Analysis of North Vietnamese Goals and Failures

The goals of the North Vietnamese in South Vietnam are summarized in Ho Chi Minh's three-point battle cry: "Defend the North, Free the South, and Unite the Country." This simple cry had much patriotic and emotional appeal, particularly since the U.S. forces were described as imperialists who had replaced the French, the former rulers of Vietnam. In the determination of military strategy and tactics and the political maneuvering to attain this goal, simplicity tended to fade away.

During 1964, the first Viet Cong division-size unit was formed and committed to combat. The Hanoi high command also decided to standardize the weapons used by its forces in the south, thus simplifying battlefield supply problems and increasing firepower. This step did have one drawback in that it required the Hanoi government to send greater tonnages of ammunition south to support the automatic weapons.

The North Vietnamese by December 1964 had reached the decision to escalate their reach for control of the south to the third and final phase of Ho Chi Minh's classical theory of revolution. They shifted from guerrilla warfare to a general offensive using major field maneuver units. The formation of the Viet Cong division and introduction of North Vietnamese Army units into the south were unmistakable evidence of this shift.

It was doubtful that the South Vietnamese could contain this increasing threat without substantial assistance. Measures were taken to provide the necessary help to strengthen the government and assist the Armed Forces. Limited numbers of U.S. Marine and U.S. Army airborne troops were deployed to South Vietnam in Match 1965 to provide this assistance. Starting in July 1965, substantial numbers of U.S. Marine and Army ground forces were being deployed in South Vietnam along with required Air Force and Navy supporting forces. Thus, the pattern of enemy buildup and friendly counterbuildup was established.

The step-for-step counter to offensive enemy moves had thwarted Hanoi's aims and eventually resulted in Hanoi's apparent decision


to attempt to gain their desired end through political means. In the summer of 1967, North Vietnam's Vo Nguyen Giap must have reached the decision that it would be necessary for his forces to win a significant military advantage before the start of any peace talks.

The 1968 enemy winter-spring campaign, planned in late 1967, appears to have had two major phases. In the initial phase, a series of attacks on Free World Military Assistance Forces and installations in remote areas would take place. These attacks were designed to draw major U.S. and South Vietnamese forces out of their defensive positions around the principal cities. The double-edged second phase was to consist, first, of a major attack on South Vietnam's larger cities in the expectation that the liberators would receive much popular support and, second, of a major attack directed eastward from Laos along Route 9 to capture or destroy all friendly positions from the Laotian border east to the sea.

This was a major change in enemy strategy. It was a result of the enemy's desire to repeat his 1954 success at Dien Bien Phu. As mentioned earlier, it was an admission or realization that time, once an ally, was no longer on his side.

A reassessment of the situation, made by the highest level of the Hanoi government, seemed to cause a significant redirection of goals. The enemy leadership both in Hanoi and South Vietnam took a hard critical look at how things were going in the fall of 1967. North Vietnamese combat operations had been largely unsuccessful. Despite his best efforts, his strength was declining, and his control of the population in South Vietnam was decreasing. Approximately 40 percent of the population was under North Vietnamese Army control in 1965, but this proportion had fallen to between 15 and 20 percent by September of 1967. Loss of population control meant a loss in manpower, revenues, and supplies. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would have to make up this deficit through greater demands on the people still under their control. Such demands would not further endear the North Vietnamese Army to the people. The relationship was already strained by the subjection of the population to more frequent military and psychological pressures by the Free World Military Assistance Forces.

The North Vietnamese Army troops had seen enough of the big picture to realize they were having little success. As a result, morale was declining drastically. Rather than generating the desired feeling of accomplishment among its troops, the Hanoi government's war-of-attrition policy was fostering a sense of despair. As the need for a North Vietnamese Army success to discredit the government of South Vietnam increased, the prospect of gaining such success had decreased.


During 1966, the North Vietnamese Army suffered approximately 93,000 killed. An estimated 35 percent of this figure comprises men who died of wounds or were permanently disabled as a result of combat actions. In 1967, the casualty figure climbed to over 145,000. During 1966 and 1967, the enemy had a total of 238,000 personnel losses. At the end of 1967, his duty strength was estimated between 210,000 and 235,000. Comparison of losses to present-for duty strength at the beginning of 1968 indicated a personnel problem of staggering proportions.

It seemed obvious that continuation of the old war-of-attrition strategy could not possibly lead to success. After consideration of these adverse trends, the enemy adopted a new goal with these objectives: to win the war by a political and psychological campaign and to gain and maintain control of the people.

The North Vietnamese most probably chose to seek their hoped-for military victory, which they felt must precede peace talks, in the Khe Sanh area for a number of reasons. Since the target area was just across the demilitarized zone, in close proximity to good staging areas in Laos, the enemy could build up military strength and concentrate his forces outside the boundaries of South Vietnam. The remoteness of the area would complicate U.S. and Vietnamese Army resupply and support problems while at the same time favoring the North Vietnamese Army logistical situation. Also, the reaction forces coming to the aid of the attacked position would be exposed to ambush and destruction at numerous locations between Hue, Da Nang, and Khe Sanh. Once drawn into the fight, these reaction forces would be far removed from the cities which the North Vietnamese planned to attack. As noted earlier, the section of Route I between Quang Tri City and Hue had been a constant thorn in the flesh of the French Army during its prosecution of the Indochina War, and it was from this stretch of road that Bernard Fall drew the title of his book, Street Without Joy. Finally, another reason for choosing the Khe Sanh region was that this area was historically an influential Communist stronghold.

To perform the military operation, the enemy had brought four divisions plus support troops into the vicinity of Khe Sanh. In the area north of Hill 881 N, the enemy had deployed the 325C North Vietnamese Army division. Southwest of Khe Sanh was the 304th North Vietnamese Army Division and in the demilitarized zone area north of the Rock Pile was the 320th North Vietnamese Army Division. The fourth division was across the Laotian border to the west. Also around Khe Sanh were an estimated one to three armored battalions, possibly from the 203d Armored Regiment; the 68th Artillery Regiment; and elements of the 164th Artillery Regi-


ment. Intelligence reports had further indicated the presence of at least 27 PT-76 tanks, numerous 240-mm. rocket launchers and 122-mm. assault guns, antiaircraft weapons, and at least one communication relay site.

From the enemy point of view, his revised plan for the domination of the south should have created a significant defeat for the U.S. if Khe Sanh had gone the same way Dien Bien Phu went fourteen years before. However, the enemy had made a few serious errors in his planning. High-level enemy documents of a self-analysis nature attest to these errors. He expected massive popular uprisings as his troops entered the cities and further expected large numbers of Vietnamese Armed Forces to defect to his ranks. In both these expectations he was entirely disappointed.

Having failed in his Tet offensive in the spring of 1968, the enemy attempted to regain momentum by maintaining constant pressure on the urban areas through continuous interdiction of lines of communication, through the imposition of a tight economic blockade, and through the destruction of the administrative control held by the government of South Vietnam. These enemy measures were meant to cause the people to demonstrate and rebel. Enemy pre-positioned and thoroughly trained political cadres could then step in and assume leadership and control of the people.

The enemy winter-spring campaign, of which Tet was the high-water mark, was a "Battle of the Bulge" attempt to reverse the trends of the war and create a favorable political and psychological position that would ultimately lead to the collapse of the government of the Republic of Vietnam. As of June 1968, his military efforts to achieve this goal had been totally unsuccessful. To obtain a military victory, it remained necessary for him to trigger a general uprising culminating in a successful coup d'état. Such success was impossible unless the enemy could regain his momentum and win the support of both the population and the armed forces of South Vietnam. In June of 1968, there was nothing to indicate he could gain such support. In fact the opposite effect prevailed. The Tet offensive was the "Pearl Harbor" of South Vietnam, arousing and uniting the people against the Communists. This public attitude resulted in large part from the ruthlessness of the Viet Cong and enabled the Vietnamese government to mobilize its manpower on a much greater scale.

There were a number of reasons for the U.S. success in defeating North Vietnamese attempts to take over the two northern provinces of South Vietnam. These included: the acquisition and analysis of enemy intelligence; the organization of forces to counter the enemy threat; air mobility; the superior ground and air firepower possessed


by the Free World Military Assistance Forces; good communications; logistical support; the improvement, modest as it was, of Vietnamese Army forces; and finally, the co-ordinated actions of the divers Free World Force elements which operated to contain and defeat the enemy.


Information about the enemy is an invaluable asset in any military conflict and proved itself especially so in Vietnam. In a conventional struggle, one can at least engage the enemy; that is, observe him and take him under fire, even if his immediate intentions, strength, equipment, and unit organizations are unknown. In the guerrilla environment of South Vietnam two very critical unknown factors existed. It was difficult to know where and who the enemy was. In the populated areas, much importance was placed on determining who the enemy was while in the unpopulated regions, the problem was learning where the enemy was.

The intelligence effort was increased in response to the enemy concentration of forces in and around northern I Corps. Civilian agents, military patrols, long-range reconnaissance patrols, aerial observers particularly from helicopters, the Civilian Irregular Defense Group forces at Lang Vei, Special Forces teams operating in the A Shau Valley, and radio interceptors provided a steady stream of information about the enemy's activities.

An extensive reconnaissance program in early January was initiated to obtain as much information as possible about the enemy. This effort, code-named NIAGARA I, included all sources of information, and aimed at developing target information about the enemy in northern I Corps and the adjacent area immediately to the west of the Laotian border. The information was derived from, among additional sources, aerial and ground searches, interrogation of prisoners and other persons that may have been in or passed through the area, and study of captured enemy documents.

After the enemy's Tet offensive in 1968, Operation LEAP FROG was instituted as an accelerated effort to obtain intelligence indicating the enemy's goals in the campaign. Such knowledge would identify his future moves, thus making possible the formulation of friendly countermoves.

Allied intelligence analysis concluded that the attacks were politically motivated and aimed at seizing the urban areas, at the replacement of Republic of Vietnam officials with members of the Viet Cong infrastructure, and possibly, after having established a position of power from which to negotiate, at suing for a coalition government.


1 This graph displays only infantry type manuever battalions.

Organization for Combat

The responses to this intelligence were reflected in the continued gradual movement of the III Marine Amphibious Force into the northern segment of the corps area and the influx of United


States Army and Republic of Korea Army troops in an effort to increase the density of the Free World Forces in the threatened area. The Military Assistance Command and Command Post was initially organized to control the deployment of a U.S. Army corps into the area. The organization and deployment of Task Force OREGON and the headquarters of Provisional Corps, Vietnam, have already been discussed. In May of 1968, there were 98 maneuver battalions in the corps area of which 26 were U.S. Marine Corps, 31 were U.S. Army, 37 were Vietnamese, and 4 were Republic of Korea. This total, 196, was somewhat above the June figure and is indicative of the fluid situation. (Chart 4)

The U.S. maneuver battalions were assigned to the 1st and 3d Marine Divisions, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), 101st Airborne Division, and the Americal Division; the Vietnamese Army battalions were normally assigned to, or under, the operational control of the 1st and 2d Vietnamese Army Divisions and the 51st Independent Infantry Regiment. The four Republic of Korea battalions were under the 2d Republic of Korea Marine Brigade which, although not under the operational control of the III Marine Amphibious Force, was generally treated as such for planning and coordinating purposes.

The flexibility of the III Marine Amphibious Force organization was attested to by the mix of Army and Marine units under various command echelons. Both Army and Marine battalions were considered to be basically interchangeable during the preparation of operation plans. Reporting directly to the III Marine Amphibious Force were Provisional Corps, Vietnam; C Company, 5th U.S. of operation plans. Reporting directly to the III Marine Amphibious Force were Provisional Corps, Vietnam; C Company, 5th U.S. Special Forces; 1st Marine Air Wing; 1st Marine Division; 23d or Americal Division, and, informally, the 2d Republic of Korea Marine Brigade. (Chart 5)

Within Provisional Corps, Vietnam, were three divisions. The 3d Marine Division was reinforced from three to five Marine Regiments and, in May 1968, reinforced by the 2d Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division. The 1st Air Cavalry Division had its two organic brigades and the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. The 101st Airborne Division had two organic brigades and the 3d Brigade, 82d Airborne Division. The organization for combat of Army and Marine units was dictated by the tactical situation.

The flexibility of the U.S. forces, and their ability to shift Army, Navy, and Marine combat and combat support units among the various headquarters in response to changes in the tactical situation was a major contribution to the success of operations against the




enemy in I Corps. This flexibility also facilitated the implementation of cross-servicing agreements.


Airmobility provided a proportionate increase in the combat potential of combat units. From a tactical point of view, the helicopter gave unit commanders a new dimension in warfare—vertical envelopment of an enemy's rear or flank. For centuries commanders have sought to outflank their enemies, by foot, by cavalry, and even by elephants—and more recently by tanks and by airborne forces. The helicopter provided this ability to U.S. forces in Vietnam on an unprecedented scale. The 85 knots per hour helicopter placed troops at decisive points in time to influence the outcome of the battle. This ability had a multiplying effect on U.S. combat power.

The helicopter was the work horse of the Vietnam War. Despite the helicopter's sensitivity to weather conditions, its versatility gave it great value in combat operations. In addition to being faster than ground vehicles, it had the important advantage of being able to disregard the ruggedness of terrain. The helicopter rescued people from minefields, plucked them from the water, captured prisoners of war, and evacuated casualties from the scene of battle to supporting hospitals, including naval hospitals afloat.

Superior Firepower

The massive firepower available to units of the Free World Military Assistance Forces dominated actions in the air, on the ground, and at sea. Artillery, aerial rocket artillery, naval gun fire, tactical fighter-bombers, and strategic bombers brought awesome destructive power to bear on enemy units.

Following the target acquisition program under NIAGARA I the successive artillery and air firepower operation was designated NIAGARA II. The massive close air support provided under the single manager concept for air is described in the concluding pages of Chapter IV.

B-52 raids were an important factor in the program. The heavy bombing raids generated many casualties and created fear and low morale among enemy troops while bolstering morale within friendly units. The raids forced enemy units of battalion and regimental size to evacuate elaborately prepared positions, thus abandoning sites in which considerable resources had been invested.



The upswing of activity along the demilitarized zone and within the two northern provinces demanded a vast and rapid increase in teletype and voice communications channels to handle expansion of operational and logistical traffic. The influx of additional Marine units, two Army divisions, plus associated combat service support and combat support units, and the eventual organization of the Military Assistance Forward Command Post succeeded by the Provisional Corps, Vietnam, added to the need for expanded communications.

Within a 30-day period, U.S. Army, Vietnam, organized the 63d Signal Battalion, 1st Signal Brigade of the Strategic Communications Command, concurrently with the organization of the Military Assistance Forward Command Post and the Provisional Corps, Vietnam. During that short time frame the unit grew from a headquarters nucleus in Phu Bai to a 1300-man, three company battalion. With tactical and mobile contingency equipment flown in from various areas in Vietnam and Thailand, the battalion established command control and area communications for Military Assistance Command Post Forward, Provisional Corps, and the III Marine Amphibious Force. At the same time, U.S. Air Force elements provided a 60-channel system from Dong Ha to Phu Bai and thence to Da Nang, furnishing the needed communications gateway to the commanders of the U.S. Military Assistance Command and the U.S. Army, Vietnam, through the Defense Communications System.

During Operations PEGASUS and DELAWARE, when the tactical command posts of the 101st Airborne and 1st Cavalry Divisions moved into the Ca Lu and A Shau area, mobile 12- and 24-channel very high frequency radio relay and tropospheric scatter systems were extended to these field locations from Phu Bai.


Moving large troop units into the undeveloped northern region required prodigious effort in construction of logistical facilities and in operational planning down to the finest details. Maneuvering of combat troops placed enormous strain on the transportation capabilities, and resupplying the troops in new distant locations was a formidable task.

Logistical planning kept pace with the buildup of U.S. forces in I Corps. Procedures were developed by the U.S. Navy for the initial support to Army units deployed north. As the Military Assistance Forward Command Post and the equivalent of a U.S. army


corps deployed to the 1st Corps Tactical Zone, a forward area support base was organized at Da Nang to support them and handle the heavy volume of supplies.

Transportation was improved as Highway I reopened and the fuel pipeline was restored. A logistical-over-the-shore (LOTS) facility was constructed, and a new pipeline laid from the LOTS facility into Dong Ha. Finally the Phu Bai airport had been expanded to increase its tonnage handling.

In general, resupply was accomplished by surface means to the maximum extent possible. However, some operations required aerial supply for certain elements of a unit or even for the entire unit. This need prevailed at the garrison at Khe Sanh. The calculation of aerial resupply capabilities was for this reason an important step in planning.

The advantage of surprise in military operations could easily be lost if impending actions were revealed by pre-stocking supplies in a new operational area. It was therefore necessary to move vast amounts of supplies into a new area at the same time the combat troops moved in. This generated major fluctuations in requirements for aircraft and trucks during the deployment period.

In allocating resources available to conduct resupply during an upcoming operation, there were many opportunities to substitute one resource for another. Operation PEGASUS was an example of this fact. The Khe Sanh garrison was entirely supplied by cargo aircraft, its outposts by helicopter. The closing relief forces were supplied by air or truck convoy, depending upon their proximity to Route 9 and the engineers' progress in rebuilding the route. Although there is little resemblance between a C-130 cargo aircraft, a CH-47 helicopter, and the engineer bulldozer-supply truck combination, from a logistical standpoint, they accomplished the same thing. It was a matter of selecting the most economical means or simply using what was available.

Improvement of Vietnamese Armed Forces

While units of the Free World Military Assistance Forces shouldered the burden of containing the enemy offensives, modest gains were made in improving the combat capability of Republic of Vietnam military forces. This feat was accomplished by providing military advisers to help Vietnamese commanders solve the complexities of tactical and logistical problems. Changes were made in the military school system to more adequately address contemporary problems. (Chart 6)

Another step was to revamp the promotion system for better



recognition of the merit of officers and noncommissioned officers. The senior Vietnamese officers began to summarily relieve incompetents, reprimand weakness in subordinate's leadership, and give recognition to superior performance. One statistical measure of the general improvement of the military forces was the decreasing desertion rate. Another measure, and a significant one, was the growing number of Vietnamese units that earned the United States Presidential Unit Citation for their heroic actions in combat. During and following the 1968 Tet offensive, the military forces of South Vietnam acquitted themselves adequately. In many cases, such as that of the 1st Vietnamese Division in Hue, they fought with distinction.

Along with the qualitative betterment of personnel, strides were taken in improving the equipment of the armed forces. Vietnamization began with the issue of the M16 rifle, mainstay weapon of U.S. ground services, to Vietnamese Army units. Better machine guns, mortars, and other crew-served weapons were added to the Vietnamese Army inventory. In addition to these weapons, the issue of aircraft, boats, helicopters, tanks, and armored personnel carriers improved the ability of the Vietnamese to reposition their forces as required by changes in the tactical situation. The morale


of the Vietnamese rose greatly upon receipt of this modern equipment.

Each Saturday morning, the commanding general of the III Marine Amphibious Force was briefed on Vietnamese Army operations by the U.S. advisers to I Corps. Following the briefing, a commander's conference was held at the headquarters of General Hoang Xuan Lam to discuss matters of mutual concern. The agenda, usually distributed in advance, covered planned operations, both unilateral and combined, which required co-ordination and co-operation of Free World Military Assistance support. The extensive exchange of liaison officers down to battalion level, when required, was a common practice throughout I Corps.

The U.S. commanders worked closely with the Vietnamese commanders adjacent to their areas of responsibility and provided excellent support on a routine basis. The co-operation was extended to other Free World Military commanders as in the case of Brigadier General Kim Yun Sang of the 2d Republic of Korea Marine Brigade.

By 1968, combined operations were becoming the rule rather than the exception. Operations PEGASUS and DELAWARE were prime examples of such operations conducted in I Corps during the first four months of 1968.

Co-operation between Vietnamese Army and Free World Military Assistance Forces also extended to logistics and training. Vietnamese Army elements operating with U.S. units received logistical support from those units. On the training side, two examples serve to demonstrate the mutual benefit derived from this practice. In 1967, the 3d Battalion, 6th Vietnamese Regiment, trained companies of the newly arrived 198th U.S. Infantry Brigade in Viet Cong tactics, the detection of mines and booby traps, and the techniques of Viet Cong village search. That same year, the 3d Marine Division trained 2,430 men of the 2d Vietnamese Army Regiment in use of the M16 rifle.

Co-ordination of artillery fires and air strikes with one another were also accomplished by Vietnamese, U.S., and Free World Military Assistance Forces throughout I Corps. This co-ordination was done at the division level in both the 1st and 2d Vietnamese Division areas, and included U.S. naval gun fire.

The Other War

The failure of the North Vietnamese to gain control of the population of South Vietnam was not an outcome of unsuccessful combat actions alone. Also contributing to their failure was the fact


that the South Vietnamese government developed many programs supporting the economic, social, and political goals of the population. To obtain popular support, the government announced these new programs after the 8 February 1966 Honolulu Conference. The government pronouncement called on all citizens of South Vietnam to work together to develop the country:

We must bring about a true social revolution and construct a modern society in which every man can know that he has a future ... To those future citizens of a free, democratic South Vietnam now fighting with the Viet Cong, we take this occasion to say come and join in this national revolutionary adventure:
—come safely to join us through the Open Arms Programs,
—stop killing your brothers, sisters, their elders, and their children,
—come and work through constitutional democracy to build together that life of dignity, freedom, and peace those in the North would deny the people of Vietnam.

Along with implementation of a new constitution, the government established the revolutionary development program to initiate the social, economic, and political reforms needed to improve the life of the rural population, and to strengthen their confidence in the government and its resistance to the Viet Cong. The program sent teams of 59 men, armed for self-defense, into recently secured areas to help establish local security, weed out any remaining Viet Cong, and initiate a development program.

Two additional actions that had good results were the Chieu Hoi or Open Arms Program and the Doan Ket or National Reconciliation Program. The former program began as early as 1963 when more than 5,700 Viet Cong accepted the opportunity to return to the government during the initial four months of the declared amnesty period. As additional combat troops took the field against the enemy, the number of enemy soldiers rallying to the government increased.

When a man returned to the government under this program, he was interviewed to determine his sincerity, rewarded for any weapons or equipment turned in, and placed in a re-education program through which he learned the aims and purposes of the government of South Vietnam and the role of the Free World Military Assistance Forces in the war. An added bonus in this program was the fact that an estimated 30 percent of the returnees then served in the government armed forces.

The second program, Doan Ket, offered more to the middle and upper ranks of the enemy hierarchy than the Chieu Hoi amnesty program. This program included provisions that returnees would be employed in accordance with their ability, presumably in posi-


tions at a level comparable to those they had in the enemy system. This added a bit to the motivation of senior persons who might be inclined to terminate their relationship with the enemy. This program also included a re-educational process before personnel were declared graduates and returned to full citizenship status.


The North Vietnamese failed to achieve victory in the northern provinces in 1968 because their efforts to gain and retain control of the population and the government of South Vietnam were obstructed by determined U.S. and Free World Military Assistance Forces. During the critical period when the enemy upgraded his operations from insurgency and guerrilla actions to a full-scale conventional invasion, enemy aims were thwarted by military action. The success of the Free World Forces can be attributed to their flexibility in organization and tactics to meet the ever changing enemy situation and their mutual co-operation in conducting combined operations against the foe. The success was also due to the steady improvement of the South Vietnamese Armed Forces—a long-term goal of the headquarters of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. The establishment of programs to win the allegiance of the people to their government by eliminating the social, political, and economic injustices which provided a fertile environment for insurgency also furthered success.

A final tribute must be paid to the fighting heart of the individual soldier, sailor, marine, airman, and civilian who faced the dangers of a cruel enemy. Although scientists have invented weapons that have revolutionized warfare, they have not been able to replace the soldier on the ground. He was aggressive, physically fit, eager to fight, with pride in his profession and compassion for the Vietnamese people—a superb fighter in the finest traditions of great Americans, great patriots, and great soldiers.

page created 15 January 2002

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