The Road to Hill 10

A veteran's return to Vietnam

In Hanoi I met military leaders who had fought and observed the war from a certain eminence. I wanted to find out what they thought were the reasons they won and we lost, and to test their perspective against my own and that of American generals and historians. The Foreign Ministry is perhaps the most beautiful of the old French colonial buildings. It sits in the shadow of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, where normally Uncle Ho lies in eternal slumber. Unfortunately, he had been shipped off to Moscow, the world capital of embalming, for his annual refurbishment, and I was unable to view him. At the Foreign Ministry I did meet Hoang Anh Tuan, now the vice minister of foreign affairs but for many years a Viet Cong general in the South. General Tuan is from Hue. He joined the Viet Minh in 1945, when he was twenty.

He took my hand and put it to his face. "Feel that." I felt some grainy lumps near his eye. "Japanese shrapnel. I lost an eye fighting them in 1945. And look at this." He pulled up the leg on his perfectly tailored tan trousers. "I took a French bullet here. It's still there. Fortunately, you gave me no such souvenirs."

After the defeat of the French he went north, in 1954, and came back south in 1960 to renew the struggle. General Tuan commanded the Viet Cong second division from headquarters in the Que Son Mountains, south of Da Nang. His forces were among the major enemy units where I fought. Once we had established that we had fought in the same area, our conversation became relaxed. I was no longer just a reporter; I was a fellow veteran. He slapped me on the knee and told me about the war.

"When the Americans entered the war, we spent all our time trying to figure out how to fight you. Everyone, from the lowest soldier to the highest general, talked about it constantly. It was a matter of life and death. The incredible density of your shelling and your mobility were our biggest concerns. I myself saw the first B-52 raid, on Highway 13, on June 18, 1965. I will never forget it. Twenty-six B-52s dropped their bombs about four kilometers from me. It was horrible. Two or three hectares of land were simply blown away. Our losses were huge. We had to admit you had a terrible strength. So how could we preserve our forces but still engage you? We decided we had to force you to fight our way—with chopsticks, piece by piece.

"And then it came to us that the way to fight the American was to grab him by his belt"—at which point Tuan did just that—"to get so close that your artillery and airpower were useless. The result was interesting—our logistic forces, who were farther from the Americans, took greater losses than the combat units, who engaged you."

I asked him about the Tet offensive of 1968, when the Communists had launched attacks on cities and towns throughout Vietnam in an enormous surprise attack that is considered the turning point of the war.

"In the spring of 1967 Westmoreland began his second campaign. It was very fierce. Certain of our people were very discouraged. There was much discussion of the course of the war—should we continue main-force efforts or should we pull back into a more local strategy? But by the middle of 1967 we concluded that you had done your best and the strategic position had not changed. So we decided to carry out one decisive battle to force LBJ to de-escalate the war. You thought that battle was Khe Sanh. It was the Tet offensive."

What about the view in America that Tet was a major military defeat for the Viet Cong forces?

"Listen," he said, coming closer to me. "We didn't have to defeat you the way the Allies beat the Nazis. We only wanted you to withdraw so that we could settle our own affairs. That was our goal, and we achieved it."

I asked him if that meant that they had won the war in 1968.

"Yes and no. Nixon began the withdrawal, but Vietnamization was a difficult period for us, at least in the beginning. Your years here, 1969 and 1970, were very hard. The fighting was fierce. We were often hungry. I was the division commander, and I went hungry for days. We had no rice to eat. For a while it was very bad."

The Vietnamese call the period from Tet, in 1968, to the Paris Peace Agreement, in 1973, "fight and talk." In 1969 they were on the defensive, as General Tuan admitted. But by then the talk was more important than the fight.

I met General Tran Cong Man, who is not the editor of the army's newspaper, in his office. He is a studious, professorial sort. He seemed very unmilitary, as if he had borrowed his uniform from someone else. I began by telling him about the controversy in the Westmoreland libel suit against CBS over whether to count the Viet Cong self-defense forces in figuring the strength of the enemy. General Man replied that to omit them would be unthinkable. In the Communists' view, their resources were seamless, from the armed regular soldier to the young boy who sold cigarettes and scouted American positions. "Our regular forces, compared with yours, were small, but everyone could fight—with whatever he had. You were near Da Nang. There were tens of thousands of American and puppet troops there. But we seldom had more than one regiment in regular forces. Why couldn't you defeat us? Because we had tens of thousands of others—scouts, minelayers, spies, political cadres."

I said that I agreed up to a point: I was sure it made no difference to American soldiers if a soldier or a nine-year-old boy had laid the booby trap that killed them. Still, it seemed to me that while these units were far too important to have been discounted, they did not win the war. It took regular North Vietnamese troops in corps and army-sized units, fighting a mobile war like Hitler's blitzkrieg, to win the final victory.

"You are right," he told me. "But that was possible only after you Americans had left. Without the self-defense forces we would never have gotten you out. If you were our commander and were told to attack the Da Nang air base and destroy the planes there, how many troops would you need? Several divisions. right? Well, we did precisely that with thirty men—thirty! It was a new kind of war, and it was impossible without the self-defense forces."

I asked him how they had set out to fight the Americans.

"In 1964 we were on the verge of victory in the South," he replied, "but we concluded that the Americans would not let the puppets be defeated. The politburo convened a special meeting to mobilize the people for a long war with the Americans, to plan strategies and lay the groundwork for the defense of the fatherland in both the North and the South." In other words, in 1964 the North Vietnamese made the momentous decision to dispatch their own regular troops down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, giving the lie both to their claims during the early years of war that they had no troops fighting in the South and to their later claims that they sent troops only after the Americans did.

In the early years of the war, the American commanders—with the exception of the Marines— focused their major efforts against the main enemy forces: the North Vietnamese Army and the largest Viet Cong units. The Marines wanted to expand their beachheads by clearing out the local Viet Cong guerrilla units—the tactic of pacification. General Westmoreland's view, however, was that the Marines, like the Army, should "find the enemy's main forces and bring them to battle, thereby putting them on the run and reducing the threat they pose to the population." Westmoreland's view prevailed, and the identification of the main forces as the primary enemy produced the tactic of "search and destroy"—seeking out the main units wherever they could be found and bringing all the weight of our firepower and mobility against them. And it led directly to the reinforcement of Khe Sanh, just south of the DMZ, near the Laotian border, as the precursor of a major battle with the NVA. Instead the major attacks at Tet came not from the NVA units in the mountains but from the local Viet Cong, to devastating effect.

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