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Ap Bac, Ia Drang, and roads not taken

Two legendary battles had outcomes that proved to be pivotal to the paths U.S. policymakers would choose in Vietnam. At the time of Ap Bac on the second day of 1963, South Vietnam was a far-off Cold War sideshow where 5,000 American advisers toiled to build an indigenous army to defeat Communist insurgents backed by Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam. Just 53 Americans had died there previous to the three who perished in the confused Ap Bac fight. The frustrated American adviser on the scene, John Paul Vann, saw the battle as a glaring example of South Vietnamese military incompetence that stemmed from the corrupt regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. General Paul Harkins, the first to head the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, recognized the poor performance at Ap Bac, but wasn’t ready to give up on Diem or his young army just yet.

When Ap Bac burst into the spotlight back home, however, criticism of Harkins’ views, in the media and inside the Kennedy administration, quickly metastasized. Historian Rod Paschall, a Special Forces Vietnam veteran, contends in this issue (pg. 46) that although Harkins’ reputation took a fatal hit and he ultimately lost his argument (and his job, to William Westmoreland), his warnings and predictions about axing Diem and expanding the U.S. role in Vietnam proved to be prophetic.

In October 1965, with the number of U.S. troops on the ground racing toward 100,000 and the Johnson administration amping up the war, the monthly death toll broke 200 for the first time. Just over 1,000 U.S. soldiers had been killed in Vietnam when the Ia Drang campaign kicked off in early November. In our cover story, war reporter Joseph Galloway, who was at Ia Drang, recalls the horrific fights that unfolded at LZs X-ray and Albany that, in four days, claimed the lives of 234 American air cavalrymen. More than 300 Americans died in the monthlong Ia Drang campaign compared to nearly 3,500 NVA. November’s U.S. death toll soared to 545. Galloway, awarded a medal for the valor he exhibited at LZ X-ray, takes a hard look at the assessments of Ia Drang by the war’s architects in Washington, Saigon and Hanoi—and how what lay at the end of the road taken was evident even then.

When retired 4th Infantry Division Maj. Gen.  William Peers died in 1984, his daughter found among his keepsakes a tattered sketchbook that had belonged to a North Vietnamese Army infantryman. It had been given to Peers after being found during a brutal fight in Kontum in March 1968. The story of the NVA sketchbook and its journey home (pg. 36) is accompanied by a selection of fascinating sketches and watercolors that chronicle an NVA battalion’s march into war.

And finally, frequent contributor Don North lets us in on how a very green freelance reporter learned to survive his first months in Vietnam, the first of 15 wars he’s covered in his still-active career.