Category Archives: 1965-1973 Combat Phase

Articles about the war when the US had combat troops committed

REASSESSING ARVN

by LEWIS SORLEY Copyright © 2006
—o—
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.

* * *
Conclusion

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.
15 Ibid.

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.

The Rules of Engagement in the 2nd Indochina War

By Paul Schmehl

This is a subject that is little known or discussed among the so-called experts on the war but had a significant impact on its outcome.  While it is well known that Washington micromanaged the war (thus the famous story about LBJ boasting that the military couldn’t bomb an outhouse without his approval 1), the details of what that meant are not as well-known.  When viewed through the lens of military strategy they border on the insane.

The rules of engagement were drawn from three different sources; the President and Secretary of Defense, through the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Commander of the Military Assistance Command and the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command. Except if you were operating in Laos. Then the State Department set the rules.2 3 4

There are two primary facets to the rules of engagement; the air war and the ground war.  The following are lawful targets according to the laws of war. 5

  1. Military
    1. complexes
    2. equipment and supplies
  2. Economic
    1. power
    2. industrial (war supporting/import/export)
    3. transportation (equipment/lines of communication/petroleum)
  3. Political
  4. Geographic
  5. Personnel
    1. military
    2. civilians participating in hostilities

The targets that the US military were permitted to attack from the air per Secretary McNamara were

  1. Transportation
  2. Military outside of populated areas

Air War 6

  1. Pilots could not attack targets that were not on the approved list
    1. Hanoi and Haiphong had 30 mile perimeters that were no bombing zones
    2. A 30 mile perimeter on the northern border of North Vietnam prevented pursuit of attacking MIG fighters
    3. Rail yards and switching stations were off-limits
    4. Airfields were off-limits
    5. MIGs could only be shot at if they were airborne, clearly identified and displayed hostile intent
    6. SAM sites could only be attacked if they attacked first
    7. SAM sites and antiaircraft sites could not be attacked while they were under construction
    8. Locks, dams and dikes could never be attacked
    9. Hydroelectric plants could not be attacked
    10. Military targets could not be attacked if they were in protected zones
    11. Trucks in Laos and North Viet Nam could not be attacked unless they were on a road and displayed hostile intent
    12. Military truck parks more than 200 meters from a road could not be attacked
  2. Pilots had to travel routes specified by Washington and would face court-martial if they disobeyed.
    1. The PAVN knew these routes and placed all their antiaircraft defenses on those routes, forcing American pilots to run a gauntlet of enemy fire to complete their missions.
    2. They were forced to fly over targets in weather so bad they could not release their bombs but still had to face the enemy’s radar controlled ground fire.
  3. Pilots in South Viet Nam could not provide air support to ground troops, even if fired upon, unless they got clearance, and they first had to drop leaflets warning possible civilians to clear the area.
  4. The average time in Laos between the discovery of a target and permission to strike was fifteen days!

Senator John Stennis, Chairman of the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated, in 1967, “That the air campaign has not achieved its objectives to a greater extent cannot be attributed to impotence or inability of air power.  It attests, rather, to the fragmentation of our air might by overly restrictive controls, limitations, and the doctrine of ‘gradualism’ placed on our aviation forces which prevented them from waging the air campaign in the manner and according to the timetable which was best calculated to achieve maximum results.” 7

The Subcommittee found that Secretary of Defense McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson had “discounted the unanimous professional judgment of U.S. commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and substituted civilian judgment in the details of target selection and the timing of strikes.” 8

In 1972, President Nixon authorized all of the targets that the JCS requested with the exception of three.  The results were reported by Admiral Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton at the time.

At dawn, the streets of Hanoi were absolutely silent. The usual patriotic wakeup music was missing.  The familiar street sounds, the horns, all gone. In prison, interrogators and guards would inquire about our needs solicitously.  Unprecedented morning coffee was delivered to our cell blocks.  One look at any Vietnamese officer’s face told the whole story. It telegraphed accommodation, hopelessness, remorse, fear.  The shock was there; our enemy’s will was broken.  The sad thing was that we all knew what we were seeing could have been done in any 10-day period in the previous seven years and saved lives of thousands, including most of those 57,000 dead Americans. 9

Ground War 10

  1. Commanders in direct contact with the enemy in uninhabited areas could request direct artillery fire without prior authorization.
  2. Commanders in direct contact with the enemy in inhabited areas could only authorize direct fire if their mission was in jeopardy and the enemy was positively identified and only for defensive purposes.
  3. Indirect fire could only be utilized after approval of the Province Chief for the province where the fire would be directed.
  4. No artillery could be fired in areas where friendly troops were not operating without the prior use of leaflets or loudspeakers, even if enemy fire was received from the area
  5. Direct fire against enemy forces that were not in direct contact in inhabited areas required approval of both the Province Chief and the battalion commander
  6. Indirect fire missions in inhabited areas required the approval of the Province Chief, the battalion commander and the dropping of leaflets or the use of loudspeakers to warn civilians prior to commencement
  7. Cordon and search missions could only be conducted with the approval of the district and village chief as well as the US commander, and RVN advisors must accompany all missions
  8. Attacks in inhabited areas required that the commander explain to the inhabitants why the action was initiated, after the attack was over
  9. Fleeing enemy troops could not be engaged unless they were first ordered to halt and failed to obey.  Then they must be fired upon with the intent to wound only, by firing at the lower extremities.
  10. The much discussed “free fire zones” had to have prior approval from RVN political authorities and were still restricted by all the other rules of engagement.

Senator Barry Goldwater was so appalled by the rules of engagement that he had them entered into the Congressional Record along with this statement.

Mr. GOLDWATER. Mr. President, I ask this because I think it 1s very, very necessary for the Members of this body. the public, the press, and media to understand fully the restrictions that were placed upon aU of our forces in South Vietnam.

It is absolutely unbelievable that any Secretary of Defense would ever place such restrictions on our forces. It Is unbelievable that any President would have allowed this to happen.

I think on the reading of these restrictions, members of this body will begin to understand in a better way just what happened to the American military power in South Vietnam. As I say, it is unbelievable.

I am ashamed of my country for having had people who would have allowed such restrictions to have been placed upon men who were trained to fight, men who were trained to make decisions to win war, and men who were risking their lives. I daresay that these restrictions had as much to do with our casualties as the enemy themselves.

The Rest of the Story

So often the story of Viet Nam is told from a singular point of view.  Only part of the story is told, and that part impacts people’s lives in multiple negative ways because the truth is not known.  One of the most impactful photographs of the 2nd Indochina War is the famous Eddie Adams photograph of Brig. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Bay Hop.

When this photograph hit the front page of the New York Times there was universal outrage.  The brutality of the act repelled people.  The New York Times continued to condemn Loan’s actions after he became a US citizen.  Not once did they ever mention what Bay Hop had done to deserve execution.

However, what the media didn’t report might have completely changed the reaction of people worldwide.  Had they published this picture, the execution of Bay Hop might have been put in a different context and changed the reaction to the photo of his execution.

The caption under the photo explains the scene.  Before Bay Hop was executed, he and his fellow Viet Cong executed an entire family because the father, Lt. Col. Nguyen Tuan, refused to give them information they wanted. Lt. Col. Tuan was decapitated, and his wife and six children were murdered with machineguns.

Bay Hop was the leader of that operation and was captured and executed shortly after for the murders.  Before his capture, he used civilians as a human shield, the second war crime he had committed that day. (The first was the murders of the Tuan family.)

Brig. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s execution of Bay Hop, although brutal, was legal under international law.  Assassins in civilian clothes do not enjoy any of the protections of international law and are subject to immediate execution if captured.

This story is a microcosm of what went on in Vietnam.  The communists routinely committed war crimes yet the media seldom reported them.  The legal actions taken by the South Vietnamese and their allies, however, were often described as war crimes and routinely criticized as inhumane.  This perspective affected the way people worldwide thought about the war and the actions of the South Vietnamese and their allies.

WINNING THE BATTLES AND LOSING THE WAR

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.

 

The Ho Chi Minh Trail

By James D. McLeroy

The first step in the North Vietnamese Politburo’s grand strategy for the conquest of South Vietnam was its May, 1959 order to the Ministry of Defense to begin construction of the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route, later known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Ministry of Defense gave the task to its Rear Services Directorate, which assigned it to the 559th Transportation Group. The Group was designated 559 for the date of its creation in the fifth month of 1959.

The complex transportation network built with enormous difficulty through the jungles and mountains of eastern Laos and Cambodia was one of the greatest feats of military engineering of the 20th Century. Aided by Russian and Chinese advisors, NVA engineers began to improve, expand, and lengthen animal trails, Montagnard paths, and stream beds through the Truong Son range.

River fords were hidden by underwater bridges. Roads and paths were wound around trees to enhance their concealment from the air. Open areas in the jungle canopy were camouflaged by interlacing tree tops or connecting them with trellises interwoven with living plants and vines.  The result was an interconnected, 12,000-mile network of roads, paths, bridges, bypasses, tunnels, caves, and pipelines.

Its widest east-west axis was about thirty miles, and its north-south axis from North Vietnam to the South Vietnamese delta was approximately 3,500 miles. It was vital for the supply of war material and replacement troops to the Communist Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces in South Vietnam. Because of its strategic importance the NVA eventually made eastern Laos and Cambodia virtual extensions of North Vietnam.

After traversing three mountain passes from North Vietnam into Laos, the Trail was divided into eleven regions, five large base areas, five main roads, twenty-nine branch roads, and numerous, frequently changed shortcuts and bypasses. In addition to sanctuary bases for VC and NVA troop units recovering from or preparing for combat in South Vietnam, fifteen large logistics headquarters called binh trams were spaced along the Trail.

They were commanded by NVA colonels with up to 2,000 troops in transportation, antiaircraft, engineer, logistics, and infantry battalions. Both men and women served as route guides, cooks, nurses, porters, mechanics, maintenance, and construction workers. Antiaircraft and infantry battalions guarded their sector of the trail and the roads from it into South Vietnam.

Crude bivouac facilities called “communication liaison stations” were spaced about one day’s march between the binh trams to provide basic food, shelter, medical aid, and route guides for transient NVA troops. The route guides only knew the sections of the Trail half way to the next bivouac stations north and south of their own.

They met the route guide escorting NVA troops from the station north of theirs at a point half way to that station and took them to their own station for the night. The next day they took the transient troops halfway to the next station south of theirs, where they were met by a route guide from that station. U.S. intelligence analysts identified base areas as places where large numbers of NVA troops could always be found. The first headquarters of the 559th Transportation Division was in Vinh, North Vietnam, and its main logistics center was at Base Area (BA) 604 near Tchepone, Laos.

Troops and supplies from North Vietnam were unloaded at BA 604 and divided for distribution to base areas farther south. BA 604 sent most of its troops and supplies to BA 611, where they were further distributed among the base stations south of it. BA 614 east of Chevane, Laos sent its allocations into South Vietnam on an extension of Road 165 from Chevane to QL 14.

In October, 1968, a second Trail headquarters was established in southern Laos near the junction of Roads 92 and 922 (see map). It controlled an entire infantry division, three antiaircraft regiments, two engineering regiments, twenty-three antiaircraft battalions, thirty-five engineering battalions, eighteen transportation battalions, and two pipeline battalions.

Some 50,000 NVA troops guarded, maintained, and extended the Trail network. An estimated 10,000 NVA antiaircraft guns were hidden along the Trail, most of them around BA 604 near the junction of roads 9 and 92 east of Tchepone and BA 611 near the second Trail headquarters. The U.S. Air Force lost more planes at those two places than anywhere else in Laos.

An estimated 8,000 trucks traveled the Trail in relays from one truck to another. On heavily overcast and rainy days and nights, when there was less chance of air attacks, up to 100 trucks traveled in convoys with their lights on. Each truck traveled at an average speed of five to eight miles an hour, depending on road conditions.

First priority was given to trucks carrying artillery, tanks, and anti-aircraft missiles. Second priority was given to trucks carrying fuel, ammunition, and food. Third priority was given to trucks carrying troops urgently needed in South Vietnam. The drivers only traveled fifteen to twenty miles back and forth on one stretch of road. Like the trail guides, they only knew the routes half-way to the next way stations north and south of their own.

Driving back and forth on the same length of road every night and most overcast days, they learned every detail of that section of road and the terrain on each side of it. Eventually, they could drive some sections of the Trail fairly quickly even in the dark. Many trucks had radios to warn them of incoming air attacks and current road conditions.

Fuel and lubricants for up to twenty-five trucks were stored in camouflaged truck parks hidden about three miles off the main roads. At each station the cargo of each truck was unloaded and transferred to another truck. Damaged or destroyed trucks were quickly replaced by others from the nearest station to the north. That station replaced those trucks with trucks from the next station to its north, and so all the way to Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam, where new trucks and new repair parts constantly arrived from the USSR.

NVA monitoring stations at intervals along the roads collected current data on road conditions in their area and the number of trucks passing through in each time period. The data was sent to traffic controllers on each section of the Trail, so that emergency route changes and repairs could be made as quickly as possible.

Most road repair work was done at night, and each binh tram had two or three bulldozers for that purpose. From 1959 to 1975, an estimated 300,000 Laotian men, women, and children were used as forced laborers to repair sections of the Trail and augment NVA food supplies with their small farms.

During daylight hours most transient NVA troops walked from one way station to another on trails at safe distances from the roads. The average infiltrating unit was a battalion moving at between one and three miles per hour, depending on the terrain. Preceded by route guides, they walked in platoon or company groups spaced about 100 yards apart. They did not fire at passing aircraft, but quickly moved off the trail and stood still or lay down. Several times a day they changed the foliage on their camouflage to match the foliage they were passing through.

In 1964, the first regular NVA regiment entered South Vietnam via the Trail, and in 1966 the first regular NVA division arrived the same way. The CIA estimated that between 1966 and 1971 the NVA sent more than 630,000 troops, 400,000 weapons, 50,000 tons of ammunition, and 100,000 tons of food into South Vietnam on the Trail. In 1968 the NVA needed to send 8,000 troops and 100 tons of ammunition and weapons to South Vietnam every month to replace their huge losses in the nationwide battles that year.

Every year more and younger draftees from North Vietnam and more and newer military supplies from the USSR and China were sent down the Trail to South Vietnam. Regardless of how often and heavily the Trail was bombed, and regardless of the human cost of constantly repairing it, the NVA continued relentlessly to do so year after year.

An estimated twenty percent of the infiltrating NVA troops died on the Trail, but only about two percent of those deaths were caused by U.S. air attacks. Ninety-eight percent of NVA deaths on the Trail were from illness, accidents, malnutrition, exhaustion, or exposure.

Seventy-nine large military cemeteries, including one covering forty acres with more than 10,000 sets of remains, were located along the Trail. They are grim evidence of the enormous human cost to the NVA of building, maintaining, extending, and defending the Trail network from its beginning in 1959 to the NVA’s conquest of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975.

How to Lose A War: The Press and Viet Nam

By Robert Elegant
Reprinted from Encounter (London), vol. LVII, No. 2, August 1981, pp. 73-90
Republished with permission from the author

IN THE EARLY 1960s, when the Viet Nam War became a big story, most foreign correspondents assigned to cover the story wrote primarily to win the approbation of the crowd, above all their own crowd. As a result, in my view, the self-proving system of reporting they created became ever further detached from political and military realities because it instinctively concentrated on its own self-justification. The American press, naturally dominant in an “American war,” somehow felt obliged to be less objective than partisan, to take sides, for it was inspired by the engagé “investigative” reporting that burgeoned in the United States in these impassioned years. The press was instinctively “agin the government”—and, at least reflexively, for Saigon’s enemies.

During the latter half of the fifteen-year American involvement in Viet Nam, the media became the primary battlefield. Illusory events reported by the press as well as real events within the press corps were more decisive than the clash of arms or the contention of ideologies. For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen. Looking back coolly, I believe it can be said (surprising as it may still sound) that South Vietnamese and American forces actually won the limited military struggle. They virtually crushed the Viet Cong in the South, the “native” guerrillas who were directed, reinforced, and equipped from Hanoi; and thereafter they threw back the invasion by regular North Vietnamese divisions. Nonetheless, the war was finally lost to the invaders after the U.S. disengagement because the political pressures built up by the media had made it quite impossible for Washington to maintain even the minimal material and moral support that would have enabled the Saigon regime to continue effective resistance.

Since I am considering causes rather than effects, the demoralization of the West, particularly the United States, that preceded and followed the fall of South Viet Nam is beyond the scope of this article. It is, however, interesting to wonder whether Angola, Afghanistan, and Iran would have occurred if Saigon had not fallen amid nearly universal odium—that is to say, if the “Viet Nam Syndrome,” for which the press (in my view) was largely responsible, had not afflicted the Carter Administration and paralyzed American will. On the credit side, largely despite the press, the People’s Republic of China would almost certainly not have purged itself of the Maoist doctrine of “worldwide liberation through people’s war” and, later, would not have come to blows with Hanoi if the defense of South Viet Nam had not been maintained for so long.

The Brotherhood

“You could be hard about it and deny that there was a brotherhood working there, but what else could you call it?” This is a question that Michael Herr asked in his Dispatches,1 a personally honest but basically deceptive book.

“But . . . all you ever talked about was the war, and they would come to seem like two different wars at the same time. Because who but another correspondent could talk the kind of mythical war you wanted to hear described?”

I have added the italics, for in the words “mythical” and “wanted” the essential truth is laid bare. In my own personal experience most correspondents wanted to talk chiefly to other correspondents to confirm their own mythical vision of the war. Even newcomers were precommitted, as the American jargon has it, to the collective position most of their colleagues had already taken. What I can only call surrealistic reporting constantly fed on itself, and did not diminish thereby, but swelled into ever more grotesque shapes. I found the process equally reprehensible for being in no small part unwitting.

John le Carré (whose extravagant encomium adorns the cover of the Pan edition of Dispatches: “The best book I have ever read on men and war in our times”) is, I feel, too clever a writer to believe he painted an even proximately accurate picture of Southeast Asia in The Honourable Schoolboy (1972). But he brilliantly depicted the press corps and the correspondents’ Asia, an encapsulated, self-defining world whirling in its own eccentric orbit. Correspondents, briefly set down in the brutally alienating milieu called Viet Nam, turned to each other for professional sustenance and emotional comfort. After all, there was nowhere else to turn, certainly not to stark reality, which was both elusive and repellent.

Most correspondents were isolated from the Vietnamese by ignorance of their language and culture, as well as by a measure of race estrangement. Most were isolated from the quixotic American Army establishment, itself often as confused as they themselves were, by their moralistic attitudes and their political prejudices. It was inevitable, in the circumstances, that they came to write, in the first instance, for each other.

To be sure, the approbation of his own crowd gave a certain fullness to the correspondent’s life in exile that reached beyond the irksome routine of reporting and writing. The disapprobation of his peers could transform him into a bitterly defensive misanthrope (I think here of one industrious radio and newspaper stringer who was reputed to be the richest correspondent in Viet Nam, except, of course, for the television stars). Even the experienced correspondents, to whom Asia was “home” rather than a hostile temporary environment, formed their own little self-defensive world within the larger world of the newcomers.

It was no wonder that correspondents writing to win the approbation of other correspondents in that insidiously collegial atmosphere produced reporting that was remarkably homogeneous. After each other, correspondents wrote to win the approbation of their editors, who controlled their professional lives and who were closely linked with the intellectual community at home. The consensus of that third circle, the domestic intelligentsia, derived largely from correspondents’ reports and in turn served to determine the nature of those reports. If dispatches did not accord with that consensus, approbation was withheld. Only in the last instance did correspondents address themselves to the general public, the mass of lay readers and viewers.

[Illegible] conclusion, most correspondents were in one respect, very much the ambitious soldiers they derided. A tour in Viet Nam was almost essential to promotion for a U.S. Regular Army officer, and a combat command was the best road to rapid advancement. Covering the biggest continuing story in the world was not absolutely essential to a correspondent’s rise, but it was an invaluable cachet. Quick careers were made by spectacular reporting of the obvious fact that men, women, and children were being killed; fame or at least notoriety rewarded the correspondent who became part of the action—rather than a mere observer—by influencing events directly.

Journalists, particularly those serving in television, were therefore, like soldiers, “rotated” to Viet Nam. Few were given time to develop the knowledge, and indeed the intellectual instincts, necessary to report the war in the round. Only a few remained “in country” for years, though the experienced Far Eastern correspondents visited regularly from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. Not surprisingly, one found that most reporting veered farther and farther from the fundamental political, economic, and military realities of the war, for these were usually not spectacular. Reporting Viet Nam became a closed, self-generating system sustained largely by the acclaim the participants lavished on each other in almost equal measure to the opprobrium they heaped on “the Establishment,” a fashionable and very vulnerable target.

The Cloud of Unknowing

For some journalists, perhaps most, a moment of truth through self-examination was never to come. The farther they were from the real conflict, the more smugly self-approving they now remain as commentators who led the public to expect a brave new world when the North Vietnamese finally “liberated” South Viet Nam. Even those correspondents who today gingerly confess to some errors or distortions usually insist that the true fault was not theirs at all, but Washington’s. The enormity of having helped in one way or another to bring tens of millions under grinding totalitarian rule—and having tilted the global balance of power—appears too great to acknowledge. It is easier to absolve one’s self by blaming exclusively Johnson, Nixon, and Kissinger.

I found few American correspondents to be as tough-minded as one Briton I knew who was very close to the action for many years in the employ of an American wire-news service. “I’m ashamed of most of what I wrote in Viet Nam,” he told me recently. “But I was a new boy, and I took my lead from the Americans, who were afire with the crusading spirit of ’60s journalism—the involvement, man, in the good fight. When I look at what’s happened now, I’m ashamed of my ignorance—and what I helped to do to the Vietnamese….”2

As one West German correspondent has confessed (Uwe Siemon-Netto in the International Herald Tribune, reprinted in Encounter, October 1979): “Having covered the Viet Nam war over a period of five years for West German publications, I am now haunted by the role we journalists have played over there.

Those of us who had wanted to find out knew of the evil nature of the Hanoi regime. We knew that, in 1956, close to 50,000 peasants were executed in North Viet Nam. We knew that after the division of the country nearly one million North Vietnamese had fled to the South. Many of us have seen the tortured and carved-up bodies of men, women, and children executed by the Viet Cong in the early phases of the war. And many of us saw, in 1968, the mass graves of Hue, saw the corpses of thousands of civilians still festively dressed for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.

Why, for heaven’s sake, did we not report about these expressions of deliberate North Vietnamese strategy at least as extensively as of the My Lai massacre and other such isolated incidents that were definitely not part of the U.S. policy in Viet Nam?

What prompted us to make our readers believe that the Communists, once in power in all of Viet Nam, would behave benignly? What made us, first and foremost Anthony Lewis, belittle warnings by U.S. officials that a Communist victory would result in a massacre?

Why did we ignore the fact that the man responsible for the executions of 50,000 peasants, Truong Chinh, was—and still is—one of the most powerful figures in Hanoi. What made us think that he and his comrades would have mercy for the vanquished South Vietnamese? What compelled, for example, Anthony Lewis shortly after the fall of Saigon to pat himself on the shoulder and write, “so much for the talk of a massacre”?

True, no Cambodian-style massacre took place in Viet Nam. It’s just that Hanoi coolly drives its ethnic Chinese and opponents into the sea.

Are we journalists not in part responsible for the death of the tens of thousands who drowned? And are we not in part responsible for the hostile reception accorded to those who survive? Did we not turn public opinion against them, portraying them, as one singularly ignoble cartoon did in the United States, as a bunch of pimps, whores, war profiteers, corrupt generals, or, at best, outright reactionaries?

Considering that today’s Viet Nam tragedy may have a lot to do with the way we reported yesterday’s Viet Nam tragedy, considering that we journalists might have our fair share of guilt for the inhuman way the world treats those who are being expelled by an inhuman regime which some of us had pictured as heroic, I think at least a little humility would be in order for us old Viet Nam hands. . . .”

Journalistic institutions are, of course, rarely afflicted by false modesty. They have not disclaimed credit for the outcome of the war, and their representatives have taken public bows for their successful intervention. The multitude of professional prizes bestowed upon the “big-story” coverage of Viet Nam certainly implied approval of the general effort.

However, the media have been rather coy; they have not declared that they played a key role in the conflict. They have not proudly trumpeted Hanoi’s repeated expressions of gratitude to the mass media of the non-Communist world, although Hanoi has indeed affirmed that it could not have won “without the Western press.” The Western press appears either unaware of the direct connection between cause (its reporting) and effect (the Western defeat in Viet Nam), or strangely reluctant to proclaim that the pen and the camera proved decisively mightier than the bayonet and ultra-modern weapons.

Nor have the media dwelt upon the glaring inconsistency between the expectation they raised of peaceful, prosperous development after Saigon’s collapse and the present post-war circumstances in Indochina. Unquestionably, a number of those approvingly characterized by the New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis as “critics of the American war” have protested against brutal repression in Cambodia. Some (including Lewis, and the French journalist Jean Lacouture3) even confessed that their expectations of the consequences of a Communist victory in Cambodia were mistaken. But none, to my knowledge, has suggested that he might have erred fundamentally in his vehement and total opposition to the U.S. role in Indochina. Instead, most partial confessions have concluded with renewed denunciations of American actions.

Jean Lacouture did offer a public mea culpa for having championed the Khmer Rouge. Reviewing a book on “Democratic Kampuchea,” he confessed:

“Francois Ponchoud’s Cambodia, Year Zero can be read only with shame by those of us who supported the Khmer Rouge cause. . . . And it will cause distress to those of us journalists who, after the massacre of seventeen of our colleagues in April and May 1971, tried to explain these deaths as part of the hazards of covering a disorganized guerrilla war. In fact, our poor comrades were assassinated—some, we know, clubbed to death—by the valiant guerrillas of Khieu Samphan, the ‘socialist’ Khmer who now bars foreign observers from Cambodian soil. His people remain in terror-stricken confinement, one of his regime’s more rational decisions: for how could it let the outside world see its burying of a civilization in prehistory, its massacres? . . .”

An illuminating example is Anthony Lewis, whose horror over abuses of American power apparently led him to the conclusion that similar abuses by America’s opponents were not worth noting. Having earlier found almost as much to praise in Hanoi as to condemn in Saigon, Lewis was belatedly moved to outrage by Lacouture’s observations—Jean Lacouture’s chief qualification was apparently his having been so spectacularly wrong about the consequences of a Khmer Rouge victory.

“. . . Those of us who had been critics of the war [Lewis wrote] may have felt skeptical about some of the Cambodian reports because they came from right-wing4 quarters that had been indifferent to the misery inflicted on Cambodia by American bombers. But these explanations wither in the presence of Jean Lacouture. He is a leading French expert on Indochina. And he was a profound critic of the American war.”

The reporters—and even the contrite Jean Lacouture—have continued to disregard the testimony regarding earlier North Vietnamese coercion offered by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s former chief-of-state. Sihanouk complained in 1973 that he had been forced to tolerate North Viet Nam using Cambodia as a supply route, training camp, and proving ground for its forces in South Viet Nam, although he knew the massive incursion was destroying his country. Preoccupied with their condemnation of U.S. intervention in Indochina, the “critics of the American war” have virtually ignored Sihanouk’s indictment of the North Vietnamese just as they have ignored the fact that Sihanouk had, albeit under duress, tolerated American bombing of North Vietnamese strongholds in Cambodia, the “unilateral action” for which those critics still pillory Henry Kissinger.5

The same critics were not outraged at the final conquest of South Viet Nam in 1975 by columns of Russian-built tanks supported by batteries of Russian-made artillery. (That was Hanoi’s second try; the first, in 1972, failed because the Saigon régime was still supported by U.S. air power and was still receiving adequate U.S. war matériel.) These righteous critics have taken little note of the detailed description of that final conquest published by North Viet Nam’s Senior General Van Tien Dung in the spring of 1976. General Dung’s account (128 single-spaced pages in English translation) proudly affirmed that the assault was ordered by the Political Bureau of the Labor (Communist) Party of North Viet Nam, planned by the Labor Party’s Central Military Affairs Committee, commanded by Northern generals, supplied from the North, and mounted by regular divisions of the People’s Army of the Democratic Republic of North Viet Nam.

Even before General Dung’s report, it should have been clear that the remnants of the Viet Cong—the southern “guerrilla force” made up primarily of Northerners—were inherently capable neither of maneuvering 700 tanks in conventional formations nor, for that matter, of building and operating the double pipeline that fueled those tanks with petroleum from the North. Just as they subsequently passed over General Dung’s explicit revelations, the “critics of the American war” ignored such empirical evidence that Saigon fell, not to an indigenous people in arms, but to an external invasion mounted by vanguard cadres who consider themselves ideologically superior to their Southern compatriots.

To take note of these obtrusive facts would have called into question the very nature of the war in Indochina—as it would to have taken note of them during the conflict. Any searching analysis of fundamental premises has remained as unthinkable to “the critics” as it was during the fighting. They have remained committed to the proposition that the American role in Indochina was totally reprehensible and inexcusable, while the North Vietnamese role—and, by extension, the roles of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Pathet Lao in Laos—was righteous, magnanimous, and just. Even the growing number who finally deplored the repressive consequences of the totalitarian victory could not bring themselves to re-examine the premises that led them to contribute so decisively to those victories. Thus William Shawcross, before his sententious book, Sideshow,6 wrote of the Communists’ reshaping of Cambodian society: “The process is atrociously brutal.” Although “the Khmer people are suffering horribly under their new rules,” this is how Shawcross unhesitatingly assigned the ultimate blame:

“They have suffered every day of the last six years–ever since the beginning of one of the most destructive foreign policies the United States has ever pursued: the ‘Nixon-Kissinger doctrine’ in its purest form. . .”

The Eye of the Beholder

Most correspondents on the scene were not quite as vehement. But they were moved by the same conviction of American guilt, which was so fixed that it resisted all the evidence pointing to a much more complex reality. Employed in the service of that crusading fervor was, for the first time, the most emotionally moving medium of all.

Television, its thrusting and simplistic character shaping its message, was most shocking because it was most immediate. The Viet Nam War was a presence in homes throughout the world. Who could seriously doubt the veracity of so plausible and so moving a witness in one’s own living room?

At any given moment, a million images were available to the camera’s lens in Saigon alone—and hundreds of million throughout Indochina. But TV crews naturally preferred the most dramatic. That, after all, was their business—show business. It was not news to film farmers peacefully tilling their rice fields, though it might have been argued that nothing happening was news when the American public had been led to believe that almost every Vietnamese farmer was regularly threatened by the Viet Cong, constantly imperiled by battle, and rarely safe from indiscriminate U.S. bombing.

A few hard, documented instances. A burning village was news, even though it was a deserted village used in a Marine training exercise—even though the television correspondent had handed his Zippo lighter to a non-commissioned officer with the suggestion that he set fire to an abandoned house. American soldiers cutting ears off a Viet Cong corpse was news—even if the cameraman had offered the soldiers his knife and “dared” them to take those grisly souvenirs. (Since the antics of the media were definitely not news, the network refrained from apologizing for the contrived “event” when a special investigation called the facts to its attention.) Cargo-nets full of dead South Vietnamese soldiers being lowered by helicopters were news—even if that image implicitly contradicted the prevailing conviction that the South Vietnamese never fought but invariably threw away their weapons and ran.

The competition in beastliness among the networks was even more intense than the similar competition among the representatives of the print media. Only rarely did television depict peaceful fields in which water buffaloes pulled ploughs for diligent farmers—undisturbed by air-bursts, rockets, infantrymen, or guerrillas. One special report was, however, devoted largely to depicting bucolic scenes and untraveled roads when Prince Norodom Sihanouk invited a television correspondent to tour the border areas of Cambodia to prove that his country was not being used by the North Vietnamese as a base for operations against South Viet Nam. A few years later, Sihanouk of course acknowledged that the North Vietnamese had at the time been—and had remained—intensely active in precisely those areas. But television could “prove” either a negative or a positive proposition—depending on where the camera pointed and upon the correspondent’s inclination.7

In fairness, a number of newspaper correspondents also endorsed Sihanouk’s contention that there were no North Vietnamese soldiers in Cambodia. Since the correspondents had seen no invaders, there were, patently, no invaders to be seen. The assumption of omniscience that lay behind so much of the coverage of Indochina remains awe-inspiring.

One tale involving the aerial jeep of Viet Nam was so magnified that it lost any connection with actual events. That was the story of unwounded Vietnamese soldiers bandaging themselves in order to swarm on to helicopters for evacuation from their raid into Laos in 1971.

That raid on the North Vietnamese installations and supply routes that were called the “Ho Chi Minh Trails” was no great success. But, as I found after two weeks of my own intensive investigation, it was hardly the debacle described by most of the press. South Vietnamese planning for their command’s first major independent military operation was faulty; some units deported themselves badly; but others fought well. Nonetheless, descriptions of a “South Vietnamese rout” were made graphic by repeated reports of soldiers bandaging imaginary wounds.

On close questioning, one Western journalist (a wire-service man), who was shaking with indignation at South Vietnamese pusillanimity, admitted that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandaging unbroken skin; but (2) he had seen soldiers bandaging “mere scratches.” He finally conceded that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandage a scratch and then “swarm aboard a helicopter”; and (2) having never marched through a jungle, he did not know how rapidly untreated “scratches” could become severe infections in that malignant environment. However, his stories of South Vietnamese cowardice had already been widely published, and he, quite naturally, did not wish to provoke his home office by filing a correction. If he had, the correction might have been filed to the wire-service’s world-wide clients. If it had been “moved on the wire,” it might not have been printed widely or conspicuously. What had not happened was simply not news . . . even if it had already been reported as having happened.

Television reports had one distinct advantage. A picture of nothing was, obviously, more convincing than a printed report of nothing.

One of the most persistent “horror stories” was retailed by the Western newspapers and magazines because television could not, obviously, take pictures of torture. Did interrogators ever push an uncommunicative prisoner out of a helicopter to encourage his fellows to talk? No such atrocity has ever been confirmed, despite the swarms of investigative reporters and the many eager informants among officers and diplomats, whose indignation against stupid and inefficient policies was transmuted by the press into indignant protest against the war itself.

One such “incident,” staged with a corpse, was turned up by the meticulous research of Günter Lewy for his book America in Vietnam,8 which should be required reading for all war correspondents. A U.S. soldier acquired a photograph of that grisly incident, and went on to invent an account of how a prisoner was killed by being hurled from a helicopter. The imagined event was given wide coverage.9

Interrogation by macabre example did make a great story, though it probably never happened and, certainly, has never been proved.

The Imaginary General

Such skewed reporting occurred frequently; it was sometimes major and sometimes trivial. Since I am discussing motivations, not drawing up any kind of indictment, a catalogue of such incidents would be superfluous. But a few striking examples may help to make the general point. First, the case of the imaginary general told by a British colleague.

An American correspondent who was later to write a highly praised book on Viet Nam was chuckling over a telegram in the terrace cafe of the Hotel Continental, known to habitués as “the Continental Shelf.” His editors had asked him to confirm that it would be neither libelous nor vexatious to quote the U.S. general who had in the correspondent’s last dispatch been highly critical of the entire American effort—on the Continental Shelf (which generals, by the way, did not frequent).

“Of course,” he told his questioner, “1 cabled them to go ahead and not worry. Why should they? After all, I made that general up.” The imaginary general in the dispatch made a repeat performance in the correspondent’s book.

Sgt. John Ashe (brother of the world-famous tennis player) was a Marine assigned to public relations duties. He delivered a biting indictment of the young wire-service correspondents and the “war freaks” who frequented Da Nang (which was a remote outpost to the media, though not to the military). They would, he recalled, rarely go into the field and never spend the night when they did; would deport themselves as if they had never heard a shot fired with intent to kill before that moment—to their own and the Marines’ peril; and then file stories that “bore little or no relation” to what he—and they—had seen. They didn’t want to know, Ashe added, what was really happening in the First Corps Area, where the Marines had winkled out the Viet Cong by stationing squads in villages.

Instructive on a larger scale is the contrast between the coverage of the American massacre at My Lai and the Viet Cong massacre at Hue. At My Lai, a junior American officer allowed his men to kill dozens of presumably uninvolved farmers in full violation of standing orders. At Hue, the former imperial capital, the Viet Cong killed several thousand community leaders, including a number of Europeans, in accordance with standing orders to “destroy the bourgeoisie.” The U.S. military’s attempt to suppress reports of the My Lai massacre, of course, made it even worse when the story was finally released by the Dispatch News Agency, a curious organization that came into existence in Viet Nam with unknown financial backing and vanished once its purpose of opposing the war had brought Hanoi victory. But the Hue massacre was, somehow, uninteresting. Few correspondents reported that clear signal of the real policies the North Vietnamese would pursue once they had conquered the South.

By the same token, American restraint was not news, even to the experienced correspondents, because it was a “non-event.” Flying in a command helicopter of the Ninth Division over the Mekong Delta, another U.S. correspondent and I heard the brigade commander countermand his battalion commander’s order to the infantry and the helicopter gunships to attack some 100 enemy who were pouring out of a surrounded village, still firing.

“Do not, repeat do not, attack,” the colonel directed. “They’re using women and children as shields.”

Neither my colleague nor myself thought the incident worth reporting; that was a palpable error of judgment induced by the atmosphere in which we were working. If the Ninth Division had killed the civilians, we would have filed copiously.

Equally lamentable was the failure of the Western press to cover with any thoroughness the Army of the Republic of South Viet Nam, which over the long run was doing most of the fighting. Correspondents were reluctant to commit their safety to units whose resolution they distrusted—sometimes for good reason, more often because of a kind of racist contempt—in order to get stories that interested their editors so little. Coverage of Vietnamese politics, as well as social and economic developments, was sporadic—except for military coups and political crises, and those were often misreported.

Examples of misdirected or distorted reporting could be amassed almost indefinitely. The war, after all, lasted some twenty years. A former Washington Post and New York Times correspondent, Peter Braestrup, has published a two-volume study of the coverage of the Tet Offensive of 1968.10 Quite significantly, it attracted little interest compared to, say, William Shawcross’s Sideshow or Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

The Power of Self-Deception

Nowadays, Jean Lacouture, Anthony Lewis, and William Shawcross (among some other “Viet Nam veterans”) clearly feel deceived or even betrayed by the Communists of Indochina; yet surely, they voluntarily adopted the ideological bias that allowed Hanoi to deceive them. The Vietnamese Communists—unlike their Cambodian confreres—had, after all, openly declared their intention of imposing totalitarian rule upon the South. Why, then, were the “critics of the American war” so genuinely surprised by the consequences? More crucially, why did a virtual generation of Western journalists deceive itself so consistently as to the nature of the “liberation” in Indochina? Why did the correspondents want to believe in the good faith of the Communists? Why did they so want to disbelieve the avowed motives of the United States? Why did so much of their presumably factual reporting regularly reflect their ideological bias?

The obvious explanation is not as ingenuous as it may appear: the majority of Western correspondents and commentators adopted their idiosyncratic approach to the Indochina War precisely because other journalists had already adopted that approach. To put it more directly, it was fashionable (this was, after all, the age of Radical Chic) to be “a critic of the American war.”

Decisive in the case of the Americans, who set the tone, was the normally healthy adversary relationship between the U.S. press and the U.S. government. American newspapermen have often felt, with some justification, that if an administration affirmed a controversial fact, that fact—if not prima facie false—was at the least suspect. As the lies of successive administrations regarding Indochina escalated, that conviction became the credo of the press. The psychological process that began with the unfounded optimism of President John F. Kennedy’s ebullient “New Frontiersmen,” who were by and large believed, ended with the disastrous last stand of Richard Nixon’s dour palace guard, who were believed by no one.

The reaction against official mendacity was initially healthy but later became distorted, self-serving, and self-perpetuating. A faulty syllogism was unconsciously accepted: Washington was lying consistently; Hanoi contradicted Washington; therefore Hanoi was telling the truth.

The initial inclination to look upon Hanoi as a fount of pure truth was intelligently fostered by the Communists, who selectively rewarded “critics of the American war” with visas to North Viet Nam. A number of influential journalists and public figures (ranging from former cabinet officers to film actresses) were feted in North Viet Nam. They were flattered not only by the attention and the presumed inside information proffered by the North Vietnamese but by their access to a land closed to most Americans. The favored few—and the aspiring many—helped establish a climate in which it was not only fashionable but, somehow, an act of courage to follow the critical crowd in Saigon and Washington while praising Hanoi. The skeptical correspondent risked ostracism by his peers and conflicts with his editors if he did not run with “the herd of independent minds,” if he did not support the consensus.

The larger reason for the tenacity of the consensus went much deeper. It welled from a new view of this war, which was quite different from the press’s view of other wars—and from a new messianic approach to the role of the press in wartime. The alteration occurred in three stages, beginning with World War II, proceeding through the Korean War, and culminating in Viet Nam.

Three Wars

World War II was generally considered a crusade against evil. Allied and Soviet atrocities normally went unreported, since their publication to the world would have besmirched the anti-Nazi crusade. The bestial aims and deeds of the Nazis, reinforced by the bestial deeds of the Japanese, compelled correspondents and officials to agreement on the nature of the war and, therefore, to substantial agreement on the way it was fought. The press might criticize tactical errors; it might even cavil at certain strategic decisions. But it was bent neither upon revealing every possible error or mis-statement made by the authorities nor upon questioning their fundamental purposes.

The Korean War was not a universal crusade. A few correspondents questioned the wisdom of committing U.S. troops to the peninsula, while many questioned the strategic decisions of General Douglas MacArthur (particularly his dash to the Yalu, which directly challenged the Chinese, whose industrial plexus lay in Manchuria just across that river). The character and administration of President Syngman Rhee of the Republic of Korea were often criticized by those correspondents whose interest extended beyond military hostilities. Nonetheless, a limited consensus did exist. No one—except the Stalinists—doubted seriously that North Korea had attacked South Korea. Aside from those ideologues, no one contended that the Pyongyang régime was an exemplar of virtue simply because it opposed the Seoul régime, whose faults were manifest. Moved neither by basic antagonism towards official aims nor by unthinking commitment to those aims, a surprisingly youthful press corps offered surprisingly objective reports. Aside from a marked weakness in covering internal politics in both the South and the North—a weakness that presaged a disastrous disability in Indochina—Korea was, in my view, the best-covered American war of modern times. Besides, the conflict was, by and large, straightforward and simple to understand.

Indochina was never simple or straightforward but was arcane even before the commitment of U.S. ground forces. Afterwards, it became so complex that it was virtually impossible to understand it in all its ramifications; and, I must add, it was absolutely impossible to convey those ramifications to the public. Today I recall with chagrin my rather condescending amusement when a television producer argued in the mid-1960s: “We shouldn’t be in Indochina because the American people can’t understand the war—and the people won’t support a war they can’t understand.” He was, of course, right (even if the American press helped to prevent any proper understanding).

Though simplistic television coverage accelerated and intensified popular disillusionment, it was not the decisive factor in determining the collective opinion of the press. The television people went along with the fashion; they did not set the fashion or formulate its conventional wisdom. In any event, Viet Nam was covered by a press corps that was bitterly distrustful of Washington and harshly antagonistic towards Saigon. The press consistently magnified the allies’ deficiencies—and displayed almost saintly tolerance of those misdeeds of Hanoi it could neither disregard nor deny.

It is possible that the “Viet Nam Syndrome” will recur; it is not unlikely that Western foreign policy, with the United States as its faltering—or even resurgent—leader, will again be forced to operate in an environment dominated by a hostile press. The personal experience of one journalist is not normally pertinent to such a high political question. However, I was, as a correspondent and commentator, perforce a participant as well as an observer in the Viet Nam imbroglio from 1955 to 1975. When “the media became the war,” everyone associated with the media became part of the war, however reluctantly. An account of my experience, therefore, may illuminate this discussion and help the reader weigh my historical assessments.

From 1955 through 1965 I was opposed to U.S. military intervention despite my personal sympathy for the Indochinese peoples. Having in 1955 sailed from Haiphong in the North to Saigon with several thousand among almost a million refugees from the Democratic Republic, I was moved by their justified fears. Besides, I detested Hanoi’s Stalinist repression. Nevertheless, I felt that Indochina was a strategic backwater that should not be transformed into a vital interest by committing regular American troops to a disadvantageous Asian battlefield. Because of my concern with the effect of events in Indochina upon developments in China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia I did, however. feel that the West should not turn its back on Indochina, though it should avoid entrapment.

Such reservations made me popular neither with official Americans nor with those journalists who urged deeper involvement. Many correspondents and commentators were enthusiastic about the creeping U.S. commitment, while the administration of President Kennedy reacted strongly to my judgment (in Newsweek in late 1961) that President Ngo Dinh Diem could not preserve South Viet Nam. In December 1962, when I was stationed in Europe, a Newsweek cover story concluded that Diem was doing well and that the Kennedy commitment to Indochina was fundamentally sound. That replay of the optimistic Washington view was published over my editorial opposition. (I was, incidentally, not in Indochina during the battles between Diem and the dissident Buddhists, or during the succession of short-lived regimes that followed Diem’s murder.)

When I returned early in 1966, matters were radically altered. The United States had in 1965 brought in major armed units to prevent the South’s collapse under the North’s intensified subversion. Despite the U.S. intervention, that collapse had clearly only been forestalled, not averted. Direct involvement had, moreover, made Indochina an area of primary strategic interest to the United States in the eyes not only of apprehensive allies but of potential enemies as well. The United States was committed to the enterprise that had earlier broken the French will, that is, preventing Communist conquest of Indochina.

China was already launched upon the cataclysmic “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” a virtual civil war fought to determine whether Maoists or moderates would rule the world’s most populous country. Foreign policy was already a major Chinese issue, and the collapse of South Viet Nam would have strengthened the extremists, who advocated internal suppression and China’s diplomatic isolation. While continuing to urge U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic, I felt that American firmness in Indochina had to demonstrate to the Maoists that guerrilla warfare could not prevail. Otherwise, the People’s Republic might espouse a wholly Maoist foreign policy, that is, dedicate herself to “world-wide liberation through people’s [guerrilla] wars.”

Moreover, Peking had just exploded its first “atomic device.” The prospect of a messianically Maoist China brandishing an increasing nuclear arsenal appeared a threat to the survival of civilization.

If Hanoi were blocked in South Viet Nam, I contended, the more cautious moderates would in the long term triumph in Peking, and the threat of a holocaust would recede. After all, Mao believed (as he told Edgar Snow) that a nuclear war would “destroy the world . . . but not us.”

China, of course, worked out well. The danger of nuclear war has receded. Today Peking stands against Soviet expansionism—in good part because what happened in Indochina before 1975 intensified the Sino-Soviet conflict and contributed to the destruction of Mao’s strategic doctrine of “the inevitable victory of people’s war.”

But there was, in 1966, no justification for even guarded optimism regarding South Viet Nam’s prospects, and there was to be no such basis until mid-1968. My first report from Saigon after four years of absence described the shocking confusion—in both purpose and execution—of the already bloated American establishment, as well as its isolation from the realities of both the villages and the ministries of Viet Nam. But Washington had forced its own hand; South Viet Nam, defended by the Americans, had become a major piece on the international chessboard. The United States had, I felt, no choice but to remain until the South Vietnamese could effectively defend themselves—or the global balance of power altered radically.

That attitude was not shared by a new corps of foreign correspondents who were newcomers to Asia, though most experienced correspondents agreed. (It did improve my relations with American officialdom, a boon that made me somewhat uneasy.) Having been called a “Communist sympathizer” for advocating recognition of “Red China” in the early 1950s, I was attacked as a “journalistic storm-trooper” for arguing that we could not simply disengage from Indochina in the late 1960s. (Reverse McCarthyism? Perhaps.)11

The Reasons Why

The main question persists. Why was the press—whether in favor of official policy at the beginning or vehemently against the war at the end—so superficial and so biased?

Chief among many reasons was, I believe, the politicization of correspondents by the constantly intensifying clamor over Viet Nam in Europe and America. Amateur (and professional) propagandists served both sides of the question, but the champions of Hanoi were spectacularly more effective. They created an atmosphere of high pressure that made it exceedingly difficult to be objective.

In Korea, senior officers who were incensed by unfavorable reports would sometimes demand: “Who are you for—the Communists or us?” Most correspondents were detached and could answer honestly: “Personally for the U.N. and the United States, but professionally for neither side. Just trying to tell the true story….” In Viet Nam that response was virtually impossible amid growing Western horror at the “dirty, immoral war.” Correspondents were almost compelled to become partisans, and most became partisans for Hanoi, or, at least, against Saigon and Washington.

Revulsion in Europe and America sprang as much from the nature of the correspondents’ reporting as it did from the belligerents’ direct manipulation of public opinion. Some of my senior colleagues had learned wisdom on a hundred battlefields, having covered World War II, the Chinese Civil War, the Viet Minh campaign against the French, and the Indonesian revolt against the Dutch. I had at least been through Korea, the Malayan “Emergency,” and the fighting between Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists for Quemoy. But most correspondents had never seen war before their arrival in Indochina. Many confused the beastliness of all war with the particular war in Indochina, which they unthinkably concluded was unique in human history because it was new to them.

This much must be said: the best of their reporting accurately conveyed the horror of war—all war. Yet it presented the suffering, barbarism, and devastation as somehow peculiar to Indochina. It almost made it appear that other wars had been fought by mailed champions on fields remote from human habitation while in Indochina, for the first time, carnage brutally involved both massed military formations and the civilian populace. Since a guerrilla war is inherently not as destructive as a conventional war, human suffering and material devastation had, in reality, been markedly greater in Korea than in Viet Nam—and much, much greater on both Asian and European fronts in World War II.

Because Viet Nam did not attract many senior correspondents for extended tours, at any given time a majority of the correspondents were new to the complexities of Indochina. Some could not even look after themselves in combat, the sine qua non of a successful—and surviving—war correspondent.

One afternoon in May 1968, when the Viet Cong were attacking the outskirts of Saigon, six young correspondents piled into a single mini-taxi to drive to the shifting “front.” They were startled when advised to take two or three taxis so that they could get out faster if they came under fire. A tall, rotund neophyte wearing a scarlet shirt paraded up and down the road the Viet Cong were attacking. He was dismayed by the pained abhorrence with which South Vietnamese paratroops regarded him, until it was explained that he was drawing rocket fire. The six clustered around a twenty-four-year-old U.S. first lieutenant, just out of the Military Academy at West Point, who was struggling to communicate with the Vietnamese major commanding and, simultaneously, to direct the gunships that swooped low, firing their machine-guns. While shells burst around them, the correspondents tried to interrogate the lieutenant on the morality of the U.S. presence in Indochina.

A Naive Expectation

Many newcomers were shocked to find that American and Vietnamese briefing officers did not always tell them the truth even about a minor tactical situation. Despite their pose of professional skepticism, in their naiveté they expected those officers to tell not merely the truth but the whole truth. Far from feeling the deep mistrust of officialdom they affected, the newcomers were dismayed by the briefing officers’ inability (or unwillingness) to confide in them unreservedly. Older correspondents did not expect candor from briefing officers. They had learned several wars earlier that the interests of the press and the interests of the military did not normally coincide. They also knew that the briefing officers were themselves often uninformed—concerned, perhaps sometimes excessively, for military secrecy—and resentful of correspondents’ badgering.

Nevertheless, the candor of U.S. officers astonished experienced correspondents from other nations. Shortly before he was killed in another war, Nicholas Tomalin of The Sunday Times reported with amazement the reception given several British correspondents who arrived unannounced at an American airfield. Though he obviously wished them a thousand miles away, the U.S. colonel in command not only made them welcome but answered all their questions. If it had been a British airfield, Tomalin observed, the group would not have been allowed to land—and if it had landed would have been bustled off within minutes. No supporter of the U.S. endeavor in Indochina, Tomalin marveled at the openness with which the foolish Americans conducted their wars.

Senior U.S. officers did, of course, lie to make a case or extemporized when they did not know the answers. From those practices sprang the bitterness that corroded relations between the press and officialdom. No one likes to be treated as a fool even in the best of causes (and no one thought Indochina was the best of causes). The military were in turn bitter at the unfairness they attributed to correspondents.

Beyond the unremitting drumfire of mutual criticism, two matters rankled particularly: the “Body Count,” which for the press notoriously symbolized the military’s callousness; and the unavoidably misleading maps delineating the areas under the control of Saigon or the Viet Cong. The military said they released estimates of enemy casualties after each action primarily because correspondents demanded concrete evidence of the progress of a war that was not fought along clearly demarcated battlelines. The officers contended that the maps, which could in no wise accurately depict a hazy, fluid situation, were prepared at the correspondents’ request. Officialdom felt there was too much, rather than too little, openness in Viet Nam.

Oscillating between excessive candor and bald falsification, U.S. public-relations policies made the press and the authorities not merely adversaries but enemies. However paradoxically, some of the most popular officials were the most mendacious. A senior public-affairs officer who always had an answer for the press once offered an eloquent analysis of Hanoi’s weakness based on a captured Viet Cong order. Since his projection of a general Viet Cong retreat seemed askew, even on the basis of that document, I checked with .a number of specialists on North Viet Nam available in Saigon. The official, I found, had consulted no specialist but had offered his own off-hand analysis—presumably to hold his credulous audience. Gratuitous contributions to confusion in Viet Nam itself were much surpassed by the egregiously misleading opinions offered in Washington.

Esoterica like “enemy intentions,” however, did not interest one group of correspondents. They were moved primarily by neither the horror nor the portentousness but by the thrills of Indochina. They were nicknamed “the war freaks,” since they were fascinated by the atmosphere rather than the substance of the war. Cambodia was a favorite resort of theirs. It offered a dangerous little war, abundant opium, marijuana, and heroin, as well as the gracious Royale Hotel, its French cuisine unspoiled by the American incursions that had ruined Saigon’s restaurants. Reflecting the delight of the war freaks, Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches that he never went to bed once in Saigon not “stoned,” and added: “Viet Nam was our substitute for a happy childhood.” One’s first war, the veterans could have told him, is usually an extension of—if not necessarily a substitute for—a happy childhood.

Official deceit was thus exacerbated by incompetent journalism.12.] While complaining about the press, many U.S. officials, who knew they were fighting “a media war,” sought to manipulate—rather than inform—correspondents. But they were not skilled at manipulation. While complaining about the government’s duplicity, many editors assigned correspondents who were not qualified to fill a normal foreign post, much less to thread the labyrinthine complexities of the Indochina War. Some editors told their correspondents what they wanted, while many correspondents had made up their own minds before they arrived “in country.” Only a few, I trust, were in the unhappy position of the correspondent of an aggressively liberal U.S. FM-radio station who, as he confided to me, was told: “Not every story has to be anti-war.”

A Crippling Ignorance

Beyond the pressures exerted upon them, most correspondents—serving six-month to two-year tours—were woefully ignorant of the setting of the conflict. Some strove diligently to remedy that crippling deficiency by reading widely and interviewing avidly. Many lacked the time or the inclination to do so—or any real awareness of how crippling their ignorance was to them professionally. Most, as I have noted, knew little about war in general from either experience or study—and less about the theory or practice of guerrilla war. They were untutored not only in the languages but also in the history, culture, ethnography, and economics of Indochina, let alone of China and Asia. Since so many were also untroubled by acquaintance with Marxist theory or practice and were hazy about the international balance of power, they were incapable of covering effectively a conflict involving all those elements.

Not even the “old hands” were necessarily well qualified to cover the conflict—who could have been? Arthur Waley?—but, considering our divergent backgrounds and political convictions, the old hands’ general agreement about the nature of the war was remarkable. Most deplored the ineffectiveness and the corruption of successive South Vietnamese governments, but judged native (i.e., Southern) disaffection incapable of mounting an armed rebellion without direction, reinforcement, and weapons from the North. Most concurred with the thesis Robert Shaplen advanced in The Lost Revolution (1966), agreeing that ineffectual leadership had failed to foster latent nationalistic and reformist enthusiasm in the South, by default ceding those dynamic forces to the North. We did not deceive ourselves that the South enjoyed even marginally good government; but we believed that Northern rule would be much worse for the mass of the people.13 management. Recently the Government in Hanoi has admitted planning effort and introduced incentives for private enterprise in both industry and agriculture The collectivization of agriculture in the south has also been stopped. There it a rice surplus in the south but the Government appears unable to transport it to the north and those who need it in the south cannot afford to buy it….

During the Viet Nam decade a whole American generation of journalists and intellectuals unlearned the experience of Stalinist society—its incomparable inefficiency; its thick-headed, dogmatic compounding of error and miscalculation; and, not least (so obvious in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.), its intolerable burden of a costly military machine superimposed on an old-fashioned, hard-pressed, “underdeveloped” economy. As Shawcross notes, with a vague touch of bitterness:

The other principal cause of Viet Nam’s food shortage—and that which most angers potential Western donors—is its diversion of resources to the military. About 47% of the national budget is now said to be spent on defense.

] We knew that the North and the South, though not necessarily two separate countries, were distinct entities because of the strong regional feelings of the Vietnamese. Although most of us had opposed major U.S. involvement, we saw no way the United States could withdraw unilaterally.

Needless to say, even we old hands were not always accurate in our reporting or correct in our judgments. Reacting against the spate of negative reports, I myself tended to emphasize the positive aspects, sometimes excessively. No more than the newcomers were the old hands immune to irritation at the duplicity of the American establishment, though we were not as dependent upon press officers. That irritation undoubtedly affected our reporting; so did smoldering anger (which sometimes flared into fury) at the Vietnamese, who were always difficult, often unavailable, regularly evasive, and routinely deceitful. But the old hands knew they had to live and work with the Vietnamese, and they understood the insecurity that haunted Saigon officials. After generations of colonial rule and internal conflict, no Vietnamese really trusted any other Vietnamese except those within his immediate family (and them neither invariably nor wholly). The newcomers either could not or would not understand what moved the Vietnamese or why they so often seemed to be behaving so badly.

The atmosphere “in country” was heavily oppressive, as was our awareness that we were writing for a public that had virtually prejudged the war. My Lai was not reported at the time because the military effectively camouflaged that atrocity. Other allied excesses were reported, while many reverse My Lais were not reported; and Viet Cong atrocities were often discounted. Myths flourished because of the journalists’ bias and the contempt they felt for the Vietnamese.

By innuendo and mis-statement the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam was reduced in the public eye to a corrupt rabble, far, far less effective than the Republic of Korea Army during the earlier war. In reality, the ARVN was strikingly more effective than the ROKA had been; but correspondents were friendly to the ROKA and antagonistic to the ARVN.

That tale of hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers bandaging non-existent wounds in order to be evacuated as casualties was just one example. That graphic and erroneous story reinforced the general impression that the cowardly South Vietnamese were unwilling to fight in defense of their own cause. That misleading conclusion undoubtedly encouraged U.S. reluctance to supply Saigon’s forces adequately after the American withdrawal. That reluctance, which contributed decisively to the final collapse, was then “proved” correct.

Despite their own numerous and grave faults, the South Vietnamese were, first and last, decisively defeated in Washington, New York, London, and Paris. Those media defeats made inevitable their subsequent defeat on the battlefield. Indochina was not perhaps the first major conflict to be won by psychological warfare. But it was probably the first to be lost by psychological warfare conducted at such great physical distance from the actual fields of battle—and so far from the peoples whose fate was determined by the outcome of the conflict.

The “Viet Nam Syndrome”

When I drafted this article, I had not intended to dilate upon the possible consequences in the future of the new role of the press in war. Those consequences seemed too obvious. Besides, I did not wish to arouse contention but to evoke dispassionate consideration. After all, the passage of time should by this time have appreciably cooled the intense emotion that moved both the reluctant supporters and the vehement critics of the “American war.”

I felt, moreover, that I had adequately demonstrated that the press acted—and could well again act—as a multiplier of the prejudices of the Western intelligentsia, whose tender conscience moves it to condemn the actions of its own side while condoning related deeds of enemies who are either “immature” or “feel themselves threatened.” It did not, for example, seem necessary to demonstrate at length that World War II could well have been lost by the Allied powers if the press had wished—and been allowed—to denounce almost all the purposes and virtually the entire conduct of that conflict. (Surely, for example; Churchill would have been prevented from helping Greece—because of Metaxas.) It did not seem necessary to labor the obvious point that no Western power can conduct a foreign policy that, of necessity, relies in part on the threat of military power and, upon occasion, on the exercise of military power if the media reflexively denounce almost any use of armed force. I believed it would suffice to offer the brief warning already stated above: Western foreign policy could again be forced to operate most precariously in an environment dominated by a hostile press. It did not, finally, seem necessary to point out that the effective prohibition of limited, conventional war by an inflamed public opinion could lead to either political surrender or nuclear holocaust.

Since the article was written, events have denied me the luxury of refraining from underlining the obvious. The predicament I suggested was likely has already become a reality. It is exemplified in El Salvador, about which, I must acknowledge, I know nothing directly, and indirectly no more than any other reasonably diligent reader of the press. Nonetheless, the recrudescence of the “Viet Nam Syndrome” in the media is not merely unmistakable, but distressingly blatant.14

“Viet Nam” has become not merely an invidious comparison but a magical incantation. The woolly-minded need only declare vehemently that El Salvador is already—or could become—”another Viet Nam” for the enterprise to be condemned and, probably, blighted. Throughout the Western world, commentators and reporters have invoked the specter of Viet Nam to arouse detestation of a Washington initiative. That rush of the journalistic lemmings includes not only the heavyweights of the media but many cartoonists and, as well, humorists like Art Buchwald and Russell Baker, whose satire is often striking and effective. Prominent among the lemmings are television personalities like Jon Snow of Britain’s ITV, who recently presented one film “report” that continually cut from vaguely delineated political and military developments to heart-rending scenes in a refugee camp. In that and a drum beat of subsequent “reports” the conclusion was not implied but hammered home time and again: U.S. policy was, presumably by direct intention, rendering tens of thousands homeless and killing hundreds of women and children. El Salvador, the viewer could not but conclude, was a deliberate replication of Viet Nam. And “Viet Nam” had become synonymous with absolute evil—practiced, of course, by the United States.

The “Viet Nam Syndrome” is compounded of a variety of symptoms, none unique in itself, but unprecedented in combination and devastating in their totality. Wars have been badly reported in the past. Facts have been mis-stated, and their interpretation has been biased. Emotions have been deliberately inflamed, and reporters have ridden to fame on waves of misrepresentation. But never before Viet Nam had the collective policy of the media—no less stringent term will serve—sought by graphic and unremitting distortion the victory of the enemies of the correspondents’ own side. Television coverage was, of course, new in its intensity and repetitiveness; it was crucial in shifting the emphasis from fact to emotion. And television will play the same role in future conflicts—on the Western side, of course. It will not and cannot expose the crimes of an enemy who is too shrewd to allow the cameras free play.

As long as the “Viet Nam Syndrome” afflicts the media, it seems to me that it will be virtually impossible for the West to conduct an effective foreign policy. It is apparently irrelevant that the expectations of paradise after Hanoi’s victory evoked by “the critics of the American war” became the purgatory the Indochinese people have suffered. Just as many denizens of the antebellum American South did not know that “Damyankee” was really two words, an entire generation in Europe and the United States behaves as if “the dirty, immoral war in Viet Nam” were an irrefutable and inseparable dogma. Merely equate El Salvador (or any other American intervention) to Viet Nam—and not only the American public but all “liberal” Europeans will condemn it without reservation. That is all they need to know. In its final effect—what has over the last decade been called “the paralysis of political will”—it will make it especially difficult for the United States to honor any political commitment anywhere in the world where small and threatened nations may expect American support for their independent existence. Before they fall to an aggressor, they will have been victimized by “the Viet Nam Syndrome.”

It has long appeared to me that the medical and legal professions enjoy one enormous advantage. If they err, doctors and lawyers may be blamed. Yet, except in the most flagrant cases, the client or the patient pays them again for correcting their mistakes—if they can, and if he can. But the media on Viet Nam, it has become blatantly obvious, have enjoyed even greater advantages. Even in the most flagrant cases, they have not been blamed. They have, rather, been acclaimed for their errors. Who can, ultimately, prove it otherwise? The peoples of the non-Communist world have paid dearly for these errors—and may well continue to pay.

The North Vietnamese Army

By James D. McLeroy

At various times and places the Second Indochina War (1959 to 1975) displayed some of the characteristics of a South Vietnamese revolution, insurgency, guerrilla war, and civil war. Primarily, however, it was always an incremental invasion of South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army, at first indirect and covert, then direct and overt.

In 1945, Ho Chi Minh and his guerrilla forces quickly seized control of the North Vietnamese government in the power vacuum left by the surrender of the occupying Japanese army. Ho then proclaimed himself President of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). After the 1949 victory of Mao Tse-tung’s army in the Chinese Civil War, Ho went to China to ask Mao for military aid. Ho’s irregular Viet Minh forces were then fighting the conventional French forces attempting to reclaim their former control of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).

Mao gave the DRV not only weapons, but also military training, logistical support, technical troops, and secure bases in southern China. In 1951, General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the Viet Minh forces, went to China to arrange the assignment of a resident Chinese Military Assistance Group in the DRV. Without massive Chinese aid the Viet Minh forces could not have defeated the French forces and won the First Indochina War (1946-1954) at the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu.

In the Second Indochina War (1959-1975) against the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces the initial North Vietnamese strategy was again an adaptation of Mao Tse-tung’s three-stage, rural-based, protracted attrition model. The first stage was squad and platoon-size terrorism and guerrilla tactics. The second stage was company and battalion-size semi-conventional, mobile tactics. The third stage was regimental and division-size conventional, positional tactics.

In the Second Indochina War the NVA fought a strategically offensive, total war to conquer South Vietnam and achieve military hegemony in Laos and Cambodia. President Johnson’s refusal to allow Westmoreland to fight a strategically offensive war in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, where the NVA were fighting it, forced him to fight a strategically defensive war limited to South Vietnam.

Johnson always feared the entrance of China into the war (as in Korea). For that reason, he refused to approve a large-scale U.S. invasion of eastern Laos and Cambodia to destroy the NVA’s sanctuary bases and permanently block the Ho Chi Minh Trail network. For the same reason he also refused to approve a truly strategic, unrestricted, sustained air campaign to destroy the physical capability of North Vietnam to receive Soviet supplies.

Westmoreland knew that his defensive attrition “strategy” was only a grand tactic, but he had no alternative. He knew that pacification of South Vietnam would be impossible, as long as large VC and NVA troop units had protected sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia and unlimited Chinese and Soviet war supplies delivered through the Ho Chi Minh Trail network in Laos.

He knew that the only way he could seize and hold the strategic initiative was by invading Laos and Cambodia to destroy the NVA’s base areas and permanently block the Ho Chi Minh Trail network. Without unlimited logistic support from the USSR and a constant supply of troops from North Vietnam, the NVA would lack the physical capability to conquer South Vietnam, regardless of their indomitable will to do so.

In the long term it was politically futile to rely on an offensive operational strategy based on an attrition grand tactic limited to South Vietnam as a substitute for an offensive grand strategy to achieve a decisive victory in Indochina. The political futility of relying on an attrition grand tactic is irrelevant, however, to the factual question of the short-term effectiveness of the attrition tactic itself.

The fact that Westmoreland’s large-scale tactics were often operationally inefficient does not imply that they were also tactically ineffective. In all the large battles from 1965 to 1968 his use of combined-arms firepower to produce mass enemy attrition was, in fact, tactically effective, usually devastatingly so.

By the end of 1968, U.S. and ARVN conventional forces had effectively destroyed the VC main combat forces. In the first half of 1972, ARVN conventional forces, supported by U.S. airpower and augmented by regional and local civilian self-defense forces, decisively defeated the NVA’s second conventional invasion of South Vietnam. By the end of 1972, South Vietnamese and U.S. counterinsurgency forces had also eviscerated the VC civilian infrastructure.

Both the internal and the external war for the survival of the Republic of Vietnam had been temporarily won. After the NVA’s crushing defeat in 1972, the decisive destruction of their bases in Laos and the permanent blockage of the Ho Chi Minh Trail network would have made it impossible for the NVA to recover. An offensive grand strategy would have enabled both of those tactics.

Instead, the hard-earned conventional and counterinsurgency victories of the ARVN and U.S. forces were deliberately forfeited by the anti-war Democrat majority in both U.S. Houses of Congress. The ARVN, militarily depleted by the NVA invasion in 1972, were critically weakened by the radical 1973 Congressional reductions in U.S. military aid, including basic ammunition. They were then fatally crippled by the 1974 Congressional prohibition of all U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia, including U.S. air support of ARVN forces from bases in other countries.

In 1975, the modern, Soviet-equipped NVA forces invaded South Vietnam again in a mass, armored Blitzkrieg, exactly as North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. With no concern for U.S. air counterattacks, no need for any VC guerrilla fighters, and no attempt to win any “hearts and minds”, they quickly defeated the demoralized, inadequately equipped ARVN forces.

Two years after all U.S. forces had been withdrawn from South Vietnam, the NVA, not the Viet Cong, conquered South Vietnam with modern, conventional forces using conventional tactics and weapons, not with guerrilla forces using unconventional tactics and weapons. They had been planning to do so since 1959 and had unsuccessfully attempted to do so three times before (in 1965, 1968, and 1972). They finally won their American War strategically in America, as they always believed they eventually would, by political default, not tactically in South Vietnam by combat victories over U.S. forces.

As Ho Chi Minh predicted, they won it by resolutely daring to continue losing battles like Khe Sanh tactically at an unsustainable military cost longer than the irresolute U.S. Congress dared to continue winning such battles tactically at an unsustainable political cost. The paradoxical battle of Khe Sanh – a tactical success for the U.S. military in the short term, yet a strategic failure for the U.S. government in the long term — was the largest of many Pyrrhic victories in a tragic, seven-year failure of U.S. national leadership.

The DRV, neither democratic nor a republic, was a Stalinist police state controlled by Le Duan, First Secretary of the ruling Lao Dong Party and leader of its Political Bureau (Politburo). From 1960 until his death in 1986, he was the de facto commander and chief strategist of the DRV. By 1967, the DRV’s titular President, Ho Chi Minh, was merely an aged and ailing figurehead, whose only political power was the prestige of his name as the founding father of the DRV.

Le Duan was not a charismatic dictator. He was a Machiavellian manipulator, who ruled the DRV collectively through its multilayered committee system. The most important one was the five-man Subcommittee for Military Affairs (SMA) of the Central Military Party Commission. It was subordinate only to the Politburo led by Le Duan. The other members of the SMA were Le Duan’s long-time deputy, Le Duc Tho, and three North Vietnamese Army (NVA) generals with overlapping offices in the Ministry of Defense.

They were Vo Nguyen Giap, Minister of Defense and NVA Commander; Nguyen Chi Thanh, senior Political Commissar of the DRV’s Viet Cong (VC) forces in South Vietnam; and Van Tien Dung, Giap’s deputy and Le Duan’s protege. In 1967, Nguyen Chi Thanh died, and Le Duan replaced him with Le’s close friend, Pham Hung. Those six key men, dominated by the militant zeal of Le Duan, controlled the DRV’s grand strategy in its sixteen-year war to conquer the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and achieve military hegemony in Laos and Cambodia.

The Vietnam War was Winnable

Paper presented by Col. Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.)*

“Amateurs talk about tactics; professionals talk about logistics.”

                                                                                    An old military proverb 

One day in the spring of 1985, fifteen years after I had left South Vietnam for the last time, I was having lunch with my faculty advisor at the Naval War College, Professor Robert Megagee, when another faculty member joined us and asked what we were talking about. Professor Megagee, who had taught me diplomatic history at the U.S. Naval Academy as an undergraduate, told this distinguished academic that we were discussing the Vietnam War. Professor Megagee’s colleague immediately blurted out, “There is no practical use in such a discussion because there was nothing we could have done to win that war.” This comment caused me to challenge our table mate. I told him that wars are not deterministic or ordained by some immutable truth—they are won or lost based on many factors that can be modified and adjusted to affect an outcome. The historian, who was on leave from Harvard University to the Naval War College, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I challenge you to prove that. Tell me how the U.S. could have won the Vietnam War, given the constraints imposed on it and the superior will and strategy of the North Vietnamese.”

This challenge led me to begin a life-long study of the war and why the U.S. lost it. An intermediate analysis three years later resulted in the publication of an article for the Marine Corps Gazette in which I laid out the basic reason for out failure to win the war (Finlayson, Andrew R. “Vietnam Strategies,” Marine Corps Gazette (August 1988), pp. 90-94). Additional study and the publication of new materials, especially those from North Vietnamese sources, have served to reinforce my original conclusion.

For any person who has participated in a war, the experience is unique and they see the war through the eyes of their own experience. This often makes it exceedingly difficult to be objective about the general conduct and outcome of any war. Each veteran of a war tends to analyze the overall reasons for success or failure in that war through a very narrow range of vision, one that is often clouded by emotion and trauma. I realize I am not immune to this constraint on objectivity and any analysis I might offer should be viewed with skepticism since there can be little doubt that the Vietnam War had a deep and lasting effect on me. Because I was so affected by the war, I spent many years studying it, primarily with the hope that I might find a cogent answer to the central question that plagued me: Why did the U.S. lose the war? I have examined every reason put forth by a host of writers, carefully examining their arguments, discussing them with other military analysts and veterans, and revising my findings in the light of my own experience in South Vietnam. From North Vietnamese officers, former VC politicians, and international journalists to military historians and U. S. and ARVN veterans of the war, I have attempted to find the root cause for the defeat of my country.

One may question the utility of even attempting to ascertain why the U.S. lost the Vietnam War; after all, it is over and done with and the strategic balance of power in the world has been little affected by its outcome. Although historians continue to this day to argue about why the U.S. lost this war, few other people give it any thought. I would count myself among the latter, if the war had not had such a profound effect on me and I thought the U.S. would never again make the same mistakes it made in South Vietnam. However, after over four decades of study, I am concerned about the “lessons learned” that many historians and other analysts have drawn from the Vietnam War. I see many of these “lessons learned” as false and dangerous, especially when applied to many of the challenges facing my country today. I have seen some of these “lessons learned” applied with disastrous results by well-meaning and intelligent men and women serving my country today. For this reason, I offer my personal assessment of the primary reason why we lost the war in South Vietnam in the hope that future political and military leaders will not pursue a path that leads to defeat.

To be as succinct as possible, the U.S. lost the war because its national leadership pursued a fatally flawed strategy based upon wishful thinking, hubris, and incorrect assumptions. They did not do so because they were fools or lacked the necessary information needed to formulate a winning strategy. No, the requisite information for the proper strategic analysis was available as early as the end of the First Indo-China War in 1954, but a combination of factors caused our strategic planners to overlook or dismiss the analysis. Unfortunately, the North Vietnamese had a far greater appreciation for these factors than our own leaders, which resulted in the communists forging a far more effective strategy for the achievement of their goals—and to do so despite some extremely burdensome and potentially lethal constraints.

I will not address the reasons for our intervention in South Vietnam or why we continued to remain there long after it became apparent our strategy was seriously flawed. I think the historians have drawn the correct conclusions for the rationale our leaders used in both cases. Whether those reasons were correct or necessary, I leave to the historians to settle. What I will do is identify the objectives of the major protagonists, their respective strategies, the root cause for failure of the American strategy, and finally an alternative American strategy that would have been far more effective than the one pursued.

For the North Vietnamese, or more accurately for the Lao Dong Party, the goal they set for themselves and one they never abandoned or modified was the complete unification of Vietnam and the domination of the Indo-China peninsula, to include Laos and Cambodia (Turner, Robert F, Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press 1974, pp. 18-19, 78-79). This goal, which was clearly and openly pronounced by the Lao Dong Party during the First Indo-China War, became feasible when the Chinese Nationalists were defeated by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949, giving the Lao Dong Party’s Viet Minh a secure border with China, bases and sanctuaries on that border, and massive amounts of captured Kuomintang weapons and ammunition, to include the artillery used with such effectiveness at the decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Using doctrine developed by the Chinese communists, secure bases in southern China, and fire power that could match the French, the Lao Dong Party led the Viet Minh forces to victory, expelling the French from the Red River Delta and all of the northern part of Vietnam.

However, their goal of unifying all of Vietnam under their control was thwarted by the 1954 Geneva Accords which the Soviet Union and the PRC imposed upon them. These accords, which the U.S. was not a signatory to, called for elections in 1956 to determine the political future of a united Vietnam. The Lao Dong Party was confident that it could win a nationwide election in 1956 and most observers agree with that assumption. However, it is highly unlikely that a truly fair election could have been carried out in either North or South Vietnam at that time, even if proper monitoring had been available and approved by either country. The U.S. decided that any election held in 1956 would result in a unified country dominated by the communists, a situation that threatened to destabilize their allies in Southeast Asia and lead to communist regimes in most, if not all, of the countries in the region. Given that there were active communist insurgencies in eight Southeast Asian countries in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was correct to assume many of these countries might succumb to these insurgencies if the U.S. allowed South Vietnam to fall to the communists.

At this time, the U.S. grand strategy was one articulated by George Kennan in his famous “long telegram” which called for the containment of the Soviet Union and later the PRC. This grand strategy called for the U.S. to resist any further expansion of communism, a strategy that led to the Marshall Plan for Europe, the Korean War, numerous other conflicts on the periphery of the Eurasian land mass, and the Vietnam War. While Mr. Kennan would later dispute that his grand strategy for the containment of the Soviet Union should have been applied to the U.S. decision to intervene in South Vietnam, U.S. policy makers in the early 1960s were definitely thinking in terms of containment when the policy discussions concerning South Vietnam were being conducted. Therefore, the U.S. objective was to prevent South Vietnam from falling under the control of a communist government allied with the Soviet Union and the PRC. For domestic and international political reasons, the U.S. articulated several other goals, most of which were irrelevant or impractical, such as fostering liberal democracy and protecting human rights.

For the South Vietnamese Government, their goal was to avoid defeat by both the internal and external threat posed by the Lao Dong Party and to remain in power. From time to time, the GVN would also echo the goals of the U.S., but the GVN endorsement of these goals was always tepid at best and done more to mollify the Americans than to be taken seriously. For the GVN, their paramount interest was survival in the face of aggression from North Vietnam. Unlike the Americans, the GVN had a more realistic appreciation of the threat and often rejected the advice given by the Americans who they knew were proposing actions that were either irrelevant or infeasible, given the cultural, political and strategic realities in their country. While the GVN had many weaknesses, their military leadership understood the strategic dynamics better than their American allies, who persistently clung to the mistaken belief that tactical brilliance and technological superiority could compensate for strategic incompetence.

The strategy employed by the North Vietnamese to achieve their goal of unification of all of Vietnam and control of Laos and Cambodia was no mystery to the U.S. Lao Dong Party documents obtained by the French in the early 1950s laid out the communist strategy clearly. The North Vietnamese knew by 1956 that any hope of achieving their goal through elections in South Vietnam was impossible given the decision of President Diem and the Americans not to hold elections in South Vietnam. They recognized they must resort to violent means to achieve their goal and they – quite logically – adopted a strategy that was based upon their successful experience in the First Indo-China War. Initially, this strategy called for the Lao Dong Party to build a modern military force capable of defending North Vietnam using equipment and munitions provided by the Soviet Union and the PRC, while at the same time using southern Lao Dong cadres to organize the rural population of South Vietnam and lay the groundwork for future military actions. The Lao Dong Party understood that they could not rely alone on a southern insurgency to achieve their goal, although they hoped the insurgency would so weaken the GVN that a coalition government that included the communist front organization, the National Liberation Front, would come to power and set the stage for eventual control of the entire south. The Lao Dong Party planned to use their southern main force and guerrilla units to weaken and distract the GVN while it built up a modern, mobile army in North Vietnam, an army that could intervene at the decisive moment when the situation in South Vietnam made it possible to use this modern army to achieve a decisive result (Pribbenow, Merle L (Trans.), Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975, pp. 20-48). While the North Vietnamese model included the three types of military forces —local, regional and main force units— one modeled on the system used by the Chinese communists in their successful campaigns against the Japanese and the Kuomintang in China, they placed a greater emphasis on conventional forces for striking a decisive blow. This model was not endorsed by the PRC, and it often led to theoretical conflicts with the Chinese during the Second Indo-China War (Jian, Chen, “China’s Involvement in the Vietnam War, 1964-69,” The China Quarterly, No. 142 (June 1995), pp. 380-387).

The North Vietnamese were always concerned about military intervention by the U.S. and so they developed a strategy that would take into account that intervention. They realized that the U.S. possessed a huge material advantage over their forces, especially in terms of naval and air power, but they had fought a modern army during the First Indo-China War and they knew that they could defeat such an army if they employed a strategy similar to the one they used against the French. Although there were some variations to their strategy to take into account changing events in South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese strategy was remarkably similar to the one they used to drive the French out of North Vietnam during their campaigns from 1950 to 1954. Fortunately for the North Vietnamese, few Americans understood how the Viet Minh strategy worked or why it was successful; and those who did were either ignored or dismissed as pessimists. I was an operations analyst at the Marine Headquarters from 1970 to 1972 and I was an action officer for several national-level war plans at that time. At meetings in the Pentagon, I listened to many frustrated senior officers with extensive war-planning experience express their concerns about how the strategy in South Vietnam was not working because the use of airpower and unconventional means in Laos were not producing the expected results for limiting the infiltration of men and supplies from North Vietnam. These same officers told me that they had sent numerous recommendations to change the US strategy to their civilian leaders but their recommendations were either ignored or dismissed. (For just one example of this problem, see McMaster, H. R., Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, New York: Harper Collins, 1997, p. 86). When I asked one of them, a US Army general officer with experience in both World War II and Korea, why the views of his war-planners were not being acted upon, he told me there were various “lobbies” in the US government who were opposed to them. When I asked him to explain what he meant by “lobbies,” he said the “lobbies” were, “the counterinsurgency and airpower proponents in the Department of Defense, and the civilian analysts in the State Department and the CIA.” According to him, “they thwarted every recommendation based upon military logic.”

During the First Indo-China War, the Viet Minh had few successes until the Chinese communists came to power in late 1949, giving them the sanctuaries and the equipment they needed to achieve success. The Viet Minh had been using the Chinese communist model of revolutionary war with its three stages as their theoretical model ever since Ho Chi Minh returned from China to lead the communist revolution in Vietnam. These three stages of revolutionary war are: Stage One, which entails “organization, consolidation and preservation”; Stage Two, which calls for “progressive expansion”; and Stage Three, the “decisive engagement and destruction of the enemy.” (Mao Tse-Tung, On Protracted War, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1967, pp. 34-46). Since this three stage model for revolutionary warfare had worked so well for the Chinese communists, it was logical that it be adopted by the Viet Minh.

From 1945 to 1950, the Viet Minh were unable to progress from Stage One to Stage Two, and, in fact, had suffered several severe losses when they attempted to expand their military operations into the Red River Delta of North Vietnam. This all changed when southern China fell to the communist forces of Mao Tse-tung in late 1949. This development spelled disaster for the French because it created all of southern China as a sanctuary and a base for training and logistical support for the Viet Minh. It also meant that the French now had a hostile border with China that was 1,306 kilometers long, a border that they did not have the forces to defend. Since such a long border was impossible for them to defend, they were forced to give up much of the territory north and west of the Red River Delta. The French knew they could not attack the PRC, so the Viet Minh bases in southern China were beyond their reach. The Viet Minh were quick to take advantage of this strategic windfall and began developing a system of supply routes that led from southern China into North Vietnam. The strategic initiative passed from the French to the Viet Minh once the PRC provided the Viet Minh with safe havens for their forces and provided them with an abundant source of military equipment and supplies, which enabled the Viet Minh to conduct sustained operations against the French inside North Vietnam. Compounding the French dilemma, the Korean War reached a negotiated stalemate in 1953, freeing up vast quantities of military weapons and equipment from the PRC, which the Viet Minh put to good use immediately and to telling effect at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Some prescient American strategists, like Generals Eisenhower and Marshall, understood the situation clearly and cautioned against involving U.S. forces in the war between the French and the Viet Minh. They understood that the French were doomed in Indo-China as long as the Viet Minh had sanctuaries in China and an unlimited supply of weapons and ammunition from their Chinese comrades to carry on their war against the French. Despite local victories by the French, it was inevitable that the balance of forces would always favor the Viet Minh as long as they had access to secure bases in China and the material support of the PRC. It is for this reason President Eisenhower rejected the French request for U.S. air support at Dien Bien Phu, the decisive battle in the First Indo-China War. He knew that even if U.S. air power saved the French at Dien Bien Phu, the French would never overcome the problem of the Viet Minh sanctuaries in China and the almost inexhaustible supply of manpower the Viet Minh could devote to the war. As a result, the U.S. attempted to limit the Viet Minh gains to North Vietnam by using diplomacy while it built up an anti-communist regime in the southern part of Vietnam.

With the defeat of the French at Bien Dien Phu, the diplomats took over from the generals. A conference was convened in Geneva, Switzerland to end the hostilities and the Vietnamese communists expected they would achieve their goals of removing all foreign troops from Indo-China and establishing themselves as the masters of a united Vietnam. Unfortunately for them, the diplomats did not give them the victory they thought they had won on the battlefield. Instead, the Chinese and the Soviet delegates forced them to accept an agreement that left the southern half of Vietnam outside of their political control with the understanding that free elections would be held in 1956 throughout Vietnam to determine what kind of Government a united Vietnam would have. The U.S. and the South Vietnamese did not sign the Geneva accords and, therefore, they were not obligated to hold elections in 1956. The U.S. realized that any election held in 1956 would most likely result in a unified and communist-dominated government in Vietnam and would eventually lead to communist dominated governments in Laos and Cambodia. This expansion of communism ran counter to the U. S. national strategy of containment and threatened several other countries in the region who were dealing with communist insurgencies, such as Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The U.S. had just finished fighting a costly war on the Korean peninsula against the communist regimes of China and North Korea, so it was not about to let three more countries fall under communist domination and possibly fuel a series of additional “wars of national liberation” in other countries in the region, some of which were strong allies of the U.S.

So the stage was set for a confrontation between North Vietnam and the U.S. which could only be resolved by force. In sum, the North Vietnamese communists wanted to expand their control over South Vietnam and their influence, if not outright control, over Laos and Cambodia; while the U.S. was committed to a policy that called for resisting any further communist expansion anywhere in the world. Neither side was willing to compromise. These two conflicting goals would collide with catastrophic results for both countries.

When elections were not held in 1956, the Lao Dong Party leadership decided to use military force to achieve their goal of national unification. Like most strategies their plan was simple, but difficult to execute and based upon many assumptions, some of which proved to be false. It called for the organization of a mass-based party infrastructure in South Vietnam whose purpose was to provide three things: intelligence, manpower, and logistical support for mobile military forces. In effect, it called for the Lao Dong Party to establish itself in every village and hamlet of South Vietnam so the rural peasantry could be mobilized and controlled in support of the revolutionary military forces. The Lao Dong Party knew from its experience during the First Indo-China War that guerrilla forces alone were incapable of achieving a decisive result against a well-armed and technologically advanced military force like the one the Americans had. To achieve victory over a foe as strong as the U.S., they knew they would have to avoid decisive engagement while at the same time inflict heavy casualties on the Americans and their GVN allies in order to erode the national will of both governments and their respective populations. In essence, they embarked on a protracted war of attrition, but one that allowed them to modulate the level of violence so as not to risk defeat. To achieve this, they first needed to make sure they maintained the support of the three elements identified by Carl von Clausewitz in his classic of military strategy, On War, which are essential if a country decides to wage war. Those three essential elements of support are: the people, the government, and the military. The North Vietnamese clearly understood this dictum for the foundation of a successful strategy, and took the necessary steps to ensure this support was secure.

Since the Lao Dong Party ruled unopposed in North Vietnam, had complete control over the sources of information their population received, had a system of government that made internal security tight and comprehensive, had a military that was under the complete control of the Party, and had a recent tradition of victory over a superior foreign military force, these three pillars of support were firmly in place. Their next step in the formulation of their strategy was to take into account every possible action their opposition might take and to develop a strategy that could successfully counter these actions. During the initial stages of the development of their strategy, they hoped that the U.S. would not intervene militarily in South Vietnam, but they planned for that eventuality from the beginning. As early as 1959 they decided that it was highly likely the U.S. would use military force to thwart their plans; so they developed a strategy that was highly flexible and could be changed rapidly to adjust to any level of U.S. military intervention (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 73-77).

This Lao Dong strategy was based on their experience in their war against the French, but adapted to the reality that the Americans possessed far more economic and military power than the French had. The specifics of their strategy of attrition involved a combination of political and military actions that would erode the will of their adversaries and cause their opponents’ governments, militaries, and populations to accede to the goals of the Lao Dong Party. It was a strategy that was not dependent upon time tables or assumptions about the motivations of their opponents; instead, it was a carefully crafted strategy that capitalized upon their opponents’ weaknesses and minimized their own vulnerabilities with an open ended commitment to persevere no matter how long it took.

What then was the strategy the Lao Dong Party employed against the GVN and the Americans? In its broadest terms, their strategy consisted of several actions that had the aggregated effect of neutralizing their adversaries’ advantages and preventing them from taking the steps needed to defeat them. These were:

First, the primary concern of the Lao Dong Party was to secure North Vietnam from invasion. This was done by aligning themselves with the Soviet Union and the PRC, making any attack on the territory of North Vietnam by GVN or American ground forces a potential cause for war between the U.S. and these two countries. It also ensured that these two communist allies would provide the military equipment and economic aid needed to withstand any attack on its soil and to sustain its attack against South Vietnam. In addition, the Lao Dong Party embarked on a sustained program to build a modern military defense force capable of withstanding a conventional attack on their homeland. This effort included the acquisition of modern aircraft, sophisticated armored vehicles, mobile artillery, and technologically advanced air defense and communications systems, almost all provided at no cost by their communist allies.

Second, they appealed through the extensive worldwide propaganda system of communist, socialist, and other leftist organizations to influence public opinion against the GVN and the U.S. The formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and other front groups to hide the actual identity of the leadership of the insurgency in South Vietnam and provide a patina of non-communist participation in the leadership of the insurgency was an example of how the Lao Dong Party attempted to influence external observers. This was part of their “dau tranh” campaign on a worldwide scale to promote the Lao Dong Party’s position and gain support for their cause outside of Vietnam (Hanoi’s War, p. 52). They found a ready audience for their propaganda among leftist groups throughout Western Europe and the U.S. As with most of their strategy, this implementing action was based upon the success of the Viet Minh to influence French public opinion during the First Indo-China War and erode support for the war, which lead to the election of the a Socialist Government in France that ran on a platform calling for an end of that war.

Third, they built a modern military capable of regional power projection, using extensive support from the Soviet Union and the PRC. Certain units were designated for special training in mobile warfare and supplied with equipment that would enable these units to operate far from North Vietnam in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. This military buildup was begun shortly after the end of the First Indo-China War and was largely completed by 1964 (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 1-123).

Fourth, the Lao Dong Party began to build an extensive political infrastructure in South Vietnam with its primary focus on organizing the rural areas of that country. Using cadres from the First Indo-China War, the Lao Dong Party created the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) in these rural areas using the same organizational techniques they had employed against the French. This model had a long history beginning with the system perfected by Chinese communist cadres who spent several decades building their powerful rural political base in their war with the Kuomintang. The Lao Dong Party adapted the Chinese communist model of political organization to Vietnam but strengthened this system by integrating the lessons they had learned from their experience during the First Indo-China War. The purpose of the VCI was to mobilize the peasants of South Vietnam to create a mass-based political organization that paralleled the Government of the GVN but extended down into the village and hamlet levels. The primary objective for this mass-based political organization was the provision of three basic requirements for mobile military warfare: intelligence, recruits, and logistical support. The strategy of the Lao Dong Party was highly dependent on the VCI in South Vietnam for these three requirements, especially the logistical support needed by North Vietnamese military units. The Lao Dong Party realized that without the logistical support of the VCI in South Vietnam, their ability to conduct large-scale, sustained, mobile military operations was severely curtailed, if not eliminated. While not the only reason for their concern about any successful GVN pacification program, it was their primary concern because the degradation of the VCI, especially the finance-economy cadres, threatened their ability to conduct mobile warfare.

Fifth, the Lao Dong Party needed a secure logistical system to support mobile warfare in South Vietnam. Phase III of their doctrine of revolutionary war called for the defeat of the conventional forces of their enemy using modern, conventionally armed, mobile main force units. To do this, they needed a means of supplying such units. This entailed maintaining the VCI in every strategically important part of South Vietnam and establishing a system of resupply and reinforcement external to South Vietnam. This logistical system was managed by Unit 559, which received its designation from the date of its inception, May 1959 (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 50-54). Unit 559 was given the mission of establishing an extensive and sophisticated system of transportation routes, supply depots, training areas, and medical facilities running for over 3,500 miles in length from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to Saigon. This system was known to the Americans as the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to the North Vietnamese as the Troung Son Strategic Supply Route. The system was truly massive; in Laos alone it covered 1,700 square miles. All along the Ho Chi Minh Trail system were multiple roads and trails, some of them all weather and hard-surfaced. Along these trails and roads were numerous staging areas, truck parks, petroleum pipelines, bivouac sites, hospitals, farms, supply depots and command and control hubs, all carefully camouflaged to prevent detection by U.S. aircraft and CIA and U.S. Special Forces reconnaissance teams. Providing maintenance and protection for this huge and long logistical system were over 100,000 North Vietnamese troops in Laos and Cambodia and an additional 15,000 Chinese in Laos (For a very detailed and rigorous analysis of the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and its impact on military operations in South Vietnam, see Hunt, Ira A, Jr. Losing Vietnam: How America Abandoned Southeast Asia, Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013, pp. 12-20, 29, 32, 75-76, 113, 124, 146, 168-169; also see Victory in Vietnam, pp. 52, 89, 114-115, 127, 138, 144, 168-171,175, 182, 208-209, 211, 215, 227, 243, 264, 285-286, 301, 321-322, 338-339, 350, 363, 398, and 401-402).

This supply system was in complete violation of the 1962 Geneva Accords which called for the neutrality of Laos and Cambodia, but the North Vietnamese were left with no viable choice for an alternative means of supplying their military forces fighting in South Vietnam. Their early attempts to infiltrate men and supplies through the DMZ were largely unsuccessful and costly after 1965. Besides, the North Vietnamese military strategy called for cutting South Vietnam in two in the Central Highlands of Military Region II and this plan necessitated a secure infiltration route to base areas in eastern Cambodia. They also realized that any final push against the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, necessitated secure supply bases farther south in eastern Cambodia. Given their military strategy, it was only logical for the North Vietnamese to use the eastern regions of both Laos and Cambodia to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Since the trail was essential to their strategy, they viewed any attempt to successfully cut it as an existential threat to their overall strategy for the conquest of South Vietnam. Many Western historians have tended to ignore or play down the vital importance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but the North Vietnamese communists do not share these views (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 261-265). In fact, some among the victors of the war have openly admitted that the failure of the Americans to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos was the biggest mistake the Americans made during the war. For the North Vietnamese, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was both their biggest advantage and their most significant vulnerability—and they knew it. They considered the Ho Chi Minh Trail their “linchpin” for their ability to wage war in South Vietnam (Hanoi’s War, p. 201)

Finally, once the Lao Dong Party had accomplished the steps mentioned above, they were ready to embark on the final phase of their strategy to defeat the Americans and to overthrow the GVN. I will not go into the specifics of their strategy inside South Vietnam, but only broadly explain that it entailed the conduct of an attrition intensive campaign designed to inflict casualties on American and South Vietnamese forces, disrupt the GVN’s pacification programs, and protect their infiltration routes and bases inside South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. As long as the North Vietnamese had secure sanctuaries, a secure supply route from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, and a secure rural political infrastructure capable of providing intelligence, recruits, and logistical support, their success was assured. Even with over 500,000 American troops, it was impossible for the U.S. to secure the 1400 mile border that ran from East China Sea west along the DMZ and then south through Laos and Cambodia. The Americans surrendered the initiative to the North Vietnamese when they steadfastly refused to invade Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. All the North Vietnamese had to do was maintain pressure on the Americans and the GVN by waging a war of attrition and avoiding a decisive engagement. They knew they could bleed the Americans and South Vietnamese indefinitely and simply withdrawal to their sanctuaries to avoid decisive engagement or intolerable casualties. They felt confident that the U.S. would weary of the endless list of casualties and withdrawal, allowing the regular NVA conventional divisions to quickly attack a weakened and demoralized South Vietnam. With their carefully crafted strategy, they were assured of eventual victory; but only as long as they protected their supporting political infrastructure inside South Vietnam, their bases and supply depots in Laos and Cambodia, and their means of moving men and supplied south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

If the above was the North Vietnamese strategy, what was the American strategy? Sadly, it was a fatally flawed one, doomed from the very beginning once the U.S. rejected the idea of invading the panhandle of Laos and cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Despite warnings from the South Vietnamese military and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff as early as 1956 and a very direct and prescient warning from Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to President Kenney in 1961, this key strategic decision not to deal with the North Vietnamese use of the trail and road system in eastern Laos did not appear to deter President Kennedy from confronting the North Vietnamese militarily or President Johnson from escalating the war after he took office (Memorandum for the President, November 11, 1961 Pentagon Papers, p. 110).

The Rusk-McNamara memorandum, in particular, should have given pause to the framers of the U.S. strategy for engaging the North Vietnamese. One can only assume that President Kennedy’s advisors, many of whom also served President Johnson, thought the danger of not dealing with the road system developed by the French in Laos was minimal or the North Vietnamese would abide by the 1962 Geneva Accords on Laos and not use Laotian territory to move troops and supplies to South Vietnam. In the joint memorandum to President Kennedy, Rusk and McNamara wrote, “It will probably not be possible for the Government of (South) Vietnam to win the war as long as the flow of men and supplies from North Vietnam remains unchecked and the guerrillas enjoy a safe sanctuary in neighboring territory” (Memorandum for the President, November 11, 1961, Pentagon Papers, Vol. II, p. 110). At the time, there were advisors in the Kennedy Administration who recognized the strategic importance of the road and trail system in eastern Laos, but their advice was largely dismissed. Advocates for adhering to the 1962 Geneva Accords on Laos, primarily Averill Harriman and Roger Hilsman in the State Department, convinced President Kennedy that it was imperative for the U.S. to keep U.S. ground troops out of Laos. Their advice was based upon the importance of the U.S. keeping its international agreements and the fear that any U.S. military presence in Laos would have an adverse effect on U.S.-Soviet relations. They also feared a military incursion into Laos might even result in China taking military action against the U.S. in Laos and, possibly, South Korea. While there was no firm intelligence that military action by the U.S. in southern Laos or Cambodia would trigger a military reaction from either the Soviet Union or China, President Kennedy’s advisors assumed the worse and decided to attempt to solve the problem of South Vietnam by treating it as a problem solely restricted to that country and North Vietnam. Many of the President’s advisors were rightly worried about the nuclear threat posed by both the Soviet Union and the PRC and they did not want to precipitate armed conflict with either of these countries, fearing such an escalation could necessitate the use of strategic nuclear weapons. Because of this well-founded fear, they had developed the concept of the “graduated response” to any aggression launched by either of these adversaries. Ironically, one of the principle architects of gradually escalating military action against North Vietnam, primarily through the use of bombing, was Walt Rostow who recognized the importance of eastern Laos to the North Vietnamese strategy. This strategic concept, often referred to as the “Rostow Thesis,” called for a gradual escalation of violence against North Vietnam until the leadership of the Lao Dong Party in Hanoi decided their continued aggression in South Vietnam was not worth the punishment inflicted upon them. It assumed a “rational player” would desist once they saw the continued escalation of the violence was not worth the price. While not abandoning the U.S. strategy of containment of communism, the U.S. adopted a strategy of “graduated response” to any communist expansion on the periphery of the Eurasian landmass in order to reduce the likelihood of either Soviet or the PRC use of nuclear weapons. Despite some very sound advice from Walt Rostow that warned of the problem of North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, President Johnson continued to adhere to the flawed strategy of “graduated response” developed by President Kennedy’s national security staff.

Unfortunately for South Vietnam, the idea of “graduated response” caused the U.S. to employ a strategy in Southeast Asia that was not based upon any hard intelligence that it would have the desired effect on the leadership of the Lao Dong Party in North Vietnam. The U.S. national security advisors simply assumed that the North Vietnamese were “rational players” and they would abandon their goal of unifying Vietnam once they saw that U.S. will was firm and that the U.S. could ratchet up the level of violence to a degree that would break their will to resist. It all made very good sense to the President’s advisors who assumed the North Vietnamese thought as “rational players.” In their minds it made perfectly good sense that if the U.S. showed resolve and escalated the violence in a gradual and sustained manner, the North Vietnamese would come to their senses and reach a settlement that allowed the pro-Western GVN to remain in power in South Vietnam. By telling the world that the U.S. had no interest in overthrowing the regime in North Vietnam, had no interest in territorial acquisition in Southeast Asia, or had no intention of “expanding” the war into Laos and Cambodia, the U.S. national security advisors believed this benign and reasonable approach would be accepted by America’s allies and the American people. As for the North Vietnamese and their allies, such a statement of U.S. goals only served to convince them that U.S. interests were limited to South Vietnam alone and; therefore, there would be no serious threat to their strategy of using the Ho Chi Minh Trail and their bases in Laos and Cambodia.

Many commentators have offered a wide variety of reasons for our failure to win the Vietnam War. There are those who say we should have mined the harbor of Haiphong, we should have unleashed the full might of our air power against North Vietnam, we should have pursued a more enlightened or more aggressive pacification program inside South Vietnam, or we should have tried to turn South Vietnam into a Jeffersonian democracy by a combination of political, social, and economic reforms. While we will never know if any of these proposals would have brought victory, none of them address the central reason for our failure to win the war—our inability to prevent North Vietnam from moving troops and equipment to South Vietnam using the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our political and military leaders failed to ask the most critical question effecting their strategy—What if the enemy’s will is stronger than ours and, if so, what can we do that will thwart their ability to carry on the war in South Vietnam, regardless of their will to do so?

The only plausible answer to the question above is the one that General Westmoreland and his staff came to in 1967 when they began to plan for the occupation of the Panhandle of Laos. Instead of relying on air power and indigenous special operations teams, which failed to stem the flow of troops and equipment to South Vietnam through Laos, General Westmoreland planned to use U.S. ground troops to block and hold the terrain between Dong Ha in South Vietnam and Savannakhet on the Mekong River in Laos. This obvious plan, which was studied as early as 1964, was delayed initially by the U.S. State Department which did not want to threaten the neutrality of Laos or give up their primary role for management of American affairs in that country. Later the implementation of the plan was thwarted by the CIA which did not want to give up its mission of conducting the “Secret War” in Laos, or to diminish the importance of the Agency’s responsibility for pacification programs in South Vietnam. Even the U.S. military was not uniformly in favor of the plan, citing that it was logistically risky or the North Vietnamese would simply go farther west to get around it (Collins, John M., “Going to Tchepone: Oplan El Paso,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Autumn/Winter 1997-98, pp.128-129).  A leading opponent of the plan was the U.S. Marine Corps which did not like the idea of any barrier defense inside South Vietnam, let alone stretching to the Mekong River. In fact, the U.S. Marine Corps did everything possible to prevent their forces in I Corps from being used for any form of static defense, a position that often put them at odds with General Westmoreland and the MACV headquarters. The Marine Corps’s insistence on the primacy of mobile defense and their attachment to an “ink spot” counter-insurgency strategy, along with their dislike for any form of warfare that involved occupying static positions, delayed the implementation of the attack into Laos until the TET offensive of 1968 made such an attack by U.S. ground forces politically impossible.

An Alternate Strategy

Of all the possible strategies proposed for an American victory in Vietnam, the strategy of cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos offered the best chance for success, for the following reasons:

First, the use of U.S. ground troops along the Dong Ha-Savannakhet axis would physically cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, making it impossible for North Vietnamese troops and equipment to move into South Vietnam. Geography favored the US since the Ho Chi Minh Trail had to pass through two “choke points” in Laos that were easily defended. All of the trails and roads built by the North Vietnamese in Laos came together within a ten mile corridor at Tchepone and again farther south in the “Four Corners” area near the village of Muong Nong. By choking off the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, U.S. and ARVN forces would no longer need to protect a border with North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that stretched for nearly 1400 miles. They would be able to concentrate their forces along a frontage of only 225 miles, the distance from the East China Sea to the Mekong River. In order for North Vietnamese supply columns to move south, the North Vietnamese would need to breach this barrier using large numbers of conventional forces fighting in terrain that heavily favors the defense. Even if they broke free, they would have to maintain the breach continuously or face isolation of their forces moving south through mountainous terrain. If, as some unsophisticated commentators have asserted, the North Vietnamese were able redirect the Ho Chi Minh Trail further west into Thailand to avoid the barrier, they would be forced to extend the trail across the Mekong River, a significant physical obstacle easily covered by U.S. air and riverine forces and screened by a force like the US First Air Cavalry Division using bases on the Thai side of the river. Since the bulk of supplies sent south by Unit 559 came by truck, the Mekong River posed an almost impossible logistical obstacle for them since they would not be able to bridge it or move their trucks across it using boats without being easily detected. Also, moving the trail across the Mekong River would mean they would be transiting the sovereign country of Thailand, a SEATO ally of the United States. Such a move into Thailand, which was not a “neutral” country like Laos, would certainly destroy any claim by the North Vietnamese that they were not sending troops to South Vietnam. What’s more, if the North Vietnamese were able to move their troops and supplies across the Mekong River into Thailand, they would be confronted with a hostile population in a country that did not have the communist infrastructure needed to create a system of bases and sanctuaries, not to mention adding nearly 500 more miles to any trip south. A further complication for the North Vietnamese would be the the terrain in Thailand. Unlike the terrain in eastern Laos, which is mountainous and jungle clad, the terrain the North Vietnamese would have to transit in Thailand is flat and open, making it relatively easy to detect their movement and attack them. Furthermore, any North Vietnamese units that were able to get to the Mekong River would have to abandon their vehicles on the Laos side, and they would not be able to maintain any petroleum pipelines once they were in Thailand. It is hard to imagine that the North Vietnamese would be able to maintain their infiltration figure of 8,000 men per month and 5,000 tons of equipment and ammunition per month just to make up for their losses in South Vietnam if U.S. forces were occupying defensive positions from Dong Ha to Savannakhet.

To gain some perspective on the logistical challenge to the North Vietnamese, consider the statistics provided by them in their official history of the war. They were using 5,372 trucks on over 3,959 kilometers of vehicle-capable roads in Laos in 1967 to send a total of 61,000 tons of supplies to South Vietnam that year (Victory in Vietnam, p. 208). By 1969, the North Vietnamese were sending 170,000 tons to South Vietnam per year via truck along the Ho Chi Minh Trail road system (Victory in Vietnam, page 243). In 1970, the Group 559 reported that the US Air Force had destroyed 2,432 of their trucks on the trail during the dry season in Laos (Victory in Vietnam, p 262). In 1974, the second year of the Paris peace accords and the year before the final communist offensive, the North Vietnamese had built over 400 miles of new hard surface roads in Laos and installed two petroleum pipelines, which allowed them to move a substantial numbers of tank, artillery, and mobile air defense systems into South Vietnam (Losing Vietnam, p. 168). It is simply inconceivable that infiltration levels like those reported by the North Vietnamese for the years 1966 to 1974 could have been maintained if the road systems in Laos were physically blocked.

Second, the force levels needed to defend the Dong Ha-Savannakhet axis would have been less than those that were employed by the U.S. pursuing their attrition-based strategy in South Vietnam. By 1969 the U.S. employed eleven division equivalents in South Vietnam with over 500,000 troops. The plan to establish the Dong Ha-Savannakhet defensive barrier would require only two U.S. Marine divisions in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam, and four U.S. Army divisions in southern Laos, with an additional U.S. Army division positioned in the vicinity of either Paksane, Laos or Nakhon Phanom, Thailand where it could screen the Mekong River north of Savannakhet and threaten the right flank of any North Vietnamese force moving against the barrier to the south. As a SEATO ally, Thailand could be called upon to employ their military and border police units along the Mekong River and in depth along any potential infiltration routes the North Vietnamese might try to establish in Thailand. The large brown water fleet of the US Navy could also be employed to screen the Mekong River north of Savannakhet and provide security for allied logistical use of the river. South Vietnamese units such as the Rangers and the elite 1st ARVN Division could serve as a second line of defense for the barrier and used to hunt down any NVA units that penetrated the barrier. Such an alignment of forces would require the North Vietnamese to fight a conventional battle against an American, South Vietnamese, and Thai force that enjoyed a considerable advantage in terms of fire power, mobility, logistics, and terrain.

Third, by concentrating the U.S. military in only one province of South Vietnam and southern Laos, the bulk of the South Vietnamese forces could be devoted to dealing with the VC military units and the VCI in the remaining 43 provinces of South Vietnam, thus allowing them to concentrate on pacification and nation building, two tasks better suited to indigenous forces. In addition to using both the U.S. and ARVN forces in a more appropriate manner, it would effectively remove the presence of American forces from the South Vietnamese countryside where their presence often took on the appearance of an occupying army. It would also end the sometimes profligate use of American supporting arms in the populated areas of South Vietnam and concentrate that immense destructive firepower against the North Vietnamese Army inside North Vietnam and southern Laos. By reducing South Vietnamese civilian casualties from American supporting arms and employing American military forces in the largely sparsely inhabited regions of southern Laos and the DMZ of South Vietnam, a far more humane and moral military strategy would be employed.

Fourth, while logistically challenging, the Dong Ha-Savannakhet defensive barrier was far easier to establish and maintain than its detractors claimed at the time, and still claim today. The port of Danang in northern I Corps could easily support two U.S. Marine divisions while the ports of Thailand and the road system running from those ports to Savannakhet along the Thai side of the Mekong River are adequate to support five U.S. divisions, with only modest improvements. U.S. Air Force bases already existed in eastern Thailand and would only need some expansion to support the U.S. forces in Laos, and the C-130 capable Laotian airfields at Ban Houei Sane and Tchepone and a C-23 capable airfield at Muong Nong could be made operational by military engineers in two weeks’ time (Collins, p123). The argument made by military planners on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the need to activate the US reserves to support the engineering requirements for the barrier does not stand up to scrutiny. Private U.S. and other Western engineering contractors, already active in both Thailand and South Vietnam using local labor, could have handled this requirement easily without the political cost in the U.S. incurred by calling up reserve military engineer units. If the North Vietnamese could build and maintain roads under the pressure of constant bombing by U.S. aircraft using coolie labor, it is safe to assume that South Vietnamese and Thai laborers could do it under the threat of North Vietnamese attack. Using local labor to build roads and defensive positions would be cheaper than using U.S. military engineers and would help the local rural economies by providing a large number of local people with better wages than they would have received tilling the land. Such road building and maintenance jobs would also reduce the demand for farmland redistribution, a key communist propaganda theme.

Finally, with the U.S. strategy of fighting the North Vietnamese along the DMZ in South Vietnam and in the Panhandle of southern Laos, U.S. aircraft and U.S. airfields would no longer be spread throughout South Vietnam and vulnerable to attack. Instead, U.S. air power could be concentrated at just a few airfields in South Vietnam, such as the ones at Danang, Chu Lai and Phu Bai, with the bulk of US aircraft stationed in eastern Thailand or at sea on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, thus obviating the need for so many US infantry units protecting airfields in South Vietnam.

Some Western critics of the “barrier defense” explained above, point to the failure of the “McNamara Line” electronic surveillance system in southern Laos to stem the flow of men and supplies from North Vietnam. These critics point out, quite correctly, that the North Vietnamese were able to adapt to the system of electronic intrusion devices used to monitor foot and vehicle traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and still move sufficient men and tonnage to support the insurgency in South Vietnam. While the electronic intrusion devices made the North Vietnamese pay a high price for their continued use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, they did not pose a significant enough obstacle to them, and they overcame this technological system through ingenuity and perseverance. The barrier system explained above is entirely different from the electronic one devised by the Whiz Kids in the Pentagon since that system relied on technology to stem the flow of North Vietnamese troops and equipment moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The barrier system proposed in this paper would be significantly different since it would be permanently manned by U.S. troops occupying strong defensive positions similar to those found along the DMZ in Korea and defended in depth with mobile forces. It would not rely on technology and air power alone to attack traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but instead would use a system of strong points manned by infantry, backed up by artillery in hardened fire support bases with mobile reaction forces and on-call, concentrated air power. It would also entail ground and aerial reconnaissance units prowling the terrain north of the barrier, providing advance warning of any enemy movement towards it and using air strikes and artillery to harass and attrite North Vietnamese formations before they reached the barrier. The efficacy of such an arrangement could be found in the defensive system that was used along the DMZ in South Vietnam from Dong Ha to Khe Sanh near the Lao border. This barrier system effectively stopped the North Vietnamese from moving men and supplies into South Vietnam through the DMZ after 1965 and forced them to use the Ho Chi Minh Trail system in eastern Laos to infiltrate into South Vietnam. Unlike the reconnaissance in force operations, such as Lam Son 719 or the Oplan El Paso raid, where the choke points along the Ho Chi Minh Trail would only be temporarily occupied by American or SRVN forces during a few months, this barrier would be permanently occupied.

Some critics accept the fact that a barrier from Dong Ha to Savannakhet would have prevented North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam using a land route, and argue the North Vietnamese would only increase seaborne infiltration using the East China Sea and the port of Sihanoukville in Cambodia. The U.S. and South Vietnamese navies were able to prevent the use of the South Vietnamese coast for infiltration after 1965 and the North Vietnamese never considered this avenue a serious means of moving the quantities of men and supplies needed to sustain their military operations in South Vietnam. Most of their seaborne attempts at infiltration were quite small and met with disaster since the movement of their infiltration vessels could be easily observed using U.S. surveillance means. Bad weather often disrupted or delayed seaborne infiltration and the distances from likely landing places to the North Vietnamese bases in western South Vietnam were great and covered areas that were populated and controlled by GVN forces. For these reasons, the North Vietnamese never used any seaborne route to infiltrate their units, relying exclusively on the Ho Chi Minh Trail for that purpose. Even if they were forced to use seaborne infiltration because the Ho Chi Minh Trail was blocked, they would constantly have to change their offload sites, storage sites, and transport system to take into account the American and GVN sea control and surveillance superiority, thus complicating their logistics system to the point of absurdity. Proof of the North Vietnamese rejection of the feasibility of seaborne infiltration can be found in the paucity of material devoted to it in their official history of the war, and then only to point out its difficulties and miniscule tonnage of supplies provided (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 97).  As for the use of Sihanoukville, they did use third country shipping to deliver supplies to that port and their Hak Lee Transportation Company in Cambodia to move those supplies to their divisions in eastern Cambodia, but this route was only viable as long as Prince Sihanouk agreed to its use and it would never be capable of covertly introducing the 8,000 or more North Vietnamese troops needed each month to maintain their force levels inside South Vietnam. It was out of the question to bring over 90,000 NVA troops each year through Sihanoukville since it would be easy to verify and thus make a mockery of Prince Sihanouk’s contention that his country was truly neutral. He was sensitive to the issue of sovereignty and he had to maintain the fiction of neutrality for both international and internal political reasons. He knew the use of Sihanoukville for the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops would be an open and easily verifiable violation of his country’s neutrality and would give the U.S. and South Vietnam ample justification to blockade Sihanoukville or to invade his country (The author saw several classified reports from a CIA spy inside the Hak Lee Transportation Company who provided all of the company’s invoices for the transportation of supplies from North Vietnam and China to eastern Cambodia). In any event, his regime was overthrown in 1970, putting paid to any idea of using a seaborne infiltration route in Cambodia.

Perhaps the best response to the critics of the Dong Ha—Savannakhet defensive barrier can be found in the statement of Colonel Bui Tin, the North Vietnamese officer who accepted the surrender of the South Vietnamese Government in 1975 and later filled several high level positions in the new communist Government. He was interviewed in Paris in 1995 and asked several questions about how the North Vietnamese viewed the conduct of the Vietnam War. The following statement by Bui Tin should put to rest any lingering doubts as to the efficacy of the Dong Ha—Savannakhet barrier plan:

Question: “How could the Americans have won the war?”

Bui Tin’s answer: “Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos. If Johnson had granted Westmoreland’s requests to enter Laos and block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Hanoi could not win the war.” (Young, Stephen, “How North Vietnam Won the War,” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 1995, p. A8.)

From the very beginning of the U.S. involvement in South Vietnam, the evidence was readily available to justify an invasion and occupation of the panhandle of Laos. The U.S. had the experience, engineering expertise, construction assets, logistical competence, and military forces needed to conduct such an invasion, but the U.S. Government decided against it until it was too late. Because the Americans failed to deal with this essential and vulnerable aspect of the North Vietnamese strategy, they allowed the North Vietnamese to continue to send men and supplies south and to maintain sanctuaries inside Laos and Cambodia, thus allowing the North Vietnamese to modulate the level of violence inside South Vietnam while minimizing their own losses. Without the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese would never have been able to execute the third phase of their revolutionary war strategy, that of mobile warfare using conventional units and tactics. In sum, the American failure to permanently cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the ground was the key to their failure to win the war.

 

*Col. Finlayson spent 32 months in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1967-70), working entirely in combat billets (long-range reconnaissance, infantry, and special operations) in four provinces and two different geographic areas of that country (I Corps and III Corps). He was also a national-level war planner during two subsequent tours of duty. As an operations analyst at US Marine Corps Headquarters (1970-72) and as an operations specialist with the Combined Forces Command in South Korea (1981-83), he worked on many of America’s war plans. He possesses three master’s degrees: MS Management Engineering, MA Asian Studies (Chinese), and MS National Strategy and Defense Economics. He is also the author of two books on the Vietnam War and several articles, studies and monographs dealing with the war.