Sitrep Viet Nam: Re-enacting the Second Indo-China War



Vietnam War

Although the Cold War was the dominant feature of the post-1945 world, another momentous change in the international system took place concurrently: the end of Europe's five-century-long domination of the non-European world. Some one hundred new sovereign states emerged from the wreckage of European colonialism, and Cold War competition was promptly extended to many of these newstates.

The Vietnam War was the legacy of France's failure to suppress nationalist forces in Indochina as it struggled to restore its colonial dominion after World War II. Led by Ho Chi Minh, a Communist-dominated revolutionary movement-the Viet Minh-waged a political and military struggle for Vietnamese independence that frustrated the efforts of the French and resulted ultimately in their ouster from the region. Vietnam had gained its independence from France in 1954. The country was divided into North and South. The North had a communist government led by Ho Chi Minh. The South had an anti-communist government led by Ngo Dinh Diem.

The Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and Chinese intervention against the United Nations in Korea made U.S.-China policy a captive of Cold War politics. Those events also helped to transform American anti-colonialism into support for the French protectorates in Indochina, and later for their non-Communist successors. American political and military leaders viewed the Vietnam War as the Chinese doctrine of revolutionary warfare in action (using Chinese and Soviet arms, to boot).

The overarching geopolitical aim behind the United States' involvement in Vietnam was to contain the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. To accomplish this aim, the United States supported an anti-communist regime known as the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in its fight against a communist take-over. South Vietnam faced a serious, dual-tracked threat: a communist-led revolutionary insurgency within its own borders and the military power of its communist neighbor and rival, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). Preventing South Vietnam from falling to the communists ultimately led the United States to fight a major regional war in Southeast Asia. The North Vietnamese regime, which received outside assistance from the communist great powers, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, proved a formidable adversary. Whether the United States should have heavily committed itself militarily to contain communism in South Vietnam remains a hotly debated topic. The debate is closely related to the controversy over whether the problems in Southeast Asia were primarily political and economic rather than military. The United States strategy generally proceeded from the premise that the essence of the problem in Vietnam was military, with efforts to "win the hearts and minds" of the South Vietnamese populace taking second place.

To frustrate North Vietnamese and Viet Cong efforts, and in part to "contain" China, the United States eventually fielded an army of over 500,000 men and engaged in extensive air and naval warfare against North Vietnam. The American military effort provoked stiff domestic and international opposition, led to strained civil-military relations at home, and called into question many of the assumptions that had dominated US foreign and military policy since 1945, but failed to compel the enemy to do its will. In short America's strategic culture was fundamentally altered in the jungles of Indochina.

Allied forces in South Vietnam were never organized into a single combined command, but at lower levels many combined operations were conducted, with varying degrees of success. The war also demonstrated the advantages (and especially disadvantages) of tight operational control by the President, the National Security Council and the Department of Defense in Washington.

US involvement in Vietnam began during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961), which sent US military to South Vietnam. Their numbers increased as the military position the Saigon government became weaker. In 1957 Communist rebels -- Viet Cong -- began a campaign of terrorism in South Vietnam. They were supported by the government of North Vietnam and later by North Vietnamese troops. Their goal was to overthrow the anti-communist government in the South.

John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) decided to commit American support troops to South Vietnam. Four thousand troops were sent in 1962. There has been an endless debate about what he would have done in Vietnam. He of course, did escalate American involvement by expanding the number of advisors there from 15,000 to 16,000. But there is evidence is there that he would not have Americanized the war to the extent that Lyndon Johnson did. He was skeptical of the military. He feared that the US could get bogged down in Vietnam. He had Secretary of Defense McNamara in 1962 to lay out plans for American withdrawal by 1965. On the day he left for Dallas Texas in 1963, he asked his policy advisor Mike Forrestall to lay plans for a full discussion of Vietnam including a full discussion on getting the United States out of there. In the fall of 1963, American efforts to build a democratic bulwark against communism in South Vietnam were failing. President Kennedy struggled to get the Diem government and a communist insurgency--under control. On November 3, 1963 Ngo Dinh Diem died at the hands of his generals. Less than two weeks after President Diem's death, President Kennedy was assassinated.

After John Kennedy was murdered, Vice President Lyndon Johnson served the last fourteen months of Kennedy's term. He then was elected to his own full term. It began in January 1965. Much of his time and energy would be taken up by the war in Vietnam. By early nineteen-sixty-four, America had about seventeen-thousand troops in Vietnam. The troops were there to advise and train the South Vietnamese military.

Under President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1968), US intervention mushroomed both militarily and politically. Johnson asked for a resolution expressing U.S. determination to support freedom and protect peace in Southeast Asia. Congress responded with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, expressing support for "all necessary measures" the President might take to repel armed attacks against US forces and prevent further aggression.

Under the strategy developed by General William C. Westmoreland, Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, American divisions would seek out and destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist) formations, while air power carried the war to the North, attacking both the will of Hanoi's leaders to continue the fight and, to an increasing extent, their ability to do so. The list of targets expanded to include transportation, oil storage, and the nation's few industries. In theory, Westmoreland's strategy of search and destroy would force the Communists to expend supplies and thus make the logistics establishment in North Vietnam all the more vulnerable to bombing.

In 1966, more than 200,000 troops were committed to Vietnam. The United States escalated its participation in the war to a peak of 543,000 troops in April 1969. American forces in Southeast Asia operated under some stringent restrictions, including being forbidden to invade enemy territory in North Vietnam and, for many years, likewise being barred from ground operations against enemy sanctuaries in bordering Laos and Cambodia. The "body count" of Vietcong killed was the centerpiece of the American approach to waging the war, conducted through search-and-destroy operations in remote jungle regions. By 1966 it became increasingly clear that this strategy of attrition was not working and could not work because of the enemy's capacity to replace losses far higher than those the allies were able to inflict.

The Vietnam conflict wore many faces. It was at once an insurrection by indigenous guerrilla forces and an invasion by the regular army of a neighboring regime. It was a war of snipers and ambushes, booby traps and pitched battles. The location of the fighting ranged from the densely inhabited rice basket of the Mekong Delta to the remote, jungled mountains of the Central Highlands, It included both platoon-level “pacification” efforts aimed at small bands of Vietcong and corps-level operations targeted against main-force North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiments and divisions. A determined enemy and brutally difficult terrain combined to negate the effects of American technology and presented a dramatic challenge to a U.S. Army commander's battle command skills.

Vietnam saw changes in employment tactics of artillery. Front lines common in previous wars were replaced by perimeter defenses. The helicopter became a prime mover for artillery giving increased mobility. Artillery units occupied fire support bases and could fire 360 degrees in support of operations. The ability of the artillery to provide rapid and devasting fire support at critical times often spelled the difference between victory and defeat. Very few major engagements were fought without artillery support. American tactics in Vietnam relied on overwhelming firepower -- chiefly close air support and artillery -- to reduce friendly casualties while overcoming the enemy’s advantage in numbers. While fire support contributed significantly, it proved a two-edged sword. Although American firepower created staggering enemy casualties and limited his ability to mass maneuver forces, preparatory fires seldom neutralized the NVA positions. The dense jungle and the sharp relief of the hill attenuated the concentration of firepower, as did the enemy's weIl-prepared defenses.

The political challenge of the war stemmed from the belief of the rural Vietnamese that the Government of Vietnam will not stay long when it comes into an area, that the Government was indifferent to the people's welfare, that the low-level officials were tools of the local rich; and that the Government was excessively corrupt from top to bottom. The American search-and-destroy military operations didn't solve these problems, and were at best irrelevant to security in rural Vietnamese villages. At worst, indiscriminate aerial attacks and artillery fire exacted a toll on village allegiance to the Saigon government.

When General Creighton Abrams took command of MACV in the spring of 1968 the focus of American ground operations turned to "strategic hamlets" with population security as its goal.

In 1965, US air strikes were ordered against North Vietnam. By late 1965, such air strikes became part and parcel to daily activities of those stationed in Vietnam. But US forces were not permitted to attack some targets for fear of Chinese retaliation. The perceived danger from Communist China influenced President Johnson's choice of means for ensuring the survival of a South Vietnam independent of the North. In 1950, when United Nations forces threatened to overrun North Korea, China had come to the aid of its Communist neighbor. As the Vietnam War intensified in 1965 and 1966, so, too, did the Chinese commitment to the survival of North Vietnam. By the spring of the latter year, some 50,000 Chinese troops served in North Vietnam, a total that may have tripled before China began to withdraw its forces in 1968. Until President Johnson limited ROLLING THUNDER to southern North Vietnam, effective April 1, 1968, China gave refuge to North Vietnamese fighters when airfields in the North came under aerial attack, and reports surfaced of Chinese pilots flying North Vietnamese interceptors. During this period of involvement, China made no secret of its sympathy for the Hanoi government; prudence therefore required that the Johnson administration consider the possibility of further Chinese intervention. Concern that China might react as it had fifteen years earlier in Korea argued powerfully for relying on air power rather than invasion to convince Hanoi to call off the war in the South. Having turned to air power, the Johnson administration chose to apply it in a gradually escalating fashion. President John F. Kennedy's recent success in compelling the Soviet Union to with draw bombers and ballistic missiles from Cuba bred confidence in the gradual application of force.

The individual services, for the most part, controlled their own air arms. The Army maintained control of its large helicopter fleet as organic air assets. Marines followed their traditional organizational path of assigning an Air Wing to each Marine division. The Navy maintained complete control of its air assets and Admiral Sharp, as Commander in Chief of Pacific Command (CINCPAC), implemented the Route Pack system for all air operations over North Vietnam. General Clay, the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) commander, was assigned coordinating authority for deconflicting air operations, but he felt that the existing command arrangements (route packaging and assigning the air component only coordinating authority) did not provide a sound means to control the overall air effort.

The Route Pack system divided responsibility within North Vietnam into seven different geographic areas, with the Air Force and the Navy each receiving responsibility for portions of the route packs. Commander in Chief of Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), the naval component of Pacific Command (PACOM), maintained control of carrier air assets. Even within the Air Force there was no single air commander. Seventh Air Force was responsible for Air Force air operations in Vietnam, while Thirteenth Air Force was responsible for Thailand, and Strategic Air Command (SAC) never relinquished command or control of its B-52 bombers.

The targeting process further complicated this patchwork of responsibility. Targets were selected in Washington by a small team on the joint staff and approved only at the presidential level. The result was a major misuse of air power. Air power application came to be simply the servicing of targets, with little regard for whether or not they were the "right" targets, and without an air campaign plan. Service parochialism dominated the air effort. Lacking a single responsible air commander, a clear set of objectives, and a common concept of operations, even the most skilled operations of the separate components tended to work at cross-purposes and give respite to the enemy.


Total US Military Personnel in Vietnam
Date Total Personnel
31 December 1960 900
31 December 1961 3,200
31 December 1962 11,500
31 December 1963 16,300
31 December 1964 23,300
31 December 1965 184,300
31 December 1966 425,300
31 December 1967 485,600
31 December 1968 536,100
31 December 1969 474,400
31 December 1970 335,800
9 June 1971 250,900

Initially, most Americans backed Washington's Vietnam policy. A dangerous situation seemed to be developing, one which the US government referred to as the "domino theory" -- if South Vietnam were allowed to fall to communism, so eventually would the rest of Southeast Asia. But as the war dragged on and a military victory appeared more and more elusive, public opposition became more vocal.

President Johnson believed that the United States had to support South Vietnam. Many other Americans agreed. They believed that without American help, South Vietnam would become communist. Then, all of Southeast Asia would become Communist, too. As Johnson's term began, his military advisers told him the Communists were losing the war. They told him that north Vietnamese troops and Viet. cong forces would soon stop fighting. On February sixth, however, the Viet Cong attacked American camps at Pleiku and Qui Nhon. The Johnson administration immediately ordered air attacks against military targets in the north.

Some observers in the United States questioned the administration's policy. For example, a leading newspaper writer, James Reston, said President Johnson was carrying out an undeclared and unexplained war in Vietnam. Johnson defended his policies. He said withdrawal would not bring an end to the conflict. He said the battle would continue in one country, and then another.

In March 1965 the first American ground troops arrived in south Vietnam. Congress supported the president's actions at that time. However, the number of Americans who opposed the war began to grow. These people said the war was a civil war. They said the United States had no right, or reason, to intervene. For six days in May, the United States halted air attacks on North Vietnam. The administration hoped this would help get the North Vietnamese government to begin negotiations. The North refused. And the United States began to build up its forces in the South. By July, one-hundred twenty-five thousand Americans were fighting in Vietnam.

Some Americans became angry. Anti-war demonstrations took place in the cities of San Francisco and Chicago. More and more students began to protest. They wanted the war to end quickly. Writer James Reston commented that the anti-war demonstrations were not helping to bring peace to Vietnam. He said they were postponing it. He believed the demonstrations would make Ho Chi Minh think America did not support its troops. And that, he said, would make President Ho continue the war.

In December 1965 the United States again halted air attacks against North Vietnam. Again, it invited the North Vietnamese government to negotiate an end to the fighting. And again, the North refused. Ho Chi Minh's conditions for peace were firm. He demanded an end to the bombing and a complete American withdrawal. Withdrawal would mean defeat for the South. It would mean that all of Vietnam would become Communist. President Johnson would not accept these terms. So he offered his own proposals. The most important was an immediate cease-fire. Neither side would compromise, however. And the fighting went on.

In 1966 President Johnson renewed the bombing attacks in North Vietnam. He also increased the number of American troops in south Vietnam. He condemned those who opposed his policies. He said: "The American people will stand united until every soldier is brought home safely. They will stand united until the people of south Vietnam can choose their own government."

Local and state elections were held in the United States in late 1966. The war in Vietnam had an effect on those elections. The opposition Republican Party generally supported the President's war efforts. Yet it criticized him and other Democrats for economic problems linked to the war. The war cost two-thousand-million dollars every month. The price of many goods in the United States began to rise. The value of the dollar began to drop. The result was inflation. Then economic activity slowed, and the result was recession.

To answer the criticism, Administration officials said progress was being made in Vietnam. But some Americans began to suspect that the government was not telling the truth about the war. Several news writers, for example, said the number of enemy soldiers killed was much lower than the government reported.

Opposition to the war and to the Administration's war policies led to bigger and bigger anti-war demonstrations. Studies were done to measure Americans' opinion on the issue. In a study in July 1967 a little more than half the people questioned said they did not approve of the President's policies. Yet most Americans believed he would run again for President the next year.

Johnson strongly defended the use of American soldiers in Vietnam. In a speech to a group of lawmakers he said: "Since world war two, this nation has met and has mastered many challenges -- challenges in Greece and turkey, in berlin, in Korea, in Cuba. We met them because brave men were willing to risk their lives for their nation's security. And braver men have never lived than those who carry our colors in Vietnam this very hour."

Between 30 January and the end of February 1968, the North Vietnamese military launched a series of devastating attacks against South Viet Nam’s major cities, extending from Khe Sanh in the north to Ca Mau on the country’s southern tip. Now known as the Tet Offensive, this operation was timed to coincide with the beginning of Tet, an annual celebration of the lunar New Year and the most festive of Vietnamese holidays. Previously, the combatants had observed a cease-fire during Tet. Hence the American forces and their South Vietnamese allies, relaxing and celebrating as in years past, were caught completely off guard. The results, writes historian George C. Herring (in America’s Longest War), were the bloodiest battles of the war: "in the first two weeks of the Tet campaigns, the United States lost 1,100 killed in action and South Vietnam 2,300. An estimated 12,500 civilians were killed, and Tet created as many as one million new refugees".

Thirty-six of 44 provincial capitals and 64 of 242 district towns were attacked. They even struck at the American embassy in the capital, Saigon. Once the shock and confusion wore off, most attacks were crushed in a few days. During those few days, however, the fighting was some of the most violent ever seen in South Vietnam. Fifty-thousand Communist soldiers were killed during the tet offensive. Fourteen-thousand South Vietnamese soldiers were killed. And two-thousand American soldiers were killed. Thousands of Vietnamese civilians were killed, too.

The Tet Offensive was particularly tragic for the South Vietnamese populace. It also reverberated loudly back home in America. In particular, it negatively impacted American public opinion, calling into question Pentagon and Johnson Administration claims that America was winning the war.

Americans at home saw a different picture. Many Americans were surprised, even shocked, that the Communists could launch such a major attack against South Vietnam. For several years, they had been told that Communist forces were small and were losing badly. Claims of progress in the war, already greeted with skepticism, lost more credibility in both public and official circles. As a result, popular support for the Administration fell even more.

Democrats who opposed President Johnson seized this chance. Several ran against him in the primary elections held before the party's presidential nominating convention. These included Senator Robert Kennedy of New York and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Kennedy and McCarthy did well in the early primary elections. Johnson did poorly.

On 31 March 1968 the President spoke to the American people on television. He told of his proposal to end American bombing of north Vietnam. He told of the appointment of a special ambassador to start peace negotiations. And he told of his decision about his own future:

"I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office -- the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

Hanoi had suffered a military defeat in the Tet Offensive, but had won a political and diplomatic victory by shifting American policy toward disengagement.

Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974) was elected on the claim that he had a "secret plan" for honorably disengaging American troops, which succeeded initially only in intensifying the conflict. This last phase of American involvement in South Vietnam was carried out under a broad policy called Vietnamization. Its main goal was to create strong, largely self-reliant South Vietnamese military forces. Vietnamization also meant the withdrawal of a half-million American soldiers.

By 1969 the unsatisfactory results in Vietnam compelled U.S. leaders to reconsider their approach to the Cold War. Consequently, assumptions regarding Cold War adversaries were revised. In their own strategic innovation, Nixon and Kissinger transformed the nature of superpower relations, inaugurating détente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with the People's Republic of China. Recognizing the United States' altered economic and strategic position, Kissinger introduced the concept of "interdependence" to explain significant changes in American relations with the less-powerful countries of the world. Such developments led many observers to conclude that the Cold War had ended. Others believed that the change was one of form rather than substance. Some Cold War assumptions and appearances had changed, in their view, but superpower confrontation remained the basis of international affairs.

By the spring of 1972 the Vietnam War was at a low ebb. The 1968 Communist Tet Offensive had given way to a gradual winding down by mid-1969, and after the invasion of Cambodia in May 1970, there was little fighting in South Vietnam. Yet, while the United States was in the process of withdrawing it's forces from a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular with its citizens, the North Vietnamese were rebuilding their forces in preparation for another massive offensive in hopes of overrunning the southern half of the divided country. In April 1972, heavily armed North Vietnamese divisions crossed into the South at several points, including from out of Cambodia.

Beginning in late 1972, National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger's negotiations with North Vietnam began to move seriously towards a settlement. To build up the military of South Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird initiated Project Enhance Plus on 20 October 1972. The Pentagon ordered rush deliveries of some $2 billion worth of military equipment, including over 600 aircraft. The program gave South Vietnam the fourth largest air force in the world, with over 2,000 aircraft. Only the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Peoples' Republic of China maintained larger air forces. By this time South Vietnam also floated the fifth largest navy in the world (with 1,500 ships) and fielded the fourth largest army in the world (with 1.1 million troops).

Nixon resumed bombing of North Vietnam in response to the North Vietnamese 1972 Easter offensive, and mined North Vietnamese ports and bombed Hanoi and Haiphong in late 1972. Such pressure was intended, at least in part, to force North Vietnam to sign an armistice. In early 1973 the United States, North and South Vietnam, and the Viet Cong signed an armistice. American military activities in Cambodia and Laos, which had continued after the cease-fire in South Vietnam went into effect, ended in 1973 when Congress cut off funds.

During the early months of 1974, the North Vietnamese army advanced from the north and west on the southern capital. They soon surrounded Saigon with an ever-tightening perimeter. Saigon fell to the Communists on 29 April 1975. On the morning of April 30, 1975, the last Marine boarded a CH-46 helicopter atop the American Embassy in Saigon and took off eastward disappearing into the blue horizon. It was 21 years after the first advisors arrived in country and nearly three years after the last combat troops withdrew.

South Vietnam's military defeat tended to obscure the crucial inability of this massive military enterprise to compensate for Saigon's political shortcomings. Over a span of nearly two decades, a series of regimes failed to mobilize fully and effectively their nation's political, social, and economic resources to foster a popular base of support. North Vietnamese main force units ended the war, but local insurgency among the people of the South made that outcome possible and perhaps inevitable.

The setback suffered by the United States in the Vietnam War was rooted in a failure of strategy. Indeed, perhaps no war in American history shows more clearly both the difficulties of making sound strategic judgments and the dire consequences of a lack of clear strategic vision. The Vietnam War thus provides a cautionary tale for American political and military decision-makers about the crucial importance of thinking clearly about strategy. By incorrectly relating military strategy to national policy and by improperly understanding the nature of the conflict, the United States exhausted itself against a secondary enemy in South Vietnam. The American failure in Vietnam also stemmed from trying to fight a traditional conventional war when the conflict's nature demanded a counterinsurgency effort. Top military commanders, unable to fathom the problem, refused to implement such a strategy despite evidence of its effectiveness


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