The Vietnamization from a Vietnamese Infantryman’s Perspective

Michael Do, DVP

Ex-Captain, 5th Infantry Division, ARVN

Paper presented at the Conference on Vietnam, marking 50th anniversary of the Vietnamization (1969-2019) at the Vietnam Center and Archive, Lubbock, April, 27, 2019

Chronicle of Vietnam War

 1945 – 1954: The 1st Indochina War between Viet Minh and the French ended with the partition of Vietnam according to the Geneva Accords.

1954-1960: Guerrilla war unleashed by left-behind communist cadres in rural Vietnam

1960: The creation of the National Front for the Liberation of the South Vietnam (NLF) at the 3rd Vietnamese Communist Party Assembly.

1960-1964: The formation of U. S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG)

1964-1972: The formation of U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV)

1965: U. S. combat troops landed on Da Nang beach.

1968: Communists launched the General Offensive – a massive coordinated attack – on urban centers throughout the South. The highest U.S. combat death (14,592).

1969: Vietnamization began.

1972: U.S. combat involvement ended.

1974: U.S. cut military assistance to South Vietnam.

1975: South Vietnam fell into North Communists.

U.S. involvement

Vietnam War is the longest and most controversial one in the U.S. history up to that time.

In early 1960’s, the NLF began to carry out their terrorist attacks against civilians. There were no major military activities until the battle of Ap Bac in January 1963. In general, the ARVN could handle the defense of the country. South Vietnam was, at that point, fully capable of providing its own security against the communists.

In 1963, President Kennedy miscalculated the situation of South Vietnam. He made a big mistake when giving the green light to the gang of ambitious generals to make the coup d’état, killing President Diem. In the following years, South Vietnam was in chaos and instability. The fight for power of the generals resulted in a political crisis and pushed the country to the brink of collapse as North Vietnam poured their troops and supplies into the South via Ho Chi Minh trail.

In 1965, President Johnson decided to send combat troops to Vietnam. American forces rose from 16,000 in 1964 to 184,314 in 1965 and at the peak, more than 553,000 by 1969.

Why Vietnamization?

In January 1968, Vietcong and the NVA violated the cease fire agreement during the Tet (lunar new year) celebration, launched the general offensive upon urban centers throughout the country. Their great failure resulted in heavy casualties among the VC cadres. They lost nearly one hundred thousand soldiers. Almost one hundred percent of their infrastructure were exposed and destroyed.  The incident “Tet Mau Than 1968” proved that the army of RVN had been steadily improved and now was capable to handle the major combat role.

However, the American media considered this sudden attack a great failure of the allies as they could not prevent it. The American public was misled and misinformed of the situation in Vietnam and pushed more pressure on the administration and the Congress. Besides, the U. S. highest combat death (14,592) in 1968 was unbearable to the American people. To resolve the war became the ultimate promise made by Mr. Nixon in his presidential election campaign. As soon as he assumed the office, the president initiated a new policy to end the U.S. direct involvement in the Vietnam War through a program to “expand, equip, and train South Vietnamese forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops.”

At the meeting of the U. S. National Security Council on January 28, 1969, Nixon chose the term Vietnamization suggested by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.

The Vietnamization strategy was announced to the American people in a speech on November 3, 1969. Two major objectives of Vietnamization were (1) “strengthening the armed force of the South Vietnamese in numbers, equipment, leadership and combat skills” and (2) “the extension of the pacification program [i.e. military aid to civilians] in South Vietnam.

My experiences

In May 1969, one hundred sixty eight cadets of the first class graduated from the Polwar College. Most of them were sent to the big units considered the weakest ones of the ARVN. They worked at combat company level to boost morality and to enhance the effectiveness of the soldiers.

I was one of 39 new officers assigned to the 5th Infantry Division. My first year in combat coincided with the beginning of the Vietnamization when American ground forces gradually withdrew and passed down the burden to the Vietnamese army.

The 5th ID was one of 3 infantry divisions of the III Corps. Its operational territory covered 3 provinces of Binh Duong (1040 sqmi), Phuoc Long (2653 sqmi), and Binh Long. Surrounding inhabitant centers were the dense forests with many secret zones that had been the Vietcong’s safe havens since the first Indochina War. The American 1st ID and the 1st Calvary also operated in this area until 1970 when they transferred the responsibility to the Vietnamese 5th ID. From July 1965 to late 1969, the Big Red One alone lost 6,146 killed in action, with a further 16,019 wounded. Twenty were taken as prisoners-of-war.

Web of Fire Support Bases

 We had many opportunities to work with the 1st ID. In mid-1969, my battalion joined the 2nd Battalion of the 28 Regiment in “search and destroy” operations. Each battalion shared  half the perimeter of Gela fire support base. This was the major one of the web of bases that provided fire support to the units operated in the large area of war zone D.

In Gela, there was an artillery battery consisting of three 155mm and six 105 mm howitzers. Each day, UH-1 helicopters dropped four companies (two Vietnamese, two U.S.) separately at different locations about 15 kilometers from the base. The companies were given a dozen targets to search along the route and were supposed to be back to the base before nightfall. Two other companies were assigned long range reconnaissance and ambush in large areas of about 100 square kilometers. The operation would last in 15 days or more. In each of the Vietnamese companies, there was a detached U.S. platoon and vice versa. That was the best way we could exchange combat experiences.

In the 2nd half of 1969, units of the Big Red One and the 5th ARVN Division constructed and opened the 90-kilometer inter-provincial road from Phu Loi to Phuoc Binh, capital city of Phuoc Long. The road had been abandoned for decades. The road surface was totally destroyed by land mines and heavy bombs. Jungle at either side of the road was cleared by orange agent. Once or twice a month, civilian convoy of cargo trucks and passenger vehicles gambled with the death to run on the road full of land mines. Most of the time, Vietcong would stop the vehicles to capture men they suspected ARVN soldiers or to abduct young folks to fill their units.

My battalion joined the 1st Armor Regiment in a mission to secure the road in November 1969. My company was responsible for 16 kilometers of the road that snaked through the hills. Enemy’s ambushes occurred very often. We engaged and defeated the North Vietnamese regulars. The year 1969 was the last time we had an American advisor going with our unit.

Lai Khe 

In Spring 1970, the Big Red One moved to Di An getting ready for repatriation. The ARVN 5th ID Headquarters and its 8th Regiment moved into Lai Khe; and so did all the supporting units.

Lai Khe was an abandoned rubber plantation 50 kilometers north of Saigon. With the perimeter of about 15 kilometers, it was one of super large bases in South Vietnam. Lai Khe was described by the Americans the most rocketed base camp in the country (except for Khe Sanh during the siege in 1972.) The camp would receive incoming rockets three times per day and twice per night. There was a sign read ‘Welcome to Rocket City’ at the main gate of the base.

The challenge for the 5th ID – while retaining its normal operational responsibility – was to take over the responsibilities of the giant 1st ID. The Big Red One was far better equipped and had more manpower than a standard U.S. division. The defense of the base only would cost the 5th ID one fifth of its riflemen. (The division had 12 combat battalions of about 500 men each and 4 reconnaissance companies of 150 men each).

In April 1970, along with the U.S. Army, the ARVN III Corps launched a military incursion into Cambodia. It was named Operation Toan Thang 71/NB (Certain Victory) and was so far the largest operation planned and commanded by the ARVN. The Corps mobilized tens of thousands troops to hunt the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN) headquarters and numerous NVA/NLF sanctuaries in several Cambodian bordering provinces. During the sudden and speedy campaign that the enemy had not been aware, the allies’ forces discovered and destroyed a huge enemy’s logistical cache in Cambodia. Unfortunately, the news of the incursion was leaked in the U.S.. It provoked massive protests and riots that forced President Nixon to order the U. S. troops to stop the move right at the moment they were about to reach the COSVN sanctuary.

In 1971, the ARVN launched another operation Toan Thang invading Cambodia. During the first phase of the campaign, my battalion three times engaged and defeated the 174 Regiment of the NVA 5th Infantry.

Vietnamization from our perspective

Our noble cause was not well preached.

The conflict in Vietnam was indeed the war between two opposing ideologies. Communism was quite new to our people. South Vietnamese people mostly were peasants ignorant of politics and they really were not concerned about it.

Vietnam had just gained independence from the French after 80 years enduring their brutal domination. People always suspected the westerners as invaders who came to colonize the country and exploit the resources. They did not see any differences between the French and the American. Our enemies misled the people by hiding their communist identity and put on the mask of patriotism, calling for the fight against American aggression. Besides, the communist terror campaign forced the people to support them.

Our noble cause was not well preached to the people. In addition, it was distorted by the mainstream media in America, our closest ally!

At the meanwhile, South Vietnamese government’s slogan defending the democracy against Communism was less likely to attract the ignorant people who never knew what and how Communism was! The people needed something visible, easy to understand rather than the vague concept.

Two main factors that helped the communists to win the war were their deception and terrorist acts. In 21 years, communists killed indiscriminately, mercilessly to warn the people not to support the government. Their atrocity against our people was totally ignored by the international community. Besides, with help from the Soviet Union and its communist bloc, North Vietnam deceitful propaganda infiltrated into the American public. As the result, South Vietnam while fighting the enemies in the front, was constantly stabbed in the back by the media and politicians of its close ally.

The US’s policy inconsistency.

It’s unquestionable that North Vietnam and China combined would never match the US in term of military might. Why we did not win the war? To win the war, one must have strong determination, consistence in policy and persistence in the fight. From the beginning to the end of the war, our enemy’s strategy was consistently firm, while the US policy varied due to the change of the administration of five consecutive presidents. Even in a sole administration, the policy would be altered depending on the pressure of the public.

Prior to 1964, both President Kennedy and President Johnson agreed that the war “is their war[1]” and “Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves[2]”. After winning election, Johnson changed his stance and escalated war effort and sent combat troop to Vietnam[3].

The US had no determination to defeat the enemy and quitted the fight knowing it could not win the prolonged war! After the visit of President Nixon to China, the U.S. stopped seeing Vietnam an outpost of the Free World. The Democrat-controlled Congress in 1974 decided to abandon Vietnam, giving a death blow to its close ally of 21 years.

Strategic failure.

Throughout the war, we were mostly in defensive position. The US missed many opportunities to end the war in victory! At times, because of the inconsistent policies of different U.S. administrations, we stopped short as we were capable of destroying the enemy right at their safe haven in North Vietnam or in Cambodia.

Even when we conducted “Search and Destroy” operations, we knew nothing about the enemy: their whereabouts, their strength, their equipment, how they set up defensive, what they planned to do… We were like men exposed in the open sun light searching for the ghosts in the dark.

The enemies, in contrast, knew everything about us. They would avoid contact if they were in disadvantaged situation. In general, they followed us every step and waited until we set foot into the battle ground they had chosen. Then they would mobilize an ultimate strong force, usually outnumbered 10-to-1 to warranty a certain victory. We must fight back fiercely and must be very lucky to survive.

Let the Vietnamese fight their own war!

We admit that there were some negative factors that influenced the performance of the Vietnamese armed forces. But throughout the years, South Vietnamese soldiers have fought with bravery and dedication even in the most difficult situations.

During its short life (from 1955 to 1975), the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN Army) consistently grew in strength and combat capability. The U.S. should instead help to consolidate South Vietnam government, leave the major combat role to South Vietnam army and provide them with proper weapons and equipment. Vietnamese soldiers had no other choice but fought in order to survive. They knew how to win the battle within their capacity. Their persistence, endurance and courage were proven through decades of fighting. Young officers of the new generation were skillful and dedicated. They proved themselves at the battles of Quang Tri old citadel, An Loc, Tong Le Chan, etc. More than two hundred thousand South Vietnamese soldiers were killed in action; thousands of men were awarded various combat medals from the US government. Their courage and sacrifice must not be unaware.

Conclusion

There are a thousand and one “what ifs” when we look back in the history of Vietnam War.

Had we intensely bombed North Vietnam or the Ho Chi Minh trail to destroy their supply line; had the incursion in Cambodia in 1970 not be been cancelled at the moment we were about to capture the COSVN; had the Christmas Bombings on Ha Noi and Hai Phong in December 1972 not stopped at the eve of North Vietnam collapse; had the U.S. Congress not cut military assistance … the history would change its course!

In a series of correspondences to President Thieu, in order to convince him to go to the table, President Nixon kept repeating his promises to provide a military response when needed[4] and at the same time, threatening President Thieu an unpleasant destiny[5]. In a rush to finalize the Paris Accords, President Nixon gave in too much to North Vietnam. The U.S. agreed to withdraw its troops in exchange for an immediate cease-fire and North Vietnam promised to recognize the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government and agreed to cooperate with an international commission to peacefully resolve future disputes. As soon as the Accords went into effect, North Vietnam violated all terms it agreed upon and mobilized tens of divisions to attack all over the territories of South Vietnam. Sadly, the U.S. failed to keep its promises, doing nothing to help its ally. South Vietnam army faced a shortage of weapons and ammunition. As the result, they could not hold the line. (The military assistance was cut down from 2.8 billion in 1973 to only $300 million in 1975; while North Vietnam received enormous amount of supply from the Soviet Union and China.)

The Vietnamization or Peace with Honor, in fact, was only a disguise to save face and a denial of the failure of the mighty U.S. The U.S. gave up the fight and left its ally alone to deal with an enemy supported by two communist superpowers. In 1975, it took Ha Noi less than two months to capture Saigon from its final offensive in March.

To conclude this presentation, I’d like to quote the old saying of Niccolò Machiavelli “Wars begin where you will, but they do not end where you please.”

But to me, winning or losing the battle depends on the fighters, but winning or losing the war depends on the politicians sitting safely behind the desk. It was so cruel when the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, the lives of millions of people, the destiny of a nation were only the means the ambitious men used in exchange for their political interests.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Foot notes:

[1] “I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the communists.” JOHN F. KENNEDY, interview with Walter Cronkite, September 2, 1963

[2] “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” LYNDON B. JOHNSON, speech at Akron University, October 21, 1964

[3] “We do this [escalating U.S. military involvement in Vietnam] in order to slow down aggression. We do this to increase the confidence of the brave people of South Vietnam who have bravely born this brutal battle for so many years with so many casualties. And we do this to convince the leaders of North Vietnam–and all who seek to share their conquest–of a simple fact: We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.” LYNDON B. JOHNSON, speech explaining his decision to send U.S. combat troops to Vietnam, April 7, 1965

[4] “You can be completely assured that we will continue to provide your Government with the fullest support, including continued economic aid and whatever military assistance is consistent with the ceasefire provisions of this government…”  President Nixon’s letter to President Thieu October 16, 1972

“I repeat my personal assurance to you that the US will react very strongly and rapidly to any violation of the agreement…” Nixon’s letter quoted in US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s letter to President Thieu Nov. 15, 1972

[5] “I would urge you to take every measure to avoid the development of an atmosphere which could lead to events similar to those which we abhorred in 1963 and which I personally opposed so vehemently in 1968” Nixon’s letter quoted in Bunker’s letter Oct. 6, 1972

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