The Tet Analogy

THE TET ANALOGY….I didn’t catch this at the time, but on Tuesday Tom Friedman suggested that the recent spike of insurgent attacks in Iraq was similar to the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. Asked about this comparison, George Bush replied, “He could be right.”

Dan Drezner thinks “it’s interesting that the administration is now embracing Vietnam analogies,” but what I think is more interesting is which analogy Bush & Co. are embracing. There have always been at least three competing historical perspectives about Tet:

  1. There’s the military perspective: Tet was a huge setback for the North Vietnamese. They were badly defeated, took huge losses, were operationally crippled, and achieved none of their objectives.

  2. There’s the liberal media perspective: Even though we won, the left-wing press spun it as a defeat. That’s why the public lost faith in the war.

  3. There’s the government mendacity perspective: For some time, LBJ had been assuring us that the war was going well and the Viet Cong were on the verge of collapse. Tet demonstrated that he was either lying or else completely divorced from reality.

I’ve always sided with #3. There’s no question that #1 is technically correct, but in practice it simply meant that Gi?p was vindicated in his preference for guerrilla warfare over conventional offensives. North Vietnam was fully able to continue prosecuting the war. And while the press was indeed gloomy about U.S. prospects after Tet, that was almost certainly because of #3, not #2. Walter Cronkite, the most famous of the pessimists, stated this clearly: “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest cloud.” He concluded ? correctly ? not that we had lost, but that we were “mired in a stalemate.”

But #3 is surely not the analogy that George Bush had in mind. So which one is it? Is it #1, in which case he’s convinced that this is a last ditch effort by the insurgents and we’re on the verge of a famous victory? Is it #2, in which case he’s laying the groundwork for a future claim that we could have won if only the media hadn’t been against us?

Or does he have no real clue, and just figures that any two battles in which the enemy demonstrates increased strength are pretty much the same thing? You can vote in comments.