This Year Marks the 45th Anniversary of the Tet Offensive of 1968 and also this month marks the 38th Anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 1975. Two victories for our side.
TET!, Don Ordorfer, Putnam, New York, 1971
A new edition of this book was published in 2001 with, I believe, a new introduction by the author. I am using the old edition for my own political purposes. I will read the new introduction at some point and add comment at that time.
Recently I was listening to Talk of the Nation on National Public Radio and the subject concerned formation of political consciousness. One of the callers identified himself as an ardent 1960’s anti-Vietnam War protester and self-styled ‘hippie’ who in 1984 ‘got religion’ and saw the error of his ways. The formative point of this new found wisdom was a documentary on the Public Broadcast System (PBS) that indicated to him that the Tet Offensive of 1968 has not been a military victory for the North Vietnamese/South Vietnamese Liberation Front forces (hereafter NVA/NLF). Somehow along the way he had assumed, based, he said, on information from Walter Cronkite that it was a military victory. Well, this writer then as now, as we celebrate the 40th Anniversary of that event, can confirm for that caller that, indeed, Tet was not a NVA/NLF military victory. Here is the point, however, military victory or not, it was certainly a political victory for those NVA/NLF forces. In modern conditions, sometimes, political victories are more important that military ones. The book under review, whatever else it shortcomings might be, confirms this view.
Is this book the best one on the history of the Tet offensive? Probably not. However it has the virtue of having been written a short time after this major political event. Thus, although it is not the "first draft of history" it is close enough for our purposes. The drawback here is that it was written while the war was still going on so that the relationship between Tet 1968, Tet 1972 and then the final military victory in 1975 does not give the event its full impact in the overall scheme of NVA/NLF strategy and American/South Vietnamese counter-strategy.
The author hits all the high points of this decisive several month period from about the summer of 1967 when the NVA/NLF decided to make a major push against the South to Tet itself and its immediate aftermath. The author starts off his book with a description of the famous NLF raid on the American embassy, goes on to the discuss the strategic aims of the North Vietnamese and the American response to it, the personal saga of one Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the in-fighting in the old Cold war national security establishment about the proper American response and then the results and aftermath of the offensive.
Reading history with a purpose, in short, to learn some lessons is sometimes a chancy thing. Here that purpose can be encapsulated in the following few words- to draw the lessons of history of the Vietnam War in order to apply them to the opposition struggle against the Iraq war. Yes, the differences between Vietnam and Iraq, in the final analysis are probably greater than the similarities however the American hubris that led Lyndon Johnson to escalation in Vietnam and George W. Bush to occupation in Iraq is still in operation. In the end the author draws the conclusion that history will eventually draw on Tet 1968, and that today's American leaders seem to be willfully ignoring- in modern military warfare the political question is the question. From the NVA/NLF side that entailed heavy and dramatic losses but I would argue that their decision to probe American military and political resolve was essentially correct. Read on.