On January 30, 1968, after months of preparation, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops and Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas launched a massive, coordinated assault on nearly every city, town, and military installation in South Vietnam in what became known as the Tet Offensive. One of the fiercest engagements of the offensive would be the Battle of Hue.
The Tet Offensive occurred during the Lunar New Year known locally as Tet, the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture. Because of this many South Vietnamese troops were on leave and away from their bases during the attack. Further, great numbers of VC units were able to sneak into major cities and towns due to the holiday celebrations.
During the attack, more than 80,000 NVA and VC troops attacked over 100 cities and towns including 36 of the 44 provincial capitals, about a third of the district towns, and the capital of South Vietnam. It was the largest offensive conducted during the war up to that point.
The North Vietnamese believed that the South Vietnamese government had such poor support among the people and that its army such little will to fight, that the offensive would ignite a popular uprising allowing the forces of the North to sweep victory and oust the Americans from the country.
Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a massive failure for the Communist North. After at first, quickly capturing many cities, they were just as quickly pushed back in nearly every instance suffering massive casualties during the bloody fighting.
Yet, the Battles of Hue, Khe Sanh, and the taking of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and their broadcast on American television turned a military disaster for the North into a major political victory. They were the impetus that began the American withdrawal from Vietnam.
The Calm Before the Storm
The battle for the ancient city of Hue lasted from January 31 to March 2, 1968. Due to Tet, many of the South’s soldiers were on leave and the city was poorly defended. Hue, with a population of 140,000, was separated by the Perfume River. South of the river was the more modern half of the city while in the northern half, about two-thirds of the population lived within the walls of the Citadel, the ancient home of the Annamese emperors who had ruled what is now central Vietnam.
The walls of the Citadel were in places up to 30 feet high and 10-12 feet thick. The Citadel was surrounded by a zig-zag moat that was 12 feet deep. Part of it was backed up to the Perfume River.
Hue was strategically located along Highway 1 which ran from the large American base at Da Nang to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) about 31 miles to the north. While the scope of the Tet offensive shocked many in the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam (MACV), U.S. intelligence was well aware of the buildup of the North’s forces prior to the battle.
In mid-December, General Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, had sent a message to Washington reporting a massive rise in infiltrations of NVA troops. Further, he communicated his expectations that the NVA/VC “[will] undertake an intensified countrywide effort, perhaps a maximum effort, over a relatively short period of time.” But the U.S. leadership was myopically focused on Khe Sanh.
However, in late January 1968, the mood was not one of alarm. North Vietnam had announced a general ceasefire for the period of 27 January – 3 February to observe the Tet celebrations.
American forces in Hue included just a small MACV contingent (about 200 men). Marine and Army units were stationed, along with South Vietnamese units, outside the city.
The Battle of Hue Begins
On January 31 at 2:33 a.m., 8,000 NVA regular troops, as well as VC sapper battalions, attacked the city. The NVA’s 6th Regiment, with two battalions of infantry and the 12th VC Sapper Battalion, launched the main attack from the southwest. Linking up with the VC infiltrators, they raced quickly across the Perfume River into the Citadel toward the headquarters of the South Vietnamese (ARVN) 1st Infantry Division.
The 800th and 802nd battalions of the 6th Regiment rapidly overran most of the Citadel. Yet, ARVN troops held on to their headquarters while the North’s attack continued throughout the first day.
By the second day, Communist forces had taken virtually all of the city south of the Perfume River and had set up blocking positions to stop reinforcements from reaching the Citadel.
The small American MACV compound had also held and was calling for reinforcements. Still not realizing the scope of the battle, the Marines sent only one rifle company (A Company, 1st Bn, 1st Marines). They were pinned down by heavy Communist fire short of the compound. Another Marine rifle company (G Company, 2nd Bn, 5th Marines) from Phu Bai joined them and managed to break through to the beleaguered compound. They then set out to link up with ARVN 1st Division.
The commander of the ARVN 1st Division, Brigadier general Ngô Quang Trưởng, called for reinforcements from his 3rd Regiment, which was stationed outside the city. Two troops of Calvary, as well as two battalions of Airborne troops, were also called to assist.
The Slaughter of Civilians Begins
As soon as NVA and VC troops captured most of the city, they had special units with loudspeakers call out names from a list of “cruel tyrants and reactionary elements” previously established by VC intelligence officers. These people were charged with removing the Republic of Vietnam’s administration from power within the city and replacing it with a “revolutionary administration.”
The list included ARVN soldiers, civil servants, political party members, local religious leaders, schoolteachers, American civilians, and other foreigners. Those not reporting voluntarily for “re-education” were hunted down and marched out of the city. Few ever returned.
The NVA/VC dug several mass graves and executed thousands of civilians, military members, and government workers. In the months after the battle, more graves were found totaling at least 2,800 people. Some estimates put the numbers much higher at nearly 6,000.
In the 1970 report, The Viet Cong Strategy of Terror, U.S. Information Agency analyst Douglas Pike wrote that at least half of the bodies unearthed in Hue revealed clear evidence of “atrocity killings: [including] hands wired behind backs, rags stuffed in mouths, bodies contorted but without wounds (indicating burial alive).”
Nevertheless, most U.S. major media outlets refused to publish stories of the civilian massacre, disbelieving its existence. One political scientist, D. Gareth Porter wrote several years later that the Hue Massacre was one of the “enduring myths” of the war. He claimed that most of the deaths occurred by U.S. airstrikes calling the massacre a “complete fabrication.” Instead, most American media reports focused on the cost of the operation in terms of American lives lost.
However, Bui Tin, a former NVA Colonel did acknowledge that indiscriminate killings had occurred. In his memoir, From Enemy to Friend: A North Vietnamese Perspective on the War, he recalled that the discipline of the NVA troops broke down under the intense American airstrikes that accompanied the counterattacks to retake Hue. The “units from the north” had been “told that Hue was the stronghold of feudalism, a bed of reactionaries, the breeding ground of Can Lao Party loyalists who remained true to the memory of former South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem and of Nguyen Van Thieu’s Democracy Party,” Tin wrote. He said that many troops had panicked in the retreat and killed their prisoners that were supposed to be sent north.
Retaking the City
The Marines and the ARVN forces began the slow, bloody, house-to-house clearing of the city. Marine artillery spotters from the 1st Field Artillery Group were told by General Trưởng that they were forbidden to fire on the Imperial Palace. This hampered their attempts to support the fighting with artillery and off-shore naval gunfire. This was the first urban combat conducted by Marine infantry units since the Korean war. It was something that the troops had not been trained in and they learned on the fly.
It took the Marines about two weeks to retake the southern half of the city. The process was costly. They suffered 38 KIA and 320 wounded. However, the cost for the NVA/VC was even higher at more than 1,000 dead.
Meanwhile, the ARVN attempts at retaking the Citadel had bogged down by February 4, so they had to ask the Marines for assistance. The fighting was intense as U.S. Marines and ARVN forces met determined resistance. It wasn’t until February 24 that South Vietnamese units pulled down the Communist flag. It took another week of mopping up operations to finally clear all of the NVA/VC troops from the area. The Battle of Hue was finally over.
The city of Hue, which had thus far been spared any of the horrors of the war, had been devastated. A total of 116,000 out of 140,000 people had been displaced. The ancient city was in ruins. Casualties on the allied side were high. ARVN losses were 452 KIA and 2,123 wounded, while the U.S. suffered 216 KIA and 1,584 wounded.
NVA/VC losses estimates vary widely. The North Vietnamese government claimed that they lost 2,400 KIA and 3,000 wounded. A captured document of the NVA by the ARVN stated that 1,042 troops had been killed in the city, with several times that number wounded.
During the fighting 844 civilians were killed and 1,900 wounded. The South Vietnamese government claimed that 4,856 civilians and captured ARVN personnel were executed by the NVA/VC or were missing.
US Public Opinion Turns the Tet Offensive Into a Humiliating Loss
Despite the fact that the major North Vietnamese attack on the South was crushed militarily with enormous losses to the North and no uprising took place in the South, the campaign turned into a major political victory for the North and was viewed in the United States as a terrible defeat.
The Marines on the ground performed magnificently, as well as their fathers had in any of the WWII battles, but the U.S. public opinion was blind to their efforts and sacrifice.
General Westmoreland had constantly underestimated the number of enemy troop strength in the South and the consistent rosy reports from MACV HQs underscored the fierce fighting that was taking place.
One of the pivotal moments was when CBS’s Walter Cronkite traveled to Vietnam and reported from Hue during the battle. Cronkite had been a reporter since World War II and the host of the CBS Evening News since 1962. In an opinion poll, he had been voted “the most trusted man in America.” Cronkite closed his Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why? with a short editorial that would forever turn America against the war,
“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations.”
“It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that – negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to an invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle.”
“And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”
“On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.”
America began its process of “Vietnamization” and the slow but inexorable withdrawal from Vietnam soon after the Battle of Hue and the Tet Offensive.
Unlike the events that recently played out in Afghanistan, the collapse of South Vietnam didn’t occur within days. Rather, it took two more years for the South to fold following a full-scale military invasion from the north.