Fifty years ago a huge military engagement began in Vietnam during the Vietnamese New Year observance of Tet Nguyen Dan.
For many months the United States and the South Vietnamese had been inflicting a heavy toll on the North Vietnamese communists.
America was winning the war in Vietnam and the enemy would be vanquished within months.
At least that's what Americans were told, and it really wasn't far from the truth.
No one had to embellish combat reports very much for that to be plausible.
But 50 years ago, on Jan. 31, 1968, the perception that the communists in Vietnam would soon be defeated, well, that perception began to change.
It was on that date that North Vietnamese communists staged surprise attacks in more than 100 South Vietnamese cities and towns, catching the United States military and South Vietnam completely by surprise.
The attacks became known simply as the Tet Offensive.
In America it was all over the television news and in every newspaper, and it looked bad.
Or at least it looked bad in the beginning.
Enemy forces at one point even fought their way into the U.S. embassy in Saigon, but were soon repelled.
Throughout the country, American forces and South Vietnam's Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) rebounded forcefully, destroying thousands of the invaders.
In fact, of 84,000 attackers, 45,000 were killed by the U.S and her South Vietnamese allies.
Jake Blood wrote in his 2005 book The Tet Effect about how the Tet Offensive played out.
"The communists," he wrote, "who had gained the initial impetus, quickly lost the initiative and were forced to flee or die in the cities and were shattered by the U.S. and ARVN counter-attacks, with the enemy losing over half of their attacking force. It was a disastrous defeat for the communists."
Washington Post reporter and college professor Don Oberdorfer also wrote about how the communists were turned back in the Tet Offensive in his 1971 book Tet!
He wrote, "Tens of thousands of the most dedicated and experienced fighters emerged from the jungles and forests of the countryside only to meet a deadly rain of fire and steel within the cities. The Vietcong lost the best of a generation of resistance fighters."
So without a doubt, it was an American military victory 50 years ago, but because it caught everyone off guard, and because gruesome details characterized the early fighting, and because Americans saw that the enemy remained deeply committed to their cause, the feeling in the United States was that we weren't winning the war at all.
In fact, Tet greatly altered the entire American feeling about the effort in Vietnam.
Blood explained that before Tet, Americans for the most part wanted to stop the spreading of communism. After Tet, America began to plan its withdrawal, thinking of eventually turning the matter over to South Vietnam.
It would be their war to win or lose.
Fifty years ago, on Jan. 31, 1968, I was six months away from starting school as a first-grader, and I really wasn't paying attention to news reports of American involvement in Vietnam.
But since then, like many Americans, I've learned more about it and I have often wondered what it all means in history.
Here are a few observations.
• America naturally sides with those who seek freedom.
• American military strength combined with American resolve are both needed for American victories.
• America lost her way in 1968. She no longer felt sure about her will to win, because she wasn't sure about her will to even continue.
• From a military standpoint, Vietnam was winnable, but America had developed a sickening feeling about the entire matter. After getting a constant diet of unsavory news from the war front, and after taking counsel of her fears, she formulated a consensus that it just wasn't worth it.
One lesson for us today is that America--whether in a military fight or not--must never be caught off guard. Pearl Harbor and 9-11 are the best examples of this.
The beginning of the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 and the Tet Offensive in 1968 also serve as reminders that watchfulness and military preparedness must always be the rule of the day.
-- David Wilson, EdD, of Springdale, is a writer and teacher at heart. His book, Learning Every Day, includes several of his columns and is now available on Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes and Noble. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are those of the author.Editorial on 01/31/2018
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