The Vietcong’s Fortified Countryside

During the First Indochina War, the Communist Vietminh fortified rural areas under its control.  Across Tonkin and Annam, Vietminh fortifications slowed French mechanized units and blunted the killing power of French weaponry.  Since the Vietminh’s rural fortifications proved their worth against the French, the top leaders of North Vietnam, including Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap, decided to use the same fortifications against American ground units operating in the South Vietnamese countryside. Continue Reading »

Ho Chi Minh’s Trojan Horses: Fortified Villages in Vietnamese History

General Vo Nguyen Giap’s concept of People’s War called for the total mobilization of Vietnam’s human resources and the transformation of the country’s natural and built environments into weapons of war. Thus, as soon as the Communist guerrillas took hold of a South Vietnamese village, cadre worked to consolidate the Vietcong’s control over the residents as well as the surrounding countryside. Political officers levied taxes on rice farmers, convened show trials for “enemies of the people,” and propagandized the populace on the need to support The Resistance. Officers recruited young men into the many branches of the Vietcong military apparatus and organized the peasants into work gangs. Those labourers fortified the Vietcong village and the surrounding agricultural landscape against U.S and South Vietnamese forces. Continue Reading »

Hostile and Utterly Alien: The American Encounter with the Vietnamese Environment

In the 1960s and early 1970s, American G.I.’s fought the Vietcong and North Vietnamese in one of the world’s most difficult and diverse environments.  Rural South Vietnam was a land of contrasts.  It contained mosquito-infested swamps, sand dunes, water-filled paddies, silt-laden rivers, towering mountains, and dense jungles.  These environments posed a significant challenge to American tactics and strategy.

Frequently, the countryside conspired to blunt American military power.  Rice paddies bogged down tanks and jeeps, sand and mud jammed the delicate M-16 rifle, and triple-canopy jungle deflected iron bombs and napalm.  American infantrymen, assigned the grisly task of hunting down and killing the Communist guerrillas, felt the environment’s effects most directly – and many of them came to view the Vietnamese bush as an ancient, implacable foe. Continue Reading »

The VC Now Control The Countryside: The Tet Offensive and the Loss of Rural South Vietnam

During the first days of the Communist Tet Offensive, Allied military units abandoned hundreds of forward positions across rural South Vietnam and retreated to the country’s district and provincial towns and larger cities. The evacuation of the countryside had two purposes: 1) to preserve Allied military power in the face of the overwhelming Communist assault; and 2) to secure the urban population still loyal to the Saigon regime.[1]

When the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and the Americans withdrew from the countryside, they left a power vacuum in their wake. The Communists filled that vacuum.[2] By the end of the Tet Offensive, the Communists not only controlled vast swaths of rural South Vietnam, they had dealt a severe, and possibly fatal, blow to the Allied pacification program. Continue Reading »

Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part IV: The Search and Destroy Strategy Comes Under Fire

In the fall of 1967, a number of prominent public figures began to question whether General William C. Westmoreland’s big unit war would ever achieve U.S. objectives in South Vietnam.  Several of these individuals voiced their concerns to President Johnson on November 2, during the second day of meetings at the White House of a group collectively known as the Wisemen.

One of the Wisemen, former U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, told President Johnson that the primary reason for declining domestic support for the war was the high number of U.S. casualties. If casualties could be brought down, the home front could be steadied. With the recent defeat of Lt. Col. Terry Allen’s Jr.’s battalion in Binh Duong Province possibly on his mind, Lodge said, “An exclusive military victory is not conceivable to me.” He then went on to say that instead of Westmoreland’s current concept of operations, the U.S. should pursue a “…split up and keep off balance…” strategy. Lodge argued that such a strategy, “…utilizes the smaller units and means less casualties…[and] also diminishes the number of refugees.””  In other words, abandoning the big unit war would not only stabilize the home front, it would, by reducing collateral damage and refugee numbers, enhance South Vietnam’s increasingly fragile social stability.[1] Continue Reading »

Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part III: Dak To

The series of battles that took place in the vicinity of Dak To in November 1967 followed a familiar Communist military pattern. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese initiated the majority of the battles or were found by Allied forces only when they wanted to be found. Communist units fought in close proximity to their base areas and sources of resupply and reinforcement in Cambodia and Laos.  And the Americans frequently discovered the enemy in difficult terrain, thick vegetation, and dug-in behind fortifications. Continue Reading »

Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part II: Junction City

The second major U.S. search and destroy operation of 1967 took place in War Zone C, a 144-square-mile patch of jungle and swamp in Tay Ninh Province. On maps, War Zone C resembled an upturned pyramid, with its tip pointed directly at Saigon and its wide base flush up against the border between South Vietnam and Cambodia. Route 22 traced the war zone’s western border and Route 4 skirted its eastern edge. The town of Katum sat along Route 4 in War Zone C’s northeast corner. To the west, Tay Ninh City straddled Route 22. Continue Reading »

Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part I: Cedar Falls

On January 8, 1967, Allied military forces began one of the largest search and destroy operations of the Vietnam War. Operation Cedar Falls involved a sweep by American and South Vietnamese troops through the sixty square miles of trees, thick undergrowth, and abandoned rubber plantations in the Iron Triangle and Thanh Dien Forest. Continue Reading »

A Maximum Air Effort: The American Response to the Tet Offensive

In February and March 1968, South Vietnam took on the appearance of a Jackson Pollock painting – it resembled a swirling, chaotic, psychedelic display of colour and light as the Americans wildly splashed the yellows, oranges, and reds of napalm and the browns, greys, and blacks of exploding bombs and artillery shells across the canvas of what was South Vietnam. In the end, the frenzied madness of the American response shattered any hope that the United States and Saigon regime could ever win the war. Continue Reading »

To Hold the Line: President Johnson, Tet, and the Decision to Continue the War

During and immediately after the Tet Offensive, several top U.S. officials, former policymakers, and pundits concluded that the war in Vietnam was lost.  South Vietnam was destined for defeat.  This dire prediction rested on three key facts – facts that became apparent during Tet.  First, millions of South Vietnamese actively sided with the Communists. Second, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army had access to a seemingly bottomless manpower pool. Third, the Communists had the resources, men, and territorial sanctuaries to pursue the war indefinitely.  That President Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor Walt W. Rostow, and General William C. Westmoreland did not accept these truths did not change the reality of the U.S.’s weak position within South Vietnam.  Each of those men had strong personal and professional reasons not to accept those troubling facts. But others, not afflicted with the emotional baggage of men who had devoted years to solving the Vietnam puzzle, believed the Tet Offensive, and particularly the widespread support granted to the Vietcong by the South Vietnamese people during the Communist military operation, proved that the U.S. had suffered an irreversible defeat in Vietnam. Continue Reading »

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