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Protracted War and the Vietnamese Coastal Plain

Vietnam’s coastal plain stretches 638 miles in a narrow arch from Vinh (in the former Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam)) to Phan Thiet (in the former Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam)).  It is bordered on the east by the blue waters of the South China Sea, or what the Vietnamese refer to as the East Sea, and on the west by the imposing mountains of the Central Highlands.  In its narrowest reaches in northern Binh Dinh Province, the coastal plain is less than a mile wide. Continue Reading »

Westmoreland’s Decision to Defend Khe Sanh

TroopsAtConThienIn January 1966, General William C. Westmoreland ordered the U.S. Marines to the Khe Sanh Combat Base in western Quang Tri Province to curtail North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam along the system of trails known collectively as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But like the Green Berets stationed at the base before them, the Marines failed to halt, or even slow, the flow of Communist soldiers and supplies southward. The same variables of distance, weather, and terrain that had made it impossible for the Green Berets to stop North Vietnamese infiltration also thwarted the Marines.  In the first year of the Marine deployment to Khe Sanh, the North Vietnamese infiltrated an estimated 62,000 men into South Vietnam.  In 1967, the North Vietnamese sent 101,000 soldiers down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam.[1] Continue Reading »

Khe Sanh Before the Siege

Khe Sanh Combat BaseIn 1962, U.S. Special Forces established a camp in the far northwest corner of South Vietnam at the village of Khe Sanh. The camp stood only ten and a half miles east of the Laotian border and seventeen miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). To ensure the air delivery of supplies and reinforcements to the garrison stationed there, American engineers built a simple dirt airstrip atop the Xom Cham Plateau, a height of flat red earth bordered on the north and west by dark green forested peaks. Off the eastern end of the airstrip, the plateau abruptly fell away into a chasm that had been eroded by the waters of the Rao Quan River. Continue Reading »

South Vietnam: America’s Speed Bump on the Road to Communist Expansionism

B52StrikeSouthVietnam

In 1969, author Tim O’Brien witnessed firsthand the destruction wrought by American firepower in South Vietnam.  “I was in Quang Ngai Province, out in the middle of this bombed out mess.  The whole province was wasted…By the time I got there…our bombing and artillery fire had destroyed basically ninety percent of the dwellings. The villages were sometimes almost deserted…We were really hated.  It was just so patent.  You see [sic] the hostility in everybody’s eyes.” [Appy, Patriots, p.543] Continue Reading »

“A Noble Cause”: Reagan and the Vietnam War

RonaldReaganOn August 18, 1980, Republican Party presidential candidate Ronald Reagan spoke at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Chicago, Illinois.  In a hall filled with the aging veterans of World War II and the younger veterans of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, Reagan reflected on America’s recent defeat in South Vietnam.

True to his conservative political philosophy and the advise of his hawkish foreign policy advisors, the former B-movie actor provided an interpretation of the U.S.’s war in Vietnam far removed from historical reality. Reagan did what he had spent his entire acting career doing – he engaged in make believe. The well-groomed and articulate candidate wanted his audience to forget about the war’s complexities, its ambiguities, and its brutality.  In an obvious pandering to the veterans, Reagan framed the Vietnam War as a simple struggle between the virtuous and altruistic United States and the evil and aggressive North Vietnamese. Continue Reading »

Partitioning Vietnam: Making the Division Permanent

A common myth surrounding the 1954 partition of Vietnam holds that three of the primary negotiators at the Geneva Conference, French Foreign Minister Pierre Mendes-France, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav M. Molotov, and Pham Van Dong, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), decided rather nonchalantly, and at the last moment, to establish the demarcation line at the 17th Parallel.  Apparently, just hours before the approach of the July 21st deadline for an agreement, Mendes-France proposed a partition line at the 18th Parallel.  Pham Van Dong countered with the 16th Parallel.  Molotov, hoping to quickly wrap-up the negotiations, then flippantly proposed the 17th Parallel.  The French and Vietnamese immediately recognized the reasonableness of Molotov’s compromise proposal and agreed to the 17th Parallel.

Not only is the above interpretation of events at the Geneva Conference untrue, it ignores how serious the United States, France and the DRV viewed the issue of the demarcation line.  Locating the border between the Communist zone of occupation and the French zone became the key stumbling block to an agreement at Geneva.  French and Vietminh negotiators understood that the site of the dividing line had significant political, economic and military implications. Continue Reading »

Commander Xi and the CCP

CommanderXiSince 1971, and Henry A. Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing, U.S. relations with China have been predicated on the belief that China’s economic rise, as well as its increasing integration into the global economy, would contribute to its political liberalization at home and its international cooperation abroad.  America’s ruling elites believed that trade, rising personal incomes, and the ascendency of an entrepreneurial class within China would weaken the hold of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the levers of power, enabling a more democratic polity to eventually emerge in the Middle Kingdom.  A liberalizing China, linked economically and culturally to the world, would help keep the peace in East Asia and Southeast Asia.

China’s President Xi Jinping has proven America’s long-held faith in the liberalizing effects of economic development to have been wrong.  Since becoming Chairman of the CCP in 2012, Xi has cracked down on political dissidents, strengthened the totalitarian state security apparatus, put greater restrictions on the ability of multinationals to operate in the country, ratcheted up his government’s anti-American rhetoric, and militarily intimidated China’s neighbors in the South China Sea.  Xi’s China is neither liberal nor peaceful.         Continue Reading »

What South Vietnam’s Collapse Can Teach Us About Iraq

NoVseTankEntersPrezPalaceForty-one years ago this week, soldiers of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) raised the red, blue, and gold-starred flag of the National Liberation Front atop the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace in Saigon.  The event marked the final triumph of Vietnam’s Communist revolutionary forces over the U.S.-backed regime of Nguyen Van Thieu.

Ever since the unexpectedly rapid collapse of South Vietnam in March and April 1975, historians, military analysts, and former U.S. and South Vietnamese government and military officials have debated the reasons South Vietnam fell to the Communists. Many former top Pentagon officials, members of the Nixon and Ford administrations, and neo-conservative academics blame America’s defeat in Vietnam on the American media establishment – for its apparent liberal bias; anti-war protesters – for their supposedly misguided opposition to a just war against totalitarian Communism; a Democratic Party-controlled Congress – for its cuts in aid to South Vietnam in 1974 and 1975; and the PAVN, whose soldiers possessed conventional military superiority over the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). Continue Reading »

Obama’s Blunders: Libya, Syria, and the South China Sea

In a Fox News interview last week Barack Obama stated that one of his biggest regrets as president was deposing Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi without adequately preparing for the post-Gaddafi era.  Obama admitted that the chaos currently gripping Libya is in large part the result of failed U.S., French, and British policies.  I’m sure the Libyans who now live daily with violence, economic instability, and political turmoil, and whose country Obama referred to as a “mess,” were deeply touched by the president’s honesty.

Unfortunately, during the course of the interview, the president did not acknowledge his other foreign policy mistakes, maybe because if he had it would have been obvious to television viewers, and people across the globe, that Obama’s blunders in the international arena have made the world a far more dangerous place than when he took office seven years ago. Continue Reading »

To Thwart the Enemy’s Designs: An Khe and the 1st Cavalry Division

1stCavInTransitToSVNIn May 1965, the Vietcong began their much anticipated Monsoon Offensive against South Vietnam.  In ordering the offensive, Ho Chi Minh and his comrades on the Politburo in Hanoi hoped the southern guerrillas would destroy the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and overthrow the Saigon regime before the large-scale introduction of U.S. troops into the South.  In the first month of the operation, it looked to observers on the ground in South Vietnam that the Communists might well achieve their objectives.  In a series of battles in late May and early June, the Vietcong defeated sizable ARVN units in the provinces of Phuoc Long, Quang Ngai, and Phuoc Vinh.  The loss of so much South Vietnamese combat power in such a short period of time convinced MACV Commander General William C. Westmoreland that only the intervention of American combat troops directly into the conflict would save South Vietnam from total collapse.

Recognizing that the South teetered on the edge of defeat, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave Westmoreland in late June authority to send American troops into combat against the Vietcong.  A month later, Johnson approved the deployment of 175,000 ground troops to South Vietnam.  Within days of Johnson’s July 28th decision to escalate the U.S. role in the ground war, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara ordered the 1st Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) to South Vietnam.  At the time, the 1st Cav, known throughout the U.S. Army as “The First Team,” was considered the most technologically-sophisticated ground combat unit in the world. Continue Reading »

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