The Vietnam War and the Geographical Decent Interval

On Allied military maps, South Vietnam at the end of the Tet Offensive looked like a country suffering from some sort of an infectious disease.  Large segments of the countryside had turned an alarming, bright red, signifying Communist domination, while small, white dots denoted the urban enclaves still under Allied control.  These maps indicated that the geographical reach of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese had become so extensive, and Allied territorial control so insignificant, that the “disease” of Communism might soon overwhelm South Vietnam. Continue Reading »

General Creighton Abrams Did Not Fight A Better War

Following the Tet Offensive, a number of U.S. foreign policy experts advised president Johnson that he should begin America’s disengagement from the war in South Vietnam.  Those favoring a U.S. withdrawal, including former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, recognized it would take time to affect a pull-out. Untangling the combatants in a struggle as geographically extensive as the one in Vietnam could not be done in a hurry. Thus, many of the same men who recommended to the president that he quickly find a way out of the war, proposed that in the interim before an American withdrawal the United States should alter its ground war strategy to reduce U.S. casualties and lessen the destructive effects of American firepower on South Vietnamese society.[1] Continue Reading »

“Burn Them Out Completely”: The Air War in South Vietnam, 1965-1967

Across South Vietnam, U.S. strike sortie rates for all three U.S. air branches (Air Force, Marines, and Navy) rose continuously from 1965 through the end of 1967. In 1965, the U.S Air Force flew 37,645 strike sorties. In 1966, Air Force planes flew 73,911 sorties; and in 1967 the number climbed to 122,638. B-52 sortie rates likewise increased from 1,538 in 1965 to 4,290 in 1966 and to 6,611 in 1967.[1] The U.S. Navy and Marines flew thousands of additional sorties during this same period.  In late 1966, the Air Force acknowledged that only 15% of its strike sorties were directed against Communist soldiers engaged in combat with U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. The remainder of airstrikes targeted hamlets, trails, base camps, and supply depots.[2]

General William C. Westmoreland knew that the majority of U.S. air strikes hit fixed targets, such as hamlets, rather than enemy troops; and that worried him, because if the American people learned that the U.S. air campaign in South Vietnam involved the indiscriminate bombing of the countryside, public support for the war might plummet.

In order to obscure the true nature of the air war in South Vietnam, and forestall a further decrease in homefront support for U.S. involvement, Westmoreland decreed in mid-1966 that all strike sorties in South Vietnam would henceforth be classified as “close air support missions.” The new terminology implied that all U.S. bombing sorties in South Vietnam directly supported Allied ground units engaged in combat.  Although the new terminology confused the American public and may have contributed to the stabilization of a shaky U.S. homefront, it did nothing to alter the air war.  In the months and years that followed, the U.S. military intensified the indiscriminate bombing of rural South Vietnam and it did it with the full support of the President and his advisors.[3] Continue Reading »

Why Ho Chi Minh Decided to Wage a Guerrilla War in South Vietnam

From the mid- to late-1950s, top U.S. officials in Saigon and Washington did not believe Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) would attempt to conquer South Vietnam through the formation of a rural-based insurgency. American officials came to this conclusion for a number of reasons.  Most importantly, during the final stages of the First Indochina War, a sizeable segment of the Vietminh military apparatus fought as conventional main forces, rather than as guerrillas. And these conventional Communist units, employing standard siege tactics, defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu.  Furthermore, when the First Indochina War ended in July 1954, the Vietminh guerrilla units still in southern Vietnam began regrouping to the North. Once there, those guerrillas were integrated into the DRV’s conventional force structure. Although several thousand of the best-trained and motivated southern guerrillas remained south of the 17th parallel in violation of the Geneva Accords, a well-coordinated guerrilla army did not exist in South Vietnam in the 1950s. Continue Reading »

Area Control and the End of Pacification in South Vietnam

In the aftermath of the Tet offensive, the U.S. Mission and the Government of South Vietnam (GVN) re-evaluated the rural pacification program. By mid-1968, the Allies decided to de-emphasize, and in some areas halt altogether, genuine pacification. Instead of winning hearts and minds through civic action (which involved programs in education, health care, land reform, and the construction of small-scale infrastructure projects), the Allies opted for a program of area control.

In simple terms, area control entailed the resettlement and concentration of the peasantry into regions militarily dominated by American and South Vietnamese forces, such as urban slums, shanty towns on the outskirts of U.S. and South Vietnamese bases, and alongside roads frequented by U.S. and ARVN mechanized units. In these areas, the peasantry could be easily monitored; young men could be readily drafted into military service, and the rice harvest could be kept out of the hands of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese.  The U.S. and GVN had engaged in various forms of area control since the early 1960s. Back then, suspect populations were forcibly resettled in Agrovilles, Strategic Hamlets, and New Life Villages. Beginning in 1968, the Allies implemented area control the same way they had always done it – through violence or the threat of violence. Continue Reading »

“It Was Never Really Silent in Vietnam”: The U.S. Military and Harassment and Interdiction Fire

In 1965, on the recommendations of the Rand Corporation, the U.S. military in South Vietnam began conducting what officials called harassment and interdiction missions, or “H and I” for short. H and I fire involved the shelling, by artillery and mortars, of known or suspected areas of Communist activity. In the northern province of Quang Ngai, where the Vietcong controlled most of the countryside, that meant almost the entire province. The bulk of H and I fire fell on river crossings, footpaths, trail junctures, gullies, ridgelines, or where river valleys left the highlands and entered the coastal plain. These landscape features acted as North Vietnamese and Vietcong lines of communication. American artillery batteries also regularly shelled the likely approaches to the U.S.’s divisional bases, fire support bases, and night defensive positions.[1]

Occasionally, H and I fire was truly random, striking a rice paddy, a river bank, a grove of trees, or a hamlet.[2] American commanders justified H and I on the grounds that it kept the enemy off-balance, deterred Communist troop movements, terrorized the Vietcong, and enhanced the defenses of U.S. and South Vietnamese bases. Like the intensive U.S. aerial bombardment of the South Vietnamese countryside, H and I fire became a ubiquitous feature of the Vietnam War. The U.S. never abandoned its use, even though its effectiveness as a counter-insurgency tactic became increasingly suspect. Continue Reading »

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 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 involved some sort of monetary exchange.

Journalist and historian Bernard Fall reported in mid-1966 that the United States had 1,700 helicopters, 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.[1] In the first four months of 1966, the Air Force alone flew 97,000 sorties in South Vietnam.[2] A sortie represents one aircraft taking-off, conducting a mission, and then returning to base.  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. In 1967, the Air Force almost doubled that number when it flew 672,935 sorties.[3]  Those numbers did not include U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Army aircraft, which flew hundreds of thousands of additional sorties. By early 1968, the airfields at Danang, Tan Son Nhut, and Bien Hoa had become three of the busiest airports in the world – aircraft came and went 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without let up.

National Geographic Magazine reporter Peter T. White visited the massive U.S. airbase 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.”[4]  While Peter White’s visit to the Danang Airbase was short-lived, the South Vietnamese living next to the base weren’t so lucky.  They could’nt leave the area.  As a result, they experienced excruciatingly high levels of noise pollution every day and every night from inbound and outbound U.S. jets and helicopters. 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 nearby Mekong Delta towns of Ben Tre and My Tho.  Although they had markets for their cash crops, 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 the farmers owned their own land, the 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 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 nineteenth century. 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.

While patrolling with American troops in War Zone D, New York Times reporter Jack Raymond came upon a booby-trapped trail that led 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 »

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