Vietnam Will Win: Taking on the Pentagon

Nguyen Huu Tho, President of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and Wilfred Burchett, 1965.

To mark the 50th Anniversary of the 1968 Têt Offensive, CounterPunch is serializing Wilfred Burchett’s Vietnam Will Win (Guardian Books, New York, 1968) over the next few weeks. Readers can judge for themselves the validity of the facts, observations, analysis, conclusions, predictions and so on made by the author. The books is based on several visits to the Liberated Zones controlled by the National Liberation Front (‘Viet Cong’) of South Vietnam in 1963-64, 1964-65 and in 1966-67 and close contacts with the NLF leadership, resistance fighters and ordinary folk. Wilfred Burchett’s engagement with Vietnam began in March 1954, when he met and interviewed President Ho Chi Minh in his jungle headquarters in Thai Nguyen, on the eve of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. He was also on intimate terms with General Vo Nguyen Giap, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and most of the leadership of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam during the country’s struggle against French colonialism and American imperial aggression. Wilfred Burchett was not writing history as a historian, with the benefit of hindsight, access to archives etc. He was reporting history as it was unfolding, often in dangerous places. He was an on-the-spot reporter, an eyewitness to history. In his reporting, he followed his own convictions, political and moral. The book he wrote after his first two visits to the Liberated Zones, Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerilla War (International Publishers, New York, 1965) concludes with this short sentence: “The best they [the Americans] can do is to go home.” Vietnam Will Win confirms that.

Unfortunately, it took another seven years (1968-75) of death and devastation – and the extension of the war into Cambodia and Laos – for the U.S. to finally leave Vietnam in ignominy in April 1975. So here, chapter by chapter, Wilfred Burchett exposes the futility of fighting a people united in their struggle for independence, liberty and unity. It also explains, soberly and factually, why they were winning and how they won.

George Burchett, Hanoi.

Taking on the Pentagon

When the first 3,500 U.S. Marines started disembarking at Da Nang, on March 8, 1965, the NLF knew it was going to be faced with new problems. The leadership was not fooled by the Pentagon fairy tale that the Marines had landed only to “protect the Da Nang air base,” with instructions “to shoot only if fired upon.” The NLF quickly took the measure of the redoubtable Marines, tested U.S. tactics and techniques and the quality of leadership, and prepared for mighty battles to come. During my third visit to the liberated areas in November 1965, the question of how the NLF counted on tackling the world’s mightiest military machine was one I discussed with NLF President Nguyen Huu Tho, a senior staff officer, Nguyen Van Chan, and others during two days and nights of talks at their jungle headquarters.

“Every new situation brings its surprises,” said Nguyen Van Chan, “and the confrontation with all-American units with their vastly superior firepower, the speedy reaction of their planes and artillery and the super-mobility of airborne troops, was bound to bring its surprises too. Even in 1962 when they first started using heliborne puppet troops in a big way, our troops were caught off-balance for a short time. But we swiftly developed tactics to deal with helicopters and the Ap Bac[1] victory was the first big demonstration that we could successfully defeat heliborne operations.”

I asked if the battle of Chu Lai, which started on August 18, 1965, the first big confrontation between NLF and U.S. forces, which the U.S. Marines claimed as the “biggest victory of the war” with “600 Vietcong killed,” was an example of the NLF forces being caught “off-balance.”

“On the contrary,” replied Chan, “despite what the Marines claimed, we regard the Van Thong battle, which the Marines call Chu Lai, as another ‘Ap Bac’ demonstration that we can beat the Americans. It showed that with correct tactics we could stand up to the best, from their viewpoint, that they could hurl against us. We hit the Marines so hard at Van Tuong that they have practically never budged since. After that one battering of their elite troops, the Americans in fact had to change the whole strategy of their invasion force.

“The Marine generals had bragged about a famous ‘ink blot’ strategy for months previously. Marine troops were supposed to set up bases all along the coast and these bases were supposed to expand out like drops of ink on blotting paper to link up into one solidly occupied belt all along the coast. Army troops would then start from inside this belt and push westward until all of Central Vietnam, north from Cap St. Jacques to the 17th parallel and west to the Laotian and Cambodian borders, would be under U.S. control – a splendid idea for the armchair strategists. The Marines may consider themselves as drops of ink – that’s their affair. But our people and our armed forces don’t consider themselves as scraps of blotting paper. The Marines discovered that to their cost at Van Tuong. They have not even been able to link up their two bases at Da Nang and Chu Lai, or open the road between them, let alone start forming ‘ink blots’ all along the coast. We inflicted exceptionally severe casualties on the Marines at Van Tuong, despite the fantastic weight of equipment thrown against us, in a daylight battle which lasted two days, our troops slipping out of the area under cover of darkness on the second night.”

Chan continued, explaining that the results of that first major battle were discussed and analyzed first at staff headquarters and then in Liberation Army units all over the country. The lessons learned, both positive and negative ones, were applied in the Ban Bang[2] battle at Dan Tieng. (A few days previously I had been at an advanced headquarters with Nguyen Huu Tho on the edge of a Michelin rubber plantation while a major battle was going on at Dan Tieng, a few miles distant.)

I had brought with me some newspaper clippings of the American versions of several battles, including that at Ban Bang, and I had never seen Nguyen Huu Tho and his aides laugh so uproariously as when the President read them, translating the highlights into Vietnamese, noting especially the reports on Ban Bang. According to the first official American version, a battalion of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division had been engaged in a battle that “raged all day” and American losses were “light.” The following day another version said that “a reinforced battalion” had been engaged and that “146 Vietcong had been killed and abandoned on the battlefield” and another “27 had probably been killed by air and artillery strikes” which had continued from 7 a.m. until 5:40 p.m. American losses in the second version were upgraded to “moderate,” which meant, in the communiqué terminology of those days, between 15 and 40% casualties.

President Tho quickly drew a map with red and green arrows to illustrate what really had happened 10 days earlier on November 12, 1965.

“Two U.S. Infantry battalions, two tank squadrons and a heavy artillery company of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division set out from their big base at Lai Khe on November 11,” he said, “on the start of what was to be a big sweep to wipe out our main force units in the area. This was to form one flank of an operation, the code name of which was ‘Construction Ten.’ They hoped to open up some highways in the area once they had dealt with our main force units. Details of the operation were known to us. Their troops moved cautiously down Highway 13 and by nightfall had taken up positions in a rubber plantation near Bau Bang village. Our troops were ordered to wipe them out that night. They moved swiftly to the area, but it took some time to locate all the American positions as these were strung out over two kilometers along the highway. But by half an hour before dawn, all their units were located and surrounded. The order to attack was given and the Americans were taken completely by surprise. Within the first minutes, their command post and communications center were wiped out and this added to their confusion and panic. At the same time another of our units attacked the U.S. artillery positions at Lai Khe, silencing the guns there. An American reinforcing unit set out from Lai Khe when the shooting at Bau Bang was heard, but the greater part turned back, presumably because they heard our mortars firing at Lai Khe and noticed there was no returning fire from their own artillery.

“Within half an hour, the greater part of the units at Bau Bang were destroyed. They had 36 tanks there, and another three arrived with that part of the reinforcing unit which continued from Lai Khe. The survivors from our first assault scrambled aboard these tanks and tried to flee, but our men rushed the tanks and in close-in fighting with machine guns, bazookas, grenades and satchel charges, they wiped out 37 of the tanks on the spot. Two that escaped this encounter were destroyed by one of our ambush units set up for the heavy reinforcements we had expected from Lai Khe. All ten artillery pieces were destroyed before they could fire a shot, and before the sun was up, virtually the whole American task force was out of action. We estimate their total casualties were around 2,000.

“Because we destroyed the communications center within the first few minutes, the divisional headquarters seemed to have no idea what had happened. Planes were late on the scene and the artillery which was supposed to support this unit – apart from that at Lai Khe which was destroyed – started firing only when the action was over. By the time the attack planes arrived, our troops had already withdrawn, laden with whatever they could carry of the captured heavy and automatic weapons. Around 8 a.m., and not 7 a.m. as their accounts say, fighter-bombers came over and started circling. After a while they seem to have concluded that their own dead and wounded lying around the battlefield were our troops, hiding in the grass and undergrowth. They had no ground-air radio contact because they had nothing operational left on the ground. Our troops were marching off with all their communications equipment. They started bombing the battlefield, bombing their own dead and wounded. Then their artillery joined in. The battle that ‘raged all day’ according to their communiqué never took place except that between their own planes and artillery and their own dead and wounded It was not until late in the afternoon that two puppet battalions entered the area to collect what was left of the two American battalions. Nguyen Van Chan can fill in any other details you might want,” concluded President Tho, “because he was on the spot and helped direct the battle.”

Chan began by saying that until the Bau Bang battle, NLF units in that area had not had much contact with the U.S. combat units. “We had only studied the analyzes and experiences passed on by units on other fronts. But our troops had confidence in the tactical and technical instructions passed on by the high command, based mainly on the Van Tuong battle, even for such complicated and dangerous tactics as close in fights with tanks and hand-to-hand fighting to rob the enemy of his air and artillery superiority. We had practiced these tactics for months past in our training bases and in encounters with puppet troops with whatever tanks and artillery they had but in the Bau Bang battle, our lads went over to real, practical application of their theoretical studies. They are most enthusiastic about the results. The U.S. troops don’t seem to have been physically or psychologically prepared for hand-to-hand fighting. Probably they never thought it would be necessary; the bombs and shells would do the work at long range for them.

“At Bau Bang we saw how the American troops thought only of saving themselves –abandoning terrain, their armored vehicles and even their weapons, something our men would never do, the moment we launched attacks at close quarters. On many occasions, they refused hand-to-hand combat. They turned their backs, bellowing like oxen, and became easy targets for our men using their bayonets or light automatics. Because it had taken more time than we had allowed to locate all their dispositions, the battle started later than intended and spilled over into the early daylight hours. But even when the first reconnaissance planes came, they could do nothing because we were completely integrated with what American troops were still left.”

I asked Chan how he evaluated the leadership of the U.S. troops. He said it would be incorrect to generalize on the basis of one battle, especially as it was a surprise night attack. But he also pointed out that the U.S. 1st Infantry Division was considered one of the best, an elite unit, especially powerful in motorized units and 40-mm mortar teams and with a high proportion of ultra rapid automatic arms. “But what we noted from the moment of our attack,” said Chan, “and I was sent there by our high command just to note such things, was that the command post was in complete disorder and coordination between infantry and the motorized units was nonexistent. Tanks, when they got under way at all, moved aimlessly about and quickly lost their mobility among the trees, to be destroyed one after another by our special tank-destruction teams. One of our 10-man squads put 11 tanks out of action, while another combat trio put a tank crew out of action, then jumped aboard and turned the tank’s heavy machine guns against what was left of that tank unit, forcing them to break formation and present easy targets for our own antitank teams and their bazookas. In our summing-up discussion later, our troops had much praise for the quality of the study classes where we had analyzed the enemy’s weak points in technique, their machines as well as their men. They found our evaluations were really very close to the mark. The conclusions we had drawn were home out to the letter on the battlefield.

“One of the greatest weaknesses of the Americans, judged by the Bau Bang battle, is the lack of creative leadership of the officers, their inability to adapt themselves quickly to surprise situations, and the lack of esprit de corps among the men. This was something especially noted by our troops. In tough situations where success or defeat depends on men acting as a unit, they have an ‘every man for himself’ attitude which is perhaps a reflection of their individualistic social system, but in military situations is disastrous.

“The greatest difference between their troops and ours, however, is ideological,” Chan concluded. “Before the Bau Bang action, the U.S. divisional commander issued an ‘Order of the Day’ which we captured. It praised the victories the division had won in two world wars and boasted of the splendid ultramodern weapons with which it was equipped. But this didn’t help. Traditions are no substitute for ideology. Recalling the past in purely military terms could not inject the quality of morale which our politically conscious soldiers have to a high degree, and this was manifest in all stages of the action. In addition, the greater part of enemy troops killed were young men in their early 20s. We learned this from their personal documents. Despite the division’s traditions, individually the men had had no previous combat experience, and collectively they had no cause for which to sacrifice themselves. Our men were burning to get to grips with the enemy, while the latter dreaded the face-to-face encounter. Thus, despite their equipment, much of it our equipment now, they could not withstand the withering attacks of our troops.”

Nguyen Huu Tho said that reports coming in from the most distant comers of the country were of the same order and that some preliminary, general conclusions had been drawn by the Liberation Army high command to the effect that U.S. troops lacked combat spirit, solidarity and physical endurance. “They march badly. With their helicopters they get to the scene quickly but once there they move like snails. What seems to be an advantage, the ability of the helicopters to bring them everything from bullets to canned turkey and drinking water, turns into a disadvantage when the helicopters cannot land because of our heavy ground fire or because fog has blotted out the tree tops and landing patches. At the rate their troops use up supplies, even a few hours’ delay with the helicopters has turned into a disaster for them.”

Concerning the quality of the U.S. high command, Nguyen Van Chau said the most striking characteristics were “passivity and very limited strategic initiative; hesitation between tendencies to concentrate troops for offensive operations and to disperse them in holding or ‘Pacification’ duties; inability to defend effectively their own bases and positions, and lack of vigor in attack. “Of all the surprises the Americans have brought with them,” Chau stated, “the biggest and most agreeable for us is the great disparity between the high quality of the equipment and the poor quality of strategic and tactical command of the officers and men. With us it is just the opposite, and we believe that the decisive factor is men and morale and correct leadership.”

“Battles are sometimes compared to a game of chess,” said Nguyen Huu Tho. “But war in South Vietnam is certainly not a game of chess. When the Pentagon decided to commit U.S. troops, it did so because they had already lost the ‘special war.’ In a game of chess if you lose one game, you sweep the chess board clean, each side gathers up his men and you start again. Not so in war. When the Americans moved in their own troops in the ‘limited war,’ they moved into a situation in which our men were already in position on the chessboard – a winning position They moved into a situation dominated by us, one in which, in military terms, we held the strategic initiative. They had only a very limited freedom of choice as to where they could place their pawns and generals. They could not draw a line and say to us ‘south of this is yours, north of it is ours; let’s fight and see who wins.’ They could only move into those positions that the crumbling puppet army had still been able to hold, and a few more for which the Americans were willing to pay a high price to secure and a higher price still to hold. Whatever positions they secured were immediately encircled by our forces.

“One of the decisive factors,” continued President Nguyen Huu Tho, “is obviously going to be on whose terms the war is to be waged. If the Americans could impose their terms, our armed forces would quickly be finished. We have no planes, no naval vessels, no tanks, no heavy artillery. But since we are masters of the situation, we will impose our terms. It is we who will decide where, when and how the decisive battles will take place. The Americans must fight on our terms, not we on theirs. Even where they take a tactical initiative, within each of their offensive operations, it is our forces that decide when, where and how to give battle. The Americans have to pay the penalty of being aggressors in a land where everything is hostile to them, man above all, but nature and climate also. Many foreign correspondents are overwhelmed when they see the staggering amount of equipment the Americans are massing on our soil. Even those who have some sympathy toward us conclude that we will quickly be crushed under the enormous weight of military technique. But how does this help when, as Chau here has experienced, their men do not dare to stand up to ours in hand-to-hand encounters where superior morale is decisive? And we will force them to fight that way. We will give them no choice whether to concentrate or disperse. If they want to disperse, we will force them to concentrate. If it suits them better to concentrate we will force them to disperse. Even if at times they seem to have a tactical initiative it is we who will retain the strategic initiative, and within their tactical initiatives it is our forces which will retain the initiative of action.”

These analyzes of the fundamental factors relating to the military struggle by President Nguyen Huu Tho and staff officer Chau still remain valid. Apart from the obvious ideological factors, there were basic differences between the military training, tactics and psychology of U.S. and NLF troops which favored the latter. American troops were trained for a war in which one rarely saw the adversary at close range, at most over the sights of a machine gun or rifle or as death had caught him. And death came from afar, from the blast of bombs or shells, from an air run over map coordinates, the split-second view of an adversary in a machine gun sight or even as blobs on radar screens.

Artillery and planes were supposed to do the main work, troops sweeping ahead aboard tanks and armored troop carriers, leaping earthward when necessary to mop up survivors from air and artillery strikes, then back into armor and transport and on again. Everything from the comics to the TV screens and their own military training had prepared them for such a war, in which technology dominated tactics. This was especially true of the first combat divisions to arrive in South Vietnam. Instead they found themselves called upon to fight in man-to-man combat, which nullified their technological superiority.

Precisely because of their dependence upon a monopoly of air power and artillery, American troops were deprived of this advantage by the NLF’s “grab the enemy by the belt” tactics. NLF combat training was oriented around the necessity of countering the adversary’s monopoly of air power, tanks and artillery. U.S. combat training was oriented around the facts of air, tank and artillery support. Furthermore, motivation of troops must be taken into account. If the deepest desire of most U.S. soldiers was never to see a live “Vietcong” at close quarters, the deepest desire of most NLF soldiers was to confront live Americans at close quarters. Virtually every one of them had what they call some personal “blood debts to settle.” They wanted to settle accounts for villages bombed and relatives killed by the faceless, unreachable enemy that streaked down from the skies and disappeared back into the blue; for family members arrested, tortured, executed according to lists and orders drawn up over the years by American advisers sitting in air conditioned Saigon offices. Most NLF fighters had an accumulation of personal hatred that they wanted to get out of their systems in a very personal way. They had felt frustrated for years at never getting to grips with the real enemy, and welcomed the chance when tactics dictated hand-to-hand fighting as the best way of preventing the enemy from using his planes and artillery.

Tactics of U.S. troops, once battle was joined, were to put as great a distance as possible between themselves and the enemy so that the bombs and shells could do the fighting; to “disengage,” as the U.S. briefing officers in Saigon expressed it, “to run for their lives,” as the NLF troops would say. But the only way to deal with hand-to-hand fighting is to face up to it, man to man, bayonet to bayonet, knife to knife if necessary. The first to break and turn his back is doomed. And it was neither in the NLF interests nor in their character to be the first to break. The very first major confrontation between U.S. and NLF troops revealed serious weaknesses among the American troops, even in such matters as classic infantry training, not to mention the question of morale, according to the sober evaluations of NLF staff officers.

Truong Ky, the regimental political officer quoted previously, put his finger on another weakness of the U.S. Command. This was “subjectivism,” he said. “It crops up all the time in U.S. planning and battlefield operations. They always overestimate their own strength and underestimate ours. That is an error we never make. If we were unable to make a fairly precise estimate of the enemy’s real strength and capacities for each operation, we would soon be in real trouble.” This latter conversation took place in August 1966, during my fourth visit to the NLF controlled areas, when there were already rumors that U.S. forces would be built up to around 500,000 in 1967. I asked if this would not overtax NLF strength.

“No,” replied Truong Ky, “because the Americans will in fact be less effective with 500,000 troops than with the 250,000 they had for their 1965-66 dry season operations.”

Would not, I inquired, the American mobile forces, that is, units available for offensive operations, increase proportionately to the total force committed?

“Not under our conditions,” he replied, “because we will continue to encircle and hug their bases wherever they establish them. Our forces are also constantly increasing in quantity and quality. As we get stronger, they will need proportionately more to defend those bases, including new bases needed to supply any big increase in their troops. They are operating 10,000 kilometers from their own rear. Problems of transport and unloading stores and shifting them around the country once they are unloaded are already giving them headaches with 300,000 men. Keeping the garrison bases supplied is already a problem for them, but distributing supplies to the battlefield when we control the rear and the areas immediately surrounding the battlefield is even worse. Doubling the number of troops under such conditions means more than doubling their problems. We will force them to disperse their troops and hog them down in static defense positions so that their mobile forces will get progressively smaller, not bigger.

When I asked President Nguyen Huu Tho how he viewed the possibility of the Pentagon increasing its forces to 500,000 or more, he replied as follows: “We believe the strength of an army in time of war is composed of a great number of factors of which the determinant ones are political and moral. We have absolute supremacy over the Americans on the political and moral front. Our entire people wage this war and do not shrink from any difficulty or sacrifice. We are also stronger than the Americans in other fundamental aspects of the struggle, such as our strategic position, our rear areas, our actual conduct of the war. Our ground forces are superior to theirs; these are factors

that decide the outcome on the battlefield. Although the Americans are strong in material and equipment, they also have fundamental weaknesses, politically and materially, strategically and tactically.

“Because of their overseas commitments and their policy of world domination, total American power is not unlimited. The fact that they are engaged in a war of aggression thousands of miles from their own country, their inability to transform any part of our territory into a stable base for themselves, represents serious weakness…

“We can successfully stand up to new American reinforcements and militarily defeat the American aggressors in any situation whatsoever. In fact, just as it is obviously true that the Americans cannot bring off a military victory in South Vietnam, it is also obvious to us that the South Vietnamese people and its armed forces can bring off the final victory, despite U.S. military and economic strength”

Truong Ky added that when they spoke of “final victory,” this meant an “independent and sovereign South Vietnam, democratic and neutral without any foreign troops on our soil. We are not seeking to impose a military defeat on the U.S. as such,” he said. “If they want to withdraw and call it their victory, they can do so. We won’t even argue about who won. Our independence is prize enough. For this we win fight to the end-and win.”


[1] The battle of Ap Bac, in My Tho Province of the Mekong Delta, was fought on Jan. 1, 1963, and was considered by the U.S.-Saigon Command as the biggest defeat sustained by the government troops till that time.

[2] Ban Bang is in Binh Duong Province, about 32 miles due north of Saigon.

NEXT: Chapter 7 – Military Realities

Wilfred Burchett was an Australian journalist, who covered World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. His many books include Shadows of Hiroshima, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist and Vietnam Will Win. Burchett died in 1983.