The military tactics used by the USA and the Vietcong forces in Vietnam in the 1960’s were very different. The USA with its modern fighting equipment believed it could win the war against the Vietcong whose Guerrilla tactics had been used to defeat both the Japanese and the French and could now be used effectively against the USA. The Americans regarded the Vietnamese as poor and backward peasants, underestimating the idealism of people who were fighting to defend their homeland. The Vietcong could not have succeeded in expelling the American forces without support from the USSR and China.
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The Cold War confrontation continued in Vietnam, a civil war hijacked by the USA, China and the USSR. The military tactics used by the USA in Vietnam can be defined by: – ‘The art and science of employing the armed forces of a nation to secure the objectives of natural policy by the application of force, or the threat of force. ‘ (Col Harry Summers, the Vietnam War Almanac). American tactics at the beginning of the offensive were: attrition, bombing, the use of strategic hamlets, defoliation and search and destroy.
These tactics were chosen because of the successes which the USA had fighting against Germany and Japan in World War 2 and against North Korea and China during the Korean War. These tactics optimised America’s material and technological strengths and their perception that as a ‘superpower’, the heavy use of superior and sophisticated weapons would win the war. ‘The USA had never lost a war and it seemed that we were ordained to play cop to the communist robber and spread our political ideas around the world. ‘ (Source C Edexcel booklet).
Attrition, a traditional method of warfare was one of the first tactics used by the USA. The aim was to wear down the enemy by killing so many of its soldiers, that it could not carry on effective resistance. General Westmoreland (USA military commander) believed that conventional, overwhelming US firepower would succeed in destroying the Vietcong. The problem with this tactic was although great suffering was inflicted on the Vietcong it was never enough to make them concede.
The Vietcong were fighting to expel the ‘American Imperialists’ and their war was a total one. For the Americans, the war was intense but nonetheless a limited one, far from home. ‘ (PT Riddick, Modern History review, 1992. ) During the war the South Vietnamese lost between six hundred thousand and one million people, about three per cent of their population. Attrition did not seem to be achieving the aim of making the enemy concede, the fighting was escalated and resulted in the use of yet more force. The Tonkin resolution enabled the US to commit forces directly to the fighting. An intensive bombing campaign started.
More bombs were dropped by the US on Vietnam than on the whole of Europe during WW2. The tactic was to locate the Vietcong and then destroy them by air strikes. In 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder targeted military bases, factories, railways, supply depots, bridges and sought to destroy the supply route, the Ho Chi Minh trail, along which the Vietcong were constantly being rearmed by the USSR and China. The bombing was also directed against North Vietnamese industry. Once destroyed the North Vietnamese relocated industry in remote places and hid them effectively away from the ‘carpet bombing’.
Carpet-bombing was the term used to describe large numbers of bombs dropped indiscriminately in an area designed to destroy the infrastructure. Six hundred million dollars worth of damage was caused to North Vietnamese industrial infrastructure during the war. In 1961, President Ngo Dinh Diem began a programme of relocation of the population into ‘strategic hamlets’. These were villages designed to provide a safe and secure environment for the South Vietnamese population to live in, especially in areas where they were threatened with guerrilla attack. Each village was to be fortified.
This tactic had disadvantages; farmers did not want to leave their land and move elsewhere, the Vietcong were able to ‘pick off’ and defeat whole villages, one at a time, all the people in the village were neatly packaged as a sitting target and the idea was mismanaged by the South Vietnamese government. The policy was abandoned after the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. In 1962, early in the conflict, the US used defoliants in order to destroy vegetation, which provided cover for the Vietcong in the dense jungle areas of South Vietnam.
They sprayed heavily inland forest areas near the Demilitarised Zone, at the borders with Cambodia and Laos, around Saigon and in the mangrove forests along shipping channels. They also used defoliants to destroy crops, arguing that this would provide less food and cover for the Vietcong. Operation Ranchhand was the code name for USAF’s campaign to destroy vegetation. Millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants were sprayed over South Vietnam. Throughout the war, in the field ‘Search and destroy’, was the tactic used by the US. The Vietcong were to be located and destroyed initially by bombing.
Later this annihilation was carried out by ground troops. Whole areas of South Vietnam were designated as Free Fire Zones. In these zones troops were allowed to fire at will. Many villages were destroyed, razed to flush out ‘suspected’ Vietcong. This tactic gave way to many atrocities, Quote from school source book There were many instances of innocent civilians being killed by US troops. Support for the Vietcong amongst the South Vietnamese population began to get stronger. The tactics used by the Vietcong forces in Vietnam in the 1960’s owe as much to the political struggle as to armed conflict.
The guerrilla war began in 1959, when the North Vietnamese Politburo activated five to ten thousand Viet Minh soldiers who had been lying low. By 1964 there were 25, 000 Vietcong guerrillas operating in South Vietnam reinforced by 570, 000 North Vietnamese Army troops. By 1965, the political will of the peasants of South Vietnam led to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. If the US had not intervened, communism would have spread throughout South Vietnam. The Vietcong were fighting a civil war and the tactics, which they used were those of guerrilla warfare.
In guerrilla war the objective is the same as in attrition, the aggressors try to wear down the enemy, but in a covert rather than an overt way. Mao Tse Tung summarises the tactics of guerrilla warfare: The enemy attacks, we retreat; The enemy camps, we raid; The enemy tires, we attack; The enemy retreats, we pursue. (Walsh, Modern History, p. 300) The Vietcong employed ambush techniques; they constructed booby traps and planted mines. They used primitive techniques such as sharpened bamboo stakes in a pit onto which victims became impaled and more sophisticated specially rigged aerial bombs.
Booby traps were both locally made and imported from China and the USSR. Wounded US soldiers were also booby trapped so that when their colleagues rescued them they were also blown up. The Vietcong had a system of tunnels, which ran for two hundred miles under South Vietnam; this provided the opportunity to carry out hit and run raids, as well as giving shelter and somewhere for the guerrillas to obtain medical attention. Weapons and money were supplied to the Vietcong by the USSR and China in small quantities, through the jungle on foot or by bicycle.
The Ho Chi Minh trail, which went from North Vietnam through Cambodia and Laos into South Vietnam, was the main supply route. The Vietcong were able to blend in with the population, being indistinguishable from ordinary peasants in the rice fields and hiding in the jungle. They fought a political war as well as an armed struggle and were adept at persuading the population to aid them and to give them shelter. It was almost impossible to win a war against an enemy that was ‘invisible’, the US troops felt bamboozled and harassed by troops they could not see. To counter the ambush tactic the US increased the use of helicopters.
They were used to move troops into an area. When the Vietcong had been found and their position reported, the troops would be removed by helicopter and massive air strikes would be called up. They were used to bypass ambush sites and render this tactic useless. Other ‘tactics such as ‘cloverleaf’ in which squads were dispatched in three directions from a central base in order to locate enemy positions and ‘checkerboard’ in which small units were placed in an area in a checkerboard pattern in order to locate enemy defensive positions’, dependant on the use of helicopters were introduced.