America’s Scorched Earth Policy in Vietnam: Part I, The Justification

In mid-1965, the United States began the wholesale destruction of rural South Vietnam.  The destruction came in many forms. U.S. airplanes bombed hamlets, infantrymen set fire to the houses of peasants, Army artillery batteries indiscriminately shelled patches of forest, Air Force C-123’s dropped chemical defoliants on crops, and U.S. troops forcibly removed peasants to refugee camps.  These actions were not the unintentional and unfortunate consequences of war.  Rather, the United States military, with the full-backing of the President of the United States and the head of Military Assistance Command – Vietnam (MACV), General William C. Westmoreland, purposely carried out a scorched earth policy across the South Vietnamese countryside. Continue Reading »

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 recently turned an alarming, bright red, signifying Communist domination.  In the midst of the sea of red were the towns and cities still under Allied control – marked by small, white spots.  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 favouring 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

U.S. strike sortie rates for all three U.S. air branches (Air Force, Marines, and Navy) in South Vietnam rose continuously from 1965 through the end of 1967. In 1965, the U.S Air Force alone flew 37,645 strike sorties. In 1966, Air Force planes flew 73,911 strike 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]

In late 1966, the Air Force admitted that only 15% of its strike sorties were actually directed against Communist soldiers engaged in combat with U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. The remainder of airstrikes targeted hamlets, trails, base camps, and supply depots.[2]

General William C. Westmoreland knew that the vast majority of U.S. air strikes hit fixed targets, such as hamlets, rather than enemy troops.  And knowledge of that fact worried him; because if the American public learned that the U.S. air campaign in South Vietnam involved the indiscriminate bombing of the countryside, support for the war might plummet. 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 notably, 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. 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 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 that in mid-1966 the U.S. had 1,700 helicopters, 400 U.S. Navy fighter-bombers (both in-country and off-shore), and about 1,000 Air Force planes 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 its 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. 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 farmers in Nong Kinh, ever got rich. There were too many forces working against them. If a peasant owned his own land, the French colonial government in Saigon taxed him so heavily that he never saved enough money to enlarge his land holdings or improve his capital stock.

Those peasants who worked for 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 Mekong River’s annual floods stole a man’s livelihood as regularly 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 1800’s. 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 remarked on the country’s natural beauty.  For many, South Vietnam looked like a tropical paradise with its shimmering rice paddies, white sand beaches, and blue coastal waters.  But once deep in the Vietnamese bush, American G.I.’s quickly discarded their first impressions.  They realized that South Vietnam was anything but a paradise – it was a horrifying place, rife with unseen peril.

Although South Vietnam possessed all sorts of natural dangers, including malarial mosquitoes, man-eating tigers, and fast-flowing rivers, nature itself did not pose the gravest threat to the safety of American troops.  Rather, it was what the Vietcong did with nature that made South Vietnam so dangerous.

In the 1960s, the Vietcong remade rural South Vietnam into a weapon of war.  The guerrillas achieved the weaponization of the countryside through the widespread use of booby traps.

The Vietcong hid booby traps from trees, 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 became a potential site for a booby trap. Continue Reading »

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