By Uwe Siemon-Netto
Forty years ago today, I witnessed the start of the most perplexing development in the 20th century – America’s self-betrayal during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.
The reason why I have never ceased wrestling with this event is this: On the one hand, Tet ended in a clear military victory for the United States and its South Vietnamese allies, who killed 45,000 communist soldiers and destroyed their infrastructure.
On the other hand, the major U.S. media persuaded Americans that Tet was a huge setback for their country. As a result, Tet marked the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which consequently ended in defeat when South Vietnam fell in 1975.
I was there, as Far East correspondent of the Axel Springer group of German newspapers, Jan. 30, 1968, when 85,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops struck 36 of the South’s 44 provincial capitals.
Two days earlier, a French officer in Laos had tipped me off that something spectacular was about to occur during the cease-fire for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. “You’d better return to Saigon,” he said.
At 3 a.m. on Jan. 31, I stood opposite the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, watching a fierce firefight between Marines and Viet Cong attackers, some of whom were already inside the Embassy compound.
Some days later, I was in the company of Marines fighting their way into communist-occupied Hué, Vietnam’s former imperial capital, 600 miles north of Saigon. We found its streets strewn with the corpses of hundreds of women, children and old men, all shot execution-style by North Vietnamese invaders.
I made my way to Hué’s university apartments to obtain news about friends of mine, German professors at the medical school. I learned that their names had been on lists containing some 1,800 Hué residents singled out for liquidation.
Six weeks later the bodies of doctors Alois Altekoester, Raimund Discher and Horst-Guenther Krainick and Krainick’s wife, Elisabeth, were found in shallow graves they had been made to dig for themselves.
Then, enormous mass graves of women and children were found. Most had been clubbed to death, some buried alive; you could tell from the beautifully manicured hands of women who had tried to claw out of their burial place.
As we stood at one such site, Washington Post correspondent Peter Braestrup asked an American T.V. cameraman, “Why don’t you film this?” He answered, “I am not here to spread anti-communist propaganda.”
There was a time when Hué was the most anti-American city in South Vietnam, to wit, a graffito outside the villa of the dowager empress, which read, “Chat Dau My” (cut the Americans’ throats). But this changed as a result of Viet Cong atrocities. Now the word “My” (American) was replaced with “Cong” (communists).
Many reporters accompanying U.S. and South Vietnamese forces realized and reported that the fortunes of war and the public mood had changed in their favor, principally because of the war crimes committed by the communists, especially in Hue, where 6,000-10,000 residents were slaughtered.
But the major media gave the Tet story an entirely different spin. CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite, for example, flew briefly into Saigon. When he returned to New York he told his 22 million nightly viewers:
“It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who have lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
In other words, Cronkite said, “Oops, we lost,” when, in truth, the biggest engagement in this war was militarily won. Two decades on, I was a chaplain intern in a VA hospital working with former Vietnam combatants. They were broken men. Most had been called baby killers on their return home. Their wives or girlfriends, and in some cases even pastors, had abandoned them.
Many had attempted suicide or withdrawn into the wilderness.
And almost all thought that their country, even God, had turned their backs on them. There was a time when I loved my craft as a reporter passionately. Vietnam changed this. It taught me the appalling consequence of journalistic hubris, which gave the media, meaning all of us, an enduring bad name.
Uwe Siemon-Netto is a guest lecturer in Lutheran theology at Concordia University in Irvine, California.