In this episode, I consider some of the leadership lessons from the Battle of Hue, which took place in late January/early February 1968 during the North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive. We base our discussion on the recent book Hue by Mark Bowden. In the American mythos, it has a large place because many people believe it was a psychological turning point in the Vietnam War; when the everyday American citizen back home began to at least suspect we were not winning the war as our generals and politicians had been publicly proclaiming. The propaganda and information that the US government had released was not equivalent to what was going on the ground. Richard Lummis and I take the opportunity to explore pivotal battel from the leadership perspective. We consider it in three distinct different phases (1) before the battle; (2) the during the battle; and (3) after the battle.
- Before the Battle-failure of imagination
The first phase before the battle of Hue actually began involving a U.S. outpost at the far end of the Central Highlands fairly close to the Laotian border, Khe Sahn. U.S. General Westmoreland had decreed it would stay there and would not fall even though it was under 24/7 of continuous attack by the North Vietnamese army (NVA). Westmoreland and the US were distracted by their defense of Khe Sahn. Westmoreland told anyone who might listen that the enemy buildup was a diversion to get the US to move logistical efforts from the defense of Khe Sahn.
This distraction allowed the NVA to engage in the huge logistical effort of bringing in troops and supplies into South Vietnam for the battle. Not only did they have to bring troops down Ho Chi Minh Trail, but they also had to bring supplies in all forms. Logistically it was a huge effort by the North Vietnamese, both the regular army and the Viet Cong within the South. Yet because the American high command had their eye squarely on Khe Sahn, instead of watching the North Vietnamese troops, they missed this huge buildup.
The leadership lesson is that the failure of imagination can lead to disastrous assessments and conclusions. You might even say the failure of General Westmoreland and his senior staff to be curious lead their denial of basic facts in front of them. Leaders must be willing to consider possibilities other than those it wants to hear and see. The battle of Hue teaches us the disaster which can befall for the failure to do so.
- During the Battle-failure to listen to those on the ground
Here the US leadership’s blindness to facts on the ground, in the form of eyewitness data provided by US forces, compounded the failure of Westmoreland to believe both the Tet Offensive and the battle of Hue were large engagements. Marines on the ground communicated to their commanders that this was not just a probing attack. This was not just a company or two of locals who had infiltrated and taken over a building or two. This was a major attack by a large number of troops. Indeed, when the regional command of Task Force X-Ray said there might be a few companies of enemy soldiers a Marine Captain rebuked him with, “Hell, we’ve got an entire platoon of NVA data on the wire.”
This failure to believe the Marines who had eyes on the ground continued into the early stages of the battle. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, said early on during the Tet Offenisve, he thought it was clear that the military objective of the attack has not been achieved. The He continued to argue the purpose of the NVA attack was to divert U.S. troops and South Vietnamese troops from the probable offensive action of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese around Khe Sahn. He continued to espouse this fallacy even after the city was overrun.
The leadership lesson is that those closest to the ground are often a leader’s best source of intelligence. This can be as true in the business as it is in the military. The failures at the high command infected the command structure down to the regional level. It lead to US troops not receiving the support they needed to retake the city in a quick and efficient manner and led to a one month siege to retake the city of Hue.
- After the Battle-tactical victory can equal strategic loss
While it is still not clear to this day that the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Hue were a military turning point; it does seem clear that they were psychological turning points for the United States. The Vietnam War was the first war that we watched over dinner literally every night at 5:30 on ABC, NBC and CBS nightly national news. Each had video reports from Vietnam. Literally you could watch the war play out during dinner. What changed after Tet and Hue was it became clear that the messages that the American public and John Q. citizen was getting from our generals and from our politicians was not what was happening on the ground in Vietnam.
The key turning point for the American public may have been an editorial from Walter Cronkite, near the end of the battle of Hue. He reported from Hue and his assessment was, “To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of evidence. The optimists have been wrong in the past. To suggest we’re on the edge of defeat has to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic. Yet any satisfactory conclusion on the off chance that military and political analysts are right in the next few months, we must test the enemy’s intentions in case it is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate not as victors but as honorable people who have lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did so the best they could”.
After the Tet Offensive and the battle of Hue, Americans would more robustly doubt the credibility of the US government, both civilian and military when it claimed the US was winning the war in Vietnam. General Westmoreland was replaced and sent back to the US. The US troop commitment began to subside and no longer would the civilian government send provide the military with the blank check it asked for to prosecute the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive and battle of Hue may have been tactical defeats for North Vietnam but it was the beginning of the end for the US involvement in South Vietnam.
The leadership lesson here is more than about simply messaging. It is that you have to been honest. If you continue to spin falsehoods, you will eventually lose all credibility, particularly when you need it the most. People in the business world still believe in facts. When a company’s workforce, stakeholders or customer base finds out their leaders have misled them, they will be less likely to believe them going forward. In the business world, this can provide quite negative consequences.