The Big Story
Several points seem worth noting about the coverage of U.S. battle performance. First, most eyewitness combat reporting, tare and restricted as it was, showed up better in February than the MACV communiques or the communique rewrites in Saigon. However, in February, even the wire services lacked the manpower to cover the major Tet battlefields aside from Hue, Saigon, and Khe Sanh, and the newspapers, television networ}s, and news magazines were even worse off in this regard. Thus the media were dependent on the communiqu6s, and picked from them what seemed most desirable for their purposes. But major battles—such as the Marine fighting south of Da Nang, the repulse of the enemy at Quang Tri, and the continuing action on the outskirts of Saigon and in the Central Highlands—were scarcely covered by the communiques, and so went largely unreported. After the fall of Hue, the major bureaus did not redeploy in March and seek out the new battle actions elsewhere—actions which developed into a disjointed but vigorous U.S. counteroffensive. Newsmen turned from Hue to Khe Sanh, from one localized drama to another.
Second, there was the usual tendency by television producers and wire-photo editors to run easy cliche shots. At Hue, it was possible to film episodes that had some continuity and provided context, since the Marines were trying to take ground. But repeatedly, informative TV film was marred by sloppy, sometimes simple-minded narration. Most of the explanatory commentary was overblown—partly because TV correspondents had lacked time to probe to any degree into the meaning of filmed material. The idea, as always, was to get 'good' film first.
Moreover, it was as clear here as anywhere, other factors aside, that as 'processing'—rewriting and editing—increased, accuracy tended to decrease. Least processed (if often cut) was the copy of the newspapermen. Most processed were news-magazine stories and TV anchormen's scripts.
On another level, it should be added, very few newsmen were sufficiently experienced, interested, or informed to 'explain' the battle scene in its larger context. Here and there, written in Washington, New York, or Saigon, were muddled, usually misleading, pseudo-learned comments on such matters as search-and-destroy tactics, clear-and-hold operations, and 'enclave theories.' But by and large, neither the newsmen nor their editors thought it important to examine the Army's leadership, tactics, or organizational performance in Vietnam in any detail after three years of war. The interest was in action and drama, not military concepts or systems. Concepts—discussed in public by Westmoreland—made little impression on the press. The Anny system, good and bad, was there to see, but we not know what to look for.
As a result, even as they portrayed the 'little picture' well at Hue and Saigon, newsmen in Vietnam neglected the obvious flaws in U.S. command performance at Tet: Westmoreland's failure to fully complete his troop shift north before Tet broke, or to see beforehand the psychological importance of a 'no-risk' military policy (later adopted) for the defense of the capital; his failure, before and after Tet, to discipline Army field commanders and Air Force spotters for the occasionally indiscriminate use of air power and artillery fire in rural areas, especially where no friendly troops were 'in contact' with the foe; and the lack of joint planning and coordinated ARVN-U.S. Army staffwork for the defense of the cities (such arrangements for Saigon did not come until after the second attacks in May 1968).
There were still other deficiencies: the inattention paid by MACV to the refugee problem until Tet; the excessive comfort of the rear echelons; the short, one-year tours served in Vietnam by most career officers, resulting in inexperienced leadership and probably higher U.S. losses; the failure to provide sufficient protection against bombardment for expensive U.S. aircraft on the ground; and the failure to equip U.S. (and ARVN) troops with sufficient heavy direct-fire weapons (such as the Marines' 106 mm. recoilless rifles) for fighting in cities. The latter circumstance left the infantry dependent for fire support on helicopter gunships, air strikes, and howitzer fire—all of which were far less accurate, and more destructive of civilian life and property.
By the same token, Westmoreland's accomplishments before and during Tet also got little attention. Among these were the prescient logistical buildup in the north; the sheer size and the careful dispersion of U.S. bases; the deployment of enough troops, before Tet, to the north to deal with Khe Sanh, Hue, Quang Tri, and a sizable enemy penetration in the adjacent coastal area; the quick reaction (and redeployment) of U.S. troops to help ARVN in the cities; the orchestration of the B-52 raids around Khe Sanh; the dispatch of General Abrams to straighten out the Hue battle, and the creation of a flexible new command for Hue and the DMZ; and Westmoreland's personal support of pacification and reconstruction.
In sum, Westmoreland—his real flaws and virtues—did not emerge clearly in the Tet coverage, in contrast to, say, the Marines' performance at Hue. Moreover, Westmoreland's problems got little attention, notably the link between White House curbs on U.S. strategy (e.g., no ground moves against the foe's bases and supply lines in Laos and Cambodia that were so important at Tet) and Hanoi's crucial long-term strategic advantages in its war against the South. Again, newsmen and their bosses had other preoccupations.