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Ridiculed after the 1963 Battle of Ap Bac as being too old, out of touch and mired in outdated military thinking, was General Paul Harkins actually the most accurate American prophet of the Vietnam War?

As General Paul D. Harkins arrived at Tan Heip’s small airstrip on January 3, 1963, he knew it was bad. In the bloody battle that had unfolded at nearby Ap Bac the previous day, five U.S. helicopters had been shot out of the sky, three American advisers and 63 Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers had been killed and about 100 others wounded. The fight had been waged in the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta, just 40 miles southwest of Saigon. Its outcome would reverberate across the globe in Washington to determine the fate of Harkins, the first Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) commander, and set an entirely different course for American policy.

Harkins was a graying, affable 57-year-old West Pointer and World War II protégé of General George Patton Jr., serving with him from North Africa in 1942 all the way through to the occupation of Germany in 1945. He was no stranger to Asia or to helping Asian allies. During 1953-54, he helped train the Republic of Korea’s army and assist South Korea’s government. During the 1961 Laotian Crisis, he had commanded a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization task force, and by January 1963 had been in South Vietnam for almost a year. As MACV commander, he traveled almost daily throughout South Vietnam and was familiar with the terrain, the political and military leaders, and the enemy.

The 13-hour bloodletting at Ap Bac caused profound changes in the struggle between Communist Viet Cong (VC) insurgents and the American-supported Ngo Dinh Diem regime. To some Americans, the battle served as a clear indication that the Republic of Vietnam’s military and political leadership was incompetent and that a drastic change in leadership was desperately needed to keep the country from falling into Communist hands.As a result, Harkins would be forced into a lonely and unpopular role, defending the gains and sacrifices the young republic had made. He would be asking for time and patience from U.S. leaders, men determined to act forcefully and soon. Harkins would lose the argument, but he would warn his superiors of the probable tragic results of their haste—warnings that would prove to be surprisingly accurate.

At the heart of the matter was the fact that the French had never developed Vietnamese leadership—political or military. The French held almost all the leadership roles until they left in 1954. With the South Vietnamese leadership structure only nine years old in 1963, at Ap Bac many of the lieutenants and sergeants in the old Vietnamese National Army were still learning, under American tutelage, to be captains, colonels and generals. Harkins, unlike most of his superiors, knew that much the same had happened in South Korea. It had taken time for the Republic of Korea’s officer corps to develop, and he strongly believed that ARVN leaders needed similar experience and American assistance, too.

The Battle of Ap Bac was just one of many ARVN operations taking place in South Vietnam, and General Harkins was unfamiliar with the details when he arrived at Tan Heip to be briefed. At the headquarters tent, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, the fiery and energetic U.S. adviser to the 7th ARVN Division, began the briefing for the general with the enemy situation. The division had learned that a Viet Cong main force unit of 120 men was reported to be in a narrow, heavily wooded 1,500-meter strip of land along the Cong Luong canal between the hamlets of Tan Thoi and Ap Bac. The idea was to pounce just north of this enemy concentration with an air assault of 330 soldiers of the 11th ARVN Infantry Regiment, shuttled in on 10 American-flown H-21 helicopters. Five UH-1 helicopter gunships with rockets and machine guns would be in support. Two battalions of regional Civil Guard troops were to move into the fight from the south.

Meanwhile, a mechanized infantry force in 15 M-113 personnel carriers would be to the west, moving northward to swing around the VC positions and cut off retreating insurgents. Two rifle companies would be held in reserve. The plan was to drive the Viet Cong out eastward into the open Plain of Reeds, to be killed by artillery and air attack.

Similar ARVN helicopter and mechanized infantry operations had worked well during the last several months, and the planners fully expected the Viet Cong would flee when faced with such a force.

Ironically, Vann and his ARVN counterparts were unaware of just how successful their tactics had actually been in the recent past. AVC document captured a few weeks after the Battle of Ap Bac revealed that Viet Cong morale had plummeted, and their control of the region had been slipping. The Communist leadership was desperate for a battlefield success and was preparing for a stand-up, toe-to-toe slugfest with a 320- man Viet Cong main force unit, the 514th Battalion, augmented by 30 local guerrillas. The Viet Cong had accurate intelligence and knew the ARVN was preparing to mount an operation in the vicinity of Ap Bac and Tan Thoi. They had dug in along a tree-lined dike that followed a shallow creek, where the thick, tall foliage masked them from air observation.

The operation had begun at 7 a.m. on January 2, when lead elements of three infantry companies were lifted from the temporary field headquarters at Tan Heip to a landing zone just north of Tan Thoi without incident. Fog delayed subsequent landings until 9:30 a.m. Meanwhile the battle erupted at 7:30 when one of the two Civil Guard battalions advancing northward encountered overwhelming fire from the tree line along the Cong Luong canal. Civil Guard troops cowered behind rice paddy berms.

The province chief in charge of these regional forces, Major Lam Tho—who was under President Diem’s strict orders to avoid casualties—changed the mission of the two Guard battalions from attack to establishing a stationary blocking force. He persuaded the 7th Division commander to commit the reserve, and a rifle company was landed just west of Ap Bac at 10:20 a.m. The lead U.S. pilot disregarded instructions from Colonel Vann to land at least 300 yards from the tree line at Ap Bac to avoid effective VC small-arms fire. Instead, he landed about 150 yards closer.

The results were disastrous as a withering blast of machine gun and rifle fire exploded from the tree line, and bullets ripped through the thin Plexiglas and aluminum skin of the helicopters. ARVN infantrymen leapt out of the helicopters into the rice paddies, seeking the low cover of the paddy berms.

The 10 H-21 crews were in serious danger. One helicopter was so damaged that it could not be flown out of the landing zone. Another H-21 pilot, after landing his infantrymen, spotted the inoperative helicopter’s crewmen and circled around to pick them up only to have his own helicopter so laced with bullets that it, too, became unflyable. One of the gunship pilots decided to rescue the two downed H-21 crews. Hammered by Viet Cong fire, his Huey could not be controlled and thumped down hard, turning over in the rice paddy. The situation became even more desperate when one of the returning H-21 crews discovered their helicopter had taken so much enemy machine gun fire that it had to be landed at a safe spot short of Tan Heip.

In the meantime, the ARVN reserve company facing Ap Bac was being shredded and was soon reduced to about half of its original 102 men. By 10:30 a.m., it became apparent to Vann that the mechanized infantry company west of the Cong Ba Ky canal should be turned and brought into the fight raging around the downed helicopters and besieged reserve company. Vann, flying over the battlefield in an L-19 spotter plane, began a prolonged series of radio conversations attempting to convince ARVN commanders to change the mission of the mechanized company to attack due east toward Ap Bac.

About this time, another gutsy rescue try was made by an H-21 that landed behind the downed helicopters. The pilot called in immediately to say he was taking so many bullet strikes he would have to lift off. Rising, he discovered that some of his controls had been shot away, but he managed to land safely west of Ap Bac.

Vann finally worked out a solution for the mechanized company to attack east toward Ap Bac, but the move required crossing a canal— a lengthy process since the vehicles had to be towed up to and over an embankment. Finally, at 1:45 p.m., more than three hours after Vann’s first request for its change in direction, the mechanized infantry began crossing the canal.

The M-113s had .50-caliber machine guns mounted, usually manned by a squad leader. Reaching effective rifle range from Ap Bac, the mechanized infantrymen moved into a torrent of Viet Cong machine gun, mortar and rifle fire. Many of the exposed squad leaders were hit, and much of the company became leaderless. Salvation appeared possible when the single M-113 mounting a flamethrower pulled forward in range of the enemy firing line and unloosed a roaring stream of fire—only to see it peter out 20 yards short of the VC positions. There had not been enough jelling agent mixed with the gasoline. The mechanized infantry attack on Ap Bac ended at 2:30 p.m.

Vann, aloft in his L-19, got word that the Vietnamese corps commander, Brig. Gen. Huynh Van Cao, had been given a 300-man battalion of paratroopers to jump in and join the action. Knowing the Viet Cong would likely break contact and slip away under cover of darkness, Vann urged the paratroopers be dropped just east of Ap Bac and Tan Thoi to complete encirclement of the Viet Cong. But he learned that Cao directed the battalion to reinforce the existing ARVN positions—west of Ap Bac. Vann landed at Tan Heip to argue for the paratroopers to land to the east—to no avail. An agitated Vann concluded that Cao was content to allow the Viet Cong to escape during the night. Several American and Australian newspaper reporters who had arrived by hired cars from Saigon were within earshot of the heated argument in the tent and heard Vann yelling at Cao, “Goddammit, you want them to get away, you are afraid to fight!”

At 6:05 p.m., the paratroopers floated down from American-piloted C-123 aircraft just before dusk west of Ap Bac and Ap Tan Thoi. They drew heavy enemy fire and sustained 19 killed in action. By 7:30 it was dark and the firing stopped, and by 10 p.m. the Viet Cong had successfully escaped in the open ground to the east. About this time, Vann moved three of the reporters away from the tent headquarters and delivered a bitter, “not for attribution” briefing to them. He blamed the failure on ARVN leadership, Cao’s refusal to encircle and fight the VC, and strongly condemned the performance of ARVN troops. The reporters sped back to Saigon that night to file their stories.

The day after his briefing on the battle, Harkins wrote briefly about Ap Bac: “In some cases [ARVN] could have done better, and I think they should have. Our advisers were with the Vietnamese during the operation and in some cases their advice was heeded and in some cases it was not, but, it was par for the course. Like any engagements in war, there are days— and there are days.”

The Battle of Ap Bac was over, but as a result, back in Washington an intense reappraisal of America’s role in Vietnam and the fitness of U.S. and South Vietnamese leadership there was just beginning.

Had the American newsmen not heard Vann’s degrading tongue-lashing of General Cao and his damning secret press briefing, Ap Bac might have been described and remembered as a temporary ARVN reversal. Instead, the outcome was used to change the war. During the next few days, the news from Vietnam began surpassing stories from other Cold War focal points such as Berlin, Cuba, the Congo and Korea. Led by the NewYork Times’ reporting and analysis, newspaper and magazine editorials grew increasingly critical of the ARVN. Ap Bac was portrayed as indicative of the entire conflict. Time magazine’s treatment was typical:

Worst of all, the battered Vietnamese troops showed little interest in pursuing the Reds. Instead, they sloshed through the paddy fields, picking up their casualties…and poking through the downed helicopters. On the cabin floor of one of the choppers lay the wallet of a dead U.S. adviser—open to a picture of his wife and child. In all, three U.S. advisers were killed in the ambush, and six more wounded. The dead brought to 56 the number of U.S. troops killed so far in South Viet Nam…U.S. advisers admitted that the day was a “miserable performance,” [and] blamed the defeat on a “lack of aggressiveness” by government troops.

Soon after the battle, Harkins, realizing U.S. advisers had openly criticized ARVN’s performance, blamed Vann and decided to replace him. However, he was talked out of it by his chief of U.S. military advisers, Maj. Gen. Charles Timmes, who told him if Vann was fired, other U.S. division advisers would not take the risks Vann took in pushing ARVN to conduct aggressive operations. Timmes also informed Harkins that Vann had cultivated some of the Saigon press corps who would “crucify you” (Harkins) if Vann was sacked.

To counter the wave of bad publicity about ARVN, General Harkins began speaking out. A week after the battle, when asked by a reporter about Ap Bac, he said: “I consider it a victory. We took the objective.” The press seized on this as an indication the general actually believed that temporary occupation of ground previously held by the Viet Cong constituted success. In a hit-and-run guerrilla war, that was clearly absurd. Growing numbers of reporters refused to believe Harkins’ assertions that the war was going well. Increasing negative press reports about ARVN led some in Washington to consider dramatic changes of leadership in Vietnam.

In late August, Harkins’ standing with the U.S. Embassy in Saigon fell with the arrival of a new American ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge favored the views of several Kennedy Administration State Department appointees who, tired of Diem’s reluctance to follow their policy ideas, seized on Ap Bac as proof of Diem’s appointment of politically reliable but militarily incompetent generals such as Cao. They sought to get rid of the South Vietnamese president. While Harkins welcomed the idea of firing President Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who directed state security, the general did not want Diem himself to step down. Harkins had found that, with steady and patient prodding, Diem was amenable to change. He told Lodge that Diem was a dedicated patriot “who knew more about his country than anybody…and was doing a lot of good.” Harkins, who best knew the ARVN generals, said none of them were able to run the country.

Knowing Harkins’ view, Lodge gradually isolated the general from the coup plotting and encouraged a cabal of Vietnamese generals to bring down Diem’s government. On November 1, 1963, the generals acted, murdering Diem and his brother and replacing them with two generals, the most senior of whom, Duong Van Minh, Harkins characterized as a complainer who had “contributed nothing to the war effort.” In a press interview 12 days later, Harkins, looking back, said, “The Diem government had a good campaign plan,” the war “was moving along” and that it would take the new government time to establish the same degree of momentum. Reflecting on the coup years later, Harkins said, “It was a shame to have Diem go when things were going so well…it wasn’t worth the price.”

Among the South Vietnamese military and public, Diem’s demise was largely welcomed, but as the government in Saigon weakened, the Viet Cong gained more control of the countryside, attacked more government outposts and received more supplies and men from North Vietnam.

After a December trip to Vietnam, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reported to President Lyndon Johnson that “…current trends, if not reversed” will lead to South Vietnam’s “neutralization at best or to a Communist controlled state.”

Early in 1964, radical proposals to reverse the deteriorating security situation in Vietnam were being considered in Washington. What emerged was an escalation of American presence and combat actions in Southeast Asia intended to frighten North Vietnam into halting its support of the Viet Cong. Once again General Harkins reluctantly became a naysayer to the administration’s policy. In May 1964, Harkins told his superiors that “Declarations of war, bombing North Vietnam and the other peripheral operations proposed…can only be helpful after the GVN [South Vietnam Government] has demonstrated by concrete results [a] capability to win the pacification campaign on the home grounds.” He contended the ARVN could not take on invading North Vietnamese formations without having previously defeated the Viet Cong.

But, by the late spring of 1964, American actions in the war were increasingly being directed by McNamara from Washington. Harkins’ advice no longer mattered. In May 1964, Harkins was replaced by General William C. Westmoreland.

In retrospect, Harkins’ claim of “victory” at Ap Bac was a huge error. Undoubtedly, he knew better, but he was so intent on raising ARVN morale in the face of press criticism that he publicly characterized a defeat as a win for the South Vietnamese. It cost him his credibility. However, it is important to note that in his confidential description to his superiors, he frankly stated that ARVN troops not only failed to defeat the Viet Cong, they also allowed them to escape. Although there was nothing to be proud of at Ap Bac, there had been ARVN successes. During 1962, counterinsurgency efforts had made considerable progress in the northern coastal regions and Central Highlands. The frequency of ARVN offensive operations had risen sharply. South Vietnamese army units had also been more willing to seek out and fight the VC.

The general’s contention that ARVN was improving was borne out by Viet Cong determination to stand and fight at Ap Bac to regain its fighting reputation lost to previous, more successful 7th Division operations. Harkins’belief that the heavily criticized strategic hamlet program was better than portrayed in the press was partially verified when a captured Communist Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) document called the current strategic hamlet program “shrewder, bolder and more widespread” than previous programs. And Harkins was quite justified in dismissing press stories that described the experience at Ap Bac as symptomatic of combat encounters throughout the country.

Harkins was also proven right in his assessment that the ARVN did not possess leaders with the political or management skills to assume leadership of the country. When General Minh became chief of state after Diem’s assassination, he performed as badly as Harkins had predicted. Eager to abolish all vestiges of the Diem regime, the coup leaders dismissed most of the province chiefs and heads of the security services, thereby losing much of the expertise and experience necessary to counter the Communists and control the countryside. Minh’s rule lasted only a few months—the first of several failed military regimes that dragged South Vietnam through a period of great instability in the following 18 months.

Harkins was right as well about the likely reaction to using U.S. force against North Vietnam. In early 1964, Harkins was not against the proposal for a U.S. bombing campaign on North Vietnam, but he opposed any such action before the South Vietnamese established security in their own territory. He reasoned that use of force in North Vietnam would likely provoke Hanoi’s dispatch of more forces to the South, a threat the South Vietnamese could not handle until it had defeated the Viet Cong.

After the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in early August, Congress gave President Johnson more authority to use American military force. Subsequently, North Vietnam began sending ever-increasing numbers of army units south and into the fight.

Eleven years after his departure from Vietnam, Harkins’ warning about ARVN’s inability to simultaneously fight guerrillas and regulars was realized. Following the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in 1973, COSVN, under General Tran Van Tra, began restoring badly depleted Communist guerrilla and local forces in preparation for the conquest of South Vietnam. By 1975, revitalized guerrilla forces had established forward depots containing 33,000 tons of ammunition, fuel and supplies for invading North Vietnamese units. During the March-April 1975 North Vietnamese push south, Communist guerrilla forces in South Vietnam seized many key routes, secured the northerners’ rear areas, blocked or defeated South Vietnamese local forces and prevented consolidation of ARVN forces for the defense of the Saigon perimeter by constant harassing attacks. As Harkins had predicted, the ARVN might be able to handle one or the other, but they were no match to the combination of guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars.

A decision to heed Harkins’ advice might well have avoided some of the huge costs in blood that followed his departure from South Vietnam as the use of force escalated, with both sides adding more and more forces in hopes of winning. American leaders not only sent ground forces, they also began a large-scale bombing campaign. The war in South Vietnam quickly became an American war with ARVN participation. The United States suffered 58,209 military deaths during the war. It is estimated that there were about 224,000 South Vietnamese military personnel killed in action, along with about 300,000 South Vietnamese civilians. No one knows the total Viet Cong deaths, but General Vo Nguyen Giap stated in 1969 that there were some 500,000 Communist soldiers who died during the conflict. The U.S. bombing campaign in North Vietnam resulted in an estimated 65,000 civilian deaths.

General Harkins’35-year Army career officially ended in August 1964. In retirement, he wrote a book on the U.S. Third Army in World War II and served as a technical consultant for the 1970 film, Patton. Harkins did not take part in the heated public controversy over the Vietnam War. He died at age 80 in August 1984.

Those close to him knew of his fondness for quoting from Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 poem about Western soldiers serving in Asia:

The end of the fight is a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased.
And the epitaph drear, a fool lies here
Who tried to hustle the East.

Kipling’s words may have indeed best summed up the old general’s take on the sad conflict that so tormented America.


Colonel Rod Paschall (U.S. Army, ret.) served with Special Forces in Vietnam (1962-63), Laos (1964), and in infantry and staff duties in Vietnam (1966-68) and Cambodia (1974-75). He has been director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, Army War College, and editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.