The Fog of Vietnam

We’re beginning our series of 50th anniversary programs this week with one of the great shocks of 1968: the Tet Offensive. When the Vietnamese insurrection broke all over the map in late January, the CBS news legend Walter Cronkite was heard to shout: “What the hell is going on?  I thought we were winning this war!”  Vietnam—America’s “helicopter war” in Southeast Asia—was becoming the “living-room war” in the US.

Viet Cong had penetrated the US embassy in Saigon and made a 6-hour fight of it.  And the gruesome back-and-forth battle of Hué was underway in Vietnam’s old capital, a university town on the Perfume River, described by the late Michael Herr as “the one really lovely city” in the country. VC guerrillas had seized it by surprise. US firepower over three weeks took it back by leveling the homes of most of its 130,000 people. 

Chris Lydon’s Boston Globe report from Saigon, 1968

Chris Lydon was there in 1968 as a foreign corespondent for the Boston Globe. 50 years laters, we’re returning to the stories of both the Vietnamese and the Americans whose worlds were forever darkened by the violence they witnessed in the wake of Tet.

Mark Bowden is the reporter best known for Black Hawk Down, the book that became the movie about US Marines trapped in Somalia in 1993.  From his new book Hué 1968, he gets us started on the Tet Offensive 50 years ago, and (he says) the most awful urban battlefield Americans had ever fought in — a miniature version of the war in Vietnam and a turning point in it.

John Olson / New York Times

Fredrik Logevall joins us live. He’s among the master historians of Vietnam and the West over the past century, since the Versailles Treaty after World War I that gave Southeast Asia to France.  Now at Harvard, Professor Logevall won the Pulitzer Prize for Embers of War, and highest praise again for Choosing War about first the French, then the American wars to hang onto Vietnam.

The Vietnamese and now Californian writer Duong Van Mai Elliott has a long family history as complex as the politics of Vietnam at war.  Her scrupulously researched memoir The Sacred Willow covers four generations of her family, highlighting its array of political identities. Her sister fought with the Communist Viet Minh in the Sixties and never reconciled with her parents who’d worked in the French colonial bureaucracy since the 1920s.  Mai Elliott herself had grown up in both Hanoi and Saigon and attended Georgetown University for college.  Back home as the war got hot, she took a job with the Rand Corporation for the Pentagon, interviewing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prisoners about their values and motivations:

“The Viet Cong at that time enjoyed a lot of support in the countryside mainly because of this legacy of the Viet Ming, the people who won the war against the French and freed the country… As one of them explained to me, they chose to fight for what they called the ‘just cause.’ They wanted to reunify the country. They thought the division at the 17th Parallel was like a gash across Vietnam. They want to raise it. They wanted to unify the country under a government that will bring them justice and equality.”

lead image: Warren K. Leffler / U.S. News & World Report Magazine / Wikimedia Commons
Guest List
Mark Bowden
national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
Duong Van Mai Elliott
author of The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family and RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era 
Fredrik Logevall
Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University and author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam

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