Huế 1968 | Mark Bowden

Summary of: Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
By: Mark Bowden

Introduction

Delve into the gripping account of ‘Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam’ by Mark Bowden. Learn about the underlying causes and consequences of the First Indochina War, the impact of the French colonial era, and the significance of the Geneva agreement. Discover the complexities of the Vietnam War and the pivotal Tet Offensive, the battle for the city of Hue, and the political fallout both in Vietnam and the United States. This book summary sheds light on the misleading military intelligence, media coverage, and the eventual shift in public opinion that altered the course of history.

The Roots of Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was more than a proxy Cold War conflict. The French colonial rule and Geneva Accords are the main reasons why the US intervened in Vietnam.

The Vietnam War is not just a conflict where the US and its allies fought against the communist forces led by North Vietnam. The war was rooted in the history of French colonial rule, which saw the emergence of the Viet Minh, a revolutionary pro-independence organization led by Ho Chi Minh that fought for Vietnam’s freedom from France. The French Indochina War, which lasted from 1946 to 1954, finally ended with the Geneva Accords. The agreement stipulated that France would leave Indochina while Vietnam would become an independent country, with a temporary division between North and South Vietnam until the 1956 elections.

However, the South Vietnamese government reneged on the Geneva Accords, backed by the US, which feared the spread of communism from the north. The US believed that South Vietnam’s Western-style governance could contain communism. When the Viet Cong, formerly known as the Viet Minh, launched a campaign of armed resistance in the south, the US intervened, sending troops to fight against the communist forces.

In summary, the Vietnam War was a result of a complex interplay of history, politics, and ideology. The French colonial rule, the struggle for national self-determination, and the Geneva Accords, which ultimately failed, are the main reasons why the US intervened in Vietnam.

The Futile Bombing Campaign in Vietnam

The American military intervention in Vietnam, driven by President Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson, went beyond its initial purpose and turned into a full-scale ground and bombing campaign. The bombings, which were meant to force North Vietnam to negotiate, resulted in enormous casualties for Vietnamese civilians, with more bombs falling on Vietnam than all of Europe during World War II. However, the US strategy was inadequate for the situation in Vietnam, as it was mostly an agricultural society with no significant industrial targets, and contrary to the official death count, the bombings failed to stop the Communist forces from advancing. Despite the doubts raised within the government and even by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara himself, General William Westmoreland insisted on continuing the campaign, leading to the deployment of over 385,000 American soldiers into Vietnam by the end of 1966.

The Misleading Vietnam War Victory

Inflated American casualty figures during the Vietnam War resulted in General Westmoreland overestimating his optimism about the U.S. winning the war. This skewed data was then shared with President LBJ, leading to a false sense of American success. However, Westy and Hanoi were both proven mistaken as the North planned a massive operation called the Tet Offensive, hoping to inspire the South Vietnamese to rise up against their American oppressors. Though there was support for the North in rural communities, cities were unlikely to revolt, and the war remained a struggle for both sides.

The Bold Tet Offensive

Hue, a strategically important city, remained untouched until the Tet Offensive. The city required nearly 10,000 troops to be captured. The Viet Cong established their base in La Chu, while the local cells recruited new members. Artillery and regular units were approaching the city with specific orders. The mission of a single man was to raise a unique flag symbolizing the city’s religious factions and intelligentsia to incite its population to join the cause. The Tet Offensive was meticulously planned and executed, earning praise from even US Navy officials.

Tet Offensive: The Start of the End

In 1968, the Vietnamese New Year, known as Tet, was supposed to be a time of truce. However, Hanoi had different plans and used the holiday period to launch a surprise attack. Thousands of troops moved silently and attacked various government buildings within hours. Although they failed to meet one of their main objectives of defeating the US military compound, the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the war—the US public had expected a swift victory, and the attack proved otherwise. The event intensified anti-war sentiments and marked the start of the end of the American war effort in Vietnam.

Brutal Communist Crackdown

After capturing Hue in the Tet Offensive, Communist troops massed in the city and sought to rally locals to their side. However, the citizens refused to cooperate, leading to a brutal crackdown on supposed foreign elements, southern-aligned elites, and alleged spies. The crackdown included sending foreigners to internment centers and summarily executing suspected enemies of the people. The Communist soldiers’ lack of English led to the false execution of French workers for the local power station. Ultimately, over 2,000 people were executed in the coming weeks, marking the beginning of a reign of terror.

Underestimating the Enemy

The book recounts the American military’s blunder in underestimating the severity of the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, particularly in the battle for Hue City. Despite reports indicating a significant Communist force, American leadership refused to acknowledge the situation’s gravity and sent troops on a suicide mission. Lieutenant Colonel Gravel’s call for reinforcements was ignored, and ultimately, the enemy overwhelmed American troops at the main bridge to the Citadel. The book highlights the dangers of underestimating the enemy and the dire consequences of failing to assess the situation’s reality.

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