Daniel C. Thomas is a faculty member in the field of international relations at Leiden University.
It is tempting to compare Hamas’ latest attack on Israel, launched at the end of the Simchat Torah holiday, to Egypt and Syria’s 1973 attack on the country during Yom Kippur. But it is the 1968 Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War that may prove a more instructive historical parallel.
In January 1968, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese army broke a truce and launched a large-scale attack on South Vietnamese and American forces in various cities and provinces of South Vietnam.
The assault was coordinated to occur during the celebration of the Vietnamese lunar new year, Tết Nguyên Đán, when numerous South Vietnamese soldiers were on break. However, when the primary attack concluded around eight weeks later, the assailants had sustained significant losses without gaining any new territory. In military standards, it was a complete defeat.
The true impact of the Tet Offensive was the political upheaval it caused in American society.
The United States government had been attempting to present their counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam as a triumph for several years. Alternatively, they had been striving to maintain the costs at a level that the American people would approve of. This tactic was crucial for defending Vietnam’s territorial division and ensuring the survival of a corrupt government in the southern capital of Saigon. It was also significant in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s goal of winning the 1968 election by diverting public attention to the decrease in poverty and advancements in civil rights within the country.
However, the televised footage of numerous battles in South Vietnam, including a Vietcong attack on the American embassy in Saigon, greatly undermined the political basis of this strategy. When news of the offensive reached the CBS headquarters in New York, Walter Cronkite, a prominent figure in American culture and the anchorman for the network, famously expressed his frustration on air: “What is happening? I believed we were succeeding in this war!” After personally visiting Vietnam to report on the offensive, Cronkite ultimately determined that the war was unwinnable and needed to be resolved through diplomatic means.
As per a statement from one of President Johnson’s advisors, he grasped the consequences. “If Cronkite is no longer with me, then I have lost the backing of Middle America,” he remarked. This sentiment is also reflected in the U.S. State Department’s official record of the conflict, which concludes that “The Tet Offensive significantly contributed to the decline in public support for the Vietnam War.”
The immediate results of this shift in political power included Johnson opting not to seek another term as president, Nixon winning the election, and a significant increase in the U.S. bombing campaign in North Vietnam. However, after a few years, the American political leaders acknowledged that victory in the war was not achievable. As a result, U.S. troops were pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, two years before the war officially ended in 1975.
It is currently too soon to determine the duration of the current conflict between Hamas and Israel, as well as the potential involvement of other parties and the extent of casualties and damage. However, it is highly likely that Israel will achieve military success in the immediate future.
The primary concern is whether the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict will ultimately trigger a political response similar to the Tet Offensive.
The parallels between the two offensives run far deeper than them coinciding with national holidays and the military superiority of the side being attacked. Much like the government of South Vietnam in 1968, the current Israeli government presides over a deeply divided population and is plagued by serious evidence of corruption at the highest levels. And much like the U.S. government in 1968, the Israeli government has been trying to convince its population that it can sustain a policy — the over five-decades-long occupation of Palestinian lands — which frustrates another nation’s demand for self-determination.
After only one day of the Hamas attack, Chuck Freilich, the former Deputy National Security Adviser of Israel, forecasted, “There will likely be a temporary surge in support for the government. However, once the situation calms down, there will be significant political consequences.”
There are indications of a political backlash occurring in Israel. In response to inquiries about why Israeli military intelligence failed to anticipate Hamas’ attack, an army spokesperson replied, “That is a valid question.” An article in Haaretz placed the blame for the attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Jerusalem Post, which leans towards the right politically, also acknowledged that there will likely be significant political consequences once the fighting ceases.
The recent widespread demonstrations across the country in opposition to Netanyahu’s proposed changes to the judicial system are expected to further undermine the government’s tenuous hold on power. In light of this, Netanyahu’s statement of “We are in a battle and we will emerge victorious” may prove to be politically narrow-minded, despite its accuracy in a military sense.
In the end, the main concern is whether the impact of the Hamas attack will persuade the citizens of Israel that the continued occupation of Palestinian territories is not viable – similar to how the Tet Offensive altered American perspectives during the Vietnam War.