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Last month marked the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Tet Offensive. Yesterday I had the good fortune to discuss the lessons of Tet with three experts on the Vietnam War, Frances FitzGerald, Fredrik Logevall, and Lien-Hang Nguyen. You can watch our discussion below.
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Tet is often described as the pivotal moment in the Vietnam War. It certainly was a game changer for President Lyndon Johnson and Democratic Party politics. Tet convinced LBJ not to run for re-election as challengers like Robert F. Kennedy came out against the war. Tet also persuaded LBJ to veto a request to send 206,000 more combat troops. In retrospect, 1968 marks the high water point in the U.S. troop commitment in South Vietnam.
But Tet’s impact on the war is easily overstated. Consider the following three facts:
- U.S. troops fought in Vietnam for another five years before the Paris Peace Accords were signed.
- Two-thirds of the American troops who died in Vietnam were killed after the Tet Offensive began.
- Public opinion shifted only slightly in the immediate aftermath of Tet. In December 1967, 46 percent of American said “no” when asked if they thought the war had been a mistake. In April 1968, 40 percent said “no.” Even by late 1968 less than 20 percent of Americans favored a withdrawal from Vietnam.
Two additional points are often lost in discussions of Tet. The first is that the public had begun to sour on the war months earlier. That’s why LBJ called General William Westmoreland home in November 1967. He wanted the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam to make the case that the United States was winning. Westmoreland did his duty and famously declared that “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view.” So rather than creating public doubts about the war and the administration’s managing of it, Tet confirmed what many Americans already suspected.
The second is that public opinion seldom compels presidents to act in foreign affairs. LBJ could have responded to Tet by deepening America’s involvement in Vietnam. Many Americans would have approved. That he rejected those calls reflected his recognition of what he had feared from the start and what his advisers had increasingly been telling him: the war could not be won at an acceptable cost.
But that recognition did not bring the war to a quick end.
If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War, check out these other TWE posts:
Corey Cooper assisted in the preparation of this post.