For last 50 years, Vietnam War has been one of the most emotionally and intellectually debated subjects in America and even globally. Was the Vietnam War a just cause? Should America have interfered in the internal issue of Vietnamese people? What was the reason for which 58272 young Americans lost their lives?
American society in the 60’s and 70’s was divided because of two totally contradicting ideologies. One half of American society supported the war because they believed that US troops in Vietnam were fighting for the freedom of South Vietnamese people and for the sake of peace in the world while other half totally opposed war because they saw this war as a unjustifiable attack on the sovereignty of the poor Vietnamese purely for economic and financial motives. People who believed in anti-war ideology argued that lives of thousands of young Americans are being needlessly sacrificed in Vietnam. Hence they were demanding immediate end to the war and for the return of all US troops from Vietnam.
A wave of hate and hostility was sweeping throughout America, especially between pro and anti war supporters. But oblivious from this ever increasing civil tension back home, more than 500,000 American soldiers stationed in South Vietnam were engulfed in an epic struggle of life and death. They had no interest and nor the time for such things. Only thing occupying their mind was survival, only thing worth pondering over was, how can they stay alive for one more day? They all were tired and wounded to the core of their being by watching their friends fall one by one, all around them. Only thing they wanted to defeat was death and only thing they were striving for was life.
By the year 1969, the American belief of a quick and decisive victory in Vietnam had been shattered. US troops serving in Vietnam themselves believed by 1969 that the war was a lost cause. But question that was troubling the world was how did weak and meager Vietnamese people endured the wrath of American military power and technological superiority and remained resilient to the very end. Answer to this question lies in the history of Vietnam. Throughout the history, Vietnam was constantly under attack by its larger and stronger neighbours.
During last thousand years, Vietnamese people had constantly fought the oppressive foreign invaders like China, Cambodia and Thailand. During the peak of colonialism, European powers had most of the South East Asia under their grip. British were in control of India, Burma and Thailand. And France were controlling the region they called Indo-China which included Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. During the the Second World War most of the region ruled by European colonial powers was captured by Japanese.
RISE OF HO CHI MINH AND VIETMINH
While the war in Europe was still raging, a freedom struggle was gathering momentum in Vietnam. In 1944 resistance group known as VietMinh under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh liberated Hanoi from the Japanese. After liberating the capital, Ho Chi Minh immediately announced the Independece and sovereignty of Republic of Vietnam. And British forces defeated Japanese in the southern city of Saigon. A record 200,000 Japanese troops surrendered to British forces. After the surrender of Japanese Empire to Americans in pacific theatre, Second World War was finally over. But France was still adamant of maintaining colonial rule over Indo-China. France refused to recognise the Declaration of Independence announced by Ho Chi Minh and French troops began to return to Vietnam. But VietMinh leader Ho Chi Minh had only two things in mind, to drive out the French from Vietnam and to win absolute autonomy for Vietnamese people.
As soon as French troops started returning to Vietnam they were immediately attacked by VietMinh. In 1945 France was at its weakest because of the devastation caused by Second World War hence to assist French in their ongoing battle with VietMinh, Britain decided to rearm and deploy 200,000 Japanese POWs to combat communist forces of VietMinh. But even deployment of 200,000 Japanese was not enough to halt the VietMinh’s approach towards Saigon. By 1948 VietMinh had captured 75% of Vietmam as well as areas adjoining Vietnamese border with Laos and Cambodia. VietMinh leader Ho Chi Minh was master tactician of gorilla warfare, his plan of continously flooding Southern Vietnam with VietMinh troops and weaponry by a mountainous route named after him, the Ho Chi Minh trail was very successful. French were suffering high casualties in their battle against VietMinh which was generating huge outcry and anti war sentiments within France.
THE FALL OF DÍÉŃ BÍÉŃ PHÙ
In 1950, Russian leader Joseph Stalin and Chinese premier Mao Zhedong declared their recognition and support for the Republic of Vietnam and to Ho Chi Minh as its legitimate leader. This piled even more pressure of French forces to quickly defeat VietMinh before they were even more strengthened by Soviet and Russian aid.
To launch an all out attack on Hanoi in North Vietnam, French troops decided to build up a command base on the border of Vietnam and Cambodia. This base was named Dien Bien Phu and more than 25,000 French troops were stationed there to launch an offensive against VietMinh. But soon all their plans of an offensive were reduced to desperation for survival when the base of Dien Bien Phu was surrounded by more than 80,000 VietMinh soldiers. A long bloody battle ensued in which French and VietMinh troops fought with everything they had for every inch of Dien Bien Phu. VietMinh forces completed their encirclement of Dien Bien Phu by fall of 1950, severing the all connection of French troops with other French bases. During this time French were totally dependant on parachute drops of supplies and reinforcements at Dien Bien Phu, but soon the noose around the Dien Bien Phu’s neck was tightening. Eventually by the order of French High Command, the French troops in Dien Bien Phu waved the white flag and surrendered to the VietMinh forces.
GENEVA PEACE ACCORD BETWEEN FRANCE AND NORTH VIETNAM
By the end of 1950, a cease fire was in place in Vietnam and peace talks between VietMinh and France were well underway under the watchful eye of Unites States of America in Geneva. VietMinh representatives had arrived at the peace talks as victors which they were and because of that they were expecting freedom of the all of Vietnam from its colonial rulers. But they were shocked to know that France and United States had no desire to allow the entire Vietnam to fall under communist rule of VietMinh. Peace talks entered a deadlock when VietMinh negotiators demanded the withdrawl of every French soldier from VietNam. At one point during the peace talks VietMinh representatives also most withdrew from the negotiating table and US President had to threaten them with nuclear attack to force them back to the negotiations.
- VietMinh were required to relinquish all occupied territories with in Laos and Cambodia as both countries were freed from French rule and were to be recognised as two sovereign nations.
- Vietnam was divided into two separate States at the 17th Parallel.
- Northern half was to be governed by VietMinh on a communist model with Ho Chi Minh as its leader.
- Southern half of Vietnam was to be ruled by an interim government for six months to allow France to safely withdraw from the region. And a referendum was to be conducted after six months to allow the people of South Vietnam to freely decide whether they wanted to join the northern communist state or to choose their own democratic Government.
- North Vietnam was to station 80,000 of VietMinh troops in Southern city of Saigon and similarly 60,000 of South Vietnamese soldiers were to be stationed in northern city of Hanoi. This was done to ensure that both parties would remain loyal to the Geneva peace accord and fulfill all its conditions.
- At 17th parallel a 3 mile demilitarised zone created on both sides of the border to avoid any skirmishes from taking place.
AMERICAN INVOLVEMENT IN VIETNAM CRISIS
Up untill 1950, USA had remained totally neutral in the crisis of Vietnam and had no desire to get involved in the conflict. But all this was about to change soon. In fall of 1950, the communist forces of North Korea invaded South Korea in an attempt to reunite entire Korean Peninsula under one communist rule. When UN forces led by United States forced the North Korean communist forces to withdraw back into their territoriy, they were completely caught off guard by powerful Chinese attack. UN troops were now engaged in full scale war with more than 300,000 Chinese troops. Eventually the Korean War ended in a deadlock and boundaries were restored to the way they were before the North Korean attack on South. USA suffered huge loss of life in the Korean War but they also realised the threat, communist China was posing in South Asia. Because of this USA decided that it will stop the spread of communism at any cost in South East Asia. American leaders feared that if one more country fell to the communism, it will start a domino effect in which all countries in South East Asia will fall one by one to communism. Hence they were determined to stop the spread of communism any further.
HO CHI MINH THE IDEALIST
Although disappointed by the terms of the treaty, North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh still complied to all terms of the accord. French established an interim government lead by Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam upon their withdrawl. But Diem had no desire to step down from presidency after six months. And he proved this when he refused to conduct the referendum, that was agreed upon to allow South Vietnamese people to freely choose their own fate, in the Geneva peace accord. In 1955, American advisors in Saigon pressurised Diem to conduct election even if it was just a sham, to show South Vietnam’s compliance to the Geneva Peace accord. So a completely rigged election was conducted under the supervision of Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.
And as expected Diem emerged as the winner by 98.2% votes. This was just the beginning of the corruption and injustices committed by Ngo Dinh Diem. Soon after the French withdrawl from South Vietnam, Diem started a wave of oppression and exploitation of South Vietnamese people. Within a year of coming to power in South Vietnam, Diem family had became the wealthiest in whole of Vietnam. But while Diem was becoming richer and richer, the condition of South Vietnamese people was worsening with every passing day. Nearly 80% of the population in South Vietnam were starving to death because of wide spread poverty.
After refusing the demands of Ho Chi Minh to again conduct a fair referendum, Diem immediately started a campaign of persecution and extermination of the 80,000 VietMinh soldiers that were stationed in Saigon. Diem then ordered the South Vietnamese troops stationed in Hanoi to conduct attacks on the North Vietnam Army(NVA). But the troops in Hanoi refused to follow his orders and defected to North Vietnam. While the North Vietnam was going through a wave of transformation and developement under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, the humanitarian situation in South Vietnam was getting worse and worse. Ho Chi Minh was still loved and widely supported by the South Vietnamese people and on other hand the depth of hate and contempt of South Vietnamese people, for Ngo Dinh Diem was deepening. A resistance group called VietCong started conducting gorilla attacks on bases and offices of South Vietnamese Government.
President of North Vietnam Ho Chi Minh had so far resisted the urges of his followers to commence a military campaign against the dictatorial regime of South Vietnam, to end the suffering of South Vietnamese people and to reunite the nation of Vietnam. So far Ho Chi Minh had tried to settle the humanitarian crisis in South Vietnam by utilising his relations with Soviet Union and China to put diplomatic pressure on America to make the Diem regime in South comply to the conditions of Geneva accord. He warned Ngo Dinh Diem to immediately stop the persecution of South Vietnamese people and release the imprisoned VietMinh soldiers. But neither America and nor Diem paid any attention to Ho Chi Minh’s warnings. Infact to add salt to wound, America made South Vietnam a signatory in the South East Asian Treaty Organisation(SEATO) which mutually binded both nations in a mutual defense agreement. Hence now any form of attack on South Vietnam was to be considered as a declaration of war on United States itself. This made Ho Chi Minh accept the fact that there was no way of reuniting Vietnam without getting America involved in the conflict.
NORTH VIETNAM SUPPORTING THE VIETCONG GORILLAS
In 1958, Ho Chi Minh finally got tired of watching his people being mistreated and persecuted in South Vietnam, hence he started supporting the gorilla fighters of VietCong by providing them logistical, monetary, weaponry and personnel aid. Minh also decided to send 10,000 NVA soldiers to infiltrate into South Vietnam to support and train the VietCong gorillas in their war against the Diem regime.
VietCong bolstered by support from North Vietnam, immediately started attacking and capturing enemy strongholds in South Vietnam. South Vietnam forces were suffering heavy losses in the hands of VietCong gorillas. By 1960, South Vietnamese Government was being put under tremendous pressure by a string of simultaneous attacks by VietCong gorillas in and around Saigon. President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem urged American president Dwight.D.Eisenhower for immediate assistance saying that South Vietnan was facing a real possibility of falling to communist gorillas. Eisenhower having seen the attrocities committed by Soviet Communist forces in Second World War, absolutely hated communists. So Eisenhower immediately sent military aid worth 5 billion dollars consisting of Fighter Planes, B52 Bombers, Tanks/Armoured Vehicles, Attack/Patrol Boats and Rifles, to the South Vietnamese Government. Eisenhower also deployed 3000 US Military officials to South Vietnam to train the ARVN(Army of Republic of Vietnam) troops in gorilla warfare and to teach them how to use and operate the American weaponry.
Escalation of American involvement in South Vietnam was a troubling news for Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnamese leadership. Fearing that they will not be able to match the firepower of US weaponry, Ho Chi Minh asked Chinese premier Mao Zhedong for help. Mao Zhedong immediately supplied nearly 100,000 AK47 rifles to North Vietnam to arm the VietCong gorillas in South. By this time VietCong numbers in South Vietnam had swelled to over 300,000 and were posing serious threat to the government of South Vietnam. And by 1961 the Government of South Vietnam was on brink of defeat and possibility of South Vietnam falling to communist forces was becoming more and more realistic.
PRESIDENT JOHN FRANK KENNEDY
John Frank Kennedy had just started his presidency and the issue of Vietnam was low on his list of priorities. But unlike Kennedy, US Joint Chiefs of Staff were adamant about launching a full scale military engagement in South Vietnam. At that moment President Kennedy was not willing to risk American lives in a gorilla war half way around the world. Hence, Secretary of defense Robert Macnamara devised a plan that satisfied both President and Joint Chiefs of Staff. This plan called for a military aid worth 12 billion dollars to be given to South Vietnam to strengthen its armed forces so that it can withstand even a large scale invasion from North Vietnam or even China.
The decision of strengthening South Vietnamese defensive forces worked perfectly and with the help of newly delivered American helicopters the ARVN troops started to overpower the VietCong gorillas and registered major victories in southern highlands. To combat the strengthened forces of South Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh started using supply routes through Laos and Cambodia to supply weapons and ammunitions to the VietCong gorillas. These secret jungle supply routes came to be known as Ho Chi Minh trails. North Vietnamese government immensely supplied anti aircraft guns and artillery guns to the VietCong gorillas via Ho Chi Minh trail.
Soon the South Vietnamese forces and their American advisors started feeling the pinch of Anti-Aircraft guns and heavy artillery fire. South Vietnamese forces started incurring heavy losses in their battles with VietCong gorillas. By this time American advisors in South Vietnam had realised that there was no chance of ARVN forces defeating the VietCong gorillas without a substantial US engagement in Vietnam. But President Kennedy was not interested at all in risking lives of American soldiers in another country’s civil war. And despite being as corrupt as he was, even Ngo Dinh Diem didn’t wanted a direct American involvement in the conflict. Diem too had realised that if American troops engaged in direct battle with VietCong it will surely result in mass civilian casualties. Both Presidents were under considerable pressure of their Generals who wanted a strong American engagement in the war.
CIA ORCHESTRATED COUP IN SOUTH VIETNAM
CIA agents in Saigon conspired with the disgruntled ARVN Generals to overthrow Diem’s government in a coup d’état. President Kennedy was totally unaware of CIA’s plans because Kennedy had always loathed the agency for its unethical actions in Guatemala which had resulted in death of his friend Jacobo Arbenz.
Hence there were serious trust issues between CIA and JFK. CIA brass in Washington gave green light to the operation but only on one condition that President Diem and his family will be allowed a safe passage out of the country. Eventually Diem became aware of the coup being planned against him by ARVN generals and the CIA. He immediately went to the American Embassy in Saigon to meet Ambassador Henry Cabot who was liaison between Diem and Kennedy administration. But to his shock Cabot refused to meet with him, it was at that moment when Diem realised that the whole plan of coup against him was orchestrated by the Kennedy’s special envoy to South Vietnam
W. Averell Harriman and Ambassador Cabot behind president Kennedy’s back. These individuals had been demanding direct American involvement in Vietnam for a long time but Diem’s refusal to do so was a big obstacle in their path. They believed that by eliminating Diem they can pave the path for direct American engagement in South Vietnam.
ASSASSINATION OF JFK AND EXECUTION OF DIEM
Despite the orders from Pentagon, Harriman assured the ARVN generals that US forces would make no attempt to rescue Diem. CIA operative Lucien Conein even paid $42,000 to the ARVN generals to orchestrate the coup. ARVN general Duong Van Minh and his co-conspirators overthrew the government on 1 November 1963 in a swift coup. On 1 November, the generals called the palace offering Diem exile if he surrendered. However, that evening, Diem and his entourage escaped via an underground passage to Cholon, where they were captured the following morning on 2nd November. Both Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were assassinated under orders from Duong Van Minh, while they were attempting to reach Vietnamese Joint General Staff headquarters. Diem was buried in an unmarked grace in a cemetery next to the house of the U.S. ambassador.
The news of Diem’s death came as a huge shock to the entire Kennedy administration. US Vice President Lyndon Johnson suspected that CIA had something to do with this incident, but he decided to wait for President Kennedy’s return from two day visit of Texas, to discuss this with him. But as fate had it, President Kennedy never returned from Texas.
On November 22nd 1963, President John Frank Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. With in a period of three weeks, two men who were opposing direct American engagement in Vietnam had been eliminated and now path for American troops to enter South Vietnam was paved.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON
At midnight 23rd November 1963, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as 36th President of Unites States of America. Remaining loyal to the wishes of President Kennedy, Johnson too refused to send American troops into Vietnam. But slowly as pressure of US Generals started pilling on President Johnson, he tried to accommodate the US Generals by launching a full scale bombing campaign on military installations in North Vietnam. On 2nd August, 1964 Shrewd US Generals created a hoax of US naval vessel Maddox being attacked by North Vietnamese attack boats in the Gulf of Tonkin.
This false flag incident provided a pretext for the American involvement in South Vietnam. President Johnson had been delaying the full scale engagement in South Vietnam, fearing a public backlash. But the hoax of Gulf of Tonkin generated enough public support for Johnson to deploy US troops in Vietnam. Five days after the staged hoax of Gulf of Tonkin, on 7th August 1964 US Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that authorised President Johnson to take any steps that he deemed necessary to solve the crisis on South Asia.
General Westmoreland was in charge of operations in Vietnam. President Johnson asked General Wesmoreland, that how many soldiers would be required to defeat the VietCong? Gen.Wesmoreland told President Johnson that at least 400,000 US troops would be enough for defeating the VietCong Gorillas. President Johnson was willing to send whatever Gen.Wesmoreland asked for. By the end of 1966, US troops in Vietnam were 130,000. By the end of 1967, number had risen to 330,000. And by the end of 1968, total number or US soldiers in Vietnam was 440,000. And during the peak of Vietnam War there were more than half a million US soldiers stationed in Vietnam. When debating about the war most people cite this number of 500,000 to overpowering presence of US soldiers in Vietnam. But what most people didn’t realise was that for every single combatant soldier more than 3 personnel were required for logistical and administrative duties. This included aircraft maintenance engineers, personnel needed for delivery of supplies, US naval personnel on board aircraft carriers and destroyers and the personnel at the US high command. So even when more than 500,000 American troops were stationed in Vietnam, there were only about 1,20,000 active combatants in Vietnam.
Up untill Vietnam war, US troops had no experience of fighting a gorilla war in lush rainforests of Asia. Little experience that some senior officers had was from Second World War when they were fighting Japanese forces on pacific islands of Guadacanal and Papua New Guinea. None of the combating troops had any experience in gorilla warfare. And the thing that was most troubling for US troops was the hot, damp and humid weather of Vietnam. Diseases like malaria and cholera were rampant throughout the Vietnam war, with one out of every ten soldiers getting sick with malaria or cholera. And for the fresh recruits who had just arrived in Vietnam after graduating from Army schools, Vietnam was like hell on earth. They had never expected that they would have to engage enemy in such deplorable conditions.
OPERATION ROLING THUNDER AND OPERATION FLAMING DART
US involvement in Vietnam War had started well before 1965 when first marines landed in Vietnam. Since 1961, US Air Force had been assisting in deployment of South Vietnamese Soldiers at remote locations with helicopters. By 1962, US Air Force and planes from aircraft carriers were taking part in campaigns against VietCong gorillas. At an average 40 sorties were being conducted over South Vietnam in 1962. After the death of JFK, President Lyndon Johnson had approved air strikes in NVA and VietCong bases on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and Cambodia.
After the hoax attack in Gulf of Tonkin was successfully staged, US congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave President Johnson absolute authority to use whatever measures he deemed fit to solve the crisis in South East Asia. And on 6th August 1964, day after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed, President Johnson approved strategic strikes at Military, Airforce and Naval targets in North Vietnam. Consequently Operation Flaming Dart was launched and US bombers started targeting the strategic targets in North Vietnam.
Operation Flaming Dart called for precise and accurate bombing raids over Hanoi and other important defense bases in North Vietnam. Operation Flaming Dart turned out to be a colossal strategic disaster for US because it resulted in huge civilian casualties. Furthermore during Operation Flaming Dart less than 20% of the pre-approved targets were actually hit by the bombers. 14 US planes were downed in the operation. At the time of Operation Flaming Dart a soviet contingent headed by Alexei Kosygin was visiting Hanoi. Watching the devastation caused by US bomb raids, Alexei Kosygin asked Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev to supply North Vietnam 50 Mig21 interceptor fighters and more than 500 Soviet Suface to Air missiles. In the end Operation Flaming Dart resulted in substantial increase in Soviet and Chinese military aid to North Vietnam.
After the failiure of Operation Flaming Dart, President Lyndon Johnson was reluctant in authorising further air strikes in North Vietnam. Eventually he concede to the demands of Joint Chiefs of Staff for authorising Operation Rolling Thunder. By this time North Vietnam had acquired huge quantities of Anti-Aircraft Guns and Land to Air missiles from China and Soviet Union. As a result during the very first campaign of Operation Rolling Thunder, US lost 6 air crafts over the North Vietnamese skies. But this bombing raid was considered a strategic victory because most of North Vietnamese Railway Routes towards South were totally destroyed. More than a dozen ammunition depots were also destroyed both in North Vietnam and also on Ho Chi Minh trail.
Although US had lost bomber aircrafts in the Operation too, but the damages induced to the North Vietnam logistical infrastructure was considered as a huge strategic victory. But this was nothing more than a wishful thinking because damage caused by these raids wasn’t crippling for North Vietnam. Whatever railway routes, bridges, ammunition depots and fuel tanks were destroyed in these raids were repaired or replaced with a week of the attacks.
Second reason why, Operation Rolling Thunder and Operation Flaming Dart were such a colossal strategic failures was the number of US aircrafts shot down during these raids. By the start of Operation Rolling Thunder, North Vietnam had already acquired Russian 100 Mig21 fighters. Their pilots were being trained at Chinese Air Bases. Hence the North Vietnamese pilots were highly competent and were quite capable of defending their country from US Air Raids. By 1967, North Vietnam had also received over 1000 SAMS(Surface To Air Missile Systems) from Russia. These were highly advanced radar guided anti-aircraft missiles that had a range of 20 nautical miles and were capable of hitting targets flying above 10,000 feet altitude. Over next three years Russia and China would supply North Vietnam with over 1400 Fighters and over 5000 SAMS. SAMS had a kill ratio of 3:20 which meant for every 20 missiles launched, three enemy aircrafts were destroyed. All these advancements in air defense systems resulted in huge aircraft losses for US.
Operation Rolling Thunder continued for three and a half years and ended up causing more damage to US than to the North Vietnam. In total US lost 902 Aircrafts and lives of over 818 pilots during the three year campaign. About 260 US pilots were captured when they had to bail out over North Vietnamese cities and were now held as POW. North Vietnam lost 120 MIGs and lives of 100 pilots during their skirmishes with American fighters. About 10 planes were downed by friendly fire. And the US Bombings resulted in the deaths of 182,000 civilians.
SEARCH AND DESTROY
Right from the beginning of US operations in Vietnam, US Generals and Commanders had decided to conduct search and destroy campaigns against VietCong gorillas. Search and destroy campaigns worked like this, whenever US forces got any intellegence about the location of VietCong gorillas, they immediately started measures to encircle the gorillas and to cut off their escape into Cambodia. Then artillery cannons and Fighter bombers would commence initial assault on VietCong camps and bases. And finally US troops would be deployed via helicopters in the target area.
After this US troops would conduct an expeditionary search into the jungle to eliminate any and all VietCong gorillas. Although US troops conducted hundreds of search and destroy campaigns but they were not finding large VietCong contingents but despite that they were losing much more of their soldiers in ambushes and boobytraps orchestrated by VietCong gorillas.
General Westmoreland was convinced that only way of defeating VietCong was to lure or force them to fight an open war, because only then US would be able to inflict high damages to VietCong with its supreme Air and Ground fire power.
VIETCONG AND THEIR INFRASTRUCTURE
Contrary to the believes of US planners, VietCong was not an indisciplined and unorganised rash tag organisation like they believed it to be. VietCong gorillas were guided and trained by experienced Officers of NVA. VietCong forces were organised and run in a militaristic structure. They had different units, battalions, regiments and divisions designated to conduct operations in a highly efficient and disciplined manner. VietCong followed their own rules of engagement and withdrawl depending on the kind of situation they were facing.
VietCong gorillas were specialists in digging tunnel systems which they utilised for conducting surprise attacks and escaping if they were being overpowered by enemy. These tunnels systems were many miles long and had upto five different level. One tunnel system in the region of Iron Triangle in South Vietnam was more than 20 miles long. This tunnel system was the area HQ of VietCong in South Vietnam. It consisted of kitchens, sleeping rooms, planning rooms, hospitals, ammunition storage depots and some even had 5-6 mile long tunnels connecting two separate tunnel systems.
During the initial stages of American engagement in Vietnam, US Soldiers were completely oblivious of these tunnel systems. Often during search and destroy missions, they used to find abandoned VietCong bases. They usually left after setting the abandoned base above on fire, totally unaware of the fact that the entire base and the VietCong force was safe just beneath their feet. Sometimes during search and destroy campaigns, when VietCong gorillas were getting overpowered by US troops then entire VietCong regiments used to disappear into these tunnels, escaping totally unscathed. And US troops had no clue about where did VietCong disappeared into.
Slowly and steadily from the information provided by VietCong POWs and things learned from invaluable combat experiences, US troops finally found these tunnel systems. They destroyed as many entries into these tunnels as many they were able to discover. But this method hardly ever made a difference because each tunnel system havd dozens of entries and many of these entries were so well disguised that US troops had no chance of finding each of these entrances. Most often US troops would destroy whatever entrances they can find and then they withdrew thinking that they had destroyed the entire cave system, leaving majority of the cave system and VietCong gorillas completely intact.
By 1968, US campaigns of search and destroy were failing miserably. Out of 100 search and destroy operations conducted, US forces would only be successful on 5 occasions in engaging with the enemy. Most of VietCong gorillas were instructed not to engage in direct fight with US forces. Rather they were told to execute hit and run manouvres and only engage with enemy for 10 minutes at most and then withdraw from that area. US Generals were getting frustrated by the capability of VietCong to start fight wherever & whenever they desired and then end it & vanish into the jungle at their whim. But little did US brass knew that the VietCong were about to change their tactics.
30th January 1968, Day of “Tet” the Vietnamese New Year. This day was a sacred festival for Vietnamese people on which they worshiped and honoured their anscestors. The festivities lasted for two days. Hence an unofficial two day truce was practiced by all parties in respect of Tet celebrations. But this time VietCong had decided to launch major offensive operations in over 100 villages, town and cities in South Vietnam. The idea was to exploit the element of surprise that this attack had to quickly occupy key strategic locations in South Vietnam before South Vietnamese and US Armed forces react to the situation. More than 130,000 VietCong gorillas were to take part in this offensive. Furthermore NVA had planned attacks on some key locations in northern part of South Vietnam.
These attacks were planned with only one motive in mind, to attract the attention of South Vietnamese Government and US Army and to fool them into believing that a major North Vietnamese invasion was happening so that they would relocate majority of their forces near the border, away from populated areas where the real attack by VietCong was scheduled to take place. Although the plan of NVA deception worked to some extent but South Vietnamese and US Army didn’t relocate the troops to the North to such an extent that NVA had hoped for.
2:30 AM, 30th January 1968. VietCong commenced their planned Tet offensive by attacking more than 100 key locations all over South Vietnam simultaneously. Strongest of all these operations was to be carried out in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. A strong force of 8,000 VietCong gorillas attacked Sigon in the early hours of 30th January. Main targets in Saigon were Independence Palace, US Embassy, ARVN Headquarters, US Military Headquarters, Government Radio and South Vietnamese Naval and Air base. Most of the South Vietnamese troops were on two day holiday for Tet celebrations and even US troops had relaxed the security in and around the city because of expected Tet celebrations in Saigon. Because of these factors VietCong easilly occupied their targets with minimum resistance.
But as soon as the news of attack spread through South Vietnam, ARVN and US forces immediately responded to the crisis. Soon they had all the VietCong targets surrounded and were engaging with the VietCong gorillas inside. And by the morning of 1st February, ARVN and US forces had neutralised or captured more than half of VietCong gorillas who took part in the attacks and the remaining gorillas withdrew from Saigon & other cities and vanished into the jungles.
In total more than 9000 US, NATO & ARVN Soldiers lost their lives in the Tet Offensive. But the casualties suffered by VietCong and NVA were much more devastating. VietCong and NVA lost lives of more than 45,200 of its soldiers and more than 5000 VietCong gorillas were captured. Majority of South Vietnamese, NATO and US fatalities occured in the battles of Saigon City, Historic city of Hue and the US base at Khe Sanh. Both City of Hué and the base of Khé Sánh were attacked by more than 27,000 soldiers of NVA(North Vietnamese Army). Nearly 13,000 NVA soldiers were killed in these two campaigns and about 1000 were captured. But the heaviest toll was paid by civilians in the Tet offensive with more than 14,000 killed and over 12,000 seriously wounded.
BATTLE OF KHE SANH
On 4th Jauary 1968, North Vietnamese Army started their attack on the US Marine base at Khe Sanh less that 3 miles from the demilitarised zone. More than 20,000 MVA soldiers descended upon the Khe Sanh Marine Base. Khe Sanh was located in a valley surrounded by small hills on all sides. Almost all of the adjoining hills had been secured by US marines but NVA were able to capture two of the highest peaks around Khe Sanh. They had established artillery fire bases on both of these hills but only issue was neither of the peaks had direct line of sight of the base. So they had to rely primarily on soldiers radioing in the adjustments to be made in the trajectory of the guns. NVA had another 6 fire bases with battery of artillery guns at distance of about 15 miles from Khe Sanh just inside Laosian borders. These guns fired huge 134 mm shells with unbelievable accuracy and precision and had a range of 21 miles.
Furthermore NVA had entire regiment dug in around Khe Sanh who were firing upto 500 mortar rounds per day. And Khe Sanh base was getting hit by more than 600 artillery shells per day. On 21st January, Khe Sanh base was hit by record 1200 shells in 10 hours. That meant that Khe Sanh was hit at an average 120 times per hour. Majority of the casualties that occured at Khe Sanh base were caused by the artillery shelling and mortar hits.
One regiment of Marine Corps(6000 marines) was stationed at Khe Sanh and supporting them was a battalion of South Vietnamese Army(2000 ARVN soldiers). So in total 8000 soldiers were defending the Marine Combat Base of Khe Sanh. They were up against two full divisions i.e 304th and 325th Divisions of North Vietnamese Army. Assisting them were 15 fire teams of 134 mm gunners. From the very beginning of offensive at Khe Sanh, US planners were expecting an all out invasion from North. But North Vietnamese Commanders had no intentions of engaging in stand piece battles with US Marines because they knew any such attempt would result in substantial casualties because of superior US air and artillery firepower.
So they rather adopted the tactics used in First World War and started digging miles long trenches to facilitate their approach towards the base. Initially US marines were unable to detect the ever closing trenches just outside their perimeter because NVA utilised precise artillery fire to cover the progressing trenches. Because of the continous artillery fire, US marines rarely ventured out of the base perimeter which allowed NVA troops to reach as near as 1000 feet of the Khe Sanh base.
But soon the trench system of NVA was discovered by the US Recconaissance aircraft. Initially US Marines tried their level best to destroy the NVA trenches with artillery and mortar shells but as it was revealed in First World War, it takes more than 1000 direct mortar hits to destroy 100 yards of trench. Hence damage induced on the NVA trenches was minimal. So US planners decided to bring in the big guns and these big guns were mammoth B52 bombers. B52 bombers dropped over 8 thousand tonns of bombs less that 1000 yards from the marine base, this was the first time such an enormous bombing campaign was carried out so close to the friendly base. And with in two days 90% of the NVA trenches had been completely obliterated.
The later part of the Khe Sanh offensive involved an organised attack by MVA gunners on the air crafts delivering supplies at the Khe Sanh base and the neighbouring US controlled peaks. NVA artillery gunners were so efficient and accurate that they were able to hit a US Hercules C130 while it was landing on the airstrip in the base. NVA were also successful in destroying more than 6 helicopters trying to deliver supplies to US soldiers holding positions at hills around Khe Sanh. But soon an organised air bombing and artillery shelling roaster was designed to save the supply helicopters from enemy fire.
And just like the attacks started suddenly, they also seized the same way. Crippled by the huge loss of men to American Air bombing and artillery campaigns, the NVA forces realised that there was no possibility of destroying or capturing Khe Sanh Marine base without calling in 3 more divisions. Hence they decided to withdraw from the Khe Sanh ending a 77 day siege of the base. In the end the Battle of Khe Sanh resulted in deaths of 274 US marines and significant injuries to 1000 marines. ARVN suffered 600 casualties with 100 dead and 500 wounded. But these numbers were nothing in comparison to casualties suffered by NVA. More than 15,000 of the soldiers in the two divisions which attacked Khe Sanh ended up dead. And more than 4000 suffered serious injuries. Attack on Khe Sanh was a disasterous move by NVA command and it assured NVA commanders that any such mass deployments will never work against the American troops and further that they have to rely on hit and run gorilla tactics.
AFTERMATH OF TET AND KHE SANH OFFENSIVES
Tet Offensive turned out to be a disaster for the VietCong and NVA. VietCong lost nearly 30% of its soldiers who were the best fighters they had. Secondly Tet Offensive resulted in major loss in public support for VietCong gorillas and their movement.
After Tet Offensive majority of South Vietnamese urban population started viewing VietCong as a brutal and murderous communist terrorist Group. But little did VietCong knew that this disaster of theirs was about to have such an impact on American public that it would ignite a flame that would eventually become an enraging inferno and result in withdrawl of US troops from Vietnam.
As news coverage of the Tet offensive started showing gruesome images of VietCong gorillas getting killed in Saigon, throughout households in America, it made people realise the brutality in which this war in Vietnam was being fought. Majority of population was sickened by the fact that US Soldiers were getting killed in order to stop an oppressed and mistreated population from fighting for their freedom. They started realising that this struggle in Vietnam would have ended long time ago had US not intervened in another country’s civil war.
BODY COUNT METHOD
One of the most controversial method, employed by US Forces was the Body Count Objectives. Traditionally during wars, the levels of successes and failures were calculated from area of land won or lost in the battle. But this method only made sense if one enemy had invaded others country. Situation in Vietnam was totally different because on most occasions VietCong gorillas deliberately abandoned their bases to counter the US Forces’s approach. Hence here winning or losing land made no difference at all because VietCong gorillas were active in patches throughout the South Vietnam. Clearing the VietCong bases in front of you didn’t necessarily meant that there were no bases behind you either.
So to measure the level of success and failiure in Vietnam, a totally new approach was utilised. US Generals had estimated that VietCong had nearly 300,000 gorillas active in South Vietnam. So they decided to utilise enemy body count as a measure of progress because they assumed that once abode count reached 300,000 this would mean that victory has been achieved. But one thing that US Generals forgot to take into equation was that number of cadres joining the VietCong per month was also increasing with the progress of the war.
The real controversy that body count method caused was that each and every platoon was allocated a fixed quota of bodies that they had to achieve in order to be allowed to return to base. For example if a platoon was allocated the target of 100 VietCong Gorilla combatants then they were not allowed to return to the base unless they had successfully killed 100 VietCong Gorillas. This strategy resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilian villagers, as US soldiers started shooting at everything and anything that they can find, just to meet their quota and return to the base. A lot of reports about Human Right abuses and war crimes committed by the US forces started surfacing in 1968.
US CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY IN VIETNAM WAR
In 1968, the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group (VWCWG) was established by the Pentagon task force in the wake of the My Lai Massacre, to attempt to ascertain the veracity of emerging claims of war crimes by US armed forces in Vietnam, during the Vietnam War period.
The investigation compiled over 9,000 pages of investigative files, sworn statements by witnesses and status reports for top military officers, indicating that 320 incidents had factual basis. The substantiated cases included 7 massacres between 1967 and 1971 in which at least 137 civilians were killed; seventy eight further attacks targeting non-combatants resulting in at least 57 deaths, 56 wounded and 15 sexually assaulted; one hundred and forty-one cases of US soldiers torturing civilian detainees or prisoners of war with fists, sticks, bats, water or electric shock. Over 800 alleged atrocities were investigated but only 23 soldiers were ever convicted on charges and most served sentences of less than a year. A Los Angeles Times report on the archived files concluded that the war crimes were not confined to a few rogue units, having been uncovered in every army division that was active in Vietnam. But these numbers were not even one tenth of number of casualties that were actually caused US Forces.
In 2003 a series of investigative reports by the Toledo Blade uncovered a large number of unreported American war crimes particularly from the Tiger Force unit. Some of the most violent war criminals included men such as Sam Ybbara and Sergeant Roy E. “the Bummer” Bumgarner, a soldier who served with the 1st Cavalry Division and later the 173d Airborne Brigade.
In 1971 the later U.S. presidential candidate, John Kerry testified before the US Senate and stated that over 150 U.S. veterans testified during Winter Soldier Investigations and described war crimes committed in Southast Asia.
“They told the stories of times that they had personally raped, cut off the ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”—John Kerry testifying before the U.S. Senate in 1971
According to testimonies given by soldiers who served in Vietnam:US soldiers and many willingly participated in attrocious crimes against humanity in the Vietnam War. More than 1200 young Vietnamese girls and women were raped by US Soldiers. Youngest of these girls was 11 year old girl. Out of these 1200, about 800 ended up dead. Many were killed after they were raped. Many died of injuries sustained during the rape and from beatings before or after the rape. On almost all of these incidents, women were raped by many Soldiers. One incident that was reported was of 25 soldiers raping a 15 year old girl. Some girls and women were raped in front of their parents and all of the villagers.
US soldiers repeatedly shot innocent men, women and children for no apparent reason. US soldiers would come into a village, round up all of the villagers and just open fire on them. Most publicised incident was of the massacre of over 200 innocent civilians in a village called My Lai.
But what media didn’t report was that this was not a single incident. Such attrocities were committed daily and much more regularly than what media made it look like.
Several US Soldiers reported that they witnessed innocent Vietnamese civilians being stabbed and while they were still alive, their body was cut open and all their internal organs were pulled out. Other testimonies reported of innocent civilians being decapitated by knives and then their heads were put on sticks pushed into the ground.
Approximately 60,000 innocent civilians were allegedly killed by US Soldiers. About 15,000 of these were killed in mass executions where every villager in the village was murdered, not even dogs, cats, buffaloes, pigs and cows were spared. About 800 were the rape victims who later died or were killed. About 20,000 people were killed by deliberate bombings and shelling of civilian villages who had nothing to do with VCs. About 10,000 of these are reported to have died because of exposure to Agent Orange and CS. And about 4,000 innocent Vietnamese were killed during or after they were interrogated. And nearly 10,000 were killed in most sadistic manners like being pushed out of planes for fun or during friendly challenges between US Soldiers like whoever kills the most gooks, wins. The shear sadistic nature of crimes committed against innocent Vietnamese people is mind boggling. Its hard to believe that any normal sane person would do such things. But reality is they did committ these atrocities and nobody was ever made to pay for their crimes.
Nick Turse, in his 2013 book, Kill Anything that Moves, argues that a relentless drive toward higher body counts, a widespread use of free-fire zones, rules of engagement where civilians who ran from soldiers or helicopters could be viewed as Viet Cong, and a widespread disdain for Vietnamese civilians led to massive civilian casualties and endemic war crimes inflicted by U.S. troops. One example cited by Turse is Operation Speedy Express, an operation by the 9th Infantry Division, which was described by John Paul as “Many My Lais”.
Air force captain, Brian Wilson, who carried out bomb-damage assessments in free-fire zones throughout the delta, saw the results firsthand. “It was the epitome of immorality…One of the times I counted bodies after an air strike—which always ended with two napalm bombs which would just fry everything that was left—I counted sixty-two bodies. In my report I described them as so many women between fifteen and twenty-five and so many children—usually in their mothers’ arms or very close to them—and so many old people.” When he later read the official tally of dead, he found that it listed them as 130 VC killed.
Another controversial action of US Forces in Vietnam was the extensive use of Agent Orange. US planes sprayed more than 200,000 gallons of Agent Orange over the suspected VC villages and bases. Agent Orange is an pesticide that contains very lethal dioxin toxin and when sprayed over an area, no vegetation would grow there for decades. If Agent Orange comes in contact with human skin, it causes unbearable pain because of slow tissue burns and results in peeling of skin. Even washing with water has no effect on the burn and pain.
If inhaled, agent orange results in a slow and agonising death as victims lungs and trachea slowly burns up. Agent Orange has also been associated with genetic mutation of the new born children whose parents came in contact with Agent Orange. During the course of the Vietnam war US sprayed 200,000 gallons of Agent Orange over approximately 6 million acres of rice paddies, lush rain forests and villages which makes up about 1/4 th of entire land in Vietnam.
In 1965 Presudent Lyndon Johnson authorised a special operation known as the Phoenix Program to be carried out by Central Intellegence Agency the infamous CIA. Phoenix program called for a covert operation in South Vietnam to identify the VietCong supporters and sympathisers and to eliminate them.
In 1965, US troops had just landed in Vietnam and were conducting search and destroy operations in South Vietnam. In these missions, upon getting an intellegence about the location of VietCong gorillas, a platoon of US Soldiers was sent to search for the rebels, to engage and eliminate them. But soon US soldiers realised that VietCong gorillas enjoyed great deal of support and help from Vietnamese villagers. Although this might have been true in some cases, but to brand every villager in Vietnam a VC sympathiser was an utterly irresponsible decision.
Hence to identify VC supporters, sympathisers or even VietCong themselves being in disguise of common villagers from the rest of the population, President Johnson authorised Phoenix program which was to be conducted by both CIA operatives and Military Intellegence Officers.
What followed after that were some of the most heinous crimes against civilians committed by any intellegence agency in the history of espionage. CIA operatives along with members of US Marine Corps committed mass murders of thousands of villagers without conducting any enquiry that whether the accused villagers were connected in any way to VietCong or not. All villagers were lined up in the fields and were just mowed down by M15 bullet rounds. Not even women and children were spared. And in many cases even dogs, cats, buffaloes, cows, goats and pigs were shot, I think this clearly shows the sadistic side of American troops. Innocent civilians were stabbed with knives in front of their families and while they were still alive, US Soldiers then used to slash open their abdomen and pull out their internal organs. And all this was done in front of that person’s family.
A famous quotes from one of the soldiers in Vietnam clearly portrays the mindset of US Soldiers in Vietnam, when asked how did they identified if a villager was a VC or not, soldier replied “a dead Vietnamese was always a VC, so basically anybody you kill will be considered a VC”. During the course of Phoenix Progran(1965-1969) approximately 80,000 villagers were executed on suspicions of being a VietCong gorilla or a VietCong supporter. Yet you won’t find any US politician seeking justice for all these innocent Vietnamese civilians who were murdered by mentally sick and sadistic soldiers.
US WITHDRAWL FRON VIETNAM
By 1971, it was becoming quite apparent to US Military planners that Vietnam War was a lost cause and cannot be won. Even after 7 years of relentless and bloody war, the number of VietCong gorillas had doubled since the time when US entered the war. So main reason why US entered into the Vietnam conflict was to neutralise the VietCong threat in South Vietnam and they weren’t even able to achieve this goal. Any further participation of US Forces seemed unnecessary and illogical. Newly elected President of United States Richard Nixon had campaigned on promises of ending the war in Vietnam. So people now were demanding Nixon to fulfill his promise. The Anti-War movement had spread throughout the country by now. Public support for Vietnam War had reduced to less than 20%. And there was no militaristic solution in sight for the conflict of Vietnam. Hence US President Richard Nixon initiated the Paris peace talks with leaders of North and South Vietnam in 1971. A peace accord was signed by all parties in 1973 which paved the path for US withdrawl from South Vietnam.
After withdrawl of US troops from South Vietnam, North Vietnam violated the Paris Peace Accord and openly invaded South Vietnam. Despite all the military weapons and assets left behind by the US, North Vietnam fell in just 3 days. Finally Vietnam was reunited as a single sovereign nation under a communist government. So reason for which US waged war for eight years and lost 58,282 of its soldiers, turned out to be totally illogical and impractical because whatever they were fighting to avoid happened any way. This meant that lives of over 2.5 million Vietnamese civilians, 200,000 VietCong Rebels, 500,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, 300,000 North Vietnamese soldiers, 210,000 North Vietnamese civilians, 10,000 Laotians civilians and rebels, 5,000 Cambodian civilians and 58,282 US Soldiers were sacrificed for nothing. All these lives were lost in vain. Had US not intervened in Vietnam’s internal conflict in 1959, this war would have ended within days. South Vietnam as in 1975, had no significant defensive capability in 1959 either, so North Vietnam would have defeated South Vietnam without causing any significant damage of infrastructure and life of Vietnamese people.
Now you know what happened in Vietnam War and what role America played in it. Can you judge now that whether US should have intervened in Vietnam’s civil war? I think answer to this question may vary from person to person. To answer this complex question, we need to ask ourselves that what was the real motives behind intervening in Vietnamese civil war. Some people will say that answer to this question is simple, US intervened in Vietnam to save South Vietnamese people from horrors of communism and to halt the spread of communism through out South East Asia. But reality is that the whole theory of communists trying to take over the world and to destroy America was nothing more that a scary tale parents tell their kids so that they don’t wander out in the dark.
Truth of the matter is that Soviet Union was not even capable of invading and occupying Eastern Europe much less attacking United States of America. Russia was in ruins after the end of Second World War. All of its major cities like the industrial centre of Russia the city of Stalingrad were in ruins. They had been totally devastated by the nazis. Russia had lost over 20 million of its people in the war. And just two decades before that Russia had lost upto 50 million civilians in the famin of 1921. Hence there was no communist danger from Russia to America. What American leaders did was they deliberately over exaggerated capabilities of Russia and China to facilitate their invasions of foreign nation, which they did primarily for economic and corporate motives. After being continously involved in wars for more than three decades, the majority of US economy had became dependant on wars for sustenance. The military industrial complex would not have lasted any longer if there hadn’t been any more wars. So to save the war dependant economy of America, US leaders under the influence of Corporate oligarchs decided to commence a campaign of continous wars some small scale like the invasion of Grenada and some full fledge wars like Vietnam war and Korean War.
Waging continous wars requires huge amounts of weapons and this is where the military industrial complex comes in. US waging continous wars would mean that the business would be very brisk and profitable for the Corporations supplying weapons, aircrafts, vehicles and ammunitions. And to buy all these things US needed huge sums of money and they got this money in form of debts from international banking corporations like World Bank and International Mometary Fund. And these corporations would earn substantial proffits from interest on the loans. You would think that why would government engage in tactics that only benefits the Corporations and generates debt for itself? But isn’t that the very crisis US is going through with its national debt estimated to be 13 trillion dollars. But many experts believe that even this number of 13 trillion is not the accurate number. They estimate US national debt to be around 130 trillion dollars.
So now just for the sake of argument assume that real motives behind Vietnam War were economical and financial . Now think, were 3 million lives worth these economic benefits? Did Vietnamese people deserved the brutality and cruelty that they were subjugated to by US Soldiers? Were 58,272 American lives worth losing over monetary gains?
If you say yes to all these questions then I think you are not the kind of person I wrote this article for.