On his last day in office, January 19, 1961, when President Eisenhower briefed his successor on affairs in Southeast Asia, the departing president emphasized the situation in Laos and the grave possibility of U.S. intervention there. Not once did Eisenhower mention Vietnam. Yet Vietnam, not Laos, engulfed the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon. No dramatic event—no musket volleys on Lexington Green, no artillery rounds battering Fort Sumter, no Japanese Zeros shattering a quiet Sunday morning in Hawaii, no Soviet tanks rumbling across the 38th Parallel—announced to the American people that they were at war. Instead the conflict approached stealthily, yet steadily, like a guerrilla setting up an ambush. Suddenly (or so it seemed), a dozen years after the Korean War ended, the U.S. was again engaged in a war on the Asian mainland.
Riddled with ambiguities, uncertainties, and paradoxes, the Vietnam War defied easy generalizations. Pitting North Vietnam and a very substantial number of South Vietnamese against other Southerners, it was both a civil war and an international conflict involving the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union. Moreover, the international situation changed dramatically between 1964 and 1972, as the Chinese-Soviet estrangement became increasingly obvious and U.S. policy moved toward détente with both Communist superpowers. For the Vietnamese the war was unlimited, but for the major powers it remained limited: a situation fraught with intra-allied tensions. Foreign intervention both lengthened the war and increased its ferocity.
The fighting contained conventional and unconventional elements simultaneously, not just in different regions but sometimes in the same province. What was true in one place was often irrelevant in another because the conflict varied depending on where soldiers were stationed, when they served, and the nature of their assignments. Combat action in only ten of South Vietnam’s forty-four provinces accounted for half of all American combat deaths, and each of the five northernmost provinces was in that top ten. On the other hand, few Americans died in the Mekong Delta. Combat intensity varied from one year to the next, with 1968 being the most fierce. In round numbers, 15,000 American were killed in action (KIA) from 1964 to 1967, another 15,000 in 1968, and then 15,000 more during the rest of the war. Death fell most heavily on men assigned to maneuver battalions (meaning infantry and light mechanized units), who averaged about fifteen times the KIA rate of all other forces. But at the war’s height during 1968–1969, 88 percent of all servicemen were in non-combat occupational specialties.
Vietnam was always about more than the fate of that Southeast Asian country. Three presidents based their decisions as much on domestic political considerations as they did on the war’s exigencies. Democrats were especially unwilling to risk being perceived as “soft” on Communism by “losing” more territory and thereby igniting a new McCarthyism. “God Almighty,” said Johnson as he contemplated what would happen if Southeast Asia became Communist-dominated, “what they said about us leaving China would just be warming up, compared to what they’d say now.” Policymakers also worried about international “credibility.” NSC-68 asserted that Communists were “seeking to demonstrate to the free world that force and the will to use it are on the side of the Kremlin, that those who lack it are decadent and doomed.” Proving that the U.S. was neither decadent nor doomed required that presidents be tough, that they not back down from a fight. Successive presidents understood the link between “manly” behavior and political legitimacy. The Kennedy administration went out of its way to project a cult of toughness, and Johnson feared that if the Communists overran South Vietnam, political opponents would claim he “was a coward. An unmanly man. A man without a spine.” Nixon often insisted that neither he nor his nation would be defeated and humiliated and thus devalue his image of manly courage.
The containment policy, reinforced by a questionable “Munich analogy” and an unproven “domino theory,” impelled and then sustained the intervention. One of World War II’s foremost “lessons” was that democratic nations must never appease aggressors, as the British supposedly did at Munich; preventing a third world war seemed to require free nations to repel aggression anywhere it reared its ugly head. The domino theory postulated that if the Communists knocked over one nation, then its neighbors would automatically topple into the Communist camp. Containment and its corollaries caused policymakers to ignore the Communist world’s diversity. Policymakers also did not understand that anticolonial movements would have roiled Asia even if Communism never existed, and they ignored poignant warnings against involvement in Southeast Asia. For example, in 1949 the JCS asserted that the “widening political consciousness and the rise of militant nationalism among the subject people cannot be reversed.” Any effort to do so would be “an anti-historical act likely in the long run to create more problems than it solves and cause more damage than benefit.”
Finally, as always, soldiers waged two wars, one against the enemy and the other against the environment. Vietnam had varied terrain and ever-changing (though almost always miserable) weather. In the south the densely populated Mekong Delta was flat and watery, laced with swampy jungles and the Mekong River’s tributaries. Near Saigon and stretching northward for fifty miles were rolling hills covered with intermixed jungles and savannah-like grasses. Then came the southern terminus of the Truong Son Mountains, a region called the Central Highlands, a rugged 20,000 square mile plateau covered with tropical forests, bamboo, and elephant grass (which had such razor-sharp edges that soldiers believed anyone who walked through it qualified for a Purple Heart). Semi-nomadic, burn-and-plant ethnic groups called Montagnards inhabited the Highlands. Finally, South Vietnam’s northernmost end featured the Truong Son Mountains, a feral region of rain forests, jagged peaks, and surging rivers. From south to north these regions corresponded to what Americans would label IV Corps Tactical Zone (IV CTZ), III CTZ, II CTZ, and I (pronounced “eye”) CTZ. South Vietnam had dry and rainy seasons depending on the southwest and northeast monsoons. The best campaigning weather prevailed during the dry season from February through May; major enemy offensives in 1968, 1972, and 1975 all occurred during this window. The dry season was also a boon for the Americans, since it allowed for more air strikes, greater helicopter mobility, and more reliable movement on the roads.
The United States and Revolution in Southeast Asia
President Truman’s decision in mid-1950 to intervene in Southeast Asia came against a seemingly perilous backdrop. Mao Zedong’s victory in the Chinese civil war appeared to tilt the world balance of power in the Communists’ favor, and fears of a Soviet threat to Western Europe fostered an almost desperate need for France to participate in NATO. But events limited France’s ability to devote resources to European defense. France had ruled Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia, from the midnineteenth century until the Japanese replaced them as imperial overlords during World War II. Led by Ho Chi Minh, Vietnamese nationalists (called the Viet Minh) fought against the Japanese and proclaimed an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) on the day Japan surrendered. But the Vietnamese desire for independence collided with France’s effort to reestablish its colonial empire after World War II, resulting in the First Indochinese War, which began in 1946. Although Ho was prominent in founding the French Communist Party and the Indochinese Communist Party, he was above all else a nationalist who sought a unified, independent Vietnam. Only after democratic nations such as France and the U.S. refused to support the DRV’s bid for independence did Ho turn to China and the Soviet Union for support; both extended diplomatic recognition in January 1950.
Initially the Truman administration perceived events in Vietnam as a colonial war in which France was trying to reassert its sovereignty. But because France might undermine the containment policy in Europe if the Americans refused to help it in Indochina, the U.S. supported the war effort even though many officials understood that the vast majority of Vietnamese favored Ho and that his movement contained both Communists and non-Communists. After the Korean War erupted, the U.S. commitment to France intensified, since the Indochinese and Korean battlefields seemed to be essential in stopping Chinese Communism.
After eight years of war, in 1954 France appealed to Eisenhower to save its beleaguered garrison at Dien Bien Phu, but he declined. The U.S. was not eager to undertake another Asian land war so soon after Korea. The JCS presented a foreboding picture of how difficult the task would be, and the British and other allies rebuffed the administration’s effort to create a multinational rescue force. The Geneva Conference ratified France’s defeat even though it gave the Viet Minh less than a complete victory. In part the Viet Minh were eager to settle the war because war-weariness afflicted their country. And China and the Soviet Union pressured them to accept a compromise because they wanted to lessen great power tensions and deprive the U.S. of an excuse to intervene more directly in Southeast Asia. The Viet Minh agreed to a temporary partition of their country along the 17th Parallel that allowed their military forces to regroup northward, with French units regrouping to the south. (Thousands of southern Viet Minh, however, did not regroup to the North, but instead stayed in the South.) The conference’s Final Declaration decreed this demarcation line was not a political or territorial boundary, and it promised that Vietnam would be reunified through a nationwide election in 1956, which nearly everyone assumed Ho would win.
Viewing the prospect of Communist domination of Indochina as a disaster, Eisenhower sought to convert Vietnam’s southern half into a non-Communist nation. One step toward establishing “South Vietnam” was SEATO, which Eisenhower hoped would deter Communist expansion despite its defects: Some of the region’s foremost nations—India, Burma, Indonesia—refused to join, and it only required signatories to consult, not necessarily act, in case of aggression. Although the Geneva Accords barred Laos, Cambodia, and southern Vietnam from joining alliances, SEATO extended protection to them, providing a diplomatic façade behind which a non-Communist South Vietnam might emerge. Another important step was to nurture a South Vietnamese leader who could become his country’s George Washington. Onto the stage stepped Ngo Dinh Diem, who became president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in 1955, after a rigged election in which he received 98.2 percent of the vote.
Diem was a courageous, selfless, and fervent anti-Communist and he knew many influential Americans, including John F. Kennedy, a Catholic senator, and Cardinal Francis Spellman, the nation’s leading Catholic spokesman. Like Kennedy and Spellman, Diem was a Catholic, but he ruled a predominantly Buddhist country. Moreover, he had not fought either Japan or France, which made his nationalist credentials suspect compared to Ho’s. Ideologically, South Vietnam was no match for the Viet Minh, who practically monopolized the nationalist mantle, vowing to rid Vietnam of European imperialists and their clones, and promising a new economic and political order based on redistributing wealth and power. An autocrat, Diem also blocked reforms urged on him by the U.S., such as opening the government to dissenting views.
Eisenhower not only increased financial aid to South Vietnam but also provided military support. The U.S. established a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). As the French withdrew, MAAG assumed responsibility for equipping and training the Vietnamese National Army, which became the nucleus for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Violating the Geneva-established limits on foreign troops, the number of American advisers reached 700 by the late 1950s. Encouraged by Eisenhower, Diem refused to participate in the elections scheduled for 1956, which were never held, and imposed a measure of stability on his country, in part through authoritarian methods. Diem believed dictatorial leadership was necessary to prevent his fledgling nation from disintegrating under the stresses of its social, religious, and ethnic factionalism and the Viet Minh’s potential threat. While repressing political opponents, Diem’s army defeated the Binh Xuyen, Saigon’s foremost criminal organization, which maintained its own pseudo-military force. Through military campaigns and CIA-financed bribery, he also vanquished or co-opted the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai, powerful religious sects that fielded their own armies.
Only then did he turn against his most dangerous adversary, those Viet Minh who had not regrouped to the North after Geneva. In 1955 the Communist Party had 60,000 members in the Mekong Delta and the Saigon region, but by the end of 1958 that number was a mere 5,000. However, suppression of the Viet Minh was successful primarily because Ho’s Hanoi-based government urged southerners to engage only in political organization. Facing severe reconstruction problems after the First Indochina War, Communist leaders hoped to complete the Geneva process peacefully and wanted to avoid provoking the Americans into greater involvement. Suffering severe repression, the southern Viet Minh became restless with the North’s passivity, and in 1956–1957 they began fighting back against the South Vietnamese police and military forces. Still, the battle remained unequal and some Communists feared the South’s revolutionary flame might be extinguished.
In 1959 Ho Chi Minh and his inner circle sanctioned the use of armed force in pursuit of national liberation and unification, returned a small number of Viet Minh (known as “regroupees”) who had regrouped to the north after Geneva, and established Group 559 to shuttle men and equipment along the Ho Chi Minh Trail running from North Vietnam through eastern Laos and northeastern Cambodia. In 1961 the North created the National Liberation Front (NLF), designed to attract all groups in the South but that was Communist-dominated, and organized all southern military units into the People’s Liberation Armed Force (PLAF, also called the Viet Cong—which was short for Vietnamese Communist—or, more simply, the VC). To command the VC, North Vietnam established the Trung Uong Cuc Mien Nam (Central Office for South Vietnam, or COSVN). General Tran Van Tra commanded COSVN’s Regional Military Headquarters, and in late 1963 or early 1964 Senior General Nguyen Chi Thanh, a member of the North’s Politboro, became its foremost political officer and its dominant figure until his death in the summer of 1967. Although U.S. political and military leaders thought COSVN was a fixed headquarters with a Pentagon-like bureaucratic structure that could be located and destroyed, in reality it was simply a mobile, forward command post consisting of a few senior officers.
In taking these measures the North’s leadership walked a tightrope. While supporting the VC, it did not want to alienate the Soviet Union, which was following a policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the West; or the Chinese, who were still recovering from their civil war and Korea. Many officials also worried that the escalating conflict detracted from rebuilding the war-torn North, and they feared a full-scale war with the U.S.
The Advisory Years in Vietnam
By the time Kennedy assumed the presidency, what had been a “problem” for Eisenhower was becoming a crisis. As the insurgency grew more aggressive, Kennedy intervened more dramatically, waging what the Communists called a “special war”—a U.S. sponsored war, but fought primarily by ARVN without direct large-scale American combat involvement. The number of advisers increased from fewer than 1,000 to 16,000 (some undertook limited combat roles) and ARVN received new weapons, including napalm, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and armored personnel carriers. To oversee military activities in Vietnam, in 1962 the U.S. established Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), which absorbed MAAG. The Air Force began Operation RANCH HAND, an aerial herbicide-spraying program to deny the VC cover and to kill their crops. The U.S. also nurtured various CIA counterinsurgency initiatives, including helping the Special Forces organize Montagnards into Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, which ultimately numbered 45,000 men who defended South Vietnam’s western border in the Highlands.
Equally important, the U.S. supported the Strategic Hamlet Program, a “pacification” plan South Vietnam launched in late 1961. Pacification entailed winning the peasants’ “hearts and minds” by separating them from the guerrillas, providing security from VC attacks, and improving living conditions through social, economic, and political reforms. Doing all three tasks well proved a challenge throughout the war. Diem’s program compelled peasants to move from scattered villages into hamlets surrounded by moats and barbed wire and, in theory, protected by local defense forces. Once inside a strategic hamlet, occupants supposedly benefited from fair elections, improved medical care, and land reform. But people resented being forced to leave ancestral lands to move into stockades; training and weaponry for local militias were rarely sufficient; promised reforms remained unfulfilled; and many officials were incompetent and corrupt. Still, strategic hamlets created problems for the VC by preventing them from having an overt presence in some hamlets and villages.
The infusion of advisers and new weapons, combined with the success of some strategic hamlets, stopped the hemorrhaging that characterized Diem’s war effort from 1960 through mid-1962. Neither combatant foresaw imminent victory. ARVN won a few battles and lost others, most notably at Ap Bac in January 1963, when outnumbered VC fighting with small arms defeated ARVN forces equipped with helicopters and armored personnel carriers. MACV commander General Paul Harkins, exuding overoptimism, proclaimed Ap Bac an ARVN victory. Like his successors, he often failed to assess the battlefield accurately.
Whatever was happening on the battlefield, many U.S. leaders feared Diem would ultimately fail because they believed political and economic reforms were more important than battles. The Army’s Operations Against Irregular Forces manual maintained that an insurgency was the “outward manifestation” of popular discontent with social and political conditions. An important corollary was that repression alone would not suffice; the only permanent solution was to rectify the underlying conditions that produced the insurgency. From the perspective of many Americans, Diem relied too heavily on repression and too little on reform. True, some officials supported Diem because, if nothing else, he imposed stability on his fractious population. But others wanted an “Americanized” South Vietnamese government, one that conducted free elections, tolerated public dissent, and adopted liberal reforms. However, in 1963 when Buddhists protested against religious restrictions, the regime responded with force, which in turn sparked widespread rioting. In one particularly gruesome incident, Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, who commanded both ARVN’s special forces and the South’s secret police, ordered a raid on the Xa Loi pagoda in Saigon that resulted in the death of more than thirty monks.
Convinced that authoritarianism foreclosed success, the Kennedy administration sanctioned a coup, which resulted in Diem’s murder in early November 1963. The U.S. hoped new leadership would follow American guidance about democratic reforms and inspire more vigorous efforts on the battlefield and in pacification. Instead, seven more coups wracked the nation during the next year. From 1963 until 1966, Saigon’s political machinations virtually paralyzed ARVN, severely hindering the war effort. With increasing support from Hanoi, the VC began making impressive gains. Sensing the demise of America’s “special war,” in December 1963 North Vietnam’s 9th Party Plenum not only stepped up the political struggle but also ordered the insurgency to go on the offensive, hoping to win a swift victory and thereby preempting a protracted war involving the U.S. By 1964 the Communist leadership had returned approximately 44,000 regroupees to the South. In part because of a dwindling supply of regroupees, the first complete unit of northern-born regulars from the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN, also known as the North Vietnamese Army or NVA) entered the South in very late 1964. However, the North had refrained from interjecting large numbers of PAVN regulars into the conflict for fear of unduly provoking the Americans. By mid-1966, when approximately 267,500 U.S. military personnel were serving in South Vietnam, only an estimated 46,300 NVA were south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which divided North and South Vietnam.
The assassin’s bullet that killed Kennedy just three weeks after Diem’s death left the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, to try to salvage the war. Knowing the U.S. had no commitment to fight in Vietnam and hoping to avoid getting “tied down in a Third World War or another Korean action,” he initially followed Kennedy’s policy of providing money, advice, training, and equipment so the South Vietnamese could fight their own war. By early 1964 this approach was failing, and to avoid imminent defeat Johnson began “Americanizing” the war. In March 1964 he approved National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 288, which stated that while the U.S. hoped to maintain a non-Communist South Vietnam without using American combat forces, it was vital to take “every reasonable measure to assure success in South Vietnam.” Among those measures was increasing the number of advisers to more than 23,000 and authorizing OPLAN 34A, a covert sabotage program against North Vietnam that utilized intelligence collected by destroyers on the Navy’s DESOTO patrols off North Vietnam’s coast. Johnson replaced Harkins as MACV commander with General William C. Westmoreland, who had held many of the Army’s most visible positions, including command of the 101st Airborne Division and superintendent of West Point. Finally, the administration drafted a resolution saying the country would “use all measures, including the commitment of armed forces” to preserve South Vietnam. Given a suitable pretext, it would introduce the resolution into Congress.
Events in the Gulf of Tonkin provided the pretext. According to administration spokesmen, North Vietnam launched unprovoked assaults in international waters against the destroyer Maddox on August 2, and against Maddox and another destroyer, C. Turner Joy, on August 4. The administration was being deceptive: Johnson knew the first attack was a response to recent OPLAN 34A operations. And he had reason to suspect the second attack never occurred, since the initial reports were confusing and contradictory. In fact, no attack occurred on August 4; jittery sailors had misconstrued radar and sonar readings as torpedoes.
While misleading the American public, the administration threatened North Vietnam, telling Hanoi that it assumed the first attack was a mistake and so did not respond, but the second was “obviously deliberate and planned and ordered in advance,” designed either to reveal the U.S. as a paper tiger or provoke it into a wider war. The North, knowing the August 2 attack was a response to sabotage operations and the second attack was fanciful, concluded the U.S. was looking for an excuse to escalate. Aside from Democratic senators Wayne Morse and Earnest Gruening, no members of Congress ferreted out the administration’s fabrications. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which permitted the president “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression,” passed the House of Representatives 416–0 and the Senate 88–2 (only Morse and Gruening dissented).
Johnson soon invoked this resolution to justify a larger war, though he was invariably less than candid about the escalatory steps he sanctioned. “Everything that we do in public, whatever we say in public, is just for the public,” he told South Vietnam’s president. “Together we’ll make the important decisions, things that we don’t want the public to know.”
Bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnam
Rather than withdraw life support from a dying patient and accept defeat in South Vietnam, Johnson resorted to aggressive life-saving measures because the president believed in the domino theory, wanted to maintain international credibility, fretted about a new McCarthyism, and, being a proud Texan, was not about to back down from a fight. Between late 1964 and early 1968 the U.S. waged a progressively larger, more Americanized war on five fronts: an aerial campaign to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail; an air war against North Vietnam; a ground war (primarily against PAVN) with an accompanying air war inside South Vietnam; a naval war; and a pacification campaign against the VC.
The air war against the Ho Chi Minh Trail and another against North Vietnam began almost simultaneously. In December 1964 a joint Air Force-Navy operation, codenamed BARREL ROLL, began attacks in the Laotian panhandle to hinder infiltration of men and supplies. However, after the spring of 1965 aircraft involved in BARREL ROLL supported anti-Communist ground forces in northern Laos, while a new operation, STEEL TIGER, targeted the trail. Beginning in 1968 another new operation, COMMANDO HUNT, superceded STEEL TIGER. Before the war ended the U.S. had dropped 3 million tons of bombs on Laos, which was about twice the tonnage dropped on Germany during World War II.
Meanwhile the air war over North Vietnam began with Operation PIERCE ARROW, a retaliatory strike following the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Two more retaliatory strikes (FLAMING DART and FLAMING DART II) occurred in February 1965, but by then the administration had approved Operation ROLLING THUNDER, a sustained bombing campaign against the North that commenced on March 2, 1965. The codename came from a line in Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage: “The battle roar settled to a rolling thunder, which was a single, long explosion.”
The rationale for bombing the North was to raise South Vietnam’s morale, compel Hanoi to abandon the VC, and interdict the flow of men and supplies moving toward South Vietnam. While the rationale was clear, how to conduct the bombing generated an intense debate. Most civilian advisers preferred a gradual approach, which could become more intense if North Vietnam persisted in supporting the war. On the other hand, the armed forces preferred to hit the enemy immediately and hard. Harkening back to the bombing campaigns against Germany, the Air Force proposed a 94-target plan to destroy the North’s economic centers in just sixteen days. Several assumptions, all of which proved faulty, lay behind the plan. One was that the VC could not survive without the North’s substantial support, and another was that North Vietnam’s fledgling industrial facilities were a treasured asset.
Johnson chose a gradual squeeze and nursed ROLLING THUNDER through three overlapping phases. Initially, interdiction dominated. Even the JCS, disappointed at Johnson’s “slow squeeze” strategy, believed that attacking lines of communication would demonstrate American resolve and diminish the North’s support for the VC. But North Vietnam mobilized civilian repair crews to rebuild roads and bridges, built redundancy into the transportation network, and appealed to China and the Soviet Union for more support. When trucks were too few or too vulnerable, the enemy used porters or bicycles designed to carry up to 500 pounds. Moreover, enemy forces in the South needed little external support. The VC grew much of their food, produced medicine from local plants, captured weapons and ammunition from ARVN, and bought supplies on South Vietnam’s thriving black market. Those PAVN forces inside South Vietnam were light infantry with no tanks, planes, and heavy artillery requiring a complex logistical system. Total daily requirements for enemy forces in the South totaled 380 tons, of which only thirty-four tons per day came from outside sources. Seven two-and-a-half-ton trucks could fill this need. No amount of bombing could stem the trickle of supplies that needed to reach the South.
In late 1965 the JCS, despite skepticism from other agencies, determined that oil was essential to the North’s infiltration capability. The next spring Johnson permitted the bombing to shift from interdiction to oil, beginning with attacks on small storage facilities in unpopulated areas. Then in late June bombs struck large POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricants) facilities in Hanoi and Haiphong, which had previously been off limits. The oil campaign seemed a great success: Warplanes destroyed 80 percent of the North’s bulk fuel capacity. It made no difference. Never needing much fuel, North Vietnam now received more POL supplies from China and the Soviet Union, and dispersed 55-gallon fuel drums along transportation routes and in small underground storage sites. In the Jason Summer Study, a group of leading scientists examined data the administration provided and concluded that “North Vietnam has basically a subsistence agricultural economy that presents a difficult and unrewarding target system for air attack.”
The oil campaign’s failure, with the glaring discrepancy between the military’s optimistic prestrike predictions and the pessimistic poststrike reality, convinced McNamara to search for a better option that would impair Hanoi’s ability to continue supporting the war in the South. He settled upon a proposal recommended by a special study group that called for a network of manned and electronic obstacles stretching from the South China Sea across Vietnam just below the DMZ and continuing into the Laotian panhandle. Carefully positioned technical devices (such as seismic and acoustic sensors), weapons, and manned positions might substantially reduce the flow of men and supplies. Although neither MACV nor the JCS was enthusiastic about the project, in January 1967 President Johnson not only approved it but also assigned it the highest national priority. The so-called McNamara Line ran into difficulties from the start. PAVN operations disrupted construction, Laos rejected the idea of a cross-border barrier, and Westmoreland insisted that it drained manpower that could be better used in search-and-destroy missions. Still, air-delivered seismic intrusion detectors (ADSIDs) helped to pinpoint trucks moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, allowing U.S. warplanes to destroy a substantial number of them, and undoubtedly killing a large number of PAVN soldiers as well.
But if McNamara had lost faith in the air war against North Vietnam, the same was not true for the air chiefs. Having only marginally influenced the war by interdiction and attacking oil, they asserted that the North’s real Achilles’ heel was industry and electric power. Although some advisers warned Johnson that North Vietnam contained no worthy industrial target system, in the fall of 1966 he sanctioned raids on the North’s only steel factory, its sole cement plant, and all its thermal power plants, though the largest of these only produced the kilowatts necessary for an American town of 25,000. Soon 87 percent of North Vietnam’s electric-generating capacity and its few industries were in ruins, but the North compensated with thousands of generators and additional Chinese and Soviet aid. Another Jason Summer Study discovered that the bombing “had no measurable effect on Hanoi’s ability to mount and support military operations in the South.”
ROLLING THUNDER increasingly resembled Stephen Crane’s “single, long explosion” with broader geographic scope, more sorties (the number increased fourfold between 1965 and 1968), more bombs, and expanded target lists. But political, military, and operational constraints prevented it from ever becoming the unrestricted effort the JCS advocated. Political constraints flowed from Johnson’s “negative objectives”—that is, things he did not want to happen. While pursuing his positive objective of an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam, the president wanted to avoid alienating NATO allies, undermining his “Great Society” domestic social reform programs by diverting attention and money from them, or, most important, provoking large-scale Chinese or Soviet participation in the war. Paradoxically, to save ARVN the U.S. had to apply force, but to avoid a wider war it had to limit the force it applied. For the Vietnamese, of course, it was always a war without limits.
No one knew what the Chinese or Soviet threshold was for entering the war. Along with economic aid and military equipment, China sent 320,000 troops to North Vietnam between 1965 and 1969, primarily engineering units and antiaircraft troops. North Vietnam received assurances that if the Americans invaded, China would intervene, and the Communists made sure the U.S. knew of these assurances. As for the Soviets, they provided the North everything from medical supplies to jet fighters and by 1969 eclipsed China as Hanoi’s primary benefactor. The Kremlin also sent 3,000 “advisers,” some of whom manned antiaircraft defenses. And the U.S.S.R. threatened to send “volunteers” to the North.
At one point Johnson asked JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler and MACV Commander Westmoreland at what point the Chinese or Soviets might intervene. “That,” responded the latter, “is a good question.” Indeed it was, and the president could ill afford to ignore it. Because the enemy had two “big brothers that have more weight and people than I have,” he hedged the bombing with restraints, which loosened as the war continued but never disappeared. He specified strike days, selected targets, limited the number of sorties, and for most of ROLLING THUNDER forbade attacks within thirty nautical miles of Hanoi and ten miles of Haiphong, and in a twenty-five-mile-wide buffer zone along the Chinese border. Deciding whether to hit a target, said McNamara, required balancing the target’s value, the risk of pilot loss, and the possibility of widening the war. Some targets were so insignificant they were not worth the risk of lost planes and airmen; others, political leaders feared, might ignite World War III.
Another political restraint consisted of eight bombing halts, most of them only a few days but with one lasting more than a month. Because North Vietnam insisted it would not negotiate while being bombed, the administration confronted pressure to stop the bombing as a diplomatic signal that the U.S. was willing—even eager—to negotiate. The armed forces predicted—correctly—that the enemy would use these lulls, not to negotiate, but to rebuild defenses, repair damage, and hasten men and material southward.
Three military constraints limited ROLLING THUNDER. Initially, airfield construction was so slow it delayed the buildup. Even as planes arrived, they confronted a munitions shortage because the production of 500- and 750-pound bombs was insufficient until the spring of 1967. A tangled command system also hindered ROLLING THUNDER since, in a violation of the concept of unity of command, no single commander controlled theater air operations. BARREL ROLL and STEEL TIGER remained divided from ROLLING THUNDER, and the air war inside South Vietnam was another separate enterprise. In the skies over North Vietnam, “order” emerged in April 1966 when CINCPAC Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp divided the target area outside South Vietnam into seven “Route Packages.” General Westmoreland scheduled strikes in Route Package I, which lay immediately north of the 17th Parallel. The other six were under Sharp’s command, with Route Packages II, III, IV, and VI B (including Haiphong) allotted to the Navy, and Route Packages V and VI A (including Hanoi) to the Air Force. No matter where B-52s flew, they remained SAC’s responsibility. The most significant military restraint was a bombing doctrine that emphasized destroying an enemy’s capability to fight by ruining its vital centers. The air chiefs devised plans to wreck the North’s economy by attacking the transportation system, oil, its few factories, and electric power. But with a rudimentary transportation system and tiny industrial base, North Vietnam was not a vulnerable target for a sustained air campaign with urban-industrial targets.
Operational controls such as the weather and enemy defenses also imposed limitations. From May through August the skies were relatively cloud-free. For the rest of the year weather conditions made daylight bombing difficult, and at night planes had to use flares to see a target. Pilots found their targets less than one-third of the time. Among the bomb-carrying planes—F-105 Thunderchiefs (called “Thuds”), F-4 Phantoms, A-4 Skyhawks, and A-6 Intruders—only the Navy’s Intruders had an all-weather capability, but usually no more than two squadrons (thirty-two planes) were available. North Vietnam responded by mobilizing repair crews, evacuating the cities, and adjusting work schedules to reduce vulnerability—which was fairly easy, since bombing raids followed predictable routines, and strike packages were big, obvious, and often compromised in advance by enemy spies and signals intelligence. As for active defenses, with Soviet and Chinese assistance, the North built a formidable, layered air-defense system integrating radar, antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and MiG fighters.
Before ROLLING THUNDER ended on October 31, 1968, the U.S. had dropped 634,000 tons of bombs (approximately 100,000 tons more than it dropped in the Pacific theater in World War II), doing $600 million in damage and killing 52,000 civilians out of a population of 18 million. Although the enemy claimed it shot down more than 3,000 planes, the U.S. lost “only” 938 (hundreds of others suffered damage), costing about $6 billion. In warplane losses alone it cost $10 to inflict $1 worth of damage. And between 1965 and 1968 North Vietnam received more than $2 billion in foreign aid, more than compensating for its losses.
In any event President Johnson never believed the U.S. could win the war by bombing the North. Indeed, he often privately expressed ambivalence about the entire war. “I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing,” he told McNamara in January 1965, “and I don’t see any way of winning.” Nonetheless, he plunged ahead.
Entering the Ground War
Shortly after authorizing ROLLING THUNDER, the president initiated an American ground war inside South Vietnam in addition to an enormous air war. The buildup began when two Marine battalions arrived at Da Nang to guard the air base there; and by June 1, 1965, the ground forces approved for Vietnam numbered 77,250. Painting a bleak picture of ARVN, Westmoreland asked for reinforcements to provide “a substantial and hard-hitting offensive capability on the ground to convince the VC that they cannot win.” Johnson asked his military advisers whether the enemy could match an American buildup. The “weight of judgment,” Chairman Wheeler responded, was that the enemy could not. The president also consulted the “Wise Men,” a bipartisan group of elder statesmen who seconded the military in recommending an expanded war. And McNamara believed the only options were to withdraw and be humiliated, continue the same failed strategy, or expand the effort, with the latter option presenting “the best odds of the best outcome with the most acceptable cost to the United States.” Dissenting voices were few, with Under Secretary of State George Ball being a notable exception. He predicted that approving Westmoreland’s request would result in “a protracted war involving an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces, mounting U.S. casualties, and no assurance of a satisfactory solution, and a serious danger of escalation [involving the Chinese or Soviets] at the end of the road.”
Johnson chose a bigger war. In late July he authorized 50,000 more men immediately, another 50,000 by year’s end, and, implicitly, still more troops if Westmoreland needed them. Thus began the gradual increase in American military personnel inside South Vietnam that peaked at 543,400 in early 1969. By ratcheting up the war’s scale and intensity, both in the skies over North Vietnam and especially inside South Vietnam, Johnson hoped to find Hanoi’s breaking point. When the destruction reached the right intensity, he believed the enemy would negotiate on U.S. terms to avoid greater suffering.
“This is no longer South Vietnam’s war,” a White House aide wrote in a memo capturing the significance of Johnson’s decision. “We are no longer advisers. The stakes are no longer South Vietnam’s. We are participants. The stakes are ours—and the West’s.” The Communists also recognized how crucial Johnson’s decision was. In their parlance, it marked the failure of America’s “special war.” But rather than negotiate, as Hanoi had hoped, the U.S. was escalating to what North Vietnamese strategists labeled a “limited war,” sending its own forces to rescue a disintegrating ARVN. The North’s gamble that it could defeat Saigon without provoking the U.S. to increase its involvement had failed. America’s escalation compelled the Communists to undertake a strategic reevaluation. During centuries of intermittent warfare the Vietnamese had expelled the Chinese, thrice repelled Kublai Khan’s Mongols, and then whipped France. Now confronting another powerful adversary, they sought to defeat it through revolutionary (or people’s) war, which was neither guerrilla warfare nor conventional warfare, though it incorporated features of both. The Vietnamese embraced a “war of interlocking” in which “the regular army, militia, and guerrilla forces combine and fight together.”
At the apex of the enemy’s military structure was PAVN, a conventionally organized army that grew to eighteen infantry divisions and twenty independent regiments, plus armored and artillery regiments. The VC’s Main Forces, organized into battalions, regiments, and even divisions, were akin to PAVN regulars, while their Local Forces consisted of companies that operated at the province level. Beneath the Main and Local forces was the “militia,” which incorporated part-time guerrillas; self-defense forces that included older people, women, and youths; and secret self-defense forces that were identical to self-defense forces except they lived in hamlets controlled by South Vietnam. The Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) was responsible for gathering intelligence, collecting taxes, recruiting, and conducting sabotage and assassinations. Although the U.S. military considered regular forces distinct from irregulars, Communists perceived them as complementary, like yin and yang, a union of opposites with a synergistic effect that made their combined power greater than either of them alone.
The Vietnamese made no distinction between political and military struggle (dau tranh); the relationship between the two struggles was symbiotic, with political dau tranh being the anvil and military dau tranh the hammer. Their interweaving of political and military dau tranh and their willingness to forego tidy strategic formulas fascinated one American general who observed that the VC/NVA conducted “a different kind of war” in each province. One might be relatively peaceful as the enemy stressed political dau tranh, while simultaneously conventional warfare convulsed a neighboring province and guerrilla conflict simmered in another. To the Vietnamese no distinction existed between civilians and combatants, so they enlisted not just battle-age men but women, children, and old folks. One study concluded that women commanded 40 percent of all PLAF regiments, while children served as lookouts, built booby traps, and flung grenades.
Ho and his followers understood that a protracted war might be necessary: Nurturing political support took time, and a powerful adversary was not quickly defeated. But they reasoned that time was on their side since the U.S. had no compelling national interest to fight in Vietnam, while they did. Their goal was to deflate America’s “aggressive will,” to win a political and psychological victory that made the U.S. unwilling to continue fighting. Avoid losing long enough and inflict a drip, drip, drip of casualties, and over time the U.S. would accept defeat.
As a result of their strategic debate the Communists decided to match the U.S. escalation, with the objective of bogging their foes down in a protracted struggle and creating a stalemate that sapped American (and South Vietnamese) morale. Hanoi directed much of its effort to convincing the U.S. that its “limited war” had failed. For the U.S. to win it would have to escalate dramatically, possibly igniting a “general war” involving the Chinese or Soviets. When confronted with a choice between “general war” or de-escalation, most enemy strategists presumed America would choose the latter.
While the adversary wrestled with its strategic options, and with reinforcements on the way, Westmoreland formalized a “Concept of Operations” outlining a three-phase victory plan. Initially the U.S. and its allies would halt the losing trend by year’s end. During Phase Two, spanning the first half of 1966, they would assume the offensive, destroying enemy units in high-priority areas. Phase Three entailed the enemy’s nearly complete destruction by the end of 1967, thus allowing U.S. troops to begin withdrawing. As so often happened, a seemingly good plan did not withstand the test of combat.
Westmoreland’s troop buildup went slowly, with one hindrance being logistical support. Problems began in the U.S., where the production base operated at a low level in 1965. As the war geared up, production lagged behind demand, partly because most strategists assumed the war would be over no later than 1967; due to the lead times involved, many manufacturers feared production would peak just as the war wound down. For some specialized items only a single source existed, and often it could not increase production fast enough to meet requirements. Labor strikes in 1967 at key industries further delayed production, and many industries considered consumer goods more profitable than supplying the military. Critical items such as M-16A1 rifles and M-107 self-propelled gun tubes always remained in short supply.
In Vietnam the U.S. had to build a logistics infrastructure, which eventually included six deep-water ports, seventy-five tactical airfields, twenty-six hospitals, a road network, and several dozen permanent base facilities, from scratch. Despite the activation of the 1st Logistical Command in April 1965 to oversee the effort, requirements often overwhelmed the military’s ability to transport, unload, and distribute supplies. Because the government kept the Military Sea Transportation Service small so that private industry could profit during wartime, MSTS employed hundreds of ships from the merchant marine and the National Defense Reserve Fleet. Mobilizing these ships took time, and even when ships were available port facilities in Vietnam were so limited, and lighters and warehouses so few, that at times dozens of ships waited at anchor to unload, accumulating demurrage charges of from $3,000 to $7,000 per day per ship. Crews frequently unloaded supplies in advance of a system to receive them, preventing the establishment of orderly management procedures. In 1965 the Army was automating its supply system, but a lack of computers and skilled technicians meant using a manual system in Vietnam, which the supply volume overwhelmed. Since MACV did not establish a theaterwide standard of living, each commander strove to give his soldiers the highest possible level of comfort; many units overordered everything from ammunition to ice cream. A tsunami of supplies, much of it resulting from duplicate requisitions and thus unneeded, poured over the port facilities. Some items that arrived in 1965 were still in depots in 1968, never having been identified and cataloged and therefore unusable. Worried that rising costs undermined support for the war, Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson implored MACV to control supply expenditures.
A second factor constraining the buildup was manpower mobilization. All the Pentagon’s war plans were contingent upon calling up the Reserves and National Guard, whose units included logistical and engineering skills that would have eased, though not eliminated, the logistics imbroglio. But the president refused to authorize mobilization. Doing so during Korea and the 1961 Berlin crisis elicited public outcries and sapped morale. Also, Johnson could mobilize the Reserves only by requesting a congressional resolution or declaring a national emergency. The former might provoke an acrimonious debate and make a commitment to South Vietnam more difficult. As for a national emergency, it permitted only a one-year mobilization; since Westmoreland expected the war to last longer than that, a call-up was of limited utility. Mobilizing was such a dramatic step that it might increase tensions with the Chinese and Soviets. Finally, Westmoreland assured the president he could win the war without mobilization, and the JCS concurred; when McNamara asked the chiefs in late 1966 whether they favored a Reserve call-up, each said no. For the most part the Guard and Reserves remained safe havens from the war for well-connected men, mostly white and college educated.
Johnson’s decision not to mobilize meant the U.S. fought with an army of draftees and draft-inspired volunteers—60 percent of “volunteers” enlisted to avoid conscription. In general, the Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force (the safest services) and, with some exceptions, the Marines, relied on volunteers; the Army was dependent on draftees and draft-inspired enlistees. Drafting men and converting them into soldiers took time; creating specialist units, such as engineering and communications, took even longer. Since far more men reached draft age between Korea and Vietnam than the armed forces needed, the Selective Service System had liberalized deferments and imposed exacting mental and physical standards for service, which ensured a high rejection rate. Average inductions between 1955 and 1964 were 100,000 per year, but they now rose to approximately 300,000 annually, as the armed forces expanded from 2.7 million in 1965 to 3.5 million by mid-1968. Almost 27 million men reached draft age between 1964 and 1973, and 60 percent of them escaped service. Out of the 40 percent who wore a uniform, only about a quarter (or 10 percent of the available male population) went to Vietnam, and of those approximately 20 percent (2 percent of the entire male age cohort) served in combat.
Through “manpower channeling” the draft encouraged young men into activities deemed essential for the nation’s health and safety, while still providing manpower for induction. Middle- and upper-class whites regularly received deferments or took active measures to avoid service. As the chairman of a Los Angeles draft attorneys panel put it, “Any kid with money can absolutely stay out of the Army—with 100 percent certainty.” They stayed in college; applied for conscientious objector status; filed appeals through lawyers, who were wildly successful because draft boards broke the law with shocking regularity; hired medical specialists who, because of the draft’s physical and mental regulations, invariably found a reason for exemption; or traveled to induction centers known for leniency, such as Seattle, where examiners divided men into those with doctor’s letters and those without, and exempted everyone with a letter no matter what it said. While draft evasion was widespread, draft resistance on moral principles was limited.
Despite the endemic evasion, at no time did a manpower shortage arise. Poorly educated, working-class men who lacked the skills and money to attend college or hire lawyers and doctors bore a disproportionate burden. During the five years of most active fighting, for every volunteer killed or wounded, nearly two draftees became casualties. Blacks bore an especially heavy burden. Although African-Americans comprised 11 percent of the population, they represented 20 percent of Army combat deaths from 1961 to 1966. The reasons for this were complex. For many African-Americans the military (aside from the Guard and Reserves) offered an escape from the unemployment that haunted them in civilian society. They often volunteered for elite units, such as airborne, since that conveyed higher status and provided an extra $55 dangerous duty pay per month; and with fewer opportunities outside the military, black men reenlisted at twice the rate as whites. The result was that in 1965 African-Americans comprised 31 percent of combat infantrymen. Beginning in 1967 the armed forces undertook measures to reduce black casualties, but at war’s end they still comprised 15.1 percent of Army casualties and 13.7 percent of total casualties.
One program that targeted disadvantaged youth was humane in theory but flawed in execution. Project 100,000 lowered entrance standards for the poor on the assumption that military service was a means to social advancement. The armed forces would rehabilitate America’s subterranean underclass by providing education and training in skills transferable to civilian life. From 1966 to 1968 Project 100,000 brought 240,000 men into the military, 41 percent of them black. Few received useful education or training, and a disproportionate number received combat-related assignments; the death rate among Project 100,000 men was twice the overall rate.
Lack of widespread international support was a third factor that, at least to a modest extent, limited the buildup. Johnson instituted a “Many Flags” program to entice other countries to reinforce ARVN and MACV. It turned out to be a “Few Flags” program. Although a political disappointment for the Johnson administration, the failure to attract more international support did not cause universal dismay, since the JCS feared that large allied units would be difficult to maintain and would complicate operations inside South Vietnam. No NATO nation supported the U.S. effort; indeed, Great Britain maintained an embassy in Hanoi throughout the war, and its merchant ships were the North’s leading noncommunist traders. On the other hand, four members of SEATO—Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines—and South Korea sent combat formations. Though the number of foreign flags was small, that did not mean the allied contribution was insignificant. Collectively, they represented a substantial reinforcement for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces.
Washington’s most stalwart ideological allies were Australia and New Zealand, who were linked to the U.S. through both SEATO and the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) of 1951, which was a more binding defense treaty than SEATO. The 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment arrived in the spring of 1965, reinforced by a New Zealand artillery battery. By 1966 the Aussies had committed three battalions, or the equivalent of a full division, with supporting armor and artillery units. By far the largest allied contingent came from South Korea, ultimately consisting of the ROK Capital Division, the 9th Division, and the ROK Marine Brigade. By the end of 1965, 21,000 South Koreans were in Vietnam; a year later there were 45,000; and two years after that their numbers peaked at 50,000. In return for such a major reinforcement, the Johnson administration increased economic aid to South Korea, paid for reequipping the ROK forces that replaced the ones sent overseas, and defrayed the cost of the Koreans serving in South Vietnam. Thailand not only permitted the U.S. to construct numerous bases on its territory, which were vital in the air war over North Vietnam, but also sent an advisory mission to South Vietnam in 1966, a volunteer regiment (called the “Queen’s Cobras”) the next year, and the Black Panther Division in 1969. The Thai contribution peaked at about 11,600 troops in 1969–1970. In addition, Thai pilots flew secret combat missions over northern Laos and, again secretly, Thai artillery supported U.S. efforts in Laos. As for the Filipinos, in 1966 they dispatched the Philippines Civic Action Group of three engineer battalions; this force of slightly more than 2,000 served through 1968, was then reduced to about 1,600, and soon represented little more than a token force.
The allied contribution was not without cost. Out of the 372,853 South Koreans who served in Vietnam during the war, 4,687 were KIA and another 8,352 were WIA. Among the 46,852 Australians who deployed to South Vietnam, 494 were KIA and 2,398 were WIA. Although their contingent never reached more than 552, the New Zealanders still had 35 dead and 197 wounded. And 351 Thais died in combat.
As the buildup commenced, Westmoreland formulated his strategy. Believing “it was the basic objective of military operations to seek and destroy the enemy and his military resources,” he adopted an attrition strategy employing firepower in “search and destroy” operations to kill and wound NVA regulars and VC Main and Local Forces. U.S. forces primarily conducted these operations far away from South Vietnam’s population centers, often in remote border regions. The goal was to reach the “crossover point,” when the U.S. inflicted more casualties than the enemy could replace, insuring the VC/NVA’s defeat. A brigade commander captured the Army’s belief that its technological superiority, mobility, and especially firepower would prevail when he wrote that an officer “spends firepower as if he is a millionaire and husbands his men’s lives as if he is a pauper. . . . During search and destroy operations, commanders should look upon infantry as the principal combat reconnaissance force and supporting fire the principal destructive force.” In a mirror image of MACV’s strategy, Hanoi also embraced attrition. Realizing it could not defeat the U.S. outright, it sought to inflict a steady stream of casualties—on occasion, even at substantial cost to themselves—in the belief that the mounting losses would fracture American will as it had the French. In sum, while MACV reduced the VC/NVA physically, the North Vietnamese focused on destroying the South Vietnamese and Americans psychologically.
Not everyone agreed with Westmoreland’s approach. The CIA predicted the enemy would avoid major confrontations and thereby preclude a high attrition rate. The VC/NVA could control the war’s pace, scope, and intensity by withdrawing into their sanctuaries in Cambodia, Laos, and north of the DMZ if they began suffering unbearable losses. Quickly disillusioned with Westmoreland’s pursuit of a military victory, McNamara and other DOD officials favored a more defensive posture that would, over the long haul, frustrate the enemy’s strategy. Some military officers, including Admiral Sharp, thought the VC/NVA had such a high tolerance for casualties that they would outlast the U.S. in a war of attrition. And the Marine Corps, especially Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, favored a counterinsurgency strategy, based on the belief that population security was crucial. Instead of pursuing the enemy’s big units, the III Marine Expeditionary Force of two divisions favored Combined Action Platoons (CAPs), MEDCAP patrols, and Stingray operations. Consisting of a Marine rifle squad linked with a local militia platoon, a CAP provided a village continuous protection; wherever a CAP existed, security improved. MEDCAPs offered villagers immediate medical assistance. Small, long-range strike teams equipped with secure long-range radios were called “Stingrays”; backed by quick-reaction forces, they avoided excessive destruction and casualties, especially among civilians, by calling in air strikes and artillery with terminal guidance. The Corps viewed small-unit warfare not as a supplement to big sweeps but as an alternative to them. Westmoreland despised what he considered the Marines’ timidity and pressured them to forget pacification and start killing NVA. Despite its commitment to pacification, the Corps could not avoid fighting a number of big battles along the DMZ. Fought almost exclusively against the NVA, which was concentrated in I Corps in 1966–1968, these slugfests were reminiscent of World War I combat. Nor could the Marines completely compensate for the South Vietnamese government’s incompetence or the cruelties inflicted on peasants by wanton firepower.
Despite festering doubts, the first big search and destroy operation began in late 1965, resulting in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. During the engagement the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) survived its initial combat test. Going to war on rotor blades rather than legs or wheels, the 1st Cav represented a novel concept, since it depended on helicopters for mobility, fire support, and reinforcements. Dropping out of the air into the enemy’s midst, the Cav endured near-catastrophes at Landing Zone (LZ) X-Ray and at LZ Albany. Only firepower from helicopter gunships, warplanes (including the first use of B-52s in a tactical support role), and distant artillery saved the Cav. When the fighting ended the division had 305 KIA and 524 WIA, but its commander claimed victory because, according to U.S. military records, the NVA suffered 3,561 KIA and withdrew from the battlefield. Having out-killed the enemy approximately ten to one, MACV believed Ia Drang had validated the attrition strategy. As American forces expanded, Westmoreland sought to replicate the battle. Beginning in 1966 the U.S. conducted a succession of multibattalion (sometimes even multidivision) operations, each designed to find PAVN or VC units and pulverize them with unprecedented firepower. Soldiers also conducted scores of smaller missions. Repeatedly the return in enemy killed and base areas disrupted was disappointingly small when compared to the tremendous effort expended.
An essential concomitant to the ground operations was an air war, which was as fragmented as ROLLING THUNDER. Headquartered in Saigon, the 7th Air Force controlled Air Force planes based in South Vietnam and Thailand. In I Corps the Marines employed their own helicopters, as well as F-4s, A-4 Skyhawks, and A-1 Skyraiders. Carrier-based Navy planes bombed throughout South Vietnam, while the Army utilized its helicopters to move men and material and provide tactical fire support, and provided airlift capabilities with its turbo-prop and jet transports. Beginning in June 1965, SAC’s B-52’s conducted huge “Arc Light” strikes against enemy base camps, troop concentrations, and supply lines; the number increased from 1,538 in 1965 to 6,611 two years later. Finally, South Vietnam’s Air Force supported ARVN. Unlike ROLLING THUNDER, the president imposed few restrictions on these air wars since neither the Soviets nor Chinese cared if the U.S. bombed its ally’s homeland.
Before the war ended approximately 4 million tons of bombs fell on South Vietnam, which was more than four times the tonnage the U.S. dropped on the North. Yet reliable data on the bombing’s effectiveness was scarce. Post-strike ground surveillance was rarely adequate; pilot reports were subjective; and dense foliage, foul weather, and the enemy’s clever tactics limited visual and photo reconnaissance. Although NVA/VC prisoners often described the terrifying psychological impact of Arc Light strikes, the lack of evidence regarding their physical effects dismayed 7th Air Force’s commander, General William W. Momyer. Without hard data on what the bombing did to the enemy, the number of sorties and tonnage dropped often became less than satisfactory measurements of the air war.
As it turned out, the attrition-firepower strategy was flawed. Having suffered from U.S. firepower at the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley and in several subsequent conventional engagements, the NVA/VC began avoiding large-scale confrontations. One reason why so many operations did a lot of searching, but not much destroying, is that the U.S. had a difficult time actually finding enemy forces. Simply stated, the NVA/VC refused to be found—except when they wanted to be. Approximately three-fourths of all encounters were at the enemy’s choice of time, place, and duration, and more than 96 percent were with company-size or smaller units, making it difficult to inflict unbearable attrition. When Americans did encounter the enemy, the result was usually not a pitched battle but a “firefight,” a brief, vicious exchange of gunfire at close range, often ignited by an enemy ambush in which the NVA/VC fought on carefully selected terrain and from well-constructed defensive positions. As the 101st Airborne’s Major General Olinto Barsanti put it, “Enemy contact in the jungle usually occurs at point blank range, and more often than not the enemy will enjoy the advantages of fortifications, snipers in trees, communication trenches, and minefields to the front and flanks.” Enemy positions were so craftily camouflaged that not even the gun flashes were visible. Because the opening fusillade momentarily stunned those still alive in the ambush zone, the grunts’ return fire was initially sporadic. When they began fighting back in earnest, they established a defensive perimeter and called for external firepower support.
Several factors reduced the lethality of American firepower. Frequently the Communists incorporated a withdrawal phase into their plans and “retreated” before shells, bombs, and helicopter aerial rocket artillery (ARA) gunships arrived. Even if they did not withdraw, the NVA/VC rarely endured firepower’s concentrated fury. Fearing friendly fire incidents, artillerymen and pilots did not want shells or bombs to hit close to a friendly unit. Consequently, enemy tactics emphasized “hugging” the Americans and fighting at close quarters. Vast in quantity, firepower often landed well away from U.S.—and close-by enemy—positions. Applying firepower often required a delicate choreography: To avoid hitting each other in midair, ARA, bombs, and shells struck sequentially, not simultaneously. And fire support often came only from ARA and shells. The Army called for air support in only 10 percent of its engagements, primarily because half the ground encounters lasted less than twenty minutes, and many others were too small to warrant outside assistance. Planes that diverted from preplanned missions to meet an emergency arrived over the battlefield in about twenty minutes—just as many firefights ended. If planes “scrambled” from their bases it took twice as long to reach a battle, by which time the enemy was often long gone.
Much firepower was wasted or counterproductive. In 1966 the Army fired only 15 percent of artillery rounds in direct support of troops; the rest went to “harassment and interdiction” (H&I), which meant firing into pretargeted areas where the enemy might (or might not) be. In 1967 an estimated 350,000 tons of H&I shells killed, at most, one hundred NVA/VC. Firepower also increased American casualties. Shells and bombs sometimes fell short or went long, or hit the wrong target; an especially grim friendly fire episode occurred in November 1967 near Dak To when an artillery round fell short and a bomb hit a company command post, collectively killing forty-three men and wounding forty-five. Approximately 2 percent of shells and 5 percent of B-52 bombs were duds. The enemy was adept at locating duds and converting them into mines and booby traps. Although not all mines or booby traps came from dud munitions, many did, and in just the first half of 1967 these devices killed 539 Americans and wounded 5,532 more.
Finally, indiscriminate firepower was counterproductive because it killed and maimed South Vietnamese citizens, destroyed their property, and forced people to flee their farms to avoid shells, bombs, and the chemical defoliants (known as Agents Orange, Blue, White, Purple, Pink, and Green) that poisoned the landscape. Between 1965 and 1972 more than 400,000 civilians died and at least double that number were wounded; 20 percent of the population became refuges between 1964 and 1969; and so many fields went untended that Vietnam had to import rice. “Every artillery shell the U.S. fires in South Vietnam might kill a VC,” noted one CI expert, “but surely alienates a Vietnamese peasant.”
When the NVA/VC did not want to fight or were hard pressed, they sought safety in Cambodian or Laotian sanctuaries, slipped across the DMZ, or hid inside the South. Since the president forbade Westmoreland from pursuing enemy forces into Cambodia, Laos, or North Vietnam, it meant the NVA/VC dictated the frequency and intensity of combat and therefore had substantial control over their attrition rate. As for hiding, an NVA/VC unit could disperse over a vast area, hiding among lowland hamlets or under the Central Highlands’ triple canopy jungle. With minimal logistical requirements units rarely stayed in one place for more than a few days, and when on the move they exploited U.S. operational patterns. For example, infantrymen were reluctant to operate beyond the range of artillery support. Since 105-mm howitzers had a range of no more than 10,000 meters, the enemy drew 10,000-meter circles around U.S. fire bases housing the 105s and stayed outside the circles. Or they moved at night or during foul weather, which grounded reconnaissance planes and helicopters. And the VC/NVA excelled at military intelligence, in part because American radio communications personnel rarely took adequate security precautions. As one general confessed, “The enemy knew everything there was to know about us,” including when, where, and under what conditions the U.S. was going to strike, which made it easy to avoid contact. The Communists were also camouflage experts: Tunnels and bunkers were so well concealed they were invisible from even a few yards away. The most famous example was at Cu Chi, where tunnels allowed the VC to live near—even directly under—the 25th Infantry Division’s base camp.
One final way the VC/NVA avoided American firepower was to rely on “economy of force” measures, such as snipers, booby traps, mines, and standoff attacks. Snipers killed or wounded a grunt here and there, but booby traps and mines truly haunted soldiers. From January 1967 through September 1968, booby traps and mines accounted for approximately 25 percent of all soldiers and Marines who died. Frequent indirect attacks by mortars and rockets—more than 32,000 of them in 1967 and 1968—added to the fear and frustration. Rarely did these measures cost the enemy more than a few bullets, some explosives, or a dozen or so mortar rounds and rockets. In a typical example, during one month a U.S. company had four men KIA and about thirty WIA from booby traps and mines, yet not one of the grunts saw an enemy soldier or fired a single shot.
U.S. inexperience, which made combat units less effective, aided the VC/NVA in reducing the effects of American firepower. Westmoreland maintained the standard prewar one-year rotation policy (thirteen months for Marines) to spread the burden of service and to sustain morale, but the results were lowered combat proficiency and a higher casualty rate. Units endured renewed inexperience as veterans completed their tours and novices assumed their places. Not only did this exact a steep price in unit cohesion, but the newcomers fought against seasoned enemy soldiers who served for the duration. The failure to capitalize on hard-won experience had mortal consequences: Twice as many grunts died in their first six months as in the second half of their tours. Adding to the inexperience and detracting from combat effectiveness was the six-month tour for battalion commanders. Westmoreland, said an officer, “couldn’t have found a better way if he had tried, of guaranteeing that our troops would be led by a bunch of amateurs.” While a six-month tour helped train officers for the next war and nourished their careers, it had deadly consequences in the current conflict. According to a DOD report, in those unusual instances when battalion commanders held their position for more than six months, their units “suffered battle deaths ‘in sizable skirmishes’ at only two-thirds the rate of units under battalion commanders with less than six months’ experience.” Operations that repeatedly moved units from place to place compounded the inexperience of both grunts and officers. “Every time we were getting familiar with an area, we moved to a new one,” lamented a platoon leader. “The enemy always knew the territory. We were strangers wherever we went.”
Despite all their efforts the VC/NVA died in large numbers because U.S. ground and air operations were so continuous and American firepower so awesome. But exactly how many perished? One difficulty in assessing the attrition strategy was the “body count,” which became a crucial measure of progress. As with efforts to assess the air war’s effectiveness, reliable data regarding enemy deaths was rarely available. Many body counts were fictitious because getting an accurate count under combat conditions was dangerous. When the NVA/VC learned that Americans scoured battlefields looking for corpses, they planted mines and booby traps, posted snipers, and set ambushes. Rather than make an actual count, officers gave estimates, which headquarters rarely questioned unless they seemed too low, in which case negotiations ensued that arbitrarily increased the number. Another factor that inflated the count was including civilian deaths, since many soldiers acted on the slogan that “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.” One of the president’s advisers alerted him that MACV’s numbers were suspicious because “nobody seemed to know how many innocent bystanders, impressed baggage carriers and others have been included in the VC ‘body counts.’” More than 60 percent of the generals who responded to a postwar survey considered the body count a fraud.
Compounding the inflated body counts was the difficulty of knowing how many VC/NVA the U.S. was fighting. In early 1967, when MACV estimated VC strength at 277,150, the CIA’s special assistant for Vietnamese affairs believed that number should probably be doubled. Since field reports routinely overestimated enemy dead and MACV underestimated the number of VC, was the attrition strategy really working? Westmoreland was sure it was. In part because MACV arbitrarily removed self-defense forces, secret self-defense forces, and the infrastructure from the enemy order of battle (though it still added the dead from these categories to the body count), he calculated the VC numbered only 224,651 by the end of 1967. So great were enemy losses that Westmoreland believed he had crossed the crossover point; in a speech at the National Press Club he announced Communist hopes were bankrupt and an American victory imminent. Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson was not so sure. “I only hope that he has not dug a hole for himself with regard to his prognostications,” he wrote. “The platform of false prophets is crowded!”
The Naval War and Pacification
Although the ground war was of paramount importance, the 7th Fleet’s surface ships also played a major role. Approved in March 1965, Operation MARKET TIME interdicted enemy vessels operating in South Vietnamese waters. The operation was so successful in ruining the North’s maritime resupply lines that Hanoi hastened improvements to the Ho Chi Minh Trail and developed Sihanoukville in ostensibly neutral Cambodia as a transshipment point. A complementary operation, GAME WARDEN, sought to deny enemy access to the Delta’s rivers and to the Rung Sat Special Zone covering the Saigon River’s mouth. Bombers, fighters, and electronic warfare planes flying from carriers based at Dixie and Yankee Stations flew ROLLING THUNDER missions, interdicted the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and supported ground operations inside South Vietnam. Organized as a task group, gunfire support ships consisted primarily of destroyers and cruisers but briefly included the battleship New Jersey; their guns supported ground operations along South Vietnam’s 1,200-mile coastline, though after mid-1966 they concentrated on I Corps.
The Riverine Assault Force consisted of four river assault squadrons, each with several armored troop carriers and five armored gunboats (called “monitors” after their Civil War predecessors), and originally operated in the Rung Sat before expanding to the Mekong Delta. In June 1967 this “Brown Water Navy” linked up with the 9th Infantry Division to form the Mobile Riverine Force, which landed and extracted troops in the Delta’s swamps and provided close gunfire support. Between 1968 and 1971 the Mobile Riverine Force played a pivotal role in SEALORDS (Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, and Delta Strategy), which was an inland supplement to MARKET TIME’s coastal blockade. The war’s largest naval operation, SEALORDS erected a series of infiltration barriers along the South Vietnamese-Cambodian boundary; although it did not completely stop infiltration, it certainly complicated the enemy’s efforts.
The fifth war front was the pacification campaign, which confronted many difficulties: Communist military strength in the countryside; jurisdictional disputes among competing American bureaucracies such as MACV and the U.S. Agency for International Development; weak Vietnamese local leadership; and an overemphasis on bestowing material benefits and equating them with progress in winning peasant loyalty. In essence, pacification measures preserved the status quo, though at a higher standard of living. The VC’s promise to redistribute status and wealth had greater appeal.
Another handicap was that MACV and the JCS preferred destroying the enemy to winning hearts and minds. Summing up the Army’s attitude, one general said he wanted to mesh pacification with military operations but that “military operations would be given first priority in every case.” Considering pacification unduly defensive, Westmoreland gladly left this “other war” to ARVN, supplemented by Territorial Forces consisting of Regional Forces (RF) companies and Popular Forces (PF) platoons. The RF/PF were village- and hamlet-level militias, but they were often poorly armed, trained, and motivated, and they sometimes made arrangements with the VC to avoid violence. The division of labor between Americans and Vietnamese seemed logical because U.S. forces could best take on large VC and NVA units, it minimized the involvement of foreign troops in politically sensitive activities, and indigenous forces understood local conditions and spoke the language. Beset by poor leadership, low morale, and corruption, ARVN often victimized rather than aided peasants. Even when support for the NLF dropped as the violence escalated and the Communists’ demands for taxes, labor, and recruits increased, the ebbing enthusiasm did not translate into appreciable gains for Saigon.
Two seemingly positive steps occurred in 1967. One was the establishment of Civilian Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), which organized all civilian pacification agencies under military command. Heading the organization was Robert Komer, who held the rank of ambassador and the military equivalent of a three-star general, and who reported directly to Westmoreland. CORDS integrated all U.S. programs targeting South Vietnam’s social and economic development, and it brought all military and civilian personnel under a single chain of command. The other apparent improvement was the Hamlet Evaluation System (HES), which rated hamlets from “secure” (A, B, and C) to “contested” (D and E) to “Viet Cong–controlled” (V). Although it had the potential to assess intangibles such as peasant loyalty, HES was better at measuring quantitative factors such as security and control. But freedom from a VC attack often masked continuing enemy influence. Many C hamlets were contested, and many D and E hamlets were probably VC-controlled. HES data showed more people coming under South Vietnam’s control, but large numbers of them were refugees whose loyalty to the government was suspect. Worse, some data was as fictitious as body counts. During 1967–1968 about 20 percent of villages were never evaluated yet appeared in HES reports as relatively secure. Equally misleading, deferential villagers habitually told authorities only what they thought those officials wanted to hear.
Two and a half years of conflict along five fronts produced two unhappy results. One was a stalemated war at ever-higher levels of violence, notwithstanding Westmoreland’s assertion that he had breached the crossover point. The U.S. won most (but by no means all) of the battles, but the war was no closer to an end. An official history of PAVN noted that its soldiers feared U.S. shells and bombs and “the protracted, ferocious nature of the struggle,” and that at times morale flagged, but the enemy refused to break. General William E. DePuy, one of Westmoreland’s foremost advisers, considered the enemy’s capacity to absorb punishment the war’s biggest surprise.
The second grim result was rising dissent on the American home front.