Walter Cronkite's famous tag line was: "And that's the way it is," followed by the broadcast date. It was "the most trusted man in America" whose turn against the Vietnam War in February 1968, after the North Vietnamese launched their end-January Tet Offensive (the symbol-laden Vietnamese lunar new year), that turned US elite public opinion against the war. Contrary to much "recalled" today, many Americans--"the silent majority"--continued to support the troops, but with MSM (MainStream Media: then ABC, CBS, NBC, NY Times, Washington Post, Time & Newsweek; today, add CNN too) firmly in command of the media high ground, leaders in Congress turned.
Tom Lipscomb writes in the NY Post that 30 years after the April 30, 1975 final fall of Saigon myths still pervade discussion of the war. Popular MSM narrative tells us that Vietnam was a war (a) fought by mostly minority draftees sent into combat by white leaders, (b) to support the wrong side of a civil war, (c) whose northern communist coloration was incidental to its essentially indigenous nationalist character, (d) with US intervention justified by a phony "domino theory" of inevitable communist advance if not stopped by America.
In fact, as Lipscomb explains, Vietnam was a war (a) fought mainly by draftees (67 percent) whose ethnic composition virtually precisely mirrored the US population, (b) to support the free half of a divided country against subversion from the other half, (c) which was driven by Soviet-backed communist leaders cleverly hiding behind by the protective mask of indigenous nationalism, (d) with US intervention necessary to prevent serious erosion of non-communist Asia. Singapore ex-PM Lee Kuan Yew said that absent US intervention in Vietnam dominoes would indeed have fallen; the US effort, Lee said, bought Asia time to politically (and thus economically) stabilize even though in the end the US lost the war itself.
Other MSM myths: (a) popular opinion turned against the war after the US suffered a military defeat during Tet; (b) the South Vietnamese government was worse than the North; (c) the South Vietnamese military could not--and would not--fight, once the US stopped propping them up; (d) the war was an "unwinnable" guerrilla war supported by the populace even in the South, not a conventional military conflict between states.
Reality: (a) elite opinion turned against the war post-Tet, after MSM wrongly reported that Tet was a US defeat, when in fact Tet was a disastrous defeat for the North Vietnamese that, among other things, resulted in the destruction of the "Viet Cong," the "National Liberation Front" that posed as indigenous guerrillas but were in fact infiltrators from the North; (b) while the South government was monumentally corrupt and inefficient, the North was a Stalinist dictatorship whose iron rule caused millions to take to the sea in rafts & small boats at the war's end; (c) the ARVN could--and did--fight so long as it had US air power to neutralize the NVA's armor, and collapsed only after Congress cut off funds despite massive violation by the North of the January 1973 Paris Accords; (d) the war was in fact a conventional military conflict conducted by the North to conquer the South, which had declined to participate in a rigged election in 1956 and whose people resisted communist domination so long as protection was provided.
America's strategic goal--prevention of the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, was valid. But far too many blunders were committed along the way for us to prevail. JFK's decision to back the November 1963 coup against Ngo Dinh Diem brought to power a succession of weak, corrupt political leaders. LBJ's decision to micro-manage bombing strategy and tactics--LBJ boasted that no one could bomb an outhouse without his approval--proved highly susceptible to political manipulation by North Vietnam, leading to ill-advised bombing halts and insane target restrictions that exposed our airmen to hostile fire from "sanctuary" locations. General William Westmoreland's "attrition" strategy failed spectacularly, and by the time General Creighton Abrams started to turn the tide with his "enclave" strategy MSM had turned elite opinion against the war. RN's "Vietnamization" strategy was sound--over four years it worked as intended--but RN waited three years too long to blockade Haiphong Harbor (not done until May 1972) and unleash a full-scale bombing campaign (not done until December 1972).
By then MSM had done what General Giap said after the war proved decisive, what the NVA could not do on the battlefield. Pressed by MSM, RN offered carrots to the North repeatedly, which the North happily swallowed up whilst ignoring its own promises to desist and negotiate. Each time the US accepted the North's demands, the North moved the goalposts, and MSM began a full-court press to get the US to accept the new markers. The North's strategy was "What's mine is mine; what's yours is negotiable." It worked.
Was Vietnam winnable? Looking back 30 years later it seems likely that from a strictly military point of view it was. Once RN and General Abrams turned US strategy things improved greatly, with US casualties falling sharply as NVA numbers jumped. When the US blockaded Haiphong Harbor the North came back to the peace table; the massive December 1972 bombing brought the North back again. It is reasonable to conclude that more sustained military pressure, coupled with better strategy, could have prevailed in the field.
But the South had one Achilles heel: the lack of a competent government. The North was cohesive, skillful and resolute. The South was not. Unless the US could have shored up the South until competent leaders came to power, it seems that politically the war was "unwinnable." It would have required patience that MSM and US elites simply did not have.
In larger perspective, Vietnam's 1962-1975 span transformed the baby boomer elite from social to political revolutionaries, morphed MSM from news reporters to advocacy journalists joined at the hip to the liberals who captured the Democratic party, and energized America's enemies around the world. It took the rise of Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to turn the political tide in the 1980s and win the Cold War for the West. Asia has been transformed today into an economic powerhouse that dwarfs Europe. US engagement in the Pacific is (rightly) greater than ever, with best-ever ties to Japan, growing ties to India, and tightest of all with best-friend Australia, whose troops served alongside ours in Vietnam. For the rest of Asia relations with the US are of highest import.
The consequences for Vietnam of America's defeat? Ironically, while the US lost 1962-1975 the North Vietnamese lost post-1975. Compare Vietnam's fate with that of South Korea, whose 1953 armistice with North Korea was roughly contemporaneous with the 1954 Geneva accord that ended France's colonial role in Vietnam. South Korea is democratic and vibrant, with a GDP that surpassed $1 trillion in 2004, 38 times today's per capita figure for still unfree Vietnam. And South Korea leads the WORLD in broadband Internet penetration, with 30 percent of its GDP derived from broadband applications, much of which is not even available in to US consumers today. In Vietnam, the communist North chose war when the South refused phony elections, and extended its dictatorial rule to the South after the American exit in 1975. Today, Chinese gangs are kidnapping thousands of Vietnamese women to make them unwilling brides for Chinese single men, a problem few (if any) South Korean women face.
In November 1999 I spent one week in Viet Nam. Torrential rain marred my stay, first during a bus ride from the French imperial capital, Hue (site of an 1968 communist massacre of thousands ignored by an MSM that later put My Lai in klieg lights), across normally scenic but this time fog-shrouded Hai Van Pass to Danang, where the flood-swollen Mekong rose 18 feet in 24 hours and stranded us an extra day while rain deprived us of the pleasures of China Beach, and then finally on to Saigon for more rain (albeit less in volume).
But first I visited Hanoi, where some sun prevailed (and Ha Long Bay, where the sun lost out). I conversed in French with an elderly gent and in English with a university-age student who wanted to join our travel group. We talked as we toured Ho Chi Minh's residence, not far from where Senator John McCain's A-4 was shot down (I also toured the Hanoi Hilton, not to be confused with the Ritz as a place to stay). The young man was eager to speak to Americans, considered the war ancient history, and would no doubt today happily trade his dismal government for a free one with 38 times higher GDP and broadband Internet access. Some day the fog of politics--as blinding as Karl von Clausewitz's famed fog of war--will lift, and all Vietnamese will join the community of the free. Maybe then American elites will, finally, come home. (Maybe not, but the world moves on, with our without them.)
Full disclosure: I was (a) classified 4-F, ineligible for military service; (b) a hawk pre-Tet; (c) a dove post-Tet; (d) a sap after reading Peter Braestrup's brilliant "Big Story," which told how MSM's defeatism was decisive in giving victory to the North. For me, those who served in Viet Nam belong as much to honored memory (Lincoln's "mystic chords" linking generations) as my late cousin, who landed first-day, first hour at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. To all Vietnam veterans, including South Viet, Australian and South Korean troops who fought with us, you are living refutations of the pernicious myth of stressed-out, disaffected vets. On this 30th anniversary day, thank all of you for your grand service to America and world freedom.
Lipscomb: "Nam: What We Won"