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When the Die Was Cast

By Warren Wilkins
9/6/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

As 1966 neared, Hanoi held fast to the hope that the NVA and VC could deliver a decisive military blow to its enemies in the South.

In the spring of 1965, as a major Communist offensive was severely damaging the South Vietnamese capacity to fight the war, General William Westmoreland issued a dire warning that without adequate U.S. support, South Vietnam’s army would not survive. In July, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced an immediate increase in U.S. troops from 75,000 to 125,000, forcing a true test for the NVA/VC big-unit war concept.

In his new book Grab Their Belts to Fight Them, author Warren Wilkins examines the context and rationale behind the North Vietnamese leadership’s decisions to continue to pursue big-unit confrontations in 1966, despite pronounced disadvantages in firepower and mobility.

Toward the close of December 1965, on the occasion of the Twelfth Plenum of Vietnam’s Communist Party Central Committee, the future course of the Communist military campaign against South Vietnam was decided. Hanoi’s decision makers, in the end, elected to prepare for the possibility of protracted war while pro- North posing to“concentrate the forces of both North and South Vietnam and seek an opportunity to secure a decisive victory within a relatively short period of time.” At this critical juncture, the North Vietnamese Politburo had recommended, and the Central Committee had approved, a strategy of investing North Vietnam more heavily in the war down South.

North Vietnam would henceforth match the American buildup and, strategically speaking, escalate in kind. Domestic programs and initiatives were put on hold. Although American advantages in mass and movement, not to mention the defeats of late1965 at Ia Drang and Ap Bau Bang, had lobbied persuasively for retrenchment and a return to reduced-intensity warfare, Hanoi’s hardliners could not give up the conviction that a decisive military blow might yet be struck by the Viet Cong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Recalibrating the intensity of the Communist war effort was apparently out of the question, even if the number of American troops in South Vietnam swelled from 200,000 to 400,000. The VC and NVA would simply kill 60,000 American troops and 20,000 ARVN troops. Indeed, no matter how many troops or how much modern war materiel the United States dispatched to the battlefield, Hanoi crowed, the Viet Cong would triumph in South Vietnam.

Though ultimately outmaneuvered by the hardliners, the opponents of intensified armed struggle and its big-unit battles raised spirited objections at the end of 1965 and the beginning of 1966. Within the Viet Cong leadership, some objected to the strategy on the grounds that military methods “do not bring victory,” but rather misery and economic weakness. In the North, the “North-first” contingent of the party echoed those concerns. Initially they had lamented the decision to appropriate significant resources to the southern revolution, resources that in their opinion should have been invested in the economic and social development of the North. Now, however, they worried that American bombing runs over North Vietnam might disrupt socialist development in the North far more severely than the mere misallocation of precious resources. Understandably alarmed, these“North-firsters”argued, along with other moderates in the party who had perhaps grown disillusioned with the human costs of the big-unit war, for an adjustment of the current military strategy and for negotiations with the United States on ending the war.

Negotiations with the United States were not ruled out entirely by the hardliners per se, but as a practical matter and prelude to any such talks, a degree of consensus within the“fraternal socialist nations . . . about the concept of fighting and talking” would have to be reached, according to Le Duan, Central Committee first secretary. Moreover, favorable circumstances would first have to be “created on the battlefield” by shattering the South Vietnamese forces and bloodying the noses of the Americans. These circumstances could be created, it was thought, through a continuation of medium-sized and large-scale campaigns by VC/NVA main-force units, heightened guerrilla warfare activity, and attacks against enemy rear installations and lines of communications. Here again, though, a significant victory on the battlefield was the key prerequisite to any“talk-fight” strategy.“As long as we have not won such a victory,”warned Nguyen Duy Trinh, then North Vietnamese foreign minister, during discussions on yet another resolution in early 1967,“we cannot achieve success at the conference table.” Trinh’s words were no less valid in the winter–spring of 1965–66.

The 1965 big-unit battles of Dat Cuoc (Hill 65), Ap Bau Bang, Trung Loi, Nha Mat and the Ia Drang Valley, therefore, would not be anomalous historical footnotes to an otherwise asymmetrical guerrilla war. There would be additional big-unit battles against American ground units backed by a potent and responsive fire-support system. Le Duan, General Nguyen Chi Thanh and their hardliner cronies had once again won the great strategic debate. The big-unit war would continue.

State Department analyst and NVA/VC scholar Douglas Pike termed the Communist military strategy going forward “Regular Force Strategy” and contextualized it through the prism of North Vietnam’s defense minister, General Vo Nguyen Giap. Essentially Regular Force Strategy prescribed a quick military decision through the use of regular military forces. The strategy stipulated that the American buildup in manpower and arms should be matched and, controversially, it did not proscribe slugging it out with American forces on occasion.According to Pike, Giap digested a rather unpalatable lesson from the fighting in Ia DrangValley, namely, that technology had changed warfare. The battle with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) allegedly convinced Giap to advocate matching American advantages in mass and movement (a key tenet of Regular Force Strategy) whenever possible and“shunting” the pair to the side when not. Whether Giap embraced military escalation willingly as an outgrowth of personal introspection, or whether he was swept along by the seemingly irrepressible tide of the hardliners in Hanoi, is open to debate.

At any rate, Hanoi sent fresh forces south for the coming 1966 winter–spring campaign. No fewer than nine infantry regiments, three field artillery regiments, and an assortment of artillery, antiaircraft, engineer and signal units were ordered to join existing “mobile main-force” units already in South Vietnam.

In a strategic sense,the battlefield impact of theViet Cong was inversely related to this NorthVietnamese buildup; the greater the endowment of men and material from North Vietnam, the less militarily influential the Viet Cong would be in the long run.

Regardless of the future strategic ramifications for the Viet Cong, the course had been set for military escalation and big-unit battle. “We will fight,” Le Duan had bragged, “whatever way the United States wants.”

Given that the VC and NVA had already been exposed to a sobering tutorial on the U.S. military’s multiarm battlefield riposte, what compelled the hardliners in Hanoi to opt for such an aggressive policy? To begin with, those predisposed to escalation were reasonably confident that the policy would not invoke any disastrous repercussions. The United States, Le Duan confided in a November 1965 letter to General Thanh, was unlikely to expand the war precipitately by attacking North Vietnam, because such an attack might provoke the North’s fraternal allies. Furthermore, as a global power with worldwide military obligations and yet only finite resources, the United States surely could not have considered South Vietnam a vital strategic interest. If it could therefore be made to face a failing proposition in what had to be considered a strategic back -water in Washington, the United States would invariably cut its losses and withdraw from the country.

Supporters of this strategy fashioned other arguments as well for emphasizing military intensification and big-unit victories over American forces. General Thanh, for one, theorized that the United States should fail much like the French because it, too, lacked the manpower to advance pacification and mount major offensive sweep operations to upset the insurgency. Thanh felt that this strategic conundrum could be exacerbated, in part, by striking with big units when and where it was deemed militarily advisable.

And while idealism factored into American grand strategy, safeguarding Southeast Asia from the tentacles of Marxist Leninism among them, the notion of waging a just war against a morally impoverished enemy permeated the outlook of many Communist Vietnamese leaders and even some in the rank and file.“We are just while the enemy is unjust,”decreed the captured notebook of a high-ranking Communist political cadre. “The righteousness of our cause as well as the lack of righteousness of the enemy cause was clearly exhibited.” Similar remarks were found in the contents of a Viet Cong notebook:“The U.S. Diem clique doesn’t have right on its side since it acts against the will of the people.”

Faith in a certain providence born of a supposedly just cause may also have encouraged the hardliners in Hanoi to advocate such a high- intensity, big-unit military campaign. Brian Michael Jenkins authored a paper for the RAND Corporation that expounded on this mind set: “Terms such as ‘just cause’ and ‘legitimate government’ dominate the speech of their leaders.Vietnamese Communists firmly believed that they possess the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ to rule all of Vietnam and therefore must emerge victorious eventually.”

General Van Tien Dung, chief of the North Vietnamese Army General Staff, touched on that theme as well as others expressed by the advocates of military escalation and big-unit battle in a monograph published in 1966. Discussing the perceived constraints on the United States’ commitment to the war and the unjustness of the American cause, Dung lectured:

Generally speaking, in the whole process of the war, the U.S. imperialists cannot throw all the economic and military potential of the United States for the sole purpose of invading the South of our country. This is because their unjust war of conquest is opposed by the American people and the world people, because they have to cope with the situation in many places and in various fields, including the military field, in order to rule over and repress other people, in the role of an international gendarme, and guard against other imperialist powers. Furthermore, they have to wage a war thousands of miles far from the U.S.A., which places them in a disadvantageous position as regards climate, terrain and support of the population. That is why they can only deploy a limited military strength in South Vietnam; they cannot put in as many troops as they like, and pour in as much money as they please; they cannot prolong the war indefinitely. We thus have not to cope with all their military might.

Deeper into the text, General Dung addressed why the forces the United States had committed were insufficient for the multiple objectives assigned to them:

The enemy himself deplores that his mobile forces have often to carry out occupation and pacification duties while “Vietcong regiments are entirely mobile units.” He has been vainly trying to muster a bigger mobile force but his troops remain scattered around his bases and posts. If he withdraws from his posts and watch towers to have more mobile forces, he will not be able to control the population, and the areas under his control will shrink. If he tries to expand these areas, he will thin out his force and reduce his mobile effectives.

These convictions may very well have led the hardliners to believe VC and NVA mainforce units could retain the initiative and win big battles against U.S. forces. After all, if one already believed that reunification of Vietnam was destined to happen irrespective of the odds, was it any more of a leap of faith to believe that a strategy of big-unit war was the most appropriate and efficacious use of what was essentially a light infantry force?

Faulty postbattle appreciations did not exactly encourage strategic lucidity in military affairs, either. The August battle at Van Tuong, for example, was deemed a “Stalingrad” for American forces according to one Communist after-action report. In terms of battle deaths, Van Tuong cost the Communists about 600 KIA. The Marines lost a fraction of that number. The Ba Gia Regiment had been manhandled at Van Tuong by American combined arms warfare, and yet the battle was likened to a Stalingrad for the Americans. Who then, when fed reports of such dubious accuracy, could not have imagined a few more VC/NVA big-unit victories, and maybe even a decisive one, in the year ahead?

The North Vietnamese eventually acknowledged the decoupling of battlefield reporting and battlefield reality, and its consequential effects, as the war dragged on. An especially incriminating critique of activity in the Saigon area stated:“We can see that reporting from subordinate commanders to their superiors did not accurately reflect the real situation. Successes were usually exaggerated and mistakes and failures were not reported. This had a not insignificant impact on our operations. It caused senior commanders to misjudge and misevaluate the situation, which in turn led them to make incorrect policy decisions and to set goals and objectives which were unattainable.”Several years of battle and many thousands of combat deaths were necessary to arouse such candor. Why it should have taken so long speaks to either a widespread institutional failure to report accurately or a widespread case of cognitive dissonance.

In the final analysis, the resolution reached at the Twelfth Plenum established Communist military strategy for 1966 and beyond. High-intensity warfare would continue through a mixture of guerrilla and big-unit activity. Above all, in the words of North Vietnamese Army General Nguyen Van Vinh, Communist forces “must fight to win great victories with which to compel the enemy to accept our conditions.”

Until later revisions altered the course of Communist military strategy, Viet Cong and NVA regiments and battalions fought to smash the armed forces of South Vietnam and hand Hanoi and COSVN“great victories”over American forces. The forthcoming year would either produce a war-changing breakthrough or a painful reminder of the difficult battles of 1965.

In January 1966 the COSVN Military Party Committee convened to examine the previous year and to strategize for the year ahead. After careful contemplation, the conference posited that the Americans and South Vietnamese would persist in 1966 with the basic strategic plan of 1965: American and South Vietnamese units would aim to improve population security, attack and destroy Communist forces in South  Vietnam, and magnify efforts against the recalcitrant North. Further, the conference surmised that this strategy was calculated to accomplish two goals: (1) counterattack and eliminate a significant chunk of the Communist main-force army, which would alter the balance of forces in favor of the allies and “on that basis regain the offensive initiative,” and (2) stress pacification to “gain control of our civilian population and our territory in the lowlands, in the areas around strategic military strong-points” and in Communist base areas.

After forecasting the enemy’s likely strategy, the COSVN Military Party Committee focused on developing the“strategic military plans and missions” for implementing the resolution passed down by the Twelfth Plenum of the Central Committee. Not surprisingly the basic “strategic military plan” laid out for 1966, intensification of both guerrilla warfare and of maneuver attacks by “massed large units,” merely regurgitated the essential guidelines worked out at the Twelfth Plenum. Nor was there any real variance in the basic goals proposed by the conference. Communist forces were to engage and destroy an “important portion of U.S. forces,” which would prevent the U.S. military from arresting the collapse of the ARVN and the South Vietnamese government. Concurrent with that undertaking, every effort would also be made to eradicate the U.S. military’s “main base of support for continuing the war” by shattering or causing “disintegration” of the greater part of the ARVN.

With the 1966“strategic military guidelines”set, the COSVN Military Party Committee conference proposed three“primary missions” to fulfill those guidelines. Collectively they reflected the broad agenda approved by Hanoi in December 1965:

Military: The goal set for all of South Vietnam was to strive to annihilate between 30,000 and 40,000 U.S. troops and 200,000 puppet and satellite [allied] troopsandtodestroy1,000enemyaircraftofalltypes. ● Intensify broad-based,wide-ranging guerrilla warfare.

● Make powerful and continuous attacks against the enemy’s land and water lines of communications.

● Conduct powerful attacks against the enemy’s rear bases.

● Firmly hold and expand our base areas and liberate more people and more territory.

Force-Building: We must pay attention to all three types of troops [main force, local force, guerrilla] and strive to achieve the following goals: approximately 250,000–300,000 civilian militia members, approximately 220,000–230,000 guerrillas, more than 200,000 district local force troops…while continuing to make quality our primary goal.

Building Up Our Logistics Reserve Stockpiles:Not only provide sufficient supplies for 1966, but ensure that we have sufficient supplies on hand for 1967…

The military missions and goals put forth for 1966 were not a means unto themselves in that they were designed to advance a “strategic formula.” Here, too, the COSVN Military Party Committee conference hewed to the Twelfth Plenum:

In the actual, concrete conditions we face today, on the basis of continuing to digest and employ our formula of fighting a protracted struggle, we must make a maximum effort and concentrate the forces of both North and South Vietnam to strive to create an opportunity to win a decisive victory on the South Vietnamese battlefield within a relatively short period of time.

Under the circumstances, it would have been illogical to expect a command creation of Hanoi to do anything but repackage and reissue the strategy that the Communist Party Central Committee had already approved.

COSVN wasn’t the only command body planning and strategizing for 1966. In December 1965, the Region 5 Party Current Affairs Committee and the Military Region 5 Headquarters Party Committee urging soldiers and civilians to“strive to attack and counterattack the enemy and resolutely annihilate U.S. and satellite troops in order to defeat the enemy’s strategic counteroffensive plan.”Main-force units were to draft plans for combat cooperation with local forces. In the meantime, “local areas” were to construct combat villages and other defenses.

Then, on January 16, 1966, the armed forces of Region 5 received a sweeping order. Communist forces were to launch counterattacks wherever the enemy had attacked first and to “continue preparations and take the initiative to launch attacks in accordance with the spring 1966 combat plan” wherever the enemy had yet to attack.

Conceived on something of a crash basis, this spring battle plan shaped the upcoming missions of Nguyen Nang’s 2nd NVA Division, to which the 1st Viet Cong Regiment belonged, and Giap Van Cuong’s 3rd NVA“Yellow Star”Division, to which the 2nd Viet Cong Regiment belonged. A divisional history summarized the mission handed down to the 2nd NVA:

According to this [spring battle] plan, 2nd Division was given the mission of coordinating with Quang Ngailocal forces in conducting an offensive campaign in the area north of the Tra Khuc River, primarily in western Son Tinh district. The division’s mission was to conduct massed combat operations designed to annihilate large numbers of both American and puppet soldiers (with the primary focus on killing American troops) and to support local areas in continuing to shatter the enemy’s apparatus of repression and expand our liberated zone in order to thereby make a positive contribution to the effort by the soldiers and civilians of the entire region to defeat the enemy’s strategic counteroffensive.

Hanoi and its war-managing bodies in the South, in anticipating and preparing for a major American offensive action, seemed rather prescient about American military intentions for 1966. “The military tasks facing the United States,” declared a history of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff,“had to be accomplished therefore both in NVN and RVN. The United States…must selectively destroy the NVN military capabilities, reducing its capability to import and distribute war materials. In addition, the United States must destroy other‘high value’ targets in NVN in order to punish that nation increasingly for its part in the war. In RVN the task was to find, harass, pursue, and defeat VC/NVA units, destroying their bases and disrupting their LOCs [lines of communications] in the country and outside it.”

American strategy acknowledged, in a nod to pacification, that the South Vietnamese people had to be secured from“communist ‘subversion and oppression’” and that certain areas in South Vietnam had to be freed from Viet Cong control.

Much maligned for his supposed predilection for big-unit war to the near exclusion of counterinsurgency and population security, General William Westmoreland at MACV actually had a better grasp of the military-security situation in South Vietnam and a better strategy for how to proceed than some are willing to admit. “Many of the actions that have drawn criticism, such as the use of large operations and heavy firepower,” wrote Andrew J. Birtle, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History and the author of two books dealing with the U.S.Army and counterinsurgency doctrine, “stemmed less from a lack of understanding of counterinsurgency theory than from the fact that the realities on the ground and the enemy’s sheer military strength often demanded a ‘conventional’ response.” A 1970 report supported Birtle’s argument. Issued by a study group commissioned by the National Security Council, the report recognized that major advancements in pacification had not taken place until after such time as the “allies were able clearly to gain the upper hand in the main-force war, destroying, dispersing, or pushing back the enemy main force units.”If Westmoreland’s strategy was guilty of putting the cart (big-unit war) before the horse (pacification/population security), the actual situation on the ground in South Vietnam cast some doubt as to which was in fact the cart and which was the horse.

Critics of Westmoreland’s approach have argued that since Communist main-force units relied on the support of local guerrillas and the civilian populace of South Vietnam, denial of that support through successful counterinsurgency/population security measures would have brought about their ultimate defeat. Plausible and persuasive, the argument is only partially correct. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Communist military units in South Vietnam may very well have withered and died on the vine if deprived of local civilian support.Yet from the fall of 1965 on, the logistical situation changed and many Communist main-force units were simply not beholden to that support. NVA regiments operating in the Central Highlands and in Quang Tri Province depended on Hanoi, not the South Vietnamese civilian population, for their logistical survival. Correspondingly Colonel Cam’s 9th Viet Cong Division, the foremost Communist main-force unit menacing Saigon in the years 1965–68, relied on external support. No measure of population security or pacification, consequently, would have denied those units of the means to continue the big-unit war.

Oft forgotten, Westmoreland was also encouraged in early 1966 to“attrite, by year’s end,VC/NVA forces at a rate as high as their capability to put men into the field.” Quite naturally Westmoreland chided his subordinates to seek out and destroy the VC and NVA in South Vietnam, and he wanted to begin Phase II of his road map to victory at some point in 1966. But the transition to Phase II would not be instantaneous, mainly because he did not possess at the beginning of 1966 the additional American forces required to prosecute it full stop. Time was needed to amass and deploy those forces. In the interim Westmoreland had to keep the enemy at bay. Thus he had to prioritize where and when to strike in order to keep the Communists from regaining the initiative.

 

Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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