If you have been following this series, you’ll know that I was in My Tho hours before the Tet Offensive began, and might have been there when the Viet Cong overran the city. The lieutenant from the Adjutant General’s office who was stationed there was injured in the attack. He donned his steel helmet and flak vest and ran from the trailer he slept in right into the sights of a Viet Cong soldier. The enemy pulled the trigger but his weapon misfired. He then walked up to the lieutenant and punched him in the gut with the butt of his weapon. Fortunately, he ran off without doing any further damage, but the lieutenant still had to spend some time in the hospital with internal injuries.
There’s an African proverb that states, “When two bulls fight, it is the grass that suffers.” In this case, the “grass” were the South Vietnamese. Although the Viet Cong inflicted relatively minor casualties on allied forces, they murdered or maimed countless Vietnamese men, women, and children. Upset that the indigenous population didn’t rise up to join them, the Viet Cong political cadre shot many in their attempt to inspire a general revolt. It was a precursor to the mayhem that would follow when the United States abandoned the South Vietnamese in response to pressures from the antiwar movement and their allies.
More than a month passed following the Tet Offensive before we allowed civilians to return to Bearcat to their jobs as clerks, janitors, and shop keepers. One in particular, the man who operated a barbershop at the officers club, had lost his home as well as several family members. We placed a five gallon water jug in his shop and began filling it with Piasters to help finance the funerals and pay for the construction of a new house.
Our greatest anguish was reserved for the fate of the Catholic orphanage near Ton Son Nuht Air Base that we supported. We had no word of them and no way of contacting them until the roads were opened and we could get permission to go see for ourselves. We were relieved to learn that the nuns who operated the place had evacuated the children to storm drains and hid there during the fighting. Fortunately, their facility hadn’t been heavily damaged and we made repairs pretty quickly.
Other villages that I had visited during my tour of duty weren’t so lucky. Many were burned to the ground. The latrine we had built in one was totally destroyed. The Viet Cong didn’t tolerate any symbol of American good will regardless of the fact that they were only harming the people they were fighting to “liberate”.
It is interesting that one of the epithets most commonly thrown by the antiwar crowd at Vietnam Veterans was “baby-killer.” It is true that Vietnamese civilians, including babies, had been caught in the crossfire. It is also true that some American criminals, such as the miscreants led by Lieutenant William Calley at My Lai, murdered civilians. Hopefully, most were prosecuted accordingly. However, the victims of their crimes could never approach even a small percentage of the crimes committed intentionally by the Viet Cong. I never heard antiwar demonstrators complain about them. Indeed, one of their most famous, Jane Fonda, visited their bastion to the North and embraced them to raise their morale and continue the slaughter. Meanwhile, Ms. Fonda is a revered icon to many of them to this day. She is certainly celebrated in the entertainment community that continues to extol the same ideology that buoyed the antiwar movement in that time.
President Johnson, on hearing Cronkite’s assessment, was reputed to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost [the support of] middle America.” Some believe that he famously announced that he would “…not seek, nor would [he] accept the nomination of his party for President of the United States” after hearing Cronkite’s broadcast. However, the American Heritage article goes on to correct that impression by stating that Johnson made that decision on the basis of personal concerns, including his health.
There is no doubt that Cronkite’s assessment fueled the passion of the antiwar movement and greatly aided their cause. As a result, some hold Cronkite responsible for the many thousands of Vietnamese murdered by the communist invaders from the north after the U.S. abandoned them. I wouldn’t go that far. Nor do I hold Jane Fonda accountable for her actions. She was, in my estimation, a mere dupe. However, I cannot seem to lay aside my anger at the press corps in general. Without them, the South Vietnamese might have lived in freedom. As North Vietnamese leaders have admitted repeatedly in many interviews and writings, they were prepared to surrender the cause many times, especially after Nixon became President and prosecuted the war into their sanctuaries. But for the influence of the antiwar movement, which still influences American foreign policy to this day, so many might have lived and lived in freedom.
Of course, there were surprises. There are surprises in every war. The Battle of the Bulge is one of history’s most famous surprises. Ultimately, Tet was a surprise test, one that the Armed Forces — even the cooks and clerks — passed with flying colors. Shamefully, it was one that the American public failed. Fed by the hyperbole and hysteria manufactured by the press corps, they surrendered, and the war was, at that point, “unwinnable.” How sad. In an earlier time, Americans cheered the courage and fortitude of their sons at the Battle of the Bulge. Cronkite reported on that earlier battle. What happened to him during the intervening years?
Tet was a hundred “battles of the bulge,” and we won every one of them. When the smoke cleared, the Viet Cong did not hold one square inch of the land they had invaded and they were decimated.