The Tet Offensive: A Concise History

By Herrington, Stuart A. | Parameters, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Tet Offensive: A Concise History


Herrington, Stuart A., Parameters


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. …

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