WINNING THE BATTLES AND LOSING THE WAR

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James D. McLeroy

After the 1954 partition of Vietnam into a Communist north and an anti-Communist south, approximately 100,000 South Vietnamese Communists moved north to the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRV). About 80,000 of them were Viet Minh veterans of the First Indochina War against the French, and an estimated 10,000 of those were Montagnards. Between 5,000 and 10,000 other Communist Viet Minh combat veterans were ordered to remain in remote areas of the Republic of Viet Nam (South Vietnam), carefully bury their weapons and radios, and wait quietly for future orders from the DRV.

Many of the South Vietnamese “regroupees” in the DRV became regular soldiers in the 338th NVA Division stationed at Xuan Mai near Hanoi. Some 4,500 other regroupees were trained to infiltrate South Vietnam as covert military and political cadre. Their mission was to organize Communist Viet Minh veterans in guerrilla platoons and companies. Other regroupees were trained as agitation-propaganda (agitprop) teams. Their mission was to recruit disaffected South Vietnamese civilians, indoctrinate them in Leninist ideology, and organize them in covert intelligence and logistical networks to support the guerrilla forces.

In 1957, the Communist Viet Minh veterans who remained in South Vietnam were ordered to initiate a terror campaign in rural areas to destabilize the local governments and organize shadow Communist governments. They did so by intimidating, kidnapping, torturing, and assassinating thousands of village leaders, influential individuals, and their families. The South Vietnamese government called the South Vietnamese Communists Viet Cong (VC).

When NVA Transportation Group 559 began work on the Ho Chi Minh Trail network in May, 1957, 12,000 NVA troops were already in Laos to shield and protect them. The first stage of the Trail was completed in October, 1959, and by the end of 1960, some 3,500 NVA regroupee troops had infiltrated South Vietnam. In May, 1961 500 senior and mid-level NVA regroupee officers left for South Vietnam on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The next month, 400 NVA regroupee officers and sergeants followed them.

After all the regroupees had been sent to South Vietnam, regular NVA troops began to infiltrate in increasingly large increments. Continued infiltration of regular NVA troops enabled the Viet Cong forces to transition from the first stage of their three-stage Maoist strategy, terrorism and guerrilla warfare, to the second stage, mobile, semi-conventional warfare.

In early 1961, the Politburo planned its military strategy in South Vietnam for the next five years. Company-size VC forces were to be organized at the district level, battalion-size VC forces at the province level, and regimental-size VC forces at the regional level. The new VC regiments were eventually to evolve into between three and five full-time VC divisions.

By October of 1961, the covert NVA cadre had organized two new VC battalions. By the end of 1963, more than 40,000 NVA troops, including 2,000 senior and mid-level officers and technical personnel, had infiltrated South Vietnam on the Ho Chi Minh Trail network. Their mission was to augment the VC platoons and companies, train them, and develop them into new battalions and regiments. An additional 30,000 troops were recruited, trained, and organized in five new VC regiments. By the end of 1964, half of the 70,000 troops in the main-force VC units were regular NVA soldiers, and eighty percent of their leaders were NVA officers and technicians.

In September, 1965 the 9th VC Division was formed. Later that year two more VC regiments were organized, and in 1966 a third VC regiment joined them to form the 5th VC Division. In 1966, two regular NVA regiments arrived from the DRV, and a third regular NVA regiment arrived in 1967 to form the 7th VC Division. Those soldiers were not VC guerrillas; they were regular NVA troops from North Vietnam, who were VC in name only.

In early 1967, the five men in the Politburo’s Subcommittee for Military Affairs (SMA) faced two critical situations. First, the semi-conventional VC forces that had been fighting the U.S. forces since late 1965 were losing the war of attrition. Westmoreland’s big-unit, “search and destroy” campaigns, although clumsy and inefficient, were relentlessly attacking the main VC combat forces and pursuing them into their formerly safe base areas in the RVN. His aggressive tactics combined with superior firepower, manpower, and mobility were depleting the VC forces and exhausting the survivors, who were constantly forced to evade the conventional U.S. forces.

From January to June, 1967, VC-NVA losses from all causes exceeded 15,000 men per month. NVA infiltration was about 7,000 men per month, and VC recruitment was about 3,500 men per month. More VC combat forces were being lost than could be replaced by NVA infiltrators or VC recruits. The depleted VC ranks were being replaced with inexperienced and increasingly younger NVA troops from the DRV. As the age of the troops decreased, their combat quality also decreased. By 1967, the attrition “crossover point” had been reached: more NVA troops were being killed in the RVN than male children were being born in the DRV.

Second, the U.S. bombing campaign in North Vietnam, although arbitrarily limited and often interrupted, was severely degrading the DRV’s basic economic infrastructure and threatening to destroy what was left of it. The DRV economy had been reduced to little more than a conduit for Soviet and Chinese war supplies. Farm workers had to be used to repair the constant bomb damage, which led to widespread food shortages, rationing, and malnutrition.

The key men of the SMA led by Le Duan, the First Secretary of the ruling Lao Dong [workers] Party, knew that an unrestricted escalation of the U.S. air campaign would be disastrous both for the DRV’s remaining economic infrastructure and for the ability to support their forces in the RVN. They also knew that a major invasion of Laos to permanently interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail network and destroy the VC and NVA sanctuary bases there would be equally catastrophic for their VC and NVA forces in South Vietnam. They feared that unless they could reverse those two trends, they might lose the war in the south and the north.

Dissension arose in the Politburo between two factions over their future grand strategy for winning the war. From 1959 to 1964, it had been Mao Tse-tung’s three-stage, protracted attrition model. In 1964, Le Duan attempted a rapid transition from the second, mobile stage of the model to the third, positional stage. The second stage was short attacks on vulnerable targets and rapid withdrawals by semi-conventional VC battalions. The third and final stage was sustained attacks on the main enemy forces by conventional VC/NVA regiments and divisions to seize and hold key terrain.

Le Duan’s 1964 strategy was to rapidly conquer the RVN before the inevitable arrival of large U.S. conventional forces. He began by invading the Central Highlands in 1965 with three elite NVA regiments. They were to advance to the coast and be followed by several NVA divisions. The combined force would then move south and capture Saigon, the RVN capital. In the Ia Drang Valley battle in November, 1965 Le Duan learned that his attempted transition to positional warfare was premature. Two of the three NVA regiments were defeated by a reinforced battalion of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) with the aid of artillery and close air support. In 1966, the NVA were forced to revert to the mobile warfare stage.

In 1967, Le Duan attempted again to transition from mobile to positional warfare by replacing the Maoist attrition model with an adaptation of the Leninist coup de main model. The latter required a nationwide, civilian insurrection combined with the rapid seizure of strategic urban targets. Le Duan thought that with his new strategy he could conquer the RVN quickly without having to wait for U.S. forces to be withdrawn and without having to defeat the RVN Army.

He believed that by coordinating all the VC forces in the RVN in one General Offensive he could incite a spontaneous, nationwide General Insurrection of rural and urban civilians. According to his Leninist ideology, the “revolutionary masses” would then join the victorious VC forces to overthrow the “imperialist puppet” RVN government. He called it the August, 1945 Strategy, assuming that it would be as successful as Ho Chi Minh’s rapid and virtually unopposed seizure of power in Hanoi in August, 1945.

Le Duan evidently did not compare the military context of Ho Chi Minh’s 1945 success with the military context of his new strategy. If he had, he would have seen that no significant points of comparison existed. Giap and his Politburo supporters, including Ho Chi Minh, recognized the fallacy in the new strategy and opposed it as militarily unrealistic and potentially disastrous.  Giap agreed that they needed a decisive victory in a large battle soon, but he disagreed that widely dispersed VC forces could defeat the combined firepower of the U.S. and ARVN forces in simultaneous assaults against the most heavily defended urban targets. He advocated delaying the transition to the positional warfare stage, until U.S. political will to continue the war was clearly exhausted. Despite increasing VC losses, he wanted to continue in the mobile warfare stage by conservatively attacking only vulnerable enemy units and avoiding large battles that risked more major losses.

Le Duan, ignoring Giap’s advice as Defense Minister, marginalized him in the Politburo and gave the command of the 1968 General Offensive/General Insurrection campaign to Van Tien Dung. Giap then temporarily exiled himself in Hungary for unspecified “health reasons”, and Ho Chi Minh, also marginalized in the Politburo for his support of Giap’s opposition to Le Duan’s new strategy, temporarily exiled himself in China for medical treatment.

The culmination of Le Duan’s 1964 strategy was intended to be a decisive victory over large U.S. forces in a set-piece battle comparable to the decisive 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu. That iconic battle was officially portrayed as the glorious triumph of the heroic revolutionary masses, but Giap’s name was prominently associated with it. Le Duan was jealous of Giap’s popularity and wanted to win a strategically decisive battle against U.S. forces with no connection to Giap.

He apparently chose the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh as the target. Lacking technical military knowledge, he did not understand that he could never match Giap’s victory over the French forces at Dien Bien Phu with a comparable victory over the U.S. forces at Khe Sanh for technical reasons beyond his control.

Westmoreland confidently welcomed a multi-divisional NVA attack in a remote area with no possibility of collateral damage to civilians from U.S. firepower. He knew that Khe Sanh’s all-weather, twenty-four hour, radar-controlled air defense system; its secure, external artillery support; and its acoustic, seismic, and infrared sensor system could detect and destroy any size and number of NVA ground attacks under any conditions.

The NVA isolated Khe Sanh by land, bombarded it with long-range artillery, dug deep trenches near its perimeter, and repeatedly attacked the surrounding high ground. As Westmoreland predicted, the same WW I tactics that were successful against the French at Dien Phu in 1954 failed against the U.S. forces at Khe Sanh in 1968. In more than two months of futile attempts to capture the base, the NVA lost an estimated ten thousand or more of their best troops in repeated avalanches of U.S. bombs and artillery shells.

Despite those losses, at the end of January, 1968 Le Duan launched his nationwide General Offensive/General Insurrection campaign. Some 84,000 VC troops simultaneously attacked five of the six major RVN cities, thirty-six of the forty-four provincial capitals, and sixty-four of the 245 district capitals. In doing so, they lost an estimated 58,000 VC troops and failed to achieve any of their main objectives. Some VC troops held out for over three weeks in Hue and parts of Saigon and Cholon, but most of them were eventually killed.

Not surprisingly, there was no General Insurrection of South Vietnamese civilians. The mass atrocities of the defeated VC forces in Hue and other towns alienated even most formerly passive VC sympathizers.   For the first time in the war, feelings of national patriotism and urban hostility toward the VC began to develop.

Le Duan’s shock at the disastrous failure of his new strategy in Tet 1968 was likely equaled by his astonishment at its portrayal by the U.S. media as the failure of Westmoreland’s attrition strategy and by implication the failure of President Johnson’s war in Vietnam. The five men in the SMA must have known that the Khe Sanh and Tet battles actually validated Westmoreland’s mass attrition strategy beyond his own most optimistic expectations.

The U.S. media’s radically misleading reporting of those battles, their failure to report the huge tactical losses of the VC-NVA forces, and their discrediting or ignoring all the tactical successes of the U.S. and ARVN forces was a serendipitous gift to Le Duan. That strategic propaganda victory in America far outweighed all his 1968 tactical losses in South Vietnam.

Most of the U.S. media seemed to believe the simplistic cliché that if the “counterinsurgency” forces are not consistently and visibly winning a “guerrilla war”, they must be either losing it or hopelessly stalemated. That widespread fallacy was based on the misinformed impressions of a few militarily ignorant and politically hostile U.S. reporters in Saigon, whose pseudo-knowledge of the U.S. military’s performance in the war was partly based on the constant gossip and rumors of the other militarily ignorant and politically hostile reporters in Saigon.

Their pseudo-knowledge of the war was pseudo-validated by a deep-cover disinformation agent in the Saigon bureau of Time magazine. He enjoyed unquestioned credibility with all the U.S. reporters, but was later revealed as a North Vietnamese spy and general in the intelligence service of the DRV. The reporters’ superficial impressions were further pseudo-validated by their occasional glimpses of combat in their brief visits to deployed U.S. troop units to film background scenes to legitimize their staged war reporting.

Most of their Liberal U.S. editors were prejudiced against the RVN’s authoritarian regime. They resisted acknowledging the facts that the DRV and the RVN were two independent nations, not one nation with two names, and the RVN was diplomatically recognized as such by more than sixty nations. They also resisted acknowledging the obvious facts that a war between two sovereign nations is not a civil war, and an invasion of one sovereign nation by another sovereign nation is not an insurgency.

Their Liberal news editors were not pro-Communist, but they tended to be viscerally anti-anti-Communist. Most of them ignored the fact, reported by a few objective journalists in Vietnam, that in the 1968 Tet battles the VC used semi-conventional tactics, not guerrilla tactics. Most of them also ignored the fact that U.S. and ARVN forces won all those battles with conventional tactics, not counterinsurgency tactics. Most of them refused to believe that the U.S. and ARVN forces had annihilated most of the main VC combat forces, and that the relatively few surviving VC combat forces were no longer an existential threat to the Republic of Vietnam.

In 1968, most Americans got their news in capsule form from television. There were only three national television networks, and most TV news editors were more entertainment managers than journalists. Their minimized or ignored the critical fact that the defeated VC forces were constantly being replaced by regular NVA units in an increasingly overt invasion from the DRV.

Their consistently negative visual messages about the war in 1968 produced the popular belief in America that as long as the “VC guerrillas” could still fight big battles, the U.S. forces must be losing the “counterinsurgency” war in Vietnam.

The tragic irony of the failure of the NVA’s Dien Bien Phu strategy at Khe Sanh and the failure of the VC’s General Offensive/General Insurrection strategy everywhere else in the RVN is that both of those moribund strategies were inadvertently resuscitated by the U.S. media. That unexpected result evidently convinced Le Duan that a second series of such battles in May would again be reported by the media as U.S. strategic defeats, regardless of all the NVA’s tactical losses, merely because they were fought.

The second series of nationwide battles in 1968 was called “Mini-Tet.” The results were again the same in South Vietnam and America: tactical victories but strategic defeat for the US forces; tactical defeat but strategic victory for the NVA forces. Despite the military defeat of both the VC and the NVA forces in the Republic of Viet Nam, that is how the American Phase of the Second Indochina War finally ended five years later.