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.

In late January and early February 1968, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese swept over some parts of the South Vietnamese countryside so quickly that tens of thousands of ARVN troops, visiting their rural homes for the Tet holiday, were either unable or unwilling to return to their military units. Of the approximately 320,000 Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) personnel on leave at the start of Tet, U.S. intelligence estimated that 160,000 did not return to duty in the first ten days of the offensive.[3] In one fell swoop, the RVNAF lost twenty-five percent of its soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and militiamen.[4] Of the 160,000 missing men, tens of thousands of them deserted, went into hiding, or joined the Vietcong. Thousands of others tried to return to their units or one of the urban enclaves still under GVN control, but never reached Allied lines. Guerrillas manning roadblocks, as well as pro-Communist villagers, captured South Vietnamese military personnel before they could make good their escape from the countryside.

The South Vietnamese troops who did make it to the towns and cities still held by the Allies frequently came in as an unorganized rabble. They were not combat ready. Thousands of them deserted once in the relative safety of the cities.

In the first days of Tet, the ARVN was in pell-mell retreat, its units unable to stop the offensive or organize themselves into an effective defence of South Vietnam’s urban centres. Ten days into the Tet Offensive, General William C. Westmoreland’s command headquarters summarized the precarious state of the South Vietnamese Army: “MACV suspects the desertion rate may be high. The average present for duty strength of RVN infantry battalions is 50 percent and Ranger Battalions, 43 percent. Five of nine airborne battalions are judged by MACV to be combat ineffective at this time.”[5] Military analysts consider a combat unit ineffective when its present-for-duty numbers fall to 50 percent or lower. MACV’s analysis indicated that the ARVN was on the verge of collapse.[6]

When the ARVN regular battalions abandoned their posts and fled to the towns and cities to save their own skins and to come under the protective cover of American units and their firepower, the South Vietnamese outfits charged with pacification, including the GVN’s Revolutionary Development (RD) teams, Regional Forces (RFs), and Popular Forces (PFs), were left behind to fend for themselves. The RFs and PFs, known derisively among the American advisory community as Ruff Puffs, provided security to loyalists in pacified and contested hamlets. The RDs worked to win peasant hearts and minds through the implementation of various development schemes, such as the construction of schools, water wells, and medical clinics. The ranks of the RD teams were often filled with idealistic youth who possessed only the most basic military knowledge. Some of the RDs were draft dodgers who went into the program to avoid service in an ARVN combat unit.[7]

Cut-off from resupply and reinforcement, armed with .30 calibre U.S. carbines and little else, lacking artillery and air support, many of the RFs, PFs, and RDs succumbed quickly to the Vietcong and North Vietnamese. In February 1968, RF and PF outposts fell like dominoes across South Vietnam.

The destruction of the South Vietnamese pacification teams, and the retreat of the ARVN, enabled the Communists to seize much of rural South Vietnam. A Joint Chiefs of Staff report confirmed this result, “…the defensive posture of ARVN is permitting the VC to make rapid inroads in the formerly pacified countryside.”[8]

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle Wheeler was deeply concerned about the weakened position of the Allies across rural South Vietnam. Following a fact-finding mission to South Vietnam in the third week of February, Wheeler returned to Washington and briefed the President, he informed Johnson, “…to a large extent the VC now control the countryside. Most of the 54 battalions formerly providing security for pacification are now defending district or province towns.”[9]

The RD teams took a particularly hard hit. Without anyone to defend them, half of the country’s 555 teams disappeared – whereabouts unknown. Wheeler told the President, “The enemy is operating with relative freedom in the countryside, probably recruiting heavily and no doubt infiltrating NVA [North Vietnamese] units and personnel. His recovery is likely to be rapid; his supplies are adequate; and he is trying to maintain the momentum of his winter-spring offensive.”[10] The general continued, “In many places, the RD has been set back badly…It is not clear as to when, or even whether, it will be possible to return to the RD program in its earlier form. As long as the VC prowl the countryside it will be impossible, in many places, even to tell exactly what has happened to the program.”[11] Wheeler, as was his tendency with the President, was being circumspect, not disclosing the full extent of the disaster that had befallen the Allied pacification program. But unlike Wheeler, the Director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence was more explicit. Thomas Hughes, in a memo to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, wrote on February 5, 1968, that rural pacification across South Vietnam had been rendered “inoperable.”[12] The civilians in the DoD’s Systems Analysis office concurred with Hughes, “…the enemy’s current offensive appears to have killed the [pacification] program once and for all.”[13]

The Allied relinquishment of the countryside negatively affected the psychology of those living in rural areas that had previously sided with the Saigon regime. Pro-GVN peasants recognized at Tet that government officials and ARVN troops placed their own self-preservation over that of their rural supporters. When push came to shove, the loyal peasantry, especially the rural Catholics, understood they could no longer trust the GVN to protect them from the Vietcong. Formerly neutral peasants concluded that they had little reason to grant the Saigon regime their loyalty either; it was just too dangerous to do so. Tet underscored a reality of life in rural South Vietnam that few top officials in the U.S. Mission in Saigon wanted to admit; the Vietcong could enter GVN territory at will and punish the peasants for their allegiance to the Saigon regime.  Referring to the GVN’s retreat from the countryside, and its abandonment of its rural loyalists, a disenchanted American aid worker said, “They [the South Vietnamese] are presiding over the destruction of their own pacification program.”[14]

In the northern provinces of South Vietnam, the Vietcong moved freely outside the main towns and cities. In mid-February, a U.S. official said of the situation in I Corps, “…It is impossible for civilian officials to venture beyond the provincial capitals.”[15] As for the district capitals, the Vietcong had either overrun them or the defenders barely held on, waiting for the Americans to rescue them.

Across I Corps, the GVN’s pacification teams suffered huge losses. In late 1967, 125 RD teams operated in the region. During Tet, the Vietcong decimated the teams. Approximately half the teams either retreated to the nearest safe haven or fell apart under Vietcong pressure. The other half stayed in their assigned hamlets, where they fought alone against overwhelming odds.[16]

Further south, in heavily-populated Binh Dinh Province along the central coastal plain, where the Americans and South Vietnamese had worked for years to pacify the peasantry, the Tet Offensive completely nullified previous Allied achievements in pacification. In the first weeks of Tet, a total of 17 RD teams abandoned the field and another 31 teams went missing. One American pacification worker, who witnessed the Allied rout across Binh Dinh, stated, “It has all gone down the drain…You work like hell here and then in one night it’s all lost, all that work – gone.”[17]

In addition to the inroads achieved in I Corps and along the coastal plain, Communist forces overran a large portion of the Mekong Delta. Across the delta, three hundred and sixty-seven RVNAF outposts either fell to the Vietcong or were vacated during Tet. These outposts varied in the size and sophistication of their fortifications. Some were nothing more than a few shallow bunkers surrounded by a trench line and barbed-wire fence. Others consisted of well-built concrete bunkers, trenches, artillery gun emplacements, marshalling yards, heli-pads, and ammunition dumps. The RFs and PFs manned the smaller outposts, while regular ARVN companies and battalions guarded the bigger ones.  Many of the larger posts stood atop old French forts dating from the First Indochina War. These posts overlooked strategic canal and road junctures, river mouths, and the approaches to the delta’s towns.[18]

In the first weeks of the offensive, the signs of Vietcong dominance south of Saigon were evident everywhere. Along the vital Rice Road (Route 4) through the delta, the Vietcong set up roadblocks to interdict traffic. Vietcong civilian sympathizers cratered and mined the delta’s secondary roads to seal them off from the Allies. The situation in the delta in February 1968 mirrored that which prevailed in 1964 and early 1965, when any American or GVN official travelling outside of the towns or cities risked being captured or killed by the guerrillas.

At Can Tho, the Vietcong halted road and river traffic into and out of the city.  In order to hold Can Tho, the Allies had to fly in reinforcements and supplies.[19]  In late February, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker informed President Johnson that, “IV Corps [the delta] is perhaps the most serious problem with something approaching area wide paralysis prevailing in that key region.”[20] Other members of the U.S. Mission in Saigon believed the pacification program in the delta, like that further north, had been completely destroyed during Tet.[21]

Prior to Tet, CIA field agents estimated that the GVN had a functioning administration in 7,200 of South Vietnam’s 12,300 hamlets. [22] However, at the end of the Tet Offensive, the GVN maintained a presence in only 4,400 hamlets. By April 1968, nearly two-thirds of South Vietnam’s hamlets were either entirely under Vietcong control or had become contested hamlets without any government administration. At the U.S. Mission, some officials doubted the effectiveness and durability of the GVN presence in its 4,400 hamlets.[23]

When the Communists moved into formerly contested or Government (GVN)-controlled hamlets, they did what they had always done; they established a new government, organized various associations, put peasants to work erecting fortifications, and recruited young men and women into the Vietcong’s various military organizations, including the assault youth, local militia, and main forces. The Vietcong also hunted down and executed GVN and ARVN officials marooned behind their lines. Generally, though, the Communists, according to the head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Richard Helms, behaved themselves. In late February 1968, Helms apprised President Johnson of the situation prevailing in areas recently captured by Communist forces, he told the President, “…the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese have treated the people in the countryside rather decently.”[24]

The Hanoi regime gloated over the triumph of its forces across rural South Vietnam. The party paper “Nhan Dan” declared its troops succeeded in “…[the] liberation of vast rural areas around the towns and along the strategic communication lines of the enemy…It is not the United States aggressors and their puppets who are ‘pacifying’ the population, but the reverse is now occurring in South Vietnam.”[25]

In one of the few instances in the course of the war, U.S. officials agreed with the Communist propagandists. Tet so thoroughly disrupted the pacification program and the Allied position in rural South Vietnam that one U.S. official said wryly, “No one talks about pacification anymore.”[26] But what that official failed to mention was that if rural pacification was in fact dead then the United States and the Saigon regime would never win the loyalty of enough rural South Vietnamese to ensure the survival of South Vietnam.

Endnotes

[1] New York Times, “U.S. Dead at 543 in Week, A Record,” Tom Buckley, February 23, 1968.

[2] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January- August 1968, “Document 91, Notes of a Meeting, February 28, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 268; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 56, Intelligence Note From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to Secretary of State Rusk, February 5, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 130.

[3] Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin, eds., Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War, (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 345; New York Times, “A Grim Military Chess Game,” Tom Buckley, March 3, 1968.

[4] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August, 1968, “Document 65, Notes of a Meeting, February 10, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 170.

[5] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6 (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books, LLC, 2011), 3.

[6] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 26.

[7] Civilian Casualty, Social Welfare, and Refugee Problems in South Vietnam. Hearings before the Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees, Senate Judiciary Committee, May 10-October 16, 1967, 72.

[8] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6 (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books, LLC, 2011), 13.

[9] Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 384.

[10] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6 (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books, LLC, 2011), 12.

[11] William Appleman Williams, Thomas McCormick, Lloyd Gardner, and Walter LaFeber, eds., America in Vietnam: A Documentary History, (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985), 269.

[12] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 56, Intelligence Note from the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to Secretary of State Rusk, February 5, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 130.

[13] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6 (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books, LLC, 2011), 26.

[14] New York Times, “Pacification Program is Almost at Standstill in South Vietnam,” Charles Mohr, February 14, 1968.

[15] New York Times, “Officials Seek to Reprime the Pump of Pacification,” February 16, 1968; Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 371.

[16] Willard Pearson, Vietnam Studies, The War in the Northern Provinces, 1966-1968, (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 1975), 42-43.

[17] New York Times, “A Pacification Drive Setback in Key Area,” Bernard Weinraub, February 21, 1968.

[18] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 124, Telegram from the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State, March 14, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 377.

[19] Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 371; New York Times, “Vietcong Attack City in the Delta; Fighting Is Heavy,” Joseph Treaster, March 6, 1968; New York Times, “A Grim Military Chess Game,” Tom Buckley, March 3, 1968; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 85, Telegram From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson in Texas, February 24, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 243.

[20] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 94, Telegram from the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State, February 29, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 285.

[21] Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 371.

[22] New York Times, “Allies Program for Vietnam is Taking Shape,” February 11, 1969.

[23] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 263, Special National Intelligence Estimate, June 6, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 763

[24] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January- August 1968, “Document 91, Notes of a Meeting, February 28, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 268.

[25] New York Times, “Complete Failure Charged,” February 25, 1968.

[26] New York Times, “Heavy Setback for Saigon and More Trouble Ahead,” February 11, 1968.

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