Vietnam 1965: LBJ Rejects the Prospect of People’s War

Bien Hoa airbase lay a scant twelve miles northeast of Saigon, in an area of scrub brush, elephant grass, and marshland. On its tarmac stood one of the largest concentrations of U.S. military aircraft in South Vietnam, including B-57 bombers, UH-1 helicopters, and A-1H ground attack planes.

Just after midnight on November 1, 1964, a 100-man company of Vietcong guerrillas set up a battery of six U.S.-made 81-mm mortars in a meadow on the south side of the base.  U.S. investigators later concluded that the Vietcong had likely acquired the American mortars from French stockpiles during the Franco-Vietnamese War.  The guerrillas came within a half a mile of the base’s perimeter without being detected by the South Vietnamese battalion charged with the base’s defense. Once the guerrillas attached the mortar tubes to their base plates and sighted the weapons, they started lobbing one shell after another over the airbase’s perimeter fence. The high-arching mortar rounds first fell down on the B-57s, setting several ablaze. After blasting through a row of B-57s, the mortar crews walked the explosions back toward the barracks housing U.S. personnel. As the exploding rounds came within range of the barracks, hot shrapnel tore through the building, wounding several Americans who only moments before had been in peaceful slumber. Other GI’s were cut down by shell fragments as they exited the building. Continue Reading »

The Monsoon War: Weather, Insects, and Animals in the Vietnam War

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Indochina’s weather, insects, and animals posed serious problems for American troops deployed across South Vietnam.

South Vietnam’s heat plagued the Americans. During the dry season, which lasts from early February to the end of April, daytime temperatures along the south central coast, in the lowlands around Saigon, and across the Mekong Delta regularly rose into the 90’s Fahrenheit.  American troops, who had been acclimatized to the temperate climate of North America, had difficulty patrolling in such extreme heat. Heavy cotton fatigues (issued in the early years of the war), cumbersome rucksacks, steel-plated flak jackets, and steel helmets only worsened the effects of the heat. Under South Vietnam’s unbearable mid-day sun, G.I.’s became lethargic and dangerously overheated. Trooper Bill Brocksieker remembered his unit’s first month in-country, “We didn’t have no jungle boots or no utilities. Everybody, we drank a lot of water. We were dehydrated easy trying to get adjusted to the heat, a lot of people fainting, a lot of confusion that first thirty days or so.”[1] Continue Reading »

“Big, Complicated, and Old”: The Vietcong’s Tunnels

The Vietcong excelled in tunnel construction. The guerrillas dug impressive tunnel complexes under villages, between villages, and beneath their base camps. Some tunnel systems, including the famous Cu Chi tunnels northwest of Saigon, were decades old by the time American troops landed in South Vietnam in mid-1965.

Large tunnel complexes, such as the one below the timbered Iron Triangle, became something akin to a massive underground base camp, with storage areas, ammunition dumps, hospitals, and sleeping quarters. A U.S. Army study noted, “Generally, enemy tunnels were of two kinds: simple, shallow structures, hastily built and used primarily by local Viet Cong and guerrillas, or well-constructed systems used by large forces and usually found in uninhabited areas.”[1] Continue Reading »

“A Population That Refuses Cooperation to the White Forces”: The South Vietnamese Peasantry and the Increase in Vietcong Strength, 1965-1967

The U.S.’s scorched earth tactics, in conjunction with the Allied mistreatment of rural residents and refugees, spurred Vietcong recruitment during the period from early 1965 to late 1967. At the beginning of 1965, Communist main force and guerrilla strength stood at 103,000.  In March 1965, the month the Marines landed at Danang and U.S. air operations in South Vietnam ratcheted up, the number of Vietcong was reported to have reached 137,000. The March estimate represented a 33% increase in Communist strength in just a matter of months.

By July 1965, the U.S. revised upward its figures on enemy strength to 153,000 main forces and guerrillas. Enemy strength jumped still higher later in the year (a period that coincided with a further intensification of U.S. air and ground combat operations across South Vietnam). In the second half of 1965, U.S. intelligence estimated Vietcong in-country recruitment at 9,000 new foot soldiers per month. By the close of 1965, the Vietcong fielded an army of 230,000 regulars and part-time guerrillas. U.S. air and ground operations in 1965 failed to weaken the Vietcong. Instead, the U.S. presence did the exact opposite; it spurred a Vietcong recruitment bonanza. The Vietcong became stronger and more menacing as the U.S. build up progressed into 1966 and 1967. Continue Reading »

Vying for Hearts and Minds: America, the Vietcong and South Vietnam’s Refugees

By late 1967, the scale of the refugee crisis afflicting South Vietnam could no longer be ignored or downplayed by U.S. officials.  In October of that year, a spokesperson with the non-partisan General Accounting Office (GAO) admitted, “…the United States refugee and medical aid programs in South Vietnam had suffered seriously from low priorities and shoddy implementation.”[1] Senator Edward Kennedy concurred with the GAO’s conclusions, “…the refugee program and the medical program in South Vietnam are a scandal.”  Kennedy placed ultimate responsibility for the generation of refugees, and their ill-treatment, squarely on the shoulders of President Johnson. According to Kennedy, the Johnson administration had “…an almost cavalier attitude toward human needs and human concerns in Vietnam.”[2] Kennedy was correct in his condemnation of Johnson. That the president approved of a military policy that created millions of South Vietnamese refugees, and then did little to alleviate the suffering of those millions, ranks as the greatest moral failing of his presidency, and one of the greatest failings of any president in American history. Continue Reading »

The Suspect Population: South Vietnam’s Peasant Refugees, 1965-1967

Between 1965 and 1967, over 1.5 million South Vietnamese refugees passed through, or remained residents of, South Vietnam’s government run refugee camps. Conditions in the camps varied widely. Catholic refugees received the greatest degree of assistance, from both GVN officials (many of whom were Catholic) and from the papacy’s Catholic Relief Services, which directed its funds toward the care of its own flock. The refugees from Vietcong areas, who tended to be Buddhists, animists, atheists, or members of one of South Vietnam’s minority sects, faced at best government indifference or at worst government mistreatment. Continue Reading »

South Vietnam’s Refugee Crisis, 1965-1967

The South Vietnamese refugee crisis that began in 1965, and worsened in 1966 and 1967, remade South Vietnam’s geography. At the beginning of the U.S. build-up in 1965, South Vietnam possessed about 15,000 hamlets. By late 1967, thousands of hamlets had been destroyed, damaged, or abandoned.[1] The peasants that fled those hamlets migrated to places they believed to be safe – regions unlikely to be subjected to U.S. airstrikes, artillery fire and ground operations. They often built shantytowns just outside the wire of every major U.S. base in South Vietnam, trusting the Americans and ARVN not to blast them out of their new homes. One refugee explained why his family moved into an area controlled by the GVN, “…we were afraid of death. We came to the GVN side because we wanted to live.”[2] Many refugees thought that proximity to Allied military bases meant safety. The American response to the Tet Offensive proved that assumption to be tragically wrong. Continue Reading »

Hey Hey LBJ, How Many Refugees Did You Make Today?

South Vietnamese refugee numbers skyrocketed in 1966 and 1967.  In mid-1966, the “official” (meaning officially acknowledged) refugee population within South Vietnam reached approximately 1.5 million. At the same time that refugee numbers were ballooning across rural South Vietnam, the U.S. Army completed a study that admitted, “U.S.-RVNAF (the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces) bombing and artillery fire, in conjunction with ground operations are the immediate and prime causes of refugee movement into GVN-controlled urban and coastal areas.”[1]

This honest assessment by the U.S. Army of the situation prevailing in the South only confirmed what General William C. Westmoreland, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and President Lyndon Baines Johnson already knew.  Refugees were not collateral damage – the unfortunate results of U.S. operations.  Rather, they were the actual targets of operations. Displacing South Vietnam’s rural population was a key component of the U.S.’s counter-insurgency war. Continue Reading »

America’s Scorched Earth Policy in Vietnam: Part III, The Consequences

In contrast to artillery gunners and the pilots of high-flying bombers, U.S. infantrymen orchestrated the destruction of rural South Vietnam up close and personal. They carried out the American scorched earth policy with Zippo lighters, flamethrowers, and grenades. Continue Reading »

America’s Scorched Earth Policy in Vietnam: Part II, The Proof

Proof that the U.S. carried out a scorched earth policy in South Vietnam was revealed in American military leaflets. From 1965 onward, U.S. aircraft dropped millions of leaflets across the South Vietnamese countryside. Many of those leaflets warned the South Vietnamese peasantry of the dangers of supporting the Vietcong. Continue Reading »

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