Peter Arnett's False Reporting During the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War

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Mike Griffith
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Oct 23, 2012
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Peter Arnett, then working for the Associated Press (AP) in South Vietnam, was another so-called “journalist” who gave false, misleading reports during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. (Not surprisingly, Arnett later came under considerable attack for his slanted reporting during the Gulf War.)

Hours after the Tet Offensive began, the AP’s office in Saigon issued the erroneous story, printed in many U.S. newspapers the next morning, that the Viet Cong had “seized part of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon,” that they had “penetrated the supposedly attack-proof building.” Arnett continued to peddle this false story even after General William Westmoreland had personally refuted it during his news conference at the Embassy later that day (Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, Yale University Press, 1977, p. 85).

Peter Arnett was also the reporter who famously claimed that after the battle at Ben Tre during the Tet Offensive, a U.S. military major, whom Arnett refused to identify, told him that “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it” (Braestrup, Big Story, pp. 193-194).

This alleged comment became a favorite quote and catchphrase among anti-war activists to illustrate the alleged immorality of the war effort. Anti-war protestors, along with many journalists, frequently changed “town” to “village” when they repeated the comment.

However, soon after Arnett’s story appeared, many observers expressed doubt about it and charged that Arnett had either fabricated it or had exaggerated what some officer had told him.

First and foremost, Ben Tre was not “destroyed.” Fully 20 percent of the buildings in the city suffered no damage whatsoever, while damage varied substantially among the remaining buildings, with some incurring major damage, others moderate damage, and others slight damage. This is not to mention the fact that part of the damage was done by the Viet Cong when they attacked the city.

Also, part of Ben Tre never fell into Communist hands in the first place. The Viet Cong did not take the entire city. The Americans and the South Vietnamese retained control of the provincial headquarters, the MACV advisory compound, a South Vietnamese Army logistics compound, and the main police station. Thus, when additional U.S. and SVN troops arrived to drive the Viet Cong from the city, they did not need to assault those areas.

And Ben Tre was not a “town” but a large city—in fact, it was the capital of Kien Hoa Province.

Many observers found it suspicious that Arnett refused to name the major who had supposedly made the comment to him. At one point, Arnett seemed to hint that the major was in the Air Force. Arnett said he withheld the officer’s name because MACV was frantically investigating to find out who had made the comment and because he was afraid that naming the officer would harm the officer’s career. Yeah, uh-huh.

Major Phil Cannella, a U.S. Army officer at Ben Tre, said that when Arnett interviewed him, he commented to Arnett that that it was a shame that some of the city was destroyed during its defense. It is possible that Cannella was Arnett’s source and that Arnett severely exaggerated what Cannella told him, which would explain why Arnett refused to identify his source.

Even decades after the war, and long after the officer would have been out of the military, Arnett still refused to identify him. If the officer ever existed, he would have retired from the military by no later than 1995. Arnett, who is still alive, had no excuse for not naming him after 1995.
 
Journalist Peter Braestrup, who was in Saigon during the Tet Offensive, noted that for many hours the Associated Press (AP) refused to issue a retraction of their initial false report that the Viet Cong had entered the Embassy, even after Peter Arnett himself had notified the AP that the report was wrong (Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, Yale University Press, 1977, p. 86).

Newspapers and TV networks all over the country continued to repeat the false story that the Viet Cong had entered the Embassy. Some media reports even said the Viet Cong had occupied several floors of the Embassy.

Braestrup further noted when General Westmoreland denied these reports during his press conference at the Embassy later that day, he believed Westmoreland because Braestrup himself could see that the Embassy's front and rear doors were unbroken (Big Story, p. 85).

Another reason Braestrup believed Westmoreland's account was that Braestrup spoke with several of the paratroopers who had landed on the Embassy's roof and who had gone through the building floor by floor, and they informed Braestrup that they had seen "nothing" inside to indicate there had been any penetration (Big Story, p. 85).

Yet, even today, when all reputable historians acknowledge that the embassy-penetration report was false, you can still find sources that claim the Viet Cong entered the Embassy.

And, many liberals still peddle the pernicious Communist spin that Hanoi's goal in the Tet Offensive was to "carry out a show of force that would disenchant U.S. and South Vietnamese public opinion by demonstrating that the Vietcong were not done fighting and that the Allies could not keep civilians safe."

We know from Communist sources that this was not the goal of the offensive. The goal was to destroy ARVN and overthrow the Saigon government, and Hanoi's leaders were so certain that the offensive would succeed that they made the incredible mistake of not drawing up any retreat plans.
 

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