50 years ago on February 27th, 1968 Walter Cronkite went on national TV with his “Report From Vietnam,” and rattled America. The most trusted newsman in the country at the time and a supporter of the war until then, Cronkite, in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, had a change of heart. Now he urged that Lyndon Johnson begin to disengage from the war–“not as victors but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” It had become plain to him that the United States would not soon or successfully conclude its involvement in Indochina. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president lamented, “I’ve lost middle America.” LBJ, it went without saying, had lost the war as well.
The story of Tet since then tends to focus on Cronkite. Because he was so pessimistic, yet influential, he missed the reality of the fighting in February 1968–the U.S. in fact had “won” the Tet Offensive but was undermined at home by Cronkite’s reporting, and rapidly growing antiwar sentiment, and thus had that “military victory” turned into a “psychological defeat.” The war was won in Vietnam but lost at home . . .
Barely known but occurring on that same day, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, returned a four-day trip to Vietnam where he had assessed the aftermath of Tet. Despite these revisionist claims of Tet as a victory, Wheeler’s analysis wasn’t much different than Cronkite’s and, since he was the JCS Chair and had just returned from meetings with Commander William Westmoreland and the rest of the U.S. military leadership team in Saigon, his words hit harder.
The Chair’s appraisals contrasted sharply with public optimism about the war. As Westmoreland publicly continued to claim success–concluding that he did “not believe Hanoi can hold up under a long war”–Wheeler told reporters that he saw “no early end to this war,” and cautioned that Americans “must expect hard fighting to continue.” Privately, Wheeler was more pessimistic. It was “the consensus of responsible commanders” that 1968 would be a pivotal year. The war might continue but would not return to pre-Tet conditions.* Clark Clifford, the incoming Defense Secretary, put it bluntly; Wheeler had “presented an even grimmer assessment of the Tet offensive than we had heard from Westmoreland and Bunker.”
“There is no doubt that the enemy launched a major, powerful nationwide assault,” Wheeler observed. “This offensive has by no means run its course. In fact, we must accept the possibility that he has already deployed additional elements of his home army.” The JCS chair also admitted that American commanders in Vietnam agreed that the margin of success or survival had been “very small indeed” during the first weeks of
Tet attacks. The enemy, with combat-available forces deployed in large numbers throughout the RVN, had “the will and capability to continue” and its “determination appears to be unshaken.” Although the Communists’ future plans were not clear, he warned, “the scope and severity of his attacks and the extent of his reinforcements are presenting us with serious and immediate problems.” S
everal PAVN divisions remained untouched, and troops and supplies continued to move southward to supplement the 200,000 enemy forces available for hostilities. The MACV, however, still faced major logistics problems due to enemy harassment and interdiction and the massive redeployment of U.S. forces to the north. Westmoreland in fact had deployed half of all maneuver battalions to I Corps while stripping the rest of the RVN of adequate reserves.
Worse, Wheeler, though surprisingly pleased with the ARVN’s performance, nonetheless questioned its ability to continue, pointing out that the army was on the defensive and had lost about one-quarter of its pre-Tet strength. Similarly, the government of the RVN had survived Tet, but with diminished effectiveness. Thieu and Ky faced “enormous” problems, with morale at the breaking point, 15,000 civilian casualties, and a flood of about one million additional refugees, one-third in the area of Saigon–all part of the huge task of reconstruction which would require vast amounts of money and time. The offensive moreover had undermined pacification.
Civic Action programs, Wheeler admitted, had been “brought to a halt. . . . To a large extent, the VC now control the countryside.” He added that the guerrillas, via recruiting and infiltration, were rebuilding their infrastructure and its overall recovery was “likely to be rapid.” Clearly, then, the military had developed its analyses and policy recommendations in February 1968 from candid, at times desolate, views of the effects of Tet.
Later claims of success aside, in February Wheeler at best found the situation “fraught with opportunities as well as dangers” and conceded that only the timely reaction of U.S. forces had prevented Communist control in a dozen or so places.” While Harold K. Johnson, the Army chief-of-staff plainly admitted that “we suffered a loss, there can be no doubt about it,” Wheeler’s euphemistic description of Tet was that “it was a very near thing.”
Subsequent events in 1968, especially the so-called Mini-Tets in May and August, cost the VC/PLAF/PAVN forces dearly and the U.S. and southern Vietnamese militaries rallied to create better conditions, something of a stalemate. But the decisions made in the aftermath of Wheeler’s report and similar analyses from Vietnam had been made–the U.S. would “Vietnamize” the war, essentially conceding that the influx of over 500,000 American soldiers had not defeated the Communists in Vietnam.
The Americans couldn’t wait until the dust settled late in 1968 to do otherwise; Cronkite had shocked Americans with his bleak report (only months after they had been assured there was “light at the end of the tunnel”) and Wheeler had unnerved official Washington. Now, when American scholars continue to peddle the “Tet as Victory” line, Wheeler’s report and the overall level of military candor about the parlous nature of the war needs to be a huge part of that dialogue . . .
For more on this, see my article in Jacobin, “The Story of the Tet Offensive”
*For Wheeler’s report, see in Neil Sheehan, et al, eds., The Pentagon Papers–New York Times Edition (New York, 1971), 615-21.