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Americans Know Very Little About The Vietnam War

Robert McNamara and Gen. Westmoreland with South Vietnamese General Tee, Aug. 1965

Americans know very little about the Vietnam War, even though it ended just over a quarter century ago. That is in part because those who opposed the war have seen it as in their interests to portray every aspect of the long struggle in the worst possible light, and indeed in some cases to falsify what they have had to say about it. This extends from wholesale defamation of the South Vietnamese and their conduct throughout a long and difficult struggle, to Jane Fonda's infamous claim that repatriated American prisoners of war who reported systematic abuse and torture by their captors were "liars" and "hypocrites."

I would like to speak to selected aspects of the war primarily having to do with the South Vietnamese, beginning with some of the many contrasts between the earlier and later years of major American involvement in the Vietnam War. In shorthand terms, the earlier years began with the introduction of American ground forces in 1965 and continued through a change of command not long after Tet 1968. The later period stretched from then through withdrawal of the last American forces in March 1973.

During the earlier years, with General William C. Westmoreland in command, the American approach was basically to take over the war from the South Vietnamese and try to win it militarily by conducting a war of attrition. The theory was that killing as many of the enemy as possible would eventually cause him to lose heart and cease aggression against the South. This earlier period was also characterized by recurring requests for more American troops to be dispatched to Vietnam, resulting in a peak commitment there of some 543,400.

In prosecuting this kind of war, General Westmoreland relied on search-and-destroy tactics carried out by large-scale forces, primarily in the deep jungles. Those tactics succeeded in their own terms--over the course of several years the enemy did suffer large numbers of casualties, horrifying numbers, really--but the expected result was not achieved. Meanwhile, given his single-minded devotion to a self-selected war of attrition, Westmoreland pretty much ignored two other key aspects of the war--pacification, and improvement of South Vietnam's armed forces.

Following the enemy's offensive at the time of Tet 1968, General Creighton W. Abrams replaced Westmoreland and brought to bear a much different outlook on the nature of the war and how it should be prosecuted. Abrams stressed "one war" of combat operations, pacification, and upgrading South Vietnam's armed forces, giving those latter two long-neglected tasks equal importance and priority with military operations.

Operations themselves also underwent a dramatic change. In place of "search and destroy" there was now "clear and hold," meaning that when Communist forces had been driven from populated areas, those areas were then permanently garrisoned by allied forces, not abandoned to be reoccupied by the enemy at some later date. Greatly expanded South Vietnamese Territorial Forces took on that security mission. Major General Nguyen Duy Hinh said that "expansion and upgrading of the Regional and Popular Forces" was "by far the most important and outstanding among U.S. contributions" to the war effort. Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong viewed these forces as "the mainstay of the war machinery," noting that "such achievements as hamlets pacified, the number of people living under GVN [Government of Vietnam] control or the trafficability on key lines of communication were possible largely due to the unsung feats of the RF [Regional Forces] and PF [Popular Forces]."

The nature of operations also changed in the later years. Large-scale forays deep into the jungle were replaced by thousands of small-unit ambushes and patrols, conducted both day and night, and sited so as to screen the population from enemy forces. Pacification was emphasized, and particularly rooting out the covert enemy infrastructure that had through coercion and terror dominated the populace of South Vietnam's villages and hamlets.

Body count was no longer the measure of merit. "I don't think it makes any difference how many losses he [the enemy] takes," Abrams told his commanders in a total repudiation of the earlier approach. In fact, said Abrams, "In the whole picture of the war, the battles don't really mean much." Population secured was now the key indicator of success.

Contrary to what many people seem to believe, the new approach succeeded remarkably. And, since during these later years American forces were progressively being withdrawn, more and more it was the South Vietnamese who were achieving that success.

During the period of buildup of U.S. forces in Vietnam, many observers--including some Americans stationed in Vietnam--were critical of South Vietnamese armed forces. But such criticisms seldom took into account a number of contributing factors. American materiel assistance in those early years consisted largely of cast-off World War II–vintage weapons, including the heavy and unwieldy (for a Vietnamese) M-1 rifle. The enemy, meanwhile, was being provided with increasingly up-to-date weaponry by his Russian and Chinese patrons. "In 1964 the enemy had introduced the AK-47, a modern, highly effective automatic rifle," noted Brig. Gen. James L. Collins, Jr., in a monograph on development of South Vietnam's armed forces. "In contrast, the South Vietnam forces were still armed with a variety of World War II weapons....After 1965 the increasing U.S. buildup slowly pushed Vietnamese armed forces materiel needs into the background." General Fred Weyand, finishing up a tour as commanding general of II Field Force, Vietnam, observed in a 1968 debriefing report that "the long delay in furnishing ARVN modern weapons and equipment, at least on a par with that furnished the enemy by Russia and China, has been a major contributing factor to ARVN ineffectiveness."

It was not until General Abrams came to Vietnam as deputy commander of U.S. forces in May 1967 that the South Vietnamese began to get more attention. Soon after taking up his post, Abrams cabled Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson. "It is quite clear to me," he reported, "that the U.S. Army military here and at home have thought largely in terms of U.S. operations and support of U.S. forces." As a consequence, "Shortages of essential equipment or supplies in an already austere authorization have not been handled with the urgency and vigor that characterizes what we do for U.S. needs. Yet the responsibility we bear to ARVN is clear....the groundwork must begin here. I am working at it."

By early 1968 some M-16 rifles were in the hands of South Vietnamese airborne and other elite units, but the rank and file were still outgunned by the enemy. Thus Lt. Gen. Dong Van Khuyen, South Vietnam's senior logistician, recalled that "during the enemy Tet Offensive of 1968 the crisp, rattling sounds of AK-47s echoing in Saigon and some other cities seemed to make a mockery of the weaker, single shots of Garands and carbines fired by stupefied friendly troops."

Even so, South Vietnamese armed forces performed admirably in repelling the Tet Offensive. "To the surprise of many Americans and the consternation of the Communists," reported Time magazine, "ARVN bore the brunt of the early fighting with bravery and élan, performing better than almost anyone would have expected."

In February 1968, retired U.S. Army General Bruce C. Clarke made a trip to Vietnam, afterward writing a trip report that eventually made its way to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Clarke observed that "the Vietnamese units are still on a very austere priority for equipment, to include weapons." That adversely affected both their morale and effectiveness, he noted. "Troops know and feel it when they are poorly equipped."

After reading the report, LBJ called Clarke to the White House to discuss his findings. Then, recalled Clarke, "within a few days of our visit to the White House a presidential aide called me to say the President had released 100,000 M-16 rifles to ARVN." President Johnson referred to this matter in his dramatic speech of March 31, 1968. "We shall," he vowed, "accelerate the re-equipment of South Vietnam's armed forces in order to meet the enemy's increased firepower."

U.S. divisions were not only better armed but also larger than South Vietnam's, resulting in greater combat capability. To the further disadvantage of the South Vietnamese, during these early years the U.S. hogged most of the combat assets that increased unit effectiveness. That included allocation of Boeing B-52 bombing strikes. Abrams noted that during the period of the North Vietnamese "Third Offensive" in August and September 1968, "The ARVN killed more enemy than all other allied forces combined." In the process, he said, they also "suffered more KIA, both actual and on the basis of the ratio of enemy to friendly killed in action." This was a function, he told General Earle Wheeler, of the fact that "the South Vietnamese get relatively less support, both quantitatively and qualitatively, than U.S. forces; i.e., artillery, tactical air support, gunships and helilift."

Under these conditions of the earlier years, criticism of South Vietnamese units was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Given little to work with, outgunned by the enemy and relegated to what were then viewed as secondary roles, South Vietnam's armed forces missed out for several years on the development and combat experience that would have greatly increased their capabilities.

In the later years of American involvement, during which U.S. ground forces were progressively being withdrawn, priority for issue of M-16 rifles was given to the long-neglected South Vietnamese Territorial Forces, who provided the "hold" in clear and hold. As those forces established control over more and more territory, large numbers of VC "rallied" to the allied side. This reached a peak of 47,000 in 1969, with another 32,000 crossing over in 1970. Given the authorized 8,689-soldier strength of a North Vietnamese Army division, that amounted to enemy losses by defection equivalent to about nine divisions in those two years alone.

There came a point at which the war was as good as won. The fighting wasn't over, but the war was won. The reason it was won was that the South Vietnamese had achieved the capacity, with promised American support, to maintain their independence and freedom of action. This was a South Vietnamese achievement.

A crucial part of that achievement was rooting out the enemy's covert infrastructure in the hamlets and villages of rural South Vietnam. An effective campaign was developed for neutralizing members of that infrastructure, based on obtaining better and more timely intelligence and acting on it. Critics of the war denounced the ensuing Phoenix Program as an assassination campaign, but the reality was otherwise.

For one thing, captives who had knowledge of the enemy infrastructure and its functioning were invaluable intelligence assets. That provided considerable incentive to capture them alive and exploit that knowledge. Congressional investigators sent out to Vietnam to assess the program found that of some 15,000 members of the Viet Cong infrastructure neutralized during 1968, 15 percent had been killed, 13 percent rallied to the government side and 72 percent were captured. William Colby, who then coordinated the Phoenix Program and in 1973 was appointed director of the CIA, testified later that "the vast majority" of the enemy dead had been killed in regular combat actions, "as shown by the units reporting who had killed them."

During those years the South Vietnamese, besides taking over combat responsibilities from the departing Americans, had to deal with multiple changes in policy. General Abrams was clear on how the South Vietnamese were being asked to vault higher and higher hurdles. "We started out in 1968," he recalled. "We were going to get these people by 1974 where they could whip hell out of the VC--the VC. Then they changed the goal to lick the VC and the NVA--in South Vietnam. Then they compressed it. They've compressed it about three times, or four times--acceleration. So what we started out with to be over this kind of time"--indicating with his hands a long time--"is now going to be over this kind of time"--much shorter. "And if it's VC, NVA, interdiction, helping Cambodians and so on--that's what we're working with. And," Abrams cautioned, "you have to be careful on a thing like this, or you'll get the impression you're being screwed. You mustn't do that, 'cause it'll get you mad." Among the most crucial of the policy changes was dropping longstanding plans for a U.S. residual force to remain in South Vietnam indefinitely, in a solution comparable to that adopted in Western Europe and South Korea.

In January 1972, John Paul Vann, a senior official in pacification support, told friends: "We are now at the lowest level of fighting the war has ever seen. Today there is an air of prosperity throughout the rural areas of Vietnam, and it cannot be denied. Today the roads are open and the bridges are up, and you run much greater risk traveling any road in Vietnam today from the scurrying, bustling, hustling Hondas and Lambrettas than you do from the VC." And, added Vann, "This program of Vietnamization has gone kind of literally beyond my wildest dreams of success." Those were South Vietnamese accomplishments.

When in late March of 1972 the NVA mounted a conventional invasion of South Vietnam by the equivalent of 20 divisions, a bloody pitched battle ensued. The enemy's "well-planned campaign" was defeated, wrote Douglas Pike, "because air power prevented massing of forces and because of stubborn, even heroic, South Vietnamese defense. Terrible punishment was visited on PAVN [NVA] troops and on the PAVN transportation and communication matrix." But, most important of all, said Pike, "ARVN troops and even local forces stood and fought as never before."

Later critics said that South Vietnam had thrown back the invaders only because of American air support. Abrams responded vigorously to that. "I doubt the fabric of this thing could have been held together without U.S. air," he told his commanders, "but the thing that had to happen before that is the Vietnamese, some numbers of them, had to stand and fight. If they didn't do that, ten times the air we've got wouldn't have stopped them."

The critics also disparaged South Vietnam's armed forces because they had needed American assistance in order to prevail. But at the same time, some 300,000 American troops were stationed in West Germany precisely because NATO could not stave off Soviet or Warsaw Pact aggression without American help. And in South Korea there were 50,000 American troops positioned specifically to help that country deal with any aggression from the North.

South Vietnam did, with courage and blood, defeat the enemy's 1972 Easter Offensive. General Abrams had told President Nguyen Van Thieu that it would be "the effectiveness of his field commanders that would determine the outcome," and they proved equal to the challenge. South Vietnam's defenders inflicted such casualties on the invaders that it was three years before North Vietnam could mount another major offensive. By then, dramatic changes would have taken place in the larger context.

After the Paris Accords were signed in January 1973, to induce the South Vietnamese to agree to terms they viewed as fatally flawed (the North Vietnamese were allowed to retain large forces in the South), President Richard M. Nixon told Thieu that if North Vietnam violated the terms of the agreement and resumed its aggression against the South, the United States would intervene militarily to punish them. Moreover, Nixon said that if renewed fighting broke out, the United States would replace on a one-for-one basis any major combat systems (tanks, artillery pieces and so on) lost by the South Vietnamese, as was permitted by the Paris Accords. And finally, said Nixon, the United States would continue robust financial support for South Vietnam. As events actually unfolded, of course, the United States defaulted on all three of those promises.

Meanwhile, North Vietnam was receiving unprecedented levels of support from its patrons. According to a 1994 history published in Hanoi, from January to September 1973, the nine months following the Paris Accords, the quantity of supplies shipped from North Vietnam to its forces in the South was four times that shipped in the entire previous year. But even that was minuscule compared to what was sent south from the beginning of 1974 until the end of the war in April 1975. The total during those 16 months, reported the Communists, was 2.6 times the amount delivered to the various battlefields during the preceding 13 years.

If the South Vietnamese had shunned the Paris agreement, it was certain not only that the United States would have settled without them, but also that the U.S. Congress would then have moved swiftly to cut off further aid to South Vietnam. If, on the other hand, the South Vietnamese went along, hoping thereby to continue receiving American aid, they would be forced to accept an outcome in which North Vietnamese troops remained menacingly within their borders. With mortal foreboding, the South Vietnamese chose the latter course, only to find--dismayingly--that they soon had the worst of both: NVA forces were ensconced in the South, and American support was cut off.

Many Americans would not like to hear that the totalitarian states of China and the Soviet Union had proven to be better and more faithful allies than the democratic United States, but that was in fact the case. William Tuohy, who covered the war for many years for The Washington Post, wrote that "it is almost unthinkable and surely unforgivable that a great nation should leave these helpless allies to the tender mercies of the North Vietnamese." But that is what we did.

Colonel William LeGro served until war's end with the U.S. Defense Attache Office in Saigon. From that close-up vantage point he saw precisely what had happened. "The reduction to almost zero of United States support was the cause" of the final collapse, he observed. "We did a terrible thing to the South Vietnamese."

Near the end, Tom Polgar, then serving as the CIA's chief of station, Saigon, cabled a succinct assessment of the situation: "Ultimate outcome hardly in doubt, because South Vietnam cannot survive without U.S. military aid as long as North Vietnam's war-making capacity is unimpaired and supported by Soviet Union and China."

The aftermath of the war in Vietnam was as grim as had been feared. Seth Mydans wrote perceptively and compassionately on Southeast Asian affairs for The New York Times in 2000: "More than a million southerners fled the country after the war ended. Some 400,000 were interned in camps for 're-education'--many only briefly, but some for as long as seventeen years. Another 1.5 million were forcibly resettled in ‘new economic zones' in barren areas of southern Vietnam that were ravaged by hunger and extreme poverty."

Former Viet Cong Colonel Pham Xuan An described in 1990 his immense disillusionment with what a Communist victory had meant to Vietnam. "All that talk about liberation' twenty, thirty, forty years ago," he lamented, "produced this, this impoverished, broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic half-educated theorists." Former North Vietnamese Army Colonel Bui Tin has been equally candid about the outcome of the war, even for the victors. "It is too late for my generation," he said, "the generation of war, of victory, and betrayal. We won. We also lost."

The price paid by the South Vietnamese in their long struggle to remain free proved grievous indeed. The armed forces lost 275,000 killed in action. Another 465,000 civilians lost their lives, many of them assassinated by VC terrorists or felled by the enemy's shelling and rocketing of cities, and 935,000 more were wounded.

Of the million who became "boat people," an unknown number lost their lives at sea between 1975 and 1979--possibly more than 100,000, according to Australian Minister for Immigration Michael MacKellar. In Vietnam perhaps 65,000 others were executed by their self-proclaimed liberators. As many as 250,000 more perished in the brutal "re-education" camps. Meanwhile, 2 million, driven from their homeland, formed a new Vietnamese diaspora.

Many of those displaced Vietnamese now live in the United States. Recently, Mydans visited the "Little Saigon" community around Westminster, Calif., site of some 3,000 businesses, and then described the bustling, prosperous scene. It was, he suggested, "what Saigon might have looked like if America had won the war in 1975." And, Mydans concluded, "There is nobody more energetic than a Vietnamese immigrant."

Campaigning in Westminster during his run for the presidency, Senator John McCain said to a large crowd of Vietnamese, "I thank you for what you have done for America." Nor have Vietnamese expatriates in the United States forgotten their kinsmen still living in Vietnam. Every year they send back an estimated $2 billion.

None of this has been easy for those who came to America. Nguyen Qui Duc wrote in 2000 in the Boston Globe that, for expatriate Vietnamese, "Painful memories of the war will always remain in our hearts." But, he added, "The cultural differences and homesickness they endure seem a fair price to be free."

In conclusion, the war in Vietnam was a just war fought by the South Vietnamese and their allies for an admirable purpose. Those who fought it did so with their mightiest hearts, and in the process they came very close to succeeding in their purpose of enabling South Vietnam to sustain itself as a free and independent nation. A reporter once remarked that General Abrams was a man who deserved a better war. I quoted that observation to his eldest son, who immediately responded: "He didn't see it that way. He thought the Vietnamese were worth it."

Lewis Sorley. Reassessing the ARVN. Vietnam. April 2003.

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