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Oberdorfer: Tet and Iraq: Parallels and Differences

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Don Oberdorfer, Chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies
October 23, 2006

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Don Oberdorfer, an expert on Asian affairs who wrote a major book on the Tet Offensive and its political aftermath in the United States, Tet! The Turning Point in the Vietnam War, says even though support for the Iraq war is ebbing in the United States, the current mood lacks “the domestic passion” the Tet offensive produced against the Vietnam War in 1968 that led President Lyndon B. Johnson not to seek reelection.

Oberdorfer says that so far in Iraq, there has been no “shock” similar to the surprise attack the Communist forces were able to create in 1968, the American public is not being asked to pay higher taxes, and there is no military draft. “If the Iraq war actually cost people money instead of just adding to the national deficit, then there’d be people in the street protesting,” he says. “And if people were being drafted to go to Iraq, I think there would be a very different domestic feeling about the war.”

In recent days there’s been comparisons in the press—and, in fact, President Bush referred to it himself—between the situation today in Iraq and the situation in 1968 following the major offensive in Vietnam by Communist forces during the Tet holiday period which led eventually to President Lyndon B. Johnson announcing two months later that he would not run for reelection that year. Since you’re the author of Tet!, a major book on that period, can you describe for us what the mood was like then and what the results of Tet actually were?

It’s an interesting comparison, but of course historical comparisons are never precise and sometimes they’re misleading. In the case of Vietnam, there had been an extensive drop in American support for the war beginning the previous summer, when President Johnson asked for a 10 percent additional tax on everyone’s income to pay for the war. With that the support for the war began diminishing fairly rapidly.

Johnson’s response to that, which turned out to be very misguided, was to claim that the war was very nearly won, and among other things he brought back General William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, to speak at the National Press Club in Washington and give interviews saying how encouraged he was and that the end of the war was beginning to come into view. There was actually a lull in the fighting then, but what the Americans did not know was that the lull was because the Communist side was husbanding its resources to put on the Tet offensive.

The Tet Offensive was a huge shock to a country which had been told the war was nearly over. The Communist forces, both the North Vietnamese forces and the southern Viet Cong as they were called, initiated a surprise attack almost simultaneously on every provincial capital, every city, nearly every military base, and in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The so-called Tet Offensive started on January 30 and January 31 of 1968.

What was the reaction in the United States?

It startled and shocked the American public. It was nothing like what has happened so far in Iraq. It was as if the Iraqi Shiites took over the Green Zone in Baghdad, and it was fully covered by television, which was important because the satellites over the Pacific had just gone up a few months before. So for the first time it was possible actually to have near-simultaneous reporting from the field. Actually, it was not reported simultaneously because there was no ground station nearby, and they flew out film to Tokyo which had the ground station. But it was closer to being simultaneous than anything that ever happened in the past. The American public had the impression they were seeing live action and that helped to provide the shock value. But in fact, the real shock, I’m convinced, was that the American public was losing confidence in the war and then was told “everything is about over,” and then on top of it came this. It actually was a defeat on the battlefield for the Communist forces. They were able to launch these attacks, but they were not able to hold anything for more than a day or two, and sometimes not even that, except for the central Vietnamese city of Hue, which they held for twenty-five days.

You and I were both correspondents at that time, and I remember in Washington, Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, insisted the war had been a victory for the allied side. I guess it was a victory in terms of losses of people because the North Vietnamese suffered huge casualties.

That’s true. That was an historical anomaly, in the sense that it was a defeat in military terms for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, but it was a more important defeat in political terms for the Johnson administration and the U.S. government, because it contributed heavily to the loss of support for the war, and from then on the course was really determined. It was a question of exactly how it was going to end. Johnson pulled out of the race. Richard M. Nixon was elected saying that he would bring the war to an end, “with peace and honor.” Once elected the only way he could sustain support was to begin withdrawing American troops. Every few months he would just pull another bunch of American forces out until finally they were all gone in 1972. Then the Saigon government collapsed during the administration of President Gerald Ford under the weight of the North Vietnamese invasion in 1975.

There were how many U.S. forces in South Vietnam in 1968?

It was around 500,000, and it reached its peak, actually, in early 1969.  Johnson, in a speech announcing his withdrawal from the race, announced the policy of halting the bombing of North Vietnam, and in effect asked for peace talks that started shortly thereafter, although they did not really accomplish anything until 1973.

Do you see any analogy today with Iraq? For one thing, public opinion is increasingly unhappy with the war, but there are no street demonstrations of any consequence and there isn’t the same kind of visceral reaction, is there?

No, you don’t have the tremendous domestic passion you had during Vietnam and during the Tet period, and there are reasons for it. One is that you now have people criticizing the Bush administration for not asking for any sacrifice, but President Johnson asked for sacrifice, to pay extra on your income tax. That led to the bottom beginning to fall out for support of the war. My conclusion is the American people were willing to have a war, they were willing to see people get killed, but they weren’t willing to pay for it.

And secondly, there was then in place a military draft, which meant college students and other young men could be drafted to fight in Vietnam. They passionately opposed the war. Even with 500,000 troops, the proportion of the American public that was actually, physically involved in war was rather small, but everybody felt it, because a person who was of draft age never knew whether his number was going to come up. Now of course you don’t have any of that. It’s just a small volunteer army, and no one is in jeopardy of being drafted. There are other factors too, but I think those two factors were rather important. If the Iraq war actually cost people money instead of just adding to the national deficit, then there’d be people in the street protesting. And if people were being drafted to go to Iraq, I think there would be a very different domestic feeling about the war.

Talk a bit about President Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection. I covered that speech at the time, and along with other journalists was startled. He probably could have won reelection, don’t you think?

Well, it’s hard to say. There was a lot of opposition to the war and his opponent was going to be Richard Nixon, that was pretty clear. And Nixon had a very well worked-out plan of how he was going to deal with it. There’s a lot of evidence that Johnson was considering dropping out, even before Tet. He said various things to various people. He had a fear of having another heart attack. He’d had one heart attack as a senator, and he feared that he would have another heart attack while in office. But I do think it was Vietnam largely which caused him to make the final decision not to run.

There are echoes now in what President Bush says. Johnson, like Bush, was against the people who would “cut and run,” and he took the position that either “We fight over there or we’re going to have to fight them in the United States.” It now seems ridiculous when you think about it, but the whole anti-communist ethos was that a North Vietnam victory was going to lead to Communists taking over all the rest of Southeast Asia, and who knows where it would end. To me the whole story of the Vietnam War, in a sense the whole sad story of what happened in Vietnam, can really be summed up in a few sentences that were told to the French expert on Vietnam, Bernard Fall, by Pham Van Dong, who was premier of North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh’s number two man in 1962, three years before Johnson launched a major escalation of American forces. Before 1965, the United States had a few hundred military advisers in South Vietnam.

Pham Van Dong told Bernard Fall, “Americans do not like long inconclusive wars, and this is going to be a long inconclusive war, and therefore we will win in the end.” And it’s what happened. The American people got tired of it, got fed up with it, and I can see some of the same tendencies in today’s situation. There was not much opposition in the beginning to U.S. forces going into Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein, but now, after several years, the people see the internecine struggles between Shiites and Sunnis and others and they see a civil war developing, and the United States pretty helpless to do much about it. The support for the war of course has diminished to almost a disappearing point. And it is another “long, inconclusive war,” in Pham Van Dong parlance.

That’s a very good analogy, I’d forgotten about that quote.

The situation is different. As I said before, there has been no big shock like Tet. In this case, it’s just a steady number of failing deadlines and fairly bad news from Iraq. Even so, the numbers are significantly smaller than they were in Vietnam. This month, which was considered a very bad month, seventy-eight American service people were killed, but you would have hundreds and hundreds killed in a week in Vietnam.

Well, the total American deaths in Iraq is something over 3,000.

In Vietnam it was more than that just killed in the two months after the Tet offensive, and for the war as a whole, the official number usually used is 58,000. In fact, the federal administration number is 47,000 killed in action.

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