The collection "Histoire en batailles" published by Tallandier, now with twenty-two books published over the past two years, was enriched last August with a book devoted to a conflict often neglected in France, and yet omnipresent, cultural globalization and Hollywood cinema oblige: the war in Vietnam. Stéphane Mantoux addresses more precisely the decisive confrontation between all of this war, the Tet offensive.
A subject rarely discussed
The work is distinguished first of all by its theme, to say the least, original. While the major part of the general public literature dealing with military history concerns the Second World War or the battles that directly concerned France and the French, the author has chosen Vietnam. Admittedly, the link with France is not non-existent, since this war is only one of the conflicts generated by the decolonization of French Indochina. From this, the French public more readily retains the battle of Diên Biên Phu, also treated in the same collection by Ivan Cadeau, than the confrontations of the following conflict.
However, the Tet offensive haunts Western popular culture, since director Stanley Kubrick has made it the backdrop to his now classic. Full Metal Jacket in 1987. Launched on January 30, 1968 by the North Vietnamese army and its armed wing in South Vietnam, the Viêt Cong, it aimed to drag the southerners into a general uprising, which would overthrow the pro-regime. -american, would precipitate the end of the war and allow the reunification of the country. Benefiting first from the effect of surprise, the Communist troops are then confronted with the overwhelming firepower of the Americans and their allies. Despite further attacks in May 1968, the offensive was a failure : Viêt Cong and Nord-Viêt-Nam did not reach their objectives.
And yet, this military defeat will turn into decisive political and strategic victory. As General Westmoreland, who commands the enormous American expeditionary force in Vietnam, keeps telling President Lyndon Johnson that the enemy is running out of steam and victory is near, the Tet offensive shows the world that the Communists, far from being at bay, are increasingly enterprising. Johnson, who complacently relayed Westmoreland's speech in the American mass media, lost the credibility that would have allowed him to receive the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidential election of November 1968. Left without a major candidate after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Democrats were defeated flatly by Republican Richard Nixon, who began the policy of the gradual withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam - a process that would culminate in a ceasefire in 1973, and the fall of the Saigon regime in 1975.
It is this decisive defeat of the United States in the war they are waging against communist Vietnam - and by proxy against the Soviet Union - that Stéphane Mantoux has chosen to deal with. His short book (224 pages) is well made, clear and well written. If the cards are not very numerous (there are five in all and for all), they are intelligible and are usually sufficient to follow the author's words. One of its major interests lies in its bibliography, bringing together necessarily English-speaking works for the most part, but which has the great merit of listing sources otherwise little known on the Vietnam War.
Story of a strategic bankruptcy
The author begins his story with a highly symbolic : the attack by North Vietnamese sappers, on the first day of the offensive, against the United States embassy in Saigon. The ensuing press conference, given by Westmoreland in the still smoking rubble of the Embassy, shows how the Americans have already lost the Battle of Tet, even though it has only just begun. Locked in his mistaken estimate of the situation, Westmoreland continues to cling to it, even as everything around him demonstrates his mistake.
Stéphane Mantoux then returns to the sources of the Vietnam War, a presentation of context which is welcome and easy to assimilate. We better understand the logic of the American intervention and the strategy which results from it, that of a war of attrition where the Americans have only one obsession: to push the communist guerrillas of South Vietnam to deliver a confrontation. conventional where they can crush it under the shells of their artillery and the bombs of their air force, in order to kill as many enemies as possible. Thus, thinks the American high command, the Viêt Cong will eventually be wiped out. The count of enemy corpses after each clash thus becomes, in the eyes of the Johnson administration, the symbol of a near victory.
In reality, this strategy is ineffective. Supported by units of the North Vietnamese regular army infiltrated in the South by the famous Ho Chi Minh trail, the Viêt Cong remains elusive and responds to American operations with guerrilla actions. The decision to leave this pattern of conflict with a great final offensive remains a subject of controversy in historiography, the author noting in passing the difficulty posed by the scarcity and complexity of Vietnamese sources. Whatever its objectives and its motivations, the offensive was stopped for January 30, 1968. A day which corresponds to the beginning of the Tet holiday, the Vietnamese New Year, traditionally a period of truce since the beginning of the conflict. The North Vietnamese leaders thus hope to maximize the effect of surprise.
Before entering into the narrative of events, Stéphane Mantoux reviews the strengths who are preparing to fight. The opportunity for him to dispel some myths about the American commitment in Vietnam, or about the equipment of Communist troops, to name just a few examples. The main ally of the United States, South Vietnam, often neglected, finds itself returned to its true place in the war it is waging on its own soil. Likewise, we will (re) learn with interest that in 1968 Vietnam, Australian, South Korean and Thai troops were to be found operating alongside the Americans and the South Vietnamese.
Chapter 4 is particularly interesting as it shows how the North Vietnamese succeeded in abuse the American command. To distract from it, the North Vietnamese army multiplied, at the end of 1967, the attacks against the border regions, in particular around the 17th parallel which marks the border between North and South. Westmoreland, who desires more than anything to face his enemy in a great traditional battle where American firepower would inflict losses likely to bring him to the negotiating table in a position of weakness. He thus persuaded himself that the North Vietnamese were playing, against all logic, his own game. Focused on the post of Khé Sanh, around which the Communists were becoming more and more urgent, he moved enormous forces to the north of the country. , leaving the interior almost defenseless.
So the surprise is total when the offensive is launched, despite a delay of one day which was not announced in time to all the communist units concerned, some thus attacking one day too early. Viêt Cong and North Vietnamese regulars are hitting dozens of towns across the country. Their initial successes were dazzling, but short-lived, in particular because the preparation for the offensive was often very imperfect. The hoped-for uprising did not occur, the Americans and South Vietnamese counterattacked and recaptured the lost ground, inflicting terrible losses on the Communists. Chapter 5 is devoted to the offensive as a whole, especially in Saigon; the next one, for its part, focuses on those of the city of Hue, taken over from the Communists after five bloody weeks of fighting. As for chapter 7, it deals with the battle of Khé Sanh, generally considered as a diversion, but which Westmoreland continues to see and present as the decisive battle which will allow him to win the war.
However, the game is over, as the eighth and final chapter shows. The renewed fighting in May (the “Mini-Tet”), added to the previous ones, ended up discouraging American public opinion, which approves less and less the engagement of its army in Vietnam. When Westmoreland, which has more than 500,000 men, calls for more, Johnson decides to stop climbing in an effort to preserve his credibility: he replaces Westmoreland with General Abrams, orders the end of the bombings in North Vietnam and invites the latter to negotiate. This last-minute effort was futile, since Nixon won the presidential election, thanks in particular to his program of "Vietnamization" of the conflict.
Despite a few typos, The Tet offensive reads easily, even if a few notations will perhaps discourage the neophyte reader, not used to the nomenclature of designation of a battalion or a company - the account of the combats being sometimes very detailed or even micro-tactical. The fact remains that the book achieves its goal: that of providing clear information and accessible on a subject rarely treated, on which the French-speaking literature is scarce.
Stéphane Mantoux, The Tet offensive, January 30 - May 1968, Paris, Tallandier, 2013.