Mark Bowden Looks Back at Vietnam and U.S. Foreign Policy Through the Lens of One Horrific Battle

tags: foreign policy, Vietnam, Vietnam War, Battle of Hue

David Kindy is a lifelong lover of history, living in Plymouth, Mass. A former award-winning journalist, he has read, studied and researched a wide range of historical topics, including the Pilgrims, American Revolution, Civil War and World War II.

In an interview the New York Times bestselling author of “Black Hawk Down” explains why he decided to write a book about Hue.

Mark Bowden did not want to write another “battle” book. The author of Black Hawk Down had been there, done that and wanted to do something else. But his friend and publisher Morgan Entrekin was certain that a book about the Vietnam slugfest that gripped the City of Hue in 1968 was that “something else.”

The more Bowden researched the battle, the more it grew on him. And the more surprised he became as he learned about what happened during this bloody nearly month-long engagement and its impact on the American war effort in Vietnam. He was 16 at the time of the Tet Offensive and recalled it – as many people do today – as a series of sporadic attacks that were quickly snuffed out by the U.S. military and South Vietnamese army. He was stunned by what he learned about the Battle of Hue (pronounced “Way”).

“It did come as a surprise to me that they [the North Vietnamese] took the third largest city in South Vietnam and held it for nearly a month and it took this horrific battle to throw them out,” Bowden recalled. “We’re talking about a battle that is easily the largest, bloodiest battle fought by American troops – perhaps since the Battle of Seoul in the Korea War excepted – in the latter half of the 20th century… and I knew almost nothing about it.”

So Bowden did decide to write another “battle” book. Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam is a New York Times bestseller and an epic recollection of this pivotal moment in U.S. history. Through painstaking research and lengthy interviews with survivors of all sides, the author has crafted a detailed examination of this intense, brutal struggle to regain control of the Imperial City. As the battle unfolds in the pages of Bowden’s book, it becomes increasingly clear that American perception of the Vietnam War is on the cusp of a transformation – and the results of this fight will decide the direction.

In the span of about three hours in the predawn of Jan. 31, 1968, upwards of 10,000 North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong forces swarmed into Hue and easily overpowered any resistance. The assault took place during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, which traditionally is a time of peace and family. Many South Vietnamese soldiers had left their units to celebrate with loved ones, leaving the gate unguarded for an enemy attack.

What happened next was carnage on a monumental scale. To take the city back, U.S. Marines would have to fight block by block, building by building, even floor by floor in some of the fiercest urban fighting in history. Thousands would die as Hue became a smaller version of Stalingrad – in a much shorter timeframe and without the snow.

“It was one of the things that pulled me into the book,” Bowden said. “This enormous battle involved tens of thousands of soldiers and many more tens of thousands of civilians … You could argue that this was more intense if only because Stalingrad became kind of a siege and had sporadic clashes here and there, but there was a lot of downtime. But not in Hue. It was pretty much full bore from the beginning.”

During the Tet Offensive, some 200,000 North Vietnamese soldiers poured into South Vietnam and captured hundreds of villages, towns and cities, including portions of Saigon, the capital. Most of these attacks were quickly beaten back by heavily armed Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and American troops, which could call in devastating artillery and aircraft strikes against enemy positions.

Hue was a different matter. The ancient city was once the capital when emperors still ruled Vietnam. In the 20th century, it became the cultural and spiritual center for the entire country – North and South. Hue featured a large citadel with thick stone walls and a moat, which would prove to be formidable obstacles during the battle. It was also a major residential area and sizeable commercial district. Its proximity to the DMZ made it a welcome target for the NVA and Viet Cong.

The Tet Offensive and occupation of Hue were conceived by a more militant faction of the North Vietnamese government, led by Communist Party First Secretary Le Duan. They wanted to inflict heavy casualties on American forces and force an early end to the war. Ho Chi Minh, the ailing President and figurehead, opposed the plan as to reckless and costly but this more assertive approach won out.

Called Tong-tan-cong-Noi-day, the plan called for a massive assembly of troops into staging areas in South Vietnam, along with infiltration of key communities by covert operatives. When the coordinated attack began over the Tet holiday, military units would seize control of many population centers while political groups would administer “justice” – mainly executions of those seen as enemies of the state.

Key to this whole plan was a general uprising of people in South Vietnam, who were seen as oppressed by their current corrupt government and held under the yoke of American forces. North Vietnamese leaders believed their armies would be welcomed as liberators and would be joined en masse by the populace in ridding the country of oppressors.

Field commanders were not so convinced that they would receive a hero’s welcome in the South. Many were concerned that this scenario would not play out and a few believed it to be a suicide mission. Those latter commanders realized there would be no great uprising but were determined to make the Americans pay dearly for every inch of real estate they tried to reclaim.

“The North Vietnamese believed their own propaganda, and they weren’t the only people to fall into that trap,” Bowden said.

The American military command was convinced that if an attack occurred, it would be at Khe Sanh, an isolated Marine base near the DMZ. Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, refused to believe that Hue or other locations in South Vietnam were under serious threat for several days after the Tet Offensive began. He was sure the main thrust would be at Khe Sanh. He also believed that the North Vietnamese military was on the verge of collapse and that victory was close at hand for the Americans and their allies.

In fact, most of the upper echelon at Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) refused to believe the North Vietnamese had penetrated South Vietnam in the numbers field officers were reporting. Despite heavy U.S. casualties in and around Hue, many generals were convinced the problem was inexperienced junior officers encountering resistance for the first time. Companies of marines and soldiers would be ordered to attack enemy positions, only to suffer horrendous casualties because of the massed firepower of the NVA and Viet Cong. In Hue, companies couldn’t even cross the street without armor escort because of the bullets flying from every imaginable angle.

Fortunately, the job of retaking Hue fell into the capable hands of Lt. Col. Ernie Cheatham of the U.S. Marines. He suspected that senior commanders did not fully comprehend the situation on the ground. His suspicions were confirmed when he arrived at MACV compound in Hue, which resembled a besieged fort in a Hollywood western. Marines could not venture outside the site without attracting a blizzard of small-arms fire and RPG rounds.

Cheatham realized the task before his small marine force was daunting. And he also understood that he himself was inadequately trained for what had to happen. He dug through the ruins of the MACV offices and found marine manuals on urban warfare. He spent the night boning up on his mission and then instructed his team what would come next.

The manuals stressed the need for in-close artillery support, so Cheatham had his troops grab every mobile cannon, mortar, bazooka and satchel charge they could find. The marines would have to blast their way through each building and flush out the enemy block by block, floor by floor, room by room. And that’s exactly what they did. More than 80 percent of this ancient city would be destroyed as the marines bravely fought and died for inches of territory at a time.

The marines needed to go through walls to get at the enemy. Luckily, they had Ontos, an arachnid-looking mobile artillery piece with six 106 mm antitank guns mounted on top of it. It had been built for the Army, which refused to use it because each weapon could only be loaded from outside the armored vehicle. Of course, the Marines inherited the Ontos, which is Greek for “thing.” It was invaluable in blasting large holes in stone buildings to give marines a chance at success.

Cheatham, a burly former NFL player, directed operations, often with a half-chewed cigar dangling from his mouth. He was on the frontlines with his troops throughout the counter-attack and was resourceful in understanding problems and coming up with solutions that would result in minimal casualties.

“If you talk to these guys who were his young company commanders, a number of whom retired as generals later, they just revere him,” Bowden said. “Their gratitude and respect for him is quite inspiring.”

The North Vietnamese field commanders understood what they were up against. Even though Le Duan back in Hanoi was certain of victory, unit leaders in Hue knew they could not hold the city. Their objective became to make the results very costly for the Americans and South Vietnamese. NVA fire teams would hold positions as long as possible, hammering away at the slightest enemy movement, then pull back to another position after the marines were bloodied and exhausted.

After nearly a month of fierce fighting, the North Vietnamese were expelled from Hue – but at a terrible cost. Most of the historic fortified city was in ruins and tens of thousands of people were dead. It was a tactical victory for the U.S. and South Vietnamese since they regained control of lost territory, but in the end, it turned out to be a huge strategic triumph for the North Vietnamese. The American will to fight a war with no end in sight was gone.

Shortly before the end of the battle, Walter Cronkite visited South Vietnam and visited Hue. He personally believed in the U.S. mission to stop Communism but was beginning to have doubts about how the war was being waged. More importantly, he was starting to understand that the propaganda distributed by the Pentagon was not matching the reports he was receiving from embedded reporters.

So the legendary CBS anchor, who had landed at Normandy in World War II as a journalist for UPI, went to what was happening for himself. He returned to his studio in New York and broadcast his “Report from Vietnam” about what he learned. The half-hour program reviewed the battle and reported honestly about the results.

Cronkite summed it up at the end with a profound statement: “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion… It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out 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.”

That news was devastating to the White House – and the American public. President Lyndon Johnson, like much of the rest of the country, realized the tide had turned. “If I’ve lost Cronkite, then I’ve lost middle America” he reportedly said. Sadly, the killing would continue for another seven years – five more before the U.S. left Vietnam and an additional two before the North conquered the South to end a very deadly civil war.

In the nearly five decades since the end of this battle, considerable weight has been given to the strategic goals of the North Vietnamese. Hue has taken on a mythic glow as a planned exercise in destroying support for the American cause. In reality, it was a near-military disaster for North Vietnam with unintended PR value 10,000 miles away.

“In retrospect, because [North Vietnam] won the war, it’s easier to ascribe a higher level of intelligence and foresight and wisdom than really they deserved,” Bowden said. “The truth is that they outlasted the United States. They had a deeper commitment to the war. But this was a blunder and it very nearly broke their back.”

Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam has received considerable attention from historians and journalists alike. It is a marvelous examination of a critical moment in American history but is an investigative narrative that digs deep to bring out the political, cultural and personal stories that of those that were there. It is a compelling read that stirs long-buried emotions of a difficult time with an emphasis on historical significance.

Bowden, who still considers himself an old-fashioned “beat” reporter, used his newspaper skills to track down as many individuals who were part of this incredible event as he could find. He deftly details their experiences and dovetails them into the chronology to give personal perspective to this amazing story.

For Mark Bowden, in the end, this book is about the arrogance of power. How we got into Vietnam, why we stayed there and why it was so difficult for us to leave are questions he examines with a heartfelt purpose. Looking back at Hue and Vietnam in general provides a looking glass for America to see itself and understand the mistakes we made – and those we continue to make.

“We have a tendency in this country to kind of dumb ourselves down periodically,” he said. “If you read The Best and the Brightest [by David Halberstam], you see how the national political priority of anti-communism in the 1950s and ‘60s effectively rooted out people in the State Department, the CIA even in the military who had deep regional knowledge, who understood Southeast Asian history, who spoke the languages, who knew the cultures and would stand up at a meeting discussing whether the United States should be involved in the war in Vietnam and would say ‘We shouldn’t be involved in this, it’s not a simple case of monolithic communism spreading south.’

“Very often, in our politics, we as a country are willing to project these simplistic notions on the rest of the world. Our expectations are out of whack, our understanding is out of whack. I mean, look at what we did in Iraq. Look back at [Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz’s comments on how the people of Iraq would treat us a liberators when we overthrew Saddam Hussein and you saw how well that went. That stems from an almost willful ignorance of what the reality was.

“To us, as a country, the State Department, the CIA and to some extant the Pentagon, those are the pieces of our government that make us smart. It doesn’t mean they always right about everything, but they are tremendously important in our dealings with the rest of the world.

“When our leaders start thinking, ‘I don’t want to know the details. This is the way I think it is. This is the way I want it to be.’ That’s the kind of thinking that gets our country into these horrible messes around the world.”

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