|The "A Time of
The Battle for Hue
by Larry Parker
|"That men do not learn very much from
the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history
has to teach."
"That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most
important of all the lessons that history has to teach." Aldous Huxley
During the battle of Stalingrad the legions of the Nationalist Socialist German
Workers Party (NSDAP) engaged the military might of the Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics (USSR) in a brutal struggle to the death. The encounter
began as a military versus military conflict along conventional lines. Due to
the extreme nature of the ideologies involved, and because neither
collateral damage, public accountability, a free press nor world opinion was an
issue to either Hitler or Stalin, the battle rapidly degenerated into a vicious
war of attrition – a test of political will and national resources. Stalingrad
became an enormous slaughterhouse, devouring men and machines on a scale not
seen since Verdun. In the end the resilience of the Russian soldier and the
vast resources of the Soviet State prevailed against the professionalism of the
German soldaten and the tactical superiority of the Wehrmacht.
Twenty-five years later and 5000 miles to the Southeast, a similar battle was
fought in the ancient city of Hue. Now the forces of communism were pitted
against the forces of democracy in one of the major confrontations of the
Cold War. For twenty-six bloody days, American and Army of the Republic of
Vietnam (ARVN) troops waged a fierce house-to-house struggle against North
Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers and National Liberation Front / Viet Cong (NLF /
VC) irregular forces for control of Hue.
Coming as it did at the beginning of the age of mass media and near
instantaneous communications, together with the emergence of a more
critical attitude toward authority in general and government in particular, the
battle for Hue should be viewed as the transition between conventional and
asymmetric warfare. On paper the United States enjoyed every conceivable
advantage. Indeed its forces were never defeated on the field of battle. How
then could the world's greatest power win every major engagement in Vietnam,
and yet lose the war? This paper will examine the social, political,
cultural and economic elements as well as the military factors that permitted
the United States to win a resounding tactical victory at Hue, yet ultimately
suffer a strategic defeat in Vietnam. In so doing this paper will demonstrate
that the United States did not completely understand the nuances of
revolutionary warfare and consequently was not prepared to successfully fight
an unconventional war. The lessons learned are germane to the urban conflicts
we now face from Port Au Prince to Fallujah.
Brief Overview of Vietnam Conflict Preceding the Tet Offensive
|"That men do not learn very much from "Those who cannot
remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Ironically, American involvement in Vietnam began in 1945 when an OSS (Office
of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA) team parachuted into the jungles
of Vietnam. There they found Ho Chi Minh in a remote camp, deathly ill with
malaria. After nursing him back to health and providing him with supplies, his
guerilla forces were unleashed upon the Japanese to prevent their transfer to
more active sectors of the Pacific. After Japan's surrender, Vietnam was
divided along the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh took control of
North Vietnam, while French colonial rule was restored in the South.
Predictably, peace in Southeast Asia was short lived. By December 1946, open
war broke out between the French and the Viet Minh.
On 03 December 1950, thirty-five Americans arrived in Saigon to establish the
Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). United States' support for France
rapidly grew and American involvement continued even after the French debacle
at Dien Bien Phu ending 07 May 1954. Six months later, President
Eisenhower pledged ongoing support for South Vietnam in its struggle against
Communism. In February 1961, President Kennedy greatly extended this policy by
sending combat advisors to South Vietnam and establishing the Military
Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), commanded by General Westmoreland, in
Saigon. From these modest beginnings, American involvement rapidly
escalated and the build-up of troops followed apace, peaking at 650,000 in
On 02 August 1964, North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the destroyers USS
Maddox and USS Turner Joy , with an alleged second attack two
days later sparking the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. On 07 August 1964 President
Johnson sought and received a virtual blank check from a willing congress to
wage war in Vietnam.
On 06 April 1965 President Johnson authorized United States forces to seek out
and engage the enemy in combat, a radical departure from their former
‘advisory' role. At the same time he offered an extensive aid package to North
Vietnam in exchange for a peaceful settlement with South Vietnam. Much to his
astonishment, his offer was scornfully dismissed. The rest as they say is
history, albeit a tragic history.
Brief Overview of the Battle for Hue
"This is a time for testing for our nation. The question is whether we have the
staying power to fight a very costly war, when the objective is limited and the
danger is seemingly remote."
Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1967 State of the Union Address
On 21 January 1968 the siege of Khe Sanh began, followed ten days later by the
Tet Offensive. Both were part of a brilliant plan conceived by the master
strategist General Vo Nguyen Giap, architect of Dien Bien Phu. His policy
against superior opponents was to outmaneuver them in the field while
undermining their national resolve with demoralizing political defeats.
After nearly thirty years of war – first with the Japanese, then against the
French and now the United States – the NVA, his conventional force, was badly
battered. The VC as well were losing ground to American and ARVN
counter-insurgency tactics and to the pacification program. Realizing time was
not on his side, Giap opted for a bold thrust on three fronts timed to coincide
with the U. S. Presidential election in an attempt to humiliate Washington,
undermine the growing legitimacy of the Saigon government and reverse the
fortunes of war.
Phase I directed an all-out attack on Khe Sanh. Located in the northwest corner
of South Vietnam, just below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and close to the
Laotian border, Khe Sanh had been garrisoned by the French during the first
Indochina war. U. S. Special Forces now held Khe Sanh, using its proximity to
the Ho Chi Minh trail to interdict the flow of men and materiel to the south.
An estimated 20 - 40,000 NVA regulars moved into the area surrounding the camp.
6000 U. S. Marines flew in to reinforce the garrison and a six-month siege
Phase II of Giap's plan ordered coordinated attacks on nearly all of South
Vietnam's major cities, provincial capitals and American bases. For months, NVA
and VC personnel drifted into the targeted areas in two's and three's disguised
as refugees, peasants, workers and ARVN soldiers on holiday leave. In Saigon,
for example, roughly five battalions of NVA / VC troops infiltrated the city
before the 31 January attack.
Phase III called for a popular uprising to follow in the wake of the communist
offensive. Due to the quick reaction of ARVN and US forces and the brutal
atrocities committed by NVA / VC troops during Tet, the people of South Vietnam
overwhelmingly rejected this portion of the plan.
Even without Phase III, Giap's plan was sound. If the US responded to Khe Sanh,
some success could be expected in the general offensive. If the US opted to
protect South Vietnam's major cities, an NVA/VC triumph at Khe Sanh was
obtainable. In either case, the objective did not require absolute military
victory. Even a small measure of success would destroy American morale and
erode the authority of the Saigon government.
Giap had underestimated the tenacity and adaptability of the American soldier,
however. Thanks to effective air support the 6000 Marines at Khe Sanh held six
times their number at bay for six months. As for Phase II, after the initial
surprise (in some cases outright panic) US and ARVN forces rallied, quickly
driving the NVA / VC from every major city except Hue. Clearing the old
imperial capital required twenty-six days of bloody, house-to-house, close
quarters combat reminiscent of Stalingrad. It was not a mission the Marines
were trained for, but one at which they quickly became adept. By harnessing the
weapons at hand – .50 caliber machine guns mounted on 2 ½ ton trucks, M60
tanks, recoilless rifles mounted on mechanical mules, the unlikely Ontos and
their legendary espirit de corps – the Marines foiled Giap's carefully
laid military plans. Although they took heavy casualties, through basic
infantry skill and inspired innovation on the battlefield, they inflicted far
more. US / ARVN losses during Tet were 4300 KIA, 16000 WIA and 1000 MIA. NVA /
VC loses are estimated at 32 – 45000 KIA and 6 – 7000 captured. Such loses
severely hurt the NVA and by calling out sleeper cells in support of Tet
- decimated the VC. Indeed for the remainder of the war the NVA carried
the brunt of the fighting.
Tragically, civilian loses were also high. Many innocents were caught in the
crossfire and the communists entered the cities with ‘hit lists' of politically
unreliable personnel to be purged. In Hue alone some 2500 civilians were found
in mass graves after the battle, executed as "enemies of the people". Another
6000 were missing and presumed dead. The brutality of the communists caused
many undecided South Vietnamese to align with the Saigon government.
In spite of a disastrous tactical defeat Giap nevertheless won a strategic
political victory. Until Tet, the American public viewed Vietnam as a
relatively minor affair, with US forces on the path to victory. The audacity
and sheer scale of the Tet offensive shocked the American people, giving new
impetus to the peace movement and rocking the Johnson administration to its
core. As 250,000 protestors marched in Washington, DC, Congress considered the
first lottery draft since 1942. General Westmoreland requested 206,000
additional troops and permission to make a limited invasion of North Vietnam
above the DMZ. Johnson's dilemma could not have been more acute and the strain
unnerved him. To meet General Westmoreland's demand Johnson had to pull forces
out of Europe or mobilize an unprecedented number of reserves. Either option
meant political disaster. In the face of growing anti-war sentiment, he stopped
the bombing of North Vietnam, announced his willingness to seek a peaceful
settlement, and decided not to run for a second term. On the brink of victory,
Johnson and the American public lost its stomach for the fight. Although the
war dragged on for another five years, these decisions led inexorably to
Nixon's "Vietnamization Program" and the "Peace with Honor" abandonment of
South Vietnam in 1973.
|"If there's anything more melancholy than a battle lost,
it's a battle won."
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington
• Choose your allies wisely. From Ho Chi Minh to Osama bin Laden, the United
States has not done well in this regard. We tend to plan short-term, with
policies changing every four to eight years.
• A revolutionary or terrorist movement does not have to be popular in order to
succeed. It only needs to be persistent and organized, as the following
post-war exchange demonstrates: "You know you never defeated us in the field."
Col. Harry Summers. "That may be true, but it is also irrelevant." Unknown
North Vietnamese Colonel.
• A revolutionary or terrorist movement does not need to win battles; it only
has to keep fighting. After the war General Giap remarked that, despite eight
years of conflict, Americans never understood the war. The communists succeeded
by waging a protracted war that gradually became intolerable to the American
• To a revolutionary or terrorist, casualties do not matter. Ho Chi Minh once
said, "You can kill ten of my men for every one of yours, but I will still win.
You can kill one hundred of my soldiers for every one of yours, but I will
still win." Territory is not important; most certainly, nor is body count.
The only significant statistic in this war or any asymmetric conflict is the
will of the American people.
• Ensure the press reports the whole story. Americans despise propaganda, but
when provided with all the facts they generally make sound decisions. During
Vietnam, young reporters, eager to make a reputation in the new medium of
television, reported the Tet Offensive as a resounding North Vietnamese
victory. They never backed off from that story even when later information
proved otherwise. Everyone recalls the picture of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan
publicly executing a Viet Cong operative captured in Saigon. Even today few
realize that particular VC had been caught just after butchering the entire
family of one of General Loan's close subordinates. In that light, his action
is understandable. These are but a few examples of the incomplete reporting
that greatly affected the war in Vietnam. Biased or slanted journalism
continues today, with a drastic impact on public opinion and consequently
• Totally committed, North Vietnam fully mobilized its greatest resource – its
people – no matter what the final cost. The politicians in Washington DC lacked
that same resolution. War was never declared. Vietnam was never isolated from
Chinese or Soviet support as it could and should have been. Public opinion was
not properly mobilized. Johnson's "Great Society" continued simultaneously and
unabated with the war (Guns and Butter). All these factors critically affected
the will of the American people after Tet.
• In addition to military victory against insurgents, the United States must
also improve the lives of the people in question – the much maligned but
nonetheless crucial ‘hearts and minds' aspect of unconventional war. This is
the only way to overcome the cultural and religious differences we currently
face in so many parts of the world.
• On the tactical level, the Ontos and the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier (APC)
proved highly effective in providing direct fire support and were essential
elements in driving the NVA / VC from Saigon and Hue. We must ensure our
current forces have the proper mix of fixed and rotary-wing air cover and
light-tracked Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFV) for direct fire support. Main
Battle Tanks (MBT) are too large for many urban environments, and thin-skinned
wheeled trucks and HUMVEE's are too vulnerable.
"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."
America does not have the luxury Winston Churchill envisioned – our critics are
too numerous and too vocal, our society too open. Since no nation can face the
United States on a conventional battlefield, asymmetric warfare with all that
it entails, will be the tactic of choice for our enemies for the foreseeable
future. To have any chance of success in Afghanistan, Iraq or any of the areas
where national interest or humanitarian intervention may take our troops, our
leaders must recognize the multifaceted nature of unconventional war and plan
Joint Publication 1-02, The DOD Dictionary, defines Center of Gravity as
"those characteristics, capabilities, or sources of power from which a military
force derives is freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight." On
the political / strategic front, not only must we defeat the enemy on the field
of battle: we must also improve the lives of the local population to gain their
support; understand the cultures involved; and fully mobilize public opinion in
the war zone and at home. The Marine Corps understands asymmetric warfare. It
has tailored its tactics accordingly with the ‘Three Block War' doctrine.
Marines now train for peacekeeping operations in one neighborhood, humanitarian
aid in another and full-blown urban combat in the next – all within three city
blocks. In so doing they take away the enemy's center of gravity at the
tactical level. It remains to be seen if their national leaders appreciate the
requirements of unconventional war at the strategic level.
. These are of course very general terms. Communism was by no means a
monolithic entity and the Peoples Republic of North Vietnam had imperialistic
designs on its neighbors Laos and Cambodia. By the same token the Republic of
Vietnam was hardly a bastion of freedom, nor were American motives entirely
. Officially the destroyers were on "routine patrol". In reality there were
engaged in an aggressive intelligence-gathering mission supporting coordinated
attacks upon North Vietnam by the South Vietnamese navy and the Laotian air
force. The North Vietnamese may have inadvertently attacked the Maddox,
mistaking it for a South Vietnamese vessel on 02 August. The second attack on
August 4th has since been attributed to freak weather conditions, unconfirmed
sensor reports and strained nerves.
. One of the most effective legislators in American history and a consummate
politician Johnson could not understand why Ho Chi Minh could not be bought
with a generous aid package as he had bought so many others during his career.
. A small, lightweight, tracked, armored fighting vehicle with six turret
mounted 106mm recoilless rifles. This armored shotgun served admirably in Hue
as a bunker buster and equally well in the bush firing beehive rounds, each
containing one hundred darts, with devastating effect.
Copyright © 2006 Larry Parker
Written by Larry Parker. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Larry Parker at:
About the Author:
Lieutenant Commander Larry Parker, United States Navy, served as a Surface Warfare Officer, with afloat tours onboard USS De Wert (FFG-45) as
Ordnance & Fire Control Officer, USS Portland (LSD-37) as First Lieutenant, and USS Butte (AE-27) as Operations Officer.
Rotations ashore included Navy Reserve Center Cheyenne, Navy & Marine Corps Reserve Center Denver and Navy Reserve Readiness
Command Region 16 Minneapolis. He retired in July 2000 and taught Navy Junior ROTC until June 2011. LCDR Parker holds a Bachelor's
degree in English and History from the University of Kansas and a Master's degree in Military Studies - Land Warfare from American Military University.
In his free time LCDR Parker pursues a lifelong passion for military history. His articles are the result of extensive research and personal
experience in surface warfare, fleet logistics and amphibious operations.
Published online: 04/29/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.