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A Time of Testing": The Battle for Hue
The "A Time of Testing": 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."
Aldous Huxley


"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[1] 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."
George Santayana

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 1969.

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.[2] 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.[3] 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 ensued.

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[4] 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.

Lessons Learned

"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 people.

• 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 national policy.

• 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."
Winston Churchill

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 accordingly.

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.

* * *


[1]. 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 altruistic.

[2]. 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.

[3]. 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.

[4]. 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.
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