52 years ago, the bloodiest battle of Vietnam ended, and it changed forever how Americans felt about the war

Bettmann/Getty ImagesElements of the 1st Air Cavalry move down Highway One, en route to Hue to reinforce the Marines fighting there. Shortly after passing this road marker, they were ambushed by Communist forces, February 22, 1968.
  • The Battle of Hue began early on January 31, 1968 and lasted until the first days of March, when US troops retook the city.
  • Hue was a major part of North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive, and even though the US and South Vietnam thwarted the attack, the battle had a profound effect on the war.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In the middle of the night on January 31, 1968, 10,000 North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops swept into the historic city of Hue, a major cultural centre in South Vietnam.

Within days, those troops captured the city, surprising US commanders, who were slow to understand what had happened and the opponent they now faced.

The city was retaken by early March. Ostensibly it was a US and South Vietnamese victory, won at the toll of 250 US Marines and soldiers and more than 450 South Vietnamese troops. With several thousand North Vietnamese and thousands more civilians killed, the number of dead in the shattered city was more than 10,000.

“With nearly half a century of hindsight, Hue deserves to be widely remembered as the single bloodiest battle of the war, one of its defining events, and one of the most intense urban battles in American history,” writes Mark Bowden, author of the 2017 book “Hue 1968.”

In a phone interview in January, Bowden explained how the battle played out, the toll it took, and why, 50 years on, the troops who fought there still feel bitter about the sacrifice they made.


Q: It’s January 1968, right before the battle started, Gen. William Westmoreland had done a promotional campaign in the US a few months before, while North Vietnam was planning the offensive. How did each side feel about where they were in the conflict?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesA US Marine amphibious task group lands on the South Vietnamese coast, 15 miles north of Hue, July 20, 1967.

Mark Bowden: It would depend on who you talked to.

Westmoreland, who had an unfailingly upbeat view of his effort there, had come to Washington just a few months before, in November, and given a speech at the National Press Club, where he basically said the war was all but over, that the United States had thoroughly defeated the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong, that the most they could do would be to mount minor ambushes and attacks in the rural areas, and that he anticipated that American troops could begin coming home by the end of 1968.

However, at the Pentagon … the exact opposite conclusion had been reached by Secretary of Defence [Robert] McNamara and the Joint Chiefs, who were convinced that the war was, at best, a stalemate, that the American effort had been ineffective for the most part and with declining effectiveness.

Johnson was not ready to give up, but he had certainly been getting a lot of advice from people who were in a position to know that the war was not going well. So there was division in the American government. Johnson was still putting all of his chips on Westmoreland and sort of was buying Westmoreland’s version of that.

As far as the North Vietnamese were concerned, they were hopeful and overly optimistic. They had been planning for nearly a year what became the Tet Offensive, and they had very grand ambitions… They felt that they would ignite sort of a popular uprising in South Vietnam that would overthrow the Thieu regime and would basically force the United States out of the country.

So on the verge of that battle, if you could say Westmoreland had unrealistic expectations of how well he was doing, the North Vietnamese had unrealistic expectations for what they could accomplish.


Q: When it comes to Hue itself, you write that it was probably the third most important city in Vietnam behind Saigon and Hanoi. So what was the city’s military and political significance?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesVietnamese monks beside one of hundreds of family altars erected in the streets to thwart any anti-Buddhist move by government troops, in Hue, June 6, 1966.

Bowden: I think first and foremost, it had tremendous cultural significance. It was the traditional capital of Vietnam. Unlike Saigon and Hanoi, it was not fully in either camp in the civil war. Hue was a big Buddhist centre, and the Buddhists were neither communists nor were they fans of President Nguyen Van Thieu, who was Catholic, and his regime.

And so Hue was in some ways kind of an oasis within the country of South Vietnam that was not particularly aligned with either side, if you can characterise an entire city. It had relatively little military significance, other than it sits right there in the sort of the skinniest portion of the country of Vietnam, so that the major traffic routes up to the northernmost parts of South Vietnam would have to pass through Hue, or very close to Hue, in order to deliver troops and supplies, anything on the ground anyway, which was of more significance to the South Vietnamese than it was the Americans.

But it had not been the scene of any serious fighting in the war, and there were not large numbers of South Vietnamese or American troops based in Hue, because it was a kind of religious and cultural centre, it had not been targeted really by either side. So you had in Hue sort of an intellectual, religious, cultural centre of tremendous significance to the entirety of Vietnam that was not comfortably in either camp.

So whoever controlled Hue would gain a certain amount of prestige in that they were occupying this major historical centre of Vietnam.


Q: In the days and weeks leading up to the actual start of the battle, there were some warning signs of activity, like uncovered weapons caches and movement in the surrounding areas. The US and South Vietnam saw this, but they didn’t really react. What were they thinking?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesUS Marines between destroyed houses in Hue, February 17, 1968.

Bowden: I think that when you look at something in retrospect, reports of sightings of troops or weapons caches gain greater significance because we now understand what it meant.

But in the months leading up to the Tet offensive, these things were not regarded, clearly, as significant by the American command certainly and also not by the South Vietnamese.

I think it’s clear in retrospect that Westmoreland’s focus was on Khe Sahn and his strong belief that the North Vietnamese were about to launch a major offensive against that Marine base, which was up in the mountains northwest of Hue. As I said earlier, he had already expressed his opinion that the enemy was not capable of mounting any major offensive in the urban areas or the densest demographic centres in South Vietnam.

So he was so determined that he was right, that Khe Sahn was going to be the focus of this coming offensive that he was even more inclined to pay less attention to these sort of aberrant reports of developments in and around Hue.


Q: The city itself was a factor in the battle as much as anything else. How did its geography and its layout, particularly the river and the Citadel, affect how the battle unfolded?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesHue’s Citadel and the Huong River in the later stages of the battle, after US Marines broke through the south wall of the Citadel.

Bowden: Well what it did was sort of make the battle of Hue three separate set-piece battles.

The Huong River, the Perfume River, as the Americans called it, basically bisects the city of Hue. The south of the city, where all the government buildings [were] … it was a relatively modern city. North of the river was the Citadel, which is this 18th-century, early 19th-century fortress with 30-foot high stone walls, 20 [or] 30 feet thick. [Ed. – the Citadel enclosed nearly 2 square miles of flat land.] So roughly half of the population of Hue lived inside this enormous fortress, which had only … I think there were nine entrances and exits, or gates.

So the first part of the battle was the American effort to recapture southern Hue, and that took place in the first week to 10 days of the fighting.

And then the second big piece was the fighting inside the Citadel, which was very difficult, and in the middle of which, because there was no easy way in or out of the Citadel, literally 100,000 or more civilians were trapped in the middle of this fighting.

The third major set piece of the battle involved the Army, the 1st Air Cav, who were ordered to march down through the countryside northwest of Hue and basically relieve the American and South Vietnamese forces inside the Citadel … but what they encountered marching toward Hue were thousands of entrenched North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops. And so the Army ended up fighting a major battle in the countryside, up northwest of the city.


Q: The battle actually kicks off early on January 31, and something like 10,000 North Vietnamese troops swept over the city in a few days. The initial US response was to send about 300 Marines to the city, and they got a very violent greeting. It seems from your account it wasn’t immediately clear what they were dealing with. How long did it take them to figure out what had happened?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesKeeping low to avoid enemy fire, US Marines push one of their wounded out of range during fighting in the old section of Hue, February 1968.

Bowden: It took them days, maybe even a week. The initial thrust by the enemy … was enormously successful in a matter of hours. They basically overnight took the entire city with just two exceptions.

One was a small American compound in southern Hue, and the other was the ARVN, the South Vietnamese, base inside the Citadel. I think that the South Vietnamese general whose base was under attack had a more realistic sense, because he was there on the ground, of just how significant a problem he faced. But because his troops and he himself were confined to that base, they didn’t really have a picture of what was happening overall.

I should say that the American forces were arrogant enough that they paid little attention to the preferences and reports from the South Vietnamese army. So to the extent that the ARVN forces were aware that they were facing a major attack, that message didn’t get through to the higher command in either Phu Bai or Saigon.

As far as the Americans were concerned, the Americans at the compound in southern Hue – there were just a little over a hundred of them – were accurately reporting that they were up against an enormous enemy force, but they were disregarded, and that was why Gen. LaHue – Foster LaHue, curiously named guy – began by just sending relatively small companies of Marines into the city to sort of mop things up.

If you look back at the statements from the military command in Saigon, the American command, Westmoreland himself was reporting publicly and also to [President Lyndon Johnson] that there were only a few hundred scattered enemy troops in Hue and that the situation was well in hand.

In fact, the opposite was true. As you say, there were 10,000 enemy troops in Hue who occupied city, and there was a small, surrounded American outpost that was greatly outgunned.

This led to, I think, a number of really foolhardy orders from Phu Bai that the American forces attack. So not only were … inadequate numbers of troops were fed into the city and getting cut to pieces, but you had the men who were already there being ordered to conduct what were essentially suicide missions, to throw themselves against the heavily entrenched and much more powerful enemy.

It’s interesting to note that this analysis of the situation is not mine alone. I mean it comes from the commanders who were present there at the time and who remain bitter about the orders that they were being given.

These commanders, who at the time were young company captains, at the time I’m interviewing them, 50 years later, are retired brigadier generals in the Marine Corps. So these are not people who are inclined to be heavily critical of the Marine Corps. Nevertheless, they were made deeply embittered by the foolishness of the orders they were given.


Q: As you note in the book, the US troops sent to retake Hue, particularly the Marines sent into the city itself, left what had largely been fighting in rural and jungle areas and headed into some of the most intense urban combat since World War II. What tactics and techniques did they have to relearn?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesA US Marine mortar crew in Hue, February 1, 1968.

Bowden: They learned quickly that if you moved in the streets, you were an easy target. They learned to blow holes in stone walls and move under cover as much as possible. They had to relearn tactics for assaulting heavily fortified positions … every one of these major buildings in Southern Hue was strong-pointed and defended by large numbers of Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops, and attacking buildings by ordering your men to charge across the street proved to be suicidal.

It wasn’t really until several days into the fight that Col. Ernie Cheatham arrived, and he had sort of very hastily boned up on tactics for assaulting fortified positions, which were basically things that the Marines had not done since, well, since Korea, but before that since World War II.

They learned to rely on artillery. They had sort of mobile artillery, basically just mortars, which they use to poke holes in the building that they were going to attack, and they used tear gas to help flush the enemy out of those buildings before they rushed them, and I think at that point those tactics proved to be effective. Even though they continued to take a fairly serious casualties, they were much more successful after Cheatham arrived.


Q: Throughout the battle, even with these tactics, it still seems like there were certain limitations, such as a lack of experience among unit commanders as well as restraints on the kind of firepower they could use within the city. How did those limitations appear during the battle?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesUS sharpshooters in Hue, February 3, 1968.

Bowden: Initially the inexperienced troops, inexperienced in the sense of fighting in a big city, made a lot of mistakes, and a lot of young men were killed or wounded.

There’s a lot of talk in retrospect, there had been, about the decision initially … not to support these troops with artillery. In fact it would have been fairly difficult to use heavy artillery, at least in the early stages of the battle, because the enemy was so close to American forces that literally Marines would be just across the street from a heavily fortified enemy position.

So without extremely accurate artillery, you’d be killing your own people along with Vietnamese, and the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong were aware of this, so part of their strategy was to stay as close to the American lines as they could.

The other big problem was the weather. This is the rainy season, the winter rainy season in Hue, and so the skies were heavily overcast, and a misty rain fell through most of that month, so visibility from the air was next to impossible.

It wasn’t until the fighting shifted to Citadel where I think American frustration with the difficulty of this battle resulted ultimately in the heavy use of artillery up inside the Citadel, which had the effect of killing a lot of civilians. And then there were a few days there toward the end of the battle where air power was able to be used in support of the Marines who were fighting inside the Citadel.


Q: Throughout the fighting, the North Vietnamese troops in the city were carrying out arrests and executions and reprisals against the residents there, weren’t they?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesVietcong suspects in custody as US troops continue house-to-house fighting in Hue, February 4, 1968.

Bowden: They were, and that was a major part of their plan for taking over the city. They had, as I said earlier, anticipated that there would be a popular uprising of support of their effort to overthrow the Thieu regime.

As part of that, and this is frankly part of just about any revolution, they wanted to round up the people who had worked for Thieu’s regime, who had worked for the South Vietnamese government, and put them on trial.

So they had lists of the key people who were representative of the South Vietnamese or the Saigon regime and attempted to round them up. I think that what happened, and this often happens in these kinds of situations, is that the plans mushroomed out of control.

So you had reprisals against many more people [than] who were initially targeted and literally thousands of civilians who had been employed by the South Vietnamese regime or who were simply suspected of accused of having been associated with them and were rounded up. Many of them were killed.


Q: You go into detail about the Vietnamese families who huddled underground for days at a time and troops in close-quarters fighting with shrapnel and buildings exploding around them. What physical and psychological toll did the fighting take?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesCivilians carrying a white flag approach US Marines during a lull in street fighting between US units and the Vietcong, in Hue, February 1, 1968.

Bowden: I think I estimated, and this is just a guess really more than anything, that almost 10,000 civilians were killed in the fighting. It was a nightmarish scene, as you described it, where people were terrified, and they … were caught in an impossible situation.

Initially with the occupation by the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong, many of the civilians in Hue were being terrified by [the] rounding up [of] family members who were marched off supposedly for reeducation and never came home.

So there was a sort of reign of terror that was taking place even before the battle really joined … the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong regarding anyone who was fleeing the city as an ally of the Americans and South Vietnamese, else why would they be running away? They had expectations that the civilians in Hue would actually rise up in support of their effort, and so people who ran away were regarded as suspect.

The civilians were trapped by a number of things, by the North Vietnamese and then ultimately inside the Citadel by the physical structure of the Citadel. There was simply no easy way in or out the city. So once the battle really joined and there was heavy shelling, lots of fighting. I mean many people were just digging bunkers underneath of their homes, moving underground in an attempt to survive. Any of those places that were hit by an American shell, people were killed or buried underneath their homes.

So it’s hard to imagine a more hellish predicament for people who were not armed combatants but who really had nowhere to go. Again and again people there refer to themselves as like ants on a hot plate, running from one place to the other, basically trying to find it some place safe to escape all of this mayhem.


Q: Throughout the battle US troops were tormented by an enemy who was pretty much on top of them but relatively invisible. In some cases they took that out on Vietnamese civilians who, as you state in the book, they couldn’t really distinguish from the enemy.

Bettmann/Getty ImagesA captured Vietcong suspect is questioned at knife point in Hue, February 4, 1968.

Bowden: I think that again and again in my interviews … with men who fought there when they were very young, they were afraid. They were fighting for their lives, and they came to realise the hesitation of trying to decide whether somebody, whether a Vietnamese person was an enemy or a friend was enough to get you killed.

So after a while for many of the young Marines fighting, they were shooting at Vietnamese, and they regarded any Vietnamese who were in the city at that point, whether they were dressed as soldiers or civilians, as the enemy. And I should say that wasn’t true of everyone, and certainly it was never a command decision to order men to shoot on sight anybody on the streets. But in my reporting it seemed to me that that was pretty much the rule of thumb.


Q: In the epilogue, you write that Hue was misremembered as an unqualified US victory and that there was little acknowledgement how US troops had been used poorly during the battle. Can you elaborate on that?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesUS Marine litter bearers rush wounded to a helicopter for evacuation from a landing zone at Hue University, near the Huong River, February 1, 1968.

Bowden: I don’t think that, frankly, prior to my book that anyone, either a historian or a journalist, had gone back and written the full story of the battle of Hue. So … the fact is true that American forces chased the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong out of the city after a month of heavy fighting, so in that sense the Marines have long characterised the battle as a victory.

But I don’t think that anyone had really pondered the scale of this battle and its broader significance, which was clearly one that dampened American enthusiasm for the war.

I think it had a profound effect on feelings of the South Vietnamese people toward the Saigon regime. I think in fact most people living in the South were neither wholly committed to Thieu, nor were they communists. They were trying to survive, and when you’re in that situation, you try to ally yourself with whichever side appears to be likely to win. I think the faith in the Saigon regime really flagged in South Vietnam after the Tet offensive, and Hue was the major set piece of the Tet offensive.

So I viewed this battle as not only the largest single battle in the Vietnam war but the decisive moment, the turning point in public attitudes in the United States and, perhaps even more importantly, in South Vietnam.

I think that if you take, as I did, a hard look at what happened in Hue, it becomes less a great American victory than a disaster… it really to me becomes an emblem of the whole Vietnam war, where the United States vastly underestimated the capability of the enemy and paid a heavy price.


Q: You also say in the epilogue that the battle didn’t end the war and both sides could make some claim to victory. But in your words, it was the point at which everything changed. What was it that came next in Vietnam and in the US and how did Hue bring it about?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesUS Marines on residential street behind a tank firing over an outer wall of the Citadel in Hue, February 13, 1968.

Bowden: Probably the most significant thing was Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for reelection.

I think that, as I said earlier, he had been getting advice from his generals and his civilian advisors at the Pentagon that war was not going well and put all his eggs in the Westmoreland basket, basically. … It became apparent to Johnson that Westmoreland was not giving him an accurate assessment of what was going on and that the war was not going well.

I think these were major reasons why Johnson, who was facing an anti-war challenge in his own party, which really gained strength after Hue, he decided not to seek reelection. A big part of that decision was he was going to devote the remainder of his term of office, which was at that point less than a year, to try and to find an end to the war in Vietnam.

So by almost every measure, the war in Vietnam should have ended in 1968, where you had the president of the United States basically losing faith in the ability of the United States to prevail, and you had an enormous and growing anti-war movement in the United States pushing to get to get us out.

The division within the Democratic party weakened the chances of their candidate, Hubert Humphrey, to be elected president. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in the summer of 1968 basically removed the most important or the most powerful potential Democratic candidate for president. So who stepped into the breach but Richard Nixon, promising to end the war.

People who weren’t alive forget or don’t know, and people who were alive forget, that Nixon campaigned in a sense as an anti-war candidate, claiming … that he had a secret plan for getting the United States out of Vietnam.

When Nixon won, he actually escalated the war. His secret plan involved attacking Vietnamese bases in Cambodia and Laos. He slowly expanded the war outside of Vietnam, and he doubled down on the American commitment.

So it’s one of the great tragedies, I think, of American history that that war continued for another seven years … another million, probably more than a million, people [were] killed. Double the number of American deaths and casualties resulted before … the war stumbled to its ignoble end.


Q: You spoke to numerous US and Vietnamese veterans and others on the ground during the battle. Fifty years on, what did you think, the veterans in particular, were their motivations for speaking? What did they want to say to the world about the battle?

Bettmann/Getty ImagesSouth Vietnamese return to their homes after the end of the battle in Hue, February 25, 1968.

Bowden: The vast majority of people wanted to talk. For them this was one of the most traumatic events of their life. They served, most of them, bravely, and many were wounded. They lost many of their friends, so of course they’re interested in telling that story … I talked to dozens and dozens, scores of them, and they were eager to tell me about their own experience.

I would always ask everyone I interviewed, ‘What do you think about it today?’ They’re now my age. They’re older men looking back on their youth and on this terrible war that they served in. I think that with a few exceptions, the vast majority are bitter about their experience during that war. They felt they were thrown into a war that they poorly understood, that the chances of prevailing were small, that they sacrificed their friends and in some cases their limbs for a cause that was a failure.

They then were very often treated by their fellow Americans as sort of complicit in the failure of Vietnam or war criminals or worse, and so here were young, idealistic men who either accepted the call or who volunteered to go serve their country and risk their lives for what they considered to be a noble and important cause, who suffered greatly and then were basically disparaged for having done so.

So I encountered bitterness of all kinds. Bitterness toward the leadership of the United States government. Bitterness toward American citizens whose opinion of the war changed and who took it out on those who had served.

There were still some who in that bitterness believe that we somehow could have prevailed in Vietnam if we had more aggressively entered the war, fought it with more determination. But they are, I think, a very small minority, and I think very few people who actually study what was going on there and would agree with their assessment.

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