Mark Bowden’s Huế 1968 (6)

One of the remarkable aspects of the battle at Huế was that the North Vietnamese stood and fought instead of fading away when U.S. military forces approached. The North Vietnamese modus operandi had always been to follow Mao Tse Tung’s formula: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” Whenever the American military was able to engage the North Vietnamese, it won the battle. But most of the time, communist forces vanished when the U.S. tried to engage them. The communist strategy was to wear down the enemy until he finally gave up and quit. In the long term, the strategy worked—the U.S. withdrew and the North Vietnamese finally conquered all of Vietnam in 1975.

Little noticed at the time was that at all three major battles in late 1967 and early 1968—and even in some of the attacks during the Tet Offensive through South Vietnam—the North Vietnamese stood their ground. At Dak To, Khe Sanh, and Huế, the North Vietnamese met U.S. forces head on. That was new.

In fact, the Tet Offensive and those three battles were the turning point in the war in South Vietnam. The irony is that the North Vietnamese were militarily defeated in each of those events, and their losses were huge. The Tet Offensive in particular was a North Vietnamese military failure. It did not spark an uprising, as the North Vietnamese expected, nor did their forces defeat the U.S. and the South Vietnamese military. But the offensive was a political success. It ignited popular opposition to the war in the U.S., in part because it gave lie to the administration’s assurances that we were winning the war and the North Vietnamese were close to giving up.

More tomorrow.

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