The many falsehoods surrounding the Vietnam War continue to frustrate those who fought it.
David Christopher Baker
In the 1960s and early 1970s, American servicemen returning home from the conflict in Southeast Asia were surprised by the lack of welcoming crowds and shocked by the cold reception they received from the popular press and entertainment media. Seasoned combat troops who had soundly defeated VC irregulars at Hue and NVA Regular army divisions at Khe Sanh, these soldiers expected the same accolades and thanks that had been bestowed upon their fathers who returned from Europe and the Pacific, and to a lesser extent their older brothers who returned from Korea. What they found instead was a national consciousness shaped by bias and an uneven portrayal of the war in thecountry’s popular press, television and movies. Tragically, the images and attitudes that have become the historical interpretation of the conflict are based upon “facts” and “analysis” so distorted and inaccurate that most attempts to present verifiable data in an objective perspective have been wrongly dismissed as revisionist.
In Unheralded Victory: The Defeat of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, 1961-1973 (Vandamere Press, 1999, $24.95), author Mark Woodruff explains that America and its allies fought a successful war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that destroyed its enemies’ ability to pursue the conflict. Supported by convincing, objective evidence, Unheralded Victory presents a powerful argument that allied tactics and operations flowed logically from military strategy, resulting in a level of success that has been unfairly discounted or dismissed altogether by most books, television shows and movies portraying the war.
It is undisputed that the Vietnam War was a bloody, brutal conflict that mercilessly swallowed up combatants and civilians by the tens of thousands. It is also well accepted that the physical and emotional scars of the war’s survivors, as well as the national consciences of the United States, Vietnam, France, Cambodia, Laos, Australia, Korea and Thailand, may never heal entirely. However, the popular press of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly that of the United States, painted a hastily conceived and largely inaccurate picture of the armed conflict that has permeated most historical writing on the war through the present day. Unexplained but well-known photo images of napalm-scarred children and summarily executed VC guerrillas stand in stark contrast to the objective realities laid bare by Woodruff.
Undeniably, this is a difficult and controversial subject. Woodruff’s primary thesis is that the United States and its allied armed forces from Australia and Korea achieved an overall tactical victory against the VC, completely destroying them as an effective fighting force by the end of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Later actions against Main Force NVA units proved equally successful. The author supports his argument with specific examples of a string of allied victories ranging from numerous small-unit actions to climactic operations-level conflict. He ably explains and debunks many of the popular myths, half-truths and lies that have formed the basis for most noncombatants’ misunderstanding of the war. Based on extensive research of files from Hanoi, Washington and Moscow and startling revelations and observations, written and spoken, by Communist military leaders, Woodruff’s thesis explodes several myths perpetuated by peace activists and Communist propagandists concerning body counts and civilian casualties, as well as American troop morale and fighting ability.
Woodruff writes from a perspective of firsthand knowledge. Born in Omaha, Neb., he enlisted in the Marine Corps in July 1967, completed his boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, and took infantry and advanced training at Camp Pendleton. He served in Vietnam with Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, from December 1967 to December 1968, during which time he took part in Operations Scotland II, Pegasus, Ford, the Tet Offensive and other actions. He currently holds a reserve commission with the Royal Australian Navy as a psychology officer and also works with the Australian Vietnam Veterans Counseling Service.
Woodruff acknowledges that the allied command made mistakes. He argues, however, that the American popular press joined with a small but vocal anti-war faction to misrepresent true victories and successes and thereby erode political support for winning a protracted war in Southeast Asia. When considered within the political constraints of the day, the conflict was fought with a high degree of professionalism and competence. In fact, allied forces were generally well trained, well equipped and well led, resulting in an overall tactical victory of the allied military over the VC and the NVA. Decisive American and South Vietnamese tactical and strategic victories over Viet Cong irregulars and North Vietnamese Regular army units convincingly support the proposition that it may be inappropriate to call the Vietnam War “the only war America lost.”
The 1968 battle for Tan Son Nhut Air Base, for example, was a major victory for outnumbered, outgunned American and ARVN troops during the widely reported Tet Offensive. At 3 a.m. on January 31, two battalions of VC launched a three-pronged attack on the air base, home to American tactical bombers and a primary target of the offensive. In seesaw combat, U.S. Air Force support and security personnel were pressed into service, as were four companies of ARVN troops awaiting transport to the northern provinces. Nearby American armored units finally broke the enemy force in half and relieved the base with attacks by Lt. Col. Glenn Otis’ 3rd Squadron, 4th Armored Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division, based at Cu Chi.
Instead of reporting the dramatic victory to the American public, the press chose instead to focus on disjointed attacks in Saigon itself, and even then the reporting was limited to those few attacks that were nearest the journalists’ luxury hotels. When Americans tuned into the evening news, they learned nothing of the victory at Tan Son Nhut but instead heard hysterical, inaccurate reports of an attack by 19 VC sappers on the U.S. Embassy. The facts were that the VC unit never penetrated any embassy building and that four U.S. military policemen and two U.S. Marines had successfully fought off the attack until relieved by elements of the 716th MP Battalion. Instead, it was erroneously reported that the C-10 Battalion sappers had captured and occupied the embassy. The reporters went so far as to ridicule General William Westmoreland when he tried to set the record straight on the limited and easily defeated attacks inside Saigon.
There was a disappointingly similar occurrence just south of the DMZ at the Khe Sanh combat base when three North Vietnamese Regular army divisions shelled and assaulted the base in a desperate attempt to re-create the disastrous climax of the First Indochina War at Dien Bien Phu. The American press fell all over itself to report the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968 from the perspective of a beleaguered, bewildered and outnumbered force of dispirited U.S. Marines on the brink of a Dien Bien Phu–type collapse. Of course the collapse never came, and ultimately the 9th Marine Regiment, combined with the 26th Marine Regiment, defeated the three NVA divisions (the 304th, 320K and 325C). By the time Operation Scotland officially ended, the NVA had suffered an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 casualties, a number confirmed by General Vo Nguyen Giap. The press, however, found it more enticing to report the decision by Colonel David Lownds and General Westmoreland to abandon the base in favor of the arrival of the Army’s 1st Air Cavalry Division, with its more potent mobility.
Unheralded Victory cannot singlehandedly erase three decades’ worth of misunderstanding based upon biased reporting, half-truths and illogical conclusions, but it does open a serious dialogue on a subject that should have been more objectively explored long ago. Woodruff tells the facts about the war in Vietnam truthfully: American, South Vietnamese, Australian and South Korean troops produced a steady stream of victories over a cunning, ruthless enemy openly supplied with arms and materiel by Communist China and the Soviet Union. Despite Hollywood’s myopic vision of the Vietnam War and its focus on America’s mistakes instead of its successes, the men and women who served, fought and died in Vietnam deserve a more respectful analysis and understanding of what really happened. The enigmatic collective American memory of the Vietnam War unfairly tarnishes the historic image of America’s armed forces. Unheralded Victory finally presents the truth about the American involvement in Vietnam.