by LEWIS SORLEY Copyright © 2006
A Lecture Delivered at the Vietnam Center Texas Tech University Lubbock, Texas
No one account could hope to address all the many aspects of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s performance in such a long and complex endeavor as the Vietnam War. This morning, then, I would like to speak to selected aspects, and to do so in the form of eight chunks, two sidebars, and a very brief conclusion.
The South Vietnamese government awarded campaign medals to Americans who served in the Vietnam War. Each decoration had affixed to the ribbon a metal scroll inscribed “1960- .“ The closing date was never filled in, for obvious reasons, but for our purposes 1960 will serve as a suitable starting point (one of several that might have been chosen). From that point forward increasing and eventually large-scale American involvement in the Vietnam War provided an excellent vantage point for evaluation and appreciation of the performance rendered by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam during the period 1960-1975.
Some years ago I published an analysis of ARVN’s performance in the 1972 Easter Offensive. I called the piece “Courage and Blood,” and it appeared in Parameters, the journal of the Army War College. The late Douglas Pike commented in a subsequent issue of his periodic Indochina Chronology: “Slowly but steadily the effort goes on to rectify the record and rescue the reputation of the South Vietnamese soldier,” he wrote, “those so casually trashed by the ignorant commercial television reporter and the academic left-winger bent on some ideological mission. Sorley’s writings amount to historical revisionism and he is a sturdy yeoman plowing this particular patch.”1
I have always been grateful for that encouraging assessment, and wish Professor Pike could be with us now to observe how the emerging historical record sustains an increasingly well documented and objective appreciation of the heroic and ultimately successful maturation and performance of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Only when the United States defaulted on its commitments to South Vietnam, while North Vietnam’s communist allies continued and indeed greatly increased support to their client state, were our unfortunate sometime allies overwhelmed and defeated.
Thus far there has never been a full-scale evaluation of ARVN’s evolution and performance over the years of its expansion and development that has been based solely on the record broadly considered. In the limited time available here, I hope to provide the beginnings of a corrective to the incomplete, unfair, and ideologically tainted view of ARVN that until now has largely constituted the conventional wisdom.
Americans know very little about the Vietnam War, even though it ended over three decades ago. That is in part because it has been seen by those who opposed the war, or at least opposed their own participation in it, as in their interests to portray every aspect of the long struggle in the worst possible light, and indeed in some cases to falsify what they have had to say about it. James Webb identified the media, academia, and Hollywood as groups that “have a large stake in having the war remembered as both unnecessary and unwinnable.”2 That they also to a large degree dominate the public dialogue helps explain why many have such a distorted view of the war even three decades after the fact.
Such distortions extend from wholesale defamation of the South Vietnamese and their conduct throughout a long and difficult struggle to Jane Fonda’s infamous claim that repatriated American prisoners of war who reported systematic abuse and torture by their captors were “liars” and “hypocrites.”
It is time to move beyond the unrelentingly negative, often slanderous, and overwhelmingly politicized denunciations of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—the ARVN—that have characterized so much of the dialogue since the war.
* * *
Chunk 1: ARVN in the Earlier Years
This was a period of American dominance in conduct of the war, with the South Vietnamese basically shoved aside, relegated to pacification duty (which was itself a facet of the war pretty much ignored by the American command) and given little in the way of modernized equipment or combat support.
Many people, including some Americans stationed in Vietnam, were critical of South Vietnamese armed forces during this period. But such criticisms seldom took into account a number of factors affecting the performance of those forces. American materiel assistance in these early years consisted largely of providing cast-off World War II American weapons, including the heavy and unwieldy (for a Vietnamese) M-1 rifle. Meanwhile the enemy was being provided the AK-47 assault rifle by his Russian and Chinese patrons.
“In 1964 the enemy had introduced the AK47, a modern, highly effective automatic rifle,” noted Brigadier General James L. Collins, Jr. in a monograph on development of South Vietnam’s armed forces. “In contrast, the South Vietnam forces were still armed with a variety of World War II weapons….” Then: “After 1965 the increasing U.S. buildup slowly pushed Vietnamese armed forces materiel needs into the background.”3
Thus South Vietnamese units continued to be outgunned by the enemy and at a distinct combat disadvantage. General Fred Weyand, finishing up a tour as commanding general of II Field Force, Vietnam, observed in a 1968 debriefing report that “the long delay in furnishing ARVN modern weapons and equipment, at least on a par with that furnished the enemy by Russia and China, has been a major contributing factor to ARVN ineffectiveness.”4
It was not until General Creighton Abrams came to Vietnam as deputy commander of U.S. forces in May 1967 that the South Vietnamese began to get more attention. Soon after taking up his post Abrams cabled Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson. “It is quite clear to me,” he reported, “that the US Army military here and at home have thought largely in terms of US operations and support of US forces.”
As a consequence, “shortages of essential equipment or supplies in an already austere authorization has not been handled with the urgency and vigor that characterizes what we do for US needs. Yet the responsibility we bear to ARVN is clear.” Abrams acknowledged that “the ground work must begin here. I am working at it.”5
Abrams spent most of his year as the deputy trying to upgrade South Vietnamese forces, including providing them the M-16 rifle. By the time of Tet 1968 he had managed to get some of these weapons into the hands of South Vietnamese airborne and other elite units, but the rank and file were still outgunned by the enemy. Thus Lieutenant General Dong Van Khuyen, South Vietnam’s senior logistician, recalled that “during the enemy Tet offensive of 1968 the crisp, rattling sounds of AK- 47s echoing in Saigon and some other cities seemed to make a mockery of the weaker, single shots of Garands and carbines fired by stupefied friendly troops.”6
Even so, South Vietnamese armed forces performed admirably in repelling the Tet offensive. “To the surprise of many Americans and the consternation of the Communists,” reported Time magazine, “ARVN bore the brunt of the early fighting with bravery and elan, performing better than almost anyone would have expected.”7 Nobody mentioned that the ARVN had achieved these results without modern weapons that could match those of the enemy.
In February 1968 retired Army General Bruce C. Clarke made a trip to Vietnam. Afterward, Clarke wrote up a trip report which, by way of General Earle Wheeler, made its way to President Lyndon Johnson. Clarke stated in the report that “the Vietnamese units are still on a very austere priority for equipment, to include weapons.” That adversely affected both their moral and effectiveness, he observed. “Troops know and feel it when they are poorly equipped.”
After reading the report, LBJ called Clarke to the White House to discuss his findings. Then, recalled Clarke, “within a few days of our visit to the White House a presidential aide called me to say the President had released 100,000 M-16 rifles to ARVN.”8 President Johnson referred to this matter in his dramatic 31 March 1968 speech. “We shall,” he vowed, “accelerate the re-equipment of South Vietnam’s armed forces in order to meet the enemy’s increased firepower.”9 It was about time.
Clarke made another visit to Vietnam in August 1969, when he “found that the ARVN had 713,000 M-16s and other equipment and had made great progress since 1968 Tet.”10 Now ARVN, and the Territorial Forces, were getting not only the most modern rifles, but also M-79 grenade launchers, M-60 machine guns, and AN/PRC-25 radios, equipment the U.S. forces had had all along.
U.S. divisions were not only better armed, but larger than South Vietnam’s, resulting in greater combat capability. While he was serving as deputy U.S. commander, recalled his aide-de-camp, General Abrams “had a study done of comparative combat power of U.S. and South Vietnamese divisions. It turned out to be something like sixteen to one due to the superior firepower possessed by the U.S. units. Abrams used that as a point to try to get more resources into the ARVN divisions.”11
To the further disadvantage of the South Vietnamese, during these early years the U.S. hogged most of the combat support that increased unit effectiveness. This included such things as allocation of B-52 bombing strikes, provision of helicopter and fixed-wing gunship support, artillery, and intra-theater troop transport.
Abrams noted that during the period of the enemy’s “Third Offensive” in August and September 1968 “the ARVN killed more enemy than all other allied forces combined.” In the process, he noted, they also “suffered more KIA, both actual and on the basis of the ratio of enemy to friendly killed in action.” This was a function, he told General Wheeler, of the fact that the South Vietnamese “get relatively less support, both quantitatively and qualitatively, than US forces, i.e., artillery, tactical air support, gunships and helilift.”12
Under these conditions of the earlier years, criticism of South Vietnamese units was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Given little to work with, outgunned by the enemy, and relegated to what were then viewed as secondary roles, South Vietnam’s armed forces missed out for several years on the development and combat experience that would have greatly increased their capabilities.
Later Robert McNamara, who as Defense Secretary had presided over the American war effort in those same years, wrote disparagingly of the Vietnamese, earning a searing rebuke from William Colby. “He should not be contemptuously slandering Vietnamese who gave their lives and efforts to prevent Communist rule,” wrote Colby, “but who saw their great-power protector wash its hands of them because of the costs of McNamara’s failed policies. The cause,” affirmed Colby, “was indeed ‘noble.’ America fought it the wrong way under McNamara, and lost it in good part because of him.”13
* * *
Chunk 2: Tet 1968
The widespread fighting at Tet of 1968 was ARVN’s first great test. To the surprise of many, it turned in a valorous performance. Later, at West Point to receive the Thayer Award, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker took the opportunity to praise this accomplishment. “The Vietnamese armed forces,” he noted, “though below strength, fought well—as General Abrams said, they fought probably better than they thought they could. There were no uprisings or defections, the government did not fall apart. On the contrary,” recalled Bunker, “it reacted strongly, quickly and decisively. It set about the task of recovery with great energy.”14
The outstanding performance of South Vietnamese forces during the Tet Offensive in 1968 was absolutely crucial to their country’s future. “The result,” observed Ambassador Bunker, “was to set in motion a whole series of developments which contributed significantly to the strengthening of the government, to increasing the confidence of the people in its ability to cope with the enemy, and to a determination by the government to take over more of the burden of the war.”15
John Paul Vann agreed, saying in 1972 that Tet had “precipitated those actions which have now paid off so handsomely in government expansion of control in South Vietnam.” Vann cited full manpower mobilization, permitting expansion of the armed forces as U.S. troops were withdrawn, and emphasized in particular increases in the Territorial Forces which provided for an enduring government presence in the countryside.16
At the time of the enemy’s “Third Offensive” in the autumn of 1968, having by then taken command of U.S. forces in Vietnam, Abrams cabled General Earle Wheeler and Admiral John McCain. “I am led to the conclusion that the cited results,” referring to a recent six-week period during which the ARVN had killed more enemy than all other allied forces combined, “indicate progress in ARVN leadership and aggressiveness.” Abrams also commented on the price the ARVN was paying for these successes. “The lower ratio of enemy to friendly KIA, which I attribute in part to thinner combat support,” he said, “is a further argument for expediting the upgrading of ARVN equipment.”17
When senior American and South Vietnamese officials met on Midway Island in June 1969, a prominent topic was expansion and upgrading of South Vietnam’s armed forces. An initial increase in structure to 820,000—later to expand to 1.1 million as a result of this and subsequent agreements—was approved, “along with projects to equip the RVNAF with new weapons such as the M-16 rifle, M-60 machine gun and LAW rocket,” recalled ARVN Brigadier General Tran Dinh Tho.18 That such weapons as the M-16 were still being negotiated at this late stage shows how long the South Vietnamese had been left to fight underarmed in comparison to the enemy.
* * *
Sidebar: Some Comparisons
Here are some of the things the ARVN did not do:
+ Have as many as fifty men a day desert while under the direct supervision of their commander-in-chief. That was General George Washington’s army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778.19
+ Have to put artillery into the streets to quell civilian anti-draft riots. That was what President Abraham Lincoln was forced to do in New York City in April 1865 during the American Civil War.
+ Show up for the climactic battle of the war at about half strength because of desertions. That was American General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. “He expected to find 160,000 soldiers, but instead found only 85,000 because 75,000 had deserted. During the [American] Civil War, the average Union desertion rate was 33 percent, and for the Confederates, 40 percent.”20
+ Conduct a general strike in which soldiers in half the divisions of the army refused to attack. That was the French Army in 1917, after which 554 soldiers were condemned to death by courts-martial and 49 were actually shot.21
+ Be unique in having some units fail in the face of the enemy. On Bougainville during World War II Company K of the U.S. 25th Infantry “broke and ran.” Commented historian Geoffrey Perret: “There was hardly a division in the Army that didn’t have at least one company that had done the same.”22
+ Have a unit in which its assistant division commander was relieved, four senior staff were fired, two of the original battalion commanders were captured, and the remaining nine were replaced. That was the U.S. 36th Infantry Division at Salerno in World War II.23
+ Conduct an unrelenting campaign of shelling, assassinations, kidnapping, and impressment against innocent civilians. That was the work of the communist enemy throughout the Vietnam War.
+ Commit massacres of friendly civilian elements such as those at Thuy Bo and My Lai. Those were the deeds of American troops in Vietnam during 1967 and 1968.
Additional examples could be amassed almost without limit. The point is that, in comparison to other forces both then and historically, the ARVN during its war conducted itself respectably and loyally, attributes for which it has never gotten the credit it deserves.
Documentation of individual ARVN heroism and professional performance is abundant, although thus far little used by historians and all but ignored by journalists. In the National Archives are the records of thousands and thousands of U.S. awards to South Vietnamese for valor and service.24
Such heroism and devotion to duty are revealed as all the more admirable when it is considered that many South Vietnamese soldiers spent a decade or more at war, in many cases essentially their entire adult (and adolescent) lives. As one insightful American once observed, the South Vietnamese had no DEROS (the “date eligible for return from overseas” of Americans on a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam). Instead, they soldiered on, year after year after year, with incredible devotion and stoicism. Many, after the communist “liberation” of the south, spent another decade or more struggling to survive the ordeal of incarceration by the communists in the murderous so-called re-education camps.25
* * *
Chunk 3: Territorial Forces
Following the enemy’s offensive at the time of Tet 1968, the American command changed. General Creighton Abrams replaced General Westmoreland and brought to bear a much different outlook on the nature of the war and how it should be prosecuted. Abrams stressed “one war” of combat operations, pacification, and upgrading South Vietnam’s armed forces, giving those latter two long-neglected tasks equal importance and priority with military operations.
Those military operations also underwent dramatic change. In place of “search and destroy” there was now “clear and hold,” meaning that when the enemy had been driven from populated areas those areas were then permanently garrisoned by allied forces, not abandoned to be reoccupied by the enemy at some later date. In perhaps the most important development of the entire war, greatly expanded South Vietnamese Territorial Forces took on that security mission.
Major General Nguyen Duy Hinh called “expansion and upgrading of the Regional and Popular Forces” “by far the most important and outstanding among US contributions” to the war effort.26 Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong noted that such achievements as hamlets pacified, the number of people living under GVN [Government of Vietnam] control, or the trafficability on key lines of communication were possible largely due to the unsung feats of the RF and PF.”27
When General Abrams arrived in Vietnam in May of 1967, the South Vietnamese armed forces consisted of army, navy, marine and air force elements. Separate and apart were what were called the Territorial Forces, consisting of Regional Forces and Popular Forces. These latter were dedicated to local security, with the Regional Forces under control of province chiefs and the Popular Forces answering to district chiefs.
These Regional Forces and Popular Forces, which remained in place in their home areas, were what put the “hold” in “clear and hold” operations. By 1970 they had grown to some 550,000 men and, integrated at that time into the regular armed forces, constituted more than half the total strength.
By coincidence, last evening Bing West and another guest were on the PBS “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” to talk about the current situation in Iraq. One of them cited “Condeleeza Rice’s concept of ‘clear and hold.’ “ If anyone cared to trace the etymology of that concept they would find a straight shot from the Territorial Forces in South Vietnam to General Creighton Abrams to General Harold K. Johnson and the PROVN Study to Colonel Jasper Wilson.
As early as October 1968 William Colby, newly installed as deputy to General Abrams for pacification support, explained the importance of these elements: “For territorial security, our main focus is on improvement of the Regional and Popular Forces, which are almost half of the army now.” “We started last October. General Abrams had a conference here, identified some thirty steps to take,” including “sending out small military advisor teams to work with the RF companies and PF platoons. We now have some 250 of those five-man teams scattered around the country.”
Three months later Colby noted the rapid buildup of and the improved training and armament being provided the RF and PF: “There’re about 91,000 more of them today than there were a year ago.” About 100,000 now had M16s, which they didn’t have a year ago. And 350 advisory teams were living and working with RF and PF units.
Abrams had, soon after taking command, deliberately channeled the new rifles to these elements. “The RF and PF, a year ago,” he said in August 1969, “received the highest priority of anybody. That’s where the first M16s went, before ARVN.” “They’ve been given, for over a year, the very highest priority. And, to be perfectly frank, it’s like anything else. I mean, you put your money in soldiers’ deposits, you get 10 percent [interest] and so on. Goddamn it, we made an investment here, and there ought to be—. That’s priority, above anybody else in the country, over a year ago!”
As the RF and PF improved in capabilities—and performance— Abrams wanted to see them get credit for what they were accomplishing. “One thing I’ve been chafing under,” he said at the WIEU, “—when we brief visitors, the role of the RF and PF in this war is substantially submerged.
There’s a tendency to talk about the ARVN, and for some time now the RF and PF have borne the brunt of casualties and this sort of thing, and the toll that they’re exacting from the enemy is substantial —I mean, if you just want to deal in that sort of thing. But if we get talking about the security of the people this is a big part of this whole thing. This is where it is.”
About that same time he took a stance prompted by the good performance of these elements: “I don’t know if I would really favor any more rifle companies in the ARVN. If the manpower was available, I think the investment in Territorial Forces would be of greater value.”
At the end of 1969 Abrams, contemplating a chart displaying “the trend in what’s happened the last three or four months in who’s making a contribution—weapons, KIA,” had this to say: “It’s kind of interesting. In terms of results, which is enemy killed, weapons captured, caches, and so on, the ARVN contribution stayed at about the same—26 percent, 27 percent. And U.S. and Free World percent has gone down. And, at least percentage-wise, that slack has been taken up by the Territorial Forces. And this has happened since August.”
Someone: “It’s the nature of the war.”
Abrams: “Yes, that’s right. But it’s also—you know, I was always wondering about what the hell would we get for that investment in those 300,000 M16s—you know, all that? Well, it’s commencing to show.”
They were hanging on to those weapons, too. As Bill Colby pointed out in July 1970, for the Territorial Forces the weapons gained/lost ratio was then about three enemy weapons taken for every friendly weapon lost; five years ago just the opposite had been the case.
Abrams’s comment: “Territorial Forces?” “Ah, these rabbits are coming along good!” And finally, at a Commanders WIEU in October 1971: “One of the things that, and it’s been for a long time, the RF and PF are carrying the major burden of the war.”
Senior Vietnamese officers agreed. “Gradually, in their outlook, deportment, and combat performance,” said Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong, “the RF and PF troopers shed their paramilitary origins and increasingly became full-fledged soldiers.” So decidedly was this the case, Truong concluded, that “throughout the major period of the Vietnam conflict” the RF and PF were “aptly regarded as the mainstay of the war machinery.”28
Expanded in numbers and better armed and better trained, the Territorial Forces came into their own, earning the respect of even so tough a critic as Lieutenant General Julian Ewell. “They were the cutting edge of the war,” he said admiringly.
* * *
Chunk 4: Perennial Problems
Three important problems confronted the ARVN throughout the war: insufficient qualified leadership, widespread corruption, and desertions.
Leadership in adequate amounts of sufficient quality continued to be a problem for ARVN throughout the war. Given the continuing expansion of the forces, finally reaching a peak of 1.1 million men, the situation could not have been otherwise. Combat losses, themselves a testimonial to South Vietnam’s small unit leaders, of course further aggravated the shortages caused by expanding the structure.
Strenuous training and recruitment campaigns were undertaken to produce new leaders and move up those proved effective in combat. After Lam Son 719, for example, General Abrams attended a ceremony in Hue. “It really was something,” he later told the staff. “They had a promotion thing, and noncoms got promoted. And noncoms to aspirants. And aspirants that had been noncoms going to first lieutenant. And President Thieu said up there that this was just a token—that there were 5,000 promotions involved, down right in the ranks. And these promotions are real battlefield promotions.”
Abrams liked what he had seen. “They’re what happened in Laos,” he noted. “And I just don’t know of any way to get to a military organization any better than going down and promoting some guys that did a good job.”29 (This approach of developing effective leaders from scratch was also undertaken with respect to elected civilian hamlet and village officials, who were put through a course in the training center at Vung Tau designed to help them develop the management and leadership skills they would need to do their jobs.)
Some of South Vietnam’s most senior leaders were among the least forgiving critics of the leadership. Wrote General Cao Van Vien after the war: “During the decade I served as chairman of the RVNAF Joint General Staff, I had witnessed all the successes and failures of our leadership. Even though this leadership had done its best, it still proved inadequate for this most difficult episode of our nation’s history.”30
Desertions from ARVN divisions also plagued the South Vietnamese throughout the war. Significantly, however, these were not desertions to join the other side, but largely to escape combat or just to go home. They differed radically from the cases of deserters from the Viet Cong and NVA. Ralliers to the government from the enemy side in many cases became part of the allied armed forces. Deserters on the allied side, in contrast, often rejoined their own side at a local level. As Anthony Joes observed, this phenomenon constituted “a shift of manpower from the army to the militia. Among the militia units defending their native villages or provinces,” he noted, “desertion rates were close to zero, despite casualty rates higher than ARVN’s.”31
Corruption was another problem never really solved, although the impact of it on the outcome of the war was never as significant as critics claimed. General Cao Van Vien, however, concluded: “As to corruption, although it was not directly accountable for the collapse of the nation, its effect certainly debilitated professional competency and[,] by extension, the war effort.”32
CIA’s Tom Polgar commented perceptively on the matter, arguing that the country “could have survived with a corrupt South Vietnamese government, just as the Philippines survived with a corrupt Philippine government—or South Korea does—or Thailand—or anywhere. In any country where you do not pay your civil service adequately, you can expect corruption,” said Polgar. “It’s a way of life.” But, he continued, “that was not the trouble. The trouble was that there was just no margin in the resources of that government to cope with a military invasion.”33
Colonel William LeGro, who was there until the last days with the Defense Attaché Office, agreed. “Corruption was not the cause of the collapse,” he stated. “The reduction to almost zero of United States support was the cause.” LeGro added one further observation: “We did a terrible thing to the South Vietnamese.”34
* * *
Sidebar: Nguyen Van Thieu
This sidebar is about the late Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam’s former President and de facto commander-in-chief of its armed forces.
President Thieu led his country during years of exceptional difficulty. While fighting against an external invasion and an internal insurgency, both supported and supplied by China and the Soviet Union, he put in place elected governments from the national level down through villages and hamlets, greatly expanded and—with American materiel and advisory support—improved the armed forces as they progressively took over the entire combat burden from withdrawing U.S. forces, personally led a pacification program which rooted out the covert infrastructure that had through coercion and terror dominated the rural population, instituted genuine land reform which gave 400,000 farmers title to 2.5 million acres of land, and organized four million citizens into a People’s Self-Defense Force armed with 600,000 weapons.
Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, who headed the American embassy in Saigon for six years, saw a great deal of Nguyen Van Thieu and formed some settled judgments of the man and his performance. “He has handled problems with a very considerable astuteness and skill,” Bunker observed. “He is an individual of very considerable intellectual capacity. He made the decision in the beginning to follow the constitutional road, not to rule with a clique of generals, which many of them expected he would do. He has been acting more and more like a politician [Bunker meant this as a compliment], getting out into the country, following up on pacification, talking to people, seeing what they want.” Bunker approved, and on another occasion compared the President to his principal rival for political leadership. “I thought that Thieu was a wiser, more solid person,” Bunker stated.35
Thieu was also realistic, telling Ambassador Bunker that “unfortunately we do not have many real generals who know how to command more than a division,” a category in which he modestly but accurately included himself.36
Given that most of the administrative ability in his country resided in the military establishment, and most of the political power as well, Thieu was agonizingly constrained in replacing the corrupt and the incompetent in high places, and likewise felt himself obliged to retain some who were loyal, if not all that able. Early in his presidency Thieu explained the situation to a senior American officer who reported the conversation this way: “Judging a wholesale purge of South Vietnamese officers as simply impossible, Thieu warned that each major command change would have to be carefully planned and orchestrated. The army could not be removed from politics overnight. The military establishment had been and still was his major political supporter and the only cohesive force holding the country together.”37
Ambassador Bunker and General Abrams understood this, and were both patient and sympathetic, but they also made very pointed recommendations about senior officers who were not measuring up. Often their advice was accepted, even if some time elapsed while the political groundwork was laid. Over time, then, some major changes took place in South Vietnamese leadership, both civil and military, sometimes forced by battlefield crises. But there was never a wholesale housecleaning, nor could there have been. Not only would political chaos have resulted, but the requisite numbers of more viable replacements were simply not available. Producing them in the necessary abundance would have taken more time than there turned out to be.
The top Americans recognized President Thieu’s importance in, particularly, the pacification campaign. Abrams observed that “he knows more about pacification than any other Vietnamese” and William Colby called him “the number one pacification officer.” A history of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff identified as Thieu’s most important attribute that “he recognized clearly the cardinal importance of the pacification campaign and of the establishment of effective institutions of local government.”38
On a number of occasions Thieu invited Ambassador Bunker to go along on visits to the countryside, where Bunker heard him emphasize restoring local government, holding village and hamlet elections, training local government officials, and land reform. At Vung Tau 1,400 village chiefs, representing about three-quarters of all the villages in South Vietnam, went through training during the first nine months of 1969. President Thieu visited every one of those classes, giving the village chiefs the incomparable cachet of being able to go home and speak about what “President Thieu said to me—.” By late 1969 the situation had improved so dramatically that John Paul Vann, the legendary figure who played a prominent role in the pacification campaign, would tell an audience at Princeton that the “U.S. has won the military war, and is winning the political war via Thieu.”39
In April 1968 President Thieu, against the advice of virtually all his advisors, activated what was called the People’s Self-Defense Force. Thieu argued that “the government had to rest upon the support of the people, and it had little validity if it did not dare to arm them.” Ultimately some four million people, those too old or too young for regular military service, were enrolled in the self-defense force and armed with 600,000 weapons. Establishing conclusively that the Thieu government did have the support of its own people, the self-defense forces used those weapons not against their own government but to fight against communist domination.
In document after document the enemy kept predicting and calling for a “popular uprising” amongst the South Vietnam, but in fact there was never any popular uprising in support of the enemy in South Vietnam. To any objective observer that does not seem too surprising in view of the enemy’s record, year after year, of assassinations, kidnappings, terror bombings, impressments, and indiscriminate shellings of population centers throughout South Vietnam, actions hardly calculated to win the hearts and minds of the victims.
In October of 1971, in the midst of a bitter war, President Thieu ran unopposed for reelection. Many criticized him for that, suggesting that his victory was somehow not legitimate given the absence of opposition. But in that election, despite enemy calls for a boycott and warnings that voters would be targetted, an astounding 87.7 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, and 91.5 percent of them cast their ballots for President Thieu. (Some 5.5 percent handed in invalid ballots.)40 That constituted the largest voter turnout in Vietnamese history. If it didn’t matter (since there was no opposition), or if the people did not approve of Thieu’s leadership, why would they turn out in droves, often at real or potential personal risk, to express their support for his reelection? The answer is that, various critics notwithstanding, a very large majority of his countrymen valued Thieu’s service and wished to see him continue in office.
“The basic fact of life,” said John Paul Vann in January 1972, “and it is an inescapable one, is that the overwhelming majority of the population—somewhere around 95 percent—prefer the government of Vietnam to a communist government or the government that’s being offered by the other side.”41
Sadly, many South Vietnamese today are critical in their outlook on President Thieu. I have spoken about this with many Vietnamese friends now living in America. Recently one man in particular, an intelligent and educated person, shocked me by saying that the Vietnamese think President Thieu lied to them. I asked him in what way. “He knew the Americans were going to abandon us, and he didn’t tell us that,” responded my friend.
I find that a harsh judgment, and a debatable one. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker recalled personally giving President Thieu three letters from President Nixon in which “he made a commitment” to come to the assistance of South Vietnam “in case of any major violation of the treaties by the other side.” But, observed Bunker, “the Congress…made it impossible to carry out those commitments.” The result? “I think really it was a betrayal of the South Vietnamese,” Bunker stated unequivocally.42 It is difficult for me to understand how President Thieu could be expected to have foreseen such an ignominious course of American action.
Mr. Thieu resigned the presidency a few days before the fall of Saigon, hoping to facilitate a negotiated settlement of the war. In his valedictory, he was understandably bitter about the outcome of the long years of struggle. That performance alone should serve to demonstrate that he was as stunned as any that the sometime American ally would, in a time of such crisis, turn its back on South Vietnam (and on all the sacrifices Americans had made there).
My view is that Nguyen Van Thieu performed heroically over long years of an extremely difficult war, in the process earning—whether he is accorded them or not—the respect and gratitude of all those who wished South Vietnam well.
* * *
Chunk 5: Lam Son 719
Virtually all accounts of Lam Son 719, ARVN’s 1971 incursion into Laos, depict it as a devastating defeat for the South Vietnamese. The reality, however, is quite different. We now know, thanks to the Abrams tapes and other sources, that the North Vietnamese were badly hurt by the operation, further delaying their readiness to mount a major offensive against the South and providing additional time for Vietnamization to succeed.
At the WIEU on 30 January the first indications that the enemy sensed an impending cross-border operation were reported. That was eight days before the operation was scheduled to begin. “COMINT [communications intelligence] reveals the enemy’s concern over anticipated friendly operations in northern MR-1 [Military Region 1] and the contiguous areas of Laos,” reported a briefer. Messages intercepted since 24 January reflected enemy concern that South Vietnamese forces “might strike across the border in an effort to interdict the enemy’s logistic corridor system.” There were other indications that the enemy was concerned about an amphibious invasion of North Vietnam, about an invasion of Laos from carriers standing off the coast, and so on.43
On 8 February ARVN elements crossed the border into Laos, using the east-west axis of Route 9. The attacking force comprised armor, airborne, ranger, marine and infantry units. By the end of the first week some 10,600 ARVN troops were in Laos. At the same time, two other ARVN cross-border operations involving 19,000 troops continued in Cambodia.44
When Admiral McCain, the CINCPAC, came out for a briefing on 19 February, the briefer told him that “in Laos, the ground contacts have remained at a relatively light level, with company-size and smaller contacts reported throughout the AO. Also, attacks by fire have remained at a relatively low level.” As of that date MACV was carrying six enemy regiments committed against ARVN forces in Laos. No American forces were permitted on the ground in Laos, but U.S. elements flying air support had thus far lost 21 helicopters while flying nearly 7,000 sorties. (By the end of the operation, six weeks later, losses would have risen to 108 for a loss rate of 21 per 100,000 sorties.)45
Major General William E. Potts, the MACV J-2, summed up for Admiral McCain: “The real significance of that Lam Son operation is the enemy has everything committed, or en route, that he has, with the exception of the 325th Division and the 9th Regiment out of the 304th. So if they’re hurt, he’s really going to be beat for a long time.” Added General Abrams: “And of course we’re trying to welcome them all, best we can.”46
Still, by 20 February, nearly two weeks into the operation, only six enemy regiments were committed in the Lam Son AO. In fact, stated the briefer at a Commanders WIEU on that date, “the first significant enemy counterattack occurred on the night of 18 February.” Meanwhile ARVN had about an equivalent force, eighteen battalion-size task forces, continuing search and clear operations.47
General Abrams emphasized to the staff and subordinate commanders the importance of giving the South Vietnamese every thing they needed to succeed in this crucial battle. “It’s an opportunity to deal the enemy a blow which probably hasn’t existed before as clearly cut in the war,” he stressed. In a comment that would later prove significant, when certain recriminations were advanced in Washington, Abrams also noted: “The risks in getting it done were all known and understood in the beginning, and it was felt that it was time to take the risks.” Ambassador Bunker then reviewed all the elements taken into account in the course of such an evaluation during his recent visit to Washington.48
By 24 February MACV was still carrying six enemy regiments (a figure increased to seven three days later) in the Lam Son AO and the briefer at an update for General Abrams stated that four enemy battalions, of the eighteen subordinate to the committed regiments, were believed to have been rendered combat ineffective. As of that date enemy KIA were estimated at 2,191, while ARVN had sustained 276 KIA.49
At this point, just over two weeks into the operation, a serious crisis of helicopter availability suddenly arose. Route 9, the east-west highway leading into the area of operations, had turned out to have many deep cuts, some reaching a depth of twenty feet, rendering the road much less useful for resupply than anticipated. In particular the 5,000-gallon fuel tankers proved unable to negotiate the route. Aerial resupply had had to take up the slack, which was in turn putting an extremely heavy burden on the helicopter fleet. Apparently intensive management and maintenance got the situation corrected, for when Lieutenant General Julian Ewell, not noted for an uncritical attitude, later visited, he reported “their OR [operational readiness] rate when I was up there Sunday was 79 percent, which I considered astronomical.”50
Simultaneously a major enemy attack, including tanks, overran Objective 31 and a brigade headquarters of the 1st ARVN Division located there. Subsequently enemy losses in that attack were reported as 250 KIA and 15 tanks destroyed against 13 friendly KIA, 39 WIA, and three armored personnel carriers damaged.51
Another enemy regiment was assessed as committed by 1 March, bringing the total to eight (and of the 24 battalions they constituted the equivalent of six were considered combat ineffective). Observed General Abrams: “It’s still a hell of a struggle.” At an update on 4 March the briefer recalled that the first indications of the enemy’s shifting to an offensive posture had come on 11 February, but that it was not until 18 February that the first major enemy counterattack occurred. Now the enemy was considered to have lost the equivalent of seven maneuver battalions in personnel losses, while his remaining tanks were down to 65-70 from an original 100.52
At this point the enemy was assessed as having approximately 13,000 combat forces in the area of operations, plus 8,000-10,000 rear service personnel. Opposing them ARVN had sixteen maneuver battalions.53
When a prisoner from the 24B Regiment described heavy casualties suffered in fighting along Route 92 north of Ban Dong, MACV J-2 reduced the enemy’s effective strength by two more battalions, for “a total of 10 battalions effectively lost out of the 30 battalions of the 10 regiments committed against ARVN forces in the entire AO.” Said General Abrams, “I’m just more and more convinced that what you’ve got here is maybe the only decisive battle of the war.” Added General Potts: “He’s lost half of his tanks, half of his AAA [anti-aircraft artillery], and 10 of his 30 battalions.”54
At a Commanders WIEU on 20 March Ambassador Bunker described Lam Son 719, then winding down, as “extremely helpful, this whole operation.” General Abrams responded: “It was a hard fight, but its effects for the rest of this year, I think, are going to be substantial. He [the enemy] committed a lot to that Lam Son operation, and it’s getting pretty badly hurt.”55
Just how badly was summarized on 23 March, by which time the enemy had committed an eleventh regiment. The briefer reported that nine of the eleven regiments had received heavy casualties and estimated that the enemy retained the equivalent of only 17 maneuver battalions (of the 33 committed), and that he had also lost some 3,500 rear service elements.56 When this was subsequently briefed at a WIEU, Potts added: “That’s not just ineffective battalions, sir. That’s a complete loss of those battalions.”57
The South Vietnamese also experienced severe losses, including a reported 1,446 KIA and 724 MIA.58 Much equipment was also destroyed or left behind in Laos during a somewhat precipitous final withdrawal. And in his after action assessment Lieutenant General Sutherland noted that “a long-standing shortfall has been the RVNAF staff capability to conduct timely preplanning and coordination of air assets and both air and ground fire support means, but they have learned a great deal on this operation.”59
The South Vietnamese public’s support for the operation turned out to be extraordinary. When Sir Robert Thompson visited in late March, he was briefed on results of a survey just taken in 36 provinces. The results were 92 percent in favor of operations such as Lam Son 719, 3 percent opposed, and the rest no opinion. That represented the highest percentage ever recorded on any question on any of these periodic surveys.60
Altogether ARVN operated for 42 days in Laos. MACV’s modest summary, rendered for the visiting Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor in late April, was that the operation “tested RVNAF against a determined enemy in cross-border operations, and undoubtedly interrupted his [the enemy’s] supply schedule.”61 In the United States the operation was widely proclaimed a disaster for the South Vietnamese. Hanoi’s propagandists were only too glad to agree.
Abrams, however, perceived the results of the operation as decisive in favor of the South Vietnamese. “It’s gone over [beyond] the point,” he observed, “where I think the North Vietnamese can be successful against them. The war won’t stop, but North Vietnam has now got a much tougher problem than they ever had before.”62
* * *
Chunk 6: A War That Was Won
Contrary to what most people seem to believe, the new approach during the Abrams era succeeded remarkably. And, since during these later years American forces were progressively being withdrawn, more and more it was the South Vietnamese who were achieving that success.
As control of more and more territory was seized from the enemy, large numbers of enemy “rallied” to the allied side. This reached a peak of 47,000 in 1969, with another 32,000 crossing over in 1970.63 Given the authorized 8,689 strength of a North Vietnamese Army division,64 this amounted to enemy losses by defection equivalent to about nine divisions in those two years alone.
There came a point at which the war was won. The fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won. The reason it was won was that the South Vietnamese had achieved the capacity to, with promised American support (similar to the support still being rendered to American allies in West Germany and South Korea), maintain their independence and freedom of action.
As early as late 1969 John Paul Vann, a senior official in the pacification program, wrote to former Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to say that “for the first time in my involvement in Vietnam, I am not interested in visiting either Washington or Paris because all of my previous visits have been with the intention of attempting to influence or change the policies for Vietnam. Now I am satisfied with the policies. In spite of ourselves,” Vann wrote with impressive prescience, “I believe we are accomplishing our objectives, that we will practically eliminate the tragedy of additional US deaths in Vietnam beyond 1972 and that the costs of the war (a war which I think will continue indefinitely) will be drastically reduced and will eventually be manageable by the Vietnamese with our logistical and financial assistance.”65
Besides taking over combat responsibilities from the departing Americans, the South Vietnamese had to deal with multiple changes in policy. General Abrams was clear on how the South Vietnamese were being asked to vault higher and higher hurdles. “We started out in 1968,” he recalled. “We were going to get these people by 1974 where they could whip hell out of the VC—the VC. Then they changed the goal to lick the VC and the NVA—in South Vietnam. Then they compressed it. They’ve compressed it about three times, or four times—acceleration. So what we started out with to be over this kind of time”—indicating with his hands a long time—“is now going to be over this kind of time”—much shorter.
“And if it’s VC, NVA, interdiction, helping Cambodians and so on— that’s what we’re working with. And,” Abrams cautioned, “you have to be careful on a thing like this, or you’ll get the impression you’re being screwed. You mustn’t do that, ‘cause it’ll get you mad.”66 Among the most crucial of the policy changes was dropping longstanding plans for a U.S. residual force to remain in South Vietnam indefinitely in a solution comparable to that adopted in western Europe and South Korea.
After a three-year absence from Vietnam, Thomas J. Barnes returned to work in the pacification program in the autumn of 1971. “I have been struck by three principal improvements,” he told General Fred Weyand, “rural prosperity, the way the Regional and Popular Forces have taken hold, and growing political and economic autonomy in the villages. One of our greatest contributions to pacification has been the re-establishment of the village in its historic Vietnamese role of relative independence and self-sufficiency.”67
Even earlier, in mid-March 1971, it was apparent that it was the South Vietnamese who were carrying the combat load. “The emphasis General Abrams is putting on it now is almost a hundred percent towards pacification and into this saturation campaign,” a briefer told Lieutenant General Ewell. “We’re just about out of business in large U.S. force operations.” 562
Testimony from the enemy side was confirmatory of what the South Vietnamese had achieved. “In Nam Bo,” wrote Luu Van Loi and Nguyen Anh Vu in a book published by Hanoi’s World Publishing House, “by the end of 1968 the strategic hamlets and contested areas had been reoccupied by the Saigon army.” And: “By the end of 1968, we had suffered great losses.” And: “The enemy concentrated its forces to pacify the rural areas, causing great difficulties to us in 1969-1970.” “Since the introduction of U.S. troops into South Vietnam, we had never met with so many difficulties as in these two years. Our bases in the countryside were weakened, our positions shrank. Our main [force] troops were decimated and no longer had footholds in South Vietnam and had to camp in friendly Cambodia.” And finally: “We fell into a critical situation in the years 1969, 1970, 1971. From the second half of 1968 on, the enemy concentrated their attacks against the liberated zone to annihilate and drive away our main forces.”68
In January 1972 Vann told friends that “we are now at the lowest level of fighting the war has ever seen. Today there is an air of prosperity throughout the rural areas of Vietnam, and it cannot be denied. Today the roads are open and the bridges are up, and you run much greater risk traveling any road in Vietnam today from the scurrying, bustling, hustling Hondas and Lambrettas than you do from the VC.” And, added Vann, “this program of Vietnamization has gone kind of literally beyond my wildest dreams of success.”69 Those were South Vietnamese accomplishments.
* * *
Chunk 7: 1972 Easter Offensive
The widespread success of Vietnamization and the pacification program in South Vietnam meant that, by 1972, it had become apparent to the enemy that some alternative approach must be found for conduct of the war. That revised approach was revealed in what came to be known as the Easter Offensive. “No longer,” wrote Douglas Pike, “was it revolutionary war. Rather it became, in General Giap’s eyes, a limited, small-scale, conventional war, more like the Korean War than anything Vietnam had ever seen.”70
In January 1972 John Paul Vann, on a brief leave in the United States, described for an academic audience the situation then pertaining in South Vietnam. “These people now have recourse to their own elected hamlet and village officials, as the economy has improved, as security has improved, as the war has shifted out of South Vietnam and into Cambodia and Laos…the basic fact of life, and an inescapable one, is that the overwhelming majority of the population—somewhere around 95 percent—prefer the government of Vietnam to a communist government or the government that’s being offered by the other side.”71
The PAVN history of the war reveals that “the combat plan for 1972 was approved by the Central Military Party Committee in June 1971.” The stated goal was “to gain decisive victory in 1972, and to force the U.S. imperialists to negotiate an end to the war from a position of defeat.”72
Pike graphically described the offensive as anything but limited from the North Vietnamese perspective, “a maximum strike…in men, weapons and logistics. By mid-summer all 14 PAVN divisions were outside of North Vietnam. PAVN was employing more tanks than in the ARVN inventory. PAVN had more long-range artillery than ARVN and was lavish in expenditure of ordnance.”73
When, in late March of 1972, the enemy mounted a conventional invasion of South Vietnam by the equivalent of twenty divisions, a bloody pitched battle ensued. The enemy’s “well-planned campaign” was defeated, wrote Douglas Pike, “because air power prevented massing of forces and because of stubborn, even heroic, South Vietnamese defense. Terrible punishment was visited on PAVN troops and on the PAVN transportation and communication matrix.” But, most important of all, “ARVN troops and even local forces stood and fought as never before.”74
The North Vietnamese Army suffered more than 100,000 casualties in its attacking force of 200,000—perhaps 40,000 killed—and lost more than half its tanks and heavy artillery. It took three years to recover sufficiently from these losses to mount another major offensive, and in the meantime General Vo Nguyen Giap found himself eased out as NVA commander. By way of contrast, the South Vietnamese lost some 8,000 killed, about three times that many wounded, and nearly 3,500 missing in action.
General Giap had been proceeding on flawed premises and paid a horrific price for his miscalculations. Pike concluded that Giap “underestimated the determination and effective resistance which he would be offered by the South Vietnamese. He underestimated ARVN’s staying power.”75
Later critics said that South Vietnam had thrown back the invaders only because of American air support. Abrams responded vigorously to that. “I doubt the fabric of this thing could have been held together without U.S. air,” he told his commanders. “But the thing that had to happen before that is the Vietnamese, some numbers of them, had to stand and fight. If they didn’t do that, ten times the air we’ve got wouldn’t have stopped them.”76
The critics also disparaged South Vietnam’s armed forces because they had needed American assistance in order to prevail. No one seemed to recall that some 300,000 American troops were stationed in West Germany precisely because the Germans could not stave off Soviet or Warsaw Pact aggression without American help. Nor did anyone mention that in South Korea there were 50,000 American troops positioned specifically to help South Korea deal with any aggression from the north. And no one suggested that, because they needed such American assistance, the armed forces of West Germany or South Korea should be ridiculed or reviled.
Only South Vietnam (which by now was receiving only air support, not ground forces as in Germany and Korea) was singled out for such unfair and mean-spirited treatment.
South Vietnam did, with courage and blood, defeat the enemy’s 1972 Easter Offensive. General Abrams had told President Thieu that it would be “the effectiveness of his field commanders that would determine the outcome,”77 and they had proven equal to the challenge. South Vietnam’s defenders inflicted such casualties on the invaders that it was three years before North Vietnam could mount another major offensive. By then, of course, dramatic changes had taken place in the larger context.
The extent to which the ARVN had become a professional, agile and determined military shield for its country has for long been obscured by negative accounts, amounting to slander, from those who opposed American involvement in the war, or at least their own involvement, or who favored the communist side. Contrary evidence abounds, much of it to be found in the battlefield performance of the late spring and summer of 1972.
* * *
Chunk 8: Abandonment
This chunk deals with the situation after the Paris Accords were signed in January 1973. To induce the South Vietnamese to agree to the terms, viewed by them as fatally flawed in that they allowed the North Vietnamese to retain large forces in the South, President Nixon told President Thieu that if North Vietnam violated the terms of the agreement and resumed its aggression against the South, the United States would intervene militarily to punish them for that. And, said Nixon, if renewed fighting broke out, the United States would replace on a one-for- one basis major combat systems (tanks, artillery pieces, and so on) lost by the South Vietnamese, as was permitted by the Paris Accords. And finally, said Nixon, the United States would continue robust financial support for South Vietnam. In the event, the United States defaulted on all three of these promises.
Meanwhile North Vietnam was receiving unprecedented levels of support from its patrons. From January to September 1973, the nine months following the Paris Accords, said a 1994 history published in Hanoi, the quantity of supplies shipped from North Vietnam to its forces in the South was four times that shipped in the entire previous year.78 Even so that was miniscule compared to what was sent south from the beginning of 1974 until the end of the war in April 1975, a total during those sixteen months, reported the Communists, that was 1.6 times the amount delivered to the various battlefields during the preceding thirteen years.79
If the South Vietnamese had shunned the Paris agreement, it was certain not only that the United States would have settled without them, but also that the U.S. Congress would then have moved swiftly to cut off further aid to South Vietnam. If, on the other hand, the South Vietnamese went along with the agreement, hoping thereby to continue receiving American aid, they would be forced to accept an outcome in which North Vietnamese troops remained menacingly within their borders. With mortal foreboding, the South Vietnamese chose the latter course, only to find—dismayingly—that they soon had the worst of both, NVA forces ensconced in the south and American support cut off.
Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird explained the consequences. For two years after signing of the Paris Accords, he wrote, “South Vietnam held its own courageously and respectably against a better-bankrolled enemy. Peace talks continued between the North and the South until the day in 1975 when Congress cut off U.S. funding. The Communists walked out of the talks and never returned. Without U.S. funding, South Vietnam was quickly overrun. We saved a mere $257 million a year and in the process doomed South Vietnam, which had been ably fighting the war without our troops since 1973.”80
Many Americans would not like hearing it said that the totalitarian states of China and the Soviet Union had proven to be better and more faithful allies than the democratic United States, but that was in fact the case. William Tuohy, who covered the war for many years for the Washington Post, wrote that “it is almost unthinkable and surely unforgivable that a great nation should leave these helpless allies to the tender mercies of the North Vietnamese,” but that is what we did.81
Until the progressive and draconian reductions in assistance began to have drastic effects, the South Vietnamese fought valiantly. In the two years after the January 1973 signing of the Paris Accords, South Vietnamese forces suffered more than 59,000 killed in action, more in that brief period than the Americans had lost in over a decade of war. Considering that such losses were inflicted on a population perhaps a tenth the size of America’s,82 it is clear how devastating they must have been, and the intensity of the combat that produced them.
Merle Pribbenow has pointed out that North Vietnam’s account makes it clear that during the 55 days of the final offensive much hard fighting took place. This is a tribute to the South Vietnamese, who had to know at that point what the eventual outcome would inevitably be. Noted PAVN Lieutenant General Le Trong Tan, during the final campaign “our military medical personnel had to collect and treat a rather large number of wounded soldiers (fifteen times as many as were wounded in the 1950 border campaign, 1.5 times as many as were wounded at Dien Bien Phu, and 2.5 times as many as were wounded during the Route 9-Southern Laos campaign in 1971.” Pribbenow calculates that “this would put PAVN wounded at 40,000-50,000 at the very minimum, and possibly considerably higher, not the kind of losses one would expect in the total ARVN ‘collapse’ that most historians say occurred in 1975.”83
Colonel William LeGro served until war’s end with the U.S. Defense Attaché Office in Saigon. From that close-up vantage point he saw precisely what had happened. “The reduction to almost zero of United States support was the cause” of the final collapse, he observed. “We did a terrible thing to the South Vietnamese.”84
Near the end, Tom Polgar, then serving as CIA’s Chief of Station, Saigon, cabled a succinct assessment of the resulting situation. “Ultimate outcome hardly in doubt,” he reported, “because South Vietnam cannot survive without U.S. military aid as long as North Vietnam’s war- making capacity is unimpaired and supported by Soviet Union and China.”85
The aftermath of the war in Vietnam was as grim as had been feared. Seth Mydans writes perceptively and compassionately on Southeast Asian affairs for The New York Times. “More than a million southerners fled the country after the war ended,” he reported. “Some 400,000 were interned in camps for ‘re-education’—many only briefly, but some for as long as seventeen years. Another 1.5 million were forcibly resettled in ‘new economic zones’ in barren areas of southern Vietnam that were ravaged by hunger and extreme poverty.”86
Former Viet Cong Colonel Pham Xuan An later described his immense disillusionment with what a communist victory had meant to Vietnam. “All that talk about ‘liberation’ twenty, thirty, forty years ago,” he lamented, “produced this, this impoverished, broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic half-educated theorists.”87
North Vietnamese Army Colonel Bui Tin has been equally candid about the outcome of the war, even for the victors. “It is too late for my generation,” he says, “the generation of war, of victory, and betrayal. We won. We also lost.”88
The price paid by the South Vietnamese in their long struggle to remain free proved grievous indeed. The armed forces lost 275,000 killed in action.89 Another 465,000 civilians lost their lives, many of them assassinated by Viet Cong terrorists or felled by the enemy’s indiscriminate shelling and rocketing of cities, and 935,000 more were wounded.90
Of the million who became boat people an unknown number, feared to be many, lost their lives at sea.91 In Vietnam perhaps 65,000 others were executed by their self-proclaimed liberators. As many as 250,000 more perished in the brutal ‘reeducation’ camps. Two million, driven from their homeland, formed a new Vietnamese diaspora.
No assessment of the ARVN would be complete without some mention of its expatriate veterans, and their families, who have made new lives in America. That is yet another story of heroism, determination, and achievement. Having learned only too well the nature of their supposed “liberators” during long years in which they had systematically murdered, wounded, kidnapped and impressed many thousands of South Vietnamese civilians, the populace fled in large numbers as resistance collapsed
Fortunately many made their way to new lives, and to freedom. America is blessed with perhaps a million expatriate Vietnamese, a rich accretion to our culture and our material well-being. With incredible industry and determination, these new Americans have educated their children, nurtured their families, and made full use of the opportunities this country provides all who are willing to work for them. These are the same people who populated the ranks of the ARVN, and who for year after bloody year fought for freedom in their country of origin. We abandoned them then, and their sacrifices went forfeit, but there may be some measure of atonement in our accepting them here in subsequent years.
* * *
By way of conclusion, I will just state my conviction that the war in Vietnam was a just war fought by the South Vietnamese and their allies for admirable purposes, that those who fought it did so with their mightiest hearts, and that in the process they came very close to succeeding in their purpose of enabling South Vietnam to sustain itself as a free and independent nation. A reporter once remarked that General Creighton Abrams was a man who deserved a better war. I quoted that observation to General Abrams’s eldest son, who immediately responded: “He didn’t see it that way. He thought the Vietnamese were worth it.” So do I.
All told, the balance sheet on ARVN, to include very prominently the Regional and Popular Forces integrated into the army in 1970, is positive. The victory ultimately was not won, but the spirit and dedication and courage and determination of those who sought it have found productive new soil here in America. We are all the better for it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lewis Sorley served in Vietnam as executive officer of a tank battalion operating in the Central Highlands. A third-generation graduate of the United States Military Academy, he also holds a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University. During two decades of military service he led tank and armored cavalry units in the United States and Germany as well as Vietnam, served in staff assignments in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Army Chief of Staff, and was on the faculties at West Point and the Army War College.
He is the author of two biographies, Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times and Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command, and a history entitled A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. He has also transcribed and edited Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972.
1 Douglas Pike, “Bibliography: Periodicals,” Indochina Chronology (April-June 1999), p. 1.
2 James Webb, “History Proves Vietnam Victors Wrong,” Wall Street Journal (28 April 2000).
3 Brigadier General James Lawton Collins, Jr., The Development and Training of the South Vietnamese Army, 1950-1972 (Washington: Department of the Army, 1975), p. 101.
4 Lieutenant General Fred C. Weyand, Senior Officer Debriefing Report, CG II Field Force, Vietnam, 29 March 1966 – 1 August 1968, MHI [U.S. Army Military History Institute] files.
5 Message, Abrams to Johnson, MAC 5307, 040950Z June 1967, CMH [U.S. Army Center of Military History] files.
6 Lieutenant General Duong Van Khuyen, RVNAF Logistics (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1980), p. 57.
7 Time, 19 April 1968.
8 Letter, General Bruce C. Clarke to Brigadier General Hal C. Pattison, 29 December 1969, Clarke Papers, MHI.
9 As quoted in Joint Chiefs of Staff, The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the War in Vietnam, 1960-1968, Part III (Washington: JCS Historical Division, 1 July 1970), p. 51-7.
10 Letter, General Bruce C. Clarke to Brigadier General Hal C. Pattison, 29 December 1969, Clarke Papers, MHI.
11 Brigadier General Zeb B. Bradford, Jr., Interview, 12 October 1989.
12 Message, Abrams to Wheeler and McCain, MAC 13555, 071007Z October 1968, CMH files.
13 William E. Colby, “Vietnam After McNamara,” The Washington Post (27 April 1995).
14 Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, Thayer Award Address, West Point, New York, as printed in the Congressional Record (28 May 1970), p. E4732.
16 John Paul Vann, Remarks, Lexington, Kentucky, 8 January 1972, Vann Papers, Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.
17 Message, Abrams to Wheeler and McCain, MAC 13555, 071007Z October 1968, CMH. 18 Brigadier General Tran Dinh Tho, The Cambodian Incursion (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1979), p. 2.
19 Thomas Fleming, Society of the Cincinnati Lecture, Washington, D.C., 28 October 2005.
20Anthony Joes, Resisting Rebellion (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004), p. 139. Joes cites as sources Bruce Catton, Glory Road, pp. 102 and 255, and Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: The Organized War to Victory, 1864-1865, p. 131.
21 John Keegan, The First World War (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), pp. 329-331. 22 Geoffrey Perret, There’s a War to Be Won (New York: Ivy Books, 1991), p. 453.
23 Ibid., p. 205.
24 Message, Cliff Snyder, National Archives, to Sorley, 20 May 2002: “We have 123 boxes of Awards to Vietnamese and Free World Military Forces, 1965-1970. We also have 62 boxes under Awards to Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Personnel, 1971- 1973. Lastly, we have the MACV general orders themselves, 48 boxes for 1964-1973. Each box may contain up to 1,000 pages.”
25 An example is Colonel Cau Le, regimental commander of the 47th ARVN Infantry Regiment, who spent a dozen years in combat and another thirteen years (five of them in solitary confinement) as a prisoner of the communists and was awarded the U.S. Silver Star and Bronze Star Medal for valorous combat leadership. Le and his family established a new life in America after his wife, Kieu Van, had worked as a nurse to support their five children until her husband’s release from captivity. See Robert F. Dorr and Fred L. Borch, “U. S. Medals,” Army Times (13 March 2006), p. 52.
26 General Cao Van Vien et al., The U.S. Adviser (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1980), p. 142.
27 Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong, Territorial Forces (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1978), p. 134.
28 Ibid., p. 34.
29 General Creighton Abrams at Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 18 April 1971, in Lewis Sorley, ed., Vietnam Chronicles (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004), p. 592.
30 General Cao Van Vien, Leadership (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1981), p. 170.
31 Joes, Resisting Rebellion, p. 138.
32 Vien, Leadership, p. 169.
33 Thomas Polgar, as quoted in J. Edward Lee and Toby Haynsworth, ed., White Christmas in April (New York: Peter Lang, 1975), p. 73.
34 Colonel William LeGro, as quoted in Lee and Haynsworth, White Christmas in April, p. 67.
35 Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, Oral History Interview, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, p. I:11.
36 Quoted in Jeffrey J. Clarke, Advice and Support: The Final Years (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1988), p. 312.
37 As reported by Major General George I. Forsythe following a 20 January 1968 meeting with President Thieu, quoted in Clarke, Final Years, p. 307.
38 Joint Chiefs of Staff, The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, p. 52-43.
39 Notes by Vincent Davis of a telecon during which Vann described his 15 December 1969 presentation at Princeton, Vann Papers, Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.
40 Lester A. Sobel, ed., South Vietnam: U.S.-Communist Confrontation in Southeast Asia, Volume 6: 1971 (New York: Facts on File, 1973), p. 211.
41 Remarks, Lexington, Kentucky, 8 January 1972, Vann Papers.
42 Ellsworth Bunker Interview, Duke University Living History Project, Durham, North Carolina, 2 March 1979.
43 Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 30 January 1971, in Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles, p. 525.
44 Ibid., COMUS Update, 16 February 1971, p. 535.
45 Ibid., COMUS Briefing with Admiral McCain, 19 February 1971, and Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 27 March 1971, pp. 535, 577. A number of years later Lieutenant General Sidney B. Berry wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post (18 May 1995) in which he said: “I was privileged to command the American helicopter force that supported Lam Son 719, and I directed the study and analysis of its helicopter support. Herein, I report the correct figures of American helicopters lost to hostile action during that operation.” Berry continued: “The U.S. Army’s after-action analysis shows that 107 helicopters were lost to hostile action during Lam Son 719. These losses occurred during 353,287 sorties and 134,861 flying hours.”
46 Ibid., COMUS Briefing with Admiral McCain, 19 February 1971, p. 537.
47 Ibid., Commanders Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 20 February 1971, pp. 538- 539.
48 Ibid., p. 542.
49 Ibid., COMUS Update, 24 February 1971, pp. 543-544.
50 Ibid., Lieutenant General Ewell Update, 16 March 1971, p. 562.
51 Ibid., COMUS Update, 4 March 1971, p. 551.
52 Ibid., COMUS Update, pp. 550-551.
53 Ibid., COMUS Update, p. 551.
54 Ibid., COMUS Update, pp. 557-558.
55 Ibid., Commanders Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 20 March 1971, pp. 564- 565.
56 Ibid., COMUS Update, 23 March 1971, p. 566.
57 Ibid., Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 27 March 1971, p. 577.
58 Message, Lieutenant General James W. Sutherland to Abrams, QTR 0567, 281140Z March 1971, Special Abrams Papers Collection, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.
59 Message, Lieutenant General James W. Sutherland to Abrams, QTR 0446, 211040Z March 1971, Special Abrams Papers Collection.
60 COMUS with Sir Robert Thompson, 25 March 1971, in Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles, p. 569.
61 Ibid., Secretary of the Army Brief, 26 April 1971, p. 608.
62 Ibid., COMUS with Sir Robert Thompson, 25 March 1971, p. 570.
63 Major General Nguyen Duy Hinh, Lam Son 719 (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1979), p. 5.
64 Military History Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam, trans. Merle L. Pribbenow (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), p. 29.
65 John P. Vann, Letter to Henry Cabot Lodge, 9 December 1969, Vann Papers.
66 Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 30 October 1971, in Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles, p. 686.
67 Message, Barnes to Weyand, PKU 0378, 100736Z March 1972, MHI files.
68 Luu Van Loi and Nguyen Anh Vu, Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris (Hanoi: World Publishing House, 1996), pp. 66-67.
69 Remarks, Lexington, Kentucky, 8 January 1972, Vann Papers. Vann suggested that, to put Vietnam in perspective, it was useful to know that during 1971 there were 1,221 U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam and during the same year 1,647 people were killed in New York City.
70 Douglas Pike, “A Look Back at the Vietnam War: The View from Hanoi,” Paper Written for the Vietnam War Symposium, The Wilson Center, Washington, D.C., 7-8 January 1983, p. 17.
71 John Paul Vann, Remarks, Lexington, Kentucky, 8 January 1972, Vann Papers.
72 Military History Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam, p. 283.
73 Douglas Pike, “The View from Hanoi,” p. 17.
74 Douglas Pike, PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam (Novato: Presidio Press, 1986), p. 225. 75 Douglas Pike, “The View from Hanoi,” p.17.
76 Commanders Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 22 April 1972, in Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles, p. 826.
77 Message, Abrams to Laird, MAC 04039, 020443Z May 1972, CMH files.
78 Military History Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam, p. 338.
79 Ibid., p. 350.
80 Melvin R. Laird, “Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2005), p. 26.
81 The Washington Post (28 December 1968).
82 James L. Buckley, “Vietnam and Its Aftermath,” in Anthony T. Bouscaren, ed., All Quiet on the Eastern Front (Old Greenwich: Devin-Adair, 1977), p. 84.
83 Merle L. Pribbenow, Message to Sorley, 1 May 2002. The estimates of wounded cited are from Lieutenant General Le Trong Tan, Several Issues in Combat Guidance and Command (Hanoi: People’s Army Publishing House, 1979), p. 353.
84 In Lee and Haynsworth, p. 67.
85 As quoted in Todd, Cruel April, p. 145.
86 Seth Mydans, “A War Story’s Missing Pages,” The New York Times (24 April 2000).
87 Vietnam Magazine (August 1990), p. 6.
88 The Boston Globe (30 April 2000).
89 Colonel Stuart Herrington, “Fall of Saigon,” Discovery Channel, 1 May 1995.
90 Douglas Pike, PAVN, p. 310n5.
91 Australian Minister for Immigration Michael MacKellar was quoted as saying that “about half the boat people perished at sea,” basing this conclusion on “talks with refugees and intelligence sources.” Thus, he said in 1979, “we are looking at a death rate of between 100,000 and 200,000 in the last four years.” The Age Newspaper, The Boat People: An Age Investigation (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 80. According to James Banerian, the International Red Cross estimated that 300,000 boat people perished in their attempts to reach safety. Losers Are Pirates, p. 2.