Weapons, Tactics, and Strategies

As the conclusion of World War II liberated Southeast Asia from Japanese domination, Indochinese Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh swiftly moved ahead with his political goal of a unified and independent Vietnam, proclaiming a Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. At the same time, however, France began reasserting its colonial rule in Indochina. Ho, previously allied with the United States–especially through its Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), against the Japanese, looked for support in his goal from the United States.

Although the United States had an overwhelming superiority in weapons throughout its military involvement in Vietnam, it ultimately lost the war because of its failure to find a strategy suitable for the political and geographical conditions of the conflict.

As the conclusion of World War II liberated Southeast Asia from Japanese domination, Indochinese Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh swiftly moved ahead with his political goal of a unified and independent Vietnam, proclaiming a Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. At the same time, however, France began reasserting its colonial rule in Indochina. Ho, previously allied with the United States–especially through its Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), against the Japanese, looked for support in his goal from the United States.

Political Considerations

With a Cold War developing between the United States and the Soviet Union, U.S. president Harry S. Truman chose not to risk a break with France and adopted a policy of what has been called “guarded neutrality.” The United States accepted France’s return to Indochina but required that aid to France not be used in Vietnam. As war in Korea threatened in 1950, the United States recognized the French-supported government of Emperor Bao Dai, the last emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, and made available both economic aid and military supplies.

The 1954 Geneva Conference, which ended the war between France and Ho’s Viet Minh, called for a partition of Indochina into four countries– North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia–and for an election no later than 1956 to unify the two Vietnams. The United States, however, assumed political control of South Vietnam from the French in 1955, when the American choice for president, Ngo Dinh Diem, replaced Bao Dai. Diem proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam in the south, and both he and the United States refused to be bound by the call for a reunification election, knowing that the North’s popular Ho Chi Minh would win.

North Vietnam, determined to conquer the South, had the political, financial, and technological support of the Soviet Union and China. The South Vietnamese government sought, with the support of the United States, to maintain its rule in the South. The United States government feared a so-called domino effect; if South Vietnam fell to communism, it reasoned, so would other nations in Asia, including India. Both North and South Vietnam were now markers in the Cold War conflict between the three superpowers–the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. During its long struggle in Vietnam, the United States remained hampered by Cold War concerns and the desire to avoid pushing either of the other superpowers into active engagement in the fighting.

Military Achievement

The crushing defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam in 1954 essentially brought the First Indochina War (1946–1954) to an end. However, Ho Chi Minh controlled only the northern half of Vietnam, and although the French had been forced out, the Americans had replaced them. Now the North Vietnamese turned their attention to undermining the South Vietnamese government and extracting such a high price for American involvement that the United States would withdraw.

The date often given for the beginning of the Second Indochina War, or what Americans call the Vietnam War, is 1956, the year in which the United States and Diem rejected the Geneva-mandated reunification elections. In 1959, North Vietnam’s Central Executive Committee formally changed the country’s approach from political to armed struggle. Remnants of the Viet Minh who had stayed in the South (the Viet Cong) were activated by the North Vietnamese Politburo.

The Viet Cong specialized in terrorist warfare against U.S. soldiers and South Vietnamese loyal to the Diem government. Their largest campaign was the Tet Offensive of 1968, which ended in the almost complete destruction of the Viet Cong infrastructure and the end of the Viet Cong as a significant military threat. From that point on, the war to unify the country was carried out primarily by traditionally organized North Vietnamese military forces.

U.S. president Richard M. Nixon, taking office in 1969, implemented the policy of Vietnamization, whereby the war effort would be turned over gradually to the South Vietnamese. The final American fighting forces withdrew from Vietnam in late March, 1973, following a January 27 peace agreement. The South Vietnamese were given some breathing room by many American victories, including the decimation of the Viet Cong forces and the disruption of communist staging areas and transportation routes in Cambodia by means of a 1969 bombing (Operation Menu) and a 1970 invasion. Nonetheless, the fall of Saigon eventually occurred, on April 30, 1975.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The French army in the First Indochina War was highly mechanized and had the support of such artillery pieces as 105-millimeter howitzers, 75-millimeter recoilless rifles, and heavy mortars. Quad-50 machine guns, consisting of four .50-caliber machine guns mounted together, were capable of great destruction. France also had fighters, fighter-bombers, and bombers, but only about one hundred planes altogether. The Viet Minh began its military efforts against the French with a ragtag collection of arms given them by the United States during World War II or captured from the French. Land mines proved useful against the French, as they would later against the Americans.

As the Korean War (1950–1953) neared its end, arms and other equipment began to flow into North Vietnam from the Soviets and Chinese. Soviet heavy-duty Molotova trucks proved invaluable for transporting arms and supplies. The Soviet Union provided rifles, machine guns, and a variety of heavier weapons, including 120-millimeter mortars, recoilless cannons, and bazookas.

Effective additions to Viet Minh uniforms were two large wire-mesh disks, one over the helmet, the other hanging from the back. The wire mesh was filled with foliage to hide the troops from both aerial and ground observation.

In the Second Indochina War, or the Vietnam War, the most powerful aerial weapon for the United States was the Strategic Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber, modified to carry thirty tons of conventional bombs and with a range of 7,500 miles. Leading fighter-bombers were the Air Force F-105 Thunderchief and the Navy and Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk. The top fighter plane was the F-4 Phantom, flown by the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Napalm, a jellied gasoline, was widely employed by the United States and South Vietnam in aerial bombs. The South Vietnamese Air Force, trained and supplied by the U.S., flew F-5 Freedom Fighters and A-37 Dragonfly fighter-bombers.

The North Vietnamese essentially had no air force until the mid-1960’s when China and the Soviet Union started supplying the North with MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 jet fighters.

The United States relied heavily on helicopters. The Huey utility helicopter (UH-1) was used to transport troops and supplies, evacuate wounded, and even attack the enemy when modified with heavy armaments. The primary attack helicopter was the AH-1 Cobra gunship, armed with a grenade launcher, machine guns, and rockets.

The U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet deployed attack carrier strike forces consisting of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and other vessels. American forces also had access to amphibious ships, swift inland boats to patrol rivers, and air-cushioned hovercraft (PACVs) and airboats for marshy areas.

Vo Nguyen Giap, the chief Viet Cong commander. (Library of Congress)

U.S. artillery included 105-millimeter towed artillery, 105-millimeter and 155-millimeter self-propelled howitzers, 175-millimeter guns, and 8-inch howitzers. The portable, shoulder-fired M72 Light Antitank Weapon (LAW) was used by Americans and South Vietnamese against tanks and bunkers. North Vietnam began to use medium and heavy artillery in the South during the 1970’s. Their artillery pieces ultimately included 76-millimeter, 85-millimeter, 100-millimeter, 122-millimeter, and 130-millimeter guns and howitzers.

Communist forces in the South had only machine guns and rifles to use against planes early in the war but near the end had Soviet SA-7 antiaircraft missiles and Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), the latter able to reach 85,000 feet. Another SAM, the Soviet SA-7, could be shoulder-fired.

Americans switched in 1967 from the heavy M-14 rifle to the lighter and shorter M-16, which used a smaller, 5.56-millimeter cartridge and could be fired either one shot at a time or fully automatically. The United States also armed the South Vietnamese with the new rifle. The most effective sniper weapon was a carefully modified version of the M-14, the M-14 National Match rifle (M-14NM) with the Limited War Laboratory’s adjustable ranging telescope (ART), possessing a range of more than 1,000 yards. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong used the Soviet AK-47 rifle, which was similar to the M-16.

Less conventional weapons included mines and booby traps. The United States and its allies used the antipersonnel Claymore mine, which could be detonated at a distance by closing an electrical circuit, and also did extensive mining from the air. The Viet Cong made widespread use of booby traps, ranging from sharpened bamboo stakes called pungi stakes to a variety of mines including the Bouncing Betty, which would bounce into the air when triggered and explode around waist height.

Military uniforms of generally standard types were worn by the regular forces. Although Viet Cong are associated with the black pajamas and sandals they sometimes wore in combat, they often mingled during the day with other South Vietnamese, wearing no uniform or other clothing that would set them apart.

Despite the often inhospitable terrain, the United States and South Vietnamese troops used tanks throughout the war, including the diesel-powered M48A3 Patton tank and the M42 Duster tank. The North Vietnamese, beginning in 1968, utilized Soviet-made T-34, T-54, and T-59 medium tanks as well as PT-76 amphibious tanks.

The United States made wide use of armored personnel carriers (APCs), especially the M-113 APC. The APCs were often altered to carry weapons and other cargo as well as troops, and with the addition of gun shields, extra armor, and machine guns, served as attack vehicles.

Military Organization

Both the French and communist forces used traditional patterns of organization such as battalions, regiments, and divisions. However, Viet Minh general Vo Nguyen Giap gave his commanders considerable flexibility regarding strategy and tactics, thus permitting quick decision making. French control remained more centralized along World War II models to coordinate armor, infantry, airpower, and parachute drops.

During the Second Indochina War, or Vietnam War, American decision making was fragmented, split along various vectors that included the president of the United States as commander in chief, the secretary of defense, the joint chiefs of staff, and the commander in chief of the Pacific Command (CINCPAC), the latter stationed in Honolulu and responsible for prosecution of the war.

The United States/Vietnam-based command and control entity after 1962 was MACV (U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam). As a “subordinate unified command,” MACV was required to seek approval from the Honolulu-based CINCPAC headquarters. Virtually all military control for the North Vietnamese was unified under Giap, who was a member of the ruling Politburo, minister of defense, and commander in chief of the armed forces. The United States divided South Vietnam into four tactical zones numbered, from north to south, I, II, III, and IV Corps. Air Force operations, except for Strategic Air Command B-52 actions, were carried out by the Seventh Air Force, with Naval operations conducted by the Seventh Fleet, both ultimately under CINCPAC.

The basic units of the U.S. Army were the squad, platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division, and corps, with minor differences in the Artillery and Marine Corps. Below the Seventh Air Force in Vietnam was the 834th Air Division, divided into wings, squadrons, and flights. A flight included about five aircraft. Marine and Naval air units were similarly organized.

The South Vietnamese Armed Forces were largely organized in the same manner as those of the United States but under the SVNAF Joint General Staff, which increasingly took direction from MACV. The South Vietnamese Regional Forces and Popular Forces, both civilian militias, also were under the Joint General Staff. The Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDGs), primarily Montagnards, were trained and usually led by U.S. Army Special Forces.

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were organized generally along the same lines as the U.S. forces, starting with divisions but including regiments rather than brigades. The Viet Cong had a party secretary and various supply, social welfare, and propaganda units. After Tet, remaining Viet Cong were organized into cadres under North Vietnamese control.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The primary doctrines that drove the First and Second Indochina Wars were colonialism, nationalism, communism, and democracy. At the conclusion of World War II, France sought to reestablish its colonial rule over Indochina. Ho Chi Minh, widely seen within his country and by the Americans as more of a nationalist than a communist, a perception the validity of which continues to be debated, sought to assert his vision of a unified and independent Vietnam. Ho’s triumph over the French in 1954 removed one colonial ruler but failed to unite all of Vietnam.

The Second Indochina War, or the Vietnam War, achieved Ho’s nationalist goal of unifying all of Vietnam, but as a communist nation. The United States throughout adopted the position of eschewing colonial domination while attempting to help South Vietnam secure permanent freedom as a democratic state, thus containing the spread of communism. These basic tenants led, affected by a variety of misconceptions, to the strategies and tactics adopted by the various warring parties.

The French tried to fight a war of attrition, believing they could wear down the Viet Minh. The French implemented this strategy by constructing hundreds of forts and pillboxes in northern Vietnam, which the Viet Minh simply went around whenever they chose. The French finally decided to adopt a more active strategy, which included cutting supply lines and luring the enemy into face-to-face battles. In the climactic manifestation of this policy, the French began in November, 1953, to establish a “mooring point” for French troops in a valley in northwestern Vietnam near the village of Dien Bien Phu. There the French established a defense perimeter, built two landing strips, and sent out patrols to cut supply lines to the enemy forces in Laos and engage the enemy in direct combat. Giap used Soviet-supplied trucks and large numbers of construction workers to enlarge a winding mountain road to permit transportation of heavy artillery into the surrounding mountains and began his assault on March 13, 1954. The battle, and effectively the war, ended on May 7.

The United States, during its Vietnam War, fused a war of attrition with both a limited war to contain communism and a misjudgment that the Viet Cong were engaged in an insurgency that could be opposed with counterinsurgency tactics. Because the United States never fully recognized that North Vietnam was the true enemy and that the Viet Cong were an arm of the North, its primary goals, which included supporting the South Vietnamese government and rooting out insurgent elements in the South, at best addressed only parts of the problem.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, given a free hand by the Gulf of Tonkin resolution (1964), began a steady buildup of American forces in Vietnam that numbered about 550,000 by 1968. The United States had thus abandoned its earlier advisory role and taken over primary direction and prosecution of the war.

To weaken the enemy’s resolve, the United States bombed the North in a campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder that lasted from 1965 until 1968. The bombing stopped in 1968 to encourage peace discussions but resumed in 1972 to push the communists toward serious negotiations. The United States also steadily bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in fruitless efforts to halt infiltration of men and materials into the South.

Airpower never achieved the major goals the United States set for it, but it did help win many battles in the South with bombing and close support for ground operations. Helicopters proved extremely effective in transporting men and supplies and evacuating the wounded. In addition, the bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and 1970 bought time for the South Vietnamese armed forces to try to improve their war capabilities.

On the ground, American forces attempted to engage the enemy in direct combat operations, which first occurred in the fall of 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley. Like most such encounters, the short-term effect was a victory for the Americans.

Counterinsurgency tactics included such pacification efforts as educational, medical, and economic-development programs and search-and-destroy operations such as Cedar Falls (1967) and Junction City (1967) to deny the Viet Cong access to the countryside and its people. The hammer-and-anvil tactic caught Viet Cong between forces already in place (the anvil) and forces sweeping in from the sides (the hammer). These operations cleared the land for a time, but the Viet Cong inevitably moved back in.

As a guerrilla force, the Viet Cong used such tactics as mines and booby traps with deadly effectiveness. They dug elaborate tunnel complexes that served as supply depots, hiding areas for troops, even field hospitals.

The Tet Offensive of 1968 was the result of the change in strategy on the part of the North Vietnamese to a wider armed struggle. In cities, towns, and hamlets, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched attacks on January 31, during the Vietnamese Tet holiday. In all locations, the communist forces were ultimately driven back. Although the Viet Cong suffered massive losses and ceased to be a major player in the war, Americans were unaware of the magnitude of their defeat. Instead, seeing attacks all across South Vietnam convinced Americans that the war was going badly. In 1969 President Nixon instituted a new strategy called Vietnamization, which meant getting the United States out of the war and turning the fighting over to the South Vietnamese.

With a plan to capture as much territory as possible before a final peace agreement, the North Vietnamese army launched attacks against provincial and district capitals throughout much of South Vietnam in the spring of 1972. Like Tet, the offensive was a military defeat for the North but a psychological victory, demonstrating how dependent the South Vietnamese were on U.S. support.

By 1975 the North Vietnamese army had twice as many tanks as the South Vietnamese, and the more than 25,000 North Vietnamese troops in the Central Highlands were easily reinforced from the North. The U.S. failure to recognize North Vietnam as the central enemy had led to peace with the supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail still functioning and the war production effort in the North unimpeded after 1973. The strategic definition of the war as counterinsurgency and the principle of containment, along with fear that movement of U.S. forces into the North might trigger a war between superpowers, meant there would be no invasion by U.S. forces. The United States had by neither force nor negotiation been able to drive the communists out of the South. The United States had the military might but not the strategy, and therefore not the tactics, to defeat the enemy.

With the expectation that the March, 1975, offensive would be both a prelude to a final triumph the following year and a test to see whether the United States would intervene, the North began its military push on March 11 with a victory at Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands. South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu decided to abandon the Central Highlands, and the North Vietnamese drove to the sea, cutting South Vietnam in half. The northern provinces fell, Thieu resigned on April 21, and on April 30, the new president, General Duong Van Minh surrendered.