THE BATTLE OF HUE 1968 AS SEEN FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF ITS NVA COMMANDER
Nguyen Ngoc Bich
Presented at the Vietnam Center Sixth Triennial Vietnam Symposium, March 13-15, 2008
Forty years ago, the Communists, in an attempt to reverse the fortune of war that was not going in their favor during 1966-67, launched the spectacular Tet Offensive(1) of January-February 1968 that became for them a military disaster of major proportions. By their very own admissions, the enormous losses incurred, over 48,000 (41,000 dead and 7,000 taken prisoner) out of an attacking force of 84,000, put their war efforts back by at least three (according to Tran Van Tra) to five years (Bui Tin).(2) In fact, the result of 1968, if one includes this first phase with the two subsequent ones, one in May and one in August, was even more telling: it effectively eliminated the southern military component of the communist war apparatus in South Vietnam.(3)
The only place where the Tet Offensive lasted more than a few days was in Hue, the old imperial capital, where the Communists managed to hold on for 25 days(4) against enormous odds thanks to their entrenched positions within the fortified walls of the Citadel. It was after a visit to Hue that Walter Cronkite, reporting from Vietnam, called the war «unwinnable.»(5) «If I’ve lost Cronkite,» lamented President L.B. Johnson, «I’ve lost middle America.»(6) By March, he had made up his mind not to seek reelection as a presidential candidate for a second term; instead, he ordered a halt to the bombing north of the seventeenth parallel, which led to the start of «peace» negotiations in Paris.
Thus, it can be said that a catastrophic military failure, their biggest during the entire Vietnam War, became by a combination of factors a turning point in the war in North Vietnam’s favor. After Tet 1968, the face of the Vietnam War changed completely: if before it, the fiction of the war being a guerrilla movement indigenous to the South could still be maintained, admittedly with some difficulty, after Tet, having wiped out the southern PLA (People’s Liberation Army), Hanoi showed its blatant face as the violator of the Geneva Agreement of 1954 which decreed a division of Vietnam into two zones pending a political settlement (originally contemplated as a reunification through the ballot box).(7)
A Pivotal Year
Future historians will note, therefore, that 1968 was a pivotal year in the Vietnam War. And out of that year, the battle of Hue(8) will stand out as the one action that helped shape the misconceptions that became widely accepted, thanks to the U.S. media,(9) convinced hawks like Defense Secretary Clark Clifford to turn into doves,(10) and finally drove President Johnson into an irreversible course towards disengagement(11) and, in the end, defeat.
Yet what is most strange is that, important as it was, the battle of Hue hardly rates no more than passing mention in many of the standard histories of the Vietnam War. A review of even textbooks on the war reveals a shocking discrepancy between its actual importance as a defining moment of the Vietnam War and its cavalier treatment in these textbooks: Hue 1968 did not even appear in General Bruce Palmer, Jr.’s book, The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam (1984), it rated one line in General Phillip B. Davidson’s Vietnam at War (on page 475),(12) half a paragraph in Robert D. Schulzinger’s A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975 (on page 259),(13) one paragraph in William S. Turley’s “short political and military history, 1954-1975” of The Second Indochina War (on page 109),(14) one paragraph and four lines in George C. Herring’s standard America’s Longest War (on pages 186-187),(15) and one paragraph and a half in Neil Sheehan’s 861-page book on “John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” entitled A Bright Shining Lie (on pages 719-720).(16) In only a couple of texts does the battle of Hue receive more than passing mention but even here, as in A.J. Languth’s Our Vietnam, the story focuses more on the massacre than on the battle itself (pages 475-478).(17) The one exception may be Dave R. Palmer’s Summons of the Trumpet where the Hue battle got two full pages (pages 192-193) but filled with inaccuracies. What is stranger still is that even in some Vietnamese books, including textbooks, the battle of Hue is somewhat neglected. For instance, in a standard “History of Vietnam, 1945-1975” (Lich su Viet Nam, 1945-1975, Tran Thuc Nga et al., Nha xb Giao Duc, 1987),(18) a text approved for all teachers colleges in present-day Vietnam, the Hue battle rates two paragraphs (page 145), one of which was almost pure propaganda. On the South Vietnamese side and by extension in the Diaspora, also, the battle itself receives at best a couple of pages (three exactly, pages 403-405, in probably the most detailed history of the War, Nguyen Duc Phuong’s Chien tranh Viet Nam toan tap, “The Complete History of the Vietnam War”)(19) as compared to the enormous attention given to the Hue massacres, an understanding of which cannot be arrived at unless one devotes more attention to the battle.
What Made Hue Unique
What made Hue unique was not just because the Communists managed to hang on for 25 days whereas in the case of most other targets of the offensive, the attackers were repelled in a matter of hours to no more than a couple of days (nine days in the case of Saigon-Cholon).(20) It was unique because, together with Khe Sanh, it was the seasoned NVA troops, the so-called regulars, freshly sent from North Vietnam that were involved in the fighting. This was because, before launching the Tet Offensive, the Communists had redrawn their military zones around Saigon and Hue for maximum surprise and impact.(21) The battles for each city were assigned to two battlefield commands: in Saigon it was Tran Van Tra, Mai Chi Tho and Le Duc Anh, one southerner and two northern generals, who were put in charge of the northern front attacking the city and Vo Van Kiet and Tran Bach Dang put in charge of the attacks coming from south of the city.(22) In the case of Hue, General Tran Van Quang was in overall command of the Tri-Thien-Hue military zone but Colonel Le Minh was told before he set out: “As far as the campaign is concerned, you are the [battlefield] commander, and as far as Party matters are concerned, you are the chief leader in both the offensive and uprising for the entire zone.”(23) In actuality, as in the case of Saigon, Le Minh commanded the northern wing and Than Trong Mot the attacks from south of Hue. Mot, however, was subordinate to Minh, as we shall see.
Hue was unique also because if the Saigon attacks were a combined operation involving both PLA (People’s Liberation Army), i.e. southern units under the command of Tran Van Tra, Vo Van Kiet and Tran Bach Dang, and NVA elements under Le Duc Anh and Mai Chi Tho, the outcome of the Hue battle will redound entirely to the good or bad name of the NVA. This point is important when it came later as to the question who is responsible for the Hue massacres.
Hue is unique also in point of time because after Tet 1968, there were no longer any attempts by Hanoi to hide the fact that its big and regular divisions, some of which were legendary because they were credited with the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, were now in the South—changing the entire character of the war from a guerrilla war (by southern insurgents) to a fully conventional and mechanized war (by outside forces coming from above the 17th Parallel). This became so blatant that when Hanoi tried once more to invade the South, at Easter 1972, they sent south the entire Vietnam People’s Army, practically all the regular troops it had at its disposal (with one division left in the North in December of that year).(24) That they failed again, after a 56-day siege of An Loc (April-June 1972) and especially after the Marines retook Quang Tri Citadel in September of the same year, gave convincing proof of the maturity of ARVN, four years after Tet, when face to face with the NVA and given adequate air and artillery support.
Finally, Hue is unique because it was the only place where the Communist presence was long enough for them to establish a civilian administration made up mostly of Hue citizens but stage-managed by the Communists, of course. The manipulators were Hoang Kim Loan(25) and Hoang Lanh, two moles hidden in the home of Nguyen Doa, a “supervisor” (like a hall monitor) at the Quoc Hoc High School. Two days after they came into town, on February 1, Radio Hanoi announced that a Coalition of National, Democratic and Peaceful Forces (Luc Luong Dan Toc, Dan Chu va Hoa Binh) was formed with Cultural anthropology Prof. Le Van Hao as its Chairman and Mrs. Tuan Chi, another educator, as his deputy.(26) Twelve days later, on February 14, Radio Hanoi again exulted in the fact that a local administration had been established with Le Van Hao as the Mayor, assisted by two deputies, Dao Thi Xuan Yen and Hoang Phuong Thao.(27)
In actuality, the Communists came into town armed with lists of names(28) and addresses provided by local traitors (such as the brothers Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong and Hoang Phu Ngoc Phan, the high school teacher Ton That Duong Tiem, the above-named Nguyen Doa and Mrs. Tuan Chi [so-called because she was married to Nguyen Dinh Chi], the Hue scholar Nguyen Dac Xuan, etc.)(29) and roundups began almost immediately.
The Military Contest(30)
Led by local elements who were unhappy with the Government’s repression of the Buddhist near-rebellion during the three years 1965-1967, the Communists achieved almost total surprise when they came down from the hills west of the city on the night of January 31, 1968. They achieved control of the city in a relatively short time (within 24 hours) with the exception of only a few pockets of resistance (the 81st Ordinance Company, Hue Radio Station, the Tay Loc Airfield, and especially Mang Ca Fort where the First Infantry Division was headquartered, under the command of General Ngo Quang Truong).
A separate and detailed chronology is provided with this article but one can sum up the battle of Hue in the following manner:
January 31: During the night, four NVA battalions under Colonel Le Minh, assisted by a sapper battalion, attacked Hue Citadel from the west and northwest and took large chunks of the city, favored by the element of surprise. Another four battalions, assisted by a second sapper battalion, under the command of Than Trong Mot, attacked from the South. The first group ran into resistance at Tay Loc Airfield while the second group encountered stiff resistance at Tam Thai (held by the 81st Ordnance Company). Meantime, another NVA battalion sent to An Hoa north of Hue tried to block ARVN reinforcements coming from Quang Tri. Finally, also another NVA force (two battalions) set up a blocking position in An Cuu and Phu Cam in anticipation of reinforcements coming from the South.
January 31-February 3: During the following four days, the Communists were in control of the city. Starting February 1, they rounded up people in areas under their control, gave them a lecture then let them go in an attempt to prove the “leniency” of the conquerors, encouraging the prisoners to persuade those in hiding to come out and report. Many fell into this trap. During this time, however, General Ngo Quang Truong succeeded in calling for reinforcements for his troops in Mang Ca Fort at the eastern corner of the Citadel.
February 4-5: There was a lull in the fighting because both sides were exhausted and especially because the Communist side was running out of ammunition (February 5 telegram to headquarters in Hanoi).
February 6-7: “On the seventh day [of the battle] the American entered the fight.” With most of the targets originally aimed for in communist hands but with ammunition getting dangerously low, Le Minh called a meeting of his top officers to propose withdrawal since “a decisive victory” was not within reach. Le Minh ordered the removal of war booty to bases in the countryside and in the woods. Also, wounded and prisoners had to be evacuated from the city.
February 7-9: Fearing an American and ARVN counterattack, the Communists blew up the Truong Tien Bridge (night of Feb 7). Instead of withdrawing, however, General Tran Van Quang, the North Vietnamese zone commander, came to Hue and rearranged the disposition of units under Le Minh, then ordered an all-out attack on Mang Ca. After three hours of intense fighting (from 9 p.m. to midnight, Feb 9), this all-out effort came to naught and the attackers had to abandon the fight. A second cable to Headquarters in Hanoi urgently pleaded for more ammunition and reinforcements. Both were solemnly promised in reply cables from Hanoi, one even signed by three top generals (Vo Nguyen Giap, Van Tien Dung and Song Hao). Another cable from Hanoi promised reinforcements (signed by Dung).
February 10-15: The ammunition promised by Hanoi never came, and the troop reinforcements apparently were cut off and nearly destroyed by the U.S. Third Marine Division before they could reach Hue. By February 10, some mopping operations by ARVN were already possible as the regional troops replaced the Airbornes who went on the offensive.
February 12: Enter the Vietnamese Marines to replace the exhausted Airbornes. A U.S. Marine unit (Robert Thompson’s 1st Batallion, 5th Marines) also crossed the Perfume River and made contact with Gen. Truong’s troops at Mang Ca.
February 13-20: Fierce fighting, street by street and in some cases house by house, was engaged in by the U.S. Marines on the east and southeastern side of the Citadel. The Communists violently counterattacked as the Vietnamese Marines were trying to fight their way down towards the southwestern side of the Citadel, thus cutting off vital logistics lines of the enemy. On February 16, the ARVN broke through and two days later (Feb 18), reached the Chanh Tay Gate and the northwestern corner of the Citadel.
February 14: Radio Hanoi announced the formation of a local administration with Le Van Hao as the chairman (i.e. mayor), flanked by two woman deputies. He was also seconded by a number of well-known personalities who the Hue citizenry later believed to be the butchers of the Hue massacres (Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong, Hoang Phu Ngoc Phan, Nguyen Dac Xuan, Ton That Duong Tiem, etc.).
February 21: Under intense pressure from three American battalions and three ARVN Marine brigades, not counting the First ARVN Division, the NVA “decided to withdraw because even if reinforcements came, they would not change one bit of the situation,” especially as bombing runs from the B52s were raining on them.
February 22: The NVA mounted a desperate counterattack that temporarily threw chaos into the ARVN ranks. But Tran Ngoc Hue and his Hac Bao rallied the troops, charged forward with bayonets fixed and won the day.
February 24: A last assault on the Flag Tower brought down the VC flag and a volunteer managed to climb up (at 5 a.m.) and raise the three red-stripes and yellow flag of the Republic of Vietnam.
Hanoi has yet to reveal the number of casualties that the NVA incurred in Hue although a poem by Che Lan Vien (1920-1989) later confessed:
Two thousand men came down into the plain
Only thirty returned…
Statistical estimates given by our side put the number of Communist troops dedicated to the Hue fighting at 7,500 troops(31) (the equivalent of 15 battalions), of which about 5,000 died in the actual fighting while another 3,000 are found buried in nearby areas. Incredible as this may seem, the North Vietnamese bodies found buried around or in the hills west of Hue may be part of the personnel that Hanoi had sent south thinking that their occupation of Hue was already a permanent one. Only this could explain this one last scene of the battle of Hue, as described in Andrew Wiest’s Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: “Advancing with his men, [Tran Ngoc] Hue could not believe his eyes; bodies, clad in new uniforms, were piled up as far as he could see, spilling forth from trenches and foxholes and festooning bushes. [. . . Finally, catching a live] NVA soldier in his dress uniform, [. . . Hue] asked why his unit wore dress uniforms and carried a flag. The dejected captive answered, ‘We were told that Hue City had been liberated and that we were coming here for a victory parade.’” (page 116, emphasis added)
Le Minh’s diary confirms this: “By February 26, 1968, all of us had cleared out of [Hue] city. Actually, we had started withdrawing since the 22nd and the withdrawal took five days to be completed. Because all the war booty that we had transported to the suburbs or into the forest had been retaken in the enemy’s counterattacks, as soon as we were back in the woods we went hungry at once. After a feast at Khe Trai to celebrate the victory (sic), attended by intellectuals from Hue even, our whole [group in the] forest was reduced to eating salt. The difficulties that befell us after we left Hue were similar to the time when the whole frontline was in disarray.”
“Tens of thousand of people, once in the woods, had to scrounge for anything edible,” Le Minh continues, “yet people from out there [North Vietnam] kept coming, [including people from] security police, radio, television, the archival service, even traffic police… all of them asking for rice and salt. The center, in the meantime, kept tasking us with the second phase attacks on Hue [meant for May 1968].”
On the allied side, ARVN lost 384 killed in action and 1,800 wounded, and the U.S. Marine Corps reported 147 KIAs and 857 wounded seriously enough to warrant evacuation to a hospital.
The civilian casualties, however, were enormous. Nearly 7,000 went missing, while a number of known casualties were attributed to bombs and artillery (844 dead, 1,900 wounded). Of the missing a total of about 2,800 were later found in mass graves in various parts of the city, especially in Gia Hoi where many were executed, and some 18 sites outside of Hue, apparently killed indiscriminately (including old men, women, and children, babies even) because the enemy was afraid that if they were to be released, they would reveal the whereabouts of the fugitive remnants of the NVA units.
On this question, even Le Minh had a pang of conscience when he wrote in his diary: “There is a sad truth that I think must be touched upon. The widespread mourning resulting from the battle of Hue was something that the enemy did not cease to exaggerate in order to distort our record. [. . .] However, one must admit that there is another side to the issue, and that is, the punishment of those guilty of crimes towards the people. This may be inevitable in a war situation, especially in a mass uprising (sic), but it remains that in the end, there were those unjustly sentenced in the situation at hand. And no matter what the reason, the responsibility for such injustice must belong to the leadership, in which there was my part. The present task of the revolution is to render a just ruling in those cases, and to make amends to the children of those unjustly killed at the time. [. . .] If there was one man unjustly killed, one must still restore his honor; if there were a hundred, one must restore the honor to those hundred. That is only [the dictate of] reason and compassion, and the masses will understand us, never confusing black for white and vice versa.”
A Tentative Assessment
By the above exercise I hope I have been able to clarify a number of issues relating to one of the most important engagements during the Vietnam War, the battle of Hue at Tet 1968. The military battle, with all its miscalculations and moments of cowardice found on both sides, was nonetheless an epic battle in which all three participant armies, the U.S. Marines, the ARVN and the NVA in many instances outperformed themselves. The political battle, while clearly showing that the Communist side misread the sentiments of the people of Hue(32) who they had hoped to win over to their side, nonetheless turned out to be an unexpected bonanza when it helped change completely the direction of the war in Washington.
On the ethical question, the Hue massacres will go down in history as one of the cruelest, meanest, and most senseless actions of the Vietnam Conflict aimed at the civilian population in which even Le Minh, the NVA battlefield commander, acknowledges his part of responsibility. Therefore, all the denials of guilt proffered by such twisted minded apologists like Gareth Porter(33) on behalf of the Communists will simply not hold water.
Neither will Keith Nolan’s Battle for Hue make any sense when it denies the role of the ARVN in that particular battle, relegating them to a role of “mopping up behind the [U.S.] Marines” (page 87) and accusing them of “moving from house to house in organized looting parties.” Certainly Andrew Wiest is more fair when he writes: “From the first efforts to relieve the MACV compound, the U.S. Marines demonstrated the individual bravery and the unit battle prowess that have marked the members of the U.S. Marine Corps as the finest infantry in the world. Certainly the Americans gave of themselves selflessly; the Marines singlehandedly liberated the New City south of the Perfume River and fought an epic battle in the Citadel, losing 147 killed in action. In a much less heralded battle, though, the ARVN forces had actually done the majority of the fighting in the Citadel, their understrength units besting the vaunted NVA and VC in a long and bitter struggle largely without the aid of organic heavy direct-fire weaponry. During the fighting, ARVN forces lost 357 killed in action and inflicted an astounding 2,642 battle dealth on the NVA and the VC forces.”(34)
In the end, I believe the judgement of the U.S. commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, was probably better informed than Keith Nolan’s: “Many an American got involved in the fighting during the Tet offensive. [. . .] Yet … the only major attack against an American base was a strike by a VC regiment at the extensive perimeter of Long Binh. [. . . Thus,] in the main, the Tet offensive was a Vietnamese fight. To the ARVN, other members of the South Vietnamese armed forces, the militia, the National Police—to those belonged the major share of credit for turning back the offensive.”(35)
For a Fuller Assessment
As every teacher knows, the fairest assessment of an action must be based on what the agent originally sets out to do. Only then can we truly measure the extent of his achievement or failure to do so.
In this connection, it would not be amiss to remind the reader than the full name of the Tet Offensive, as defined by Hanoi, was “General Offensive and General Uprising” (“Tong Cong Kich/Tong Noi Day” in Vietnamese). This was because Hanoi, in its peculiar way of thinking, was not content with simply a military victory (if one could be obtained) it had to be accompanied by—if not the result of—a general uprising(36) that would give that victory its legitimacy. In other words, Hanoi did not want just to be seen as a bellicose power, it had to be seen as a hero coming to the rescue of victims of injustice, of a people long suffering under a repressive and brutal regime, the so-called double yoke of imperialism (i.e. the U.S.) and its lackeys (Saigon).
By that measure, the Tet Offensive was not just a military failure on a vast scale, it was even more so a political failure of the first magnitude since in all the 25 cities and provinces that were attacked in that fateful year (out of a total of 44), nowhere was there a mass response in favor of the Communists. Not even in Hue where for three years before the offensive the place had been seething with Buddhist opposition to the government in Saigon.(37)
At first, the Communists tried to put on a benevolent face. Led by locals and with lists in hand, their agents went to specific homes and asked that the heads of the households reported for a meeting with the “new” authorities. (Read: We know precisely where everyone is.) Secondly, they were given a lecture about the “revolution” and forewarned that the revolution, while humane, would be pitiless towards anyone who opposed it. Then they were dismissed, allowed to go home and encouraged to call on others to come out of hiding. Not a few people fell into this trap: those who came out were immediately apprehended and sometimes shot right in front of their loved ones, as examples of “revolutionary justice.”(38) In a third phase, student-age youths were called up and ordered to dig what appeared to be like trenches for the “revolutionary forces” to take up positions in the city and avoid bombing and artillery shellings. They did not have to wait very long to find out: these trenches, as in the Gia Hoi area of Hue, were meant for nightly mass executions of people considered “enemies of the people.”(39) And because the Communists had to use their ammunition sparingly, many of these people were buried alive after being hit on the head with rifle butts or “clubbed to death with axes and shovels.”(40) This phase did not involve many old people, women or children, most of the victims being adult men associated, say, with the Saigon police or administration. But it lasted several nights and occurred in different parts of the city.
During the fighting, the Communists discovered others in hiding. At first, these were rounded up as prisoners but soon they were seen as burdens (not enough food to go around, no cooking or toilet facilities, the families had to follow the prisoners to feed and clothe them, thus becoming a big encumbrance besides possibly becoming an intelligence source for the allied side); thus, the decision was soon made to either move the prisoners out of the city, into the hills, or simply get rid of them.(41)
But the worse happened when, unable to resist the allied counterattacks in the final days of the battle, the Communists had to make the decision to discreetly withdraw into the hills. The operation, of course, had to be done in absolute secrecy. An attempt was first made to move the prisoners into the hills as an insurance against allied bombings and as a possible source of blackmail (or negotiations) later on. But there simply were too many, thus becoming an impossible encumbrance.(42) Furthermore, with no food in sight, how could one feed such a large number of prisoners? Moving them north was out of the question, there being no time. Releasing them was also a dangerous proposition as no doubt the prisoners would inform on the withdrawal routes of the Communists. Hence the decision to shut their mouths and eliminate their testimonies for good. This explains why many group graves were found later on, stringing along the paths of withdrawal of the retreating NVA.
Who was behind these decisions to kill the civilians?
Le Van Hao, the “mayor” of Hue during those days who has since fled to France, denied his culpability.(43) He claimed that he was a mere puppet with no voice in any big decision that the Communists made about Hue. Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong, who since had become a big shot in Hue, also said he had no hands in these terrible tragedies—but at least, like Le Minh, he does not try to deny (like Gareth Porter or the anti-war photographer Philip Hones Griffith, who both wanted to blame it all on American bombings and allied artillery) the existence of these mass graves.(44) But at least, the people of Hue, even today, 40 years later, have vivid recollections of people like Hoang Phu Ngoc Phan (Tuong’s brother) and Ton That Duong Tiem or Nguyen Dac Xuan(45) seen leading the Communists from house to house to drag victims out, to proclaim their supposed “crimes against the people” and sometimes even to read death sentences against some of these victims. This, at least, applied to the first waves of killing inside the city.
As for the other victims killed on the withdrawal routes of the Communists, the responsibility must rest upon leaders like Le Minh, who at least acknowledge part of his responsibility in it, or maybe lower officers on the totem pole, who went ahead and got rid of the prisoners, only reporting about them later on—as implied in Le Minh’s testimony. The practice, though, was quite widespread, which allowed for the discovery later on of at least some 19 mass graves, and this implies that the order may have come from even higher authorities than Le Minh himself, possibly General Tran Van Quang, the regional commander for Tri-Thien-Hue, or even directly from Hanoi.(46)
1. “Tet Offensive” is only an abbreviated form of what Communist sources refer to as “the Total Offensive and General Uprising of Tet 1968” (“Tong Cong Kich/Tong Noi Day Tet Mau Than”), a long and awkward if fuller definition of what Hanoi had meant to accomplish.
2. Bui Tin, From Enemy to Friend, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002, page 64 (“We did not recover until 1972”). Tran Van Tra was the highest commander on the Communist side of southern extraction. His thoughts can be found in Nhung Chang Duong Lich Su cua B2 Thanh Dong – Ket Thuc Cuoc Chien 30 Nam (“Historical Stages of the B2 Copper-strong Front – Ending a Thirty-year War”), supposedly the fifth volume of a total account of the war in the South, which to this day has yet to be completed. This fifth and last volume, published by Nha xb Van Nghe Thanh pho Ho Chi Minh, was rumored to be written in rebuttal of Van Tien Dung’s Dai Thang Mua Xuan (“The Great Spring Victory”), an account of the Ho Chi Minh Campaign that ended in the capture of Saigon but which emphasized the role of the NVA and was somewhat dismissive of the role of the PLA, People’s Liberation Army, the military arm of the NLF (National Liberation Front for South Vietnam).
3. Philip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975, Oxford University Press, 1988, page 475 (“the Tet offensive for all practical purposes destroyed the Viet Cong”).
4. The question of how many days the Communists did occupy Hue was also subject to a loose kind of arithmetic with some authors claiming as much as 28 days and others rounding it up to “a month.” At least an official history in Vietnam, Lich Su Viet Nam, 1945-1975, a collective work by Tran Thuc Nga (chief editor), Bach Ngoc Anh, Tran Ba De, and Nguyen Xuan Minh, Nha xb Giao Duc, 1987, page 145, is correct when it dates the battle of Hue as lasting from 2:33 a.m. on January 31, 1968, to February 24, 1968, amounting to “25 consecutive days.”
5. Actually, in his “CBS Evening News” broadcast of February 27, 1968, Cronkite “called Tet an American defeat” and saying that “the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors but as an honorable people.” (See Edward J. Epstein, “Vietnam: What Happened vs. What We Saw: We Lose Our Innocence,” TV Guide, October 6, 1973, page 13-F.)
6. David Culbert, “Television’s Vietnam, The Impact of Visual Images,” (TV Documentary as reported in The Monitor, McAllen, TX, March 20, 1981).
7. The Geneva Agreements consisted of a bilateral “Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Viet Nam,” in other words, a military ceasefire agreement signed between France and the Vietminh on July 20, 1954, and an unsigned “Final Declaration” that spoke of eventual reunification of Vietnam through “general elections” under international supervision, tentatively projected for July 1956. However, consultations are to be held “between the competent representative authorities of the two zones from July 20, 1955, onwards.” (See, for instance, George McT. Kahin and John W. Lewis, The United States in Vietnam, New York: The Dial Press, 1967, pages 48-54.) Since these consultations never took place, it stands to reason that the military ceasefire held pending a political solution. That this was also the understanding of both Hanoi and Washington can be seen in the fact that in 1959 the U.S. State Department issued a White Paper entitled Aggression from the North and that North Vietnam for the longest time claimed that it had nothing to do with the war in the South, holding out the fiction that it was an indigenous rebellion born out of the repressive policies of the Ngo Dinh Diem government.
8. The only detailed account in English of the battle of Hue is by Keith W. Nolan, Battle for Hue, Tet 1968, Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1983, but it is essentially based on interviews with American veterans of that battle and hence, left out much of the Vietnamese part of that story altogether. But Nolan is correct when he started out his book by saying: “If it had been a popular war like our involvement in World War II, the Battle for Hue would today still be a familiar name. More importantly, the men who survived to return home would have been greeted as heroes; those who had fallen would have been remembered. But that was not to be.” The Vietnamese on both sides have a longer memory than that but it may already be too late to tell a complete story of that battle since General Ngo Quang Truong, the undisputed hero of Hue, already passed away last year.
9. See, among others, Peter Braestrup, Big Story, 2 volumes, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977. Epstein, op. cit., reported that in late 1968, a field producer for NBC suggested “. . . a three-part series showing that Tet had indeed been a decisive military victory for America and that the media had exaggerated greatly the view that it was a defeat for South Vietnam. After some consideration the idea was rejected because ‘. . . Tet was already established in the public’s mind as a defeat, and therefore it was an American defeat.’” “In the never-never land of television,” wrote Philip B. Davidson, op. cit., “fantasy had become reality.”
10. The conversion of Clark Clifford from hawk to dove and his subsequent influence on L.B. Johnson’s March decision is dramatically retold in Chapter 10 of A.J. Languth, Our Vietnam: The War, 1954-1975, Simon & Schuster, 2000, pages 468-530.
11. Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point, Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969, New York: Rinehart and Winston, 1971, page 435.
12. Davidson, op. cit.
13. Robert D. Schulzinger’s A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975, Oxford University Press, 1997.
14. William S. Turley, The Second Indochina War, A Short Political and Military History, 1954-1975, New American Library, 1986.
15. George C. Herring’s standard America’s Longest War, The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, John Wiley & Sons, 1979.
16. Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, New York: Random House, 1988.
17. Languth, op. cit.
18. Tran Thuc Nga et al., op. cit.
19. Nguyen Duc Phuong, Chien tranh Viet Nam toan tap (“The Complete History of the Vietnam War”), Toronto: Lang Van, 2001.
20. Pham Van Son, “Tran Chien Tet Mau Than 1968” (“The Tet 1968 Battles”), in Pham Van Son and Le Van Duong, Cuoc Tong Cong Kich – Tong Khoi Nghia cua Viet Cong Mau Than 1968 (“The Total Offensive and General Uprising of the Vietnamese Communists in 1968”), Saigon: Phong 5/BTTM, 1968. Reprinted in Tuong Niem 40 Nam Tet Mau Than & 34 Nam Tran Hai Chien Hoang Sa cua Hai Quan Quan Luc VNCH (“Reminiscences 40 Years Later of Tet 1968 and 34 Years Later of the Paracels Sea Battle Waged by the Republic of Vietnam Navy”), a publication of Trach Nhiem (“Duty”), organ of the Vietnamese Political Prisoners Association of Southern California, 2007, pages 87-128. (This important publication will hereafter be referred to in abbreviated form as Tuong Niem.)
21. Nguyen Duc Phuong, op. cit., citing Pham Van Son and Le Van Duong.
22. Ibid., citing a communist source (G. Son, Gio G Ngay N va Yeu To Bat Ngo, Mau Than Sai Gon [“Tet 1968 in Saigon: G Hour N Day and the Element of Surprise”], Nha xb Tre, TP-HCM, 1988).
23. Le Minh’s account of the battle of Hue is found in “Hue trong chien dich Mau Than” (“Hue in the Mau Than Campaign”), Song Huong (“Perfume River,” a magazine then edited by Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong) No. 29, Hue, Tet issue, 1988. This account is found in excerpts quoted by Tran Pho Minh, “Mau Than 68, mat trai cua 30.4.1975” (“Tet 1968, the Reverse Side of April 30, 1975”), Que Me, Tet issue of 1998 (Mau Dan), Gennevilliers, France, pages 9-11, 16. All the quotations representing the other side’s version, as recalled by Le Minh, both in this article and in the accompanying Chronology, come from this source.
24. G.H. Turley, The Easter Offensive, Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1985.
25. The crucial role of Hoang Kim Loan and other Communist moles in Hue behind the Buddhist disturbances of 1966-67 leading to the Tet Offensive in Central Vietnam has been detailed in a nine-part series authored by the former police chief of Thua Thien-Hue, Major Lien Thanh, in Tap San Biet Dong Quan (“The Ranger Magazine”) and reprinted by permission in Tuong Niem, pages 176-243.
26. Nguyen Ly Tuong, “Mau Than o Hue” (“Tet 1968 in Hue”), Toi Ac Dang CSVN trong bien co Tet Mau Than 1968 (“Crimes of the CPV during Tet 1968 in Hue”), Tran Trong An Son, editor, 2008, page 50. (This publication will henceforth be referred to in abbreviated form as Toi Ac.) Mrs. Tuan Chi, also referred to as Mrs. Nguyen Dinh Chi, was a former principal of the famous Dong Khanh girls high school in Hue.
27. Ho Dinh, “Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong, Ke hai phu du sau tham sat Tet Mau Than 1968 tai Hue” (“HPNT, the Gatherer of Ephemera After the Tet 1968 Massacres in Hue”), Toi Ac, pages 37-39. In 1968 Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong was a student at the Hue Faculty of Letters but he also was teaching philosophy in a private high school.
28. Languth, op. cit., page 477. See also Nguoi linh gia Seattle (“Old Soldier from Seattle,” obviously a nickname), “Hoi Ky ve Tet Mau Than tai Hue” (“Memoirs of Tet 1968 in Hue”), Toi Ac, pages 35-36.
29. Infra, Toi Ac. Practically all the articles in Toi Ac mention at one point or another these names and many more, lesser known, who collaborated with the Communists and thereafter earned the eternal opprobrium reserved for traitors and butchers by Hue inhabitants.
30. The information used to draw up the “Chronology of the Battle of Hue” and to describe the military contest in Hue during Tet 1968 was culled from a great variety of sources, including some oral interviews of participants and after action reports, too numerous to cite here. However, I would like to point to some difficulties in trying to reconcile them all. For instance, the Communists have more than one way of referring to their units, probably in an attempt to confuse the enemy or at least to hide the actual identity of units involved. A battalion may be referred to by its nickname, like the Song Lo Battalion means that it had participated in the famous Song Lo battle of 1948, the first victory over the French during the French Resistance War (1945-1954). Or a unit can be also nicknamed after one of its heroes, like the Cu Chinh Lan Regiment (Ninth NVA Brigade), led by a Lt. Colonel named Di. Then some units are identified in one source as battalions and in another as regiments, for instance the 800th, 802nd, 804th and 806th. I have tried my best to make sense of original documents, whenever available. On the question of who were the NVA commanders leading the Hue attacks there is also some confusion: some sources, like Hong Linh writing in Toi Ac (page 58), identify Nguyen Van as leading the Fifth Brigade (D.R. Palmer, in Summons of the Trumpet, identified him as a Lt. Colonel; however, according to Chinh Dao, in Toi Ac, page 45, this brigade was under the command of Than Trong Mot) and Lt. Colonel Nguyen Trong Dan (Nguyen Trong Dau, according to Chinh Dao, Toi Ac, page 44, but Colonel Nguyen Trong Tan, according to John Prados, page 155) as leading the Sixth Brigade attacking Hue while many authors believe otherwise. Leaving those issues aside, the question of who among at least three different ARVN units should be credited with the raising of the South Vietnamese flag on the Imperial Citadel after 25 days of bitter fighting is enough to make one go nuts: one source says that it was the Vietnamese Marines and First ARVN troops who raised the flag on the morning of February 23 (Tuong Niem, page 85), another says that it was a volunteer from Pham Van Dinh’s 2/3 battalion (i.e. First ARVN Division) who climbed the flag tower and raised the South Vietnamese flag “in the predawn hours of 24 February” (Andrew Wiest, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army, page 118), a third source claimed that it was the Hac Bao (“Black Panthers”) Company of Tran Ngoc Hue who had that honor (Keith Nolan, Battle for Hue, page 172; Wikipedia article on the “Battle of Hue”: “On February 24, 1968 the Imperial Palace in the center of the Citadel was secured and the elite Black Panther Company of the First South Vietnamese Division tore down the NVA’s flag”), a claim disputed by U.S. Marines Major Robert H. Thompson (“The MACV records will reflect that the ARVN, assisted by the [U.S. Marines] 1/5, took the Citadel. That was strictly public relations hogwash . . . The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines took the Citadel. The ARVN were spectators.”). In The Hidden History of the Vietnam War John Prados seems a bit unsure when he wrote: “The Vietnamese marines . . . launched a surprise night attack of their own on February 23/24. At about 5 a.m. on February 24, soldiers of the ARVN Third Regiment put their flag in place of the North Vietnamese flag on the Citadel wall. Later ARVN and [U.S. Marines] 1/5 troops captured the Imperial Palace [. . .]. Fittingly, it was the Hac Bao (Black Panther) Company of the ARVN First Division that finally raised the South Vietnamese flag over the palace.” Thus, everyone had his share of glory: the Vietnamese Marines, ARVN’s Third Regiment, the U.S. Marines, and the Hac Bao. Finally, Don Oberdorfer, who wrote the standard account of Tet (New York: Doubleday, 1971), probably took a leaf from General Westmoreland’s A Soldier Reports (page 434) when he wrongfully credited the pulling down of the North Vietnamese flag to a small fifty-man South Vietnamese unit known as “Tiger Force,” which a Vietnamese author recently re-translates, probably mistakenly, as the “Loi Ho” (Toi Ac, page 34).
31. On this question also, the information could be quite contradictory. D.R. Palmer, in Summons, on page 193, also mentioned 7,500 men but said that “in all, [there were] eight battalions” involved belonging to two regiments (the NVA Fifth and Sixth). Other sources mentioned many more than eight battalions, which is the more likely case. Keith Nolan, in Battle for Hue, on pages 28-29, has this to say: “To augment the nine enemy battalions which invaded Hue on the first day, an additional five were able to move in: the 416th Battalion, 5th NVA Regiment; the 4th and 6th Battalions, 24th NVA Regiment; the 7th and 8th Battalions, 90th NVA Regiment.” This last-mentioned regiment is probably a mistake for the 9th NVA Regiment, but Nolan continues: “Around six thousand NVA were facing the [U.S.] Marines and ARVN.” But this is an understatement because if 14 battalions come to only 6,000, they would have to be very much understrength (6,000 : 14 = 428 each). I have therefore chosen to accept the higher figure (7,500), admitting that there may have been some confusion as to which units are counted in this overall figure.
32. “Nowhere did anything remotely resembling an uprising of the people against the Saigon government occur.” (Bernard G. Nalty, The Vietnam War, Barnes & Noble, 2000, page 191)
33. D. Gareth Porter, “The 1968 ‘Hue Massacre’,” Indochina Chronicle No. 33 (June 24, 1974). Another crazy attempt to deny the Hue massacres was made by the photographer Philip Hones-Griffith, who in Vietnam, Inc., New York: McMillan, 1971, could say that the Americans had invented the whole massacre scenario as a “propaganda campaign to present the [civilian] casualties of the fighting in Hue, most of whom were killed by the most hysterical use of American firepower ever seen, as the victims of a communist massacre.”
34. Andrew Wiest, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN, New York University Press, 2008, page 121.
35. William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, New York: Dell, 1976, pages 435-436.
36. Le Duan, in Thu vao Nam (“Letters to the South”), Hanoi: Nha xb Su That, 1985, defined the objectives of the Tet Offensive as follows: “One, to dismantle a major part of the puppet army, overthrow their administration at various levels, and wrest power back into the hands of the people; two, to eliminate an important part of the American war efforts and means, making it impossible for them to carry out their political and military tasks; three, on that basis to smash the Americans’ will at aggression, forcing them to a defeat . . . to eventually bring about the reunification of the country.” To that end, Le Duan envisioned “the engineering of a general uprising together with our general offensive; as we use enough force and firepower to crush the enemy’s main force . . . we also motivate millions of people in the cities and in the countryside under enemy occupation to rise up in rebellion.” (Emphasis added) It is obvious that none of that happened. Phillip B. Davidson, in Vietnam at War, page 447, wrote: “The overwhelming weakness of Giap’s plan was to base [the Tet Offensive] 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.”
37. Truong Nhu Tang, minister of Justice for the southern Communist “government” at the time of Tet 1968, later wrote in Journal of a Vietcong, London: Jonathan Cape, 1986: “Tet and the subsequent counterattacks (sic) during the Spring and Summer of 1968 brought about untold losses to both the NLF and the NVA.” Dr. Duong Quynh Hoa, another NLF celebrity, billed the offensive “an egregious mistake.” And Hoang Van Hoan, a Politburo member who later fled to China, avowed in his memoirs, Giot Nuoc Trong Bien Ca (“A Drop in the Ocean”), Beijing, 1980: “Le Duan miscalculated both our capabilities and the enemy’s during the Tet 1968 campaign. Our forces had to retreat with extremely serious losses in men, military power and weaponry.”
38. Pham Van Son and Le Van Duong, “Co Do Trong Bien Co” (“The Former Imperial Capital During the [Tet 1968] Affair,” Toi Ac, page 83.
39. Ibid., pages 83-84. Recently, Nam Dao in Australia had an extremely emotional interview with one of the students dragooned into chain gangs to dig trenches in preparation for mass executions during Tet 1968.
40. Languth, op. cit., page 477.
41. Thanh Tin (pen-name of former NVA Colonel Bui Tin), in Mat That (“The Real Face [of Vietnamese Communism]”), Orange County, CA: Saigon Press, 1993, gives a chilling and detailed explanation of why the massacres happened in Hue 1968. However, he seems to try to disculpate higher authorities in the chain of command, attributing these erratic actions (like the killing, shooting, or burying alive of even old people, women and children, babies even) to local military commanders acting in panic situations. This explanation is hardly plausible as the massacres happened in many different spots and carried out by different military units: they could not possibly all act as one if there was no policy dictated from above. At least, Le Minh accepted his part of responsibility at his level and, according to Bui Tin himself, General Tran Van Quang and his political commissar, Le Chuong, were later recalled to Hanoi for reprimand. This may be an indication that, if the policy did not come from Hanoi, it could still have come from the regional Tri-Thien-Hue command and the massacres could not simply be individual initiatives.
42. This seems to be alluded to by Le Minh in his memoirs as he described the impossible situation that his troops found themselves after retreating from Hue.
43. Tran Ngoc, “Phong van Giao su Le Van Hao” (“An Interview with Prof. Le Van Hao”), Que Me (“Motherland”) Nos. 105 & 106, Paris, 1990.
44. While denying his part of responsibility in the massacres, Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong, both in Vietnam, A Television History (13-part PBS series) and in his answers to Thuy Khue, a RFI (Radio France Internationale) reporter, in an interview later published in Chuyen Luan (“The Rolling Wheel,” a Buddhist magazine published in France), acknowledged that there were many people killed in Hue during Tet 1968. He divided them into three categories: (1) people “punished by the Liberation Army for real crimes against the people,” whatever that was; (2) “innocent people” killed by mistake (how many, he did not say); and (3) people killed by American bombing or caught in the crossfire when the ARVN counterattacked. The transparent glibness of this explanation can be seen right away in such deaths as those of five German doctors who came to help in Vietnam or teach at Hue Medical School, the killing of Catholics in Phu Cam or foreign missionaries, the deliberate (not by mishap) killing of old people, women and children found later in mass graves, etc.
45. A gleaning of the publication Toi Ac alone would yield dozens of other names, possibly less well-known, but nonetheless all contributing to the mass horror of the Hue massacres. What is disconcerting is that many of those names are names of well-known educators, from Le Van Hao to Mrs. Tuan Chi, Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong, to Ton That Duong Tiem, Nguyen Dac Xuan, Nguyen Doa, people who are supposed to be teaching the values of humanity and kindness to their students. But it is sometimes non-entities like Tong Hoang Nguyen and Nguyen Dinh Bay (Bay Khiem) who went out and systematically carried out mass arrests that eventually ended in mass executions.
46. The battle of Hue at Tet 1968 was probably one of the best-documented actions on film of the Vietnam War. An Embassy of Viet-Nam 1970-71 Film List published in Washington, DC, in 1971, lists five titles related to this battle and its aftermath: The Battle of Hue (February 1968, 20 minutes long), Hue, A City in February (February 1968, 13 minutes), Communist Massacre in Hue (March-April 1969, 15 minutes), Toi Ac Viet Cong Tai Hue (March-April 1969, Vietnamese version of the previous title), Hue, A Martyrized City (March-April 1969, 25 minutes), and Da Mai Valley (name of the site where some of the largest mass graves were found, September 1969, 20 minutes). What is interesting about these films is that they were documentary news films with relatively little editing. A couple of them shows lengthy footage of the Communist troops when they first came into town, taken by a South Vietnamese cameraman when things were still very much in confusion (the communist troops thought that he was one of their television crews). He subsequently went into hiding and managed to keep these footages to show them later on when the ARVN came back into town. On this note, one may add also that the best fiction, or rather non-fiction, written on the Tet 1968 in Hue was written by a woman writer, Nha Ca, whose Giai khan so cho Hue (“A Mourning Band for Hue”), received a presidential award in 1969 when it first came out, and Nguyen Mong Giac, Mua Bien Dong (“Season of Oceanic Waves,” 1984-89), a 1,800-page tetralogy that amounts to an epic account of the 1963-1975 period in South Vietnam, one volume of which is almost entirely devoted to the battle of Hue.
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
Figures taken from K4 documents kept at central headquarters,
Ministry of National Defense
Troops sent South
From the North
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.
* 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.
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.
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!