SOME VIETNAM WAR ISSUES REVISITED:

THE ROLE PLAYED BY ARVN

Nguyen Ngoc Bich

            The Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University organized its 2006 annual conference on the theme of “ARVN: Reflections and Reassessments after Thirty Years” at the Holiday Park Plaza in Lubbock, TX, last March 17 and 18.  The conference, the first of its kind, focuses on the role and performance of the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam, a long-overdue assessment.  The following paper was given by Prof. Nguyen Ngoc Bich as the Luncheon keynote on the first day of the Conference.

            The Vietnam War is almost 31 years behind us now.  Claims have been made that we have put that conflict to rest, that we have “beaten” the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome” and the two peoples, Vietnamese and Americans, have made heroic efforts to put that war behind us.  How true is that?  And have we really succeeded?

            It seems that to this day, we are still struggling with words to describe that conflict—the longest conflict in the history of the United States.  The Vietnam War lasted longer than the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War combined, so how could we forget it so easily?  The wounds are too deep and in the last two presidential elections the Vietnam-era experience still formed the basis on which the electorate judged the character of such candidates as Bill Clinton or, even more recently, President George W. Bush and his rival, John Kerry.

Words can play tricks sometimes

            The war in Vietnam sometimes is a word trap.  Much too often it is described as a war between the United States and Vietnam, as if there were cleanly only two sides, the Americans on the one hand and the Vietnamese on the other.  Such a reduction clearly will not do since by virtue of this conference alone, we are recognizing that there were at least two Vietnamese sides to the war, usually known in Vietnamese as “Quốc-Cộng,” Nationalists vs. Communists—a basic definition that was accepted by both sides in the Vietnamese conflict and only got blurred in recent years by the co-optation by Hanoi of the term “Quốc gia” in some of their institutions.  This is a mistake that is made not only by the common people, it is all too often made even by intellectuals and academics, and most recently, it was even made by President Bush and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when both of them answered in interviews that the South Vietnamese did not do enough to fight for themselves.  This, I think, is the very raison d’être of the present conference.  Was South Vietnam a legitimate government and state, and did ARVN fight?

            Years ago, at the height of the conflict, I had a quarrel with my good old friend, Douglas Pike, whose passing away a few years back we all mourned, about a rather simple word, Viet Cong.  Taken etymologically, “Viet” is short for “Vietnam” or “Vietnamese” and “Cong,” of course, means “Communist(s).”

            Used by Vietnamese, North and South, it is simply just that.  “Viet Cong” were and still are “Vietnamese Communists,” meaning that no Vietnamese, for practical purposes or in fighting, made a distinction between a NVA (North Vietnamese Army) unit and a Viet Cong unit.  In battle they both shoot at you, and you’d better shoot back and not waste too much of your time making a difference between a NVA regular, who usually was in uniform, and a VC who might not be in uniform but who still handled an AK47 and shot just as skillfully as his NVA counterpart.  Does anyone think that the other side, NVA or VC, would try to make a difference between shooting down an American and an ARVN soldier?

            Yet for the longest time, in discussing the Vietnam War, the Americans have tried to make that difference, and Doug was the leading authority on that basic distinction with his famous book, Viet Cong (MIT, 1966).  In doing so, Doug and his followers—and there are many, even sitting today in this room, I am afraid—bought one of the basic contentions of the enemy, that the war, at least in South Vietnam, was originally an internal rebellion fueled by apparently legitimate and purely southern grievances against the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem.  In so doing, the war, say between 1959 and 1975, was artificially delinked from what went on before and what went on after those two dates.

“Vietnam War” or “Indochina War”

            In the U.S., the Vietnam War is seen as lasting eight years from 1965 to 1973.  But, of course, it is well known that American involvement dates from well before and lasts well after these two dates.  Now we know, for instance, that the war in Vietnam went from 1945 to at least September 1989 as part of a larger conflict that physically was fought in no less than three countries: Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  And if we consider Vietnam to be two countries (North and South), a de facto and even de jure situation in international life from 1954 to 1975, then the conflict was carried out in four countries—something fully reflected in the way Hanoi divided the theaters involved, all under the same command:

            North Vietnam was Theater A

            South Vietnam was Theater B

            Laos was Theater C

            And Cambodia was Theater D.

            The French also were more realistic than the Americans when they rarely call the war in Vietnam “la guerre du Vietnam.”  Instead, they call it, for purposes of periodization:

            “La première guerre d’Indochine,” the First Indochina War, 1946-54;

            “La deuxième guerre d’Indochine,” the Second Indochina War, equivalent to the period of main American participation, 1954-75; and

            “La troisième guerre d’Indochine,” the Third Indochina War, which included two phases, the Border War with China (February-March 1979), and the Occupation of Cambodia (December 1978-September 1989).

            Conscious as they were of not enlarging the conflict, for fear of involvement by China and, to a lesser extent, by the Soviet Union, the various American administrations, with the exception of Eisenhower, who in his memoirs, Mandate for Change, still used the term “Indochina” instead of Vietnam, to the end insisted on calling it the “Vietnam War.”  By so doing, they yielded to a certain reality on the ground but blurred many other essential distinctions: if Hanoi was free to roam and fight outside of North Vietnam’s borders, in Theaters B, C and D, the United States and its ally, South Vietnam, were easily seen as transgressing the borders of Vietnam when they brought the war to the enemy in Laos (as in Operation Lam Son 719) or to Cambodia (as from 1970 to 1973).

            And yet nobody, to my knowledge, insists on calling the war in Vietnam the “South Vietnam War.”  Why?  Because instinctively, one could say that it feels right to be able to retaliate against Hanoi for some of its actions in the South—such as the bombing over North Vietnam to interdict troop movements into the South.  Thus it was almost artificial that the U.S. in 1964 had need of a Maddox incident to justify its bringing the war to North Vietnam through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

“Aggression from the North” (1961, 1965)

            This is crucial in terms of legitimacy of one’s cause, the cause of South Vietnam and the United States, if there had been, as claimed by the 1961 U.S. State Department White Paper, “aggression from the North.”  A follow-up White Paper claims the same, with much more documentation, in 1965.  It should be noted that one of the major anti-war voices in the mid-1960s, I.F. Stone in Ramparts, spared no time or ink to debunk the idea that there was “aggression from the North.”  This obviously meant that even in I.F. Stone’s mind, as well as in the mind of many other anti-war leaders, should this claim be substantiated, then the U.S. and Saigon had a legitimate basis for fighting that “aggression”—it was no mere local rebellion based on local grievances against the government in the South.

            Now we know.  When asked about the sham nature of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the famous “NLF” of anti-war chants), its leaders being no more than figureheads, Nguyen Khac Vien, probably the best known intellectual figure of North Vietnam in the West, laughed out loud in 1977 on French television: “Hey, weren’t we good at the deception?”

            But we have more than Vien’s rhetorical question to prove the “aggression from the North.”  In a draft official history of the war “against the U.S. for national salvation,”(1) completed in 1986—the copy I have seen has the notation “General Vo Nguyen Giap’s copy” on it—the record was set straight when it is written therein (on page 28): “In accordance with the line taken by the [Third Party] Congress, on 20 December 1960, the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam was created.”  

More concretely even and of more relevance to our topic, the following figures came from another document taken from the Ministry of Defense in Hanoi, which still bears the remark “Lưu Trữ” meaning, “To Keep in the Files”:

NUMBER OF TROOPS SENT FROM THE NORTH

TO BEEF UP TROOPS IN THE SOUTH

(Fresh Troops*)

Figures taken from K4 documents kept at central headquarters,

Ministry of National Defense

Troops sent South

From the North

[Remarks]

                1,217

                1,759**

                5,521

                7,293

                8,719

              17,475

              39,008**

              46,796

              54,794

              94,243

            141,081

            336,914**

              81,092

              52,090

              49,321

            152,974

            335,477**

              75,600

              70,798

            117,293

            263,691**

Figures are missing for the 1965-1975 period for Theaters B3 and B4 (several tens of thousands of troops).

Furthermore, there were also units transferred to B Theater with full equipment and fully deployed.  These units are not counted here [possibly because they were based in the North and only temporarily deployed to the South.- Translator’s note], one must check with the Organization and Mobilization Department.

            976,849

*  The Vietnamese term used here, “Tân Binh,” is ambiguous since it could mean both “New Recruits” and “Fresh Troops.”  I have chosen to translate by the latter term since these are fresh troops introduced into the South, who went in their full formations (battalions or larger units), and not just new draftees.  Two further remarks are called for here: One is that these “fresh troops” went south for the duration of the war, hence the very common motto “Sinh Bắc, tử Nam” (“Born in the North [to] die in the South”), an open secret sometimes even tattooed on one’s arm or chest.  Secondly, the writer Vũ Thư Hiên told me that it was not at all uncommon at the time to sometimes have two units with the same name, say the 302nd Division, one fighting in the South and one held in reserve in the North in case it had to go south and replace the other.  This, of course, could discomfit those in charge of following the battle formations of the enemy.

**  In the original chart, these numbers are found in the same column as copied here.  However, if added to the numbers found right above them for the same year, they would amount to half a million each for 1968 (Tet Offensive) and 1972 (Easter Offensive),  figures that would seem to be rather excessive.  That is why an alternate reading has been suggested which apparently is the case here: these double-asterisked figures are simply subtotals for the periods preceding them. 

            As can be seen from the table, whose figures are admittedly incomplete, there were already 79,775 NVA troops committed to the South between 1959 and 1964, before U.S. combat troops were engaged in large numbers.  These numbers alone, added of course to the tens of thousands of NLF troops recruited and trained in the South, help to refute the contention that the ARVN did not fight before U.S. combat troops were committed to the battles in South Vietnam (March 1965).

“Their Lions, Our Rabbits”?

            In fact, even with such a large deployment of troops to the southern battlefield, the equivalent of nearly nine NVA divisions, the communist troops did not feel confident enough to engage in large unit battles.  The first battalion-size battle did not take place until Ap Bac (January 1963) but the communist side took care to build up its forces in the South before engaging the Americans.  This was because Giap was extremely wary of the capabilities of U.S. intervention(2) while, upon the overthrow of President Diem, Hanoi under the increasing influence of Le Duan foolhardily decided to bring about a “decisive transformation in the balance of power” between the two sides (December 1963).

            By the time the NVA decided to engage the Americans in large numbers (in the battles of Van Tuong-Starlite, August 1965, and Ia Drang, November 1965(3)), their troop strength in South Vietnam already stood at well over 120,000, not counting their southern auxiliaries. (Bui Tin, therefore, gives us a slight underestimate when he claims that even by 1966, “the number of NVA soldiers we had infiltrated into South Vietnam did not quite reach 120,000.”(4)  By 1966, in actuality, the NVA number in the South had already reached over 182,000 troops not counting those “fully equipped units” temporarily assigned to Theaters B3 and B4.)

            With the highlights of the war action shifting to the Americans and the RVN troops more and more relegated to defensive positions (during General Westmoreland’s watch), no wonder that the American media, which had never had a very keen interest in covering the war from the point of view of the ARVN anyway, started badmouthing the main ally in the war, further delegitimizing the allied side.  The worst stab in the back of the ARVN came in October 1967 when Newsweek flashed on its cover the lead article, “Their Lions, Our Rabbits,”(5) which said it all.

            This disregard, not to say contempt, of the main ally in the war was reflected even in the equipment that was transferred to the ARVN.  If by January 1968 for the Tet Offensive the communist troops, both NVA and NLF units, had all been equipped with AK47s only the elite units of the ARVN (Marine and Paratrooper divisions, plus some Ranger units) were similarly equipped with M16s (the equivalent of the AK47 but said by some to be not as reliable), the rest of ARVN being issued nothing more than World War II vintage Garant M1s.

            Yet under equipped as they were, the ARVN gave a superb account of themselves in that major nation-wide battle of the war.(6)  Twenty-five out of a total of 44 provinces,(7) including the three major cities of Saigon, Da Nang and Hue, were attacked in a surprise general offensive that covered the entire territory of South Vietnam, at a time of cease-fire traditional throughout the war, which means that most of the ARVN-held posts were undermanned.  Nonetheless, in spite of the initial surprise which normally should favor the enemy, the ARVN repulsed the attacks throughout the land and within 48 hours, with the exception of Hue (part of which was held by the NVA for 25 days), dealt a crushing blow to the enemy.  Hanoi tried to follow up what was described as “an occasion that happened only once in a thousand years” (“nghìn năm một thuở”) with two more waves, one in May and one in August-September of that year, but that was seen as militarily desperate moves—something admitted even by observers on the communist side.  The result was that Hanoi, in that one campaign, suffered 58,373 fatalities(8)—in absolute terms comparable to the total amount of American losses throughout the entire war—and 9461 taken prisoner.

Misreadings

            That the Tet Offensive was a miserable military failure on the part of the communists is something that no one, even on the communist side and up to now, disputes.  Bui Tin wrote: “After the offensive, the Americans and Saigon launched an immediate counteroffensive throughout the South accompanied by quick pacification, resulting in some of the greatest losses for our side in all of 1968, 1969, and 1970…  1968 and 1969 were extremely difficult years for our side, and those difficulties lasted into 1970-71; we did not recover until 1972.”(9)

            Yet that miserable failure on the part of the enemy came to be seen as a “defeat” on the Allied side (mostly due to the American press(10)) and led to one of the most fateful decisions of the war, the withdrawal of Lyndon B. Johnson as presidential candidate for a second term in November 1968.  This, of course, irreversibly changed the course of the war as Hanoi could easily read that the Americans have reached the limit of their commitment and were now ready to scale down and “sue” for peace—in Paris.

            Everything that followed could only be ways to extricate the U.S. from the “Vietnam quagmire”: No more escalation (the troop level reached its peak of 549,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam in 1969 then got scaled down), Nixon’s Vietnamization (launched in the same year), Kissinger’s understandings with Moscow and Beijing (he flatly told Zhou Enlai in 1970 that the U.S. was ready to withdraw unilaterally from Vietnam if need be, leaving South Vietnam to its fate),(11) by the time of the Easter Offensive (1972) the U.S. combat troops were reduced to 65,000 and no longer allowed in battle, Nixon’s hands were further weakened by the War Powers Act (no more bombing of Cambodia), then the U.S. troops were actually drawn down so that by January 1973 there was no more U.S. combat personnel in the country, the oil crisis of 1973 which in one stroke cut down in half the amount of gasoline that Saigon could buy with U.S. money, and finally the total abandonment of South Vietnam by the U.S. Congress following the Watergate scandal (1974).

            But even as the U.S. was abandoning ship like that, the ARVN gave some excellent account of themselves, fighting off near nation-wide attacks known as the Easter Offensive of 1972.  Not only did the Vietnamese Marines write some of their most glorious pages in the military annals of Vietnam by fighting inch by inch in order to take back the near totality of the province of Quang Tri (the retaking of the Old Citadel in Quang Tri can be likened to Iwo Jima in World War II) and the defense of An Loc to the north of Saigon by militiamen, ruff-puff (regional and popular forces), ARVN regular infantry and paratroopers under intense shelling by the enemy and wave after wave of tank attacks has been called the “Stalingrad of Vietnam” by an American reporter, P.C. Clarke, the “battle that saved Saigon.”(12)  There were those, of course, who tried to give the credit for the An Loc battle to just the air support given by U.S. B52s but who has ever heard of just bombs holding territory(13) and fighting off the enemy?

Mistakes were made

            Like in all wars, mistakes were made and there was also the element of chance, which could cause havoc but is usually unpredictable.  Then there was the proverbial patience of the Orient as found in the Vietnamese (on both sides) vs. the impatience and decisiveness of the American character once it had made up its mind to “cut-and-run.”  Given such character, no smooth landing was possible.  In the end, the abandonment of Saigon by the U.S. (Congress and the media, then finally President Ford) helped serve victory on a silver platter to Hanoi, a totally undeserved victory, which is why, to this day, Vietnam is still suffering the consequences of 1975: war until 1989 (i.e. 14 years later), the “boat people” tragedy which led to the development of the 3-million strong Vietnamese Diaspora around the world, and the plague of communism that still gives shudders to those who thought back to the years of privation and misery preceding Doi Moi (1986).

            Yes, mistakes—military ones, too—were made and there was probably no greater mistake than the decision by President Nguyen Van Thieu, which was not fully thought out, to abandon the Central Highlands after Ban Me Thuot was attacked in March 1975.  Confusion aplenty also occurred in the case of Military Region I and Hue: Ngo Quang Truong, one of the best generals in the South Vietnamese army, was told to abandon Hue (when it was still defensible) then countermanded at the last minute (told to hold on at all cost) when everything had become hopeless.  Yet, at the level of the foot soldier, the ARVN still fought valiantly in some cases: the paratroopers around Don Duong, the infantry around Sa Huynh, and especially the admirable defense of Xuan Loc by the 18th Division (under General Le Minh Dao) against three NVA divisions, almost right at the gate of Saigon. 

            So if there was a need to blame—I for one do not believe that such an exercise is very useful—there was plenty to blame on others than the ARVN, even though like any other army it had its weak units and its strong divisions, its fine leaders and its poor generals.  Even the casualties it took is an expression of those troops’ dedication and their courage: the casualty figures given by Bui Tin for the 1961-75 period were 230,466 NVA dead after they were introduced from the North and southern Communist fatalities as 51,532, plus 300,000 MIAs, for a rough total of 600,000; the so-called “rabbits” and their American allies eliminated those 600,000 “lions” with a loss of 230,000 ARVN fatalities and 58,000 U.S. personnel, or roughly at a ratio of one for two.(14)  And this irregardless of whether the individual battles involved were victories or defeats depending on one’s definition.

Need for a fresher reading of the war

            In fact, the debate about the lessons of Vietnam is far from over.  For one thing, the war blew away all sorts of myths about the “guerrilla war” that it was supposed to be: for instance, there was Sir Robert Thompson’s formula learned from the Malayan emergency that one needed a ratio 10 to 1(15) in order to fight effectively a guerrilla war.  Since this ratio was never obtained in Vietnam, does that mean that it was doomed from the start?  I think that the above casualty figures and the up-and-downs of the conflict show that there was not much reality to that ratio.

            Then there was the question of how limited the Vietnam conflict was supposed to be.  True, we did not have to go to nuclear weapons (as it was discussed earlier in 1954 in reference to Dien Bien Phu) and even the enemy never had air power to use in the South until almost the very end, but was Vietnam just a local conflict or a regional one?  We have touched upon this earlier but it could be said that not only a regional perspective(16) makes more sense, and that in some way to see it as a world contest between the two Cold War blocs was even a better way of reading that conflict. 

            On this question, we have no better testimony than the one given by Bui Tin: “At first I thought the war was a simple struggle for national independence…  It [turns out that it] is not easy to assert that the war was right or wrong; a good or bad cause; a nationalist struggle or an imperialist aggression; a facet of the cold war or the hot war; an ideological war or simply a territorial grab; a national, religious, or class struggle; a sacred war or a blitzkrieg; a mistake or a crime.

            “When I was… young…, I took it for granted that ours was a sacred and righteous cause, that… it was a national salvation effort…  At a later stage, when I had been further educated and indoctrinated by the Communist Party to become a faithful Communist, I saw the struggle as a war waged to protect the whole socialist camp… against U.S.-led ‘imperialist aggression.’  … We became inebriated with those ideals and threw ourselves into the struggle.  Here I am, each of us thought, holding my gun and standing on the very forefront of the socialist camp, of all progressive mankind, fulfilling both my national obligations and my international duty.”(17)

            Only an international reading of the Vietnam War(18) could explain the persistent popularity of that conflict in some quarters, and only a Cold War interpretation can explain the support given by both the Soviet Union, China and other members of the international communist bloc throughout the war.  Now we know that Soviet weaponry (including tanks and MiGs) was the backbone of the NVA equipment and that Soviet air intelligence was involved, that a variety of Chinese troops (mostly engineering troops and anti-aircraft units, numbered at 320,000 by Chinese sources) were involved in tours of duty stationing in North Vietnam, that some 801 North Korean pilots were engaged in direct combat with U.S. fighters(19) over North Vietnam’s air space, that the East German STASI trained Hanoi’s security forces, that Kalashnikovs all came from Czechoslovakia, and that Cuban interrogators were used in exploiting U.S. POWs.  With the U.S. troops withdrawn from Vietnam, the international cover blew up on the communist side: Beijing effectively became a pro-temp ally of the U.S. in facing the Soviet threat and soon, three erstwhile communist “allies” were at each other’s throats (China, Vietnam, and Cambodia).  This was no doubt a major factor that eventually brought down the Soviet bloc.

            So it became the tragic fate of South Vietnam and its armed forces, despite their heroism(20) and sacrifices, to fall victims of the Cold War but it could also be said that their suffering and sacrifices were not in vain.  The Vietnam War, in fact, saved the world in the Cold War era from a higher-level hot conflict that could have engulfed the whole world.

Notes

Viện Lịch sử quân sự Việt Nam [Vietnam Institute of Military History], Tóm tắt Dự thảo Tổng kết cuộc kháng chiến chống Mỹ cứu nước của dân tộc Việt Nam (“A Summary Draft on Summing Up the Vietnamese Nation’s Anti-U.S. Resistance for National Salvation,”) Hà Nội, 1986.

Bui Tin, From Enemy to Friend: A North Vietnamese Perspective on the War, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002, page 14.  “I well remember Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s pronouncement to some Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People’s Army) reporters back in 1965: ‘If the Americans bring in only 140,000-150,000 troops, we already have quite a task on our hands in the southern battlefield.  If the number tops 200,000 or more we will have an extremely serious situation unfavorable to our side.’ ”  It was pronouncements like this which led to the rumor, spread by rival Le Duan’s clique and maintained even in Tran Phuong’s memoir written in 1991, that Giap was at heart a “coward.”

The battle of Ia Drang is most extraordinarily retold in all its gruesome and glorious details in We Were Soldiers Once… and Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, New York: HarperTorch, 1992, which did justice to both the U.S. army and its North Vietnamese enemy.  But Ia Drang was preceded by the battle of Plei Me, fought entirely by ARVN, which blunted the massive attempt made by the NVA to try to cut South Vietnam into two halves, from around Pleiku down to Qui Nhon.  Plei Me, however, is unsung in American accounts of the war simply because it was not an American action.  See Tin Nguyen’s presentation, “The Truth about the Plei Me Battle,” at the Vietnam Center Conference on the ARVN, March 17-18, 2006.

Bui Tin, ibid., page 14.

Perry, M.D., “Their Lions, Our Rabbits,” Newsweek, October 9, 1967.

Palmer, Dave R., Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective, San Rafael, Ca: Presidio Press, 1978.  Although Palmer faults the U.S.-South Vietnam side for intelligence failures before the Tet attacks, a point disputed by other authors, he nonetheless concludes: “Believing that they would be greeted as liberators and hoping to see the dissolution of the ARVN, the communist leaders were frustrated on both counts.  The ARVN, although caught unawares and at half-strength or even less, fought like they never fought before.  Instead of bringing about the disintegration of the Saigon forces, the general offensive had the contrary effect of reinforcing the ARVN ranks.  Fighting to defend their homes and cities, the South Vietnamese soldiers showed a high and mighty fighting spirit that surprised all observers, especially the NVA.  The general uprising turned out to be a total myth. The South Vietnamese population did not step forward to greet their Spring guests.  They stood up instead in panic to oppose the aggressors.”

This figure is a conservative estimate, which did not include those provinces where no major attacks occurred.  John Prados, The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995, page 142, quotes much higher figures: “North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units committed between 67,000 and 84,000 troops in attacks on 39 of 44 provincial capitals, 71 district seats, Saigon, every ARVN headquarters and several major air bases—altogether some 166 cities and towns.”  Phillip B. Davidson, in Vietnam at War, The History 1946-1975, Oxford University Press, 1991, page 447, also said: “The overwhelming weakness of Giap’s plan was to base it on assumptions which turned out to be not just invalid, but dead wrong.  ARVN did not defect, desert, or dissolve under the hammer blows of the Communists at Tet.  ARVN, as a whole, fought with more courage and effectiveness than it had ever done before or would do again.  The people did not join the Vietcong attackers; they did not revolt against the Thieu government; and they did not turn against the Americans.”

Nguyễn Đức Phương, Chiến tranh Việt Nam Toàn Tập: Từ trận đầu (Ấp Bắc – 1963) đến trận cuối (Sài Gòn – 1975) (“A Complete History of the Vietnam War, from the first major engagement, Ap Bac – 1963, to the final battle, Saigon – 1975”), Toronto, Canada: Làng Văn, 2001, page 407, quoting from the official RVN version of the battle, Phạm Văn Sơn and Lê Văn Dương, Cuộc Tổng Công Kích – Tổng Khởi Nghĩa của Việt Cộng Mậu Thân 1968 (“The Communist General Offensive and General Uprising of Mau Than 1968”), Saigon: Phòng 5/BTTM, 1968.  It should be said that John Prados considers this last work to be the best contemporary detailed account in any language of the Tet offensive.  The standard account in English of this campaign and its subsequent actions from the point of view of ARVN is given in Hoang Ngoc Lung, The General Offensives of 1968-69 (Washington, D.C.: Center for Military History, 1981).

Bui Tin, ibid., pages 63-64.  The official history mentioned in footnote 1 above gives the following assessment on page 97: “[It can be seen] that through what took place in the two years of 1969 and 1970, in the face of determined enemy counteroffensives aimed at our loosened grasp of the countryside and of the highlands, which had many gaps, the enemy obtained some successes while inflicting upon us protracted difficulties.”  One could cite several other communist sources such as the memoirs of Tran Van Tra (general commander of the NLF troops), Le Minh (the commander of the Hue battle), Hoang Van Hoan (Politburo member who fled to China in 1979), etc.  All of them are agreed that Tet 1968 set back the North’s conquest of the South by at least four years.  Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, writing in the November/December 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs (“Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam”), believes that ARVN did not lose one single major battle from 1968 until the final collapse.  In his estimation, Tet 1968 was a “victory” for the South and a “military disaster” for the North costing it “289,000 casualties” in 1968 alone.

For all the terrible misconstructions of the truth about Tet 1968, one should consult Peter Braestrup’s monumental work, Big Story, 2 vols, Denver, CO: Westview Press, 1977.  The one-volume abridged edition of this work (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), unfortunately, does not contain the chapter in the fuller version in which Braestrup describes how three American reporters who took time out to go into operations with ARVN all had positive things to report about the ARVN units they covered.  Davidson, op. cit., pages 483-492, gives a summary of the effect of the press on the conduct of the war which he characterizes as “a flash flood of confusion and dismay, overwhelming all who would attempt to guide or stem it.” (page 483)

Kissinger’s exact statement to Zhou Enlai came to light recently after the minutes of secret talks held in Beijing were declassified and sent to the National Archives.

Clarke, P.C., “The Battle That Saved Saigon: An Loc,” Reader’s Digest, March 1973, pages 151-156.  On the accuracy and balance of American media reporting on the ARVN, one could cite the otherwise superb book, Reporting Vietnam, American Journalism 1959-1975 (New York: The Library of America, 2000, 853 pages), the sixty-one pieces of which contain only seven on ARVN and only one of them somewhat complimentary.  In fact, the one on the Easter Offensive of 1972 by John Saar in Life (April 28, 1972), “Report from the Inferno,” had this to say from An Loc at the height of the battle, put though through the voice of “a junior U.S. adviser”: “Things are getting worse and worse and the Vietnamese just aren’t doing anything.  The smell inside the town got so bad they bulldozed a mass grave for 300 dead ARVN.  The NVA shelled the hospital and destroyed it with captured 155s and killed 61.  Now they don’t have a hospital or enough medical supplies and there are 500 to 600 ARVN wounded they can’t get out.”  The “Chronology” at the end of the book (page 787) told a different story as it had this for 1972: “North Vietnamese launch massive invasion of South Vietnam (‘Easter Offensive’) on March 30, using hundreds of tanks, truck-drawn heavy artillery pieces, and surface-to-air missiles in cross-border attacks into Quang Tri, Binh Long [where An Loc was located, emphasis added.- NNB], and Kontum provinces…  Binh Long offensive begins with capture of Loc Ninh, April 4-6…  North Vietnamese move south from Loc Ninh and surround An Loc on April 7…  South Vietnamese repulse attack on An Loc on April 13 with intense U.S. air support…  South Vietnamese repulse attacks on An Loc, May 11-14.”  ARVN likewise kicked the NVA out of Kontum, May 14-30, broke the siege on An Loc on July 11 and retook most of Quang Tri province by September 15.  It should be recalled also that at the peak of the fighting, An Loc, which was about 6 km2, received up to 30,000 enemy shells per day.  To get one of the most gripping accounts of the battle of An Loc, one must read Phan Nhật Nam’s Mùa Hè Đỏ Lửa (“Summer of Fire,” Saigon, 1972) and a diary written during the battle by a Vietnamese military doctor that became available only a few years ago.

After the battle of An Loc was over, the American press made a strong case for B52 bombings as the determinant factor in repulsing the communist attacks.  However, in one of the Letters to the Editor carried by the Washington Post, a Vietnamese student then in the U.S., Nguyen Thi Ngan, refuted that assertion by challenging anyone to show that bombs could ever hold territory.

Lewy, Guenther, America in Vietnam, Oxford University Press, 1978.  See, in particular, the appendices for comparative figures.  It should be noted that in an interview granted to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in Interviews with History in 1972, Vo Nguyen Giap already admitted to losing half a million men in the war up to then.

Thompson, Robert, Defeating Communist Insurgency, Frederick A. Praeger, 1966, page 48. 

Brackman, Arnold, The Third Front in Southeast Asia, 1967.  It was Brackman’s contention that in late 1964 the U.S. and its allies were confronting a situation known as the vertical axis which was forming linking Beijing to Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Djakarta.  Had the communist putsch in Indonesia the following year succeeded, it would have turned China into the dominant power in East and Southeast Asia.  It was probably this fear which decided Johnson and the British to intervene decisively to break up that axis by a quick horizontal move: the British brought in paratroopers to help Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo defeat Sukarno’s konfrontasi policy while the U.S. despatched combat troops to Vietnam and the CIA later that year helped the Indonesian generals to crush the communist plot before it could hatch.  Seen in that light, U.S. intervention in Vietnam saved much of Southeast Asia from communism until today and likely forever, thus changing the course of world history.

Bui Tin, ibid., pages 4-5.

Smith, Ralph, An International History of the Vietnam War, London: MacMillan, Vol. I (1983), Vol. II (1985).  Apparently, Volume III is already out but I am unable to get hold of a copy.  Ralph Smith, unfortunately, died before he could complete the work that would go to four volumes altogether.  However, after the fall of Communism in Soviet Russia in 1991, many archives of the USSR became accessible for research and Ralph Smith felt that some of his earlier conclusions were no longer valid and needed to be corrected.  Despite all of that, his approach to the Vietnam War as an international conflict pitting East and West is more than justified.

In private conversations and in a variety of written communications, Bui Tin disputes these figures.  He believes that the Chinese count each tour of duty as one soldier involved, so that the 320,000 figure does not refer to 320,000 individuals so much as it is comparable to the figure of 2.8 million U.S. troops which had been rotated in and out of Vietnam.  He also pooh-poohs their effectiveness saying that the Chinese anti-aircraft units did not shoot down one single American plane and claims that the Korean pilots had so much difficulty communicating with ground control (because there was no common language) that it became hopeless.  This, even if true, does not eliminate the fact that the Chinese troops stationed in the late 1960s in North Vietnam north of Bac Giang to the Chinese border did allow for the release many large NVA units for use in offensives in the South.  In fact, this was precisely what Ho Chi Minh himself argued, in a one-on-one conversation with Mao in 1965, when he pleaded for the sending of these Chinese troops to Vietnam (Woodrow Wilson Center, 77 Conversations, which were produced as part of the Cold War History Project).  Bui Tin provides extra proof of North Korean involvement when he told me that besides the inefficient pilots, there were also North Koreans sent to I Corps to try psychological warfare on South Korean troops, trying to win them over to the communist cause by encouraging them to defect.  But here too, the North Koreans were totally incompetent and soon had to be dismissed.

Recent official figures from Hanoi seem to give an even higher rate of casualties.  The “Chronology” found in Reporting Vietnam, on page 793, has this to say about the losses of the two Vietnamese sides: “South Vietnam lost at least 220,000 military dead… In 1995 the Vietnamese government [i.e. Hanoi] stated that 1,100,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers died between 1954 and 1975.”  This would change the ratio of ARVN deaths to NVA/VC deaths to at least 1 to 4.  Thus it would appear to be odd indeed that an army often seen as incompetent or reluctant to fight would end up killing that four times more “lion”-like enemies!

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