In a July 11 Outlook article, Marcella Bombardieri tells us that at a recent conference in Hanoi, "we heard former high-ranking Vietnamese officials admit publicly for the first time that their side had made costly errors that helped escalate the [Vietnam] war." She then advances a thesis that both the United States and Vietnam missed a chance to end the war earlier, when the Vietnamese did not respond to an American peace initiative.

The weaknesses of the article reflect the weaknesses of American writing on the Vietnam War. This is scholarship that details American meetings, proposals, initiatives, and so forth, but leaves some of the most elementary facts of Vietnamese politics out of the picture -- and misses the nuances of Vietnamese history, society and culture. Everything returns to a view in which American military actions and diplomatic initiatives define the parameters of debate.

There is probably an excellent reason why the Vietnamese leadership in the fall of 1967 failed to respond to a so-called American peace initiative: That year was a tumultuous time within the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). First, Gen. Nguyen Chi Thanh, who was partly responsible for hatching the idea of a Tet Offensive, died in July of that year. In the months that followed, there appears to have been a power struggle in the north over the military direction of the war.

Second, the DRV leadership, obsessed by fears of pro-Soviet plots, conducted secret purges of high-ranking figures in 1967. A leadership fearful of plots within from pro-Soviet "revisionists" was unlikely to look charitably on American peace feelers. And planning for the Tet Offensive of 1968 rolled on.

As Ms. Bombardieri has suggested, the full story of the war has not yet emerged, or emerged only fitfully, from the Vietnamese side. Nonetheless, it is incorrect to say that formerly high-ranking officials in Vietnam have not publicly stated that mistakes were made in the war in general and the Tet Offensive in particular. Vietnamese, writing for a domestic audience, have addressed these issues critically. The full history of the Vietnam War, one which combines the U.S. view of the war with a nuanced appreciation of the Vietnamese social, political and cultural context, is yet to be written.


The writer is in the history department of George Washington University.