By the end of January 1968, spelling the start of the major Tết Offensive aimed at destabilising the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) government, large, conventional US forces had been committed to combat operations on Vietnamese soil for almost three years.
At the Battle of Huế on 30 January 1968, 11 battalions of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), four US Army battalions, and three US Marine Corps battalions defeated 10 battalions of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the National Liberation Front (NLF).
As the ancient imperial city of Vietnam, Huế held great logistical value to American and South Vietnamese troops. With Highway 1 passing through the city, an arterial road linking North and South Vietnam, Huế provided US and ARVN forces with access to the Demilitarised Zone (only 50 kilometres to the north) from Da Nang. In addition, its location on the Perfume River (Sông Hương) gave the city easy access to the sea, eventually utilised by US Navy supply boats.
Despite its logistical importance, however, Huế was poorly defended by American and South Vietnamese allied forces. PAVN and NLF forces rapidly occupied most of the city at the start of the battle, capturing the citadel and using it as a stronghold. With its surrounding moat, high walls and stone towers, the citadel provided an ideal defensive position.
Although, over the next month, PAVN and NLF forces were gradually driven out during intense house-to-house fighting led by US Marines and ARVN soldiers. It took the Marines, operating from a compound across the Perfume River, almost a month to recapture the citadel in the city centre.
By the end of the battle on 3 March 1968, although the US and ARVN allies declared it a military victory, the city of Huế was virtually destroyed and more than 5,000 civilians had been killed (2,800 of them executed by PAVN and NLF soldiers, according to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) government. Communist forces lost an estimated 2,400 to 8,000, while US and ARVN forces lost 668 and 3,707 wounded. The losses negatively affected the American public’s perception of the war and political support for the war began to wane because of it.