16 August 2010

The General Offensive/General Uprising

Ronnie E. Ford, Tet 1968: Understanding the Surprise. New York: Frank Cass, 1995, 194 pages.

The Tet Offensive is perhaps the most examined period of the Vietnam War. That is not surprising since it is nearly universally acknowledged as a turning point in the war, the “high-water mark” of the American effort in Vietnam. Yet the history of this climatic campaign has been written by the West, through Western eyes. In most treatments of the offensive, North Vietnamese and Vietcong motives are as obscure as they were to the American military at the time. Enter Tet 1968 by Ronnie E. Ford. This book is both a fascinating examination of the motives and decisions behind the Tet Offensive from Hanoi’s perspective and a reflection on the indicators the West had and why they were missed. Ford has gathered an impressive array of sources, from North Vietnamese strategy documents to interviews with key American and South Vietnamese intelligence figures, who were looking at the same evidence on the eve of the Tet Offensive.

Ronnie Ford portrays the Tet Offensive (or General Offensive/General Uprising as it was called by the communists) as a uniquely Vietnamese answer to the strategic stalemate that had developed in South Vietnam in 1967. In Hanoi’s estimation, the Americans had reached the apex of their capability and were still unable to dislodge the Southern insurgency. The time had arrived to shift from simply fighting to “fighting while negotiating” in order to achieve a settlement favorable to the North. To negotiate from a position of strength, Hanoi needed to generate a “General Uprising”--a mythic goal deeply rooted in the Vietnamese identity of perpetual resistance to foreign interference--in which the entire nation would rise up against the foreign invaders. Ultimately, Ford concludes, “MACV was fully aware that there had been a change in Communist strategy, and that Hanoi was planning something big,” but because of the West’s inability to understand this uniquely Vietnamese concept, the “actual intent and limited objectives were misinterpreted” (p. 194).

Tet 1968 is a fresh, intriguing take on the Tet Offensive. It departs so drastically from the well-worn path of other books, such as the focus on the dramatic media coverage and on Washington’s disastrous attempts at damage control, that one almost forgets that Ford is talking about the same campaign that has been so scrutinized over the past forty years. And herein lies the only complaint with the book. Perhaps the most central debate of the Tet Offensive is over its target: did the North Vietnamese intend to shock the leaders in Washington or, as actually happened, the American people? Ford’s Tet 1968 ventures so far afield from the commonly examined sources and questions that he never actually addresses this question. One might guess he would conclude that the actual target of the Tet Offensive was the South Vietnamese people, but Ford never provides the reader with an answer. This missed opportunity aside, Tet 1968 is an essential read for any Vietnam historian.

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