3.3 Nature of the Conflict

  • Created by: TessBlyth
  • Created on: 10-06-19 12:55

Vietcong Guerrilla Tactics

The Vietcong were less well armed than the South Vietnamese Army but they used this to their advantage.They fought a guerrilla war which put the ARVN at a disadvantage. The ARVN and US found it difficult to distinguish between their ally and enemy because the VC dressed as ordinary peasants. 

  • Used light weapons and equipment to move quickly and quietly
  • Stayed close to US troops so US planes couldn't bomb them
  • Made networks of tunnels to hide in and escape by
  • Sabotaged bridges and roads and ambushed the ARVN
  • Used simple ambushes and traps 
  • Achieved surprise attacks
  • Killed unpopular government officials
  • Used propaganda to give talks in villages
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VC tunnels

The Vietminh had used tunnels to move around and shelter in during their war with the French. The Vietcong did the same thing but their tunnels were much more complex. The VC built almost 100 miles of tunnels which connected many of the villages in Saigon, allowing the VC to move around easily. The Cu Chi tunnels contained hospitals, weapons and fuel storage areas for living space. Vietnamese people were smaller than the average american so many tunnels were too small for most US troops to enter. The US troops tried to destroy tunnels by using tunnel rats - troops who were small enough and went down to fight the VC or mine the tunnels to collapse them. Eventually, they just bulldozed over any tunnel entrances they found. 

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Operation Rolling Thunder

Rolling Thunder was a bombing campaign over North Vietnam. The military wanted immedate and heavy bombing all over North Vietnam, including Hanoi. However, at this point, Johnson did not want to escalate the war rapidly, so he ignored the advice. Instead, Rolling Thunder began slowly, near the border with South Vietnam and did not target Hanoi or Haiphong. It targeted: 

  • the Ho Chi Minh trail to stop supplies being taken south
  • what little industry there was in North Vietnam
  • the bombs dropped were napalm and pineapple bombs

The first bombs were dropped on 2 March and stopped for Christmas. In January 1966, the USA offered negotiating terms to the North Vietnamese but were turned down. The bombing continued until the end of 1968. Johnson increased the number of targets that could be bombed and the number of raids that flew.

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Search and Destroy

The main US counter-insurgency tactic was the search and destroy missions. 

  • Small units of US soldiers searched the jungle for VC camps and supplies. They then called up helicopters to bomb or spray chemicals on them. The aim was that the ARVN worked inside a protective shield of US troops.
  • The missions were often on ground that VC had already prepared with land mines and traps.
  • Fighting occured on these missions but mainly hit and run attacks by the VC, not full-scale.

These missions show the problem of US thinking. During the first wave of missions, the US killed about 1100 VC whilst fewer than 100 US troops were killed. US troops found weapons and other supplies and destroyed VC tunnels. They saw the mission as a victory. However, the VC were not counting bodies or weapons. When the US and ARVN troops left the area as a mission, the VC would move back in and so felt the US missions had failed. US bombing and chemical spraying also harmed ordinary villagers and their homes, this did not help the US win support nor did the fact that that there were about 4million refugees.

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Operation Cedar Falls

Over 30,000 US and ARVN troops took part in this mission in the Iron Triangle, where the VC were the strongest. Helicopters transported troops to the village of Ben Suc and villagers were flown to refugee camps before the village was burned. Troops then moved across the Iron Triangle for 3 weeks, using the same tactics. At the end of the operation, there were 750 VC dead and 450 US and ARVN dead. There were 3500 refugees from the Ben Suc area alone. After US troops had cleared an area, it became a free-fire zone that could be bombed without warning at any time. In many cases, villagers failed to understand this and returned to their homes in free fire zones. In other areas, villagers were given warnings of bombings but they were dropped in the form of a leaflet, in a language that most villagers could not understand.

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Chemical Warfare - Operation Ranch Hand

Kennedy was the first president to allow the use of chemical weapons in the war. A variety of herbicides were used to kill both the jungle plants and the crops in the farmland around the villagers. This was to make the VC bases easier to find and also to deliberately killed crops in the sprayed areas so that the villagers could not feed the VC. This was operation ranch hand, the first spraying was carried on 10 August 1961.

Between 1964-70, over 24% of South Vietnam was sprayed with some kind of herbicide and millions were affected.

  • one plane could spray 300 acres in 4 minutes
  • the herbicides were made up to 50% stronger than those used in the USA
  • Agent Blue - killed crops
  • Agent Orange - killed jungle forests 
  • Over 3000 villages were sprayed

By 1970, it was clear that the herbicides were a danger to health. A new developed poison did not dissolve in water so rained carried it into streams and rivers and affected people who drank the water. Poison stayed in the soil and so also affected crops for decades after. There was public outrage in the USA and they were stopped in October 1971. 

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The Tet Offensive 1968

The Tet Offensive was a series of attacks on 26 cities and US bases in South Vietnam. The attacks began on Tet Lunar New Year which took place on 30 January in 1968. There was usually a ceasefire during Tet, so many troops were off duty for the holiday. In the run up to the attacks, the NV and VC did a number of things to try and catch the US and ARVN off-guard:

  • They attacked areas in South Vietnam to lure US and ARVN troops away from cities and military bases.
  • The NV suggested it might be willing to negotiate for peace which made the USA think they were ready to give in.
  • On 20 January, NV surrounded and attacked the US base in Khe Sanh. Genreal Westmorland sent in 6000 troops to defend it.

The attacks began successfully. In Saigon, NV troops got into the US embassy, the Presidential palace, ARVN HQ, the radio station and the airport. The sight of VC in the US embassy was a shock to the public, who had been told that America was winning the war. it was also a humiliation for the US government even though the VC were soon captured. The old city of hue was also captured - it took US and ARVN 3 weeks to win it back.

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The Tet Offensive 1968 (2)

The nature of the attacks was shocking to the US and ARVN.

  • Cities were attacked, these were regrded as the safest parts of the country, although now they seemed vulnerable.
  • The attacks were on a huge scale: 84,000 communists took part which was surprising.

US and ARVN troops managed to recapture most cities and bases quickly. Hue and Khe Sanh were the exceptions though they were eventually recaptured. The NV and VC expected the attacks to set off a revolution in South Vietnam but this did not happen.They also suffered heavy losses, the VC were almost wiped out. As a result, it could be argued that the communists failed but instead they won a huge propaganda victory. The American public, saw the attacks as a humiliating defeat.

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