Tet ’68 and the Battle for Hue

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On the night of January 30-31, 1968, the Communists launched a countrywide offensive across South Vietnam.  From just south of the Demilitarized Zone to the Ca Mau Peninsula, soldiers of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army attacked American and South Vietnamese base camps, headquarters complexes, airfields, radio stations, and government centers.  Communist troops also pushed into several of South Vietnam’s largest cities, including Saigon, My Tho, Can Tho, and Hue.  The Vietcong and North Vietnamese achieved their greatest success at Hue, where they seized almost all of the Imperial City north of the Perfume River as well as the newer neighbourhoods along the river’s south bank.

Throughout February, the Americans fought a brutal, no-holds-barred battle against the guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars holed up in the city.  In the end, the Americans ejected the Communists from Hue, but they paid a steep political price for doing so.

In the early 1800s, Vietnamese Emperor Gia Long built the Imperial City at Hue 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 had his throne room built 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 Peace.[1]

Several Communist leaders, including Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, Le Duan, and Pham Von Dong, had either been educated in Hue, had visited the city, or had lived there at some point in their lives.[2]  Each of these men understood that Hue symbolized Vietnamese unity and the unbreakable bonds of kinship and shared history that linked all Vietnamese.

In capturing Hue at the start of the Tet Offensive, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese achieved a significant political coup.  The Communists framed the taking of the city as a step toward restoring the nation’s unity, while simultaneously defeating the forces of disunity – represented by the United States and Saigon regime.  Had American commanders been aware of Hue’s profound cultural and historical significance, they may have insisted that the South Vietnamese Army retake the city. But the South Vietnamese were not up to the task; they had neither the will nor the troops to push the Communists out of Hue.  As a result, General William C. Westmoreland ordered the U.S. Marines into the city.

In an operation that required surgical precision to preserve the city’s cultural sites, the Marines instead employed a hacksaw. U.S. units knocked down the walls of the citadel with airstrikes; struck buildings inside the Imperial City with tank fire and recoilless rifles; and dropped napalm on dug-in Communist soldiers, who frequently used the city’s sewers and residential buildings as fighting positions.

Reflecting on the destruction of Hue by U.S. firepower, a Marine officer stated ruefully, “It is a terrible thing to have to do, but we have to do it.”[3]  One G.I. agonized over the damage the Americans inflicted on the city.  “The city was intact. It was a beautiful city. When Tet started and the Marines and the fighting started, my next vision of the city was total chaos. A large portion of the city was in ruins already. The city was burning. It was in flames. You go back to an area that you had seen a couple of days before, and it wasn’t there anymore.”[4]

Contrary to the assertion of American military officials, the United States did have other options at Hue, including laying siege to the Imperial City in an attempt to starve out the Communist units there. Negotiation for the surrender of the occupying force was another alternative, although the fanaticism of the North Vietnamese regulars and Vietcong guerrillas, along with their willingness to die for their cause, may have made it impossible for the two sides to reach an understanding.

But rather than negotiate with the Communists or attempt to starve them out, General Westmoreland decided that the Communists could not be allowed to take a major South Vietnamese city without punishment. In consequence, he ordered the destruction of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese inside the Imperial City.

To the credit of the Marines, the ornate Palace of Perfect Peace suffered only minimal damage. A Marine or a Communist soldier did stitch a string of bullet holes in the roof of the throne room, but the Palace remained largely untouched by the fighting, which raged a few feet outside the building’s delicate sliding doors. Nevertheless, G.I.’s in full battle dress and wielding M-16s displayed their cultural insensitivity and ignorance by posing for pictures sitting in the emperor’s throne chair.

During the battle, Marine ground units and their close air support killed an estimated 5,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese. A number of the guerrillas were recent recruits; young men who joined the Vietcong after Communist units marched into the city in the early hours of January 31. Lacking adequate arms training and unfamiliar with basic tactics, the battle-hardened Marines made short work of them. Many of these newly-minted Vietcong were teenagers who days earlier had been sitting in Hue’s cafes, sipping coffee and pursuing the local girls. After killing these young men, referred to by MACV Intelligence as “Assault Youth,” the big Marines pulled their small, bullet-ridden bodies out of foxholes, trenches, and shattered buildings, rifled through their pockets for documents, weapons, and ammunition, and then sullenly walked off to kill more of them.

The fighting at Hue killed, wounded or made refugees of nearly the entire pre-Tet population of the city.  An estimated 116,000 of Hue’s residents became refugees.  Another 10,000 non-combatants lost their lives – killed by U.S. bombs and napalm, executed by Communist death squads, or caught in the crossfire of the two opposing sides.  So many civilians and Communist troops lay dead in the rubble of the city at the end of the battle that the smell of decomposing bodies hung over Hue for weeks.

The Marines threw the Communists out of the Imperial City and attained a high body count, but those achievements came at a cost. In destroying Hue, the Americans publicized to every Vietnamese that they cared little for the Vietnamese people or for Vietnam’s history and culture. To the South Vietnamese, especially the educated urban elite, it became apparent during Tet ’68 that the Americans would rather destroy Vietnam than allow the country to be unified. For them, it was clear that upholding America’s containment policy was exacting too great of a cost. The Battle of Hue deepened the distrust so many urban South Vietnamese already felt toward the Americans; and it persuaded a growing number of them that a Communist victory would be preferable to the continued destruction being inflicted on their small country by their superpower ally.

[1] Peter T. White, “Behind the Headlines in Viet Nam,” National Geographic Magazine, Volume 131, No. 2, February 1967, 164-165.

[2] New York Times, “Pham Von Dong, Voice of Vietnam’s Revolt, Dies at 94,” Fox Butterfield, May 2, 2000; New York Times, “Le Duan, Vietnamese Communist Chief Dies at 78,” Charles Mohr, July 11, 1986; The Guardian, “General Vo Nguyen Giap Obituary,” Robert Templer, October 5, 2013.

[3] New York Times, “In the Nation: Firepower vs. South Vietnam,” Tom Wicker, February 20, 1968.

[4] Ron Steinman, The Soldiers Story: Vietnam in Their Own Words, (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2002), 142.

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