Title: "Hue 1968 – A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam"
Author: Mark Bowden
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Mark Bowden writes in a very conversational narrative style with many first-person accounts from both sides. In "Hue 1968," Bowdon writes about the 1968 Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, with the largest battle being fought in Hue, the second-largest city in South Vietnam.
In January 1968, America had been fighting the Viet Cong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) (Bowden often refers to them collectively as the Front) in Vietnam alongside the Army of Vietnam (ARVN) since 1965. In January of 1968, the Front had been covertly building up forces throughout Vietnam while very publicly surrounding the Marines at Khe Sanh in the northwest part of Vietnam near the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam) and near the border with Laos. The Supreme Commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmorland, asserted the only threat was at Khe Sanh, where he claimed the NVA were preparing to launch a major battle.
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On January 31, 1968, the Front launched coordinated attacks all across South Vietnam including Saigon and Hue. Within a few days most of the attacks had been defeated, with the Front suffering heavy losses. However, the battle for Hue raged on until the Front withdrew what remained of its forces on Feb. 25, 1968. The causalities at Hue were heavy on both sides and among the civilians. “Two hundred and fifty American marines and soldiers were killed, and 1,554 wounded. Another 458 ARVN soldiers were killed and an estimated 2,700 wounded. The Front’s losses are estimated to have been between 2,400 and 5,000… When you add the number of combatants killed to estimates of civilian deaths, the final toll of the Battle of Hue numbers well over ten thousand, making it by far the bloodiest of the Vietnam War.”
Bowden quoted the North Vietnamese prime minister, “Our purpose is, through a program of all-out attacks, to cause many U.S. causalities, and to erode the U.S. will that antiwar influences will gain decisive political strength.” Bowden concludes, “By this measure, the Tet Offensive was a major victory for Hanoi.”
Bowden makes it clear the US and ARVN forces were caught by surprise all over South Vietnam, but Westmorland failed to grasp the fact Hue had been overrun and was being held by the Front in very large numbers. “The official assessment, from the government of South Vietnam and from the MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam), was that the enemy had taken heavy losses in exchange for questionable ‘psychological’ gains. All the reports insisted the enemy had not captured any territory.” Walt Rostow in the White House was able to accurately write in a memo to President Johnson stating the ARVN units held the northeast part of the Citadel while the Marines held the MACV compound on the south of the river separating the Citadel and the Triangle. “This completely accurate summary, which Westy surely had seen, was apparently dismissed as false. The general continued to maintain publicly and privately that the enemy presence in Hue was minor and completely manageable. … In these first two days of Tet, the general continued to stress that the real attack was coming at Khe Sanh.”
Not fully understanding the situation in Hue, commanders initially ordered futile counterattacks. The Marines, soldiers and ARVN gradually built up their forces and gained the upper hand, but it was building-to-building combat not seen since Seoul in the Korean War. Westmorland kept insisting the major battle was yet to come at Khe Sanh. It never came, Westmorland lost credibility, and he was kicked upstairs to Army chief of staff.
The first-person accounts Bowden describes from both sides are remarkably candid and graphic, so you can get a glimpse of the terrible and vicious combat that took place for more than three weeks. He does mention two North Dakotans caught up in the battle for Hue. Steve Haukness, who graduated with me from the University of North Dakota in 1964, worked for AID (Agency for International Development). He was in Hue when it was overrun, with a friend, Steve Miller. They went to Miller’s house in Hue, where they were both arrested the next morning. “Miller’s body would be found later, his arms bound behind his back, shot in the back of the head in a field behind a Catholic seminary that the Front used to gather prisoners. Haukness’s remains were found six years later.” His remains are buried in the North Viking Cemetery in Maddock. Marine Sgt. Steve Berntson was a military journalist from Park River, where as a high school sophomore he wrote stories and was “paid a nickel per column inch by the Walsh County Press. … (H)e had been in Vietnam for eight months, and he’d learned to hear the difference between the sound of an explosion that said: Get down right now! and the kind that said: No worries, keep walking. He was afraid a lot, but it had become a discerning fear.”
Bowdon wrote of the famous photo of the national police chief shooting a handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner in the head. “Never mind that this fellow had been busy that morning shooting scores of people in cold blood, the image alone told a simpler, more brutal story, one brandished enthusiastically by the war’s opponents.”
In 1954 the French and the Viet Minh signed an accord granting independence to Vietnam, partitioning the country between north and south at the 17th parallel, and calling for elections in 1956 to reunite the country. South Vietnam reneged on the election. Think of how much blood and resources would have been saved if the election had been held. President Eisenhower did not send combat troops to help the French, but he did up the number of arms and advisors to South Vietnam. President Kennedy in 1961 wrote to the president of South Vietnam, “We are prepared to help the Republic of Vietnam to protect its people and to preserve its independence.” It was all downhill from that point on, although ironically, we now have good relations with Vietnam.
Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge, former attorney general and a retired Navy Captain.