© 1997 Peter Brush
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The February 1997 issue of Vietnam contained my article "The War's 'Constructive Component,'" an examination of counterinsurgency operations during the Vietnam War. In his editorial comments in that issue, editor Colonel Summers took exception to my conclusion, saying it ignored "the last seven years of the war during which guerrillas played an insignificant part."
Summers' conclusion is one of the themes of his important work On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. In that book Summers quotes former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Fred C. Weyland who claims that the Viet Cong (VC) were destroyed during Tet 1968; "eliminated" at the direction of the North Vietnamese Communists. Also noted is that the VC comprised no more than 20 percent of the Communist fighting forces after 1968. This article examines the Viet Cong in the post-Tet 1968 period in order evaluate the significance of their role in the fighting during the years between the 1968 Tet offensive and the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Army General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1964 to 1970, did not think the Viet Cong had been eliminated. In a cable dated March 1 1968 to General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, Wheeler admitted that counterinsurgency programs had been brought to a halt. To a large extent, the VC now controlled the countryside. The VC were rebuilding their infrastructure via recruiting and infiltration and overall recovery was "likely to be rapid."1 John Paul Vann, a former Army lieutenant colonel before becoming advisor for counterinsurgency operations in II Corps, felt Westmoreland had been duped by army briefers who over-stressed enemy body counts as a measure of success. Vann wrote in March 1968 that the VC were "being given more freedom to intimidate the rural population than ever before in the past two-and-a-half years."2 Further, as will be shown, there are simply too many references to Viet Cong military actions after Tet to support the conclusion they had been eliminated.
Does the claim that the VC comprised no more than twenty percent of Communist military forces mean they were insignificant? In 1968, the Marine Corps force in South Vietnam numbered 86,000 men ashore. That year the total number of US troops in Vietnam was 549,000.3 Although the Marines supplied less than 16 percent of total US forces, no one claims that the Marine force in Vietnam was insignificant. It takes more than percentages to demonstrate significance.
Historian Ngo Ving Long claims that the VC achieved dramatic gains while receiving relatively light casualties during the first phase of Tet 1968. Long notes that officials and academics in both the United States and Vietnam claim only the North Vietnamese played the decisive role in the liberation of the South in the period after Tet. Officials in North Vietnam have gone so far as to restrict debate on the conduct of the war in order that the official party line go unchallenged. Long claims this view is incorrect, that it cannot be supported by current research, and in reality southern revolutionaries rebuilt their connections between villagers and soldiers in 1971 and 1972 to a level which allowed a respite from their Tet losses.4
According to Long, all of the VC forces were not killed in the Tet fighting because many of them did not participate in the attacks. For example, Saigon, the main target of Phase 1 of the Tet Offensive, was assigned the largest number of VC attack forces by the Communist National Liberation Front. These forces were divided into two commands, Northern and Southern. Long An Province supplied most of the forces that attacked Saigon from the Southern Command. Eight Southern Command VC battalions were sent to Saigon. None of them were able to break through Saigon's defenses to link up with VC sapper units. Consequently, all of these forces were withdrawn from the city to the surrounding countryside and their losses were low. In the heaviest fighting the Southern Command participated in, the equivalent of only one platoon became casualties.5
As allied commanders withdrew their troops from the countryside to defend Saigon and other urban areas, VC guerrillas were able to defeat government regional and local militias. This allowed the NLF to expand its control in rural areas. It was this expansion of NLF control that encouraged the Communists to launch Phase 2 and 3 of the Tet Offensive.
According to a classified NLF study, Long An was the province where its forces sustained the highest level of casualties of all provinces in the South during all phases of Tet. Nevertheless, in late 1968, U.S. officials still regarded Long An as being largely under NLF control.
After Tet the allies attempted various counterinsurgency measures to regain control of the countryside. One manifestation of the acknowledgement by the allies that the Viet Cong were filling the void caused by the withdrawal of US/ARVN forces from rural areas of South Vietnam was the Phoenix Program. Implemented from 1968 until 1972, Phoenix had as its objective identification of the Viet Cong, building support among the local South Vietnamese in combatting the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI), and eventually reducing and eliminating the Viet Cong as a military and political force.
Robert Komer managed the pacification program in 1967 and 1968. Komer set quotas for all of South Vietnam: He wanted 3,000 Viet Cong neutralized each month. William Colby, who replaced Komer as head of pacification, stated in 1971 that 28,000 VCI had been captured in South Vietnam under the Phoenix Program, 20,000 had been killed, and another 17,000 had been detected.6 Had the Viet Cong been eliminated or reduced to insignificance during Tet 1968, there would have been no need for the Phoenix Program.
Further evidence of increased VC influence is provided by events in Ben Tre Province (also known as Kien Hoa). Most of the province was under NLF control at the beginning of Tet. Long a VC stronghold, Ben Tre had the distinction of being the most heavily bombed province in the Mekong Delta during Phase 1. Its capital, with a population of 140,000, was the place an American officer claimed, "We had to destroy the town to save it." Ben Tre became the scene of massive allied counterattacks beginning in July 1968. During that year the NLF expanded its influence in Ben Tre, adding an additional ten percent of the total provincial population to areas under its control.7
In July 1969 the allied Hamlet Evaluation System (HES) indicated that 74 percent of the population of South Vietnam was subjected to covert Communist activity and another five percent was under their convert control. Only 18 percent of the population was considered free of Communist influence. Later US data suggest that as late as June 1971 Viet Cong were conducting activities among two-thirds of the population of South Vietnam.8
According to Long's view, the Viet Cong could have minimized their casualties by breaking off combat after their Phase 1 gains. Instead, the Communists were ordered to mount the second and third phases, which left revolutionary forces in forward positions until the fall of 1968. Here they suffered severe losses when subjected to allied firepower. Hanoi compounded its errors by finally ordering VC units to withdraw to border sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, effectively surrendering populated areas to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and US forces without a fight.
Later, NLF forces paid a high price when they returned to the villages to rebuild their infrastructure. Additionally, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops sent south in the 1969-1970 period operated ineffectively and suffered increased casualties due to this lack of infrastructure. According to southern revolutionary leaders, 1969 and 1970 were the most difficult years of the war. The difficulties of this period were caused by decisions the Communists made themselves, and not directly by actions of the US or South Vietnam. Local revolutionary forces were able to reclaim the initiative in 1971 and 1972, aided in part by the redeployment of allied forces for the invasions of Laos and Cambodia. Simultaneous with these invasions was an increase in NLF urban operations.9
Were Viet Cong activities militarily significant during the period between the withdrawal of US forces and the fall of Saigon? This significance can be gauged by references to them in military histories of the period. One account is provided by General Van Tien Dung, Chief of Staff of the (North) Vietnam People's Army.
According to Dung, Hanoi's Party Central Committee recognized the significance of the southern revolutionary forces. Its 1974 Twenty-First Conference Resolution stated as one of its goals the need to raise the will to struggle and step up organizational discipline in order to guarantee victory for all three kinds of troops: main-force units, regional-force troops, and local guerrilla militia.10
After building up its forces during the 1973-1974 period, Hanoi decided to test its strength against Saigon forces. Remote Phuoc Long province was chosen as its first target. In 20 days of fighting, a combination of main-force (i.e., NVA) and regional forces (i.e., VC) liberated both Phuoc Long town and province from ARVN control. This was the first province lost to the Communists by the South Vietnamese government.11
Saigon's next loss was Ban Me Thuot. Dung notes that people from the local revolutionary apparatus gave advice to NVA forces as they prepared their attack plans. Further south, in Tay Ninh province in 1974, local forces from Phu Yen were ordered to block Route 7 to prevent the escape of ARVN troops toward Tuy Hoa.12
In the northern provinces, Dung notes that seven regional force battalions, along with 100 armed special assignment squads and local armed forces, mounted a series of attacks in Mai Linh district. The district town as knocked out, eleven other installations were destroyed, and the Communists were able to propagandize a large area which included 53 villages with a population of over 20,000. On March 24 and 25, the NVA 2d Division, in coordination with local forces, destroyed the ARVN 4th and 5th regiments while liberating Tam Ky and Tuan Duong. In Quang Ngai it was regional forces who liberated the northern part of the province. When Danang fell, it was "members of our revolutionary infrastructure" who raised the Communist flag over city hall.13 In March and April 1974, Communist forces launched a series of attacks in the central coastal plain. Dung credits regional armed forces, along with the people, for the liberation of Qui Nhon town as well as Phuoc Ly and Phuoc Hai peninsulas.14
In early April the Communists began preparations for the final attack against Saigon. An official from Communist Zones 8 and 9 noted that while previously this area only had two regional force battalions, by April it had increased its forces to five battalions. In one day Rach Gia had mobilized 200 recruits to form an additional provisional battalion, and "every village had a company of guerrillas." Weapons and munitions for these forces were sent down from the regional level as well as taken from the enemy, providing equipment for these new units. Their continuous activities tied down a number of ARVN main-force units in IV Corps, and diverted some activities of Saigon's air and naval forces.
The revolutionary infrastructure inside Saigon was kept busy when the fighting began. The party committee spread propaganda leaflets by the hundred of thousands. Members of the Saigon municipal party committee, members of special ward committees, hundreds of party members, thousands of members of various mass organizations, and tens of thousands of people could be mobilized to support the attack forces. A political infrastructure existed in every section of town. Hundreds of loudspeaker cars were readied and thousands of meters of cloth were delivered to tailor shops to be sewn into flags.15
Far from being eliminated or insignificant, according to Dung, regional forces were bigger and stronger than ever before. The revolutionary forces in the final attack included sappers, special action units, armed security forces, self-defense units, and mass political forces. Their role was to capture bridges, guide main-force units into the city, neutralize traitors, and mobilize the masses for an urban uprising. Plans for participation were passed all the way down to the neighborhood level.16
It was a combination of main force, regional force, and militia of Ba Ria that liberated a large section of that province. Regional and guerrilla forces liberated Cu Lao Cham Island on March 30. Party members liberated Cung Son Island and turned it over to regular soldiers for administration. Local forces also assisted in the liberation of Cu Lao Xanh and Hon Tre Islands.17 Regional forces and guerrilla militia, in coordination with main force units, surrounded My Tho and Can Tho in the Mekong Delta and interdicted movement of ARVN forces along Route 4.18
Dung's book was written for a Vietnamese audience. As Long notes, the Communists have sought to minimize the role of local forces in the conquest of South Vietnam. Nevertheless, however much minimized, Dung's version of the final offensive indicates the Communists assigned a significant role to local revolutionary forces.
Truong Nhu Tang, the Viet Cong Minister of Defense during the war, notes it was the NLF's 9th Division that provided security for the founding congress of the Provisional Revolutionary Government in 1969. The following year saw large- scale combat as the VC 5th, 7th, and 9th Divisions fought ARVN and Cambodian army units during the withdrawal of NLF headquarters elements into Cambodia. By 1972, according to Tung, the Viet Cong were better placed than ever before to exploit the weaknesses of the South Vietnamese government and their American supporters.19
On May 21 1972, Communist forces occupied Loc Ninh. It was the NLF flag that was raised over the captured city after it had fallen to regiments of the VC 5th Division. As survivors of the Loc Ninh attacks fled, the VC 9th Division was probing An Loc and the VC 7th Division blocked Route 13, resulting in a siege of five ARVN regiments that would last until June 18.20 On December 2, men of the 10th VC Sapper Regiment blew up the Nha Be tank farm, the largest oil storage facility in South Vietnam. Tung notes the participation of the VC 3d, 7th, and 9th Divisions in the capture of Phuoc Long province in January 1973.21
Not only Communist writers ascribe a role to the Viet Cong in post-Tet events in Vietnam. Colonel William E. Le Gro, author of Vietnam from Cease-Fire to Capitulation (published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History), notes that intelligence sources revealed the Communists force deployments in early 1973: NVA main forces would contain the ARVN in its bases while NLF forces would invest the hamlets and villages. That month saw NLF flags raised in hamlets of western Hieu Duc district, southern and western Dai Loc, Dien Ban, northeastern Duc Duc, western Duy Xugen, and parts of the Que Son District of Quang Nam Province. On January 28, local forces attacked along Route 1 between Danang and the Bong Son pass to the south, cutting the highway in several places. In MR2, local forces interdicted Route 20 in Lam Dong Province in late January. Le Gro notes that VC units up to regimental size were still considered to be predominantly Viet Cong and not North Vietnamese.22
Viet Cong units during this period were not confined to propagandizing the hamlets and villages. In October 1973 an inferior VC unit drove elements of the 11th ARVN Ranger group from their dug-in positions on Hill 252 near Quang Ngai City. Two months later the VC 95th Sapper Company infiltrated the command post of the 68th Ranger Battalion and inflicted over 50 casualties, including the battalion commander and his deputy. On occasion, VC units filled in for NVA units, maximizing the flexibility of Communist forces on the battlefield. In the Northern Provinces, at the time of the second anniversary of the cease-fire, local units relieved the NVA 325th Division on the My Chanh line, allowing the 325th to move toward Hue.23
Le Gro places significant VC units in MR3 during this period. During February 1974 the NVA 6th Regiment of its 5th Division was given the assignment of cutting roads around Tay Ninh. This force was assisted by a VC regiment and at least three local battalions. VC forces launched rocket attacks in the Central Highlands in early 1975 as Saigon forces began their final crumble. And so it went throughout the country during March 1975: Local forces assisted the NVA in overrunning the 102nd PF Battalion in Hau Duc, local forces participated in the NVA onslaught against the ARVN at the An Khe Pass, and local forces inflicted heavy casualties on Saigon territorials in Long An Province near the capital.24
A Rand Corporation report prepared for the Secretary of Defense in 1978 provides additional evidence of Viet Cong military activity after Tet 1968. A battle near Hue in March 1974 between Saigon and Communist forces reportedly cost the NVA and VC over 1,000 killed. Later, as ARVN troops evacuated Hue and withdrew southward, the city of Danang was moving toward chaos. The ARVN 3rd Division commander reported that VC sapper units in the city contributed to the confusion.25 The South Vietnamese government (Government of Vietnam, or GVN) sought to consolidate its forces in Military Regions 3 and 4 after the loss of the northern regions. Units withdrawn from MR1 (formerly I Corps) were added to the six ARVN divisions, two armored brigades, various Ranger groups, and Regional/Popular Forces organic to MR3 and MR4 in order to provide for the continued defense of South Vietnam. The Rand study notes that most of the GVN indigenous units were themselves already hard pressed and tied down by local Communist forces and could not be disengaged to form reserves to meet fresh enemy units moving into South Vietnam from the north. Examples include the ARVN 25th Division near Tay Ninh, and the ARVN 7th, 9th, and 21st Divisions in the Mekong Delta: all tied down by local Communist forces. According to the Commander of the Capital Military District, this was a lesson the Communists learned from the failed 1972 Easter Offensive. Additionally, local units seized captured ARVN vehicles for transportation to Long An Province where they threatened to cut a major communications link between Saigon and the Delta. The South Vietnamese Joint General Staff deployed its 22nd Division from Binh Dinh Province to counter this threat.26
Historian John M. Gates indicates the importance of Viet Cong forces at the time of the 1973 cease-fire, particularly outside of MR1. Although throughout South Vietnam local units provided only 16.9 percent of total Communist strength, they provided over 50 percent of the administrative and service personnel. In MR3, the area around Saigon, local forces provided 20 percent of the combat troops and almost 70 percent of support troops. In MR4 (the Mekong Delta), the percentages were over 40 percent of the combat troops and over 90 percent of the service and administrative personnel. The ARVN Chief of Staff for MR2 estimated that in 1975, Communist regular units made up less than fifty percent of the forces in this area.27
At the time of the 1973 cease-fire, Communist forces in South Vietnam consisted of about 148,000 combat troops, 16,000 men assigned to antiaircraft regiments, and 71,000 support troops. Opposing them was an ARVN force with an assigned strength of 450,000, a Navy of 42,000, an Air Force of 54,000, Popular and Regional Forces totaling 525,000, and a Women's Armed Forces Corps with 4,000 members. As Army historian Le Gro notes, these gross figures of 235,000 Communists verses 1,075,000 South Vietnamese troops tell little about relative combat power.28 Communist strength in the South was devoted almost exclusively to offensive operations, while GVN forces were assigned to fixed defensive missions.
It is difficult to accurately determine the Viet Cong contribution to total Communist strength. North Vietnamese who infiltrated south in 1964 and 1965 were often assigned as replacements to Viet Cong units. Many of these people were originally from the South and had moved North at the time of the Geneva partition in 1954. In later years, many VC were added to the ranks of existing regular NVA units. Compounding the problem is that some VC units had their Tet 1968 casualties replaced by North Vietnamese while maintaining their Viet Cong unit designations. One study claimed that by mid-1968, one-third of the men in VC units were North Vietnamese.29
Besides providing manpower for direct combat operations, the Viet Cong functioned as an interface that facilitated the operation of North Vietnamese main-force units in the South. The intimate NLF knowledge of conditions in the South allowed North Vietnamese forces to operate with a minimum ratio of combat to support units. An example of this is provided by the rice war in the Mekong Delta. Nearly 90 percent of Communist rice requirements were filled from South Vietnam sources. The Viet Cong, often recruited locally, were able to exert control over rice-producing hamlets, protect the activities of rice- requisitioning parties, secure the lines of communication for movement of food supplies, and prevent the intrusion of Saigon forces into the rice-producing areas (primarily in the Mekong Delta).30 It was this "fifth column" function that enabled the Communists to deploy a greater number of units for offensive operations than the ARVN despite the Communists' 4.5:1 overall disparity in total force levels.
Truong Nhu Tung, then the NLF Minister of Defense, describes the victory parade in Saigon after the final Communist offensive. Representatives of various mass organizations filed by the reviewing stand. These were followed by military units of the NVA, "troops from every North Vietnamese Army unit, all of them wearing distinctive new olive-colored pith helmets." Tank squadrons, antiaircraft batteries, artillery units, and Soviet missiles lumbered past under the protective cover of air force overflights. Finally several unkempt and ragtag looking Viet Cong units appeared. In alarm, Tung turned to General Dung who was standing next to him. Tung asked quietly, "Where are our divisions one, three, five, seven, and nine?"
After staring for a moment, Dung replied that the army had been unified. It was then, in 1975 and not 1968, that it became clear even to the leaders of the NLF that their forces had been rendered insignificant, and that the Front had no further role to play in the revolution. It had become only a minor obstacle to North Vietnam's consolidation of power in the South.31
Viet Cong Strength And Order Of Battle Late January 1973
Military Region 1 MR2 MR3 MR4
Viet Cong Combat Troops 3,000 6,000 5,000 11,000
Viet Cong Administrative
and Service Troops
6,000 8,000 11,000 12,000
NOTE: VC units usually contained NVA fillers. VC units ranged in composition from predominantly VC to predominantly NVA. Communist strength included 15,300 VC/NVA in separate combat platoons not included in the following units
South Vietnam Military Region 1
120th VC Montagnard Inf (150)
42d VC Rcn (150
70th VC Sapper (150)
145th VC Inf (150)
South Vietnam Military Region 2
45th VC Inf (150)
67th VC Inf (200)
408th VC Sapper (200)
Khanh Hoa VC Sapper (200)
481st VC Inf (200)
482d VC Inf (150)
251st VC Inf Bn (150)
South Vietnam Military Region 3
10th VC Sapper Bn (100
12th VC Sapper Bn (150)
8th VC Arty Bn (150
168th VC Inf Bn (150)
368th VC Inf Bn (150)
1st VC Inf Bn (150)
6th VC Inf Bn (150)
20th VC Inf Bn (150)
445th VC Inf Bn (150
9th VC Inf Bn (150)
269th VC Inf Bn (150)
508th VC Inf Bn (150)
South Vietnam Military Region 4
DT1-1 Regt (600)
207th VC Sapper BN (100)
308th VC Arty (150)
109th VC Inf Bn (100)
268th VC Inf Bn (150
271st VC Inf Bn (150)
278th VC Inf Bn (150)
279th VC Inf Bn (200)
295th VC Inf Bn (300)
310th VC Inf Bn (200)
512th VC Inf Bn (300)
516thA VC Inf Bn (200)
590th VC Inf Bn (150)
502d VC Inf Bn (200)
514C VC Inf Bn (200)
D-1 Regt (600)
D-3 Regt (1000)
2012d VC Sapper Bn (150)
2014th VC Sapper Bn (150)
2311th VC Arty Bn (100)
2315th VC Arty Bn (100)
Tay Do Inf Bn (100)
U Minh 10th Inf Bn (250)
U Minh 2d Inf Bn (100)
764th Inf Bn (150)
857th Inf Bn (100)
Source: Colonel William E. Le Gro, Vietnam from Cease-Fire to Capitulation, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center for Military History), 1981, pp. 28-30.
1 Robert Buzzanco, "The Myth of Tet," in Marc Jason Gilbert and William
Head (eds.), The Tet Offensive, (Westport, CN: Praeger), 1996, p. 239.
2 Ibid., p. 244.
3 George R. Dunham and David A. Quinlan, U.S. Marines in Vietnam : The Bitter End, 1973-1975, (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), 1990, p. 266; William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (Garden City, NY: Doubleday), 1976, p. 359.
4 Ngo Vinh Long, "The Tet Offensive and Its Aftermath," in Gilbert and Head, Ibid., pp. 90-91.
5 Long, pp. 106-107.
6 Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, (NY: Random House), 1988, pp. 732-733.
7 Long, p. 108.
8 Thomas C. Thayer, War Without Fronts (Boulder, CO: Westview), 1985, p. 206.
9 Long, pp. 89-90.
10 Van Tien Dung, Our Great Spring Victory : An Account of the Liberation of South Vietnam (N.Y.: Monthly Review Press), 1977, p. 11.
11 Ibid., p. 22.
12 Ibid., p. 46, 95.
13 Ibid., p. 101, 105, 109.
14 Ibid., p. 113.
15 Ibid., p. 151, 164, 172-73.
16 Ibid., p. 182, 187, 188.
17 Ibid., p. 218, 221.
18 Ibid., p. 249.
19 Truong Nhu Tang, A Vietcong Memoir, (NY: Vintage Books), 1985, p. 147, 179-181, 204.
20 Ibid., 205. William S. Turley, The Second Indochina War, (NY: Westview Press, 1986, p. 145.
21 Tung, p. 232, 250.
22 William E. Le Gro, Vietnam from Cease-Fire to Capitulation, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center for Military History), 1981, p. 23, 24, 25, 15.
23 Ibid., p. 63, 139.
24 Ibid., p. 143, 153, 156, 161, 167.
25 Stephen T. Hosmer, Konrad Kellen, and Brian M. Jenkins, The Fall of South Vietnam: Statements by Vietnamese Military and Civilian Leaders, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand), 1978, p. 103, 110 n33.
26 Ibid., p. 116.
27 John M. Gates, "Revisionism and the Vietnam War" in William Head and Lawrence E. Grinter, Looking Back on the Vietnam War, (Westport, CN: Praeger), 1993, p. 180; see also the Appendix.
28 Le Gro, p. 30.
29 Michael Lee Lanning and Dan Cragg, Inside the VC and the NVA, (NY: Ivy Books), 1992, p. 52.
30 Le Gro, p. 65.
31 Tung, pp. 264-265.
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