsweek magazine when the war was over in 1975, seven years later. What did the editors of Newsweek think of when they were looking for a way to illustrate what people had known and felt about the Vietnam war? The shooting of the prisoner, the fleeing child, and the burning monk.
As I mentioned in the last lecture, in Hue where the North Vietnamese eventually had to be dug out of the old part of the city in arduous fighting, they murdered over three thousand civilians during the time they held that city. But there were no American photographers present when the Communists marched the victims off with their hands tied behind their backs and later when they shot them in the nape of the neck. On the other hand, there were also no photographers present when an American infantry company ran berserk in the village of My Lai and killed a number of innocent women and children.
I suppose the reason why My Lai was endlessly analyzed and castigated and why the killing of more than three thousand innocent people in Hue attracted relatively little attention is that Americans are held to higher standards than other people. Yet it deserves to be stressed that in Hue the Communists were carrying out policy, whereas at My Lai the Americans violated their own military rules of engagement. But somehow the American media in Vietnam did not display zeal in the investigation of Communist cruelties and atrocities, which were systematic and a matter of policy, and instead fastened at great length on the occasional violations of the rules of war by ourselves and our allies.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.