The Pentagon Papers was the name given to a secret Department of Defense study of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, prepared at the request of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967. As the Vietnam War dragged on and the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam increased to more than 500,000 troops by 1968, the military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (who had worked on the study) came to oppose the war, and decided that the information contained in the Pentagon Papers should be more widely available to the American public. He secretly photocopied the report and in March 1971 gave the copy to The New York Times, which subsequently published a series of articles based on the report’s findings. Amid the national and international uproar that followed, the federal government tried unsuccessfully to block publication of the Pentagon Papers on grounds of national security. Continue reading →
President Lyndon Johnson chose William Westmoreland, a distinguished veteran of World War II and the Korean War, to command the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) in June 1964. Over the next four years, the general directed much of U.S. military strategy during the Vietnam War, spearheading the buildup of American troops in the region from 16,000 to more than 500,000. His strategy of attrition aimed to inflict heavy losses on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces using superior U.S. firepower, but resulted in a costly stalemate by late 1967.
The enemy’s ambitious Tet Offensive in early 1968 cast serious doubt on Westmoreland’s claims of progress in the war effort, even as he called for some 200,000 more troops. Growing antiwar sentiment on the home front led President Johnson to halt bombing attacks on North Vietnam in March 1968, and in June he replaced Westmoreland in command of the MACV. Back in the United States, Westmoreland fought off criticisms of his conduct of the war (including a libel lawsuit against CBS News) and became a dedicated supporter of Vietnam veterans. Continue reading →
Of the nearly 1 million Americans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam War era (1964-75), many were or went on to become famous in diverse fields such as politics, entertainment, sports and journalism. The young Navy pilot John McCain, son of a four-star admiral, spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam before going on to become a longtime senator from Arizona and a Republican presidential candidate. Oliver Stone, who served in an infantry division in Vietnam for 15 months, drew on his experience in the war for films like “Platoon” (1986) and “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), both of which earned him Academy Awards for Best Director. These men are just two of the most famous American veterans of the Vietnam War. Continue reading →
From air power to infantry to chemicals, the weapons used in the Vietnam War were more devastating than those of any previous conflict. United States and South Vietnamese forces relied heavily on their superior air power, including B-52 bombers and other aircraft that dropped thousands of pounds of explosives over North Vietnam and Communist targets in South Vietnam. While U.S. troops and their allies used mainly American-manufactured weapons, Communist forces used weapons manufactured in the Soviet Union and China. In addition to artillery and infantry weapons, both sides utilized a variety of tools to further their war aims, including highly toxic chemical defoliants or herbicides (on the U.S. side) and inventive booby traps using sharpened bamboo sticks or crossbows triggered by tripwires (on the North Vietnamese-Viet Cong side). Continue reading →
The Vietnamese Communists, or Vietcong, were the military branch of the National Liberation Front (NLF), and were commanded by the Central Office for South Vietnam, which was located near the Cambodian border. For arms, ammunition and special equipment, the Vietcong depended on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Other needs were met inside South Vietnam.
Main force Vietcong units were uniformed, full-time soldiers, and were used to launch large scale offensives over a wide area. Regional forces were also full-time, but operated only within their own districts. When necessary, small regional units would unite for large scale attacks. If enemy pressure became too great, they would break down into smaller units and scatter. Unlike the main troops, who saw themselves as professional soldiers, local Vietcong groups tended to be far less confident.
For the most part, recruits were young teenagers, and while many were motivated by idealism, others had been pressured or shamed into joining. They also harbored real doubts about their ability to fight heavily armed and well-trained American soldiers.Initially, local guerrillas were given only a basic minimum of infantry training, but if they were recruited to a main force unit, they could receive up to a month of advanced instruction. Additionally, there were dozens of hidden centers all over South Vietnam for squad and platoon leader, weapons and radio training.
To ensure that the guerrillas understood why they were fighting, all training courses included political instruction. By the mid-1960s, most main force Vietcong troops were armed with Chinese versions of the Russian AK-47 submachine gun. They also used a range of effective Soviet and Chinese light and medium machine guns, and infrequently, heavy machine guns. In particular, heavy machine guns were valued for defense against American helicopters.
For destroying armored vehicles or bunkers, the Vietcong had highly effective rocket propelled grenades and recoilless rifles. Mortars were also available in large numbers and had the advantage of being very easy to transport.
Many weapons, including booby traps and mines, were homemade in villages. The materials ranged from scavenged tin can to discarded wire, but the most important ingredients were provided by the enemy. In a year, dud American bombs could leave more than 20,000 tons of explosives scattered around the Vietnamese countryside. After air-raids, volunteers retrieved the duds and the dangerous business of creating new weapons began.
Local forces also designed primitive weapons, some designed to frighten intruders, but others were extremely dangerous. “Punji traps” — sharp spikes hidden in pits — could easily disable an enemy soldier. Punjis were often deliberately contaminated to increase the risk of infection.
In December 1965, Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese leadership ordered a change in a way the war in the South was to be fought. From now on, the Vietcong would avoid pitched battles with the Americans unless the odds were clearly in their favor. There would be more hit and run attacks and ambushes.
To counter the American build-up, Vietcong recruitment would be stepped up and more North Vietnamese Army troops would be infiltrated into South Vietnam.The Vietcong, following the example of Chinese guerillas before them, had always given the highest priority to creating safe base areas. They were training grounds, logistics centers and headquarters. They also offered secure sanctuaries for times when the war might go badly.
Hiding the base areas had always been a high priority for the Vietcong. Now, with American spotter planes everywhere, it was more vital than ever to protect them. In remote swamps or forests, there were few problems, but nearer the capital, it was much more difficult. The answer was to build enormous systems of underground tunnels.
The orders coming from NLF headquarters were absolutely clear. Tunnels were not to be treated as mere shelters. They were fighting bases capable of providing continuous support for troops. Even if a village was in enemy hands, the NLF beneath were still able to conduct offensive operations.
There were complexes big and small scattered across the country. Each villager in a NLF area had to dig three feet of tunnel a day. There was even a standard handbook specifying how tunnels were to be built. The biggest tunnel systems were in the Iron Triangle and the Cu Chi District, only 20 miles from Saigon.
Close-up: Cu Chi
The base area at Cu Chi was a vast network, with nearly 200 miles of tunnels. Any facility used by the guerillas — a conference room or training area — had almost immediate underground access. Hidden trapdoors led below, past guarded chambers, to long passages. At regular intervals, branches led back to the surface and other secret entrances.
Some openings were even concealed beneath the waters of streams or canals.At the deeper levels, there were chambers carved out for arms factories and a well for the base’s water supply. There were store rooms for weapons anad rice, and there was sometimes a hospital or forward aid station. Long communication tunnels connected the base with other distant complexes.
Base kitchens were always near the surface, with long, carved-out chimneys designed to diffuse cooking smoke and release it some distance away. Near the kitchens were the guerilla’s sleeping chambers, where they could survive for weeks at a time if need be. Everywhere on the top level, there were tunnels leading upwards to hundreds of hidden firing posts for defense of the base.
During the Vietnam War, the South Vietnamese Popular Force (nghĩa quân) (sometimes abbreviated PFPF or PF) consisted of local militias that protected their home villages from attacks by first Viet Cong forces and later by People’s Army of Vietnam units.
Originally called the Civil Guard and the Self-Defense Corps, they were integrated into the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in 1964 and placed under the command of the Joint General Staff. The Popular Force was one of two broad groups of militia, the other being the Regional Forces (địa phương quân).
The American forces referred to both groups as “Ruff-Puffs” referring to the abbreviation RFPF.
From 1965-1969, the ARVN took over most security operations as the Americans and other allies fought the main force war against the PAVN and NLF. When U.S. forces began to withdraw in 1969, the ARVN took on the task of fighting the communists, the Regional Forces and Popular Forces took on new importance. For the first time, they were deployed outside their home areas and were sometimes attached to ARVN units.
(Picture courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)
By 1973 the Popular forces consisted of 8,186 platoons. Charged primarily with local defense, they were too lightly armed and equipped to withstand attacks by PAVN units supported by tanks and artillery. They were overwhelmed during the 1975 Spring Offensive and dissolved.
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regular soldier was reasonably well trained, better equipped than the Viet Cong guerrillas and more likely to be in large numbers. The NVA relied heavily on China and Russia for arms, equipment and money but they fought their own war.
Known as ‘hard hats’ since they wore the ubiquitous pith helmet, these forces operated and were organized along traditional military lines. Organized into battalions consisting of 3 Rifle Company’s and a Combat Support Company these troops were, on the whole, well trained, aggressive and well led.
On larger operations they could be organized and deployed as regiments of 2-3 battalions.
It was the NVA that continued the battle after the Viet Cong were destroyed as a fighting force in the Tet Offensive where they lost 30,000 troops but changed the mind of Walter Cronkite, premier American TV news reader, as to who was winning the war. President Johnson said “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite I’ve lost Mr. Average Citizen”.
ORGANIZATION of NVA & VC UNITS
The organization detailed below is, in effect, a VC Main Force Company, although you could take elements of this organization for Regional forces. Local forces were not organized to this level, being an assortment of combatants and arms.
Similarly, other than Main Force units, the weapons carried by Regional and Local forces would be an incredible assortment of old and relatively new. A lot of SKS carbines, old WWII vintage rifles, SMG’s etc. Very few AK-47’s would be evident, even in Main Force units until later in the war.
One very important point to remember when researching these units (and regular NVA) is the critically short amount of ammunition available. Every bit had to come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Also remember that, following the Tet offensive of February 1968, the VC virtually ceased to exist as a coherent fighting force, having been almost destroyed in depth by the allies. Engagements with VC units after this date involved confronting substantial numbers of regular NVA cadre troops within the ranks of the VC and a commensurate increase in the quality of weaponry and support fire!