Since the end of the Vietnam War, General William C. Westmoreland has been criticized for approving the construction of large U.S. military bases throughout South Vietnam. Critics, who included the highly decorated Colonel David Hackworth, argued that the bases were unnecessarily large, provided too many amenities to soldiers, exposed the Americans stationed on the bases to enemy fire, reduced the combat effectiveness of U.S. units by providing soldiers an all-too luxurious life in the rear, and increased the overall cost of the war without any discernible benefits. Hackworth once described the 9th Infantry Division base at Dong Tam as “Four hundred acres of sitting ducks.” [Hackworth, Steel My Soldiers, Photo Caption] But critics, such as Hackworth, failed to acknowledge the multiple political, economic, and military reasons Westmoreland favored large bases.
Divisional bases in South Vietnam did resemble small American cities. Jerry Headley, a trooper with the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, recalled the odd juxtaposition of an American base situated in the midst of the South Vietnamese countryside. He remarked, “It was weird, really; you’d be out in the bush for two or three weeks or longer and come in for a stand down. You could have a cookout, go to the PX, see movies at night. It was almost like being back in the world. I personally could never get used to that, and to me it was one of the problems.” [Bergerud, Tropic Thunder, 278] Another GI, John Gilligan, remembered his impression of the enormous U.S. base at Cam Ranh Bay, “The first time I had a look at Cam Ranh Bay I was shocked. It made Pearl Harbor look like a used car lot. It was vast. They were unloading stuff everywhere and had put in an airfield next to it. Clearly, we had built this thing for a long stay.” [Appy, Patriots, 310]
The big bases did not blend into the Vietnamese landscape. In a rural countryside filled with rice paddies, thatched-roofed huts, and dirt footpaths, the American bases looked out of place, examples of technological sophistication, modern architectural design, and urban development in an otherwise impoverished land. U.S. Army and Navy engineers laid out the bases in standard U.S. fashion – streets adhered to a grid, running in straight lines, north and south and east and west. Sidewalks skirted the road systems. Buildings sat within square blocks, bordered by streets, much like houses in U.S. suburban neighborhoods. GIs lived in small ply-board and canvas “hooches” or in modern two-story rectangular barracks. What the military called “logistical” and “tactical” bases contained many of the same consumables available back in the United States. Soldiers could visit post PXs to purchase beer, soda, candy bars, and ice cream. GIs could buy the latest cameras and transistor radios manufactured in Japan. Later in the war, troopers could order a brand-new automobile on base and have it waiting for them back home at the end of their tour of duty in “The Nam.”
Long Binh, located sixteen miles northeast of Saigon, was one of the largest American bases in South Vietnam. By 1969, it encompassed twenty-five square miles and housed 50,000 soldiers. Long Binh cost $100 million to erect. [Vietnam Studies, Base Development, 145, Ebert, Life in Year, 111] Long Binh had separate night clubs for enlisted personnel and officers. The clubs sold cold beer to off-duty troopers, hosted Vietnamese rock bands, and played American Rock-n-Roll on juke boxes imported from the states. The more health-conscious GIs could swim in a post pool or play a game of tennis or racquetball. In the hooches, GIs had electric lights, air conditioners, radios, and T.V. which showed American sitcoms, including “Gunsmoke.” Soldiers hired “hooch maids” to clean their quarters for a few dollars a week. Some of the hooch maids did double duty as prostitutes. The post movie theater showed the newest releases from Hollywood. It was possible to watch John Wayne in “The Green Berets” while serving in the Green Berets in Vietnam. “Dan Vandenberg of the 25th Infantry Division expressed a sentiment felt by most soldiers, “My God, base camps were incredible. They were the size of a big town. There were officers’ clubs, PXs, enlisted men’s clubs, and even dances. There was a sauna…It boggles my mind how much money it must have cost to set up each base camp. And then there were swimming pools.” [Bergerud, Tropic Thunder, 35]
Not all of the GIs deployed to South Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 had the same degree of access to the big bases. Grunts, the infantrymen who humped the Vietnamese bush day-after-day for weeks on end might only step foot on a divisional base once a month during a twelve-month tour of duty. Once there, the front-line troops spent a few days unwinding from the stresses of combat duty before being sent back out into what the GI’s called “Indian Country” – the territory held by the Viet Cong and PAVN. But administrative troopers, the soldiers the grunts derisively referred to as “paper pushers,” or “Rear Echelon Motherfuckers (REMFs)” spent their entire 12-month (Army) and 13-month (Marine) tour of duty on the large bases.
Since the majority of GIs in South Vietnam served as “paper pushers,” who worked within the U.S. military’s logistical system, the majority of GIs sent to South Vietnam actually spent their time in-country on a large U.S. base. Their experience of South Vietnam differed markedly from that of the grunts. Granted, the rear echelon soldiers still faced the possibility of death or maiming while on base, since the Viet Cong and PAVN had access to nearly every corner of South Vietnam, but the odds of death or wounding on a big base were far lower than for the soldiers patrolling the mountains or Mekong Delta for communist soldiers. The safety and creature comforts present on the big bases upset the infantrymen and Marines doing the hard fighting. Combat troops resented the military’s division of labor and its geographical manifestations.
There existed a degree of class consciousness among front-line troops and REMFs. The REMFs held a more privileged military position than the men on the line, privileged in that their odds of survival were greater and their war physically less strenuous. It can be argued that the big bases did have a negative influence on overall combat troop morale. It fostered divisions within the ranks. The burdens of the war were not being shared equally by the troops. This inequality also encouraged front-line troops to seek rear positions, with detrimental consequences for fighting efficiency. David Hackworth, who prided himself on the fighting skills of the troops under his command, made no secret of his contempt for the REMFs. He wrote of Dong Tam and its administrative personnel, “From the air, the place [Dong Tam] looked like a huge, dirty, nineteenth-century Nevada mining town squatting in its own tailings – prefab wooden buildings with tin roofs, dusty roads and miles of green sandbags, the bunkered 3rd Surgical Hospital, a PX and an outdoor movie theater, one short runway of prefabricated steel planking and a huge helicopter pad. Home away from Home to rear echelons of ten infantry battalions along with aviation, signal, engineer, artillery, and military police outfits and every other kind of logistical ash and trash.” [Hackworth, Steel My Soldiers, 3-4]
Because the grunts and the REMFs lived and worked in such different domains, the two groups experienced radically different wars. A commonly held perception of the war in South Vietnam is that U.S. troops spent their time slogging through rice paddies searching for the elusive Viet Cong or flying in helicopters from one battle site to another. Yet, actual combat consumed the fewest man-hours. Far more time and energy went into logistics and combat support than actual combat. Hundreds of thousands of GIs experienced a monotonous, routine life on a U.S. base. That life involved office work. After working from 8 to 5 or longer, administrative soldiers returned to a hooch to shower, went to a post cafeteria for dinner, and then maybe caught a drink at one of the post nightclubs, before turning into bed and doing the same thing the next day. In later years of the war, when the intensity of combat had dropped off, some of the troops on big bases were as safe as GIs stationed in the United States.
Although the REMFs and their mundane life in the rear earned the disdain of the grunts, the REMFs played a vital role in the overall war effort. It was the REMFs who supplied the grunts with ammunition, equipment, weapons, and rations. The U.S. was able to rain down such a terrifying amount of ammunition on the Viet Cong and PAVN because of the REMFs and the long logistical tail that extended from South Vietnam to the U.S.’s West Coast ports, and from there to the U.S.’s industrial heartland.
Moreover, the big bases and the REMFs stationed on them made Westmoreland’s search and destroy strategy possible. That strategy entailed big unit sweeps of rural South Vietnam by U.S. battalions, brigades, and even divisions. Or as Secretary of Defense McNamara stated, “The concept of tactical operations will be to exploit the offensive, with the objects of putting the VC/DRV battalion forces out of operation and of destroying their morale.” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, 298] To carry out that strategy, big units needed to be stationed on large bases, rather than spread out across South Vietnam on small bases. To take on VC/DRV battalions or regiments required sizable U.S. forces. It would have been more time-consuming, more monetarily expensive, more difficult to coordinate tactically, and generally less efficient to repeatedly gather dispersed U.S. forces, stationed at isolated outposts, together to conduct big unit sweeps or to fight communist main force units. It made tactical sense to have the big U.S. units based in one location for rapid deployment.
Westmoreland also wanted big U.S. forces to serve as mobile reaction forces for the ARVN and South Vietnamese Popular Forces and Regional Forces. The idea behind the mobile reaction concept was that if South Vietnamese units came into contact with the enemy’s main force battalions or regiments and faced destruction, the Americans would quickly respond by sending in forces to fight the communists and save the South Vietnamese. To make the mobile reaction force concept workable necessitated big bases acting as staging areas. Again, dispersed units would not be able to react as quickly to communist main force attacks.
Searching the countryside required mobility and mobility meant machines, including trucks, jeeps, armored personnel carriers (APCs), helicopters, and cargo aircraft. All of that equipment necessitated the establishment of sprawling bases. The helicopters had to be put down somewhere. The APCs needed to be in secure marshaling yards. The lumbering C-123 and C-130 cargo planes had to be parked in hangars or on top of long stretches of concrete tarmac. America’s gadgetry took up a lot of space. The 1st Air Cavalry Division alone had 450 helicopters, including the CH-47 Chinook and the UH-1 Huey. [Moore, Soldiers Once, 26-27] The 1st Cav parked those choppers in an area at An Khe’s Camp Radcliff nicknamed the Golf Course, which encompassed approximately 3.7 square miles. Danang Airbase was another major U.S. base. Its runways, tarmac, hangars, bomb blast walls, barracks, and assorted facilities enclosed nearly 4 square miles. That area was necessary for all of the aircraft coming and going from Danang. By 1968, Danang Airbase became one of the busiest airports in the world, with an estimated 55,000 take-offs and landings per month. Everything from C-130s to C-141s cargo planes and F-100 fighter-bombers utilized Danang Airbase.
Destroying the enemy meant the expenditure of unbelievable quantities of ammunition. In November 1965, during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, U.S. artillery units fired 4,000 rounds in the area surrounding LZ X-Ray in less than twenty-four hours. [Coleman, Pleiku, 229] All of that ammunition was to support one unit, engaged in one battle, during one day. The appetite of U.S. units for ammunition and supplies was so great that in the summer of 1965, as the U.S. troop build-up moved into high gear, American cargo vessels waited an average of two months to unload their freight at South Vietnam’s port facilities. [Palmer, Summons Trumpet, 88] By 1967, “Ships full of hand grenades, corn on the cob, napalm, wristwatches, artillery shells, pigs, plastic explosive, lawnmower engines, rifle ammunition, tank parts, and C-Rations were unloading one million tons a month….” [Pisor, Khe Sanh, 54] All of that stuff, especially the ammunition, had to be secured in supply depots. Cam Ranh Bay grew into the biggest supply depot in South Vietnam. Its ammunition dump alone occupied much of the peninsula east of the bay.
The big bases reflected U.S. strategy. If Westmoreland had elected to use U.S. troops in a pacification strategy, with small units stationed in South Vietnam’s 12,700 hamlets working to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese rather than destroying main force units with liberal amounts of ammunition, American bases in South Vietnam would have been completely different in size, layout, and location. Besides strategic considerations, Westmoreland wanted big bases because of the political and military circumstances prevailing in South Vietnam during the 1965 to 1968 period.
In mid-1965, Westmoreland concluded that Hanoi and the National Liberation Front (NLF) had opted to pursue a conventional war strategy in the South. Rather than continue to conduct a protracted war that involved platoon and company-sized units employing hit and run tactics, the communists had chosen to conduct conventional operations with main-force units of battalion-size or greater in the hope of quickly knocking out the Saigon regime and ARVN. An indication of the shift in communist strategy was noted by a JCS study group, which concluded in the summer of 1965 that “…the VC/NVA can mount simultaneous attacks in each GVN corps area not to exceed one reinforced regimental (4 battalions) attack and one single battalion attack at any given time.” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, 295] Westmoreland believed he would have to confront these big communist troop formations to prevent the collapse of South Vietnam. He understood that such large units posed not only a threat to the ARVN but also to the U.S. troops streaming into South Vietnam. To provide protection to U.S. forces, and prevent them from being overrun by Viet Cong/PAVN regiments or battalions, he wanted big bases. Small bases invited the destruction of the posts and their occupants. And the destruction of a U.S. battalion, or larger unit, would threaten continued U.S. homefront support for the war.
Loss of U.S. base would also invite negative comparisons between the French experience in Vietnam (especially at Dien Bien Phu) and the American effort there, which might lead many to question whether the U.S. could win in Vietnam. American leaders, including LBJ, Westmoreland, Ambassador to South Vietnam Maxwell Taylor, and the DoD’s John McNaughton, feared a Dien Bien Phu-type defeat for U.S. forces in South Vietnam. LBJ’s fear of a Dien Bien Phu for the Americans in South Vietnam eventually became an obsession. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, he became so worried that Khe Sanh would become America’s Dien Bien Phu that he required the military to provide him with regular updates on the situation at the base. [Pentagon Papers, Vol. III, 699] [Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, 418] [Pentagon Papers, Vol. III, 480] Westmoreland understood that big bases, containing multiple U.S. combat battalions, would substantially reduce the risk of an American Dien Bien Phu.
Another advantage of big bases was their perceived permanence. The size of the bases gave the physical impression that the U.S. had come to South Vietnam to stay. The U.S. wanted to send that message to both the DRV and the GVN, to the former as a warning that the U.S. would not be easily pushed out of South Vietnam and to the latter as an indication of the U.S.’s commitment to the GVN’s survival. In 1965, LBJ hoped that a show of U.S. determination in South Vietnam might induce the DRV to end its support of the Viet Cong. Large bases, and the commitment they represented, might also bolster the morale of the ARVN and contribute to its willingness to continue resisting the Viet Cong/PAVN. Small bases and transitory bivouac sites did not convey the same psychological impact as a large base with concrete and wooden structures.
The military, and particularly Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, likely had a more sinister reason for promoting big bases – it would be far more difficult for the U.S. to withdraw from South Vietnam after it had erected a system of expensive complexes. Big bases would rule against the hasty abandonment of South Vietnam for a number of reasons. First, big bases would symbolize a greater U.S. financial investment in South Vietnam. The Johnson administration would find it politically more difficult to forfeit such a large monetary outlay. Second, big bases symbolized a greater commitment of U.S. prestige to the war. Abandoning such permanent bases would be viewed as a significant defeat for the U.S. Plus, the image of stark, uninhabited former U.S. bases in Vietnam would provide dramatic imagery of U.S. failure. Third, the incredible amount of material stored on the bases, including trucks, helicopters, and ammunition, would take longer to pull out of South Vietnam if a decision was made to withdraw. The bases and the material on them would slow any withdrawal.
JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler knew that LBJ harbored severe doubts about escalating the war in South Vietnam. Temporary bases along South Vietnam’s coast would have fed into LBJ’s hesitancy to fully commit U.S. forces to the struggle. He could much more easily reverse himself. The military wanted to preclude that possibility. America’s geographical constructs influenced not only military strategy, but political considerations as well. Withdrawal became politically and physically far more difficult once the U.S. built its infrastructure in South Vietnam.
The Vietnamese, including the Vietnamese living in the former French colony of Cochinchina, who would later become known as South Vietnamese, had long harbored anti-foreign attitudes. British travel writer Norman Lewis experienced it in Saigon in 1950. He remarked, “They [the Vietnamese] are too civilized to spit at the sight of a white man, as the Indians of Central America do sometimes, but they are utterly indifferent. It is as if a general agreement has been reached among them that this is the best way of dealing with an intolerable presence. Even the rickshaw coolie…takes the money in grim silence and immediately looks away. It is most uncomfortable to feel oneself an object of this universal detestation, a mere foreign-devil in fact.” [Lewis, Dragon Apparent, 30] Vietnamese disdain for foreigners, especially the French and Americans, had not disappeared by 1965. American officials in Saigon and Washington worried that that disdain would openly manifest itself amongst the South Vietnamese if the U.S. sent a sizable expeditionary force to South Vietnam. Several wondered whether South Vietnam’s rural population would rally to the Viet Cong once the Americans came ashore en mass. The State Department’s U. Alexis Johnson expressed skepticism that a major U.S. ground commitment to South Vietnam would achieve American objectives. He believed the xenophobic South Vietnamese would respond negatively to a U.S. build-up, and that their negative response could become a major problem for the U.S. [Pentagon Papers, Vol. III, 483]. George Ball, also with the State Department, was even more emphatic in his opposition to a substantial U.S. presence in South Vietnam. He believed the South Vietnamese would perceive the U.S. as an invading army and rise up to resist it. He wrote on July 1, 1965. “Once we deploy substantial numbers of troops in combat it will become a war between the U.S. and a large part of the population of South Vietnam….” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, 615] William Bundy shared Ball’s fears of a popular backlash against U.S. troops. He wanted the Johnson administration to cap U.S. force levels in South Vietnam at between 70,000 and 100,000 troops, because a force above those numbers would produce diminishing returns, especially because major U.S. footprint in the South would spur Viet Cong recruitment. Bundy thought that there had to exist a tipping point in troop numbers. Once the U.S. went beyond that point, the increased South Vietnamese support for the Viet Cong would negate the advantages of further troop commitments. Bundy also worried that the Americans would be tagged as colonists, in the same vein as the French. He wrote, “…we [cannot] judge the extent to which the people in the countryside, who have been exposed constantly to VC propaganda, [will conclude] the fight is against the American successors to the French…and hence flock to the VC banner.” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, 611]
Bundy was not alone in believing a massive American expeditionary force in South Vietnam would lead the South Vietnamese to view the Americans in the same way they viewed the hated French. The DoD’s John McNaughton shared Bundy’s concern as did U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Maxwell D. Taylor. In 1961, before he had become familiar with South Vietnam and its people, Taylor argued that the South Vietnamese would not perceive an American ground force in their country as an occupying army. He wrote, “While the Communists [in South Vietnam] had a tide running in their favor, we agreed that they were not without vulnerabilities. They were no longer fighting the French and could not carry the banner of national independence against colonial rule.” [Taylor, Swords Plowshares, 241] But by 1965, Taylor, came to a very different conclusion on the subject. On March 18, 1965 he wrote, “The introduction of a U.S. division…will increase our vulnerability to Communist propaganda and Third Country criticism as we appear to assume the old French role of alien colonizer and conqueror.” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. III, 446] [Pentagon Papers, Vol. III, 699] Taylor wrote this alarmist memo to put the brakes on the administration’s rush to commit major U.S. forces to South Vietnam. He wanted to slow down the pace of the build-up and prevent a too-rapid escalation of the conflict. He also thought the MACV should assess how well the troops already deployed to South Vietnam did in combat against the Viet Cong/PAVN before requesting additional forces for the war zone. He was not sure that American troops would relate well with South Vietnam’s rural population, nor would they fight effectively in South Vietnam’s harsh tropical environment.
The CIA, which provided the President with some of the best intelligence on the situation in South Vietnam as well, agreed that a considerable U.S. troop presence could lead to an upswing in anti-Americanism amongst the South Vietnamese. It also argued that the United States should avoid engaging in a pacification strategy in the South. In a June 10, 1965, memorandum, the CIA stated, “If [U.S. troops are] used to clear and hold large areas, particularly heavily populated areas, the US forces would tend to acquire both the responsibility for the war and the stigma of an army of occupation with colonialist ambitions.” [Estimative Products Vietnam, CIA Memo June 10, 1965, 256]
Although the evidence appeared overwhelming that the South Vietnamese would object to a major U.S. troop presence, Westmoreland refused to accept the informed conclusions of Taylor, Ball, U. Alexis Johnson, Bundy, and the CIA. He did not believe the South Vietnamese would see the United States as another colonial power. He thought they had the ability to recognize that the U.S. had intervened in South Vietnam to uphold Vietnamese independence and to protect the fledging country from outside aggression by the DRV. Thus, he pushed for a huge U.S. troop build-up in the South in 1965, a build-up that by December of 1965 was nearly twice as high as the 100,000 troops Bundy believed should be the maximum troop level.
For the majority Vietnamese, especially the rural peasantry, the distinctions between the Americans and the French were barely discernible. Nguyen Thi Dinh, who served in the Viet Cong and published “No Other Road to Take,” recognized the continuity between the 1st and 2nd Indochina wars and between the French and the Americans [Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 179]. Both the French and U.S. propped up a minority government of Catholics and Francophile Vietnamese. Both nations upheld the powerful status of the Catholic Church and landed elite in South Vietnamese society. And on a more basic level, both French and American soldiers looked similar – they were white, wore the same style of helmet, drove in jeeps and GM trucks, and fought with the same weapons. Both militaries employed the dreaded napalm – with its flesh consuming jellied gasoline – against Vietnamese peasant soldiers. And if that wasn’t enough, the Americans occupied the same ports, airfields, and outposts used by the French in the early 1950s. For the illiterate, parochial Vietnamese rural resident, it was easy to see the Americans as the French. The physical representations linking France and the United States were everywhere. Le Thi Anh expressed the sentiments of many South Vietnamese, “…I didn’t think it was a good idea to send troops to Vietnam. Because I knew that the Vietnamese people, who had been under colonial rule for one thousand years, were extremely sensitive to the presence of foreign troops.” [Santoli, Bear Burden, 214]
It was hard for the South Vietnamese to see the French and U.S. as different. How or why Westmoreland believed the Vietnamese would not equate the U.S. with France is not specified in the historical record. Yet, interestingly, Westy did believe large numbers of U.S. troops in the South would upset the South Vietnamese, possibly turning them against the Americans, but not because they were like the French but because they were merely foreigners. Westmoreland agreed with Ambassador Taylor’s argument that U.S. troops should be kept away from the South Vietnamese in order to avoid antagonizing the latter. Taylor stated “Increased number of [U.S.] ground forces in SVN [South Vietnam] will increase points of friction with local population….” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. III, 418] Operating in major population areas would maximize the points of contact with Vietnamese and hence maximize the possible points of friction. [Pentagon Papers, Vol. III, 446]
Westy believed he could minimize the negative effects of a considerable U.S. troop deployment by building U.S. bases in remote areas, away from population centers. Because the big bases would act as self-contained cities, filled with amenities, there would be no reason for U.S. troops to leave their bases to interact with the Vietnamese. Troops would also be provided with in-country R & R on a U.S. base, rather than in a South Vietnamese city. China Beach, near Danang was one such in-country R & R location. It was described as follows, “The facility [at China Beach] included a snack bar where you could buy beer and soda, hamburgers and hot dogs, and listen to the juke box, an outdoor theater for movies, a small barracks for Marines spending the night, and a long stretch of wide, clean beach.” [Ehrhart, Vietnam Perkasie, 122] Westmoreland forbad U.S. troops from taking in-country R & R in Saigon, because he did not want culturally insensitive GIs upsetting Saigon’s educated, highly politicized residents – who had shown their political influence in 1963 during the Buddhist demonstrations, when they succeeded in convincing the JFK administration to abandon its support of Ngo Dinh Diem.
GI’s acknowledged that Westmoreland’s base system succeeded in separating the American from the South Vietnamese. Tom A. Johnson remembered a conversation he had with another GI on the subject of the South Vietnamese. Griffin said, “OK, 1st Cavalry, I guess you people aren’t used to being around Vietnamese too much” [Johnson replied,] “Not live ones,” I…suddenly realize that he is correct. Due to the nature of our jobs, we are rarely in a position to mingle with the populace except when we get haircuts just outside the perimeter….” [Johnson, To the Limit, 308]. Tom O’Hara described his time at Phu Cat Airbase. “There just wasn’t much opportunity to dramatize [to the Vietnamese] what we were doing because we were in a three-square-mile piece of the United States of America. America had come over, slapped down asphalt, put down runways, built buildings, and put a fence around it. The officers all had TVs in their air-conditioned trailers and we had one in the barracks…The entire year there I never established a relationship with a Vietnamese.” [Appy, Patriots, 326-327]
Westmoreland needed to construct colossal bases because millions of South Vietnamese were either actively supporting the communists, sympathetic to the Viet Cong/PAVN, or living within communist territory. The countryside of South Vietnam was overwhelming communist by late 1965. At the same time, GVN authority became increasingly restricted to a handful of coastal enclaves. McNamara wrote a memo to LBJ in November 1965 that explained the dire situation in South Vietnam, “…the Ky “government of generals” is surviving, but not acquiring wide support or generating actions; pacification is thoroughly stalled, with no guarantee that security anywhere is permanent and no indications that able and willing leadership will emerge in the absence of that permanent security. (Prime Minister Ky estimates that his government controls only 25% of the population today….” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, 622] If Ky’s estimate was correct, then approximately 10.5 million of South Vietnam’s 14 million residents had come under communist control. Westmoreland could not put U.S. troops into the middle of that significant communist controlled population without providing them with the protection offered by big bases and the sizeable troop concentrations within their perimeters.
The decision to construct large bases in order to separate U.S. forces from the South Vietnamese raises disturbing questions about the entire justification for U.S. involvement in South Vietnam. If U.S. officials knew that U.S. troops would be unwelcome in South Vietnam, and that there was a risk of so antagonizing the South Vietnamese that they would turn against the Americans, why did the United States go to war in South Vietnam at all?
A number of variables influenced where Westmoreland chose to construct divisional bases. He wanted to put them right in the center of Viet Cong territory. In 1965, with much of South Vietnam in Viet Cong hands, this was not hard to do. He hoped U.S. bases would act as “oil spots,” meaning U.S. control over the surrounding area would gradually spread outward from the base as U.S. troops conducted sweeps further and further afield. Other factors influencing Westmoreland’s chose of base sites included the proximity of GVN-controlled transportation routes, airfields, seaports and population centers, the location of Viet Cong/PAVN base areas, and the most likely routes of communist movement.
Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces, located immediately south of the DMZ along the Coastal Plain, had been communist strongholds since the 1940s. In spring 1965, Westmoreland ordered the Marines to hold the airbase at Phu Bai, eight miles south of Hue. Phu Bai gave the Americans a toehold in the two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam. Because the base sat astride Route 1, the Americans could monitor north-south traffic on that strategically important highway. The base, and the troops there, also enabled the Americans to block any communist troops moving south from the DMZ or east along Route 547 from the communist base area in the Ashau Valley. Phu Bai could also serve as a staging area for troops to enter Hue to put down a civil insurrection or to halt any communist advance on Hue.
The Marines went ashore at Danang in March 1965 to secure the airfield and port facilities there. Danang possessed the most modern port facilities in the northern half of South Vietnam. Quang Tin Province, of which Danang was a part, was thoroughly Viet Cong at the time of the Marine landings. The Viet Cong ran the villages outside of the airbase. And Marble Mountain, which sat on the southwest side of the airbase, served as a Viet Cong observation point. From the mountain’s heights, Viet Cong soldiers watched the comings and goings of U.S. aircraft and Marine patrols.
The U.S. Marine base at Chu Lai sat on the eastern edge of Quang Ngai Province, which had been under communist authority since the August Revolution of 1945 [Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, 429]. When Navy Seabees came ashore at Chu Lai to put down an airstrip at the site, the Viet Cong roamed the area just beyond the wire. The engineers required armed Marines to protect them while they worked.
Westmoreland originally wanted to establish a base for the 1st Air Cavalry Division in the plateau country near Pleiku. U.S. Intelligence pointed to a possible communist effort to seize the highlands in the second half of 1965. Westmoreland hoped the 1st Cav would thwart any communist offensive in the highlands. In “A Soldier Reports,” his autobiographical account of the war, he wrote, “I believed that if the enemy’s designs in the Central Highlands were to be thwarted, I had to put an American Army division there, establishing in the process coastal logistical bases at Qui Nhon and Nha Trang to support military operations in the central region.” [Westmoreland, Soldier Reports, 128]
However, Westmoreland’s superior, CINCPAC Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp ruled against the immediate deployment of the 1st Cav to the highlands. His primary concern was that the division would get cut-off from ground resupply. Route 19, which ran from the port of Qui Nhon to Pleiku, was highly susceptible to Viet Cong ambush, especially within the tight chokepoints at An Khe Pass and Mang Yang Pass. If Route 19 became impassable, the Air Cav would be entirely dependent on air resupply. Sharp did not believe the division could be maintained in the highlands for a long period through aerial resupply alone. The division went through between 600 and 800 tons of material per day. The number of cargo craft needed to meet those daily tonnage requirements would seriously impinge on the in-country airlift capability of the Air Force. [Pentagon Papers, Vol. III, 413] Essentially, Sharp believed Westmoreland wanted to go too far into the interior too soon. Sharp urged Westmoreland to base the Air Cavalry closer to Qui Nhon. Down on the coast, the division would be closer to its supply base, it would be easier for it to secure its road link to the port, and reinforcements could quickly reach the division if the need arose.
Westmoreland and Sharp eventually reached a compromise on where to put the 1st Cav. They decided to base it at the former French outpost at An Khe. General Bruce Palmer Jr. explained the reason for this choice. “When the division arrived in September, it went straight into a base hacked out of jungle at An Khe, midway between Pleiku and Qui Nhon astride strategic Highway 19. There it was close enough to the coast to be supplied and far enough forward to reach areas of expected combat – and stood smack in the path of the projected North Vietnamese avenue to the ocean. [Palmer, Summons Trumpet, 93] Westmoreland provided an additional reason for choosing An Khe. He stated, “The security of Route 19 is important not only in the event of the deployment of major US forces on the high plateau, but is equally essential for the support of the population in that area and for the delivery of POL for current combat operation[s]…Highway 19 must be kept open. There is no feasible way into the high plateau from North or South.” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, 608]
Like Phu Bai, Danang, and Chu Lai, the base at An Khe sat squarely in the middle of Viet Cong territory. The base, later named Camp Radcliffe, was in southern Binh Dinh province a little over a mile north of Route 19. When the 1st Cav division’s advance party arrived at the base site in August 1965, the communists owned almost all of Binh Dinh Province. And to make that point clear to the Americans, Viet Cong snipers took pot shots at the GIs laying out the base. A 1st Cav officer assigned to An Khe in the early days told chopper pilot Robert Mason, “This whole area…is considered VC territory…The Cav will be the first unit to locate right in the middle of VC-land, and the idea is to be right there in the middle of ‘em, to clean ‘em out of here, pronto.” [Mason, Chickenhawk, 64]
Besides acting as an “oil spot,” the An Khe site served other purposes. For instance, before the deployment of major U.S. units to South Vietnam, the communists had cut the country in two. Viet Cong guerrillas controlled the rural regions in central South Vietnam from the Cambodian border west of Pleiku to the South China Sea in Binh Dinh and Phu Yen provinces. By mid-1965, most of Binh Dinh had fallen to the communists. In Phu Yen Province, only Tuy Hoa remained in government hands. Westmoreland wrote on June 13, 1965. “The VC control Phu Yen Province except for Tuy Hoa itself….” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, 607] The DoD’s John McNaughton admitted that the communists had bifurcated South Vietnam, severing the northern provinces from Saigon. He stated in March 1965, “Defeatism is gaining among the rural population, somewhat in the cities, and even among the soldiers…the [Mekong] Delta stays bad; the country has been severed in the north. GVN control is shrinking to enclaves….” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. III, 695] Westmoreland ordered the 1st Cavalry Division to An Khe, not to prevent the halving of South Vietnam, but to keep the bifurcation from becoming permanent.
An added advantage of the An Khe site was that it did not require the South Vietnamese to forfeit valuable agricultural land for its construction. Nor did the placement of the base at An Khe necessitate the removal of a large population. As a matter of fact, the Montagnards occupied the nearby village of An Khe. They were not only considered more loyal to the Americans than the average South Vietnamese, but also less likely to oppose the presence of the base. Another consideration that surely crossed Westmoreland’s mind was that the Montagnards had almost no political influence in Saigon, so even if they did oppose the base, their opposition would not reverberate in the capital city. Thus, An Khe would not disrupt rural life in the area; it would not antagonize the peasantry; it would allow the Americans to get on with the war.
The best natural harbor in South Vietnam existed at Cam Ranh Bay. Westmoreland intended on transforming the bay and the 18.75 mile-long peninsula located on its east side, into the largest logistical base in the country. It was an ideal site for such a base, mainly because the Viet Cong could not attack the peninsula and the extensive facilities placed there, without first being detected by U.S. troops. Water surrounded the peninsula on three sides. An attacking force would have to either cross the calm, deep blue waters of the bay in the open or attempt to pass down the narrow neck of the peninsula from the north. In both cases, American troops could interdict the enemy before reaching the base. [Vietnam Studies, Base Development, 56] American officials considered Cam Ranh Bay the most secure position in all of South Vietnam, more secure than Saigon and the airport at Tan Son Nhut. [Pittsburgh Press, July 29, 1969]. When President Johnson visited South Vietnam on October 26, 1966, he did not fly into Saigon. Rather, Air Force One landed at Cam Ranh Bay. Johnson visited South Vietnam a second time in December 1967 and again his plan landed at Cam Ranh Bay. When President Nixon traveled to South Vietnam in the summer of 1969, he too landed at Cam Ranh Bay.
Because Saigon served as South Vietnam’s political, military, and economic center, Westmoreland correctly concluded that it had to be protected from Viet Cong/PAVN attack. Consequently, he decided to ring the capital with American bases at Cu Chi, Lai Khe, Bien Hoa, and Long Binh. That he built these four bases so close to the capital indicated the extent of Viet Cong influence immediately outside of Saigon. By 1965, the Viet Cong were closing in on the city. Cu Chi, Lai Khe, Bien Hoa, and Long Binh were established to break the Viet Cong’s stranglehold.
The four bases guarded the northwestern, northern, and northeastern approaches to the city. Cu Chi stood 20 miles to the northwest of downtown Saigon along Route 1. Its troops were in a position to block communist units moving toward Saigon along Route 1 from their base areas in Cambodia’s Parrot’s Beak. Cu Chi also sat a few miles south of the Viet Cong base areas in the Fil Hol Rubber Plantation, Ho Bo Woods and Boi Loi Woods. Cu Chi overlooked the southern half of the lush Saigon River Valley. Viet Cong units had long utilized the valley, and the sympathetic villagers living within it, to move men and material into Saigon. When the troopers of the 25th Infantry Division arrived at Cu Chi in late 1965, they did not have to look far to find the Viet Cong. As a matter of fact, the Viet Cong came to them. Viet Cong sappers tunneled directly under the base, surfaced briefly to launch attacks, and then disappeared back into their holes, before the Americans could even return fire.
Fifteen miles to the northeast of Cu Chi, across the Saigon River, the 1st Infantry Division built its divisional base at Lai Khe. In 1965, nice, neat straight rows of rubber trees grew in and around the base. When U.S. troops arrived there, they found the Viet Cong hiding in the woods. The 1st ID troopers had to first clear the base site of the Viet Cong before they could begin erecting the base’s troop quarters, airfield, and accompanying facilities. CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt reported from Lai Khe in the late summer of 1965 when the soldiers of the 1st ID swept the base and its environs for Viet Cong. When a firefight broke out between the GIs and the Viet Cong, the inexperience of the Americans in fighting guerrillas in heavy underbrush became readily apparent. One GI died and others were wounded before the Viet Cong faded back into the brush. Kuralt observed the frustration of the GIs, who failed to find the Viet Cong.
Lai Khe possessed a number of geographical advantages. Army engineers laid it out on top of a slight rise. A gentle slope fell away toward the Saigon River Valley to the south of the post. The base’s elevated position enabled the Americans to monitor foot and vehicular traffic moving through the valley lowlands. Additionally, Route 13 ran along the northern edge of the base. Route 13 linked Saigon with An Loc and Cambodia beyond. Deploying the 1st ID on the Route 13 prevented the communists from using the road to rapidly move out of their base areas in the Cambodian Fishhook area and on toward the capital. [Vietnam Studies, Base Development, 73]
Bien Hoa and Long Binh secured Route 1 and the northeastern approaches to Saigon. The four American bases ringing Saigon were far enough from the capital to keep the U.S. soldiers out of the city and away from the sensitive, politically-charged South Vietnamese. Westmoreland could not afford to upset the urban elite living in Saigon. Without that cohort behind the U.S. mission, the Americans would have been hard-pressed to find enough allies within South Vietnam to continue with the war.
Dong Tam was one of the more interesting bases built by the United States in South Vietnam. Westmoreland approved the base’s construction only after he decided to station an American division in the Mekong Delta. The site for the base had been a marshland next to the My Tho River, a branch of the Mekong. In order to raise the base above the area’s water table, the Army dredged sand from the My Tho River and dumped it on the site of the post. Overtime, the dredge slurry rose high enough above the water table for Army engineers to construct troop quarters, an airstrip, hospital, and ammo dumps. But the base had problems, particularly with drainage. During the rainy season, Dong Tam became a muddy bog. While during the dry season it was swept by dust storms.
Yet, for all of its physical limitations, Dong Tam served several important military functions. It controlled a key highway, Route 4, linking Saigon with the upper and middle Mekong Delta, it protected the southwestern approach to Saigon, and it sat due south of a long-held Viet Cong stronghold in the Plain of Reeds. U.S. forces could quickly jump-off from Dong Tam into the Plain of Reeds to preempt any Viet Cong/PAVN moves on Saigon or My Tho. Moreover, Dong Tam could be resupplied by oceanic craft via the My Tho River, its location did not require the relocation of a sizable South Vietnamese population, and it lay five miles west of My Tho, which limited American-South Vietnamese civilian interactions and the potential political complications arising from such interactions. Finally, the Navy and Army personnel based at Dong Tam had the capacity to patrol the My Tho River, a major east-west thoroughfare within the Delta. American patrols would limit the river’s usefulness to the communists as a transportation artery. [Vietnam Studies, Army Engineers, 145] [Vietnam Studies, Base Development, 53] [Cutler, Brown Water, 235]
Westmoreland ruled against the basing of U.S. soldiers in the lower Mekong Delta. Even though the Viet Cong had a strong presence in the Ca Mau Peninsula, and possessed a base area within the U Minh Forest, Westmoreland did not believe the Viet Cong in those areas posed a direct threat to the survivability of the Saigon regime. The communists could not easily jump-off from that far southern region to challenge GVN authority in the delta’s populated urban centers or Saigon itself. Plus, American forces would find it nearly impossible to operate in the lower delta, with its high water table, its narrow canals, its nearly non-existent road network, its dearth of dry landing zones, and its scarcity of airstrips. To add to its unsuitability to the U.S. military, the lower delta lacked the port facilities necessary to support a U.S. division. The lower delta’s isolation, combined with its strategic insignificance, along with the difficulty of projecting U.S. power into the region, convinced Westmoreland to leave that territory to the South Vietnamese military.