The Tet Offensive: A Concise History
By James H. Willbanks, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006, hardcover $31.
Vietnam veteran and military historian James H. Willbanks’s The Tet Offensive: A Concise History will stand with Don Oberdorfer’s Tet! and Peter Braestrup’s Big Story as classics on a controversial episode in America’s longest war. In a 122-page overview, Willbanks sets the scene for the Tet Offensive, putting it in its political, strategic and historical context. The author’s analysis of how the forces that converged from late January 1968 through the following summer changed the course of the Vietnam War reflect his superb understanding of Clausewitzian dynamics, showing how armed conflict can achieve political purposes at every level, from the strategic down through the operational to the tactical levels. From the White House to military and political decisions made in Hanoi, to the battle for Khe Sanh and the Marines re-taking Hue, Willbanks brings his critical insights to bear on the events of Tet. Readers get a taste of action but also view the Tet Offensive within its larger strategic context.
Both scholars and veterans will appreciate the first 122 pages, broken into 85 pages of historical overview and 33 pages devoted to major issues and interpretations, such as the degree of surprise involved, whether General Vo Nguyen Giap ever intended to take Khe Sanh, the Hue massacre and the role of the media in shaping U.S. opinion. The author presents various interpretations and then draws his own concise and reasoned conclusions.
Willbanks offers a number of new insights. For instance, he states that the Marines at Khe Sanh were not technically under siege. They held the high ground and were not “trapped” within the base perimeter, since they regularly patrolled into enemy-held territory to gather intelligence and conduct ambushes. The impression given by the media was that Khe Sanh was in constant danger of being overrun. The reality was that the enemy paid an enormous price due to U.S. firepower and air power. Furthermore, Willbanks asserts that at the strategic level, the decimation of North Vietnamese forces around Khe Sanh may have kept Giap from redeploying his forces to hold Hue in late February and March. Imagine the clout the Communist negotiators in Paris would have had if, going into the peace talks, they had held the imperial capital of Hue. Khe Sanh, perhaps a masterpiece of strategic deception on Giap’s part, may also be interpreted as a case of operational overextension.
Students and scholars will appreciate the useful chronology running from the initiation of Operation Cedar Falls, a combined U.S. Army–ARVN operation in the Iron Triangle in January 1967, to the end of 1968 and the ultimate political outcome deposing the Johnson administration and bringing Richard Nixon to office. Willbanks also includes a number of critical documents like Hanoi’s November 1967 “Directive on Forthcoming Offensives and Uprisings” and a verbatim transcript of Walter Cronkite’s “mired in a stalemate” soliloquy delivered at the conclusion of the CBS Evening News on February 27, 1968—an event that President Lyndon B. Johnson later said told him he had “lost Middle America.” The author then shows polling data indicating that from 1968 on, 27 percent of adult Americans got their news from television. Therefore, Willbanks maintains, Cronkite’s turn against the war more reflected than shaped public opinion.
The Tet Offensive: A Concise History is essential reading for students and scholars of the war, and provides a thoughtful reexamination for anyone with an interest in the turning point of our nation’s longest war.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.