From the bookshelf: Hue 1968 and Nixon’s White House wars
11 Nov 2017|

The war in Vietnam is widely perceived to have been the first television war, fought not only on the battlefield but also in the living rooms of America (and Australia).

If that thesis is correct, and there are differing assessments of the overall effect of televised coverage of the carnage, then the Tet Offensive staged by the North Vietnamese (NVA) and the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) in January–February 1968 represents the pinnacle of prime-time broadcasting.

Tet was ultimately a battlefield disaster for Hanoi and its forces, which were often destroyed in close-quarter fighting by the superior firepower of the American and South Vietnamese (ARVN) militaries. But psychologically the Tet campaign succeeded brilliantly—footage of CIA officers battling Viet Cong infiltrators on the grounds of the US Embassy in Saigon proved enduring. That vision convinced more than a few Americans in an election year that, contrary to the reassuring assessments of the Johnson administration and the US military, the war was far from won.

But the eye of the Tet offensive was not to be found in Saigon. Rather, the critical battle was fought in the ancient imperial capital of Huế, where NVA troops and NLF guerrillas seized almost of all the city, including the Citadel, a royal fortress that dominated the metropolis of some 140,000 citizens.

The stunning early success of the North Vietnamese; the near defeat of the US and ARVN; and the gruelling, bloody often incompetently directed fight to reclaim the city is the searing subject of Mark Bowden’s Huế 1968: A turning point of the American war in Vietnam.

Bowden has previously authored the definitive Black Hawk down, about the heroic failure of a US special forces mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. Heroism also abounds in Huế on both sides of the fighting, but the most compelling elements are to be found in the sheer, dogged determination of the grunts to survive and succeed in extraordinarily hostile circumstances.

For Tet represented a strategic shift in the war. From small unit guerrilla activities, Hanoi decided to commit major forces to battle to inspire a revolution in the South. The Tet New Year holiday represented the perfect opportunity to inflict a serious and surprise defeat upon Saigon and its US backers. Huế, Vietnam’s second city, was pivotal in that campaign.

The indications of an offensive were not completely concealed. And while President Thieu’s office refused to cancel the customary truce, some field commanders like the superb General Ngo Quang Truong, at Mang Ca Garrison at Huế, did increase security. Bowden writes:

So the warning signs were not ignored. But no one imagined the scale of what was coming. None of the clues had registered a big alarm, because they did not fit the overarching narrative. The story American forces had told themselves about the war went like this: The enemy was weak. He had little or no popular support. He had no significant presence in South Vietnam beyond small bands of rebels capable of minor raids in rural areas. If Hanoi was going to launch a surprise attack, it would come at a remote outpost like Khe Sanh. In Westy’s [General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, 1964–68] overconfident narrative there was simply no way his enemy could invade and occupy South Vietnam’s second-largest city, or launch surprise attacks in cities throughout the country. It could not happen.

But it did. With murderous consequences for thousands of civilians.

Bowden has little but praise for the combatants and he has been at pains to acknowledge the courage of the NVA troops engaged.

However, again on both sides, Bowden is scathing about the incompetence of senior commanders, remote from the fighting, issuing orders to achieve objectives that were impossible and caused needless causalities.

In particular, Bowden is scathing on Westmoreland’s briefings of LBJ, which dramatically underestimated the strength of his opposition in Huế. He believed that only a few companies of communist troops were in the Citadel, when in reality Hanoi had some 10,000 soldiers in the city.

The result, in a Washington that was endeavouring to micro-manage the war, was that strategic assumptions became useless as a guide to battlefield deployments and diplomatic initiatives.

Tet had an enormous political impact in the United States, compounding LBJ’s woes with both his own Democratic Party and the electorate. His withdrawal from the presidential race, in March 1968, following his humiliation in New Hampshire at the hands of anti-war senator Eugene McCarthy, may be directly linked to the shock of the Tet Offensive.

Enter Richard Nixon, elected president in November that same year.

Patrick J. Buchanan, an unofficial yet sympathetic biographer of Richard Milhous Nixon, has already chronicled Nixon’s year of 1968 in his engaging The greatest comeback. Now, in Nixon’s White House wars: The battles that made and broke a president and divided America forever, he charts the course of an administration divided over a number of domestic and foreign policy questions, especially on how to exit Vietnam and bring the American commitment to an end. To achieve ‘peace with honour’.

The key to the Nixon White House, as in most American presidencies, was access.

Legend holds that Nixon once told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, after meeting one of his cabinet members, that his job was to make sure that that ‘son of a bitch never gets another Oval Office meeting’. That was in spite of the fact that, in the preceding meeting, the president had agreed with his cabinet secretary on everything.

As one of Nixon’s speechwriters, Buchanan enjoyed a close relationship with this angry, brooding man. Perhaps more significantly, he was the favoured speechwriter of Vice President Spiro Agnew, scourge of American liberals and most media.

Within the White House, however, it was Buchanan’s role in summarising the presidential news briefing that gave him real power, for he was also charged with recommending appropriate responses.

In that role Buchanan witnessed constant White House manoeuvring of egos, with Dr Henry Kissinger prominent in assertiveness, whether it be on policy towards China or the Soviets or the creeping issue of Vietnam.

Nixon was perplexed:

By midyear [1969], President Nixon was growing frustrated. Despite his restraint in the use of US power—his continuance of LBJ’s bombing halt of North Vietnam, his peace offers to Hanoi, his withdrawal of 25,000 troops from the South—there had been no reciprocal response from the enemy. The fighting was still going on, the caskets were still coming home, and the patience of the nation was running out. We seemed to be in an endless and unwinnable war.

Nixon’s efforts to find the exit door for Vietnam are among the most enlightening sections of this insider’s perspective on Washington. Nixon sought to enlist both the Soviets and the Chinese in this effort, to no avail. Even when he tried to convince Moscow that he was an unpredictable ‘madman president’, which he had learned from Eisenhower, there was no movement.

Buchanan writes with clarity and humour, which affords this account a greater authority. He knew Richard Nixon well and contrasts him with the other president whom he served, Ronald Reagan.

In a telling observation, while detailing Nixon’s tendency to cool down, reconsider an order and then change his mind, Buchanan quotes veteran aide Bryce Harlow: ‘Watergate happened when some damn fool came out of the Oval Office—and did exactly what the President told him to do.’

Buchanan may be ideologically immobile, but it is his ability to recognise insightful assessments and appreciate their significance that elevate his words beyond the narrow confines of merely defending a president who was often pursuing the indefensible.