The United States had been involved in Vietnam since 1950. During the First Indochina War, the United States supported France in its conflict with the Viet Minh. When France was defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Vietnam was divided administratively at the 17th parallel by the subsequent Geneva Accords. Under the provisions of this agreement, the portion of Vietnam north of the 17th parallel would be governed by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the portion south of the dividing line by what became the Republic of Vietnam. Under the auspices of the containment policy, the United States threw its support behind the government of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon, who refused to conduct the election in 1956 called for by the Geneva agreement. Ultimately, Diem would be assassinated during a coups in 1963, ushering a succession of largely ineffectual rulers. As the insurgency in the south mounted, these successive governments proved unable to combat the Viet Cong. In March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson committed the first US ground combat troops to Vietnam. By the end of 1967, there were almost a half a million troops in Vietnam involved in a bloody war of attrition. On 30 January 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched a massive surprise offensive during the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday, attacking thirty-six major South Vietnamese cities and towns. Although the Tet Offensive ultimately proved to be a military defeat for the Communist forces, who suffered over forty thousand casualties, it convinced a large number of Americans that, contrary to their government’s claims, the insurgency in South Vietnam could not be crushed and the war looked like it would continue for years to come. This only increased the antiwar sentiment on the home front, leading ultimately to President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election. The subsequent election of Richard Nixon to the presidency ushered in the long, bloody withdrawal from Vietnam that resulted in the departure of all US troops by March 1973 and the fall of Saigon in 1975. The 1968 Tet Offensive was, in many ways, the watershed event of the Vietnam War and it has been covered extensively in the ever-growing historiography of the war. The purpose of this bibliography is to provide a guide to some of the more useful works that address the complexity of the Tet Offensive and its aftermath, either specifically or within the context of the wider war.
General Overviews of the Vietnam War
The Tet Offensive figures prominently in general histories of the Vietnam War. These works are useful for putting the Tet Offensive in the proper historical context. Most of these treatments cover briefly the fighting in Vietnam, but focus primarily, with a few exceptions, on the political fallout on the home front in the United States. Fitzgerald 1972 and Karnow 1997 provide the orthodox view that the war was misguided and doomed to failure from the beginning; Tet demonstrated clearly that US strategy was fatally flawed from the beginning. Prados 2009 gives the most recent version of this interpretation. Lawrence 2008 and Bradley 2009 offer good overviews, placing the war in a more international setting. Herring 2002 and Tucker 1999 are both readable and concise, making them very useful as college texts. Woodruff 1999 takes the revisionist approach that the Vietnam War could have been won and uses the Tet Offensive as prime evidence that the other side was defeated following the bitter fighting in 1968.
Bradley, Mark Phillip. Vietnam at War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Draws heavily on recently opened Vietnamese archives and other sources to place the Vietnamese at the center of the war and its outcome, unlike other books which render them almost invisible.
FitzGerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam. New York: Vintage, 1972.
A Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the war from the liberal viewpoint that is very critical of the American government for the inability to understand the nature of the revolution in Vietnam resulting in what the author sees as the inevitable failure of the United States in Southeast Asia.
Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
A very balanced general history of the war, which is recognized as a major contribution to the study of American involvement in Vietnam. Herring analyzes the ultimate failure in the war and its impact on US foreign policy. The author places the war in the historical context of the Cold War and US containment policy.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2d rev. and updated ed. New York: Penguin, 1997.
Originally published in 1983. A comprehensive study of the war that examines the conflict from both sides. Very well documented, this book contains material from extensive interviews with the participants. It includes a thorough discussion of the Tet Offensive and its aftermath.
Lawrence, Mark Atwood. The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Places the Vietnam War in the broader international context by providing the various perspectives of the major international actors. Uses archival material from China, Russia, and Vietnam.
Prados, John. Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009.
A wide-ranging synthesis, which asserts that decision-making in Washington was clouded by Cold War politics and fundamentally flawed perceptions of the nature of the war in Vietnam. He discusses how the Tet Offensive led to Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election and Nixon’s subsequent victory in the 1968 election.
Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. London: UCL, 1999.
A concise, well-documented analytical survey of Vietnamese military history that concentrates on the French and American 20th-century wars. Unlike many Vietnamese histories, this one begins with a brief account of the earliest recorded days of the Vietnamese people. The author is critical of the way the American military dealt with the Communist strategy of protracted war.
Woodruff, Mark W. Unheralded Victory: The Defeat of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, 1961–1973. Arlington, VA: Vandemere, 1999.
Seeks to provide a revisionist military history of the war and to demonstrate in his opinion that the war was won militarily before the United States unilaterally withdrew from the conflict. The author does not sufficiently address why the United States became involved in Southeast Asia in the first place.
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