Vietnam 1965: Portents of Failure – The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley

In August, 1965, while General William C. Westmoreland finalized the details of his ground war strategy, 700 skytroopers from the 1st Cavalry Division disembarked from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Boxer at the port of Qui Nhon, South Vietnam. At the time, international military analysts considered the 1st Cavalry (whose troopers called themselves the “First Team”) to be the most technologically sophisticated ground combat unit in the world. The 1st Cavalry’s large contingent of helicopters, including the new UH-1 Huey and twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook, provided the skytroopers unprecedented mobility; and in modern warfare, mobility translated into killing power. Continue Reading »

Vietnam 1965: Westmoreland and the Much-Maligned Strategy

On June 28, 1965, President Johnson gave General William C. Westmoreland the authority to commence offensive ground operations against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese across all of South Vietnam. Although Westmoreland now had a green light to wage a ground war, he still had not firmed up his strategy, or concept of operations, for the employment of U.S. troops.  Nevertheless, the MACV chief did have an idea of how he wanted to use the ever-increasing number of U.S. combat troops then entering South Vietnam. In a telegram to the Commander-In-Chief, Pacific, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, Westmoreland revealed his understanding of the nature of the war in South Vietnam and how he wanted to deploy U.S. combat troops. Continue Reading »

Vietnam 1965: The Evolution and End of the Enclave Strategy

The United States began its involvement in the ground war in South Vietnam with an enclave strategy. That strategy had a short life.  It started with the landing of the Marines at Danang in early March and ended less than four months later.[1] Continue Reading »

Operation Masher/White Wing: A Critical Assessment

On January 23, 1966, the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, along with the Marines based at Chu Lai, began the first division-sized search and destroy operation of the Vietnam War. In addition to 6,000 soldiers of the 1st Cavalry and 4,000 Marines, the operation involved four regular South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) battalions, five ARVN ranger battalions and two battalions from a South Korean division. This large operation had initially been given the code name “Masher,” but President Johnson worried that that name would convey the message that the U.S. military was insensitive to the taking of Asian lives.  Thus, at the request of the White House, General Westmoreland changed the name from “Masher” to “White Wing.”[1] Continue Reading »

Vietnam 1965: Operation Starlite and the Early Doubts about Westmoreland’s Attrition Strategy

In late June, 1965, President Johnson gave General William C. Westmoreland authority to send U.S. ground units into combat against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army, “…when in COMUSMACV’s judgment their use is necessary to strengthen the relative position of GVN forces.”[1] Westmoreland interpreted this purposely-ambiguous presidential authorization for what it was – a blank check to deploy U.S. ground forces wherever he saw fit.  Soon after, U.S. soldiers launched their first offensive ground operation in South Vietnam. Prior operations in the South Vietnamese countryside had been characterized as defensive in nature because they were conducted to protect U.S. bases from Vietcong and North Vietnamese troop concentrations. But in late June, MACV conceded that U.S. troops were now taking the war to the enemy. Continue Reading »

Vietnam 1965: The Tactical Experimentation Phase

In the spring and early summer of 1965, U.S. ground troops began their first tentative patrols into the South Vietnamese countryside. The purpose of these patrols was four-fold: 1) to keep the Vietcong away from U.S. bases; 2) to ensure the safe arrival of American reinforcements at the American-occupied coastal enclaves; 3) to familiarize U.S. troops with South Vietnam’s varied environments; 4) and to experiment with tactics.

Several top policymakers in the Johnson administration favored a period of tactical experimentation, believing such experimentation could help the White House decide whether to commit the United States to a large-scale ground war in South Vietnam.  Maxwell Taylor, who served as U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam in early 1965, became a proponent of tactical experimentation because he doubted that U.S. troops could succeed in a counter-insurgency role in rural South Vietnam.[1] Taylor verbalized his concerns in a conversation with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in March. McNamara later recounted the conversation to President Johnson, “…Max believes that U.S. troops would have great difficulty operating in South Vietnam – particularly in a counter-guerrilla role, where they’d be operating by themselves in the countryside. They’d have difficulty in distinguishing Vietcong from Vietnamese, be attacking South Vietnamese villages, make mistakes and kill loyal South Vietnamese people…He says that our troops…are poorly trained as counter-guerrillas.”[2]  Taylor worried that U.S. troops, wholly ignorant of Vietnamese cultural norms, would only spur the insurgency, rather than squash it. Continue Reading »

Vietnam 1965: Westmoreland’s Geography of War

Modern wars and military bases are synonymous.  Bases hold the equipment, weapons, ammunition, aircraft, communications technology, vehicles, fuel, food, and clothing necessary to wage highly-mobile, technologically-sophisticated warfare.  They are also the places where troops are housed, as well as organized, armed, and equipped for combat.  And when battles erupt, soldiers sally forth from their bases to confront the enemy.  Then, if all goes well, they return to the safety of their bases to rest and refit.  Military bases are geographical weapons of war – as important to combat as fighter bombers, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers.

In the spring of 1965, General William C. Westmoreland recognized that he had to have a series of big bases along the South Vietnamese coast in order to fight a ground war in South Vietnam. Continue Reading »

“The Monstrous Missouri” and the Great Flood of 1881

No one had ever seen anything like it in their lives.  Elderly Indians living along the Missouri in Dakota Territory said the river had never been higher.  Settlers in the valley bottomlands further south said the same thing – this flood dwarfed every previous flood – even the deluges of 1844 and 1867.  It wasn’t just the height of the flood crest that impressed Indians and Whites alike, it was the force of the water – and the huge blocks of ice carried by the river’s rapid currents. Continue Reading »

Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part VII, Kennedy’s Lost War

No one in 1963, or later, doubted that Ngo Dinh Diem lacked the personality traits and the leadership skills to win the allegiance of the rural peasantry. A CIA report from 1963 stated the following about the Diem regime, “…[it] has been hampered by its lack of confidence in and its inability to engage the understanding and support of a considerable portion of the Vietnamese people – including large segments of the educated classes and the peasantry.”[1] Diem’s monopolization of power, his promotion of Catholics to positions of influence, and his reliance on his brother Nhu isolated him from the majority of South Vietnamese.

Diem certainly had his problems; but it was the Strategic Hamlet Program, and the peasant opposition to it, that caused his government to lose so much ground in 1962 and 1963. And President Kennedy, as much as Diem, held responsibility for the debacle that unfolded across rural South Vietnam in those years.

Continue Reading »

Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part VI, Prelude to a Coup

The Vietcong did not stand idly by while the Americans and South Vietnamese erected strategic hamlets across South Vietnam.  From the beginning, the guerrillas sought to undermine the program. On June 23, 1962, only two months after the GVN initiated the program in Binh Duong Province, Hanoi radio urged its compatriots in the South to “…destroy the United States-Diem [My-Diem] strategic hamlets and free the people detained therein.”[1] After hearing this radio message, U.S. and GVN officials concluded that the Strategic Hamlet Program must be working, otherwise the Hanoi regime would not have brought attention to it.

In the weeks that followed Hanoi’s exhortation, the Vietcong stepped up its attacks against strategic hamlets, striking at settlements in the provinces of Quang Ngai on the coastal plain and Vinh Binh and Vinh Long in the delta. In all of these operations, the guerrillas seized the weapons of the hamlet defenders, which enabled them to replenish their own stocks and arm new units. In the ten-week period ending July 15, the Vietcong attacked forty-six strategic hamlets, but only overran three.[2]

Continue Reading »

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