Fifty years ago on Tuesday, communist forces launched the assaults across South Vietnam known as the Tet Offensive. The offensive marked an inflection point in the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson denied a request the following month from his military commander in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, for 206,000 more U.S. troops on top of the more than half a million that already were there after years of escalation. Johnson turned to diplomacy in a search for a peace settlement and announced he would not run for re-election. The following year he turned over power to his successor, Richard Nixon, who presided over four more years of war and a gradual de-escalation until a peace agreement was signed in January 1973.
The comment of Georges Clemenceau, premier of France during World War I, that war is too important to be left to the generals was a sage observation even amid the total war in which his nation was then engaged. The importance of maintaining a strong sense of political purpose and political control can be appreciated by contrasting Clemenceau’s France with what was happening in Germany. There, General Erich Ludendorff, who held the title of quartermaster general, functioned during the last year of the war as almost a military dictator of Germany, with his influence extending to domestic and economic policy as well as operations at the battle front. The warped political perspective involved had echoes in Ludendorff’s postwar activities, which included his pushing the “stab in the back” explanation for Germany’s defeat, his participation in Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, and his propounding a doctrine in which total war is considered permanent and unending, with peace being only a brief interruption to the struggle.