The North Vietnamese and NLF strategy to win the Second Indochina War was essentially the same as their strategy to defeat the French: to wear down the enemy’s morale by waging a prolonged guerrilla war, then destroy his will to fight by delivering a savage military blow. In the war against the French, this blow had come at Dien Bien Phu – a military victory for the Vietminh. In the war against the Americans, it came during the Tet Offensive, although this was a significant military defeat.
The communist-led forces had always seen the conflict in political as well as military terms. Their strategy was to win over the rural population of South Vietnam, enabling the Viet Cong (VC) to operate freely in those regions. As support for the NLF grew, so too would the guerrillas’ capacity to resist the South Vietnamese Army (the ARVN). Gradually, the ARVN would be unable to enter large sections of the country, leaving the VC free to establish an alternative government in these so-called ‘liberated zones’.
This strategy was very effective during the early 1960s. The VC did gain control of large sections of the countryside, and inflicted heavy casualties on the ARVN. By early 1965, victory seemed assured, as the South Vietnamese regime neared collapse.
US and South Vietnamese strategy: 1965-67
The arrival of American troops in 1965 put an end to the gains made by the VC and NVA, and saved South Vietnam from collapse.
The US strategy to win the war was three pronged: destroy the VC, by the application of superior firepower; cut the supply of arms to the south by bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail; and drive the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table by bombing their heartland.
In the South, Westmoreland’s strategy was to establish a series of firebases across the country, then launch wave after wave of search and destroy operations against the VC. The US hoped to lure the VC into combat, where they could be wiped out with superior firepower. Key to this strategy was the use of helicopters for mobility. The US forces would surround the VC and pulverise them with artillery and aerial bombardment. The US also used defoliants and napalm to destroy about a quarter of South Vietnam’s jungle, thereby denying the VC the cover they needed.
The measure of success in this strategy was the body count. The US assumed that if enough VC and NVA soldiers could be killed, the enemy would run out of men and victory could be achieved. But as Michael Maclear has said, the biggest problem with Westmoreland’s war of attrition was that “North Vietnam would closely match American troop deployment until the US tired.” (Maclear: 158)
The second prong of the US’s strategy to win the war was to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to stem the flow of weapons to the south. However, because the VC were fighting a guerrilla war, they used relatively small weapons (such as assault rifles, grenades, mortars, mines and anti-tank guns), and these were easy to transport. Initially, they were carried on people’s backs or on bicycles; later, they were brought by truck. North Vietnam only needed to deliver 60 tons of supplies a day, to sustain the war. This meant that about twenty trucks a day needed to get down the Ho Chi Minh trail. By 1967, the US government’s own Strategic Bombing Survey had concluded that no level of bombing could prevent such a small number of deliveries. In addition, the raids were only stopping one percent of the North Vietnamese who were moving south.
The third element of the US’s strategy was to wage a bombing campaign in North Vietnam – Operation Rolling Thunder – to destroy the nation’s infrastructure, break the morale of the communist leaders and force them to negotiate a peace settlement favourable to the United States. This strategy also failed. Militarily, the campaign had little success, since there were few targets of significance in North Vietnam. When it became clear the bombing was having little impact on the countryside, the US switched its targets to Hanoi and Haiphong (the North’s main cities). However, this only led to international protests, which further eroded America’s position in the world. The bombing was also very costly to America, since the North Vietnamese had developed a sophisticated system of air defences. By the end of 1966, they had shot down 318 American planes. Finally, the bombing was counterproductive from a political perspective. Although it killed over 100,000 people, it also intensified the survivors’ hatred for the United States and galvanised their will to resist.
As far as the South Vietnamese army was concerned, the US used it to pursue the VC at the village level. By 1968, the ARVN had grown to 500,000 men, but it was poorly motivated and not very effective as a fighting force. Up to 20 percent of its soldiers were ‘ghosts’, who existed only on paper (their pay being pocketed by corrupt officers); another 20 percent deserted each year. Because they were poorly paid and had few opportunities for corruption, ARVN troops tended to supplement their incomes by stealing from the peasants. This only fueled opposition to the South Vietnamese regime.
North Vietnamese and NLF strategy: 1965-67
The arrival of the American ground troops in South Vietnam in 1965 forced the communist leaders to change their strategy somewhat.
The Americans had the firepower to take the battle to the VC, and deny them the freedom they had enjoyed in their liberated zones. As such, the VC pursued a strategy of controlling people rather than territory. Their guerrilla forces harassed the American and South Vietnamese troops as they entered the villages, while the VC regular forces and the NVA attacked the towns and military installations. The attacks were coordinated in such a way as to keep the enemy forces guessing.
The VC also made extensive use of tunnels, and moved virtually their entire infrastructure underground: barracks, hospitals, arsenals, stores. Their headquarters was at Cu Chi, about 70 kilometres north of Saigon, where there were over 300 kilometres of tunnels.
The VC and NVA knew they could never defeat the United States military. But they also knew that the US public would not tolerate a prolonged war in Southeast Asia. If they could hold out for three or four years, while simultaneously inflicting serious casualties on the US forces, pressure would build in America for an end to the war. The communists would then hold all the cards in any subsequent peace deal (which could be abrogated once the US troops had been withdrawn). As such, the communist leaders now switched their strategy to one of attrition.
To this end, the VC attempted to lure the better armed GIs into isolated areas, where they were vulnerable to ambushes, mines and boobytraps. As Michael Maclear has said, “The high US death rate without actual combat (about 11 percent killed in ambush) would greatly contribute to the later breakdown of American military discipline and morale, leading to frequent mutiny on patrols and the ‘fragging’ or murder of unpopular officers, and increasingly a venting of frustration on civilians which…was the most self-defeating aspect of all.” (Maclear: 160-61)
The VC also used their local knowledge to great effect. They had been fighting in this land for years, and enjoyed considerable support in the countryside. Villagers would warn them when large US forces were coming, allowing them to hide or flee. The US troops would seize the area, but lacked sufficient numbers to hold it. Once they had moved on, the VC would return and set up base again. As far as the American public was concerned, the US military appeared to be achieving nothing.
Of course, US bombing took a terrible toll on the VC and NVA, but this did not matter as long as morale was strong. As in the war against the French, the communist forces were prepared to fight on forever if necessary, whatever the human cost. The United States was not.
The Tet Offensive: 1968
By the end of 1967, the United States military believed it was achieving success against the Viet Cong. The US forces had engaged the VC and NVA in many battles, and had always prevailed. The number of communist soldiers killed was high, and many of the American generals believed the VC was close to collapse. This prompted the US commander in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, to predict that victory was in sight.
From the communist perspective, this prediction offered the opportunity to score an important political victory. If they staged a spectacular attack in South Vietnam, it would prove the lie in Westmoreland’s words, and might turn public opinion in America against the war. Such an attack might also provoke an uprising in the towns and cities, destroying the South Vietnamese regime, and forcing the United States to withdraw. North Vietnamese thinking was also tempered by the losses their forces were suffering at the hands of the US airforce. The B52 strikes were devastating the countryside, and many VC were dying in their tunnels and bunkers. The communist leaders believed it was better to sacrifice these troops in a military campaign than have them die while cowering underground.
With this in mind, General Giap and his commanders began planning a major offensive, to coincide with the Vietnamese new year celebrations in January 1968. The Tet Offensive involved a two pronged attack on the US and their South Vietnamese allies. While units of the NVA pinned down the US forces in their bases in the north of South Vietnam, the VC launched a series of attacks on towns and cities across the country. Once in control of these urban areas, the communist leaders expected the US military and the ARVN would be forced to fight it out in hand-to-hand combat – something which would advantage the VC and inflict heavy casualties on their enemies. The VC also captured key buildings such as radio stations, the national palace and the American Embassy – giving the American public unambiguous evidence of their army’s failure to win the war.
However, the campaign did not go to plan. In the first place, the urban population did not rise up against the regime, either because they did not support the VC or because they did not believe the VC would win. Secondly, the VC did not reckon with the US military’s willingness to destroy large parts of South Vietnam’s cities in order to regain control. Instead of fighting it out with the VC street for street, the US simply bombed those areas under VC control, killing large numbers of people in the process. Thirdly, the Saigon region commander of US forces had got wind of the coming offensive and moved troops and tanks into the city in the days before the attack. As a result, the US enjoyed massive superiority over the VC in the battle that ensued. Finally, the GIs had just been issued with new anti-personnel weapons which vastly increased their firepower. For all these reasons, the VC suffered terrible casualties during the Tet Offensive, and were driven from their positions after several weeks of fighting.
Tet turned out to be a significant military victory for the United States and its allies. 50,000 VC soldiers were killed and many others were captured. Many of these were experienced cadres the VC could not easily replace. With the loss of about a third of their numbers in a single blow, this broke the back of the VC’s infrastructure in many parts of the country, and gave the US forces the opportunity to penetrate regions that had been closed to them to this point. It took the VC and NVA several years to rebuild their strength.
However, Tet was also a serious political victory for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. The offensive demonstrated the fallacy of Westmoreland’s belief that the war was almost won. The images sent back to the United States convinced an increasing number of Americans that the nation’s efforts were futile, and that the price of fighting the war was too high – both in financial and human terms. More and more Americans lost faith in their leaders, who they believed were deceiving them. They wanted out. Presidents Johnson and Nixon were no longer in a position to prosecute the war as they wished. Withdrawal was the only option the public would now accept.