Why the USA Failed: In Vietnam


Hearts and Minds of the People

General Giap said that the North won because it waged the people's war and human beings were the decisive factor.

While by mid-1964  there were many Americans teaching the Vietnamese to breed pigs, dig wells and build houses, the American strategy was mainly "grab 'em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow."

The American soldiers couldn't believe that 'real' people would live like the Vietnamese did. Vietnam seemed like an alien world, so the American soldiers treated the Vietnamese as sub-humans.

Many Vietnamese villages easily adapted to communism because their lives had always been communal. The Vietminh worked hard to win the hearts and minds of the people.

The Communists were also ruthless when they had to be. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the VC killed over 3000 anti-Communists in Vietnam. 

The people's support was vital for the VC's guerrilla warfare as Giap's strategy was to wear the US and Saigon down with guerrilla warfare. Villagers often gave food and hiding places for the VC.

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Unpopular US Policies

The actions of the US and Saigon often infuriated the Vietnamese people, pushing them further towards communism. 

Diem's 1962 strategic hamlets programme and American bombings had forced many Vietnamese to abandon their ancestral homes which meant so much to them.

In the search for the VC, American soldiers killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Vietnamese people. Bombings completely destroyed 5 villages, each with populations of over 10,000.

The use of Agent Orange from 1962 alienated the Vietnamese as rice crops and forests were destroyed. 

Horrific weapons like Cluster Bombs ruined the countryside. A Vietnamese nun told an American, "Vietnam was a beautiful country until you arrived."

American success could only be judged on body count. On 16th March 1968, American soldiers slaughtered over 300 villagers at My Lai. Babies, women & children.

Introduced in 1968, Operation Phoenix saw Americans torture suspected VC. 

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Communist Determination

The VC were inspired by Communism and nationalism and so many Americans actually admired their determination. One US general was inspired by the VC who "didn't even give up after their eardrums had burst from the concussion... and blood was pouring out of their noses."

The VC were unable to afford new uniforms and suffered from skin diseases from the wet conditions, suffered infections from insect bites and dirty water. Almost everyone had malaria. 

The Communists' continuous struggle helped breed patience in the face of failure and suffering. American could never understand this determination.

Thousands of Giap's men and women spent much time on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Keeping the trail open was vital to the Communists' war effort as it sent supplies to the South and the injured to the North. Around 50,000 women were employed to repair the Trail. If one part was destroyed by bombing, the traffic would switch to one of hundreds of other branches. 

10% of people working on the Ho Chi Minh Trail died of amoebic dysentry and malaria. People carried over 50 pounds over 27 miles. In 1964, the Trail was widened to allow for the Chinese and Soviet trucks they had begun using.

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The Battle of Ia Drang

Autumn 1965.

The 66th regiment of the PAVN went south on the Trail. Each soldier was given a khaki uniform, a pair of sandals cut from old tires and Chinese boots. They carried 22 pounds of food each for two months. 

They carried weapons from Albania, China, Czechoslovakia and the USSR. While they took a malaria pill every day, most caught the disease. Several died on the Trail each day due to disease, accidents, snake bites and American air raids.

November 1965

The PAVN finally clashed with the US army. The Battle of Ia Drang lasted 94 days. 

305 Americans died. 3561 PAVN soldiers died. Both sides thought they had won and that their enemy couldn't sustain the losses. PAVN eventually proved themselves right.

Ia Drang demonstrates the Communist determination, which was the key factor in their victory in 1975. 

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Communist Ingenuity

Communist ingenuity and preparedness was vitally important.

In areas that were supposed to be controlled by Saigon, there was a highly effective Communist underground. They had a web of informants and social organisations which comforted, controlled and motivated the people in difficult times.

The VC had a network of underground (literally) tunnels that they used to hide, find shelter and regroup.

In January 1967, Americans found a maze of tunnels north of Saigon; it was like a city with stoves, furniture, clothing and paperwork. After an officer set of a booby trap, the Americans gased and exploded the tunnels and left. They only missed the VC headquarters by several miles.

Hanoi made excellent preparations against American air raids. They dug concrete holes to hide in and placed sirens to warn the people. Two million northerners were in Shock Brigades which repaired the damage the bombs caused. 

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Spoiling Saigon

Saigon was a strange mixture of Southeast Asia and France. The beautiful city was ruined during the war years.

Drugs were sold in bars, many brothels showed up along with blackmarkets. There were 596,000 registered prostitutes. Limbless victims crawled along the floor seeking handouts from American soldiers.

The war ruined the social fabric of South Vietnam. Peasant girls turned to prositutes and families were divided. The American dollar distorted the economy as the lowest American was massively wealthy to the Vietnamese. On one pile of rat-covered garbage there was a sign that read "this is the fruit of American aid."

American funding often ended up on blackmarkets, being sold to the VC and American radios listened to Hanoi rather than Saigon.  

Much aid ended up in the pockets of the military elites. Thieu himself carried away millions of dollars in gold when he fled Vietnam in April 1975. It was revealed that the amount of cement given to the Vietnamese officals in one year could pave over all of Vietnam. 

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ARVN Weaknesses

South Vietnam was never well-governed during or after Diem. ARVN was corrupt and mismanaged. 

Saigon wanted to avoid losses. In February 1971, they were ordered to retreat from their advance on Laos if 3000 ARVN died. They retreated at 1500. Saigon's tactics were referred to as "Search and Avoid" while poor results damaged morale and led to further failure.

Military leaders were appointed for political reasons; they unsurprisingly fought badly. The high command fought amongst themselves more than they did against the enemy. 80% of South Vietnam were Buddhist but only 5% of the ARVN leadership was.

ARVN wages were so low that by 1966, ARVN troops relied on American surplus rice, selling American supplies or claiming the wages of the deserters and the dead. Many left to join the Communists. 

However, many ARVN were tenacious, fought bravely and tens of thousands of South Vietnamese died in the war.

Relations between America and ARVN was horrible. Westmoreland kept a bottle of tear gas in his office to spray his guards if they decided to defect. 

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Motivations of American Soldiers

Out of the 10.93 million who served in the military in the 1960's, 8.7 million were volunteers. 

Many were inspired by duty, patriotism and family tradition. When interviewed, many of the volunteers said they were inspired by war movies, often called "John Wayne Syndrome".

One American platoon leader suggested another motive: "It turned out that most of us liked to kill other men."

The romance and heroism portrayed by the media and the press attracked many civilians and soldiers.

One journalist said that no one could take the glamour out of war. It was fun like sex and the Rolling Stones. Vietnam simply became the Americans' "adventure sandbox".

When soldiers got to Vietnam, they felt disconnected from it all. It was just like watching a scene from a movie. People had watched too many war films.

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American Disunity

While the Americans fought with conviction and bravery, they were often disunited. The marines didn't want to obey orders from Westmoreland's army.The Green Berets aroused antagonism. Americans distrusted the ARVN. While only 13% of Americans in Vietnam were black, 28% were in combat units. This naturally led to resentment.

Ordinary soldiers served 365 days. Marines 13 months. This meant the soldiers never had the time to build up a feeling of unity. 

Most Americans did not like the war. They felt that America had no right to be involved in Vietnam. In 1966, one ex-Green Berets doubted that Vietnam would be better off under Ho but "it is not for me or my government to decide. That decision is for the Vietnamese."

Disagreement over the horrific tactics led to indiscipline. There was a bounty of $10,000 for the officer who was responsible for Hamburger Hill. In 1969, an entire American company sat down on the battlefield and refused to fight infront of TV cameras. 

The anti-war movement was growing in America and soldiers were confused as to why they were fighting.The collapse of the home front was a crucial factor in the US' failure in Vietnam. It damaged troop morale and hamstrung Washington.

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A Comfortable War

The American desire to keep their soldiers comfortable helps explain their defeat in Vietnam. Many soliders never fought and had to organise the American lifestyle for the others: running clubs, cinemas.

Every week, thousands of soldiers were sent for R&R in Japan or Saigon, leading to an air of unreality and disorientation. There was air-conditioning, fireplaces, steaks. 

When the last American soldier left Vietnam there were 375 libraries, 159 basketball courts, 2 bowling alleys and 71 swimming pools. 

The Americans were fighting a very different war to their enemies. 

The 30,000 orphaned child prostitutes in 1966 couldn't keep up with the American demand. More soldiers needed treatment for durg addiction than comabt wounds in 1971. 58% of Americans smoked marijuana and 22% used heroin. 

It was impossible for the soldiers to adjust to the war when their service was constantly interrupted with R&R. They didn't know how to cope in the Vietnamese jungles after Saigon and Japan.

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The Problems for Grunts and Officers

An American officer only did 5 months on the front lines, meaning they were less experienced than their subordinates. Unpopular officers were killed in 'fraggings' where fragmentation grenades were thrown at them. There were 730 fraggings from 1969-1971.

The average age of the Grunts was 19, compared to a less vunerable 26 in WW2. 

Very little progress was made in Vietnam. 20% of wounds were caused by booby traps and soldiers never felt safe. There were landmines, exploding dead bodies and holes filled with sharp, poisoned bamboo stakes.

Soldiers carried 50-70 pounds of equipment in the humid jungles filled with insects and rain. Soldiers chewed salt tablets to counter the sweat loss. 

The biggest problem was that the soldiers had no idea which Vietnamese were the enemy and which was peaceful. They met women who hid grenades in their baby's nappies. Two marines were killed by a child they were teaching how to play volleyball. 

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American Military Strategy

Search and Destroy missions in an attempt to wipe out a guerrilla force was almost impossible. The VC had popular support and would often reclaim land after the Americans left. When the Americans won Hamburger Hill in 1969, the VC managed to retain the land as soon as the soldiers left. 

Johnson's favourite tactic was bombing North Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh Trail and South Vietnamese villages suspected of hiding Communists. Aroung 800 tons of bombs fell on North Vietnam each day. Bombing didn't damage the North's morale or the stop the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Johnson ignored warnings from the CIA about the lack of impact. 

McNamara admitted that America's strategy had been wrong years later. It was unwise to use a high-tech war against a guerrilla force that would never give up. McNamara's successor Clark Clifford said "it was startling to me that we had no military plan to win the war."

Westmoreland's Search and Destroy missions often failed and only 1 VC was killed to every 6 South Vietnamese. Using helicopters to find guerrillas was uneffective as they simply hid when they heard the noise. 

During 1967-1968 only 1% of the 2 million small unit operations led to any contact with the VC. 

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