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Hue City 1968 : Turning Point of the Vietnam War

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

America's War in Vietnam 1960-1975

The fall of the ancient city of Hue in 1968 during the Tet Offensive in would completely turn the American people's impression about the Vietnam War upside down. Throughout the 1960s most Americans were given the feeling by its political and military leaders that the U.S. was winning the war in Vietnam.

Unknown to American leadership and its citizens Moa-Zedong pledged Chinese troops to Ho Chi Minh if American forces invaded North Vietnam. The fall of Hue created doubt if America troops could win the war in southeast Asia. The American public would ask the question, " If the North Vietnamese were so defeated why could they take the offensive in such a dramatic fashion?"

After the Tet Offensive the American led South Vietnamese army would be rendered useless for over a year suffering devastating losses turning back their communist attackers. The costly battle to retake Hue from the NVA would forever change American's faith in their government, setting the stage for the end of American involvement in Vietnam.

Though the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong were defeated on that battle field they won a spectacular political victory over the American government and its leadership. After the Tet Offensive American President Lyndon Johnson's approval rating would slump to an all-time low with the American people.

On March 31,1968, on national television Johnson would announce he would not run for re-election giving the anti-war movement a dramatic victory. Before the war ended it would cost in human terms 1.3 million dead, of which 58,000 were American.

The American air war in Vietnam was one of the largest in military history. Between 1965 and 1975, over a ten-year period, the United States and its Allies dropped more than eight million tons of bombs in North and South Vietnam. Many of these bombs also ended up in the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia.

By 1968 the American military buildup in Vietnam authorized by President Johnson would reach a staggering total of over 500,000 troops. The Vietnam War would become the first television war. The American people would watch bloody images of the days battles on their color television sets every evening after dinner.

In early 1962 American forces would begin using helicopters for offensive (search and destroy) operations in Vietnam. The war would also become the first helicopter war in military history.

American generals would build fire bases throughout South Vietnam to support their offensive operations against North Vietnamese (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC). They would base their success on body counts of dead NVA and VC which would give a false impression of enemy's strength.

The search and destroy strategy were a type of attritional warfare developed by General William Westmoreland the overall commander of American forces in Vietnam. The goal of this strategy was to reach a "tipping point" where North Vietnam was simply unable to continue the war.

But the North Vietnamese could easily replace their losses with troops and supplies from the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. The American air force would relentlessly bomb the trail without success throughout the war.

Using Soviet and Chinese bulldozers and earth movers, North Vietnamese labor battalions widened the existing roads south to resemble a highway from Quang Tri, just over the DMZ, all the way down to the Mekong Delta.

The result gave the North Vietnamese army 12,000 miles of roadway and a 3,000-mile pipeline to carry oil from Quang Tri to their headquarters at Loc Ninh, seventy-five miles northwest of Saigon. From that base field commanders of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese units could communicate instantly with their leaders in their Communist capital of Hanoi.

The Climatic Battle for Hue

In February 1966, at a strategy meeting in Honolulu, American President Lyndon Johnson asked his commander in South Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, what his next step might be if he were the enemy commander.

"Capture Hue," General Westmoreland answered without hesitation, explaining that the city was the symbol of a unified Vietnam. "Taking it would have a profound psychological impact on the Vietnamese in both the North and the South, and in the process the North Vietnamese might seize the two northern provinces as bargaining chips in any negotiations."

Almost two years later, to the day, the North Vietnamese overwhelmed the defenders of Hue and held most of it for nearly a month. The only combat troops to resist their initial assault were a thinned out South Vietnamese company. The nearest U.S. troops were seven miles away. Occupying Hue would be the boldest and most dramatic action taken by the North Vietnamese up to that point in the Vietnam War.

The Tet offensive was a series of simultaneous attacks on nearly every city, town, and major military base throughout South Vietnam. It would begin early Wednesday morning January 31,1968, the first day of the Lunar New Year and of Tet.

The American public was shocked by the size and scope of the Tet offensive since American leaders had been reporting that the war in Vietnam was almost won. The battle for Hue would lead to the largest and bloodiest battle of the Tet offensive.

American and South Vietnamese troops would be forced to fight for every street and house against a fortified enemy force of over 12,000 determined NVA troops. While most of the battles of the Tet offensive had mostly been quickly settled, the battle for Hue would rage on until February 25,1968, until the North Vietnamese troops were finally overwhelmed by American firepower.

At first, U.S. forces near Hue responded ineffectually with bad intelligence, sending only a handful of U.S. Marine platoons into the city. Most of these forces would take heavy casualties, and were not surprisingly battered back by the well dug NVA.

Most of the heaviest fight for the city would take place around the Citadel, a walled fortress built inside Hue in 1802.

Hue had originally been just been the Citadel, a city within a city, an enormous fortress bordered by a large moat that enclosed nearly two square miles of flat land. At the south center of the fortress was the royal palace and its grounds, which were enclosed by an inner fortress.

It was modeled after China's Forbidden City, with a throne room constructed of intricately painted wood beams and panels and colorful gilded dragons. It was the former imperial seat and the major center of learning and worship for Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh had lived there as a young child and was educated within its walls.

Resistance around Hue had been organizing for months, helped by a complete breakdown in U.S intelligence. The small CIA unit in Hue seldom traded information with the American advisory team in the city, and neither side stayed in regular contact with the South Vietnamese intelligence. By the time of radio reports about suspicious movement around the U.S. base at Phu Bai, eight miles to the southwest of Hue, the communist had already taken most of Hue.

Supplementing the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army units invading the city were elite commando units, an artillery battalion armed with 122-mm rockets, and various specialized companies armed with mortars, heavy machine guns, and bazookas.

Backing the fighters were thousands of civilian volunteers, an elaborate support and supply network staffed mostly by local men and women. These local supporters would lead the Communist forces into the city, and when the fighting began, they delivered food and ammunition, and helped evacuate the wounded to field hospitals, and also assisted in digging bunkers and trenches, and burying the dead.

Over 6,000 civilians would lose their lives in the battle for Hue.

Early in the battle Communist soldiers believed they were spearheading the victorious final battle of the war. But soon their hopes were dashed as American forces put a stranglehold on their positions and began destroying them one by one. Near the end of their occupation most NVA fought during the day and spent most of the night digging graves for their fallen comrades. In the end what was left of the Communist force escaped toward Laos before they were completely cut off and destroyed.

The North Vietnamese forces occupying the city would use the Citadel as their last line of defense as they were slowly squeezed out of the city. Although crumbling in places, the Citadel was still an enormously impressive site, bordered all around by a moat that was crossed by eleven narrow bridges.

The Citadel's outer wall built in 1802, was 30 feet high and 20 feet thick. The walls were actually two parallel ramparts about twenty to thirty feet apart, the space between them were filled with earth. The gap between the walls was wide enough for homes and gardens and walking paths and guard posts behind the parapets.

Before the battle Hue was the one place in all of Vietnam that had been hardly touched by the war. After the battle over 80% of the city was reduced to rubble. American forces were compelled to destroy the city in order to save it from the Communist.

After five days of heavy fighting American forces disregarded the initial order not to use heavy artillery or air power to support the marines retaking the city. During the fighting for Hue 52,000 rounds of artillery were fired into the city, along with 7,670 rounds of heavy naval artillery and 600 tons of air-dropped munitions.

With napalm, the flames sucked all the oxygen out of the underground bunkers, suffocating anyone inside, while incinerating every living thing that wasn't made of stone friend or foe. For the NVA defending Hue there was no way to avoid the American onslaught to re-take the city.

As fighting deepened in Hue itself, American marines experience an appalling introduction to urban warfare, something they hadn't seen since the Second World War. Early in the battle to re-occupy the city it was soon discovered it was instant death walking the streets even somewhat concealed.

The only safe avenue of attack was going through walls of buildings since the NVA had ambushes set at every street corner. Recoilless rifles and Korean War era bazookas were used punch holes in walls to advance toward key objectives.

Once inside the Citadel the fighting was hand to hand. During the battle marines found two dead NVA chained to their heavy machine guns. That instance reinforced the rumor that the enemy was made up of soldiers who would fight to the last, not because they believed in their cause, but because they were compelled to do so.

The dead enemy soldiers may have been prisoners released weeks earlier, and forced to fight, instead of being murdered on the spot. The story would spread rapidly among American soldiers, soon no mercy was given by the marines to the Communist defending Hue.

The rule also applied to any dogs found wandering the streets of Hue once they were seen eating the dead. Of the over 6,000 citizens who died during the battle 2,800 were executed by the NVA as a form of political cleansing.

Some of those executed were suspected of helping the enemy, others were intellectuals such as teachers, doctors, businessmen, and lawyers, who they considered sowed the seeds of distrust for Communism. Many of those were who were executed were found in a mass grave after the battle.

The battle for Hue brought the Tet Offensive effectively to an end.

For the North Vietnamese, the Tet Offensive was a complete military failure. Ho Chi Minh's hope that the people of South Vietnam would rise up against the American and South Vietnamese armed forces didn't happen during Tet.

The North would lose over 54,000 troops killed or wounded, and the Viet Cong was almost entirely wiped out. The Viet Cong after Tet was no longer an effective political or military organization. The Tet Offensive was beyond question a military victory for the United States, but it sent alarm bells ringing for its politicians who portrayed the North Vietnamese near the edge of defeat.

Walter Cronkite calls for the U.S. to get out of Vietnam

Sources

Cronkite, Walter. A Reporters Life. Random House, Inc., 375 Hudson Street New York NY 10014. 1996

Isserman, Maurice. Vietnam War: Updated Edition File on Facts, Inc. 132 West 31st Street, New York NY 10001 United States. 2003

Jorgensen, Christer. Great Battles: Decisive Conflicts That Have Shaped History. Paragon, Queen Street House 4 Queen Street, Bath BAI 1HE UK. 2010

Langguth, A. J. Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975. Simon & Schuster, Rockefeller Center 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York NY 10020 United States. 2000


© 2021 Mark Caruthers

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