Vietnam Will Win: Military Realities

NLF soldiers in action. Photo Wilfred Burchett.

By the turn of the year 1967-68, it was clear that things had developed just as the NLF leadership had foreseen. And they continued to do so throughout 1968. At the end of January, on the eve of the Têt offensive, and with almost 500,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam, the U.S.-Saigon command had fewer mobile forces at its disposal than during the 1965-66 dry season when Westmoreland had about 200,000 U.S. troops under his command. Entire divisions were bogged down guarding bases, bridges and roads in a situation strongly reminiscent of the 800,000 strong French army in the latter phases of the Algerian war. Such a high proportion of French troops were locked up in their barbed-wire covered “mirador” fortresses guarding bases, bridges and stretches of roads and railways, that none were left for offensive operations.

The nearly 1,300,000-man army under Westmoreland had been pushed into the defensive, the initiative having passed into the hands of the NLF. Bases, garrisons, outposts were all encircled by NLF guerrillas, while NLF main force units launched operation after operation, starting with the Loc Ninh and Dak To battles in October-November 1967, and then others that prepared the ground for the Têt offensive.

During the two-and-a-half years since the first U.S. Marine units had landed at Da Nang, the NLF guerrilla and regional forces had increased in numbers and improved their equipment. These forces concentrated on thwarting the American dry-season offensives. Most important, they drew nooses around all U.S. bases, nibbling away at the perimeters, attacking with commando raids inside the bases or by rocket and mortar attacks from their perimeter positions. Because of frequent ambushes on the roads and the impossibility of moving all U.S. supplies by air, hundreds of thousands of American troops were employed solely in trying to protect bases and bridges and to open roads or keep them open. The constant danger hanging over these bases can be judged from a Reuters report of January 12, 1968[1] from Saigon stating that 872 U.S. planes and 777 helicopters had been lost in south Vietnam due to “non hostile action.” These are official figures which, the U.S. spokesman explained “include planes and helicopters destroyed on the ground in Communist attacks.” The same dispatch stated that “according to an official report the Communists have downed 222 planes and 465 helicopters” in south Vietnam. These are extraordinary figures for a fighting force that has neither planes nor antiaircraft artillery. NLF figures are much higher. They claim 1,800 planes and helicopters downed or destroyed on the ground during the latter half of 1967 alone. The NLF claims are supported by the fact that there had been a marked falling off in U.S. air activity in south Vietnam, especially in air response to the innumerable NLF small and medium-sized actions launched during the 1967 summer-autumn campaigns. Air power in Vietnam has not increased proportionately to the increase in ground troops, probably due to a shortage of pilots. In other words, about the same amount of air power that supported some 250,000 U.S. troops in 1965-66 had to suffice for twice as many three years later.

While the regional and guerrilla forces attended to U.S. bases and outposts, the NLF regular forces continued their buildup and training exercises for the major offensive operations they were to launch in the 1967-68 dry season. By then a curious situation had developed, one that the Pentagon computers could never have foreseen. The fantastic weight and array of military technique which had so mesmerized many observers in the first few months of U.S. intervention was mostly immobilized in bases encircled by guerrillas. U.S. forces were shelled in their bases at night, ambushed if they moved too far and too fast by day, and they were rarely brought to bear effectively on an adversary who was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. If one critically analyzed the facts, it was a fair assumption that from the beginning of the 1967-68 dry season, no U.S. commander could ever again launch such large-scale operations as “Junction City” of the 1966-67 dry season in which some 45,000 troops and almost 1,000 tanks and armored vehicles were employed. The contrary to what General Westmoreland had predicted had happened. The NLF had acquired the ability to launch huge-scale operations, while the U.S. Command had lost that capacity.

When the NLF opened the 1967-68 dry season offensive at Loc Ninh on October 28 and Dak To on November 4, 1967, Westmoreland had only two brigades of mobile reserves at his disposal: the 101st and 173rd Airborne Brigades. Taken completely by surprise at Loc Ninh, he had to halt preparations for operations in the coastal provinces and north of Saigon and withdraw elements of the U.S. 1st and 25th Divisions to rush to the battle front. At Dak To, when elements of the U.S. 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) and 4th Infantry Divisions – also withdrawn from other intended assignments – proved incapable of making any progress, he committed the 173rd Airborne Brigade, half his mobile reserves. Two of the brigade’s three battalions were decimated at Dak To; the third was saved because it was behind guarding brigade headquarters. Only the 101st Brigade was left and it was up in the 1st Corps area to help rescue the Marines. The 1st and 25th Divisions, normally available to protect Saigon, had been badly mauled and as a panic measure the two remaining brigades of the 101st Airborne Division-earmarked for the defense of the United States itself – were airlifted from the United States to the Bien Hoa base, 12.5 miles north of Saigon. The defenses of both Bien Hoa and Saigon had been seriously weakened by the losses inflicted on the 1st and 25th Divisions and the removal of other units far north to the 1st Corps area.

Westmoreland “first operated in divisions, then regiments, then battalions, companies and finally in platoons garrisoned in thousands of strong points and posts, dispersed over the four corners of the theater of operations. He was thus confronted with this contradiction: if he did not disperse his troops it was impossible to occupy the territory invaded; but in dispersing them he got himself into difficulties. His scattered units became easy prey for our troops, his mobile forces were continually reduced and the shortage of effectives became more marked…”[2] This was how General Vo Nguyen Giap, the victor of Dien Bien Phu, described the situation of the French Expeditionary Forces on the eve of that historic battle. It is a description that closely paralleled the situation of U.S. forces in Vietnam at the beginning of the 1967-68 dry season. But Westmoreland seemed unaware of that fact. Brigades and even battalion-sized elements of certain divisions were trying to hold positions separated by more than a hundred miles. Smaller units were dispersed in scattered, often isolated outposts, picked off one after another, or as at Loc Ninh and Dak To, attacks against these outposts were used by the NLF as bait to attract more important U S. units into an area favorable for NLF forces.

A Reuters dispatch from Da Nang on January 9, 1968, described some of the difficulties resulting from the dispersion of U.S. forces:[3]

“The Vietcong were reported by U.S. military sources today to have launched a concentrated campaign against 1,000 American Marines scattered in small outposts throughout the northern five provinces of South Vietnam…

“Sources here said the 79 village compounds – each manned by an average of 12 Marines – had apparently become a prime target of the Vietcong… The units have reinforced their barbed wire and minefield defense following a series of attacks since the start of the year that one U.S. spokesman described as ‘the toughest test for the pacification program since it started w 1965.’

“In eight days the Vietcong supported by North Vietnamese soldiers launched 62 attacks on the compounds, killing 27 Marines and wounding another 52…”

Three days later, another Reuters account indicated that U.S. forces on large bases were equally vulnerable to attack:

“Six thousand crack South Korean Marines will help defend the key U.S. base at Da Nang… The South Koreans in a previously secret move have moved to a new headquarters at Hoi An, 20 miles south of Da Nang, which is the headquarters for 75,000 U.S. Marines. Da Nang is also a major base for giant U.S. transports and a take-off point for raids against North Vietnam. It has come under costly rocket attacks launched by North Vietnamese and Vietcong regulars from hills overlooking the coastal base…”[4]

At first it had been pretended that the Marines themselves arrived only to protect this base. Then South Vietnamese troops took over the defense as Marines were used for combat operations. The frequency with which NLF units penetrated the perimeters caused the Americans to suspect collusion between the NLF and the Saigon troops, so the latter were withdrawn and the Marines took over their own defense. But when the bitter fighting started around the 17th parallel as a result of Westmoreland’s blunders, the Marines found that they did not have enough troops to carry out defensive holding operations plus their “pacification” program and to guard their own bases in addition. Every time they called on reserve units from the bases at Chu Lai and Da Nang to try to rescue some encircled company, NLF guerrillas struck within the reduced defense perimeters of the bases. A regiment of Saigon troops was again sent to help guard them but they settled down to a happy “no see, no hear, no act” sort of arrangement with local NLF forces.

A brigade of the U.S. 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) Division was withdrawn from its base in the Central Highlands and rushed up to the rescue. The 196th Light Independent Brigade, originally earmarked for setting itself up in the Tay Ninh forest, some 50 miles north of Saigon, was sent to establish its base at Chu Lai instead. The 101st Airborne Brigade which normally operates in the Saigon border area was also sent north. Even the newly constituted 198th Light Independent Brigade was sent to try to protect the An Hao air base, three miles north of Chu Lai. (Soon after it arrived the base was attacked – on the night of October 30-31, 1967 – with the result that 50 out of 70 planes and helicopters were put out of action.) On January 10, 1968, NLF units wiped out the headquarters unit of the 196th Brigade at Que Son, 24 miles south of Quang Nam.

By early 1968, the disastrous situation for the Marines could no longer be concealed and it was no accident that two retired marine generals (former Marine Corps Commandant General David Shoup and Brigadier General Samuel Griffith) were calling for a military withdrawal from Vietnam. Three years after their first contingent landed, the Marines were bogged down in positional warfare, something for which they were never intended, unable to protect their own bases, reduced to the humiliation of calling on the US. Army for help and on the South Koreans to protect their bases.

This was a far cry from the days of “ink blot” strategy. The Marines had never been really able to secure the highway linking their two major bases. In three years, the best they could do was send heavily protected convoys over the Chu Lai-Da Nang road in daylight only.

On September 9, 1967, at Hoi An, the region that South Korean troops took over in mid-January of 1968, there was a series of accidents which was unreported in the Saigon communiqués. On the first three days of September, nearly 67 Saigon troops, including regulars, militiamen and Civil Guards, deserted in the Hoi An area, many of them coming over to the NLF. On September 4, in Hoi An Town itself, elements of the Saigon 51st Regiment mutinied and killed a number of their officers who were insisting on their voting the Thieu-Ky ticket in the presidential elections, and on the 9th, troops of one of the U.S.-Saigon mixed units at the Co Dinh base, three miles west of Hoi An, killed their Saigon officers and 13 Americans in the unit, razed the base and crazed over to the NLF, bringing all their weapons with them. One could predict that similar incidents would increase in number, with large-scale units of the Saigon army crossing over to the NLF side the latter’s offensives continued to grow w scope and violence , and contradictions between the U.S. and Saigon forces deepened. This is precisely what happened after the NLF launched its Têt offensive, during the first week of which some 200,000 Saigon troops deserted. In 11 provinces alone, 169 posts were abandoned, mainly by regional troops who crossed over to the NLF, bringing their arms with them. Whole battalions, including one tank battalion complete with its tanks, changed sides; other units simply disintegrated, troops going back to their native villages. Saigon police and troops ordered into action against an NLF commando group which had attacked and occupied part of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon refused, simply turning their backs on the fighting.

The NLF’s Lunar New Year offensive started the disintegration of the Saigon army, more troops deserting in one week than in the whole of the previous year.

One after another, the various roles assigned to the Saigon army by the Pentagon had failed. “Special War,” with the South Vietnamese troops financed, armed, trained and finally officered by the Americans, was dealt a mortal blow at Binh Gia,[5] as related earlier. In the first phases after the engagement of U.S. combat units in “limited war,” the Saigon army was to fight side by side with U.S. forces, divisions alongside divisions, regiments alongside regiments and battalions alongside battalions, under U.S. overall command. This also failed, the Americans claimed, because Saigon units had a habit of slipping away from the flanks they were supposed to be guarding or of simply refusing to advance. The Saigon troops claim this failed because they were always given the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. (A best seller in Saigon in late 1967 was a book that described how U.S. troops abandoned Saigon units in the Plei Me-Ia Drang Valley battle of October-November 1965.)

In numerous sweep operations, U.S. troops often moved straight ahead in columns while platoons of Saigon Rangers were dropped in “flea-hopping” operations into clearings to the right and left of the main thrust like hunting dogs to “start up” the quarry. If there was any “quarry,” U.S. troops were supposed to try to encircle the area while air and artillery strikes were called in, the Ranger platoons having a better than even chance of getting their share of the bombs and shells, as the NLF forces always have shelters at their disposal. After the first few of these operations, the Rangers tended to move only a few yards into the jungle and signal back “no contact,” then squat on their haunches for the helicopters to pick them up for the next clearing. On countless occasions, NLF cadres told me, the scouting units clearly saw “Vietcong” positions but never reported back.

Saigon troops were then assigned independent operations and the U.S. press was full of reproaches that they were not “combative” enough, refusing to advance if they encountered hostile fire. In early 1967, it was announced that the Saigon army would be mainly withdrawn from operations and retrained for “pacification” duties, which mainly meant they were to “pacify” areas from which U.S. combat units were supposed to clear out the NLF.

There were, however, insurmountable flaws in this plan. Areas “cleared” by U.S. troops were found to be more violently “Vietcong” than before American operations had been conducted in them. A standard joke among U.S. troops is: “If there were no VC when we came here, by God there will be thousands when we leave.” And the definition of Americans that a “Vietcong is a dead Vietnamese” has been changed by the murderous South Korean troops into the slogan that as far as they are concerned a “Vietcong is any live Vietnamese” – to be slaughtered.

“Pacification” following U.S.-South Korean type “sweeps” became as dangerous a business as combat operations. Career officers in the Saigon army felt humiliated by this secondary role and many of the officers and conscripts were sickened by the massacres and tortures inflicted on their compatriots, often on their own relatives, by the invaders. “Pacification” in many areas turned into a sort of unofficial “fraternization” exercise. This was particularly so in the 1st Corps area, that is, the five northern provinces leading up to the 17th parallel, and the 4th Corps area in the Mekong Delta.

It was apparent during McNamara’s ninth visit to Saigon in the summer of 1967 that Westmoreland was short of mobile reserves, so the Defense Secretary partly reversed the decisions taken earlier in the year and demanded that Saigon troops play a more “active” role in combat operations. In order to overcome “lack of combativity,” the idea of integrated units was to be tried, Saigon forces integrated with similar-sized U.S. units in the proportion of one or two in favor of the Americans. (It appears that on patrols and in combat, U.S. troops feel nervous if they have anything less than the two-to-one ratio.) But the integrated unit did not work either, as the incident at Hoi An, one of several such, demonstrated. As far as the Saigon army was concerned, it was “America’s war, let the Americans do the fighting and dying.” Moreover, by the end of 1967, with the NLF dry season offensive in full swing, it was clear to the officers and men of the Saigon army that it was a war the United States was losing. Who, even among those who a year or two previously had been the most ardent U.S. supporters of the war, wanted to be identified, until too late, with the losing side? A handful of top collaborators may later pull out when the United States withdraws. A certain number of top-level collaborators with the United States were quietly selling their extra cars and villas by the beginning of 1968, transferring their money abroad. But the vast majority of those who have served the Americans will have to remain in Vietnam where everything connected with the United States is coming to be hated and despised. By the turn of the year many officers and officials at various levels were beginning to make dispositions accordingly, including open hostility to U.S. officials and secret contacts with the NLF. New York Times correspondent R. W. Apple reported from Saigon on January 1, 1968, that: “American officials at almost all levels both in Saigon and in the provinces are reported to be under increasing pressure from Washington to produce convincing evidence of progress in the next few months… The latest campaign for results appears to differ from some of those in the past in that it is directed more toward the Vietnamese, military and civilians, than the Americans.

“A well-informed Saigon source said that recent cables from the State Department and Pentagon have been full of instructions like these: ‘Get the South Vietnamese Army moving. Not only the regulars but the militia and national guardsmen. And get the idea across to the American public that they are fighting well… Do something – anything –about government corruption… Get President Nguyen Van Thieu to demonstrate his commitment to the war as well as his determination to demand sacrifices from the public…’ Whether the pressure will result in action by the Vietnamese is problematical.”

Apple continues: “Already the efforts by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker to prod President Thieu into action on several fronts have produced anti-American speeches in the legislature and editorial attacks in the newspapers…”

“Such  pressures, especially on the Saigon military, to accept higher casualties to suit President Johnson’s electioneering needs of that period, obviously could only deepen the conflicts between Saigon army units and their own local commands and between the local commanders and the U.S.-Saigon high command. One concrete result of U.S. pressures was the removal in mid-January 1968 of General Phan Trong Chinh, commander of the Saigon 25th Division, who had long been an outspoken critic of American interference in Saigon army affairs. Chinh’s division had virtually retired from the war for more than a year, and Westmoreland had been trying to get the general dismissed for nearly two years. Commenting on Chinh’s retirement “on sick leave,” William Tuohy of the Los Angeles Times[6] wrote that “After years of expecting the ‘soft’ approach from American advisers, many Vietnamese generals are not now taking kindly to the current ‘hard’ approach by the U.S. advisory effort… The irony is that despite Chinh’s well-known deficiencies as a commander, some Vietnamese admire him for what they consider his standing up to the Americans. Anti-Americanism is on the upswing in Vietnam…” concludes Tuohy, a veteran Saigon correspondent.

Earlier, Westmoreland had succeeded in removing General Dang Van Quang, the Saigon commander of the 4th zone (the Mekong Delta) because the Americans had long considered him “too passive.” The ouster of General Quang was to be the prelude to the Americans moving into the Delta, something which General Quang most strenuously opposed, as indeed he opposed any intensification of the war in the 4th zone, where his units in most areas had established “fraternal” relations with those of the NLF. As things turned out, because of the situation around the 17th parallel, the U.S. forces gradually being encircled in what was to have been their main forward base at Khe Sanh, the U.S. units earmarked for the Delta were rushed north. But the ouster of General Quang at U.S. insistence deepened resentment within the Saigon military hierarchy.[7]

One of the most extraordinary aspects of official U.S. reports on casualties, desertions and other factors claimed to be indicative of a weakening of the NLF forces, is that they are completely contradicted by other figures given on total NLF effectives. For example, a December 23, 1967, dispatch from Washington of the New York Times states:

“Government officials say privately that they now estimate enemy military and political manpower in South Vietnam at 418,000 to 483,000 – much higher than the figure of less than 300,000 reported in 1966. During his latest visit to Washington, General William C. Westmoreland, the American commander in Saigon, reported ‘remarkable progress.’ He presented charts showing a decline in enemy armed strength from 285,000 in late 1966 to 242,000…

“For one thing, officials say that new intelligence shows that a year ago they were grossly underestimating enemy strength, especially the Vietcong political apparatus and low-level militia forces… Essentially, administration specialists now conclude that the enemy organization is – and has long been – numerically much more formidable than Washington had reckoned…”

While Westmoreland says 242,000, to justify his “body count” statistics and paper victories, Washington inclines to 483,000 NLF effectives. My estimate is a much higher figure, which would include those “low-level militia forces” and such units of the NLF regular forces as Westmoreland overlooked until they suddenly appeared at Loc Ninh and Dak To. It is useless to make a distinction between “military and political manpower,” as the New York Times story suggests. Every political cadre carries a gun, and every educational, medical, cultural or economic cadre does also. So does virtually every able-bodied man and woman throughout the liberated areas.

There has also been a steady change in quality as well as quantity in the relation between NLF and U.S.-Saigon forces. A key factor in comparing the combat quality of NLF and U.S. troops is that the latter are usually green troops sent out after a few months of training to serve one year in a type of warfare which is the most exacting in its demands on experience, knowledge of the terrain, adaptation to climate, ability to react to surprise situations – and virtually every contact with NLF forces is under such conditions. “Rotation” does not apply to the NLF troops, who year by year add to their combat experience, analyzing the results of every encounter and taking weeks or months off as units to sum up the experiences of a whole year’s activities. Thus each individual fighter and combat unit as a whole, accumulates a wealth of battlefield experience for which there is no substitute. Inexperienced U.S. troops are exposed to formidable veterans of jungle warfare and a people’s war of an intensity and scope the world has never before known.

Furthermore, there has been a steady deterioration in the quality of U.S. troops for easily understandable reasons. The first units to come were elite divisions of professional soldiers, many of them veterans of the Korean war and all of them highly trained in jungle warfare. The 1st and 3rd Marine Divisions, the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions, and the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) Division were the best units the United States had for a Vietnamese-type war. The 4th and 9th Divisions that came later were of inferior quality, as were also the 196th and 198th Light Infantry Brigades. But under the “rotation” system, veterans of even the elite divisions were replaced after a year, only an insignificant proportion volunteering for a second tour of duty. Another weakness is that the Pentagon has still not been able to decide on the type of unit it really needs in South Vietnam, much less develop such a unit.

When the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) Division was sent out with its 434 helicopters, American military experts went into ecstasies over this supposedly “perfect instrument” for jungle warfare. But the results were meager, to say the least. It turned out to be an unwieldy instrument, the complete dependence on helicopters being found to have its disadvantages. Dumping troops down into an entirely hostile environment, with no friendly rear or flanks for maneuvering and no road for retreating when landing fields came under furious fire, often proved extremely costly in men and helicopters, especially in comparison with results achieved. By the end of 1967, the famous Airmobile Division was not very mobile. Elements were bogged down near the 17th parallel, others in guarding roads and bases and one unit was engaged in the Dak To battle. By mid-1968, troops of the 1st Aircavalry Division were burrowing for their lives deep underground at Khe Sanh, trying to put as much earth as possible between themselves and exploding NLF rockets and mortar shells. The 1st Aircavalry was no longer a specialist unit, at least it was no longer able to exploit its specialty. Another type of U.S. formation took the field, especially tailored for the war in South Vietnam.

“The light infantry brigade is the thing now in South Vietnam,” the Christian Science Monitor reported on September 29, 1966, hailing the arrival of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, the prototype of this new weapon. “It’s only one-fourth the size of a big American division – 3,000 to 4,000 men. Helicopter companies work closely with it when needed.

“The U.S. Army is fast learning its lessons from the anti-guerrilla war in Asia. The cry is for fighting units that are smaller and lighter in size and equipment…

“The now famous 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) Division with its own 434 ‘copters is not being duplicated – not now anyhow. Instead the Army is creating a new team – light brigades matched with helicopter companies. They are expected to do smaller anti guerrilla jobs faster than a big cumbersome division of 16,000 men. One such streamlined light brigade is the 196th, now in South Vietnam… Two other infantry brigades are shaping up for combat, the 198th at Fort Banning, the 11th Brigade at Hawaii…”

It is interesting to note that when the military experts went into raptures over the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) Division with its super mobility and firepower, they claimed that such big and powerful units would force the NLF to abandon large-scale units and revert to smaller formations. Actually it was the Pentagon which decided to go back to smaller units. Less than two months after the ecstasies over the 196th, however, Ward Just, the Saigon correspondent of the Washington Post, quoted a “senior American field commander” as saying: “The 196th Light Brigade has gone back to the drawing boards…”[8] Between the writing of these two contradictory reports, the 196th had its baptism of fire in “Operation Attleboro” in which it was to be the star performer. The aim was to clear out an NLF base area in the forests of Tay Ninh, where the 196th was to establish its own base and “protect” a massive “pacification” operation by the Saigon troops. In fact, two of the 196th’s three battalions were wiped out and the third, left behind to guard the brigade command post, was also badly hit when the command post itself was attacked. The unit commander, Brigadier General Edward de Saussure, was relieved of his command during the battle and reproached for having handled his units badly. The brigade was withdrawn from the area and combat activity to be completely reorganized. Operation “Junction City,” launched in the same area a couple of months later with twice as many men, fared no better, the operational commander also being relieved of his command. The base areas in Tay Ninh remain firmly in the hands of the NLF. The 196th later turned up in the 1st Corps area, where its headquarters unit was wiped out on January 10, 1968. The 198th has since flown out to the same area and failed in its first mission to protect the An Hao air base. As noted above, the 11th was flown out from Hawaii as part of the emergency measure after the 173rd Airborne Brigade was put out of action and had not been involved in combat at the time of writing. But there have been no further claims that the “light brigade” was a war-winning weapon in South Vietnam.

The above is a description of “things as they were” in South Vietnam at the beginning of 1968, a state of affairs which could have been verified by anyone taking the trouble to look at facts instead of the communiqués of the U.S.-Saigon command. The shock of the Têt offensive on American opinion was simply that of a reality which had long been successfully obscured by the optimistic reports of General Westmoreland and top U.S. officials.

The relation of forces had continuously changed in favor of the NLF, the U.S. command had completely lost all operational initiative and the stage was gradually set for the devastating, nationwide offensive which the Pentagon later claimed had been expected, yet no steps had been taken to prepare for it. Whatever else it proved, one thing was clear. After a long uphill climb, the Liberation Armed Forces were over the top and starting to rush down the other side.

“… Our people’s revolutionary armies continued to intensify and extend guerrilla operations, continued the task of building up and training regular units. In battle, during the buildup of our forces, we developed from autonomous companies to mobile battalions, then from battalions to regiments and divisions. The first appearance of our regiments in battles near the frontier areas marked our first great victory, which only added to the enemy’s confusion . . .”[9]

One could be excused for thinking that this was Nguyen Huu Tho describing the building up and appearance of the NLF main force units in the battles near the Laotian and Cambodian borders at the start of the 1967-68 operational season. However, these words of Vo Nguyen Giap are from his account of the development of the Vietnam People’s Army during the later stages of the resistance war against France. But it was also the situation on the eve of the historic Têt offensive and the second great offensive launched in the first days of May, 1968. It was the situation which led to the greatest military defeat the U.S. Command had suffered in South Vietnam until that time – the abandonment of the Khe Sanh base in late June,1968, an event of great ill omen for the whole U.S. military posture in South Vietnam.

“U.S. Resolved To Hold Khe Sank At All Costs,” read a headline in the Internationale Herald Tribune of February 9, 1968. Later it was learned that President Johnson had extracted written pledges from the generals responsible that Khe Sanh “could and would be held.” But less than five months later, U.S. troops started pulling out of Khe Sanh. On June 28 the same newspaper reported a U.S. military spokesman in Saigon as saying that “the move was prompted by a reported large increase in Communist forces in the area…” Although the siege of Khe Sanh was given daily front-page headlines, its abandonment passed almost without comment in the American and Western press. But the abandonment (“deactivation” was the term employed by the U.S.-Saigon Command) marked a turning point in the war. It represented a strategic, tactical and operational defeat of decisive importance for the U.S. Command. The strategy of “search and destroy” on which all U.S. military planning in South Vietnam was based came to an end at Khe Sanh. It had been dealt a heavy blow during the Têt offensive and was virtually finished off during the second wave of NLF offensive in May. The coup de grâce was delivered at Khe Sanh despite the written pledges.

Even more serious from a U.S. viewpoint, the abandonment of Khe Sanh – vitally important, the American generals had always maintained, to control supply and infiltration routes along the western sector of the demilitarized zone and the frontier areas with Laos – also meant a very serious first defeat for the new passive, defensive strategy. During the 171 days of the siege of Khe Sanh, the role of this base was transformed. Like Dien Bien Phu, it was originally intended as an operational base, deep in the NLF rear, from which U.S. troops would strike out in their famous “search and destroy” operations, or “find, fix, fight and destroy the enemy,” as Westmoreland often expressed it. Also like Dien Bien Phu, because of encirclement and harassing operations, Khe Sanh gradually had to be transformed into a passive defense bastion with deep underground bunkers and connecting trenches, positions from which the troops rarely dared move out.

Khe Sanh in its later stages was defended by some 40,000 troops stretched out along 25 miles of Highway No. 9, leading from the main supply base at Cua Viet on the coast to the Khe Sanh complex, with minor fortresses every couple of miles along the road to protect the supply convoys. The base and the airstrip, on which it often had to depend for supplies, were under constant artillery fire. In spite of the fantastic firepower at their disposal, including several B-52 raids per day, the Americans were never able to silence this artillery. The equivalent of one-sixth of the bombs used during the three years of the Korean war was dropped around Khe Sanh alone, yet the NLF artillery kept firing.

But to understand the deeper reasons for the abandonment of this much-publicized base, one must comprehend the significance of the NLF second-wave offensive in early May of this year. This time the Americans were not taken by surprise as at the Têt offensive. Although the exact timing was a surprise, the U.S. Command knew it was coming and had taken appropriate defense measures. For instance, they concentrated some 100 American and Saigon army battalions in and around Saigon. These included all the “elite” battalions of the Saigon army – that is, specially trained, equipped and paid marines, rangers and parachutists. In spite of official American claims that the May offensive was much “weaker” than that of Têt, a far heavier blow was dealt.

The “elite” battalions were torn to pieces, effectives in the various units being reduced by 50 to 70%, according to an NLF spokesman who had access to precise statistics from adversary as well as NLF sources. Replacements sent from the training camps were raw recruits who had been in training for a week or less, and had neither stomach nor aptitude for battle. The quality and morale of the “elite” units was drastically reduced.

The Têt offensive had brought NLF military strength to within easy range of the main U.S. bases and storage depots. This was fully exploited during the May offensive when the destruction of military equipment, especially tanks and vehicles, was tremendous. In a single two day battle at Trang Bang near Saigon, for example, 150 tanks were destroyed. Parenthetically, it is worth noting that the NLF units consider coming to grips with U.S. tanks as “child’s play” because children who know all the jungle and rice field paths suitable for tanks sometimes take part in their destruction. One can also say that every U.S. bombing raid and artillery bombardment dooms a few more tanks to destruction, since most of them are blown up by electrically detonated mines made from unexploded U.S. bombs and shell.

The fact that the NLF in its May offensive, despite the massive security measures, could still penetrate the main cities even more effectively than at Têt and that U.S.-Saigon forces ended up much weaker than before, forced another “agonizing reappraisal” of U.S. strategy. An army is as strong as the mobile reserves which represent its striking force, and losses during the May offensive cut deeply into their mobile reserves. There were no longer mobile reserves for “search and destroy” operations. Even after the Têt offensive, there were no longer garrison troops to put “pacification” teams back into the countryside and protect them. There was desperate urgency to protect the rear bases and the towns. Such a “luxury” as the Khe Sanh forward base could no longer be afforded, especially as it, the posts protecting the supply route, and the supply route itself and main supply base were subject to continuous harassing attacks with a major offensive in sight against Khe Sanh itself.[10]

What an AP dispatch of July 16 described as a “medieval strategy of pulling back to defend the approaches to the cities” was adopted, in spite of “the Allies’ enormous firepower, the mobility of their helicopters, their numerical superiority and electronic computers.” In effect, this was a strategy of retreat, of passive defense. The endless series of nervous warnings, from President Johnson on down, of some “imminent” new “Vietcong” offensive, best symbolizes the degeneration of the American military position.

This was also symbolized on the ground at Khe Sanh. Marine troops, whose specialty is swift beach landings to secure bridgeheads for army troops, were trapped in positional warfare in the jungle covered mountains in and around that forward base. The much-vaunted sky warriors of the 1st Air Cavalry Division were burrowing underground like rats, hardly ever daring to surface, let alone take to the skies. It was obviously easier for the NLF to deal with the Marines at Khe Sanh rather than at their base at Da Nang and to deal with the Aircav troops there also rather than at the latter’s well-protected lair at An Khe. It was also possible to develop people’s war against all the 40,000 troops engaged in the Khe Sanh operation. While regular forces maintained their ceaseless pounding of Khe Sanh and its satellite posts, the guerrillas and regional troops carried out night attacks against posts guarding the supply route, day and nighttime ambushes against the supply convoys and night raids into the Cua Viet supply base.

The written pledges to defend Khe Sank given President Johnson by his top generals should be posted on the wall. They symbolize the writing on the wall for U.S. military power in South Vietnam, the shape of things to come. For if the Americans can be forced out of such a highly fortified position, despite all the troops at their disposal, they can be forced out of all other bases in due time. The withdrawal from Khe Sanh meant that other advance posts became immediately untenable. Thus without any publicity, Kham Duc, another key post to the south of Khe Sanh near the Laotian border, and other satellite posts in the area were evacuated, as well as most of those along Highway No. 9 between Khe Sanh and Cua Viet.

If readers are astounded that such things are possible given the vast military machine the Americans have assembled in South Vietnam, then one must recall that it was the loss of 16,000 troops at Dien Bien Phu, numerically a tiny proportion of the several hundred thousand strong Expeditionary Corps, that forced the French government to see that the game was up. Dien Bien Phu was, for the French, the sign that their elite troops with maximum support could be defeated; their next best units were bottled up in the Red River delta and all would have been lost when the Vietminh concentrated their attention there. A game of chess is usually lost although the loser still has plenty of pawns on the board. Similarly military defeat is possible although plenty of troops still remain in the field. And defeat, military defeat in the most classical sense of the term, stares the Americans in the face today in South Vietnam.

Seven years ago, American advisers were helping the Ngo Dinh Diem dictatorship to try to lock up all South Vietnamese peasants in some 16,000 “strategic hamlets” behind barbed-wire fortifications, and to seal off the frontiers with North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia by “white zones” cleared of all their vegetation by defoliant chemicals. Today it is the Americans themselves who are sealing themselves off behind barbed-wire fortifications in the cities, their commanders uttering warnings that the next “Vietcong” offensive win come this week, next week, next month… From the outside, they are surrounded by the peasants who should have been locked up in those 16,000 “strategic hamlets.” From the inside, behind their backs, they are threatened by the urban workers, intellectuals and even part of the bourgeoisie outraged by the American occupation. What a humiliation this is for the mightiest of the Western imperialists!

American public opinion has been drugged with “we are winning” fantasies inspired by false propaganda such as the myth of “body count” of “Vietcong” losses. This myth was set in true perspective in the July 1968 issue of Army magazine by an intelligence officer on General Westmoreland’s staff, Lt. Col. R. McMahon, who wrote:

“Some U.S. combat units really count bodies. Others probably never do but under pressure from higher up, report whatever ‘body count’ would be expected… Apart from the impression we are creating worldwide, that we are ghouls obsessed with the gruesome stacking and counting of cadavers, there is a very real danger of falling victim to our own inflated statistics.”


[1] International Herald Tribune (Paris), Jan. 13, 1968.

[2] Translated from Guerre du Peuple, Armée du Peuple, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Hanoi, 1961, page 175.

[3] International Herald Tribune (Paris), January 10, 1968

[4] Same dispatch from Saigon of Jan. 12, 1968, cited previously.

[5] See Chapter one.

[6] International Herald Tribune (Paris), Jan. 13-14, 1968.

[7] It was General Creighton Abrams’ promise to President Johnson that he could build up a strong, effective South Vietnamese Army, which could gradually take over the major share of combat operations from U.S. troops, that clinched his appointment as Westmoreland’s successor. But even by the time he had taken over, resentment against Americans’ contempt for the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) was so great, the rise of nationalist feeling so marked, and internal rivalries within the ARVN hierarchy so deep-rooted, that Abrams’ promises looked like a bad joke.

[8] International Herald Tribune (Paris), Nov. 21, 1966.

[9] Translated from Guerre du Peuple, Armée du Peuple, page 176.

[10] In fact, Khe Sanh could have been taken whenever the NLF high command wanted. They preferred to keep it as a “running sore,” sapping U.S. strength.

NEXT: Chapter 8 – The Work of Persuasion

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.