Hue 1968: a turning point of the American War in Vietnam
Grove Press, £20 (hbk)
Some of us still remember the time quite vividly. By the end of 1967, the United States had been involved in the conflict in South-east Asia for nearly two decades.
While its advisors had helped the Vietnamese in their struggle against Japanese invaders during the Second World War, in the post -war years the United States, in the context of the Cold War, had backed the French attempt to re-establish their colonial empire in the region. When that failed, the US attempted to sustain a pro-Western dictatorship in Saigon.
According to all elements of the American leadership – President, Congress, the military, even the press – these efforts had been crowned with success. As General William C Westmoreland claimed: ‘Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.’
It was an unfortunate use of words, echoing the precise statement made by French General Henri Navarre in May 1953. Navarre, as demonstrated by the disastrous French defeat at Dien Bien Phu a year later, was terribly wrong. So too was Westmoreland.
Bowden’s recounting of the pivotal battle for the city of Hue is nothing short of masterful. With the first chapters, he paints an intriguing picture of the opening moves in preparation for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong assault on the city.
Large forces of regulars were moved surreptitiously to positions in the surrounding countryside, while Viet Cong irregulars smuggled huge stores of weapons and provisions into careful notes on the positions and routines of both the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and US forces.
It was only a part of a much larger strategy by the North Vietnamese – a massive, multipronged assault on cities throughout South Vietnam, which the Northern leadership believed would stimulate a massive popular uprising against President Ngo Dien Qiem’s corrupt and ineffectual government, resulting in the ejection of American forces.
When the Viet Cong were joined by thousands of North Vietnamese regulars, a whirlwind assault was launched on cities throughout the South. It was timed to coincide with the beginning of the annual Tet holiday (Tet Nguyen Dan – the Vietnamese New Year). Large sections of South Vietnam’s armed forces had gone home on leave during the traditional truce on this most special of celebrations. The Tet Offensive came as a complete surprise.
In Hue, the results were spectacular. Within hours, the NVA and their Viet Cong allies had seized large portions of South Vietnam’s second largest city.
VIETNAM’S GREATEST BATTLE
A large urban centre in central Vietnam on the banks of the Perfume River, Hue had been the 19th-century seat of the Nguyen Dynasty and capital of the nation from 1802 to 1945. It was a bustling metropolis that also contained the vast walled and moated Citadel, home of the Imperial City, the Emperor’s Palace, the Purple Forbidden City, and numerous shrines, together with shops, markets, and homes.
Bowden’s account of the month-long struggle for control of the city is a gripping journey into a maelstrom of death and destruction otherwise unparalleled during the American involvement in Vietnam.
The American commander of forces in Vietnam, General William C Westmoreland, dismissed the assault on Hue as simply a minor sideshow in the massive attack on cities throughout the South.
It was part, he insisted, of a diversionary effort intended to deflect attention from what he predicted was the NVA’s principal target – the US firebase at Khe Sanh. Back in the United States, President Johnson and his administration accepted his judgement. They were, of course, wrong.
For their part, the NVA, delighted by the ease with which they had seized Hue at the outset, were puzzled by the lack of enthusiasm shown by the residents of the city. Believing their own propaganda, the NVA and Viet Cong fully expected the majority of the city’s residents to welcome their arrival and join in to throw off the yoke of the Saigon regime.
They were terribly disappointed to encounter instead only a tepid and reluctant acceptance by the population. This reticence was only accentuated when the NVA’s communist cadres began to round up and execute scores of their fellow countrymen accused of aiding and abetting the ·government of Ngo Dinh Diem.
Meanwhile, at the headquarters of US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), the American leadership experienced a form of cognitive dissonance that in hindsight is little short of stunning in its failure to appreciate the situation in Hue. Reports of a large NVA presence in the city from Marine leadership on the ground were dismissed out of hand by Saigon. The Marines were admonished for overstating the situation and ordered to retake the city immediately.
Thus, for the next month, a relatively small and invariably understrength force of US Marines were thrown repeatedly into the teeth of a determined and much larger enemy force that was well dug in, well provisioned, and highly trained, experienced, and motivated.
Accentuating the Marines’ difficulties were a dismal lack of artillery support and heavy cloud-cover that made air support all but impossible. With few tanks available – not optimal weapons for house-to-house combat in any case – and with orders to avoid destroying venerated landmarks, the Marines were fated to restrict their efforts to infantry operations.
Having been trained and gained experience in operations in the open fields, jungles, and rice paddies of the surrounding countryside, the Marines were faced with a daunting problem.
Unable to convince MACV of the seriousness of the situation, American forces in Hue were forced to improvise a battle in coordination with ARVN forces in the city that were battered and disoriented by the NVA assault. It was far from an ideal situation.
BLOCK BY BLOCK
For the following weeks, the Marines and ARVN forces were forced to fight desperately for every square inch of tbe city against a well-prepared enemy. Block by block, the Americans were confronted by hundreds of enemy positions, heavily fortified and sited to ensure interlocking fields of fire.
These were supplemented by hundreds of concealed individual fighting positions, referred to as ‘spider holes’, where a determined enemy lay concealed with sniper rifles, light machine-guns, AK-47 assault rifles, hand grenades, and, even more deadly, rocket-propelled grenades.
The fighting was fierce, as the NVA and Viet Cong forces sought to ‘hold the enemy by his belt’ – that is, to remain so close to the Marines and ARVN that their artillery and air support could not be safely used.
But, as the weather cleared and additional assets became available, the US was able to call in artillery fire and air support, both to devastating effect. The effects spelled doom for the defenders, who had no air power or heavy artillery to balance the scales. Block by block they were beaten back by a renewed American and ARVN assault, until finally, ordered out by Hanoi, the remnants of the NVA slipped away in the dark eluding enemy forces that had hoped to seal off their escape route.
Caught in the middle of the fierce combat were thousands of Hue’s citizens, unable to evacuate and battered mercilessly by the colliding forces around them.
The resultant casualties were mind-numbing. Entire families were caught in the crossfire. Some were summarily executed by the desperate NVA. Thousands were crushed and suffocated in their collapsing homes or hastily constructed bomb-proof shelters – which were especially susceptible to the effects of flamethrowers and napalm.
The desperate battle, which left Hue a smoking charnel house, was the product not only of extensive planning and effective execution on the part of the NVA and the Viet Cong, but also of a catastrophic failure of US intelligence and the stubborn stupidity of the senior US military and civilian leadership.
While the Americans would eventually declare the battle a victory, it proved to be a Pyrrhic one at best. In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive,President Johnson announced that he would not run for a second term that autumn, and that General Westmoreland would be called back to Washington and replaced by his second-in-command.
Meanwhile, public sentiment in the United States began to shift decisively against those who were determined to continue the war. The battle for Hue thus marks the tipping point for the American war effort in South-east Asia.
This meticulously researched and beautifully written volume is the best account of this pivotal battle, bar none, ever written. Bowden, already a distinguished researcher and writer – as shown by his account of the Mogadishu debacle in Black Hawk Down – spent five years researching the battle for Hue, sorting through tons of documents and personally interviewing scores of participants from both sides of the battle.
Hue 1968 is an impressive and much-needed addition to the study of military history and highly recommended for soldiers, civilians, and, most especially, the politicians who send soldiers blithely into harm’s way.