At the end of January 1968, the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam. During a time in which American politicians and the military were presenting an optimistic view of the war, this wave of attacks by the Viet Cong and People’s Army of Vietnam shocked many Americans and undermined support for the war. Fifty years later, Edwin Moïse, Vietnam scholar and Clemson history professor, explores the Military Assistance Command Vietnam’s (MACV) communication tactics and the Tet Offensive’s size and impact in his book, The Myths of Tet: The Most Misunderstood Event of the Vietnam War (University Press of Kansas).
“This topic caught my attention when the CBS documentary ‘The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception’ was broadcast in 1982. I published a little bit about it, set it aside and always thought that someday I would go back to it,” said Moïse. “I’m not sure what triggered my interest again, but I looked at casualty figures and found things I hadn’t seen before.
“A lot of books say the Tet Offensive was a brief episode, that the heavy fighting was mostly over before the end of February. What I found was that it was not just February that saw a higher number of Americans killed in action than any month of the war before the Tet Offensive. The same was true for March, April and May. And it was May, not February, that had the highest death toll of the four.”
While acknowledging the journalists and historians who have correctly reported various parts of the story, Moïse points out widespread misunderstandings about the strength of communist forces in Vietnam, the disputes among American intelligence agencies over estimates of enemy strength, the actual pattern of combat in 1968, the effects of Tet on American policy and the American media’s coverage of all these issues.
“The Communist campaign was shocking, not because of American media exaggerations, but because it was a massive, prolonged campaign by a large enemy force,” said Moïse. “The offensive would not have even been possible if the enemy forces had been the size MACV was reporting.”
Moïse shines a light on the impact of the American media and government on public perception through the analysis of declassified documents and testimony from Westmoreland v. CBS, the
multimillion dollar libel suit originally filed in South Carolina by Gen. William Westmoreland against CBS Inc. for broadcasting “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.”
“The impact of Tet, going forward, was that people who believed that the American media described the Tet Offensive as much worse than it actually had been, expected the media to make things look worse than they were in later wars. The media’s handling of Tet was far from perfect, but not nearly as bad as many authors have suggested.”
Moïse is also the author of Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, the Historical Dictionary of the Vietnam War and other works.