Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese launched attacks across South Vietnam, primarily against cities and towns. The attacks were intended to be simultaneous, all on the first day of the Tet celebration, but miscommunication led to assaults spread over several days at the end of January and the beginning of February. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces eventually drove back all the attacks. The North Vietnamese, for all practical purposes, were defeated. Their losses were enormous.
We now know that the North Vietnamese expected that there would be a general revolt among the South Vietnamese population. They thought the populace would rise up to throw off foreign domination—that is, the Americans—and destroy the forces of the South Vietnamese government.
The North Vietnamese misread the mood of the populace. They were correct in believing that the people of South Vietnam disliked the Saigon government and found it both cruel and incompetent. The people also found the presence of foreigners objectionable and wanted independence. But their overwhelming need was simply to be left alone to live their lives in peace.
The irony of the offensive is that it was a military defeat but a political victory. The U.S. government had been emphasizing the military superiority of American forces in its explanations of how the war was going to the American people. The government genuinely believed by the beginning of 1968 that the North Vietnamese side was so badly hurt that capitulation was near. It never understood that the North Vietnamese were committed to uniting Vietnam and driving out foreign influence even if it meant far higher casualty figures than the U.S. was willing to tolerate. The launching of the Tet Offensive made clear that the enemy was nowhere near defeat. The American public began to believe that its government was lying, and the war was probably unwinnable.
American public opinion turned against the war. Anti-war protests grew. The government eventually withdrew its forces in 1973. Two years later, South Vietnam fell to the communist North Vietnamese.
Our defeat in Vietnam should have led to learning in the U.S. about what we were capable of militarily. The evidence suggests Americans failed to appreciate the lesson of their experience. Our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate that we haven’t yet come to terms with reality.