Tet ’68 and the Battle for Hue

IMG_2121On January 30-31, 1968, soldiers of the Vietcong and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) launched a massive countrywide offensive across South Vietnam.  From the DMZ to Ca Mau, Communist troops attacked American and South Vietnamese base camps, headquarters complexes, airfields, radio stations, and government administrative centers.  The Communists had four goals for the offensive: 1) eject the Allies from the countryside; 2) destroy the South Vietnamese Army; 3) topple the Saigon regime; and 4) force the United States to withdraw from South Vietnam.  The greatest single battle of the Tet Offensive occurred at Hue.

Situated along the banks of the Perfume River, Hue held symbolic and political importance to all Vietnamese. In the early 1800s, Emperor Gia Long built the Imperial City and established his seat of power there because he believed the city’s central location (equidistance from the northern and southern borders of Vietnam) would have a unifying effect on his frequently fractured domain. The imposing red brick walls and watch towers of the Imperial City rested atop a land area thought by Vietnamese cosmologists to be naturally harmonious. Positive and negative natural forces balanced each other at the site. Gia Long erected his throne room at the exact spot inside the Imperial City where his spiritual advisors believed nature attained perfect harmony. The building that eventually housed the throne became known as the Palace of Perfect Harmony.[1] Continue Reading »

What We Lost When the Army Channelized the Missouri


It took the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nearly a hundred years to channelize the Lower Missouri River between Sioux City, Iowa, and the river’s mouth near St. Louis.  Why did it take the U.S. Army so long to peg down the Mighty Mo?  Because the Missouri kept destroying the Army’s channelization structures.

In the 1930s, the Army completed a six-foot deep navigation channel along much of the lower river.  But in the 1940s, a series of massive floods, which originated in the Rocky Mountains and northern plains, came barreling down the river.  Those floods washed away over a hundred million dollars worth of pile dikes and revetments.  Entire sections of the navigation channel south of Sioux City reverted to a wild state, especially along the reach through western Iowa.

Unwilling to simply abandon the river to the whims of nature, and determined to channelize its lower reaches come hell or high water, the Army engineers returned to the Lower Missouri in the middle 1950s.  By employing new channelization techniques, and aided by the presence of upstream dams, the Army finally checked the Lower Missouri’s ability to meander across its floodplain.  Once farmers recognized that the Army had halted the Missouri’s wandering ways, they converted the floodplain’s wetlands, sand flats, oxbow lakes, cottonwood forests, and grassy meadows into corn and soybean fields. Continue Reading »

One Step Closer to War in the South China Sea

ObamaLookingGlumAtSummitNeither the White House nor the Chinese government have released the details of what transpired during the March 31st summit meeting between President Barack Obama and Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping.  Because the talks in Washington covered a range of sensitive national security issues, including cyber-warfare, North Korea’s nuclear program, the possible deployment of U.S. antiballistic missiles to South Korea, and the ongoing crisis in the South China Sea, it will, in all probability, be decades before the actual transcripts of the meeting will be released to the public.  So how are we to know whether the talks advanced the cause of peace in East Asia and the South China Sea?  All we have to go on at this moment are the “official” Chinese and American versions of the talks.  And although those versions are rather vague, they do provide enough information to conclude that the talks failed, and failed in a big way, to lessen tensions between the two great powers over control of the South China Sea.

Continue Reading »

Westmoreland: LBJ’s Choice To Command in Vietnam

In 1964, at age 50, William C. Westmoreland possessed the look of a professional soldier. He stood ramrod straight at five feet ten inches tall, carried his frame with a confident, light gait, and weighed a healthy 180 pounds, which was only ten pounds more than what he weighed as a cadet at West Point thirty years earlier.  He maintained a flat stomach at a time in life when most men his age had developed a paunch from decades of bad food and too much time behind a desk.

To stay fit, Westy, as his confidants knew him, did push-ups immediately after rising from bed in the morning.  Even though he spent much of his day in an office in Saigon, or sitting in helicopters, jeeps, and airplanes, he still found time to swim and play tennis at the French Circle Sportif.  He particularly enjoyed tennis.  When Maxwell Taylor (who had been Westy’s mentor in the military) served as ambassador to South Vietnam, Westy and Max occasionally caught a game together.  Among those who served with him, Westmoreland was known to have never displayed unpredictable or reckless behavior.  He didn’t smoke, rarely drank alcohol, and did not curse.  The most foul words in his vocabulary were apparently “darn” and “dang.” Continue Reading »

Scarborough Shoal and the Rising Chinese Threat in the South China Sea

ScarboroughShoalAerialAccording to the U.S. Department of Defense, Beijing is again asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea.  The latest row involves Scarborough Shoal, a speck of coral and sand over 500 miles south of the Chinese mainland.  A few days ago, the Chinese sent a small flotilla of vessels to the reef.  We don’t know why the vessels are there; but based on past Chinese actions in the region, it is possible to speculate about Beijing’s motives. Continue Reading »

Montana: The Plundered Province and Modern American Politics

MiningIn 1943, Joseph Kinsey Howard published Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome, his now famous history of the Treasure State. The book gained literary notoriety because its author argued that Montana, throughout its long and colorful history, had been plundered by successive waves of eastern capitalists.  For generations, ruthless exploiters came to Montana, extracted its riches, and then left the state; or in the phraseology of the frontier, the plunderers practiced “git and git out.”

Who were the plunderers?  Well, they were a motley crew, including Eastern-financed fur trappers and traders, buffalo hunters, wolfers, gold miners, cattlemen, sheepherders, the Great Northern Railway, farmers, and the Anaconda Copper Company.  Everything from beaver furs to wheat departed Montana for the East, often carried by shippers who charged Montana residents usurious rates for the privilege of having their commodities sent to an eastern city.  Not surprisingly, the plundering of Montana left little for the people who lived there. Continue Reading »

Wild River: The Missouri from the James to the Platte

MissouriRiverSnagsAlong the winding 2,500 mile course of the old Missouri, there existed a river reach unlike any other.  Mountaineers, fur traders, and steamboat pilots knew that unique part of the river for its large number of snags, its deadly currents, and its frequent shifts in direction.  That river reach extended from the mouth of the James River to the confluence of the Platte and Missouri rivers.

Today it’s hard to imagine the Missouri as anything but a series of massive reservoirs in the Dakotas and Montana and a channelized ditch from Sioux City to the river’s mouth near St. Louis.  But before the construction of the big dams across the upper valley and the navigation channel along the lower valley, the Missouri differed dramatically from place to place.  For instance, the Missouri that cut through the mountains near Helena, Montana, had little in common with the river that pushed sluggishly through the Dakotas; while the river that meandered through western Iowa looked and behaved unlike the river that carried loads of prairie topsoil through central Missouri. Continue Reading »

Mountain Boats on the Muddy Mo: The Steamboat Era along the Missouri River


In the nineteenth century, the Missouri River gained a reputation among steamboat pilots and river men as a steamboat graveyard. From the 1820s to the 1880s, hundreds of steamers went down in the murky waters of the Mighty Mo, sunk by underwater snags, hidden boulders, and unseen shoals.  Snags brought down the majority of boats.

On September 5, 1856, the steamboat “Arabia” sank in the river after hitting a snag near Parkville, Missouri.  As soon as the snag – believed to be the trunk of a walnut tree – punctured the hull of the “Arabia,” the Missouri’s dark waters rushed into the opening.  With the hull rapidly filling with water, the pilot was unable to maneuver the stricken vessel toward the safety of shore.  In minutes, the passengers and crew were forced to abandon the doomed ship to the river.

In 1987, a team of treasure hunters discovered the site of the “Arabia” steamboat wreck.  Following a major excavation effort in late 1988 and early 1989, the amateur archaeologists recovered a wealth of artifacts from the old steamer.  Many of those artifacts are now housed in the Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Continue Reading »

A Blueprint for the Missouri River


Before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation dammed and channelized the Missouri from its headwaters in Montana to its mouth near St. Louis, the river possessed a wealth of sandbars and sandy shoals, gravelly beds and rock-strewn rapids, deep holes and shallow riffles, side channels and narrow chutes, sunken snags and floating piles of brush, tepid pools and fast-paced currents.  The Missouri’s complex character translated into an array of aquatic habitats.  All sorts of fish found a home in the river and its adjacent waters, including blue catfish, channel catfish, bullhead, northern pike, black bass, bluegill, sauger, gar, shovelnose sturgeon, and pallid sturgeon. Continue Reading »

Mountains in Miniature: The Loess Hills of Western Iowa

Near Floyd's Bluff, Sioux City, Iowa, circa 1900

The Loess Hills of western Iowa are one of the world’s unique landforms.  The hills are unique because of how they came to be. Toward the end of the last ice age, the Missouri River attained an impressive width as it flowed through the region of what is today western Iowa.  In modern Monona County, Iowa, the river extended 17 miles from valley wall to valley wall.  The river’s cold, opaque glacial meltwater carried tons of fine particles or what geologists now call “silt.”  After the glaciers disappeared, and glacial meltwater no longer entered the stream, the river shrank to a fraction of its former size.  Over time, vast expanses of yellowish silt emerged from the river’s depths.  Exposed to the drying rays of the sun, the silt became light and powdery.  Eventually, the silt went airborne.  Once aloft, strong westerly winds carried it eastward before depositing it in dunes on the edge of the valley floor.  Gradually, those dunes rose higher and higher until they formed what we now know as the Loess Hills.  In the nineteenth century, European-American travelers were deeply impressed with the odd shapes and stark beauty of the hills.  Below are some of their descriptions. Continue Reading »

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