A Few of Our Biographies:
Fifty Important Battles
This is Part Five of a five-part article. Each section covers 10 battles; the article is organized chronologically from the 1500s forward.
"The course of human civilization has turned on the outcome of a select few climactic battles throughout history," says writer James A. Cox, "but never more so than when Stalin’s enigmatic Soviet Union desperately rallied its resources to stave off Hitler’s armies in the 'Battle for Moscow.'"
Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941. One of his motivations was a thirst for living space, for Lebensraum, a word coined by German geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), who, reflecting the German ethos of feeling perpetually hemmed-in, asserted that a healthy species must naturally expand - one of the most potent and idiotic scholarly ideas/rationalizations of modern history. Among the additional factors in Hitler's decision to invade: his eagerness to force Britain to stand alone, his hatred of Communism, his desire to give the SS a killing ground, and the abysmal performance of the Soviet military against the Finns in the Winter War of 1939-40.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin liquidated the top echelon of his armed services in the 1930s because of his worries about threats to his power; in 1939 the German general staff rated the new Soviet military leaders as "too young and inexperienced." Stalin purged three out of five of his marshals in the '30s, 13 of 15 army commanders, eight of nine admirals, 50 of 57 corps commanders, all 16 army commissars, and 58 of 64 divisional commissars, according to journalist Michael Weiss. (Historian Richard Overy, among others, disputes the idea that the purges negatively affected the quality of Red Army leadership. See Overy's "Russia's War" .)
Stalin made another tactical error based on paranoia in 1940-41, declining to join with the British to form a front against Hitler in southeastern Europe - he was unable to summon adequate trust for the move. This decision, generally overlooked today, is condemned by Winston Churchill with some of the bitterest language of his memoir: "War," he writes, "is mainly a catalogue of blunders, but it may be doubted whether any mistake in history has equalled that of which Stalin and the Communist chiefs were guilty when they cast away all possibilities in the Balkans and supinely awaited the fearful onslaught which impended upon Russia."
Still another decision stemming from Stalin's paranoia was his disregarding of warnings about an imminent invasion by Germany. He didn't trust anything said to him by the Brits.
Scholars and observers debate whether Moscow or Stalingrad was the more decisive battle on the Eastern Front. The Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-43, was obviously of enormous importance – the Red Army won a smashing material and psychological victory, and used the triumph as a springboard for a western push that forced Germany to fight defensively for most of the rest of the war.
HistoryAccess.com comes down on the side of Moscow as the more decisive of the two. A salient quote from the TV series "The World at War" by a German veteran summarizes the impact of the Wehrmacht's failure at the gates of the capital: "When we must retreat from Moscow, the Russian population and the Russian soldiers must think it's possible to defeat the German army." That faith, once born, could not be extinguished; the hard part, the crucial part, was getting it born. As Napoleon said, an army's effectiveness depends on its size, training, experience, and morale, and morale is "worth more than any of the other factors combined." (Churchill writes of the "psychological effect of despair." Might some measure of despair have entered into German hearts in the wake of the failure at Moscow? Can such despair ever be quantified?)
A writer at Wiki.answers.com speculates: "(If Germany takes Moscow), the Soviet system is in deep disarray. Yes, fighting (in Russia) would have continued, probably for a year or two, but Germany would have had the interior lines and been able to dominate the conflict. A stabilized Russian front puts Germany in a position to hold in the west and likely win the war."
Historian John Lukacs writes of early December, 1941: "Pearl Harbor....and the reversal of the German advance before Moscow twenty-four hours before, half the world away....was the turning point of the Second World War."
By contrast, journalist and historian Robert Messenger offers this assessment of the battle for the capital: "There is no evidence that the capture of Moscow would have led to Soviet defeat....Moscow's industry had been moved east, and the Soviet government had planned for evacuation....In their postwar memoirs, Germany’s surviving military leaders propounded a theory that, by delaying the drive on Moscow, Hitler cost them the war. This 'Lost Victory' is widely believed in and the stuff of popular military history books...."
True enough. It's also the stuff of serious historical debate. So, the argument goes on.
See "Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945" by Evan Mawdsley (2005), "War Without Garlands: Barbarossa 1941/42" by Robert J. Kershaw (2000), and "Before Stalingrad: Barbarossa, Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941" by David M. Glantz (2003).
See also "Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945" by Catherine Merridale (2006), "Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s War With Germany" by John Erickson (1975; 1999 reprint, two volumes), "Moscow 1941" by Rodric Braithwaite (2008), and "Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War" by Chris Bellamy (2008; has a particularly strong map selection). Also see "A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman With the Red Army, 1941-1945" edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova (2005).
For Stalingrad see "Stalingrad: How the Red Army Triumphed" by Michael K. Jones (2007)" and "Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad" by William Craig (1973). The film "Enemy at the Gates" (2001) is based on a sniper duel described by William Craig in his non-fiction book; that duel is, in turn, explored in the novel "War of the Rats" by David L. Robbins (1999). Two additional depictions of the Battle of Stalingrad are the historical novel "The Living and the Dead" by Konstantin Simonov (1975 translation by Alex Miller) and the German/Swedish film "Stalingrad" (1993).
For a provocative "what if" essay on Hitler's invasion, see "Nazi Europe: What If Nazi Germany Had Defeated the Soviet Union?" by Michael Burleigh in "Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals" edited by Niall Ferguson (1999).
For guidance through the literature of the Eastern Front see "Hitler's War in the East: A Critical Assessment" by Rolf-Dieter Muller and Gerd R. Ueberschar (2008, second edition).
DVDs: "1942 Stalingrad" by Peter Snow and Dan Snow (2007) first shown on BBC 2 and the Military Channel. "The Russian Front 1941-45" presented by John Erickson (1999).
Japan’s strategy in late 1941 was to strike a hard blow against American military power and quickly seize as much territory as possible in the Pacific, gambling, or assuming, that a weakened U.S. would ask for peace talks and grant concessions. The plan was based on a misapprehension of the will of the United States. "Strategically," writes historian William O’Neill, "this plan could not have been more wrong-headed. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the United States and its history could have predicted that the nation, far from caving in, would demand revenge." Japan in 1941 did not deign to such knowledge. Pearl Harbor outraged the American people (as did escalation of the Battle of the Atlantic in 1917 by Germany, as would 9/11), united the nation, and ended isolationism, which had been a very strong impulse in the country. (Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. describes the isolationist vs. interventionist debate of 1940-41 as the bitterest political dispute of his lifetime including Vietnam and McCarthyism.)
The U.S. Navy suffered grievously on this day but could take solace from the fact that several of its aircraft carriers were at sea and escaped damage. Also, huge fuel tanks and machine shops were relatively unscathed in the attack.
The attack was Japan's declaration of war on the United States. America declared war on Japan the next day. On December 11, Hitler declared war on the U.S. though he was not bound by any treaty to do so (formal alliance of the Axis powers would come later). The United States immediately declared war on Germany. World War II, more than two years old, now inflamed the globe, consuming, in the end, some 60 million lives.
See here for reading suggestions about World War II.
See "At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor" by Gordon W. Prange in collaboration with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (1981), "Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan" by Ronald H. Spector (1985), and "World War II: A Student Companion" by William L. O’Neill (1999).
For a radical thesis on Pearl Harbor, passionately researched and crisply written, see "The Pearl Harbor Myth: Rethinking the Unthinkable" by George Victor (2007). The book might best be read in conjunction with three articles in The New York Review of Books: "Did FDR Invite the Pearl Harbor Attack?" by David Kahn, May 27, 1982; "Did Roosevelt Know?" by David Kahn, November 2, 2000; and "Remember Pearl Harbor" by Robert B. Stinnett, February 8, 2001.
"Of all the battles fought in World War II, the Battle of the Atlantic was the most important," writes historian William L. O’Neill. "If it had been lost, there would have been no aid to Britain, no Allied invasion of France, no Lend-Lease convoys to Russia, and therefore no victory."
Winston Churchill describes the matter starkly in his memoirs: "The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril."
The Battle of the Atlantic involved German submarines (U-boats, short for Unterseeboots, undersea boats) and armed merchantmen vs. Allied military ships and planes, and merchant ships, along with their respective communications and intelligence systems. At stake was the delivery from the U.S. to Europe and Russia of soldiers, bombs, planes, tanks, petroleum, food, timber, and invasion barges. The Allies lost more than 30,000 merchant seamen in the Battle of the Atlantic and 2,603 merchant ships; the U.S. toll for merchant seamen was more than 8,000. (See here for more on the U.S. Merchant Marine during the war.) Germany lost 28,000 of its 41,000 submariners.
The turning point in favor of the Allies came during the first half of 1943, resulting from several developments, including new convoy tactics, new radar equipment, expanded use of the VLR Liberator bomber, and better coordination among the services. A key breakthrough was the cracking of German radio communications codes by the scholars of Bletchley Park, England.
Historian Victor Davis Hanson finds "inexplicable" and "foolhardy" the decision by U.S. Admiral Ernest King in 1942 to not use American destroyers to guide merchant ships east across the Atlantic. "German U-boats had a field day," writes Hanson, "torpedoing slow-moving cargo vessels right off our east coast – which was lit up each night, as though to silhouette undefended American targets at sea." King arrived at his decision "despite ample evidence from World War I that the convoy system had worked, and despite pleas from veteran British officers that their own two-year experience in the war had taught them the folly of sending unescorted merchant ships across the Atlantic." King, notes Hanson, was "always suspicious" of British advice, and believed that a commitment of destroyers to Atlantic convoys would negatively affect the Pacific war.
The Battle of the Atlantic continued to the end of the war, but it can be said that May 24, 1943, marked the climactic point, when the German high command ordered its U-boats to pull back from their North Atlantic positions. The subs continued to fight for two years, notes historian Douglas Botting, "but they did so now without the slightest prospect of victory."
See here for reading suggestions on World War II.
See "The Seafarers: The U-Boats" by Douglas Botting and the Editors of Time-Life Books (1979), "The Battle of the Atlantic: The Allies' Submarine Fight Against Hitler's Gray Wolves of the Sea" by Andrew Williams (2003), "Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park" edited by F.H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp (1993), "Black May: The Epic Story of the Allies' Defeat of the German U-Boats in May 1943" by Michael Gannon (1999), and the historical novel "The Cruel Sea" by Nicholas Monsarrat (1951). The 1981 film "Das Boot" examines life on a World War II U-boat; it’s based on a novel of the same title by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim (1975 translation as "The Boat" by Denver Lindley and Helen Lindley.)
A vital weapon for the U.S. at Midway was its intelligence-gathering team. A couple of months before the encounter, the Americans cracked the most important Japanese naval code. Journalist and historian John Keegan calls the U.S. intelligence effort here "the most stunning" such work in "all naval history." Historian William L. O’Neill writes, "The strategic planning for Midway must be credited to (Admiral Chester W.) Nimitz, who took the risk of placing full trust in his code breakers....As he had hoped, the U.S. carriers retained the element of surprise...."
In terms of technology, Midway was primarily a battle of aircraft carriers and their planes. This was a shift. Until December, 1941, U.S. naval doctrine held that battleships were the cardinal ships of the service, the key to contemporary naval battle. Carriers were seen as auxiliaries, writes William L. O’Neill, "that would scout ahead of the battle line, achieve air superiority, attack enemy ships, and perform other useful services. Pearl Harbor and Midway established the carrier’s primacy. Thereafter, battleships served as auxiliaries." (Three other key events in the diminution of the battleship: the success of the British carrier Illustrious against Italy in 1940; the sinking by Japan of the Royal Navy's Prince of Wales on December 10, 1941; and the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, 1942.)
Victor "Pug" Henry, protagonist of Herman Wouk’s splendid historical novel "The Winds of War" (1971), decides early in his naval career to focus on battleships rather than carriers. Wouk describes Henry at Pearl Harbor after Dec. 7, 1941, inspecting the burning battleships (also called battlewagons) gazing up at them from a motor launch, musing over a football metaphor:
To him, carriers had been the fancy-Dan team with tricky runners and razzle-dazzle passers; battlewagons, the heavy solid team of chargers, who piled up the yardage straight through the line. These tough ground gainers usually became the champions. So he had thought – making the mistake of his life. He had been as wrong as a man could be, in the one crucial judgment of his profession. Other battleship men might still find excuses for these tragic slaughtered dinosaurs that the launch was passing. For Pug Henry, facts governed. Each of these vessels was a giant engineering marvel, a floating colossus as cunningly put together as a lady’s watch, capable of pulverizing a city. All true, all true. But if caught unawares, they could be knocked out by little tin flying crates. The evidence was before his eyes. The twenty-year argument was over.
A parenthetical note. In February, 1942, when things appeared bleakest for the American effort in the Pacific - a scant two months after Pearl Harbor, two months before the Doolittle Raid, and four months before Midway - President Franklin Roosevelt sought a way to explain to the American public the complexities of the U.S. quest in the world’s largest ocean. Communications genius that he was, he proposed a sweet little plan, described by journalist and historian Susan Jacoby:
Roosevelt urged Americans to spread out a map during his radio "fireside chat" so that they might better understand the geography of battle. In stores throughout the country, maps sold out; about 80 percent of American adults tuned in to hear the President. FDR had told his speechwriters that he was certain that if Americans understood the immensity of the distances over which supplies had to travel to the armed forces, "they can take any kind of bad news right on the chin." This is a portrait not only of a different presidency and President but also of a different country and citizenry, one that lacked access to satellite-enhanced Google maps but was far more receptive to learning and complexity than today’s public. According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made.
See here for reading suggestions about the Second World War.
"The Battle of Midway" by Craig L. Symonds (2011) is easily the best introduction to this complex encounter; it combines the latest scholarship with clarity and readability.
"Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway" by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully (2005) is a masterpiece of military history scholarship, authoritative, ground-breaking, and extremely detailed, and as a bonus, quite readable.
"The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Strategies: February to June 1942" by H.P. Willmott (1983) provides important strategic background.
"A Glorious Page in Our History: The Battle of Midway, 4-6 June 1942" by Robert J. Cressman et al. (1990) has a wealth of photos, including shots of the remarkable dioramas made by Norman Bel Geddes. But the book is a chore to read, for the layperson anyway, because of its hundreds upon hundreds of acronyms and abbreviations - several on every page, always rendered in capital letters, and not always explained. Example: "As 24-P-7 pulled away, Theodore E. Kimmel, AMM2c, fired
"Incredible Victory: The Battle of Midway" by Walter Lord (1998 reissue) is very readable but dated in some important ways, especially in the author's conception of the U.S. triumph as a victory against impossible odds. His over-heated sentence "They had no right to win...." has been inscribed in stone at the National World War II Memorial in Washington DC. The sentence would have surprised Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who felt pretty darn sure of winning going into the encounter.
See also "Miracle at Midway" by Gordon W. Prange with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (1982; useful but dated), "World War II: A Student Companion" by William L. O’Neill (1999), and "Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda" by John Keegan (2003). Keegan has a chapter on Midway in his fine 1988 book "The Price of Admiralty."
Also see "History of United States Naval Operations in World War II – Volume 4: Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions: May 1942-August 1942" by Samuel Eliot Morison (2001 reprint). Morison was the official historian of the U.S. Navy during World War II, holding the rank of lieutenant commander and seeing combat. (He was later promoted to rear admiral.) His classic study of the war's American naval operations, spanning 15 volumes, is condensed into one book as "The Two-Ocean War" (1997 reissue).
See "Guadalcanal" (next item) for additional reading suggestions on the Pacific War.
DVDs: "1942 Midway" (2007) from the series "20th Century Battlefields" by Peter Snow and Dan Snow, on BBC 2 and the Military Channel. This is history television at its best - vivid and accurate, with excellent use of archival footage, computer graphics, and three-dimensional maps. The program includes a startling real-life demonstration of the nastiness of a fire at sea. See also "Victory at Sea" directed by Clay Adams (1952). Also see "National Geographic – The Battle for Midway" produced by National Geographic (1998; primarily concerned with Robert Ballard’s fascinating search for sunken warships).
This campaign, the first large-scale U.S. invasion of a Japanese-held island, was fought over an airstrip. It involved six major naval engagements, and the participation of sea, air, and land forces. While it was going on, a Japanese army officer described it as the "battle in which the rise and fall of the Japanese Empire will be decided."
The result at Guadalcanal, along with that of Midway (previous item) gave the Allies the initiative in the Pacific. The cost was terrible. "You may search the seven seas in vain," writes historian Samuel Eliot Morison of this campaign, "for an ocean graveyard with the bones of so many ships and sailors."
See here for reading suggestions about the Second World War.
See "Guadalcanal" by Richard B. Frank (1990). See also "History of United States Naval Operations in World War II – Volume 5: The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942-February 1943" by Samuel Eliot Morison (2001 reprint). (See here for a sample of Morison's writing, on George Washington.)
For additional perspective on the agony, valor, savagery, and historical weight of the Pacific War see "The Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb" by George Feifer (1992) and "Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45" by Max Hastings (2008). "It was a war of hate," writes author John Gregory Dunne. See here for the condensed memoirs of an American prisoner of the Japanese.
DVDs: "Victory at Sea," produced by NBC (1952). "The Thin Red Line" (1998) is a stunning fictional examination of Guadalcanal.
The Normandy Campaign
The campaign began on the beaches of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, in the greatest amphibious operation in history, and effectively ended on August 19 when the Polish First Armored Division took a hill at Falaise Gap in France called Maczuga (also known as "the Mace" and "Hill 262").
D-Day itself, June 6, writes historian Victor Davis Hanson, "was carefully planned and a brilliant success" but its immediate aftermath was a "near disaster":
Within a week of the landings, Allied army groups stalled in the hedgerows for over six weeks – we suffered tens of thousands of casualties while Americans were flummoxed by entrenched, camouflaged German positions amid the narrow lanes and thick hedges. Apparently no planner had thought much about the terrain or navigability of the bocage – although Normandy was a well-traveled area and should have been familiar to American officers, many of them veterans of the fighting in France during World War I.
Military historians differ (naturally) on the importance of the Normandy Campaign. Perhaps, if the effort had failed, the Western allies would have regrouped and tried again a year later. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose offered a contrary opinion on C-SPAN on June 5, 1994:
It was the pivot point of the 20th century. It was the day on which the decision was made as to who was going to rule in this world in the second half of the 20th century. Is it going to be Nazism, is it going to be Communism, or are the democracies going to prevail? If we would have failed on Omaha Beach and on the other beaches on the 6th of June in 1944, the struggle for Europe would have been a struggle between Hitler and Stalin, and we would have been out of it. If Stalin had won, the Iron Curtain would have been on the English Channel. If Hitler had won, I don't think he would have been able to take Britain, at least not in the immediate future, but he would have gone all the way to the Urals. Hitler's plan was to turn the problem of conquering America over to the next generation, utilizing the resources that he intended to have as a part of the greater German Reich as a result of victory....Eisenhower, when he took command in January of 1944, said, "This operation is being planned as a success. There are no contingency plans." Had they stopped him – and they came very close to stopping him – we would not have been able to mount another operation in 1944. This was Hitler's great chance to win the war – stop them in June of 1944 on the Atlantic coast, then he can move 11 Panzer divisions to the east. Eleven Panzer divisions might well have swung the balance on the eastern front, or they might have had another effect. They might have led Stalin to conclude, "Those blankety-blank capitalists. They're up to their old tricks. They're going to fight till the last Red Army soldier. To hell with that. I'm going to cut a deal with my friend Adolf again, just like we did in 1939. We'll divide Eastern Europe between us." That wouldn't have lasted. Sooner or later they would have clashed, but the democracies wouldn't have been in on it anymore.
See here for reading suggestions about the Second World War.
See "Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris" by John Keegan (1994 edition with new introduction), "Eisenhower: At War, 1943-1945" by David Eisenhower (1986), "D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II" by Stephen E. Ambrose (1995 reprint), and "1945: The War That Never Ended" by Gregor Dallas (2006). See also "Conduct Unbecoming: The Story of the Murder of Canadian Prisoners of War in Normandy" by Howard Margolian (1998). Also see "The Longest Day: June 6, 1944" by Cornelius Ryan (1994 reprint). The historian A.J.P. Taylor ranks Ryan's work the best of all books on the Battle of Normandy and calls Ryan "one of the most gifted writers about battles I have known."
The United Nations voted on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, with Jerusalem designated an international zone. The Jews accepted the plan; the Arabs rejected it. The British, who had received Palestine as a mandate from the League of Nations after World War I, departed the scene on May 14, 1948, the day the UN partition plan took effect. On that day, the Jews declared the state of Israel. Arabs attacked immediately – Egyptians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Syrians. In fighting over the next few months (interrupted by several cease-fires) Israel won key victories and increased its original territory by a substantial percentage. Armistice agreements were signed in early 1949. During these months, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled Israel and settled in refugee camps.
See "1948: The First Arab-Israeli War" by Benny Morris (2008) and "The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War" by James L. Gelvin (2007, new edition). See also "The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East From the War of Independence Through Lebanon" by Chaim Herzog (1984 new edition), "The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948" edited by Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim with an afterword by Edward W. Said (2001), "The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict" edited by Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin (1995, fifth edition), "One Land, Two Peoples: The Conflict Over Palestine" by Deborah J. Gerner (1994, second edition), and "Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood" by Idith Zertal (2005). DVDs: "The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs" directed by David Ash, Dai Richards, Michael Simkin, and Charlie Smith (2000). "The Long Way Home" directed by Mark Jonathan Harris (1997).
The struggle for control of China between the Nationalists (the Kuomintang) and the Communists began in 1927, with both sides claiming to be the true heirs of Sun Yat-Sen, leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911, which overthrew the monarchy and established a republic.
The final drama of the Nationalist-Communist war began after World War II, with the United States backing Chiang K’ai-shek’s Nationalists, but becoming increasingly disillusioned with what historian J.M. Roberts calls "the revealed inadequacy and corruption" of Chiang’s forces. America began reducing its aid to the Nationalists in 1947-48. "From this time," writes Roberts, "the (Nationalist) government ran militarily and politically downhill; it became obvious, and more and more employees of government and local authorities sought to make terms with the communists while they might still do so. The conviction spread that a new era was dawning." (The so-called American “loss of China” would become a major political issue in U.S. politics, contributing to McCarthyism and to the willingness of successive White House administrations to get involved in Vietnam. It’s a theme of "The Best and the Brightest," the 1972 book by David Halberstam.)
The Hua-Hai campaign, a series of battles that resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties, is sometimes called the "Chinese Gettysburg." When the campaign ended on January 10, 1949, the Nationalists were reeling. Fighting continued for some months, but in October of that year, Mao Zedong climbed onto a platform in Beijing and announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China. See here for a profile of Mao.
See "The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980" by Jonathan D. Spence (1982), "Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-49" by Suzanne Pepper (1999 revised edition), and the historical novel "Peking Letter: A Novel of China’s Civil War" by Seymour Topping (1999).
The roots of this battle can be found in Europe's lust for colonization in the 19th century. Great Britain, ruler of the world’s oceans, led the way. (Winston Churchill, for instance, born in 1874, was bred on expectations of empire.) France scurried to catch up, consolidating its power in Indochina in 1887 after many years of laying groundwork.
By 1930, Vietnamese nationalists, hating the French, were vigorously asserting themselves. This continued for years.
In 1945, after World War II, with France weakened in the wake of the war, nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (De-colonization was a major global theme after World War II. The seminal event in this regard occurred during the war, writes historian J.M. Roberts: "The surrender [to the Japanese] of sixty thousand British, Indian and Dominion troops at Singapore in 1942 had been the signal that European empire in Asia was doomed.")
France, despite its weakness, wished to re-assert colonial influence in Indochina in 1945-46, and offered to recognize Vietnam as a free state in the French Union (this union included France and its overseas interests). Vietnam agreed. But differences arose between the French and Vietnamese over terms of the proposed union, and in late 1946 fighting broke out between the two sides, with the Vietnamese battling for independence and the French for colonial empire. The U.S. was marginally involved. The first American to die in Vietnam as the result of conflict was intelligence officer A. Peter Dewey, on September 26, 1945.
"The idea of Asian rebels standing up to a powerful Western army was preposterous at the time," writes journalist and historian David Halberstam of this outbreak of war. But stand up they did - the French Indochina War lasted for seven and a half years; perhaps 1 million Vietnamese civilians were killed, along with 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers and 95,000 French troops.
In 1950, as the French Indochina War raged, the U.S. began giving money to France for the conflict, gradually taking on most of the war costs. Americans were keen to to fight Communism. The "tide of international Communism" (also known as the "specter of world Communism") was very much on the minds of U.S. policymakers and the public, and quite reasonably so, in the face of Stalin's aggression in Europe and acquisition of the atomic bomb, the Communist take-over of China in 1949, and the Soviet-sponsored crisis in Korea.
Ho Chi Minh was a devout Communist who received aid from Russia and China. But he was also a nationalist. He refused to be anyone’s puppet; he was loyal first and foremost to Vietnam, a fact that was mostly overlooked by the U.S., committed as it was to containing Communism. (Or, to put it another way, with America seemingly entranced by the idea of a global Communist bloc, by the notion of all Communists being joined at the hip, many policymakers failed to seriously consider the possibility of Ho's independence of mind.)
Dienbienphu (also rendered as Dien Bien Phu) was a village in the northern section of Vietnam. Here, in 1954, Vietminh troops led by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap attacked a French fortress.
The French weren't worried, writes Halberstam:
With the kind of arrogance that Western generals could still retain after eight years of fighting a great infantry like the Vietminh, the French built their positions (at Dienbienphu) into the valley and left the high ground to the Vietminh, a move which violated the first cardinal rule of warfare: always take the high ground. An American officer who visited the site just before the battle noticed this and asked what would happen if the Vietminh had artillery. Ah, he was assured by a French officer, they had no artillery, and even if they did, they would not know how to use it.
The Vietminh had artillery and knew quite well how to use it. Giap’s troops, write historians James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, "disassembled each artillery piece, organized thousands of porters to carry the elements to Dienbienphu, and then reassembled the artillery there." From whence did such dedication spring? What drives a people to make extraordinary sacrifices, decade after decade? Lust for power and gain? Nationalism? Fear for one’s life if one does not obey? A belief that victory will lead to a better life for one’s children? The fact that one's neighbor's are all pitching in? The fact that some leader offers irresistable charisma, a sense of enhanced life and possibilities? Some combination of these? (See "Valmy" in this article for background on nationalism.)
As French troops endured the seige at Dienbienphu, some American officials suggested intervention with bombers, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower said no. Ike reflected on this decision some years later in a passage deleted from his memoir, supposedly for reasons of space. He referred to the long history of anti-colonialism in the U.S.: "The standing of the United States as the most powerful of the anti-colonial powers is an asset of incalculable value to the Free World....The moral position of the United States was more to be guarded than the Tonkin Delta, indeed than all of Indochina." Journalist and historian Tom Wicker comments, "That the U.S. had no colonialist past was an overstatement, of course, as Filipinos and Panamanians could testify....But Eisenhower’s fundamental point was that, in most of the world, the U.S. did have a moral position of 'incalculable value' to sustain, one that was 'more to be guarded' than anything likely to be gained in wars that smacked of imperialism."
The French surrendered at Dienbienphu on May 7, 1954, negotiated a truce, and withdrew from Southeast Asia.
Diplomats in Geneva now divided Vietnam into a Communist North and a non-Communist South, and scheduled free elections for 1956, at which time the country was to be united. Many observers felt the Vietnamese people were likely to vote the Communists into power. Accordingly, the South declined to participate in the elections. Eisenhower acquiesced in this refusal. This was a key American decision.
Eisenhower was of two minds on the matter. On the one hand, he was dubious of American involvement in the region. But at the same time he believed in the domino theory. This controversial idea, growing out of the specter of world Communism, declared that if Vietnam went Communist, then Communism would inexorably sweep across southern Asia – through Thailand to Malaysia and Singapore, to the Philippines and Indonesia, perhaps to Japan. The domino theory is one of the things Halberstam is talking about in "The Best and the Brightest" when he excoriates the "failure to examine the assumptions of the era."
With the cancellation of the 1956 elections, South Vietnam experienced the rise of a Communist insurgency. These warriors were called Vietcong (also rendered Viet Cong); they gained control of large sections of the South. The Vietcong had strong ties to the North; their movement is described by historian William J. Duiker as a "genuine revolt based in the South...organized and directed from the North."
Ho Chi Minh was heir to a centuries-long quest by the Vietnamese to rid themselves of foreign meddling (this quest, as suggested above, was not well understood by the U.S.). By clearing out the foreigners and acheiving unity, Vietnam's full potential could be reached, Ho said. (How much of his worldview stemmed from nationalism and how much from Communism is a topic of debate.) On a more nitty-gritty level, he was interested in the Mekong Delta region in the South, the fecund soil of which produced enough rice to feed the nation.
By 1961, at the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, some 900 U.S. personnel were stationed in South Vietnam. President John F. Kennedy increased the American commitment to 16,000-plus by the second half of 1963. U.S. troop strength in the region peaked at 536,000 in 1968. Of these, 58,226 died in Vietnam or are declared missing in action. From 1945 to 1975, war in Southeast Asia killed about 1.5 million people from the various nations involved.
See "Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot" by Howard R. Simpson (1994), "Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam 1945 to 1990" by James S. Olson and Randy Roberts (2006, fifth edition), and "Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam" by William J. Duiker (1994). See also "Dien Bien Phu: The Most Difficult Decision: And Other Writings" by Vo Nguyen Giap (1992), "The Best and the Brightest" by David Halberstam (1972), "Geneva 1954: The Settlement of the Indochinese War" by Robert F. Randle (1969), "Street Without Joy" by Bernard B. Fall (1994 reprint), and "Ho Chi Minh: A Life" by William J. Duiker (2000). Also see "The Indonesian Killings 1965-1966" edited by Robert Cribb (1990) and the novel "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene (1955). For a focus on the Nixon years see "No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam" by Larry Berman (2001). DVDs: For the flavor of French colonialism in Vietnam see the film "Apocalypse Now Redux" (2001). (Journalist Peter Arnett, who covered the Vietnam War and was nearly killed there, calls the original version of this film his "all-time favorite" and "the most spectacularly accurate movie on the war.")
(A parenthetical note. A sense of the fear of Communism in Southeast Asia can be gauged from the events in Indonesia in 1965-66. After an abortive Communist coup in which several right-wing generals were killed, thousands of Communists and alleged Communists were immediately executed by the Indonesian army. Next, government officials countenanced mass killings; at least 500,000 people were slaughtered. [Some estimates put the figure at 2 million; the CIA called it "one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century."] On the island of Bali, a supposed paradise, thousands died. You’ll not find in Bali today a single tangible official reminder of the mass murder. The killings are essentially ignored throughout Indonesia, including in history classrooms. Here is one of the better books on the events that led to the horror. See also the 1983 film "The Year of Living Dangerously," set in Indonesia just before the killings.)
The Tet Offensive came at the outset of, and set the tone for, a calamitous year for the United States. Some 15,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War in 1968, and many thousands more were wounded, some of them disabled for life. The year saw chaos on campuses as the war dragged on, along with the military draft. It saw President Lyndon B. Johnson hounded from office by the failure of his Vietnam policy. It saw the murder of two of the country’s most talented young leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. It saw racial riots in dozens of cities, a police riot in Chicago, the proliferation of drugs, and the scent of armed revolution in the air. Meanwhile, in Europe, the Prague Spring (and a brutal crackdown); in Mexico, the Tlatelolco Massacre; in Biafra, famine; and in China, the Cultural Revolution. The year was summed up musically by "All Along the Watchtower" performed by Jimi Hendrix, written by Bob Dylan, which came forth like molten lava from the volcanic months.
Tet was a sudden, massive, coordinated attack on many points in South Vietnam by the Communists. For the first time, the war entered South Vietnam's cities and towns, including Saigon - indeed, it entered the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. American and South Vietnamese troops eventually retook the captured territory, but the initial thrust by the Communists shocked the U.S.
Before Tet, many Americans believed the war was going OK, that light could be seen at the end of the tunnel. As recently as December 22, 1967, President Johnson had said publicly that "the enemy is not beaten but he knows that he has met his master in the field." The military spoke along similar lines. The size and scope of Tet, writes former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, "made mockery of what the American military had told the public about the war, and devastated Administration credibility...."
An enduring image of Tet was captured by the press in Saigon on February 1 and seen world-wide. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan of the South Vietnamese police, fully aware of the presence of cameras, walked up to a Vietcong prisoner named Nguyen Van Lem or Le Cong Na, placed a gun near the man's head, and blew out his brains. What, said many Americans, are we doing in such a place? (Photo below by Eddie Adams, Associated Press.)
Did Tet generate a decisive turn in U.S. public opinion against the war? Probably not. See the article "The 'Frustrated Hawks,' Tet 1968, and the Transformation of American Politics" by Patrick Hagopian, European Journal of American Studies, 2008. But it's certainly true that a significant number of Americans found themselves re-assessing the war. CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite recalls thinking, when he started getting reports about Tet, "What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war." On February 27, 1968, Cronkite (who covered the Battle of Hue, an aspect of Tet) said in a prime-time special, "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds....The bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." President Johnson, acutely tuned to every political ripple (as was Cronkite), said privately, "If I have lost Walter Cronkite I have lost Mr. Average Citizen."
See "Tet! The Turning Point in the Vietnam War" by Don Oberdorfer (2001 reprint) and "After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam" by Ronald H. Spector (1994 reprint).
DVD: "1968 Vietnam" (2007), part of the series "20th Century Battlefields," created by Peter Snow and Dan Snow, first shown on BBC 2 and the Military Channel.
This is Part Five of a five-part article. Each section covers 10 battles; the article is organized chronologically from the 1500s forward.