Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2017, $30
Hundreds of battles and thousands of smaller engagements characterized the Vietnam War, but most living Americans can likely name only a few. Notable among those few is the 1968 Tet Offensive, the coordinated series of surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong that eroded U.S. public support for the war and marked the beginning of the end of American involvement.
Tactically speaking, the offensive was a disastrous defeat for North Vietnam. It cost the communists as many as a half-million casualties, virtually eradicated homegrown Viet Cong insurgent forces throughout South Vietnam and failed to elicit a popular uprising in the south against the Saigon regime. Tellingly, North Vietnam’s vaunted “architect of victory,” General Vo Nguyen Giap, who planned and carried out the offensive, was effectively sidelined for the rest of the war by Hanoi’s political leadership.
Yet the Tet Offensive led to a stunning political about-face that can arguably be called the singular turning point of the war. While the battered communists may have lost the military means to win the war on the battlefield, the shock of the attack, its ferocity and press coverage of the offensive brought about a loss of faith in military commanders among politicians and much of the public back home, eroding their will to persevere until final victory.
Take, for example, the failed but eminently photogenic attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon or the bitter street-by-street, house-to-house slugfest in Vietnam’s ancient imperial capital of Hue, the focus of this book. The press corps presented each battle to American readers and viewers in stark, bloody images that seemed to put the lie to months of optimistic military announcements the war was all but won. Clearly, it wasn’t. But neither was it lost—at least not on the battlefield.
Veteran reporter Mark Bowden, acclaimed author of Black Hawk Down, presents a thorough and compelling narrative of the signature battle of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Drawing on more than 50 interviews with participants from all sides of the fight for Hue, the author relates events from the highest level of power to the troops engaged in desperate combat on the ground. The result is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the battle that, more than any other in the long Vietnam War, ultimately decided its outcome.
—Jerry D. Morelock