By the end of 1967, Americans had been fighting the Vietnam War for nearly three years. Joined by allies from Australia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, US forces under American General Westmoreland had had some success in battling the communist Viet Cong for dominance of Southern Vietnam. But support for the war effort back home in the United States was on a downturn, and as the bodies piled up – and were broadcast to the world on TV – it was hard to see any real change occurring in Vietnam. In November of 1967 Westmoreland announced that there was an “End in View” to hostilities in Vietnam; but the numbers didn’t lie, and US President Lyndon Johnson became increasingly concerned about the future of his inherited war. On January 30th, 1968 – Tết Nguyên Đán, or the Vietnamese New Year – VC (Vietcong) and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) fighters emerged from hiding all over the country and began raising hell.
ASAP: Despite the failure of Tết, the Communist seizure of Huế proved a huge propaganda win for North Vietnam – and a reality check for the Americans.Read on for details!
The Tet Offensive
In what was to become the Tet Offensive, Vietnamese communists attacked positions in Saigon with the intent of triggering a general uprising. North Vietnamese leader Hồ Chí Minh hoped that this would galvanize what he perceived as the oppressed people of South Vietnam and bring a swift end to the fighting. Undercover VC cells emerged in Saigon – capital of the South – and raided the US Embassy, police buildings and Radio Saigon headquarters. From there, they attempted to broadcast a message but were killed before they could. Elsewhere in Saigon, VC fighters attempted to disrupt military and governmental organizations but were arrested quickly. Attacks at Pleiku, Loc Ninh, Da Nang and many other spots in South Vietnam were a violent surprise to American and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops but in most cases, the VC and NVA attacks failed.
One of the largest attacks occurred at Khe Sanh, a remote US Marine base that had been surrounded for months. Westmoreland had foolishly announced that he believed Khe Sanh was the most important US foothold in Vietnam, and as such would be the subject of his greatest showdown with North Vietnamese forces. The VC and NVA were aware of his fixation on Khe Sanh, and as a result launched attacks there to draw attention and resources away from their real targets: Saigon (as mentioned above) and Huế. Tet had failed, but Huế became the sight of unexpectedly prolonged violence.
Communists Seize Huế
Huế – pronounced “hway” – was an important part of US and ARVN logistical operations. Sitting on the Perfume River, Huế – former capital of the Nguyen Dynasty – was crucial to US Navy river patrol operations. On the night of Tet, 10 battalions (roughly 5,000 men and women) of Vietnamese communist fighters infiltrated through the surrounding fields and swam across the moat into the city. Many ARVN troops stationed in Huế were on leave for the holiday, and Americans at the MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) compound in the downtown area were caught off guard by sudden gunfire from the streets. Sappers (demolition experts) had infiltrated the historic citadel and let VC troops in; at the same time, PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam) guerillas attacked Huế’s airfield. ARVN General Trưởng quickly called for reinforcements, and three battalions of US Marines stationed 16km (10 miles) away at Phu Bai airfield began moving in to assist the ARVN.
The VC and PAVN captured most of Huế quickly and began encouraging a general uprising. Huế’s locals, for the most part, wanted nothing to do with a communist reorganization of society but played along; they wanted their water and power turned back on, and knew that the Americans would return in time anyway. PAVN leadership – with the help of local communist sympathizers – identified anyone they believed to be an enemy of North Vietnam, and either sent them to a reeducation camp (none of them returned) or had them killed on the spot. Between 2,800 and 6,000 citizens of Huế were killed during the battle.
On the 31st of January, Task Force X-Ray (the codename for Colonel Stanley S. Hughes’ Marines from Phu Bai) moved into Huế’s suburbs under heavy sniper fire. X-Ray pushed forward and fought their way into the city; by 8:00 PM, they had reached the MACV compound and began setting up defensive positions. Having reinforced the terrified American and Vietnamese workers at MACV, the Marines attempted to push across the Perfume River into the old city’s citadel but were beaten back by the VC defenders.
On February 1st, a convoy of trucks led by M50 Ontos motorized guns managed to smash its way through the communist defence and link up with the Marines and ARVN troops in the city. Despite initial reservations about shelling the historic citadel, American command decided that artillery support would help end the battle faster and began pummeling communist positions with high explosive shells. While the ARVN made some progress fighting from within the citadel (many had been trapped there) and at Huế’s airfield, Marines began fighting from house to house to reclaim the city. Realizing the need for heavy direct-fire support, the Ontos – small tanks with six 106mm cannons mounted on them – were rolled up to blast communist positions at point-blank range. The small tanks rocked backwards when firing their cannons, making the crew sick, but the firepower they brought to the fight was invaluable.
American forces had learned a lot about urban combat during WWII; but much of that institutional knowledge had been forgotten in the jungles of Vietnam, and Marine officers had to break out manuals on close quarters combat to refresh themselves. Fighting in Huế required overwhelming firepower. Marines would blast holes into adjoining rooms to avoid moving in the streets, and made liberal use of grenades to clear rooms before they entered them. Young Marines were instructed to enter every room “M16 first”, firing on fully automatic whether an enemy was spotted or not. They found that the VC and PAVN would fight to the very end and make creative use of hiding spots to ambush the Marine advance. Through the weeks of intense fighting, soldiers and civilians alike – for there were many of Huế’s residents trapped between the opponents – became numbed to the constant pounding of explosives and learned to instinctively duck at the crack of incoming gunfire.
While the retaking of Huế appeared agonizingly slow to Westmoreland and his bosses in the White House, the city was eventually retaken by February 6th at a cost of 119 US and 363 ARVN men. 2,000-8,000 communists had been killed; it’s impossible to accurately tell based on the wide disparity between the US and VC accounts. From a purely tactical, military standpoint, the Battle of Huế was a decisive victory for the Marines and ARVN.
But as we all know, there are many dimensions to any historical event beyond purely military considerations. The Tet Offensive failed and no general uprising took place. The VC (and PAVN) were stretched thin by the ambitious attacks and never fully recovered; only the NVA remained. But the siege of Huế dragged on for an uncomfortably long time, and gained quite a lot of airtime back home in the United States. Right when Westmoreland and President Johnson were attempting to reassure the worn out American public that the Vietnam War was coming to a victorious close, Huế painted a much more dire picture. Westmoreland was quickly sacked, replaced by General Creighton Abrams; the latter advocated a policy of “Vietnamization”, where US operations would gradually be reduced until the South Vietnamese could take full responsibility for their own protection. After the complete US withdrawal in 1973, Saigon fell to the NVA only two years later.
It’s possible that the war in Vietnam was indeed “winnable”. But regardless of that fact, the Tet Offensive – and more specifically, the Battle of Huế – put the final nail in the coffin for the Americans. Hồ Chí Minh’s grand military operation may have been a tactical failure; but from a strategic standpoint, it was crucial to North Vietnam’s war effort.
In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.
- Who? Task Force X-Ray, a US Marine group comprised of 3 battalions led by Colonel Stanley S. Hughes; 11 battalions of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) under General Ngô Quang Trưởng; and later, assorted Army air and ground units. They went up against 10 battalions of VC (Vietcong) and PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam) communist fighters. FYI: a battalion = 300-800 soldiers.
- Where? Huế, an ancient fortified city in central Vietnam on the Perfume River.
- When? January 30th to March 3rd, 1968.
- What? The Battle of Huế was a part of the much larger Tet Offensive, a North Vietnamese operation designed to shock American troops out of the country and incite a general uprising of the people. The broader offensive failed, but communist fighters took and held Huế for quite some time. ARVN troops and personnel at the MACV compound were almost wiped out, but they were rescued by Marines from nearby Phu Bai airfield. After a failed assault on Huế’s citadel, the Marines renewed their efforts and, alongside the ARVN, drove the VC and PAVN out of the city in vicious street fighting. During their occupation of the city, PAVN troops killed between 2,800 and 6,000 civilians.
- Why? Huế was an important logistical base on the Perfume River and Highway 1. The communist seizure of the city was a demonstration of North Vietnamese military capabilities.
- Result: US and ARVN victory. The Americans lost 216 men, the ARVN 452 and the VC/PAVN force about 2,400. The battle crippled the VC, but shook American faith in the feasibility of victory in Vietnam. Huế resulted in a change to “Vietnamization” tactics and a complete withdrawal of US troops. By 1975, the country had been overrun by North Vietnamese communists and a huge exodus of South Vietnamese “boat people” to the United States occurred.
Food for Thought
Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.
- Did Hồ Chí Minh fully support the Tet Offensive?
- Assess the ways in which Tet and Huế were both a victory and a defeat for North Vietnam.
- What were some key mistakes made by American leadership?
- What effect did Huế have on the American psyche? What about Vietnam’s?
- In what ways did the Soviet Union and China support the Tet Offensive?
Further Reading & Citations
Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!
- Bowden, Mark. 2017. Huế 1968: a turning point of the American war in Vietnam.
- Schroth, Raymond A. “The Tet Offensive as Media Phenomenon.” Worldview 20, no. 12 (1977): 45–46.
- Morgan, Patrick M. “The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War. By James J. Wirtz. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.
- Nhã Ca, Olga Dror, and Nhã Ca. 2014. Mourning headband for Hue: an account of the battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968.
- Smith, George W. 1999. The siege at Hue. Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner.