Tag Archives: North Vietnam

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 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.