Winning, In The Vietnam War
By: john harrison
The Vietnam War was always “winnable” for the United States. However, there will always be a problem with defining what is meant by “winning” and probably what is meant by “winnable” as well.
If you looked at Great Britain during the bleakest, darkest days of World War II, say in June 1940 “winning” would probably defined as simple survival as an independent nation state. That was certainly possible for Britain in 1940.
Although the history books and Mr. Churchill take real delight in saying that Britain fought on “alone” after France collapsed in 1940, that was hardly the case. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the entire subcontinent of India were all more or less on Britain’s side from the very beginning. In December 1940 the USA began selling war materials to Britain, Canada and the other Commonwealth countries. If that was not an “act of war”, President Roosevelt’s signature on the Lend Lease Bill in March of 1941 certainly was.
If the USA was the arsenal of democracy in WW II, then Canada was a big part of its breadbasket and a great deal of its economic muscle as well. Think of all the “American” cars actually made, or assembled in Canada today. So, depending on your definition, even in those dark days Britain and her few, but staunch, allies had a chance to win, a chance at the very least to remain as an independent nation state.
For example, it was possible, even in June 1940, for Britain to make a deal with Hitler that would have allowed Britain and her allies to focus on the danger posed by Hitler’s ally Japan in the Pacific. Hitler wanted that deal so that he could focus on Russia and that was why Hitler made repeated peace overtures to Britain right after the fall of France.
In truth however, once Hitler attacked and the Soviet Union entered the fray the war was unquestionably winnable for Britain, even though the price of peace might ultimately have been even steeper than it was after America joined the war. On June 22, 1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union with over three million men called, Operation Barbarossa. This single, immense mistake would cost Germany whatever chance she had for victory in World War II. The full entry of the USA into World War II on December 7, 1941, just accelerated that process.✵
Using a similar fact based analysis, I do not think that the Vietnam War was ever “un-winnable” by the United States. It was always a question of price and tactics.
However, the leaders of the North were willing to pay a price that was never understood, or if understood was never truly believed in Washington, and therefore it was never included in Washington’s calculations of what it would take to “win” this war. Since this was true, Washington never had an executable military or political plan that could achieve “victory” and win in Indochina.
While this seems incredible, since France had already failed in Incochina after World War II it is nonetheless true. It is at best, difficult to create a plan to go somewhere if you do not know where your destination is, and given its almost willful ignorance of Hanoi’s intentions, Washington literally never knew where it wanted to go, much less how to get there in Vietnam.
In spite of this, on the military side, the “guerrilla war” had been “won” by the South Vietnamese and the United States well prior to Tet ’68. The failure of guerrilla warfare to gain sufficient traction against either the South Vietnamese or in the United States public opinion had been what forced General Võ Nguyên Giáp,commander in chief of the North Vietnamese Army throughout the war against the United States, to dramatically change his tactics in 1964.
In 1964 General Giap and the North changed from a relatively traditional, low key, guerrilla war in the South, to the use of large-unit, main-force VC mainly to attack the South Vietnamese Army (“ARVN”) coupled with the infiltration of large North Vietnamese Army (“NVA”) units down the expanded Ho Chi Minh Trail as well for use in the future. While in a traditional insurgency this switch to large force units would normally have come as a result of the success of guerrilla activities which produced ever larger guerrilla forces, and control over ever larger areas, the exact opposite was the case this time. In using infiltrated NVA main force units General Giap was changing the face of the war not as a result of the success of his black pajama guerrillas, rather it was because guerrilla war had been effectively stalemated in the South.
This change by General Giap was as a result of two strong but contradictory factors. The VC were successful in recruiting and in controlling much of the countryside in the South, but the small scale VC attacks were having little effect on the South Vietnamese government’s ability to govern, particularly in the large population centers.
While both VC and South Vietnamese government forces suffered from high desertion rates, both were growing, and both were getting better. Although General Giap appreciated the growth of his own forces, the growth and improvement of the South Vietnam government’s forces did not auger well for the future, and General Giap knew it.
By 1965 General Giap’s change of tactics to larger unit attacks came very close to winning. This was partly as a result of the Main Force VC units being stiffened now with numerous NVA cadres, and many of the attacks being made with Main Force NVA units in addition to the Main Force VC. Only the rapid introduction of large-scale American combat units beginning in 1965 prevented success of General Giap’s new plan.
Ever resourceful, when the Americans came, General Giap initiated yet another plan, his third. Now they were attacking the South Vietnamese Army directly as well as some attacks on American installations with Main Force VC units, usually supported by Main Force NVA. However, this too was checkmated by the presence of ever growing numbers of American soldiers and Marines on the battlefield. As a result, General Giap raised the stakes again and the North dramatically increased the infiltration of even larger numbers of NVA regulars down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Early on after the Americans came, it was abundantly clear to General Giap that the VC, that even the large, better equipped, Main Force VC units had proved incapable of defeating even relatively small American combat units on the battlefield much less capable of toppling the entire South Vietnamese government on its own. Undaunted by this, General Giap was still ready to provide the help he thought was needed in the South to secure victory.
The plan, by now the fourth plan, for these new NVA regular units pouring down the Ho Chi Minh Trail was simple. Basically the NVA’s new assignment was to kill enough Americans so that the Americans, like the French before them, would at some point simply go home. According to the North’s plan, when that happened, what the North viewed as a puppet state propped up only by American military power, could easily be defeated if it did not fall of its own accord as soon as the Americans left.
However, the pesky Americans did not cooperate with this fourth plan either, and General Giap quickly realized that it was going to take a long time to kill enough Americans in order to force them to leave. He also soon realized that the Americans were already surprisingly good at jungle warfare, and that the colossal firepower that the Americans had brought with them to the battlefield was simply deadly. So General Giap quickly recognized that both the timing and the cost of causing sufficient American casualties had to be recalculated by Hanoi.
Neither was good news, but neither had any effect whatsoever on the resolve of the North first to drive the Americans from South Vietnam and then to conquer the South. However, by any measure at the end of 1966 the North’s war in the South was again at best stalemated and at worst headed for ultimate defeat militarily. This was true even though the North through their puppets the Viet Cong controlled much of South Vietnam, particularly at night.
In the event, General Nguyễn Chí Thanh, the head of Central Office for South Vietnam (aka “COSVN”) and Communist Party First Secretary Lê Duẩn convinced the political leaders in the North to force General Giap’s hand because they believed that the people in the South supported their political vision of a united Viet Nam but that the people of South Vietnam were only prevented from joining the North by the corrupt ruling oligarchy running the government of South Vietnam, and of course, by the Americans’ money, equipment and military might. The North’s political leadership reasoned that it was mainly the presence of the American military that prevented the majority of people of South Vietnam from expressing their true desire to join the North.
Therefore, they wanted a much faster military strategy that would take advantage of this presumed political strength in the South, and in the process to use the American military’s own character against it. The North’s political leaders reasoned, probably correctly, that while the American military would fight and kill VC and NVA wherever and whenever they found them, they would not react the same way to a truly popular revolution in the South. In fact, if the people of South Vietnam ever rose en masse in revolt, then the Americans would probably at that point simply go home.
For that reason, in 1966 and continuing into 1967 the North came up with a new plan, the 5th Plan, calling for multiple, broad based, large unit, open attacks, first of the periphery of South Vietnam to draw the American combat units away from the population centers, and then during and after the Tet ’68 holiday, on the population centers themselves. The widespread plan of attack centered on political targets like Hue and the American embassy, and importantly, also on major American and South Vietnamese troop concentrations.
The leaders of the North expected that the people of South Vietnam would rise up and support these attacks as soon as it was shown that they had a chance of success, and that entire units, perhaps even large units of the South Vietnamese Army, would defect to the North and join the fighting against the hated Americans. When the South Vietnamese people rose in support of their offensive, the leaders in the North expected the Americans to simply stop fighting and leave.
While General Giap initially opposed this plan, he loyally implemented it after the death of General Thanh until he went to a hospital in Hungary to receive medical treatment before the Tet ’68 Offensive started. While the plan has often been criticized as violating several basic military principles for a successful offensive, these criticisms ignore the political basis of the plan. The Tet ’68 Offensive’s VC and NVA attacks were actually merely spearheads, the real weight of these attacks was to come from the South Vietnamese people revealing their true allegiance.
An indication of this is that General Giap insisted that Southerners be used as much as possible in the population center attacks in South Vietnam. This order underlined the importance of the reaction of the people of South Vietnam to the success of the plan. In effect, the Tet ’68 Offensive was always politics through military means.
However, none of the North’s political assumptions proved to be correct; and even with General Giap’s corrections, none of the military plans worked either. None.
The only population area that the NVA/VC attacks achieved even a foothold in during the Tet ’68 assaults was Hue, and it was not because the people of Hue joined the NVA/VC forces attacking it. Rather it was because Hue was essentially undefended and the North had committed sufficient Main Force units to take and hold the former imperial capital of Vietnam for almost a month.
However, even in Hue both the VC and NVA attackers had been under immediate, vigorous counter-attack by both American and South Vietnamese forces ever since the first day of the North’s attacks. This was true across the board in Vietnam.
In Hue, the people either left the city or they stayed indoors and out of the battle. It must have been a tremendous disappointment to the North’s Central Committee that even the people of Hue, which as noted was under direct NVA/VC control for almost a month, did not support the North’s great offensive at all.
In fact, none of the population centers in the South rose in revolt. None of the units of the South Vietnamese Army joined the North’s forces in their attacks. To the contrary, the South Vietnamese Army’s combat performance in the battles raging up and down almost all of South Vietnam was overall very good, and in the case of their elite Ranger, Airborne and Marine, battalions and brigades, it was excellent. All of this clearly surprised and disappointed the leaders in the North.
During the battle, when the casualty figures began to come in to the North they were even more surprised and perhaps appalled as well. The Communist’s forces casualties during the Tet ‘68 battles were unprecedented, amounting to perhaps as many as 85% of the total forces actually engaged, and well over 50% of these casualties were dead. The VC in the South never recovered from this enormous, fruitless, bloodletting. For the North, all the battles of Tet ‘68 amounted to a massive military defeat of historic, even Cannae like, proportions.
Almost the entire communist infrastructure, both political and military, of Viet Cong in the South, built up over years of warfare was wiped out during and in the battles right after Tet ‘68. Over time after Tet ‘68 the North reinforced their decimated VC Main Force units with 50% or more drafts of NVA soldiers.
While this infusion of men partially made up for the VC Main Force Units’ incredible losses in manpower during Tet ‘68, it could not replace the lost experience, the loss of cadre and even more important the loss of a direct connection with the South and its people. The men that had developed that experience over years and even decades of clandestine warfare and who had those personal connections with the South were now almost all dead. In large measure as a direct result of its massive defeat during Tet ‘68 the North fought blind in the South from 1968 on.
It is more than ironic that while the war was under way that the opponents of the war in America ridiculed the body count figures put out by MACV as inflated with lies to either show unjustifiable progress in the war or they were presumed to be inflated to advance a reporting officer’s career. Now, many years after the war these same opponents of the war accept these claimed body counts as gospel, but assert with no evidence that most of those killed were actually civilians and they have often added millions more to show how depraved they believed that the American war makers had been.
However, the North admitted in 1995 that over the total war about 1.1 million Viet Minh, VC and NVA soldiers were killed. (The Agence France Presse [French Press Agency] news release of 4 April 1995 concerning the Vietnamese Government’s release of official figures of dead and wounded during the Vietnam War.) R. J. Rummell, the leading authority on the casualties of the Vietnam War, estimated that the French killed about 200,000 Viet Minh over the course of their Indochina War. (STATISTICS OF DEMOCIDE Chapter 6 Statistics Of Vietnamese Democide Estimates, Calculations, And Sources By R.J. Rummel) If you subtract that number from the North’s admission of 1.1 million military KIA over the course of the entire war, French and then American, you are left with about 900,000 VC and NVA military personnel killed during the US participation in the war. It is interesting to note that over the course of America’s participation in the war that MACV reported that approximately 900,000 of the enemy had been killed.
That is, the North’s admission and Rummell’s analysis, when taken together, have confirmed that the American military’s body count figures itemized during the war were generally accurate, and equally important that they did not include a significant number of civilians.
While there is no question that civilians were killed, these numbers make it clear that the dead civilians were not used to inflate NVA/VC body count figures to a statistically significant amount. Another Vietnam War myth shattered by facts. However, you will still see otherwise reliable observers of the war state what has now been shown to be clearly wrong, i.e., that the MACV body count figures during the war were “inflated.”
Based on no objective evidence at all, some still refuse to believe the American official reports during the war, the North Vietnamese government’s confirmation of those reports after the war and the research of Mr. Rummell which also confirms the original American casualty figures. While there are certainly problems with determining exact estimates of casualties particularly in this kind of war, the extensive NVA and VC cemeteries in Vietnam today are further, if no less inexact, confirmation of the horrific estimates of loss by the North during the war.
Right after Tet ‘68 General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited General Westmoreland in Vietnam. Even prior to Tet ’68 the Joint Chiefs were already very concerned that the Vietnam War had dangerously depleted the strategic reserve of the United States. In the preceding twelve months the remaining two brigades of the 101st Airborne Division had deployed to Viet Nam. During Tet ’68 the Third Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division had been airlifted almost directly into the battle as well. The two Airborne Divisions, along with certain Marine units were the American ready reaction force for threats anywhere in the world, and now almost all of them had been committed to combat in Vietnam.
In addition, other than the remaining two brigades of the 82nd, most of the units remaining in the United States were composed of men returned from Viet Nam that were simply waiting to get out of the Army or Marines. They did not form a sufficient credible, deployable fighting force. The draft was viewed as incapable of raising sufficient men fast enough to replenish the strategic reserve and the Joint Chiefs therefore wanted President Johnson to call up the reserves and perhaps some of the National Guard units as well in order to be capable of responding to threats elsewhere in the world if necessary.
Although General Wheeler had been in the Army since World War II, he had never actually held a fighting command and his time in combat was so short that many had objected even to his nomination as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Nonetheless, after touring Vietnam to assess himself the outcome of the Tet ‘68 battles, he pressured General Westmoreland into asking for more troops.
General Wheeler wanted General Westmoreland to ask for a sufficient number of troops that would require a significant call up of the reserves or of the National Guard to satisfy. In order to be certain that this would force the President to call up reserve units General Wheeler strongly suggested that General Westmoreland ask for a little over 200,000 additional men.
If General Westmoreland had announced that because of the great victory he had achieved against the Communists in destroying their forces during the Tet ’68 battles that over the next year or so he was sending 200,000 American servicemen home rather than being duped by the Joint Chiefs into asking for 200,000 additional soldiers that he did not need, did not want, could not use effectively but unfortunately did not reject, then the war would have ended entirely differently and General Westmoreland would have earned an entirely different reputation as a combat commanding general as well. And, the Joint Chiefs would have gotten their 200,000 additional men for the strategic reserve. But, General Westmoreland was a go along, get along general, actually much like General Wheeler in this respect, so he asked for the additional troops.
The violent, bloody Tet ’68 Offensive, coming soon after General Westmoreland’s late 1967 trip to the United States where he had assured both the Congress and the American people that we were winning the war in Vietnam was already a shock to the American people. Then, came the pictures of the Great Seal of the United States laying broken on the Embassy grounds in Saigon. This was followed by the picture of General Loan, commander of the South Vietnamese National Police, executing a bound VC francs- tireurs on a street in Saigon. Since the execution was presented without any context by the media, it both disgusted, and caused the American people to doubt their ally.†
The final nail in the coffin came when “Westmoreland’s request” for over 200,000 more troops was leaked to the press. While the violence of the Tet ’68 Offensive certainly had a strong role in turning America against the war, it was this explosive disclosure which seemed to further belie all of the military claims of victory, both before Tet ’68 and of the battle of Tet ’68 itself. That troop request was the final straw. The “credibility gap” had now widened too far for many Americans.
Soon after Tet ’68, General Westmoreland was recalled and the war policy of the United States was irrevocably changed. General Westmorland was replaced by his deputy General Creighton Abrams, a former tanker of World War II fame. It had been Abram’s tank battalion that first broke through to the embattled 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
The new process of Vietnamization almost immediately implemented by General Abrams after General Westmoreland left Vietnam proved that sending significant American military forces home from Vietnam after the Tet ‘68 victory had clearly been a viable option for General Westmoreland at that time as well. But, if it was considered, it was rejected.
General Westmoreland may have thought he was being the good soldier in going along with the Joint Chiefs’ request for hundreds of thousands of more men which would have forced President Johnson to call up the reserves and allowed the Joint Chiefs to replenish what they viewed as a dangerously low military force level in the United States itself, but he was not being a good commander of his troops in Vietnam. General Westmoreland had a specific mission to perform in South Vietnam, but he decided to go along and get along with the Joint Chiefs on their mission, rather than to do his duty to his men and to his President. His reputation as a soldier has never recovered.
It was not the American armed forces that lost their nerve after Tet ’68. The American soldiers, and Marines on the ground knew that they had won a great victory over a well armed, highly experienced and ferociously aggressive enemy. It was not the American people either.
It was President Johnson that lost his nerve when the butcher’s bill for this victory came in. That this is true for the American people is clear from first the election of Nixon over the “peace” candidate George McGovern, from the actions of the Nixon Administration in Vietnam and the response of the armed forces in Vietnam during the Nixon Administration.
After Tet ’68, after Nixon’s election, the war went on for years at a relatively high tempo and with a great deal of tactical success and at first clearly a majority of public support in the United States in spite of substantial, and it must be admitted growing, political protest as well. It was clear though from the two hard fought Nixon presidential victories that a majority of Americans were not yet ready to abandon South Vietnam.
While the battlefield successes in the Nixon years was partly because of the absence from the battlefield of all those Viet Cong who had been killed during Tet ’68, it was also because the ARVN units were performing much better and because a great many of the Americans stationed in Vietnam had never really been useful in the war effort. Many American soldiers and Marines were there to prepare for an invasion of North Vietnam, or Cambodia, or Laos, or all three. While there was short incursion into Cambodia, these invasions never came, nor were they ever likely to be approved.
Both during and after the Vietnam War many critics of the Westmoreland’s attrition tactics have said that the United States should have spent more of its time on pacification in the South and less time chasing large units in huge search and destroy operations.
Taking only the question of “pacification”, if the people of the South were in fact so disaffected, so in need of pacification why was there never a rising by the South Vietnamese people in support of the North? Why didn’t any units of the South Vietnamese Army, a draftee army, simply switch sides? In spite of strenuous efforts, why couldn’t the VC units rebuild their ranks after being destroyed in Tet ’68?
Perhaps because the people of South Vietnam already wanted their country left undisturbed. Perhaps, because in general they were pretty well pacified by about 1966 and certainly they were pacified after Tet ‘68. Their pacification was why General Giap, rather than being able to recruit replacements for his Main Force VC units had to infiltrate ever more NVA south.
It also speaks volumes about the political sympathies of the common people in the South that even after the North Vietnamese succeeded in conquering South Vietnam in 1975 that almost 1.5 million Vietnamese left by any means they could and perhaps another half million perished in their attempt to flee the North Vietnamese invasion of their country. (STATISTICS OF DEMOCIDE Chapter 6 Statistics Of Vietnamese Democide Estimates, Calculations, And Sources By R.J. Rummel) That is, well over 10% of the total population of South Vietnam, at very great personal risk, abandoned everything, fled their country, and most of them wanted to come to America.
If the North had not done everything it could to stop them from leaving, how many more would have left? If the South really needed more pacification, why did so many leave when the North won? If American tactics and atrocities during the war had so brutalized the people of South Vietnam, why did the almost two million plus boat people want to come to America? Perhaps because the myths of South Vietnamese political indifference, and tales of vicious, wide spread American atrocities were not entirely true after all?
After Tet ’68 the North recognized two things: if it was going to win that it must conquer South Vietnam, and that it lacked the ability to conquer the South using VC, or infiltrated NVA units and men. As a result the North tried twice to simply invade the South. In 1972 the North launched its Easter Offensive after almost all of the American forces had been withdrawn. It was mainly South Vietnamese military forces supported by massive US combat firepower particularly from the air that met the North’s 1972 invasion’s onslaught, and it was decisively defeated.
Once again in their Easter Offensive of 1972, because of a miscalculation of the political will of the people of South Vietnam, the North’s forces suffered defeat and massive losses. This time the losses were to its NVA formations already stationed in the South as well as to additional NVA conventional forces invading from the North and through Cambodia. According to some sources the North lost over 700 armored vehicles in this disastrous 1972 attack alone.
Three years later, in 1975, and after the Americans had been entirely gone from Vietnam for over two years, the North tried invasion again. However, this time because of various laws designed to end US involvement, particularly those known as Cooper-Church, and Case-Church, the US did not support the South Vietnamese militarily at all. Without American combat firepower, pretty much out of ammunition and fuel for his own armed forces as well, President Thieu lost his nerve and it quickly became a rout.
In 1975 the South Vietnamese were soundly defeated. Their nation was lost. At the risk of their lives, millions of South Vietnamese fled their country rather than live under the rule of the communist North. However, once again, there was no popular uprising anywhere in the South supporting unification with the North; and, while many South Vietnamese Army units simply disappeared, there were still no South Vietnamese Army units that switched sides.
The North had won its brutal civil war against the South, but it did it with naked military force and relatively little political support in the South. It should be noted as well, that the planes, tanks, artillery, rifles, ammunition, trucks and other military equipment and supplies including much of the food that the North used to invade the South all came from somewhere else. Without the military support of the communist bloc countries, the North could not have won the war.
As noted, many have stated that the United States “lost” the Vietnam War because it over emphasized military operations instead of civil pacification. However, pacification is a tactic designed to defeat a true insurgency. While it can be very effective in that role, there must be a true, a legitimate insurgency to pacify or such efforts will do nothing useful.
The basic idea of civil pacification is to separate the guerrillas from their allies in the civil population. When you do this effectively you can cut the guerrillas off from their primary sources of food, information and recruits.
While some of the Viet Cong from the beginning had lived in the South, many were native northerners. Many more of the original native southerners were Viet Minh that had gone to the North when Vietnam was partitioned after the French left and were thereafter re-infiltrated to the South. Thus, they were southerners in name only.
As the war progressed native southerners, attracted through either coercion, family connections, or political belief, or a combination of all of these also joined these Viet Cong in fighting the South Vietnamese government. By 1965 these Viet Cong forces had successfully progressed to the use of medium sized unit attacks throughout the Republic of South Vietnam and the NLF appeared to be on the verge of victory. Up to this point the war in South Vietnam, the NLF had apparently followed in general the classic pattern of a successful insurgency heavily supported by an outside power.
However, it is clear today that the armed struggle in South Vietnam was initiated in the 1950’s as a result of orders given by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of North Vietnam and that the war in the South always remained under the direct control of the North. During the Vietnam War, Nguyen Van Linh was the powerful Communist Party secretary for the Vietcong in South Vietnam. He was born near Hanoi, the Central Committee had sent him south to direct the guerrilla resistance against the American-allied government. He and other Northern NVA officers ran the war in the South.
By 1965 the North was clearly winning the war in the South. Only, the arrival of large American fighting units, first the Marines at Danang, the 173d Airborne Brigade (Separate) and then the First Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and many more after that turned the tide of the war against the Viet Cong in 1966 and 1967. In reply to the introduction of large-scale American fighting units, the North infiltrated even more of its own large-scale NVA units and supplies into South Vietnam down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and it also supplied them through Cambodia as well.
At first these NVA units engaged the Americans. However, the NVA were routinely and bloodily routed by the Americans. Even in set piece battles that the NVA themselves had planned and initiated the result was the same, a bloody defeat for the NVA. Therefore, after several such gory routs the remaining NVA units generally stayed in their jungle bases, or in sanctuaries in Cambodia or Laos, and again let the Main Force Viet Cong units carry the brunt of the fighting.
The strategy switch in 1966 to medium sized and larger Viet Cong unit attacks and then the gradual introduction of Main Force NVA units to the war in South Vietnam changed the complexion of the war in the South. It was no longer truly a “guerrilla war” nor even an insurgency at that point. It had become clearly either a war of aggression of North Vietnam against South Vietnam, or it was at best a civil war between these two sides depending on the view you took of Vietnam’s long and tortuous political history.
Since the only time in its entire history that North, Central and South Vietnam as currently constituted had ever been united was after the French invaded in the late 1800s the North was actually trying to create a totally new Vietnamese state, adding substantial territory in the far south that had never been part of any Vietnamese state before. Prior to the French invasion most of what is now southern Vietnam, south of the Mekong River, had been part of the Cambodian Empire and the Central Highlands were realistically under the control of no one. However, in 1965-66 with the massive infiltration of regular NVA units this was changing, and as stated, until the Americans came in force in 1966, the North was beginning to win its war.
Importantly, at least by the beginning of 1968 and continuing thereafter, neither the NVA forces in South Vietnam nor few remaining VC main force units remaining there after Tet ‘68 relied much on the local population for food, information or recruits. These relatively large units were mostly based in areas of the country that were already separated from civilian population centers in South Vietnam, or they were based entirely outside of the borders of South Vietnam in sanctuaries in Laos or Cambodia.
In fact, after 1968 almost all of the NVA and Main Force VC did not rely on civilian support in the South for anything, except for some food and when necessary for forced labor. Both their military manpower and their supplies traveled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the South, or they came via the Sihanouk Trail, which was the American name for the network of roads, waterways and paths cutting through Cambodia from Sihanoukville, in the Bay of Kampong Son on the Gulf of Thailand in the south of Cambodia that also supplied communist forces particularly in the far south portion of South Vietnam.
This huge logistics network was considered an integral part of the overall very complex NVA/VC supply system including the much better known road systems in Laos and North Vietnam called the Ho Chi Minh Trail and as noted those centered on the sole Cambodian deep water port of Sihanoukville. Therefore, particularly after Tet ‘68 as a practical matter, pacification of the civil population of South Vietnam was no longer as relevant since the North’s military forces in the South did not rely on the population for support. The population of South Vietnam was not essential to the “guerrilla war” because, assuming that there ever had been one, after 1966 and particularly after 1968, there no longer was much of a true guerrilla war to support.
General Abram’s now much vaunted pacification program initiated after he took over from General Westmoreland was effective in large part because we had already killed almost all of the real Viet Cong, and a lot of the NVA in the fierce battles during Tet ’68 and in the almost equally violent battles following immediately thereafter in the second and third waves of Tet ’68. When the government forces returned to the countryside after Tet ’68 they were not effectively opposed. Those earlier battles literally eliminated almost all of the even arguably indigenous support that there had ever been in the South for unification with the North.
From a strictly military perspective, every one is pretty well pacified when they are dead. And, in the absence of many real local guerrillas or insurgents after 1968, the anti-guerilla war went very well while the attacks from the NVA units, albeit still deadly, they were very good infantry after all, clearly suffered from a lack of local guides, local support and local intelligence. It is important to keep these time frames in mind because these changes, and their timing on and around the battlefield are important.
As noted, by any rational military analysis at least as early as 1966 the war in South Vietnam was no longer truly a guerrilla war, nor had it ever been a true insurgency. The armed opposition to the South Vietnamese government although supported by some in the South was initiated, supplied and most of all, it was always controlled directly by the North Vietnamese government. In that sense, it was always a civil war between the peoples of North and South Vietnam.
As such, it had a long history of conflict behind it. For centuries the Viet people of the Tonkin Gulf had been advancing south down the Vietnamese coast conquering as they went, controlling or forcing out the indigenous Cham, Khamer and other peoples of South Vietnam.
Moreover, and very contrary to general belief, it was not an insurgency, nor a guerilla war, nor even an asymmetrical war that defeated the South Vietnamese. When defeat came in 1975 it was a full-scale, traditional, combined-arms invasion by almost the entire NVA army, all 17 divisions from North Vietnam right down Highway #1.
You can’t pacify an invasion; you must defeat it. Without American combat firepower the South Vietnamese could not defeat the last of the North’s repeated invasions of the South.
Since, according to all reports, General Abrams had refocused the South Vietnamese Army after Tet ‘68 into an effective anti-guerilla, force focusing on pacification rather than as a conventional army, it was also ill equipped in both force structure and deployment to deal with the North’s classic combined-arms invasion across the DMZ.
While it may be ironic that General Abrams, an armored officer of solid reputation and great experience in conventional warfare did not prepare the South Vietnamese Army for its greatest test—a true tankers’ battle at the DMZ between North and South Vietnam, that was never his mission, nor was he ever given the means to do it. In any event both General Abrams and the other Americans had been long gone from Vietnam for over two years when Giap’s tanks rumbled their violent way south.
The Vietnam War is probably our second most studied war. I think the Civil War still beats it, but nonetheless it also stands our least understood, most misunderstood war. Worse a great deal of what we “know” to be true about Vietnam is simply wrong.
However, these facts are true:
- Tet’ 68 was a massive, an historic defeat for the Communists. It was one of the two or three largest almost pure infantry battles ever fought and it was clearly, cleanly and decisively won by the United States, South Vietnamese and other allied forces. In point of fact, it was a battle of annihilation on the scale of Hannibal’s Cannae. Like Cannae, it was won by the grunts on the ground fighting with courage, tenacity, and in the case of Tet ’68, with devastating American firepower and surprising mobility. Unfortunately, also like Cannae, this great military victory was not followed up on with a political victory. However, the South Vietnamese Army, Navy and Air Force generally fought well in this battle, particularly as noted their Ranger, Marine and airborne battalions and brigades. That is to say that the sons of the people of Vietnam that constituted their almost all draftee army were pacified enough by 1968 that they fought ferociously and that time successfully for their country.
- The US Marines suffered more casualties in Vietnam than they did in all of World War II, but the United States never even imposed a war profits tax. So, even though it was a really big, a really long war, the United States never went even close to a war footing to fight it. In absolute military terms the United States never even worked up a sweat fighting this war. Therefore, it was always a winnable war for the United States. It was always a question only of whether the United States was willing to pay the price necessary to prevail. If America chose to pay the price of winning, then there never was even a possibility that the North could win.
- The Communist tactics of guerrilla war after an initial success, failed miserably in South Vietnam. The VC guerrillas were defeated by the South Vietnamese by 1964. Then the VC and the newly arrived NVA regular army units changed tactics in 1965 and after initial success were defeated again, first by the newly arrived US soldiers on the ground in the jungle and then bloodily in the city fighting of Tet ’68. They were defeated yet again in the jungle in 1972 by the South Vietnamese with the assistance of American firepower as the US was leaving which is why the ever resourceful General Giap was forced to change his tactics yet again and this time go with a conventional combined-arms invasion including over 700 tanks across the Demilitarized Zone in 1975.
- The South Vietnamese lost their battle in 1975 and therefore the war in large part because the US failed (the Case-Church Amendment flatly prohibited it) to support the Republic of South Vietnam in its greatest battle. Only fifty-five days after the crossed the DMZ , Saigon fell. Simply stated the US refused to respond, in spite of promises President Nixon reportedly made to President Thieu in order to secure South Vietnam’s acceptance of the Paris Peace Accords. So, the North Vietnamese conventional forces invaded and conquered America’s ally, the Republic of South Vietnam. While their own bad generalship and the corruption of the South Vietnamese government also played a small part in their defeat, US combat firepower directed against the Northern invaders nonetheless would have again been utterly game changing. Had the United States intervened with its massive air assets, both land and sea based, there is no legitimate reason to suppose that the result in 1975 would have been any different from that of 1972, yet another bloody, costly defeat for the North by the ARVN, but America did nothing.
Whether or not America should have fought in Vietnam, whether or not the tactics and strategies used were effective, or could have been more effective, it is simply true that the Vietnam War, like the Korean War were both part of the Cold War policy of the United States and its allies to defeat the communist menace by containing it. And, communism both is, and was, a menace to people, to all people.
In the simplest of human terms–Communism-totalitarianism-fundamentalism all fail, because these political systems do not value human beings as individuals.
The overall Cold War policy of containment, adopted by the United States and the free world was initially proposed by American diplomat George F. Kennan in his famous “long memo” from his post in Moscow soon after World War II was over. While the Communists nonetheless expanded over the years, the policy of containment was effective, and ultimately successful. Part of the reason it was effective was that the Free World could afford the costs of the actual battles fought in Korea and Vietnam but the communists’ societies could not.
Part of the reason it was effective is also that the American soldier and Marine are the equal of any other fighting man on any battlefield, any time, anywhere—the American fighting men actually did kill America’s enemies in Vietnam at the incredible body count ratios that were reported, disbelieved and often ridiculed at the time.
We killed them in the jungle. We killed them in the cities. We beat them every single time we fought them, but America’s own newsmen told the American public that these victories and the reports about them filed by America’s sons were lies. However, anyone that repeats today the lie that the overall body count figures reported by MACV during the war were inaccurate has simply not kept up with current scholarship which indicates their remarkable accuracy, just as the admissions by government of Vietnam that approximately 1.1 million Vietminh, VC and/or NVA had been killed in the war validates in no uncertain terms the MACV reports.
However, this does not mean that all of the body count reports submitted were always accurate. Certainly some, perhaps many, were not, but as a matter of the statistics actually announced by MACV, overall they were accurate.
Moreover, like Cannae and other famous battles of annihilation, Tet ‘68 should be studied as the most perfect example of the American Way of War probably until the Iraq War I. It was an epic victory. There is no other word that adequately describes the across the board remarkable success of the American and allied military under extreme stress from a capable, resourceful, well supplied and well equipped enemy who attacked in force and was almost completely wiped out as a result of a battle in which; they chose the time; they chose the places and they chose the type of battle but nonetheless did not achieve even a single military objective.
It was a truly epic victory. But, the victory part was generally ignored then, and unfortunately still is now almost unknown in America today.
Many in and out of American government simply did not believe that any government would pay the price that the North Vietnamese were paying repeatedly on the battlefield. Therefore, in spite of the hard evidence, in spite of the stacks of enemy body bags and huge piles of captured weapons they simply refused to believe what America’s sons said had happened during Tet ’68, and tragically, America turned away from its own army.
However, communist North Vietnam was always willing to pay that high price, just as it was willing to pay the horrific price in blood in its invasion of the South in 1972. And, it must be admitted that given this, it is clear that even if the South had prevailed against the North’s 1975 invasion that probably would not have been the end of the North’s war against the South.
The war in Vietnam would have continued as long as the leaders in the North remained its leaders and there is no indication that yet another costly defeat in1975 would have changed that. The war probably would have continued, now clearly, finally unarguably, as a civil war, but now also a mostly conventional civil war between North and South Vietnam for an indeterminate time.
Since after Tet ‘68 Hanoi no longer had significant VC support in the South, if America had fully participated during the 1975 invasion battles, the North may no longer have had an army at all. Had the Marines landed again, this time near the DMZ, the North’s army may have suffered the same fate the North Korean Army suffered after the landing at Inchon during the Korean War. It would have been cut off in the South and destroyed.
We will never know what effect that would have had on the North, or on China. And, frankly that may be a good thing.
Finally several friends of mine have gone to Vietnam recently and they report that while the communists of the North may have been successful in invading and in taking over the South the infection of freedom was already well implanted there by the time the US left. It is the people of the former Republic of South of Vietnam that are driving the new nation economically. What many called “corruption” in the South was really nascent capitalism at work. Americans tend to forget that John Hancock made his living as a smuggler before our Revolutionary War. Oh yes, the North being better communists, remains relatively poor. History can be brutal.
Although the US involvement in the Vietnam War cannot accurately be described as altruistic, it was both an honorable and an unselfish policy pursued with vigor and courage. The long history of Vietnam is replete with there being a North Vietnam, a central Vietnam and a southern Vietnam stopping well short of the current boundary of southern Vietnam, and of various combinations of these three distinct, historic, political entities often warring with each other.
Like the ancient Greek city-states uniting to oppose the Persian Empire, the Vietnamese, Cham, Lao, Khmer, Chinese and Montagnard peoples of Vietnam historically have only truly united in their opposition to China—which indicates as long as history is any judge that the next time there is a war in Vietnam; they all, North, Central and South, coast and mountains, will be fighting on our side.
There is a big difference between losing a war and not winning one. There is also a big difference between winning a war and then leaving, and having an ally succumb to a different kind of war over two years after you left.
After a great deal of research, I have a much greater appreciation of General Abrams as a soldier both before and during the Viet Nam War. He was a combat commander of men of great, and well deserved reputation. However, I still do not understand what General Abrams is supposed to have done when he took over command in South Vietnam that was so very different, so much better from what General Westmorland did and why General Abrams time in command was supposed to be so much more effective than General Westmoreland’s time in command was.
It is not that I think that General Westmoreland was a great combat commander in Vietnam. He was not. In spite having more than 536,000 American armed forces in South Vietnam General Westmoreland could never get more than about 50,000 trigger pullers out in the field, on the ground, chasing the enemy. He created a huge logistic tail probably unequalled in the history warfare and ruined the native economy of South Vietnam doing it, but he did not tailor an army fitted to its task. In building this huge, unwieldy logistic machine General Westmoreland gave the enemy targets that he had to protect, but which did nothing to advance his mission.
In any event any general that chooses attrition for his strategy is in effect admitting that he does not know how to defeat the enemy and is relying on the raw courage of his men to do it for him. This is an expensive way to fight a war, but that does not mean it is always the wrong choice. It may be the only choice at the time. However, since I do not believe that a policy of attrition was General Westmoreland’s only strategic choice during the time he was the commander of the Vietnam War, therefore I must also believe that he failed as a commander.
Even saying this though does not mean that General Westmorland’s soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen did not retrieve his failures by their valor in battle. As noted, the Tet ’68 Offensive was a great victory. The armed forces on the ground, South Vietnamese, American, South Korean, Australian and many others performed magnificently. They did not just defeat the North’s truce-breaking, sneak attack; they crushed it. However, after this great victory General Westmoreland and General Wheeler threw away that success when they asked for even more soldiers that they did not need in Vietnam.
It appears that General Abrams had a better understanding than General Westmoreland of how totally the North had been defeated during Tet ’68 and thereafter. This massive defeat of the North had favorably changed the military situation through out South Vietnam. It also seems clear that General Abrams took immediate and very effective advantage of this greatly changed tactical situation on the ground throughout much of South Vietnam caused by the literal death of the Viet Cong as an effective fighting force during and after Tet ’68. Even with these favorable changes on the battlefield General Abrams was still left with plenty to do and it is very much to his credit that he immediately set out to get it done.
However, in the woods for the grunts of Vietnam of whom I am proud to say I was one, it was still business as usual. After General Abrams assumed command, we called what we did “Reconnaissance in Force” rather than “Search and Destroy” but it was still just hunting Charlie and killing him whenever, and where ever we found him. That was the infantry at work.
(✵) Hitler declared war on the United States three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After a great deal of research, as near as I have been able to determine, Hitler’s treaty with Japan was the only treaty that he made that he not only did not break, he declared war when that treaty did not require him to. Strange.
(†) Like spies and pirates, a franc tireurs, a person caught under arms in a civil insurrection but without any identification as a combatant was treated differently from a soldier under the Geneva Convention at the time. Under both the Geneva Convention and the law of the Republic of South Vietnam, a franc tireurs was a terrorist and subject to summary execution on the battlefield. What General Loan did, however brutal, was legal which was why he was never prosecuted. After the war he owned a pizza parlor in the suburbs of Washington, D. C. General Loan was a courageous, honest man that was badly wounded by the war.