The War: One Man's
How and why did The U.S. become involved in Vietnam and why was a super power unable to defeat such a poor, under equipped country? In order to get some understanding of what brought us into our longest war, I have tried to put together a brief history of the events that took place. Be aware that this is neither an apology nor a justification for the war. It is merely a summary of how I understand we became involved and some of the major events that took place.
THE FRENCH WAR
When Germany invaded and occupied France at the beginning of W.W.II, the French were forced to withdraw their military from many of their colonies to focus attention on the home front. The absence of French troops on their soil was only briefly enjoyed by the Vietnamese, however. Japan, in its quest to invade China and define power over the Pacific rim, found Vietnam to be an ideal location to set up camp. They were more ruthless than the French had ever been. Ho Chi Minh and his resistance fighters now had to turn on this new enemy. But in order for them to have any chance of success against the Japanese, it would be necessary to bring together all of the revolutionary factions under one banner. This new order was called Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or Viet Minh. With the help of American arms and aid, this new Viet Minh was able to keep Japan from enjoying a peaceful occupation of Vietnam. With the surrender of Japan in 1945, Vietnam thought it would be able to finally have the independence it had been seeking for so long. This was not to be.
The Western powers had been keeping a watchful eye on the changes taking place in China and were worried that the Communist movement being led by Mao Tse-tung would spread to the vulnerable country of Vietnam. In spite of moderate reluctance from the Americans, France was allowed to once again return to their former colony in hopes their presence would deter the Chinese from spreading their revolution too far a field. Inevitably, this renewed occupation led to confrontation with the Viet Minh. These conflicts took place mostly in the northern regions around Tonkin and Hai Phong. And though the French were able to successfully defeat the Viet Minh, this new resistance group was much stronger, more organized, and had much more popular support than had ever been realized before. The military leader, Vo Nguyen Giap had learned to fight a guerilla war, hitting the French only when he was certain he had the advantage.
DIEN BIEN PHU
Giving command of this base to a Col.
Castries, Navarre watched in horror as nearly 60,000 militia
surrounded Dien Bien Phu and pounded it with large guns that were
never known to exist. The siege lasted for 55 days. In May of 1954,
Giap's troops overran the compound, killing nearly 2,000 French
troops and taking 10,000 into captivity. The cream of the French
foreign forces had been all but destroyed. This victory for Giap did
not come without cost. The battle for Dien Bien Phu cost him an
estimated 20,000 soldiers and nearly drained his reserves of
equipment and money.
THE GENEVA ACCORDS
To understand America's reluctance to sign this accord, one must realize the political climate of the day. In 1954, the Cold War was at its peak. The threat of Communist expansion was a very real concern of the Free World. Russia was amassing huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons aimed at the U. S., Meo Tse-tung had just achieved victory with his People's Revolution in China, the Red Army in Korea had just been barely stopped from taking over the country, and the revolutionary Fidel Casto was snuggling up to his Russian supporters. It was firmly believed by both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations that if Vietnam fell to communism, the entire Pacific rim could fall like a stack of dominos.
THE AMERICAN INVOLVEMENT
Unfortunately, together with his brother Nhu as vice-president, Diem's self-serving ambitiousness created a leadership of corruption and deceit. Diem was reluctant to commit his shinny new army to the hazards of fighting the Viet Cong and would more often use it to achieve personal gain by intimidating his own people. A devout Catholic, he began persecuting the Buddists. This persecution brought about the shocking demonstrations of several Buddist monks who burnt themselves to death in the streets of Saigon. Instead of winning the support of the people, he was turning them against him.
The American government, so frustrated by Diem's incompetence, turned their backs when they learned of a coup being planned to remove him from office. In early November of 1963, Diem's own generals kidnapped him, shuttled him and his brother to a basement in the Cholon section of Saigon, and murdered them. Twenty-two days later, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
This was only the beginning of the turmoil that would plague South Vietnam's political structure in the coming years. During 1964, the government changed hands seven times, six of them through coups or attempted coups. The North Vietnamese quickly capitalized on the confusion in the south by sending large quantities of men and supplies to strengthen the rebels in the south.
With the south's government now in chaos, the new Johnson administration had no option but to become more involved in trying to stabilize the "mess of Vietnam". Johnson's advisors discussed bombing the northern supply depots of Hai Phong and other ports in the Gulf of Tonkin to stop the flow of arms to the South. But the U. S. was reluctant to take such drastic measures without some justification in fear that China and Russia would see this as an unprovoked act of aggression and enter into the conflict.
THE USS MADDOX AND THE GULF OF TONKIN
AND SO IT BEGINS
In this tense period of escalation, yet another coup was attempted in the South Vietnamese government. Though the coup was unsuccessful, General Nguyen Van Thieu and Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky eventually were able to seize control of the government.
SEND IN THE MARINES
It soon became apparent that the bases could not be defended without disrupting the build up of enemy forces around the bases. General Green, Commanding General of the Marines said, "You cannot defend a position by sitting on your ass." The initial plan was to let the South Vietnamese Army (RVN) do the dirty work of clearing out the rebels but it was clear they could not or would not do the job. By July, the Americans were given permission to run patrols in the remote areas surrounding their bases and destroy any pockets of resistance they might encounter. For several months, the Marines would run into only light resistance; snipers, booby traps, an occasional ambush where the enemy would strike then vanish. This tactic of avoiding a head-to-head confrontation left the Marines frustrated, denying them the chance to use their superior firepower to claim a meaningful victory.
Operation Starlight was not the biggest nor the most costly battle of Vietnam. Its significance lies in that it was the first time Americans and their foes stood face to face and slugged it out. It set the pattern that was repeated so often in the long war that would follow. We were fighting an enemy who was willing to accept great loss but never a total loss. With our superior arsenal and highly trained troops, we were able to beat the enemy in nearly every battle that was fought. But we could not defeat him.
There were now 125,000 American troops in Vietnam.
|THE VC AND NVA
The Vietnamese call all of their fighters Viet Cong, whether they were regular army or guerillas. However, the American military made a distinction between the two. Viet Cong (VC) were an untrained, loosely organized band of guerillas with no central command. This group of farmers and peasants did not all share the same ideals as the Ho Chi Minh government in the north but they did have a common cause; to remove the corrupt government in the south and to expel the foreign powers from their country. But being untrained and poorly equipped did not mean they were ineffective. The fact that they had no uniforms made them nearly impossible to distinguish from the general population and, being local citizens, they had the advantages of knowing the terrain and having support of the people in their areas. Having no capacity for the manufacture of arms, they relied on whatever they could find. Most of their weapons were from W.W.II or before. Many had no weapons at all except what they could devise on their own. Their ingenuity and resourcefulness made them masters at creating booby traps and mines. While these weapons were not very efficient, they were extremely effective in demoralizing those unfortunates who fell victim to them.
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) on the other hand, were highly trained and disciplined regular army. The NVA wore a common uniform designed for the extreme climate and landscape of Vietnam. They had a very skilled and experienced central leadership and were well armed. Their favorite weapon, the AK-47 was being supplied to them by China in large quantities. In addition to this, they had state of the art artillery and anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles. They also had tanks, though they were not used much for the bulk of the war. While the use of booby traps was not unheard of by the NVA, they did not use them to the level of the VC. The NVA was on the move too much and knew that such weapons could be as deadly for their own troops as they were for the Americans.
THE DMZ AND THE HO CHI MINH
One of the main orders of business for the U. S. military was to stop this flow of resources. To do this required abandoning the previous posture of being a defensive element and moving to the offence. Nowhere was the need for this new strategy more evident than along the border separating the North from the South. Johnson's Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara came up with his ambitious plan to create a barrier of both muscle and high technology to block the enemy's movement across the border. This plan involved creating The Trace, an area cleared of vegetation several hundred meters wide along the length of the DMZ. American planes would also drop hundreds of thousands of listening and sniffing devices designed to detect any movement or troop build up in the area. Of course, to properly patrol this "McNamara Line" required more American troops to seek out and destroy the enemy that was able to get across the line.
By mid 1966 most of the civilian population had been relocated out of the remote mountainous area and placed in camps along the coast. The mountains became a free fire zone where anyone found was considered to be a combatant. The 3rd Marine Division was given the primary responsibly of keeping the NVA out of these mountains.
The number of American troops in Vietnam reached 400,000 by 1967.
SEARCH AND DESTROY
Once we were choppered to a hilltop, we would begin digging in right away to set up a defensive perimeter. Fighting holes had to be dug chest deep and big enough for two or three men to stand in. After we had our defenses established, it would be time to start searching the area. Depending on how dangerous the area was, the company would send out either squad-sized (10-12 men) or platoon sized (60 men) on patrols to search through the valleys and surrounding areas. At night, we would send out two or three squad-sized ambush patrols in different directions who would set up along the trails or other areas where enemy movement might be expected. The rest of the company would settle in for the night with at least one man awake on watch at each fighting hole at all times. Listening posts (LPs) would be set out. These two or three man units would a hide a hundred yards or so outside of the perimeter with a radio and be an early warning system for the rest of the company.
This routine would be followed for three or four nights before the company would 'saddle up' and hump to another hilltop to begin the process all over again. With four companies operating in an area, a lot of ground could be covered in a short amount of time. An operation of this type could run anywhere from two weeks to eight weeks, sometimes longer, depending on how much enemy activity was encountered.
Most of the time spent on these operations was uneventful. The NVA could see where we were and would avoid us by slipping off into another area. Our most constant enemy was the heat. Carrying sixty pounds plus on your back through thick vegetation up an down steep terrain in 110 degree weather drew every ounce of strength from even the most fit soldier. During my time in the bush, I saw many more troops evacuated because of the heat than of combat injury. There were times however when the enemy did not run. We would catch him by surprise or, more often, he would catch us by surprise and the world would be thrown into utter chaos. Most of the engagements in Vietnam were not battles but firefights and skirmishes, lasting a few hours at the most. The NVA had learned that if they stayed in contact too long, our air support and big guns would chew them to pieces.
Though these search and destroy missions had a certain amount of success, they were a source of frustration to the American troops. Ground that had been fought over would soon be abandoned and the enemy would return. This strategy made it seem like all the suffering was for nothing. Time and time again, American troops would be sent back to areas they had 'secured' before.
ON THE HOME FRONT
The draft was being stepped up to answer the ever increasing call for more and more troops, bringing the war to a personal level with a greater percentage of the population. Protesters were growing in numbers and in volume. There was as much news coverage of the confrontations between protesters and the police as there was of the war itself. In an attempt to find a speedy end to the war, greater numbers of Americans were being sent to fight and greater numbers were coming home in flag draped coffins. The bombings in the North were having seemingly no effect on the resolve of the enemy. The Peace Talks in Paris seemed to be making even less headway than the troops on the battlefield. But Westmoreland and McNamara kept assuring us that we were winning. The numbers proved it.
The war had turned into a war of attrition, a war to see which side could wear the other down first. The problem was that the North was willing to sacrifice much more in human life and material than the United State could ever imagine. The American public was loosing patience and questioning the cost.
What was needed was a decisive battle, a confrontation where we could force the North into a conventional engagement and destroy them once and for all with our superior arsenal. Khe Sanh was to be the stage for this battle. An airstrip was constructed and 7,000 Marines and support elements were sent in to defend it. Located about ten miles south of the DMZ and ten miles from the Laotian border, Khe Sanh had no real strategic value to either side. Though it was placed in the center of a valley that had long been used as a route into the South, the NVA could easily bypass the area by coming down through Laos. Its remote location put it at the edge of the support network of firebases and supply lines the Marines had established along the DMZ, making it difficult to defend. For some, the resemblance between Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu was frightening.
The similarities did not go unnoticed by General Giap. Once again, his much stronger foe had set up camp in a low area surrounded by mountains. Once again, his adversary had chosen a location that could only be supplied by air and had placed the airstrip within range of his big guns. Once again, he knew that the impending monsoon would make air support difficult for his adversary. Giap began to concentrate his forces around the lonely outpost of Khe Sanh.
The Marines knew that controlling the high ground around Khe Sanh, particularly Hills 881 N and 881 S, was critical to its defense and sent the 26th Marines to secure those areas in late April of '67. It took weeks of viscous fighting, at times hand to hand combat, to remove the enemy from the hills but the Marines were successful. They maintained control of the critical high ground.
In January of 1968, reports from intelligence began coming in that a high level of enemy movement was being noted in the area around Khe Sahn. The NVA were using the bad weather and heavy cloud cover to funnel an estimated 40,000 troops around Khe Sanh, cutting off all ground routes to the base. Renewed fighting broke out on Hill 881 N on the evening of January 20 then the base at Khe Sanh received hundreds of enemy rockets early the next morning, one of these rounds landed in the ammo dump, creating an spectacular explosion. The Marines were isolated, their only life line was the airstrip which was being pounded daily by hundreds of heavy mortars, rockets, and big guns hidden in the mountains across the Laotian border. Enemy ground troops seemed content to focus their attention on the small outlying positions held by the Marines, holding back on a massive attack on the main base. This was the same tactic used at Dien Bien Phu fourteen years earlier.
The bad weather made it difficult for the Marines to use close in air support but they were able to call in heavy bombers to pulverize the mountains around them. Though never admitted to by the leadership in the North, it is believed this bombing was able to disrupt any plans to launch a full scale attack on the base. Through the months of February and March the Marines were able to run patrols outside of the perimeter and were finding resistance to be diminishing. Though the Communist were still constantly shelling the base, the concentration of enemy ground troops in the area seemed to have dissipated. On April 8th American ground forces were finally able to reach Khe Sanh and relieve the Marines, ending the 77 day siege.
THE TET OFFENSIVE
From a military standpoint, the VC suffered a sound defeat on every front during the Tet Offensive. The hope they had of creating a general uprising of the population to stand against the invaders never materialized and their military strength was weakened to a point from which they would never recover. However, the gains they made politically tipped the scales in their favor. The American public had been assured that this enemy was being defeated and was no longer capable of organizing itself into a significant threat. But this assault during Tet proved otherwise. It appeared that the enemy was still strong, not contained, and willing to continue fighting at an ever increasing level.
American protesters back home took to the streets, demanding the immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. In frustration, on March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced he 'would not seek nor accept nomination' to run for office again. What the Communists could not achieve on the battlefield, they had achieved on the political front.
American troops in Vietnam now numbered 500,000
After the Tet offensive of 1968, the United States began looking for a way out of Vietnam. Richard Nixon promised the American people that he would "find peace with honor". One of the key elements of Nixon's plan was called Vietnamization. The ARVN forces were to take on more of the responsibly of military actions while the U.S. began to pull its military out of Vietnam in stages. To show that he was serious, Nixon promised to pull 25,000 troops from Vietnam by August of '69. The South Vietnamese Army showed signs of promise as fighters but their leadership showed lack of resolve. Squabbling between the generals, corruption, and reluctance to aggressively engage with the enemy soon made it evident that they would have a difficult time defeating their disciplined foe.
The push to find an end to the war was accelerated in Paris. When the leadership in the North began to drag their feet, Nixon ordered the bombing of the North to be escalated. Though this was not popular with many of those at home who were opposed to the war, it did bring the Communists to the table. It was agreed upon that the U.S. would begin pulling its military out of the country if the North would halt its flow of men and supplies into the South.
It soon became obvious that although the flow of Communist forces into the South had greatly diminished, they were building up inside their border north of the DMZ and inside of the borders of Laos and Cambodia. In response to MACV's new Commanding General, General Abrams plea, Nixon agreed to allow secret bombings inside the Cambodian border to disrupt this threat. The weak Cambodian military was unable to stop the North Vietnamese when they moved further inland to avoid the bombing. By May of 1969, Cambodia fell to the Communist Khmer Rouge.
The 3rd Marine Division had pulled out of Vietnam by late November of 1969, leaving the area along the DMZ in the hands of the ARVNs. The American military focused its attention to the Cambodian and Laotian borders and in 1970, in support of the South Vietnamese military, began pushing operations inside of these countries. When the American public learned of this expansion of the war, Congress was outraged and voted to stop all future funding of the war. Demonstrations broke out across the country. At Kent State in Ohio, National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of protesters, killing four students. The demand to get out of Vietnam became louder.
By November of 1971 the U.S. had reduced its number of troops in Vietnam to 139,000. The North took advantage of this vacuum and launched an assault on the northern provinces around Dong Ha and Quang Tri in March of 1972. The ARVNs put up an impressive resistance in a ferocious battle that left the provincial capital of Quang Tri completely destroyed. But they were soon overwhelmed when the North sent in large numbers of tanks. The defenders fled the area in panic and disarray, leaving the gate to the South wide open.
In spite of the ecouraging break through at the peace talks, things back in the United States were not going well for the Nixon administration. American consensus had shifted to where the majority of the public was calling for an immediate end to the war. Also, the Watergate scandal had completely undermined the effectiveness of Nixon as President. In August of 1974, Richard Nixon resigns as President.
The Communists took advantage of the turmoil in the States by resuming its advance to Saigon. The new government in Washington under Gerald Ford was unwilling to be sucked into the quagmire again and refused to send in any more military support to stop this assault. The ARVN were going to have to defend their government by themselves. Though they did put up an impressive resistance, without the air support they had enjoyed in the past, they were unable to stop the NVA's advance.
In late April of 1975, Saigon awoke to the sound of gunfire. Rumors spread that columns of NVA tanks were moving into the city. Though this assault had been expected for some time, the suddenness of it seemed to take everyone by surprise. South Vietnam's President Thieu and his staff fled the country. Operation Frequent Wind was initiated. Americans and South Vietnamese citizens who had been key supporters of the U. S. quickly gathered at predetermined locations to be air lifted out of Vietnam. On April 30. as the American Ambassador and the last of the Marines were being helicopter off the the roof of the American embassy, North Vietnamese tanks burst through the gates of the Presidential Palace. The war in Vietnam was over.
I have been asked if I feel the war was worth it and would I go again knowing what I know now. The answer to both is these questions is a solid yes. I still believe very strongly in the cause for which we became involved. In today's world, it is sometimes difficult to remember how very real the threat of Communism was to Democracy in the 50's, 60's, and 70's. I believe that had we not made a stand in Vietnam, the world would be a much different place today. Though we did not keep Vietnam from becoming Communist, many of the other countries in the area remain free today because of our efforts. Vietnam became the pivotal point of confrontation between the East and the West. By not allowing China or Russia to expand their Communist beliefs without resistance, we made further expansion more costly and less appealing. Our costs in Vietnam were huge but it also cost our opponents. Our stand in Vietnam forced the USSR to not only spend a great deal of their financial resources to support the North but cost them even more to maintain their military stature on a global scale. The dissolution of Russia's ability to be a viable threat to Democracy was accelerated by the war in Vietnam.
It is easy to sit back with the luxury of hindsight and point a finger at the mistakes made in Vietnam. But one must take into consideration the political climate of the 60's and 70's to appreciate the complexities surrounding the war. The possibility of the war expanding into global warfare, pulling China and the USSR into the fight, was a very real threat that no one wanted to happen. Though the U.S. had gained some experience in Korea, the strategy of fighting a 'limited war' was not clearly defined by a military that had prepared for open warfare in Europe. The military leaders were constantly frustrated by having to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.
The political fog that surrounded Vietnam made it impossible for Americans to understand or even care why we were involved there. With all our military and economic clout, it didn't seem important to educate ourselves on the culture, the history, or the geography of such a small country. There were very few in Washington, or the United States for that matter, who had any knowledge of Vietnam or even where it was located.
But perhaps our greatest mistake was our complete underestimation of our opponent. What the North lacked in technology and financial resources, they more than made up with tenacity and commitment. They were willing to pay any price to achieve their goals. In 1985, during a meeting with General Giap, Robert McNamara asked his old adversary how he could claim victory when the Americans beat him in every battle. How he could say he won when he lost over a million and a half of his soldiers as opposed to less than 60,000 lost by the Americans? Giap's response was that while this was true, his army was the last one standing on the battlefield. On a return trip I made in 2000, one of the veterans in my group asked one of our former NVA guests at what point did he realize they were going to win the war. He replied, "We always knew we would win. We had forever."
Some people say that in war, winning is everything. I disagree. I firmly believe that there are things worth fighting for even if you do not expect to win in the end. Defeat on the battlefield does not necessarily defeat the value of your beliefs. Some things are worth fighting for regardless of the outcome. In reality, the ideals that brought us into Vietnam in the first place are continuing their struggle yet today. And they are winning. I have been back to Vietnam several times in the past ten years and change is happening rapidly. The people are getting their Freedom.
I welcome any comments you may have
on what I have written here. You may send your comments to me at
W. J. Ervin 2005