In 1968, the Tet Offensive led many in the media to believe that the war in Vietnam was failing. The most famous pronouncement was Walter Cronkite's declaration that the war was a stalemate. Lost in the media defeatism was the fact that American and South Vietnamese troops won the battle, and had delivered a crippling blow to the Viet Cong.
This is subjective, but it seems to me that the rewriting of the history of the Vietnam War has come in two stages, or maybe that's spasms, roughly corresponding to the Reagan and Bush II eras. In the former the jumpy, psycho, drug-addled Vietnam vet of the 60s and 70s became the poor, spat-upon, loner hero, the decent American guy with the bad memories of a bad war buried just below the surface, occasionally breaking through in a sweat-soaked dream sequence for Magnum, P.I. or Airwolf.
It's not as if one never heard the "Uncle Walter and his Lyin' Band of Librul Traitors" refrain in those days, but the debate was among people who'd lived through it. And while the results of Tet (the ultimate repulse and destruction of the so-called Viet Cong as a cohesive force) were freely acknowledged, it's really with this second wave, the arguments made by or for a group whose only experience of Vietnam lies in growing up with the historical revisionism going on and Chuck Norris rewinning the war that Tet has become a major operational victory traitorously sold to an unsuspecting public as a defeat. As so often these days we're forced to decide whether this represents a calculated lie or a prolonged, public case of mental illness; it is simply not possible that anyone even moderately versed in military history mistakes tactical success for automatic, capital-V Victory.
In 1968, the Tet Offensive led many in the media to believe that the war in Vietnam was failing. Well, no. By 1968 most honest observers had already concluded that. It's probably more accurate to say that after Tet we could establish that--as in Iraq forty years later--there was a significant segment of the population which would simply deny things ever could go poorly where the US military was involved. And so that segment would begin casting around for a scapegoat, and that they'd find one so much to their liking in "the media" they'd freeze-dry it and keep it on hand, apparently forever. The story of US involvement in Vietnam is the story of a war that was failing from day one. Johnson understood this pretty much all along. Sheesh, the Secretary of Freakin' Defense was publicly at odds with our strategy in Vietnam as early as 1966. No one who'd been paying attention needed Walter Cronkite to explain what a mess Vietnam was by 1968.
Anyone who'd been listening intently had been hearing we were about to turn the corner since 1962, at which time "the end is six months away" became a semi-annual announcement; I was pretty young, but I think you could buy greeting cards. By 1965 this was no longer tenable, and Westmoreland issued a three-year plan which was supposed to have Hanoi ready for surrender by '67, or face an all-out twelve-to-eighteen month final push if they didn't. This as US troop involvement rose from the 16,000 who were supposed to have won the war in 1964, to the half-million in theatre at the time of Tet--with Westmoreland's request for an additional 200,000 sitting on Johnson's desk. Congressional hawks like Mendel Rivers and Scoop Jackson were leaving the reservation. Small wonder that the public--and perhaps some in The Media as well--which had been fed a steady diet of body counts and an enemy on his last legs viewed a sudden series of mass offensives aimed at large cities as something less than a stirring victory for our side and something more like, well, like stalemate.
We'll leave alone the idea that crippling the "Viet Cong" meant much in the overall conduct of the war. Anybody watching Iraq, which had not been at war for fifteen years before we jumped in, knows it's fairly easy to generate an insurgency against a foreign occupier. The PAVN was still there, still pretty well equipped, still tenacious, as we'd continue to see.
The real story here is not that people lie or fantasize about Vietnam a generation later. It's that this leftover notion of WWII glory, that creating a killing machine and turning it loose in enemy territory leads to automatic victory, provided no teleprompter reader ever says anything negative about the effort, apparently will never die. Just as its proponents apparently will never learn.