In This Review

The Tet Offensive: A Concise History
The Tet Offensive: A Concise History
By James H. Willbanks
Columbia University Press, 2006, 272 pp
Purchase
Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Easter Offensive
Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Easter Offensive
By Stephen P. Randolph
Harvard University Press, 2007, 416 pp
Purchase

These two books on Vietnam reflect a shift in scholarly focus from the Johnson administration to the Nixon administration. The Tet offensive of 1968 is generally accepted to have been a turning point in the war, not because of what happened on the battlefield -- where the Communists were, if anything, defeated -- but because of the shocked reaction in the United States and the consequent hemorrhaging of credibility from the U.S. military and political leadership. Willbanks offers a careful and judicious evaluation of the extensive literature already generated on Tet. He considers the controversies surrounding such issues as what the North Vietnamese thought they were going to achieve, why the Americans were caught by surprise, the key battles of Khe Sanh and Hue, and the role of the media. Useful maps and documents and a good bibliography are provided. Students especially will find this invaluable.

Tet may have encouraged the Americans to look for a way out of Vietnam through negotiations with the North, but it took another full presidential term, and considerable death and destruction, before this could be achieved. The literature on Nixon's war remains smaller than that on Johnson's, but it is growing, and Randolph's book on the 1972 Easter Offensive is a notable addition. The offensive is interesting at the operational level, for it was the point at which the U.S. military began to appreciate the potential of "smart weapons." At the political level, the book provides a compelling portrayal of Richard Nixon as a strategist at the height of the imperial presidency, using tough and apparently reckless tactics to shore up his bargaining position. In this case, his gamble paid off, as Moscow kept its focus on the prospect of a wider détente with the United States and so muted its response to the North's pain. Still, the ferocious U.S. campaign was not enough to stabilize the situation in South Vietnam's favor.