Peering through the fog
Some of the most widely reported and well-known events in history are often, at the same time, among the most misunderstood or are saddled with “official” records forever factually flawed. The Tet Offensive that was launched on January 31, 1968, is perhaps the greatest example of this from the Vietnam War. That the offensive in itself was a great military defeat for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, yet broadly perceived as a great victory, has been widely recognized. This misperception, however factually incorrect, is aided and abetted by the fact that the offensive did deliver a devastating psychological blow to the American people.
Two signature events of the Tet Offensive, the attack on the U.S. Embassy and the battle for Hue, are bookends of sorts. The wild embassy strike was over in a matter of hours, while the fight for Hue lasted nearly a month. But both left indelible marks and, at the same time, many vexing and unanswered questions. On the following pages, James Willbanks, a top scholar of the Vietnam War, takes us into the battle for Hue and provides an in-depth examination of the massacre of civilians that accompanied the Communist takeover, with an analysis of the long and heated controversy over exactly why it happened and who was responsible. War correspondent Don North, who was on the grounds of the embassy during much of the Tet firefight, discovered recently that he knew much less about what he witnessed that day in Saigon than he thought he did. In the “Suicide Mission That Wasn’t” (p. 32), North digs into declassified interrogation reports of the little-known and mostly forgotten Viet Cong survivors of the attack.
Men doggedly seeking to solve mysteries from the war is an apt characterization of British photojournalist Tim Page and celebrated American journalist Sydney Schanberg. In our interview this month (p. 16), Schanberg, most noted for his work in Cambodia and the acclaimed film about his experience there, The Killing Fields, talks about his decades-long struggle to get to the bottom of the controversial question of American POWs left behind at the end of the war. (Much more of our provocative interview with Schanberg is available at VietnamMag.com.) In “Still Desperately Seeking Sean” (p. 38), freelance writer Richard Linnett chronicles the relentless quest by Page (the inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now) to learn what happened to his close friend and colleague, photographer Sean Flynn, who with fellow lensman Dana Stone vanished while on assignment in
Cambodia in April 1970. One thing that wasn’t a mystery in Vietnam is the subject of our portfolio (p. 44). No matter how weary or grungy, GIs across the combat zone perked up in a hurry when they heard someone shout, “The Donut Dollies are here!” As our photos and essay clearly reveal, the secret of the success of this small band of dedicated women was no secret at all.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.