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A fierce advocate of offensive battles using large forces, Communist leader Le Duan shaped military strategy throughout the war.

In December 1964, the Viet Cong, famous for their hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, overran villages in four South Vietnamese provinces near Saigon with the powerful force of two regiments. One of those big units, the 272nd Regiment, crushed a mechanized rifle company from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam on December 9, destroying 16 armored personnel carriers in the process. In an even more dramatic demonstration of a large-unit force (a regiment or bigger), during the early morning hours of December 28 the 271st Regiment smashed into the hamlet of Binh Gia, home to about 6,000 Catholics who had fled North Vietnam after the Communist victory in 1954. Binh Gia was one of the villages involved in the U.S.-supported “pacification” program established by South Vietnam to improve the security and lives of people in refugee settlements.

After killing many of Binh Gia’s militia defenders, the 271st Regiment took on the seven ARVN battalions that responded to the attack. The results of the five-day battle were devastating to South Vietnam: A Marine battalion and a similar-size Ranger battalion were bloodily defeated. About 200 South Vietnamese troops and five U.S. advisers were killed. Viet Cong troops captured more than 300 weapons and shot down two helicopters, killing four U.S. Army crewmen. Only 32 VC had been killed.

Afterward, the new commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, believed the enemy was moving from “guerrilla and small unit warfare into attacks by big units that would stand their ground,” according to his 1976 memoir, A Soldier Reports.

With this change from guerrilla-type actions to large-scale assaults, U.S. commanders urgently needed to determine who in Hanoi’s leadership elite was responsible for the new strategy so they could try to anticipate the enemy’s next moves. From 1964 through 1975, there was never a satisfactory answer. Most dismissed from consideration Ho Chi Minh, the nation’s frail and elderly leader. Other possibilities among Hanoi’s leaders included the former vice premier, Truong Chin; the defense minister, General Vo Nguyen Giap; and later during the war, Senior General Van Tien Dung, the assumed planner for the 1968 Tet Offensive, the 1972 Easter Offensive and the final offensive in 1975. Often the guessing game pointed to the possibility of collective agreements in the Politburo. In the end, all those conjectures proved wrong.

Not until 2012 would a convincing answer come. After 10 years of diligent research, unprecedented access to previously secret archives and in-depth interviews with North Vietnamese wartime leaders, American scholar Lien-Hang T. Nguyen discovered the master strategist: Le Duan (sometimes pronounced “Le Zwan”), first secretary of the Vietnam Workers’ Party from 1960 until 1986. Le Duan determined Hanoi’s foreign policy, deployment of forces, allocation of resources and other weighty matters. A believer in stand-up, big-unit attacks, Le Duan vigorously defended his approach when he faced resistance from Giap and Ho later in the war.

Le Duan, born into the peasant class of central Vietnam in 1907, became a passionate Communist revolutionary in 1928 and was deeply dedicated to the overthrow of French colonialism. He appeared to be a humble attendant and clerk for the French-built Indochinese railway but lived a clandestine life as an enthusiastic rebel. Le Duan stood out from most Communist Party leaders, well-educated men. His speech was coarse, sometimes unintelligible. But his diligence, sincerity and zeal propelled his rise within the party. In 1931, at age 24, Le Duan was arrested and imprisoned by the French. He was released in 1936 and three years later reached the top ranks of the party in central Vietnam. Le Duan was jailed again in 1940 and freed in 1945.

Le Duan was then sent south to head the party’s affairs there. In 1948 he met another party member assigned to the region, Le Duc Tho, an educated man who had prison experiences almost identical to Le Duan’s. Tho became Le Duan’s second in-command and firm ally for the next 38 years. Together they recruited fighters and organized the southern part of the country against the French. In recognition of his mission’s importance, the party elevated Le Duan in 1951 to Politburo membership in absentia. The party also named him head of the Central Office of South Vietnam, responsible for both political and military affairs in the southern region.

Meanwhile in the north, the First Indochina War (1946-54) had begun as Ho and Giap—assisted by training, weapons, equipment and advice from Communist China—launched Vietnam’s struggle for independence from France. A controversy over tactics used by Giap during the war would have great influence on Le Duan’s future.

In 1951 and 1952, Giap was heavily criticized for using costly, big-unit “human wave” attacks against French forces. De-emphasizing guerrilla fighting, he would employ several 10,000-man divisions in large-scale offensive operations. Two of Giap’s divisions engaged two regiment-size French units in January 1951 at Vinh Yen, 30 miles northwest of Hanoi. The heavily outnumbered French defenders defeated both divisions with devastating napalm airstrikes. Giap’s defeated forces retreated with about 6,000 dead and 500 captured. Giap later acknowledged his failures and returned to small-unit operations in a campaign of protracted warfare. But he also placed some of the blame on a Politburo comrade, General Nguyen Chi Thanh, an advocate of big-unit attacks. Le Duan may have seen Giap as a rival, but for whatever reason, he became an enthusiastic promoter of offensives by large units and found support from Tho and Thanh.

After the war ended in 1954 with the collapse of France’s will to fight and the partition of Vietnam, there was a six-year period of relative peace—and preparation. About 1 million North Vietnamese left the land of their ancestors and traveled south to avoid life under militant Marxism. At the same time, about 200,000 living south of the dividing line chose to settle in North Vietnam. Le Duan secretly remained in South Vietnam with 10,000 of his Viet Cong combatants and began organizing forces for a fight to bring the area under Communist rule.

Le Duan was called back to North Vietnam to speak about South Vietnam at a party leadership conference that took place between late December 1958 and early January 1959. He warned that South Vietnam, with U.S. military and financial assistance, could soon be converted to a Western ally and become an enemy of communism. He proposed political and military measures to unite both Vietnams. A month later, the party approved Le Duan’s recommendation. Then, in May 1959, party leaders established a large organization to prepare and maintain a supply route (the Ho Chi Minh Trail) capable of carrying men and arms into South Vietnam.

In September 1960, Le Duan was given the power to prosecute the coming war and manage the affairs of state for Hanoi. He was also elevated to first secretary of the Vietnam Workers’ Party. His responsibilities included directing the day-to-day activities of the government and bringing about a “national democratic revolution” in the South.

That same year, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem became increasingly concerned about the growth of insurgent activity. Insurgent groups, usually comprising three to 12 Viet Cong in the late 1950s, had grown to include 30 to 50 men. Diem asked the U.S. government to send Special Forces soldiers who would train volunteers for Ranger-type units to counter the guerrilla operations. In May 1960, three 10-man Special Forces teams arrived and established a Ranger school. A year later, President John F. Kennedy, pulling back from a failing attempt to contain communism in Laos, moved Special Forces units from Laos to Vietnam. Kennedy laid out in April 1961 his new goals for Southeast Asia: “Prevent Communist domination of South Vietnam, and create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society.” Some 400 Special Forces troops were dispatched to advise, assist and train the South Vietnamese.

Meanwhile, Le Duan dispatched 5,000 former South Vietnamese members of the North Vietnamese Army to join about 25,000 Viet Cong regulars and an estimated 80,000 part-time VC guerrillas in South Vietnam. Diem’s army at this time had reached about 280,000 troops. American support and advisory personnel numbered about 3,000. Le Duan hoped to ship an additional 30,000 to 40,000 army regulars south by 1963.

On Jan. 2, 1963, a VC regular battalion scored a big victory at the Battle of Ap Bac in the Mekong Delta. Le Duan touted it as evidence that American technology and advice did not give Diem’s poorly led troops an edge against spirited Communist forces. “After the Battle of Ap Bac, the enemy knew it would be difficult to defeat us,” he said. The Ap Bac defeat was a crushing blow to the Saigon regime. In a few hours, 63 men in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s 7th Division were killed. Three American advisers also perished, and no less than five U.S. Army helicopters were shot out of the sky. The VC battalion escaped with light losses.

In the last weeks of 1963, events in South Vietnam and the United States encouraged Le Duan to accelerate his war plans. On November 1, a coup by ARVN generals removed Diem from power, and he was assassinated the next day. On November 22, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Le Duan believed the coup would create confusion and weakness in the Saigon government, and he assumed American troops in Vietnam would continue to grow from their year-end strength of 16,000 because of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s pledge to continue Kennedy’s policies.

The North Vietnamese leader moved quickly to put fellow big-unit advocate Thanh in command of the Central Office of South Vietnam. In December Le Duan made a secret announcement to Hanoi’s top leaders, telling them there was no need to follow a policy based on a protracted war. He claimed victory could be attained in 1964 with a strategy of general offensive–general uprising: a major revolt of urban dwellers simultaneously executed by large units of regulars that would destroy the ARVN’s regular formations.

“If for some reason the uprising in the cities runs into trouble and we are forced to pull our forces out, that will not matter,” Le Duan said. “That will just be an opportunity…to learn lessons…in order to try again at a later date.”

Hanoi’s leadership approved the strategy, and Le Duan directed the Defense Ministry to bring its forces to the wartime strength of 300,000. He ordered the army’s 101st, 95th and 18th regiments down the Ho Chi Minh Trail—bringing about a fourfold increase in Hanoi’s regulars south of the 17th parallel that divided Vietnam.

The new strategy was demonstrated with vivid successes in late 1964 and early 1965. The first show of strength was the 271st Regiment’s thrashing of the ARVN in the December 1964 battle at the Catholic refugee village of Binh Gia. In May 1965, two Viet Cong regiments, one in Phuoc Long province and another at Quang Ngai province, mauled ARVN battalions. On June 10, elements of two VC regiments overran a U.S. Special Forces camp in Phuoc Long and thoroughly defeated a pair of ARVN battalions in a two-day battle.

By then Washington was preparing a response. Johnson, having seen that airstrikes in the north failed to deter Hanoi after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, decided that American ground forces would be necessary to prevent the collapse of South Vietnam. In March 1965, the U.S. government began geographically limited ground operations in South Vietnam. Westmoreland’s analysis and proposals arrived in Washington before the month was out. The general wanted ARVN troops to focus on protecting the country’s populated regions and pacified rural settlements, while U.S. and foreign allied forces would engage and defeat Communist regulars. The ARVN would accompany U.S. operations only occasionally. In April Johnson authorized the use of U.S. troops for ground offensives. In July he informed Americans that he was raising military strength levels in South Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000 and stated, “Additional forces will be needed later and they will be sent as requested.”

The fight between U.S. and Communist regular forces began in August 1965 when the 1st VC Regiment was surprised at its base near the Chu Lai coastal area in Quang Tin province, about 57 miles south of Da Nang. In a six-day battle, the 7th Marine Regiment, reinforced by elements of the 3rd and 4th Marine regiments, all but destroyed the Viet Cong force. The Communists left 645 dead on the battlefield, while the Marines suffered 45 killed and 203 wounded.

Another notable big-unit battle was fought two months later in Pleiku province. General Chu Huy Man had been ordered to gain control of the province using three North Vietnamese Army regiments. In an October attack on a U.S. Special Forces training camp for hill tribesmen, one of those regiments, a 2,300-man unit, was thoroughly defeated by ARVN reinforcements and U.S. air power. The North Vietnamese losses included 890 killed, 100 missing and about 500 wounded. In November the other two regiments fled toward the Cambodian border, doggedly pursued by elements of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). The American troops caught up with both units, and a bloody clash resulted in 634 known dead for the North Vietnamese, plus an estimated 581 additional deaths and six prisoners. The cavalrymen lost 79 killed and 121 wounded.

In 1966-67 more U.S. and ARVN victories raised doubts in Hanoi about North Vietnam’s leadership. Le Duan’s failed “Victory in 1964” general offensive–general uprising scheme was recalled, and Communist Party officials became embroiled in a debate about the wisdom of costly slugfests with superior American firepower. Giap, North Vietnam’s defense minister, openly criticized Thanh’s big-unit operations. He called them “wasteful and suicidal.”

Thanh responded by characterizing Giap’s charges as carping commentary from an “armchair general.” Thanh, parroting Le Duan’s thinking, argued that the American strategy was bound to fail because the United States did not have enough troops to counter the steady flow of North Vietnamese soldiers moving south. And he pointed to growing protests against the war during the run-up to the 1968 U.S. presidential election. American endurance was waning, Thanh said. North Vietnamese intellectuals also participated in the dispute, demanding expanded peace talks and negotiations.

In the summer of 1967, Le Duan, his authority challenged, acted quickly to crush opposition to his policies, forestall a rush to diplomatic negotiations and save his offensive strategy with its big-unit formations. He overruled his own minister of for eign affairs, firmly stating there would be no negotiations until there was a major, decisive military victory over ARVN forces in 1968. When Ho and Giap argued for protracted, low-intensity warfare, Le Duan responded by jailing their subordinates, including Ho’s secretary, Vu Dinh Huyen; Giap’s deputy defense minister, Dang Kim Giang; and the deputy chief of the general staff, General Nguyen Van Vinh. Several hundred officials and others opposed to Duan’s dictates were imprisoned in the Hoa Lo facility, better known to Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton.”

Turmoil in Hanoi continued at a high-level strategy meeting on July 18-19, when Le Duan briefed Ho on a massive operation designed to bring about the “major, decisive victory.” The regular army would engage the Americans in rural areas while South Vietnam’s urban centers would erupt in mass insurrections leading to an overthrow of the government. Ho said the plan was unrealistic and too grandiose, and he urged Le Duan to revert to protracted, low-intensity guerrilla warfare. Le Duan rebuffed the nation’s revered leader and directed his staff to continue planning the giant operation that became the 1968 Tet Offensive. Showing their disapproval, Giap and Ho chose to leave the country before the Tet battle, returning to Hanoi only when that campaign was over.

Throughout the dispute, there was a common understanding that guerrilla and local forces were essential. Those groups had always fed recruits into regular units, persuaded villagers to support their own and the regular forces and assisted the big units in combat. Ho hit on the essence of the argument when he said Le Duan’s plan put too much emphasis on the regulars. Le Duan, however, firmly believed that only the regulars could win the decisive battles needed for a final victory.

After establishing unfettered authority over the North Vietnamese government, Le Duan remained Hanoi’s most powerful official in the decade following the fall of Saigon. He headed a unified Vietnam during its incursions into Cambodia, its tangle with China in a 1979 border war and its near economic collapse in the early 1980s. Le Duan died in Hanoi at age 80 on July 10, 1986.

Although Communist forces achieved almost none of their objectives during the Tet Offensive, the boldness of their widespread attack shocked South Vietnam’s allies, who began to have serious doubts about the value of continued participation in the war. Le Duan was proved right about conducting battle with regiments and division-size forces. They were essential in unifying the country during Le Duan’s final 1975 conquest of South Vietnam.

Curiously, Le Duan, Hanoi’s expert on South Vietnam, was wrong about the prospects for a popular uprising against the government there. In 1968 most South Vietnamese either resisted Communist forces or remained passive. Much the same attitude was displayed when Le Duan launched the successful 1975 campaign. About 1.2 million South Vietnamese risked their lives trying to escape Communist control by setting out to sea, many in leaky boats.

But Le Duan was right about American endurance. While successive American administrations attempted to keep some ground forces in South Vietnam, as they had in Korea, Congress mandated total U.S. troop withdrawal in 1973.

How important was Le Duan’s role in the Vietnam War? An excellent case can be made that he started the war—and finished it.


Rod Paschall was a Special Forces A detachment commander in Vietnam 1962-63, served in Laos in 1964 and returned to Vietnam in 1966 as a rifle company commander and staff officer until 1968. He served in Cambodia 1974-75.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.