Fredrik Logevall, a historian at Harvard, is the author most recently of “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for History.
The plan was nothing if not audacious. On Jan. 31, 1968, after months of meticulous preparation, North Vietnamese leaders launched a series of closely coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam, timed with the start of the Lunar New Year, or Tet to the Vietnamese. Their aim: to deliver a debilitating military blow to U.S. and South Vietnamese forces and incite the southern populace to rise up and overthrow the Saigon-based government of Nguyen Van Thieu. For 2 1 / 2 years, large-scale fighting had raged in Vietnam, and Hanoi officials hoped in one bold campaign to change the equation and secure victory in the war.
The Tet Offensive did not succeed in this core objective: The general uprising did not occur, and the coordinated attacks were beaten back by American and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) forces. But the endeavor nevertheless represented a political victory for Hanoi, as it called into question U.S. military leaders’ confident — and, as we now know, disingenuous — predictions in earlier months that the war would soon be won. The heavy fighting inflamed American domestic opinion and indirectly caused an embattled President Lyndon Johnson to reject a further increase in the U.S. troop presence and to rule out (publicly at least) a run for reelection. In May, peace talks began in Paris.
Small wonder that Tet looms large in our collective understanding of the war or that it should be the focus of Mark Bowden’s vivid and absorbing, if not entirely convincing, new book, “Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam.” Hue (pronounced Hway), Vietnam’s cultural capital and its third-largest city, was the setting for the most ferocious battle during the offensive. Not since the early days of the French struggle against Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, in 1946-47, had Vietnam seen this kind of urban warfare, as North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong troops went up against American and ARVN units, often block by block.
By the time the battle ended, on Feb. 25, the U.S./ARVN side had prevailed, but the city lay in ruins. Almost 6,000 civilians had been killed in the fighting, not including several hundred South Vietnamese civil servants who were executed by communist soldiers. The Americans lost 250 Marines and soldiers, and 1,554 more were wounded. ARVN casualties ran approximately twice as high. Deaths incurred by what Bowden refers to as “The Front” (short for the National Liberation Front, but confusing here in that the NLF would typically refer to the Viet Cong alone, not the combined communist forces) totaled between 2,400 and 5,000, depending on which account one trusts.
A veteran journalist and the author of “Black Hawk Down,” a gripping account of the brief and disastrous U.S. military campaign in Somalia in 1993, Bowden opts here for the same narrative approach that worked well in the earlier book: a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, reconstruction of events. There is a potent immediacy to his narrative, an almost cinematic vividness, and the momentum seldom flags, even over more than 500 pages. Given especially the multiple armed forces involved in the battle and the sprawling cast of characters, this is no small feat.
Not the least of the book’s virtues is its author’s staunch refusal to speak in terms of heroes and villains, at least as far as the fighters and their local commanders are concerned (the respective senior civilian and military leaderships come in for harsher treatment, depicted as arrogant and mostly out of touch). Both sides, the author shows, were capable of acts of courage and of ruthlessness; neither had a monopoly on dedication or self-doubt. The Vietnamese, so often cardboard figures in histories of the war, here emerge as flesh-and-blood players with their own hopes and ambitions and fears — even if the ARVN mostly recedes from view as the story progresses.
As he did in “Black Hawk Down,” Bowden relies heavily on interviews to bring the events to life. The recollections of Americans as well as Vietnamese form a core part of his research and a core part of his narrative. At times these individuals evidently were able to recapitulate for him verbatim dialogue from half a century ago — either that, or Bowden has a worryingly casual attitude toward the use of quotation marks. More broadly, the author’s minimalist approach to source citation makes it hard to know where he gets a lot of his information. Many chapters have barely any endnotes.
(More minimalism: I’ve been reading serious nonfiction history books for a long time, and never before have I flipped to the back for the index only to be directed to a website.)
As befitting a battle history of this kind, the book has relatively little to say about the broader political and military context in which the encounter in Hue occurred. When Bowden does venture into this terrain, he is not always sure-footed. For him, as for many authors on the war, a principal problem for the United States in Vietnam was that its leaders supposedly did not understand the environment they had entered, did not comprehend the Vietnamese, did not appreciate the nature of the task before them. He approvingly quotes one American veteran of the battle: “I do not think we really understood much. . . . Our policy makers, I do not think really had any grasp at all on what was going to happen.”
Color me skeptical. As Bowden’s own evidence shows, senior U.S. officials knew long before the Tet Offensive that the obstacles in the way of lasting success in the war were formidable and growing; many of them indeed knew it even before they initiated the air war and sent the first combat troops in early 1965. Although largely ignorant of Vietnamese history and culture, they understood full well that the odds were against them.
For this reason one can question Bowden’s assertion that Tet, and the Battle of Hue, was “the pivot point” in the war, after which “the debate was never again about how to win but about how to leave.” Discontent in elite and general American opinion had been rising for many months before the offensive; almost certainly, it would have continued to grow even without Hanoi’s bold gambit. Militarily, both sides pursued aggressive battlefield operations after Hue, and both drove a hard bargain when the Paris talks commenced in the spring. President Johnson, though no longer officially a candidate for reelection, stuck to a firm bargaining position and quietly hoped that whoever succeeded him would wage the military effort with vigor — as indeed Richard Nixon did. Ten thousand Americans would be killed in Southeast Asia in 1969, as many as in 1967. Not until early 1973 would the negotiators in Paris at long last sign a peace deal.
But fine: If some of Bowden’s broader claims are questionable, what remains is still impressive. In “Hue 1968” he has given us an engrossing, fair-minded, up-close account of one of the great battles in the long struggle for Vietnam.
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic. 610 pp. $30