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An Overwhelming Presence: America in South Vietnam, 1966-1968

The U.S. military presence in rural South Vietnam became so large and so pervasive in 1966 and 1967, that few South Vietnamese peasants could avoid contact with the big, brash Americans and all of their machines. But the interactions between the two peoples rarely fostered cross-cultural understanding. Rather, the contacts were almost always of a military nature or of some sort of monetary exchange.

Journalist and historian Bernard Fall reported that in mid-1966 the U.S. had 1,700 helicopters (most armed), 400 U.S. Navy fighter-bombers (both in-country and off-shore), and about 1,000 Air Force combat aircraft at airfields across South Vietnam.[i] In the first four months of 1966, the Air Force flew 97,000 sorties (including airlift, strike, and reconnaissance) in South Vietnam.[ii] And the number of sorties kept going up. At the end of 1966, the Air Force recorded 355,904 sorties of all types for the year. The Air Force almost doubled that number in 1967 when it flew 672,935 sorties.[iii]

On any given day in 1966 and 1967, the skies above South Vietnam filled with the shrill screeching sound of fighter-bombers and the whump whump of Hueys and Chinooks. National Geographic reporter Peter White remembered the big base at Danang, “I found Da Nang bad for my eardrums, lungs, and eyes. Landing fields throbbed with jet fighters and propeller-driven dive bombers, with tiny artillery spotters and huge planes carrying enormous radar domes on their backs; with reconnaissance craft; with five varieties of helicopters and seven of transports. They made a lot of noise.”[iv] Continue Reading »

Nguyen Van Binh: Vietcong Soldier

The residents of Nong Kinh made their living the same way their ancestors had – they grew rice, which they sold in the Mekong Delta market towns of My Tho and Ben Tre. But nobody who worked a few hectares of delta alluvium, and that included the majority of the farmers in Kien Hoa Province, ever got rich. There existed too many forces working against their economic advancement. If a farmer owned his own land, the French colonial government in Saigon taxed them so heavily that they never saved enough money to enlarge their land holdings or improve their capital stock.

Tenant farmers, who worked for the absentee landlords living in nearby My Tho or distant Saigon, were worse off than the small freeholders. They paid such exorbitant rental rates that they became perpetually stuck at a subsistence level.  Nature also worked against the peasantry.  In the delta, the mighty Mekong River and its annual floods stole a man’s livelihood as consistently as the tax collector or the French landlord. Deprived of the wherewithal to improve their lives, and blocked from attaining social and economic mobility by a narrow-minded urban elite, the people of Nong Kinh lived as they had since the region was first settled by the Vietnamese in the 1800s. Continue Reading »

“An Almost Natural Part of the Terrain”: Booby Traps and the Vietcong’s Weaponized Countryside

Upon arrival in South Vietnam, American troops often commented on the South Vietnamese countryside’s natural beauty.  For many, rural South Vietnam looked like a tropical paradise, especially from the air, with its shimmering rice paddies, white sand beaches, blue coastal waters, dark green forests, and dramatic, fog-shrouded mountains.  But once deployed on the ground in the Vietnamese bush, G.I.’s quickly realized that rural South Vietnam was anything but a paradise – it was a horrifying place, rife with unseen peril.  Although the countryside possessed natural dangers, including malarial mosquitoes, man-eating tigers, fast-flowing rivers, and poisonous snakes, nature did not pose the gravest threat to American G.I.’s.  Rather, the greatest danger to U.S. troops came from humans, specifically the Vietcong, and their weaponization of the countryside.

The Vietcong weaponized rural South Vietnam with booby traps.  The guerrillas hid booby traps along roadways, under foot paths, next to water wells, inside rice caches, alongside doors and gates, and even beneath the bodies of fallen comrades.  Anywhere that an unsuspecting G.I. might step, sit, stand, or lie was a potential site for a booby trap.

Vietcong booby traps served a variety of military purposes. When U.S. troops went into War Zone D in June 1965, they discovered that the guerrillas, rather than defend their base areas, hospitals, and caches with stationary troops, who stood a good chance of being mowed down by U.S. helicopter gunships, jet fighter-bombers, and artillery batteries, chose instead to protect their military assets in that Communist stronghold with booby traps.

New York Times reporter Jack Raymond described a booby-trapped trail leading to a Vietcong rice cache. “The booby traps were made of ordinary hand grenades linked to vines and bent twigs. They could be set off by a soldier clearing the underbrush with the butt of his rifle, pushing a twig aside with his hand or stepping on a vine.”[1] Raymond observed that the guerrillas not only booby-trapped the trail leading to the rice cache, they rigged explosives to the cache itself. Continue Reading »

“Our Main Problem is Booby Traps and Land Mines”: IEDs and the Attrition of U.S. Forces in South Vietnam

During the Vietnam War, booby traps, or what are now referred to as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), exacted a terrible toll on the American infantry units patrolling the jungles, rice paddies, and marshlands of South Vietnam.  Communist General Vo Nguyen Giap and his southern field commanders regarded booby traps as an integral part of their strategy to defeat the technologically-superior, highly-mobile, firepower-laden American expeditionary force.  The fearsome weapons helped Giap accomplish his strategic goals – especially the attrition of U.S. troops. Continue Reading »

The Vietcong’s Fortified Countryside

During the First Indochina War, the Communist Vietminh fortified rural areas under its control in Tonkin and Annam in order to blunt the effectiveness of French mobility and firepower.  Because the Vietminh’s fortified countryside proved its worth against the French, the top leaders of North Vietnam, including Ho Chi Minh, Le Duan, and General Vo Nguyen Giap, determined to employ the same type of embattlements against American ground forces operating in rural South Vietnam.

In the 1960s, the Vietcong constructed an interconnected system of fortifications across the South Vietnamese countryside. This fortified landscape, like the one built during the First Indochina War, contributed significantly to the achievement of General Giap’s tactical and strategic objectives. Specifically, it hindered the cross-country movement of U.S. ground units, fostered high U.S. casualty rates, protected the Vietcong’s civilian sympathizers, hid Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops from aerial and ground observation, and minimized Communist troop casualties.  Ultimately, it advanced Giap’s Protracted War strategy by prolonging the conflict, sapping U.S. homefront support, and forcing a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Continue Reading »

Ho Chi Minh’s Trojan Horse: The Fortified Village in Vietnamese History

North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap’s concept of People’s War called for the total mobilization of Vietnam’s human resources and the transformation of the country’s natural and built environments into weapons of war. Thus, as soon as the Communist guerrillas took hold of a South Vietnamese village, cadre worked to consolidate the Vietcong’s control over the residents as well as the surrounding countryside. Political officers levied taxes on rice farmers, convened show trials for “enemies of the people,” and propagandized the populace on the need to support The Resistance. Military officers recruited young men into the many branches of the Vietcong military apparatus and organized the peasants into work gangs. Those labourers fortified the Vietcong village and the surrounding agricultural landscape against U.S and South Vietnamese forces. Continue Reading »

Hostile and Utterly Alien: The American Encounter with the Vietnamese Environment

In the 1960s and early 1970s, American G.I.’s fought the Vietcong and North Vietnamese in one of the world’s most difficult and diverse environments.  Rural South Vietnam was a land of contrasts.  It contained mosquito-infested swamps, gleaming white sand dunes, water-filled paddies, thousands of miles of canals, big, silt-laden rivers, acre-upon-acre of tall-grass savannah, towering mountains, and impenetrable jungles.  These environments posed a significant challenge to American tactics, and strategy.  Frequently, the countryside conspired to blunt American military power.  Rice paddies bogged down tanks and jeeps, sand and mud jammed the delicate M-16 rifle, and triple-canopy jungle deflected iron bombs and napalm.  American infantrymen, assigned the grisly task of hunting down and killing the Communist guerrillas, felt the environment’s effects most directly – and many of them came to view the Vietnamese bush as an oppressive, ancient, implacable foe.

Continue Reading »

The VC Now Control The Countryside: The Tet Offensive and the Loss of Rural South Vietnam

During the first days of the Communist Tet Offensive, Allied military units abandoned hundreds of forward positions across rural South Vietnam and retreated to the country’s district and provincial towns and larger cities. The evacuation of the countryside had two purposes: 1) to preserve Allied military power in the face of the overwhelming Communist assault; and 2) to secure the urban population still loyal to the Saigon regime.[1]  When the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and the Americans withdrew from the countryside, they left a power vacuum in their wake. The Communists filled that vacuum.[2]  By the end of the Tet Offensive, the Communists not only controlled vast swaths of rural South Vietnam, they had dealt a severe, and possibly fatal, blow to the Allied pacification program. Continue Reading »

Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part IV: The Search and Destroy Strategy Comes Under Fire

In the fall of 1967, a number of prominent public figures began to question whether General William C. Westmoreland’s big unit war would ever achieve U.S. objectives in South Vietnam.  Several of these individuals voiced their concerns to President Johnson on November 2, during the second day of meetings at the White House of a group collectively known as the Wisemen.

One of the Wisemen, former U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, told President Johnson that the primary reason for declining domestic support for the war was the high number of U.S. casualties. If casualties could be brought down, the home front could be steadied. With the recent defeat of Lt. Col. Terry Allen’s Jr.’s battalion in Binh Duong Province possibly on his mind, Lodge said, “An exclusive military victory is not conceivable to me.” He then went on to say that instead of Westmoreland’s current concept of operations, the U.S. should pursue a “…split up and keep off balance…” strategy. He argued that such a strategy, “…utilizes the smaller units and means less casualties…[and] also diminishes the number of refugees.””  In other words, abandoning the big unit war would not only stabilize the homefront, it would, by reducing collateral damage and refugee numbers, enhance South Vietnam’s increasingly fragile social stability.[1] Continue Reading »

Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part III: Dak To

The series of battles that took place in the vicinity of Dak To in November 1967 followed a familiar Communist military pattern. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese initiated the majority of the battles or were found by Allied forces only when they wanted to be found. Communist units fought in close proximity to their base areas and sources of resupply and reinforcement in Cambodia and Laos.  And the Americans frequently discovered the enemy in difficult terrain, under jungle canopy, and dug-in behind fortifications. Continue Reading »

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