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The Tet Offensive: A Concise History.

The Tet Offensive: A Concise History. By James H. Willbanks. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 272 pages. $29.50.

James Willbanks, a retired Army officer and military historian, is Director of the Department of Military History at the US Army Command and General Staff College and the author of two previous books on the Vietnam War, one being his timely 2004 volume, Abandoning Vietnam. Detailing persuasive arguments for why Vietnamization failed, Abandoning Vietnam was published at a time in the Iraq conflict when it appeared Washington was hurtling toward another Vietnam-like disaster by contemplating the implementation of a rapid withdrawal. Advocates of this strategy advised that the way out of America's dilemma in Iraq was to "train and withdraw," the sooner, the better. This advice to hastily "Iraqify" the war and pull out, journalist Bob Woodward recently contended, came from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen and the commander in Iraq at the time, General George Casey, in the wake of growing frustrations with and lack of public support for the apparently never-ending maelstrom of violence in faction-tom Iraq. Professor Willbanks's account of the Vietnamization debacle indirectly raised the specter of a repeat performance by Washington related to Iraq. Thanks to the "Surge" and a single-minded President who refused to accept less than victory, this strategy was averted.

With The Tet Offensive, Willbanks has once again produced a volume that, while focusing on wartime events occurring some 40 years ago, has particular relevance. The author's recounting of the offensive and associated issues is brief (122 pages of text), but well-documented (130 pages of appendices, including source notes, a useful Chronology, Glossary, 33 pages of reproduced documents, Bibliography, and Index). For anyone interested in probing and learning from the Tet Offensive but overwhelmed with the plethora of sources, Willbanks's volume is certainly the most up-to-date and helpful starting point known to this reviewer.

Willbanks organizes his work into two parts. Part I, "Historical Overview," is a vivid, concise, and eminently readable recounting of the attacks that comprised the Tet Offensive, including battles in Saigon, Khe Sanh, and Hue, as well as the nationwide onslaughts by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units. Part II is an engaging examination of the "Issues and Interpretations" spawned by the offensive and contains well-written and stimulating discussions of topics such as Hanoi's motivations and objectives in launching the attacks, analysis of the offensive as an intelligence failure, the controversy regarding mass executions in Hue, Hanoi's rationale for besieging Khe Sanh (as a diversion or a serious attempt to achieve another Dien Bien Phu?), and the role of the media during and following Hanoi's election-year gambit. These chapters effectively synthesize extant writings from both sides, as Willbanks objectively introduces the various controversies, describes how differing points of view have been expressed, and by whom, always allowing readers to form their own conclusions. All in all, Willbanks's treatment of these issues is comprehensive, well-cast, and compelling. The book is the classic "quick read."

Readers who are believers in the words of the French novelist Alphonse Karr, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," will find themselves nodding as they peruse this volume. The intelligence failures of Tet read right out of Pearl Harbor--or Normandy from Germany's perspective--warnings obtained, passed on, and not heeded, information that arrives after the attack has commenced or tells of events that are dismissed as diversions. Underestimation of the North Vietnamese caused many analysts to ignore the compelling evidence beginning in late 1967 that Hanoi was planning a nationwide offensive. The ambitious plans revealed in captured documents or by weary North Vietnamese defectors and prisoners simply did not comport with the picture Military Assistance Command, Vietnam analysts had of Hanoi's capabilities (the command position was that the United States was winning the war, after all). When confusion about dates among Communist forces resulted in premature assaults against some targets on 30 January, tipping North Vietnam's hand, some analysts dismissed these attacks as diversions from the "real" objective, which in General William Westmoreland's view was Khe Sanh.

Readers may wonder whether there is room for yet another book on the Tet Offensive. When one examines a typical bibliography on the event, hundreds of volumes and articles beckon, to include detailed and lengthy seminal works by Don Oberdorfer and Peter Braestrup. But Willbanks has taken a somewhat different approach in this compact offering. Rather than pretend to introduce yet another exhaustive account of the fierce battles that occurred between January and September 1968, from Khe Sanh near the Demilitarized Zone to the Ca Mau Peninsula in the south, Willbanks has produced what he calls a "guide." In the author's words, he has attempted to "examine the Tet Offensive and explore the various issues and interpretations of this controversial event that changed ... the conduct of the war itself," a historical happening that "continues to have an impact on the long-standing debate about the war and its meaning for both the United States and Vietnam." In this task he has succeeded commendably.

Reviewed by Colonel Stuart A. Herrington, USA Ret., author of Stalking the Vietcong." Inside Operation Phoenix, Peace with Honor: An American Reports on Vietnam, 1973-1975, and Traitors Among Us: Inside the Spy Catcher's World.
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Author:Herrington, Stuart A.
Publication:Parameters
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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