'Hue 1968' Revisits An American 'Turning Point' In The War In Vietnam
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
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JOHN LAURENCE: What kind of fighting is it going to be?
ERNIE CHEATHAM: It's house to house and from room to room.
LAURENCE: Had you ever expected to experience this kind of street fighting in Vietnam?
CHEATHAM: No, I didn't, and this is my first crack at street fighting. I think this is the first time the Marine Corps' been street fighting since Seoul in 1950.
DAVIES: That's CBS correspondent Don Webster reporting on what our guest, Mark Bowden, says was the single bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War and one of its defining events. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the version of this report that was broadcast, we misidentify the CBS correspondent in the clip of the battlefield interview during the Battle of Hue as Don Webster speaking to Mark Bowden. The reporter was CBS correspondent John Laurence, and he was speaking with Lt. Col. Ernest Cheatham.] Bowden's new book tells the story of the ferocious battle for Hue, Vietnam's old imperial capital and one of the targets of the Tet Offensive of 1968 when Communist forces surprised American troops and their Vietnamese allies with coordinated attacks across South Vietnam.
The offensive soured many Americans on the war which U.S. commanders had insisted was going well. Bowden interviewed dozens of participants in the battle as well as civilians who suffered terribly and journalists who covered the fighting. Mark Bowden is the author of "Black Hawk Down" and 12 other books. He's also a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
Well, Mark Bowden, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to begin with a reading of your book. This is a moment where we meet an American soldier who is with an - a unit that is pinned down by North Vietnamese soldiers. He's in a foxhole. Do you want to just set this up and read us this portion?
MARK BOWDEN: Yeah. His name is Carl DiLeo, and he was infantryman with an Army Cavalry unit that had been sent out to push toward the Citadel from the north. And they got trapped in the middle of a field where they were stuck for a day or two essentially with the North Vietnamese taking target practice at them. And it was a - they lost half of their men. So it was a harrowing and terrifying experience for him and for all of the men who were there.
(Reading) The worst thing was the mortars, which rained straight down on them. They were being launched periodically from only a few hundred yards away. DiLeo could hear the pock and then the whoosh of its climbing. If he looked up, he could actually see the thing as it slowed to its apogee. From that point on, it was perfectly silent. There it would hang, a black spot in the gray sky, for what seemed like a very long beat, the way a punted football was captured in slow motion by NFL Films, before it plummeted straight down at them.
(Reading) The explosion was like a body blow even when it wasn't close. All of these were close. You opened your mouth, and sometimes you screamed out of fear, and it kept your eardrums from bursting. It was hell, a death lottery where all you could do was wait your turn. If you stayed down in the hole, you were OK unless the mortar had your number and landed right on top of you.
(Reading) This is what happened to DiLeo's good friend Walt Loos and the other man in his foxhole, Russell Kephart. They were one hole over. They got plumed. They were erased from the Earth. DiLeo watched the round all the way down, and it exploded right in their hole, vaporizing them. One second, they were there, living and breathing and thinking and maybe swearing or even praying just like him.
(Reading) And in the next second, two hale young men, both of them sergeants in the United States Army, pride of their hometowns - Perryville, Mo., and Willimantic, Conn., respectively - had been turned into a plume of fine pink mist, tiny bits of blood, bone, tissue, flesh and brain that rose and drifted and settled over everyone and everything nearby. It, or they, drifted down on DiLeo, who reached up to wipe the bloody ooze from his eyes and saw that his arms and the rest of him were coated, too. Then there would come another pock and another whoosh.
DAVIES: And that is Mark Bowden reading from his new book about a pivotal battle in the Vietnam War, "Hue 1968." You know, that's such a vivid description of the brutality and terror of war. And that's - there's a lot of that in the book. But that particular incident also I think highlights some of the things that you see in the war and particularly the ignorance and self-deception of a lot of military commanders. So that's what I like about this, is that it gets the detail and some of the big picture. So we'll get to that. But I want to start here by talking about a young woman, an 18-year-old young woman who was a Viet Cong fighter in the Hue area. Her name was Che Thi Mung.
DAVIES: Tell us about her, why she was so committed to the Viet Cong.
BOWDEN: Well, she was an 18-year-old village girl. Her family had fought for independence against the Viet Minh years earlier. Her grandfather had been arrested. Her father had spent time in jail.
DAVIES: The Viet Minh were those who fought against the French when they occupied...
DAVIES: ...Indochina in the '50s.
BOWDEN: In the 1950s. And so here we were, you know, 14 years later. A new generation was fighting against - this time it was the Americans, who were perceived as foreigners, invaders who were trying to rule the Vietnamese people. Her older sister had joined the Viet Cong and had gotten killed.
And after her sister was killed, the South Vietnamese came to the village and rounded up everyone related to her, including Che. And Che was taken and interrogated. She was waterboarded, basically, and was extremely proud of the fact that she had not told them anything. She herself had joined the Viet Cong since her sister's death, and she knew a lot about what was going on in the village. You know, she's about my age or a little older than I am, in her 60s now. And she's still extremely proud of having endured and not given up anything.
DAVIES: In the fall of 1967, the commanders came to her and said something big is happening.
DAVIES: We have a role for you. What was it?
BOWDEN: And they recruited her and 10 other girls from local villages. And the idea was for them to move into the city of Hue and spy on the Americans and the South Vietnamese. And so she moved in with a family and lived in the center of the city, selling conical hats on the streets and basically observed the comings and goings of American troops from the compound, the MACV compound in the southern part of the city and other...
DAVIES: That's the American military compound, yeah.
BOWDEN: ...Right - and other, you know, military locations. And she didn't take any notes because it was too dangerous. She would memorize numbers and types of weaponry and comings and goings. She did this for months along with these other 10 girls. So she knew that something big was coming. But her job was just to observe and report back every evening.
DAVIES: Right. There would eventually be an invasion, and she would have a role in guiding these troops through these streets which she knew so well. Let's talk a little bit about where the war was in 1968, who the combatants were, what the American military presence was in Vietnam.
BOWDEN: Well, Lyndon Johnson had really upped America's involvement in the war three years earlier, in 1965, from playing the role strictly as advisers to the South Vietnamese troops to actually waging war themselves. And so by 1968 - actually, by 1967, there were a half a million American troops there, an enormous American presence. I mean Vietnam had become, for all intents and purposes, a Vietnam colony.
And you know, what had happened as a result of this tremendous investment was really not much. They had slowed the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, but they hadn't stopped them. And the war was really kind of at a stalemate even though the general in charge, General William Westmoreland, had made a trip to the United States in late 1967 and assured everybody that victory was really just around the corner.
DAVIES: He had the trust and confidence of Lyndon Johnson. The president really believed what Westmoreland was telling him.
DAVIES: One of the things that you saw in that area that stage of the war was that American airpower was used with great ferocity and impact. Why didn't that work? What was the impact of this incredible level of explosives that were dropped on the country?
BOWDEN: Well, we were killing a lot of people. And it was definitely hurting the North Vietnamese. But we couldn't really stop Hanoi from waging the war because they're - frankly, how do you - remember the fake, great quote was, bomb them back to the Stone Age. And this was an agricultural society. It didn't have a big infrastructure. They had very few targets.
And so one of the things that our pilots would complain about is they were sent out to do these bombing missions. And they would bomb a little bridge, and three days later, it would be rebuilt and back up and running. So they would complain that there, you know, weren't that many targets. And it was dangerous because they were getting shot down at a fairly alarming rate. So you know, I think the - other than the top generals, I think there was a great deal of frustration felt by the troops themselves.
DAVIES: So you have this situation where you have South Vietnam, which is the country that is the anti-communist government that we are supporting. It's filled with local fighters, the Viet Cong, as well as North Vietnamese regulars from the communist-led government in Hanoi. They are filtering down, fighting the Americans all the time. And the war is at kind of a stalemate. The North Vietnamese had a plan for a big offensive, a game-changer. What was it?
BOWDEN: Well, they decided to launch attacks on just about every city in South Vietnam. General Westmoreland was famous for believing and saying that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong didn't have any real power in the metropolitan areas, that they were only capable of fighting on the perimeter - in the jungles and in the mountains - because they didn't - they lacked the sufficient men, sufficient popular support and arms.
And this was the line that he had sold Washington and that he gave the press every time he was interviewed. So the North Vietnamese strategy was to infiltrate large numbers of troops throughout the south and launch on the eve of Tet, their big holiday, attacks in all of these cities. The largest of the offensive was planned for Hue.
DAVIES: And Hue held a special place in the country's cultural history. Tell us about it.
BOWDEN: Well, it's - it really is a beautiful city and in ages past was the imperial seat for the unified country of Vietnam. It had, you know, the citadel, which was a giant fortress which contained the imperial palace, which is where the emperors used to live and reign. The city itself was home to the major universities. In Vietnam, it was a big Buddhist center and also fairly large Catholic Center. It was the home to a lot of intellectuals. And so it had a deep cultural meaning in Vietnam that I think frankly escaped the American command.
DAVIES: And it had largely been unmarred by the war, right?
BOWDEN: That's right. Out of - partly out of respect for the institutions in Hue, for the historical treasures, the Buddhist pagodas, the imperial palace. Hue had been kind of an oasis. And troops who were stationed there, American troops, you know, saw it as a rear position. You know, they weren't expecting to be shot at or to encounter much hostility.
DAVIES: Mark Bowden's new book is "Hue 1968: A Turning Point In The American War In Vietnam." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Mark Bowden. He is the - a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, also the author of the book "Black Hawk Down." His new book about a pivotal battle in the Vietnam War is "Hue 1968."
The Citadel, this fort - Hue was a city of about 140,000 people. Half of them lived inside this - it's maybe not exactly what we would think of as a fort. Describe it a little bit.
BOWDEN: Well, it's an enormous fortress that encloses almost a square mile. And as you said, it was densely populated. There were only nine entrances in and out of the citadel. The walls are 30, 40 feet high and 30 or 40 feet thick. There's a moat all the way around it. It looks like something medieval, although it was actually built very early in the 19th century. It's a formidable structure. The Japanese took it during World War II. You know, it was a relic from another era. And if you go to Hue, it gives the city this kind of ancient feel.
DAVIES: And it's big enough that inside it, there were many, many streets with houses. There was the royal palace. There's an airfield, a little airport...
BOWDEN: Yeah, right.
DAVIES: ...And a South Vietnamese Army post.
DAVIES: So a lot would happen in that space as well as some of the buildings outside. The North Vietnamese army units and the Viet Cong wanted to surprise the Americans and South Vietnamese, which meant they had to get a lot of arms and troops in position secretly. Explain how they did that.
BOWDEN: Stealthily. They recruited local people. One of the folks that I write about was a high school student when he started working with the Viet Cong, Nyugen Ven Kwang. And Kwang organized his own little militia unit. And they smuggled arms into the city on duck boats, you know, laying weapons and ammunition underneath the decks of these boats and bringing them in that way.
The - they had to also assemble ultimately up to 10,000 troops. And so there were North Vietnamese units who spent months marching down, carrying very heavy loads of ammunitions and supplies from the north on the mountain trails, down the Ho Chi Minh trail to the mountains just outside of the city of Hue. So - and then they had...
DAVIES: Just sort of carrying them on their backs for hundreds of miles.
BOWDEN: Carrying them on their backs - and they had, you know, Viet Cong cadres who would carry into the city arms and ammunition so that they could stockpile warehouses full of these things because they knew and anticipated there would be a ferocious counterattack after they took the city. And they had to be able to hold out for, you know, as long as they could. And so they knew they'd need a lot of weapons and supplies.
And you know, it was interesting to hear how they did it. I mean Americans carried meals ready to eat. The Viet Cong carried actually live pigs on these treks. And they would slaughter them and eat them along the trail. And then they would drug them while they carried them so they didn't make any noise so they could move stealthily. This was a extraordinarily thorough, well-thought-out preparation that went on for many months. It actually started in the summer of 1967. So by January of '68 when this all began, everything was ready.
DAVIES: So thousands of troops and munitions moved into place, and the Americans never realized it.
BOWDEN: Right. And it tells you something about the level of support that the Americans and South Vietnamese had or rather the level of support that the Viet Cong had in the surrounding villages because you can't move that many men and supplies without the locals noticing. And no one sounded an alarm to the South Vietnamese or to the Americans.
DAVIES: Now, the planning wasn't just military, right? The - they wanted the citizens of Hue to regard this not as a conquest by invaders. What were their hopes for the civilian population?
BOWDEN: Well, the highest hopes, you know, which had been drummed up by the propagandists in Hanoi was that the people of South Vietnam would rise up in support of the movement. So in Hue, you know, they had hopes that the intellectuals, the Buddhists - not so much the Catholics because they were very allied with President Thieu - would rally around these fighters and support them in the battle - coming battle against the Americans. And frankly, you know, I think they knew there was no way they could hold off a strong counterattack by the Americans and South Vietnamese without a lot of popular support.
DAVIES: Yeah, the planning went to the extent of the flag that they would raise over the Citadel, not a North Vietnamese flag.
BOWDEN: Right. In fact it was incorrectly reported at the time that this was a Viet Cong flag or a North Vietnamese flag. And in fact they had designed a flag that represented the various factions in the city of Hue and flew that as a symbol of what they called the National Liberation Front, which was a popular movement against the occupation of South Vietnam by the Americans.
DAVIES: So the plan was a widespread attack on Hue, many other cities in the country including Saigon.
DAVIES: The population rises up. Did they think it would end the war?
BOWDEN: Some did. And in particular, the idealistic young recruits believed the propaganda beleaflets (ph) that they prepared and handed out. And many of them, you know, were full of this sort of romantic notion that they would be received in Hue as liberators and that they would form their own revolutionary government and that they would end the war once and for all.
The more hardened military men, the older fighters who had more knowledge and experience knew that this wasn't going to happen and anticipated that they - while they could take the city, that there was no way that they would be able to hold onto it for very long.
DAVIES: So the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese moved thousands of troops and munitions into position to attack Hue, the old imperial capital, hoping to surprise the Americans and the South Vietnamese. Did they?
BOWDEN: Totally. They took over the city with very little actual fighting. They had to overcome the guards at the entrances of the Citadel in a few places. And in some instances, those were fairly significant firefights. But because it was the eve of the holiday Tet, the South Vietnamese had sent many of their troops home for the holidays because in years past, there had been a truce over the holidays. And the last place they expected a big attack was in Hue.
So once the guards at the gates to the Citadel were overcome, the invading troops just took over everything, and they marched right into the southern half of the city, which is as populous as the Citadel. And it's the very modern kind of government center of Hue. They just walked straight up the streets into the city and took everything.
By the end of, like, four or five hours, they had the entire city except for a besieged South Vietnamese military post inside the Citadel and also a very small - we're talking about a maybe two- or three-block radius or diameter - American base which was called the MACV, Military Assistance Command Vietnam compound, where there were maybe 300 or 400 American troops who were basically holed up like the Alamo.
DAVIES: Mark Bowden's new book is "Hue 1968: A Turning Point Of The American War In Vietnam." After a break, he'll talk about the horrific toll the battle took on Vietnamese civilians, the U.S. assault to retake the city and how American military leaders' misconceptions about the war led to bad command decisions and higher casualties. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with writer Mark Bowden about his new book, "Hue 1968." It's a detailed account of the bloodiest single battle of the Vietnam War and a turning point of the conflict. Communist forces seized the old imperial Vietnamese capital of Hue in 1968 as part of the Tet Offensive, a set of coordinated surprise attacks on cities throughout Vietnam.
You know, one of the things that you write about is the deception and self-deception within the American military, telling politicians that they're winning the war, that the other side is suffering so many casualties, they can't go on. Now suddenly this imperial city Hue is under the enemy's control. Did this deception continue? How did they respond?
BOWDEN: This was frankly, Dave, one of the things that most surprised me about the story. Gen. Westmoreland had no inkling that this was going to happen and, in fact, had many times explained that nothing like this could happen because they simply - the enemy lacked the numbers of troops, and they couldn't put themselves in that sort of position.
And I get it. I mean, anyone can be faked out in a war. But when the city was taken, basically, the American command refused to believe it had happened. And this wasn't just a public-relations ploy. In the cables that Westmoreland and his commanders were sending to Washington, they were saying there was only a few hundred Vietnamese sort of dead-enders who were holed up here in there in the city. And they'll be chased out in a day or two.
And this led to small units of American Marines being set to attack a huge - an overwhelming force, well-entrenched. And they got slaughtered. And it didn't just happen once. It happened over and over again. And even though these young company commanders - these captains - in way were informing their superior officers that they were up against an overwhelming enemy force and that they had taken the entire city, no one would believe them. They continued to try to fight this one-sided, suicidal battle. And a lot of Americans got killed as a result.
DAVIES: Yeah. There was a force that came up from the South that was chewed up by the Vietnamese troops they encountered. Then there was another that was sent down from the North. And that was one of the units that was trapped, surrounded by these North-Vietnamese fighters, which included the soldier that you read about at the beginning. He was trapped in the foxhole, watching mortars rain down on other soldiers. What happened with that unit that came from the North?
BOWDEN: Well, that battalion marched south. And their objective was to basically march down Route 1, which ran straight through the middle of Hue, and assail the citadel from the outside. Basically, seal off the enemy troops that were inside the fort.
And they got less than a mile or two before they came under heavy fire. It turns out they were marching straight toward the central command post for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong and, literally, into thousands of enemy soldiers. So they ended up pinned down in the fields, being mortared, being attacked. And then the enemy surrounded them.
So they were literally out there on an island. And I should add they had no air support. The weather was so bad that they couldn't get aircraft up and over them. They were stranded without the kind of artillery and air support that they depended on.
DAVIES: And when they and these other units that were being decimated reported to the commanders, what was the response?
BOWDEN: The attitude was they were panicking under fire - that things couldn't be as bad as they claimed they were. They wanted them to continue attacking. And the commanders on the ground who could see exactly what was going on knew that it would be suicidal to press on.
So they eventually organized themselves and managed over - you know, through a long night - to walk out through the darkness - very daringly walk straight through the encirclement. Half of them managed to escape. The rest of them had either been killed or wounded and evacuated.
DAVIES: In the city of Hue, the communist forces took over. And they expected that the civilian population would rise up in support, finally drive the American colonialists out. What was the experience?
BOWDEN: Well, with all these military units that went into the city, they had their political commissars, whose job it was, once they took the city, to basically set up a new government in the city and to hunt down and punish the people of Hue who had worked for or allied themselves with the Saigon regime. So there were two things going on.
They were setting up, you know, their own revolutionary government, and they were - had propagandists out, lecturing the people through megaphones, calling them out into the streets. And they expected that people would happily join them in this war for liberation and in turning over their neighbors, who had - were traitors in their eyes, who had been working with the Americans and the South Vietnamese.
DAVIES: And they were conscripted to dig trenches - because they certainly expected an American counterattack - to provide food and shelter for the troops.
BOWDEN: Right. And, you know, they even told them at one point they wanted - even though they didn't have arms for all the people, they wanted people to take broomsticks and paint them black so that when American forces arrived, they would see a united citizenry out in the streets and armed and ready to fight them. And this, of course, was madness. I mean, the people living in Hue saw it for what it was and were horrified. And a lot of them tried to get out.
DAVIES: OK. So there was political education. There was conscription for service. How brutal was the purge, in effect, of those who they believed were cooperators?
BOWDEN: It got worse and worse. I mean, initially, only the most egregious traitors were executed. But, in time, a kind of mob rule set in. And so a couple of factors were at play. You had, I think, the ideological fervor of the young idealists who were determined to purge the citizenry of, you know, evil doers.
And then you had, I think, a growing frustration when the local people didn't do as expected and, I think, an anger toward the citizens of Hue. And then there was, I think, just opportunists who took advantage of the opportunity to get rid of the guy down the street who had angered them at one point or another. And, you know, there were vendettas.
And so it ended up with hundreds to thousands of people being marched off and executed. And I think the violence that was perpetrated against the citizens of Hue turned a lot of people against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese in subsequent years. You know, it was a disaster, I think, from both sides - both from North Vietnamese side and the American and South Vietnamese side.
DAVIES: You know, you write in the book that the Viet Cong were regarded by many anti-war activists in the United States as freedom fighters. You say the Viet Cong were actually pretty vicious.
BOWDEN: They were. And, you know, there were plenty of people like Che Ti Mang (ph) and Nguyen Van Quang (ph) who were idealists - young idealists - who were fighting for the freedom of their country.
DAVIES: She's the 18-year-old girl. He was the guy who smuggled the arms in on the boats.
BOWDEN: Yeah. And I think they were every bit as well-intentioned as the young Marines that were fighting against them. But the hardcore leadership of the North Vietnamese - of North Vietnam and of the Viet Cong - were very serious and brutal revolutionaries who were determined to punish those who opposed them and to use fear as a tool, you know, to rally the citizenry. And, you know, they had been doing this for some time.
DAVIES: Mark Bowden's new book is "Hue 1968: A Turning Point In The American War In Vietnam." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Mark Bowden. He is the national correspondent for The Atlantic and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His new book about a pivotal battle in the Vietnam War is "Hue 1968."
So the communist forces took control of the city. And for a while, the American counterattack was undermanned because commanders didn't realize how serious the situation was. Eventually, they did. And it's fascinating. You write that the commanders that were sent there with enough troops and firepower had to realize that they had to fight a different kind of war to take Hue back.
BOWDEN: Yeah. And, really, the hero of that struggle is Col. Ernie Cheatham, who is a former NFL football player who had gone into the Marine Corps after playing for the Baltimore Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And he was given - or demanded, really, because some of his men had been sent away, and he was determined to get them back under his control. He felt they were being misused. He was sent into Hue to organize things and take the city back. And he spent the night before he went in - actually looked up old Marine Corps manuals about urban fighting.
The last time Marines had fought in a big city was in Seoul during the Korean War. And so he read up and learned that the proper way to assault a building or a fortified position was to reduce the position, to basically destroy the building and do it with as heavy weapons as you can bring to the scene. Use gas to force people out and then attack.
DAVIES: Tear gas.
BOWDEN: Use tear gas to force people out. And then he began methodically - block by block - essentially destroying the city as he marched forward and taking back one block after another. Behind him was just a - ruins, just acres of ruins. So there were still plenty of firefights. And there were plenty of Marines getting killed and wounded as they took the city. But it worked. It was clear after the first day or two that this strategy or these tactics were going to be successful.
DAVIES: You know, it's one thing to use those tactics on military forces. But this was a city of 140,000 people. A lot of them stayed, dug, you know, bunkers in their homes.
DAVIES: What happened to them this kind of assault occurred.
BOWDEN: A lot of them got killed. And I estimate that, you know, 5,000 to 10,000 civilians were killed in this battle. They - inside the citadel, they were trapped. There was literally no way for them to get out of the way. And so the only thing they could do were to dig these bunkers under their houses and try and ride things out.
Of course, if their house or bunker took a direct hit, it would kill everybody in it. In the southern part of the city, where there was a little bit more ability to move around, they faced the problem of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops angry that people were fleeing. They wanted these people to rise up and support them in their fight.
So they were pinned in by them, and they were also pinned by American troops who were not always terribly good at distinguishing between civilians running to get away from the fight and Viet Cong running to fight them. So it was a brutal killing ground. In the southern part of the city, there were hundreds and hundreds of civilians basically roaming the streets like ants on a hot plate, you know, trying to find a safe place. And there weren't many.
DAVIES: And so between the explosions, the carnage, what were conditions in the city like?
BOWDEN: Well there was nothing working in the city. There were no utilities. There were a lot of dead people on the streets. The food was scarce. Water was scarce. You know, I found frankly that one of the most surprising things about this battle was this happened in 1968.
Today, I think we rightly are very concerned about collateral damage of killing civilians when we undertake a military raid or a drone strike or something like that. And people - I think it's a good thing - get very upset when we learn that, you know, children were killed in this attack.
There was no concern that I could find for the civilians of Hue. There was plenty of concern on the restrictions on the use of bombing and artillery in the city - were in place because they didn't want to destroy historic buildings. Nowhere in any of the cables or nowhere in, frankly, in any of the news reporting of the battle was anyone writing about the terrible carnage of civilians who were in the path of this Marine march to take back Hue who were really trapped in the middle of all this.
DAVIES: There was an American force that moved in from the north side of the (unintelligible) citadel, this massive fortress that - it had within it all these streets and the royal palace and the airfield and all that. And, you know, I don't want to question anybody's commitment or patriotism or bravery. But some of the command decisions made there just were - I mean, they make you want to weep.
BOWDEN: It was a reflection of arrogance. You know, the American military going into Vietnam was the most powerful military force in the world, probably. I mean, the Soviet Union had a pretty big army as well. But they were the victors in World War II. They were victors in Korea. There was this idea that America was this invincible power.
And the very thought that these peasants in Vietnam could organize and fight effectively against, you know, air cav units that would come in on helicopters with guns blaring and the tremendous air power that the United States could bring - it was just inconceivable to these American commanders that they were in for a really serious fight. It became very believable to the Americans on the ground who found themselves facing down, you know, superior enemy forces. But even when they tried to convince their superior officers what they're up against, they were often disbelieved.
DAVIES: And what about the Tet Offensive in the rest of the country? What course did it take?
BOWDEN: Well, interestingly, you know, Hue got relatively little publicity at the time, even though it was by far the largest battle fought in the Tet Offensive. And a big part of that was that the military command kept denying that it was actually happening. But there were attacks in Saigon, dozens of other cities - over a hundred, actually - all across the country.
And as these attacks were reported, it just shocked the American people. And they they were shocked because they had been fed a line about the war by Gen. Westmoreland, by President Johnson, by his administration, you know, that this was going to be a fairly easy affair.
Now, suddenly, they turn on their TV and pick up the newspaper. And they see the entire country of South Vietnam is under attack. And casualty figures, you know, jump way up. It was ultimately, Dave, the turning point for Americans in the war in Vietnam.
DAVIES: There were a lot of American and other Western media throughout the country. And many got to Hue, including Gene Roberts, the former editor of The Inquirer. I know that you worked with him.
DAVIES: Eventually, Walter Cronkite.
BOWDEN: Yeah. You know, Walter got fed up by the Tet Offensive because he had been a supporter of the War in Vietnam, and he had been in his broadcasts in the evening essentially delivering the official line on what was going on there. He believed, you know, Gen. Westmoreland and President Johnson.
And - but when the Tet Offensive happened, he realized - he's an old combat correspondent from World War II - that the story he was being told - in fact, the story he was delivering to the American people did not appear to be true. So he went on his own fact-finding tour in Vietnam and, in fact, interviewed Westmoreland, who assured him that Hue was under control. There was nothing really serious going on there.
So then he went to Hue, and he landed there right in the middle of this horrific battle. And he could see with his own eyes that he had been lied to. So he came back to the United States. And he delivered his famous homily about how Vietnam was not a winnable war. It was a stalemate. And the best we could hope for was a political solution.
DAVIES: So in the end, the American counterattacks - the South-Vietnamese counterattacks - drove the communist forces out of the cities. But it changed the course of the war. It changed American support for the war. What kind of damage did it inflict on the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese?
BOWDEN: It heavily damaged them. You know, and I think that, you know, from a purely military perspective, some of the criticism of what happened immediately afterwards is on target. If the United States, for instance, had launched an aggressive counterattack or invaded North Vietnam, which is what a lot of people wanted it to do, you know, they had significantly reduced the capabilities of the North Vietnamese at that point.
And they would've had a hell of a fight on their hands. But they might have been able to make progress. In fact, what happened was, you know, President Johnson announced he was not going to run for president again. He was fed up, I think, dealing with the whole thing. He tried initiatives to end the war. He offered a bombing halt.
And it was a signal, really, for a lot of Americans who were fighting in South Vietnam that, in fact, there was no chance that the United States was ever going to win this war. I point out in the book that, after the Tet Offensive, it was no longer heard argument over how to win. It was an argument over how to leave.
DAVIES: And for some listeners who didn't live through this, just tie up the story of how the war ended.
BOWDEN: Well, the war dragged on for another six or seven years. President Nixon got elected in 1968 with a secret plan to end the War in Vietnam, which turned out to be spreading the war into Laos and Cambodia, which kicked off the regime of Pol Pot and the genocides in Cambodia.
Another half - you know, probably another half million Vietnamese were killed. Tens of thousands more Americans were killed over a protracted period as the United States began gradually withdrawing forces under Nixon's Vietnamization program.
And what happened was when the Americans began to withdraw, the South Vietnamese couldn't stand up against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. And in - what was it? 1974? '75.
DAVIES: Five. Yeah.
BOWDEN: The - Saigon fell. And the Americans and the South Vietnamese lost the war.
DAVIES: Mark Bowden's book is "Hue 1968: A Turning Point In The American War In Vietnam." We'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Mark Bowden. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, also the author of the book "Black Hawk Down." His new book about a pivotal battle in the Vietnam War is "Hue 1968."
Why did you focus on this battle in telling this story?
BOWDEN: Well, you know, I think my preferred way to work in writing about something as sweeping as the War in Vietnam is not to write the seven-volume history of the entire war but to find a dramatic and pivotal moment in that story. And you can, I think, if you dig deep enough, use that event as a kind of lens to write about the whole experience of the War in Vietnam.
You know, for me personally, you know, I grew up - I was in high school when this war was going on. I used to have these knock-down, drag-out fights with my dad over the war. I was against it, and he was in favor of it. And neither of us knew enough to have a really strong opinion. But we had them anyway.
But he did. My father would always say to me, how do you know that? And, really, as a high school junior - sophomore - I was 16. It took me to the library and it started me reading books and magazine articles and newspapers. And, frankly, I think it's one of the things that set me on a path to a career in journalism. So for me, you know, writing about Hue was a chance to go back and really try to develop my own understanding of what that war was and why it turned out the way it did.
DAVIES: Did it fundamentally change any of your views about the war?
BOWDEN: I was against the war, but I was against the war for - you know, it was kind of a cultural phenomenon. I mean, young people in the 1960s who wanted to be cool, you know, were against the War in Vietnam. The depth of my thinking was maybe, you know, 2 inches deep.
What investigating this taught me was that, in fact, I think it was right to oppose this war. It was a mistake. It reflected a triumph of ideology over reality in Washington, this anti-communist ideology which completely ignored the realities of Southeast Asia and Vietnam's history and what actually was happening there.
And I think this is kind of a periodic thing that happens in American life, where, you know, these concepts of the world and America's role in the world lead us into conflicts that - and then we collide with reality. This has happened recently in American history. So, you know...
DAVIES: Let's talk about that a little. I mean, you know, I think there is this phenomenon where, in the State Department and other parts of the American government, there are veterans who know the local custom and culture and politics and the economy. And when big things happen, they are often shunted aside, and decisions are made from the top. Do you see these mistakes being repeated in Iraq, Afghanistan?
BOWDEN: Absolutely. In the case of Vietnam, I think David Halberstam recorded this definitively in his book "The Best And The Brightest" how, over a period of a decade or more, Southeast Asian experts - people, as you say, who spoke the language and who lived there and who knew its history and culture - were purged from the State Department and from the administration in Washington.
By the time Johnson was president, if you dared to speak against the American effort in Vietnam, you'd gone soft. You were soft on communism, you know, and you were out on your heels. Yeah, I think the same thing happened after 9/11.
You know, the idea that the United States was in this terminal battle with radical Islam across the planet required us to, you know, invade Afghanistan and invade Iraq. And I think, at that point, people who were advising caution and restraint were regarded as unpatriotic and not - were not being listened to. I think we're in danger of it happening today.
We have the Trump administration, which I think, you know, has its own inflexible, ideological view of the world and is also a very anti-intellectual administration. So people with knowledge, people with experience who speak the language are viewed as tainted precisely because they happen to know what they're talking about. And I think when these things happen, we very often as a country make dreadful mistakes.
DAVIES: Well, it's a remarkable book. Mark Bowden, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BOWDEN: Always a pleasure, Dave. Thank you.
DAVIES: Mark Bowden's new book is "Hue 1968."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
Correction June 13, 2017
In the version of this report that was broadcast, we misidentify the CBS correspondent in the clip of the battlefield interview during the Battle of Hue as Don Webster speaking to Mark Bowden. The reporter was CBS correspondent John Laurence, and he was speaking with Lt. Col. Ernest Cheatham.