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.