Hue: One Battle Really Did Turn the Vietnam War

Even as Gen. William Westmoreland boasted that the U.S. had victory in sight in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese proved that claim hollow at the crucial battle of Hue.

John Olson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

A recently published book by Boston University historian Cathal Nolan, The Allure of Battle, argues that strategists, generals, and military historians have long placed too much emphasis on big battles in trying to win—or understand—the wars of which they are a part. Mark Bowden’s Hue 1968, a thoroughly researched and compelling new account of the most controversial battle of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, might be taken as a kind of rejoinder to Nolan’s book. 

Bowden, author of the much-acclaimed Black Hawk Down, treats Hue as a microcosm of the Vietnam War. His account limns many of the ambitions, delusions, and misconceptions on both sides—those of key decision-makers, military commanders, and ordinary soldiers alike—that made the war such a vicious and destructive tragedy. The story of Hue, like the story of Vietnam, is awash in paradox, irony, and senseless destruction. The Communists took the city knowing they could not hold it, and the Americans virtually destroyed the place wresting it back. 

Bowden reconstructs the battle with extraordinary skill and dexterity, anchoring the narrative firmly in the experiences of scores of participants—mostly American Marines and soldiers, some South Vietnamese, and a surprisingly large number of Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers, and their supporters in the National Liberation Front. More than 150 veterans and survivors were interviewed at length for this project. Quite a few of the interviewees were very forthcoming, telling the author not only what they did and what they saw during the battle, but what they felt about it, both at the time, and from the vantage point of today.

Bowden clearly did what journalists are supposed to do when conducting these sorts of interviews: He listened. Very closely. This is as much a book about what happens to peoples’ hearts, minds, and bodies in the swirling chaos of urban combat as it is a history of a specific battle and an assessment of its strategic significance. We come to know a fair number of the participants quite well by the end of the story—one source of the book’s unusual power and authenticity. 

The narrative shifts seamlessly from context-setting background material about preparations for the operation, to grinding small-unit firefights, to discussions of tactical dilemmas faced by the officers leading the fight, to Big Picture strategy discussions about the Tet Offensive and its implications in Hanoi and Washington. With a novelist’s eye for evoking the grim atmospherics of a hellish locale and the characters within it, Bowden reconstructs dozens of scenes of heart-pounding combat, where primordial violence and fear mix with courage, audacity, desperation, elation, and devastating loss. 

Just what was the Tet Offensive? Early on the morning of Jan. 31, 1968, 84,000 Communist troops launched simultaneous attacks on more than a hundred South Vietnamese cities, towns and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) installations. The attacks coincided with the beginning of Tet, the Vietnamese holiday that is like Christmas, New Year, and Easter all rolled into one. A truce had been arranged, and well over half of South Vietnam’s troops were on leave at the time Hanoi sprung the attacks; so were a great many Americans.

One of the greatest surprise operations in the history of warfare, Hanoi’s “General Offensive, General Uprising” had multiple objectives. The most ambitious was to spark an uprising in the cities, in which the people and elements of the ARVN would seize the reins of power in the name of the Revolution, thereby making the American presence in the south untenable. 

Another objective was to demonstrate the hollowness and ineptitude of the Saigon regime and the ARVN to the people of South Vietnam. A third objective, in the words of one of its chief planners, was “to break the will of the U.S. aggressors, force the United States to accept defeat in the South and put an end to all its acts of aggression in the North.” The most seasoned field commanders were deeply skeptical of their ability to spark an uprising. Yet several of the key strategists in Hanoi, including the commander in chief of the North Vietnamese Army, Vo Nguyen Giap, believed that the shock of such a powerful country-wide offensive, coming just weeks after America’s top field commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, had assured the American people that “the end [of the war] was beginning to come into view,” might very well break America’s will to continue to seek victory in Vietnam. 

Meticulous planning for the assaults on the part of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces—the Vietcong—and their political cadres went on for close to a year. Gen. Westmoreland dismissed accumulating signs of a general offensive on the grounds that Hanoi was too weak and inept to coordinate such a vast undertaking.

But it was Westmoreland who was inept, not the Communists. A diversionary campaign around the remote Marine combat base at Khe Sanh hoodwinked America’s top general in Vietnam into believing that a big Dien Bien Phu-style attack was imminent there. Just before the Communists launched Tet, Westmoreland ordered massive reinforcements to the northwestern corner of South Vietnam to meet the challenge. It never came. 

The initial success of many of the Communist attacks at the end of January was insured by the absence of U.S. reaction forces close to the key targets. In Saigon, Communist commandos attacked a number of allegedly impenetrable targets of symbolic significance, including the U.S. Embassy compound. Vietcong sappers penetrated the compound with ease, and then engaged in a seven-hour, running gun battle with American security forces before they were all killed or captured, and order was restored. 

Initial reports by a flood of journalists at the scene had it that the Vietcong had temporarily taken over the Embassy. They had not, but in the wake of Tet, millions of stunned Americans continued to believe the early reports.

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Throughout the country, many provincial capitals and ARVN installations were overrun. After a day or so of chaos and confusion, the Americans and ARVN mounted formidable counterattacks and reversed Communist gains within a few days pretty much everywhere. 

The most notable exception was Hue, the elegant cultural and intellectual capital of old Vietnam, a city of 140,000 souls. The old part of the city north of the Huong River contained an enormous fortress, enclosed by thick, 26-foot high walls. Here, where Vietnam’s emperors had lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, was a maze of pagodas and dynastic tombs, narrow streets, alleys, courtyards, and even a royal palace. It was called the Citadel. South of the river was the modern half of the city.

Vietcong sappers and political cadres had slipped into the lightly defended city in civilian clothes several days before the first wave of attacks, and prepared the way for a brilliantly executed assault by two regiments of North Vietnamese troops. As reinforcements poured in, Communist political commissars set up a revolutionary administration within the city confines, and proceeded to execute some 2,000 South Vietnamese officials and sympathizers, and bury them in mass graves.

It fell to the U.S. Marines at nearby Phu Bai combat base and elements of the 1st ARVN Division to wrest the city back from the enemy, while U.S. Army units struggled to cut off North Vietnamese supply and reinforcement lines from the A Shau Valley to the west. For 25 days, the Marines and the North Vietnamese hammered away at each other at point blank range, fighting block by block in miserable weather. The Marines were tasked with clearing out the southern half of the city, with its large government buildings, university and hospital. That took a bit more than a week, at which point they crossed the Huong River under heavy fire and doggedly fought their way through the Citadel along with the ARVN.

Very few books about the Vietnam War aimed at a general audience paint a nuanced portrait of America’s enemy. Hue 1968 is one of the few. It offers readers a deeply informed exploration of the experiences and thoughts of commanders and ordinary troops, and of their non-combatant supporters. Many of the latter were young women who worked clandestinely for months documenting the routines and location of Allied soldiers, and engaging in exceedingly dangerous smuggling operations to get weapons and explosives inside the city before the attack. Bowden’s coverage of the “other side,” which highlights the extraordinary level of commitment and dedication of the Revolution’s foot soldiers, gives this book a richer texture, and more balance, than any of the earlier books on Hue.

The most intense fighting took place in the tight confines of the Citadel in the third week of the battle, by which point the Communist defenders had burrowed deeply behind barricades of rubble—the byproduct of American air strikes and artillery—and reinforced fighting positions. Bowden’s account of the block-by-block fighting between the Communists and the Marines is graphic, disturbing, and powerful. Fear, anger, raw courage, sheer hatred, and despair swirl all around the battlefield, amidst the clack-clack-clack of AK-47s and M-16s, and the percussive blasts of heavy guns. Death comes in an astonishing variety of ways to Americans and Vietnamese alike, and it’s everywhere:

The Marines were using flamethrowers to burn bodies on the street, mostly in an effort to control the stench. Hue had become a city of the dead. It was still damp and cold and gray and was choking on its incinerated remains. The wet air absorbed the smoke and the foul odors of close combat until you not only breathed it; you wore it and tasted it—ash and cordite and the stench of rotting flesh. There were corpses everywhere, twisted and in pieces, in every stage of decay. On the littered city streets they rotted where they had fallen or where, in some places, they had been hastily tossed or bulldozed into heaps. Dead dogs, dead cats, dead pigs, dead people… the margin between life and the hereafter was tissue thin. You could die by lifting your head at the wrong moment, or by taking a step in any direction, or by doing nothing at all. Any piece of wall or house or chunk of debris large enough to hide behind was as precious as life itself, but offered only the illusion of safety. You tried to cheat the odds by making yourself small and still, but the round that killed you might come any time, from any direction. If you had to move, to step into the open, you did so in a mad dash toward some new lump of concrete or plaster that might be a refuge.

Hue 1968 celebrates and commemorates all the men and women who fought in this harrowing battle. Inevitably, though, the most colorful characters are the American Marines who did the lion’s share of the street fighting inside the Citadel. Among the Marines, Lt. Col. Ernest Cheatham, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines stands out as a larger-than-life figure. A former defensive lineman in the NFL, “Big Ernie” had a deep, rumbling voice that could be heard in the midst of a firefight, a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor, and superb tactical intuition. 

Cheatham lit a fire under the stalled counterattack in the first week of the fight, and the officers and senior sergeants in the battalion plainly saw his arrival on the scene as a godsend. The Marines in Vietnam hadn’t been trained in urban combat tactics. Cheatham, a Korean War platoon leader, gave himself a quick refresher course with the help of a couple of manuals he uncovered at the combat base at Phu Bai the day before he joined his battalion in Hue. He also scrounged a large quantity of heavy weapons, including 106 mm recoilless rifles and bazookas that could blow holes in the thick masonry walls that were everywhere in the city, and sent them up to his struggling battalion.

Improvising with what he had at hand—after all, it was the Marine way—he established a highly effective, sequential method of attack: First came heavy mortar fire to destroy the roofs of enemy-infested buildings. Cheatham called the mortars his “sledgehammers.” Next, tear gas in liberal quantities was dropped in. Then the tanks advanced, drawing heavy enemy fire. Recoilless rifles blew holes in the walls, and finally, fire teams of Marines scrambled through the holes, and killed anything that moved.

And so it went, hour after hour, day after day.

Over the course of the book an extremely unflattering picture emerges of William Westmoreland, whom Bowden depicts as both strategically obtuse and deceitful in his reports to the American people and to his bosses in Washington both before and after Tet. Westmoreland, of course, put enormous emphasis on the body count as an index of American progress. Bowden describes the body count index as “one of the greatest self-reporting scams in history,” and claims, correctly, that it served “as a substitute for strategy.” After the Communists seized Hue, Westmoreland repeatedly dissembled, refusing to admit that the city was fully in enemy hands. As a result, the initial counterattacks were woefully understrength, and many Americans lost their lives needlessly.

When all is said and done, Bowden concludes that “The battle and the offensive of which it was a part… altered the strategic equation in Vietnam. Debate concerning the war in the United States was never again about winning, only about how to leave.” Thus, the author supports the conventional wisdom among leading scholars of the war today: that while the Offensive and Hue were clearly tactical defeats for the Communists, who took staggeringly heavy casualties in the fighting, they nonetheless constituted strategic victories for Hanoi. 

Seen every night on the news across America for almost a month, the intensity of the fighting in Hue shocked millions of ordinary Americans who’d been told the war was just about to wind up in victory. And Tet forced the Johnson administration to re-evaluate its strategy in Vietnam, and to conclude that military victory was no longer an option. Bowden would certainly concur with historian Gabriel Kolko’s assessment: 

For the United States, Tet was a long-postponed confrontation with reality; it had been hypnotized until then by its own illusions, desires, and needs. The belated realization that it had military tactics and technology but no viable military strategy consistent with its domestic and international priorities made Tet the turning point in the administration’s calculations. Those who had earlier favored the war finally made a much more objective assessment of the balance of forces.

Bowden’s discussion of Hue’s effect on the trajectory of the war, and of the war’s impact on the course of American foreign policy, lacks the energy and punch of the battle narrative, but it struck me as perfectly sound nonetheless.

Anyone looking to understand what Vietnam was all about would do well to read Hue 1968. Without a doubt, it’s one of the very best books to be written about Vietnam in the last decade.