Has Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.
Since its end in 1975, the Vietnam War continues to retain a special place in the American psyche, and indeed internationally. To many, the war symbolized the futility of the US’s cold war policy.
The continued resistance of North Vietnamese troops coupled with the massive loss of American lives was taken as proof that the US attempt to prevent the spread of Communism by force was futile.
And yet, this wasn’t always the view. Before 1968, the Vietnam War had been largely supported across the United States. Many saw it as a just, and winnable war.
It was largely the result of one battle, for the ancient city of Hue, that turned public opinion against the Vietnam War. This book summary explain this battle and its effects on US military strategy and American politics.
In this summary of Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden, you’ll learn
- how anti-war sentiment ruined Lyndon B. Johnson’s career;
- some basic strategies for urban warfare; and
- the symbolism of the flag raised above Hue by the Communists.
Hue 1968 Key Idea #1: The Vietnam War was rooted in the region’s colonial history.
More than 40 years since it came to a close, the horrors of the Vietnam War remain etched into our collective memory, a proxy for the Cold War at large. But that’s not all there was to it. In fact, the reasons for the conflict go much further back.
The French had ruled over what are now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia under the name of French Indochina since the nineteenth century. As empires crumbled in the aftermath of the Second World War, the French were faced with increasing cries for national self-determination in their colonies.
Specifically, in Vietnam, the French found themselves fighting against the Viet Minh, a revolutionary pro-independence organization led by Ho Chi Minh. This First Indochina War lasted from 1946 to 1954.
Even though the French military was backed by US advisors and weaponry after 1950, it was the Viet Minh who doggedly managed to gain the upper hand.
Eventually in Geneva in 1954, both sides agreed to peace accords. The French would leave, while Vietnam would become de facto independent. However, the country would be temporarily split in two at the seventeenth parallel. North Vietnam would exist as a communist state while South Vietnam would be a republic backed by the French and Americans.
The 1956 elections were intended to put an end to this temporary division so that the countries could be united as their people wished.
However, the South Vietnamese government reneged on the Geneva agreement when it became clear which way the wind was blowing. In fact, US President Eisenhower estimated the Communists would muster around 80 percent of the vote.
No election was held: the US rallied behind South Vietnam because it was a Western-style republic and could help contain the spread of communism from the northern Communist state.
It was this decision that led to the Viet Minh, now renamed the Viet Cong, launching a campaign of armed resistance in South Vietnam. To them, their neighbors to the south were a non-democratic, Western puppet state.
It seemed certain that the unpopular and weak South Vietnamese government would capitulate to the Viet Cong. An American intervention and the arrival of US troops became inevitable.
Hue 1968 Key Idea #2: American involvement in Vietnam evolved into all-out war, but with little success.
The American intervention soon spiraled out beyond its original remit, especially under President Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). Both were opposed to Communist expansion, but it was LBJ who dramatically increased troop numbers after his predecessor’s assassination in 1963.
Ground operations had officially begun in 1965 to support the expansive bombing campaigns which had commenced the year before. These strikes were already killing an estimated 1,000 Vietnamese civilians every week. Staggeringly, by the end of 1967, more bombs had fallen on Vietnam than on Europe during the whole of World War II.
The extent of the bombardment was meant to force the North to the negotiating table.
However, despite the American onslaught, Communist forces showed no signs of retreat.
In fact, the North’s economy even grew between 1965 and 1966 thanks to Soviet assistance, and Communist troops continued to push slowly south. In the United States, government doubts about the war began to be voiced.
But, if you adjust your perspective, it becomes clear just why the bombing campaign was futile.
Vietnam was still essentially an agricultural society. It lacked industrial targets that could be destroyed from the air. The US strategy was built around the military’s experiences in Europe in World War II and was inadequate for the situation in Vietnam.
It wasn’t just that: the official death count made it look like the United States was winning hands down, but it seemed that each Communist death inspired ten new Communist recruits.
Even Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a strong advocate of the bombing campaign, had resigned himself to failure by the end of 1968.
However, his top general, William Westmoreland, was of a different opinion.
FACT: By the end of 1966, there were 385,000 American soldiers in Vietnam.
Hue 1968 Key Idea #3: By January 1968, both sides were wrongly convinced that each would soon achieve victory.
In July 1967, General Westmoreland, known as “Westy,” informed the press that he was as optimistic as he’d ever been since arriving in Vietnam in 1963.
He remained convinced that because casualties were increasing on the North Vietnamese side, US–South Vietnamese forces were in the ascendency, and Hanoi would be forced to capitulate.
In 1965, the casualty ratio stood at 2:1, but by 1966 its was 6:1 in favor of America. However, there was a problem.
The numbers Westy received were inflated, massively so. In fact, the phenomenon was widespread among the US military bureaucracy. Westy had little choice except to stand by the figures that arrived at his desk. He then passed these numbers on to LBJ, who broadcast the supposed American success to the nation.
This explains why in 1967 the majority of the United States still supported the war.
In December 1967, Westy announced that the final decisive phase of the war would begin the following month. It would entail strengthening South Vietnamese forces. Simultaneously, North Vietnamese forces were meant to hemorrhage popular support because they were taking such high casualties.
Meanwhile, north of the seventeenth parallel, the Communist regime based in Hanoi was also convinced that victory would soon be theirs. They had planned a massive operation, later known as the Tet Offensive, named after the Vietnamese New Year when it occurred. They planned to launch a sequence of surprise attacks on major cities, towns and military bases across South Vietnam. It was to be a show of force.
They hoped that the nature of the attacks would inspire the people of South Vietnam to rise up against their American oppressors.
However, in their own way, the regime in Hanoi was just as mistaken as Westy. While there was significant support for the North in rural communities, cities – like Hue – were unlikely to revolt.
Hue 1968 Key Idea #4: The Tet Offensive against the city of Hue involved meticulous and clandestine planning.
Hue had, up to that point in the war, been relatively unaffected, despite its central position close to the seventeenth parallel, and despite being the third most important city in both countries thanks to its status as a center of learning and culture.
Hue had even been the base of Vietnamese power for over a century prior to the French colonial period. Its imperial citadel was well-fortified. But, more pertinently, it was symbolically important to the Vietnamese nation.
It was calculated that a force of nearly 10,000 troops would be needed if the city was to be taken and held.
The nearby village of La Chu had already been established as the base for 1,000 Viet Cong. The campaign would be coordinated and resupplied from there.
Within Hue, local underground cells were recruiting. These new members were critical and would be able to relay detailed knowledge of the city's geography.
Simultaneously, thousands of assorted anti-tank, artillery and regular units were advancing, unseen and unheard, through the countryside to Hue.
Each unit had its own specific orders. But there one mission rife with symbolic importance: one man was tasked with raising a specially designed flag that would fly from a raised flagpole just outside the Citadel, visible to the whole city.
The flag had been designed to inspire Hue’s population to join in the cause. It consisted of a red background, a yellow star and two blue lines symbolizing the city’s religious factions and intelligentsia.
The Tet Offensive was daring: to be successfully executed, the attack needed to be sudden and clandestine. In short, perfect. In fact, long after the war had ended, a top-ranking US Navy official would go on to grudgingly compliment the Communist offensive as a “logistical miracle.”
Hue 1968 Key Idea #5: The Tet Offensive began on the night of January 30, 1968.
In 1968, the Vietnamese New Year, known as Tet, fell on January 30 and 31. A truce was normally observed over the holiday period so that both nations could celebrate.
Hanoi had different plans. The regime knew that an attack timed to coincide with Tet would catch the Americans and South Vietnamese unprepared.
Thousands of troops moved silently into their positions in and around the city. They waited. An artillery barrage would signal the start of the attack.
Dynamite had also been laid by Viet Cong fighters beneath a squadron of hostile tanks. They’d managed to infiltrate the South Vietnamese military base, and the destruction of these tanks was essential to the success of the mission.
Suddenly, the barrage began. The dynamite was lit, and the tanks blown apart. The night sky reverberated and lit up with a mammoth fireball. Miles away, in a US Marine camp, the impact could be felt.
The triangular area filled with government buildings south of the Huong River and the Citadel were overwhelmed. Within hours, the Communists had taken ten of the Citadel's eleven gates.
The Northern forces also succeeded in taking the airstrip, the South Vietnamese military base and the majority of government buildings, including the prison.
Despite these successes, however, the Viet Cong still failed to meet one of their main objectives. The US military compound remained resilient to attack.
The Viet Cong's progress through the city was so rapid that they’d had to leave fighters behind to hold their position. The result was that by the time they reached the US compound, they were too few to take it.
They weren’t too concerned, however. They were convinced that before long the city would rise and join them. It was only a matter of time before the US base fell.
By 8 a.m. on January 31 it was over bar the defeat of the US compound, which held out. The symbolic revolutionary flag was raised by the Citadel. There it swayed in the wind, visible for miles.
Hue 1968 Key Idea #6: After Hue was taken, the people’s uprising failed to transpire.
The attack on Hue was a major component of the Tet Offensive. But other planned assaults, including a foolhardy attack on the US embassy in Saigon, had not gone nearly so well.
Hue, however, still represented a major prize, and so, in the hours after the city was taken, Communist troops massed there for the imminent and inevitable American counterattack.
Additionally, Northern forces sought to quickly rally locals to their side. Hanoi broadcast radio transmissions across the whole region, imploring people to help expel the Americans.
Communist leaders on the ground gave effusive, propaganda-filled speeches to assemblies of locals. They proclaimed Hue's liberation and claimed that recruits would be rewarded. The threatening subtext of non-compliance was clear.
Nonetheless, the local citizens were unmoved. No cheering or applause rang out. As the days passed, it became increasingly clear that Hue’s citizens would not be mobilizing anytime soon.
The Communist crackdown was brutal. They suspected the intelligentsia and the well-educated were to blame.
They instigated a swift purge of supposed foreign elements from the city. There was no judicial process to speak of. The city’s southern-aligned elites, foreigners and alleged spies were especially at risk.
All foreigners, even those from neutral countries or working for local NGOs, were herded up and sent to internment centers. Many were executed under false pretenses due to the confusion that abounded, and due to the Communist soldiers’ lack of English.
One group of French workers for the local power station, known as SIPEA, were summarily executed. They’d done nothing wrong, it was just that to Vietnamese ears the initials SIPEA sounded an awful lot like CIA.
Over the coming weeks, some 2,000 suspected “enemies of the people” were executed. But this was only the start of the terror.
Hue 1968 Key Idea #7: US military command vastly underestimated the strength of the Northern attack on Hue.
From the moment the South Vietnamese tanks were blown sky high, it was clear to the US Marines stationed at Phu Bai, a few miles from Hue, that something was amiss.
This was confirmed when the American compound in Hue radioed to signal they were under attack and in need of reinforcements.
400 marines were sent to help defend the compound against what were assumed to be a few hundred Northern troops. But when these marines were met with much heavier fire than expected, it was clear that this estimate was badly off.
US forces advanced slowly toward the compound and eventually succeeded in joining the US soldiers stuck inside.
The commanding officer of these marines, Lieutenant Colonel Gravel, radioed back to Phu Bai. He told them of the incredible resistance he’d met and that he was certain more troops were needed to retake the city.
Phu Bai ignored his request. Instead, Gravel was ordered to head over the main bridge to the Citadel to relieve the trapped South Vietnamese forces there.
However, when he and his troops reached the bridge, they were met with overpowering fire. Marines fell on all sides. The only option was to retreat.
Gravel was rightly furious. Just why had his commanders sent his men on a suicide mission?
The answer was clear enough. American military leadership had simply refused to acknowledge the severity of the situation. Other captured cities in the south had been retaken quickly. They saw no reason why Hue was any different.
The Tet Offensive should have signaled to American command that the North could strike as it wished.
Instead they, and Westy, in particular, were adamant that Hanoi’s power was fading. They simply refused to believe that such a large and well-equipped force had taken Hue, despite reports to the contrary.
Westy even informed his superiors that there were approximately three companies of Communists in Hue and that the city would be retaken in short order.
In truth, the hostile Communist forces were 20 times stronger than he believed.
Hue 1968 Key Idea #8: Journalists like Gene Roberts revealed the truth of the situation in Hue.
It wasn’t just the US military command who refused to acknowledge the full extent of the Communist attack on Hue. It had gone almost unnoticed in the outside world too. Instead, the media’s focus had been drawn to the daring Viet Cong attack on the US embassy in Saigon.
It was the thanks to the brave work of Gene Roberts, a New York Times journalist, that news of Hue finally emerged.
Roberts had arrived in the city the day after its capture. He saw many dozens of injured soldiers and massed body bags at the American compound. He also listened to firsthand accounts of the massacre at the bridge.
Roberts's report made the front page of the Times on February 2. In the wake of his stories of marines trapped inside Hue, other news organizations soon followed. Suddenly, everyone’s focus was on Hue.
What makes Roberts's reporting especially impressive was that his intelligence was more accurate and detailed than that of either Westy or LBJ. And even then, Roberts’ estimation that there were five enemy battalions in the city was still only a fifth of the real number.
The response of Westy and military command was to go on lockdown, even denouncing Roberts’ reporting as false.
In fact, Defense Secretary McNamara announced on television that the Communists had failed in their offensive, as they’d been unable to hold any cities. McNamara even dismissed news that the Communist flag was flying over Hue as a publicity stunt, while LBJ publically maintained the failure of the North’s offensive.
The divergence in the reporting was staggering, and it marked the first time in the war that media and establishment were telling different stories. It was this response to the attack on Hue that signaled a change in the very essence of the Vietnam War.
Hue 1968 Key Idea #9: The American and South Vietnamese counterattack finally began to make headway.
The fighting in Hue continued apace. By February 3, the Americans had succeeded in capturing one further city block. But 100 American soldiers had died in the three days since the city had been captured by the Communist forces.
Something more was needed. Consequently, US commanders decided on a three-pronged attack to retake the city. Firstly, the Communist supply lines in the countryside around Hue would be disrupted. Secondly, the marines would lead an assault on southern Hue. Finally, the South Vietnamese would attack the Citadel.
There was no question about the difficulty of the task. As much of the war to date had been fought in the countryside, the US Marines had not trained for urban combat at close-quarters. Additionally, owing to the historical significance of several sites in the city, it was initially decided that bombing or air support were out of the question, even though that would have assisted the marines.
The marines themselves were led by the highly experienced Colonel Cheatham, who’d also fought in the Korean War. He’d arrived at his plan to take southern Hue back one block at a time by reading some pamphlets on urban warfare. Instead of exposing themselves to attack by advancing through the streets, the marines would proceed through buildings. The walls would act as cover, and they would move from building to building by blasting through as they went.
By nightfall on February 4, the momentum had shifted. The Americans now controlled eight city blocks and progress was being made elsewhere too.
Outside Hue, the US Army was succeeding in disrupting the enemy’s supply lines. If they could keep the pace up, it would not be long before the army would be able to rendezvous with the marines and expedite the retaking of the city.
Meanwhile, South Vietnamese forces in the Citadel were finally meeting with some success. However, even though they’d taken one of the Citadel’s gates, they were still surrounded and massively outgunned.
Four days after Cheatham had initiated his marine operation, his troops finally made it to the canal surrounding the Citadel. They’d even managed to retake some of the most important buildings in the south of the city, including the old South Vietnamese headquarters.
Hue 1968 Key Idea #10: The Battle of Hue marked a turning point in American public support for the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, public opinion of the Vietnam War began to shift. Although the anti-war movement had slowly been growing since the war’s beginning, it was the images and news broadcasts from Hue that turned the tide.
It could almost be said that by 1967, anti-war sentiment was fashionable, as celebrities such as Muhammad Ali and the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson announced their opposition.
No less a figure than Martin Luther King Jr. condemned US involvement in Vietnam. To his eyes, the United States had shamed itself by spreading such violence around the world.
Even LBJ’s presidential re-election campaign began to stumble due to the war. He faced a challenge for the nomination from within his own party from anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy.
But it was the news reports that swung opinion.
CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, known as the “most trusted man in America,” had visited Hue while the battle raged. On his return, Cronkite broadcast a devastating analysis of American military intelligence failures, coupled with images of the destroyed ancient city.
It not only shocked the public but also reportedly stirred LBJ to think that re-election might be beyond him.
Cronkite’s report concluded with the previously unthinkable suggestion that the war could not be won. Such was the gap between media reports and the official administration’s stance that for years public trust of official military reporting tanked.
If figures as trusted and established as Cronkite were now treading an anti-war line, it could no longer be maintained that anti-war protesters were just hippies or un-American.
The line had been crossed. It was clear to the United States that the notion of “imminent victory” was foolish.
Hue 1968 Key Idea #11: Hue’s ancient Citadel was finally retaken on February 25, 1968.
As the sun fell on February 7, the Americans had control of 70 blocks in southern Hue.
By February 11, southern Hue and the triangular area of government buildings were more or less in American hands.
Although death still stalked the destroyed and smoking shells of buildings, locals were at last able to begin searching through mass graves for missing family members.
However, around 2,000 Communists were still entrenched in the ancient Citadel. As their supply lines had been effectively cut off, it was hoped they would soon capitulate.
To force an end to the fighting, the marines came to the assistance of the South Vietnamese forces who had failed to capture the Citadel.
The first strategic goal was to take the Dong Ba Tower, a commanding structure used by Communist forces to attack on every side.
By February 15, the former restriction on aerial bombardment had been lifted. Jets rained bombs onto the tower. But the ancient structure, although heavily damaged, still stood firm.
A ground assault was the only option left.
A failed first attempt left six marines dead, but the tower was finally taken, and the battalion advanced into the Citadel.
Once more reverting to urban combat, the marines went deeper, building by building. But the Communists held firm and dug themselves in, refusing to retreat. It was a last stand that meant the marines took casualties in every building.
By February 20, the assault was nearing its end. The royal palace was the last remaining structure in Communist hands. Outside, the specially designed flag still flew 40 meters high, plainly visible across the town. But it was only the last vestige of the final pocket of resistance. Now devoid of Northern support from within the city, the last few Communists conceded relatively bloodlessly.
After 23 days of fighting, the Communists’ flag was lowered and replaced with that of South Vietnam. The city had been retaken.
Hue 1968 Key Idea #12: After the Battle of Hue, it was only a matter of time before the United States withdrew.
Although the battle for Hue was won, this Pyrrhic victory signaled the beginning of the end for US involvement in Vietnam.
The public was shocked by the scale of the destruction.
Around 6,000 civilians were estimated to have perished in Hue, and 80 percent of the city’s buildings had been destroyed or severely damaged.
Military casualties were just as appalling. It’s thought around 2,400 to 5,000 Communists, 250 Americans and 458 South Vietnamese were killed. In total, over 10,000 lives were lost at Hue, making it by far the most brutal episode of the war.
The political fallout was swift.
One month later, LBJ almost lost the New Hampshire Democratic Primary to Eugene McCarthy. Such a close call would have been unthinkable just weeks earlier, and LBJ promptly decided to drop out of the race.
In June 1968, Westy was relieved of his command in Vietnam. His denial and recalcitrance were seen as key reasons why so many American lives had been lost in Hue.
The Democrats didn’t just lose LBJ; they lost the office of the presidency altogether. In November 1968, Republican Richard Nixon came to power.
Nonetheless, the war dragged on for another seven years, and in fact, destabilized the region further. The bombing of North Vietnamese supply routes in neighboring Cambodia directly led to the Khmer Rouge regime taking over the formerly neutral state. The resulting genocide wiped out millions of Cambodians.
Slowly, the Americans reduced their troops on the ground while simultaneously assisting in the expansion of the South Vietnamese army.
By 1973, the United States had officially left. America continued, however, to materially support the South Vietnamese so that their army could fight and defend the country. But it was not enough. Even with American training, the South Vietnamese could not hold out against the North.
In March 1975, Hue once more fell to the Communists, this time, for good. And in April, Saigon followed suit.
The following year, both Vietnams were united under Communist rule. The Americans had dramatically failed in their attempt to stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.
In Review: Hue 1968 Book Summary
The key message in this book:
The Tet Offensive in early 1968 marked a turning point in the Vietnam War. A series of Communist North Vietnamese surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam – including the city of Hue – shocked the world and drastically changed American public perception of the war. Even though US forces were able to retake the city, it was a Pyrrhic victory. After Tet, the question was not how to win the war but simply how to end it.