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The People’s Army of Vietnam published an official history in Hanoi in 1994 that has shed light on a number of crucial actions taken by the North Vietnamese leadership. Before President John F. Kennedy’s November 1961 decision to increase American involvement in South Vietnam, North Vietnamese leaders met in Hanoi and secretly decided upon a series of actions that substantially escalated North Vietnam’s direct participation in the conflict in South Vietnam. Unknown to U.S. policy-makers at the time, these decisions provided the Vietnamese Communists with the means they needed to counter the effects of Kennedy’s decision and thereby maintain their strategic initiative in South Vietnam.

The history, titled History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, Volume II: The Coming of Age of the People’s Army of Vietnam During the Resistance War Against the Americans to Save the Nation (1954-75), did not use the terms ‘Viet Cong, South Vietnam Liberation Army or North Vietnamese Army, but instead treated all Communist military forces in both North and South Vietnam as components of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), the official name for what Americans referred to as the NVA. The only reference in the PAVN history to the Liberation Army states that in January 1961, following the formation of the Liberation Army of South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese Central Military Party Committee issued a specific directive stating that the Liberation Army of South Vietnam is a subordinate component of the People’s Army of Vietnam, contradicting their wartime stance that the VC was an independent entity. According to that history, the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party held an important series of meetings in Hanoi beginning on January 31 and ending on February 25, 1961. During those meetings, the Politburo debated and approved a resolution concerning PAVN’s military responsibilities for the next five years, 1961-1965, and the direction to be taken in the immediate future by the revolution in the south. Since it took almost a month to pass the resolution, it seems likely that its contents were the subject of sharp and heated debate.

The Politburo resolution began by confirming the thrust of earlier Communist Party guidance, which held that building socialism in the North must take priority over support for the war in the South. The resolution stated that, in spite of the growing conflicts in Indochina, we have considerable prospects of being able to maintain peace in North Vietnam during the next five years. According to the resolution, preserving peace and guaranteeing the continued building of socialism in North Vietnam is [our] most vital responsibility. The 1961 resolution, however, altered the earlier formula by directing the North Vietnamese military to be prepared to take action to guarantee victory for the revolution in South Vietnam when the opportunity presents itself. In what seems to have been one of several key compromises in the resolution, this statement was softened somewhat by the proviso that any PAVN actions must be skillfully chosen so as to avoid a major armed intervention by the imperialists–meaning the Americans.

The Politburo resolution also approved a significant modification to the Communist Party’s strategy for the war in South Vietnam. While previous resolutions had directed that Communist forces should take military action only to protect and support the political struggle in the South, the February 1961 resolution decreed that the military struggle in South Vietnam would be raised to the same level of importance as the political struggle. The Politburo had authorized the PAVN to take virtually any military action it wished so long as it avoided provoking direct U.S. military action against the Vietnamese Communist movement.

Portions of the Politburo’s 1961 debate were discussed in some detail by retired Lt. Gen. Philip B. Davidson in his Vietnam At War, published in 1988. But the later part of the Politburo’s February 1961 deliberations, including the five-year military plan setting out detailed goals for PAVN expansion and operations, remained secret. Those goals and the strategy resolution’s approval for increased military action in the South laid the foundation for North Vietnam to become more directly involved in the war in South Vietnam.

The goal set forward in the Politburo-approved 1961-65 military plan for PAVN forces in South Vietnam was to build a strong force of full-time troops in South Vietnam with good technical equipment, logistic support and tactical leadership. The plan specified that, in addition to the formation of local force units of company size at the district level and battalion size at the province level, the Communist army in South Vietnam would organize, equip, train and deploy a force of between 10 and 15 main-force infantry regiments. The regiments would be supported by an unspecified number of new composite artillery units capable of destroying fortified positions and of successfully engaging enemy tanks and aircraft.

In early 1961, the largest organized Communist military unit in South Vietnam, according to the PAVN history, was the battalion, and only three main-force battalions existed at that time in all of South Vietnam. According to official PAVN records, total Communist troop strength in South Vietnam was approximately 15,000 full-time troops, only about 3,000 of whom were assigned to main-force units. The new units called for in the plan (the equivalent of three to five main-force divisions) would give Communist forces in the South between 25,000 and 40,000 main-force troops alone. The plan also called for strengthening Communist Party control over military affairs in the South. Reflecting the new emphasis on military as opposed to political action, for the first time a number of military region headquarters in South Vietnam were to be organized and staffed.

The plan also directed that the PAVN supply military advisers to Pathet Lao forces (the military arm of the Laos Communist Party) and be prepared to dispatch PAVN volunteer units to fight in Laos upon the request of our Lao allies. This provision was apparently an ex post facto endorsement of PAVN actions already underway. The PAVN history records that, in response to a request from the Laotian Communist leadership, in November 1960 a number of PAVN military advisers and a PAVN 105mm howitzer battery were sent to the Vientiane area to assist Pathet Lao forces battling U.S.–backed Laotian government rightist forces trying to retake the capital. Numerous additional PAVN units soon followed the initial group to Laos.

Pursuant to the Politburo resolution’s directive that military forces be prepared to move to guarantee victory in the South if or when an opportunity arose, the Communist Party’s Central Military Party Committee (the party organ responsible for overseeing all PAVN activities) ordered the PAVN general staff to make contingency preparations for the army to engage in combat operations in South Vietnam and to perform its international duty in Laos. The general staff immediately responded by upgrading a number of PAVN units to wartime status. The 325th Division, the 316th, 335th and 341st brigades, and the 148th and 244th regiments were selected and brought up to full wartime table of organization and equipment (TOE) levels and were placed on alert status. PAVN brigades at that time had a TOE strength of 3,500 troops and consisted of four infantry battalions, one artillery battalion, one anti-aircraft battalion and a number of smaller reconnaissance, signal, engineer, chemical defense and other support units. The PAVN general staff order specifically stated that the upgrade was intended to provide the PAVN with a number of powerful infantry units which could be committed when needed to operations on the South Vietnamese and Laotian battlefields.

By the spring of 1961, when the order was promulgated, many of the upgraded units were already in action in Laos. While North Vietnam refused to acknowledge publicly that it had any troops in Laos, the PAVN history discloses that by the first half of 1961 a total of 12,000 PAVN volunteer troops, including regular infantry, artillery and engineer battalions from the PAVN 325th Division, the 316th and 335th brigades and the 271st Regiment, were fighting in Laos alongside their Pathet Lao allies. The ongoing PAVN intervention in Laos would play a major role in the next key PAVN decision of 1961.

The North Vietnamese supply and infiltration route to South Vietnam, commonly called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was still a small and ill-defined network of jungle paths passing largely through South Vietnamese territory in early 1961. Supplies were carried almost entirely by human porters, with some use also being made of bicycles, elephants and pack horses. When PAVN Transportation Group 559 first worked on the trail during the summer of 1959, the Ho Chi Minh Trail passed south through the western portion of the Vinh Linh Special Zone, crossed the DMZ between North and South Vietnam at the Ben Hai River and continued through the rugged mountains of western Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces in South Vietnam. There the trail connected with the clandestine supply and liaison routes of Communist Interzone 5 (later Military Region 5).

The supply trail to the southern half of South Vietnam was not completed until October 1960, when, according to the PAVN history, trail-building elements sent north by the Party Committee for South Vietnam (later designated as the Central Office for South Vietnam Headquarters) finally met trail-builders from Interzone 5. They were moving south in the area where the borders of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos meet. The entire route was suitable only for the clandestine infiltration of small numbers of troops and very small quantities of supplies. Since South Vietnam was long and narrow (less than 50 miles wide at its northern extremity), the trail was also extremely vulnerable to interdiction by opposing forces. The trail as it was in early 1961 simply could not support the passage of the large quantities of troops, supplies and heavy equipment that would be required by the 10 to 15 main-force regiments in South Vietnam called for in the PAVN’s five-year plan.

In the spring of 1961, the North Vietnamese leadership decided to take advantage of the PAVN’s semicovert involvement in Laos to resolve its supply problems. The massive PAVN intervention in Laos threw Laotian government troops back in confusion and precipitated a serious international crisis. For a time the U.S. government considered Laos a more serious problem than the conflict in South Vietnam. The new Kennedy administration, in its first attempt at what would later be called constructive engagement, now sought to persuade the Soviets to help in arranging for a cease-fire and an international conference in Geneva, which aimed at reaching a compromise settlement that would neutralize Laos and prevent a complete Communist takeover of the country.

Under increasing international pressure to agree to an immediate cease-fire, the North Vietnamese moved to exploit the American diplomatic attack to their own advantage. After obtaining specific approval from the North Vietnamese and the Laotian Communist parties, the North Vietnamese Central Military Party Committee swiftly approved a plan for a major offensive operation to be conducted under Pathet Lao cover in southern Laos. The principal objective of the plan, which was drafted by PAVN Transportation Group 559 and PAVN Military Region 4, was to seize control of a large area of the Laotian panhandle in order to transfer Group 559’s strategic transportation route [the Ho Chi Minh Trail] to the western side of the Annamite Mountain Range–i.e., to move the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Laos.

The plan stated explicitly that the upcoming cease-fire provided a favorable window of opportunity to carry out the operation. Although the PAVN history does not specifically admit to this, the operation was designed to conceal PAVN involvement in the military offensive through the use of Pathet Lao forces and to exploit the prospects for an international agreement about Laos. They then could eliminate the danger of the U.S. military disrupting the PAVN supply network. The PAVN attack in southern Laos was launched at the same time as a series of powerful Pathet Lao–North Vietnamese attacks in northern and central Laos. Those concurrent attacks were apparently intended to tie down Laotian forces throughout the country and to further divert U.S. attention away from the PAVN’s main strategic objective–acquiring secure new lines of communications in southern Laos to support the war in South Vietnam.

The southern Laos offensive, directed by a command staff headed jointly by the commanders of the PAVN 325th Division and Group 559, kicked off on April 11, 1961. The 101st Regiment of the 325th Division attacked and seized the town of Tchepone, Laos, on Route 9, west of South Vietnam’s Quang Tri province. Meanwhile, the PAVN 927th Provincial Force Battalion from Ha Tinh province took Muong Phin, in Laos and southeast of Tchepone, and the PAVN 19th Border Defense Battalion, accompanied by Pathet Lao forces, conducted secondary attacks in the surrounding area. As soon as Tchepone and Muong Phin were secured, PAVN and Pathet Lao forces struck out both to the west and the east to secure as much of the Laotian panhandle as possible.

By the time the Pathet Lao leadership announced their acceptance of a cease-fire throughout Laos on May 3, 1961, Laotian government forces in southern Laos had been crushed and PAVN troops were in control of 100 kilometers of Route 9 from A Luoi (which the North Vietnamese called Ban Dong), near the South Vietnamese border, to Muong Pha Lan, two-thirds of the way across the Laotian panhandle. While the foreign press occasionally mentioned the fighting in southern Laos during this period, the offensive was overshadowed in the press and in the eyes of U.S. policy-makers by the ongoing Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese attacks against more sensitive targets in northern and central Laos.

As soon as Tchepone and Muong Phin were taken, and even before the May 3 cease-fire went into effect, Group 559 shifted the Ho Chi Minh Trail’s supply and infiltration routes from the eastern, South Vietnamese side of the Annamite Mountain chain to the western side of the mountains in Laos. Group 559’s 301st Ground Transport Battalion, the group’s sole ground transportation unit at the time, was immediately expanded to regimental size. Redesignated the 70th Regiment, the unit set to work building a new transportation route for porters and bicycle transports from Vit Thu Lu in North Vietnam, just north of the DMZ, west into Laos and then south through the PAVN’s newly conquered territory in the Laotian panhandle.

The PAVN general staff immediately dispatched its 98th Engineer Regiment to the area south of Route 9, where the regiment began to rebuild a road segment from A Luoi, east of Tchepone, south of Muong Noong. After that road was completed, the engineers of the regiment built supply and infiltration trails onward from Muong Noong southeast into South Vietnam’s Thua Thien and Quang Nam provinces. In the meantime, two PAVN engineer battalions, assisted by the 927th Provincial Battalion, began construction of a road usable by motor vehicles from Route 12 and the Mu Gia Pass on the North Vietnam­Laos border south to Route 9. This new road, designated Route 129, was completed in December 1961. As soon as the road was finished, trucks of the PAVN 3rd Motor Transport Group began regular service, bringing supplies and equipment from North Vietnam to warehouses at Muong Phin and Tchepone. For the first time, the North Vietnamese could rapidly move large quantities of supplies and heavy equipment over a significant portion of the route to the southern battlefields.

Ground transportation was not the only arrow in the North Vietnamese quiver. As soon as Muong Phin and Tchepone were taken, the PAVN history reveals that the PAVN 919th Air Force Regiment–equipped with Soviet-made Ilyushin Il-14, Lisunov Li-2 and Antonov An-2 transport aircraft and assisted by Soviet air force pilots, who handled the flight controls–began a supply airlift to stock the new PAVN logistics depots on Route 9. This assistance was the PAVN history’s only reference to Soviet personnel directly involved in military operations during the Vietnam War. Weapons and military equipment, including recoilless rifles, heavy mortars, 75mm pack howitzers, ammunition, radios and the broadcasting equipment for the new National Liberation Front radio, were dropped by parachute at Muong Phin. Once the airport at Tchepone had been repaired by the 325th Division’s engineer unit, drops were also made at Tchepone’s Ta Khong airfield. In addition, after several abortive attempts at seaborne supply shipments in 1959 and 1960, in early 1961 North Vietnam reorganized its sea infiltration effort. The Communist Party committees of the coastal provinces of South Vietnam were ordered to send their own personnel and vessels to the North to receive supplies and to assist the PAVN’s new Sea Infiltration Group 759 in planning and implementing the seaborne supply effort.

From the beginning of construction on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1959 through the end of 1960, merely 3,500 soldiers and officers had been sent south down the trail. Only a small proportion of those soldiers went all the way to the Saigon area and the Mekong Delta, the majority being assigned to the closer and more accessible regions of Interzone 5 and the Central Highlands. On May 5, 1961, only two days after the conclusion of the PAVN operation in the Laotian panhandle, a group of 500 senior and midlevel PAVN officers slated for assignment to the planned new main-force regiments and military region commands in the South began their journey to South Vietnam. On July 28, the group, led by Maj. Gen. Tran Van Quang, deputy chief of staff of the PAVN general staff, reached its destination in Binh Long province north of Saigon. On June 1 another group of 400 infiltrators departed the North, arriving in Binh Long in September 1961. During the entire year of 1961, a total of 7,664 PAVN officers and enlisted men, more than twice the total sent in 1959 and 1960 combined, traveled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to South Vietnam. According to the PAVN history, 317 tons of military supplies, primarily weapons and ammunition, went to the South along Group 559’s Ho Chi Minh Trail supply network in 1961–four times greater than the tonnage shipped in 1960.

In September 1961 the North Vietnamese Politburo made its final major military decision that year. The Politburo approved a PAVN general staff plan to support an expansion of Communist armed forces in South Vietnam from 1961 to 1963. The plan not only called for greatly increased local recruitment in South Vietnam but also directed that between 30,000 and 40,000 fully trained PAVN Regulars–the bulk of whom were to be drawn from individuals with previous experience working or fighting in South Vietnam–were to infiltrate the South. The PAVN history’s explanation of the fact that only southerners, or those who had lived in the South and could pass as southerners, were sent is revealing. Rather than claiming that the infiltrators were volunteers returning to their home villages to fight, as has been speculated–or that they were sent because they knew the area and would be more effective than northerners, as many U.S. government officials and supporters of the war believed–the PAVN history states that only southerners were sent because at that time the international situation was still undergoing a number of complicated developments. In the United States, for example, newly elected President John F. Kennedy had begun to concentrate on counterinsurgency affairs in Vietnam and elsewhere. The primary reason the North Vietnamese sent only southerners during those early years was the same reason they sent only captured, Western-produced weapons during those same years: They wanted to maintain sufficient deniability regarding North Vietnam’s support for and control over the war in the South, to avoid giving the United States any excuse to send military forces to directly intervene in Indochina.

While the full scope of the North Vietnamese decisions (especially the plan to dispatch 30,000 to 40,000 troops to the South) was not known to the Americans or the South Vietnamese, the intense PAVN buildup in southern Laos was quickly detected by the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments. During the summer and early fall of 1961, the Kennedy administration considered, but ultimately rejected, several proposals to dispatch U.S. combat units to Laos to block the increased PAVN infiltration into South Vietnam. Thereafter, because the North Vietnamese had achieved total control of the Laotian panhandle, it became very difficult to monitor the size of the North Vietnamese supply and infiltration operation. As a consequence, the precise numbers of infiltrators and the quantity of supplies moving down the trail became a subject of constant debate both inside and outside the U.S. government.

The North Vietnamese decisions of 1961 and their much more visible consequences received little notice from the international press at the time and have gone largely unremarked by most postwar scholars. Even the U.S. State Department’s white paper on North Vietnamese aggression, issued in February 1965 and widely criticized at the time as exaggerated and propagandistic, now turns out to have significantly underestimated the extent of North Vietnamese infiltration. The document asserted that from 1959 until the end of 1964 at least 19,000, and possibly as many as 34,000, troops were infiltrated into South Vietnam from the North.

The 1994 PAVN history records that between 1959 and the end of 1963, a year shorter than the period covered by the State Department white paper, more than 40,000 PAVN troops, primarily soldiers from South Vietnam who had regrouped, were sent from the North to the battlefields in South Vietnam. Among these infiltrators were more than 2,000 senior and midlevel officers (field grade and above) and technical personnel. As of 1963, those infiltrators from North Vietnam constituted, according to the PAVN history, 50 percent of the full-time soldiers and 80 percent of the officers and technical cadres in command and leadership organizations of the Communist army in South Vietnam.

Regarding logistic support, the PAVN history brags that from 1961 through 1963, Group 559 [the Ho Chi Minh Trail command] transported to the battlefield 165,600 weapons of all types, including artillery, mortars, and anti-aircraft machine guns. In addition, the North Vietnamese sea infiltration effort finally got started in 1962. By the end of 1963, Sea Infiltration Group 759, using transport vessels camouflaged as fishing junks, successfully delivered 25 shiploads totaling 1,430 tons of weapons and ammunition (including mortars, recoilless rifles and 12.7mm anti-aircraft guns) to covert docks and landing sites in the Mekong Delta and in the coastal provinces east of Saigon. In light of the fact that during 1961 only 317 tons of military supplies had been transported by land down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the contribution made to the Communist war effort by the seaborne supply operation, especially in the areas south of the Central Highlands and far from the Ho Chi Minh Trail’s transshipment points in southern Laos, is especially noteworthy.

In hindsight, the cumulative importance of the North Vietnamese decisions of 1961 is painfully clear. In 1962, Communist forces in the South suffered very serious losses (which were admitted in the PAVN history) as a result of the increased U.S. military aid and new U.S. air support and combat advisers provided to the South Vietnamese armed forces by President Kennedy’s November 1961 action. Without the Politburo decisions of 1961, Communist forces would have lost the military initiative and their continued survival might even have been threatened. But Communist troop strength continued to increase in spite of their losses, growing almost fivefold, according to PAVN figures, from 15,000 full-time soldiers at the end of 1960 to 70,000 full-time troops by the end of 1963. As of 1963, five new main-force Communist regiments had been organized and were operating in South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese supply network then had secure new logistics bases in southern Laos and a functioning sea transport system able to effectively support the main battlefields in South Vietnam, including the vital areas around Saigon and in the Mekong Delta. Communist forces in the South were well-armed and were receiving ample supplies of ammunition. Weapons and trained personnel capable of countering the most dangerous of the new American-provided equipment, helicopters and armored personnel carriers, had arrived in the South and were proving their effectiveness.

The evidence provided by the PAVN history demonstrates clearly that, after 1961, even the most effective internal pacification measures in South Vietnam would have been insufficient without any companion effort to block the flow of troops and supplies from the North. In his book The Key to Failure, former U.S. State Department officer Norman B. Hannah described the American failure to take decisive action on the ground to block North Vietnamese infiltration through Laos as the U.S. government’s single greatest strategic error of the Vietnam War. Whether or not one believes such action was feasible at that time in tactical, strategic and domestic political terms, the revelations provided by the Vietnamese officers who wrote the 1994 PAVN history lend powerful support to Hannah’s argument that the Communist supply line through Laos, the foundation for which was laid by the North Vietnamese decisions of 1961, was indeed the key to the Communist victory in the struggle for South Vietnam.

This article was written by Merle L. Pribbenow and originally published in the August 1999 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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